Archive for April, 2008

Cradle of civilization plundered 5 years ago today

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad. I remember being horrified, aghast, on the verge of tears whenever the realization of what we had lost sunk in.

What I didn’t know is how much worse it could get. How the entire country would be stripped of its (and our) precious history. How archaeological sites that testify to our earliest civilizations, where people first invented writing, cities, the wheel and so much more, would become pockmarked no man’s lands of chaotic rubble.

The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is hosting an exhibit on the looting of Iraq. Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past opens this evening in Chicago and will remain until December 31.

The exhibition will consist of photographs as well as objects from the museum’s collection. “It summarizes results of investigations into the looting of the Baghdad Museum and updates efforts to recover the artifacts that were stolen,” said Geoff Emberling, Director of the Oriental Institute Museum.

The exhibition also will document the looting of archaeological sites with a series of aerial photographs that show the increase in damage through the past few years and other ground-level pictures of the looters at work. “A central section illustrates the importance of archaeological context through several case studies that show what is lost when a piece is looted. The exhibit presents an overview of the international trade in antiquities and the ways in which it directly promotes the looting of the sites,” Emberling said.

If anyone has a chance to see this exhibit, please let me know. I would dearly love to hear all about it. Meanwhile, a companion publication is available for sale or freely downloadable as a pdf.

I’ve read it and I cannot recommend it enough. It’s 82 pages long so eminently readable, although painful in the horror it describes. Here’s one example to give you an idea of what you’ll find.

A bull-headed lyre excavated from the Royal Cemetery of Ur and dated ca. 2800 B.C.:

That same lyre after looters pillaged the museum on April 10, 2003:

Tonight, SAFE is holding a candlelit vigil in memory of the tragic loss of our cultural heritage. Click here to see if there is a vigil in your area.


Socially meaningful archaeology

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

On a dig five years ago, University of Calgary archaeologist Julio Mercader found 1000-year old ritual bowls in a cave in Mozambique. Instead of snagging them for his institution as usually happens when Western archaeologists excavate in Africa, Mercader decided to create a local museum, staffed with locals.

Locals are being trained in African archeology, making western and African academic research relevant to the local population.

“I’m grateful that I’m being given the chance to actually be trained,” said Mussa Raja, through a translator.

Raja is an honours student at a university in Mozambique and has been studying archeology at the U of C for the past 41/2 months.

“I’m getting the training in the actual practicality of how to excavate and do field work,” he said.

Raja, who said archeology is a new science for many African universities, has seen the attitudes of his people change when they see a fellow African doing archeological work.

“They’re so happy when it’s not just foreigners there,” said Raja.

The museum, which opens in August, will display the finds made by Mercader’s team, including Stone Age artifacts, and will also feature an interactive centre and an oral history archive.

I call that brilliant. One of the most common justifications I’ve read for western museums buying (often unprovenanced) antiquities on the (totally dirty) market is that the poor locals in their poor war-torn countries couldn’t possibly care for the artifacts as well as the big budget “universal” museums abroad do.

Mercader has now torn that argument to shreds, and he’s just one man doing the best he can. Imagine what museums and universities with endowments and hundreds of people on staff could accomplish if they made the effort to work with local people and institutions to study and display their antiquities.


Amateur historian turned disgruntled looter?

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

Working at night and in secret so as not to alert looters, federal archaeologists have exhumed 67 men, women and children buried around Fort Craig. They were acting on a tip that a respected (and long-deceased) amateur historian had looted the graves and actually kept a mummy of a black Civil War-era soldier in his living room.

Most of the men are believed to have been soldiers — Fort Craig protected settlers in the West from American Indian raids and played a role in the Civil War. Union troops stationed there fought the Confederacy as it moved into New Mexico from Texas in 1862.

The children buried there may have been local residents treated by doctors at the former frontier outpost, officials said.

Federal officials learned of the looting in November 2004, when Don Alberts, a retired historian for Kirtland Air Force Base, tipped them off about a macabre possession he’d seen at Brecheisen’s home about 30 years earlier.

Alberts described seeing the mummified remains of a black soldier with patches of brown flesh clinging to facial bones and curly hair on top of its skull. Alberts said the body had come from Fort Craig.

