Tag-Archive for » archaeology «

Destroying the past

Your correspondent would not characterise himself as a fan of the Prophet Mohammed; let us say merely that the man’s understanding of the Divine is at odds with our own experience.

That said, defacing a 900-year-old mosque isn’t just insulting to Muslims, it’s an assault upon humanity’s shared heritage.  Harming the centuries-old relics of a religion at odds with one’s own can hardly erase past history, and the effort says less about the evils of the target than it does about the mind of the perpetrator.  The world didn’t enjoy this sort of thing when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas back in 2001; it’s not any more entertaining or worthy when others try their hand at it.

Category: Historica  Tags:  Comments off

Jerusalem’s 3,700 year old wall

A section of a 3,700-year-old wall uncovered in Jerusalem is a small part of a far larger structure. (Associated Press/SFGate)

A section of a 3,700-year-old wall uncovered in Jerusalem is a small part of a far larger structure. (Associated Press/SFGate)

Archaeologists digging in Jerusalem have uncovered a 3,700-year-old wall that is the oldest example of massive fortifications ever found in the city, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Wednesday.

The 26-foot-high wall is believed to have been part of a protected passage built by ancient Canaanites from a hilltop fortress to a nearby spring that was the city’s only water source and vulnerable to marauders.

– Thomas, Jen.  “Archaeologists find 3,700-year-old wall in Jerusalem.” Associated Press (via Jerusalem Post), 02 September 2009.

While the longevity of the structure is incredible enough, when I read of these discoveries I am always reminded of The Source, James A. Michener’s epic fictionalised retelling of Jewish history from 10,000 B.C. to the mid-1960s A.D.

Hegra

hegra

In the northwestern corner of Arabia lies an ancient city, thought to have been inhabited between 2000 B.C. and 200 A.D.  One of the largest settlements of the Nabataean civilisation, it is known today as Al-Hijr or Mada’in Saleh.  Like its more famous sister city Petra (which has appeared numerous times in movies), Hegra boasts many rock-cut monumental tombs—111 to be exact, of which 94 are decorated.  The city also has early water wells, and the whole site is a worthy testament to the Nabataeans’ architectural abilities and hydraulic expertise.

One other interesting legacy is that the Nabataeans developed the North Arabic script from which today’s modern Arabic script is descended.

Learn more about ancient Hegra here (it’s in French), and see several photos of its rock-cut architecture at Nabataea.net.

RELATED: Writing for the Associated Press, Donna Abu-Nasr enumerates some of the difficulties with trying to study pre-Islamic history in a nation that prefers to pretend no such thing exists:

Archaeologists are cautioned not to talk about pre-Islamic finds outside scholarly literature. Few ancient treasures are on display, and no Christian or Jewish relics. A 4th or 5th century church in eastern Saudi Arabia has been fenced off ever since its accidental discovery 20 years ago and its exact whereabouts kept secret.
In the eyes of conservatives, the land where Islam was founded and the Prophet Muhammad was born must remain purely Muslim. Saudi Arabia bans public displays of crosses and churches, and whenever non-Islamic artifacts are excavated, the news must be kept low-key lest hard-liners destroy the finds.

Archaeologists are cautioned not to talk about pre-Islamic finds outside scholarly literature. Few ancient treasures are on display, and no Christian or Jewish relics. A 4th or 5th century church in eastern Saudi Arabia has been fenced off ever since its accidental discovery 20 years ago and its exact whereabouts kept secret.

In the eyes of conservatives, the land where Islam was founded and the Prophet Muhammad was born must remain purely Muslim. Saudi Arabia bans public displays of crosses and churches, and whenever non-Islamic artifacts are excavated, the news must be kept low-key lest hard-liners destroy the finds.

…But the call to keep the land purged of other religions runs deep among many Saudis. Even though Madain Saleh site is open for tourism, many Saudis refuse to visit on religious grounds because the Quran says God destroyed it for its sins.

