Posts Tagged ‘archaeology’

Photo: British Museum.
An aerial view of the ancient city of Girsu in Tello, Iraq. The Sumerians inhabited the ancient eastern Mediterranean region of Mesopotamia. 

Today we have more archaeology for people who love stories about newly discovered ancient places — particularly stories about archaeologists no one believed.

Tobi Thomas reports at the Guardian that “the archaeologist who led the discovery of a lost Sumerian temple in the ancient city of Girsu has said he was accused of ‘making it up’ and wasting funding.

“Dr Sebastien Rey led the project that discovered the 4,500-year-old palace in modern-day Iraq – thought to hold the key to more information about one of the first known civilizations.

“The Lord Palace of the Kings of the ancient Sumerian city Girsu – now located in Tello, southern Iraq – was discovered during fieldwork last year by British and Iraqi archaeologists. Alongside the ancient city, more than 200 cuneiform tablets were discovered, containing administrative records of the ancient city.

“Rey said that when he first brought up the project at international conferences no one believed him. ‘Everyone basically told me, “Oh no you’re making it up you’re wasting your time you’re wasting British Museum UK government funding.” ‘ …

“Girsu, one of the earliest known cities in the history of humankind, was built by the ancient Sumerians, who between 3,500 and 2,000 BC invented writing, built the first cities and created the first codes of law. The ancient city was first discovered 140 years ago, but the site has been the target of looting and illegal excavations. …

“Alongside the discovery of the palace and the tablets, the main temple dedicated to the Sumerian god, Ninĝirsu, was also identified. Before this pioneering fieldwork, its existence was known only from ancient inscriptions discovered alongside the first successful excavation of the ancient city.

“The project follows the Iraqi scheme first funded by the British government in response to the destruction of important heritage sites in Iraq and Syria by Islamic State. Since its establishment, more than 70 Iraqis have been trained to conduct eight seasons of fieldwork at Girsu. …

“The Sumerians inhabited the ancient eastern Mediterranean region of Mesopotamia, and were responsible for many technological advancements, including measurements of time as well as writing.

“According to Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, the site of the ancient city in southern Iraq was ‘one of the most fascinating sites I’ve ever visited. …

” ‘The collaboration between the British Museum, state board of antiquities and heritage of Iraq, and the Getty represents a vital new way of building cooperative cultural heritage projects internationally. … While our knowledge of the Sumerian world remains limited today, the work at Girsu and the discovery of the lost palace and temple hold enormous potential for our understanding of this important civilization, shedding light on the past and informing the future.’

“The ancient Sumerians may not be as well known a civilization as the ancient Egyptians or Greeks, but according to Dr Timothy Potts, the directory of the Getty Museum, Girsu is ‘probably one of the most important heritage sites in the world that very few people know about. … This innovative [Girsu Project] provides critical support for the uniquely important archaeological site of Girsu, through the training of Iraqi specialists entrusted with its development for sustainable archaeology and tourism.’

“Iraq’s culture minister, Ahmed Fakak Al-Badrani, said: ‘The British archaeological excavations in Iraq will further unveil significant ancient eras of Mesopotamia, as it is a true testimony to the strong ties between the two countries to enhance the joint cooperation.’ ” More at the Guardian, here.

The Guardian adds the “explainer” below is case your memory of the Sumerians is as fuzzy as mine.

“The Sumerians were the inhabitants of Sumer, which is the earliest known civilization in the historical region of Mesopotamia, located in modern-day southern Iraq. According to archaeological evidence, they built about a dozen city-states in the fourth millennium BC.

“Girsu, which is located in Tello, Iraq, was first discovered 140 years ago, and was significant in that it first revealed to the world the existence of the Sumerian civilization, as well as bringing to light some of the most vital monuments of Mesopotamian art and architecture.

“The Sumerians were ancient pioneers, having advanced the craft of writing, writing literature, hymns and prayers. They built the first known cities as well as creating the first known code of law. They also perfected several existing forms of technology, including the wheel, the plough and mathematics.

“The epic of Gilgamesh, considered the world’s oldest surviving piece of literature, derives from five Sumerian poems.

“They were also notably one of the first civilizations to brew beer, which was seen by the ancient people as a key to a healthy heart and liver.”

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Photo: Mark Holley.
Archaeologists exploring Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay uncovered a rock with a possibly prehistoric carving of a mastodon and stones arranged in a Stonehenge-like manner.

There’s always more to discover right under our feet. Or in the case of today’s report, under our boats.

In November, Archaeology World reported on some recent discoveries in Lake Michigan.

“Archaeologists found something much more fascinating than they got credit for when searching under the waters of Lake Michigan for shipwrecks: they uncovered a rock with a prehistoric carving of a mastodon, as well as a collection of stones arranged in a Stonehenge-like manner.

“In modern archaeology, the use of remote sensing techniques is common: scientists regularly survey lakes and soil for hidden objects.

“Archaeologists uncovered sunken boats and cars and even a Civil War-era pier at a depth of around 40 feet into Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, using sonar techniques to search for shipwrecks,  but among all these, they found this prehistoric surprise, which a trained eye can guess by looking at the sonar scans photos in this article.

” ‘When you see it in the water, you’re tempted to say this is absolutely real,’ said Mark Holley, a professor of underwater archaeology at Northwestern Michigan University College who made the discovery, during a news conference with photos of the boulder on display in 2007. ‘But that’s what we need the experts to come in and verify.’

“The boulder with the markings is 3.5 to 4 feet high and about 5 feet long. Photos show a surface with numerous fissures.

“Some may be natural while others appear of human origin, but those forming what could be the petroglyph stood out, Holley said.

“Viewed together, they suggest the outlines of a mastodon-like back, hump, head, trunk, tusk, triangular-shaped ear and parts of legs, he said.

“ ‘We couldn’t believe what we were looking at,’ said Greg MacMaster, president of the underwater preserve council.

“Specialists shown pictures of the boulder holding the mastodon markings have asked for more evidence before confirming the markings are an ancient petroglyph, said Holley.

“ ‘They want to actually see it,’ he said. Unfortunately, he added, ‘Experts in petroglyphs generally don’t dive, so we’re running into a little bit of a stumbling block there.’

“If found to be true, the wannabe petroglyph could be as much as 10,000 years old – coincident with the post-Ice Age presence of both humans and mastodons in the upper midwest.”

More at the Archaeology World, here.

Don’t you love archaeology? I love even the “discoveries” that turn out to be untrue — like the Cardiff Giant that my family visited often in Upstate New York when I was a child. Imagine the creativity and hard work that went into pulling off a hoax like that! Of course, I prefer hoaxes that have been found out, not the ones that are still fooling people.

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Photo: Evan Qu/Unsplash.
Self-healing concrete at the Pantheon in Rome.

I grew up in a family that placed high value on the humanities — the arts, literature — and the people who practiced them. With the exception of our beloved Uncle Jim, who was a chemist, and Margaret Lawrence, who was a physician, we didn’t know how to admire people who didn’t fit our limited definition of “creative.”

But today, I’m bowled over by the imaginative pragmatism of people who invent solutions to real-world problems like those who reengineer gasoline engines to use electricity, for example, or who invent building materials that reduce the dangerous carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere.

I think even my parents would have loved that today’s scientists are finding inspiration in the ancients. After all, it was fine to admire archaeologists.

