Tag Archives: Archaeology

Francisco Pizarro’s Forgotten Army?

Who really conquered the Inca Empire?  I found myself mulling over that question for the first time today, after reading a really fascinating new paper published online in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology by a team of American and Peruvian scientists.  Led by Melissa Murphy,  a physical anthropologist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie,  the team has just pored over the skeletal remains of 258 Inca men and women,  who perished from extreme violence sometime between 1470 and 1540.

First,  let me very briefly summarize the conventional view of the Conquest of Peru.  According to the Spanish chronicles (the only surviving written source of the invasion),  Francisco Pizarro set sail from Panama in January 1531 with 3 ships and  180 men.   Landing near the port of Tumbes in the midst of a civil war in the Inca realm known as Tawantinsuyu,   Pizarro and his men journeyed inland.   At the Inca provincial town of Cajamarca, they laid an ambush and captured  the Inca king Atawallpa,  whom they subsequently executed.   In November 1533,  Pizarro’s force occupied the Inca capital of Cuzco, bringing the empire to its knees.

I personally don’t recall hearing or reading much about  indigenous Andean peoples fighting on the side of the  Spanish invaders.  But as the new paper by Murphy and her team points out,  aboriginal people  certainly seem to have played a part in the Conquest of  Peru,  and perhaps quite a large part.

Murphy and her colleagues examined human remains excavated from two large Inca  cemeteries in the archaeological zone of Puruchuco-Huaquerones,  7 miles from the center of Lima.  Many of these individuals likely died during the ill-fated siege of Lima,  when Inca forces tried to expel the Spaniards in 1536.  As expected, Murphy and her colleagues found ample evidence of severe injuries caused by medieval European weaponry–the top spike of a polearm, the beak of a war hammer,  and possible gunshot wounds.   (Intriguingly,  evidence of slashing injuries from swords is missing from these victims.)

But what I found especially intriguing in this study was the evidence that team-members found for wounds inflicted by  indigenous weapons,  such as clubs and maces.  Indeed,  as the authors note,  “the majority of perimortem injuries to the cranium were likely due to blunt force trauma, probably from native weaponry like maces or clubs,  with only a few of the injuries caused by Spanish weapons.”

Now of course,  Spanish soldiers might well have picked up native weapons and used them expediently.  But some Spanish chroniclers do refer on occasion to indigenous allies and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that they were under-representing the numbers in order to make themselves look especially courageous to readers back home.

Moreover,  we know that the Incas had made a host of enemies during their own conquests, particularly on the northern coast of Peru.   And these dissidents might have seen Pizarro and his men initially as liberators,  before they truly understood the rapacity  of the Spanish forces.   Certainly, this is what happened in Mexico, when aboriginal people rallied to the banner of  Hernando Cortez,  eager to rise up against their oppressors, the Aztecs.

This new research by Murphy and her colleagues is the first forensic-style study of the Inca victims who fell during the Conquest of Peru.  I really look forward to reading 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 Last Place on Earth for Humans

While I was at the Bowers Museum in California this past weekend giving a talk on mummies,  Peter Keller called me into his office to take a gander at something remarkable.  Keller is the director of the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana,  California,  and the man who succeeded in bringing the very famous Tarim Basin mummies and their associated artifacts to North America for the exhibition,  Secrets of the Silk Road:  The Mystery Mummies of China.   These European looking mummies,  some as old as 4000 years,  have never travelled outside Asia.

Keller had just located the earliest known necropolis in the Tarim Basin,  the site known in English as Small River Cemetery No. 5 and in Mandarin as Xiaohe,  on Google Earth.  And the two of us spent a good half hour or so examining the area with researcher Victor Mair.  This made a great impression on me.

The Tarim Basin lies at the very heart of Asia,  nearly encircled by steep snow-capped mountains.  It is an exceptionally harsh, forbidding land.  In summer,  temperatures there can soar as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit; in winter,  they plummet to minus 40.  And it is one of the most arid places on Earth,  right up there with the Atacama Desert.   For all these reasons,  modern humans took their time settling the Tarim Basin.  Indeed Victor Mair,  the sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied these mummies for nearly twenty years, suggests that the Tarim Basin was the last place on Earth to be colonized by humans.   And this didn’t happen until some 4000 years ago.

In the reign of Mao Tse-tung,  the Chinese government put all this harshness to work.  It constructed labor camps in the Tarim Basin,  knowing that the desert would be a powerful deterrent to escape.  And it built a nuclear testing range there,  confident  that  no one would dream of crossing the barrens to spy.

