Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Tomb of Jesus and Family

This is obviously going to be a big story, especially with the press conference on Monday.

Check the links at the bottom, but in summary, film maker James Cameron has produced a documentary (and the research? I'm not as clear on that) on new analysis and interpretation of what the researchers believe to be the tomb of Jesus Christ and his family. A family tomb in Jerusalem, excavated in 1980, includes ossuaries for a Yeshua (Jesus) son of Yosef (Joseph), Maria (Latin for Mary, and Mary mother of Jesus was referred to in other texts by the Latin), Matia (Matthew). Most stunningly, one ossuary is inscribed Mariamene e Mara or "Mary, known as the Master," a name for Mary Magdalene in Gnostic texts, and Judah son of Jesus.

Furthermore, bits of bone in the Yeshua (yes, you read that right) ossuary and the Mariamene ossuary are not related by blood (DNA was extractable from the remains in those two ossuaries). This leads to the interpretation that Mariamene married into the family.

The linked articles note that while the names are common in that region in the first century AD, the chances of all these names, that are associated as family and associates in the New Testament, occurring together, is 1 in 600.

Now, there is a lot that could be wrong about this. There may be elements of the data that we don't know about, that falsifies the hypothesis proposed by these researchers. With such a spectacular claim, there is always the possibility of fraud (perhaps by someone prior to the discovery). The researchers are suggesting a possible tie to the James ossuary (possibly having been in the tomb), which some researchers have declared a fraud, while supporters have produced 1970s-era photos of the ossuary. Of course, if the latter is true, this presents problems for the 1980 excavation. And of course, even if everything here is above board, at most it points to a likely historical link to the tomb occupants, something not provable beyond an absolute shadow of a doubt. But that's how archaeology often is.

Anyway, it is far too preliminary to judge any of this. But unlike many other media blitz claims about archaeology (this is a book, a documentary being shown on the Discovery Channel, etc.), the evidence seems pretty straightfoward here. And a peer-reviewed article on the statistics is apparently coming out soon, something often not found in media blitzes. And let's be honest: did we really think a discovery of this nature would appear first in a scientific journal. Of course it was going to get the King Kong 8th Wonder of the World treatment.

Here is a Discovery "News" blurb about the discoveries, that detail the basic outline

This is a somewhat detailed presentation of the tomb, in particular pictures of the ossuaries with transcriptions and translations of the inscriptions, and more about each element of the research. I recommend checking it out.

One of the archaeologists involved in the initial discovery says this is all PR and nonsense. But I will wait to see what the new analysis actually suggests, as I've seen this kind of rivalry before, sometimes legit, sometimes not. He is right, that archaeologists are not involved in the new analysis. On the other hand, an epigrapher of texts of this era is involved.

It may all be garbage. It may actually have merit. But regardless, I imagine this is going to be something a lot of people outside archaeology will be talking about.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Magical Architecture Caches: Witch Bottles, Mummy Cats, and Abandoned Shoes

The discovery of a mummified cat in an early 19th-century Edinburgh building reminded me of one of the niftiest things in historical archaeology, magical deposits. Common caches hidden under floorboards or within walls include shoes, cats, or "witch bottles" specially prepared with pins and urine. These were magical charms in British culture, and still hold some power. As noted on Brian Hoggard's page on these charms and other folk magic, cats were often destroyed or otherwise noted by construction teams that discovered them. They can be creepy whether interpreted by the discoverer as an unfortunate accident or as an occult artifact, and in some cases are burned to cleanse the deposit and perhaps help the cat in the afterlife.

Update: First witch bottle still sealed (and presumably containing urine) found in Greenwich.

Update: Article from March 2008 has nice images and discussion

Update April 2009: Sealed shoes from Nova Scotia

Update June 2009: The sealed witch bottle has been analyzed

My Favorite Part of Archaeology - Dispelling Common Wisdom

More than anything, I enjoy when archaeology shows that what most of us think about the past is wrong. I don't mean just finding something new, though that is of course great. I mean going and finding the physical evidence of past alternatives to what we have normalized to be the status quo. Or finding direct contradictions to the historical record. Each of the following stories includes an element of this.

In New Kingdom Egypt, the heretic king Akhenaten was stricken from the historical record, as best as was possible. Yet his capitol city lies in ruins at Tell el-Amarna, with ample evidence for his new religion based on the Aten sun disk and the relationship between it and the royal family. Right there archaeology recovers an embarassing chapter in Egyptian history that the authorities attempted to coverup after his death. But in something of a reversal, a recent discovery at Saqqara suggests the new story is also not entirely true. Akhenaten may have shut down the temples to the old Egyptian gods, but Dutch archaeologists have found elites still being buried in the old way, honoring the old gods but using the new Amarna art style, at Saqqara during the Amarna period. Akhenaten's hegemony was not complete.

In New York City, a pipe inspector stumbled across subterranean passages immediately next to the basement of 740 Park Avenue, the richest apartment building in the city's history and home to titans of finance and capital. This wouldn't be such a big deal, except for persistant rumors long denied that John D. Rockefeller had an escape tunnel leading from the building to his private subway. The tunnel cannot be tied to Rockefeller, and a local historian suggests the Vanderbilts as possible patrons of the construction. But clearly the legends weren't as far-fetched as previously thought.

