Archive for April, 2008

Underwater archaeology in Egypt

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

The Nile, despite its status as bringer of life and civilization, has barely been explored as a source of archaeological material. Underwater archaeology is not foremost on people’s minds in a desert, I suppose.

That’s beginning to change now, though, as a four-month underwater survey of the Nile at Aswan has born fruit.

Forty metres beneath the surface the divers discovered a complete portico of the temple of Khnum; two huge, unidentified columns; and four pollards from the Coptic era. Hawass said these pieces would remain on the river bed as they were too heavy to be lifted out the water. Early studies show that the pollards may be part of a Christian church that may have once been located in the area but for unknown reasons was demolished or destroyed. Several 26th-Dynasty decorative pieces, along with Roman amphora and a collection of clay vessels, have been also found and removed from the Nile bed so they can be restored and placed on display.

This is just the beginning. During the next archaeological season, divers will be exploring the Nile between Aswan and Luxor, which is known to hold obelisks and other statuary that fell into the river during transport.

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Colossi of Memnon grow exponentially

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

The Colossi of Memnon, two giant statues of pharaoh Amenhotep III guarding the entrance to his funerary temple in Thebes, will soon have company.

Thanks to a huge donation from cognac heiress Monique Hennessy, archaeologists have discovered four other Amenhotep colossi, two made out of red quartz and two out of extremely delicate alabaster.

The red quartz ones will be put back up next year. The alabaster ones will take longer due to their fragility.

But that’s not all. The excavation has also turned up:

two sphinxes, 84 statues of the war goddess Sekhmet depicted as a lioness, and a stele whose 150 fragments were spread across a site which has to be constantly drained.

It is planned that five years from now the statues of Sekhmet the lion-headed goddess will stand again.

The tenth annual dig, which ends this month, has already unearthed a 3.62-metre- (11.9 feet-) tall statue of Tiya, Amenhotep’s wife.

“She has an extraordinary beauty”, Sourouzian said.

When the two 15-metre red quartz colossi of Amenhotep become upright again in 2009 Tiya’s statue will once again stand next to those of her spouse.

This will be the only temple in the neighborhood with intact statuary, so even beyond the wonder of the individual finds, their return to their former positions will be a great thing.

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Happy World Heritage Day!

Friday, April 18th, 2008

Officially it’s called International Monuments and Sites Day, but that’s a tad unwieldy so April 18th is World Heritage Day in the common argot.

This year, the theme is “Religious Heritage and Sacred Places”, but the International Council on Monuments and Sites won’t send hired goons to your door or anything if you chose to celebrate other historical sites instead.

So go check out that pornographically opulent Beaux Arts building downtown you’ve been meaning to visit, or maybe go see what’s shaking at a local museum.

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The real (fake) crystal skulls

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

Indiana Jones latest adventure involves a (doubtless perilous and booby-traped) search for a meso-American skull carved out of crystal.

For a hundred years, crystal skulls purported to be of Mayan or Aztec origins have popped up in museums and private collections around the world, spurring a wide variety of speculation and mythologies.

Smithsonian anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh examines the myth and reality in Archaeology magazine this month.

These exotic carvings are usually attributed to pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, but not a single crystal skull in a museum collection comes from a documented excavation, and they have little stylistic or technical relationship with any genuine pre-Columbian depictions of skulls, which are an important motif in Mesoamerican iconography. […]

These small objects represent the “first generation” of crystal skulls, and they are all drilled through from top to bottom. The drill holes may in fact be pre-Columbian in origin, and the skulls may have been simple Mesoamerican quartz crystal beads, later re-carved for the European market as little mementos mori, or objects meant to remind their owners of the eventuality of death.

The best one, though, is a “third generation” (ie, 20th c.) skull belonging to the family of Indy-like adventurer Frederick Arthur Mitchell-Hedges. Over time it has an acquired a spurious Mayan origin and a mystical reputation for shooting blue light out of the eye sockets and crashing computer hard drives.

If only all fakes could be so bad-ass.

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Update: Stonehenge dig ends with a drum circle

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

The Stonehenge dig is over. The trench has been refilled and the sod relayed, while a group of local Druids offered blessings and songs.

For such a tiny excavation area explored over just 11 days of full work, they found all kinds of neat stuff and the analysis of the findings will doubtless turn up much new information. Some of the finds (courtesy of the Smithsonian dispatches):

  • a piece of finely patterned pottery from the “Bell-Beaker culture” that existed throughout western Europe around 3,000-2,000 B.C.
  • Part of a broach, along with a Roman coin dating from the 4th c.
  • Material retrieved from the bluestone sockets, possibly dateable
  • Snail shells, definitely dateable
  • Bluestone and sarsen fragments indicating pilgrims chiseled off pieces to take home

Now the big job of analyzing the finds begins. Two tons of excavated material will make its way to various universities for in depth analysis. We’ll be hearing about these wee dig for a long time to come, I suspect.

