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.

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The Italian Antiquities Trial – a Brief Review


During the summer of 2005, a trial began in Italy with the goal of deciding the guilt or innocence of Marion True along with Robert Hecht, Jr in conspiracy to traffic in illegal antiquities. The trial is still underway in Rome and has certainly fulfilled the 2 year prediction some gave. The result is that several museums have already returned antiquities of illicit origin to their countries of origin, pariticuarly Italy and Greece.

True, the former curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Hecht, the descendent of the department store mogul, didn’t begin their portions of the trial until Wednesday, November 16, 2005. Hecht was implicated following the 2004 conviction of Giacomo Medici, an Italian art dealer found to be responsible for one of the most sophisticated and extensive illicit antiquities smuggling rings in the world.

Throughout the 1980s, Giacomo Medici probably sold more antiquities at Sotheby’s than any other single owner. Over the years, thousands of objects from Medici had passed through the London salesroom and millions of pounds had changed hands. None of the antiquities had any provenance because all were illegally excavated and smuggled out of Italy (Watson & Todeschini, p. 27 ).

True resigned from her position, recently filled by Karol Wight, in October 2005 under the fire of criticism with regard to her handling of acquisitions that had questionable origins. As she and Hecht began the trial in November 2006, Italy was demanding the return of 52 artifacts that were deemed to be stolen or looted and in the possession of the Getty. While Italy was also in negotiation with other museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, talks with the Getty were the most difficult. The Getty initially only agreed to return 26 out of the 52 artifacts and the point of most contention seemed to surround the fate of a bronze statue, known as the Statue of a Victorious Youth, snagged in the nets of an Italian fishing trawler of the Adriatic coast of Italy in 1964.

In December of 2006, however, The Getty returned several antiquities to Greece, including a funerary wreath, a kore, and a grave marker with a marble votive. And it was in this month that Marion True sends a letter to the Getty reflecting her bitterness of the museum board’s treatment of her in the media. She accuses the Getty of using her as the fall guy for a practice of antiquities acquisition that was the board’s own responsibility.

By March, however, the Italian court gets to hear the contents of a 1992 letter that True wrote to the Getty board in which she informed them that the wreath mentioned above was “too dangerous for us to get involved with.” On the surface, it would seem that her intentions are pure, but Swiss antiquities dealer, Christoph Leon, stated that she advised the board to go ahead with the purchase the following year for $1.15 million. Leon is also on trial.

One of the interesting developments of the antiquities trial in Italy is the attention that has been spotlighted on the role of the collector as well as the museum in the antiquities trade. Indeed, without these entities, there would simply be no market for illicit antiquities. In June of 2007, the Italian court turned its attention to the American antiquities collectors who have collections that include objects looted from Italy as well as other countries. An Italian archaeologist, Daniela Rizzo, named Texas oilmen Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt, both of whom liquidated their collections along with other assets after loosing their fortunes. Others were also mentioned, including Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, the art philanthropists who once loaned True $400,000 allegedly repaid at around the time the Fleischmans sold part of their collection to the Getty for $20 million.

Its worth noting that 90 percent of the art collections in American art museums are the result of private donation. The collectors aren’t simply being altruistic, the donations result in tax deductions equal to the current market value of the object being donated -often far beyond the price they paid for it. And museums struggling for funds are all-too-eager to accept these donations to increase their presence, particularly when the antiquities are top-rate. About a dozen of the 52 artifacts that Italy wanted returned was donated by the Fleischmans.

Most recently, while the trial of Marion True and Robert Hecht continues, the Getty has agreed to return some 40 artifacts to Italy, including red and black figured craters and kylixs and amphorae, statues and bronzes. They’re even returning the Cult Statue of a Goddess. Most of the artifacts are destined to be transferred in the next several months, but the Cult Statue of a Goddess will remain on display until 2010 at the Getty Villa. The agreements that have been arrived at are important. Even though the artifacts are illicit in origin, they do serve to represent a cultural heritage and cultural ties between nations is extremely important in the field of archaeology.

The fates of Marion True, Robert Hecht and the Victorious Youth remain to be seen. Italy and the Getty agreed to “defer discussions” of the disputed bronze “until the outcome of the ongoing legal proceedings which are now underway in Pesaro, Italy.”

