Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Canal system found under Pakal’s tomb

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

Archaeologists with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have discovered a system of canals that was built underneath the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque where the Maya king K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (603-683 A.D.) was buried. The main canal is made of rows of large cut stones, clay and rubble. It has a limestone floor and is capped by a roof made of larger stones. It is a near square at 50 x 40 cm (1.6 x 1.3 feet) and is about 17 meters (55.8 feet) long. The main channel follows a straight line south under the temple, eventually widening into a basin 80 x 90 x 60 cm. To the southeast, there’s a second smaller channel (40 x 20 cm) that runs parallel to the main channel but about 20 cm higher level. The second channel eventually joins the main one which changes direction to the southwest and goes on at least another five meters (16.4 feet).

Because the canals are so small, archaeologists could only explore them by sending a remote-controlled vehicle equipped with a camera. The vehicle could not go around the sharp turn in the main canal, so as of now we don’t know where the canal ends. Archaeologists believe they are connected to an active water source as there is still running water in the canals today. Construction dates to the Maya late Classic Period (600-900 A.D.).

Excavations began in 2012 after a crack developed in the pyramid. A geophysical study found anomalies under the pyramid’s front steps. Concerned there might be a sinkhole or weak spot that could lead to serious structural damage to the pyramid, archaeologists dug test pits at the bottom of the temple’s main facade. They encountered a layer of large stones sealed together with clay. Underneath that was another layer of heavy stones packed with mud, and then a third and fourth layer of the same. It was under the fourth stone layer than the channel was found. The stone layers are all level and their width matches that of the north wall of Pakal’s burial chamber.

Pakal, who ruled the city-state of Palenque for 68 years, the longest known reign of any ruler in the Western hemisphere and the 30th longest reign in the world, began construction of his funerary monument in the last decade of his life. After he died, Pakal was deified and the temple completed by his son and successor K’inich Kan Bahlam II. When the tomb was discovered by archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in 1952, Pakal’s remains were found in a sarcophagus with an elaborately carved lid. His face was covered by a jade death mask with large ear flares, also made of jade. The ear pieces have an inscription that claims that in order to be received by the god of the underworld, Pakal had to submerge himself in the waters of the rain god Chaac.

One of the newly discovered canals run directly underneath Pakal’s burial chamber, and the matching dimensions of the stone cap layers are probably not a coincidence. Archaeologists believe the canals were built first, tapping into the unknown source that is still supplying fresh water to the tunnels today, and the funerary pyramid constructed above them. One possibility is that they were originally built to drain rainwater from the terraces of Temple XXIV, just south of the Temple of the Inscriptions, but they wouldn’t need a river or spring source for that purpose. Although there has been no vertical conduit found connecting the burial chamber to the canal below, archaeologists believe there was a religious significance to the canals in keeping with the inscription on the ear flares on top of any practical purpose. The builders may have directed a river to flow under his tomb so that the king’s soul could travel unimpeded to the underworld via the waters of Chaac.

Investigations into the channel system will continue. Archaeologists would like to explore the main channel to its end, if not by remote camera that by using geophysical tools like ground penetrating radar to track the underground architectural features.

40,000-year-old rope-making tool found in famed German cave

Sunday, July 24th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany have discovered a 40,000-year-old tool used to make rope. The piece was unearthed in August of last year by an international team led by Prof. Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen. Carved from mammoth ivory, the object is eight inches long and the wider side is dotted with four holes 7-9 millimeters in diameter. The holes are incised with deep spirals which are not decorative, but practical features that help thread plant fibers into strong rope.

Some of the most important Paleolithic artifacts in the world have been found in the Hohle Fels Cave, including the Venus of Schelklingen, the oldest known human figurative art, and the world’s oldest flutes. The recently discovered tool was found in the same layer of the cave as the Venus and flute, which is how it was dated to around 40,000 years ago.

Rope or string prints have been found before in Paleolithic clay and there are some depictions of ropes in artwork from this period, but next to nothing is known about the process by which the first anatomically modern humans in Europe produced rope.

Similar finds in the past have usually been interpreted as shaft-straighteners, decorated artworks or even musical instruments. Thanks to the exceptional preservation of the find and rigorous testing by the team in Liège, the researchers have demonstrated that the tool was used for making rope out of plant fibers available near Hohle Fels. “This tool answers the question of how rope was made in the Paleolithic”, says Veerle Rots, “a question that has puzzled scientists for decades.”

