Category Archives: Old World Archaeology

Soma, Ephedra and Journeys to the Next World

For the last few days  I have been reading a superb book  about a harrowing journey that 26 undocumented Mexican migrants took  in May 2001 across the Sonora Desert in hopes of reaching Arizona,  and last night it got me thinking, strangely enough,  about soma,  an ancient intoxicating ritual drink mentioned frequently in the Vedas and other sacred texts in Iran.  What’s the connection?  Well,  bear with me.  I think you’ll find this interesting.

The book in question is Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway,  and it’s a riveting account of the perils that this ill-prepared group of Mexican men and boys faced on their lethal trek through the Arizona desert.  As Urrea points out, many of the guides who accompany such parties into the desert insist that their charges pop fistfuls of ephedra-based diet pills.  The pills,  says Urrea are  a “chemical prod to speed up their walkers….A dose of eight pills at a time really gets them hustling. ”

The mention of ephedra really caught my attention.  There are several species in the genus Ephedra,  but they are all unprepossessing, shrubby,  desert-loving plants and several species contain an important stimulant– ephedrine–that produces an adrenaline-like rush in strong doses, and,  in some reported cases, a state of hallucination.

I have been reading a lot in recent weeks about ephedra,  for these plants are found in lavish quantities in the 4000-year-old  graves of Bronze-Age mummies  in the deserts of China’s remote Tarim Basin. As some of you will know,  the Tarim Basin mummies are very famous and controversial,  largely because they are  European in appearance and in the technology they possessed.  (Think plaid woolen clothes.)  As such,  they clearly indicate contact between East and West far earlier than previously believed.

Now here’s the thing.  The fact that archaeologists have uncovered so much ephedra in these graves suggests that it served a very important ritual purpose,  most likely to spur on the spirit of the deceased as it took the long,  dangerous  journey to the next world.

Could the Bronze-Age inhabitants of the Tarim Basin have brought knowledge of ephedra from lands to the west,  such as Iran?  And could ephedra have been one of the plants used to brew soma,  the sacred drink that ancient priests and others imbibed in order to journey to the other world?

Two American researchers,  David Stophlet Flattery and Martin Schwarz,  lay out in minute detail the available scientific evidence for soma in their 1989 book,  Haoma and Harmaline:  The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallocinogen.  Researchers have long debated possible  ingredients.   But after detailed study,  Flattery and Schwarz concluded that ephedra was one of the key ingredients in the fabled drink.

There are dissenters and doubters of course.   But I think there is something very poignant here.  Illegal Mexican migrants swallow ephedrine pills by the handful today in order to get to a place they think of as the promised land.   But the ephedrine does them no good at all.

Each year, the American border patrol finds hundreds of their bodies lying out in desert.

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.

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.

Fueling the New Chinese Mania For Antiques

I can’t believe how badly the New York Times missed the point this morning in its article on the newly red-hot antiquities trade in China.   Journalist Dan Levin reports on the growing mania among  middle class buyers in Beijing for Chinese antiquities, extolling their newfound passion for ” Ming Dynasty porcelain vases,  19th century hardwood furniture and even early 20th century calligraphy ink pots.”  Such antiquities,  Levin explains,  “have become popular status symbols for an emerging middle class eager to display its new wealth and cultural knowledge.”

Too bad Levin didn’t ask a few  hard questions about exactly where all these Chinese antiquities  are coming from.  If he had, he might have come away with a very different impression.  While researching a new story for Archaeology magazine,  I recently discussed with Victor Mair,  a Sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and one of the world’s leading experts on the archaeology of Xinjiang province,   this very issue.

I had noticed in Mair’s  articles that many of the most important Bronze Age and Iron Age sites in Xinjiang–sites that have yielded European-looking mummies and western grave goods and that are now revolutionizing our understanding of Central Asian  history–had been badly looted.  In fact,   looting in Xinjiang has become so serious that Chinese archaeologists are constantly forced to excavate entire cemeteries just to salvage and protect some of the finds.

I asked Mair what on earth was going on.  The Xinjiang sites, after all,  are in the midst of a huge and very barren desert–one of the bleakest and most remote places on earth. Mair explained to me that Chinese looters have become very sophisticated.  They journey into the desert equipped with GPS  and specifically target the ancient cemeteries there. The devastation is enormous,  Mair explained,  with mummified human body parts strewn everywhere.  “They just take the bodies,  the heads, the coffins and throw them out on the ground,” he said.  “They are looking for gold or they are looking for something that is obviously a nice artwork.”

