Sunday, November 01, 2009

Ah, the good old days of divine monarchy and mass murder!

From the New York Times, an article on happier days at Ur:

A new examination of skulls from the royal cemetery at Ur, discovered in Iraq almost a century ago, appears to support a more grisly interpretation than before of human sacrifices associated with elite burials in ancient Mesopotamia, archaeologists say.

Palace attendants, as part of royal mortuary ritual, were not dosed with poison to meet a rather serene death. Instead, a sharp instrument, a pike perhaps, was driven into their heads.

Archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania reached that conclusion after conducting the first CT scans of two skulls from the 4,500-year-old cemetery. The cemetery, with 16 tombs grand in construction and rich in gold and jewels, was discovered in the 1920s. A sensation in 20th century archaeology, it revealed the splendor at the height of the Mesopotamian civilization.

The recovery of about 2,000 burials attested to the practice of human sacrifice on a large scale. At or even before the demise of a king or queen, members of the court — handmaidens, warriors and others — were put to death. Their bodies were usually arranged neatly, the women in elaborate headdress, the warriors with weapons at their side.

C. Leonard Woolley, the English archaeologist who directed the excavations, a collaboration between Penn and the British Museum, eventually decided that the attendants had been marched down into burial chambers, where they drank poison and lay down to die. That became the conventional story....

The researchers, led by Janet M. Monge, a physical anthropologist at Penn, applied forensic skills to arrive at the probable cause of death in both cases.

There were two round holes in the soldier’s cranium and one in the woman’s, each about an inch in diameter. But the most convincing evidence, Dr. Monge said in an interview, were cracks radiating from the holes. Only if the holes were made in a living person would they have produced such a pattern of fractures along stress lines. The more brittle bones of a person long dead would shatter like glass, she explained.

Dr. Monge surmised that the holes were made by a sharp instrument and that death “by blunt-force trauma was almost immediate.”...

But what did this "process" smell like?

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Monday, October 19, 2009


I would love to hear some informed commentary on this article from Reuters and The Independent:
Modern man 'a wimp', says anthropologist

Many prehistoric Australian aboriginals could have outrun world 100 and 200 metres record holder Usain Bolt in modern conditions.

Some Tutsi men in Rwanda exceeded the current world high jump record of 2.45 meters during initiation ceremonies in which they had to jump at least their own height to progress to manhood.

Any Neanderthal woman could have beaten former bodybuilder and current California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in an arm wrestle.

These and other eye-catching claims are detailed in a book by Australian anthropologist Peter McAllister entitled "Manthropology" and provocatively sub-titled "The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male."

McAllister sets out his stall in the opening sentence of the prologue.

"If you're reading this then you - or the male you have bought it for - are the worst man in history...."


Manthropology abounds with other examples:

* Roman legions completed more than one-and-a-half marathons a day carrying more than half their body weight in equipment.

* Athens employed 30,000 rowers who could all exceed the achievements of modern oarsmen.

* Australian aboriginals threw a hardwood spear 110 meters or more (the current world javelin record is 98.48).

McAllister said it was difficult to equate the ancient spear with the modern javelin but added: "Given other evidence of Aboriginal man's superb athleticism you'd have to wonder whether they couldn't have taken out every modern javelin event they entered."

Why the decline?

"We are so inactive these days and have been since the industrial revolution really kicked into gear," McAllister replied. "These people were much more robust than we were.

"We don't see that because we convert to what things were like about 30 years ago. There's been such a stark improvement in times, technique has improved out of sight, times and heights have all improved vastly since then but if you go back further it's a different story.

"At the start of the industrial revolution there are statistics about how much harder people worked then.

"The human body is very plastic and it responds to stress. We have lost 40 percent of the shafts of our long bones because we have much less of a muscular load placed upon them these days.

"We are simply not exposed to the same loads or challenges that people were in the ancient past and even in the recent past so our bodies haven't developed. Even the level of training that we do, our elite athletes, doesn't come close to replicating that.

"We wouldn't want to go back to the brutality of those days but there are some things we would do well to profit from."
Well, he sure knows how to get interviews and onto talkshows. But such interviews aren't necessarily the whole story. This may make more or less sense when spelled out in detail. It sounds oversimplified to me. Were early factory workers "inactive?" More likely worn out by too much repetitive, body-destructive work.

Image: Women making artillery shells in Quebec in World War II. Active or inactive?

Has there been, in his theory, a decline in womankind?

Update: In addition to the substantial comments below, Will McLean has weighed in on this. Indeed, see his recent blog entries for other good material.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

King Hrothgar's hall?

Is there anything to this story from the Copenhagen Post?

Could a large mud building unearthed in Lejre have been a cult place or beer hall of the ancient Viking kings?

The hall, 48 metres long and seven metres across, overlooks the site of a Viking palace unearthed in 1986 in what is an historic area of Denmark.

‘We are sure we have found a royal building of some sort,’ said Tom Christensen, curator of Roskilde Museum at the time. ‘The odd thing about the site is that it is littered with bits and pieces of exquisite golden jewellery, glass and bronze broaches, high quality artifacts, such as drinking glasses and ceramics, which all seem to have been deliberately smashed in some ritual.’

‘There is also a huge pile of cooking stones from primitive ovens. This was obviously a place frequented by the upper classes of the Iron Age. Maybe it was some sort of beer hall or a sacred site where cult or religious activities were carried out. The building’s post holes are over a metre deep, so it must have been an impressive construction,’ said Christensen.


Set in the period of the Germanic migrations in the fourth to seventh centuries, the poem [Beowulf] places the Scylding King Hrothgar’s Hall, Hereot, at Lejre, while Saxo Grammaticus, a 13th century chronicler who compiled a history of both legendary and historical Danish kings, also identified Lejre as an ancient royal seat.

Many modern Beowulf scholars identify Hereot with Lejre and, with the discovery of the hall, Danish archaeologists believed they had finally found the site. ‘The date of the cult place fits perfectly with the era of the Scyldings,’ Christensen said.

