Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘archaeology’

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty.
As construction for a tunnel under Stonehenge begins, archaeological surprises are turning up.

Do you ever wonder about the layers of civilization buried deep beneath your feet? John Hanson Mitchell wondered about my region’s layers back in a 1980s book, here. He got himself into a kind of trancelike state in which he believed he could sense the presence of indigenous tribes living their lives beside what is now Interstate 495.

More recently, as Steven Morris reports at the Guardian, “Bronze age graves, neolithic pottery and the vestiges of a mysterious C-shaped enclosure that might have been a prehistoric industrial area are [being] unearthed by archaeologists who have carried out preliminary work on the site of the proposed new road tunnel at Stonehenge.

“One of the most intriguing discoveries is a unique shale object that could have been part of a staff or club found in a 4,000-year-old grave. Nearby is the resting spot of a baby buried with a small, plain beaker. Ditches that flank the C-shaped enclosure contain burnt flint, suggesting a process such as metal or leatherworking was carried out there thousands of years ago.

“Just south of the site of the Stonehenge visitor centre, archaeologists came upon neolithic grooved ware pottery possibly left there by the people who built the stone circle or visited it.

“ ‘We’ve found a lot – evidence about the people who lived in this landscape over millennia, traces of people’s everyday lives and deaths, intimate things,’ said Matt Leivers, A303 Stonehenge consultant archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology. …

“The plan to drop the A303, which passes close to the stones, into a two-mile tunnel is hugely controversial, with many experts having said that carrying out such intrusive construction work would cause disastrous harm to one of the world’s most precious ancient landscapes and lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of artefacts. A legal challenge was launched against the £1.7bn plan late last year.

“Highways England and Wessex Archaeology, which is leading the exploration of the tunnel corridor, said they were working on the project systematically and sensitively. …

“Close to the western end, two burials of Beaker people, who arrived in Britain in about 2,500BC, were found. One was an adult, buried in a crouched position with a pot or beaker. Also in the grave was a copper awl or fragment of a pin or needle and a small shale cylindrical object, of a type that is not believed to have been found before.

“ ‘It is an oddity,’ said Leivers. More detailed work will be carried out to find out what it is, but one theory is that it could be the tip of a ceremonial wooden staff or mace. Also found in the same area was a pit dating to the age of the Beaker people containing the tiny ear bones of a child and a very simple pot – a sign that this too was a grave. Usually Beaker pots are ornate but this one is plain, probably to reflect the age of the person who died.

“A little farther south, the C-shaped enclosure was found. ‘It is a strange pattern of ditches,’ said Leivers. ‘It’s difficult to say what it was, but we know how old it is because we found a near-complete bronze age pot in one of the ditches.’ …

“Another find was a group of objects dating to the late neolithic period – when the stone circle was built – including grooved ware pottery, a flint and red deer antlers. …

“Highways England said the amount of survey work that had been carried out was unprecedented because of the significance of the site. David Bullock, A303 project manager for Highways England, said: ‘There has been a huge amount of investigations so that this route can be threaded through so as to disturb as little as possible.’ ”

What mysteries will your everyday items pose for archaeologists of the future? What will more advanced people with no need for mouth guards or braces, say, make of gizmos like that?

More at the Guardian, here.

Read Full Post »

Photo via the Met
This caravan account is recorded on a cuneiform tablet from the ancient city of Kanesh.

Sometimes we forget that the way things have been in recent years — or even recent centuries — are not the way things always have been. For example, we imagine women have come a long way in the business world since Victorian times, but the fact that women were managing their own caravans and accounts in 1870 BC is no longer part of our collective memory.

At the BBC Sophie Hardach reports on a new book that aims to rectify our ignorance. Women of Assur and Kanesh is by Cécile Michel, a senior researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France.

Hardach writes, “Around 1870 BC, in the city of Assur in northern Iraq, a woman called Ahaha uncovered a case of financial fraud. 

