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Posts Tagged ‘Archaeology

“What’s it mean; are you determined / To make modern all mankind?”*…

 

Over the past century, there have been numerous expeditions to find a mythical lost city in the Mosquitia rainforest. La Ciudad Blanca keeps being discovered, over and over again; practically any time anyone finds the remains of any settlement, they call it that. I know of half a dozen large sites that have each been deemed ‘the White City’; there must be others. In all cases, the ‘discoverers’ are outsiders, and their find is presented as a heroic accomplishment. They want us to believe that they are intrepid explorers – achieving what others couldn’t because of their guts, money, technology, business acumen and grit.

Nothing in their description is accurate. The cities aren’t lost; the people living in these areas know all about them. And the original legends do not even reference cities; rather, they refer to locations that, for whatever reason, represent a golden age for indigenous communities. Even the landscape is not particularly dangerous; children grow up there, after all…

Archaeologist Christopher Begley asks: “Ancient ruins keep being ‘discovered’: were they ever lost?

* Charles Conrad Abbott

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As we dig, we might send acquisitive birthday greetings to Baron Nils Erland Herbert Nordenskiöld; he was born on this date in 1877.  A Swedish archeologist and anthropologist, he was a foremost scholar of South American Indian culture in his time.  From 1913, he built an extensive collection of “discovered and recovered” South American native artifacts at the Gotebörg Ethnographic Museum, which he headed.  His work was influential in the study of archaeology and anthropology throughout Scandinavia.

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Written by LW

July 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The beauty and nobility, the august mission and destiny, of human handwriting”*…

 

Between 2010 and 2014, archeologists digging in London’s financial district, on the site of a new British headquarters for Bloomberg, made an astonishing discovery—a collection of more than four hundred wooden tablets, preserved in the muck of an underground river. The tablets, postcard-sized sheets of fir, spruce, and larch, dated mainly from a couple of decades after the Roman conquest of Britain, in A.D. 43, straddling the period, in the reign of Nero, when Boudica’s rebellion very nearly got rid of the occupation altogether. Eighty of them carried legible texts—legible, that is, to Roger Tomlin, one of the world’s foremost experts in very old handwriting…

The pleasures– and purposes– of paleography: “How to decode an ancient Roman’s handwriting.”

* George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion

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As we put the curse in cursive, we might send terrifically-legible birthday greetings to Ottmar Mergenthaler; he was born on this date in 1854.  Known as “the second Gutenberg,” he invented the linotype machine– the first device that could easily and quickly set complete lines of type for use in printing presses. It so revolutionized the art of printing, that Thomas Edison called it “the Eighth Wonder of the World.”

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Written by LW

May 11, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I said to a bartender, ‘Make me a zombie.’ He said ‘God beat me to it.'”*…

 

Wharram Percy, aerial view

Archaeologists investigating human bones excavated from the deserted mediaeval village of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire have suggested that the villagers burned and mutilated corpses to prevent the dead from rising from their graves to terrorise the living.

Although starvation cannibalism often accounts for the mutilation of corpses during the Middle Ages, when famines were common, researchers from Historic England and the University of Southampton have found that the ways in which the Wharram Perry remains had been dismembered suggested actions more significant of folk beliefs about preventing the dead from going walkabout.

Their paper, titled “A multidisciplinary study of a burnt and mutilated assemblage of human remains from a deserted mediaeval village in England,” is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science

Dig in at “Mediaeval Yorkshirefolk mutilated, burned t’dead to prevent reanimation.”

* Rodney Dangerfield

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As we anticipate the apocalypse, we might recall that it was on this date (as tradition would have it) in 1387 that 30 pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn in Southwark to embark together the next day on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.  They agreed to a story-telling contest to be held along the way on their journey, the prize being a free meal on their return.

The pilgrims were, of course, fictional, the product of the glorious imagination of Geoffrey Chaucer.  But their stores– The Canterbury Tales— delight to this day.

A woodcut from William Caxton‘s second edition of The Canterbury Tales printed in 1483

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Written by LW

April 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”*…

 

In 1872 a British general named Alexander Cunningham, excavating an area in what was then British-controlled northern India, came across something peculiar. Buried in some ruins, he uncovered a small, one inch by one inch square piece of what he described as smooth, black, unpolished stone engraved with strange symbols — lines, interlocking ovals, something resembling a fish — and what looked like a bull etched underneath. The general, not recognizing the symbols and finding the bull to be unlike other Indian animals, assumed the artifact wasn’t Indian at all but some misplaced foreign token. The stone, along with similar ones found over the next few years, ended up in the British Museum. In the 1920s many more of these artifacts, by then known as seals, were found and identified as evidence of a 4,000-year-old culture now known as the Indus Valley Civilization, the oldest known Indian civilization to date.

Since then, thousands more of these tiny seals have been uncovered. Most of them feature one line of symbols at the top with a picture, usually of an animal, carved below. The animals pictured include bulls, rhinoceros, elephants, and puzzlingly, unicorns. They’ve been found in a swath of territory that covers present-day India and Pakistan and along trade routes, with seals being found as far as present-day Iraq. And the symbols, which range from geometric designs to representations of fish or jars, have also been found on signs, tablets, copper plates, tools, and pottery.

