Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ghost Towns

On the road looking for apartments, so not much time for an update, but I wanted to call people's attention to this site, which lists the "10 Most Amazing Ghost Towns." It's interesting as an example of the many ways in which settlements become abandoned, and the various post-occupational lives they may experience. Many of the processes seen in the pictures are paralleled in excavations of ancient places. Archaeological deposits being created as we speak!

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Capitoline Wolf a Creation of the Middle Ages?

Major changes are in store for me in the near future, which is why updates were absent last week. Moreover, writing posts ahead of time only works if I remember to bring them to work with me. At any rate. blogging will continue as planned with some irregularity likely over the next couple of weeks as I relocate.

Fairly big news has been reported by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica and by the BBC (latter in English). The famed “Capitoline Wolf”, pictured above, has been carbon-dated and shown to date to the Middle Ages, and not circa 500 BC as is previously thought. None of the articles give much detail about the precise technique used, and I haven’t seen the paper, so I cannot elaborate. One doesn’t normally associate C14 dating with bronze but I assume that there were carbon impurities in the alloy which allowed the procedure to be performed.

The wolf is considered a symbol of the city of Rome, as according to myth a she-wolf suckled the twins Romulus and Remus after they were exposed by their father. The wolf was an important symbol to the early Romans, as she appears on Republican coins and according to ancient authors there was a famous bronze statue of the wolf and twins in the city.

The statue in question has long been thought to be that wolf, although the figures of the children were added in the Renaissance. It appears as an example of Etruscan metalwork and sculpture in all the textbooks. If the finding of the Italian scholars hold up, however, those texts will have to be changed.

Doubt was first cast on the statue’s date in 2006, when an Italian scholar published an article arguing that it was produced in a single piece via a wax mold – a technique used on such a large scale only in the Middle Ages. Although the Greeks and Romans knew the lost-wax method, it was mainly used for small figurines, whereas larger statues were cast in pieces then assembled.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Update to Colored Ancient Sculpture

Here is a link to some more of the reconstructions, although the text is in German.

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Monday, July 7, 2008

Royal tombs discovered at Abydos

Via Yahoo! News, a report from Egypt that archaeologists there have discovered a complex of 13 tombs at Abydos dating to the Old Kingdom, although the report says "3000 B.C.," which would place them in the 1st Dynasty, a period sometimes called Early Dynastic and distinguished from the Old Kingdom beginning in the 3rd Dynasty -- just sloppiness or an indication that these are particularly old? The tombs are possibly 'royal' according to the story, which just means possibly tombs of queens or high-ranking court officials and not Pharaohs. I'll post more details as they become available.

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Adding color to the ancient world

(Image copyright Stiftung Archäologie, Munich)

The Smithsonian's website has an interesting article on research by Vinzenz Brinkmann on the use of paint on ancient sculpture. It's been known for a long time that most ancient marble sculpture was painted, although in most cases the paint has disappeared, leaving the familiar white surface. There have been numerous attempts to illustrate what ancient sculpture may have looked like. But while Brinkmann's work is not particularly novel, the article does have some nice reconstructions created by Brinkmann using evidence he has collected, such as traces of paint on the stone. Some of his creations, such as the particolored Amazon archer above, are incorporate substantially more guesswork, but nonetheless are quite plausible. Many of these reconstructions toured last year in the 'Gods in Color' exhibition.

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Friday, July 4, 2008

George Washington's boyhood home uncovered

This has gotten quite a bit of attention, so I thought it deserved a post. Ferry Farm, a plantation outside of Fredericksburg, VA and the site of George Washington's boyhood home, has been discovered by archaeologists. CNN has a lengthy article here with pictures and video. Excavations have been ongoing for three years -- there wasn't any 'aha!' discovery recently that warranted all the attention, but merely the decision to make an official announcement. Slate's Explainer talks about some of the details of excavation and recording, including just what you do with half a million artifacts.

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

A ways to go

Via Pharyngula, a link to the Top 100 Liberal Arts Professor blogs. No surprise Bad Archaeology isn't on the list (not posting for months and not technically being a professor will do that), but not one archaeology, classics or ancient history blog makes the list! They do list squadratomagico, a medieval history blog, and The Cranky Professor has an occasional post on an ancient topic (mainly dealing with Italy), but that's pretty thin gruel.

That's something we are going to have to rectify.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Obama is not Xerxes

I try to avoid general political issues here, since that's not the topic of this blog, but some doofus named Christopher Cook has issued a call to arms against liberals and stinky evil people based on what appears to be too many hours spent watching 300.