Excavations sometimes meet opposition from local residents who fear their region will become known as “Christian” or “Jewish.” And Islam being an iconoclastic religion, hard-liners have been known to raze even ancient Islamic sites to ensure that they do not become objects of veneration.

– Abu-Nasr, Donna.  “Digging up the Saudi past: Some would rather not.Associated Press, 31 August 2009.

I could probably write a whole post on how Saudi religious proclivities are effectively preventing mankind from learning about its early history, but that’s for another day.

Altinum

Digitally enhanced false-colour composite image (near-IR, red green) of the area of Altinum (Source: Andrea Ninfo, Alessandro Fontana, Paolo Mozzi, Francesco Ferrarese via Science magazine online supplement)

Digitally enhanced false-colour composite image (near-IR, red green) of the area of Altinum. (Source: Andrea Ninfo, Alessandro Fontana, Paolo Mozzi, Francesco Ferrarese via Science magazine online supplement)

Map of the whole Roman city of Altinum; inset: geographic setting.  (Source: Andrea Ninfo, Alessandro Fontana, Paolo Mozzi, Francesco Ferrarese via Science magazine online supplement)

Map of the whole Roman city of Altinum; inset: geographic setting. (Source: Andrea Ninfo, Alessandro Fontana, Paolo Mozzi, Francesco Ferrarese via Science magazine online supplement)

Aerial imaging has many uses in this day and age, but one I would not have expected was the identification of abandoned Roman towns from the air.

A team of scientists from Padua University were able to reconstruct the streetplan of an abandoned Roman town, Altium, and published the findings in Science magazine back at the end of July. The city was sacked and burned by Attila the Hun in A.D.  452, beginning a low, slow decline.  Over the centuries its inhabitants began to move down the coast and set up shop on the tactically superior islands of Venice, which is one reason we can still detect these detailed traces of Altinum today—no medieval town grew up on top of it.  A serendipitous drought back in 2007 made it possible for aerial imaging to spot long-buried stones, bricks and other solid structures beneath the soil.

But all traces of Altinum’s buildings have long since disappeared, either stolen as building material or swamped by rising water levels in the surrounding lagoon. So how to map a city with no visible ruins? In July 2007, during a severe drought, Paolo Mozzi, a geomorphologist at the University of Padua in Italy, and his team took aerial photos of the site in several wavelengths of visible light and in near-infrared, with a resolution of half a meter.

When the images were processed to tease out subtle variations in plant water stress, a buried metropolis emerged. The researchers discovered that the crops planted on the land were in different stages of ripening, thanks to differences in the amount of water in the soil. Lighter crops traced the outlines of buildings–including a basilica, an amphitheater, a forum, and what may have been temples–buried at least 40 centimeters below the surface. To the south of the city center runs a wide strip of riper crops. They were growing above what clearly used to be a canal, an indication that Venice’s Roman forebears were already incorporating waterways into their urban fabric.

In fact, Altinum’s end may have been Venice’s beginning. The first century Roman historian Strabo mentions Altinum’s importance: Its location near both heavily traveled sea routes and along roads running north to the edges of the Roman Empire made it a critical mercantile center. But as waves of barbarians invaded, Altinum was a ripe target. Finally, in the 7th century C.E., a Lombard invasion pushed the city’s beleaguered residents onto the defensible islands of the Venice lagoon.

– Curry, Andrew.  “Ancient Roman City Rises Again.”  ScienceNOW, 30 July 2009.

For an even better look at the city’s geography, see the indispensable Ogle Earth blog, which has overlaid the false-colour and streetplan views in Google Earth (and provides a downloadable KML file so you can see it yourself).

Category: Historica, That all men may know His works  Tags:  Comments off

14,000-year-old map, or just a rock with doodles?

