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.
Category Archives: Old World 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.
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.
What’s the Difference between a Neandertal and a Modern Human?
Bright and early yesterday morning, I was on the phone listening to a important piece of scientific history unfold. At the other end of the line was a Science magazine press conference in which researchers announced the world’s first draft sequence of the Neandertal genome. The team’s paper will appear tomorrow in Science.
I hadn’t had even my first cup of coffee yet, and my dog pawed at the office door, impatient to be fed and walked. But I was riveted by calm, sonorous voice of Svante Pääbo, a geneticist at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and one of the team’s leading members, as he gave an overview of the project. “It’s extremely satisfying,” said Pääbo “that we now have the overview of the Neandertal genome after four years of intense efforts.” I can well imagine. Read more…
How to Hunt Swift-Footed Game
Archaeologists in Israel have just published a new study on mysterious funnel-shaped lines that stretch for miles across the deserts of Israel, Jordan and Egypt. In all likelihood, they suggest, the lines are part of an elaborate system of drive lanes and a pit trap for hunting gazelle. In my regular end-of-the-month blog post for Archaeology magazine, I explore the antiquity of these big game traps, once used to hunt everything from caribou to antelope, horses to bison.
The Lords of Beringia
I am continually gob-smacked by the obsessive public interest in Atlantis. Why, oh why, does a mere mention of this fabled continent quicken the heartbeat of so many? Google, as I just did, “continent of Atlantis,” and you will turn up a whopping 1,020,000 hits. And a depressing number are devoted to bizarre lunatic-fringe theories concerning the location of the sunken continent (my current favorite puts Atlantis somewhere off the coast of the Indonesia).
By contrast, try mentioning Beringia to your friends and kids. How many of them have heard of it? It’s a real, honest-to-goodness sunken land–a huge chunk of northern real estate that once connected Alaska to Siberia and that now lies at the bottom of the Bering Sea. It drowned, as many of you undoubtedly know, when huge ice sheets melted at the end of the last Ice Age and topped up sea levels by some 330 feet. Read more…
Women, The Earliest Brewmasters?
Until last night, I had never given much thought to the gender of the world’s ancient brewmasters. But while surfing the net in the wee hours, I came across a British newspaper article with an irresistible headline: “Men Owe Women for ‘Creating Beer’ Claims Academic.” According to the Telegraph, British author Jane Peyton now proposes that Bud Lite, Tsingtao and Victoria Bitter drinkers around the world owe their favorite suds to women brewmasters.
Peyton furnishes several examples in this article. Only women, she noted, were permitted to brew beer in Mesopotamia. Much later, among the Vikings, women owned all the equipment for beer making and controlled the entire process. And until the beginning of the 18th century, most of Britain’s ale came from ale-wives who worked out of their homes for extra income. But the mass production of beer during the Industrial Revolution apparently put a end to all these female microbreweries.
The Telegraph article made no mention, however, of who Jane Peyton is. So I googled her and stumbled upon a whole unsuspected world of beer pedagogy in Britain. Peyton is a tutor at the Beer Academy in London. She is also the principal of the School of Booze, an outfit whose model is “Think While You Drink,” (a splendid oxymoron) and which offers tutored beer tastings. Clearly there are a lot of beer connoisseurs out there who want parity with wine snobs.
I don’t know where Peyton is getting her info from or whether she has a book on the way on feminist beermakers. Her website offers few clues. And because of this, I might have dismissed the article entirely, but for one thing. Peyton mentioned that before the Industrial Revolution, people thought of beer as a food: as a result, many cultures deemed beer-making women’s work.
Although my knowledge of early brewing is very limited, I recently read a wonderful paper by Justin Jennings, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, on the Andean art of making chicha, or corn beer. According to Jennings, Andean families have long brewed two types of this beer–one thin, the other quite thick. They reserve the thicker and more filling chicha for daily consumption as a food. But they prepare a thinner corn beer for festivals, so that celebrants can drink more and get pleasantly high faster.
As Jennings points out, “gender roles are often fluid in the Andes,” but “chicha brewing is primarily a female activity. ” He then goes on to note that “the preparation and serving of chicha, like all food, is central to women’s identity, and for women who sell chicha [today] the drink offers considerable social power and autonomy that they aggressively defend.”
I think Jane Peyton is on to something here.
The Silk Road Merchant Who Loved Haute Couture
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.
Bronze-Age Europeans in China
Both the Grey Lady, the New York Times, and USA Today, have run stories (here and here) this week on the forthcoming exhibition of China’s famous Tarim Basin mummies and their gravegoods and possessions at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. The three mummies in the exhibit are European in appearance and date back as early as 4000 years, long before the opening of the Silk Road in the 2nd century B.C.
I have a very short interview with Victor Mair, a Sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the leading expert on these mummies, coming out in Science magazine later today. In addition, I have penned a feature article for Archaeology on Victor Mair and the latest research in the Tarim Basin, which will hit newstands in June.
But I will be attending the opening of the exhibition next weekend as a guest of honor, as the Bowers Museum has invited me to give a talk on mummies on Sunday, March 28th. So I will be posting here on my impressions on this major new exhibition. Chinese authorities have never before permitted any of the Tarim Basin mummies to travel outside Asia.
I should mention, however, that I have seen some of these mummies before. A decade ago, I joined Victor Mair and a geneticist colleague in Shanghai while they were trying to obtain permission to sample some of the mummies for DNA testing. At that time, I was fortunate enough to be taken down into a basement room at Shanghai’s Museum of Natural History, where one of the Tarim Basin mummies lay in a glass case. Later, I wrote a chapter in my book, The Mummy Congress, on the finds from the Tarim Basin.
These are extraordinary mummies. Their preservation is superb and they are daily revealing more about the lives of Bronze Age European migrants to Central Asia. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in a week’s time!
Photo by Wang da Gang