Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Anikythera Device - Replicated

The Antikythera Device, discovered over a century ago in the wreckage of a Greek ship that sank around 150 BC, has long fascinated scholars and other interested parties alike. You probably know it to look like this, it's geared mechanisms leading to it being called the world's oldest computer.

But since its likely use as an astronomical calculator was discovered two years ago, it has since been replicated with a working model. Michael Wright, curator at the Imperial College London, built and demonstrates the replica below

UPDATE: You can run your own digital copy with open source software.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Roman Battle in Germany Not When or Where it is Supposed to Be

The Roman colonization, conflict, and co-existence with northern European people is a topic that interested me as a young student, and after using Peter Wells' The Barbarians Speak in my graduate seminar on hybrid material culture, has come to interest me again.

So it is timely that a recent discovery suggests the history of that interaction is still open to change. Archaeologists have uncovered a third-century A.D. battlefield, involving what appear to have been well-equipped Roman soldiers, in Germany long after they had been thought to have drawn back to defensive lines farther south.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Jeb Card CV

Jeb Card CV

Please see my Academia page at

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Xibalba Update: INAH Article

INAH, Mexico's National Institute for Anthropology and History, has released an English-language short release on the cave complex discussed in my previous post. It's a lot more interesting than I thought, with not just one building within the caves, but several.

Particularly interesting is the presence of a sacbe. These white limestone raised roads radiate out between and within Maya settlements, and are particularly well-documented in western Yucatan. Roads are an important aspect of Maya thought, similar to the idea of one's path or journey having a lot more significance than literally where one will travel. The equivalent in Yukatek to "How's it going?" is "How's your road?," which come to think of it is a fairly similar sentiment. When one gets married, it is said "their road came to an end." While this is humorously close to the English colloquialism "End of the road, pal," it would be better understood as meaning that the married people began a new road together as a pair.

There has long been debate on whether the roads were primarily for ritual pilgrimages and processions, for transportation of goods and people, to demonstrate political allegiance, or some combination. The discovery of one inside a heavily sacralized cave complex will likely give some heft to arguments for ritual.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Subterranean Maya Temple Complex Suggested as Road to Xibalba

The image of the building constructed within the cavern is impressive. The article doesn't mention where specifically this is, other than in Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula. Apparently it dates to the Classic.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dowser and the Legendary Gypsies

From my soon to be local paper, a story that suggests psychic or dowsing techniques can be used to do the work of bioarchaeology.

The Mayor of Sesser, Illinois has asked a local dowser to investigate folklore concerning a Gypsy mass grave. Not only does the dowser suggests she can use some mix of energy (related to her Christian beliefs concerning souls) and DNA to detect graves, but also to determine age and sex.

While excavations won't be based on the "findings" of the psychic investigation, a historical plaque may be placed there based on further historical research prompted by the dowsing.

In my reading on pseudo and alt-archaeology, a big deal has always been made of psychic archaeology. Something I had never really heard of in new reports or personal experience (in contrast with other pseudo topics like ancient astronauts or Phoenicians in Utah). But I guess now I have, and I am amazed at it, and the relatively straightforward media coverage of it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tulane Archaeologist Finds Peruvian Mummy

Dr. Kit Nelson of my former department has been in the news for the discovery of a Chancay mummy. National Geographic loves its mummies. Hat tip to Ashley Heaton for the story.

Another Tulane anthropologist, Dr. John Verano, also got some media attention two years ago for working on a Moche mummy.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Vampire Archaeology

A recent news report from the Czech Republic immediately grabs the attention: archaeologists have uncovered the 4000-year old grave of a vampire in Bohemia. Or rather, the grave of someone who was treated as a vampire. According to the report, sometime in the Early Bronze Age, a man died, and was buried with heavy stones placed in the grave over his head and chest. This is interpreted as treatment to ensure the man didn't return from the grave to plague the living as a vampire.

I'm no expert, but there is a problem with this. The development of the legend of the vampire in the Balkans dates back about a thousand years, with some elements being older. The term upir first appears in a Russian text in 1047 CE. Bruce McClelland discusses the history and development of the Balkan vampire (specifically focusing on Bulgaria) in his dissertation (openly available online) Sacrifice, Scapegoat, Vampire: The Social and Religious Origins of the Bulgarian Folkloric Vampire and in his book Slayers and Their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. In those works, he ties the development of the vampire to a mix of pre-Christian ideas about death and the afterlife and religious strife between groups during the early centuries of Christianity in the region.