“Ahaha had invested in long-distance trade between Assur and the city of Kanesh in Turkey. She and other investors had pooled silver to finance a donkey caravan delivering tin and textiles to Kanesh, where the goods would be exchanged for more silver, generating a tidy profit. But Ahaha’s share of the profits seemed to have gone missing – possibly embezzled by one of her own brothers, Buzazu. So, she grabbed a reed stylus and clay tablet and scribbled a letter to another brother, Assur-mutappil, pleading for help: 

“ ‘I have nothing else apart from these funds,’ she wrote in cuneiform script. ‘Take care to act so that I will not be ruined!’ She instructed Assur-mutappil to recover her silver and update her quickly.

‘Let a detailed letter from you come to me by the very next caravan, saying if they do pay the silver,’ [the businesswoman wrote]. ‘Now is the time to do me a favor and to save me from financial stress!’

“Ahaha’s letters are among 23,000 clay tablets excavated over the past decades from the ruins of merchants’ homes in Kanesh. They belonged to Assyrian expats who had settled in Kanesh and kept up a lively correspondence with their families back in Assur, which lay six weeks away by donkey caravan. A new book gives unprecedented insight into a remarkable group within this community: women who seized new opportunities offered by social and economic change, and took on roles more typically filled by men at the time. They became the first-known businesswomen, female bankers and female investors in the history of humanity. 

“The bulk of the letters, contracts and court rulings found in Kanesh date from around 1900-1850 BC. … The Assyrians invented certain forms of investment and were also among the first men and women to write their own letters, rather than dictating them to professional scribes. It’s thanks to these letters that we can hear a chorus of vibrant female voices telling us that even in the distant past, commerce and innovation were not the exclusive domains of men.

“While their husbands were on the road, or striking deals in some faraway trading settlement, these women looked after their businesses back home. But they also accumulated and managed their own wealth, and gradually gained more power in their personal lives. 

“ ‘These women were really strong and independent, because they were alone, they were the head of the household while the husband was away,’ says Cécile Michel. … Through more than 300 letters and other documents, the book tells a strikingly detailed and colorful story of the women’s struggles and triumphs. …

“The businesswomen’s story is tied to that of the Assyrian merchant community as a whole. In their heyday, the Assyrians were among the most successful and well-connected traders of the Near East. Their caravans of up to 300 donkeys criss-crossed mountains and uninhabited plains, carrying raw materials, luxury goods and, of course, clay letters. 

“ ‘It was one leg of a huge international network, which started somewhere in Central Asia, with lapis-lazuli from Afghanistan, carnelian from Pakistan, and the tin may have come from Iran or further to the east,’ says Jan Gerrit Dercksen, an Assyriologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who has also worked on the Kanesh tablets. …

“Assyrian women contributed to this bustling commercial network by producing textiles for export, issuing loans to merchants, buying and selling houses, and investing in naruqqum [stock] schemes. Their skills as weavers allowed them to earn their own silver. They kept a keen eye on foreign fashions and market trends to secure the best prices, as well as on taxes and other costs that dented their profits. …

“ ‘They know perfectly well what they should get back in exchange for their textiles. And when they earn this money from the sale of their textiles, they pay for the food, for the house, for daily life, but they also invest,’ says Michel, who has also co-created a new documentary about the women. 

“This commercial acumen allowed some to slip into positions that were unusual for women at the time, by functioning as their husbands’ trusted business partners. The traders in turn benefited from having literate and numerate wives who could help with day-to-day business as well as emergencies.

“One Assyrian merchant writes to his wife, Ishtar-bashti: ‘Urgent! Clear your outstanding merchandise. Collect the gold of the son of Limishar and send it to me… Please, put all my tablets in safekeeping.’ Others ask their wives to pick specific tablets from the household’s private archives to find financial information or settle a business matter. …

“The women in turn don’t shy away from sending their husbands or brothers instructions and admonishments. ‘What is this that you do not even send me a tablet two fingers wide with good news from you?’ an Assyrian woman called Naramtum writes to two men.”

Lots more at the BBC, here.