In 1986 archaeologists discovered a major upturned boat-shaped Viking longhouse, but only the foundations of the huge hall and outhouses remained as the original construction had been of wood. The 50-metre-long, 10-metre-high longhouse was twice the size of any similar hall discovered in Denmark, leading archaeologists to believe they had stumbled on a royal palace from the time of the sagas.

The dimensions of the hall were calculated from 200 posthole marks on the ground from the huge oak beams that supported the walls and roof. There were signs on the site of earlier constructions, dams, windmills and other buildings including a bronze foundry, workshops and outlining fencing, underlining the importance of the Lejre settlement.

A museum now occupies a plot of land near the site. The English web address for the Lejre Museum is

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Staffordshire hoard website

R.S. Nokes passes on the link for the clearinghouse website.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

More on the Staffordshire hoard

The BBC has a good article.


... there are two main possibilities.

The first is that this treasure has been purposefully deposited, like an offering to a god.

But, from my 21st-Century perspective, I find it bewildering that someone could shove so much metalwork into the ground as an offering. That seems like overkill.

The other possibility is it's a treasure chest that got lost, or they couldn't come back for it.

The material is predominantly associated with war - swords, sword fittings, bits of helmets and the like - but all the precious metalwork has been stripped.

That means they're not treasuring the objects as wholes,they're taking the precious metals off and keeping them.

Most things we find from the Anglo-Saxon period are what we call "chance finds", in other words the things people lost, or hoards purposefully deposited, or finds from burials.

But hoarding is more associated with the Viking period. Things like big coin hoards are more a 10th-Century sort of find. This is a strange phenomenon in this country for the 7th Century.

People will now be working to understand when the material was deposited, then we'll look at what we know of the history - which is not a lot - to tie it down.

The finds date from a wide period, which is unusual, so the first thing this may do is help us improve our dating of the Anglo-Saxon period.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Boxes and boxes of gold

That's what one expert said about the biggest Anglo-Saxon treasure trove ever found -- a huge collection of items, many of them stripped off weapons. This has got to be the hidden wealth of a king or a very successful army at the end of a string of luck. The image above, from the BBC story, is engraved with a biblical verse in Latin: "Rise up O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face." Says the BBC: "It has two sources, the Book of Numbers or Psalm 67, taken from the Vulgate, the Bible used by the Saxons."

If you want to see more -- lots more -- go to this Flickr page and use the slide show.

Top story in the UK today, I hear.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

A big Viking hoard may rewrite the history books

This post from the Independent (UK) has two very interesting points. First, the discovery is being called the "largest and most important" Viking hoard found in Britain since 1840, which is a long time. Second, responsible metal detectorists found and properly handled the discovery. Hooray!

As for rewriting the history books:
Some of the coins shed new light on the period – parts of Britain such as Staffordshire and Yorkshire were already believed lost by the Vikings and under Anglo-Saxon dominion, yet there are coins which show the Vikings were still creating their own currency in these regions. One such coin, with the word "Rorivacastr" on it, is believed to have originated from Roceter, in 10th-century Staffordshire, on the border of Viking and Anglo Saxon control.

Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coins and Viking expert at the British Museum, said this particular coin revealed that the region may still have been under Viking control, despite Anglo Saxon spin that it was under their rule. He added that it was a truly remarkable find, with a vast array of coins from as far afield as Scandinavia, continental Europe, Tashkent and Afghanistan.

"There's been nothing like it for over 150 years. The size and range of material gives us an insight into the political history, the cultural diversity of the Viking world and the range of cultural and economic contact at that time," he said. Priceless lessons in history would further be revealed in four years time after careful study, he added.

Image: a small part of the hoard.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Memories of Catal Huyuk

Not very much like it, but this does make me think of the Neolithic city. And reminds me of Dave Nichols.

It's actually a neighborhood on the outskirts of Kandahar.

From the Big Picture, In Afghanistan, Part Two. Don't miss Part One.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Two book reviews from Phil Paine

The most widely read person I know is Phil Paine. (Some of my colleagues consider me widely read, but next to Phil I am a piker.) Over on his website, Phil has a monthly list of books, articles, and online resources that he has read, with occasional reviews of things he finds particularly noteworthy -- which is not necessarily to say, "good." Today he posted (June, 2009 section) two reviews, one critical and one very appreciative.

(Samuel P. Huntington) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

This is a stupid book. Unfortunately, it's also been a very influential one.

Huntington starts out by playing the old "civilizations" game, popular from the late 19th century onward. Nobody any longer takes you seriously if you talk about nationalities in a silly, anthropomorphic way ("The Dutch are cheese-eating, practical people, but they are doomed to failure as nation because they smoke too much marijuana and their feet must hurt from wearing wooden shoes"). But if you shift the discussion to "civilizations", big segments of the globe defined by arbitrary criteria, you can get away with it. You can define these "civilizations" any way you want, but usually they end up being nothing more than a map of the world's major religions. This is not surprising, since these mega-religions are usually accompanied by enough visual cues that you can quickly guess which one you are in by the shapes of buildings, clothing, or other material evidence. There is, of course, some common-sense truth to the observation that places where Islam is predominant have similarities, and places where Christianity is practiced are connected to each other, etc. It is an easy, but intellectually dubious further step to assume that the human race is divided into mega-tribal subdivisions, almost like species, and that these can be neatly drawn on a map. Anthropomorphizing these divisions is merely the old fallacy of "innate national character" writ larger. It appeals to the impulse to see the world in cartoons. This is exactly what Huntington does, way, way too much to make his work credible....

Huntington's knowledge of cultures is pretty shallow, because his main interest is really in the "clash" part of the book's title. The book is really about dividing the world into football teams so that you can imagine strategies of play between them... who should align with whom, and who is the "natural" enemy of whom. That's why the book appeals to so many armchair political pundits. You only need to remember a handful of "civilizations" and their accompanying cliché phrases to "get" everything. No need to bother remembering the names of hundreds of countries, or even consider the motives of individual human beings. Easy peasy.

