Tag Archives: archaeology

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.

Archaeology (March/April)

Some random musings on some of the articles in the latest Archaeology mag from the Archaeological Institute of America…

“Who’s Buried in St Paul’s Tomb?” Unlikely to be Paul, I would have thought, statistically… I find the last sentence a bit weird: “Naturally for us archaeologists it would be interesting to know if the remains inside really belong to St. Paul,” says Giorgio Filippi. If he is speaking for all archaes, then ‘I doubt it’ is my response; if for his fellow Vatican Museum archaes, then maybe. But how would you be able to tell anyway?

The world roundup is always fun… favourite item this time is the fact that Indiana Jones made it in…

“Publish or be Punished,” says Israel to diggers there – and while I feel sorry for the archaes who feel pushed to do more and more and have no time for it, I understand where Israel is coming from too. Having your cultural heritage stolen, or just forgotten because it lies gathering dust (outside of the ground where no one else can find it) can’t be too much fun.

I really enjoyed “Beyond the Family Feud”, about the question of where the Olmecs fit in with other Mesoamerican cultures and whether that’s even a valid question to ask. I love a whole new take on old issues.

Haven’t seen Apocalypto, don’t plan on it. The article trashing its portrayal of the Maya, by David Freidel, was pretty entertaining though.

I (heart) the Antikythera Mechanism. Every now and then someone discovers/decides something new about it, and it gets into the news as if the thing itself has just been found – rather than oh, a few decades ago. But the new stuff being used and found out is very cool, especially the geodesic dome to shine light at it at different angles.

I like Vikings too, so the stuff in “Iceland’s Unwritten Saga” – about investigating early settlements there – was interesting too. And it linked nicely to “Diamond Rush,” about the diamond-hunters who went to Brazil in the C19, in that both are looking at the impact of humans on the environment and what we today can learn about how it happens – and, hopefully, what could be done about it.

There were other bits and pieces in this issue, but I just find it a bit hard to rustle up a huge amount of interest for much American archaeology. Bad of me, I know. Oh well.

The word ”archaeology”

I’m watching Time Team, and I’m really enjoying it – they’re at Cirencester, which we visited in January, and they’ve found some really cool stuff – the mosaic in particular is brilliant, and I can’t imagine how thrilling it must have been to discover it.

However, they really pain me when they use the word “archaeology” to mean the stuff that they find: “there’s some really interesting archaeology still to be found.” No, there isn’t. There are some interesting ruins and artifacts to be found, and some arduous digging and cleaning to go through as well, The process of finding the stuff is ‘doing archaeology’, along with figuring out how it all works together and what it means.

Bugs me. Grrr.

I love my Archaeology

I am so glad I subscribed to Achaeology. The Aussie ones are just so dull, and boring, and often poorly written….

Here’s what’s in the jan/Feb issue:
An article that looks at the problems of even thinking about working in northern Cyrpus (the Turkish bit, which I didn’t realise is only recognised by Turkey), and the consquences on people who have the temerity to go and (possibly) vital resuce work on important ancient sites.
Clay tablets from Qatna, which was destroyed by Hittites, and the city where they were found… there’s correspondence between the Prince of Qatna and Akhenaten in the Amarna files.
An article on Selam, the near-complete skeleton of a c. 3 year old child even older than Lucy, who is 3.2 million years old.
Underwater archaeology in the North Sea, mapping ancient rivers and thinking about where people might have lived when the North Sea and the Englsih Channel were land (very, very cool).
Trying to figure out where Hannibal crossed the Alps – to their credit, it addresses the question of whether this is actually relevant to anything, and has a stab at arguing that yes this is valid research (and certainly, if you want to find out, it makes as much if not more sense to, like, go to the Alps and do some digging than just read Polybius…).
Excavating some fort in Georgia, US.
The legacy of some semi-nutter, Augustus le Plongeon, who thought world culture was thanks to a Mayan queen called Moo.
And, finally, an article on reshaping Waterloo – making it more touristy, but at the expense of any archaeological explortions, which have apparently never been conducted on the site (what the?). I can understand wanting to make money, but at the expense of finding out interesting stuff about the battle it doesn’t seem to make sense.

Anyway, it was a brilliant read.

Damming Sudan

This is a particularly appropriate title of an article in Archaeology magazine, an exceprt of which can be found here. I am so angry at what is being done here – the lack of attention that is being paid to the remains of the area, which may well be incredibly significant. But it also makes me wonder a lot of things.