Photo: Wikimedia
Ancient sites of Mesopotamia, including Assyria. In the lower right is what we now call the Persian Gulf.

Read Full Post »

terracotta_army_6143540580-1024x650-1

Photo: Kevin McGill
A view of the Terracotta Army in the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. In normal times, several million people visit the Xi’an, Shaanxi province, site each year.

I save links about interesting happenings to share later on the blog, but when coronavirus hit, some of the happenings in my pipeline seemed out of date. Archaeological finds are different. Anytime’s a good time to read about the excavation of terracotta warriors in China.

As you may know, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in China is a designated Unesco World Heritage site. The online Unesco description says (with prescience), “No doubt thousands of statues still remain to be unearthed at this archaeological site, which was not discovered until 1974. Qin (d. 210 B.C.), the first unifier of China, is buried, surrounded by the famous terracotta warriors, at the centre of a complex designed to mirror the urban plan of the capital, Xianyan. The small figures are all different; with their horses, chariots and weapons, they are masterpieces of realism and also of great historical interest.”

In January this year, Taylor Dafoe reported at Artnet that more statues had indeed been discovered. “The Terracotta Army,” he writes, “just got a little more formidable.

“More than 200 additional funerary sculptures have been uncovered near the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, in Xi’an, the capital of China’s Shaanxi Province. The relics join the 8,000 already unearthed soldiers that constitute the Terracotta Army, created 2,200 years ago to protect the emperor in the afterlife.

“The discovery, first announced by the country’s state-run news agency, came during a decade-long excavation of the first of four pits at the mausoleum. … Archaeologists uncovered roughly 200 new warriors, 12 clay horses, and two chariots, as well as a number of bronze weapons, over the past 10 years.

“According to Shen Maosheng, the archeologist who led the dig, the new findings provide researchers with a clearer picture of how the ancient Chinese military operated. For instance, Maosheng notes that most of the newly uncovered figures are depicted either holding poles or bows — a clue that reveals the soldiers’ battlefield roles and responsibilities.

One of the world’s most treasured historical artifacts, the army was first discovered by a group of local farmers trying to dig a well roughly a mile east of Emperor Qin’s tomb in 1974. They stumbled upon a vault that held thousands of human-sized military figures, each unique in appearance, all lined up in battle formation. …

“Researchers believe it took 700,000 laborers as much as 30 to 40 years to complete the army and its tombs, and that there are still likely more vaults and warriors to be discovered.” More.

Have any readers visited the mausoleum? I was in China once, when my husband was working there, but for the 10-day visit, I stayed in Shanghai and environs. Xi’an would have been too far, and besides it was Spring Festival (or Lunar New Year) at the time, and the whole country was on the road. If you have seen the terracotta warriors, I would love to know your personal reactions.

Read Full Post »

d41586-019-03826-4_17495422

Photo: Ratno Sardi
Anncient cave art discovered in Indonesia depicts a type of buffalo called an anoa confronting small mythological human-animal figures.

Just when we thought humans had discovered all the nooks and crannies of our planet, someone finds cave paintings that are older than old.

Ewen Callaway writes at the journal Nature, “A cave-wall depiction of a pig and buffalo hunt is the world’s oldest recorded story, claim archaeologists who discovered the work on the Indonesian island Sulawesi. The scientists say the scene is more than 44,000 years old.

“The 4.5-metre-long panel features reddish-brown forms that seem to depict human-like figures hunting local animal species. Previously, rock art found in European sites dated to around 14,000 to 21,000 years old were considered to be the world’s oldest clearly narrative artworks. The scientists working on the latest find say that the Indonesian art pre-dates these.

“ ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before. I mean, we’ve seen hundreds of rock art sites in this region, but we’ve never seen anything like a hunting scene,’ says Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, whose team describes the finding in Nature [last] December.

