Archaeology

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

44. Scorpion Was Here

An escarpment 20 miles northwest of Luxor, Egypt, is an unlikely place for a message center: Only the vast Sahara lies farther to the west. But in April, Egyptologists John Coleman Darnell and Deborah Darnell, a husband-and-wife team from Yale University, reported finding an ancient bulletin board there, a collection of notes carved in the rock face by travelers over the millennia—including what may be one of the world's oldest historical documents.

The story is told by an engraving on a three-foot-wide triangular limestone surface that dates to 3250 B.C. It depicts a ruler leading a procession back to the ancient city of Abydos after capturing the king of the rival state of Naqâda. A chiseled figure of a stork holding a serpent—imagery early Egyptians used to convey the triumph of order over chaos—immediately precedes the procession. According to John Darnell, the stork and serpent symbols clue readers in to what the event meant to the people of Abydos: "It's a clear and—even this many millennia later—successful attempt to impart an interpretation of a historical event." Another symbol pair identifies the ruler of Abydos as King Scorpion, a being associated with the founding of the first dynasty. Archaeologists had long dismissed King Scorpion as a mythical figure, but the Darnells suspect he may have been a real person who unified various southern kingdoms that later conquered the rest of Egypt.

Why carve this wall? Darnell says the spot lies along a shortcut that may have enabled King Scorpion to attack a weak point in Naqâda defenses. "The tableau tells what he did. The location probably tells how he did it."
— Jeffrey Winters

68. Dig Exposes Oldest Boat

Ships of interest to archaeologists tend to turn up on the seafloor, but when Robert Carter of University College London dug out pieces of an ancient boat, he was 2.5 miles inland, baking in the desert. The archaeologist reported in June that he had found a boat beneath the sands of Kuwait that may be 7,000 years old—perhaps the oldest seagoing vessel ever discovered. The site, As-Sabiyah, lies on a peninsula near the mouth of the Euphrates River, and Carter knew that thousands of years ago it was situated smack on the coast. Middle Eastern artifacts from that era suggest there had been trade along the Persian Gulf coast and into Mesopotamia. Archaeologists have debated whether the trade was conducted overland or by boat. Carter believes it's safe to assume people navigated the oceans far back into antiquity because Australia was colonized at least 15,000 years ago.

Carter and his team unearthed small slabs of bitumen, an asphaltlike substance used for waterproofing. On one side of each slab was an impression left by reeds, as if the bitumen had been slathered over reed bundles lashed together to make a boat. The other sides of the slabs were encrusted with barnacles. Carter also found a ceramic disc painted with what appears to be a masted boat. "If this does indeed depict such a thing," Carter says, "it would be the earliest evidence of sailing." — Jeffrey Winters

30. Mural Reveals Mayan Beliefs

William Saturno's search was shaping up to be a disaster. What should have been a five-hour trip had become a three-day journey through the rain forest. His hired guides had drastically underestimated how much time it would take to reach their destination. Now the food and water were gone. The situation looked downright scary. Then Saturno and his befuddled crew finally reached the ruins of an early Mayan ceremonial site in northeastern Guatemala. The site, San Bartolo, had been previously unknown to archaeologists, though not unknown to looters, who had dug numerous tunnels around a central plaza complex. Saturno didn't see any of the carved stone monuments he was looking for, so he decided to duck into one of the tunnels. There he happened upon a phenomenon far more extraordinary than any statue: the oldest intact mural of early Mayan society. Superbly detailed and richly colored, the mural was exceptionally preserved. "I started laughing at the sheer improbability of the situation," recalls Saturno, a researcher at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. He announced the find in March.

The entire site is a treasure, but its crown jewel is the 1,900-year-old mural. The panel covers about four feet, but only the 10 percent that was uncovered by looters is visible. "We know so little about Mayan wall painting for this time period that we exponentially expand our data set with every inch we analyze," Saturno says. Prior to this discovery, only a few fragments from murals dating from the early Maya (400 B.C. to A.D. 250) had been found. From the mural's exquisite craftsmanship, Saturno and his colleagues deduce that it must have been painted by a group of artists trained for the task and supported by the state or by members of the court who had sufficient wealth to commission such a work.

The mural has also yielded news about ancient Mayan beliefs and religion. "We now know," says Saturno, "that mythology that was important in the16th century was equally important in the first century," which establishes a degree of cultural continuity.