How much does it matter if we don’t know about a certain period of time? (and how much is that a heresy for a historian?) We are always told not to make a case from silence, but surely there are many, many things we don’t know because it never got written down, or the mss/artefacts were not preserved… surely some, at least, of what we know is preserved by fluke alone. So does it matter that we don’t know something? How much does it matter? How can we make that call? I just don’t know the answer to that question, and it bugs me a lot. Does it change the world that we don’t know exactly how Nubia/Sudan influenced the ancient Egyptians, or more recently medieval African Christians? Maybe not that much… except that more people might respect the modern inhabitants of the area if that became more well-known (which begs the question, how much do people pay attention to historical/archaeological discoveries? Not that much, I suspect, except when it’s about homo sapiens and Neanderthals having sex…).

How do you make the call between modern needs and archaeological needs? I guess people who are still alive take precedence, but surely there can be ways that both interests can be served? It makes me very sad both that nomads are being displaced by this new dam, and that lots and lots of archaeoloical stuff will be lost. But that tribal elders can think that keeping archaeologists out because it will slow the dam down means either that they are stupid and naive – which I am very not convinced by – or they are getting bad advice….

The Invention of Money by the Greeks

Richard Seaford spoke at uni earlier this year – I’ve just re-discovered my notes, so I thought I would write them up, for my own memory and public delectation. He wrote a book called Money and the Greek Mind, and this lecture was called “The Invention of Money by the Greeks.” Of course, this is what I wrote as I listened – I may have misunderstood… my thoughts are in square brackets.

**In the sixth century BC came the invention of what makes society today what it is [Western, anyway; and these are just his ideas]: democracy, drama, philosophy, scientific medicine, money, and history writing.

**Money and its Invention
– money is different and separate from wealth
– started in Ionia, Thrace, Cyprus and the Greek colonies.
– coinage: revolutionary and convenient – could be used in everyday life, which led eventually to a thoroughly monetised society.
– Egypt and Mesopotamia did not have money; they used metals as a commodity, which Seaford claims is not the same as using money.
– it’s hard to give a definition for money, because it is both a ‘thing’ and a relationship, particularly a power relationship, especially over someone’s labour [Marxism…].
–So how do you decide what is acting as money?!
—Money functions: it must be a means of payment, and a means of exchange, and and a measure of value, and a means of storing value. If something does all four functions, it’s money.

Money=sophistication? For a culture, that is. [Really not convinced by this idea… I think it’s a very modern, Western, and fairly arrogant assumption….]

**Philosophy: the view that the universe is an intelligible system, subject to uniformity and impersonal forces.
* Seaford claims that sixth C BC Greece is the first time anywhere this view was held.
* He also says that the world is/was divided into those who think the world is personal vs those who see it as impersonal.
– Philosophy started in Miletos,
– Why?? Some say it is because of a political development – indeed, the polis, not subject to an autocrat, where citizens rule themselves. So there is no monarchy to be imprinted onto the cosmos. But, the polis was in existence before these guys, and there is nothing that special about Miletos. So it doesn’t really fit, although it is appealling. So why Miletos? Was the first to be thoroughly ‘monetised’, and one of the greatest economic powers of the time – trading, etc.

Short Interlude…
The supposed way money was invented: The King of Lydia at Sardis get lots of electrum from a river, and pays mercenaries with it, and stamps it all to make the pieces worth the same amount.

And Lydia is very close to Greek cities like Miletos….

Interesting point: in Homer, in animal sacrifices, everyone gets the same amount of meat – on a spit of the same size. The obol, the smallest coin, is a similar word to that for the name of th spit! One theory runs that the spits got traded [but I ask, why??], and then replaced by coins [eventually…somehow…].

…so Back to the Story…

**So the link between money and philosophy is?
– The philosophers all thought that the world was composed of one substance, in different forms (although of course they all thought that it was a different substance from what the last guy said).
– Without a monarch, money is the most powerful thing in society. It is exchangeable for anything, and anything is exchangeable for it… much like the one universal substance of the philosophers. [He did go into the various philosophers and what they thought that substance was, but I was tired by that stage and couldn’t keep up, so I’m not really doing him justice.] Additionally, of course, it is impersonal – another attribute of the philosophical view of the world [according to Seaford].
– Money is also abstract: it has two different values – the substance and the form. The abstract value is of more importance. So the most real and most important power in society is abstract… which influences the way the thinkers of the time view the world.

**Final thought: Parmenides dealt with the rift between the abstract and the sensual; he says that the sensual is an illusion, and that only the abstract actually exists. Like money.
*Parmenides influences Plato.

***My final thoughts: I most definitely don’t know enough about the development of money, nor of the various philosophers he mentioned, to decide based on this lecture whether I believe it or not. He was certainly a very entertaining and persuasive speaker, and during the lecture I was more than willing to be convinced. One of my favourite things about these sorts of lectures is playing Spot the Lecturer/Tutor (there’s the magnficent Chris Mackie, there the brilliant Ron Ridley, supervisor extraordinaire, the moderately boring Roger Scott, etc). In front of me this time was Elizabeth Pemberton (for whom I can’t find a link, as she has left my Melbourne Uni), who shook her head a fair bit and was obviously not convinced by a number of things he said. This served as quite a nice counterbalance to my possible gullibility!