“Other researchers say the discovery is important because the animal paintings are also the oldest figurative artworks — those that clearly depict objects or figures in the natural world — on record. But some aren’t yet convinced by the claim the panel represents a single ‘scene’, or story. They suggest it might be a series of images painted over the course of perhaps thousands of years. …

“ ‘They’ve invented everything,’ Pablo Picasso is reported to have said after visiting the famed Lascaux Cave, in France’s Dordogne Valley. The site, discovered in 1940, includes hundreds of animal figures painted around 17,000 years ago. An image from the cave, and others from the same period, are widely considered to be the earliest known narrative artworks. …

“Brumm was sitting at his desk in Australia in December 2017, when an Indonesian colleague texted blurry pictures of the hunting scene, from a cave in southern Sulawesi called Leang Bulu’Sipong 4. ‘These images appeared on my iPhone. I think I said the characteristic Australian four-letter word out very loud,’ says Brumm.

A team member named Hamrullah, who is a Sulawesi-based archaeologist and caver, had found the paintings after shimmying up a fig tree to reach a narrow passage at the roof of another cave.

“The panel seems to depict wild pigs found on Sulawesi and a species of small-bodied buffalo, called an anoa. … The depiction of these animal–human figures, known in mythology as therianthropes, suggests that early humans in Sulawesi had the ability to conceive of things that do not exist in the natural world, say the researchers. …

“Archaeologist Bruno David, at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, [says] it would be worth testing whether the pigments used to paint the animals and the therianthropes are the same.

“If the entire painting is more than 44,000 years old, it could mean that early humans have arrived in southeast Asia with the capacity for symbolic representation and storytelling, David says. Archaeologists have already found paint palettes and objects such as eggshells with abstract engravings made by early humans in southern Africa, he adds.” More here.

Photo: Sakurai Midori
A contemporary anoa in Indonesia’s Surabaya Zoo.
800px-anoa_bubalus_depressicornis_surabaya_zoo

Read Full Post »

10-02_cookbooks_kw_custom-7590cdc484b3905fc6f8b4d410b078f30cf1598a-s600-c85

Photo: Klaus Wagensonner/Yale Babylonian Collection
The Yale Babylonian Collection houses four tablets that contain recipes for stews, soups, and pies. Three tablets date back to “the Old Babylonian period, no later than 1730 B.C.,” says National Public Radio.

When I come home after being away a long time and feel overwhelmed by all the things that have to get done to settle back into my life, I like to start with some completely unnecessary little chore. I find it’s calming.

Perhaps in these difficult times, when we wake up in the night afraid of what will happen next, it can stabilize us to do something totally unnecessary and unrelated to the worries of our world.

How about cooking something from a 4,000-year-old recipe?

Maria Godoy asks at National Public Radio, “What did a meal taste like nearly 4,000 years ago in ancient Babylonia? Pretty good, according to a team of international scholars who have deciphered and are re-creating what are considered to be the world’s oldest-known culinary recipes. …

“The tablets are part of the Yale Babylonian Collection at the Yale Peabody Museum. Three of the tablets date back to the Old Babylonian period, no later than 1730 B.C., according to Harvard University Assyriologist and cuneiform scholar Gojko Barjamovic, who put together the interdisciplinary team that is reviving these ancient recipes in the kitchen. A fourth tablet was produced about 1,000 years later. All four tablets are from the Mesopotamian region, in what is today Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

For a long time, says Barjamovic, scholars thought the tablets might be medical texts. In the 1940s, a researcher named Mary Hussey suggested the writing was actually recipes, but ‘people really didn’t believe her”‘ at the time, he says.

” ‘The tablets all list recipes that include instructions on how to prepare them,’ the authors write in a piece about their work published in Lapham’s Quarterly [in 2019]. ‘One is a summary collection of twenty-five recipes of stews or broths with brief directions.’ …

“The researchers write that the ‘stews represent an early stage of a long tradition that is still dominant in Iraqi cuisine’ — specifically, aromatic lamb stews [flavored] ‘with a combination of spices and herbs and members of the Allium family, such as onion, garlic, and leek. These seem to be direct descendants of the Babylonian versions found on the culinary tablet with stew recipes.’