Though we now have thousands of examples of these symbols, we have very little idea what they mean. Over a century after Cunningham’s discovery, the seals remain undeciphered, their messages lost to us. Are they the letters of an ancient language? Or are they just religious, familial, or political symbols? Those hotly contested questions have sparked infighting among scholars and exacerbated cultural rivalries over who can claim the script as their heritage. But new work from researchers using sophisticated algorithms, machine learning, and even cognitive science are finally helping push us to the edge of cracking the Indus script…

A tale of antiquities, A.I., and academic rivalry: “Cypher Wars.”

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (5.6)

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As we dig in, we might send carefully-excavated birthday greetings to Gertrude Caton Thompson; she was born on this date in 1888.  An influential English archaeologist at a time when it was unusual for women to be allowed to lead in the field (pun intended), she distinguished two prehistoric cultures in the Al-Fayyum depression of Upper Egypt (the older dating to about 5000 BC and the younger to about 4500 BC.), and she demonstrated that the ruins in southeastern Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe known since the 16th century as Great Zimbabwe were the product of a “native civilization” (not outsiders, as some others had asserted).

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Written by LW

February 1, 2017 at 1:01 am

“A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on”*…

 

Why do archaeological fraudsters work so hard to deceive us?  Because bad science makes for good stories: “What Lies Beneath.”

And for run-downs of archaeological hoaxes both amusing and illuminating, visit here and here.

[image above sourced here]

* Terry Pratchett, The Truth

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As we dig, we might send exploratory birthday greetings to Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt; he was born on this date in 1769.  The younger brother of the Prussian minister, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexander was a geographer, naturalist, explorer, and champion of Romantic philosophy.  Among many other contributions to human knowledge, his quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography; his advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring.

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Written by LW

September 14, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs”*…

 

The digging of Crossrail, London’s new twenty-three-billion-dollar east-west underground commuter line, has been one long party for archeologists. Since construction began, in 2009, imposing encampments, clad in blue fencing and busy with trucks, have appeared across the city, providing access points for the cranes and the huge boring machines that are needed to carve out tunnels, vents, and stations along the line’s seventy-three miles. Almost always, there have also been archeologists on the scene, clipboards and trowels in hand, to see what can be unearthed from the briefly exposed soil. So far, there have been excavations at thirty of Crossrail’s forty building sites, yielding up a section of a medieval barge, in Canning Town; a Bronze Age wooden walkway, in Plumstead; and the remains of a Mesolithic campfire, in North Woolwich.

On a recent, gray spring afternoon, I went to see the latest, and largest, Crossrail dig, across the road from Liverpool Street station, in the middle of the financial district, where a new ticket hall will soon occupy the space previously filled by London’s first municipal graveyard. The New Churchyard, an acre in size, was first used in 1569, not long after an outbreak of bubonic plague, as an alternative to the overcrowded parish plots inside the old city walls. It was not attached to any church, which made it a natural resting place for radicals, nonconformists, migrants, mad people, and drifters—Londoners, in other words. It closed some time in the seventeen-twenties, full many times over. Ten thousand people were buried there; in 1984, a partial excavation found graves dug through graves, eight skeletons per cubic meter…

More urban archaeology at “Bedlam’s Big Dig.”

* William Shakespeare, Richard II

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As we memento mori, we might recall that it was on this date in 1606 that King James I, having inherited the English and Irish thrones to go with the Scottish monarchy that (as James IV) he already had, decreed the design of a new flag for his domains, according to which the flag of England (a red cross on a white background, known as St George’s Cross), and the flag of Scotland (a white saltire on a blue background, known as the Saltire or St Andrew’s Cross), would be joined together, forming the flag of England and Scotland for maritime purposes. King James also began to refer to a “Kingdom of Great Britaine”, although the union remained a personal one.  The flag– known as the Union Flag or Union Jack– was adopted as the national flag in 1707, after the completion of the Treaty of Union and the passage of the Acts of Union.

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Written by LW

April 12, 2015 at 1:01 am

“While money can’t buy happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery”*…

 

A survey of 43 countries published on October 30th by the Pew Research Centre of Washington, DC, shows that people in emerging markets are within a whisker of expressing the same level of satisfaction with their lot as people in rich countries. The Pew poll asks respondents to measure, on a scale from zero to ten, how good their lives are. (Those who say between seven and ten are counted as happy.) In 2007, 57% of respondents in rich countries put themselves in the top four tiers; in emerging markets the share was 33%; in poor countries only 16%—a classic expression of the standard view that richer people are more likely to be happy. But in 2014, 54% of rich-country respondents counted themselves as happy, whereas in emerging markets the percentage jumped to 51%…

More at “Money and Happiness.”

* Groucho Marx

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As we wander past a warm gun, we might recall that it was on this date in 1922 that British archaeologist Howard Carter and his crew discovered a step leading to the tomb of King Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.  The subsequent discovery of Tut’s nearly-intact tomb was a world-wide sensation, and ignited renewed public interest in ancient Egypt, for which “King Tut”‘s burial mask, now in Cairo Museum, remains the popular symbol.

(For an amusing– and enlightening– explication of “The Mummy’s Curse,” click here.)

Mask of Tutankhamun’s mummy

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Written by LW

November 4, 2014 at 1:01 am

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