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Posts Tagged ‘Archaeology

“We communicate through art with symbols that transcend the boundaries of time and culture”*…

 

consistent-doodles

 

While studying some of the oldest art in the world found in caves and engraved on animal bones or shells, paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has found evidence of a proto-writing system that perhaps developed in Africa and then spread throughout the world.

The research also reveals that modern humans were using two-thirds of these signs when they first settled in Europe, which creates another intriguing possibility. “This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,” von Petzinger writes in her recently published book, The First Signs: Unlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest symbols (Simon and Schuster). In other words, when modern humans first started moving into Europe from Africa, they must have brought a mental dictionary of symbols with them…

A painstaking investigation of Europe’s cave art has revealed 32 shapes and lines that crop up again and again and could be the world’s oldest code– its ur-language: “Stone Age Cave Symbols May All Be Part of a Single Prehistoric Proto-Writing System.”

* Richard Clar

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As we honor ancestral accomplishment, we might send carefully-excavated birthday greetings to Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae; he was born on this date in 1821.  An archaeologist and historian, and the second director of the National Museum of Denmark, he played a key role in the foundation of scientific archaeology.

Worsaae was the first to excavate and use stratigraphy to prove C. J. Thomsen’s sequence of the Three-age system: Stone, Bronze, Iron.  He was a pioneer in the development of paleobotany through his excavation work in the peat bogs of Jutland. And he contributed to the discussion of the origins of human populations around the world.  He proposed a route by which prehistoric people spread from Africa, through Asia, across the Bering Strait to the Americas, and from South America to Australia and the South Sea islands.  (Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition a century later [see here and here] proved the latter voyage to be possible.)  He suggested that Europe was populated later, with Scandinavia one of the last areas to be reached by humankind.

220px-Jens_Jacob_Asmussen_Worsaae_from_Familj-Journalen1885 source

 

Written by LW

March 14, 2019 at 12:01 am

“History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future”*…

 

P-prairie-creek-burial

Wrapped in a cotton shroud, Joseph Fitzgerald is laid to rest in 2013 at the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery in Gainesville, Florida. “Green” burials like this are becoming increasingly popular.

 

Death has always been a fact of life. But somehow, even after endless repetitions of the cycle, we still haven’t figured out how we feel about dead bodies. Are they vessels of loved ones that should be preserved for as long as possible? Bundles of organic material that should be reunited with the earth? Harsh reminders of our own mortality that should be disposed of quickly and thoroughly?

Ellen Stroud, an environmental historian at Penn State University, explored the macabre history and legal ambiguities of American bodies in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science. From the one-footed 87-year-old man sold to a medical school for $10 in 1902 to the plasticized people put on display in traveling exhibits today, bodies continue to challenge our ideas of justice and humanity…

An environmental historian looks at how Americans treat corpses and what it means: “She Sees Dead Bodies.”

Pair with this (unsentimental, illuminating) account of the last words of the dying: “What People Actually Say Before They Die.”

* Robert Penn Warren

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As we muse on on the morals of mortality, we might spare a thought for Sir Charles Leonard Woolley; he died on this date in 1960.  Recognized as one of the first “modern” archaeologists– which is to say, one who excavated in a methodical way, kept careful records, and used them to reconstruct ancient life and history– his excavation (1922-34) of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur (in modern Iraq), the royal burial site of many Mesopotamian royals, greatly advanced knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian civilization, enabling scholars to trace the history of the city from its final days during the 4th century BC back to its prehistoric beginnings (c. 4000 BC).

His finds revealed much about everyday life, art, architecture, literature, government, and religion in this “cradle of civilization. ”  In royal tombs dating from about 2700 BC, he uncovered the practice of the sacrificial burial of a deceased king’s personal retinue. He discovered tombs of great material wealth, gold and silver jewelry, large paintings of ancient Mesopotamian culture at its zenith, and other furnishings.  His widely read Ur of the Chaldees: A record of seven years of excavation (1929), described his findings in a manner both informative to specialists and accessible by lay-people.

