ArtiFACTS: Recent News in Archaeology

Among the Headlines In Archaeology this Week:

  1. 50 Fifth Graders Participate in Urban Excavation
  2. Third Graders Get to Watch Archaeologists at Fort Hawkins
  3. University of Hawaii Manoa Department of Anthropology Gets $500,000 Award
  4. Computer Software Reveals Ancient Coastline

Click the “Read More” link below to read each news item one-by-one or the topic link above to take you directly to the item and a hyperlink to the original story and related links.


50 Fifth Graders Participate in Urban Excavation
Actually there were both fourth and fifth graders from John Muir Elementary School who teamed up with archaeologists from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington to participate in an urban dig in the Rainier Valley. Artifacts of glass, pottery, and metal have been found. Artist Donald Fels will incorporate artifacts and casts of artifacts into sculptures placed along a hillside path in the neighborhood. Students learned basic archaeological techniques, how to use maps, and how the landscape changes and develops over time; and by learning the local history, these students gained a valuable insight into history and hopefully there are a few who will take this to a life-long interest.

Third Graders Get to Watch Archaeologists at Fort Hawkins
Third Graders in the Macon, Georgia area had the opportunity to watch archaeologists at work during a dig at the historic Fort Hawkins, named for Benjamin Hawkins, the man charged with the responsibility for preventing a Creek Indian uprising and protecting local settlers. The fort was established in 1805 and was a supply hub during the War of 1812 as well as an embarkation point for soldiers headed for the First Seminole War. The fort was decommissioned in 1822. Now, a team from Lamar Institute is working to establish the fort’s original location and excavate artifacts in order to build an on-site replica of the fort.

University of Hawaii Manoa Department of Anthropology Gets $500,000 Award
The Henry Luce Foundation’s Initiative on East and Southeast Asian Archeology and Early History is making the award of $500,000 to the University of Hawaii’s Manoa Department of Anthropology and it will help fund their Asian archaeology program.

Computer Software Reveals Ancient Coastline

The changing shape of Australasia can now be seen in a new interactive digital map that mimics the rise and fall of sea levels over the past 100,000 years.

The map also has pop-up images and text about key archaeological sites and possible routes humans took from Asia to Australia during the last ice age.

Matthew Coller of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia developed the map, based on Google Earth, but with the added dimension of time. He presented a paper on the topic at the Australasian Archaeological Conference titled, SahulTime: a Web-delieverable Temporal GIS for Archaeological Visualizations. The map itself is fun, and I spent a few minutes playing around with it. If I were instructing a class on Hominid Evolution, I think this is one I’d like to put up on the overhead to demonstrate the changes in sea level over the last 100,000 years.

ArtiFACTS: Recent News in Archaeology and Anthropology

Here’s what’s new in archaeology for the previous week (below the fold):

2,100 year old melon
… with flesh still on the rind! In Japan, archaeologists recovered the melon from a layer of “wet ground” that impeded microorganisms that would have otherwise consumed the remains. This is probably the oldest known piece of melon. And to think I thought the cantaloupe remains I discovered in my refrigerator’s bottom drawer were ancient.

Archaeologists in Malta are taken advantage of
Archaeologists were asked to survey Ramla Bay in Malta, assuming it was to assess the cultural resources in the region. They were told to evaluate existing archaeological remains that could be “enhanced for the future,” and submitted a report that included a heritage trail known as the Roman Road. Unbeknown to the archaeologists, their report was attached to a development project and the developers are contradicting the archaeologists assessment that there exists a “Roman Road” in the development area and that there is a negative impact on the archaeological remains. According to the archaeologists:

Had we known that the report was going to be used as part of a Project Description Statement of a development permit, we would have carried out a more in-depth report on the impact the development would have on the archaeological remains and requested a copy of the development plans.

