Thursday, January 29, 2004

Thank you, paleontologistsScientists Explore Lakefront Property, in the Sahara

The paleontologists were driving across the scorched and trackless Ténéré Desert of Niger, following a low ridge of rock bearing dinosaur fossils. Suddenly, someone on the team, led by Dr. Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago, spotted something dark against the tawny dunes.

Getting out of their vehicles, they stepped into sand littered with the fossilized bones of modern crocodiles, hippos, camels and birds — interesting creatures, to be sure, but not exactly the quarry of these paleontologists. "But then things got really strange," recalls Gabrielle Lyon, a member of the expedition who is Dr. Sereno's wife and the director of Project Exploration, a science education group.

As members of the group stood around their vehicles comparing finds, Mike Hettwer, the expedition photographer, came loping up with news of human skeletons and stone tools eroding from a hillside.

. . .

"I'm not afraid of any kind of dinosaur, the uglier the better," he said. "But here for the first time I got goose bumps because I was looking at my own skeleton, a modern human."

Definitely an important site. Not only should this provide a large amount of information relating to Neolithic life in general, but the skeletons ought to give a statistically adequate sampling of the population as well. Very rare this confluence of in situ domestic remains along with the inhabitants themselves.

Early ecological disruptionEarliest evidence of humans affecting aquatic ecology in Canada, United States
Inuit whalers changed Arctic ecosystems long before arrival

(Kingston, ON) – New findings from Canadian scientists dispel the belief that European settlers were the first humans to cause major changes to Canadian and U.S. freshwater ecosystems.

A University of Toronto-led, multidisciplinary team including researchers from Queen's, McGill, and University of Ottawa show for the first time that prehistoric Inuit whalers dramatically altered high Arctic pond ecosystems through their hunting practices eight centuries ago – a legacy that is still evident today.

. . .

Dr. Douglas, the team leader, calls their study "a good example of how lake and pond sediment analysis can be used to study the effects of human activities on ecosystems. In the future we hope to apply these techniques to investigate other archeological sites – some of which go back even farther – in the Arctic and elsewhere," she says.

More politics and archaeologyWhen archaeology gets bent

Although archaeology is sometimes associated with dry digging and forgotten ruins it also has another, sometimes darker aspect - one that has used evidence from the ground for political ends.

It is 10 years since Greece began toughening economic sanctions against neighbouring Macedonia - in objection to, amongst other things, Macedonia's proposed use of the Vergina Star on its flag.

The star is an ancient 16-pointed golden symbol found on tombs and artefacts across the region.

It originated from the vergina tombs on a golden casket from the tomb of Philip, father of Alexander The Great. But this archaeological find had already long been a part of Greek identity - causing a massive diplomatic row.

Two other quotes of interest: ""Data never speaks for itself. We interpret it, and whenever we interpret it we read in our own political stances." The first half is definitely true, but the second half ("we read in our own political stances") should not be taken literally; it's currently fashionable to read the political into everything, but that, IMO, goes much too far.

Next: "Adolf Hitler was so fond of archaeology that he gave the SS secret service special archaeological units, so that they could dig to prove a Nazi ideological bond of soil and nationhood." THIS is a book just waiting to happen.

Yet another sad storyArchaeologists play key role in Iraq

In any case to be made against Saddam Hussein when he eventually comes to trial, evidence from forensic archaeology will be crucial.

Almost as soon as Saddam's regime fell, mass graves containing thousands of corpses were found in the desert of southwestern Iraq.

Archaeologists are working to uncover the circumstances of the deaths - and their conclusions may form the fundamental basis of evidence of war crimes.

No comments necessary.
The antiquities market.Found Objects

What archaeologists can gain from markets, or lose by ignoring them

The initial reports from Iraq last spring confirmed the worst fears of archaeologists around the world. Warnings and pleas about safeguarding important cultural sites had gone unheeded. With coalition forces still struggling to accomplish key objectives and put down resistance, mobs ran riot through Iraqi cultural institutions, including the National Museum and several libraries. Looting merged with violent expressions of hatred for Saddam's Ba'athist regime. Exhibits were smashed, books burned, computers stolen, and records destroyed; the looters made off with a massive number of priceless and irreplaceable artifacts. In fact, early wire dispatches pegged the National Museum as a complete loss: all 170,000 items just...gone.

. . .