Adele Peters reports at Fast Company on research that suggests new possibilities for ancient wisdom.

“A road or bridge made from modern concrete might only last 50 years. But the massive Pantheon building in Rome, made from unreinforced concrete, has been standing for nearly two millennia. And nearby, some ancient concrete aqueducts still deliver water to the city. What made ancient Roman concrete so much more durable?

“A new study from researchers at MIT and Harvard University, along with labs in Italy and Switzerland, suggests that an ancient manufacturing technique can create self-healing concrete that naturally fills in cracks. Using a similar process now could help shrink concrete’s massive carbon footprint. ‘We’re looking to the ancient world as a source of inspiration,’ says chemist Admir Masic, an engineering professor at MIT who focuses on sustainable construction materials.

“Cement, the glue that binds concrete together, is responsible for up to 8% of global emissions when it’s made, both because of the energy it uses and the process of heating up limestone, a key ingredient in the material, which releases CO2 directly. Multiple startups are now working on alternatives: including companies that replace limestone with different rocks or add captured CO2 to the final product.

“The Roman-inspired approach is different. By making concrete last much longer, far less of it would need to be made in the first place. … The older production method also happens at a lower temperature, so it uses less energy.

“The researchers studied samples from a 2,000-year-old city wall in an Italian city. They focused on tiny white fragments of lime that aren’t found in modern concrete, but are ubiquitous in old ruins throughout the former Roman Empire. …

“In the past, some researchers thought that the fragments, called lime clasts, were the result of sloppy mixing. But it’s more likely that they were formed deliberately, and the study suggests that they are the reason the concrete lasts so long.

When tiny cracks form in the concrete, water travels to the lime clasts, which dissolve and then fill the cracks with calcium carbonate.

“The researchers attempted to duplicate the manufacturing process that created the lime clasts, and then tested the material against samples made with modern techniques. After cracking the samples and adding rainwater, they watched what happened: The old-school concrete healed itself within two weeks, while in the modern version, the cracks remained.

“Other approaches to ‘self-healing’ concrete also exist now. For example, it’s possible to embed bacteria in concrete that can fill cracks; but it’s costly to make. ‘Current self-healing concretes are very expensive because they are based on very complex chemistry, while our material is super cheap,’ Masic says. … The ancient process involves adding quicklime, a calcium oxide-based material (also known as lime), directly to other ingredients before adding water.

“A new startup is now spinning out from the research to bring the concrete to market. It may later add other features that the lab is studying, including making concrete that can absorb CO2 as it sits outside.” That would be amazing!

More at Fast Company, here.

Speaking of “creative,” check out the varied interests of that MIT chemistry professor: “Professor Masic’s research focuses on the science-enabled engineering of sustainable construction materials for large-scale infrastructure innovation. A chemist by training, with expertise in biomineralization, he specializes in the development of multifunctional cement-based materials, ranging from self-healing concrete materials to carbon absorbing concretes and electron conducting cement-based materials.

“He is a principal investigator in the Concrete Sustainability Hub at MIT, a faculty fellow in Archaeological Materials at MIT’s Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology (CMRAE), and the faculty director of the Refugee ACTion Hub (ReACT) at MIT. MIT ReACT aims at providing new professional content development for displaced learners around the world.”

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Photo: Museum of London Archaeology via Hyperallergic.
A necklace found in a UK burial site probably belonged to an “elite woman who wanted to highlight her Christian identity, says Hyperallergic.

Archaeology reminds us that there will always be surprises to uncover no matter how much we think we know. A necklace found in a medieval burial site and considered a “once-in-a-lifetime” discovery is one recent surprise. Michael Levenson wrote about it for the New York Times.

“A 1,300-year-old gold-and-gemstone necklace that was recently discovered in an ancient grave site in England may have belonged to a woman who was an early Christian leader, according to experts involved in the discovery.

“The ancient jewelry was unearthed in Northamptonshire in April [2022] during excavations that took place ahead of a planned housing development. … The 30 pendants and beads that once formed the elaborate necklace were made from Roman coins, gold, garnets, glass and semiprecious stones. The centerpiece of the necklace, a rectangular pendant with a cross motif, was also among the artifacts that were discovered.

“ ‘When the first glints of gold started to emerge from the soil we knew this was something significant,’ Levente-Bence Balázs, a site supervisor at the Museum of London Archaeology, [said in a statement announcing the find]. …

“X-rays of soil blocks lifted from the grave also revealed an elaborately decorated cross featuring unusual depictions of human faces cast in silver, the statement said.

“While the soil is being investigated more closely, ‘this large and ornate piece suggests the woman may have been an early Christian leader,’ the statement said, adding that she might have been an abbess, royalty or both. The site also contained two decorated pots and a shallow copper dish.

“The skeleton itself has decomposed, with only tiny fragments of tooth enamel remaining. But the Museum of London Archaeology said it was almost certain that a woman was buried there because similar necklaces and lavish burial sites were almost exclusively found in female graves in the period.

Scholars said the discovery pointed to the important but often overlooked role of women in the development of early Christianity.

“ ‘The evidence does seem to point to an early female Saxon church leader, perhaps one of the first in this region,’ Helen Bond, a professor of Christian origins and head of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, wrote in an email. ‘We know from the gospels that women played an important role in the earliest Christian movement, acting as disciples, apostles, teachers and missionaries,’ Professor Bond wrote. ‘While their role was diminished later on at the highest levels, there were always places where women leaders continued (even sometimes as bishops).’

“Amy Brown Hughes, a historical theologian at Gordon College, who studies early Christianity, called the necklace, which has been traced to the years 630 to 670, an ‘absolutely stunning’ artifact from a volatile period when Christianity was becoming established in Anglo-Saxon England.

“Noting that women have often been left out of narratives about Christianity, Professor Hughes said the necklace provides material evidence that ‘helps to reorient our assumptions about who actually had influence and authority.’ …

“Joan E. Taylor, a professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, said the fact that the woman was apparently buried in a village far from a main population center ‘testifies to the troubled times in this region of Britain in the 7th century.’

“ ‘Perhaps she was on a journey, or fleeing,’ Professor Taylor wrote in an email. ‘It was a tough “Game of Thrones” world with competing royal rulers aiming for supremacy. It was also a time where Christianity was spreading, and abbesses and other high-status women could play an important role in this.’ …

“The artifacts [will] be featured in an installment of the BBC series ‘Digging for Britain.’ “

More at the Times, here. See also Hyperallergic. More photos, no firewall.

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Photo: Piscataway Indians.

Our history with indigenous tribes is dark, and reconciliation must start with facing facts. In this endeavor, archaeology can help.

From St. Clement’s Island, Maryland, Dana Hedgpeth writes for the Washington Post on recent discoveries about a tribe’s long-ago presence.

“The small pieces of oyster shells and ceramic shards in the palm of archaeologist Julia King don’t look like much. But her team’s discoveries of roughly 1,500 pounds of shells and 200 pieces of ceramics bring new and more concrete evidence of the dominance of Native Americans who once lived at St. Clement’s Island and along the surrounding Potomac River shoreline in Southern Maryland. Native American leaders said their archaeological findings shed fresh light on their tribes’ historic presence in the state — which continues to this day but is often unknown, forgotten and ignored.