George Washington’s House had Slave Passage
Not a passage to the “Underground Railroad,” which didn’t begin until around 40-50 years later, but a passage that allowed slaves to come and go between the main house and slave quarters without being seen by Washington’s guests. The passage was found along with other archaeological remains at the site in Philadelphia, just down the street from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. The importance of the find is that it provides physical evidence of the nation’s slave history, which simply cannot -and should not- be ignored. It is still up in the air whether or not the National Park Service will include these artifacts and features in the new memorial that’s being developed.

Iron Age Mickey Mouseketeers?
Excavations at Uppåkra in southern Sweden have uncovered over 20,000 Iron Age artifacts dating from around 900 CE, including a bronze brooch probably used as a clasp for a Viking woman’s clothing and probably intended to represent a Lion King. Lund University archaeologist Jerry Rosengren said,

The find is from around 900 AD. It was probably a lion’s head that originally came from France. It was however more than likely designed by somebody who had never actually seen a lion.

But as you can see from the image, the bronze clasp bears a striking resemblance to a certain cartoon mouse! And did I scoop a certain Swedish archaeologist who happens to have one of the best archaeology blogs? [Grin]

ArtiFACTS: Recent News in Archaeology and Anthropology

Second Temple in Jerusalem in wrong spot!, Bulgarian archaeologists want higher wages, New Discovery of Old Sarcophagi in Egypt, and the 5,000 year-old embrace will go uninterrupted.

These are some interesting stories and their links and discussion is below the fold!

Second Temple is in the wrong spot? Proffessor Joseph Patrich of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology thinks so. He thinks that the temple, its courtyards, its gates, and so on, should be south and east of the current location. The reason Patrich thinks the actual temple location is different is because of data he used that was gathered in 1866 by Charles Wilson during a survey that mapped an underground cistern.

[O]ne can “reconstruct” the placement of the laver (a large basin) that was used by the priests for their ritual washing, with the water being drawn by a waterwheel mechanism from the cistern. After this purification, the priests ascended the nearby ramp to the sacrificial altar. By thus locating the laver, the water wheel, the ramp and the altar, one can then finally map, again in coordination with the Mishna, the alignment of the Temple itself and its gates and chambers.

Patrich stands by the assertion that his work isn’t politically motivated in any way and that its purely academic, but with the tension that exists in the region and between the Palestinians and the Jews over what both consider to be a “holy site,” any new information or archaeological innovation deserves to be carefully vetted.

Three Painted Wooden Sarcophagi Recovered at Saqqara.
Japanese archaeologists recently unearthed the three coffins which dated to the Middle Kingdom, nearly 5,000 years ago. Two of the sarcophagi were designed for a man called Sabak Hatab and a woman named Sint Ayt Ess and these are the oldest. The third belongs to a New Kingdom owner of the 18th Dynasty, ca. 1,500 BCE.

5,000 Year-Old Embrace Will not Be Disturbed
The much-linked to find of the “stone-age lovers” who were in time for Valentine’s Day and emailed to every archaeologist and anthropologist with a computer will not have their embrace interrupted in the name of science.

Buried 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, researchers will scoop the whole site and remove it instead of removing it bone-by-bone. Lots of interesting facts surround the couple: they were buried the wrong way (north-south, instead of east-west like contemporaries), together instead of singly, heads intact instead of decapitated, etc. And lots of speculation exists about their demise.

I say the man died and his family buried the love of his life with him since they new he couldn’t stand to be without her.

ArtiFACTS: Recent News in Archaeology and Anthropology

The holidays nearly had my full attention but now I’m going to post a bit more often. I’ll start with continuing with the ArtiFACTS series, rounding up some recent news in archaeology and anthropology.

Here’s a few of the topics I’ve found this week:

  • Ancient Roman Road Found in the Netherlands
  • Bulgarian Archaeological Discoveries of 2006
  • Can You Hear Me Now?
  • Apocalypto an Inaccurate Distortion of History

They’re discussed below the fold.

Ancient Roman Road Found in the Netherlands

Dating between 30-350 CE, the road is being excavated near Amsterdam in Houten about 30 miles away. Though probably used for trade and civilian activity, Romans used the road for military purposes in their conflicts against Germanic tribes and is thought to have connected Traiectum and Fectio (the modern cities of Utrecht and Vechten, respectively).