What Huntington is really about becomes evident toward the end of the book, when he engages in a tirade against the evils of "multiculturalism", a phenomenon which he grotesquely misrepresents. The human race is, in his view, divided into distinct species, and, surprise surprise, nothing but trouble can result if they mingle. He kind of sneaks up on it with hundreds of pages of stuff about regions and religions, but what it's really about is how dirty foreigners should be kept out of America because then it will "no longer be America". Why? Because they don't have "Western values", And what are these "Western values"? Well, among them he repeatedly lists "pluralism and tolerance". So Americans and Europeans should, it seems, exclude people of different ethnicity in order to protect "pluralism"!! He even casually states, as if it were a forgone conclusion, that if the U.S. went to war with China, then Mexican-Americans would automatically refuse to participate, because it would "not be their war". This was so silly that I actually bust out laughing when I read it, startling fellow riders in the subway. The subway car was a typical Canadian one --- utterly and sublimely multicultural --- so the silliness of it was particularly delicious. It's plain that underneath Huntington's wacky logic and feigned scholarship, there is nothing more than another sclerotic old man having an apoplectic fit because he went to the corner store and saw signs in the window in funny-looking alphabets....
(Edward L. Ochsenschlager) Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden

This is a brilliant book. Ochsenschlager was engaged in an important archaeological project in Iraq, starting in 1968. The site was the Sumerian city of Lagash. Puzzled by some unglamorous, but intriguing artifacts, he started looking for analogies among the local people to interpret them. The local people included Bedouin tribes, the agricultural Beni Hasan, and the famous Mi'dan [Marsh Arabs] who lived in the reed-filled swamps at the conjunction of the Tigris and Euphrates. All these people (in 1968, at any rate) lived material lives thought to very closely resemble that of the ancient inhabitants of the land when it was Edinu, the Biblical Eden (hence the book's title). Thus, the author was drawn into the peculiar discipline of "ethnoarchaeology", in which most archaeologist still feel uncomfortable. Archaeologists are comfortable with places and objects. They aren't anthropologists. When they try to be, even in the laudable quest to understand ancient artifacts, they can easily screw up. Ochlenschlager is unusually sensitive to the pitfalls. ...

Ochlenschlager examined the making, use, and transformations of every article he could find --- weapons, storage containers, cookware, boats, musical instruments, children's toys. This could only be done in a serious way over many years, with extreme sensitivity in dealing with people, earning their trust and overcoming the perils of misdirection and misinterpretation. None of this is easy, and he shows exactly how it can be done right, or badly. Almost anyone who reads historical or archaeological interpretations of material evidence should read this book.

Some of the most delightful parts concern children's toys, and they reveal one of the marvelous subtleties of human behaviour to which most historians are oblivious:

In 1968 children in the villages over the age of 3 or 4 always made their own toys out of mud. Abandoned mud toys could be found everywhere in village courtyards, alongside the canals and marshes, and even in the fields. Unfortunately, domestic toy making disappeared rapidly. Manufactured plastic toys, available in nearby market towns, gradually replaced them. By 1970 a wide variety of cheap plastic toys was available to those of every economic level. Most children were attracted to these plastic toys because of their bright colors and their relative durability. At first children would continue to make toys that were not available in the market out of mud, but that came to an abrupt end in 1972. So popular had the new plastic toys become that most villagers could find no reason to continue using mud toys short of lack of money. Indeed cheapness came to be thought the sole criteria for continuing to make toys out of mud, and this impacted that part of the father's honor which depends on his ability to provide adequately for his family. To make a mud toy under these conditions was to bring dishonor on the family.

Without some knowledge of the role of honor and its requirement that men provide strong financial support to their families in these villages, what reasons would archaeologists give for the sudden and complete disappearance of mud toys? Bold colors and increased durability seem the most reasonable, and in part logical, answers, as the villagers found these attributes attractive at first. But logic alone does not begin to explain why old forms disappeared completely and with such speed; the compelling power of color and durability must not be overestimated. The children themselves were a real problem. When they had only the few animal forms sold in the suk to play with, they sometimes had to be forcibly stopped from making additional toys of mud. They missed the freedom of making any toys they could imagine and playing any game they wished. The kind and number of toys available now limited their games. Attractive colors and durability may have given impetus for the change, but it was the challenge to family honor that made parents forbid their children to make mud toys.

It takes a remarkable person to make such an observation. This book is full of such things.They'll inspire an acute reader to understand not only the culture of the marshes, and the artifacts of the ancient civilization of Lagash, but also many puzzling aspects of human life in general.

Plenty more stuff where that came from!

Image: A Marsh Arab settlement.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Southwest Script

...has nothing to with Arizona or New Mexico. It is a script found on stones in southern Portugal and some neighboring parts of Spain. And I had never heard of it before I was directed to this AP story by Explorator. Here are some of the more interesting things I learned:

For more than two centuries, scientists have tried to decipher Southwest Script, believed to be the peninsula's oldest written tongue and, along with Etruscan from modern-day Italy, one of Europe's first. The stone tablet features 86 characters and provides the longest-running text of the Iron Age language ever found.

About 90 slate tablets bearing the ancient inscriptions have been recovered, most of them incomplete. Almost all were scattered across southern Portugal, though a handful turned up in the neighboring Spanish region of Andalucia.

Some of the letters look like squiggles. Others are like crossed sticks. One resembles the number four and another recalls a bow-tie. They were carefully scored into the slate. The text is always a running script, with unseparated words which usually read from right to left.

The first attempts to interpret this writing date from the 18th century. It aroused the curiosity of a bishop whose diocese encompassed this region where the earth keeps coughing up new fragments.

Almodovar, a rural town of some 3,500 people amid a gentle landscape of meadows punctuated by whitewashed towns, sits at the heart of the Southwest Script region. It created a museum two years ago where 20 of the engraved tablets are on show.

Though the evidence is gradually building as new tablets are found, researchers are handicapped because they are peering deep into a period of history about which they know little, says professor Pierre Swiggers, a Southwest Script specialist at the University of Leuven, Belgium. Scientists have few original documents and hardly any parallel texts from the same time and place in readable languages.

"We hardly know anything about (the people's) daily habits or religious beliefs," he says.

