Category Archives: European archaeology

Pirouetting in the Street over Bronze-Age Wreck

Every once in a while,  an archaeological discovery comes along that makes me feel as if I should leap out of my chair, cartwheel across the room,  and turn pirouettes in the street.  I had one of those days yesterday, when I read the British newspaper accounts of an absolutely stunning underwater discovery off the coast of South Devon.  The  South West Maritime Archaeological Group has discovered the debris field of a Bronze-Age trading vessel,  dating back to 1300 B.C.

This is one of the oldest known shipwrecks in the world.  And what makes me so very, very happy about it is that this immensely important find  is in the hands of serious archaeologists whose sole objective is to advance scientific knowledge –not corporate treasure hunters driven by the bottom line.  Hallelujah!

I have long worried about ancient underwater sites such as this in British waters. The British government,  I am sorry to report,  has failed miserably to step up to the plate when it comes to protecting shipwreckl sites.   Although the Britannia long ruled the waves as a great maritime power,   the British government has so far refused to sign the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, a vital piece of  international law protecting prehistoric and historic wrecks from the clutches of treasure hunters.   Thirty-one other nations, however,  have taken the much-needed plunge.

So the discovery of the South Devon site and its astonishing cargo of gold bracelets, rapiers,  sling shots,  tin ingots and the like by devoted avocational underwater archaeologists  is cause for real rejoicing.   Ben Roberts,  an archaeometallurgist and curator at the British Museum, couldn’t be happier.  “The Salcombe site,” he notes,  “is now one of the most important Bronze Age sites currently being investigated in Britain.”

Those interested in learning more about this  amazing discovery can read about the work up until 2006 here,  and can then follow the story to the present here.

Lovesick in Pompeii

In honor of the patron saint of romances, St. Valentine,   whose day rapidly approaches,  I thought I’d bring you something very different today–the expressions of love carved upon the walls of Pompeii some 2000 years ago.   This proved to be a little trickier than you might expect at first blush,  for many of the Pompeiian inscriptions are wonderfully raunchy.  The Romans really loved sex and weren’t at all bashful about publicizing their talents in the sack.    So  I had to be a little  selective.

First a word about where I found these wonderful translations. The Italian archaeologist and epigrapher Antonio Varone,  who works in an office building tucked away on the grounds of  Pompeii,  has written a superb book on the inscriptions:  Erotica Pompeiana:  Love Inscriptions on the Walls of Pompeii.   While nearly everyone who visits the ancient resort town notices all kinds of  graffiti scratched on the stone of villas and public buildings, very few possess sufficient knowledge of the  Latin language or Roman culture  to decipher the inscriptions.  Thank you Antonio Varone for opening our eyes.

Ok,  bring on the inscriptions.  First the lovesick:

“Vibius Restitutus slept here alone,  longing for his Urbana.”

“Girl,  you look lovely to Ceius and many others.”

Next, the tender:

“So may you forever flourish, Sabina; may you acquire beauty and stay a girl for a long time.”

The jealous:

Who is it that spends the night with you in happy sleep?  Would that it were me.  I would be many times happier.

The  wry:

“Warmest regards from Puddle to her Fishlet.”

The angry:

“Virgula to her Tertius:  you are loathsome.”

“Erotarin, you jealous old fool.”

The boastful:

“No one’s a real man unless he’s loved a woman while still a boy.”

“Restitutus has often seduced many girls.”

The feminist version:

“Euplia was here with thousands of good-looking men.”

The contented:

“I would not sell my husband…for any price…”

The proud  new parents:

“Cornelius Sabinus has been born.”

What I love most about these inscriptions is their immediacy.  I feel as if I know these people,  as if for a moment or two,  I can share their thoughts across the great dark chasm of time.

Politics, Science and the Cloning of Neanderthals

As some of you will know,  I posted yesterday on the ethics of cloning a Neanderthal,  a subject I have been thinking about after reading an article Zach Zorich wrote for Archaeology magazine. Today Zach left a thoughtful response in the comments section of that post,  raising a number of key points.  I’d like to reply.

But first let me briefly summarize  Zach’s remarks. He notes that all the researchers he interviewed for the piece are well aware of the ethical dilemmas of such cloning and that each had given serious thought to these matters–even though such clones are clearly somewhere off in the future.

Then Zach took exception to the comparison I made between the science of creating a Neanderthal clone and Stalin’s desire to fabricate an army of “humanzees”,  human-chimpanzee hybrids.   As Zach points out, “this isn’t some mad scientist’s scenario for world domination.”  Cloning research, he points out, is part and parcel of a larger picture of legitimate medical research,  and any heavy-handed legislation to prevent Neanderthal cloning could wreak havoc with projects designed to extend and protect human life.

I see Zach’s points here, and I share his concerns about heavy-handed legislation.  I’d hate to see a law block an entire line of desperately needed medical research.  But having said that,  I still can’t shake off my anxiety about what could happen further down the road if and when science is indeed capable of cloning a Neanderthal.

