Friday, November 30, 2007

Lupercal Video

A web video on the Daily Telegraph site shows some video of the recently discovered grotto on the Palatine Hill in Rome. The mosaics look third-century at the earliest.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ancient Roman Maps

This week, the Austrian National Library in Vienna displayed the Tabula Peutingeriana, or the Peutinger Table, to the public for one day. Unless you live in Vienna that news may not be of much significance, but it does provide an opportunity to discuss a rare and priceless object.

The Peutinger Table is actually a linen strip, some 20 feet long and about a foot and a half wide, that bears a road map of the Roman Empire and neighboring lands to the east. It is the only object of its kind, although we have literary texts called itineraries that list roads and the stops along them in a similar fashion. The first think one notices about the Peutinger Table is it's bizarre shape. The Mediterranean has been stretched out into a narrow blue stripe, and none of the shapes of the landmasses are recognizable. Nor is the map to scale. This is because the Peutinger Table is not so much a map as it is a visual list of roads, like the itineraries. Major cities are shown by small buildings (or, in the case of the largest cities, with more elaborate drawings), while the roads connecting them have small kinks in them to represent smaller settlements or stopping points. The distance between each stop is written in Roman miles, which is the most important information on the map. To a traveller, the exact relative position of, say, Massilia (Marseilles) and Rome was not important -- what was important is which roads led from the one to the other, and how far the journey was. The distance could be calculated by adding up the total mileage, or more likely by counting the number of stops and using that to calculate a duration in days (one, two, or three stops per day, depending on mode of travel).

The Romans in fact do not seem to have used proper scaled maps much at all, although there are some exceptions. The 3rd century marble city plan of Rome, hung in the Temple of Peace in what was probably the city deeds office, is drawn on a rough scale of 1:240, although it is hardly exact. On a smaller scale, the astronomer Ptolemy devised various projection systems to reduce the globe to a system of longitude and latitude lines, which in principle allowed the depiction of places in their true relative positions. Acquiring precise coordinates at that time was extremely difficult, however, and we don't have any evidence that his system was widely used in the construction of maps.

If you want to know more about the Peutinger Table, you don't need to go to Vienna. The entire map has been made available online. Check it out!

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Friday, November 23, 2007


Apparently, not everyone is convinced that the recent discovery on the Palatine is really the Lupercal, as reported. An interview with Adriano La Regina, former superintendant of archaeology in Rome, was published by La Stampa yesterday. When questioned about the recent discovery he said that what Angelo Bottini, the current superintendant, found was merely a nymphaeum, or fountain house, that likely formed part of the Domus Transitorium, which was Nero's older palace at the foot of the Palatine. He notes resemblances between the architecture and decoration and that of Nero's Golden House. He says that the literary sources indicate that the Lupercal was located somewhere a short distance to the west of the recent excavations. Until the results are published, it won't be possible to assess which of the two interpretations are correct, but I'll keep an eye on this dispute as it plays out.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007


(Photo by Benvegnù-Guaitoli)

Italian newspapers are reporting an announcement by archaeologists that the Lupercal, the legendary cave in which Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf, has been found (English version here). Ancient Rome was littered with places that the Romans related to their mythical past. Romulus was said to have founded Rome on the Palatine hill, and in later years there was an actual Hut of Romulus on the hill, preserved, the ancient Romans believed, from the city's origin. Later archaeological excavation discovered the foundations of Iron Age houses on the hill, which must have been discovered by the Romans while building on the hill and reconstructed in a bit of ancient archaeology. Literary sources also tell of a cave in which the twin brothers were suckled after their father exposed them by the Tiber. Later, they were discovered and raised by the shepherd, Faustulus. The Romans identified the supposed cave and built a shrine there, which was the central place of the festival known as the Lupercalia, but it had been lost until the recent discovery (although there are Renaissance accounts that indicate it still existed then).

(Photo by Benvegnù-Guaitoli)

The grotto was discovered during the recent restoration work done on the House of Augustus. A small shaft (shown above) led researchers to a domed hall, much of which was filled with debris. The dome is covered with painting, stucco and seashells, in very vivid colors. The location is appropriate, as Augustus restored the cave and reinstituted the Lupercalia as part of his program of religious revival.

From literary sources, we know the Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15. Priests, known as Luperci, would sacrifice two male goats and a dog, and two young patrician youths would be smeared with the blood, after which it would be wiped off with wool dipped in milk. Leather thongs would be cut from the skins of the sacrifices, and the priests would run around the Palatine, striking everybody they came upon. Girls who were struck were thought to become extra fertile. The ceremony lasted until the end of the 5th century, when it was outlawed by Pope Gelasius.

Further excavation of the site may tell us more about the Lupercalia and the cult activity here.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Modern Ruins

Bethlehem Steel, photograph © Shaun O'Boyle

The material archaeologists dig up and that ends up in museums sometime seems like it appears by magic. You dig a hole and bits and fragments of the past appear. Sometimes, even among archaeologists, we begin to believe that these objects are the past, rather than objects in the present, the result of a long series of postdepositional processes. One result of this disconnect between the present and the past is that I am often asked why we can find the things we do. Why does digging into the ground reveal a two-thousand year old house? It's not intuitive that such a result would naturally follow. We can, of course, easily visualize the kind of event that 'flash freezes' the past, such as the volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii (although even here it would be incorrect to view the excavations as producing a true snapshot of the ancient city as it was lived in). The long, slow processes of erosion, scavenging, sedimentation and decay that produce much of the archaeological record, however, proceed at a pace that is usually imperceptible, and about which we usually remain unaware. The photographs of Shaun O'Boyle help bring those processes to light, and remind us that the archaeological record is being constantly created, all around us, as we live and talk and breathe.

What O'Boyle does is photograph modern ruins. Born out of an interest in archaeology, he has chosen to record the present past, places and things that still exist, and in some cases, such as the Bethlehem steel yard above, were still in use until quite recently, but today are abandoned and undergoing the slow transformation that will, perhaps, end in their discovery by later generations of archaeologists. His photo essays remind us that the ways places are abandoned are varied and complex. Some places are deliberately abandoned, and objects that still have value are salvaged (or 'curated,' in archaeology-speak) by the owners or others, a process that can take years. Some places are left in a hurry, due perhaps to natural disaster or invasion, and most of their contents are still in place. If a place is abandoned, but legal ownership can still be defended, the contents may remain for a long time, until eventually they are discarded, such as the furniture of this abandoned hospital ward (original image here):

Abandoned Hospital ward, photograph © Shaun O'Boyle

Sometime buildings are reused, by new owners or squatters, sometimes they just sit until an earthquake or fire causes them to collapse, and sometimes they are demolished, and new structures built on the foundations of the old. Understanding these processes are key to interpreting archaeological material. How did the material get where it is? Was it originally part of the same assemblage, or did later occupants add to the debris? Did some of the items originally occupy a second floor and fall to the ground when the building burned? Answering these questions can be difficult but is an important part of what archaeologists do.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Archaeologists discover 4000 year old temple in Peru

Reuters is reporting that archaeologists excavating at the site of Ventarron have discovered a temple and fire altar dating to approximately 2000 BC. They also report that murals have been found inside the temple, which would be among the oldest examples known from the New World. This is a significant find and combined with the discovery last summer of a slightly older temple at Buena Vista, is further indication of the sophistication of civilization in South America at this early date.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I'm Baaaaack

(Reuters photo)

Okay, I have to admit, I hit the six month blogging wall. Life started getting busy, and once I stopped posting, it became difficult to get into the swing of things.