Southwest Script is one of just a handful of ancient languages about which little is known, according to Swiggers. The obscurity has provided fertile ground for competing theories about who wrote these words.

It is generally agreed the texts date from between 2,500 and 2,800 years ago. Most experts have concluded they were authored by a people called Tartessians, a tribe of Mediterranean traders who mined for metal in these parts — one of Europe's largest copper mines is nearby — but disappeared after a few centuries. Some scientists have proposed that the composers were other pre-Roman tribes, such as the Conii or Cynetes, or maybe even Celts who roamed this far south.

Another translation difficulty is that the writing is not standardized. It seems certain that it was adapted from the Phoenician and Greek alphabets because it copied some of their written conventions. However, it also tweaked some of those rules and invented new ones.

Experts have identified characters that represent 15 syllables, seven consonants and five vowels. But eight characters, including a kind of vertical three-pronged fork, have confounded attempts at comprehension.

There is more at the Yahoo news site.

Image: one reconstruction of Southwest script.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Turin Kinglist fragments rediscovered

Sometimes when we medievalists are feeling unloved, we can get a little self-righteous with our sources compared to people who study more recent eras which have for instance organized archives.

But imagine finding organizing and reinterpreting really ancient stuff, like the challenge recently covered in a Discovery News article:
Some newly recovered papyrus fragments may finally help solve a century-old puzzle, shedding new light on ancient Egyptian history.

Found stored between two sheets of glass in the basement of the Museo Egizio in Turin, the fragments belong to a 3,000-year-old unique document, known as the Turin Kinglist.


Believed to date from the long reign of Ramesses II, the papyrus contains an ancient list of Egyptian kings.

Scholars from the British Museum were tipped off to the existence of the additional fragments after reviewing a 1959 analysis of the papyrus by a British archaeologist. In his work, the archaeologist, Alan Gardiner, mentions fragments that were not included in the final reconstruction on display at the museum. After an extensive search, museum researchers found the pieces.

The finding could help more accurately piece together what is considered to be a key item for understanding ancient Egyptian history.

"This is one of the most important documents to reconstruct the chronology of Egypt between the 1st and 17th Dynasty," Federico Bottigliengo, Egyptologist at the Turin museum, told Discovery News.

"Unlike other lists of kings, it enumerates all rulers, including the minor ones and those considered usurpers. Moreover, it records the length of reigns in years, and in some cases even in months and days."

Written in an ancient Egyptian cursive writing system called hieratic, the papyrus was purchased in Thebes by the Italian diplomat and explorer Bernardino Drovetti in 1822. Placed in a box along with other papyri, the parchment disintegrated into small fragments by the time it arrived in Italy.

Some 48 pieces of the puzzle were first assembled by French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832). Later, some other hundred fragments were pieced together by German and American archaeologist Gustavus Seyffarth (1796-1885).

One of the most important restorations was made in 1938 by Giulio Farina, the museum's director. But in 1959, Gardiner, the British Egyptologist, proposed another placement of the fragments, including the newly recovered pieces.

Now made of 160 fragments, the Turin Kinglist basically lacks two important parts: the introduction of the list and the ending.

"Some of the finest scholars have worked on the papyrus last century, but disagreement about its reconstruction has remained," Bottigliengo said. "It has been a never-ending puzzle."

"The enumeration of the kings does not continue after the 17th Dynasty. We are confident that the recovered fragments will help reconstruct some of the missing parts as well as add new knowledge to Egyptian history and chronology."

"It is possible that some dates will have to be changed and names of pharaohs will have to be added," Bottigliengo said.

Notice how many lifetimes it takes to make any progress?

Thanks to Explorator for the tip.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Cuneiform, politics, and international law

From the Tehran Times:

About 700 Iranologists and Iranian cultural heritage lovers have recently signed a petition asking President Barack Obama to prevent confiscation of Iran’s 300 Achaemenid clay tablets loaned to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

The petition has been organized by the European Iranologist Society (Societas Iranologica Europaea, SIE) in its website

The petition reads the artifacts “being cultural property, should not be considered as a common property, whose financial value can be exploited for the purpose of legal compensation.”

“The antiquities belong to the cultural heritage of Iran on behalf of human kind and should therefore remain in public hands.

“We therefore, well aware of the separation of powers, nevertheless apply to you in order that this unconscionable decision with irreversible consequences should be avoided.

“A country such as the United States should not be complicit in the sale of the world’s cultural heritage.”


In spring 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Blanche Manning ruled that a group of people injured by a 1997 bombing in Israel could seize the 300 clay tablets loaned to the University of Chicago and the university cannot protect Iran’s ownership rights to the artifacts.


The tablets were discovered by the University of Chicago archaeologists in 1933 while they were excavating in Persepolis, the site of a major Oriental Institute excavation.

The artifacts bear cuneiform script explaining administrative details of the Achaemenid Empire from about 500 BC. They are among a group of tens of thousands of tablets and tablet fragments that were loaned to the university’s Oriental Institute in 1937 for study. [My emphasis, SM] A group of 179 complete tablets was returned in 1948, and another group of more than 37,000 tablet fragments was returned in 1951.

Image: One of the tablets, showing Old Persian written in cuneiform.

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

It's all around us, all the time

But in some places it's more concentrated and more interesting: I'm talking about trash generated by human beings.

The Medieval Material Culture Blog here reprints an article from the Times Online, which talks about one of the more interesting and accessible sources of historical trash, the Thames estuary in England. I have lots of friends who own medieval artifacts that were recovered from this area. Says the journalist, :

When the tide is low and the weather fine, I sometimes walk the dog on the London Thames foreshore. After a good many years I am still amazed at what you come across if you train yourself to see what you are looking at.

Naturally there are broken pub glasses, plastic bags, bottles and buckets, disposable cigarette lighters, condoms, all the detritus of a string of nights before, but the leavings of the past are often strewn even more thickly. There are the half-decomposed, near-petrified, balks of timber going back to Neolithic times, the remains of barge-beds, medieval bricks, tiles and fragments of glass; rings and medals, pins and nails from many centuries; clay pipes and, more rarely, clay wig-curlers, bones, masses of ceramic shards, shoals of Victorian oyster and mussel shells; and strange fragments of marine equipment, hanks of unravelling rope — even the skeleton of a boat left to moulder a couple of hundred years ago.

