I have just returned from a three-day trip to California, where I attended the opening of a major new exhibit on the Tarim Basin mummies. The new exhibition at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana did not disappoint. I spent hours marvelling at the mummies and nearly 150 spectacular artifacts which date as early as the Bronze Age, 4000 years ago. I’ll be writing about some of the more fascinating aspects of the exhibit this week. But today, I’ve posted an entry over at Archaeology magazine on the sartorial splendor –no other way to describe it–of one of the mummies, Yingpan Man. Please click here to read today’s post.
Every time I venture into the produce departments of large supermarkets, I am stunned by what I see on the shelves. Arranged to perfection on trays and lit by soft lighting are foods I scarcely recognize anymore: grapes the size of a squash ball, naval oranges as big as a child’s head, and pineapples larger than a football. How did we ever get to this, I ask myself, pumping our crops so full of chemicals until they reach Brobdingnagian dimensions? Gulliver would have felt right at home.
All this came to mind this morning, as I read a very clever new historical study that Brian Wansink, a nutritional scientist at Cornell University and the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think, and his theologian brother Craig Wansink, just published in the International Journal of Obesity. The two researchers examined 52 images of the Last Supper painted between A.D. 1000 and 1900, and measured the size of the portrayed portions. (They did the later by scanning the food items and plates with computer-aided design technology, then calculating the relative food to human head ratio.)
What they found was a strong trend over time towards supersizing. The entrees grew by a whopping 69%, while the plates themselves expanded by 66%. Even bread loaves swelled by 25%. Could religious practices account for this trend? Craig Wansink, the theologian on the team, says no. “There is no religious reason why the meal got bigger,” Wansink told a BBC reporter. “It may be that meals really did grow, or that people just became more interested in food.”
Brian Wansink’s earlier research strongly suggests that the monster-sized portions we see today in restaurants, fast food joints, and on our own dining room tables have a lot to do with the current obesity epidemic. And there are some simple things we can do to cut the calories. Just switching from a 12-inch to a 10-inch plate, for example, will result in a 22% decrease in the amount of food we eat at dinner.
Above: The Last Supper by Jacopo da Ponte, ca 1546
Below: The Last Supper by Alonso Vazquez n.d.
I sometimes think that one of the worst jobs in archaeology today would be to work as a curator at the British Museum. Yes, there is the prestige of researching and mounting massive exhibitions that attract international attention. But who would want to be on the receiving end of all the ire of foreign governments who want their treasures back, from Iran demanding the loan of the Cyrus cylinder to Greece pressuring for the return of the Parthenon marbles? And I sure wouldn’t want Zawi Hawass lecturing me on the return of the Rosetta Stone.
Now a new front has opened up in the diplomatic war to pry loose national treasures from the British Museum showcases–and it’s not at all where you might think it would be. Last week, Scottish National Party MP Angus MacNeil called for a debate in the British House of Commons over the repatriation of the very famous Lewis Chessmen discovered in a sandbank on the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides Islands sometime before 1831.
First a very short primer on the Lewis Chessmen, which are my all time favorite artifacts from Medieval Europe. A 12th century artist carved the exquisitely beautiful chess pieces–93 in all–mostly from walrus ivory, which could well have come from the Greenland colonies, or possibly even from the Canadian Arctic. (That’s another story I’ll save for another day.) No one knows for certain, however, where the chessmen were carved, although some scholars lean towards Trondheim in Norway, since similar chess pieces were found there. How these wonderful chessmen–one of the best preserved sets from the medieval world- came to lie in a sand dune near Uig on the Isle of Lewis is unknown.
Shortly after they came to light in 1831, however, the Hebridean finder decided to sell them. A private buyer purchased 11 of the pieces and the rest went to the British Museum, which displays several of these miniature artworks in one of its galleries.
But now people in the Outer Hebrides want their famous chessmen back. Indeed, their MP Angus MacNeil is working hard to repatriate them to the Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway, the major town of the Outer Hebrides. And what has provoked this protest? It appears that the British Museum has stepped very clumsily on toes and local sensitivities in the Outer Hebrides. Its curators have been working on a major travelling exhibit of the chesspieces to Scotland and according to a recent online article in The Press and Journal, advertising for the forthcoming exhibit attributes the chesspieces to Norwegian craftsmen, completely ignoring the possibility that they were carved in the Outer Hebrides.