Now I'm tanned, rested and ready for some more archaeology news.

The big story of the last couple of days is the discovery of the world's oldest wall painting, found in Syria at a Neolithic site on the Euphrates called Djade al-Mughara. (Oldest not counting cave paintings, of course). The painting has been carbon dated to 9000 BC. As you can see from the photo above, the decoration consists of geometric patterns in red, white, and black, created using hematite, chalk, and charcoal.

The abstract nature of the painting has prompted predictable comparisons to modern artists, such as Mondrian or Klee. Needless to say, any resemblance, as they say in Hollywood, is purely coincidental. The article linked above quotes a Syrian artist who says "
"We must not lose sight that the painting is archaeological, but in a way it's also modern," he said."

No. It isn't modern. It is very, very old, created by a society with different ideas and beliefs than our own. Geometric patterns are found around the world, and there is no single wellspring for them, rather they are the product of the human mind's love of pattern. What it does show is humanity's common urge for artistic expression.

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Friday, August 31, 2007

Great Wall Blowing Away

(Photo by Greg Baker, AP)

The Great Wall is under attack. Not by hordes of invading Mongols, but by man-made ecological catastrophe. While most of us have a mental image of a solid, stone wall stretching off into the distance, a product of stock photos and tourist itineraries, the Wall is actually a complex work, built over thousands of years over innumerable building campaigns. Substantial sections were built in more fragile mud brick. Now, although not as sturdy as stone, this in itself is not necessarily a problem for conservation. After all, much of the wall has survived for millennia. However, unrestrained farming in north-central China has resulted in conditions approximating the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. This is bad not only for the inhabitants of the region, but for monuments such as the Great Wall. Already more than 25 miles of wall have been completely eroded by sandstorms in the last 20 years, but much of the rest of the 'standing' wall has been reduced to little more than stubs on the landscape, as the picture above shows. Archaeologists are trying to protect the remaining sections by burying them in dirt, but this can only be a stopgap measure. At the current rate of degradation, this entire portion of the Wall will be gone in 20 years.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Greece Is Burning

It is summertime in Greece, and with it come the traditional wildfires. These are not natural forest fires; at least, it is thought that most of them are the result of deliberate arson. This is the product of a conflict between Greek law and society that has been going on for years. Most forested land in Greece is protected from development. Those wishing to build sometimes respond by setting deliberate fires. Sometime this is done in an amateurish way, other times explosives with remote detonators are used. Once the forest is burned down, the land becomes cheap and development can commence.

Greece having a dry climate, frequently these fires get out of hand. The fires this year are particularly severe -- huge tracts of the Peloponnese have been burned to the ground, and giant plumes of smoke can be seen in satellite images like the one above. That image is actually rather tame -- there are at present at least five major fires raging in southern Greece.

Not only is this a major problem for conservation and a severe health hazard, these fires often threaten archaeological remains. One fire now burning near Olympia has come very close to the sanctuary of Zeus there, the original home of the Olympic games and one of the most significant sites in Greece. An emergency effort has saved the site from destruction, but the threat is not over and other regions of Greece are in even graver danger.

This sort of thing has been allowed to continue for far too long. Greece has to regain control of the situation and crack down on illegal and shady development. Otherwise the human and cultural costs will only get worse.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

More Tombs! Aztec Royal Tomb Possibly Located

In more tomb news, archaeologists in Mexico believe they may have located the tomb of Montezuma's uncle and predecessor, the Aztec emperor Ahuizotl. This would be an unparalleled find, as no Aztec royal tomb has ever been discovered. Aztec royalty were buried in Tenochtitlan, which the Spanish methodically stripped of its native monuments in converting it to Mexico City. Most of the major Aztec buildings have later structures on top of them. Some of these colonial-era buildings burned down in 1993, giving researchers a rare opportunity to dig beneath. Excavators are working through what appear to be votive deposits and have discovered a possible entrance (the news articles are unhappily less than clear), and ground-penetrating radar has revealed what may be chambers beneath the soil. Above the site was found a stone monument with a carving of an Aztec earth goddess, Tlaltecuhtli, with a date, 1502. That is the year Ahuizotl died.

Tenochtitlan was built on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. The lake has long since been drained, but the water table underneath Mexico City is still quite close to the surface, making work difficult. I'll keep our readers updated if any further news comes in.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Intact Etruscan Tomb discovered

I have a lot of backlog built up, and I'll be emptying it out here over the next few days. First, I wish to report that archaeologists have just announced that an intact Etruscan tomb has been found in central Italy. The tomb is rather small, only 2 x 1.8 meters in size, but was well-stocked nonetheless, with intact vessels and bronze artifacts. Most known Etruscan tombs were either discovered and emptied in the 18th and 19th centuries, or looted (which in some cases amounts to the same thing). Finding an intact tomb is pretty rare. Best of all, the tomb contains cremation burials (the usual Etruscan custom). It is not often that early excavators preserved osteological (i.e. bone) remains. At the Pennsylvania Museum, we have some human bones from tombs in central Italy, but finding more is definitely nice. From the reports, it sounds like many of the burials in this tomb were of children. No paintings are mentioned, so it is likely that the tomb was relatively undecorated, which given its modest size is not surprising.

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Thursday, August 2, 2007

Out of Town

Sorry for the absence of updates over the last few days; I'm out of town this week and won't be able to get back to regular posting before Monday. To tide you over, I am posting a link to recent news of a huge tannery complex being excavated in Rome. Dating to the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., the complex is the largest known from the Roman world. Unfortunately, the complex is directly in the path of a new railroad being constructed. The only choices are to either halt construction completely, or to move the site. The former is pretty much impossible, so they are looking into the latter, which would be a mammoth project. A similar dilemma was encountered in Spain outside Córdoba in the late 90s when construction of a new high-speed rail line hit the remains of a huge 3rd century palace. In that case, the railroad was continued after excavation, destroying about half of the site.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Via that doyen of all thing tentacly, PZ Meyers, comes a news story about an Korean octopus fisherman. While trawling for his catch, he pulled up several octopuses with bits of pottery stuck to their tentacles. He didn't pay much attention until one octopus came up holding an entire plate. He took the finds to a local museum, where they were identified as rare 12th century Koryo porcelain. The cephalopods must have been visiting a local shipwreck, although it's not known how they acquired their affinity for fine antiques. Probably they were simply trying to grasp onto anything to avoid being pulled to the surface. Now, octopuses are smart. How long before some enterprising treasure seeker tries to train the critters to fetch objects from the sea floor?

Pedant note: the second article linked refers to pottery "shards." The proper archaeological term when referring to pottery is "sherds," though you can still speak of shards of glass.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Lions and Tigers and.....Satyrs? Oh my!

There is an interesting story in USA Today which, if true, would definitely qualify as "Weird Archaeology." There was a recent discovery of a preserved human body in an Iranian salt mine. The dry conditions in such locations help preserve soft tissue and hair, and there have been other such discoveries in recent years. The dessication creates shriveled-up faces and snub noses on the bodies. This observation has led Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University to suggest that the discovery of such bodies lay behind the ancient Greek stories of satyrs -- humanoid creatures that are generally depicted with goats' legs, pot bellies, prominent phalluses, snub noses and prominent beards. Mayor is known for her hypotheses that discoveries of fossilized animals lie behind many ancient myths of giants and monsters -- for example, a mastodon's skull, with its prominent nasal opening, could have been the inspiration for the cyclops.

