Stolen and Looted: an interesting article

This is part of my on-going “Stolen and Looted” series in which I examine cultural resource management practices, looting of archaeological sites, and out-right theft of artifacts.

In an online newspaper called The Spectrum, which is the online version of a Southern Utah printed paper, there was an article by Byron Loosle titled Archaeological Artifacts: Grandfather Clause or Illegal Action? In this article, Loosle summarizes very well the problem with looting artifacts from public lands and archaeological sites in general. While it’s legal in the United States to remove artifacts from private lands (assuming one has the landowner’s permission), it is actually a crime to pick up even projectile points (a.k.a. arrowheads) from the surface when on public lands like National Parks.

Loosle makes a couple of quick points an analogies that I think are effective:

the impact of any type of collecting can be crippling to science and research efforts. In order to piece together the big picture and gain a firm understanding of the history of prehistoric cultures, scientists rely not only on studying the artifacts themselves, but the locations in which they lie.

A high percentage of sites in the Great Basin, for example, are the result of transient hunting and gathering activities that occurred over about 10,000 years. Many of these transient hunting sites are small and represent only temporary use. Even the larger sites usually show only surface or very shallow deposits. These variables make extracting information from sites very difficult.

Like clothes and hairstyles, arrowhead styles changed through time. Scientists rely on these markers to date a site. The type of stone used for the point can help us understand where people had traveled, and artifact placement shows where activities occurred in the past. Just one visit from an enthusiastic collector can virtually destroy the information potential of a small site, just as repeated visits to more substantial sites leaves devastating results.

Actually, that’s a relatively large portion of the article, which is very short, but these types of internet articles seem to disappear after a few months or even weeks and Loosle’s words are worth repeating. I hope he doesn’t mind my liberal interpretation of “fair use” with this quote.

In spite of the lucidity and clarity of Loosle’s remarks, there was a single comment at the time I wrote this by someone upset that “BLM people” would expect him to just leave an arrowhead on the ground where he sees it. The commenter makes several ignorant remarks about proving he didn’t make it himself or that he found it on public lands, etc., missing completely Loosle’s main points.

Interestingly enough, I empathize -as I’m sure most archaeologists and cultural resource managers do- with the commenter’s motivation to pick up and keep an “arrowhead.” But Loosle wasn’t speaking to the casual hiker that spots a projectile point on the surface along a trail. Indeed, he notes that “approximately 90 percent of the Anasazi structural sites in Washington County have been damaged by illicit digging, with percentages just as high for sites compromised by surface collection activities in Beaver and Iron counties.”

These damages aren’t done by people walking along and spotting arrowheads. These are people who are actively digging and looking for artifacts with an intent to remove cultural resources from lands shared by us all. These people are thieves and they’re stealing from me, you and even the commentor to Loosle’s article. They’re making a profit at the expense of us ever gaining contextual knowledge which could help create a more complete understanding of our cutural heritages.

An Abnormal Interest in Gilgamesh

I’ve written about Gilgamesh and ancient Mesopotamia several times in the past, but my articles and posts are nothing near the original work that Duane is doing at Abnormal Interests in translating ancient texts.

I’m a frequent reader of his blog (but one of the worst, I’m afraid, since I rarely post comments) and I highly recommend reading his work if you have even a passing interest in the translations of ancient texts.

His latest post is a translation of The Letter of Gilgamesh. In the letter, Gilgamesh, the King of of Ur, citizen of Kullab, creation of Anu, Enlil and Ea, favorite of Shamash, and the beloved of Marduk, makes a “gentle” request ruler of another land: “send me a large portion of your wealth and come visit me. If I have to come to you, it won’t be pretty and I’ll not only take everything I want but pulverize your cities.” Okay, I’m paraphrasing. Here’s a quote:

I[f ]on the fiftieth day of Teshrit, I do not meet you in the gate of my city Ur, (then) I swear by the great gods, whose oath can not to be revoked, (and) I swear by my gods, Lugalbanda, Sin, Shamash, Palil, Lugalgirra and Meslamtaea, (that) I will send (35) to you Zamana, and the divine lord of my person (‘head,’ my personal god?), the aggressor(?), whose name you honor. He will pulverize your cities. Your [palac]es he will pillage (and) your orchards he will [plunder(?)].