It's unfortunate that the antiquities issue became grist for the domestic squabbles of the U.S., because the controversy obscured a much more interesting and long-running conflict within the profession of archaeology, one with ramifications that are anything but academic. Everyone agreed that what happened in Iraq was a tragedy. With the news that the National's catalog might have been destroyed, several independent efforts were launched to reconstruct it from records at other museums and post the results on the Internet. But there the consensus splintered into two schools of thought.

I'm still digesting the article but I thought I'd throw it out there.
Paper du jour: A dendroarchaeological re-examination of the "Messiah" violin and other instruments attributed to Antonio Stradivari (link only works for subscribers)

Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, Paul R. Sheppard and Malcolm K. Cleaveland, Journal of Archaeological Science 31(2), pp. 167-174


The "Messiah" violin is considered by many to be the finest work by Antonio Stradivari and one of the most valuable musical instruments in existence. Questions were recently raised concerning its authenticity on stylistic and historical grounds, especially in light of conflicting sets of tree-ring dates for the spruce top of the violin. To resolve this controversy, we analysed the tree rings on the "Messiah" and those found on five other instruments constructed in the same general period, dating these against a regional chronology that integrated 16 alpine tree-ring chronologies from five countries. We conclusively dated both the "Archinto" (1526–1686) and "Kux"/"Castelbarco" (1558–1684) violas against the regional chronology. We could not directly date the "Messiah" against the regional master chronology, but found that its tree rings dated well against both the "Archinto" and "Kux"/"Castelbarco" violas. Our results strongly suggest that the tree rings of the "Messiah" violin date between 1577–1687, dates that support the attribution to Antonio Stradivari and the label date of 1716. We hypothesize the wood used to make the "Messiah" came from a low-elevation tree growing distant from the high alpine areas, whereas the wood used to make the two violas likely came from an intermediate, mid-elevation location.

This use of dendrochronology had never occurred to me. Dendrochronology is one of the most powerful tools for use in prehistoric contexts. "Dendro", as it's often called, applies not just to dating but to past climate and growing conditions as well. Find a summary of the principles of dendrochronology here. This method can be so accurate that some archaeological events can be dated to specific years, as opposed to the decadel ranges usually supplied by archaeologists. It has been used to provide calibration for carbon-14 dating. It is being used (for well or ill) in current climatological research on problems relating to "global warming".

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Study: Neanderthals Unlikely an Ancestor

WASHINGTON - A study of the skulls of Neanderthals, comparing them with early and modern humans, concludes that that ancient group is unlikely to have been the ancestor of people today.

Scientists have long debated whether modern people are related to Neanderthals, the squat, powerful hunters who dominated Europe for 100,000 years before dying out on the arrival of modern humans.

The new study, led by anthropologist Katerina Harvati of New York University, measured 15 standard landmarks on the face and skull of Neanderthals, early modern humans, current humans as well as other primate species. The results are published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences...

Frozen in time This was sent in by an intrepid reader via email. I couldn't find a link to the story so I shall risk violating copyright laws by posting the message in its entirety here:

Melting ice in Yukon reveals artifacts, clues to ancient life

Juneau Empire
Friday, January 16, 2004


WHITEHORSE, Yukon - Melting in the alpine last summer revealed the oldest
artifact recovered from what is now an inventory of 18 archaeological ice
patches on Yukon Territory mountains.

The shaft of a hunting dart used with an atlatl - a throwing board - has
been radiocarbon dated at 9,300 years old.

It was on display this week with other artifacts recovered by scientists
and students scouring the melting ice patches for clues into the way of
life thousands of years ago.

The recovery of an atlatl dart from a receding ice patch near Kusawa Lake
in 1997 began what has become an archaeological success story. A team of
researchers from England's Oxford University have made the ice patches and
the Yukon's gold fields their special focus, as they have found the quality
of preserved archaeological material is second to none, said Yukon
archaeologist Greg Hare.

Diane Strand, heritage officer for Champagne and Aishihik First Nations,
said the artifacts have a profound effect on the aboriginal students who
have helped discover them.

On display with the atlatl was a 1,400-year-old leather hunting pouch sewn
with sinew. Both were recovered by Cody Joe, an 18-year-old student with
the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

"We have had students go out there and they have had a real profound change
about who they are and where they come from," said.

Strand pointed to one artifact that is not unusual because of its age, but
because it provides her with an insight into the level of sophistication
her ancestors possessed. Down both sides of the 1,260-year-old atlatl dart
are two feathers running parallel, sewn to the side of the shaft with sinew
that's threaded through the quill of the feathers.

