Friday, December 28, 2007

Tenochtitlan/Tlatelolco Older than Previously Known

A pyramid uncovered in Tlatelolco dates to ca. 1100 - 1200 AD, the Early Postclassic. According to Aztec stories, the Mexica who settled the island had done so relatively recently. And Mexican history and archaeology has incorporated those stories for much of the 20th century. But this find suggests a significant settlement (with a 10 meter tall pyramid to either Tlaloc or Tezcatlipoca) up to three centuries before the Triple Alliance.

Most Interesting Archaeological Discoveries of 2007

Yes, it is the time for yearly round-ups.

Archaeology Magazine has posted what it thinks are the 10 most important discoveries of the year. I agree with a fair amount, but I have some differences of opinion. Here are mine:

1.) North America and world devastated by asteroid strike 13,000 BP: This one is still being tested like any good hypothesis, but there seems to be geological evidence that the impact of a comet or asteroid caused mass destruction in North America, and kicked off the Younger Dryas event. While the spin for this is that it killed off the megafauna and ended Clovis, the ramifications are bigger. One possible spin-off of this major, if correct, discovery would be a much better understanding of the Younger Dryas mini-Ice Age. The conventional wisdom is that the melting of the Laurentide ice sheet, as part of global warming at the end of the Pleistocene, changed the salinity of the North Atlantic current, very quickly plunging the world into a return to glacial conditions. This climate change has been suggested as a major factor in the oldest known case of plant domestication in the Levant. This has also been the stuff of nightmares, informing the scenario that current global warming could cause a new ice age (best and unfortunately known from the scientifically implausible action movie The Day After Tomorrow). A major climatological report on global warming rejected this scenario last year, but knowing even more about this significant event, and its relationship (or lack of one) to the previous bout of global warming is very relevant to the 21st century. This event would also have ramifications for attempting to understand the peopling of the Americas.

EDIT 2010: The years have not been kind to the meteor impact hypothesis.

Also on the climate front, a lagoon in Puerto Rico has provided a record of hurricanes for the last five thousand years. At a minimum, I can think of ways this could be used in combination with Maya historical records, let alone in combination witharchaeological evidence throughout the North Atlantic.

2.) Pre-Columbian contact between Polynesia and South America. Chicken bones were excavated from a Chilean site dating to the 14th century. Now, this could simply be bad dating near the time of the Spanish arrival. But DNA from the bones shows the chickens were related to chickens raised by Polynesians, not Europeans. This seems to confirm transoceanic contact across the Pacific.

This may not be a huge surprise, since it seems at least some early migrants to North America may have come by boat, though others seem to have walked, and the chronology and details of these land migrations are becoming clearer.

EDIT 2010: Likewise, this case seems to have fallen apart.

In related news, a coin found in Australia suggests earlier European contact, sometime in the 17th century.

3.) Oldest evidence of modern human behavior now in Morocco. 82,000 BP beads push back modern behavior even further, and more importantly, place it early on the opposite side of the African continent than previous finds and expectations.

Elsewhere in the modern behavior field, genetic evidence suggests Neanderthals may have been able to speak. And Homo floresiensis increasingly looks like a species, and not diseased moderns.

4.) Domesticated maize pushed back to 7300 BP in Mesoamerica. Phytolith evidence from the Gulf Coast, eventually to be the Olmec heartland four thousand years later, pushes the date back a millennium. This is in concert with similar dates in the Balsas valley.

Elsewhere in Mesoamerican agriculture, Joya de Ceren continues to give up surprises, this time the first evidence of a manioc field in Mesoamerica.

5.) Earliest Astronomical Site in South America (and the Americas?). A 2200 BC "fox" temple in Peru may provide the oldest evidence of architectural solar alignments in the Americas. Elsewhere in Peru, a younger complex, dating to 400 BC, appears to be an observatory, using numerous pillars to observe solar events. Because of their written records and calendars, Mesoamericans have long been considered the main calendar-keepers and astronomers of the Americas, but that view may have to change. However, a stone found in the Huastec area of the northern Gulf Coast of Mesoamerica may contain calendrical information from 600 BC, and definitely provides more information on the poorly understood Huasteca.

Elsewhere in the world, Romans may have designed their cities in accordance with astronomical alignments. Non-western or earlier cultures are often thought of in this light, and seeing the Romans there intrigues me.

6.) Remote sensing two emperor's tombs. These could be stories for the future, but remote sensing has detected a structure within the burial mound of Qinshihuang, the first Chinese emperor, and in what is suspected to be the tomb of Ahuizotl, one of the most powerful Aztec emperors, and the first to have a tomb discovered. And while neither a tomb nor an emperor, excavation has revealed material from the time of the second king of Rome.

