Monthly Archives: April 2010

Clothes Make the (Ancient) Man

“Good clothes,”  wrote Thomas Fuller in 1732  in his book of proverbs, Gnomologia,  “open all doors.” The British physician was  almost certainly thinking of the importance of a spiffy tailcoat and breeches and a dressy lace shirt when trying to make friends among the wealthy and titled in 18th century England. But Fuller’s proverb could apply to early hominins as well:  with the right clothing, our ancestors could survive winter cold and colonize increasingly hostile environments  in Eurasia.

All this of course begs a question,  or rather two.  Who were the first clothes horses?  And when did our mania for fashion begin?  Archaeologists have never had much clear evidence to go on,  for pieces of hide clothing or textiles tend to rot rapidly in the ground.    But new research presented last week at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists sheds new light on the matter,  by looking at an unlikely source of information: the human body louse. Read more…

Reclaiming the Lost DNA of Ancient Languages

Imagine for a moment that you are 80 years old (easier for some of us,  I admit, than others.)   Now imagine that you are the last person left on earth who can speak English.   No one can sit down and chat companionably with you in your mother tongue.  No one can laugh at your jokes or puns or understand what it means to “grin like a Cheshire cat.”  You are  alone, and all the cultural knowledge embedded in the English language will be lost when you die.

That,  of course,  is the predicament of many elderly speakers of aboriginal languages around the world.  The  Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, calculates, for example,  that in the United States alone,  42 percent of the 300 or languages once spoken by  aboriginal people are now extinct. And it’s not just words, grammar and syntax that are being lost:  it’s “the DNA of a culture,”  as Bruce Cole,  a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the U.S.,  once put it so aptly . Read more…

Flash Drive vs. Sumerian Clay Tablet

I was just at Costco this weekend,  wheeling one of those immense, T-Rex  shopping carts past the ever-so shiny electronics section, when my eye  fell on a row of flash drives.  I currently back up all my research and stories on a battered 8 Gigabyte Kingston flash drive that I bought in Cuzco last summer and that I strongly suspect is a knockoff.   But Costco’s new line of drives,  the LaCies , are 32 GB and look  like house keys.   I immediately wanted one.

Now you might reasonably think that a brand-new flash drive would win hand’s down every time as a back-up system when pitted against,  let’s say,  a 5000-year-old  Sumerian clay tablet.   But you’d be very,  very wrong.   According to a fascinating study I recently came across  by Paul Conway,  who teaches in the School of Information at University of Michigan,  there is one critical way in which the Sumerian clay tablet,  the world’s earliest data storage system,  beats the hell out of the flash drive jingling on your key chain.   Longevity.

Here’s Conway’s main point.   Someone who knows how to read Sumeria’s cuneiform script (which gets its name from the Latin word cuneus, meaning “wedge”–an apt description of the little wedge-shaped marks that Sumerian scribes made with their styluses in moist clay) can still read the message on a clay tablet  5000 years later.   Now what about a LaCie flash drive?  All the computers we use to read it today will be obsolete in 20 years,  and we will have no way of accessing what’s on it.  It might as well be a big lump of metal.  You scoff?   Just think about the stacks of floppy disks that littered our desks back in the 1980s.

Conway calls this “our central dilemma”:   the capacity for storing information is soaring exponentially just as the longevity of  storage media is plummeting.   In other words,  the more ancient the storage system, the longer it tends to live.  A 4500-year-old Egyptian papyrus can still be read,  so can the Dead Sea Scrolls. But a book published in 1851 on acidic paper only has an average life expectancy of 100 years.  And the pace of obsolence has greatly accelerated over the past 40 years:  if I handed you a computer punch card or a magnetic tape could you read it?

I am not Luddite.  I love new technology  (bring on the iPad!),   but it’s clear to me that Apple, Microsoft and Google don’t have all the answers.  Maybe the guys in Silicon Valley and Redmond, Washington ought to give a little more thought to cuneiform tablets and a little less to flash-in-the-pan data.

Bravo to Archaeologists Who Brave the Blogosphere

“No Guts,  No glory” –that’s the title this morning of an amusing and wonderfully written post by University of Victoria archaeologist  Quentin Mackie over at Northwest Coast Archaeology.  The post takes an affectionate look at the stubbornly determined trials and tribulations that Newfoundland archaeologist Tim Rast and his exceptionally loyal band of friends and inlaws are currently undergoing as they experimentally carve up a seal and explore in detail its inner workings–from seal guts to rotting hide–all in the name of  science.

Over the past few weeks,  Rast and colleagues have experimented with scraping the hide,  festooning Rast’s clothesline with seal gut,  drying the bladder by inflating it with a bicycle pump (it ends up looking like a miniature pinkish  Goodyear blimp),   and freezing  seal blood in ice-cube trays  (for later experiments with seal-blood glue), etc, etc.