Why this crazy sumbitch Brecheisen might have done this we don’t know, although there is some vague notion floating about that he had a bone to pick (sorreh) with the Bureau of Land Management. Fort Craig was only one of his targets. He grave-robbed other forts and Indian burial grounds as well.

Whatever his reasons, the remains of that soldier along with the rest of Brecheisen’s collection scattered after his death. His family sold the stuff. I hope either the family or the people who ran the estate sale had the decency not to include the mummy.

The bodies exhumed by the feds are being studied now to see if their identities can be determined. They will eventually be reburied.



Monday, April 7th, 2008

The ancient Israeli city of Tiberias, built by Herod Antipas in 1 A.D. in honor of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, will be the site of a new archaeological park, says the Israel Antiquities Authority.

visitors will arrive in a large entrance area that will include a visitor’s center, recreation facilities for children etc. They will pass the stone walls of the Byzantine city or go by way of the southern gate of the Roman city, which was magnificently preserved including both of its towers. The visitors will continue on along the cardo, which is the main street that is paved with stone tiles and that leads from the gate to the Roman city (and to cities of later periods).

They will enter a “green area” of lawns and flora characteristic of the Land of Israel that will include a network of paths which will conform to the geometry and the material appearance of the Roman city. The paths will be suitable for those on foot, the handicapped and baby strollers and will reach the assembly center – the “amphilawn”– which will contain thousands of seats and is intended for public events (which Tiberias currently lacks) where musical performances, shows etc will take place outdoors.

The main cardo will continue further north through green areas to the bathhouse which visitors can go into and on toward the basilica.

Archaeological artifacts that were discovered in excavations that were conducted in Tiberias in the past, among them stone columns and capitals, ancient agricultural installations etc, will be incorporated the length of the cardo.

I like the idea of incorporating the antique city into a public multi-use space, but I can’t help but be concerned about the new construction damaging an archaeological site of such great importance. Not to mention the potential damage thousands of tourists tramping about, enjoying the cafeteria goods and loud music.

In Rome, the Baths of Caracalla were used to stage summer operas and concerts (remember the first Three Tenors concert back in 1990?) for many a decade, but eventually the city stopped the practice because the noise and crowds caused structural damage to the ruins.

I’m not the only one concerned. The late Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld, Director of the Tiberias excavation for many years, objected to the plan when it was first proposed in 2005.


Fossilized feces testify to earliest Americans

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Fourteen coprolites (i.e., fossilized poop) found by archaeologists in an Oregon cave indicate that humans were living in North America a thousand years earlier than previously thought.

The dumps in question were taken 14,300 years ago, which means people were doing their business in the Pacific Northwest when much of Canada and the northern US was still covered in glaciers.

The new research doesn’t set an exact arrival date for humans, but it shakes up long-held assumptions – especially the notion, still dear to many archeologists, that humans couldn’t have punched past the glaciers covering nearly all of present-day Canada and the northern United States much before 13,000 years ago. That’s when warming would have allowed easier transit across a land bridge from Siberia and into the heart of the new continent by interior passageways.

Because this research puts humans in the New World more or less concurrent with the ice wall, the find supports emerging theories that the first Americans followed a rugged, coast-hugging route down the Pacific Northwest – perhaps coursing from peninsula to peninsula in primitive watercraft.

We were a tough bunch back in the day, weren’t we? I’m reluctant to walk down my outside staircase when there’s a light dusting of snow on them.

Anyway, there is some debate about whether the mitochondrial DNA found in cast-off digestive tract cells in the coprolites was actually a more recent contamination of the site, but the find seems solid and it casts a whole new light on the archaeological record of human life in the Americas.


Ancient mechanics

Saturday, April 5th, 2008

Have you ever wondered how people came up with basic mechanical devices like the wheel or the lever? I have, and much more importantly, so have the smart folks at the Archimedes Project.

The Archimedes Project is a joint endeavor of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the Harvard Classics department, the English Department of the University of Missouri and Perseus Project at Tufts University which studies the history of mechanics.

By following the historical record, the Archimedes researchers have discovered that the evolution of physics — or, at least, mechanics — is based on an interplay between practice and theory. The practical use comes first, theory second. Artisans build machines and use them but do not think about why they work. Theorists explain the machines and then derive principles that can be used to construct more complex machines.