And the folkloric vampire of the 17th century or so has many differences from that of Bram Stoker's Dracula or subsequent tales. I'm pretty sure Anne Rice never had one of her pretty-boy protagonists roll around the landscape as a literal bag of blood, easily killed by a puncture wound from a hawthorne, for the first few years of their undead existence. The classic Balkan vampires were most commonly "dead sorcerers, witches, werewolves, excommunicates, and those who died unnatural deaths (such as suicides and drunkards)" Some were destined at birth to become vampires, including those with a caul on their head, with teeth showing at birth, or with contiguous eyebrows. Also, if a human or unclean animal steps over the body before burial after it is buried, the dead might rise as a vampire (Oinas 1982). This last is very common (Mclelland 2006: 53). Also, in general, bad people, unavenged people, etc. will return from the dead. The Romanian version (non-slavic) suggests that unmarried dead people, or those unforgiven by their parents, have a greater chance of rising as a strigoi (Perkowski 1982). In Serbia and in Greece, at least, this happens 40 days after death, when a "devilish spirit" enters the body to create a vukodlak (Serbia) or a vrykolakas (du Boulay 1982; Fine 1987). In some greek legends (of the vrykolakas) children born on Christmas will be vampires).

But even if there was something vaguely reminiscent of the vampire in Central European cultures 3000 years before the first appearance of the term, tying those pre-literate beliefs to skeletal and archaeological evidence becomes very difficult.

There is, however, more secure archaeology involving vampires. Archaeology and bioarchaeology on several cases in New England has noted the relationship between tuberculosis outbreaks and vampire panics in the nineteenth century. This report describes some of the details (Sledzik and Bellantoni 1994) and this press release discusses the filming of some work for a documentary.

And a major update. Anastasia Tsaliki, a PhD candidate at Durham University in the UK, is conducting dissertation research on "disposals of the dead" involving "necrophobia." That indeed fits the bill. She has already written a paper on "Vampires Beyond Legend: A Bioarchaeological Approach" which she has made available on her blog. She is indeed pointing at the use of rocks as a sign of necrophobia, and tying that into vampire folklore. As I mention above, I am skeptical of this. Broadening the interpretation to a general fear of the dead rising is of course more acceptable, and I could see myself doing something similar if I were working on remains with such treatment, but it remains speculation. I look forward to Ms. Tsaliki's dissertation.

EDIT: Lost of new information on the Italian vampire announced last year.

du Boulay, Juliette
1982 The Greek Vampire; A Study of Cyclic Symbolism in Marriage and Death. Man 17: 219 - 238.

Fine, John V. A., Jr.
1987 In Defense of Vampires. East European Quarterly 21: 15 - 23.

Mclelland, Bruce A.
2006 Slayers and Their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Oinas, Felix
1982 East European Vampires. Journal of Popular Culture 16: 108 - 114.

Perkowski, Jan Louis
1982 The Romanian Folkloric Vampire. East European Quarterly 16: 311 - 322.

Sledzik, Paul S. and Nicholas Bellantoni
1994 Bioarchaeological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief. The American Journal of Physical Anthropology 94.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Aztec Death Whistle!

Ok, it's not just the "Whistle of Death," though that's getting the most attention for obvious reasons. Plus, it is actually an exceedingly creepy. But check out this story on replication of Aztec flutes, and then the video linked below for the actual sounds

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Map of London's Dead

The Museum of London and The Times Online have created a digital map of the 37,000 some burials that have been identified in London. Check it out, and note that the map is at the top of the article, and works as a Google Map does.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Maya Textiles From Copan Show Impressive Craftworking

Textiles are obviously rare in archaeological contexts, especially in the tropics. Nonetheless, textile fragments from Copan are some of the few leaving any evidence of Classic Maya fabrics, and apparently the work was extraordinary.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The History of Crystal Skulls

Interesting article from Archaeology Magazine on the history of supposedly Mesoamerican crystal skulls (soon to be even more famous due to the Indiana Jones movie) and how they swirl around one antiquities dealer in the second half of the 19th century.

Update: The British Museum and Smithsonian skulls also have tool marks like those used about a century ago.

Investigation of Titanic Wreckage Reveals Shoddy Materials May Have Speed Sinking

The NYTimes reports that a combination of historical and forensic/archaeological investigation suggests that the Titanic sank much faster, dooming hundreds of people, because lower-grade iron rivets were used in the bow of the ship. Disputed by descendants of those involved in the construction, this line of research was only possible due to examination of rivets and plates found at the wreck site, and was then put in context by examining the manufacturing company's records and board meeting minutes.

Like others I know, I went through a "Titanic" phase in my youth. I remember being tremendously excited when the first evidence of the wreck was found over twenty years ago. So I am particularly intrigued by this development.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Stonehenge Altered in Roman Era?

