Category Archives: Archaeology

The Portrait of a Young Cave Artist

There is something rare and elusive on the ceiling of Rouffignac Cave in southern France, something that at first looked like etchings of undulating snakes or bending waterways or even strangely shimmying humans, but that now turn out to be something far more ephemeral and wondrous to my eyes—works of art by very young apprentices: giggling, squirming, skittering Ice-Age children.

To read more,  please visit The Last Word on Nothing.

The Bog Body and the King

A little over two weeks ago, on the evening of August 10th, a young Irish heavy-equipment operator spotted what he thought was an old leather car seat jutting out of the drained fields of Cashel Bog. Jason Phelan was nearing the end of a long day on a harvester, a giant machine that slices peat from drained bogs and rakes it into piles for garden compost. But Phelan knew that Ireland’s bogs occasionally cede strange treasure. So he hopped down from the cab to take a closer look.

The object, half-buried in the turf, was chestnut-brown. It looked like old leather, a piece of something–something, on closer inspection, that was definitely not a car seat. Phelan puzzled over it, considering the possibilities. Then he took hold of it and gave it a tug. A pair of ancient, twisted human legs slipped loose from the turf.

Read the rest at Last Word on Nothing.

Photo courtesy Sergey vyaltsev

The Emperor and the Heavenly Horses

In the year 111 BCE,  the emperor of China sent his emissaries westward to the land of the Wusun. The emperor had grown weary of marauding Central Asian nomads who routinely swept into his villages, stealing the grain, making off with the women and burning the houses. Wudi realized he needed better, faster horses to drive them out, so he sent his envoys far west to the Wusun. A people of the steppe, the Wusun reportedly possessed a horse of exceptional beauty, speed and endurance. Indeed, this horse was said to have descended from the heavens. When it galloped, it sweat blood.

Wudi sent an entire army in 103 BCE to what is now eastern Uzbekistan to find and capture some of the horses. His imperial forces suffered terrible losses and deprivation, but they succeeded in finding nearly two dozen superior horses, which they transported back to the imperial stables. There the Chinese court called them tianma, “heavenly horse.” The breed became the favorite mount of Chinese emperors and nobles.

I was reminded of this imperial obsession last week by news out of Xi’an, one of China’s ancient capitals. While excavating the massive mausoleum of Emperor Wudi, Chinese archaeologists found skeletal remains of 80 horses that had been sacrificed and buried in two cavernlike pits….

Read the rest at Last Word on Nothing.com .

How Revealing Footsteps Can Be

I love unguarded moments, those brief seconds when someone on stage or in front of a camera finally gives way to nervousness and says or does something completely unplanned and unrehearsed, something that just spills out like a stream overtaking its banks. For a moment, we see something that we weren’t meant to, something revealing, something truthful, something charming, and we smile in delight at this most human of connections.

It may sound strange but I look for traces of unguarded moments all the time when I am wandering prehistoric sites. So much of archaeology is the public face of our human ancestors: the carefully planned stone wall, the polished sherd, the delicately chipped edge of a projectile point. But every once in a while archaeologists catch a glimpse of something else, something that has the spark of life. And often it’s where you might least expect it–running along on the ground in the humble indentations of human footprints.

Just last week, the British press carried a wonderful story about the discovery of a Roman child’s footprints in a site in northern England destined to become part of an upgraded A1 highway.

To read more,  please visit The Last Word on Nothing.

Eye in the Sky

At first glance, the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay doesn’t seem like much of a subject for archaeologists. The controversial camp, built to detain suspected terrorists after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, seems far too new, far too contemporary for archaeological research. And if that weren’t reason enough to steer clear, Gitmo remains firmly out-of-bounds to nearly everyone, a terra incognita behind barbed wire on an American naval base in Cuba.

But none of this stopped archaeologist Adrian Myers, who is currently finishing off his Ph.D at Stanford, from taking a good hard look at Gitmo and drawing up the first independent public maps of the facility.

Myers has a particular interest in modern internment camps and prisons, and he thinks archaeology can tell us much more about life in those grim barracks and cells than a stack of official government reports peppered with half-truths and omissions.

Read more at Last Word on Nothing.

The Real Mrs. Miller, Businesswoman and Brothel Madam

At one time or another,  we’ve all seen the private workings of a 19th-century brothel,  thanks to the silver screen.  My own  favorite film on this subject happens to be something that you will only see on the Turner Movie Channel these days:   McCabe and Mrs. Miller,  directed by none other than Robert Altman.

Did Altman get any of it right?  Well,  archaeologists have dug a wide range of 19th century brothels in recent years, including a very upscale establishment in Washington D.C.  that once catered to politicians.   Now an ongoing research project by Boston University archaeologist Mary Beaudry is shedding light on the life of a brothel madam,  Mrs. Lake, and her employees at 27 and 29 Endicott Street,  Boston.   For more,  see my new post at The Last Word on Nothing.

Lords of the Flies: New Clues to Ancient Cultures from Very Old Bugs

In Science this week,  I write about some very ingenious research that a new breed of archaeologists–archaeoentomologists, as they like to be known–are carrying out on insect remains recovered from ancient sites.  By poring over fly puparia preserved in an 1800-year-old grave at the Moche site of Huaca de la Luna in Peru,  French archaeoentomologist Jean-Bernard Huchet has completed a CSI-style study of Moche burial practices.  And by studying small weevil-shaped holes in Jomon pots dating to at least 9000 years ago,  Japanese archaeologist Hiroki Obata and his team raise the possibility of very early agriculture in Japan.

The article lies behind a paywall,  unfortunately,  but you can read the short summary here.

Photo:  Painted facade of the Huaca de la Luna, Trujillo, Peru.  Source: Martin St-Amant

The Embalmer’s Fingerprints

Sometime in the winter of  1907 and 1908,  an American researcher found a curious assortment of objects lying in a small pit in the Valley of the Kings. Theodore Davis, like many Egyptologists of the day,  was looking for large, grand things, preferably royal tombs. So when he and his workers dug up several jars filled with linen bandages, worn kerchiefs,  broken pottery,  splintered animal bones, bits of dried mud, and collars made of faded dried flowers,  he immediately set them aside and resumed digging.

Davis thought he had found scraps from a poor man’s grave.  In fact,  he and his team had excavated all the leftovers from Tutankhamun’s  spectacular funeral in 1323 B.C. Read more…