Once, on the pebbly strand between Blackfriars and Southwark Bridges, where the Millennium Bridge is now, I interviewed Mike Webber, the archaeologist who headed the Museum of London’s 1998 survey of the tidal Thames foreshore. I thought I knew that stretch, and could guess what might turn up on it, but I was proved utterly wrong when he casually bent down and handed me a short, curved object.

“Have a walrus tusk,” he said. “Look, there,” he continued. “A waster. That’s a London delft floor tile, where the glaze spoiled in the kiln, so they chucked it away. Probably from the Bear Lane pottery over there.

“That pottery ring is the mouth of a sugar mould, like a rhubarb forcer for making sugar loaves. Look, there’s the base. Perhaps there was a sugar wharf here …”

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Stonehenge: No one who wasn't there can imagine what that music was like

But we can reconstruct and dream, can't we?

The Mail reports an acoustic-archaeological experiment:

Part-time DJ Dr Till, an expert in acoustics and music technology at Huddersfield University, believes the standing stones of Stonehenge had the ideal acoustics to amplify a 'repetitive trance rhythm' not dissimilar to some kinds of modern trance music.

Stonehenge would have had strange acoustic effects thousands of years ago

The original Stonehenge probably had a 'very pleasant, almost concert-like acoustic' that our ancestors slowly perfected over many generations. Because Stonehenge itself is partially collapsed, Dr Till, used a computer model to conduct experiments in sound.

The most exciting discoveries came when he and colleague Dr Bruno Fazenda visited a full-size concrete replica of Stonehenge, which was built as a war memorial by American road builder Sam Hill at Maryhill in Washington state.

He said: 'We were able to get some interesting results when we visited the replica by using computer-based acoustic analysis software, a 3D soundfield microphone, a dodecahedronic (12-faced) speaker, and a huge bass speaker.

'We have also been able to reproduce the sound of someone speaking or clapping in Stonehenge 5,000 years ago.

'The most interesting thing is we managed to get the whole space (at Maryhill) to resonate, almost like a wine glass will ring if you run a finger round it.

'While that was happening a simple drum beat sounded incredibly dramatic. The space had real character; it felt that we had gone somewhere special.'

Read the rest.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Prehistoric burial mounds in southern Sweden

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Exploring the Viking Age in Denmark

Darrell Markewitz, ironmonger and Iron Age re-enactor extraordinaire, made a research trip to Denmark in Spring 2008. Now he has packaged hundreds of pictures of sites, museums, and artifacts on a jewelcased DVD, which also includes his extensive commentaries. It is available here now!

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Monday, December 08, 2008

An ancient Saharan petroglyph of a captive giraffe

One surviving bit of the culture of the last wet era in Saharan history, from The Big Picture (click to see the "big picture," or go here to see a whole collection of Saharan archaeology pics.)

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gobekli Tepe -- the first great human monument

I am not teaching ancient history this year but I am still very interested. It's hard to imagine anyone with a feeling for any sort of early history not being fascinated by this one.

Archaeologists working in that part of the fertile crescent which is now located in Turkey have found a huge hill which seems to be the remains of late Stone Age temple building on a grand scale at a place now called Gobekli Tepe. The great stone structures date to long before Sumer -- as one archaeologist says, there is more time between Gobekli Tepe (9000 BC) and Sumer than there is between Sumer and us -- and in fact before agriculture was invented. Somehow hunter gatherers mustered the resources to build what was not a town or settlement or fortification but simply an immense complex of stone monuments.

Smithsonian Magazine has a very good article, the best part of which for me is the speculation by the archaeologists that it was the demand for resources to build such a site that made necessary agriculture and domestication of animals. For a very long time historians have been telling students and the general public and each other that it was the invention of agriculture which made possible big projects like Gobekli Tepe; but maybe it's the other way around.

Thanks to Phil Paine and Skye Sepp for drawing my attention to this.

Image: Gobekli Tepe from Smithsonian Magazine. This is just one of a collection of amazing pictures at the Smithsonian site.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why do historians study the subjects they study?

It's not just that they are faddy people, says Magistra and Mater, in a rather long (but interesting!) post:

Chris [Wickham] has contributed enormously to socio-economic history, and much of the talk was implicitly a call for this to be prioritised, in combination with archaeological expertise. Indeed Chris explicitly contrasted the fruitful relationship of history with archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s (with a historical tendency towards broad-sweep structural analysis, based on socio-economic history) with the historians’ later move away from archaeology with the linguistic turn. This meant that post-processural archaeologists in the late 1980s and 1990s found historical collaborators hard to come by.

It seemed clear to me in the talk that what Chris really wants is the 1970s back, but it’s not just structuralism that now seem as out of date as glam rock (and less likely to be revived). The big problem now is that socio-economic history provides few obvious reasons for studying the Middle Ages, let alone the early Middle Ages. Why should the economic history of the Middle Ages be of interest to anyone but specialists? My sense is that until recently there were two possible broader connections. If you were interested in grand Marxian analyses, then slave and feudal modes of production were an important part of the model to be studied. Meanwhile for an analysis of the roots of industrialisation or capitalism as a whole, late medieval England and its textile trade or late medieval Italy and its banking system were useful places to look.

The problem is that current global capitalism has advanced so far that many of the early steps look entirely irrelevant...

In contrast, other aspects of the early Middle Ages do seem to have more obvious contemporary resonance. Early medieval historians exploring theology, the construction of ethnicity, the development of the state, gender roles or the use of history as propaganda can all show connections between then and now in a way that has become difficult for early medieval socio-economic history. Archaeology can contribute to some aspects of these themes (it’s been very important for looking at ethnicity and culture, for example), but it’s not central to these issues in the same way as it is to socio-economic history.