It is one thing to know all this intellectually.  It is quite another to see all the desolation of the Tarim Basin on Google Earth.  Small River Cemetery No. 5,  named for a stream that no longer exists,  is surrounded by miles and miles of sand dunes,  dried river and stream beds,  and pure nothingness.  If you’d like to see for yourself what I’m talking about,  here are the coordinates:  40 degrees,  20 minutes, 11 seconds North and 88 degrees, 40 minutes and 20.3 seconds East.   (And if anyone knows how I can embed the Google Earth photo of the site in this blog,  please leave a comment below.)  I can give you these coordinates without any fear of encouraging looting,  as Chinese archaeologists have now completely excavated Small River Cemetery No. 5,  and reconstructed the site,  with its remarkable phallic looking wooden posts.

Surveying the area via Google Earth has given me a whole new appreciation for the Bronze -Age Europeans and Asians who colonized this region some 4000 years ago.  Mair believes that water would have flowed then along many of the small streambeds that meander through the desert.  I’m sure he’s right:  how else could the colonists have survived there?

But life must have been a daily grind in the Tarim Basin,  and I often wonder if the early migrants didn’t drift off to sleep each night dreaming of their greener and gentler homelands.

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.

Google Streetview and the World’s Megaliths

This is pure genius.  Over at The Megalithic Portal, they are having a competition.  Between now and May 31st,  they are asking megalithomaniacs around the world to help them locate  henges,  barrows, mounds and the like on Google Streetview.  There’s a lot of turf to cover.  Two weeks ago, Google rolled out a deluxe version of  Streetview in the U.K., encompassing 95% of the roads.

And the organizers aren’t just limiting the competition to good old Albion.  “There are thousands of obscure and unloved standing stones, earthworks etc in roadside locations all over the world,”  say the organizers.  With a little crowdsourcing and a few  prizes to the sharpest eyes, they hope to locate these sites for all of us on Google Earth.

What a brilliant scheme!  A few months ago,  I posted on the immense fun I had toodling around Pompeii for hours on Google Streetview.   An astute reader then put me on to the Google views of Stonehenge,  and there went another good hour as I moved around inside this wonder –something I’ve never been able to do in the real world.  So the folks at Megalithic Portal hope to do us all a big favor by mapping thousands of other sites,  and I think the least we can do is return the favor,  by sinking a little spare time in hunting for megaliths.

I have to say, though,  that I’m  both touched and a little dismayed by some examples they have posted to date.   At 7 Ravenswood Avenue,  Edinburgh  (my father’s home town),  there’s a standing stone piercing the sidewalk in front of what looks to be an apartment block.  It’s completely encircled by a black iron fence.  I suppose the iron bars are there to protect the stone from vandals or careless parkers.  But  the fence reminds me a little of a miniature prison,   dividing the past from the present, the mystery from the mundane,  the ritual world from the real one.

Who’s really in prison 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

Repatriating the Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum

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.

Ancient Mariners and Boat-Builders

Now here’s an excavation that I think is worth watching. Archaeologists at Gimhae National Museum in South Korea will return next week to the site of Bibong-ri, along the country’s southern coast,  to expand their excavations.   Some five to six years ago, archaeologists  working at the  shell-midden site made a stunning discovery:  the waterlogged hull of an ancient wooden boat.    Subsequent radiocarbon dating revealed that the wooden vessel was 7700 years old–the earliest known boat to date.

At first glance,  this might not seem particularly exciting.  Archaeologists now know that human beings became seafarers at least 50,000 years ago,  when modern humans crossed nearly a dozen straits to reach Australia from Southeast Asia.  And the new archaeological evidence of stone hand-axes from Crete suggests that ancient humans may have been island-hopping  in the Mediterranean 130,000 years ago or earlier.

What kind of watercraft did these early seafarers favor?  We simply don’t know, although some archaeologists speculate that the early mariners from Southeast Asia voyaged to Australia on rafts made from giant bamboo.  But the big problem is that archaeologists have yet to excavate any watercraft from such an early period.

So the discovery of an 7700-year-old boat in a Korean shell midden is a very important one,  giving archaeologists a precious glimpse of Neolithic nautical technology.  Researchers will have a lot of questions.  Was the boat powered by wind and sail,  for example?  Or was it powered by the muscle of human paddlers?   How was it constructed?  How many sailors did it hold?