A Tale of Three Egyptian Mummies

“New Science on Ancient Lives”

Dr Karin Sowada, assistant curator at the Nicholson Museum, Uni of Sydney. Spoke at the Melbourne Museum last year.

*Mummies currently held by the Nicholson; had never been studied before this.

*Two have coffins; one an inscription. Curators were trying to see what they could find out from textiles etc, not just the body.

*Why mummify at all?
–probably arose through seeing natural mummification in the desert sand.
–once you start building structures for holding bodies, you remove them from the sand and heat, so you need to do it artificially.
—-But why?
–to be recognisable to the soul coming back
–be identified with Osiris

NB: mumiya = bitumen (in Arabic); in the 19th century, it was thought that bitumen was used on the mummies, because of the colour.

Mummy 1
*A very well-decorated coffin.
*Possibly priestly; has the title ‘Beloved of the God’ – not really sure what this means.
*Name is Padiashaikhet, meaning “One given by Ashaikhet”; a very unusual name, because Ashaikhet is a personal name, not a god. Could be some sort of debt the parents had??
*From c.720-700BC.
*Wrapped in used linens, despite signs of his obvious wealth and status.
*Nothing left in the body, not even the heart; no broken bones.
*Possibly died of dental abscesses (ouch).

Mummy 2
*Female, from c.1950BC. Her name was Meruah (sp??). Had priestly duties.
*Highly decorated coffin. People couldn’t afford big funerary houses, so coffins get the pictures usually found on the walls.
*Torso filled with something. The mummy encased in a plaster carapace! Painted red over face, green over body (for Osiris).
*But: the DNA says the body is male! Red face of carapace is the colour used for males on coffins. Shows re-use of funerary stuff? Or, possibly, that it was done by a nineteenth-century dealer….
**Huge issues over whether you can actually trust that the coffin and body match in other cases**

Mummy 3
*A child, 7-9 years old. From early second century AD, so Roman.
*No coffin accompanying the mummy. Has a painted mask. The linen wrappings were once dyed red, blue and yellow. The colours have probably faded after arriving in Sydney – was stored in a large, airy room, with lots of indirect sunlight; no knowledge of this.
*All organs removed; linen plug at the incision site. Some sort of package inside; no idea what.
*No DNA sample taken because the wrappings are so thick.

My take: this was a great lecture; it was fascinating to hear about the processes undergone to examine the mummies, as well as the sort of stuff that could be learnt. And just bizarre to think that these mummies had never really been examined before.

Just call me Kit

Yes, last night we went for a ride, to and from Lygon St (so it was a night ride… Knight Rider… Kit… very sad I know). It was a lot more fun and less scary than I had worried – we’ve both got lights, after all, and it was actually warmer riding home at 10pm than it was riding there at 6pm.

The reason we did this was to attend a public lecture, on “Physics, TIme and Archaeology.” It was really interesting – with the amusing bonus that the physics dude and the archaeology dude are brothers, both working at MU. How cool. Anyway, the physics dude had a Geiger tube, so he was demonstrating how you can tell the rate of decay of unstable elements, and he also demonstrated thermoluminescence, using an old TV tube. He talked about how physics can help archaeologists by dating things, basically.

The archaeology guy – well, he wasn’t quite as good. For a start, he didn’t seem accustomed to using a microphone, because he was way too loud. I’m also not really sure what his brief was, because what he gave was an overview of the history of archaeology and attempts at dating (not mentioning Schliemann, interestingly). It didn’t really have relation to physics, as far as I could see, although I think a large proportion of the audience was physics types so maybe it was new and interesting to them.

It was fun, overall, and I’m glad we went.


I bought this magazine while in Darwin; it’s from the US, so it’s quite expensive over here. It’s a fascinating magazine, covering digs and finds all over the world (ish; I’m sure there are lots of things that get left out, but maybe that’s just a fact of life and the magazine world). I bought the next issue when I got home, and then decided that I would like to keep doing so – so Mum has got me a subscription for my birthday; my first copy should arrive right around my birthday, actually. Very exciting. I love it because there are things in there I would never read about otherwise – like ceynotes, or sink holes, in South America and the evidence for ritual sacrifices near/in them. And of course it also includes the stuff that I would deliberately read, like about Egypt.

I tried the Australian magazine as well, but I just found it… too amateurish, maybe. It didn’t have as many articles about interesting things, and the writing left me a bit cold. Sad, really.