One piece of suggestive evidence is an account of a visit of the Emperor Constantine to Antioch in the early 4th century A.D., where, it is recounted, he was shown the remains of a 'satyr' which had been preserved in salt. Could he have been looking at a body like those from the Iranian salt mines? It's a tempting idea, although not something we could ever definitively establish.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Treasure Trove

You may have heard something over the last few days about the discovery of a hoard of Viking treasure in northern England. It has been reported in most major news outlets, and the treasure has recently gone on display in the British Museum. More than 600 coins and 65 other silver and gold objects were found, including items acquired via trade or plunder from Scandinavia, Russia, Afghanistan, and France, among others. The hoard was discovered by a father and son who were prospecting with metal detectors. This news is a good example of the positives and negatives about Britain's treasure trove law.

Without going into too much detail, the treasure trove law (as modified by the Treasure Act of 1996) determines the destination of objects that are found and for which no owner can be determined. Under British common law, if ownerless objects are merely lost (like change falling out of your pocket), they belong to the finder. If they are deliberately stashed (like the hoard in question), then they belong to the crown. The Treasure Act modifies this basic principle to ensure the finder receives just recompense even if title is not awarded. The effect is that if you find a valuable object or objects, you have to report them to a government official. If they are determined to fall under the category of treasure trove, the finder must offer them for sale to a museum, at a price set by a board of antiquities experts. Only if no buyer can be found can the objects be kept by the finder. Under British law the owner of property on which antiquities are found is considered the 'finder' in question, unless treasure seekers have come to an agreement with the owner to split the proceeds.

What are the advantages of the law? It provides an incentive for treasure seekers to report their finds and helps ensure that antiquities end up in the hands of public caretakers, who are presumably the most qualified to conserve and display the objects, so that all can benefit.

On the other hand, it also means that treasure seekers have an easy and legitimate avenue for realizing profit from their activities. While this is clearly preferable to illicit excavations of the kind I have reported on in the past, the fact remains that the two gentlemen who dug up the hoard were not archaeologists, and there was no controlled excavation. Depending on the nature of the find, invaluable archaelogical context may have been destroyed. In addition, one can expect the publicity of this find to encourage even more treasure seekers to go digging around the countryside, at unknown cost to archaeology.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Heaven Forbid

Connections, connections. The world of archaeology, and pseudoarchaeology, is a fairly small one. Those of my readers who clicked through the link a few posts back to the 'discovery' in the Gulf of Cambay would have seen a quote by Michael Cremo, who is identified as a 'researcher and author of Forbidden Archaeology.'

Meanwhile, recently I picked up an issue of Atlantis Rising. The title of this magazine tells you just about all you need to know about its contents. If that weren't enough, article titles such as "Was the Ark Electrical" would, I think, be sufficient to brand the periodical as a bit out there. To be fair, not everything in the magazine is bunk -- I'd say no more than 50% is. I picked up the magazine as it looked to be a good source of material on pseudoarchaeology to discuss in this blog. The column that first caught my eye is a regular feature called "The Forbidden Archaeologist" by none other than our Mr. Cremo. He has a website.

It doesn't appear that Cremo has any professional credentials whatsoever. That in and of itself doesn't prevent him from being a good popular writer. As a young field, archaeology has benefitted from the contribution of amateurs far more than most other fields. However, the column in this issue contains a mixture of good data and misplaced credulity that is a hallmark of pseudoarchaeology.

Cremo begins the column with a reference to Plato's Timaeus, the major source for the Atlantis story. Plato tells a story in this dialogue about a trip by the Athenian lawgiver Solon to Egypt. This probably never happened; Solon was a famous wise man to whom all sorts of stories and travels were attributed, much like Albert Einstein in the present day. Plato has the Egyptians tell Solon that their civilization was far older than the Greeks, and that even Greek history was older than the Greeks imagined; this is the intro to the Atlantis story.

Cremo then claims that, like the Egyptians, he will show modern scholars that humans have been in Greece longer than they currently imagine. The starting point is the Petralona skull, discovered in a cave in 1960. This is the oldest recognized evidence for hominids in Greece. Dated to between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago, it is now thought to be a specimen of Homo heidelbergensis. The skull is hard to identify and date because it was found embedded in a stalagmite, without context. A 1981 article in Nature dated the skull between 160,000 and 240,000 years old, significantly earlier than Poulianas put it.

From this firm starting point, Cremo goes off into ever murkier terrain. He brings up a later discovery by Poulianos, the Greek anthropologist who found the Petralona skull. In 1977, near the village of Perdikkas, Poulianos claimed to find a 3 million-year-old mammoth with associated stone tools. If valid, this would be the oldest evidence for hominids outside of Africa. However, this 'discovery' has not been generally accepted by the scientific community. Poulianas never published his finds in an independent scientific journal; the only articles on the topic are in Poulianas' own journal Anthropos, the house organ of his group the Anthropological Association of Greece, which has feuded with the Greek Cultural Ministry. You can find a rather wild rant by Poulianos against the Greek Cultural Ministry here.

I am not an expert in paleoanthropology, so I won't comment on the validity of the Perdikkas finds. However, it is clear that they haven't been properly published, nor are they currently accepted by the scientific community. Simply presenting the information as fact without mentioning any of this is irresponsible, albeit par for the course among pseudoarchaeologists.

Cremo next claims that there is evidence for hominid occupation of Greece and nearby areas as far back as the Miocene. The Miocene ended at least 5 million years ago, so this would put us at a time at or before the split between the ancestor of hominids and chimpanzees. Needless to say, this would upset all of paleoanthropology. What is Cremo's evidence? A paper given at the International Congress of Prehistoric Anthropology and Archaeology in 1872 reporting early horse bones with evidence of human modification, and an article in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1874 reporting carvings on animal bones. That's it -- two articles written over 125 years ago, at a time when knowledge of human ancestors and geology was in its infancy. I haven't been able to get access to these articles (apparently even the library here at Penn has its limits), but the lack of followup calls into question the degree to which these can be used to support any kind of argument. Occam's razor would suggest that the first author was mistaken about the use of tools (this is well before use-wear analysis) and the latter was mistaken as to geological context. At the least, one would have to return to the sites in question and confirm the finds before printing them as fact.

Cremo then drifts off into woo woo land arguing that the Sanskrit Puranas are evidence for human civilization millions of years ago. From fact to questionable to 'evidence' to fiction in three pages -- all in a day's work in the world of pseudoarchaeology.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ancient Greek Science

Tangled Bank is a weekly collection of blog stories and links on the topic of the biological sciences hosted in rotation by a series of science blogs. Something not usually relevant to the topic of this blog, except that this week's version, Tangled Bank #84, hosted by the Voltage Gate, uses Greek science as a unifying theme. Take a look!

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mmmmm.....Prehistoric Donuts......

Via Pharyngula, this is a very funny story. Apparently promoters of the upcoming Simpson Movie have painted a giant Homer Simpson next to the famous artwork known as the Cerne Abbas giant. This figure is held by Wiccans to be an ancient fertility symbol, but there is no record of it before the 17th century, and many scholars feel monks from Cerne Abbas, a major Benedictine monastery, would have destroyed it if it was really a pagan image. It is more likely either a hoax or, according to an alternate interpretation, a caricature of Oliver Cromwell as Hercules.

Whatever its origins, it is now a national symbol and owned by the National Trust. It was covered during World War II to prevent the Germans using it as a navigational landmark.

