Category Archives: European archaeology

Caviar for the Dead

Even the dead kept watch. They sat upright in their graves, men and women, and faced the river, waiting, it seemed, for the waters to roil again with massive, steel-grey fish. The sturgeon, barbeled giants with rows of bony scutes down their backs, appeared each spring in Serbia’s Danube Gorge, after battling the current all the way from the Black Sea. The largest of these fish weighed more than a dozen men. The oldest of these Beluga sturgeon survived more than a century.

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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.

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.

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.

Google Streetview and the World’s Megaliths

This is pure genius.  Over at The Megalithic Portal, they are having a competition.  Between now and May 31st,  they are asking megalithomaniacs around the world to help them locate  henges,  barrows, mounds and the like on Google Streetview.  There’s a lot of turf to cover.  Two weeks ago, Google rolled out a deluxe version of  Streetview in the U.K., encompassing 95% of the roads.

And the organizers aren’t just limiting the competition to good old Albion.  “There are thousands of obscure and unloved standing stones, earthworks etc in roadside locations all over the world,”  say the organizers.  With a little crowdsourcing and a few  prizes to the sharpest eyes, they hope to locate these sites for all of us on Google Earth.

What a brilliant scheme!  A few months ago,  I posted on the immense fun I had toodling around Pompeii for hours on Google Streetview.   An astute reader then put me on to the Google views of Stonehenge,  and there went another good hour as I moved around inside this wonder –something I’ve never been able to do in the real world.  So the folks at Megalithic Portal hope to do us all a big favor by mapping thousands of other sites,  and I think the least we can do is return the favor,  by sinking a little spare time in hunting for megaliths.

I have to say, though,  that I’m  both touched and a little dismayed by some examples they have posted to date.   At 7 Ravenswood Avenue,  Edinburgh  (my father’s home town),  there’s a standing stone piercing the sidewalk in front of what looks to be an apartment block.  It’s completely encircled by a black iron fence.  I suppose the iron bars are there to protect the stone from vandals or careless parkers.  But  the fence reminds me a little of a miniature prison,   dividing the past from the present, the mystery from the mundane,  the ritual world from the real one.

Who’s really in prison here?

The Knights Templar and a Mysterious Nail

A British newspaper, the Telegraph,   reports today that archaeologists working on a tiny  island off the coast of Madeira have recovered a 1st or 2nd century A.D. iron nail from what was once a Knights Templar stronghold.  The story’s headline reads:  “A Nail from Christ’s Crucifixion Found?”

I’d say the Telegraph editors are  taking a few liberties here.  Yes, the nail was reportedly found in a decorated box on the island,  and yes,  the Knights Templar served as a fighting unit in the Crusades during the 12th century, occupying Jerusalem for a time.   But there is absolutely nothing to suggest that Roman soldiers employed this particular nail in the crucifixion of Christ.   In medieval times,  charlatans peddled a wide assortment of fake relics  in the Holy Land:  this could certainly be one of them.

Sailing to Crete More than 130,000 Years Ago?

A few weeks ago,  I posted on intriguing new research from Crete that raises the possibility of ancient human seafarers rafting across  Mediterranean straits more than 130,000 years ago–well before modern humans even left Africa.  I have just written an article on this for National Geographic news,  interviewing several of the team members and obtaining comments from other scientists.  You can find my online article here.

Herman Wirth and the Origins of Writing

Did our early human ancestors develop a  written “code” some 30,000 years ago or more, inscribing and painting cave walls with its enigmatic symbols?  This is the question posed by new research from Genevieve von Petzinger,  a recently graduated master’s student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and the subject of a fascinating new article in New Scientist.  What no one has mentioned so far, however,  is that the  idea of such an ancient script dates back to the nineteenth century and has a dark link to Nazi Germany.

First,  however,  let me summarize my understanding of von Petzinger’s very cool new research.  Struck by the profusion of little circles,  triangles,  lines and other marks on rock-art-covered cave walls dating to Paleolithic times,  von Petzinger created a massive database of all such recorded marks at 146 sites in France.  (No one else had apparently been willing to undertake this seemingly thankless task, so full marks to von Petzinger.)  The sites  ranged in age from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.

In analyzing this new database with her thesis advisor April Nowell,  von Petzinger noticed that cave artists had repeated 26 different signs–including circles and triangles–over and over again. The artists had also used a kind of visual shorthand–inscribing just mammoth tusks instead of a whole mammoth, for example–which is common in pictographic languages.   Moreover,  in some caves,  von Petzinger discovered pairs of signs,  a type of grouping that characterizes early pictorial language.

This all sounds exceedingly interesting,  though I am waiting to see the paper that the pair has just submitted to Antiquity. But I feel obliged to point out that the idea of a very early system of written symbols was strongly championed in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s by Herman Wirth,  one of the most controversial prehistorians in Europe and the first president of the Nazi research institute founded by SS head Heinrich Himmler.   (This institute was the subject of my last book,  The Master Plan:  Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust.  In it,  I wrote two full chapters on Wirth and his research. )

Wirth,  who had a Ph.D in philology,  was a man of great personal charm and many bizarre ideas.  He became convinced that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nordic race had evolved in the Arctic,  where it developed a sophisticated civilization complete with the world’s first writing system.  Furthermore, he proposed that Plato’s description of Atlantis and its demise was in fact an accurate account of the catastrophe that befell the Nordic civilization on an Arctic  island.

According to Wirth,  the Nordic refugees from this  disaster escaped to northern Europe,  bringing with them their ancient writing system,  an invention that later diffused to cultures around the world.   So Wirth spent years poring over ancient European rock art, searching for evidence of this system and recording examples of circles,  disks and wheels that he believed were ancient Nordic ideograms symbolizing the sun,  the annual cycle of life,  and so on.

I found Wirth’s ideas about an ancient master race and an Arctic Atlantis preposterous.  Indeed,  they would have been laughable  had it not been for the fact that Himmler,  the architect of the Final Solution,  used Wirth’s published works  to lend credence to the official Nazi line on the Aryan master race,  and that Wirth, who died in 1981,  still has many avid followers in Germany and Austria today. Indeed,  I  interviewed one of his ardent supporters.

I think that von Petzinger’s new research on Paleolithic symbols sounds immensely intriguing.  It certainly fits with our growing awareness of the abilities of our human ancestors.  Moreover,  I  want to state clearly that the Canadian researcher did not for a moment come under the influence of Herman Wirth and his ideas.  Indeed, she proposes that the ancient sign language may have originated in Africa and arrived in Europe with modern humans–a proposal that would have horrified Wirth.

Nevertheless,  I think it’s  important to point out the troubled history of the idea of an ancient European script recorded in rock art.    We cannot afford to forget in any way the Nazi past.

Today’s photo shows a plaster cast that Wirth made in the late 1930s of Bronze-Age rock art in Sweden.  I photographed this cast in 2002 as it hung in a museum in a small Austrian town, Spital am Pyhrn.  At the time,  Wirth’s casts were clandestine Nazi memorials.