kottke.org posts about archeology

A drama of formationMay 02 2011

The Paris Review's John Jeremiah Sullivan interviews filmmaker Werner Herzog and archeologist Jan Simek about cave paintings in the south of France (subject of Herzog's new 3-D documentary) and middle Tennessee (Simek's area of expertise):

SULLIVAN
On the subject of the lighting in this film, Dr. Simek, you made an observation, which is that the light tends to be in motion ...

JAN SIMEK
The light never rests. Every time he changes the picture, it goes through a light sweep. The film is clearly concerned with how the moving light causes the images themselves to change. This is not inaccurate at all. The original impression that this artwork made was in some ways dictated by how it got lit by the people who made it, with torchlight.

HERZOG

What we did was very simple: we walked with the light, so that the source of light would make the shadows move slightly, like curtains of darkness rising. Or, for example, a fade-out would be done by just physically removing the light. So it was never a purely technical thing; it was always something human, as if somebody with torchlight were just leaving or coming in.

When you try to imagine how these images looked for Paleolithic people, in the flickering shadows, the animals must have been moving, must have had a strange life in them.

I was also struck by Herzog's reaction to Sullivan's observation that Cave of Forgotten Dreams largely departs from the heroic-discovery mode common to movies about cave explorers:

I'm suspicious of that notion of adventure. It belongs to earlier centuries, and somehow fizzled away with, let's say, the exploration of the North and South Poles, which was only a media ego trip, unhealthy and unwise, on the part of some individuals. The Polar explorations were a huge mistake of the human race, an indication that the twentieth century was a mistake in its entirety. They are one of the indicators.

While researching a story I wrote not too long ago about spaceflight and radio communications, I was surprised at how central the polar expeditions were to that story:

In 1929, Richard E. Byrd made history -- not for reaching the South Pole, but for bringing on his Antarctic expedition 24 radio transmitters, 31 receivers, five radio engineers, three airplanes and an aerial camera. Unlike Ernest Shackleton's trans-Antarctic expedition, who 15 years earlier spent 17 months fighting for their lives after being trapped in the polar ice, Byrd's team was able to stay in constant communication with each other and with the outside world. It was the beginning of modern technology-aided exploration, and arguably the model for human spaceflight.

Also, I think Werner Herzog may be the only living human being who is still allowed to say things like "the twentieth century was a mistake in its entirety" in semi-casual conversation. The rest of us lack the prerequisite voice, record of achievements, and enormous balls.

Medieval warfareDec 29 2010

A mass grave of soldiers discovered in England is shedding new light on how medieval battles were fought. It's not a pretty picture.

In a letter sent nine days after the battle George Neville, the then chancellor of England, wrote that 28,000 men died that day, a figure in accord with a letter sent by Edward to his mother. England's total population at the time is thought not to have exceeded 3m people. George Goodwin, who has written a book on Towton to coincide with the battle's 550th anniversary in 2011, reckons as many as 75,000 men, perhaps 10% of the country's fighting-age population, took the field that day.

Ancient Roman shipwreck aids in neutrino searchJun 23 2010

Lead ingots carried by a Roman ship sunk in 50 BC will be used to study the decay of neutrinos. Neutrino experiments are very delicate and need to be shielded from radioactive contamination, including possible contamination from the shielding itself.

This vast stretch of time means that the tiny amount of the radioactive isotope lead-210 originally present in the ingots, just as it exists in any normal lead object, has by now almost completely disappeared.

(via history blog)

Laser-mapping Mayan ruinsMay 12 2010

A team of archeologists used aircraft-mounted LIDAR (a laser-based distance measuring system) to map the Mayan ruins of Caracol
. The imaging revealed more of the ruins in four days than on-the-ground teams have been able to do in the past 25 years.

The Chases, who are professors of anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, had determined from earlier surveys that Caracol extended over a wide area in its heyday, between A.D. 550 and 900. From a ceremonial center of palaces and broad plazas, it stretched out to industrial zones and poor neighborhoods and beyond to suburbs of substantial houses, markets and terraced fields and reservoirs. This picture of urban sprawl led the Chases to estimate the city's population at its peak at more than 115,000. But some archaeologists doubted the evidence warranted such expansive interpretations.

