Category Archives: Uncategorized

Wanted: Archaeologists for CSI

A community newspaper in London, England, carried an important article last week with an unusual request. According to the London Daily Advertiser,  a Romanian institute dedicated to the investigation of   Communist crimes in that country has put out a call for archaeologists to volunteer for the excavation of a mass grave in the Apuseni Mountains. According to the institute’s director, historian Marius Oprea, the mass grave in question contains the bodies of five anti-communist resistance fighters, including a pregnant woman, who were all killed by the Romanian secret service during the 1960s.

This sounds like a very worthy project,  and it reminds me of something I often hear from archaeologists–namely that they struggle daily to find a way to make their discipline relevant to students who are not particularly interested in what happened five years ago,  much less five centuries or five millennia ago.   And yet the techniques of archaeological mapping,  excavation and analysis are directly pertinent to crime scene investigation.

One year ago,  I published an article entitled “Witness to Genocide”  in Archaeology Magazine,  about a team of archaeologists and physical anthropologists who excavated several mass graves in Iraq,  at the height of the insurgency.  The team members risked their lives to dig and document the remains of  more than 100 Kurdish women and children who were secretly massacred by Iraqi forces in 1988 and buried at a site known as Muthanna in a remote desert near the Saudi Arabian border.

Michael Trimble,  a civilian archaeologist in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,  led the archaeological team.  And on November 30, 2006,  he took the stand as an expert witness in the trial of Saddam Hussein and several of his key supporters,  who were charged with crimes against humanity and genocide of the Kurds.  During four hours of grueling testimony,  Trimble presented the key results of the archaeological and anthropological investigation.   Here’s what happened on the stand (and please forgive me for quoting myself):

“As he spoke, he tried to maintain as much eye contact as he could with the judges. Partway through his presentation, however, he noticed one judge dabbing his eye. Two others soon followed suit. At first Trimble was puzzled, thinking something was wrong. Then he realized what was happening. “My God,” he thought, “they are all crying.”

The team’s meticulous excavation furnished a host of horrific and very telling details that brought the victims of the Muthanna massacre back to life.  And with the benefit of a geographical information system expert,  they reconstructed the crime in detail.  The security forces had literally mowed down the victims–some of whom were infants and very young children–as they stood in a prepared mass grave.  It doesn’t get much more chilling than that.

If this kind of forensic investigation is not a way to make archaeology relevant today,  I really don’t know what is.   Romanian historian Marius Oprea has put out a call for help. I sure hope some archaeologists will answer.

Cloth, a Body Armor of Choice?

I think it’s safe to say that the ancient world is absolutely full of surprises.  While most of us have long envisioned Alexander the Great donning a gleaming bronze cuirass for battle,  new research presented last week at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America reveals that one of the greatest military generals in history and his soldiers favored a much humbler form of body armor–cloth.

Gregory Aldrete,  a historian at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay,  and his student Scott Bartell, became interested in Alexander’s armor after collecting more than two dozen different classical descriptions of a type of cloth armor known as linothorax, made of linen.  The Greek historian Plutarch, for example,  describes Alexander’s gear on the day  he headed into the famous Battle of Gaugamela in 331 B.C. and decisively defeated the forces of the  Persian king Darius III. Alexander, says Plutarch,  wore “a breastplate of folded (or doubled) linen.”

Intrigued by this,  the two historians set out to replicate linothorax.  They scrambled to find linen made from hand-harvested and woven flax,  and then painstakingly glued the layers of linen together with two types of glue available in the ancient world –one made of rabbit skins and the other from flax seeds. The two historians then set up a kind of ancient firing range,  shooting arrows and thrusting swords at the linothorax.  “The laminated layers function like an ancient version of modern Kevlar armor,” Aldrete told a reporter from Discovery News, “using the flexibility of the fabric to disperse the force of the  incoming arrow.”