Some choice comments:

These Greek city-states are showing the first stirrings of real democratic governance. A much greater percentage of people in Greece enjoy true freedom than in any of the neighboring lands. And it is about to fall under the yoke of a dictatorship.

What happens if Leonides fails? Does the Grecian experiment in democracy fail too, as Greece is trampled under by Xerxes and his army of slaves?

If the Greek cradle of democracy had fallen, Rome would not have absorbed its ideals.

If Rome hadn't taken those ideals and spread them into the Western world, where would those ideals be today? How far along would the ideas of representative governance be?

Without the Roman example, what would Great Britain have become? Would she have produced the Magna Carta? Would she have produced us, or any of the other nations of the Anglosphere—the freest nations in human history?
As I noted in my review here, Sparta is about the last place you would look for the foundations of modern liberal democracy. With a strict hierarchy of classes based on birth, slavery for most of the population, militarism, religious superstition, lack of interest in the outside world, and no scientific achievements to speak of, Sparta was the wart on the backside of Greek civilization. Not to mention that if Xerxes' invasion had succeeded, the effect on Roman political development would have been minimal, since Rome became a Republic in 509 B.C. (or thereabouts; that is the conventional date), nearly 30 years before Thermopylae.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?

An interesting article here from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In short, archaeologists working in Australia are questioning whether reconstructions based on studies of modern aborigines are really applicable to people living on the continent tens of thousands of years ago.

Ethnographic parallels are used all the time in archaeology. Few archaeologists were raised in agrarian or pastoral societies with low technology, so studying traditional societies is a good way to learn about aspects of pre-modern life that we otherwise would remain ignorant of. Anthropological study can also tell us much about the relationships between people and the objects they use that otherwise would be impossible to reconstruct from the archaeological record.

But how reliable is this methodology? Australia would seem to be an ideal case for its application. After all, when Europeans first discovered the continent, the inhabitants were living in a manner that seemed particularly 'primitive,' with no agriculture (with a few exceptions), use of metals, or permanent architecture. They also had a cultural memory that, in their belief, stretched back millennia. On the other hand, human cultures are never really static, nor has the environment of Australia remained unchanged for 40,000+ years. Of course, "change" is a relative term -- particularly given the rapid rate of cultural and technological change in the developed world. I invite any readers to share their thoughts in the comments.

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Monday, June 30, 2008

World O' Links

As part of my ongoing update of the site, I am reviewing and adding to the list of links on the right-hand side of the page. I have added a new category "Site sites" for websites of archaeological projects. I will be adding to this as time permits.

Do you have a favorite website that deals with archaeology or fieldwork? If so, please share!

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Friday, June 27, 2008

World's Oldest Place of Christian Worship?

Bad archaeology rears its head again, this time from Jordan, where researchers claim to have discovered the oldest place of Christian worship. The discovery is of a cave under the Church of St. Georgios in Rihab. (Note that the archaeologists also date St. Georgios to the 3rd century, something not supported by the archaeological evidence, which would place it in the 5th or 6th century AD). The cave apparently contained some stone seats and a water source. From that scanty evidence, and a legend that St. Georgios was founded by 70 disciples of Jesus, the conclusion was drawn that this was a refuge for Christians.

What is apparently lacking, however, are any Christian artifacts or graffiti that would indicate that Christians ever visited the cave. I think this is a case of interpretation getting ahead of the evidence, which unfortunately is more common (or, I should perhaps say, more likely to reach public awareness) in sites with a putative Biblical association.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Movie Review: Mongol

No noon post today because I got home too late to act on my new resolution to write posts ahead of time. I was out late because I was watching Mongol, the first of three movies recounting the life of Genghis Khan.

The movie can be summed up in one word: Magnificent. It was definitely one of the best historical epics of recent years, and much better than fare such as Alexander, Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, and 300. Shot on location in Kazakhstan, the scenery is almost a character by itself, a very beautiful yet alien-looking world that envelops the humans in the story, giving a true sense of endless expanses, without boundaries or permanent settlements.