“ ‘This work is showing a reclamation of the long history of Native Americans in that area and what it means to our people,’ said Gabrielle Tayac. Tayac is a historian and member of the Piscataway Indian Nation, which considers the area its tribal homelands. ‘There’s been a willful and problematic negligence in the record about us.’

“St. Clement’s Island — an uninhabited 40-acre plot of land only accessible by boat — sits where the Potomac and Wicomico rivers meet, about half-mile off the shoreline of St. Mary’s County. There are roughly 4,500 Native Americans who are part of two state-recognized tribes — the Piscataway Conoy Tribe and the Piscataway Indian Nation — who trace their roots to the area. Piscataway means ‘the people who live where the waters meet’ in the Algonquian language.

“To many, St. Clement’s Island is best-known as the spot where roughly 150 European colonists arrived on March 25, 1634, and held the first Roman Catholic Mass in the British American colonies. …

“Few people had explored the sandy shores and grassy lands of the island until King’s research team spent several months this summer carefully digging up grass and sifting through dirt. … They found scores of Native American artifacts at the site and in collections of area residents and of a small museum on the mainland. The items included stone tools, tobacco pipes, ceramics and oyster shells, along with bits of copper, polished tubes and stone beads. All of it is evidence, said King, an archaeologist with St. Mary’s College of Maryland, of the ‘extensive exchange and network of trade’ between Piscataways and tribes from areas now known as Virginia, New York and as far away as Ohio andWest Virginia — centuries before Europeans came. …

“For Native American leaders in Southern Maryland, King’s work is a validation of their long history and continued presence in the area that’s rarely highlighted.

‘History was not written for us — or about us,’ said Francis Gray, chairman of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe. …

“Archaeological records show Native Americans were in the St. Clement’s Island area as far back as 3500 B.C., according to King. The island itself was once 400 acres, but erosion shrank it. Historians say there were an estimated 5,000 Piscataways living in the Potomac Valley area in the 1600s. …

“Rico Newman, an elder in the Choptico Band of Piscataways, said he remembers when growing up that he heard oral histories from his elders of how Piscataways followed the shad and herring runs along the nearby Wicomico River and went to St. Clement’s Island. Native Americans called it Heron Island after the bird that is fond of nesting in the area.

“ ‘There was no better place to live off the water and the land than there,’ Newman said. He recalled how his grandfather used to tell him, ‘if the heron isn’t fishing, then you weren’t fishing.’ It meant there was ‘something wrong with the fish or the water that day.’ …

“In the early 1600s, Piscataways traded with Europeans from the sister colony in Jamestown, Va. For the Piscataways, the trade meant protection for their homeland from Iroquois. English copper, beads and metal tools ‘made the newcomers useful that they need not be killed or left to starve,’ according to Piscataway leaders and historians.

“The Piscataways’ homeland changed dramatically when in March 1634, two ships — the Ark and the Dove — arrived with colonists looking to create a settlement. To celebrate their arrival, the colonists held the first Catholic Mass in the New World.

“The colonists knew of the disagreements and slayings between Native Americans and settlers at Jamestown, so they planned a different approach. The Calvert family, who founded Maryland as a colony, ‘didn’t want to pay for the costly kinds of wars experienced in Virginia,’ King said, ‘so they made the decision to forge diplomatic relationships with the Indians.’

“They went from St. Clement’s upriver to see the Piscataway tayac — the word for leader in the Algonquian language. They told Wannas, the Piscataway tayac at the time, they’d ‘come not to make war, but out of good will toward them,’ according to records at the St. Clement’s Island museum.

“Wannas, the tayac, cautiously responded to them, saying the Native Americans did not welcome the colonists, but also was not going to force them to leave. The colonists decided St. Clement’s was too small and well-established as ‘Indian country,’ so they returned and went down the river to what would become St. Mary’s City, where they bought land from the Yaocomicos and set up the first English settlement in Maryland.

“By 1650, more colonists moved to the area, and they created a reservation for the Piscataways, but eventually, King said, the Native Americans were pushed out as colonists took over. Some Piscataways went north to what’s now Frederick. Others went to Virginia. And some stayed, but they were ‘no longer considered a sovereign nation,’ King said. …

“Karen Stone, the executive director of the St. Clement’s Island museum, said a major renovation will start early next year with new exhibits that will tell Maryland’s history from the points of view of the colonists and the Piscataways. She said local Native American leaders are involved in designing the materials and exhibits for the new museum to give a more complete story and more accurate history of the Piscataways.”

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: Ahmed Zakot.
A Palestinian farmer unearthed a Byzantine floor mosaic beneath his olive grove.

We keep learning that beautiful discoveries can still be made, even in mundane settings. Perhaps you have discovered yellowed letters your parents wrote to each other when courting. Perhaps there was an antique bottle inside a wall when you renovated.

Such items can be exciting, but it’s hard to beat the discovery a farmer in today’s stumbled upon.

Elaine Velie reports at Hyperallergic, “Salman al-Nabahin, a farmer from Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp, was trying to plant new olive trees in his orchard but something underneath the soil was standing in his way. He investigated for three months, digging out the soil with his son until they unearthed a stunningly well-preserved Byzantine floor mosaic.

“Al-Nabahin told Reuters that he searched the internet to asses the mosaic’s origins. An archaeologist from the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, René Elter, later confirmed the work as a Byzantine mosaic, placing the mosaic between the fifth and seventh centuries CE. …

“ ‘Never have mosaic floors of this finesse, this precision in the graphics and richness of the colors been discovered in the Gaza Strip,’ Elter [told the Associated Press], adding that more research is needed to determine the work’s intended function.

“The Palestinian Ministry of Culture stated that investigation into the mosaic was still in its early stages and a team of national experts would partner with experts at the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem to research the work.

“Gaza is situated on a thriving ancient trade route, and dozens of important archaeological discoveries have been uncovered there in the last few years. The recently revealed mosaic, however, sits less than a mile away from the Gaza-Israel barrier, which Elten said puts the discovery in ‘grave danger.’ …

“ ‘I see it as a treasure, dearer than a treasure,’ al-Nabahin told Reuters. ‘It isn’t personal, it belongs to every Palestinian.’ “

Sarah Kuta at the Smithsonian adds, “Now, archaeologists with the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the French Archaeology School are hard at work studying the flooring to learn more about its ‘secrets and civilization values,’ says the ministry in a press statement.

“The mosaic features 17 iconographies of birds and other animals depicted in bright colors. Archaeologists … don’t know whether the mosaic had religious or secular origins.

“The farmer has been covering the unearthed areas of the mosaic floor with tin sheets to protect them; so far, he’s dug up three separate sections, the widest measuring 6 feet by 9 feet, according to Fares Akram of the Associated Press. In total, the land covering the entire mosaic is about 5,400 square feet, and the mosaic itself measures about 250 square feet. Some parts of the mosaic appear to be damaged, likely from the roots of an old olive tree.

“ ‘These are the most beautiful mosaic floors discovered in Gaza, both in terms of the quality of the graphic representation and the complexity of the geometry,’ [Elter] tells the AP. …

“The Bureij refugee camp [is] located about half a mile from the border with Israel. Archaeologists and other experts are concerned about the mosaic’s future because of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as looting and a lack of funding for historical preservation.