Most looters then sell their finds to middle men in Hong Kong, individuals who don’t ask any questions.  “You can go down to the antiquities market street there,” said Mair, “and you can find unbelievable things, precious materials or precious objects from all over China being sold there.  So Hong Kong is like a  door for selling.”

To me,  this is the real story behind the newfound enthusiasm for antiquities in China. And there is a terrible irony here.   During the Cultural Revolution,  Mao Zedong ordered the destruction of  “old culture,”  officially condoning the looting of old cemeteries  and destroying antiquities.  Now the pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction,  as the Chinese middle class celebrates  its ancient culture.  But the change in attitude has only led to further destruction of the archaeological record.

Jihadist and Young Archaeologist

Did Mohamed Atta,  the man who flew American Airlines Flight 11 into a World Trade Center tower, pay for his  flying lessons by selling looted antiquities? It now looks like a distinct possibility. According to The Art Newspaper,  a senior Italian official has stated publicly on several occasions that Germany’s secret service, BND,  possesses testimony documenting Atta’s attempt to sell looted Afghan artifacts to a German archaeologist in 1999.

Atta, as you may recall, was born into a wealthy Egyptian family and graduated from the University of Cairo in 1990  with a degree in architecture.  After a short stint as an architectural planner in Cairo,  the young Egyptian  moved in 1992 to Germany,  where he enrolled at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg.   There Atta studied under Dittmar Machule, an expert on Middle Eastern architecture who was conducting an archaeological excavation at a Bronze-Age site in northern Syria.

So interested did Atta become in archaeology that Machule invited him to visit the Syrian dig in 1994.  The German professor later recalled what happened  in an interview with ABC television.   Atta,  said Machule,   “slept in the tent as we all slept and he was very interested in the excavation.  I explained to him what we are doing, the methods of archaeology, the research and I remember that he wanted to help.”

Five years later,  in 1999,  says Guiseppi Proietti,  secretary general of Italy’s Ministry of Culture, Atta approached a University of Goettingen archaeologist with a business proposition.  He offered to sell the unnamed archaeologist Afghan artifacts,  explaining that he needed the money to pay for flying lessons he wanted to take in the United States.   The archaeologist declined the offer.

How might Atta have obtained these artifacts?  As investigators have now established, Atta became increasingly radicalized during his studies in Germany and disappeared for lengthy periods of time.  During the university’s winter break in 1997, for example, he vanished for three months, and applied on his return for a new passport,  claiming he had lost his–a common strategy that jihadists employed to conceal their travel to a terrorist camp.

With his newfound knowledge of archaeology,  Atta may have spent his spare time in Afghanistan looting remote sites and collecting antiquities.  And it certainly seems possible that he sold the plunder privately or through auction houses  in order to finance the flying lessons that ended in such terrible tragedy.

This is an appalling scenario–European collectors financing one of the worst terrorist attacks in recent memory.   I sure would like to know more about this.

Grave Doubts on the Shroud of Turin

What exactly is the famous Shroud of Turin? Archaeologist Shimon Gibson,  a senior research fellow at the  W.P. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, recently conducted a major study on a radiocarbon-dated 1st century B.C. burial shroud he and his colleagues excavated in a Jerusalem tomb.  This funerary cloth was  made very differently  from the  Shroud of Turin,  casting yet more cold water on the authenticity of the famous relic.  For more on this,  see my blog post today at Archaeology magazine.

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.

Leonardo da Vinci: Taking His Last Secrets to the Grave

Did you catch the news headlines yesterday about the Italian researchers who hope to open the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci in France in order to reconstruct his face?  They are keen to see whether the Renaissance artist was indulging in his well-known love of riddles when he painted the Mona Lisa.  For years,  some some scholars have hypothesized that the mysterious beauty in the painting was a self-portrait in drag.

My first reaction to this proposed project was to shake my head in disbelief.  Is this really a valid reason to disturb the sleep of the dead, particularly someone so deserving of our respect? Are we so driven by curiosity that we need to rummage through chill church tombs and peer at the bones of the dead in order to answer a question that is on the level of a barroom bet?