7.) Three important communities in the British Isles (sort of). Stonehenge, long considered an isolated Neolithic ritual site, is now part of the largest Neolithic settlement from Northern Europe. Another neolithic community has been uncovered in the Orkneys of Scotland, and may rival the famous site of Skara Brae. And undersea mapping is giving a first peak into the Late Paleolithic and Mesolithic landscape of what would become the North Sea.

8.) Thera eruption created tsunami that smashed eastern Mediterranean. While long recognized that the Minoans suffered a huge blow from the eruption in ca. 1500 BC, it is now clear that tsunami waves wreaked havoc as far away as Egypt.

Elsewhere in Mediterranean news, genetic evidence suggests that the Etruscans may have had a West Asian origin, as recorded by Herodotus.

9.) New ideas about the emergence of urban life in Eurasia. A regional perspective is showing that a broad swath of cities existed in southwestern and central Asia in the third millennium BC. While there do seem to be new developments, this seems to be an extension of what has been known for some time, if not discussed as widely as the Mesopotamian phenomenon. The Mesopotamian city of Tell Brak may have coalesced into an urban site from several pre-existing towns. And the process may have been violent.

10.) A rock art gallery in Australia is a major ancestor shrine. The site is being compared to a pantheon in regards to the number of depictions of ancestors and spirits.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Archaeology Shows Origins of Christmas in Roman Pagan Religion

Earlier this year, Italian archaeologists discovered an underground shrine where Romans believed the city's mythic founders Romulus and Remus were nursed by a wolf. Well, someone has now put 2+2 together and realized that the grotto is basically at the same site as what may be the first church to celebrate Christmas, with approval of the Roman government, on December 25.

If this were not about Christianity and Europeans, there would be no hesitation to say that the latter holiday emerged right out of the older tradition, or was at best syncretism.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Tomb of Aztec Emperor Ahuizotl found

It's going to take a long time to pump it out, but ground penetrating radar appears to have detected chambers under the capstone marking the death of the Aztec Emperor Ahuizotl.

He was in many ways the last great and terrible emperor of the Triple Alliance. This should rival the discoveries made within the Templo Mayor for archaeology of the political and religious elite of Aztec society.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Possible Use for Ulua Marble Vases?

Marble vases from the Ulua valley of Honduras are some of the most amazing objects from prehispanic Maya society. Laboriously carved by hand from the hard stone, they have been typically studied as looted art objects. But the discovery of one of these vases in the potential context of an ancestor rite in Honduras suggests that they may have contained a nasty concoction consumed as part of a religious ceremony. The soil around the vessel contained remains of corn, cacao, and a purgative. Once we start talking about shamans and trances, things get a little loose, but this does suggest that at least one of the marbles was not a simple gift or prestige good, but had a higher calling.

Marketplace Detected at Maya City of Chunchucmil

Press release describing article in Latin American Antiquity on the methods and findings of soil chemistry exploration at Chunchucmil, Yucatan. In essence, high phosphorous readings, available in the field, allowed for the suggestion of a marketplace for selling food, surrounding a footpath in the Late Classic city. This is not the first phosphorous-based attempt to identify past activity areas, but it does sound significant.

At Ciudad Vieja, we combined several lines of evidence (remote sensing, excavation, ceramics, glass) to suggest a commercial food vendor, iron works, and possible market area also near a footpath in the early sixteenth-century town of San Salvador. Perhaps in the future this might be tested against chemical evidence.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Origins of Chocolate Lie in Preclassic Mesoamerican Beer

Analysis of Early Preclassic pots from Puerto Escondido in the Ulua Valley of Honduras show that chocolate was a by-product of the fermentation of cacao pods for use in making beer. The exploitation of chocolate as a specific product may date to ca. 1100 BC. It is noteworthy that this evidence is not from the Olmec Gulf Coast, but from the southern edge of Mesoamerica. Previously, the Olmec had been credited with the invention of chocolate, in part on linguistic grounds.

Early 16th Century Beads in Georgia May be Evidence of Failed Spanish Settlement

A handful of beads and metal found in southern Georgia (US) date to the early sixteenth century, and may have something to do either with deSoto's entrada in 1540, or an earlier failed settlement in 1526.

Edit: Looks like they're leaning towards De Soto

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Battles of the New World: Andean Gunshot Victim and Jamestown Arms and Armor

Two unambiguous testaments to the military aspect of the invasions of the Americas.

In Peru, one of the burials in a sixteenth-century cemetery outside of Lima appears to be the oldest skeletal evidence of a gunshot victim in the Americas. Other burials in the group may also show gunshot evidence as well as injuries from maces (a traditionally Andean weapon). A lack of grave goods and other contextual evidence suggests a hasty burial, though not a mass grave pit.