It is amazing, Strand said, to think that well over a millennium ago, her
ancestors had the tools to pierce the quill with such a fine hole without
damaging the aerodynamics of the feather.

The dart is the youngest of the atlatl artifacts. Its date of 1,260 years
old comes just after the first artifact from the beginning of the
bow-and-arrow era in the Yukon, dated at 1,300 years old.

Bow-and-arrow technology, Hare said, swept North America 1,500 years ago.
Available evidence suggests the technology began in the North and quickly
moved south.

"It stuck within two generations," Hare said. "That is a really remarkable
change in the archaeological record."

The oldest shaft is evidence, Hare said, that soon after the ice age ended
10,000 years ago, people already had adapted to hunting caribou high up on
the ice patches. The caribou used the ice patches to escape flies in

Unlike glaciers that move and grind archaeological evidence into dust,
artifacts encased in ice patches remain stable and preserved, only to
surface when summer heat melts away their cover.

The Oxford University team last summer scraped samples from the inside of
the leather pouch to conduct DNA research. They also bored hole samples
from soil immediately in front of the ice patches, from which they will
search for DNA evidence of animals and people, from things as minute as a
dried scale of skin that was shed thousands of years ago.

© Copyright 1997-2003 Juneau Empire, Morris Digital Works & Morris
Communications Corporation

Whenever organic material is preserved it's a big deal, though the sample sizes (numbers of artifacts) usually preserved don't let you do much in the way of quantitative analysis. They still provide more of a tangible link to the past, much in the way that mummies fascinate us more than simple skeletons do. It's an old saying among archaeologists that we only discover 5% of the artifacts ancient people used because the only things that preserve are non-organic remains (stone tools, pottery, etc.). This can have important consequences for how we interpret the archaeological record. For example, all of the earliest tools recovered are stone and many of these were used in hunting and preparation of game animals for consumption. This led many researchers to conclude that most of what our earliest ancestors did was hunt for food -- the origin of the "man the hunter" idea. Nowadays, most archaeologists will agree that, while the addition of hunting to the diet may have provided a crucial source of added nutrition to the early Homo species, it was probably not their main source of food. But still, you work with what you've got so most of what you see written about early hominid subsistence will have to do with animal hunting and processing.

Added note #1: Another reason hunting is studied is because the animal bones also preserved in early sites retain evidence of butchery marks.

Added note #2: Not all early stone tools were used in hunting. Many apparently had use in plant processing activities, but without the plants (unlike the case with animal bones) our ability to glean subsistence information from them is far more limited.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Email note We are now able to fetch email from the contact link at left. We here at Archaeoblog love to hear from our faithful readers so please be sure to send something.

Dig site Be sure to visit Nigel Strudwick's Tomb of Senneferi site. It has ongoing reports on Strudwick's excavations at a brilliant tomb in the Valley of the Nobles, Egypt. These tombs are not generally as well known as the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, but many are often lavishly decorated and in a wonderful state of preservation. Many of the texts therein also describe aspects of the daily lives of nearly-ordinary Egyptians that are often missing from royal tombs. Be sure to check out the "Dig diaries" section to get some idea of what really goes on when one goes to work in Egypt.

Strudwick's general Egyptology site, Egyptology Resources maintained by the University of Cambridge, is also an excellent site for finding out more about Egyptology.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Public Archaeology: Workers find signs of 7,500-year-old civilization while building water plant

NORWELL, Mass. --

The discovery of a possible American Indian settlement as much as 7,500 years old has halted work on a new water treatment plant.

. . .

"The site has, as we say, integrity. There are portions of the site beneath the surface that are not disturbed," Cook told The Patriot Ledger of Quincy. "It's pretty clear to us that one thing this site offers, because of the hearth, the possibility of radiocarbon dating, which can help to better define the period."

Particularly important because of the apparent "integrity" of the site and the fact that it contains "features" -- the storage pit and heart structures. Sites this old in North American often consist only of scatters of animal bones and/or stone tools. That much or all of it are undisturbed makes this a significant find.

Good/Bad/Indifferent: DNA Results Could ID Columbus

Jan. 21, 2004 — The long-standing cultural dispute over Christopher Columbus' final resting place could take a new turn as further DNA tests are carried out by an Italian university.

DNA technology will be applied by the University of Pavia's laboratories to fragments of bones now kept in a box in the university's library. The remains come from Santo Domingo, one of Columbus' debated burial places.

