Tag Archives: archeology

In the Presence of Death at Pompeii

I once spent an entire a year flying to remote parts of the world to see mummies.  I was researching and writing a book that became The Mummy Congress,  and during this time I got to know the preserved dead exceptionally well.  I watched them being unwrapped from their linens in Egypt, poked and prodded with fiber optics in Italy and haggled over in China.  And I feel obliged to state something clearly.   I have never seen a mummy that struck me as ghoulish or macabre or indeed anything other than what it was generally was–a dead human being who had been mourned, prepared, arranged and preserved.

I  can’t say the same, however, of the plaster casts that archaeologists have made of  Pompeii’s victims,  a thought that occurred to me this morning as I read on the BBC website of a new exhibit of these objects at Antiquarium de Boscoreale, a short drive away from Pompeii.

Archaeologists produce these casts whenever they find skeletal remains lying in cavities in the volcanic rock that still blankets much of  Pompeii.  They pour plaster into the hollow and pry it loose when it hardens.  And what often emerges is an object not quite human,  and not quite artifact, something that captures in eerie detail the final moments of one of Pompeii’s inhabitants during the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  Once seen,  such casts are not easily forgotten.

I saw them for the first time a few years ago, when Cambridge University archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill took me to see the one of the grandest and most opulent homes in Pompeii,  the House of Fabius Rufus.   As I recall (and please correct me, someone,  if I am wrong),  this immense villa had never been open to the public,  and Wallace-Hadrill and I spent nearly an hour admiring its exquisite frescos and its private bath.

At one point in this behind-the-scenes tour,  I was climbing down a shadowy stairwell and I stumbled on something obstructing one of the steps.   I stopped  and peered down to see what I had nearly fallen on.   It was a plaster cast of  a human victim sprawled across the stair,  a slave perhaps who had no chance to flee and who had literally perished on the spot.  At that moment,  I felt a deep, penetrating sense of the ancient tragedy,  and although two thousand years had passed since the toxic volcanic gases had swept through the city,   I could see all too clearly a life being snuffed out right in front of me.

As Wallace-Hadrill and I continued roaming the house,  we came across several more of these casts lying on the floor,  in various attitudes of death.  The archaeologist,  an expert on the architecture of Pompeii,  paid no attention to them,  as if he scarcely saw them any more.   But a terrible chill came over me each time I found another huddled or splayed form,  another a human life cut short.

All this came to mind today when I read of a new exhibit.  The show marks the first time that museum goers will see such a large collection of the casts in one spot.

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.

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.

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.

Slavery and the Power of a Story

As an archaeological journalist,  I  long ago learned the value and importance of storytelling.  My articles often open anecdotally,  with a brief  story that I hope will seduce readers into staying with me as I explore the science of a new excavation or find.   I love telling stories,  and if I have good material to work with,  these leads often write themselves.

Story-telling is an immensely powerful medium,  perhaps the most direct and intense way of communicating basic truths that we humans have.  And yet it is one that archaeologists rarely tap into when they try to communicate  their findings to the public. I think this is a great shame,  for the artifacts that archaeologists work with often tell immensely compelling stories,  stories that allow readers to connect strongly with the past.

I was reminded of this today while  listening to a superb online interview with Lonnie Bunch,  the director of an important new museum in the planning stages, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.   Bunch was talking about how Smithsonian curators decide which donations to accept and which to reject,  a topical subject for he had just turned down the suit that O.J. Simpson wore to court on the day of his acquittal.

The  interviewer asked Bunch about the most surprising donations he had received, and this is where the interview took soaring flight,  as Bunch left the tawdry, tabloid story behind.  He described a recent acquisition,  a humble pillowcase that someone had brought in.  It was,  he explained,  embroidered by an enslaved woman who was about to be sold the next day.

The embroidered inscription was for her daughter.  It read:  “In this pillowcase, you will find a dress,  some biscuits,  but what you will [also] find is that it is filled with love,  and,  though you will never see me again,  always know how close you are to my heart.”