The movie covers the life of Temudgin (I use the spellings employed by the film; there are a number of ways to transliterate Mongol names), Genghis Khan’s given name, up to the point when he unified the Mongol tribes. The actual unification is not shown in any detail, probably a good thing since it took some 20 years and was a rather tedious affair. Instead, the movie focuses on the relationships that most affected his early years: with his father Esugei, his wife Borte, his blood-brother Jamukha, and his enemy Targutai. The acting is excellent and all of the characters are well rounded and believable. The producers seem to have taken special care to portray the Mongols and their neighbors as real societies, not as stereotypes or cartoon characters. One can easily believe that these are real people operating in a real place, something not all historical movies can claim.

I can’t speak in detail about the movie's adherence to history, as this is not a subject I am expert in. The broad details seemed plausible, although there was an idealized feel to the whole plot, which isn’t surprising since much of what we know about Genghis Khan was passed down via oral tradition. I would compare the overall feel to the Viking sagas, which also have believable characters who act in very human and comprehensible ways, yet move in a society without disease, deformity, filth or fatigue. “Noble” feelings such as bravery, loyalty, cleverness and skill in battle are emphasized and the hero (Temudgin) does not seem to get tired or lose hope. A comparison to the Homeric epics is also appropriate, except that the supernatural is not a main element to the story, apart from a couple sequences illustrating Temudgin’s relationship with the Mongol sky god, Tengri. I don’t think these elements diminish the movie, although they do mean it can’t be treated as a documentary; despite them, the story rings truer than the usual Hollywood fare.

Pedantic note: I only learned relatively recently that I had been pronouncing the English name of Genghis Khan wrong for most of my life. I knew that the Mongolian name was generally transliterated “Chinggis” by modern authors, but for some reason it didn’t register that “Genghis” was also meant to be pronounced with a soft ‘G’ as in ‘general’ or ‘generation’ instead of a hard ‘G’ as in ‘gun’ or ‘gang’. As noted above, most English words beginning with ‘ge’ have a soft ‘G’. I don’t know how the hard ‘G’ pronunciation got started. I choose to blame John Wayne, who turned in a memorably awful performance as Temudgin in 1956s The Conqueror. "Genghis Khan" itself simply means "Universal Khan."

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Greek Salad Dressing?

Okay, let’s get to some news.

From Discovery News, a report that scholars have been able to extract DNA from transport amphorae recovered from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Chios dating to the 4th century B.C. One contained olive oil blended with oregano (which the headline inexplicable calls ‘salad dressing’ – the text of the article, which says it would be used to ‘dress and flavor meals’ – is suitably vague given that it could have been used for lots of things. A second container contained DNA from the genus Pistacia, which could signal shipping of pistachio nuts but since amphoras are traditionally associated with transport of liquids, more likely signals wine blended with mastic, something akin to modern Greek resinated, or retsina wine. That would be particularly appropriate given the wreck’s location, as Chios in the Middle Ages was the primary supplier of mastic to Europe. That would also enable us to identify the wreck as a vessel leaving Chios, and not arriving there, which is consistent with some of the amphora types in the cargo, which are Chian. The source of the amphora containing the Pistacia DNA is not known, but if they contained Chian mastic, then logically they were probably made on the island as well.

The really cool thing is that the technique used to extract the DNA was extremely simple and could be applied to almost any pottery sample (though analyzing the DNA was no doubt time-consuming and expensive), meaning that we may have taken a major leap forward in our ability to source vessel contents. Oddly enough, given how crucial pottery is to reconstructing trade routes, our surmises as to what a vessel contained are often based on the flimsiest of evidence. In addition, there is a tendency to assume that if a particular amphora carried, say, wine, that every amphora of that type found was used to carry wine. We have enough evidence from multiple analyses to determine that transport vessels were rarely so strictly functionally segregated, but I think that as more such investigations are made there will be many more surprises in store.

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Has it really been three months since my last post here? What a coincidence, that's just around the time I started working like a madman on a conference paper. And after that I had to prepare it for publication, and then work on another paper, and try to wrap up my postdoc, and find a job....

Blogging's hard work. Surprise surprise. But I'm giving it another go. I think I've worked out a system to post more efficiently. We'll see if it works out.

I've redone the template, to let passersby know that there has been activity here. And I've gotten rid of the Digg links, which weren't being used much and gummed up posts. I've put a new pic in the header, although I can't figure out how to make it taller. If anybody has blogger fu, please post in the comments.

More posts soon. My goal is to have at least one daily update around lunchtime.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

China complains about U.S. role in antiquities trade

The Chinese government has publically reprimanded the U.S. about its role in the market for antiquities. This is a good opportunity to give a brief primer on the antiquities market and how it is "regulated." (Quotes added for good reason).