The arquebus was an initial shock weapon in encounters between Spaniards and Native Americans, but it is generally considered less important than the more numerous crossbows, steel swords, and the all-important horses. In Mexico, arquebus or cannon would break-up infantry attacks, and could be used to impress locals. But time and again, Spanish battle chronicles follow a similar pattern. After initial contact (sometimes involving trickery or ambush), the Spaniards and their allies would fight the Aztecs or other Mexicans primarily on foot, inflicting damage but loosing fighters. Eventually the mounted horsemen would get into the fray, ride down the natives, and then get into the back area of the opposing army and wreak havoc with their lances. This decided many more battles than firearms did.

The following video from National Geographic (one of the sponsors of the research), shows some of the evidence

Some seventy years later, the English brought their arms to the coasts of Virginia, and recently armor and arms have been recovered from Jamestown. While iconic and impressive, as the article notes, these had been put away when famine, not natives, brought the English to their knees.

Update: More skeletal evidence of the Spanish conquest of Peru

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Frog Legs Central European, Not French

Not all archaeological discoveries are either spectacular or terribly important to someone's hypothesis of ecological adaptation or dialectic of colonial (re)sistance.

Sometimes we find things that change the little trivia that make up our lives. Like the recent discovery that the French didn't invent the cooking of frog's legs. Or that the oldest tabasco sauce bottle was found in an African-American saloon in Nevada (though I guess that does point out the often forgotten role of African-Americans in the US expansion westward, or the attempts to find new and freer lands after the Civil War).

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Antiquity of Modern Humans in China as old as Europe

Modern Human remains from China 40,000 BP.

The news articles covering this are pushing the elements of hybridization coming from Trinkaus. But regardless of whether that is accurate, this is a refreshing change from the typical focus on the modern migration to better-studied Europe.

Passover, Exodus, and Archaeology

A blog post introduction to the chronological issues between archaeology and the Hebrew story of Exodus, currently being celebrated in Passover. I know there is much more on this, but I found the post informative since this stuff isn't my bag.

More on "No Evidence of Moses in the Sinai"

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Destruction of Mesopotamia

An informative if depressing article on the destruction of Iraq's past along with its present and future. The best way to see archaeological looting is via satellite, since the country is too dangerous to travel, and the experts are being driven out as part of the civil war.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

WWI Subterranean Ruins Uncovered in Belgium

Underground c0mplex, the Vampire dugout, filled with material culture and artifacts from a permanent battlefield settlement of the Western Front.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Jesus Tomb Part Almost the Last: New Epigraphic Claim and Boredom

This will probably be my next to last post on the topic of the Jesus tomb. An epigrapher has published an article saying the "Mary Magdalene" ossuary is no such thing, and that the inscription has been misread when in reality it isn't one inscription at all. This re-analysis suggests there are two female names on the box written at different times, the result of the box being a multiple burial. This would sink the whole argument if correct. Of course the director of the documentary notes an epigrapher did the original work and reading.

I can't comment on that, I'm not a Near Eastern archaeologist or epigrapher or linguist. I'm going to finally get around to watching the documentary next week. I had my Introduction to Archaeology students watch and report on it for extra credit. Anyway, my experience in epigraphy is with Maya epigraphy, which is a much younger field of study, and one still in development. So I can't apply the tendency for shifting readings in Maya epigraphy on to this case.

I'm somewhat surprised by the reaction to the Jesus tomb. I thought this would have caught more fire, ala The DaVinci Code. But there has been roundly rejected in the media and from what I can tell in much of the blogosphere. I don't think millions of people have all of a sudden developed a love of authoritative academics squelching extraordinary claims, or have become much more critical thinkers than usual. I think the answer proposed by documentary and book were just not popular. Doesn't mean those findings are correct, there are plenty of good reasons to think they aren't.

But I will note that for the first time, I've seen the people behind this documentary resort to one of the common themes of Spooky Paradigm research, the notion of democratizing science, taking power from the hands of the scientific establishment that ignores anomalies it doesn't like. From the article linked above.


Jacobovici attributes most of the criticism to scholars' discomfort with journalists "casting light into their ossuary monopoly."

"What we're doing is democratizing this knowledge, and this is driving some people crazy," he said.[/quote]

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Jesus Tomb Part 2: Serious Critique

This piece from the Washington Post includes the first criticism of the "Jesus Tomb" claims that seem sound, to me. Not just doubting the statistics, but cultural and historical considerations which suggest there may be problems. Still nothing that blows it apart, in my opinion, but worth reading

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Tomb of Jesus and Family

This is obviously going to be a big story, especially with the press conference on Monday.