“ ‘It is a spectacular find, especially as our knowledge of archaeology is sadly so spotty given circumstances there,’ Asa Eger, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, tells the Art Newspaper’s Hadani Ditmars. ‘Gaza was very important during the period of this mosaic and known for its burgeoning wine production exported across the Mediterranean.’ “

You’ll love the photos at Hyperallergic, here, and at Smithsonian, here. No firewalls.

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Photo: El País.
A Corinthian capital and fluted drum with a shaft located in a city discovered at the foot of the Pyrenees in 2018.

Do you ever wonder what sort of report archaeologists of a future civilization would write about your town? What if they had only the location and a few crumbled buildings to go on, no contemporary testimony? That was the plight of a group of archaeologists in Spain who investigated a “new” ancient city.

Vicente G. Olaya says at El País that archaeologists were surprised that they didn’t know the name of a recently unearthed city, but there were simply no historical documents mentioning it.

“In 2018,” he says, “the City Council of Artieda — located in northeastern Spain in the province of Zaragoza, and part of the country’s Aragon region — asked the University of Zaragoza’s Archaeology Department for help in studying some ruins located around the San Pedro hermitage, known variously as El Forau de la Tuta, Campo de la Virgen, or Campo del Royo.

“Three years later, the experts have confirmed that these sites formed a large single archaeological complex, and they detected two phases of occupation on the surface of the site: one during the imperial Roman period (the 1st to 5th centuries) and another during the early-medieval Christian era (the 9th to 13th centuries). Now, the research team has published the results in a reportEl Forau de la Tuta: A Hitherto Unknown Roman Imperial City on the Southern Slopes of the Pyrenees. …

“The report notes that based on important evidence from the ruins preserved in the hermitage, as well as artifacts held in various public and private collections and the findings at the site, the settlement was ‘of urban character — the city’s name is currently unknown — and it developed during the [Roman] imperial period. Later, the same site took on another iteration as a rural habitat during the Visigoth and early Andalusian periods.’

“The specialists have also found that, between the 9th and 13th centuries, another peasant habitat-type town or village was superimposed on top of the Roman settlement. They have identified the village as Artede, Arteda, Artieda or Arteda Ciuitate. The medieval enclave’s ruins include the apse area of the church, which was part of the San Pedro hermitage; numerous silos with circular openings, which were excavated from the subsoil and only perceptible by geo-radar; and an extensive cemetery consistent with Christian burial rites. …

“The El Forau de la Tuta site is located 1.5 kilometers from Artieda’s city center, on the fertile plain of the Aragón River. … It is possible that the site’s dimensions are even larger and that it extends to other — still unexplored — agricultural lands.

“The Roman settlement stood next to the road connecting three northern cities. … Currently known as Camino Real de Ruesta a Mianos (the High Road from Ruesta to Mianos), the road lasted through the Middle Ages as a stretch of the French Route, the Arles Way or the Via Tolosana (Tolouse Route), as part of the Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago). …

“Inside the hermitage, the study’s authors have identified two Corinthian capitals, three Italic Attic bases, a classical Attic base, several flat-edged fluted shaft drums, and a fragment of cornice. The huge dimensions and typology of the artifacts indicate that they came from several early [Roman Empire] public buildings. … 

“The study confirms that these pieces come from at least two different monuments. Their typologies indicate that they were sculpted more than half a century apart, ‘which demonstrates a prolonged period in the process of monumentalizing the city.’

“To the west of El Forau de la Tuta, next to the San Pedro ravine, ‘an impressive set of public works made of opus caementicium (the Romans’ early version of concrete) including at least four sewer outlets, a powerful massive abutment, a foundation, and a series of quadrangular structures,’ possibly supply cisterns, is also preserved. … The presence of these works is typical of urban settlements, where water drainage was a problem that had to be addressed, especially in relation to buildings, such as bath houses, that produced a large amount of water waste. …

“Archaeologists are also currently studying a sculptural fragment that is preserved in an Artieda private collection. The artifact — which was collected near the hermitage — is an incomplete, nearly life-sized left hand that holds a patera umbilicata [an offering bowl], which would have been part of a statue representing an offering figure. …

“In the first round of excavations in 2021, the archaeologists confirmed the existence of an intersection of two roads. ‘On one of the roads, possibly one of the settlement’s main streets, we documented the ruins of a sidewalk and a surface channel for draining water, which pedestrians could circumvent by means of three steppingstones.’ …

“In one of the excavations they performed, the archaeologists found ample remains of black and white mosaics made with tesserae (small cubes of stone or glass) and fragments of rudus (a layer of material placed under the tesserae). …

“Inside this structure, under a large number of slabs that fell in the building’s collapse, archaeologists found a practically complete black-and-white tessellated pavement (with some isolated red and yellow tesserae); it was extraordinarily preserved. Decorated with iconographic motifs in white on a black background, it has shells or scallops in the four corners, while the central emblem features seahorses, ridden by little Cupids, facing each other next to three representations of marine animals, a fish in the upper part and possibly two dolphins in the lower part.

“Thus, the archaeologists are certain that everything they’ve found so far ‘corresponds to a single urban complex from between the first and second centuries, and that the city had infrastructure and public monuments, including baths, a water supply system, regular urban planning, sewers, and possibly a temple.’ ” 

I can’t help thinking about the way early archaeologists (Schliemann, say, at Troy) barged in and dug at random, destroying historical records. Imagine how carefully and boringly the archaeologists in today’s story had to sift every little thing to discover the town built on top of the Roman city — and date both!

More at El País, here.

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Photo: Far Western Anthropological Research Group.
Archaeologists and members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe worked together on a project that revealed the longstanding genetic roots of some of the region’s Native peoples. 

As I learn more about what our dominant culture has done to native tribes, the thing that really gets me is how recent some of the travesties have occurred — and for what stupid reasons. For example, a 1927 California official deciding they “didn’t need land.” Read on.

Jane Recker writes at the Smithsonian Magazine that “for decades, a misperception that the San Francisco Bay Area’s Muwekma Ohlone Tribe was ‘extinct’ barred its living members from receiving federal recognition.

“Soon, however, that might change. As Celina Tebor reports for USA Today, a new DNA analysis shows a genetic through line between 2,000-year-old skeletons found in California and modern-day Muwekma Ohlone people.

“The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, flies in the face of more than a century of misconceptions about the tribe and its people’s long history.

“ ‘The study reaffirms the Muwekma Ohlone’s deep-time ties to the area, providing evidence that disagrees with linguistic and archaeological reconstructions positing that the Ohlone are late migrants to the region,’ write the authors in the paper.

“Members of the tribe, scholars and the public are hailing the work as a chance to correct the record — and perhaps open up opportunities for the tribe to regain federal recognition. …

“The tribe’s history mirrors that of other Native Californians. After more than 10,000 years in the area, Native people were forced to submit to colonization and Christian indoctrination — first by the Spaniards, who arrived in 1776, and then, beginning in the 19th century, by settlers from the growing United States.

“As a result, the Ohlone and other Native groups lost significant numbers to disease and forced labor. Before European contact, at least 300,000 Native people who spoke 135 distinct dialects lived in what is now California, per the Library of Congress. By 1848, that number had been halved. Just 25 years later, in 1873, only 30,000 remained. Now, USA Today reports, there are just 500 members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe.

