Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Real Mrs. Miller, Businesswoman and Brothel Madam

At one time or another,  we’ve all seen the private workings of a 19th-century brothel,  thanks to the silver screen.  My own  favorite film on this subject happens to be something that you will only see on the Turner Movie Channel these days:   McCabe and Mrs. Miller,  directed by none other than Robert Altman.

Did Altman get any of it right?  Well,  archaeologists have dug a wide range of 19th century brothels in recent years, including a very upscale establishment in Washington D.C.  that once catered to politicians.   Now an ongoing research project by Boston University archaeologist Mary Beaudry is shedding light on the life of a brothel madam,  Mrs. Lake, and her employees at 27 and 29 Endicott Street,  Boston.   For more,  see my new post at The Last Word on Nothing.

The Embalmer’s Fingerprints

Sometime in the winter of  1907 and 1908,  an American researcher found a curious assortment of objects lying in a small pit in the Valley of the Kings. Theodore Davis, like many Egyptologists of the day,  was looking for large, grand things, preferably royal tombs. So when he and his workers dug up several jars filled with linen bandages, worn kerchiefs,  broken pottery,  splintered animal bones, bits of dried mud, and collars made of faded dried flowers,  he immediately set them aside and resumed digging.

Davis thought he had found scraps from a poor man’s grave.  In fact,  he and his team had excavated all the leftovers from Tutankhamun’s  spectacular funeral in 1323 B.C. 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.

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.


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

Lights, Camera, Action in Victorian Melbourne

Rose Wild over at the Times Archive Blog has posted an amusing little short film that will never win an Academy Award,  but is worth a quick gander.  At just 24 seconds,  Patineur Grotesque is the oldest known surviving film from Australia–made for a song and a lark I suspect in 1896 on a Melbourne street.  Even then,  the Aussies clearly  loved a laugh. G’day!

Dance to the Drummer

My 88-year-old father is undergoing open-heart surgery today,  so  I will take a short break from blogging.  Tomorrow,   I have a great guest blog lined up. Today, I’m bringing you a cool photo.  It shows Tonga College students performing a traditional Kailao, or war, dance.   I can well believe that these muscular dancers are the descendants of the Lapita people who first paddled across the South Pacific and settled the Polynesian islands.   This photo was taken by James Foster in  1988.

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.