Alas, Babylon’s Ancient Treasures Disappear
Mesopotamia, which constituted the greater part of what is now called Iraq, was the birthplace of written language and one of the first cities, so its treasures are precious to all humankind. But since war rocked this cradle of civilization last spring, such legendary archaeological treasure troves as Nineveh, Nippur, Nimrud, and Babylon have been trashed. Gangs of looters, numbering sometimes in the hundreds, have pilfered cylinder seals, sculptures, urns, bronze tools, clay tablets with cuneiform writing, and even reliefs carved into walls—all to supply an illegal international trade in antiquities that stretches from Taiwan to New York. “It’s horrific,” says archaeologist McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Iraq since the 1960s. “The Iraqis are doing this to themselves—they’re destroying their past and destroying their future.” For now, Gibson says, archaeologists can do little to help stop the destruction. “The key is getting a government operating with force and control, and I don’t see that happening for a long time.” A slender ray of hope: Gibson and others are working to get legislation passed in Congress that would make unauthorized trade in Iraqi artifacts a crime.
—Michael W. Robbins
Knotted Strings Hold Incan Secrets
During their heyday in the early 16th century, the Incas managed an empire stretching 2,500 miles along the Andes—and apparently did so without a written language. Or maybe, anthropologist Gary Urton of Harvard University contends, they invented a unique form of digital communication using knotted strings. The strings make up a complexly knotted, twisted, and tinted Incan textile called khipu, which Urton is convinced may have been a medium for recording the history of the empire.
The knots are often arranged in a decimal sequence, Urton says, and “they contain statistical information, census lists, records of goods in state warehouses, lists of tribute commodities like corn, potatoes, clothing, and textiles.” He theorizes that nonquantitative data reside in the types and placement of the knots, the fabrics and colors chosen, and other characteristics. In Signs of the Inka Khipu, published in August, Urton likens the information to that stored in the binary system of a computer code. Carrie Brezine, a mathematician and textile scholar, is compiling a database of characteristics of the 600 khipu specimens preserved in museums and private collections. By seeking matches and patterns, Urton hopes to decipher a form of writing as sophisticated as Egyptian hieroglyphs. “It’s not exactly code breaking,” he says. “The Incas were not trying to hide information. It’s just that we’ve lost the key.”
—Michael W. Robbins
Ancient Aboriginal Art Discovered in Secret Cave
In May Australian researchers uncovered a hidden trove of ancient Aboriginal art in a remote cave northwest of Sydney. Overlapping layers of more than 200 drawings, paintings, and stencils on the cave walls span a period from around 2000 B.C. to the early 1800s. The images include a wombat, eagles, and human bodies with kangaroo, wallaby, and bird heads, hybrids that may represent ancestral beings in Aboriginal creation myths.
A group of hikers stumbled upon the cave while exploring Wollemi National Park in 1995, but getting a research team there proved problematic. Heavy floods stopped the first attempt at an expedition and a drought the second. “As there would be no drinking water and we could not drop in by helicopter, we decided to wait a few more months. Then a raging bushfire moved through that part of the Wollemi,” says Paul Taçon, an anthropologist at the Australian Museum in Sydney. When Taçon’s team finally reached the site last spring, the only water available “was the color of coffee but tasted like sulfur, iron, and rotting vegetation,” he says. “By the end of our trip we had acquired a taste for it.”