"Now we have a totality of data and see the entire landscape," Dr. Arlen Chase said of the laser findings. "We know the size of the site, its boundaries, and this confirms our population estimates, and we see all this terracing and begin to know how the people fed themselves."

Turkish temple older than civilizationFeb 22 2010

An archeological find in Turkey, believed to be a temple built 11,500 years ago that predates "villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture", suggests religion created civilization and not the other way around.

Most startling is the elaborate carving found on about half of the 50 pillars Schmidt has unearthed. There are a few abstract symbols, but the site is almost covered in graceful, naturalistic sculptures and bas-reliefs of the animals that were central to the imagination of hunter-gatherers. Wild boar and cattle are depicted, along with totems of power and intelligence, like lions, foxes, and leopards. Many of the biggest pillars are carved with arms, including shoulders, elbows, and jointed fingers. The T shapes appear to be towering humanoids but have no faces, hinting at the worship of ancestors or humanlike deities.

Photos and more from Smithsonian magazine and Wikipedia.

Evidence of early human seafarers foundFeb 17 2010

The discovery of stone tools that are possibly 130,000 years old on the island of Crete may indicate that humans were seafaring far earlier than is commonly believed.

Archaeologists and experts on early nautical history said the discovery appeared to show that these surprisingly ancient mariners had craft sturdier and more reliable than rafts. They also must have had the cognitive ability to conceive and carry out repeated water crossing over great distances in order to establish sustainable populations producing an abundance of stone artifacts.

Ancient fish weir discoveredMar 19 2009

Archeologists studying aerial photos of the coast of Wales found a 1000-year-old fish trap lurking beneath the waves.

The unique shape of the rock structure helped the Normans trap fish without boats or anything at all. All they had to do was wait for the tide to go out and hundreds of fish would be trapped behind the rocks.

Nets were placed at a narrow exit to catch the fish on their way out. Fish weirs were so effective that overfishing led to a provision in the Magna Carta banning them in rivers.

All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast.

Post-Ice Age ruins in Lake MichiganJan 06 2009

Is there a mini Stonehenge under the waters of Lake Michigan?

In a surprisingly under-reported story from 2007, Mark Holley, a professor of underwater archaeology at Northwestern Michigan University College, discovered a series of stones - some of them arranged in a circle and one of which seemed to show carvings of a mastodon -- 40-feet beneath the surface waters of Lake Michigan. If verified, the carvings could be as much as 10,000 years old -- coincident with the post-Ice Age presence of both humans and mastodons in the upper midwest.

Old agricultureSep 23 2008

New studies show that prehistoric agriculture may have taken much longer to develop than previously thought.

Until recently researchers say the story of the origin of agriculture was one of a relatively sudden appearance of plant cultivation in the Near East around 10,000 years ago spreading quickly into Europe and dovetailing conveniently with ideas about how quickly language and population genes spread from the Near East to Europe. Initially, genetics appeared to support this idea but now cracks are beginning to appear in the evidence underpinning that model.

Pre-European Amazonian civilizationSep 02 2008

Before European conquerers arrived, large areas of the Amazon River basin had been cleared away to make room for a network of towns and villages.

The findings raise big questions, says Susanna Hecht of the University of California in Los Angeles.

For starters, it forces a rethink of the long-held assumption that these parts of the Amazon were virtually empty before colonisation. What's more, it shows that the large populations that did inhabit the region transformed the landscape.

"What we find is that what we think of as the primitive Amazon forest is not so primitive after all," Heckenberger told New Scientist. "European colonialism wasted huge numbers of native peoples and cleared them off the land, so that the forest returned."

I'm gonna plug 1491 again...the story above isn't news to anyone who's read this book, which argues that there was plenty going on in the New World before Columbus, et. al. arrived.

Some poop in a cave in OregonApr 07 2008

Some poop in a cave in Oregon has been dated to more than 14,000 years ago and identified as human, adding to other evidence that humans inhabited the Americas before the well-known Clovis people.