You gotta love Gilgamesh! He was two-thirds god and one-third human, so his threats weren’t to be taken lightly!

One of the things that I found so compelling about the Gilgamesh story is the love and friendship he had with Enkidu. Thousands of years have passed since the story was written, and yet the emotion of loss still comes through loud and clear in a tale written in a language long since dead, forgotten then deciphered and translated thousands of years later.

Gilgamesh was clearly pressuring this ruler, and probably other rulers in the region, to align with him. The demonstration of their alignments and their commitments was a substantial sacrifice of their national wealth, but what they received in return was the protective umbrella of his Empire.

The Serpent Mound

We really don’t know for sure what most ancient, pre-literate cultures used many of their monumental constructions for. We’re reasonably sure about things like the pyramids of Egypt and the temples of Greece, but these examples of architecture were constructed during periods in which there was writing, so their builders discussed the significance of monumental architecture in their life times.

But what of Stonehenge? Nabta Playa? The Nazca Lines in Peru? We can make some guesses -some very educated guesses- but we still cannot be as certain of the use and purpose of these sites as we can of those mentioned in the previous paragraph.

The same holds true for the Serpent Mound in Locus Grove, Ohio, which was constructed by local Native Americans at around 1000 CE. Nor do we truly know the purposes of other earthworks in the Ohio Valley -were they fortifications; were they mortuary; were they cult centers; or some combination of these? While not as old as many of the mounds built by the Hopewell and Adena cultures (1000 BCE to about 700 CE), the Serpent mound is, perhaps, one of the most famous and popular of the earthworks in the Ohio Valley -maybe even the United States.

Interpretations of the Serpent Mound

Modern inhabitants of the region first surveyed the Serpent Mound in 1846 and was initially recognized as a serpent that appeared to be swallowing or ejecting an egg from its mouth.

Several decades later, Francis Parry offered a new interpretation which was analogous to symbols found in Southwest Native American cultures. He suggested that the oval was a “Sun” sign and the coil at the tail the “wind” sign. The wavy body in the middle was interpreted by Parry to be the “aboriginal cloud form.”

And, just so we can all rest assured that the cloud of ignorance perpetrated by modern fundamentalist Christians is nothing new, let me mention another interpretation of the Serpent Mound. Reverend Landon West of Pleasant Hill, OH suggested that the mound represented man’s fall from grace in which “Satan beguiled and tempted Eve” to taste of the forbidden fruit. Clearly, Landon thought, this was created by the hand of God directly or, at least, through one of his nutters.

More recently, rational analysis has yielded to a more rational interpretation. By comparing the mound with the anatomy and striking habits of real snakes, researchers now see the oval portion at the head of the snake as its mouth and the triangular-shaped portion behind the head as the neck, which is
“puffed out” by inflation in certain species when agitated. Native American cultures were careful observers of nature, to the point that I would characterize them as “scientists” of a sort -they observed the habits and behaviors of animals and the universe, making predictions and assumptions that held true when hunting, or just determining the seasons. It’s very likely that the snake was a totem figure and venerated by the culture that built the mound in the same way it was venerated and respected by cultures around the world. If one is to create a mound to honor a snake, then the logical course of action is to show it in the position of action: striking!

Incidentally, the Serpent Mound is situated on a ridge that is on the edge of a massive crater, probably created about 300 million years ago when a small asteroid impacted the region. Its very doubtful that the Native Americans that constructed the mound had any clue of this, but it is interesting that the head and the tail both are situated near cliff-faces of the ridge (there’s an overlook at each end). Though completely unaware of the asteroid impact, the mound’s builders may have, indeed, been aware of other details of astronomical significance, namely the summer and winter solstices. This is consistent with the level of knowledge and technology of other mound-building societies of the world, suggesting a need to have an accurate method of tracking and celebrating the seasons for agricultural purposes.