“The Ohlone people once lived on about 4.3 million acres in the Bay Area. But federal negligence and anthropologist A.L. Kroeber’s 1925 assessment that Native Californians were ‘extinct for all practical purposes’ caused the federal government to first strip the Muwekma Ohlone of their land, then deny them federal recognition, writes Les W. Field, a cultural anthropologist who collaborates with the Muwekma Ohlone, in the Wicazo Sa Review.

“Even though Kroeber recanted his erroneous statement in the 1950s, the lasting damage from his diagnosis meant the very much not-extinct members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe never regained federal recognition, according to the New York Times’ Sabrina Imbler.

“The new research could change that. It arose after the 2014 selection of a site for a San Francisco Public Utilities Commission educational facility. The area likely contained human remains, triggering a California policy that requires developers to contact the most likely descendants of people buried in Native American sites before digging or building. When officials contacted the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, its members requested a study of two settlement areas — Síi Túupentak (Place of the Water Round House Site) and Rummey Ta Kuččuwiš Tiprectak (Place of the Stream of the Lagoon Site).

“Experts from Stanford University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, cultural resources consulting firm Far Western Anthropological Research Group and other institutions led the research. But members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe were involved in every aspect of the study. …

“Researchers and tribe members alike commented on the unique nature of the collaboration.

“ ‘When you’re a student doing the work, it’s not common to have this kind of direct connection to the people who are “the data” that you’re working with,’ says lead author Alissa Severson, a doctoral student at Stanford University at the time of the research, in a statement. ‘We got to have that dialogue, where we could discuss what we’re doing and what we found, and how that makes sense with their history. I felt very lucky to be working on this project.’ …

“The team analyzed the DNA of 12 individuals buried between 300 and 1,900 years ago, then compared the genomes to those of a variety of Indigenous Americans. They found ‘genetic continuity’ between all 12 individuals studied and eight modern-day Muwekma Ohlone Tribe members. …

“Tribe members hope the new evidence of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe’s longstanding connection to the land — and their ancestors — will spur politicians to finally recognize the tribe. According to an official tribal website, Muwekma Ohlone families started the reapplication process in the early 1980s and officially petitioned the U.S. government for recognition in 1995. Despite filing a lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribe is still not recognized by the U.S. government.

“Co-author Alan Leventhal, a tribal ethnohistorian and archaeologist who works with the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, tells USA Today he’s hopeful this new research will help cut through some of the bureaucratic red tape that’s been delaying the tribe’s petition.”

There’s more at the New York Times, where Sabrina Imbler notes, “The Muwekma can trace their ancestry through several missions in the Bay Area and resided on small settlements called rancherias until the early 1900s, Leventhal said.

“The tribe had once been federally recognized under a different name, the Verona Band of Alameda County. But it lost recognition after 1927, when a superintendent from Sacramento determined that the Muwekma and more than 100 other tribal bands did not need land, effectively terminating the tribe’s formal federal recognition, Mr. Leventhal said. ‘The tribe was never terminated by any act of Congress,’ he added. …

” ‘The cost of living is pushing us out,’ Ms. Nijmeh, the tribe’s chairwoman, said. ‘Recognition means that we will be able to have a land base and have a community village and have our people stay on our lands in their rightful place.’ “

More at the Smithsonian, here, and at the Times, here.

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Photo: H. Prümers / DA.
A 3-D animation put together using data from lidar shows the urban center of Cotoca, a lost city in the Amazon.

Today’s story is about a section of the Amazon that, thanks to new aerial studies, is starting to reveal long-hidden secrets.

Brian Handwerk reports at the Smithsonian that mapping technology has “cut through the canopy to detect sprawling urban structures in Bolivia that suggest sophisticated cultures once existed.

“The Amazon is one of the planet’s last great wildernesses, but legends have circulated for centuries that lost cities existed deep within the forests. A search for El Dorado, a supposed city of gold, lured many Spanish explorers far off the map and some of them never returned. …

“Now the plot has taken a new twist, as scientists have discovered that ancient cities really did exist in the Amazon. And while urban ruins remain extremely difficult to find in thick, remote forests, a key technology has helped change the game.

“Perched in a helicopter some 650 feet up, scientists used light-based remote sensing technology (lidar) to digitally deforest the canopy and identify the ancient ruins of a vast urban settlement around Llanos de Mojos in the Bolivian Amazon that was abandoned some 600 years ago. The new images reveal, in detail, a stronghold of the socially complex Casarabe Culture (500-1400 C.E.) with urban centers boasting monumental platform and pyramid architecture. Raised causeways connected a constellation of suburban-like settlements, which stretched for miles across a landscape that was shaped by a massive water control and distribution system with reservoirs and canals.

“The site, described [last month] in Nature, is the most striking discovery to suggest that the Amazon’s rainforest ‘wilderness’ was actually heavily populated. … Co-author Heiko Prümers, of the German Archaeological Institute, [says that] ‘a lot of people didn’t want to see that there were archaeological sites here that merit exploration.’ …

“Michael Heckenberger, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, wasn’t involved in the research but has been studying urbanism in the pre-Columbian Amazon for nearly two decades. He notes that elements of the settlement at Llanos de Mojos like moats and causeways, and a modified landscape of parklands, working forests and fish farms, have been seen elsewhere in the ancient Amazon.

“But the new research unveils something quite new. Previous examples of urbanism in the Amazon include the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon where Heckenberger works with the Kuikuro Nation. Such settlements might be described as groups of villages networked together. They aren’t technically urban, some experts have argued, because they lack clearly defined larger centers, with monumental architecture like platform mounds and U-shaped temples.

“But those urban centers can be found at Llanos de Mojos. ‘This is in my mind the clearest case of a fully urbanized Amazonian landscape,’ Heckenberger notes. ‘It’s a marvelous piece of work.

‘It shows really remarkable range of things that humans did in the past to work with their landscapes and work with larger and larger populations.’

“Previous hands-on archaeological work and other remote-sensing efforts had revealed hundreds of isolated sites across more than 1,700 square miles of the Llano de Mojos region, including settlements inhabited year-round by the Casarabe, who hunted, fished and farmed staple crops like maize. Some 600 miles of causeways and canals had also been identified. But the logistical challenges of mapping them in a remote tropical forest hampered efforts to connect the dots and see if, or how, they were related to one another. …

“From an aircraft, a lidar system fires down a grid of infrared beams, hundreds of thousands per second, and when each beam strikes something on the Earth’s surface it bounces back with a measure of distance. This produces an enormous cloud of data points, which can be fed into computer software that creates high resolution images in which scientists can digitally deforest the Amazon. By scrubbing away trees the maps reveal the Earth’s surface and the archaeological features on it. In this case, the images clearly showed 26 unique sites, including 11 that were previously unknown. …

“Difficult as they can be to locate in the forest, earthworks clearly built by humans, designs known as geoglyphs, have been found in several other Amazon locales. In 2018, scientists using satellite images reported that large areas of Amazon forest in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state, once thought to have been sparsely inhabited at best, were dotted with villages and oddly-shaped earthwork geoglyphs. Even here, away from large rivers, many hundreds of villages could have housed up to a million people between 1250 and 1500 C.E. in an area that represents only about 7 percent of the Amazon basin. However if larger urban centers anchored these populated sites, they haven’t yet been identified. …

“The aerial view with trees stripped away revealed two centers, each anchored by a large network of regional settlements connected by numerous causeways. Those passageways radiate out from the centers like spokes on a wheel, and stretch for several miles. These connect sub-urban settlements, ranging from small settlements closer to the centers to more distant and even smaller sites that may have been used as temporary campsites. Similarly, canals also stretch from the main centers and connect to rivers and Laguna San José, which apparently delivered water to Cotoca.