The results are way too preliminary from ongoing excavations at Stonehenge, but there does seem to be some evidence that someone in Roman times modified the monument. Quoting Current Archaeology:

However the most surprising discoveries so far have been Roman. In a small pit
containing a small bluestone in the corner of the trench, itself cut into the
main socket of one of the uprights, they found a Roman coin. Even more alarming,
was the excavation of the large pit in the centre of the excavation, where right
near the bottom they found a very small piece of what was indubitably Roman
pottery. Was there a major reordering of the site in the Roman period? As
Geoffrey Wainwright said, their small trench looked like an urban excavation,
there were so many intercutting pits.

This could be some form of turbation or other taphonomic process. But it is certainly interesting.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Maya hieroglyphic decipherment on NOVA, April 8

The show appears to be a history of the decipherment. But regardless of that, there are a few neat aspects on the website, such as a translation of Piedras Negras Stela 3, with audio for the entire text. This is of course similar to the audio elements of the dictionaries at FAMSI, which are well worth checking out.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Aztec Measurements Deduced

Using a mix of history, mathematics, and survey, two researchers have uncovered smaller units of measure employed in Aztec surveys, that are not part of a vigesimal (20-base) scaling but are instead unique prime numbers.

SAA Session on the Meteor Hypothesis and New Evidence for Humans in North America Before Clovis

Coprolites from Oregon date to 14,000 BP, have human DNA in them, and were found alongside artifacts. This is getting a lot of press. Archaeology Magazine sent an editor to talk to the researchers.

On a related note, I attended part of the session at the Society for American Archaeology meetings, on the asteroid hypothesis, that eastern North America was devastated in 12,900 BP by an impact that also created the Younger Dryas. It was jampacked with people, standing room only with many being turned away, the likes of which I've never seen at a conference before. Many of those people were younger undergraduate or graduate students. There is obvious interest I couldn't stay that long, I had people to see and the packed room was tiring (a good 15 degrees warmer than the hallway outside, due to body heat). But from what I saw, it once again seemed like the same fight, and many of the same fighters, from the pre-Clovis debate and related battles over Meadocroft, Monte Verde, and Cactus Hill (one of the papers was on Cactus Hill). I don't do paleo, so I can't comment further.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Silver of the Iceni

Interesting piece on hybrid uses of material culture, the complexity of culture contact, and the always popular Boudica

Monday, March 10, 2008

Pagan Archaeological Treasure Trove in Cornwall

I've blogged before about ritual magic deposits. But if the interpretation is right, this one takes the cake.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dissertation Now Available

My doctoral dissertation on the ceramics of early colonial San Salvador is now available if you have access to the UMI/Proquest dissertation database. I went the extra mile and gave them a pdf of my creation, so it is text searchable and has color imagery.

The citation is

Card, Jeb J.
2007 The Ceramics of Colonial Ciudad Vieja, El Salvador: Culture Contact and Social Change in Mesoamerica. Ph.D. dissertation, Tulane University. University Microfilms, Ann Arbor.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Divination "Game" and First Druid Grave?

The preservation on this thing sounds fairly incredible.

I would note the inherent notion that a proper Druid wouldn't be messing around with anything Roman. Many assumptions there about lack of contact across Europe in the centuries before the actual Roman conquest of Britain, about technology transfer and medicine, about concepts of purity and identity.

UPDATE: Images of the burial and artifacts

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Lewis Chessmen

Nifty essay on the famous ivory Viking chessmen. A good read.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

On Lost Cities: Lost Inka City of Patiti Found ... Again

The legend of El Dorado, or this case the variant of the Inka city of Patiti, crops up about every six months when a new impressive stone ruin is found in the jungles of South America. Here's the current candidate.

I can't blame them, of course. I remember the false alarms around finding Copan royal founder Yax K'uk' Mo', before his tomb was finally identified for certain. El Mirador was overlooked for decades before it was rediscovered as the greatest of all Maya cities, transforming the picture of early Maya civilization, and Tikal has the Mundo Perdido or "Lost World" pyramid which has a similar history. And closer to Patiti, there is always the tantalizing memory of the lost city of Macchu Picchu, discovered right at the peak of popular interest in explorers and lost cities and other colonial-era fantasticalness.