On an unrelated note, how awesome is that Knights Who Say Ni druid? Ni!

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Gold Valens in Egypt

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Archaeologists in the Sinai peninsula have discovered two gold coins with the portrait of Emperor Valens on them.

The coins are the first of their kind to be found in Egypt, the country’s antiquities council said.

The Supreme Council for Antiquities said excavations at a site west of St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai unearthed two coins containing images of Valens, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from 364 to 378 AD.

Valens was the cursed emperor who managed to piss away an army at Adrianople.

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Time Team USA

Monday, April 14th, 2008

The long-running British show about a crack team of archaeologists (and Baldrick) excavating a site in just a few days is coming to the States.

TIME TEAM, USA (w.t.) will take viewers into scientific digs, as experts uncover America’s rich history. The fast-paced series will intertwine high-tech geophysics, artists’ renditions of the past and computer reconstructions with more traditional archeological techniques. But the team of experts will have a mere 72 hours onsite to disinter artifacts and other significant materials; when time’s up, they’ll report what they’ve learned. Camera crews, tracking each step, will give the audience an archaeology-as-it-happens experience.

Some of the sites under consideration include the Indian Mounds of Mississippi and Skull Creek Dune in Oregon.

The US doesn’t provide quite the glamour of the UK when it comes to archaeological sites, though. No Roman forts or medieval cities. I wonder if they’re going to basically stick to pre-Columbian locations or if they might adapt to the newness of the culture and study more recent stuff.

There’s always the Spaniards. Spanish history in the United States goes way back and it’s often been overlooked in favor of the splashier British arrivistes.

Oh, I know! The Lost Colony of Roanoke! That would be a great thing to uncover in 72 hours after historians have spent hundreds of years trying to figure out what happened.

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Big busts

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

Of stolen and looted antiquities, that is. I don’t know what y’all were thinking, but this is a family blog. Sickos.

In Italy, police found a dozen ancient artifacts destined for the antiquities market, including an extremely rare marble head of Emperor Lucius Verus. He was chisel-shy, so there are only four other known portraits of Marcus Aurelius’ co-emperor.

In Spain, police have seized tens of thousands of precious antiquities, including Roman swords, 12,000 coins, and 10,000 paleological artifacts. Twenty low-down dirty bastards have been arrested for systematically looting archaeological sites and then selling their finds on the internet.

The scale of this operation boggles the mind, doesn’t it? And it’s not even terribly professional. I mean, these were eBay jockeys, after all, not people with a high-end network on the antiquities market.

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Viking hoard of Arab silver

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

It’s like The 13th Warrior, only it’s not a crappy movie!

Archaeologists in Sweden have uncovered a huge hoard of 472 Arab silver coins near Stolkholm.

Vikings buried the coins in a pre-existing grave in around 850 A.D. They only started importing currency in 800 A.D., so this find is remarkable for its early age as well as for its hugeness.

Most of the coins were minted in Arab locations such as Baghdad in modern-day Iraq and Damascus in Syria. The youngest coin dates to the A.D. 840s

But the oldest coins came from Persia, said dig team member Karin Beckman-Thoor.

These Persian coins must have been in circulation for centuries before being buried and “were very high quality,” she said. […]

Once thoroughly studied, the hoard “will give us lots of information about the journey it made and also ideas about why it was left in the ground,” Beckman-Thoor said.

The moneys were most likely the proceeds of trade in Russia, which brings us back to The 13th Warrior whose lead character was a fictionalized version of Ibn Fadlan, a 10th c. emissary of Caliph al-Muqtadir who wrote a travelogue of his eventful voyage to the Volga Bulghars.

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A Roman soldier’s altar in Britain

Friday, April 11th, 2008

His name was Aelius Victor and he was probably from Germania somewhere. He made his goddesses a promise that he’d build them altar and so he did. Now, 2000 years later, it’s been found in excellent condition.

A Latin inscription on the altar says: “To the mother goddesses Hananeftis and Ollototis, Aelius Victor willingly and deservedly fulfils a vow.”[…]

Evidence suggests it may have been constructed in the latter part of the first century AD and later discarded, as it was found on top of an ancient rubbish pit.

The existence of a number of pits and ditches in the area suggest it was cleared for farming use.

This is only the second time an artifact that actually names a Roman soldier stationed in Manchester has been found. The first time was 400 years ago, and the last time archaeologists found a stone inscription of any kind in the area was 150 years ago.

Incidentally, if I had been that farmer, I would have found something to do with the altar besides dumping it, but then again, it wouldn’t be in such great condition today if he had.

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