Rast relates these backyard adventures at some length in his superb blog Elfshot (which I’ve written about before),  and despite all the gore (or perhaps, more honestly,  because of the gore and yuck factor) I’m fascinated. Rast obviously knows his stuff cold, fearlessly wades in,  and isn’t afraid to mix in a little modern technology (ie. the bicycle pump) when necessary. And he’s oh  so Canadian,  dryly describing all this effort as “last week’s seal excitement,” and worrying about what he has been putting the neighbors through.

Rast’s blog is great fun.  But then read Quentin Mackie’s take on it all.  Mackie is quick to pick up on the scientific value of Rast’s experimental archaeology,  but he does so with a wonderful sense of humor, and a great eye for detail.  Here’s one example of what I mean:

“My favourite in the series deals with drying some of the parts, including inflating the intestines and the bladder: he wimps out and uses a bicycle pump, not his lips.  His volunteers are conspicuously absent from this part of the narrative, despite the chance to redefine the word ‘blowhole’.

Clearly these are two archaeologists having a lot of fun in the blogosphere,  and,  like many other readers, I’m riveted.   It’s  a little like sitting around the campfire or the  camp kitchen with them and listening to the cool stuff they learned that day,  all salted with some good-natured kidding.  I’m learning a lot and having a few very good laughs.

I really wish more archaeologists would join Mackie and Rast and venture out into the blogosphere in this very personal way.   I really want to hear their voices online, and I know I am not alone.

Photos:  Above,  Tim Rast and his merry band.  Below:  What a clothesline looks like when you are using it to dry seal guts.  Both photos are from Elfshot.

A Maya King’s Common Touch

Now here’s a very cool concept of time.  Put away for a moment your iPhone clocks and Outlook calendars and imagine time as an endless series of year bundles, specifically 52-year bundles.  At the end of each bundle, imagine that you and your neighbors  climb someplace high–a rooftop say,  or the top story of the Empire State Building–and stay up all night.  Then,  as you see the pink glow of the rising sun and the renewal of the world’s 52-year-long lease on life, you celebrate like crazy;  go home and ritually cleanse your house; and find all new stuff to put in it.

That’s pretty much what the Aztecs did.   And according to a cool new study by University of Illinois archaeologist Lisa Luceros,  that’s exactly what ordinary illiterate Maya men and women did–recording great cycles of time  in their housefloors for nearly 700 years,  from AD 450 to 1150.   “Commoners,”  says Lucero in a public statement, ” had their own way of recording their own history,  not only their history as a family,  but their place in the cosmos.”

I’ve followed Lucero’s work for sometime now.  She’s a perceptive and observant archaeologist,  with interesting things to say about the Maya.   But I found this new work of hers in the small Maya center now known as Saturday Creek in central Belize particularly fascinating.   Here’s why.

Lucero and her team excavated two houses in Saturday Creek,  carefully peeling back the layers.   What they found was a lamination of burnt house floors,  each containing careful arrangements of broken pottery and complete vessels;  human skeletal remains (frequently missing spinal and pelvic bones); and pieces of obsidian and chert.

Now here’s where it gets interesting.  The occupants buried the humans in the same spot each time.   And they placed ritually significant objects on top of the bodies and around them–objects that Lucero and her colleagues began to decode.  You might expect,  for example, to find bits of black pottery scattered around the bodies,  for the Maya associated black with death and Xibalba,  the feared underworld.  Instead,  Lucero’s team found sherds of red pottery–red being the color of life and rebirth–and chunks of stone linked in story to the Maya equivalent of paradise.   In other words,  the ritualized burning of the house was an act of rebirth–both for the living and the dead.  And evidence showed that  it took place every 40 to 50 years.

Archaeologists have long known that Maya upper classes paid close attention to calendrical time,  for royal stelae and palace walls abound in such references.  And this knowledge was likely ” a source of great power,” notes Robert Sharer and Loa P. Traxler in their  book, The Ancient Maya.  “The complexities of calendrical calculations demonstrated that king and priests held close communion with the supernatural forces that governed the cosmos.”   What’s new in Lucero’s work,  though, is the evidence that ordinary people recorded these great cycles of time in their own way.

Moreover,   Lucero takes this one intriguing step further.   She proposes that rulers of the Classic Maya city states took age-old domestic practices–like celebrating year bundles–and performed them on a grand scale,  a kind of theater that brought an entire community together.  “Nearly everything royal,” she concludes in a formal statement,  “emerged or developed or evolved from domestic practices.”

It’s a fascinating thought.  Even the mightiest Maya king is a commoner at heart.

In the Presence of Death at Pompeii

I once spent an entire a year flying to remote parts of the world to see mummies.  I was researching and writing a book that became The Mummy Congress,  and during this time I got to know the preserved dead exceptionally well.  I watched them being unwrapped from their linens in Egypt, poked and prodded with fiber optics in Italy and haggled over in China.  And I feel obliged to state something clearly.   I have never seen a mummy that struck me as ghoulish or macabre or indeed anything other than what it was generally was–a dead human being who had been mourned, prepared, arranged and preserved.

