Monthly Archives: November 2009

Dogs for the Dead

Six years ago,  the  Department of Transportation in Washington State stumbled upon a huge, unforeseen problem on the Port Angeles waterfront.  The department was in the midst of constructing a major new dry dock in the city when its workers suddenly began turning up ancient human bone.  Subsequent  investigations by archaeologists, historians, and elders of the Lower Elwha tribe revealed that a Klallam village known as Tse-whit-zen once stood on part of the prop0sed dry-dock site.

But here was the real sticking point.  The site also contained a major burial ground brimming with Klallam  graves:  nearly 335 people had been laid to rest there.   Moreover,  some had clearly perished between A.D. 1780 and 1800,  when diseases such as smallpox,  measles and influenza carried by Spanish mariners  swept through the region for the first time,  decimating Native American villages.  As David Rice,  a senior archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,  later told The Seattle Times,  a number of the graves contained more than one skeleton and bore signs of  rare forms of ritual treatment, “which would be a spiritual attempt at trying to stop this event.”

In the end,  the Department of Transportation did the right thing.  It decided to abandon construction of the dry dock,  after sinking nearly $60 million into the project.  But the department clearly learned a crucial lesson from the disaster,  and now it’s trying out a very new approach to its archaeological surveys of proposed development sites along the Port Angeles waterfront.  It has brought in dogs–not just the garden-variety Fido, but four animals trained at the Institute for  Canine Forensics in Woodside,  California.  These are corpse-sniffing dogs.

This was the first I had heard of such canines being used to detect human remains in archaeological sites.  But I think they could potentially save developers,  archaeologists and Native Americans  a whole world of grief.  According to the staff at the Institute for Canine Forensics, dogs can smell human remains that are buried as much as nine feet below the surface.  And they can detect remains as old as 2000 years.  “Human remains have a scent that never,  ever goes away,  especially a bone,  even after it dries out,” one of the institute’s staff members told The Peninsula Daily News.

As the owner of a Labrador retriever,  I’ve witnessed time and again the astonishing olfactory prowess of dogs,  and I don’t doubt they could be trained to sniff out very ancient remains.   If the Port Angeles project pans out–and I can’t imagine why it won’t– I  think bringing in such trained dogs should become a standard procedure when North American archaeologists are surveying proposed development sites for possible ancient Native American cemeteries.

Galileo: Saint or Scientist?

As some readers may know,  I write a regular month-end blog for Archaeology magazine’s website (last Friday of the month to be exact.)  Today I  posted on the recent rediscovery in Italy of two mummified fingers belonging to Galileo Galilei,  the first man to gaze at the night skies through a telescope.   I think this seemingly freakish find in Italy tells us an awful lot about how Galileo’s admirers viewed the persecuted scientist after his death.  Indeed,  I think they saw him as a saintly martyr.

To read more about this,   please visit my blog post at Archaeology magazine.

Definitely Not Space Junk

Image Credit: NASA/LOIRP

In an old, abandoned McDonald’s Restaurant at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California,  a group of space buffs are patching together and preserving a vital artifact from NASA’s glorious past:  the FR-900 Tape Drive. Only a NASA engineer,  I’m afraid, could have given such a critical piece of our collective history such a mundane and boring name.  I say this because the FR-900 Tape Drive is the only piece of equipment on earth that can play back the very first close-up images from space that humans took of the moon. These were shot by the NASA’s Lunar Orbiter spacecraft back in 1966 .

In the 1980s,  NASA made a stunningly short-sighted bureaucratic error.   It decided to give away all four of its FR-900 Tape Drives as government surplus to the first person who would cart them off,  forgetting, it seems, that these were the only devices capable of playing back the footage that its Lunar Orbiters took in 1966 and 1967.  One of the Orbiter photos in particular, a breath-taking close-up of the lunar surface,  was described at the time as the “picture of the century.”

Fortunately for all of us,  someone realized that NASA was blowing it.  Nancy Evans,  the co-founder of the NASA Planetary Data System agreed to haul off the machines,  each of which weighed 1000 pounds, and she stored them in a barn in Sun Valley for several decades.  She desperately wanted to raise funds to digitize the images,  and in 2007,  she found two partners–Dennis Wingo at Skycorp Inc and Keith Cowling at Spaceref Interactive Inc.

Together,  the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project team has patched together two of the tape drives and is now in the midst of digitizing some 1984  images in the old McDonald’s restaurant that they’ve taken over.  Moreover,  NASA has now recognized the value of what it nearly threw away.   NASA researchers plan to compare the images from the 1960s with new photos taken of the moon by the next high lunar probe to be launched next spring.

I think what happened to the  FR-900 Tape Drive is a superb cautionary tale.  We now store immense amounts of data on very ephemeral technology:  DVDs,  computer hard-drives and  internet servers.   We need to be thinking now very long and hard about how to preserve this for the future.