Back in college, I remember being amazed by the discovery of Ubar using space shuttle imagery and remote sensing to find camel and foot paths. The Moskitia of Honduras has the enduring legend of the White City, Ciudad Blanca. It too is looked for (here's an example) and sometimes found time and again. Initially supposed to be a city of gleaming white stone buildings, in the 20th century viewed from the air in addition to the old tales, it has also taken on the meaning over time of being a lost city of White people. This of course brings to mind the older medieval stories of Prester John and later colonial myths and fiction of lost Roman legions that brought civilization to Africa, reflected in the treatment of Great Zimbabwe. The British Empire had a lost city of its own, Camelot, which has been identified several times, including at Tintagel in Cornwall.

EDIT: Looks like Patiti is still lost

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Amarna's Dead Suggest Brutal Akhetaten

For a long time, conventional wisdom held that the Old Kingdom great Pyramids of Dynastic Egypt were the product of mass slave labor. There were several reasons that this idea was popular, ranging from the understable awe at the task, to stereotypes of the oriental despot, to the bondage described in the Old Testament.

Archaeological excavation has revealed otherwise, that gangs of professional laborers were a major factor in the construction of the Pyramids. But it now seems that there was one Pharoah that ruled in this manner: Akhenaten. to briefly summarize, Amenhotep IV of the 18th Dynasty became the head of a cult of the sun disk, Aten, changed his name to Akhenaten and built a new capital city, Akhetaten. Here, he and his family acted as intermediaries between the Aten and the world, in part by ending worship of the other gods. Akhenaten was swept from historical records and his city abandoned not long after his death.

In much of the 20th century, Akhenaten was a heroic or enlightened figure to many Western scholars and writers, his monotheism a sign of what was to come. He has been linked by modern occult and alternative theorists to Moses (also here). But more recently, the cult of the Pharaoh and his god, of royal military processions and a radical break with the past have led some investigators to view the Amarna period as one of revolutionary dictatorship. Now, osteological evidence from Amarna suggests that the inhabitants were extremely unhealthy and worked into an early grave during construction of the city.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Experiment : Culture Rewires the Brain

Not archaeology, but of importance to anthropology.

A recent study suggests that cultural differences rewire the human brain. In the experiment, cultural differences manifested in how much work the brain had to do in solving certain visual geometry problems, and correlated not just with broad cultural divides, but with individual attitudes regarding cultural values.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ritual Cache Found on Top of Mexico City Cathedral

The article says it is a "time capsule," but lets call it what it is: a magical protective cache. Placed on top of the Metropolitan Cathedral in 1791, the contents include:

- a small case of wax blessed by the Pope that served to protect against mishaps

- an engraving of Saint Barbara, a Roman Catholic martyr associated with lightning whose image served as "a religious lightening rod, to protect against damage," said archaeologist Xavier Cortes

- 23 medals, 5 coins, and five small crosses made of palm fronds - which it said were "for protection from the storms."

I have previously blogged about magical caches left in Anglo- and Anglo-American buildings.

Guatemalan President Announces El Mirador to Become Tourist Park

El Mirador is the cradle of Classic Maya civilization, the first great city. Now swallowed by jungle, two thousand years ago it was a Maya metropolis dotted by numerous pyramid temples, some of them the largest constructions of the Maya world, centuries before the "Classic" period. The city was abandoned before the Classic period began, at least in part due to ecological mismanagement and destruction documented by archaeological projects directed by Richard Hansen. But the Mirador basin was remembered, and scattered activity and settlement continued. The Kan dynasty of Calakmul (which is connected to El Mirador by an ancient road), which dominated much of the Maya world in the 6th and 7th centuries, seem to have clamed the city as their ancestral home.

Shockinlyg, this city only came to light decades after Maya archaeology had become a serious field of study. This was largely due to the remote location of the city and the extremely difficult field conditions. Once the size and age of the city became clear, the entire story of the development of Maya civilization had to be changed, a process that is ongoing.

El Mirador is about to become even more high profile. In his inauguration speech, newly-elected Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom announced plans to open the site the tourism, part of a plan to tame the infamously lawless Peten.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

How Bad Archaeology Should Be Handled

The term pseudoscience is one I don't like. It smacks of a clubhouse, with people who are in, and those who are out. This only breeds contempt for established science and learning.

If someone makes claims that appear to be completely unsupported and crazy, don't call it pseudo. Call it what it is: bad.

And don't just call it that, point out why it is wrong and why another interpretation is right.

Case in point: Colombian gold artifacts have for years been highlighted in books and tv programs claiming that the artifacts are representations of ancient jet planes. Anyone looking at them can see the resemblance, but of course this makes no sense.

Take a look at how Mori handled this, with an initially respectful tone that doesn't speak from authority, but with simple common sense.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Blingdom of God

Irreverent and insightful blog on material culture and spirituality. Not about archaeology, but very much of interest to those who study material culture.