220px-Woolley_holding_the_hardened_plaster_mold_of_a_lyre

Woolley holding the excavated Sumerian Queen’s Lyre in 1922

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Written by LW

February 20, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The years teach much the days never know”*…

 

Hoover Dam

On the western flank of the Hoover Dam stands a little-understood monument, commissioned by the US Bureau of Reclamation when construction of the dam began in 01931. The most noticeable parts of this corner of the dam, now known as Monument Plaza, are the massive winged bronze sculptures and central flagpole which are often photographed by visitors. The most amazing feature of this plaza, however, is under their feet as they take those pictures.

The plaza’s terrazzo floor is actually a celestial map that marks the time of the dam’s creation based on the 25,772-year axial precession of the earth…

Hoover diagram

Alexander Rose, Executive director of The Long Now Foundation, on the star map of “Safety Island,” a Hoover Dam feature that has baffled visitors for decades: “The 26,000-Year Astronomical Monument Hidden in Plain Sight.”

See also “Coventry Doom,” the story of a 15th-century “doom mural” (depiction of the Last Judgement) that remained hidden in plain sight for centuries.

* Ralph Waldo Emerson

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As we watch our step, we might send unearthed birthday greetings to Mary Douglas Leakey; she was born on this date in 1913.  An archaeologist and  paleoanthropologist, she made several of the most important fossil finds subsequently interpreted and publicized by her husband, the noted anthropologist Louis Leakey. For every vivid claim made by Louis about the origins of man, the supporting evidence tended to come from Mary’s scrupulous scientific approach.

220px-Mary_Leakey source

 

Written by LW

February 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”*…

 

tree-of-life_1000

This Tree of Life diagram is based primarily on the evolutionary relationships so wonderfully related in Dr. Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, and timetree.org. The smallest branches are purely illustrative. They are intended to suggest the effect of mass extinctions on diversity, and changes in diversity through time. This diagram is NOT intended to be a scholarly reference tool! It is intended to be an easy-to-understand illustration of the core evolution principle; we are related not only to every living thing, but also to everything that has ever lived on Earth

Climb around in The Interactive Tree of Life Explorer.

* Charles Darwin

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As we ponder our progenitors, we might a thought for Kenneth Page Oakley; he died on this ate in 1981.  An anthropologist, paleontologist, and geologist, he  developed a method of dating fossilized bones by measuring their fluoride levels (based on a French mineralogist’s theory that bones would gradually absorb fluoride from surrounding soil).  He was able to use his technique, in 1953, to expose the “Piltdown Man” skull as a forgery.  It had been “unearthed” in 1912, in Piltdown, England, and had for decades been said to represent the “missing link” in human evolution.

Oakley source

 

Written by LW

November 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The dice of Zeus always fall luckily”*…

 

14th century medieval dice from the Netherlands

Whether at a casino playing craps or engaging with family in a simple board game at home, rolling the dice introduces a bit of chance or “luck” into every game. We expect dice to be fair, where every number has equal probability of being rolled.

But a new study shows this was not always the case. In Roman times, many dice were visibly lopsided, unlike today’s perfect cubes. And in early medieval times, dice were often “unbalanced” in the arrangement of numbers, where 1 appears opposite 2, 3 opposite 4, and 5 opposite 6. It did not matter what the objects were made of (metal, clay, bone, antler and ivory), or whether they were precisely symmetrical or consistent in size or shape, because, like the weather, rolls were predetermined by gods or other supernatural elements.

All that began to change around 1450, when dice makers and players seemingly figured out that form affected function, explained Jelmer Eerkens, University of California, Davis, professor of anthropology and the lead author of a recent study on dice.

“A new worldview was emerging — the Renaissance. People like Galileo and Blaise Pascal were developing ideas about chance and probability, and we know from written records in some cases they were actually consulting with gamblers,” he said. “We think users of dice also adopted new ideas about fairness, and chance or probability in games”…

From fate to fairness: how dice changed over 2,000 years to be more fair: “It’s not how you play the game, but how the dice were made.”