Check the links at the bottom, but in summary, film maker James Cameron has produced a documentary (and the research? I'm not as clear on that) on new analysis and interpretation of what the researchers believe to be the tomb of Jesus Christ and his family. A family tomb in Jerusalem, excavated in 1980, includes ossuaries for a Yeshua (Jesus) son of Yosef (Joseph), Maria (Latin for Mary, and Mary mother of Jesus was referred to in other texts by the Latin), Matia (Matthew). Most stunningly, one ossuary is inscribed Mariamene e Mara or "Mary, known as the Master," a name for Mary Magdalene in Gnostic texts, and Judah son of Jesus.

Furthermore, bits of bone in the Yeshua (yes, you read that right) ossuary and the Mariamene ossuary are not related by blood (DNA was extractable from the remains in those two ossuaries). This leads to the interpretation that Mariamene married into the family.

The linked articles note that while the names are common in that region in the first century AD, the chances of all these names, that are associated as family and associates in the New Testament, occurring together, is 1 in 600.

Now, there is a lot that could be wrong about this. There may be elements of the data that we don't know about, that falsifies the hypothesis proposed by these researchers. With such a spectacular claim, there is always the possibility of fraud (perhaps by someone prior to the discovery). The researchers are suggesting a possible tie to the James ossuary (possibly having been in the tomb), which some researchers have declared a fraud, while supporters have produced 1970s-era photos of the ossuary. Of course, if the latter is true, this presents problems for the 1980 excavation. And of course, even if everything here is above board, at most it points to a likely historical link to the tomb occupants, something not provable beyond an absolute shadow of a doubt. But that's how archaeology often is.

Anyway, it is far too preliminary to judge any of this. But unlike many other media blitz claims about archaeology (this is a book, a documentary being shown on the Discovery Channel, etc.), the evidence seems pretty straightfoward here. And a peer-reviewed article on the statistics is apparently coming out soon, something often not found in media blitzes. And let's be honest: did we really think a discovery of this nature would appear first in a scientific journal. Of course it was going to get the King Kong 8th Wonder of the World treatment.

Here is a Discovery "News" blurb about the discoveries, that detail the basic outline

This is a somewhat detailed presentation of the tomb, in particular pictures of the ossuaries with transcriptions and translations of the inscriptions, and more about each element of the research. I recommend checking it out.

One of the archaeologists involved in the initial discovery says this is all PR and nonsense. But I will wait to see what the new analysis actually suggests, as I've seen this kind of rivalry before, sometimes legit, sometimes not. He is right, that archaeologists are not involved in the new analysis. On the other hand, an epigrapher of texts of this era is involved.

It may all be garbage. It may actually have merit. But regardless, I imagine this is going to be something a lot of people outside archaeology will be talking about.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Magical Architecture Caches: Witch Bottles, Mummy Cats, and Abandoned Shoes

The discovery of a mummified cat in an early 19th-century Edinburgh building reminded me of one of the niftiest things in historical archaeology, magical deposits. Common caches hidden under floorboards or within walls include shoes, cats, or "witch bottles" specially prepared with pins and urine. These were magical charms in British culture, and still hold some power. As noted on Brian Hoggard's page on these charms and other folk magic, cats were often destroyed or otherwise noted by construction teams that discovered them. They can be creepy whether interpreted by the discoverer as an unfortunate accident or as an occult artifact, and in some cases are burned to cleanse the deposit and perhaps help the cat in the afterlife.

Update: First witch bottle still sealed (and presumably containing urine) found in Greenwich.

Update: Article from March 2008 has nice images and discussion

Update April 2009: Sealed shoes from Nova Scotia

Update June 2009: The sealed witch bottle has been analyzed

My Favorite Part of Archaeology - Dispelling Common Wisdom

More than anything, I enjoy when archaeology shows that what most of us think about the past is wrong. I don't mean just finding something new, though that is of course great. I mean going and finding the physical evidence of past alternatives to what we have normalized to be the status quo. Or finding direct contradictions to the historical record. Each of the following stories includes an element of this.

In New Kingdom Egypt, the heretic king Akhenaten was stricken from the historical record, as best as was possible. Yet his capitol city lies in ruins at Tell el-Amarna, with ample evidence for his new religion based on the Aten sun disk and the relationship between it and the royal family. Right there archaeology recovers an embarassing chapter in Egyptian history that the authorities attempted to coverup after his death. But in something of a reversal, a recent discovery at Saqqara suggests the new story is also not entirely true. Akhenaten may have shut down the temples to the old Egyptian gods, but Dutch archaeologists have found elites still being buried in the old way, honoring the old gods but using the new Amarna art style, at Saqqara during the Amarna period. Akhenaten's hegemony was not complete.

In New York City, a pipe inspector stumbled across subterranean passages immediately next to the basement of 740 Park Avenue, the richest apartment building in the city's history and home to titans of finance and capital. This wouldn't be such a big deal, except for persistant rumors long denied that John D. Rockefeller had an escape tunnel leading from the building to his private subway. The tunnel cannot be tied to Rockefeller, and a local historian suggests the Vanderbilts as possible patrons of the construction. But clearly the legends weren't as far-fetched as previously thought.