Most countries have restrictions on exporting items of cultural significance, defined differently everywhere, but generally speaking including art objects and artifacts from the past. In some cases, this can be done but only after getting approval from the government in question, in others, it is effectively impossible.

Countries like the United States, who historically have been net importers of art objects (and where, for example, the sale of Native American artifacts abroad was not a major concern until recently) tend to have weaker laws on the export and import of objects. And therein lies the rub. Just because it's illegal to export an object from, say, Malaysia, doesn't mean it's illegal to import that object into the United States. The U.S. in general doesn't undertake to enforce the laws of other countries. There is international law on the subject, most notably the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which seeks to import the sale of stolen cultural objects, but that Convention only has force in the U.S. when put into effect an enabling law. Such is the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act.

Under that act, countries can negotiate import restrictions with the U.S. Part of the problem has to do with the qualifier "stolen." It is often difficult to prove that an object was taken illegally out of a given country (under U.S. law, it's incumbent on the plaintiff to prove the object was stolen, not on the defendant to prove the object wasn't stolen). If I purchase a Greek vase on the open market, it might have come from Greece or Italy, and so neither country really has grounds to challenge the sale.

Now, under the 1983 act a country can briefly close down trade in certain kinds of artifacts if it can show that there is an acute and ongoing looting problem within its borders. However, that is only a temporary measure. A nation can also negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the U.S. that seeks to regulate trade in certain artifacts. That is what China is seeking with the U.S., and which many museums and art collectors are opposing. Even if a MOU is negotiated, not all is well as some kinds of objects (particularly coins) are often exempted and thus freely importable. A recent hotly-debated amendment to the MOU with Cyprus added coins to the prohibited list, after much acrimony. But that is an exception.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Archaeology vs. Pseudoarchaeology

(Photo from Instituto Nacional de Cultura, Cuzco)

At the same time that archaeologists were reporting the discovery of a 5500 year-old complex in Peru, another "discovery" in Peru has turned out to be false.

Earlier this year, media outlets in Peru reported the discovery of a lost Incan city deep in the Andes. Initial photos (like the one above) appeared to show carved stone blocks of the kind the Incas used to make cities like Cuzco and Machu Picchu at a place called Manco Pata. There was talk of declaring the site a National Heritage site as well as the possibility of touristic development.

Once professional archaeologists arrived at the site, however, it became clear that these were not artificial structures. There were no accompanying artifacts. There is no sign of tools used to shape the 'blocks,' nor were they arranged to form structures. What are they, then?

The 'blocks' are simply local sandstone that has fractured along right-angled planes. Such geological formations are not uncommon. However, they create great confusion for archaeological amateurs looking for lost cities. Beach rock, another formation that tends to fracture at right angles, has been mistaken for the Lost City of Atlantis. Formations similar to the one in Peru have been found off the coast of Okinawa and mistaken for another "lost city."

Somehow, I don't think this definitive judgment will deter those who are looking for evidence of aliens or Atlanteans. Certainly the possibility of tourist dollars may have led to local over-enthusiasm. Expect to see "Manco Pata" cropping up in pseudoarchaeological literature from now on.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Oldest Monumental Structure in Peru discovered

(Photo from El Comercio/Reuters)

As reported Sunday in the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio, and related in several English language sources, archaeologists in Peru have discovered a circular architectural complex at Sechin Bajo, on the Peruvian coast north of Lima dated to approximately 3500 BC. That makes it one of the oldest examples of monumental architecture in the New World.

The oldest remains of complex civilization in South America come from the Peruvian coast, where the remains of mud-brick platforms known as huacas are found grouped symmetrically around a large open plaza or plazas. The earliest of these sites date before the discovery of ceramic technology, at a time when the economy was based on cotton agriculture (as well as peanut and squash) and the exploitation of the rich offshore fishing grounds. Archaeologists not surprisingly call this period the Cotton Preceramic. The usual dates span approximately 2500 to 1500 BC, but discoveries like those at Sechin Bajo are pushing the start of complex civilization earlier and earlier.

These centers probably had populations up to a couple thousand or so. Attention has focused on the large mud-brick huacas, which probably had a ceremonial (and perhaps also a political or social) function, the precise nature of which is unclear, since we lack written records. The platforms were topped by buildings consisting of a series of courtyards and rooms constructed in stone. Some of these structures have painted or sculpted decoration, which is difficult to interpret. Our knowledge is still very limited however, and much remains to be discovered.

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