“So far, the cooking team — which also includes a food historian, a curator, a chemical biologist specializing in food, a professional chef and an expert on cultural heritage — has re-created three stews. ‘One is a beet stew, one is vegetarian, and the final one has lamb in it,’ says Barjamovic.

“NPR’s Scott Simon spoke with Barjamovic about the research. …

“Why have these recipes taken so long to come to light?
“Well, people don’t expect ancient texts to be food recipes. They were known since the 1920s, really, but were thought to be perhaps medical texts, stuff like that. It was really only Mary Hussey, a scholar from Connecticut, who suggested that they might be recipes [back in the 1940s]. And people really didn’t believe her until a French author and scholar [French Assyriologist Jean Bottéro] in the 1980s was asked to write an encyclopedic article about cooking in the ancient world. He had heard about this rumor that they might be recipes. So he went to Yale and found out that they were. And of course, being a Frenchman, he started working on them.

“So have you tasted any of the recipes?
“Yes, I’ve cooked these many times now. And the big difference between our French colleague, Monsieur Bottéro, and the way that he could handle these texts in the ’80s and now is that we have a somewhat greater knowledge of, first of all, the ingredients listed in the texts themselves. We quite simply understand many of the words better than he did. But secondly, and more importantly, we’re working together as a team and he worked alone.

“Are they good?
“Yes, they are, I would say — some of them. … Not as foreign as you might imagine. And there are some basic elements that we share with this kind of cooking. And there are certain aspects of the human palate which are not going to change, which biologically we remain the same.

“Any big-name chefs express an interest in making the recipes or putting them into restaurants?
“Big name? No. Small name? Yes. All over the place, there are lots of people who are contacting me these days and asking whether, you know, one would be interested in collaborating on having this presented in a restaurant.”

More at NPR, here.

Read Full Post »

900
Photo: Zlatko Bala/Department of Archaeology/University of Zadar
Dogs’ sensitive noses are being used for an expanding array of searches. In the photo above, a dog provides assistance on an archaeological dig.

I keep hearing about new ways that the sensitive noses of dogs are being used to help humans. We know they can help people with disabilities and sniff out contraband drugs in airports. I’ve also heard they can detect certain diseases in people before doctors can. And in this story, they are used by archaeologists to find ancient tombs.

Joshua Rapp Learn writes at the Guardian, “The scent-tracking abilities of trained dogs have helped archaeologists discover iron age tombs in Croatia dating back nearly three thousand years. …

“Experts have said that using dogs could be a good way to identify archaeological sites, as it is less destructive than many traditional methods.

“ ‘Dogs’ noses obviously don’t make mistakes,’ said Vedrana Glavaš, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Zadar in Croatia and the lead author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.

“Glavaš had already found a few tombs in a necropolis near the prehistoric hilltop fort of Drvišica, which dates back to the eight century BC. Hoping to find more, she contacted Andrea Pintar, a trainer who works with dogs used for sniffing out graves in criminal investigations. …

“Glavaš first sent the dogs to graves they had dug up the previous year but which were not apparent, without telling the trainers the location.

“ ‘We always use at least two dogs to confirm the position,’ Glavaš said, adding that the second trainer and dog were not told where the first dog and trainer had indicated a grave.

“The canines discovered all three graves, even though the human remains, associated artefacts and surrounding soil had been removed. The area had also been exposed to wind, sun and rain since the excavation.

Glavaš said the porous rock around the excavated soil had probably absorbed enough of the aroma of decomposition that the dogs could still detect it.

“Glavaš then let the dogs loose in an area they suspected more remains could be found, and excavated six new tombs – five of which are described in the recent paper. The dogs were extremely accurate in every case.

“The tombs consist of small stone burial chests in the middle of walled stone circles, each about five metres in diameter. Each chest contained small bones such as the fingers and feet of several individuals – perhaps several generations from the same family – along with buckles and other artefacts.