Across the ocean in Britain, a medieval monastery in Hereford turned up something of a surprise. Thirty years ago a skeleton was dug up and was believed to be one of the monks. But re-analysis suggests that the bones are probably those of a woman. Someone has some explaining to do.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Jamestown Sister Settlement Discovered

The site may have been worked before, but archaeological remains in coastal Virginia are now being identified as Henrytowne, a contemporary with Jamestown. I of course am intrigued by the similarities to my own work at Ciudad Vieja, the ruins of the second Spanish settlement in what is now El Salvador. In fact the things so far discovered (an iron forge, pottery production, possibly a store) are some of the highlights of what we've found at Ciudad Vieja.

EDIT: The interpretation of the site is being questioned, in particular the location of the settlement in documents (possibly near Richmond?) and the relationship to the archaeological remains.


and here

In related news, the first iron works of the north American English colonies has been found at Falling Creek, Virginia. I'd note, of course, that the Spaniards had occupied North America for decades before 1619. Anyway, these are part of the Virginia colony and also contemporary with early Jamestown. And recent discoveries show 18th-century Yorktown (near in space if not time, but still part of the colonial heritage of the area) to be more complex than previously thought.

Expect more news of Jamestown this year. Virginia and other interested parties are promoting the site during its 400th anniversary. This article from US News and World Report gives an overview of the topic and profiles Dr. William Kelso, the force behind the recent breakthroughs at Jamestown. And this article discusses the various historical sites in the region, noting the anniversary.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ancient Seafarers of the Atlantic and Pacific

Two different studies highlight very different elements of historical seafarers.

DNA taken from the tooth of a man who died in Alaska 10,300 years ago suggests that the earliest Americans travelled along the Pacific coast, possibly settling rapidly around 15,000 years ago. Modern indigenous American people were tested in comparison with the ancient remains, and only a small number had the mitochondrial DNA lineage of the ancient man. These individuals were all from indigenous groups that lived along the Pacific Coast of North and South America.

The idea that people migrated to the Americas by boat has become increasingly popular as older archaeological remains have made a land crossing over Beringia unlikely as the source for the first people in the hemisphere.

I will note that the research also found very fast rates of mitochondrial DNA mutation, the basis of the method. Four times faster, in fact. I'm a layman in regards to molecular studies, but that seems like something that needs more explanation.

The other story is much more recent, and much stranger. Viking sailors may have used crystals known as sunstones to help navigate even on cloudy days. The stones would allow one to see the polarization of sunlight and use that to determine the position of the sun for use in navigation. If this turns out to be the case, I hope someone goes and revises historical discussion of "magical" sunstones.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Olmec Artifacts and Influence in Central Mexico

This is not terribly surprising, but is noteworthy.

The 2500 year old (Middle Preclassic) site of Zazacatla is not far from Mexico City, but has turned up artifacts and sculpture which look very much like those at Gulf Coast Olmec sites. Pictures can be seen in this slideshow. We've known about Olmec-style sculpture in the Central highlands, most famously at Chalcatzingo. But the striking similarities to classic Olmec figures is impressive.

Speaking of the Gulf Coast, the pyramids and structures at El Tajin are being destroyed by acid rain. This site is likely more important than we currently understand.

Earliest Semitic Text: Magic Spell Used by Egyptians to Fight Snakes

Very weird. The earliest evidence for a Semitic language is a protective spell used by Egyptians to protect royal mummies. Because some snakes were believed to speak Canaanite, Egyptians of the Old Kingdom (2400 - 3000 BC) turned to Canaanite magic.

On the flipside, the newest edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica casts doubt on the historical existence of Moses.

Life and Death Amongst the Hominids: Interaction Between Various Members of the Genus Homo

A couple of stories recently on some of the famous hominids contemporary with Homo sapiens sapiens.

More evidence for cannibalism amongst Neanderthal populations has surfaced. This interpretation continues to pop up, but because of the sensationalistic nature of cannibalism, the evidentiary level is pretty high. Another set of remains has been interpreted as a hybrid modern-Neanderthal, evidence of interbreeding between the two populations. I am no expert in that field, but until the genetic evidence stops showing big differences, I am skeptical. Especially since so many examples of hybridization come from still-growing adolescents.

Modern humans have been in Europe for at least 45,000 years, according to the dating of artifacts from Russia. Settlement here may have been spurred on because there was no competition from Neanderthals in this colder part of Europe.

