Daily Archives: June 2nd, 2007

Archaeology (May/June)

I love my Archaeology, oh yes I do.

Kristin M Romey, writing about the “Archaeology in Conflict” conference in London last year, touched on an issue that I often think about. Apparently one of the presenters asked, presumably rhetorically, whether the audience thought Iraqis would prefer they be talking about how to provide them with clean water rather than preserving their ancient monuments – and got a very negative reaction. Romey asks whether archaeologists see artefacts as non-renewable and people as renewable, to have this sort of attitude. Which is just a bit frightening, I think. I am all for preservation, but I think sometimes there are hard decisions to be made, and maybe human life has to win out over old stone. Controversial, I know.

This links neatly with another article, called “The Battle over Amaknak Bridge” – an Alaskan community is redeveloping the bridge which connects it (an island) with another island, because this will help boost their economy. But the new road will go straight through a hugely important (apparently) archaeological site, where they’ve been digging up cool stuff from the Aleut past – going back 4000 years or so. So, in this case, which wins? The road could go another way, at a substantially larger (again, apparently) cost – is spending the money to move the infrastructure worth it, to save this historical site? Or should progress and economic benefit for the people who are there now win out? For me, the former would be my preference: preserving the history of the Aleutians and being able to discover, at leisure, all the secrets hidden on this site is worth spending lots of money on. But if the road absolutely had to go through it, then… I think modern people would win.

Which again, rather neatly, links to an article called “The Slum and the Sacred Cave.” I know little about Indian history, so I had never heard of these magnificent Buddhist and Hindu caves, which are apparently famous. This article focusses on one called Jogeshwari Cave, which has been neglected by everyone, for numerous reasons. Right now – and for some time – it is in grave danger because of the slum around it: sewerage and rain is destroying it, along with rubbish and other detritus, and human activity too. So one of the question is how you preserve this 1,500 year old cave and its art, and what to do with the human activity around it. Legally, there’s meant to be something like 330 feet of no buildings in the vicinity of monuments – but that would mean destroying hundreds (I think) of houses. And these were originally built as shrines, so do you prevent people from using them as such?

On a completely different note is the article by Bob Brier (some of whose books I think I have read), “How to Build a Pyramid,” about a French suggestion that Khufu’s pyramid (weird thing I found out: Khufu is still inside his burial chamber!) was built using an internal ramp. Makes a lot of sense, and apparently has quite a lot of evidence to back it up. I hope they get their permission to survey the pyramid.

Also unrelated, except in so far as they were both empires and this is about one of its symbols, is “Emblems of Empire” – the discovery of the signa imperii on the Palatine. The pictures of the lance and the spheres of chalcedony are really cool. I don’t quite understand how they can be claiming they belong to Maxentius, though. I read a lot about this online when the discovery was first announced, so it’s nice to see visuals.

One thing about Andrew Curry’s “The Viking Experiment” really annoyed me: there were two captions that described the early Medieval period as ‘the Dark Ages’. This phrase is not used in the article itself, though, so I wonder if this is stupid editorial interpolation – since I didn’t think that any self-respecting historian used that term these days. Aside from that, I really liked the article – and the idea of experimental archaeology is just so cool. How different textiles wear, what marks a sword leaves on a shield… it’s just such a great idea to get out there and try this stuff with as much authenticity as can be managed. And if it is done authentically, surely archaeologists/historians can only benefit from it.

I went to a public physics lecture a few years ago about radioactive isotopes and the like. The main reason I went – aside from that stuff just being fun – was that half the lecture was given by a physicist (he was great), and the other half by his brother, an archaeologist (he was boring). I thought about that when I read “Written in Bone,” about tracking the amounts of strontium in bones and therefore figuring out whether people had migrated or stayed in one place, and even trying to figure out where they had migrated from. I think it’s fascinating technology, but there wasn’t much in the article to say whether this actually is a widely recognised and accepted technique.

Finally, the magazine finishes with an article on archaeology in the Channel Islands, off California, and the prehistoric (14,000 years old, some of it) stuff they’re finding there, and what it suggests about hunting patterns, for example. All in all, this is one of the most consistently interesting issues I’ve read in a while; in fact, I read the whole thing cover to cover while not writing reports this afternoon.