Virtual Museums and Repatriation

I would like to applaud Google this morning for the  important new project that it is undertaking in Iraq.  As the New York Times reported yesterday,  Google will be creating a new virtual Iraq National Museum,  by imaging the museum’s crucial collections and placing them online.  In a press conference yesterday in Baghdad,  Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Iraq officials and journalists,  “I can think of no better use of our time and our resources  than to make the images and ideas of your civilization available to all the people of the world.”

Like many,  I am a little skeptical about what use Google might eventually put these images to. The megacorporation has already digitized vast numbers of books (including two of mine) without obtaining permission to do so,  and the company is now trying to purchase sweeping digital rights to these books in a lawsuit hardly anyone understands.

But leaving that aside,  I’d like to point out that Google is far from alone in its interest in creating virtual museums.   Indeed,  some research teams are already way ahead of Google.   At the Unversity of Arkansas,  for example,  a team at the Center for Advanced Spatial Technology led by Angie Payne has already scanned some 350 artifacts from the collection of the Hampson Archaeological Museum State Park in Wilson, Arkansas.   The result is the Virtual Hampson Museum.

The Hampson Archaeological Museum State Park holds an absolutely superb collection of Native American pottery,  particularly from the Mississipian era.  Now with the Virtual Hampson Museum,  researchers can perform basic measurements on the artifacts and gather data for analyses,  without scraping together grants for traveling.  This will be very important for struggling graduate students in years to come.

Moreover, as more and more museums repatriate key artifacts from their collections–either to Native American tribes or to  countries of origin– 3-D images of the artifacts can be still be preserved online,  providing access to all.  I’d call this the best possible solution right now to a very sticky issue.

The Year Zero, Taliban Style

Revolutionaries have an extremely nasty habit of trying to rub out the past.  The leaders of the French Revolution, for example, quickly disposed of the traditional calendar, replacing it with a brand new system that began with the Year 1. The idea was to purge France of all its old tainted ways, forging a new revolutionary society free of aristocratic privilege, titles, fashions and, of course, religion.  Very quickly, everything old became suspect in France.  One had a far better chance of surviving the Reign of Terror by embracing the new.

The murderous Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia took a page from the French revolutionaries.  The Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, set out to annihilate the country’s colonial past in a policy known as Year Zero.  Pol Pot’s followers murdered vast numbers of intellectuals and teachers – the people who preserved Cambodian history and traditional culture.   “We are building socialism without a model,” Pol Pot said.  “We wish to do away with all vestiges of the past.

I see a similar kind of thinking now threatening northeastern Pakistan.  Taliban forces recently occupied the Swat Valley,  an area with an incredibly rich Buddhist history.  According to tradition, Buddha himself journeyed to Swat during his last reincarnation and preached to the local villagers.  And by the 6th century A.D, Buddhist pilgrims from as far away as China flocked to the valley, a  lush land of orchards and rushing mountain streams.  One early Chinese account describes as many as 1400 Buddhist monasteries perched along the valley walls in the 7th century.

Taliban forces want to eradicate this rich history.  They have twice tried to blow up 7th century Buddhist relics, and one of their blasts badly damaged the museum in the main Swat town of Mingora.  In a news story two days ago in The Himalaya Times, the museum’s director raised the prospect of much greater destruction now that foreign archaeologists and tourists have fled the region.  Without international eyes on Swat, Taliban leaders could become emboldened to destroy the region’s great cultural treasures.

I personally think the Taliban is a revolutionary force more than a religious one.  They are all about political control.   I sincerely hope the Pakistan government will do all it can to stop these dangerous men before they destroy the visible remains of Swat’s glorious past.

Pisco Sour: A Field Guide

As an archaeological journalist,  I’ve spent much time over the years hanging out with archaeologists in bars and restaurants around the world. Archaeologists are well known for their love of drink, and some of the most liquid evenings I have ever spent were in the company of archaeological teams.

So, from time to time,  I will write here about the wonderful drinks that archaeologists particularly love—from Greenlandic schnapps (made from the intestinal contents of birds) to  Andean chicha brewed from corn fermented by human saliva.   But I thought I would start off this series with a huge favorite of many Andean archaeologists:  the Pisco Sour.

Pisco Puro is a clear brandy distilled from the juice of the black quebranta grape which flourishes in the sunny fields of the Pisco and Ica Rivers in Peru.  Spanish colonists brought this sweet grape to the New World and began distilling brandy from it at least as early as 1547, less than a decade and a half after the conquistadors executed the Inca king Atahualpa.

My first encounter with a Pisco sour came when I was travelling on assignment to Peru during the very ugly civil war there during the early 90s.  The Shining Path guerillas were not only setting off bombs in Lima and shooting entire villages in the Andes, but they were also targeting foreigners.  A week before I arrived, they hauled off all the foreign tourists travelling on a bus to the highlands,  and shot them, as a message to the international community.