Related Sources

Watson, Peter; Todeschini, Cecilia (2006) The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy ‘s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Great Museums. New York: Public Affairs

The Getty (2007). Italian Ministry of Culture and J. Paul Getty Trust Reach Agreement. Press Release.

Povoledo, Elisaetta (2006). Italy Expresses Dismay with Getty’s Stand on Disputed Art. The New York Times, 11/24/06, E,1.

Higgins, Charlotte (2006). Getty returns disputed works to Greece: Antiquities may have been exported illegally: Museum tightens policies on provenance of objects. The Guardian, 12/13/06, pg. 5.

Felch, Jason; Frammolino, R. (2006). Getty lets her tak fall, ex-curator says; The trust’s silence in the art looting case is taken as sign of her guilt, Marion True asserts. Los Angeles Times, 12/29/06, Home Edition, B, 1.

Chris O’Brien at Antiquity!

My online access to Antiquity has a 6 month lag and my library doesn’t have the summer edition yet, but I have it on good authority that our friend and fellow blogger, Chris O’Brien of Northstate Science has been quoted by Martin Carver, editor of this premier journal of archaeology.

Martin Rundkvist at Aardvarchaeology, who reads Antiquity at the beach (*my* wife would sooner permit Maxim or Playboy, so kudos to Mrs. R.!) has posted a quote or two from Carver that mentions Chris’ blog, Northstate Science, and his posts on creationism:

Here is Christopher O’Brien, a Forest Archaeologist in northern California, bravely setting out our stall : Just like other disciplines, he says, “archaeology is being used and abused by creationists of all stripes. It’s time to start pointing out the falsehoods.

I’ll leave the remainder to Martins Carver and Rundkvist -I just wanted to give a taste so that you would follow the links to these to great blogs, the kind I aspire to have HoJ rise to. And pick up a copy of Antiquity at your local library when it becomes available.

Here’s my post at Aardvarchaeology:

It’s always good for the blogosphere to have a journal cite a blog post, but it’s GREAT that it was Chris’ post at Northstate cited by Antiquity! I don’t know about other bloggers, but I always have that nagging fear that what I’m doing amounts to just so much graffiti. So when I get an occasional word of praise or link from another blog, its motivational.

I couldn’t begin to know what the feeling is like to have Antiquity quote me!

Well, done Chris!

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]

Archaeology and the Public: Crow Canyon Archaeological Center


afarensis asks “where are the children?” in the context of where are they in the archaeological record. In another context, I can answer that they’re at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, learning about science and archaeology. Look below the fold to get the full scoop.

A private, not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, Crow Canyon “is dedicated to understanding, teaching, and preserving the rich history of the ancestral Pueblo Indians (also called the Anasazi) who inhabited the canyons and mesas of the Mesa Verde region more than 700 years ago.” The center is located near Cortez, Colorado and has on-campus education programs where students of all ages can participate in field and laboratory research as well as general education on topics of archaeology and science.

Vila Schwindt has a brief article in the Cortez Journal that describes the center and some of the curricula available as relayed to her by Lew Mathis, of the program’s educators.

Crow Canyon’s program starts with a general introduction to the chronology of cultures in the Southwest.

It’s hands-on stuff where they’re looking at artifacts and making comparisons between a collection from a certain period to a later period, and as the week progresses, it goes into greater detail.

The very first thing students do is meet the staff. Then they go with their educator and start either “Windows into the Past” for elementary students, or “Inquiries into the Past” for older and adult students.

Crow Canyon has courses for kids and educators alike designed to give kids an idea what archaeology might be like as a career through a three-week camp, and to give teachers a valuable experience in understanding the Pueblo Indian culture that they’ll be able to share with their students.

In addition, Crow Canyon hosts a variety of summer camps for various age-groups, programs for school groups, day tours, and even domestic and international archaeology trips to destinations like Chaco Canyon and Eygpt!

I wish I would have discovered this place years ago! At least I have a good idea for a family vacation or future summer camp for my daughter once she’s of age.

I’ll be adding more “Archaeology and the Public” in the future, so keep an eye on that label in the side bar.