Tag Archives: Heather Pringle

The Accidental Discoverer on Skye

I read with real delight today the BBC  news  story about the Hebridean farmer who turned up a possible Viking anchor on the Isle of Skye.   The farmer,  Graeme Mackenzie,  was out trying to clear the drain from a pasture he wanted to turn into a potato field,  when,  lo and behold, he came across  what  looked to be a 10-cm-long rusted iron spike.   When Mr. Mackenzie went to pry it out, the piece of iron seemed to go on and on under the peat,  and eventually he had himself  a four-foot-long medieval anchor.

I have a great fondness for people who stumble upon important artifacts while out puttering around the garden or pasture,  and who then report their treasure to the authorities.  First of all, these accidental discoveries always open up the tantalizing possibility that any one of us could unearth something really crucial to archaeology while digging a new flower bed,  say, or putting in a  garage–especially if you live in the British Isles.   Moreover, people who find these dirt-crusted marvels often say really wonderful things to reporters,  quite off the cuff. Mr. Mackenzie, a former skipper,  admitted with modest pride,  for example,  to having ” some knowledge on anchors.”  He then went on to lay out his argument for the anchor being of Viking origin.  ” The metalwork,” he said, ” is totally different from the modern anchors.  It felt like a blacksmith had hammered it.  On the internet I saw a picture of a Viking anchor and it looked exactly the same as mine.”

Whether or not this will prove to be a Viking anchor,  however, remains to be seen.  Viking ship experts will want to take a very close look at the evidence before making any pronouncements.  But a Viking find of this nature would be very important for the Isle of Skye. History tells us that the Norse were a major presence on this North Atlantic  island from the 9th to the mid-13th century A.D.   Indeed,  there’s an absolutely fabulous line from a 13th century Norse saga,  Heimskringla,  about an ancient battle in Skye:    “The hunger battle-birds were filled in Skye with blood of foemen killed.”

But for all the long Norse presence on  Skye,  rather few Norse artifacts have yet turned up.  I sincerely hope,  for the sake of all Norse historians and archaeologists and all the Hebrideans who take such pride in their Norse heritage,  that Mr. Mackenzie is right about the Viking anchor.

By Heather Pringle

Dogs for the Dead

Six years ago,  the  Department of Transportation in Washington State stumbled upon a huge, unforeseen problem on the Port Angeles waterfront.  The department was in the midst of constructing a major new dry dock in the city when its workers suddenly began turning up ancient human bone.  Subsequent  investigations by archaeologists, historians, and elders of the Lower Elwha tribe revealed that a Klallam village known as Tse-whit-zen once stood on part of the prop0sed dry-dock site.

But here was the real sticking point.  The site also contained a major burial ground brimming with Klallam  graves:  nearly 335 people had been laid to rest there.   Moreover,  some had clearly perished between A.D. 1780 and 1800,  when diseases such as smallpox,  measles and influenza carried by Spanish mariners  swept through the region for the first time,  decimating Native American villages.  As David Rice,  a senior archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,  later told The Seattle Times,  a number of the graves contained more than one skeleton and bore signs of  rare forms of ritual treatment, “which would be a spiritual attempt at trying to stop this event.”

In the end,  the Department of Transportation did the right thing.  It decided to abandon construction of the dry dock,  after sinking nearly $60 million into the project.  But the department clearly learned a crucial lesson from the disaster,  and now it’s trying out a very new approach to its archaeological surveys of proposed development sites along the Port Angeles waterfront.  It has brought in dogs–not just the garden-variety Fido, but four animals trained at the Institute for  Canine Forensics in Woodside,  California.  These are corpse-sniffing dogs.

This was the first I had heard of such canines being used to detect human remains in archaeological sites.  But I think they could potentially save developers,  archaeologists and Native Americans  a whole world of grief.  According to the staff at the Institute for Canine Forensics, dogs can smell human remains that are buried as much as nine feet below the surface.  And they can detect remains as old as 2000 years.  “Human remains have a scent that never,  ever goes away,  especially a bone,  even after it dries out,” one of the institute’s staff members told The Peninsula Daily News.

As the owner of a Labrador retriever,  I’ve witnessed time and again the astonishing olfactory prowess of dogs,  and I don’t doubt they could be trained to sniff out very ancient remains.   If the Port Angeles project pans out–and I can’t imagine why it won’t– I  think bringing in such trained dogs should become a standard procedure when North American archaeologists are surveying proposed development sites for possible ancient Native American cemeteries.

Pisco Sour: A Field Guide

As an archaeological journalist,  I’ve spent much time over the years hanging out with archaeologists in bars and restaurants around the world. Archaeologists are well known for their love of drink, and some of the most liquid evenings I have ever spent were in the company of archaeological teams.

So, from time to time,  I will write here about the wonderful drinks that archaeologists particularly love—from Greenlandic schnapps (made from the intestinal contents of birds) to  Andean chicha brewed from corn fermented by human saliva.   But I thought I would start off this series with a huge favorite of many Andean archaeologists:  the Pisco Sour.

Pisco Puro is a clear brandy distilled from the juice of the black quebranta grape which flourishes in the sunny fields of the Pisco and Ica Rivers in Peru.  Spanish colonists brought this sweet grape to the New World and began distilling brandy from it at least as early as 1547, less than a decade and a half after the conquistadors executed the Inca king Atahualpa.

My first encounter with a Pisco sour came when I was travelling on assignment to Peru during the very ugly civil war there during the early 90s.  The Shining Path guerillas were not only setting off bombs in Lima and shooting entire villages in the Andes, but they were also targeting foreigners.  A week before I arrived, they hauled off all the foreign tourists travelling on a bus to the highlands,  and shot them, as a message to the international community.

All this was rather unsettling both for me and for the Canadian archaeologists I was travelling with.  But my story focused on new research on the Nasca culture of Peru’s arid coastal desert, and I had an unforgettable journey.   For several days, I travelled with Andean archaeologist Patrick Carmichael by Landrover along the roadless and largely uninhabited Pacific coast:  our destination was a Nazca site he had just found by surveying near the mouth of the Ica River.   But it was a difficult journey:  the Landrover repeatedly broke down,  often leaving us stranded hours from any hamlet.  But the driver was a gifted mechanic,  and every unplanned stop seemed to produce some kind of wonder.  At one point, I strolled away from the mechanical problems only to find two human mummies protruding from the sand.

Our journey ended in the city of Ica, and I still remember the delicious luxury  of clean sheets,  running water, and a very good Pisco sour.

So here is my recipe for this very South American drink.  I’ve adapted it slightly from a recipe in a book I really treasure,  Tony Custer’s The Art of Peruvian Cuisine (Ediciones Ganesha, S.A: Lima, 2003).


To make the sugar syrup:

one-half cup of sugar

3 tablespoons water

To make the drink:

5 ounces Pisco

2.5 ounces lime juice

1 egg white


To Serve:

Angostura Bitters


To prepare the sugar syrup:  Put one-half cup of sugar in a small saucepan with 3 tablespoons of water,  just enough to moisten the sugar.  Bring the mixture to a slow boil and while stirring, cook until all the sugar is dissolved.  Remove from the heat and set aside for a few minutes.

To make the sour:  Pour the lime juice and the Pisco into the warm sugar syrup and stir thoroughly to blend the ingredients completely. Pour the mix into a blender jar and add just enough ice to double the volume of liquid in the glass.  Blend on high for an additional 30 seconds to crush the ice. Add one egg white and blend on high for one minute. Transfer to a pitcher and serve immediately in either old-fashioned or white wine glass.  Place a drop of Angostura Bitters in the middle of the foam in each glass.

Serves 3.