Is this just a tempest in a teapot? I don’t think so. The Lewis chesspieces are objects of of immense pride in the Outer Hebrides, and someone at the British Museum should have known this. I am becoming more and more sympathetic all the time to foreign governments and even local museums who want to repatriate their greatest treasures from the vaults and exhibition cases of the British Museum. It think it’s patronizing in the extreme today to think that only the big national museums in developed countries know how to take care of the world’s most important cultural heritage.
Last summer while I was researching an article for National Geographic magazine in Ecuador, I had the remarkable pleasure of staying at the Hacienda Guanchala. Lying almost exactly on the equator, the Hacienda Guanchala is the oldest colonial hacienda in Ecuador. Indeed, some of its buildings date back as early as 1580, and its shadowy corridors feel haunted by all the history that has passed through them.
I arrived at the hacienda late in the day, well after dark, and after dining there I retreated to my room and lit a fire in the old stone fireplace. Someone had left several glossy Spanish language magazines there, and so I began to thumb through them: they were all devoted exclusively to the Peruvian Paso horse. I had never heard before of the Peruvian Paso, and I was too tired to dig out my Spanish-English dictionary to begin translating the articles. But I was much struck by the athletic appearance of this horse–with its massive deep chest and its powerful looking haunches.
Yesterday, I came across a fascinating blog post on the Peruvian Paso. It turns out that the Francisco Pizarro and his men brought the ancestors of this horse with them when they landed in Tumbes in early 1532 and embarked on their invasion of the Inca Empire. And they later rode and led these horses by halter through the Andes to a fateful encounter with the new Inca emperor, Atahualpa, in the provincial center of Cajamarca.
Atahualpa had just defeated the forces of his half-brother Huascar in a lengthy civil war, and he was resting with his wives, lords and elite bodyguard in the hills outside Cajamarca. He and his entourage had never before seen a horse. But in the preceding months, Inca scouts had sent them a good deal of intelligence about the Spanish invaders and the large foreign animal they rode.
Pizarro sent one of his bolder captains, Hernando de Soto, and several men out to Atahaulpa’s camp to invite him to a meeting in Cajamarca. To impress on the Inca entourage the power of horses, de Soto first led a charge on several of Atahualpa’s bodyguards, sending panic into the crowd. Then the Spanish captain reined his horse in sharply and trotted over to where Atahualpa sat on a low wooden throne. He nudged his horse so close to the divine king that the animal’s exhalations ruffled the braided royal fringe–a mark of imperial office–that hung from Atahualpa’s forehead. But the emperor betrayed no fear: he sat impassively as the animal gazed down at him.
Tragically the intelligence that Atahualpa had received about the Spaniards was badly flawed. His scouts informed him, for example, that the Spanish could not ride their horses in the dark. So Atahaulpa delayed his arrival at Cajamarca for the meeting until late afternoon the next day. But the Spanish forces and their horses were ready and waiting, quickly slaughtering the emperor’s bodyguard and taking Atahualpa himself a prisoner.
Seldom has one breed of horse witnessed so much tragedy and misery.
My apologies to subscribers who received a garbled version of this blog earlier today. Something went a little wrong in the blogging software this morning.
As an archaeological journalist, I long ago learned the value and importance of storytelling. My articles often open anecdotally, with a brief story that I hope will seduce readers into staying with me as I explore the science of a new excavation or find. I love telling stories, and if I have good material to work with, these leads often write themselves.
Story-telling is an immensely powerful medium, perhaps the most direct and intense way of communicating basic truths that we humans have. And yet it is one that archaeologists rarely tap into when they try to communicate their findings to the public. I think this is a great shame, for the artifacts that archaeologists work with often tell immensely compelling stories, stories that allow readers to connect strongly with the past.
I was reminded of this today while listening to a superb online interview with Lonnie Bunch, the director of an important new museum in the planning stages, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Bunch was talking about how Smithsonian curators decide which donations to accept and which to reject, a topical subject for he had just turned down the suit that O.J. Simpson wore to court on the day of his acquittal.