Excavators found the rope-making tool in archaeological horizon Va near the base of the Aurignacian deposits of the site. Like the famous female figurines and the flutes recovered from the Hohle Fels, the rope-making tool dates to about 40,000 years ago, the time when modern humans arrived in Europe. The discovery underlines the importance of fiber technology and the importance of rope and string for mobile hunters and gatherers trying to cope with challenges of life in the Ice Age.

Researchers from the University of Liège in Belgium demonstrate how the tool was used to make rope from green plants:

Researchers test the durability of the finished rope:

The ivory tool went on display yesterday at the Blaubeuren Prehistoric Museum where the Hohle Fels Venus and three bone and ivory flutes are already on view to the public.

Roman coin hoard found by students in Spain

Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

A team of archaeology students has unearthed a Republican-era Roman coin hoard at the Empúries site on the Costa Brava of Catalonia, northeastern Spain. The hoard was discovered secreted in a hole in the ground inside a 1st century B.C. domus. A small ceramic pot shaped like an amphora contained silver denarii from the same period as the home. This was a great deal of money in the 1st century B.C. when a soldier’s yearly pay was 225 denarii and two denarii would pay rent for a month. There is evidence of a fire destroying the property shortly thereafter, likely making the treasure irretrievable.

The vessel still holding its hoard of coins was carefully excavated in a lab. Much to the archaeologists astonishment, the little amphora held 200 coins, the largest group of coins ever found in the Roman city of Empúries. They appear to be in good condition. Once the coins are cleaned and conserved, they will be identified and catalogued.

The ancient city of Emporion was founded in the 6th century B.C. by Greek colonists from Phocaea in western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Its coastal location between Massalia (Marseille), also founded by Phocaeans, and the major trade center of Tartessos in southwestern Iberia, made Emporion a prosperous town. Its population boomed when the Phocaea was conquered by Cyrus II of Persia in 530 B.C. and refugees moved to the colony, making it the largest Greek settlement on the Iberian Peninsula.

When much of the rest of Iberia was conquered by Rome, Emporion was allowed to remain independent, but the city backed the wrong horse during the civil wars of the 1st century B.C., and when Pompey was defeated by Caesar, Emporion was occupied by Roman legions. A new city, Emporiae, was built adjacent to the Greek town and populated by Roman veterans. The domus and insula are part of the Roman city.

The students are part of the Empúries Archaeology Course offered by the Archaeological Museum of Catalonia. It’s open to students working on an Archaeology or History degrees and graduate students, ideally with excavation experience. The program has been running every year without interruption since 1908. This year, the 30 students enrolled in the course have been excavating the tabernae (shops) and living spaces on the southern side of an insula (apartment building), with a particular focus on ceramics from the Late Republican period. The domus and its wine cellar occupied the southern side of Insula 30 in the earliest days of the Roman city. The room with the hoard was on the southwest side of the building.

The pot in which the denarii were stashed puts the discovery of the hoard exactly on topic, plus a nice bonus of 200 silver coins. Even more on topic, the team also found 24 wine amphorae of Italian origin and a bronze simpulum, a long-handled ladle used to extract wine from the large vessels, in the wine cellar of the domus.

Oldest papyri from oldest port go on display

Wednesday, July 20th, 2016

Dating to around 2600 B.C., the harbor at Wadi al-Jarf on the Red Sea in Egypt is the oldest port complex ever discovered in the world. It was built during the reign of the Pharaoh Snefru (ca. 2620–2580 B.C.), the founder of the 4th Dynasty, and was primarily used for boat travel to the Egypt’s main copper and turquoise mines on the Sinai Peninsula. An L-shaped pier extended east from the shore into the water for 160 meters (525 feet) before turning southeast for 120 meters (394 feet). Its remains are still clearly visible at low tide. The pier created a breakwater and large sheltered area where ships could be moored. This was confirmed when a group of at least 22 limestone ship anchors were found south of the east branch of the pier.

Carved into limestone hills next to a water spring, archaeologists found a warehouse system of 30 storage galleries, the largest of which are more than 100 feet long. They average about 10 feet wide and eight feet high. The galleries were used to store boat parts, shipping materials and food and water supplies for the seafaring voyages. They were also used to make repairs on ships. There are pottery kilns nearby and large quantities of pottery believed to have been used as a water containers have been found in the galleries.