The pivotal figure in the one scene that has been uncovered so far is the corn god attended by two women, apparently goddesses, and a young male, probably the god's son. According to Karl Taube, an anthropologist at the University of California at Riverside whom Saturno invited to help interpret the mural, the scene establishes the importance of maize in Mayan culture even at this early date. The kneeling woman is reminiscent of the later classic Mayan wind god, and the other woman seems to be shadowed by a rain cloud. Taube speculates that painters created a metaphor of wind and rain assisting the growth of maize. Saturno expects more surprises: "They represent a watershed moment in the study of early Mayan civilization, perhaps holding clues to its very origins." — Francesco Fiondella

77. Vinland Map Authenticated . . . And Debunked

Is it real? Is it a hoax? Is it old? Is it new? The authenticity of the Vinland Map—now held in the Beinecke Library at Yale University—has bedeviled historians and scientists since it emerged in Europe in the 1950s. A faded black-and-yellow ink drawing on a 10.8-x-16-inch sheet of parchment, the map depicts a portion of the North American Atlantic coast. About the only thing everyone agrees on is that if it is authentic, Europeans came to the New World 60 years before Columbus.

Two careful analyses of the map this year haven't unraveled the mystery. In one study, conducted by Douglas J. Donahue of the University of Arizona, Jacqueline Olin of the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Materials Research and Education, and Garman Harbottle of Brookhaven National Laboratory, a three-inch sliver of the parchment was put through an accelerator mass spectrometer. The results, published in the journal Radiocarbon, yielded a date of between A.D. 1411 and 1468. The other study, conducted by Robin J. H. Clark and Katherine L. Brown of University College London, looked at the map's ink. Using laser spectroscopic analysis, Clark and Brown found that the black ink was carbon-based and the yellow ink contained anatase. Medieval black inks were usually composed of carbon or iron gallotannate—the latter known to erode and yield a yellow staining. But carbon inks of the time are not known to produce natural yellowing. More suspicious still: Anatase, a form of titanium dioxide, wasn't synthesized until the1920s.

In a recent issue of the journal Analytical Chemistry, Clark and Brown flatly conclude that the Vinland Map is a forgery. Olin thinks it's too soon to decide. Her parchment study showed that at least part of the map was made in northern Europe in the 15th century, and the ink could be authentic as well. "Other documents from similar origins show that there's great variety in the ways inks deteriorate," she says. Stay tuned. — Michael W. Robbins

95. Ice Man Died Fighting

The saga of Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old Tyrolean man discovered thawing in the Alps 11 years ago, and that of Harry Potter have a lot in common. Both are action-packed, each episode is breathlessly debated, and neither seems likely to end anytime soon. In the case of Ötzi, two new pages were turned last year in his story.

In March, Italian pathologist Eduard Egarter-Vigl, who had earlier identified an arrowhead embedded in the ice man's shoulder, said he had found a deep, sharp, blood-tinged wound in the mummy's right hand. The cut showed no signs of healing, indicating that the injury had occurred within the last few hours of Ötzi's life—perhaps as he was fending off an attacker armed with an ax or a knife. Egarter-Vigl, of the General Regional Hospital in Bolzano—Ötzi's resting place—believes it is yet another sign of a savage end.

Further new evidence of violence comes, oddly, from the examination of DNA from food residues and pollen preserved in Ötzi's gut. Physical anthropologist Franco Rollo of the University of Camerino in Italy found that Ötzi ate two meals on his final day: one, of cereals and ibex meat, as he was climbing upward through a coniferous forest, and the second, of deer meat and cereals, about three hours before his death high up in the Alps. His diet indicates that he was a hunter, and the arrow wound in his left shoulder is a sign that he may have been shot by a rival, says Rollo. "In this epoch, hunters of deer and wild boar used to shoot their arrows at the left shoulder blade of their prey," he says, as it gave them the best chance of killing it at first shot. "He was murdered, not killed by accident." — Josie Glausiusz

71. 17th-Dynasty Pyramid Unearthed in Egypt

For Egyptologists, the 18th Egyptian Dynasty (1550-1293 B.C.) has always been the sexy one to study. It's rich with findings like King Tutankhamen's tomb. By contrast, the 17th Dynasty (1645-1550 B.C.), a time of political strife and confusion, has long been an archaeological black hole, more rife with researchers' hunches than artifacts. Then last spring, a team led by Daniel Polz, associate director of the German Institute of Archaeology in Cairo, finished unearthing the first 17th Dynasty pyramid, royal burial place of King Nub-Kheper-Re Intef, near Luxor.