Other archaeologists agreed that the findings established more firmly than before the presence of people on the continent at least 1,000 years before the well-known Clovis people, previously thought to be the first Americans. Recent research at sites in Florida and Wisconsin also appears to support the earlier arrivals, and a campsite in Chile indicates migration deep into South America by 14,600 years ago.

The Earth without peopleJan 28 2008

What would happen to planet earth if the human race were to suddenly disappear forever? Would ecosystems thrive? What remnants of our industrialized world would survive? What would crumble fastest? From the ruins of ancient civilizations to present day cities devastated by natural disasters, history gives us clues to these questions and many more.

The upshot of Life After People is that, with the exception of some domesticated animals, our planet would be better off without us. Waaaay better off. Like if Mother Nature sat us down for a talk and said, "listen, you're really shitting on the rest of the planet, its residents, its ecosystems, etc. and, by the way, you're killing me slowly and painfully" and the only honorable thing to do would be to jump in a rocketship to colonize Mars or commit mass suicide so everything else could live in peace.

The other interesting thing about the show is how little is left of humans after a few thousand years of absence. Roads, buildings, cars, bridges; they all break down. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Great Pyramid at Giza might still be around in another ten thousand years, but it may be covered in sand. The Great Wall of China and Hoover Dam could survive for awhile longer. Mount Rushmore, caved out of solid granite, may last for 200,000 years or more. They didn't mention anything about cut & diamonds or objects made from platimun or titanium, but I imagine that they would last millions of years, if not practically forever.

Which leads you to wonder: if the Earth supported an advanced civilization that died out over 500,000 years ago, would we have any way of knowing they even existed? Small cut gemstones and platinum artifacts left behind by such a civilization would be difficult to discover unless they were of sufficient size. Fossils would certainly survive in some form and we could perhaps make some guesses as to their intelligence based on morphology. Would that be enough to detect them?

Update: Two other possible advanced civilization detectors: chemical and geological changes caused might show up in mineral layers and long-lasting nuclear waste. (thx, jordan & leonard)

The top 10 archeological discoveries of 2007 as determinedDec 27 2007

The top 10 archeological discoveries of 2007 as determined by Archaeology Magazine. Among the discoveries are a cuneiform tablet naming someone who is also named in the Bible, more evidence that Polynesians visited the Americas before the Europeans "discovered" it, early agriculture in Peru, and early urbanization in Syria that followed a different model than other early cities.

Tell Brak seems to have grown from the outside in. In the south, cities began as a central settlement -- under a single authority -- that grew outward. But Ur's field survey shows that Tell Brak started as a central community ringed by smaller satellite settlements that expanded inward. "There isn't a very tight control over these surrounding villages, at least at this beginning period," says Ur. "So the assumption that we're making is that people were coming in under their own volition."

The Past: Buried Above UsNov 04 2007

BLDGBLOG has a fantastic post on the interconnected mountain fortifications used by the Austrians and Italians in World War One. If you thought the Maginot Line was insane, wait until you see this. Geoff Manaugh's write-up is as smart as the mountain trenches were crazy:

...the idea of the Alps being riddled with manmade caves and passages, with bunkers and tunnels, bristling with military architecture, even self-connected peak to peak by fortified bridges, the Great Moutain Wall of Northern Italy, architecture literally become mountainous, piled higher and higher upon itself forming new artificial peaks looking down on the fields and cities of Europe, that just fascinates me—not to mention the idea that you could travel up, and thus go futher into history, discovering that the past has been buried above you, the geography of time topologically inverted.

Also: great to see that BLDGBLOG has a book coming out—not so great that we have to wait until 2009.

(via Cosma Shalizi)

Missed this from a couple of weeksJun 07 2007

Missed this from a couple of weeks ago: Chinese writing may be 8,000 years old, far older than the previous estimate of 4,500 years.

Old chicken bones are a clue thatJun 06 2007

Old chicken bones are a clue that the Polynesians made it to the Americas before the Europeans did. "The 50 chicken bones from at least five individual birds date from between 1321 and 1407 -- 100 years or more before the arrival of Europeans."