In 2013, archaeologists discovered hundreds of papyrus fragments, some of them more than two feet long. The papyri had been deposited in front of galleries G1 and G2 where large blocking stones were placed to close off the entrance to the galleries. Written in hieratic (simplified hieroglyphics used by priests and scribes), several of the papyri were dated to the end of the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu (ca. 2580–2550 B.C.). One of the documents was very specific, noting it was written the year after the 13th cattle count of Khufu’s reign. The cattle count was done every other year, so the year after the 13th cattle count was the 27th year, which according to our current best information was the last year of his reign. The precise dating identifies this papyrus as the oldest ever discovered in Egypt.

There are two types of documents in the papyrus group: accounts organized in tables anyone who has ever worked in Excel will immediately recognize, and the logbook of a Memphis official named Merer. The accounting tables record deliveries of food from areas elsewhere in Egypt including the Nile Delta. Revenue is recorded in red; outlay in black. Merer’s archive recorded the daily activities of his team of around 200 men, and as archaeological luck would have it, most of the surviving papyri don’t cover the minutiae of their operations at Wadi al-Jarf, but rather their work relating to the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. There are descriptions of quarrying the limestone, the transportation over the Nile and canals of massive blocks of stone from the quarries of Tura to the “Horizon of Khufu,” meaning the Giza construction site. These limestone blocks were probably used for the outer layer of the Great Pyramid, now lost, but which would have glowed white in the Egyptian sun.

Merer’s logbook was found in the same archaeological context as the 13th cattle count document. It confirms that in Khufu’s last regnal year, the pyramid was in the final stage of construction. It also identifies the role of a major player, the pharaoh’s half-brother Ankh-haf who as “chief for all the works of the king” was in charge of this last phase of the Great Pyramid’s construction.

A selection of the papyri, including the 13th cattle count document, the largest pieces of Merer’s journal and the accounting spreadsheets have gone on display for the first time at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. It will be a lightning quick exhibition, unfortunately, so unless you’re in Egypt right now or plan to be there in the next week or so, you’ll miss it. It opened on July 14th and closes on July 29th.

Must Farm excavation concludes

Monday, July 18th, 2016

The excavation of the Bronze Age site of Must Farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens comes to an end this week, alas, but so many archaeological remains in exceptional condition have been found, they will be studied for years to come. The unique conditions of the site — round houses built on stilts on the Nene River channel around 3,000 years ago that caught fire and fell into the river where the fire was extinguished and everything was enveloped in the mud of the rising fen — have preserved the largest collection of Bronze Age artifacts ever found in Britain.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said “Over the past 10 months Must Farm has given us an extraordinary window into how people lived 3,000 years ago. Now we know what this small but wealthy Bronze Age community ate, how they made their homes and where they traded. This has transformed our knowledge of Bronze Age Britain, and there is more to come as we enter a post-excavation phase of research. Archaeologists and scientists around the world are learning from Must Farm and it’s already challenged a number of longstanding perceptions.”

We now know that the homes in this Bronze Age settlement were kitted out with enough household products to put Bed, Bath and Beyond to shame. We know they ate a rich and varied diet include wild animals (boar, red deer, freshwater fish) and domesticated (lambs and calves), plus plants and grains including emmer wheat and barley. We know the roundhouses were recently constructed, only around six months old when tragedy struck and they collapsed into the river.

Earlier this year archaeologists found a complete wood wheel, the oldest in the UK. Since then, they’ve discovered even more thrilling artifacts. The textiles alone are unprecedented, an extensive collection of woven fibers from various stages of production. Some of the linen fibers are as fine as a human hair and are incredibly tightly woven.

Must Farm also has one of the largest collections of Bronze Age glass ever discovered. A large number of beads have been found, many of them glass, others made of amber or jet. One cluster of beads were found grouped together probably because they were once on a necklace. There’s even something threaded in between them, so once the beads are examined in the laboratory, the full necklace may reveal itself. Jet and amber could not be sourced locally; they were likely traded from continental Europe and the Middle East.