And  I was not  reassured when I Googled the team’s spokesperson, Giorgio Gruppioni, a bioanthropologist at the University of Bologna.  In 2009, Gruppioni and several colleagues  reconstructed the face of one of Italy’s greatest poets, Dante Alighieri, using the cranial data that researchers recorded in 1921 when officially identifying Dante’s remains.  And just a few weeks ago,  Gruppioni and colleagues recovered what they hope will be the remains of  the great 17th century Italian painter, Caravaggio.   Once again, the team announced plans to reconstruct Caravaggio’s face.  Gruppioni and his colleagues seem awfully interested in surface appearances.

But the more I thought about it,  the more I began to see a legitimate context for  these projects.  For the past two decades,  several Italian research teams led by pathologists and anthropologists have been prying open Renaissance tombs and reliquaries to gather vital scientific data.  One of the leading researchers in this field, University of Pisa pathologist Gino Fornaciari has spearheaded several of these projects,  exhuming such Renaissance luminaries as Cosimo I de’ Medici,  Ferdinand II of Aragon, and Maria D’Aragona,  one of the greatest beauties of her day.

I have met and talked at length with Fornaciari,  and can attest to his interest in serious science.  And I was really intrigued today when I checked out his recent publications to see what science had learned from all these rude awakenings of the dead.   His papers covered a wide range of subjects–the methods that Renaissance embalmers employed to artificially mummify royalty  in 16th century Europe;  the species of lice that clung to the mummified remains of Ferdinand II (revealing that these parasites plagued even the wealthiest  during the Renaissance); and the human papillomavirus  (HPV) that infected Maria D’Aragona.  The latter study will permit medical researchers to study the evolution of this important virus, a major cause of cervical cancer, perhaps giving them clues to new treatments.

If the team that wants to open Leonardo da Vinci’s grave obtains permission to do so, I strongly suspect that they will make the most of this rare opportunity,   gathering all the relevant samples and data to do key pathological and bioarchaeological studies.  I personally don’t care whether the great artist painted the Mona Lisa in his own image. But I’d love to know more about the health and life of this great Renaissance artist.

The Burner of Books

The China Daily News carried a very cool story this week on a major new archaeological discovery in Hubei province. According to Shen Haining,  the director of Hubei’s cultural heritage bureau,  excavators working in a tomb that dates back to the  Warring States period of China’s history  (475-221 B.C. ) recovered a trove of water-saturated bamboo strips covered in inked Chinese characters.  Resembling a snarl of soggy noodles,  the strips are remains of ancient and exceedingly rare Chinese books–a find that is sure to generate huge interest in China and abroad.

Perhaps a little Chinese history is in order here  to help make sense of this find.  The Warring States period,  as its name clearly suggests,  was a time of massive violent military clashes.  Lords of seven major states all vied for supreme power in tianxia (which means “all under heaven”),  and they threw huge infantry armies bristling with mass-produced iron weapons at one another.   These  armies also boasted for the first time in Chinese history archers with crossbows and soldiers fighting on horseback,   both of which completely transformed military engagements in the Far East, rendering them far more horrifying.

The period came to an end finally when one of the combatant lords,  Qin Shi Huang, subjugated all his rivals.  But while the new emperor brought peace to China, he committed a grave sin against history and literature.  Fearing that all earlier books would cast doubt on the legitimacy of his rule,  Qin Shi Huang  ordered most Chinese books of the day to be burned and he had scholars who possessed such forbidden writings buried alive–making bamboo-strip books dating from the Warring States period rare indeed today.

You might ask yourself why we should care today about the fate of these lost Chinese documents,  many of which were recorded on bamboo strips.   Well,  it turns out that amid all the bloodshed and chaos of the time,   many of China’s greatest thinkers were discussing warfare and dreaming of peace.   Many of their works were undoubtedly lost in the destruction ordered by  Qin Shi Huang,  though a few,  including the very famous meditation The Art of War, survived to the present thanks to later copyists.

I am dying to find out what the soggy bamboo strips in the newly discovered Hubei tomb will hold.  “It’s still to early to tell,”  Shen told the China Daily reporter.  “Let’s wait and see.  Archaeology is all about surprise.”  Hear, hear.