All this was rather unsettling both for me and for the Canadian archaeologists I was travelling with.  But my story focused on new research on the Nasca culture of Peru’s arid coastal desert, and I had an unforgettable journey.   For several days, I travelled with Andean archaeologist Patrick Carmichael by Landrover along the roadless and largely uninhabited Pacific coast:  our destination was a Nazca site he had just found by surveying near the mouth of the Ica River.   But it was a difficult journey:  the Landrover repeatedly broke down,  often leaving us stranded hours from any hamlet.  But the driver was a gifted mechanic,  and every unplanned stop seemed to produce some kind of wonder.  At one point, I strolled away from the mechanical problems only to find two human mummies protruding from the sand.

Our journey ended in the city of Ica, and I still remember the delicious luxury  of clean sheets,  running water, and a very good Pisco sour.

So here is my recipe for this very South American drink.  I’ve adapted it slightly from a recipe in a book I really treasure,  Tony Custer’s The Art of Peruvian Cuisine (Ediciones Ganesha, S.A: Lima, 2003).


To make the sugar syrup:

one-half cup of sugar

3 tablespoons water

To make the drink:

5 ounces Pisco

2.5 ounces lime juice

1 egg white


To Serve:

Angostura Bitters


To prepare the sugar syrup:  Put one-half cup of sugar in a small saucepan with 3 tablespoons of water,  just enough to moisten the sugar.  Bring the mixture to a slow boil and while stirring, cook until all the sugar is dissolved.  Remove from the heat and set aside for a few minutes.

To make the sour:  Pour the lime juice and the Pisco into the warm sugar syrup and stir thoroughly to blend the ingredients completely. Pour the mix into a blender jar and add just enough ice to double the volume of liquid in the glass.  Blend on high for an additional 30 seconds to crush the ice. Add one egg white and blend on high for one minute. Transfer to a pitcher and serve immediately in either old-fashioned or white wine glass.  Place a drop of Angostura Bitters in the middle of the foam in each glass.

Serves 3.

Angels, Demons, and the Shroud of Turin

It has all the ingredients of a classic Dan Brown novel:  a scholar from the Vatican’s secret archives,   centuries of mystery and intrigue, and a faint inscription on an ancient  Christian shroud. Yesterday,  in a Times online story, Barbara Frale, a staff historian at the Vatican archives, announced that she had deciphered the imprint of Greek, Hebrew and Latin writing on the famous Shroud of Turin.  According to Frale, the lettering is part of a death certificate glued to the shroud covering Jesus Christ immediately after the crucifixion.

Frale, who is about to publish a new book on the shroud, says that such certificates were often issued in the old Roman colony of Palestine, particularly in criminal cases.  The body of an executed criminal could only be returned to the grieving family after the individual was buried for a year in a common grave.   Christians,  of course, believe that Joseph of Arimathea took possession of  Christ’s body shortly after death, carrying  it to a tomb he had prepared for himself.  But Frale says that a death certificate could still have been attached to his shroud.

Frale has clearly studied the inscription, and she presents new evidence.  But I  find the archaeological evidence far more compelling. In 1988,  the Catholic Church gave the University of Arizona and two other institutions the task of dating the Shroud of Turin.  These institutions ran Accelerator Mass Spectrometry tests  with meticulous care on snippets from the shroud, revealing that the fabric was much younger than previously believed.  The tests showed that it dated between A.D. 1250 and 1390.

Critics of the dating tests charge that the researchers mistakenly took snippets from medieval repairs to the shroud.  But new fiber studies conducted on the University of Arizona sample reveal that its overall weave structure is  identical to that of the rest of the textile.

We certainly haven’t heard the end of the controversy over the famous shroud yet.  But right now,  I think the odds are stacked strongly  in favor of a medieval origin.

Heather Pringle

The Past through Tomorrow

Thanks very much for joining me here at Time Machine!  In the weeks and months to come, I will blog here regularly on what has long interested me most—the often invisible world of the past.  You will find many other websites and blogs about archaeology, sites that will describe in mind-numbing detail the dimensions of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the earliest known dates for millet farming in Mongolia, or the difference between a Gainey Fluted Point and a Crowfield Fluted Point.  All those websites serve a purpose, of course, but you won’t find any of that rather tedious stuff here.

I am going to write about the things that I find really interesting.  I’ll write about dead people (really dead people) and explore what they tell us about ourselves today.   I’ll take you with me behind the scenes in the world of archaeology and tell you what the latest finds really mean.  I’ll comment on movies and tv shows about the past. And I’ll share with you my thoughts on all the cool stuff I learn when I travel to places like Pompeii, Petra and Machu Picchu.  Are you curious about which hotels in Cuzco have have authentic Inca architecture,  or where you can imbibe the oldest known fermented beverage in the world?

I plan to have a lot of fun on these pages.  Please stay tuned!

Heather Pringle