The interviewer asked Bunch about the most surprising donations he had received, and this is where the interview took soaring flight, as Bunch left the tawdry, tabloid story behind. He described a recent acquisition, a humble pillowcase that someone had brought in. It was, he explained, embroidered by an enslaved woman who was about to be sold the next day.
The embroidered inscription was for her daughter. It read: “In this pillowcase, you will find a dress, some biscuits, but what you will [also] find is that it is filled with love, and, though you will never see me again, always know how close you are to my heart.”
For me, this one humble artifact said more about the horrors of slavery than many lengthy archaeological reports I have recently read about excavations in the slave quarters of southern plantations. I felt an instant, direct, immediate connection to that long-ago grieving mother, as one human being to another. Bunch clearly knows how to communicate to the public, and I really look forward to seeing this new museum when it opens five years from now.
Moreover, it seems to me that many archaeologists could learn something important from this museum director. Sometimes all it takes is one well-chosen artifact with a story to bring the past back vividly to life.
I confess I have a great soft spot for the half-mad adventurers who build painstaking replicas of ancient seacraft and then trust their fates to them on long ocean voyages. Their published narratives speckle my bookshelves–from Thor Heyerdahl’s account of his balsa-wood-raft voyage from South America to the Tuamotu Islands in Polynesia, to lesser known tomes recounting near-death experiences aboard ox-hide Celtic coracles in the storm-tossed North Atlantic and Viking knarrs navigating iceberg-littered waters off the Newfoundland coast. The courage of these modern mariners is truly impressive.
The latest in this band of nautical brothers is the crew now sailing around Africa aboard a replica of a 2500-year-old Phoenician ship. The team, led by former Royal Navy officer Philip Beale, is attempting to recreate what is thought to be the first circumnavigation of Africa by Phoenician sailors around 600 B.C.
The great classical Greek historian Herodotus briefly described this epic three-year-long voyage in The Histories. According to Herodotus, the Egyptian pharoah Nekho II commanded a small fleet of Phoenician ships–the master mariners of the day–to explore the African coast from East to West. After rounding the horn of Africa, they sailed southward, stopping only to plant and reap grain for ship’s supplies, then passed through the dreaded Pillars of Heracles. From there, they returned along the coast of western Africa to Egypt.
Beale and his companions have built what they believe to be a faithful replica of a Phoenician ship of the era, right down to 8000 olive-wood pins to hold everything together. Two days ago they docked in the South African port of East London, and the crew is now preparing to head off to Capetown. The toughest part of the voyage lies ahead, as they round the tip of Africa. If you’re interested in following their voyage, I’d suggest checking out their info-packed website. It has a wealth of information on Phoenician history and seafaring.
I certainly wish them kind winds and a safe journey.
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.
Quick, who invented the hot dog? Was it the sausage-makers of Frankfurt? The butchers of Vienna ( a city that German-speakers call Wien)? Or was it Charles Feltman, an enterprising German immigrant who ran a pie-wagon in Coney Island in 1867? We’ll never know, but get this. Construction workers have now excavated the world’s oldest known hot dog frozen in ice below one of Feltman’s buildings on Coney Island. Mummified and rather revolting looking, this 140-year old frankfurter is attracting a lot of attention. You can see it for yourself in the CNN video here. The discoverers say they want to preserve it, but they are sure going about it in a weird way–pouring hot water on the ice!
Hot dogs made Feltman a fortune. In his first year of business, the young enterpreneur hawked more than 3864 of them to Coney Island visitors, and he transformed junk food into a small empire of beer gardens, hotels and the like.
Clearly junk food pays. Never underestimate the appetite of the public!
Archaeology magazine has just published a story I wrote on an almost completely forgotten tragedy of the Civil War. In 1863, the Union Army razed and laid waste to nearly four counties in Missouri–a year before the better known scorched-earth destruction of Atlanta, Georgia, by General William Tecumseh Sherman and his forces. Archaeologist Ann Raab, a Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and her colleagues are now excavating sites in what is still known as “The Burnt District.” They are bringing to light a virtually unknown chapter of the Civil War–incredible work. Archaeology has posted an abstract of the article here. I will have more to say about this story in a future post.