Meanwhile, a flurry of stories have popped up regarding the Indonesian "hobbits," also known as Homo floresiensis. Research is beginning again in the caves of Flores Island, after political concerns had shut down the work. The discovery of a large cave under the cave sites may allow for many new sets of remains to be found. New testing refutes the idea that the specimens were hydrocephalic, and instead suggests that they were a separate species with a brain comparable to modern humans. And modern humans may have hunted the "hobbits" or their food sources into extinction, as it appears a volcanic eruption did not kill them off. This news will certainly please those, including cryptozoologists who support the idea of ancient primates other than humans surviving to the present, who have taken interest in the stories of the Orang Pendek and of stories in the region of little people.

A Late Post on Apocalypto

I blogged about this in December on my other blog. But the topic is more relevant here, so I post it here and add a few new links.

I saw a pre-release showing of Apocalypto on the Monday before it opened. As a Mesoamerican archaeologist, I strongly give this movie a complete anti-recommendation, and would urge people not to support it. First off, it is not an entertaining film. Secondly, as many of the reviews have mentioned, it is very violent. This did not bother me in a filmgoer sense, but several members of the group I saw it with had to leave the theater because they could not stomach futher gore and injury.

But the main reason I write this is that the basic message of the movie is offensive. For reasons that become apparent if you watch the movie, Gibson's message is unmistakeable: Mesoamerican civilization deserved to be destroyed and conquered by Christianity. If this was just some academic exercise, it still would be wrong and inaccurate (while some parts of the film visually look good and recreate nifty bits of costume and architecture, much of the movie is highly inaccurate). But this movie will harm the efforts of the millions of Mayas in Mexico in Central America to survive and thrive in societies that already have power structures arrayed against them, and that in many cases are still victims of a centuries long Conquest that is not over.

If you want to read further about this, here are two reviews and comments by other Mesoamerican archaeologists

EDIT: Another bad review of the film from an archaeologist, and mixed reviews from Mayas.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Roman Roundup - Gladiators, Gauls, and the Legendary Birth of Rome

A series of discoveries from Roman archaeology

In Rome, excavation has supposedly uncovered the Lupercale, the legendary origin cave of the Eternal City. It was turned into a shrine, and included by Rome's first Emperor Augustus in his private household. As a Mesoamericanist, I find the parallels to Teotihuacan to be extraordinary. That city was also the biggest in its region, an imperial capitol, and it was founded from a cave. In the case of Teotihuacan, which is a late contemporary of Classical Rome, a massive pyramid was built over the cave. The cave may be at least partially natural, but it was artificially modifed, and came to serve as the orientation for the grid network of streets and residential compounds.

Not far away from Lupercale, the treasure of the last Pre-Christian Roman Emperor has been found. Hidden before Constantine defeated Maxentius at Milvian Bridge, the insignias, weapons, and glasswork is a reminder of a major historical shift in Roman and European history.

A Roman-British Colosseum in Chester was much smaller than the famous ampitheatre in Rome, but it may have otherwise been a close copy. The exterior would have looked very similar to the Roman original. Inside, archaeologists have found bits of weapony and skeletal fragments, in accordance with historical accounts of Roman gladiatoral combat and sacrifice. This kind of brutality is on display in carvings recovered by Italian police during a raid on a looter's warehouse.

Roman entertainment of another sort is now on display, as a famous brothel in Pompeii has been restored and re-opened as a museum exhibit (not an operational brothel).

Back on the frontier, a French Roman-era cemetery is puzzling experts. The burial patterns do not appear to be Roman, but are reminiscent of pre-Roman religious practices. The problem? The remains are centuries younger than the Roman conquest of Gaul. Could these practices have continued literally underground or been resurrected (really, I'm not trying to pun here, it's just happening)? Or is there another answer?

Pagans Rising: The Stonehenge Settlement and Repatriation or, Who Controls the UK's Past?

The big archaeological news of the week has been the discovery of a large Neolithic residential site near Stonehenge, that most famous of all standing stone sites and emblem of British prehistory. This piece discusses the festival aspects, interpreted as seasonal, of the settlement and ceremonial architecture of a massive woodhenge at the site as well as nearby Stonehenge.

The article also notes the ties to modern pagans. Modern paganism is no small thing in the UK. The Catholic Cardinal of England and Wales states that Britain is no longer a Christian country, that it has gone pagan. Of course, he's lumping in all kinds of things he deems to be un-Christian or not of organized religion, and not just Pagan believers. Perhaps this is much ado about nothing, as three-quarters of Britons identified themselves as Christian in 2001, with Wiccans and other Pagans making up less than 0.1% of the country.

Despite these relatively small numbers, Pagans increasingly participate in the heritage of archaeological and sacred sites in the UK. The solstice celebrations at Stonehenge and other megalithic sites are the most famous. Last year some Catholic youths confronted Pagans during festivities in Glastonbury, throwing salt at them in a magical attempt to cleanse the town.

Meanwhile in Greece, a small group of Pagans have semi-legally (it seems, the coverage is not clear) started worshipping Zeus and the Classical Greek gods at ancient ruins in Athens. Greece is famous for the close ties between the church and the state, so this is no empty act.