For those worried, the paint is biodegradeable and will wash away when it next rains. Apparently the local 'pagans' are angry and have promised to perform some rain magic to hasten that day. Hmmm, how hard can it be to manufacture rain in Britain?

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Bad Archaeology Reporting: "Lost" Indian City

I've been poring through the archaeology section of Digg, and found some rather fringe ideas. Many of these sites are pretty stale. One of the linked pages contains an old news story from 2002 that a city older than any known human civilization had been found off the coast of India. What piqued my interest is that the site linked to a BBC article describing the find. If the BBC links to it, it must be authentic, right? Well, no so fast. What we have here is a classic example of both Bad Archaeology and Bad Archaeology Reporting.

A telltale sign of bad archaeology (and reporting of such) is the absence of hard evidence. Upon close inspection, the article has hardly any actual facts at all. First, of course, comes the breathless statement:

The remains of what has been described as a huge lost city may force historians and archaeologists to radically reconsider their view of ancient human history.

Then we are introduced to the people who made the 'discovery,' who are un-named "marine scientists." Who were these people? Underwater archaeologists? No, below we are told that they were "oceanographers from India's National Institute of Ocean Technology conducting a survey of pollution"

Then, we are told that debris had been recovered from the site, and carbon-dated to 9500 years ago, which would be thousands of years before the earliest known human cities. What kind of debris? Construction material and sections of walls -- what kind of 'construction material?' No organic material could survive preserved under water for that length of time, so no C14 dating possible. Pottery -- Also not carbon datable. Beads -- usually made of stone and not carbon datable. Human bones and teeth -- these, too, would not survive under water for that long.

Then the article quotes Graham Hancock by name -- a well-known pseudoarchaeologist who claims that the Giza pyramids were patterned after the stars in Orion's belt and are many thousands of years older than currently believed. The link between him and this article immediately calls into question the whole story.

Now, this article may be five years old, but pseudoarchaeology never dies. A quick google search for "Cambay city" finds dozens of articles touting this 'find' as evidence for Atlanteans, super-ancient civilizations, and so on. The Wikipedia article is an amusing amalgam of skepticism and credulity, obviously the work of multiple authors.

A tell-tale warning sign is the lack of any scientific publication, and that the 'artifacts' in question have not been made available to outside investigators. We are simply told that scientific investigation confirmed their authenticity. The fact that the principle investigator is a geologist, not an archaeologist, also triggers alarm bells.

There are some images on Graham Hancock's website, which are underwhelming. Radar images that are proclaimed to show a 'city' and even a 'bathing complex' that look like no such thing. "Pottery" and "beads" that I can attest do not look like any actual pottery or beads I have ever seen, but seem to be compacted ocean bottom sediments. One or two of the 'lithics' might be authentic artifacts, but of course they are not evidence for an ancient city.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Digging through Digg

This blog has had a bit of a hiatus the past two weeks, but I have some more material to post over the next few days. While working on another blog, I was introduced to Digg, a website that categorizes blog posts. Using Digg, you can highlight blog posts that are of interest to you, and thus increase their prominence to others with similar interests.

The first thing I did after signing up is to search for 'archaeology.' I found the usual range from well-researched to completely crazy that one typically finds in popular archaeology. Some of these links I will include in coming days as lessons in how (and how not) to practice archaeological reporting. For today, I thought I would include this link to a Photoshop contest with an archaeological theme. Most of the entries are blah, but a few are rather amusing.

In addition, from now on posts will allow you to Digg them so that they show up to other Digg users. With some effort, we can work on improving the range of archaeological news and topics available to readers out there.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Queen Hatshepsut found!

Big, big news today. Researchers in Egypt have made a positive identification of a mummy as the body of Queen Hatshepsut, one of only a handful of female Pharaohs in Egyptian history and a major New Kingdom player. Her tomb (which had been desecrated after her death in an act of damnatio memoriae) has long been identified but it didn't contain any bodies. It did, however, contain some personal effects, including a box with Hatshepsut's cartouche containing a tooth. That tooth has been matched to a mummy found in a disturbed coffin, one of two, in a nearby tomb. The coffins had obviously been moved from somewhere else. One coffin bore the name of Hatshepsut's wet-nurse. The other held an anonymous woman, aged 45 to 60, who was apparently obese and suffering from cancer. She was also missing a tooth, and the tooth from Hatshepsut's tomb exactly fits into the jaw. The identification seems certain.

Hatshepsut was the daughter of Tuthmosis I, and married to her brother, Tuthmosis II. When he died, she took the throne as Pharaoh in her own right (although technically she was only regent for her son, Tuthmosis III), adopting masculine imagery in royal portraiture and sponsoring trading expeditions to East Africa.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Neat Pictures from Italy

For those interested, Martin Conde's Flickr page has some spectacular photos from Rome and nearby sites, including the new exhibit of the scepters and insignia of the Emperor Maxentius, recently discovered on the Palatine Hill, and some nice aerial photos of Ostia.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Days 13 & 14: Burgos and Clunia

I'm back in the States now; once again wi-fi access in some of my hotels was less than promised. I have one last update regarding my trip. In days to come, I will discuss some of the topics that have been brought up in more depth.

The main objective last weekend was to make it to Clunia, formerly an important city in Roman Spain, with a total population between 30 and 50 thousand people. Today, it's in a relatively isolated area, but one with tremendous natural beauty. Thanks to help from the team currently excavating there, I was able to make a brief visit, on which more below:

Clunia was excavated in a series of campaigns beginning in the 1930s and 1960s, although only some 10% of the total area has been dug. Most of the remains date from the heyday of the city in the first and second centuries A.D. The first building you encounter as you ascent the hill on which Clunia sits is the theater, built into the natural limestone of the plateau.

My camera was running low on memory towards the end, which is why the end of the video seems a little rushed. The theater is one of the largest known from Roman Spain, and is currently undergoing further excavation, which indicates that it was transformed into an amphitheater late in its life, a transformation paralelled in other Roman towns.

On the road from the theater to the forum, you pass two large bath complexes, also dating to the late first/early second centuries. The larger of the two, Los Arcos II, is also the most fully excavated. I shot a short video of the baths, which are quite lovely. I begin by entering through what would have been the main entrance, marked by a semicircular porticoed space. The bath complex is symmetrically arranged, with one half reserved for men and the other for women. After heading towards the right side of the complex, I swing back toward the left, passing through a porticoed garden or exercise yard (palaestra), a changing room (apodyterium) with opus sectile flooring, a cold room or frigidarium with plunge bath, a warm room or tepidarium, and finally the hot room or caldarium. The latter two can be recognized by the hypocausts or suspended floors, used to circulate hot air and keep the rooms warm. To help you follow along I will include a map of my route:

Proceeding further up the hill, one comes upon a residential area, with a large house originally dating to the first century, but which over subsequent generations slowly absorbed other nearby residences until it took up an entire city block. This is House #1 or the House of Taracena, and it has some absolutely gorgeous mosaics:

More on this house later. Finally, one gets to the buildings around the forum. Clunia had a very large public area, much of which is now buried or otherwise obscured. Here is a shot of the forum as it is now; the large hummock in the distance is the podium of one of the chief temples of the colony; either a temple to Jupiter or to the Imperial Cult.

All in all a very spectacular site, which I will discuss more in future posts. The last few days of my trip were spent travelling and consulting with people about future fieldwork. I hope you enjoyed this little experiment. I learned a lot, and hope to have the opportunity to do this again and learn from the problems I encountered. Thanks for following along!