What I find particularly fascinating is the fact that soldiers in both the Old and New World developed cloth armor.  Aztec warriors,  for example,  wore a kind of quilted cloth-armor jacket or tunic known as ichcapuipilli for combat against the Spanish invaders.  This battle gear consisted pieces of unspun cotton sandwiched between two layers of cotton:  the armor measured nearly two fingers in thickness and, according to Ross Hassig’s fine book, Aztec Warfare,  was capable of deflecting both arrowheads and atlatl darts.

Inca soldiers,  too,  wore a form of cloth armor.   The attire couldn’t protect its wearer against cannon fire or Spanish steel swords,  but  it clearly had some advantages.   It was comfortable,  lightweight, and probably very cool in the heat of mid-day.  So some 16th century Spanish soldiers themselves adopted it, wearing cotton armor into battle in the Andes.

Clearly,  there is more to cloth than meets the eye.

Confiscating the Dead Sea Scrolls?

As I was recovering from last night’s revelry with a large mug of very black coffee, I noticed in this morning’s Globe & Mail that Jordan is officially asking Canada to seize the Dead Sea Scrolls. Eight of the 2000-year-old scrolls, including fragments containing “The Song of Moses” from Deuteronomy,  are on exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto until Sunday, January 3rd.

The exhibit in question, “Dead Sea Scrolls: Words that Changed the World,” was a major coup for the Royal Ontario Museum.   The Dead Sea scrolls are extremely fragile, so the Israel Antiquities Authority has been reluctant to allow them to travel. As a result, the government of Jordan has had to wait patiently  for this opportunity to press its claims to the scrolls in a big way on the international stage.

The history of these scrolls is complicated.   The first were discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin herder, Mohammed Ed Dhib, while searching for a stray goat in a cave overlooking the Dead Sea.  Seven of these scrolls came to the Israeli government.   But over the following seven years, Jordanian scholars supervised additional recovery operations on land that Jordan occupied west of the Jordan River.   These excavations produced thousands of other fragments of the scrolls, which were sent to the Palestinian museum in east Jerusalem.

Now here’s the nub of Jordan’s request to Canadian authorities.   During the Six Day War in 1967, the Israeli government took the scrolls from the Palestinian Museum, and occupied East Jerusalem. Jordan  is now asking Canada to abide by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.  As a signatory to this important international convention, Canada is obliged to “take into its custody cultural property imported into its territory either directly or indirectly from any occupied territory.”  In other words, Jordan is asking Canada to honor its international obligation, and confiscate the scrolls until the ownership issue can be resolved.

Canada,  however,  is very reluctant to get embroiled in this difficult situation.   Yesterday a government spokesperson stated that “it would not be appropriate for Canada to intervene as a third party.”

I am personally sympathetic to Jordan’s claim.   I recognize that the scrolls constitute an important part of Jewish heritage,  but it looks to me as if  Jordan was the victim of cultural looting.  The Israeli government should not have taken the scrolls from the Palestinian museum in east Jerusalem after the Six Day War.   This kind of  “spoils of war” thinking  is inherently wrongheaded and unethical.   No curator or scholar should indulge in it.

Moreover,  I find Canada’s position in this very disappointing.   What’s the point of signing an international convention if you don’t honor it when the chips are down?

Old and New Cairo

Over the next week or so,  while I am off on holidays,  I will be posting archaeological or historical  images that I  love for one reason or another. This image is a painting by Louis Comfort Tiffany, entitled ” On the Way between Old and New Cairo, Citadel Mosque of Mohammed Ali, and Tombs of the Mamelukes.”  It dates to around  1872.

Jerusalem’s Western Wall

Over the next week or so,  while I am off on holidays,  I will be posting archaeological or historical  photos that I  love for one reason or another. This photo of the Western Wall in Jerusalem was taken by Wayne McLean.

Merry Christmas to All!

Over the next week or so,  while I am off on holidays,  I will be posting archaeological or historical  photos that I  love for one reason or another. Today’s photo of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was taken by Wayne McLean on Easter Sunday 2005.