Columbus has been celebrated and decried over the years (the latter particularly recently) but his final resting place has been a mystery. This isn't strictly archaeology, but it represents one of the more fun aspects of advances in DNA technology.
Pothunters Beware:National Parks Take on Relic Hunters

PHILADELPHIA - In just a few hours of digging at Valley Forge National Historical Park, prosecutors say, Alfred Lucien unearthed the kind of finds amateur treasure hunters dream of.

A musket ball. A locket. A pewter button. Studs, buckles and fasteners that may once have adorned the uniforms of soldiers at the turning point of the Revolutionary War.

It was the sort of haul park rangers dread to hear about as they try to protect the dwindling number of rare artifacts buried at national parks.

I have mixed feelings about this case, admittedly knowing only what is gleaned from the article. While I generally applaud the idea of prosecuting looters, the two perps here don't seem to be major threats to the archaeological record (jail time for three nails?). See McManamon's report on the scope of looting in the U.S. for some perspective, and also an article by Hester Davis.

Looting is a major problem the world over; no matter how great that Anasazi pot might look on your mantle, please refrain from purchasing it, unless it has the proper paperwork for non-looted items.

Free Reading:The African-American Archaeology Newsletter has 19 (at this writing) issues online for free. They make for fascinating reading in what I believe is a rather neglected area of interest at least in the popular media. However, I do recall several news articles written on the discovery of various A-A cemeteries, particularly one in NYC (see, for example, a 1998 CNN story on a New York slave cemetery).

[Update] The A-A Newsletter is no longer being published, which is why the link cited above only has issues available through 2000. They are currently developing a web-only version. Follow the links to their homepage and sign up for the listserv if interested in following A-A archaeology in more detail. --AJC

Email apologies. If anyone's tried contacting me since this thing went up, I haven't read it yet due to problems connecting with my blog's email service. I'm trying to correct this ASAP, but in the meantime. . .well, keep writing, but don't expect an answer right away. Or look at my web site (see earlier entries) and use that address, but please use that one only for serious comments or inquiries.

Old books online.This is the coolest thing I've seen on the Web in a long time: The British Library's "Turning the Pages Project.

Visitors can virtually 'turn' the pages of rare books or manuscripts in a highly realistic way, using touch-screen technology and animation. They can zoom in on the high-quality digitised images and read or listen to notes explaining the significance of each page. There are other features specific to the individual books. In the Leonardo Notebook, for example, a mirror button turns the text round so visitors can read his famous mirror handwriting.

It's amazing. They provide a virtual view of old books (such as DaVinci's notebooks) and the user can page through images of the actual pages as if browsing a regular book. The neatest thing is the magnifier which allows you to read the text more legibly. It also has an audio feature that describes what you're looking at. For scholars, this is demonstrates the true power of the Internet: allowing researchers the world over access to original documents (usually called 'primary source material'). For the average user, it's informative, but most of these things are in non-English languages so their usefulness is somewhat limited. Hopefully in the future translations will be accessible on-screen as well along with annotations.

Friday, January 23, 2004

What Egytpologists really talk about. The Egyptologists' Electronic Forum (archives link) has email exchanges on a variety of topics of current Egyptoligical interest. It's not the sort of thing you usually get from newspapers, magazines, or the Discovery Channel -- although much spirited discussion often takes place regarding those sources -- but by and large most of it is accessible to the intrested reader. True, some of the topics can be a bit tedious to those outside the discipline (e.g., Who was the 'Overseer of the Upbringing of the King's Sons' (of Amunhotep III), (April 2003)), but overall it makes for fascinating reading.

More on has a boatload of images and text on tombs and mastabas. Some of the more recent additions include the tomb of Ramesses III, the tomb of Sethy I, and a slideshow of Horemheb's Theban tomb (all links courtesy Thierry Benderitter).

Hierakonpolis. One of the best sites (Web) for one of the most important sites (archaeological) in Egypt is THe site is managed by Renee Friedman. Hierakonpolis (HK as it is generally known) is probably the earliest true Egyptian city and its foundation marked the beginning of what would become the Egyptian Dynastic state. It has been excavated by various missions over the years, more recently by the late (and great) Michael Hoffman, since managed ably by the late (and great) Barbara Adams and (not late, but still great) Renee Friedman. This site and many others devoted to Hierakonpolis is a great source for information on formative Egypt. HK is, in fact, the source of the famous Narmer Pallette now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Welcome to ArchaeoBlog, the source for news and views on the world
of archaeology. We here at ArchaeoBlog are dedicated to providing you, the
reader, with timely and entertaining links and commentary on all things
old and covered in dirt. Our crack team of researchers, analysts, writers,
photographers and copy editors travel the virtual world (and sometimes the
real one) to bring you the best that the Web has to offer. We employ
literally one person to do the massive amount of work necessary to inform
and amuse the Web readership.