That doesn’t mean that the study of medieval socio-economic history isn’t valuable or important in its own right, but I can’t see it returning to centre stage again. Chris ended by presenting an analysis of historical change in Palestine and Syria in the period 500-900. It was a good example of how much you can deduce from an area with a well-explored archaeological record without going to written sources. However, I’m not sure that many people apart from Chris are going to feel that the most important fact about seventh-century Islam is that it led to little change in the economy of the Levant. Arguing that archaeology should be an equal partner with history rather than its handmaiden may be a sound position, but it isn’t really going to be effective if what is offered is an attenuated vision of history where structural pattern has replaced story. [Emphasis Muhlberger.]

The bolded passage is the part that really caught my eye. Like M&M, I have tremendous respect for Chris Wickham and his work, but even without a lot of exposure to recent literary theory, my work of the last ten years has focused on why people tell the stories they do, in my case about war and chivalry.

Image: Could this come back???

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Friday, October 17, 2008

The Dead Sea Scrolls come to Toronto

Next year -- specifically from June 27, 2009 until Jan. 3, 2010 -- the Royal Ontario Museum will have a spectacular exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For details see this CBC article.

Image: The Book of Isaiah on display in Jerusalem.

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Archaeological riches of Ephesus (Turkey)

Jonathan Jarrett's blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe has a fascinating piece inspired by a seminar talk by Professor Charlotte Roueché on the challenges of archaeology at Ephesus (mainly, a common one: everyone wants to concentrate on their favorite period) and the particular insights that can be gained at this amazing locale:

[T]he extent of stone-carving in these cities, which is huge—Professor Roueché had a picture of a fair-sized wall at Aphrodisias covered in imperial edicts, including Diocletian’s price edict which you may have heard of and which we only have from stone—was apparently dwarfed by the number of more temporary painted inscriptions. Such an amazingly lettered culture is implied by this that it does seem quite alien to Westerners, who too often acquire an idea that writing is the preserve of the Latin Church. At Ephesus, the theatre seats are covered in carved graffiti; as Professor Roueché said you begin to think that everyone was carrying a chisel and hammer in their back pocket in case they passed a blank surface…

Lots more good stuff there!

Also, Jarrett has, for you philosophical scholars and would-be scholars, a meditation
on owning books.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Viking shield discovered in Denmark

Reenactors and re-creationists of all sorts will be happy to hear this news: a Viking era shield found in Denmark, reported here from Yahoo news.

It will be some time before such data as original weight and construction will be available. The reason the shield is still around, long after all the others have been beaten to flinders, is that it was found waterlogged in wet soil. Much effort will have to be put into removing and preserving it.

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Grave goods

Darrell Markewitz, author of the Iron Age ironmaking blog Hammered Out Bits, has contributed to a museum show called Grave Goods at the Woodstock Museum in Woodstock, Ontario. The show, open since Friday, will continue until November 1. For links to more details go here.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Is this a fake?

The bronze statue above, the Lupa Capitolina, is a famous 5th century BC depiction of the wolf who suckled the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. (The boys themselves have been long known to be Renaissance restorations.)

Now news comes out of Italy that the wolf, too, may be late (13th century A.D.?), and produced by a method unknown in antiquity.

For more details, see the story from the BBC.

Just goes to show you how our links to the past are always uncertain, or maybe, as Henry Ford said, "the bunk."

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Some ancient artifacts returned to Baghdad

Thanks to a diary on DailyKos, I was alerted to this story on Yahoo. There is an interesting slideshow at the Yahoo site.

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Were there commercial brands 5000 years ago?

Phil Paine has argued for a long time that many of the economic activities that we think of as characteristically modern -- especially commercial trade networks -- go back much farther in history and are typical of many cultures. Here is an interesting piece of news from the archaeological front. David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London, is now arguing that the well-known Mesopotamian bottle stoppers, which bear stamped-clay symbols, were in some cases used as brand logos. Here's the article from the New Scientist.

Image: One of the bottle stoppers in question, or perhaps a seal that produced bottle stoppers.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

More on Viking ship burial

Not so long ago, the bodies of two women were found buried at the famous Oseberg ship burial site. Here's the most recent news out of Norway.

Thanks to Dave for this tip.

Image: the discovery of the Oseberg ship in 1904. That guy on the left looks like he's about to start the Russian Revolution.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Resurrection of the Iraqi National Museum

Five years ago, during the invasion, the enormously significant archaeological collection at the Iraqi National Museum was plundered. (I'm sure there is a big story behind that plundering, not that we are likely ever to know it.)

Now, some good news: progress is being made towards restoration. The Globe and Mail has a short video report here.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Old world and new world agricultural origins

Phil Paine has for years been a critic of most archaeological reconstructions of early human history, both older ones that emphasized large scale migrations to explain technological (agricultural) change and newer ones that explained agricultural innovation by very slow adoption practically farm-by-farm.

In this blog post, "I Called the New World to Redress the Balance of the Old"... A Final Word on the European Neolithic (under Friday, March 7, 2008), Phil suggests that since evidence about the "New World Neolithic" is much more available than that about the European Neolithic, perhaps that evidence can be used to rethink how ancient innovation and ancient economies worked in the Old World. In the process he tells an interesting story of the Three Affiliated Tribes, and zings the notions of "simple" and "complex" societies and the idea that prehistoric trade was only ceremonial gift-giving.