Now, in a move echoing that of indigenous and minority people aross the planet, British Pagans are claiming the bones recovered from prehistoric sites as their ancestors and demanding repatriation from museums. The efforts have so far not been successful, in particular due to the great time depth between a modern claimant and the remains, without openly known ancestry traced between the modern and their claimed ancestors. This in turn echoes the issues around Kennewick Man, or as an alliance modern indigenous people have called him, the Ancient One. That case cannot be the same, due to the colonial aspect of the last five centuries and their legacy today. But all of this gets very complicated, quickly.

EDIT (Feb. 20, 2007): Stonehenge altar stone, long missing, may have been identified. Would modern pagans insist this piece is necessary for the proper use of Stonehenge, or do they stay where they are? Standard conservation practice is not to reverse later changes to architecture). How is the decision made?

EDIT (April 5. 2007): Craig Childs points out the issues involving Stonehenge and modern societies.

EDIT (April 7, 2007): An amulet from Suffolk may be similar to an amulet in a burial near Stonehenge. The Suffolk amulet dates to 1900 - 1700 BC, at which point Stonehenge would have been largely in its final form. The news article calls them "Stonehenge Amulets" but there is no particular reason for that to be the case.

EDIT (July 5, 2007): Pagans are protesting temporary modifications, for a television show, to Britain's famous Long Man geoglyph. Of course, the age and origin of the sculpture are still not certain, at least from an archaeological or mainstream historical perspective.

Hiatus Over: Dissertation Draft Submitted, Maya Meetings Attended

I've been missing from this blog and Spooky Paradigm because I've been too busy preparing the draft of my dissertation. As of last week, it was in the hands of my committee. I still have revision to do, a defense to make, and official copies to print before it is really done.

Immediately after I turned in the draft, we had the Maya Meetings here at Tulane, organized by the Stone Center for Latin American Studies, with a focus on mural art. San Bartolo was of course a major topic of discussion, in Dr. William Saturno's presentation as well as others, but Yucatan was covered extensively. This included the amazing finds at Ek Balam. That was nice to see, presented by Dr. Alfonso Lacadenas, since I had worked at the site for a month or so back in 1995. Dr. Francisco Estrada Belli presented new eviidence for the Teotihuacan entrada into the Maya world in 378 AD, found in the Holmul region of eastern Guatemala. There were other papers, though those based on presenting results of recent field research made more of an impact on me.

So, now I can finally get back to having a little time to myself and to writing here and at Spooky Paradigm. Not much mind you, I am still quite busy. But at least some

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Anthropology and the Destruction of New Orleans

The Boston Globe reports on the latest issue of American Anthropologist. How often does that happen? It happens when the entire issue is dedicated to the anthropology of Post-Katrina New Orleans. The article has summaries of the various articles, including one by Shannon Lee Dawdy on the archaeological implications from what people took from their ruined homes in the aftermath.

I am an archaeologist at Tulane University, and yes my rented apartment home (hence no benefit from insurance!) was filled with four and some feet of water for several weeks. I didn't return until my landlords had cleaned it all out (with my permission, they've been golden to me during all of this). Eventually I did return four months after the storm and the flooding. I re-opened our Center for Archaeology, and got back to writing my dissertation. It wasn't until March, two months later, when I ventured onto the neutral ground (the media) in front of the house. In part this was because it was choked with debris. Even when I finally walked over it, it was still covered in trash, and gnats were everywhere, rising up from the wet mud. There were other hazards, including an open sewer (the entire foundation around the manhole cover had been torn out and laid to the side, exposing a fifteen foot drop).

Being an archaeologist, I started poking around on the surface, and it wasn't long before I began recognizing some of my own possessions. This was a bit startling, but I figured that after years of pawing through other people's trash after they've died, there could be a karmic penalty to pay. So I made a few observations and took a few photos. I noticed that my possessions were relatively small ones, and they were oriented about three feet to the south of the lines of the house, if you extended them across the street and onto the neutral ground. This trash was not disposed as part of standard city sanitation trash hauling, but rather as debris. Homeowners and contractors in the first few months after the storm would dump their trash, debris from house gutting, sealed (for fear of what rotted inside) refrigerators, and other things on the neutral ground. On a, I believe, weekly or so basis an Army Corps of Engineers truck would come by with a large claw arm, and pick up debris for landfilling. What I found of my former possessions (a music CD, Mardi Gras doubloons, old floppy disks with my handwriting on them) were those that were small enough and slippery enough that they could fall out of the claw's grasp, and start to be embedded in the mud.