Have you ever read an article in the newspaper and wished you were one of the reporters covering the story, because the guy or girl that did cover it failed to ask any useful questions?  That’s how I feel reading this account of an extraordinary 14,000-year-old rock from Navarre, which a team of archaeologists from the University of Zaragoisa say is an ancient map.  And certainly when you take a monochromatic rock, minimise the scratches which don’t figure into the mapping scheme, and color the scratches that do blue and green (like a real topo map), then what you end up with is something that seems a lot more map-like.

A team led by Pilar Utrilla from the University of Zaragoza in Spain, discovered the rock in 1994 but it has taken them 15 years to disentangle the mess of etched lines.

They appear to show a prominent peak nearby as well as rivers, ponds and scrubland. There are also recognisable sketches of animals including reindeer, a stag and some ibex.

‘All of these engravings could be a sketch or a simple map of the area around the cave. It could represent the plan for a coming hunt or perhaps a narrative story of one that had already happened,’ they wrote in the Journal of Human Evolution.

…’The engraving seems to reproduce the meandering course of a river crossing the upper part of side A of the block, joined by two tributaries near two mountains,’ they wrote.

‘One of these is identical to the mountain that can be seen from the cave (San Gregorio), with herds of ibex depicted on its hillsides, on both sides of the gorge in front of which the cave of Abauntz is strategically located.’

– Bates, Claire.  “Oldest map in western Europe found engraved on 14,000-year-old chunk of rock.” Daily Mail, 06 August 2009.

But not everyone is sanguine about this interpretation.  Ms. Jill Cook, head of the prehistory division at the British Museum, downplays the idea.

…According to Jill Cook, head of the prehistory division at the British Museum in London, hundreds of similar etchings have been found sprinkled across Europe.

“Multiple lines positioned over animal figures is not unusual in slabs of this period. We haven’t traditionally considered them to be maps.” She also doesn’t believe humans at the time had any need for maps (see next week’s issue of New Scientist). “Their intimacy and knowledge of the landscape, including the location of individual trees and plants, would be such that maps would be less vital to them. On the whole, art of this period doesn’t include landscape elements – no trees, rivers or hills – so this interpretation is very brave,” she told New Scientist.

– Choi, Charles and Catherine Brahic.  “Found: A pocket guide to prehistoric Spain.” New Scientist, 05 August 2009.

I have to admit I am on the fence with this, as when you look at the bare rock it doesn’t appear to be overly clear; there are lots of overlapping and apparently unrelated scratches.  Still, this is a map, right?  And if the Pyrenees and rivers can be assumed to be in more or less the same position, give or take ten thousand years of erosion and slight tectonic movement, then you should be able to compare it to a modern topo map and say “this is where I think it is”.

Except of course no newsman reporting the story bothered to depict the ancient map overlaid or side-by-side with a modern map.  Terrific.  Perhaps they want to protect the site from looters and Indiana Jones fans?  Very well.  Strip out all the place names from the modern topo map.  Maybe even change some of the non-essentials like add or remove a mountain or plateau to further obfuscate its true location.  But give me a freaking map to compare it to.  It is not as if I have to have a doctorate in anthropology with numerous articles on prehistoric European cultures to know whether scratchy Line A on monochromatic rock is roughly equivalent to River Track B on modern topo map.

When Ms. Cook says that the art of the period doesn’t include landscape items, that seems somewhat conclusive.  But on the other hand it strikes me as unlikely that humanity would not invent rudimentary maps very early on; they would certainly be handy for remembering (and passing on to younger generations) the grazing and foaling areas and migratory routes of early humanity’s various prey animals.

Seems to me a little in-depth reporting would be just the thing for newspapers feeling the squeeze of declining readership and increased competition from other media.  They are never going to surpass the glitz and sensationalism or TV, or the immediacy of the web.  But they do have (or ought to have) a niche in superior research and insight.  Give us stories with meat in them, and not half-baked efforts that leave us wondering whether any of the reporters thought about asking a question.