A wealth of household goods has been recovered, everything from wooden buckets to large platters to loom weights. Whole groups of pots were found in place, left behind mid-use when the fire broke out, some with food still in them. The Must Farm pots come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes. The largest examples are coarseware, thick-walled clay reinforced with grog, shell and crushed pieces of fired clay. They were used for storage and cooking. The fineware pieces have thin, delicate walls tempered with sand or very fine shell fragments. While very few are decorated and those only with incised lines, many are polished or burnished. The smallest fineware vessels are little round cups no more than six centimeters (2 inches) high. All of the clay pottery was made with the simple technique of coil building (stacking coils of clay) and then turned (rotated on a board and smoothed with fingers). Some of the fragments and pots still have the marks of fingertips on the surface.

The metalwork discovered at Must Farm is exceptional as well, both in terms of preservation and in the discovery context. Most of the Bronze Age metal weapons and tools found come from sacrificial deposits or some other context divorced from daily use. The pieces at Must Farm, on the other hand, were inside the dwellings when they collapsed into the river. They are domestic objects still in the home, not offerings or discards. Add to that the fact that some of the wood sections, like the hafts of axes and spears, have survived and it gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to examine metalwork as it was actually used. One bronze socketed axe with its wooden haft intact, albeit charred by the flames, may be the most beautiful prehistoric axe I’ve ever seen.

The site is just feet away from a working quarry, so it cannot be converted into an open-air archaeological park. The wood timbers from the roof and floor and the wattle panels of the walls of the most intact of the roundhouses have been recovered for conservation and perhaps a future reconstruction, but the site will be reburied to preserve the rest. There are no current plans for a museum exhibition, but discussions are ongoing. So many great artifacts have been recovered there’s more than enough material to populate a whole new museum dedicated to Must Farm.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Must Farm excavation has one of the greatest online presences for an archaeological project I’ve ever seen, if not the greatest. Their Twitter, Facebook and website are neverending sources of fascinating material and photographs. They will continue to be updated as the artifacts are examined, so just because the excavation is over doesn’t mean it’s too late to follow them.

Sewer workers find Hercules mosaic in Cyprus

Saturday, July 16th, 2016

Workers digging an extension of a sewer line in Larnaca on the southern coast of Cyprus last month uncovered a large Roman mosaic depicting the Labours of Hercules. Archaeologists took over to excavate the unique work and have thus far unearthed a section 19 meters (62 feet) long by seven meters (23 feet) wide.

The mosaic appears to be part of a baths complex, Antiquities Department Chief Marina Solomidou-Ieronymidou said, adding that it has five sections but only two have been fully uncovered. Crews may have to encroach on private property to unearth more of the baths complex.

Solomonidou-Ieronymidou said it’s the first time that a mosaic has been discovered on the eastern Mediterranean island depicting the 12 Labors of Hercules, difficult tasks that the mythological demi-god had to perform as penance for killing his wife and children when the goddess Hera made him temporarily insane.

The Antiquities Department says the mosaic’s discovery offers important evidence that ancient Kition, on which modern-day Larnaca is built, played a significant role in the establishment of Roman culture in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

Kition was founded by Achaean colonists in the 13th century B.C. and was subsequently ruled by Mycenae, Assyria, Phoenicia, Egypt, Persia, and Macedonian general Ptolemy and his descendants, also rulers of Egypt. It became a Roman province in 58 B.C. with a brief interlude back in Ptolemaic hands when Marc Antony declared Cleopatra and Caesarion, her son by Julius Caesar, Queen and King of Cyprus as part of the Donations of Alexandria in 34 B.C. After Antony and Cleopatra’s defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Cyprus returned to Roman control. When the Roman Empire was divided into Western and Eastern in 395 A.D., Cyprus went to the Eastern Empire. It remained Byzantine until the 12th century when it was taken by King Richard the Lionheart of England and became one of the crusader states ruled by Guy de Lusignan and his descendants until 1474. Venice took it from them and the Ottoman Empire took it from Venice in 1571.

Kition, meanwhile, suffered most at the hands of natural disasters. Two massive earthquakes in 322 and 342 A.D. all but leveled the city. Larnaca was built on its ruins but because the harbour had silted over, it moved a little to the south following the new shoreline. The ancient ruins of Kition began to be systematically excavated in the 1920s. Its most ancient remains are Achaean defensive walls from the 13th century B.C. and temples and parts of their Cyclopean walls from the Mycenaean period. Remains have been found from the Assyrian and Phoenician periods as well, including the famous stele of Sargon II, now in the Berlin State Museums, and Phoenician funerary stele now in the British Museum. More than 3,000 tombs were unearthed in a massive Phoenician-era necropolis.