Their displacement a few feet south of the house initially puzzled me. I walked up and down the neutral ground, and noticed that in general the denser debris scatters were in each case a bit south of the houses on my block. Why? Was there some taphonomic factor that escaped me? They certainly didn't roll down hill. Then it struck me: the trash wasn't in front of the houses, it was in front of the driveways. The houses I was investigating had driveways, and access doors, on their south sides. The trash was leaving the house through the easiest access doors, and either being dumped by hand by homeowners or contractors at the closest spot, or they were filling their trucks with the debris and then backing up to dump it on the neutral ground.

I will admit, the temptation did drift through my mind: maybe some of my stuff, the metals, stone, ceramics, and plastics, could be excavated and recovered. I started thinking about what I owned, what was small and durable? What was precious to me in that category? Maybe with enough disinfecting cleanser, I could recover my own artifacts. Then I thought about the gnats. The muck. The toxic and septic stew that had sat in my apartment for days. And I thought about how much I really needed any of those things. Or did I really just not want to give up all the vestiges of my former life. I decided I'd leave it to someone to study in the future. Maybe the robots that survive the twenty-first century, or the ant people that succeed them. In any case, if this blog post survives, remember to look a meter south of the houses.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

This Explains Lot: Meth Addicts Addicted to Archaeology

People have wondered what I was smoking when I decided to become an archaeologist. Maybe they were on to something. An Arkansas sheriff believes that the obsessive nature of surface collection and survey appeals to crystal meth addicts, and he commonly finds arrowheads in meth busts. Me, I suspect the value to collectors is probably part of the equation. But this is interesting in either case, and might be a cautionary tale to field workers. We've already learned to be careful of traps or guards on meth labs and pot fields.

Top 10 Discoveries of 2006

Archaeology Magazine has made a list of what it considers the top discoveries of last year.

It has been a fantastic year for early Mesoamerican writing, with the discovery of what appears to be Olmec writing, the oldest Maya writing, and what may be an ancient calendar representation.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Ancient Religion?

Two recent discoveries address what may be early religious activities. The younger of the two discoveries have precedent, but are still extraordinary. Plastered skulls 11,500 years old were discovered in Tell Aswad, Syria. The skulls were coated with plaster, simulating flesh and skin, after death and painted to look more lifelike. Not only are these skulls earlier than those found at Jericho and elsewhere, they are far more impressive. Dating to the very beginning of settled life and the transition to food production, the uses of these skulls are uncertain. Guesses usually suggest family, ancestors, and ritual.

A find without precedent in Botswana dates back to what may be the beginning of modern human thought. Deposits of spear points around a rock sculpted into the form of a python appear to date to over 70,000 BP. The patterned deposition of these artifacts around a large image of an animal important to human concepts of nature and supernature may well be some of the earliest evidence of more complex ritual or religious behavior for Homo sapiens sapiens. Intriguingly, this is not far in time or space from the earliest evidence for human art. Blombos Cave, in neighboring South Africa, has produced the earliest evidence for symbolic creation of material culture. Shells were pierced for hanging on necklaces, and most intriguingly, zig-zag geometric patterns were carved into bars of red ochre, all around 77,000 BP. I would not be surprised to see other evidence of modern human behavior appearing in Southern Africa in the future.

Of course, other later hominids (such as Neanderthals) show some evidence of mortuary practices that may hint at symbolic thought. But so far not much evidence of symbolic material culture outside of mortuary practices. I'll leave the splitting between modern human behavior and other humans to those with more expertise in these fields.

A New Year, a New Mission

I'll be changing the purpose of this blog in the next weeks. First off, starting a designer's journal for a dissertation after having written 75% of the dissertation is a bad plan. Second, I've decided I don't like the idea of a designer's journal, too egocentric.

I'm still deciding what to do with this blog, but it will likely become a place to discuss new archaeological discoveries, and put them in perspective. This may well develop in conjuction with the Introduction to Archaeology course I am teaching this semester.

So here's a good start.

This article from Halifax, Nova Scotia
, mentions some new historical archaeological discoveries under that city. But it also discusses the importance of archaeology as a hands-on scientific experience. This is one of the great strengths of archaeology. It deals with material culture, which can be understood by anyone at some level. Of course there can be theory or technical issues requiring substantial amounts of education and jargon control. But putting that all aside, I can put a fragment of a drinking glass, or a religious medal, or a kitchen knife, or a hammer stone into someone's hand, and there is a basic human connection to people from another time, another society, another culture, another world.

Futhermore, archaeology is about pattern recognition and detective work. Archaeology can be literally hands on artifacts, and it can also be hands on data. Inspired by Dr. Robert Drennan of the University of Pittsburgh, I have found great utility in giving archaeological data to students so that they can "do the math" and solve research questions. Even if they never think about archaeology again in a professional manner, students can learn how to judge evidence and make reality-based conclusions. A predisposition to reality has been lacking in some quarters as of late.