“ ‘Basically they remolded the landscape in terms of their cosmology, which is mind blowing,’ says Chris Fisher, a Colorado State University Archaeologist not involved in the study who specializes in Mesoamerica. ‘The only problem is that this architecture was made from mud brick. So while at the time it was as fantastic looking as anything in the Maya region, the Maya monuments have endured because they had limestone while these just weren’t as durable.’ …

“Such discoveries of settlements were the result of very hard work. Despite the large and sophisticated populations that once thrived here, lasting evidence of urbanism has proven difficult to find in the remote and thickly forested Amazon. But lidar technology seems set to rapidly boost the pace of future discoveries.

“ ‘Lidar has been transformative for archaeology and this work is a great example of that,’ says Chris Fisher. ‘These researchers were able to see patterning that’s just not visible from the ground, and that pattern clearly showed two very large settlements, embedded within a settlement system, with a level of social complexity that really hasn’t been demonstrated very well in the Amazon,’ he says. ‘It’s absolutely amazing.’

“While it appears that the Amazon once teemed with human activity, many ancient sites have remained almost undisturbed for some 500 years, something Prümers cites as a big advantage. ‘The region has very low population density, and that means that we are finding the relics of pre-Spanish cultures over there almost untouched,’ he says.

“But the Amazon is changing rapidly. Forests are being eliminated to promote farming, ranching, energy production and the roads and dams that support such efforts. Many of those undisturbed areas, with their hidden records of past cultures, won’t remain so for long. Fisher advocates for large scale lidar scanning of the Amazon, and far beyond, through an Earth Archive project aimed at capturing what remains of the past before it’s lost to the future.

“ ‘We’re running out of time because we’re losing the Amazon,’ he says. ‘And we’re going to lose things that we never knew were there. To me that’s a real tragedy.’ ”

More at the Smithsonian, here.

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Photo: Andy Chopping/MOLA.
This newly unearthed mosaic is thought to have adorned the floors of a Roman dining room. The spot where it stands is close to London Bridge.

There are still surprises to be found on Planet Earth. Sometimes right beneath your feet. In today’s story, it was a Roman mosaic buried below a parking lot. Wouldn’t you have liked to be the chap who first realized what was there? As often happens in archaeology, the mosaic was discovered in the process of prepping a site for new construction. Jeevan Ravindran had the story at CNN.

“A large area of well-preserved Roman mosaic — parts of it approximately 1,800 years old — has been uncovered in London near one of the city’s most popular landmarks. The mosaic is thought to have adorned the floors of a Roman dining room, and the spot where it stands is near the Shard — the capital’s tallest building, close to London Bridge.

“Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) unearthed the mosaic earlier this month during an excavation ahead of building work due to take place on the site, which previously served as a car park.

“The find is the largest area of Roman mosaic to have been discovered in London in at least 50 years, according to a press release from MOLA.

” ‘It is a really, really special find,’ Sophie Jackson, MOLA’s director of developer services, told CNN Wednesday, adding that large Roman mosaics were not often built in London due to it being a ‘crowded’ city. …

“The dining room where the mosaic was found is thought to have been part of a Roman ‘mansio,’ or ‘upmarket “motel” offering accommodation, stabling, and dining facilities,’ the team said in the press release. The lavish decorations and size indicated only ‘high-ranking officers and their guests’ would have stayed there.

“The mosaic itself is [composed] of two panels, with the larger dating to the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD. However, the team spotted traces of an earlier mosaic underneath, which Jackson said an expert will now attempt to retrace and reconstruct.

“The larger panel is decorated with ‘large, colorful flowers surrounded by bands of intertwining strands’ and patterns including a Solomon’s knot (a looped motif). …

“As there is an ‘exact parallel’ to this design in a mosaic found in the German city of Trier, the team believes the same artists worked on both, suggesting a tradition of ‘traveling Roman artisans at work in London.’ …

“Near the spot where the mosaic was found, the team also found traces of ‘lavishly’ painted walls, terrazzo-style and mosaic floors, coins, jewelry and decorated bone hairpins, suggesting the area was occupied by wealthy inhabitants.

“Although the mosaic’s future is not yet decided, Jackson said it will likely go on public display. The archaeologists will now proceed to the final stage of the excavation, at a spot that has not previously been examined.”

Bet the folks behind the planned construction are feeling a little frustrated! More at CNN, here.

You may also like to read about the mosaics in Trier, a World Heritage site. Dr. Marcus Reuter, director of the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, says, “Most of the mosaics come from our own excavations in the region. Many impressive objects that point to the Roman city’s significance have been found in the former Roman Imperial Residence of Trier.” More from Germany here.

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Photo: Wreckwatch magazine.
Archaeologists are learning more about the Srivijaya Empire of Indonesia, which once dominated maritime trade routes. But nighttime divers selling to the black market may stop the research in its tracks.

I’ve been reading a murder mystery that takes place after a very dark time in India’s history — the time called Partition, when Britain made a ghastly, clumsy attempt to create one Hindu nation and one Muslim nation out of a country Gandhi had hoped would stay whole. I’m at the part in the book where it appears that the ugliness of different faiths slaughtering each others’ families might have been exacerbated by lust for gold. Where some have a lot of wealth, others may have nothing.

That’s my roundabout introduction to a report on newly found treasures of a defunct civilization — and my way of saying that lust for wealth can’t end well.

Livia Gershon reports at Smithsonian magazine, “Local divers exploring Indonesia’s Musi River have found gold rings, beads and other artifacts that may be linked to the Srivijaya Empire, which controlled sea trade across large swaths of Asia between the 7th and 11th centuries C.E.

“ ‘In the last five years, extraordinary stuff has been coming up,’ British maritime archaeologist Sean Kingsley, who reported on the discoveries in the autumn issue of Wreckwatch magazine, tells the Guardian’s Dalya Alberge.

‘Coins of all periods, gold and Buddhist statues, gems, all the kinds of things that you might read about in Sinbad the Sailor and think it was made up. It’s actually real.’

“Among the discoveries are a life-size Buddhist statue covered in precious gems, temple bells, mirrors, wine jugs and flutes shaped like peacocks, reports Stephanie Pappas for Live Science.

“The kingdom of Srivijaya began in Palembang, a city located on the Musi River on the island of Sumatra. Per Encyclopedia Britannica, the empire controlled the Strait of Malacca — a key route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans — and established trade with groups in the Malay Archipelago, China and India. Srivijaya was also a center of Mahayana Buddhism.

“Seventh-century Chinese reports indicate that Palembang was home to more than 1,000 Buddhist monks. Chinese Buddhists stopped in the city to study Sanskrit during pilgrimages to India, according to Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism. In 1025, war with India’s Chola dynasty reduced Srivijaya’s power, though it continued to play a role in trade for another two centuries. 