And yet, even with 400 years of Roman rule under its historical belt, Kition has next to no archaeological material to show for it. That’s why the discovery of the mosaic is so significant. It’s not just an important artwork with a theme that has not been found before on Cyprus, but the only remains of a large-scale public building from the Roman period found in Larnaca.

There was some discussion of leaving the mosaic in place, rerouting the road and creating an open-air museum that might prove as much of a draw to tourists as the exquisite mosaic floors found in the remains of four Roman villas in Paphos on the west coast of Cyprus. Larnaca’s Deputy Mayor Petros Christodoulou was quoted as saying “This finding is too important and precious to cover over, or to remove and set up again in another place.” Communications minister Marios Demetriades apparently disagrees, since he told the press on Thursday that the mosaic would suffer damage from water and the elements if it were left in place, so it will be moved to a new dedicated wing of the Archaeological Museum of the Larnaka District. The Department of Antiquities’ very brief statement on the find avoids the question altogether.

Mummified macaw head found in Chihuahua cave

Friday, July 15th, 2016

The ancient mummified head of a macaw has been found in a cave in a suburb of San Francisco de Borja, Chihuahua northern Mexico. It was discovered by the what was likely a funerary context. Manuel Rodriguez and his son were leveling the floor of a cave on his property when they came across archaeological remains and artifacts. Though they notified archaeologists of the discovery, unfortunately residents collected objects to hand over rather than leaving the context unmarred. The recovered materials include two adult skulls, several long bones, human hair, a basket, a textile, cotton string, the woven base of a vessel or basket, worked deerskin that may have been part of a bag or a loincloth, a snail and the head of the macaw.

The textile, basketry materials and the head of the macaw are in an excellent state of preservation. The conditions inside the cave naturally mummified the bird remains, even as the human remains were skeletonized. The feathers on the macaw’s head are still bright green. According to the locals who rashly scooped up the objects, the rest of the macaw’s body was also found on the site, but they only picked up the head, leaving the body pieces behind.

Recognizing the significance of the materials, INAH archaeologists explored the cave, hoping to recover what they could of the original context. In a strip 25 meters (82 feet) long and one meter (three feet) wide, they found evidence of a reed and mud wattle housing structure with an earth floor and a the remains of charred corn cob. The cob has been sent to the laboratory for radiocarbon dating. In another area of the strip, archaeologists found a burial: the lower half of an adult human body including pelvis and both legs tied together. It’s possible this was a secondary burial, that the body was buried somewhere else first, and later transferred to this location. Piece of coal, burned corn cobs and arrowheads were also found in this section.

At the end of the excavation, archaeologists had unearthed 30 arrowheads, ears of corn, a gourd, basketry, cordage, human coprolites (mineralized feces) and many pieces of wattle from walls, one of which bears the imprint of a hand left behind when the worker was packing mud into the reeds to make the wall. The style of architecture is typical of the Early-Middle Archaic period (ca. 2500-1000 B.C.), while the arrowheads are in the style of the Middle/Late Archaic or Early Agriculture period (1000 B.C.-700 A.D.).

The structure, arrowheads and the corn cob indicate the cave habitation predates the settlement of Paquimé, one Chihuahua’s largest and most complex prehistoric towns where the first settlements appear in the 8th century. Macaws are known to have been used in religious rituals during the Middle Period of Paquimé (1060-1340 A.D.) and fragments of macaw bones and feathers have been found there in ceremonial and funerary contexts. They were integrated into artifacts, however — bags and earrings. This is the first time an entire bird (although only the head has been recovered due to the interference with the site) has been discovered. Because the site was disturbed, archaeologists can’t say for certain that the macaw was buried along with the human remains for ritual funerary purposes, but that is the likeliest conclusion.

Macaws were prized in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. They had to be imported as they are not native to the north, so were extremely expensive. Their large size and soaring flight connected them symbolically to the sun, and their brilliant green-blue plumage was associated with lifegiving rain and water. By the Middle Period of Paquimé, macaws were being bred there for use in rituals and in commercial goods.