I  can’t say the same, however, of the plaster casts that archaeologists have made of  Pompeii’s victims,  a thought that occurred to me this morning as I read on the BBC website of a new exhibit of these objects at Antiquarium de Boscoreale, a short drive away from Pompeii.

Archaeologists produce these casts whenever they find skeletal remains lying in cavities in the volcanic rock that still blankets much of  Pompeii.  They pour plaster into the hollow and pry it loose when it hardens.  And what often emerges is an object not quite human,  and not quite artifact, something that captures in eerie detail the final moments of one of Pompeii’s inhabitants during the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  Once seen,  such casts are not easily forgotten.

I saw them for the first time a few years ago, when Cambridge University archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill took me to see the one of the grandest and most opulent homes in Pompeii,  the House of Fabius Rufus.   As I recall (and please correct me, someone,  if I am wrong),  this immense villa had never been open to the public,  and Wallace-Hadrill and I spent nearly an hour admiring its exquisite frescos and its private bath.

At one point in this behind-the-scenes tour,  I was climbing down a shadowy stairwell and I stumbled on something obstructing one of the steps.   I stopped  and peered down to see what I had nearly fallen on.   It was a plaster cast of  a human victim sprawled across the stair,  a slave perhaps who had no chance to flee and who had literally perished on the spot.  At that moment,  I felt a deep, penetrating sense of the ancient tragedy,  and although two thousand years had passed since the toxic volcanic gases had swept through the city,   I could see all too clearly a life being snuffed out right in front of me.

As Wallace-Hadrill and I continued roaming the house,  we came across several more of these casts lying on the floor,  in various attitudes of death.  The archaeologist,  an expert on the architecture of Pompeii,  paid no attention to them,  as if he scarcely saw them any more.   But a terrible chill came over me each time I found another huddled or splayed form,  another a human life cut short.

All this came to mind today when I read of a new exhibit.  The show marks the first time that museum goers will see such a large collection of the casts in one spot.

Francisco Pizarro’s Forgotten Army?

Who really conquered the Inca Empire?  I found myself mulling over that question for the first time today, after reading a really fascinating new paper published online in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology by a team of American and Peruvian scientists.  Led by Melissa Murphy,  a physical anthropologist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie,  the team has just pored over the skeletal remains of 258 Inca men and women,  who perished from extreme violence sometime between 1470 and 1540.

First,  let me very briefly summarize the conventional view of the Conquest of Peru.  According to the Spanish chronicles (the only surviving written source of the invasion),  Francisco Pizarro set sail from Panama in January 1531 with 3 ships and  180 men.   Landing near the port of Tumbes in the midst of a civil war in the Inca realm known as Tawantinsuyu,   Pizarro and his men journeyed inland.   At the Inca provincial town of Cajamarca, they laid an ambush and captured  the Inca king Atawallpa,  whom they subsequently executed.   In November 1533,  Pizarro’s force occupied the Inca capital of Cuzco, bringing the empire to its knees.

I personally don’t recall hearing or reading much about  indigenous Andean peoples fighting on the side of the  Spanish invaders.  But as the new paper by Murphy and her team points out,  aboriginal people  certainly seem to have played a part in the Conquest of  Peru,  and perhaps quite a large part.

Murphy and her colleagues examined human remains excavated from two large Inca  cemeteries in the archaeological zone of Puruchuco-Huaquerones,  7 miles from the center of Lima.  Many of these individuals likely died during the ill-fated siege of Lima,  when Inca forces tried to expel the Spaniards in 1536.  As expected, Murphy and her colleagues found ample evidence of severe injuries caused by medieval European weaponry–the top spike of a polearm, the beak of a war hammer,  and possible gunshot wounds.   (Intriguingly,  evidence of slashing injuries from swords is missing from these victims.)

But what I found especially intriguing in this study was the evidence that team-members found for wounds inflicted by  indigenous weapons,  such as clubs and maces.  Indeed,  as the authors note,  “the majority of perimortem injuries to the cranium were likely due to blunt force trauma, probably from native weaponry like maces or clubs,  with only a few of the injuries caused by Spanish weapons.”

Now of course,  Spanish soldiers might well have picked up native weapons and used them expediently.  But some Spanish chroniclers do refer on occasion to indigenous allies and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that they were under-representing the numbers in order to make themselves look especially courageous to readers back home.

Moreover,  we know that the Incas had made a host of enemies during their own conquests, particularly on the northern coast of Peru.   And these dissidents might have seen Pizarro and his men initially as liberators,  before they truly understood the rapacity  of the Spanish forces.   Certainly, this is what happened in Mexico, when aboriginal people rallied to the banner of  Hernando Cortez,  eager to rise up against their oppressors, the Aztecs.

This new research by Murphy and her colleagues is the first forensic-style study of the Inca victims who fell during the Conquest of Peru.  I really look forward to reading more.