“As Kingsley writes in Wreckwatch, archaeologists have found no traces of royal court buildings, temples or other structures. It’s possible that the island’s volcanoes covered them. But another likely explanation is that the city was built mostly out of wood, with homes and other buildings constructed on rafts that floated on the river—a type of architecture still seen in some Southeast Asian countries today, per Live Science. Such structures would have rotted away long ago. …

“Per Wreckwatch, the kingdom was rich in gold, which it used strategically to build relationships with China and other regional powers. …

“Kingsley tells Live Science that no official archaeological excavations have been conducted in or around the Musi River. But amateurs have been finding treasures there since 2011, when construction workers discovered a number of artifacts while dredging sand from the river. Soon, local fishermen and workers began exploring the body of water. …

“Large numbers of these artifacts then showed up on the antiquities market. Many ended up in private collections, leaving little physical evidence about the civilization for scholars to study. …

“Indonesia put a moratorium on underwater archaeology in 2010. But as Kingsley points out, a black market in artifacts discovered during nighttime dives continues.

“ ‘Fishermen don’t stop fishing and they don’t stop discovering,’ he tells Live Science. “ ‘Only now, they’re even more unlikely to report finds to authorities. … Newly discovered, the story of the rise and fall of Srivijaya is dying anew without being told.’ “

More at the Smithsonian, here.

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Photo: Alan Cressler.
Archaic Period pictograph of a hunter and prey dated to 6,500 years ago. Indigenous art like this in the American Southeast is less well known than that in the Southwest.

You knew that tribes in the Southwest made paintings centuries ago, but did you know that indigenous people were also making art in the caves of the American Southeast? Jan Simek, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee, fills in the blanks for us at the Conversation.

“On a cold winter’s day in 1980,” he writes, “a group of recreational cavers entered a narrow, wet stream passage south of Knoxville, Tennessee. They navigated a slippery mud slope and a tight keyhole through the cave wall, trudged through the stream itself, ducked through another keyhole and climbed more mud. Eventually they entered a high and relatively dry passage deep in the cave’s ‘dark zone’ – beyond the reach of external light.

“On the walls around them, they began to see lines and figures traced into remnant mud banks laid down long ago when the stream flowed at this higher level. No modern or historic graffiti marred the surfaces. They saw images of animals, people and transformational characters blending human characteristics with those of birds, and those of snakes with mammals.

“Ancient cave art has long been one of the most compelling of all artifacts from the human past, fascinating both to scientists and to the public at large. Its visual expressions resonate across the ages, as if the ancients speak to us from deep in time. And this group of cavers in 1980 had happened upon the first ancient cave art site in North America.

“Since then archaeologists like me have discovered dozens more of these cave art sites in the Southeast. We’ve been able to learn details about when cave art first appeared in the region, when it was most frequently produced and what it might have been used for.

We have also learned a great deal by working with the living descendants of the cave art makers, the present-day Native American peoples of the Southeast, about what the cave art means and how important it was and is to Indigenous communities.

“Few people think of North America when they think about ancient cave art. … As the earliest expressions of human creativity, some perhaps 40,000 years old, European paleolithic cave art is now justifiably famous worldwide.

“But similar cave art had never been found anywhere in North America, although Native American rock art outside of caves has been recorded since Europeans arrived. Artwork deep under the ground was unknown in 1980, and the Southeast was an unlikely place to find it given how much archaeology had been done there since the colonial period.

“Nevertheless, the Tennessee cavers recognized that they were seeing something extraordinary and brought archaeologist Charles Faulkner to the cave. He initiated a research project there, naming the site Mud Glyph Cave. His archaeological work showed that the art was from the Mississippian culture, some 800 years old, and depicted imagery characteristic of ancient Native American religious beliefs. Many of those beliefs are still held by the descendants of Mississippian peoples: the modern Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Coushatta, Muscogee, Seminole and Yuchi, among others.

“After the Mud Glyph Cave discovery, archaeologists here at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville initiated systematic cave surveys. Today, we have cataloged 92 dark-zone cave art sites in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. There are also a few sites known in Arkansas, Missouri and Wisconsin. …

“The Mississippian Period (A.D. 1000-1500) is the last precontact phase in the Southeast before Europeans arrived, and this was when much of the dark-zone cave art was produced. Subject matter is clearly religious and includes spirit people and animals that do not exist in the natural world. There is also strong evidence that Mississippian art caves were compositions, with images organized through the cave passages in systematic ways to suggest stories or narratives told though their locations and relations.

“In recent years, researchers have realized that cave art has strong connections to the historic tribes that occupied the Southeast at the time of European invasion.

“In several caves in Alabama and Tennessee, mid-19th-century inscriptions were written on cave walls in Cherokee Syllabary. This writing system was invented by the Cherokee scholar Sequoyah between 1800 and 1824 and was quickly adopted as the tribe’s primary means of written expression.

“Cherokee archaeologists, historians and language experts have joined forces with nonnative archaeologists like me to document and translate these cave writings. As it turns out, they refer to various important religious ceremonies and spiritual concepts that emphasize the sacred nature of caves, their isolation and their connection to powerful spirits. These texts reflect similar religious ideas to those represented by graphic images in earlier, precontact time periods. …

“That archaeologists were unaware of the dark-zone cave art of the American Southeast even 40 years ago demonstrates the kinds of new discoveries that can be made even in regions that have been explored for centuries.”

More at the Conversation, here.

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Photo: Taylor Luck.
Saudi university graduates tour the rock inscription at Jabal Ikma, one of several sites dated to the ancient Arab kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan that are spread out across Al Ula, northwest Saudi Arabia, March 7, 2020.

Residents of Saudi Arabia have been learning recently about two previously unknown, ancient civilizations on their peninsula — making them proud to be recognized for something beyond oil.

Taylor Luck reported at the Christian Science Monitor, “Tarek never knew his daily commute was in the footsteps of ancient Arab kings. The 30-year-old Al Ula resident runs his hands over the exposed brick and rock inscriptions he has known since a child as ‘the ruins,’ listening as a tour guide lists the achievements of the tribes that built a kingdom on these sands 3,000 years ago.

“Squinting at the rock-carved tombs in front of him, he sees something greater than a civilization: a connection.

‘They prayed, they grew dates, they performed pilgrimages and welcomed visitors to the oasis like we do today,’ Tarek says as he stops to pose for a selfie in front of a rock engraving. ‘They lived just like us.’

“Today Saudi authorities and archaeologists are unearthing and promoting Dadan and Lihyan, two Arab kingdoms whose traces have lain under sand and obscurity for centuries. Cited in the Old Testament and ancient Greek texts, the ancient kingdoms once ruled vital trade routes.

“Saudi citizens are pointing to the kingdoms as proof not only that this arid region was home to civilizations centuries before the modern oil boom, but that the people of Saudi Arabia are the latest in a proud lineage stretching back millennia – that there is more to being a Saudi than oil and religion. …

“While most of the Middle East and Mediterranean were rich in legendary city-states, the vast Arabian deserts were, for generations of archeologists and academics, flyover country of little note or historical value. A blank spot on the map of the ancient world. If they were so great, where are the monuments? Where are the cities?

“The cities, it turns out, are still being unearthed. And what has already been uncovered of Dadan and Lihyan in the deserts of northwest Saudi Arabia has turned conventional wisdom on its head.

“Here in Al Ula, the remnants of these sprawling desert kingdoms from the first millennium B.C. are woven into the landscape: Temple columns, 1-meter-thick brick walls, rock-carved tombs, detailed statues, and inscription-scrawled boulders poke out among date farms, houses, and newly-established eco-resorts.