Thoughtful post on the extreme recency ofMar 22 2007

Thoughtful post on the extreme recency of recorded human history. We know very little about the people who lived before the invention of writing and collections of stories like the Bible, save for what we can glean from speechless skeletons, footprints, and other remains. "And look at how much is lost. Between the time of the couple fleeing across a field of volcanic ash and poor dead Lucy lies 400,000 years. If a Bible is a record of the struggle of a people for 2,000 years, we'd need 200 Bibles to tell us the tale of just this one obscure, remote branch of our lineage." (thx, alexander)

Some recent rigorous radiocarbon dating has thrownFeb 26 2007

Some recent rigorous radiocarbon dating has thrown into doubt the theory that the Americas were first settled 11,000 years ago by the so-called Clovis peoples.

There's not enough information in this NationalMay 25 2006

There's not enough information in this National Geographic story to figure out if the recent finds in Peru has anything to do with the Norte Chico civilization or not. "We found some old stuff somewhere in Peru"...thanks guys, let us know when you starting writing science news for the post-kindergarten crowd. Here's a bit more info on the discovery (still no connection to Norte Chico).

Watched America's Stone Age Explorers on PBSMar 21 2006

Watched America's Stone Age Explorers on PBS this evening, a summary of recent findings about who the first Americans were, where they came from, and when they arrived. Recent genetic and archeological evidence suggests they arrived earlier than generally accepted and may have originated from Europe rather than Asia.

Recently discovered human remains suggest that metrosexualsJan 18 2006

Recently discovered human remains suggest that metrosexuals lived in Iron Age Ireland. One man's fingernails were manicured and his hands indicated he'd never done manual labor while the other wore hair gel imported from France and Spain. No word on if they wore their shirts tucked or untucked.

Some scientists say evidence suggests that earlyJan 04 2006

Some scientists say evidence suggests that early humans might have first appeared in Asia, not Africa.

Scientists have found evidence of a sunkenDec 06 2005

Scientists have found evidence of a sunken forest off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts. (thx, malatron)

An oddly shaped hill in Bosnia isOct 27 2005

An oddly shaped hill in Bosnia is a 10,000 year old pyramid, says Bosnian archeologist Semir Osmanagic. "The pyramid is 100 metres high and there is evidence that it contains rooms and a monumental causeway... The plateau is built of stone blocks, which indicates the presence at the time of a highly developed civilisation."

4000 year-old pot of noodles found in China,Oct 19 2005

4000 year-old pot of noodles found in China, settling (for now) the "hotly contested" question of who invented the noodle.

Further discovery of Homo floresiensis bonesOct 13 2005

Further discovery of Homo floresiensis bones have strengthened researchers' argument that the so-called Hobbit is a new and distinct human species. More on Flores man at Nature, which is doing a weekly podcast now.

Local man uses Google Maps to findSep 19 2005

Local man uses Google Maps to find the undiscovered remains of a Roman villa near his town in Italy.

Evolution shocker! The discovery of a dinosaurAug 22 2005

Evolution shocker! The discovery of a dinosaur footprint on the wall of a contemporary Brooklyn school proves that the earth is less than 6000 years old (and, perhaps, that dinosaurs could walk vertically). No word on the Flying Spaghetti Monster's involvement.

Robotics research suggests that Lucy walked upright like humansJul 20 2005

Robotics research suggests that Lucy walked upright like humans. Lucy, discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia, is a 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis skeleton.

40,000 year-old human footprints found in MexicoJul 06 2005

40,000 year-old human footprints found in Mexico. Humans are thought to have come to the Americas only 11,000 years ago.

Jared Diamond calls agriculture "the worst mistakeJun 29 2005

Jared Diamond calls agriculture "the worst mistake in the history of the human race". "With the advent of agriculture [the] elite became better off, but most people became worse off".

2000 year old seed grows a previously extinct Judean date treeJun 13 2005

2000 year old seed grows a previously extinct Judean date tree. It's like a plant version of Jurassic Park

Banksy strikes again, placing a stone relicMay 19 2005

Banksy strikes again, placing a stone relic with a cave drawing of a shopping cart on it into the British Museum.

Tags related to archeology:
science humans history agriculture China

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