“Glavaš said the people in the site were probably fairly poor due to the harsh, windy climate of the area and the difficulty of growing crops. …

“Angela Perri, a postdoctoral archaeology researcher at Durham University who was not involved in the study, said using dogs to sniff out burials [can] be used in situations where ground-penetrating radar or other techniques may not work. …

“Perri, who studies the ancient history of how humans first began to domesticate and use dogs, said the technique was just the latest in humans’ long history of using dogs as biotechnology. ‘We’re still finding new ways of having dogs help us,’ she said.”

More at the Guardian, here.

Read Full Post »

00sci-mayanlidar7-jumbo

Photo: Takeshi Inomata
Human activity at the Mayan city Moral Reforma in Mexico ended about 1,400 years ago. Recently, researchers figured out that
lidar maps revealing underground Mayan archaeological sites, though ordinarily costly, are free if you know where to look.

It often takes time, a creative thinker, and a hot tip to uncover the best way to access technology. In this example, an archaeologist learned that the expensive underground maps he needed for his research could be found free online.

Zach Zorich writes at the New York Times, “Until recently, archaeology was limited by what a researcher could see while standing on the ground. But light detection and ranging, or lidar, technology has transformed the field, providing a way to scan entire regions for archaeological sites.

“With an array of airborne lasers, researchers can peer down through dense forest canopies or pick out the shapes of ancient buildings to discover and map ancient sites across thousands of square miles. A process that once required decades-long mapping expeditions, and slogging through jungles with surveying equipment, can now be done in a matter of days from the relative comfort of an airplane.

“But lidar maps are expensive. Takeshi Inomata, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona, recently spent $62,000 on a map that covered 35 square miles, and even was deeply discounted. So he was thrilled last year when he made a major discovery using a lidar map he had found online, in the public domain, entirely for free.

“The map, published in 2011 by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography, covered 4,440 square miles in the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas. …

“Dr. Inomata learned about the map from Rodrigo Liendo, an archaeologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The resolution of the map was low. But the outlines of countless archaeological sites stood out to Dr. Inomata. So far, he has used it to identify the ruins of 27 previously unknown Maya ceremonial centers that contain a type of construction that archaeologists had never seen before. …

“His findings have not yet been peer-reviewed, but Dr. Inomata has presented his work at four conferences during the past year. ‘The stuff he is finding is crucial for our understanding of how Maya civilization developed,’ said Arlen Chase, an archaeologist at Pomona College, who did not contribute to Dr. Inomata’s work. …

“The 27 sites he identified on the map have a type of ceremonial construction that Dr. Inomata and his colleagues had never seen before — rectangular platforms that are low to the ground but extremely large, some as long as two-thirds of a mile.

“ ‘If you walk on it, you don’t realize it,’ Dr. Inomata said of the platforms. ‘It’s so big it just looks like a part of the natural landscape.’ The similarities between these sites and the early buildings they found at Ceibal led them to believe they both date to sometime between 1000 B.C. and 700 B.C. …

“While lidar technology is giving archaeologists new ways to analyze the ancient world, the change in perspective has been shocking and a little disorienting for some researchers. Marcello Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University, was the lead author of a lidar survey that covered 800 square miles of the Petén rainforest in Guatemala. He is also the director of an excavation at the Maya city of La Corona. Seeing the edges of the city as well as buildings between cities and the roads that connected them was shocking to him.

‘The word that all of us used when we started looking at the lidar was “humbling,” ‘ he said. ‘It humbled all of us in showing us what we had missed.’

“Dr. Inomata agreed. Even in areas where they were busy excavating, he said, ‘lidar was showing us things we didn’t notice.’ This included broad causeways and agricultural terraces, which are difficult to see in an excavation. …

“Viewing the archaeology of an entire region, in detail, will allow archaeologists to answer bigger-picture questions, such as the ones that Dr. Inomata has about the interactions the Maya had with the Olmec at the beginning of their civilization. …

“ ‘The future pattern,’ Dr. Inomata said, ‘will be that everything will be covered by lidar, like topographic maps today.’ ”

Lots more detail at the New York Times, here.

Read Full Post »

4196

Photo: Diamond Light Source Ltd
Here’s the team taking on the challenge of reading scrolls charred by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Recent technology is making the impossible possible.