The discovery of the macaw head and the snail indicate the prehistoric cultures in this part of Chihuahua had access to goods traded over significant distances. The snail is native to northwestern Sinaloa region on the Gulf of California, and the macaw had to be imported from the south. Archaeological research elsewhere in Chihuahua has found evidence of trade linking the peoples of the coast and desert north to the south via the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, but this is the first evidence of it in San Francisco de Borja. In fact, it’s the first archaeological site ever registered in the municipality.

Greek archaeologists find 23 shipwrecks in 22 days

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

The Fournoi archipelago in the eastern Aegean had long been known to local divers and, alas, looters, as an area replete with shipwrecks. Last September, a diving team from the non-profit RPM Nautical Foundation followed up on a tip from a spear-fisher and explored the coastal waters around some of the Fourni islands. It was a short trip, but in just 10 diving days the team found 22 shipwrecks.

This year they returned with a big team of more than two dozen divers, marine archaeologists and conservators and explored the area from June 8th through July 2nd. In those 22 days, they discovered 23 new shipwrecks from the Greek archaic period (8th through 5th century B.C.) through the 19th century. So in less than a year, 45 shipwrecks have been found at Fourni. While Greece’s vast coastline, rich mercantile tradition from antiquity to the present and treacherous waters have claimed many a ship over the millennia, the 45 discovered at Fourni comprise 20% of the all the identified and documented shipwrecks in Greek territorial waters.

It was the topography of the islets which sealed so many ships’ doom. The distribution of the wrecks suggests they were dashed against sheer cliff faces, sometimes while anchored and seeking shelter from powerful storms only for the wind to change the direction and drive the ships against the cliffs. It’s unlikely the crews would have survived such a beating from the elements. Even if they did manage to swim the storm-tossed seas, there were no beaches to clamber up, only steep rocky cliffs.

All the ships found thus far were merchant vessels: small, manned by crews of a dozen men or fewer, dependant on sail power. The wood structure of the vessels did not survive centuries in the sea, but their cargoes of amphorae did. It’s possible to determine what kind of merchandise the ships carried based on the different types of amphorae. It’s also possible to deduce where the jars were made based on their shape and size. The larger amphorae likely carried the three most popular categories of products — olive oil, wine, and garum (the sauce made of fermented fish guts that was ubiquitous in the kitchens of the ancient Mediterranean) — while the smaller jars likely contained specialty items like fruit preserves, nuts and perfumes.

The wrecks discovered last year were all ancient, while this year’s discoveries range from the 6th century B.C. to the early 1800s. Some of the wood of the newer ship has survived, the only one of the Fourni shipwrecks with surviving exposed wood. In addition to the many amphorae, divers found artifacts including anchors, dishware, lamps, cooking pots and ceramics. The most significant finds of the season are amphorae from Knidos and Kos on a ship from the middle of the Hellenistic period, a late archaic/early classical cargo, a Roman-era ship with amphorae from Cape Sinop on the Black Sea, a 3rd-4th century Roman ship from the empire’s North African provinces, and a cargo of tableware also from North Africa. Marine archaeologists also found two stone anchors, the largest ever found in the Aegean.

It is estimated that the area investigated corresponds to less than 15% of the total coastline surrounding the Fournoi island group. It is expected that the ongoing research in the area will lead authorities to locate an even larger number of shipwrecks, allowing archaeologists to understand the use of marine space and study of the maritime navigation and freight traffic in the archipelago in different eras.

Woman with stone tooth inserts, long skull found in Teotihuacan

Monday, July 11th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan in the highlands of central Mexico have unearthed the skeletal remains of a woman who is thus far unique in the archaeological record of Teotihuacan. She was buried in the Barrio Oaxaqueño neighborhood, also known as Tlailotlacan meaning “people from distant lands.” Judging from her extensive body modifications, she lived up to the neighborhood’s billing.

The Barrio Oaxaqueño, with a view of the Avenue of the Dead ahead and the Pyramid of the Sun behind, follows one of the streets that goes up the slope of Cerro Colorado. About three kilometers from the main thoroughfare of Teotihuacan, the neighborhood was settled by immigrants from the Oaxaca Valley in the Sierra Madre Mountains of southern Mexico between 150 and 600 A.D. Thirty housing units have been discovered in the neighborhood, each with multiple rooms, plazas, courtyards and tombs, in which an estimated 1,300 people, mainly from Oaxaca, western Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico, lived.

For the past eight years, National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) archaeologists have been excavating an area of about 800 square meters in the Barrio Oaxaqueño. This year, under the floor of a room, archaeologists found a cist, a rectangular dugout in which the articulated skeleton of a woman and 19 vessels were discovered. The ceramics and stratigraphy indicate she was buried around 350-400 A.D. Osteological examination found she was between 35 and 40 years old when she died.

Her teeth are of particular note. The central incisors in her upper jaw are embedded with round pyrite stones. This technique required cutting a hole in the enamel of the tooth and inserting the decorative stones. It was practiced in the Mayan cities of southern Mexico (see the jade tooth inserts found in Uxul on the Yucatan peninsula), Guatemala and Belize. One incisor in her lower jaw was replaced with a prosthetic made of serpentine, a green stone carved in the shape of a tooth. This was not of local manufacture and she must have worn it for many years because it shows signs of wear and tartar growth. Researchers are currently studying this tooth looking for evidence of how it was affixed to the jaw, possibly with a cement-like adhesive or some kind of fiber that held it in place.

Her grill isn’t the most extreme of her body mods. The shape of her skull is elongated, an intentional cranial shaping of the tabular erect type produced by fronto-occipital compression likely with a cradleboard when she was a child and her bones were still soft. Hers is an extreme example of the practice. This kind of skull shaping isn’t typical of the Central Highlands. It too is more frequently found in the south.

Her teeth and skull make hers one of the most extensively modified bodies ever discovered at Teotihuacan. It also confirms that the residents of Tlailotlacan weren’t only labourers who were brought to or moved to the big city for work, but people of wealth and status as well. The Lady of Tlailotlacan’s modifications were reserved for the Maya elites.

The ongoing excavation of the neighborhood have revealed that there were Oaxacans and other foreigners living in Teotihuacan from the early days of its rise to prominence until its mysterious fall. They moved 400 miles away from home to take advantage of all the great metropolis had to offer, but they maintained their cultural identities within their living quarters. While the neighborhood follows the standard urban planning design of the city, inside their homes residents integrated their native practices. For example, their burial sites were in place before the dwellings were built, as in the case of the Lady’s underfloor cist. They also used ceramics from their hometowns, or if that wasn’t possible, made reproductions using local clay.

Lady Jane Franklin’s Egyptian mummy mask

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

A wood mask that once adorned the head of a mummy from the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1550-1295 B.C.) sold at auction on Thursday for £116,500 ($151,291). A beautifully carved visage with full lips and a small, straight nose features big eyes with stone whites and obsidian pupils. The eyebrows used to be inlaid as well, but the stone is gone leaving only the recess in the wood. Under the chin is a small groove where a false beard was once attached. There are traces of the bitumen used to glue the piece in place still left. The inlay and fine details indicate this was an expensive piece used for a person of high status in New Kingdom society.

In addition to being a beautiful and rare artifact, the mask has another claim to fame: it was first acquired in Egypt by Lady Jane Franklin, wife of that Sir John Franklin who died with all of his crew on a doomed 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The discovery of one of his ships, the HMS Erebus, has been the subject of many an entry on this blog.

Jane Franklin had even more of a traveling jones as her husband, and she voyaged without the support of a navy often in extremely challenging conditions. She was born Jane Griffin in 1791 to family of means. Her father was a wealthy silk weaver of Huguenot extraction. Her mother, also of Huguenot descent, died when Jane was three years old. Jane was educated at a boarding school for elegant young ladies, but it was insufficiently challenging for a girl of her wits and energy. From the age of 17, she fleshed out her education with extensive travel on the continent, accompanied and supported by her family. She did all the stops of the Grand Tour and more, spending years on the road in France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Denmark.

Finding a husband does not appear to have been as high on the priority list for Jane as was customary for women of her class in 19th century England. She had a couple of romances, one with medical student Adolphe Butini, another with Dr. Peter Mark Roget of thesaurus fame, but neither got past the chaste yearning stage and both men married other women. Jane was just shy of 37 years old when she married John Franklin, a remarkably advanced age for a woman’s first marriage in 1828. She was his second wife — his first, poet Eleanor Anne Porden who was a good friend of Jane’s, had died in 1825 — and her new marital status changed her peripatetic ways not a bit. The tone was set when they were still engaged and she caught up with in St. Petersburg to travel around Russia together.

After he got a new assignment captaining the HMS Rainbow in the Mediterranean in 1830, Jane took the opportunity to travel widely whenever he was busy, which was often as the area was mired in tension courtesy of the Greek War of Independence. She went to Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, traveling independently and often going off the beaten track. In Egypt she sailed from Cairo up the Nile to the Second Cataract, even engaging in a slightly naughty (for the time) flirtation with a Prussian minister on board.

Franklin was called back to London in 1834 while Jane was still traveling in Greece. She kept doing her thing for another year, eventually meeting back up with her husband and joining him in the long voyage down under when he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1836. Once there, she dedicated her endless energy to founding a museum, a scientific society, acquiring land for a botanical garden, working for prison reform and of course, travel. She was the first European woman to climb Mount Wellington. She took the arduous overland route to Macquarie Harbour along Tasmania’s untamed west coast and traveled from Melbourne to Sydney, likely the first woman to do so.

It wasn’t all voyaging good times. Jane took a liking to an Aboriginal girl named Mathinna and adopted her, ie, just took her from her still-living parents who had already had one child stolen by British authorities to blackmail them into resettlement against their will. That daughter was dumped in an orphanage and died. Now their second daughter became Jane Franklin’s black doll. Mathinna was dressed up pretty, went on carriage rides next to Eleanor, John Franklin’s daughter from his first marriage, and was educated by her governess. When John Franklin’s term as lieutenant-governor ended in 1843, the Franklins returned to London leaving Mathinna behind in the same orphanage where her sister had died. Jerked around for her whole life and left unable to fit in anywhere, Mathinna would die at age 17, apparently from drowning in a puddle while drunk.

The Franklins just went about their business, oblivious to the fate of the little girl they had displaced so callously. Driven in significant part by Jane’s efforts, Sir John Franklin got the chance he had long yearned for to return to the Arctic. This would be his fourth and final expedition. He and a crew of 108 men took HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to Canada in 1845. Arctic Canada would be their graves.

When her husband failed to return in 1847 as planned, Lady Franklin marshalled her considerable resources of finance and dedication to his rescue. In 1848 she offered rewards of $10,000 and $15,000 to anyone who should attempt to bring succor to the missing expedition. In April of 1849, she wrote a letter to the President of the United States, noting that the ships had been provisioned with enough supplies for three years and with four years nearly gone, any survivors would be in extreme need. She hoped to persuade the US to send out rescue ships as the Russian Empire was planning and the British Admiralty had already done.

When other missions failed to find traces of the Franklin expedition, Jane outfitted her own. In the 1850s she poured money into five different search missions. Even though by then there was no chance of anyone having survived, in 1854 she redoubled her efforts after Captain John Rae, first sent by the Admiralty and then by the Hudson Bay Company on a rescue mission, returned with artifacts from the Franklin expedition and Inuit testimony of survival cannabilism among the crew. Disgusted and horrified by Rae’s news, she rejected it vehemently as the gossip of savages and became even more motivated to find what was left of the ships and their logs. She was sure they would prove conclusively that her husband, officers and crew had behaved with nothing but the most British of honor to the last.

Her last attempt to directly fund a search team was the steam yacht Fox captained by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1857. Ice blocked his path for two years, but finally in 1859 he encountered Inuits who told him of the ships crushed by ice off King William Island and of its crew who subsequently died of starvation. When McClintock reached King William Island, he bought several Franklin expedition artifacts from the Inuit. McClintock’s second-in-command, William Hobson, found an Admiralty form in a cairn at Victory Point on King William Island which had a note scrawled in the margin revealing that Franklin had died on June 11th, 1847. These were the only official records of the expedition ever found.

Lady Franklin and Captain McClintock were awarded the 1860 patron’s medal from the Royal Geographical Society. She was the first woman to receive the award, and for many decades the only one. It was exceptionally fitting since the missions she had funded ended up discovering and mapping more of the Canadian Arctic than any explorer ever had, including her husband.

Jane Franklin would outlive Sir John by 30 years, and never stopped traveling the world. She dined with Brigham Young at Salt Lake City, hiked in Yosemite, had an audience with Pope Pius IX in Rome, stipulating ahead of time that she would not be kneeling, climbed Mount Olympus, became friends with Queen Emma of Hawaii, went on her first trip to India when she was 74 years old and traveled the subcontinent for three years.

When she died in 1875 at the age of 84, six Arctic explorers were her pallbearers.

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