Hessing said the road was built of a sloping mound of sand and clay, interspersed with layers of gravel and smashed seashells, which would have stood about a yard above nearby fields. The top layer of hard-packed gravel is unusually well-preserved at the site.

Dendrochronology of wooden posts used by the roads builders and pot sherds used in filler may help pinpoint more exact dates.
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Bulgarian Archaeological Discoveries of 2006

7th – 8th century CE tombs were discovered on Cape Kaliakra along with a medieval sword. A 5000 year old, 6.3 inch gold and platinum dagger was discovered in a Thracian site in central Bulgaria. Also recovered at the same site were 500 tiny gold rings were (part of a jewelry ensemble), a golden plaque, silver and bronze vessels and ritual daggers, and pottery.

Excavation began in 2002 of Sostra in norther Bulgaria where a castle, settlements and a necropolis have so far been revealed. Sostra was destroyed by the Huns in the late 5th century CE, but its diamond shaped castle was impressive at 130m square. Recent finds in 2006 include 12 inscribed stones as well as “[c]eramic and glass vessels and jewellery, coins, and a ceremonial bronze mask, attributed to the Thracians.”

Archaeologists of the National Institute for Cultural Monuments only had to travel 50 meters to begin excavation of a Roman amphitheatre in Sofia. It was discovered during the construction of a hotel on Dondoukov Boulevard. Later construction of the headquarters building of Bulgaria’s National Electric Company revealed the western portion of the ampitheater. Coins and vessels recovered so far indicate a construction period between the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.

This just scratches the surface. Click the link above to read about many more archaeological discoveries in Bulgaria, including three chariots in a vinyard, a Thracian tomb containing murals and a breastplate that gave clues to the Thracian concept of time.
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Can You Hear Me Now?

A Pakistani mobile phone service company has erected a transmission tower at a protected site in Mohenjodaro, the cradle of the 5000 year old Indus Valley Civilization.

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Apocalypto an Inaccurate Distortion of History

Mayanist Kam Manahan of Kent State takes issue with the Mel Gibson film.

What? Mel guilty of distorting historical reality in a film with an obscure language and overt violence?

Still, the link above is to a question and answer type interview with Manahan that’s very interesting. His criticisms include the portrayal by Gibson of the Spanish conquest as a “benevolent event” and the sacrificial overkill. Manahan points out that, while there is good evidence that the Maya sacrificed captured elites during elaborate rituals following conflicts, there is no evidence that the commoners were routinely sacrificed in the manner Gibson showed. Manahan goes on to note the reciprocity involved in Maya sacrifices:

Sacrifice was the fundamental way in which the ancient Maya honored what we call the sacred covenant: that by offering blood back to the gods that had created them, they would ensure that these gods would continue to ensure their sustenance and prosperity.

At the core of this tenet is the concept of reciprocity — life must be given in order to ensure that life will be received.

The most common way that the sacred covenant was honored was through autosacrifice — ritualized bloodletting of one’s self.

Maya art shows both male and female elites sacrificing themselves by piercing genitalia or tounges. I recall a mural or pot that depicted a king’s wife pulling a string through her tongue, catching the blood in a vessel. Manahan also took issue with the fact that Gibson mixed elements unique to various periods such as 300 BCE with 1000 CE in the same scene.

Didn’t Mayanist Richard Hansen consult for Gibson on the project?

ArtiFACTS: Recent News in Archaeology 10/5/06

Aztec Ruins
In Mexico, archaeologists have uncovered a 15th century monolithic altar with a frieze of the raingod Tlaloc and an agricultural deity. This altar is an exciting find to Mesoamerican archaeologists and it wasn’t found in some remote jungle but in the very heart of Mexico City! Mexico City Major Alejandro Encinas said:

“It is a very important discovery, the biggest we have made in 28 years. It will allow us to find out much more.”


It’s believed that this may be the entrance to an underground chamber and efforts are undoubtedly underway to determine this.