You really need to read the whole thing, but here's a big excerpt to spark your appetite:

When I look at this kind of large-scale trade network [on the Great Plains], what strikes me most dramatically is that sedentary agricultural people, prairie nomads, fishermen, and isolated bands of hunters all participated in the trade network on an equal basis, and trade was of economic importance to all of them. People could not, in fact, be automatically pegged to a specific category, and there is no evidence that particular modes of production constituted a fixed evolutionary sequence, or distinct “levels”. People who lived as mobile hunters in also operated large-scale copper mines that supplied customers as far away as Mexico. Other “nomadic” people set up large permanent fish weirs in order to sell the products to distant farming villages, though they could easily have lived comfortably off of hunting in their area. This did not in any way alter their self-identification with linguistic and cultural relations who did not do this. All these intricate variations lead me to conclude that the trade-networks long predate agriculture, and that agricultural villages expanded into areas, like the Upper Missouri, already well-known through trade and travel. The sites of villages were selected, I believe, because they were already known to be productive centers of fishing, harvesting wild prairie turnips, berry picking, and good places to drive herds of buffalo over bluffs. North America’s network of rivers was an effective system of highways that could carry goods and people swiftly over long distances, and this network was as familiar to everyone as English people are now familiar with the M4 and M6. Significant gaps between agricultural regions along the Missouri, as well as clear traditions of migration (the three Tribes each arrived from different directions) demonstrate that a slow-moving “wave-front” of agriculture was not how agriculture spread, at least in this part of the world. All the evidence points to agriculture being a practice that took advantage of an already extensive trade and transport network to establish itself at strategic nodes, which were already significant for fishing, specialized hunting, as pre-agricultural trading places, or for the availability of specialty products. The Three Tribes were as much concerned with the availability of suitable construction timber as they were with the fertility of the soil, when they placed or moved their villages, and it is not accidental that a major move created a new village called Like-a-Fishhook. The scale, complexity, and economic importance of long-distance trade networks has long been familiar stuff among New World archaeologists, but somehow, this has had only reluctant, and devalued influence on the theoretical framework of European prehistory. There, old habits that regard commerce as ignoble, travel as unnatural, pre-ordained stages as the essence of history, and hierarchy as the preferred ordering principle of society still shape attitudes toward the past. Such ideas, of course, influence New World archaeologists and historians as well, but apparently not quite so rigidly. So, what do these examples from , where we have some secure knowledge of social systems and economies, have to say to us when we contemplate Neolithic Europe, where we have none?
They can tell us nothing for certain, but they can give us a good idea of what was possible, and even what was most likely.

What seems most likely to me is that agriculture spread through Europe by plugging itself into an already-existing network of trade and travel.

Image: Life on the Upper Missouri some time ago (George Catlin, 1832).

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A druid grave?

A friend sent me this very sensible article from Spiegel Online International about what might be the grave of a druid. The archaeological site, in Essex, sounds very interesting, but what might be the best thing about the article is how the author explains why archaeologists have to be careful in using labels like "Druid."

Image: Some of the utensils found in the grave.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Irbil as tourist attraction

Irbil in northern Iraq -- or if you prefer, Kurdistan -- is the best existing example of how continuous occupation of sites resulted in the creation of "tells," hills made up of the rubble of previous layers of settlement. Irbil (sometimes spelled Arbil) is one city that after maybe 8,000 years is still sitting perched on all that rubble.

Alas, Irbil, at least the old central part of the city, is crumbling and few of the buildings there are still occupied. Bet that's happened before! The municipal authorities, according to this Associated Press/MSNBC story, see an opportunity here. Given a certain amount of investment and peace and quiet, this could be a unique tourist attraction!

I'd go in a heartbeat.

Thanks to Explorator for bringing this to my attention.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Amarna finds: religious reform can be hard work

Well, I was just talking a bit ago about "the old con games," wasn't I? So today I saw over at Archaeoastronomy a post on an upcoming BBC TV show on recent work at Amarna, the city/religious center founded by the "monotheist" pharoah, Akhenaten. Here's the key passage:

One of the most shocking findings are the ages at death. There’s a chart you can look at and it’s pretty clear that Amarna was a lethal place. The 2007 report has a chart of its own. This shows that aging a skeleton isn’t always possible, but both charts indicate that a life in Amarna would likely be over at 35. The report by Melissa Zabecki, also from Arkansas, is grim. They had dental caries but probably didn’t complain too much about toothache as they were also likely to have extremely bad backs. Zabecki has found evidence of osteoarthritis and spinal trauma in many of the skeletons. Zabecki’s conclusion is that these people were worked to death. Akhenaten wanted to change Egyptian religion overnight, and that can’t be done without a lot of work. The twisted bones of the workers of Amarna show some of the cost of turning from the old gods.
I've been skeptical for a long while about Akhenaten's reputation as a "worthy heretic" and exemplar of religious progress; I've seen his religious regime as the product of a theological power grab in a heavily-ecclesiasticized society. This is not the first evidence that lots of people died in religious conflicts, either at his hands or those of his opponents.

For more detail on recent work, see the Amarna Project site.

For an aerial view of the ruins, see this BBC presentation.

Tomb #9 at Amarna, photo copyright Ross Day.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

News from Catal Huyuk

I've always been fascinated by the early town site (representing maybe the earliest town) of Catal Huyuk (Çatalhöyük), in southeastern Turkey (Anatolia), and in my Ancient Civilizations course, I talk about its significance at length.

Well, recently the Turkish Daily News has published a good article on the work that has been done at Catal Huyuk since 1993.

I am pleased to see that my lecture material is still not obsolete, despite this interesting work.

Thanks to Explorator for this.

Image: Recent excavations, from TDN.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Local history -- the graveyards of New York City

The Economist has a wonderful tour of graveyards large and small in some of the boroughs of NYC. You won't regret having a look.

In Ancient History we spend a lot of time figuring out what graves tell us about past cultures. Just two days ago, we in HIST 2055 had a quick look at what may be Philip of Macedon's tomb If you take the same attitude into more recent cemetaries, there is much to learn. Certainly this article will teach most people a little more about New York and American history than they knew before.

It might also lead you to think about the conditions necessary for the preservation of such evidence.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

The good news about Egyptian archaeology

I have decided to read Al-Ahram Weekly, the high-quality online Egyptian news site, on a regular basis.

Currently Al-Ahram is summing up the year 2007, and this effort includes a long, detailed roundup of Egyptological news.

There's lots of bad archaeological news in the world, especially in Iraq, but in Egypt at least the news is mostly good.

Image: Hapshepsut's mummy. (More here.)

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Historical treasures, imagined and real

Over at Blogenspiel, Another Damned Medievalist has posted Carnivalesque XXXIII, a collection of links to interesting Ancient/Medieval items from recent blogs. Aside from cutting remarks about Beowulf and Neil Gaiman's role in it (go look it up!), there is a fine item from Tony Keen on what he'd like to see recovered from Pompeii if further digs discover more lost literature on the lines of the Greek library already found there. Posts like this can be tiresome but I liked Tony's so much that I followed his link to a post by Mary Beard, who earlier asked her readers for their wish lists.

It may seem that this wishing is ridiculously unrealistic. Well, wishes almost never come true in the way you'd like them to. But this week has shown that the unexpected can occur in a stunning manner. At least, I was stunned by two discoveries.

The first was a seemingly 7th-century royal cemetery in the North of England, the only such, with some individual pieces reminiscent of the Sutton Hoo material from East Anglia. This is really hot stuff, which will be analyzed for a long time to come.

Even better, if you are interested in Rome, is the apparent discovery of the Lupercale in Rome. To quote the Guardian, it's

a large vaulted hall beneath the Palatine hill ... almost certainly the fabled Lupercale - a sanctuary believed by ancient Romans to be the cave where the twin boys Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf.
The Guardian site has some video footage. You see, the cavern is in bad shape, and has only been seen via a probe-camera inserted from above. Watching it, you can imagine the excitement of the archaeologists and technicians who first saw it. The lead archaeologist, Andrea Carandini, said it's ""one of the greatest discoveries ever made" and whose to say that's wrong?

One story I saw said this shrine was accessible until the 16th century. Does any reader know more about this, and how the Lupercale was lost?

Let's call this Good News Friday and leave it at that.

Image: The English finds, from the BBC story.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

It is the death of history

That is the title of an article in the Independent (UK) on the destruction of Iraqi archaeology by home-grown looters and careless American occupiers. It's everyone for his/her self and nothing is sacred.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Viking burials in the news

I'd guess many of my readers have already heard about this, but I have to remark on the fact that Viking burials made the international news twice on September 10th. When was the last time that happened.

Students in Medieval England may be interested in the ship found under a pub car park (or a pub patio according to other accounts) in Merseyside in NW England. How it got there is still uncertain; so far archaeologists don't think it was put there as part of a funeral rite, as in some other cases. But the find is exciting anyway, because the ship is buried in bacteria-free blue clay and the wooden hull is well preserved. An interesting twist on the story is that is the second time this ship's been found. Back in the 30s there was digging going on in the pub basement and the workers discovered the ship. Their boss kept the find a secret to keep the archaeologists from getting in his way. It was the son of that builder who recently let the cat out of the bag.

You'll be hearing more about this over the next few years as the slow processes of investigation and preservation play out. I wonder how this will affect business at the Railway Inn?

The second burial is not a new one. In fact the story's about the exhumation of two women's bodies from the famous Oseberg ship in Norway. These bodies were found a long time ago (19th century) and reburied in an aluminum casket in 1948 to wait for future forensic technology. Now we are in the era of CSI, and scientists are seeing what they can learn. One point of particular interest is whether the older and younger women buried there were related. Some speculate that the younger woman may have been a slave killed to accompany her mistress to the other side. Such things are documented from pagan Viking times.

Image: The Gokstad ship as restored in Oslo.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

"Archaeology" in my backyard

Martin Rundqvist of Aardvarchaeology has challenged bloggers with appropriate interests to take and post pictures of their nearest archaeological site.

I'm not sure this qualifies but I think someone, somewhere, maybe New Mexico, maybe Yakutia, will be interested in this.

Every Labour Day long weekend for over a decade I've had a crowd of people camping in my back field for an event under the auspices of the Society for Creative Anachronism. A lot of the usual SCA things happen there, but because we've got a lot of space, a fair amount of time (long weekend) and something like a guarantee that the site will be available for a number of years, some more than usually ambitious and serious projects have been launched.

The archaeological connection is illustrated by the first two pictures. Darrell Markewitz, historical re-creationist, metalworker, and independent scholar, is fascinated by the process of making metals, especially the documented-only-by-archaeology methods used by the Vikings and other northern Europeans in the "Dark Ages" (you know, before they turned on the lights). Darrell knows the L'Anse aux Meadows site in Newfoundland well, and has for a long time been thinking about the smelting of iron that apparently took place at this small, temporary settlement. When he first camped here lo these many years ago, he dug a basement or "booth" like the one found at the real site, to see what the postulate metal workshop may have been like. Then, last year, with a host of collaborators, some long-term and dedicated, plus many more who willing to do a bit of hard labor for a laugh, he made a great big lump of decent-quality iron using no electricity to stoke the fire, just human muscle power and a double bellows he'd designed himself.

(Any errors in this summary are mine.)

So here is the booth or depression where the work was done. Real booths have superstructures, tents or huts.

Here's a closer shot showing the clay furnace after use (picture from today, in fact), propped up by some stones. The hole on the front is where the bellows was inserted.

A couple of other pieces of "above ground archaeology" on the same site. A monument to the local ravens, carved by a gentleman named "Foote," some years back, and painted by me last year.
And here's the biggest project, though it remains unfinished, a "meadhall" made of pieces from an old barn, recreating roughly imported English vernacular wood architecture as found at Jamestown, Va.
I hope Martin agrees that this is an appropriate entry for the "archaeological site nearest you."
Can't get much nearer, and if it's not old enough, only time can help that.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

From Explorator, May 2007

I have on occasion recommended the long-standing resource Explorator, an e-mail newsletter on archaeology and ancient history that comes out most Sundays. I often find the most amazing stuff there.

This past weekend had two topics that amazed me. One was out of Norway, where someone last August, high in the mountains, found a leather shoe in a snowdrift. First opinions were that it was a thousand years old!


They now think it is 3400 years old!

More searching of the ground led to finding arrows and a wooden spade.

Fallout from global warming?

Explorator also pointed me to a story from Britain, where the A-level exam in Ancient History was on the chopping block. That would mean that what North Americans call high school students could no longer specialize in that topic. Fans of ancient history fought back and won the day. One thing that helped is that they won the sympathy of the cabinet minister in charge of schools, who sits in the Lords. His title is Lord Adonis.

How could they lose with divinity intervening for the cause?

Image: A terra-cotta "Dying Adonis" from the second or third century BC.

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