They found the collapsed walls of the pyramid thanks to a 12th-century B.C. papyrus, known as the Abbott Papyrus, housed at the British Museum in London. It describes thieves trying to tunnel through the wall of an adjoining private tomb in order to plunder the pyramid. "Although the description does not give the precise location of the tomb," says John Taylor, assistant keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, "it gave archaeologists a starting point." Polz's team began digging near the private tomb until, he says, "we came across the remains of a small pyramid made of unfired mud bricks and a small tomb chapel decorated with the royal name Nub-Kheper-Re." In front of the pyramid, they found a burial shaft containing the toppled head of a sandstone statue of a king. The significance of the find may lie in where it will lead Egyptologists next. "By locating a spot mentioned in the papyrus," says Taylor, "archaeologists now have a better chance to find other tombs still missing." — Eric Neel

81. Rare-Jade Riddle Cracked

In 1804 naturalist Alexander von Humboldt returned to France from the Americas with jade artifacts crafted by the Olmecs. This pre-Mayan, pre-Columbian culture had left behind statues and axes made of a translucent blue-green jade found almost nowhere else in the world. Today archaeologists know the Olmecs had stopped using the stone by about 500 B.C. Later cultures favored other shades of jade, and the blue-green version became known as Olmec blue. But the geological source of the jade had never been found. Geophysicist Russell Seitz, field director of a study of Mesoamerican jade for Harvard's Peabody Museum, had spent years looking for the elusive transparent blue-green stone. By 1999, when he took his fiancée to Guatemala for a vacation, he had given up hope of finding the mother lode. Then, by chance, he stumbled upon half a dozen shops selling small items crafted from the blue-green gem: "It had become an ornamental cottage heritage industry." It took him nine months to track down the jade miners, who finally agreed to lead him up into the mountains. There, at an elevation of 5,700 feet, he found "a giant, economy-size jade vein." Seitz returned several times before discovering the biggest boulders last January. Most of the jade he found is worthless. But one 300-ton monolith does contain three tons of the prized translucent blue-green mineral.

The find puts to rest one mystery but leaves many questions for archaeologists and pre-Columbian scholars, including: Why did the Olmecs stop carving jade? Perhaps their culture disappeared, or maybe the seams of jade that the Olmecs were mining, and the Olmec carvers themselves, were destroyed by volcanoes. "The deposits," says Seitz, "have been Pompeiied several times." — Michael Abrams

54. Ancient Birth Bricks Uncovered In Egypt

During childbirth, in the 13th dynasty of the Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt, a woman would squat on a pair of elaborately decorated clay bricks and recite spells to call on Hathor, the goddess of fertility and motherhood, in an effort to protect her newborn child. Although Egyptologists have long known about these spells and the birth bricks from papyrus scrolls, there had never been physical proof of their existence. Then last July, Josef Wegner, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, announced that he and colleagues from Yale University and New York University had found a 3,700-year-old painted clay birth brick that shows a woman transformed into a goddess at the moment of giving birth.

In June 2001, Wegner pulled a mud-covered brick from the ruins of a palatial house in Abydos, Egypt. A thin line of paint that bordered the block suggested it was something more than a commonplace brick. Intrigued, he spent the better part of a day cleaning the fragile chunk of clay. "The first thing that came into view was the figure of a woman sitting in a chair," says Wegner. "And then this baby in her arms emerged, at which point I realized what it might be."

"Ancient Egyptians equated the birth of a child to the birth of the sun on the eastern horizon," Wegner says. The newly found birth brick shows a turquoise-haired mother surrounded by such deities as Hathor and a desert-cat incarnation of the sun god Re, along with Re's guardians. These deities conferred their protection upon the newborn child, says Wegner, and because turquoise hair was reserved for divine beings, the brick suggests that Egyptian mothers identified themselves with the goddess. "Birth wasn't just a physical event," says Wegner, "but a supercharged magical and religious time."

Why did this brick survive where so many others crumbled to dust? Aridity and better excavation techniques, says Wegner. "There is always something coming out of the ground," he says, "but it is fairly rare to find an object that has never before been encountered." — Hannah Hoag

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