In the always-new-angles-in-archaeology department, here’s a recent story about using advanced technology to read ancient scrolls once thought beyond deciphering.

Nicola Davis writes at the Guardian, “When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79 it destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, their inhabitants and their prized possessions – among them a fine library of scrolls that were carbonised by the searing heat of ash and gas.

‘But scientists say there may still be hope that the fragile documents can once more be read thanks to an innovative approach involving high-energy x-rays and artificial intelligence.

“ ‘Although you can see on every flake of papyrus that there is writing, to open it up would require that papyrus to be really limber and flexible – and it is not any more,’ said Prof Brent Seales, chair of computer science at the University of Kentucky, who is leading the research.

“The two unopened scrolls that will be probed belong to the Institut de France in Paris and are part of an astonishing collection of about 1,800 scrolls that was first discovered in 1752 during excavations of Herculaneum. Together they make up the only known intact library from antiquity, with the majority of the collection now preserved in a museum in Naples.

The villa in which they were found is thought to have been owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator who was assassinated in 44BC.

“Experts have attempted to unroll about half of the scrolls through various methods over the years, although some have been destroyed in the process and experts say unrolling and exposing the writing to the air results in the ink fading.

“Seales and his team have previously used high-energy x-rays to ‘virtually unravel’ a 1,700 year old Hebrew parchment found in the holy ark of a synagogue in En-Gedi in Israel, revealing it to contain text from the biblical book of Leviticus.

“However, while the En-Gedi scroll contained a metal-based ink which shows up in x-ray data, the inks used on the Herculaneum scrolls are thought to be carbon-based, made using charcoal or soot, meaning there is no obvious contrast between the writing and the papyrus in x-ray scans. …

“As a result the team have come up with a new approach that uses high-energy x-rays together with a type of artificial intelligence known as machine learning. The method uses photographs of scroll fragments with writing visible to the naked eye. These are used to teach machine learning algorithms where ink is expected to be in x-ray scans of the same fragments, collected using a number of techniques.

“The idea is that the system will pick out and learn subtle differences between inked and blank areas in the x-ray scans, such as differences in the structure of papyrus fibres. Once trained on the fragments, it is hoped the system can be used with data from the intact scrolls to reveal the text within. …

“As for what the scrolls contain, the researchers say they are excited.

“ ‘For the most part the writings [in opened scrolls] are Greek philosophy around Epicureanism, which was a prevailing philosophy of the day,’ said Seales. Another possibility is that the scrolls might contain Latin text. While classical libraries are believed to have had a Greek section and a Latin section, only a small proportion of scrolls from Herculaneum have so far been found to be in Latin, with the possibility there is a Latin section within the villa yet to be excavated.

“Dr Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist and classicist at the University of Oxford who has been involved in training the team’s algorithms, … is hoping the scrolls might even contain lost works, such as poems by Sappho or the treatise Mark Antony wrote on his own drunkenness. ‘I would very much like to be able to read that one,’ he said.”

More here.

Hmmm, the scrolls are from the home of Caesar’s father-in-law? I never heard mention of him, and now all I can think about is he must not have raised his daughter to be “above suspicion.” Or was she falsely accused?

Read Full Post »

spanish-stonehenge-1024x604

Photo: Ruben Ortega Martin, Raices de Peraleda
Drought has uncovered a Spanish version of Stonehenge, the 7,000-year-old Dolmen of Guadalperal.

As global warming brings changes to our planet, the permafrost is melting and releasing dangerous bacteria. But sometimes other, less harmful things come to light.

Caroline Goldstein writes at ArtNet, “If there’s even the slightest silver lining to the ravages of climate change, it’s that the warming conditions are revealing some previously unknown archaeological sites and artifacts.

“This past summer, an extreme drought in the Extremadura area of Spain that caused the Valdecañas Reservoir’s water levels to plummet has revealed a series of megalithic stones. Previously submerged underwater, the Dolmen de Guadalperal, often called the Spanish Stonehenge, are now in plain sight.