The Archimedes researchers say that by studying this dialectic they can better understand what people knew about the natural world at a given time and how that knowledge may have affected their lives.

They’re building a monster online database of their research. It’s not enormously user friendly right at the moment, but it’s still a fantastic resource including all sorts of ancient writings on mechanics.

Of course, as Harvard classics professor Dr. Schiefsky points out, scientists aren’t often classicists as well, so it’s a small group of people who have the ability and inclination to pursue this study.

I am neither scientist not classicist, but ancient science is a subject of endless fascination to me. Gotta prepare for the post-technological apocalypse, donchaknow.


3000 year old scrimshaw

Friday, April 4th, 2008

Archaeologists in the Russian Arctic have uncovered a whale harpooning scene carved in walrus ivory which pushes the date of human whale hunting back a thousand years.

Whale remains found at a 3,000-year-old site in northwestern Alaska called Old Whaling, for instance, were once considered evidence of early hunting. But a re-examination of the site in recent years has suggested that people there were simply scavenging dead whales that had washed ashore. There are some dramatic rock carvings in southeastern Korea that show bands of hunters going after whales. But these are nearly impossible to pin down with an exact date, says Odess. In contrast, the newfound ivory carving was pegged as being 3,000 years old by nearly a dozen radiocarbon dates on the soil in which it was embedded. The previous eldest solid evidence for whaling is some 2,000 years old.

The carved scenes show hunters in traditional inuit boats with harpoons and whales.

The ivory itself was not dated, however, because it would require chipping off bits of the ivory. It’s the earth layer from which it was excavated which provided the date.

Russian conservators will make the decision on whether to date the ivory directly.


Vintage ads

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

Anyone who enjoys historical graphic art will get a kick out of this. It’s a Photoshop contest that challenges participants to create a commercial for a modern product using a vintage style.

Here are some of my favorites:

If that puts you in the mood for more old timey advertisement fun, you can check out this page of curious, funny and sometimes downright disturbing ads. Otherwise, there’s always a gigantic Flickr group to browse.


New Indiana Jones Movie to Offer Accurate Archaeology

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

Instead of fighting Nazis, Indy will spend a good portion of the movie working to accumulate sufficient grants for his field excavations.

The dig it’s self will be the climax of the movie, bringing Indy to a site on the border of Argentina and Brazil. When contacted for further comment, George Lucas had this to say:

“We’re looking for realism here, so the ‘crystal skull’ is just a metaphor for information, anything more would be foolish. What you should really have in mind is ceramics. When people think of Indian Jones we want them to think of pot sherds.”


I actually believed it when I read the first couple of paragraphs. Not because it’s plausible or even remotely likely, but just because I am that gullible.

Naturally to spring it on y’all I had to wait a day, because nobody else was likely to buy it on April 1st.


First Stonehenge dig in 40 years

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

With the permission of English Heritage and a bunch of neo-druids, archaeologists broke ground yesterday on the first archaeological excavation of Stonehenge since 1964.

The trench being dug is just 11 feet (3.5 meters) long and 3 feet (1 meter) wide. They’re looking for the foundation holes of the first inner stone circle, and for any kind of organic material to provide more precise dating of the monument.

Their theory is that the original bluestones were thought to have curative powers, that the original stone circle was a place people came to be healed.

The excavation will uncover the foundations of the original double circle of stones within the earth bank. The bluestones were then rearranged several times when, centuries later, the double-decker bus sized sarsen stones, which do come from the plain, were piled up into the gigantic circle of uprights and lintels which gives the monument its unforgettable outline.

“But it is the bluestones which are the key,” Wainwright said. “They were retained at every stage of the structural life of the monument, around 1,500 years.”

“The sarsens are fantastic things in their own right,” Darvill said, “but essentially they’re just scenery, a backdrop for the bluestones.”

It was the bluestones which made Stonehenge a centre for healing, they believe. “A Bronze Age Lourdes,” Wainwright said; “the A&E ward of the south-west,” as Darvill put it.

You can follow the progress of the dig on the English Heritage site. New videos of the work will be posted daily.

Archeology student works at Stonehenge, 3/31/08






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