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Days 8-12: Vitoria

Not much to report over the last few days. I was located in Vitoria, Spain, to do library work and to meet up with old friends. It was very productive, but I have little in the way of archaeology pictures to show. My plan originally was to rent a car and visit some of the sites in the area, but the theft of my driver's license scotched that idea. However, I am currently in Burgos, and plan to visit the important archaeological site of Clunia tomorrow, so I should soon have more interesting things to post about.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Days 6 & 7: Córdoba

From Madrid, to Córdoba I went, my first time in Andalusia. I enjoyed Córdoba immensely, lack of wi-fi notwithstanding. Not only is it a much smaller city than Madrid, it has an entirely different feel, more relaxed and serene than the bustling metropolis.

Córdoba has some interesting Roman remains, especially the late 3rd/early 4th century palace known as La Cercadilla, discovered (and to a great extent destroyed) when the train station was expanded. I would like to talk more about it, but it is a difficult site to explain in brief, so I will save it for a future Question Time. Instead, I will talk about Córdoba's more famous monument, the Mezquita or the Great Mosque, begun in AD 754 and expanded over the next 250 years, then turned into a Christian cathedral after the Reconquest. The latter event has caused some jarring effects, as 16th, 17th and 18th century architecture intrudes upon the earlier structure as if it had teleported in from some different dimension. However, one can still feel the majesty of the earlier building.

It really is something to behold; much more impressive than I had expected (which is saying something). Definitely something for the must-see-before-you-die list. The beauty of the architectural work is quite breathtaking:

The building is really something one needs to walk through to get the full experience. The atmosphere is something I have only felt in a few places, such as St. Peter's. My camera has a video feature and so I shot a short film showing the south end and leading up to the qibla niche (which was, unfortunately, inaccessible). This is the part built by the Caliph Al-Hakam II.

(Let me know if people have trouble seeing this).

In addition to the Mosque, the old quarter of Córdoba has many traditional Andalusian houses, some dating back in part to the 12th century. They share the common Mediterranean design of a quiet central patio with typically a fountain and flowering plants:

Different rooms open onto the courtyard, creating a extremely cool and tranquil atmosphere.

Originally, I had decided my dream house would be neo-Georgian. Now, however, I think that if I end up in a warm climate, it will have to be Andalusian.

Finally, another bit of Spanglish humor. Córdoba has a Dunkin' Donuts clone. Now, Dunkin' Donuts is not that exotic -- there are Dunkin' Donuts in Madrid. Remember McDowell's restaurant from Coming to America? Same idea here -- same colors, same layout, same kind of food. However, the name has been changed to protect the guilty. It would seem that the proprietors felt the most important thing about the original name was the alliteration. So I give you...."Duffin Dagels."

I guess the name is supposed to remind one of muffins and bagels, but the store sells neither, and I doubt most Spaniards know what they are anyway.

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Not Dead Yet.

Okay, the promise of wi-fi in my Cordoban hotel turned out to be erroneous, so I was unable to make any updates. But I am still here, now in Vitoria, and I will catch up as soon as possible. I did feel like I was dead Thursday in Madrid, though. I must have been working harder than I thought, as I hit the wall that day. It was a real effort to drag myself to the library to do research, and though I got some wind under my sails in the late morning, after lunch I was dead. I got back to the hotel and slept for four hours. Then got up, ate, and went back to bed for another nine hours. I was better after that.

More to come.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Days 3 & 4: Madrid

Yes, I'm still here. The last two days have been less picturesque as I have been holed up at the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. Very nice (nicer than last time I was there) and welcoming. They have a wonderful library covering Spanish archaeology, which is the reason I am working there. Their space is a bit cramped; they've already moved to contractible shelving for much of their collection -- I don't know what they'll do in the future. It would be really nice for the Americans to have a similar facility -- a dream for the future. Now, on to more interesting stuff!

I took some time this afternoon to visit the National Archaeological Museum. This is the premier museum in the country, and it is right next to the National Library. To get there from my hotel, you walk past the giant fountain with the statue of the Anatolian goddess Cybele:

I have been by the fountain twice, on different days, and at different times. Both times I snapped pictures. And both times I failed to notice that there was a bird on her head! Probably the same bird. Remarkable bird, the Norwegian Blue....

The museum itself can be found near the Jardines de Descubrimiento (Gardens of Discovery), which has a fountain (off) and some modernist sculpture:

On the sculpture are a series of texts from various authors about the New World. Some aren't what you would expect, like this one from the Roman writer Seneca:

(Loose translation: "There will come in the latter years of the world certain times in which the sea will loose the bindings of things, and a great land will appear. And a new mariner like the one who guided Jason, who was named Tiphys, will discover a new world. And Thule will no longer be the most distant of lands.")

As for the museum itself:

It has great objects as always. In fact, I don't think the exhibit cases have been altered since the last time I was here, eight years ago. I'm used to museums in northern Spain, which are heavy on the multi-media presentations and grabbing the attention of the viewer. Not so much in Madrid. It's particularly bad on the lower level, where many of the displays look like they haven't been changed in the last 25 years. Upstairs, in the Iron Age - Medieval rooms, there are many new signs and placards, and some attempt to inject color and liveliness into the museum. Still, given what they have, I would expect more. I guess they don't worry too much about bringing in money from visitors, like a lot of modern museums. That has both advantages and drawbacks.

In addition, every guide book I have seen says that the museum has a reconstruction of the cave paintings at Altamira in the basement. I have been there twice now, and it must be very, very well hidden, as I swear there is no such thing inside.

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Monday, June 4, 2007

Days 1 & 2: Madrid

Okay, that nasty little surprise is more or less under control. So, let's share some pics, shall we?

Madrid is known for its great museums, less so for its archaeological remains. So most of these pictures will be of things other than ruins. But there will be some, I promise!

I spent most of Sunday morning visiting the Prado, then after a quick nap I saw the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. Both are can't miss attractions. My favorite aritists are the early Renaissance Flemish painters like van der Weyden, but there was lots of Velasquez and Goya too, and even a good helping of American artists including Copley, Cole, Homer, and Sargent.

Then, I discovered that Madrid was having a book fair. Every time I come to Spain I encounter book fairs. There must have been a dozen or so in the eight months I lived in Vitoria. This one, however, was a little bigger than most:
Over 300 stalls, featuring booksellers and publishers from around the country.

Soon after, my attention was distracted by "the second incident." Today I visited the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. They were featuring a conference on the influence of eastern Islamic art and architecture on al-Andalus, the Muslim possessions in Spain. Not my field, but I caught a couple of papers that were very interesting. Tomorrow, I will return to begin research in earnest.

The rest of the day I spent taking in the sights and roaming the streets. I visited the Parque de la Montaña, a large garden terrace on the east side of the central city. It's one of the few places in Madrid (which is pretty flat, unlike, say, Barcelona), where one can find a scenic overlook:

That's a view of the royal palace. Pretty impressive, what? That's just the half of it. Here's what we have in the opposite direction:

That's right, that's an honest-to-goodness Egyptian temple, the Temple of Debod, originally dedicated to Isis and then relocated to Spain as a thank-you gift from the Egyptian government for Spain's help in relocating the temple at Abu Simbel. 'Twas closed today like all museums, but I'll be back to take a peak at the museum inside.

