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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