For me,  this one humble artifact said more about the horrors of slavery than many lengthy archaeological reports I have recently read about excavations in the slave quarters of southern plantations.  I felt an instant, direct,  immediate connection to that long-ago grieving mother,  as one human being to another.  Bunch clearly knows how to communicate to the public, and I really look forward to seeing this new museum when it opens five years from now.

Moreover,  it seems to me that many archaeologists could learn something important from this museum director.  Sometimes all it takes is one well-chosen artifact with a story to bring the past back vividly to life.

Dolphin Hunters and The Cove

Like many others who watched the Academy Awards last night,  I was very disturbed by the clips I saw from The Cove, the  film that won in the  Best Documentary category.   The Cove portrays the dolphin hunt that takes place each year near the small Japanese fishing village of  Taiji.  There hunters herd more than a thousand dolphins  into a small cove, where they spear them from small boats.  The most disturbing clip was an aerial view of the cove after the slaughter:  the water was blood red.

Taiji’s inhabitants are apparently up in arms now over the film.   According to a CBC report I read today,  Taiji’s mayor has now released a statement defending the hunt. “There are different food traditions within Japan and around the world,”  he notes. “It is important to respect and understand regional food cultures, which are based on traditions with long histories.”

I will come back in a moment to the ethics of this hunt.  But the mayor does make a valid point.  Dolphin hunting does indeed have a very long history along the rim of the Pacific Ocean.  Archaeological evidence shows that dolphins were a major food source along the coast of California–not far from where the Oscars were handed out last night–as early as 9000 years ago.

Mark Raab,  a professor emeritus at the University of California, Riverside,  and his colleagues excavated a trove of dolphin bones at a site on San Clemente Island, 60 miles off the California coast.   As it happened,  I was there at Eel Point with the crew when they dug a small portion of the site, and I was amazed as I watched faunal expert Judy Porcasi sort through the recovered  bone fragments.  Porcasi kept shaking her head as she picked out something familiar in a screen. “Dolphin,” she said.  “Dolphin.  Dolphin.”

Her later analysis showed that a whopping 38 percent of the identifiable mammal bones from the dig belonged to dolphins.   And though the intensity of the hunt varied over time,  the  people of Eel Point hunted dolphins from 7000 B.C.  right up to A.D 1400.   And this raises an important question.  How did they manage kill so many dolphins?  The excavations did not turn up any sign of a harpoon.

In search of clues, Porcasi and Raab began scouring accounts of how traditional cultures elsewhere around the Pacific hunted dolphins.  From this they discovered that human hunters had long employed a simple but deadly technique.

In the Solomon Islands,  for example,   hunters struck stones together underwater: this created a terrible cacophony of sound that essentially “jammed” the animals’ echo-location,  a sonarlike system that guides them underwater.   With this system down, the animals became so disoriented  that hunters easily drove them into shallow water,  where they could then be “captured by hand,”  says Raab.

Raab now argues that the first migrants to Eel Point likely brought this clever hunting technique with them from Asia.  This strikes me as a very plausible argument,  and it suggests  that humans have been hunting dolphins in places like Japan for more than 11,500 years.

But does this make the practice morally acceptable today?   I don’t think it does and here’s why. Japanese villagers do not need dolphin meat to survive,  as hunters did in times past.   And there is no suggestion that hunting these marine mammals plays an essential part of their culture.   Last, but definitely not least,  I think we know much more about dolphins today than hunters did in the past,  because we are able to observe their underwater behavior in ways that earlier people could not.

On the strength of these observations,  we now know how very intelligent dolphins are.  They have recognizable personalities,  can think about the future,  are capable of working together cooperatively,  and are excellent problem-solvers.  In other words, dolphins are a lot like us,  and so  some scientists have recently proposed they should be treated as “non-human persons.”

I do not support the dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan.  I hope that the international community can now pressure the Japanese government to bring this terrible slaughter to an end.