Even well-meaning scientists, after all,  are unable to foresee all the consequences of their research,  as some have discovered to their rue.   In the 1960s,  for example, Norwegian researchers developed a new and very lucrative technology for ocean net-pen farming of Atlantic salmon.  So great were the profit margins that a bedazzled Canadian government agreed to permit the same technology–with the same fish–on the British Columbia coast.  Large corporations began farming Atlantic salmon in pens off the British Columbia coast in 1984, leading to the escape of tens of thousands of these alien fish into the  Pacific Ocean.  Today Atlantic salmon gobble up wild food and threaten native salmon species.

So even when guided by the best of all possible intentions,  scientists can create futures they never envisioned.  And it seems to me that when the stakes include the creation of another of our close human relatives that we need to exercise extra special care.  I think that means taking  into account worse -case scenarios, even one as dire as the intentional creation of Neanderthal clones by a malevolent political regime for the purpose of slave labor.

As Zach notes in his comments (and  I should mention in the interests of full disclosure that I know Zach and that he is my editor at Archaeology), my worst-case scenarios do indeed draw on the research I did for my book on Hitler’s archaeologists.  In fact, one of the things that struck me most forcibly during my four years of research and writing on the book was how terribly susceptible science is to political influence.

Most scientists need laboratories,  expensive research equipment,  and academic appointments  in order to pursue their research.  Corrupt regimes know this and they reward pliable scientists with prestigious jobs and ample research funds.  Conversely, they weed out their opponents from universities and cut off their research funding.  In Nazi Germany,  these simple strategies convinced many scientists to pursue lines of state-approved racial research that they would probably have never considered otherwise.   It could certainly happen again.

All this is to say I’m very uneasy with where this cloning research might lead us in the years to come.  I’d like to see legislators at the UN draw a line in the sand.  Cloning research for medical purposes is an important pursuit.  I’m all in favor of it.   But we should never allow cloning experiments to create Neanderthals.


Why We Should Worry about Neanderthal Clones

Should we clone Neanderthals?  That’s the provocative question that science writer and editor Zach Zorich poses in the forthcoming issue of Archaeology,  hitting the news stand on February 15th.  I received an advance copy late last week and read Zorich’s article this weekend. I’ve been thinking about this question ever since, and already I have arrived at my own  answer.  No.  No.  NO.

First of all,  I should point out that this is not a pie-in-the-sky question.  Zorich interviewed an impressive A-list of researchers–including geneticists who are sequencing the Neanderthal genome and leading paleoanthropologists who study ancient hominins–and some clearly believe that a cloned Neanderthal awaits us somewhere down the line.

So it’s not too early to begin thinking and debating about the ethics of cloning one of our hominin kin.  While some researchers champion the idea out of pure scientific curiosity and the desire to learn more about an extinct hominin,  I think it’s a terrible idea.  I simply don’t trust my fellow Homo sapiens sapiens to treat another hominin with kindness and respect.  Our track record with other primates, for example,  is appalling–using chimpanzees for circus shows and laboratory experimentation, hunting gorillas for meat,  and killing orangutan mothers  in order to sell their babies as pets.

And here’s something else that worries me about a Neanderthal clone.  In the 1920s, the Soviet leader  Josef  Stalin ordered the researcher who perfected the technique of artificial insemination,  Ilya Ivanov,  to create a “living war machine. ”  Ivanov’s brief, as American writer Charles Siebert reports  in his remarkable book, The Wachula Woods Accord,  was to artificially inseminate chimpanzees with human sperm to create a new hybrid.

Stalin dreamed of a large,  invincible Red Army and a vast slave workforce to carry out his Five Year Plans.  He thought a chimp-human hybrid would serve admirably. According to Russian newspapers,  Stalin told Ivanov “I want a new invincible human being insensitive to pain,  resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat.”

Ivanov failed miserably to produce such chimp-human hybrid, though he certainly tried.   In 1930s,  the biologist fell from political grace and was exiled to Kazakhstan in one of the many purges of the time.

All this strikes me as an important cautionary tale.   What if one of the world’s dictators  got it into his head to clone Neanderthals as slave laborers or a new kind of soldier, one physically stronger than modern humans?   It sounds far fetched,  I know.  But I don’t think we can blithely ignore the lessons of history.

The Bog Bodies’ Very Sad Fate

In late June 1904,  a Dutch farmer named Hilbrand Gringhuis was out cutting peat on the Netherlands side of  Bourtangermoor  when he uncovered something very unsettling:  a withered, nearly headless body resting,  it seemed, upon the arm of a second corpse.   Gringhuis immediately notified the local police,  who came out to investigate.  And,  in a time long before modern forensic science, the local constabulary decided to transfer the soggy cadavers to the nearest morgue in a very peculiar  fashion.