[via Tim Carmody‘s always-illuminating newsletter, Noticing]

* Sophocles

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As we consider the odds, we might send frontier-challenging birthday greetings to a man who tempted chance– Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager; he was born on this date in 1923.  A flying ace, test pilot, and ultimately U.S. Air Force General, Yeager became the first human to officially break the sound barrier when, in 1947, he flew the experimental Bell X-1 at Mach 1 at an altitude of 45,000 ft. 

Perhaps as famously, Yeager was a mentor and role model for the first class of NASA astronauts, as memorialized in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and Philip Kaufman’s film adaptation.  On finishing high school at the beginning of World War II, Yeager had enlisted in the Air Force as a private; he served a mechanic before being accepted into the enlisted flight program, from which he graduated as a “Flight Officer” (equivalent to a Chief Warrant Officer).  His extraordinary skill as a pilot fueled his continued rise through the ranks.  But NASA’s requirement that all astronauts have college degrees disqualified Yeager from membership in the space program.  So though he was by most accounts far the most qualified potential astronaut, he became instead their head teacher, the first commandant of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, which produced astronauts for NASA and the USAF.

Yeager in front of the Bell X-1, which, as with all of the aircraft assigned to him, he named Glamorous Glennis (or some variation thereof), after his wife.

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Written by LW

February 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid”*…

 

By the time American audiences were introduced to Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr in the 1938 film Algiers, she had already lived an eventful life. She got her scandalous start in film in Czechoslovakia (her first role was in the erotic Ecstasy). She was married at 19 in pre-World War II Europe to Fritz Mandl, a paranoid, overly protective arms dealer linked with fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany. After her father’s sudden death and as the war approached, she fled Mandl’s country estate in the middle of the night and escaped to London. Unable to return home to Vienna where her mother lived,  and determined to get into the movies, she booked passage to the States on the same ship as mogul Louis B. Mayer. Flaunting herself, she drew his attention and signed with his MGM Studios before they docked.

Arriving in Hollywood brought her a new name (Lamarr was originally Kiesler), fame, multiple marriages and divorces and a foray into groundbreaking work as a producer, before she eventually became a recluse. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Lamarr’s life isn’t as well known: during WWII, when she was 27the movie star invented and patented an ingenious forerunner of current high-tech communications…

The story of the movie star who invented spread-spectrum radio, the secure signal technology that helped the Allies avoid having their radio communications intercepted by the Axis forces, and that lies at the heart of the cellular phone system that we all use today: “Why Hedy Lamarr Was Hollywood’s Secret Weapon.”

* Hedy Lamarr, who was decidedly not stupid

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As we give overdue credit where credit is due, we might send adventurous birthday greetings to Giovanni Battista Belzoni; he was born on this date in 1778.  The 14th child of a poor barber in Padua, he was a barber, a Capuchin monk, a magician, and a circus strongman before finding his true calling– explorer (and plunderer) of Egyptian antiquities.

Belzoni’s call to action came when he met a British Consul-General named Henry Salt who persuaded him to gather Egyptian treasures to send back to the British Museum.  Under extremely adverse conditions he transported the colossal granite head of Rameses II from Thebes to England, where it is now one of the treasures of the British Museum. Later, he discovered six major royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, including that of Seti I, and brought to the British Museum a spectacular collection of Egyptian antiquities. He was the first person to penetrate the heart of the second pyramid at Giza and the first European to visit the oasis of Siwah and discover the ruined city of Berenice on the Red Sea. He stumbled into the tomb of King Ay, but only noted a wall painting of 12 baboons, leading him to name the chamber ‘Tomb of the 12 Monkeys” (because hieroglyphs had not yet been deciphered, he usually had no idea who or what he had found).

Belzoni had two habits that have contributed to his legacy:  he was a lover of graffiti signatures, and inscribed “Belzoni” on many of Egypt’s antique treasures, where the carvings survive to this day.  And he carried a whip: which, given that he was one of the models for Indiana Jones, became one of that character’s hallmarks.

 source

 

Written by LW

November 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“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

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