Syrian Building from 8,800 BCE
On the banks of the Euphrates in Syria, near Ja’de, a French archaeological team discovered a building that dates back to 8,800 BCE and contains ” multi-colored geometrical paintings,” which may be the oldest of their kind in the Middle East. Tools for hunting and domestic living, mostly of flint and some obsidian, were found at the site’s level and the archaeologist working the site, Eric Coqueugniot, remarks that the building is larger than expected for residences:


“had a collective use, probably for all of the village or a group. A part of this community building takes the shape of the head of a bull and retains painted decorations, the oldest known in the Middle East.”


Taliban Terrorize Archaeologists
Okay… maybe not directly. Teams working to salvage the giant Buddhas that were destroyed by the Taliban regime in
Afghanistan work carefully as munitions experts on site help them clear unexploded munitions that are still present in the debris. The Taliban destroyed the 1,500 year old monuments in March 2001. As work to recover this nearly lost cultural heritage continues, they are periodically interrupted (“every half hour or so”) to look for unexploded ordinance. The pressure is on the International Council for Monuments and Sites to reconstruct the Buddha’s but as Omar Sultan, deputy culture minister, said:

“[A]s an archaeologist, I can’t imagine we could go reconstruct a Buddha from concrete or something. Those artists who did it 1,500 years ago had another feeling for it.”

And reconstruction of a single Buddha could cost $30 million in a nation that desparately needs additional funds to rebuild infrastructure.

Not archaeology, but Just Because It’s Cool:
Scientists in Copenhagen have teleported a chunk of matter nearly 18 inches! To do so, they used light, magnatism and “entanglement.” Professor Eugene Polzik said of the project:


“Creating entanglement is a very important step, but there are two more steps at least to perform teleportation. We have succeeded in making all three steps — that is entanglement, quantum measurement and quantum feedback.”

ArtiFACTs: Recent News In Archaeology 9/17/06

Just a quick round-up of archaeological news stories from various sources.

**Oldest Writing in the New World**
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this, though I’m sure anyone with any interest in archaeology has already read it elsewhere. The news stems from a research article in Science, Oldest Writing in the New World (Rodríguez Martínez et al. 2006). In this article, the authors describe a 26.5 pound block of serpentine referred to as the Cascajal block, which has “a hitherto unknown system of writing” that the authors have dated to about 900 BCE, the San Lorenzo phase of the Pre-Classic in Mesoamerica. The site where the Cascajal block is reported to have been found is a gravel quarry in Veracruz, Mexico (Cascajal is the site, Veracruz is the state), but the exact context is probably a bit questionable since researchers didn’t catch up to the block until after it had been removed from the site.

Alun at Archaeoastronomy writes, “This makes the discovery of earlier writing from the New World interesting, because it shows that these advances do not lead to inevitable consequences despite the claims of the Meierist school of history.” He goes on to link and cite Hooded Hawk, who “notes that Oldest Writing in the New World was offered to an antiquities dealer first which suggest that none of the words on the slab were Olmec for ‘context’.” LA Times has a decent graphic adapted from the article in Science.

Rodríguez Martínez et al (2006). Oldest Writing in the New World . Science, 313 (5793), 1610-1614.

**250 Year-Old Convenience Store Found**
And it’s not a 7-11. The French and Indian War meant soldiers. Soldiers get paid. And where paid soldiers go, close by are merchants willing to part them with their hard-earned cash in exchange for goods and services. Take it from an old soldier.

Along the Hudson River, 40 miles up-river from Albany, NY, David Starbuck leads an archaeology project comprised of volunteers and students that has been on-going for the last 5 years. Recently unearthed is the remains of a “sutler’s” establishment that sold rum, wine, tobacco and sundries to soldiers of the largest British military post in North America at the time, Fort Edwards. “Sutler” perhaps refers to the perspective that authorities or customers had on the profession of the merchants, since it comes from a Dutch word that describes “someone who performs dirty work.” I wonder if was the soldiers or the military officials that allowed their presence that perceived them as an exploitive but necessary evil? Evidence found at the site indicates that at least one sutler store may have doubled as a tavern.