“Most of what scholars know today of these kingdoms is from the hundreds of rock inscriptions scrawled across the area in the Dadanite language, a Semitic offshoot, telling of kings and pilgrims, migrant communities, and daily life and death. And taxes. …

“ ‘This is their library, a collection of their civilization and stories carefully carved into stone,’ says [tour guide] Thuraya, who was trained to interpret rock art. ‘Lihyanites and the Dadanites … were advanced kingdoms that you could put in the same sentence as ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia.’

“The Dadanites controlled the lucrative trade of incense – namely frankincense – which was cultivated in Yemen and carried on camel caravans through Dadan en route to temples in Pharaonic Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Levant, where this fragrant tree resin played an important role in religious ceremonies. …

“ ‘Incense was the petrol of the times, this is why Dadan flourished,’ says Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, an associate professor at King Saud University in Riyadh who has been leading excavations at Dadan for the past decade.

“What has been excavated speaks to their advancements: one temple features perfectly square tombs and intricate lion statues carved into the rockface. At another, wells and an 8-foot-tall stone basin believed to have been used for ablution by pilgrims coming to give tribute to a pantheon of gods suggest an advanced water management system.

“In the fifth century B.C., another tribe built upon Dadan to create Lihyan, an empire extending west into the Gulf of Aqaba and Sinai and north toward the Levant. What has been uncovered speaks to the Lihyanites’ influence: two imposing larger-than-life statues of Lihyan kings, standing like half-robed pharaohs, were recovered at a Lihyanite temple. … Local residents say they have seen ‘dozens’ of statues and human-shaped stone idols over the years while picnicking in the valleys. 

“This is likely because Lihyan’s economic juggernaut was built not only on incense trade, but on tribute paid at its temples. It also was a hub for dried dates, which have grown in abundance here for nearly 3,000 years and travel well on weekslong desert treks.

“Today, this same oasis accounts for one-third of Saudi Arabia’s date production and is renowned across the country. … Such was Lihyan’s fame, ancient Greek cartographers and Pliny the Elder referred to the Gulf of Aqaba as the Gulf of Lihyan, a name that was in use for three centuries.

“But then, shortly before the first century B.C., the rival Nabataeans from southern Jordan inhabited Lihyan and transformed it into the town of Al Hajr, or Hegra, the second city of their empire. Within years, all mention of Lihyan suddenly stopped.”

Imagine! Three hundred years of fame and then nothing.

Hard to read about archaeology without thinking of Shelley’s poem:

“And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains.” 

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Reuters.
‘Lost golden city’ found in Egypt reveals lives of ancient pharaohs.

Archaeologists in Egypt have had a run of successes lately. The most recent find of a whole city is expected to generate clues to the daily lives of the pharaohs.

The BBC reports that “the discovery of a 3,000-year-old city that was lost to the sands of Egypt has been hailed as one of the most important archaeological finds since Tutankhamun’s tomb.

“Famed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass announced the discovery of the ‘lost golden city’ near Luxor. [He] said the find was the largest ancient city, known as Aten, ever uncovered in Egypt. It was unearthed within weeks of the excavation starting in September 2020.

“The city dates to the reign of Amenhotep III, one of Egypt’s most powerful pharaohs, who ruled from 1391 to 1353 BC. …

“Betsy Brian, professor of Egyptology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US, said … the city would ‘give us a rare glimpse into the life of the ancient Egyptians’ at the time when the empire was at its wealthiest.

“The dig revealed a large number of valuable archaeological finds, such as jewelry, colored pottery, scarab beetle amulets and mud bricks bearing seals of Amenhotep III. …

” ‘Within weeks, to the team’s great surprise, formations of mud bricks began to appear in all directions,’ Dr Hawass said in his statement. ‘What they unearthed was the site of a large city in a good condition of preservation, with almost complete walls, and with rooms filled with tools of daily life.’

“Now, seven months after the dig started, several areas or neighborhoods have been uncovered, including a bakery, an administrative district and a residential area.”

More at the BBC, here. Check out the photos.

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Photo: Carole Fritz.
This ancient conch shell from modern-day France was once used to play music.

For today’s story, you’ll want to go to the original article to see the detailed illustrations showing how a conch shell was turned into a musical instrument thousands of years ago — and how archaeologists figured it out.

Matt Simon reports at Wired, “Some 18,000 years ago, in a cave in what we now call France, a human being left behind something precious: a conch shell. It was not just any conch shell. Its tip had been lopped off—unlikely by accident, given that this is the strongest part of the shell—allowing a person to blow air into it. The shell’s jagged outer lip was trimmed smooth, perhaps to assist in gripping, and it also bore red, smudgy fingerprints that matched the pigment from a cave painting just feet away from where the object was found in 1931.

“But those archaeologists missed its true significance: It was an intentionally crafted musical instrument. Writing today in the journal Science Advances, researchers from several universities and museums in France describe how they used CT scans and other imaging wizardry to show that a person during the Upper Paleolithic age took great care to modify the shell, the oldest such instrument ever found. They even got a musician to play it for us, revealing sounds that have not rung out for millennia.

“The first clue to suggest this shell was actually an instrument is that broken tip, or apex. If you find a conch shell on a beach, you can’t just toot it as-is — you’ve got to knock that tip off to get air flowing through the internal chambers and to exit through the opening of the outer lip. …

“The researchers had a musician try playing the shell in the lab. You can hear three notes [at Wired]. The sound is a bit breathy, like a more earthy version of a trumpet or trombone.

“But the breakage around the apex turned out to be quite jagged. ‘It’s very irregular, and it was hurting his lips,’ says archaeologist Gilles Tosello of the University of Toulouse, a corresponding author on the paper. … Why would an ancient human take the trouble to modify a conch shell and then not add a mouthpiece? …

“As for the shell’s outer lip, Tosello and his colleagues could tell it had been chipped away, both from wear patterns and by comparing it to pristine shells of the same species, which have significantly larger lips. In addition, the researchers enhanced a photo of the inside of the lip … to reveal faint red splotches.

These are fingerprints left behind in ocher, and the pigment matches a wall painting of a bison that was mere feet from where the shell was found. That bison was actually etched into the wall, then covered with over 300 ocher fingerprints to shade it in.

“The researchers couldn’t date the shell itself, since that’d require breaking a piece of it off to do carbon dating. But … based on these nearby objects, which they think would have been used by the same people around the same era, they surmised that the shell is likely 18,000 years old. …

“This was in pre-agricultural times, so they would have been Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. [It is] likely that this person belonged to a band of 10 or 20 humans working together to survive.

“We also know that life must not have been too terrible, since people had the time and energy to make music. And after all, they didn’t need an instrument to make music in the first place. ‘With a voice, you can make music,’ says archaeologist Carole Fritz of the University of Toulouse, a corresponding author on the paper. That is, the shell is extraneous. ‘I think music is a very symbolic art for people,’ Fritz adds. …

“This find emphasizes the richness of Upper Paleolithic culture, says University of Victoria paleolithic archaeologist April Nowell, who wasn’t involved in the research. ‘We have music, we have art, we have textiles, we have ceramics,’ she says. ‘These were really complex people.’

More at Wired, here.

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