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.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
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.
Monday, May 21, 2007
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.
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
[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.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
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.