**Map a Wreck Contest In the UK**
The Nautical Archaeology Society in the United Kingdom has a contest called WreckMap Britain 2006, which ends in a couple of weeks. The idea is to encourage amateur divers to record and document wrecks they dive on and submit the data to a contest that will reward the best reports with a chance to win prizes that include: a SeaLife DC500 camera including strobe and underwater housing; a dive torch (flashlight for those of us in the “colonies”) and BCD ( Buoyancy Control Device – that vest that really cool divers wear) or Dive computer; and the Shipwreck Index of the British Isles by Richard & Bridget Larn.

NAS will submit biological data to the Marine Conservation Society for inclusion in its SeaSearch project and archaeological data to “the appropriate National Archive or local Historic Environment Record Archive (eg. the local Sites and Monuments Record).”

**War shatters Lebanon’s Roman Legacy**
The recent conflict in Lebanon has caused damage to a
Roman tomb in Tyre and a medieval tower in Byblos. Roman architecture at Tyre suffered direct damage, most notably a fresco that collapsed on a tomb and the Israeli government bombed a depot near Byblos, causing a oil spill that has stained archaeological sites in the harbor as well as damaging the tower, which dates back to the time of the Crusades. This damage assessment carried out by UNESCO serves to remind us that wars fought in and by countries we don’t live in still affect us. The cultural heritage sites in the lands belong to the world in some regard. The earliest evidences of the Phoenician culture is found in the Levant where much of the fighting and destruction is occurring between people who think only of the present and little of the past. It pains me to even think of the sites that are being destroyed, looted, and ignored in Iraq, arguable a cradle of civilization, where centuries old ziggurats, temples, cities, tombs, and in situ records of the some of the earliest cultures to use writing still wait to be discovered.

ArtiFACTS: Recent News in Archaeology 8/15/06

Artifact Thieves in Russia
This story of looting cultural resources is a real drama, too! The thieves of over 221 items from the St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum in Russia turned out to be the husband and son of the Museum’s curator. The curator apparently suffered a heart attack as the museum stores were being inventoried. It isn’t clear in the article whether or not the heart attack was related to the shock of discovering that the missing artifacts “included dozens of precious icons, gold and silver 18th- and 19th-century jewelry, elaborate clocks, and gem-studded chalices and crosses.”

According to the Hermitage Museum’s website, antiques dealers and collectors have worked to recover and return several of the stolen artifacts

Caddo Pottery Theft
Afarensis first blogged this here. But since this edition of ArtiFACTS is dominated by looting and theft of cultural resources, it would be silly not to include it.

The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas reported, Indian bowls, bottles taken from locked room at Southern Arkansas University. Brazen thieves stole the centuries old ceramics from the university storeroom maintained by the Arkansas Archeological Survey’s Research Station. The 26 prehistoric vessels were excavated from the Cedar Grove site in Lafayette County, Arkansas and are federal property, belonging to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Arkansas Archaeological Survey reports that photographs and documentation of each of the vessels is thorough enough to make sale of the items very difficult.

For a list and photographs of the pottery, click here [.pdf].

For an overview of the Caddo Pottery Tradition, click here.

Sumerian Loot Recovered
The headless statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash was returned by the United States to Iraq. The statue, weighing hundreds of pounds, was stolen from the National Museum in Iraq as the U.S. invaded in 2003. Too heavy to be easily lifted, it was bounced down the steps of the Museum, damaging both the artifact as well as the steps and other artifacts.

The NY Times is quoted:

American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue, saying that to do so might impair their efforts to retrieve other artifacts. But people with knowledge of the episode described a narrative that included antiquities smugglers, international art dealers and an Iraqi expatriate businessman referred to as the broker who was the linchpin in efforts to recover the piece and bring it to the United States.

The statue was headless when originally excavated, a political move not uncommon in antiquity OR modernity. After all, Saddam’s statue was being pulled down just miles away even as Entemena’s, whose head was removed several thousand years ago, perhaps for similar reasons, was being carted away for sale.

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