I also took the opportunity to increase my collection of photographs of statues of obscure Visigothic kings:

This is one of a series covering all of Spanish history from Athaulf (successor of Alaric) to the 19th century. They were originally supposed to decorate the roof of the palace but the queen worried about their weight so they were used to decorate the royal gardens instead.

Finally, some humor. I am always fascinated by the way that Europeans in general, and the Spanish in particular, find the American midwest so intriguing. I am from Nebraska, and I can say we are generally ignored by most Americans. Not so in Madrid. Would you believe a Nebraska restaurant?

Would you believe two?

How about three?

(Alright, the last two are part of a chain, I think. Still.....)

Finally, a bit of Spanglish:

I don't mind if my cream is nice, but I like my coffee surly, thank you.

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Sunday, June 3, 2007

¡Un qué disastre!

Well, I had intended to spend this evening posting some pics of my first day in Madrid. Instead, I was robbed by a very adept pickpocket this evening (for those keeping track, this is the second time in the last year that I was robbed on my first or second day in Spain). So I have spent the last four hours filing police reports and calling banks. Right now, everything seems to be in reasonable shape and I should be able to complete my trip (with perhaps a few changes) as planned. Pics will have to wait until tomorrow.

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Saturday, June 2, 2007

Liveblogging Spain

Today I am off to Spain to conduct research for my book, look up some sources for a couple of articles I am working on, and explore some possibilities for fieldwork next year.

I will be wired up -- laptop, digital camera and, I am led to believe, wi-fi connections. So I plan to post pics and news of my travels here as they happen. (Well, more or less). So stay tuned for lots of pretty pictures!

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Picket Wire Canyonlands Threatened

Ft. Carson, Colorado, is located in a landscape of breathtaking natural beauty. Picket Wire Canyon, part of the Comanche National Grassland, sits adjacent to the fort's Pinon Canyon testing range. The Canyon gets its name from the river, which is a corruption of the French Purgatoire, which in turn comes from the Spanish Río Purgatorio. Now the fort wants to extend the firing range into the Picket Wire Canyonlands. This move has gained publicity in part because the area contains the largest dinosaur track site on the continent. However, there are also archaeological sites at risk, including a late 19th century Mexican Dolores Mission, the ruins of a ranch that was continuously occupied from 1874 to 1974, and Native American petroglyphs. Currently, community activists are attempting to gain public attention in an attempt to block the expansion. If anyone reading this is from Colorado, I'd like to hear your view on this debate.

Pictures of the dinosaur tracks and some of the archaeological remains can be found here.

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ham Handed

Some of you may have heard about the new creationist museum that just opened to great fanfare in Kentucky, built by Ken Ham, a young Earth creationist and general anti-science nut. And while his targets tend to be evolutionists, geologists, and cosmologists, the belief that the earth is only 6000 years old completely contradicts what we know of prehistoric archaeology as well, and the displays of humans riding dinosaurs like ponies about sums up the value of the creationist viewpoint. ClioAudio has a good post about creationism, archaeology, and the argument from design.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Carnivalesque #27

A bit late, here, but Aardvarchaeology is hosting this week the latest installment of this roundtable of links and articles on stuff ancient and medieval. Of note is an attempt to put the Antonine Wall in Britain on the World Heritage list.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Three Stories, One Connection

Three apparently unrelated stories have appeared over the last few days. Although apparently unrelated, they add up to a picture of the problems facing our archaeological heritage, and the difficult task government, private organizations, archaeologists and the general public have in safeguarding that resource.

The first story received the most attention. A treasure-hunting company named Odyssey Marine Exploration found a shipwreck with over 17 tons of gold coins and silver. The vessel had been sunk approximately 400 years ago. The identity of the vessel (if known), and its location are being tightly guarded. The laws regarding naval salvage are complex and I don't pretend to know the details, but if the wreck were in international waters, there is pretty much no regulation of treasure hunters. Naturally, the press are interested in this not for any historical value, but because of the size of the treasure. Finding the wreck is treated much as winning the lottery.

The two other stories, however, show the shadowy side of the desire to mine the past for profit. Vicksburg military park was vandalized by treasure hunters, who dug holes looking for artifacts, presumably with the aid of metal detectors. The park rangers note that this is not an uncommon event, and that many people come to the park to look for souvenirs, in the process damaging the park (such as the Texas Monument, harmed by this latest spree) and eliminating our ability to find out more about the battle by charting the distribution of musket balls, for example.

The third story comes from Denmark, where border control police seized some 4000 artifacts which had been smuggled out of Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, instability, the lack of a strong central authority, and economic problems combine to make looting both easy and lucrative. Sadly, the people who dig up artifacts for sale on the black market don't even get most of the profit -- instead, middle-men and dealers reap the windfall, laundering artifacts in places like Switzerland. The artifacts will be returned to the National Museum in Kabul. From there, it is not unlikely that they will be stolen again, due to lack of funding for security (or, as under the Taliban, stolen with government complicity). Protecting archaeology in places like Afghanistan is like trying to plug a dyke with a million holes in it. The problem is of such a magnitude that any solution seems hopeless.

Needless to say, the people trying to stop occurences like those reported in the last two stories are not helped by the first, which makes digging for treasure sound like an easy and fun way to get rich. Treasure-hunting companies generally put out PR saying that they take due care with the archaeological context and that their work brings to light things that would otherwise be undiscovered. However, even if that were true, it doesn't change fact that stories like that above make the past sound like something to be exploited for private gain, rather than for the benefit of everyone.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Herod the Great's Tomb Discovered?

[Updated Wednesday, May 9 below]

Hey, folks, grading is finally finished! Whooo!! Sorry for so few posts recently. Between a wedding last week and grading this week, I haven't had a lot of free time to post. I promise to make it up to you.

The big news today is a report that archaeologists in Israel have uncovered the tomb of Herod the Great, who ruled the area during the late 1st c. BC and who figures prominently in the New Testament, among other things. The strange thing is, we've known all along where he was buried. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells us:

After this, they betook themselves to prepare for the king's funeral; and Archelaus omitted nothing of magnificence therein, but brought out all the royal ornaments to augment the pomp of the deceased. There was a bier all of gold, embroidered with precious stones, and a purple bed of various contexture, with the dead body upon it, covered with purple; and a diadem was put upon his head, and a crown of gold above it, and a scepter in his right hand; and near to the bier were Herod's sons, and a multitude of his kindred; next to which came his guards, and the regiment of Thracians, the Germans. also and Gauls, all accounted as if they were going to war; but the rest of the army went foremost, armed, and following their captains and officers in a regular manner; after whom five hundred of his domestic servants and freed-men followed, with sweet spices in their hands: and the body was carried two hundred furlongs, to Herodium, where he had given order to be buried. And this shall suffice for the conclusion of the life of Herod.

Herodium, located just SE of Bethlehem, was one of several lavish palace complexes built by Herod during his reign. Masada and Caesarea Maritima are two others. Herodium was a sort of fortress-palace, like Masada, centered on a large circular structure on a prominent hill. A large circumference wall and four towers provided security. Within were well-appointed royal apartments. There were also gardens, pools and pavilions surrounding the central complex. Some 75 years after Herod's death, the palace was occupied by rebels during the Jewish revolt, and they made some small modifications to the interior layout. The site was eventually captured by Roman soldiers without much fuss after the fall of Jerusalem.

The site has been the subject of excavations for decades, and the palace itself is a relatively small, well-defined space, so it is interesting that the tomb waited so long to be discovered. Unfortunately, the early reports say little about where the tomb was located within the palace. Apparently fragments of the sarcophagus were preserved, but there is no report of the kind of grave goods listed by Josephus. Considering the number of people tramping around the site after Herod's death, this wouldn't be surprising.

(Weird stuff: I found this link to an apparent report of the discovery of the tomb dated March 17, 2005. Later in the post the author then says "The reader might be a little disappointed to learn that the above report is fictitious." Strange. Note that this is the first Google result for "Herod's Tomb," and given the amount of detail in this bogus report, I wouldn't be surprised if it leaked into reports of the recent, authentic discovery).

[Update: Yahoo news has a slideshow showing some of the new discoveries here. The interesting images are towards the middle. The first thing I notice is that Herod's tomb is located at the margins of the fortress of Herodium; this likely explains why it wasn't discovered before. Also, the sarcophagus of Herod is very fragmentary, so it seems unlikely that much if anything remains of the objects placed in the tomb with the deceased.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

New Fieldwork Site

Britain's popular archaeology magazine, Current Archaeology, has started a new site devoted to fieldwork opportunities in the United Kingdom and abroad. Called I Love the Past, it's a resource to keep an eye on, although it has a way to go to equal the AIA's Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin. Still, for those wishing to visit the UK, it looks like a good starting point.

I recommend volunteering for an excavation for anyone interested in archaeology. It's fun, you usually don't need any special experience, and it gets you out in the open air. If finding money for travel presents a problem, you should be able to find a local excavation looking for help.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

2000-year-old Chariot Discovered Intact

News has been filtering out of Bulgaria since this weekend about a discovery of an intact chariot of the 2nd century B.C. in a tomb in Bulgaria. (Some reports say the chariot dates to the 2nd millenium B.C., but this appears to be in error). The ancient land of Thrace comprised much of what is today Bulgaria, northeastern Greece and European Turkey, but much about their culture is unknown, due largely to the dearth of written records. Many spectacular tombs have been discovered in Bulgaria in recent decades (the pic in the header is one such, of the 4th c. BC), of which this is only the latest. Although the wooden parts of the chariot had rotted away, its shape could be reconstructed based upon the iron fittings used in its construction. It apparently was pulled by three horses, had two wheels and a bronze roof, and the passenger rode in an iron seat.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Back Online!

My internet service has been restored, and there was much rejoicing.

I'll be posting some chunkier tidbits a bit later, but for now I'll tide you over with this classic column from the Straight Dope.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Technical Difficulties

My apologies for the lack of posts the last couple of days. My cable went out at home, and so I have no internet. Work has been very busy which has limited my ability to post. Once this is all straightened out I have a bunch of material ready to go. Soon!

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

More Bad Archaeology Reporting

This is a bit old, but I intended to make a brief comment on it as an example of how not to make archaeological findings accessible to the public. Discovery News posted an article on a recent British survey of caves in northern Britain. One of the results of the survey was that ancient humans did not randomly select caves to dwell in, but favored those with large entrances and deep passages, eastern or western aspects, and level areas in front.

So far, so good. Not terribly surprising perhaps, but there are differences in cave selectivity depending on region and the purposes for which the cave was used. I suspect the main goal of the project was simply to survey caves for evidence of occupation and then catalog them. The problem lies in the introductory 'grabber' paragraph:

House buyers today usually peruse properties with a checklist of desired features in mind. This aspect of human behavior has apparently not changed much over the millennia, according to a new study that found prehistoric cave dwellers in Britain did exactly the same thing when choosing their homes.

The study found no such thing. A 'checklist'? A checklist implies writing, which of course these prehistoric people did not have. We can say that they preferentially settled certain kinds of caves, but this says nothing about the selection process. For all we know, the local shaman took the omens and declared a particular cave propitious for settlement. I understand that the reporter was trying to phrase the findings in a way a layman would understand, but this was the wrong way to go about it.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Terrorist Targets, Tehran Try Tablet Tussle

The American Bar Association has posted a summary of a legal case currently making its way through the justice system, which presents many interesting aspects. In brief, here are the facts: Several Americans were among those injured in a series of terrorist bombings carried out by Hamas in 1997. They took Iran, as one of the backers of Hamas, to federal court. The Iranians didn't show up. Upon presenting their evidence for Iranian support for Hamas, the court ruled in their favor. They were awarded $423 million and change, $300 million of which were punitive damages. That's where things get interesting.

Given that Iran didn't even bother to send anyone to present its case, it's no surprise that they have no intention of paying the award. Collecting is a bit difficult when the United States doesn't even have diplomatic relations with the other country. In theory, the plaintiffs can petition the court to seize Iranian assets in the U.S., but there are precious little of those left. Most of what remains, such as the old Iranian embassy, is immune from seizure by international law.

But the plaintiffs have found some objects in the U.S. that may be accessible. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (which has a very nice museum, by the way, I recommend a visit) has possession of 15,000 clay tablets recovered in 1923 from the ancient Persian capital at Persepolis, in Iran. The tablets were taken to the U.S. for conservation and study, but with the intention of eventually returning them to Iran. A number of the tablets have already been returned in past years. The plaintiffs are now trying to gain possession of these artifacts. The University of Chicago has argued in court that the tablets are immune from seizure under the Foreign Sovereignty Immunity Act. The plaintiffs, on their part, claim the tablets fall under an exemption in the FSIA regarding property "used for a commercial activity." They argued that the Oriental Institute has used the tablets in commercial activities (I don't have the details, but presumably the argument is that by publicizing the tablets, the Institute has benefitted financially from them).

The district court found against the Institute, saying that only Iran itself could assert sovereign immunity. At that point, Iran finally showed up in court. The district court recently rejected their motion for summary judgment, so now we're waiting for the plaintiffs to prepare their case that the tablets have been used in commercial activity.

The possible effects of a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs are wide-ranging. The tablets would presumably be sold off on the open market, breaking up the collection and limiting scholarly access to them. Furthermore, the plaintiffs have already targeted other tablet collections, and presumably other kinds of artwork held by public institutions, might be targeted particularly items on long-term loan. Exchanges of art or other objects between the U.S. and other countries may become more difficult if those countries come to worry that they may lose possession of those objects due to actions by U.S. courts. This is something to keep an eye on.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Interpreting DNA Evidence

Last week, I posted a link to a NYT article that discussed recent DNA studies of people and cattle in Italy. These studies found genetic similarities between current populations of both species in Italy and those in various regions of the Near East. This link was then interpreted as evidence that the ancient people known as the Etruscans arrived in Italy from the Near East (either directly or indirectly) sometime in the last three or four thousand years.

John Hawkes' has a post on his anthropology blog that examines another such attempt to use DNA evidence to reconstruct ancient migrations, this one published in Science. The results have been controversial, which has led to much scholarly back-and-forth. I thought this would be a salutary example of the dangers of overinterpreting DNA evidence. So what's the controversy?

For those wanting more detail, Hawkes ably sums up the issues involved, but in brief the evidence is this: DNA testing of people from North Africa found that they possess specific variations in their mitochondrial DNA similar to people living in the Near East. Based on the differences between these lineages and other mitochondrial DNA, we can estimate the time at which these groups branched off from their neighbors. In this case, the answer is about 45,000 years ago. The authors argue that this indicates that there was a migration into North Africa from the Levant around that time, displacing the earlier people that lived there. The date corresponds to the first peopling of Europe, and the authors suggest that both movements were part of the same pattern of migration.

Not so fast, say two other scholars. There are other ways for genes to move around. A later movement of peoples might have brought over these lineages. Or there might have been gradual diffusion of genes (via a series of short-distance interactions) instead of large-scale population movements. The archaeological evidence suggests that there was no large scale migration from Europe or the Near East into North Africa until much more recently, around 5000 BC.

For now, the evidence is insufficient to decide between the alternatives: 40,000 year-old mass migration? Slow diffusion? Recent mass migration? These are precisely the same problems that come into play in the Italian studies. Just because you share a common ancestry with someone 5000 years ago in the Near East doesn't mean that a bunch of people came over from the Near East at precisely that moment. There are lots of ways that genetic material can circulate.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Famous Fictional Archaeologists: Daniel Jackson

Born: July 8, 1965
Education: University of Chicago
Specialty: Egyptology, alien artifacts
Likes: Abydos, Sha-Re
Dislikes: violence, getting killed

Although ostensibly an Egyptologist, Daniel Jackson exhibits a strong case of Omniscient Archaeologist Syndrome. We find that he is fluent in 23 languages (including Spanish, Russian, Mandarin and German) and can almost instantly grasp texts written in most obscure alien dialects. His most famous decoding involved the symbols on the Stargate itself, which allowed its use as an interstellar portal.

We first see Daniel Jackson at a lecture in a large lecture hall (presumably in New York or Chicago), attempting to convince a group of stuffy archaeologists that the pyramids were not built by the Egyptians, but are much older. It is interesting that in the snippet of lecture we hear, Jackson provides not a shred of evidence for this contention. On the other hand, a fuddy-duddy archaeologist stands to ridicule Jackson for this belief. The argument he uses, it might interest the reader, is perfectly legitimate, in that the pyramid contains an inscription with Khufu's name (discovered by Sir Flinders Petrie in 1883, but only confirmed in 2001). It is not clear what response Jackson would make to this, as his lecture dissolves in the midst of his reply. Sure enough, his theories are verified by the discovery of the Stargate. However, I feel sympathy for his well-meaning interlocutor.

Jackson's interest in Egyptology derived from his parents, who worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In a tragic accident, both died while installing a new exhibit when they were crushed by a large stone sculpture. Haunted by the event, Daniel briefly considered becoming an Egyptology-themed super hero ("The Mummy") before enrolling in the University of Chicago and following a more conventional academic career.

Hint for young archaeologists: hone up on your marksmanship and spacecraft piloting skills. You never know when you might be scooped up by a super-secret Air Force program combining archaeology and travel to different planets.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Death of Archaeology

Last night I attended a lecture by Christopher Roosevelt of Boston University. The topic was the destruction of archaeological sites in Turkey. As an archaeologist, I am well aware of the ongoing destruction of the planet's cultural heritage. However, rarely is one confronted by the nitty-gritty details, and the results are depressing.

Professor Roosevelt has been cataloguing burial mounds, known as tumuli, in an area of western Turkey that between the 8th and 6th centuries BC formed part of the Kingdom of Lydia. Wealthy members of the aristocracy would be buried in stone tomb chambers that would be covered with large mounds of earth. These would stand as monuments to both the deceased and their descendants, and were designed to be visible in the landscape. Unfortunately, such visibility has attracted thieves, both in antiquity and today. Not one intact Lydian tomb has ever been scientifically excavated.

Whatever the ravages these tombs suffered over the previous 2500 years is nothing compared to what they have undergone in the last few decades. Roosevelt was able to locate about 650 tombs. Of these, 80-90% show signs of recent illicit excavation. Furthermore, many tumuli known from earlier studies are no longer extant -- these amout to around 15% of the total. Many of these have been leveled using bulldozers or other earth-moving equipment by people in search of treasure. Treasure-hunting in Turkey is quite an industry, even if illegal. There are even web sites that glamorize the activity and provide tips on how to conduct an dig for gold. Needless to say, preserving archaeological contexts are not among the suggestions.

Much of the material gets smuggled to countries such as the U.S., France, and Japan via middlemen, often operating in Switzerland. The U.S. in particular has fairly weak importing restrictions. If a source country can prove material was taken illegally out of the country, sometimes they can get it returned, as with the so-called "Lydian Hoard," which the Met returned to Turkey a few years back. However, the material comes divorced from its archaeological context, and it isn't necessarily safe even when returned, as small museums regularly experience theft in countries such as Turkey.

It would be wrong, however, to think that this is a problem restricted only to developing or "Third World" countries. Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States all are suffering from looting to a greater or lesser extent. Even the lower-end estimates are disturbing to read. Moreover, the demand for antiquities in the West, Japan, and even emerging economies such as China, are driving the trade. It's like the drug trade, except that the results are permanent depletion of a resource that's limited enough to begin with.

Sorry to end on a sad note, but this is a problem without an easy solution. The political will and money are simply lacking to deal with something on this scale. It's up to archaeologists to try and raise public consciousness before it's all gone, forever.

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Ancient Acoustics

Researchers at Georgia Tech have announced that they have been able to determine what makes the acoustics at the Greek theater of Epidauros, one of the best-preserved from the ancient world, so good. They conducted experiments in which they determined that the pattern of seats in the theater effectively filters out low-frequency background noise, such as crowd murmur, leaving higher-frequency sounds such as the voices of the actors in the orchestra, or circular stage of the theater. They suspect that the actors would have been comprehensible even without the lower-frequency tones because of the ability of the human brain to reconstruct missing tones in human speech.

They also hypothesize that the results were serendipitous, and the Greeks did not understand why the acoustics at Epidauros were so good. At least, no extant theater produces such good effects. On the other hand, no theater is nearly as well-preserved, though some have been reconstructed.

My only question with the piece is if they did experiments or modelling to determine what the effect of a packed theater would be on the acoustics. Would the sound waves react off the seats in the same way if they were filled with people?

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Famous Fictional Archaeologists: Evelyn Carnahan

Born: December 16, 1905
Education: Unknown
Specialty: Egyptology
Likes: Books, hieroglyphics
Dislikes: Baimbridge Scholars, Imhotep

Evelyn Carnahan is the closest thing to a real archaeologist we have encountered so far. Her early career is unknown, but she ends up employed as a librarian by the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. There we discover she has been rejected by the Baimbridge Scholars due to lack of field experience. For once, we have an archaeologist with a clear area of specialization.

The question of field experience is an interesting one. There are some similarities between Evelyn and the real archaeologist Harriet Boyd Hawes, although Boyd belonged to an earlier generation. The young Harriet Boyd became interested in ancient Greece, and graduated from Smith College with a degree in Classics. She entered graduate work at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens in 1896 as its first female student. As was the rule, her male colleages went off after completing their studies to participate in various digs in Greece, but Harriet was told that that was inappropriate work for a woman, and that she should choose a more "academic" research topic, requiring only library work. She ended up ignoring her professors' advice and taking her fellowship and going to Crete, then an independent country, where there were fewer rules about who could and could not perform fieldwork. In the first decade of this century she, along with her friend Edith Hall Dohan, who had encountered similar prejudice supervised a series of important excavations on this island, whose publication was, and continues to be, of seminal importance in Greek archaeology.

A closer contemporary would be Dame Kathleen Kenyon, born in 1906. Kenyon became the first female president of the Oxford Archaeological Society. Her most significant work was done in Palestine, at Samaria, Jerusalem, and Jericho, where her work laid out the prehistory of the region for the first time.

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