They rolled up the bodies of the two men like human scrolls, wrung them out, and stuffed them into what Wijnand van der Sanden,  the provincial archaeologist in Drenthe and the author of  Through Nature to Eternity: The Bog Bodies of Northwest Europe,   describes as a “starch box.”

The Weerdinge men,  shown drying out on a piece of cloth in today’s photo,  were of course bog bodies.  Radiocarbon-dated to some 1980 years ago,  they are two of the nearly 1900 such bodies either reported or recovered from bogs stretching from Ireland to Norway.  Like many of these bodies,  one of the Weerdinge men was the victim of extreme violence.   Modern forensic study shows that someone almost certainly stabbed him to death:  the victim’s withered brown intestines now tumble from the wound.

But the violence that these two bodies suffered after death disturbs me almost as much as the m.o. of their demise.  And I’m sorry to say that this unthinking destruction is part of a much larger pattern.  All across Europe,  companies are excavating,  mining and draining bogs.  Land developers, for example, are keen to reclaim wetlands for new housing developments.  And gardeners love to spread peat on their flower beds.   All those big plastic bags of peat you see in European plant nurseries come from once great bogs and wetlands.

Eerily preserved by the peculiar chemistry of bog water,  the bog bodies can tell us enormous amounts about subjects as diverse as ancient clothing,  diet,  and sacrificial practices.  But ironically,  as our interest in these curious-looking mummies grows and our ability to draw knowledge from their witheed flesh increases,  we are less and less likely to find them.  The large excavators that companies use to mine peat from bogs tend to chew up bodies before their drivers even realize what is happening.

And there is one other sad note to all this.  Swedish archaeologist Martin Rundqvist has posted a very thoughtful entry on his blog this morning about the Swedish Bog Cultivation Society, which destroyed precious bogland in Sweden for what Rundqvist calls “no practical gain.”  In other words,  the money-making schemes behind all this environmental destruction never panned out.  And who knows how many bog bodies were obliterated in the process?

Photo courtesy of the Drents Museum, Assen.

What Will Happen to the Staffordshire Hoard?

Ben East wrote a short but incisive article yesterday in a United Arab Emirates newspaper on the irony of British efforts to keep the Staffordshire Hoard in Britain.  The British have long been oblivious to those same sentiments on the part of others,  such as the Greeks who want the Elgin marbles back.

Guns, Spears, Inscriptions, and Magical Thinking

I wasn’t terribly surprised to read the Associated Press story this week about the biblical inscriptions that appear on certain American military weapons issued to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dismayed, yes. (Wasn’t the American government trying to distance itself from the notion that it was engaged in a modern Christian Crusade against the Infidels? ) But shocked, certainly not. As archaeologists and historians can attest,  such inscriptions are part of a very old tradition, one that goes back many hundreds of years in cultures across Eurasia.

For those of you who missed it, here’s the much boiled down version of the AP story.   For the past 30 years, a Michigan-based  military contractor known as Trijicon Inc.  has put scriptural citations in raised letters on the sides of its products,  which include combat rifle-sights. According to the AP article,  U.S special operations forces in the Middle East currently carry Trijicon’s Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight into battle:   it bears the inscription JN8:12,  a clear reference to the Gospel of  St. John,  Chapter 8, verse 12, which reads: “When Jesus spoke to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The folks at Trijicon clearly think that this verse will go a long way in assisting American soldiers in their hour of need.

But the idea of inscribing a weapon with a sacred text to protect  its owner is a very ancient one.   Indeed it dates back at least  2000 years,  to a time when metalsmiths closely guarded the secrets of forging iron weapons, creating an air of mystery and magic around them.  The inscriptions these ancient smiths forged on sword blades or along spear tips seemed to further enhance this power.

History is replete with wonderful examples.  Early Islamic warriors, for example, carried Damascus-steel swords inscribed with verses from the Qur’an.   Lord Egerton’s classic book, Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour,  describes one sword that possessed  several inscriptions from the Qur’an–some for good times (“In everything there is speedy victory from God”), others for more perilous encounters ( “God is the best of Protectors.”).   But the Moslem warriors were not alone.  Japanese samurai also brandished swords inscribed with inspiring phrases–in their cases,  from Buddhist or Shinto texts.

My favorite example of  inscribed weaponry, however,  is the Spear of Kowel,  shown in the photo above.   It was discovered one spring day in 1858 in Poland by a ploughman preparing his field for planting.  Made of iron and thought to date to the 3rd century A.D.,  the Spear of Kowel bears a simple but slightly ambiguous message.   Depending on who you read,  the inscription reads “brave, bold rider,” “going to the target,”  “goal runner,” or simply “attacker.”

If Trijicon had to inscribe some kind of message on its rifle sights,  why couldn’t it have chosen something simple and to the point  like that,  instead of dragging biblical texts into Middle Eastern wars that are already plagued by fundamentalism.