“Though the Dolmen are 7,000 years old, the last time they were seen in their entirety was around 1963, when the reservoir was built as part of Franco’s push toward modernization. …

“Angel Castaño, who lives near the reservoir and serves as the president of a Spanish cultural group, told the website the Local, ‘We grew up hearing about the legend of the treasure hidden beneath the lake and now we finally get to view them.’

“The approximately 100 menhirs are, like Stonehenge, hulking megalith stones — some standing up to six feet tall — that are arranged in an oval and appear oriented to filter sunlight. Evidence suggests that these stones could actually be 2,000 years older than Stonehenge.

“Castaño is working with the group Raices de Peraleda to move the dolmen before rains come and re-submerge them. ‘Whatever we do here needs to be done extremely carefully.’ he said.”

I guess so. I can’t help wondering if it would be better to move the reservoir and leave the stones, which obviously were placed where they are for a reason. But not being an engineer, I suppose moving the reservoir would be even more difficult. And already access to water is becoming a serious problem around the world. (For a heartbreaking story about the difficulty many Navajo people have getting clean water, read this.)

So hard to balance conflicting goods!

More here.

Read Full Post »

Greece Enigmatic Islet

Photo: Greek Culture Ministry via AP
A newly discovered stone staircase is seen in the lower terraces of Dhaskalio islet off Keros island in the Aegean Sea, Greece.

I’m a sucker for any story with revelations about Ancient Greece. But the first article I read on excavations on Keros island made wild claims about how they showed the origins of Greek culture and the reasons the ancients thought their gods lived on mountain tops. Worse, in illustrating the story, the newspaper chose a photo of a burial mask that has been around forever. I had a replica of that very mask as a kid, when there was speculation it was Agamemnon’s.

So I looked for a more more factual article.

The Athens-Macedonian News Agency reports at the National Herald, “An extensive and extremely interesting series of exhibitions has been organised on the Cyclades islands this year by the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities. …

“Among these are the exhibitions ‘From the world of Homer. Tinos and the Cyclades in the Mycenaean era’ that runs between July 13 and October 14, which is being held in cooperation with the Piraeus Group Cultural Foundation (PIOP) at the its Museum of Marble Craft in the village of Pyrgos, Tinos. A second exhibition [is] to be inaugurated on July 14 at Archaeological Collection of Koufonisia and will run until September 30, 2019.

“ ‘Both exhibitions are extremely important,’ said Dimitris Athanasoulis, Director of the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities, to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA). ‘On the occasion of the founding of the tomb of Agia Thekla in Tinos, we have a first exhibition for an unknown period of the Cyclades, the Mycenaean period, presenting great and unknown material.’ …

“Four-year excavations and research on the extraordinary architectural findings of Kavos on the island of Keros in the Cycladic Islands group confirmed the existence in Early Cycladic times of a complex, stratified and technically expert society.

“[The research programme under Cambridge University] has ‘revealed impressive architectural remains of a significant Early Cycladic settlement,’ the ministry said.
Under the project, excavations took place on the small islet of Daskalio, originally connected to the nearby site of Kavos on Keros through a narrow strip of land. … The remains of the culture at the time include ‘impressive staircases, drainage pipes and stone buildings that reveal an advanced urban architecture without precedence for the specific period. …

” ‘The complicated, interlinked and multi-level architecture shows the existence of a well-organised and well-built settlement on a steep promontory,’ it added. …

“According to co-excavator professor Colin Renfrew, Daskalio shows that the building techniques that were applied, the existence of huge entrance gates, stone ladders and the drainage pipes throughout the island show that there must have been a specialist architect and a central administration to carry out the building programme. He said the complexity of the construction is only comparable to Knossos on Crete for the same early period, he said. …

“Co-director of the site Michael Boyd added that a unique feature of the site includes the fact that metallurgy played a significant role throughout the life of the settlement. Its extent and scale proves a constant replenishing of raw materials from western Cyclades and Attica, and a social structure that trained and passed skills on to newer generations.”

More here.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: