Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Mite Unusual

Whether you are a great emperor, or even just an ordinary Joan, all of us hope that our accomplishments will survive somehow across the generations into the distant future. At the least, perhaps archaeologists to come will discover our bones or our discarded trash and learn something about us. However, when you are identified not by your great works, or your physical remains, but by the tiny animals living in the dung of your domesticated livestock, well, let's just say that takes my feelings of self-importance down a notch or two.

Archaeologists working on samples from the bottom of the now silted up Lake Marcacocha, near Cuzco, Peru, have discovered the remains of tiny fossilized mites, like the one pictured above. These mites typically live on the dung of large herbivores, such as llamas. Furthermore, you can date the mites by how far down they are in the sediment. It turns out that there is a huge peak in the number of mites right after the founding of the Inca empire. This can be correlated with the growth of llama caravan routes radiating out from Cuzco to peripheral regions of the empire. After the Spanish conquest, trade collapsed, partly due to warfare and partly due to animal diseases brought by the Europeans that decimated the llama herds, and the mite population fell in tandem. By the 17th century, the number of mites increases again as the Spanish replace the native animals with horses and cattle.

There you go. The rise and fall of a great empire, written in the skeletons of tiny mites.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Famous Fictional Archaeologists: Jean-Luc Picard

Born: July 13, 2305
Education: Starfleet Academy
Specialty: The Kurlan civilization, just about everything else?
Likes: Earl Grey Tea, Beverly Crusher
Dislikes: The Borg, children

Picard became interested in archaeology during his years at Starfleet Academy, where he learned the subject under Professor Richard Galen.

Although talented, he decided to remain in Starfleet instead of pursuing a scholarly career. His skill is shown by his ability to precisely date a Kurlan naiskos thirty years after his schoolwork. Also, while archaeologists of our day struggle to master the archaeological record from one small part of our planet, Picard has ready familiarity with the archaeology of multiple worlds, such as Risa, where he was able to discover the Tox Uthat, a legendary weapon sought for millennia, after a few hours digging around an old cave with a single assistant
and two shovels (granted, he had the notes of another archaologist to work with). Even as a starship captain, he is the keynote speaker to the Federation Archaeology Council (hosted on his ship, no less!) concerning the planet Tagus III. Truly, he puts archaeologists of the past to shame. I haven't even reached the rank of Lieutenant yet.

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Anybody Lose a Kingdom?

The history books tell of a kingdom in central Ethiopia, in the region around the modern capital, Addis Abbaba, named Shoa (or Shewa). It was Muslim, in contrast to the Christian religion of the neighboring Zagwe Dynasty ruling Axum. Shoa existed possibly as early as the 9th century AD, and was absorbed by a neighboring state in the 13th century. Until recently, there was little evidence of its existence. Now, archaeologists have announced that they have found the remains of three towns, including well-preserved mosques and cemeteries, in the area, which they believe date to this murky period.

I know virtually nothing about the archaeology of this part of the world, but find it fascinating that so much remains to be discovered.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Persians

As promised last week, here is the second installment of my discussion of the two peoples involved in the movie 300. Today, it's the Persians.

In the writings of 18th and 19th century historians, the ancient Persians were the poster boys for the idea of Oriental Despotism. According to this world view, which still rears its head from time to time, Asiatic civilizations are characteristically authoritarian, scornful of individual liberty, sycophantic, decadent, and lacking in innovation. Their accomplishments are achieved via brute force or sheer numbers rather than ingenuity. The Persians in 300 display all of these features. The truth, however, is rather different.

The Persian homeland of Iran was one of the earliest cradles of civilization. Agriculture may have first developed in the Zagros mountains of western Iran more than 11,000 years ago. In southwestern Iran, the land of Elam developed cities in parallel with the better-known states in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). The Persians themselves were highland farmers and herders, who were also highly-trained horsemen. The various Persian groups were united in the middle of the 6th century B.C. by a man named Kurush, known to the Greeks and us as Cyrus. Cyrus' first accomplishment was the conquest of Media, a kingdom based in northern Iran. The Greek historian Herodotus has an account of the conquest that shows that by his day it had already become shrouded in semi-legend. The Medes had participated in the destruction of the Assyrian kingdom 60 years earlier and had a very similar lifestyle to the Persians, such that outsiders, such as the Greeks and Hebrews, had difficulty telling them apart, and both names were used almost synonymously.

After uniting with the Medes, the Persians had a powerful army. Their first target was Asia Minor, modern Turkey, which was conquered in 547 BC. The Babylonian and Egyptian kingdoms followed. The Persians were very skilled at warfare, particularly siegecraft, which is often a weak spot of cavalry-based armies. Large siege mounds, such as that preserved at Paphos on Cyprus, would allow Persian armies to go over enemy walls. Alternately, as at Babylon, rivers or canals were diverted to allow the Persians to go under them. We tend to take the viewpoint of the Greeks, for whom the Persian Wars were a defining moment, but except for the two campaigns, the Persians weren't very interested in Greece; Cyrus himself died fighting to extend the empire into Central Asia, and northwestern India would be one of Persia's most profitable provinces. This first Persian empire is known as the Achaemenid Empire, after a supposed ancestor of Cyrus and the later usurper, Darius I, named Achaemenes (Persian Haxamanis).

The Persians developed a reputation as relatively benign rulers. The Empire was largely decentralized, divided into several provinces, or satrapies as they are known in Persian, ruled by governors, or satraps, who were often selected from the local nobility. Local religion and culture was tolerated -- if you paid obeisance and tribute, the Persians generally left you alone. It is no coincidence that the only foreign conquerors who are given favorable treatment in the Bible are the Persians. There were serious revolts: the Ionian revolt of 499 BC, which triggered the invasion of Greece, is one prominent example, and the Egyptians rebelled several times. On the whole, however, the empire was fairly prosperous and peaceful.

The Persian empire had a significant impact on later civilizations. Alexander, who conquered the empire, and his successors borrowed much from Persian administration, science and art (such as their formal gardens, or paradeisos, whence our term paradise). In turn they influenced later states such as the Parthians and the later Persian empire, known as the Sassanian Empire. The Shahs of Iran deliberately emphasized the linguistic and cultural debt owed to ancient Persia, something that continues under the revolutionary regime. For Iran to complain about the portrayal of the Persians in 300 may see risible to us. To them, however, Cyrus and Xerxes are as central to their national identity as George Washington and Paul Revere are to us.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

How to Move Very Big Rocks

One of the oldest arguments used by pyramidiots and other woo woo types to prove that the pyramids and other examples of massive stone architecture couldn't have been made by ancient peoples without futuristic technology is the sheer size of the stones used to build them. This is used to 'prove' that Atlanteans or space aliens must have been involved. This is rubbish, of course, and there have been many experiments conducted to show that the effort involved was not beyond the capabilities of early humans.

The above video is one more nail in the coffin. It shows one middle-aged Michigan man, Wally Wallington, moving huge stones by himself using techniques he developed. I was immediately reminded of Edward Leedskalnin, who over a period of 28 years built by himself a series of huge rock sculptures at his estate in Florida, called Coral Castle. As in the case of the pyramids, this feat has led some to claim that he had special technology or psychic abilities, since no one saw him construct the objects.

Contrary to the narrator in the clip, we can't know that the techniques used by Mr. Wallington were used to construct Stonehenge. It seems likely that a variety of approaches were used (note that one of his demonstrations requires a handy concrete slab under the block). Nevertheless, as an example of what can be achieved with human ingenuity, it is amazing.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

World's Oldest Perfumes Found on Cyprus

There are two stories today about a discovery of a Middle Bronze Age perfume factory by Italian archaeologists at Pyrgos, Cyprus, dating to c. 1850 BC. The finds include mixing bowls and small alabaster bottles that held the perfume. Natural herbs such as lavender, pine and rosemary (but not, so far, parsely, sage or thyme) were used for the fragrances. The scholars have attempted to recreate the perfumes using recipes written down by Roman authors. One of my professors, William Biers, got a grant from a major perfume manufacturer to do analyses of the contents of ancient perfume vessels in the hopes, I guess, of finding Cleopatra's perfume or something. Like most such investigations, one can detect certain ingredients, but not the proportions nor the method of preparation. It seems doubtful that ancient perfumes would appeal to modern shoppers anyway.

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Famous Fictional Archaeologists: Indiana Jones

Born: July 1, 1899
Education: Princeton, the Sorbonne, University of Chicago
Specialty: ?? (see below)
Likes: Obtaining artifacts from bad guys
Dislikes: Snakes

Indiana Jones is the king of fictional archaeologists. No other archaeologist, real or imagined, is as well-known and popular. And with a fourth movie in the works (due for release in 2008), he continues to epitomize archaeology in popular culture.

Indiana Jones is featured in three movies and the TV series Young Indiana Jones (of which, I admit, I have seen only one or two episodes). Jones is an archaeologist in the romantic vein. Far from spending his time in the classroom or conducting methodical excavations, most of his time is spent travelling around the world alone in pursuit of artifacts. Objects are sought for their intrinsic value, not their cultural context (forget the South American gold head, give me a look at that temple!). He also inhabits a parallel universe where Nazis have secret bases in British Egypt in 1937.

Like most fictional archaeologists, Jones' specialty is left unspoken, and he is granted facility with material from all cultures and places. This extends to his fluency in 27 languages. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, he is shown teaching a class in prehistoric European archaeology, but given that the subject is never mentioned in the movies or (I gather) the TV series, can only be considered a side interest.

Indiana Jones has done wonders for the popularity of archaeology and the sales of rumpled fedoras. He is a perfect example of the disjunction in the public conception of archaeologists, who tend to be depicted as either romantic adventurers or museum-bound bores. Still, given the low profile of archaeology in the U.S., any publicity is good publicity. Right?

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ancient grapes found in Greece

Part of the purpose of this site is to present regular summaries of archaeology news. Today, there is an interesting story from The Discovery Channel website. A team of archaeologists working in northern Greece at a site called Dikili Tash have found the remains of grape seeds and crushed grapes in one of the houses there. The site dates to the Neolithic period, around 4500 B.C. It's not clear whether the grapes were being gathered to make wine or simply used for their juice. Probably the former, as wine was being made in Iran a millenium earlier. The grapes were either picked from wild vines or were in the earliest stages of domestication. It's possible that the cultivation of the grape was motivated specifically by the desire for greater alcohol production. Some scholars think wheat may have been first cultivated in order to make beer, not bread, although there is really no evidence for this.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Movie Review: 300

I just saw 300 yesterday, so it seemed a good subject to launch this blog with. I didn't go into the movie with great expectations, but still found the movie disappointing. And I don't mean the more than vaguely bigoted undertones. Don't get me wrong; I don't judge historical epics simply by how close they stick to the texts. However, I don't get the point of altering history beyond all recognizability. Some say that the public doesn't care about accuracy. My response is: if history doesn't matter, instead of making a movie about the stand of 300 Spartans against the Persian king Xerxes, why not make it about the stand of 300 Phlebaeans against the Emperor Orazand? Because the fact that it really happened is an irresistible hook. Humans are the only animal we know of that has an interest in the past. For that very reason, the past shouldn't be trifled with.

My biggest disappointment was that there is a good movie to be made about the Spartans, or about the Persians. These are two genuinely fascinating cultures. Unfortunately, the movie whitewashes the one (no pun intended), and stereotypes the other. Rather than nit-pick the historical errors in the movie, therefore, I will take the opportunity to say something about these two peoples. I will discuss the Spartans today, the Persians will get space later in the week.

Another name for Sparta is "Lacedaemon," which is why they bore the Greek letter lambda on their shields (poorly rendered in the movie). The Spartan state controlled much of southern Greece, known as the Peloponnesus. In particular, it encompassed two regions: Laconia, in the SE, and Messenia, in the SW. Laconia was the heart of the Spartan kingdom, and gives us the word "laconic," referring originally to the short, dry speech of the Spartans. In the SW was the land of Messenia, which was conquered by Sparta in the 7th century B.C. and remained under their thumb until the 4th century B.C.

Sparta was governed by a traditional government that was supposedly laid out by the semi-mythical lawgiver Lycurgus. Although later generations claimed that the system was laid out all at one time (part of which was enshrined in the oral constitution known as the "Great Rhetra"), we now think that, like most constitutions, it grew gradually over time.

Like most Greek city states, Sparta had a series of different offices. Unlike most later Greek cities, Sparta maintained a system of kingship into the Classical period. Unusually, Sparta had two kings, and two royal families, a system not without parallel in other societies. Spartan kings did not hold absolute power, however. There was also an assembly, which elected five annual magistrates known as ephors. Although the kings commanded the army in war, the ephors had considerable political authority, and in at least one case commanded a king to divorce his wife and marry another in order to produce heirs. The ephors also led the gerousia, an elected body of 28 elders all over 60. Between them, the kings, ephors and the gerousia held most of the political power in Sparta.

Spartan society was rigidly regimented. At the top were the Spartiates, full citizens, men who at the age of seven were taken from their families and raised in age groups in a process known as the agoge until they were 20. During this time they trained in warfare and dined in communal messes called sussitia, which they continued to attend after they reached adulthood. The Spartiates formed only a small fraction of Spartan society. At the time of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) there were about five or six thousand. Like many small groups that marry only among themselves with no influx of new blood their numbers dwindled over time. By the Battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.), there were only 1500. More numerous were the perioikoi (dwellers round-about). These were free men living in Laconia and Messenia but who did not have the rights of Spartan citizens nor did they participate in the agoge. They generally served as light support troops in the Spartan army. Most of the population however were serfs or slaves known as helots. Many of these were descended from Messenians who had been enslaved when Messenia was conquered by Sparta. They formed 80% or more of the population. Naturally, the Spartiates were terrified at the prospect of a helot revolt, and their fanatical militarism must be seen in part as a response to this threat. Even the Spartans had to unbend eventually in the face of demographic reality, however, and on a few occasions helots were freed in exchange for military service, although afterwards they were even more distrusted than before.

Sparta is perhaps the closest ancient equivalent to a fascistic state. In subsequent centuries, reactionaries and militarists have held it up as a model of discipline and self-abnegation (Sparta was famously so uninterested in commerce that they continued to use iron spits as currency until the Peloponnesian War). For a liberal democracy, however, Sparta would seem to have little to offer.

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This blog is my response to the relative lack of blogs dealing with archaeology. Public interest in archaeology is always high, but this also means there is a lot of bad information out there. The title of this blog is an homage to Bad Astronomy (link on the right), which has been one of my inspirations.

My own background lies in Classics, so most of the topics I deal will will involve Greece or Rome. I am large, however, and contain multitudes, so I will also hold forth on any other archaeological topic that piques my interest.

I'm glad to have you aboard. Enjoy!

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