Because of this, I rather liked the interpretations that include an egg being consumed or ejected by the snake, since most societies rightly view the egg as a symbol of fertility and fertility is necessary for agricultural societies.

I was at the Serpent Mound just a two weeks ago and I have to say that the nearest town, Locust Grove, is aptly named. There were thousands of cicadas, close cousin to the locust, in the trees buzzing in unison and, occasionally, dropping down on the heads of unassuming passersby. Here’s one such cicada. Colorful little buggers.

Big Flower that Looks at Sun God

Photo by Carl FeagansIt’s been held that the sunflower was originally domesticated in eastern North America then introduced to Mexico -the sunflower is a major seed crop in the world when it comes to obtaining oils. But recent evidence suggests very strongly that it may have been the other way around.

Shells of sunflower seeds (called achenes) were found in a dry cave in Mexico (Cueva del Gallo) which dated to about 300 BCE. Cueva del Gallo was used in antiquity as a ritual center -caves were thought to be the passages the sun used to travel the underworld from the west only to rise again from the east, so this may hold some significance that sunflower seeds were found. As David Lentz, of the University of Cincinnati, writes in his paper at PNAS, Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) as a pre-Columbian domesticate in Mexico, “the modern O tomi word for sunflower, dä nukhä, trans lates to “big flower that looks at the sun god.”’

The cave presented a dessicated environment that preserved the shells in “pristine condition,” but the Cueva del Gallo shells weren’t the oldest found. That prize goes to a water-logged site at San Andrés where accelorator mass spectrometry dates sunflower remains to older than 2600 BCE! This puts the sunflower in Mexico as a probable domesticated crop far earlier than was previously believed. It was thought that the Spaniards brought the crop and that it was originally cultivated in North America. Now, the questions arise: did cultivation of the sunflower begin in one place then get introduced to another through trade. Corn made its debute in North America via trade from Mesoamerica northward -perhaps the same happened with the sunflower.

If your university library has access to all of PNAS or if you’re willing to pay the fee (or already subscribe) you can get the full paper by Lentz, et al, at this link. If not, here’s the abstract, also available at the same link:

Mexico has long been recognized as one of the world’s cradles of domestication with evidence for squash (Cucurbita pepo) cultivation appearing as early as 8,000 cal B.C. followed by many other plants, such as maize (Zea mays), peppers (Capsicum annuum), common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), and cotton (Gossypium hirsutum). We present archaeological, linguistic, ethnographic, and ethnohistoric data demonstrating that sunflower (Helianthus annuus) had entered the repertoire of Mexican domesticates by ca. 2600 cal B.C., that its cultivation was widespread in Mexico and extended as far south as El Salvador by the first millennium B.C., that it was well known to the Aztecs, and that it is still in use by traditional Mesoamerican cultures today. The sunflower’s association with indigenous solar religion and warfare in Mexico may have led to its suppression after the Spanish Conquest. The discovery of ancient sunflower in Mexico refines our knowledge of domesticated Mesoamerican plants and adds complexity to our understanding of cultural evolution.

Personally, I find research into early domestication of crops and animals to be fascinating. I’m convinced that much of early domestication is related to religious and cult activity, some of it perhaps even because of it. Sun gods, fertility godesses, and the deities that people in antiquity assigned to the natural world created an intricate system of beliefs and rituals as they sought to appease imagined gods in order to bring about favorable conditions for subsistance. Indeed, and according to Lentz, et al, demise of the sunflower until its reintroduction at a later date by the Spanish was probably due to the power it held as a symbol for ritual use in pagan religion. Spanish preists were notorious for obliterating native culture and religion as they sought to convert indigenous Mesoamericans to Catholism.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.