I find it interesting that three of the world’s oldest known watercraft–the vessel from Bibong-ri;  a 7500-year-old  wooden boat excavated in China; and a 5600-year old logboat unearthed  in Japan–all come from eastern Asia.   Is this merely a coincidence,  based on random preservation of wood at three sites?  Or could this hint at the deep antiquity of boat-building and seafaring in this part of the world, an antiquity that we have yet to plumb?

These are not idle questions.   Archaeologists have long discussed the possibility of a very ancient coastal migration by boat from western Asia to the Americas.   Indeed one possible scenario,  proposed by University of Oregon archaeologist Jon Erlandson,  has ancient seafarers setting out by boat from coastal Japan some 15,700 years ago–during the last Ice Age–and nudging northward along the shores of Asia to those of the New World.   To do so,  these migrants would have needed some kind of sturdy boat–possibly a kayak or ocean-going canoe.

I’m very keen to see what else the Korean team will find at Bibong-ri this time around.    We badly need more information.

Signs of Respect

As regular readers will know,  I  recently fumed here over the poor conservation of a petroglyph-covered  boulder at the Vancouver Museum,  after reading a troubling post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology.   I questioned the wisdom of removing such boulders and slabs from the  places where they were created and installing them in  museums.  I then suggested that the Vancouver Museum repatriate the damaged boulder in question.

Since then,  Northwest Coast has posted more on this disturbing state of affairs, and recently  I received a great email on these issues from George Nicholas, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University and the director of Intellectual Property issues in Cultural Heritage. George is kindly guest-blogging on this today. -HP


I think the notion that rock art is about more than the images is something that has been largely ignored, certainly by the public, but also by many archaeologists and anthropologists. People often tend to focus on the details of the images, rather than on the context of the rock art. But one doesn’t work without the other.

In his book Ways of Seeing, John Berger notes that before photography, before the age of reproductive technology, one could only see a particular image (such as the Last Supper fresco) in the church in which it was painted. The same obviously holds true for Lascaux and all other rock art.

Taken out of their geographic context, the images are divorced not only from the place itself (which may be imbued with meaning of its own), but also from the emotional landscape and viewscape. I’m sure you’ve been to petroglyph sites where there’s sort of a mystical feel to the place. I find that at the Three Sister’s Rockshelter in British Columbia’s Marble Canyon. The silence of the moss-filled forest that surrounds the blue-grey rock face adds an important dimension to the rock art.

And of course, we approach rock art from the perspective of the western world. Our worldview is based on a set of dichotomies: the distinctions between the natural and supernatural realms; between people and nature; between past, present, and future; between genders, and all the rest. Such distinctions may be absent, however, in many indigenous societies; they may live in a world in which ancestral spirits are part of this existence (owing to lack of separation between past and present; between natural and supernatural realms).

So all of this, then, begs several questions. What does rock “art” really represent?  How are we supposed to view it? What should we do with it, from a heritage preservation perspective? Indeed, is rock art something that should be preserved?

Most western archaeologists would say yes to the latter question.  But in Australia, contemporary Aboriginal persons sometimes paint over ancient images as a way of continually replenishing the world; it is the act of painting that is important (like the creation of Navajo sand paintings used in healing ceremonies, and later destroyed, much to the consternation of western observers).

The Zuni people have a similar tradition.  They carve wooden figurines of their war gods, the Ayahu:ta, and place them in outdoor shrines. After a period of time, the figurines are replaced with new ones. Zuni tribal member and archaeologist Edmund Ladd notes in his writings that “When a new image of the Ahayu:ta is installed in a shrine, the ‘old’ one is removed to ‘the pile,’ which is where all the previous gods have been lain. This act of removal specifically does NOT have the same connotations as ‘throwing away’ or ‘discarding.’ The image of the god that has been replaced must remain at the site to which it was removed and be allowed to disintegrate there.” So, from a Zuni perspective, proper stewardship is letting the ahayu:ta decay.

Rock art raises many fundamental issues,  as well as conflicting claims that certain items of heritage belong to a specific group or are part of the heritage of human kind. In recent decades, archaeologists have been very much part of this debate.

My own position is that I see merit in both positions, but also that the tension between the two positions is important because it forces us (as archaeologists, as heritage managers, as member of descendant communities, etc) to think about the nature of heritage in new ways.

-George Nicholas

Above:  The rock art of Bohuslan, Sweden.  Photo by Julius Agrippa.  Below:  Contemporary Aboriginal artist Mundara Koorang. Photo by Novyaradnum.