The information here covers the range of archaeological inquiry, from gold
and silver to even more fascinating things such as sloth dung. Needless to
say. We try our darndest to make it all sound fascinating, but really,
there's only so much one can do with sloth dung (writing about it anyway,
in a manner that will not cause sudden bouts of intense narcolepsy).
Nevertheless, we will try to cover a wide range of topics, all more or
less suitable for family viewing.

First off, you may view my (archaic, soon-to-be-updated) web page at Once I get a new design ready, the new site should be a tad more interesting, with more links and some of my own scribblings. I have far more space at my current ISP then at previous ones, so hopefully most of my dissertation (the text anyway) can go up.

Recent news:

Big chill killed off the Neanderthals

It is possibly the longest-running murder mystery of them all. What, or even who, killed humankind's nearest relatives, the Neanderthals who once roamed Europe before dying out almost 30,000 years ago?

Suspects have ranged from the climate to humans themselves, and the mystery has deeply divided experts. Now 30 scientists have come together to publish the most definitive answer yet to this enigma.

They say Neanderthals simply did not have the technological know-how to survive the increasingly harsh winters. And intriguingly, rather than being Neanderthal killers, the original human settlers of Europe almost suffered the same fate.

I find the concept of Neanderthal extinction due to a multiplicity of largely environmental factors intuitively satisfying (which doesn't really address the issue of extinction vs. assimilation of course, but I prefer the extinction route myself). It's an adaptational explanation more suited to Darwinian evolution than to traditional sorts of archaeological explanations (e.g., Modern humans did/did not kill them off). I haven't read the original paper, but The Stage Three Project home page has more information.

Note these remarks:

Ice cores recovered from Greenland in the 1970s show that Europe's climate varied hugely during the last ice age, especially in the period between 70,000 and 20,000 years ago. Cold glacial periods were punctuated by warmer times, and the average temperature could rise and fall several degrees within a decade or so.

Ought to be kept in mind when contemplating current arguments about anthropogenic global warming.

This has been making the rounds of the Egyptological listservs lately:

First Lion Mummy Found in Egyptian Tomb

A French archaeologist says his discovery of the first preserved lion skeleton in an ancient Egyptian tomb demonstrates the exalted reputation enjoyed by the King of Beasts more than 3,000 years ago.

"It confirms the status of the lion as a sacred animal," Alain Zivie reports in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

Zivie's research team discovered the lion's remains in 2001 as they excavated the tomb of Maia, wet nurse to Tutankhamun, the "boy king" popular with museum visitors today for his opulent gold funeral relics. He ruled for 10 years and died around 1323 B.C.

Also of some import regarding the New World:

Ancient Tools Unearthed in Siberian Arctic

An astonishing new archeological discovery suggests that humans colonized the rugged lands of Arctic Siberia almost twice as early as generally thought.

Russian researchers have found a wealth of hunting tools, which date back 31,000 years, along central Siberia's Yana River. The artifacts include hundreds of stone tools and flakes, as well as spear foreshafts made of rhinoceros horn and mammoth tusk.

Of particular interest:

The new findings may eventually help researchers piece together the peopling of the Americas via the Bering Land Bridge. Intriguingly, some of the foreshafts (a spear component joining the shaft and tip that enabled hunters to quickly replace broken spear tips) that were found in Siberia resemble those used by the Clovis people, believed by many experts to be the first humans in North America.

I wouldn't read too much into the apparent similarities with Clovis, but the time of these sites may eventually go a ways toward explaining the timing and nature of the peopling of the Americas which was presumably accomplished via the Bering land bridge. Far more interesting is how this may eventually relate to Monte Verde.

This, of course, if far too good to pass up:

Archaeologists mistake 1940s patio for Viking village

Archaeologists have admitted to having been made to look "very silly" after mistaking a 1940s sunken patio for a 9th century Viking village.

Fife County Archaeologist Douglas Spiers says his team concluded the slabs found in the back garden of a Buckhaven home had originally been hauled by Norse settlers from a nearby beach.

At least they hadn't published anything yet.

More later.