Across the ocean in Britain, a medieval monastery in Hereford turned up something of a surprise. Thirty years ago a skeleton was dug up and was believed to be one of the monks. But re-analysis suggests that the bones are probably those of a woman. Someone has some explaining to do.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Jamestown Sister Settlement Discovered

The site may have been worked before, but archaeological remains in coastal Virginia are now being identified as Henrytowne, a contemporary with Jamestown. I of course am intrigued by the similarities to my own work at Ciudad Vieja, the ruins of the second Spanish settlement in what is now El Salvador. In fact the things so far discovered (an iron forge, pottery production, possibly a store) are some of the highlights of what we've found at Ciudad Vieja.

EDIT: The interpretation of the site is being questioned, in particular the location of the settlement in documents (possibly near Richmond?) and the relationship to the archaeological remains.


and here

In related news, the first iron works of the north American English colonies has been found at Falling Creek, Virginia. I'd note, of course, that the Spaniards had occupied North America for decades before 1619. Anyway, these are part of the Virginia colony and also contemporary with early Jamestown. And recent discoveries show 18th-century Yorktown (near in space if not time, but still part of the colonial heritage of the area) to be more complex than previously thought.

Expect more news of Jamestown this year. Virginia and other interested parties are promoting the site during its 400th anniversary. This article from US News and World Report gives an overview of the topic and profiles Dr. William Kelso, the force behind the recent breakthroughs at Jamestown. And this article discusses the various historical sites in the region, noting the anniversary.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ancient Seafarers of the Atlantic and Pacific

Two different studies highlight very different elements of historical seafarers.

DNA taken from the tooth of a man who died in Alaska 10,300 years ago suggests that the earliest Americans travelled along the Pacific coast, possibly settling rapidly around 15,000 years ago. Modern indigenous American people were tested in comparison with the ancient remains, and only a small number had the mitochondrial DNA lineage of the ancient man. These individuals were all from indigenous groups that lived along the Pacific Coast of North and South America.

The idea that people migrated to the Americas by boat has become increasingly popular as older archaeological remains have made a land crossing over Beringia unlikely as the source for the first people in the hemisphere.

I will note that the research also found very fast rates of mitochondrial DNA mutation, the basis of the method. Four times faster, in fact. I'm a layman in regards to molecular studies, but that seems like something that needs more explanation.

The other story is much more recent, and much stranger. Viking sailors may have used crystals known as sunstones to help navigate even on cloudy days. The stones would allow one to see the polarization of sunlight and use that to determine the position of the sun for use in navigation. If this turns out to be the case, I hope someone goes and revises historical discussion of "magical" sunstones.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Olmec Artifacts and Influence in Central Mexico

This is not terribly surprising, but is noteworthy.

The 2500 year old (Middle Preclassic) site of Zazacatla is not far from Mexico City, but has turned up artifacts and sculpture which look very much like those at Gulf Coast Olmec sites. Pictures can be seen in this slideshow. We've known about Olmec-style sculpture in the Central highlands, most famously at Chalcatzingo. But the striking similarities to classic Olmec figures is impressive.

Speaking of the Gulf Coast, the pyramids and structures at El Tajin are being destroyed by acid rain. This site is likely more important than we currently understand.

Earliest Semitic Text: Magic Spell Used by Egyptians to Fight Snakes

Very weird. The earliest evidence for a Semitic language is a protective spell used by Egyptians to protect royal mummies. Because some snakes were believed to speak Canaanite, Egyptians of the Old Kingdom (2400 - 3000 BC) turned to Canaanite magic.

On the flipside, the newest edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica casts doubt on the historical existence of Moses.

Life and Death Amongst the Hominids: Interaction Between Various Members of the Genus Homo

A couple of stories recently on some of the famous hominids contemporary with Homo sapiens sapiens.

More evidence for cannibalism amongst Neanderthal populations has surfaced. This interpretation continues to pop up, but because of the sensationalistic nature of cannibalism, the evidentiary level is pretty high. Another set of remains has been interpreted as a hybrid modern-Neanderthal, evidence of interbreeding between the two populations. I am no expert in that field, but until the genetic evidence stops showing big differences, I am skeptical. Especially since so many examples of hybridization come from still-growing adolescents.

Modern humans have been in Europe for at least 45,000 years, according to the dating of artifacts from Russia. Settlement here may have been spurred on because there was no competition from Neanderthals in this colder part of Europe.

Meanwhile, a flurry of stories have popped up regarding the Indonesian "hobbits," also known as Homo floresiensis. Research is beginning again in the caves of Flores Island, after political concerns had shut down the work. The discovery of a large cave under the cave sites may allow for many new sets of remains to be found. New testing refutes the idea that the specimens were hydrocephalic, and instead suggests that they were a separate species with a brain comparable to modern humans. And modern humans may have hunted the "hobbits" or their food sources into extinction, as it appears a volcanic eruption did not kill them off. This news will certainly please those, including cryptozoologists who support the idea of ancient primates other than humans surviving to the present, who have taken interest in the stories of the Orang Pendek and of stories in the region of little people.

A Late Post on Apocalypto

I blogged about this in December on my other blog. But the topic is more relevant here, so I post it here and add a few new links.

I saw a pre-release showing of Apocalypto on the Monday before it opened. As a Mesoamerican archaeologist, I strongly give this movie a complete anti-recommendation, and would urge people not to support it. First off, it is not an entertaining film. Secondly, as many of the reviews have mentioned, it is very violent. This did not bother me in a filmgoer sense, but several members of the group I saw it with had to leave the theater because they could not stomach futher gore and injury.

But the main reason I write this is that the basic message of the movie is offensive. For reasons that become apparent if you watch the movie, Gibson's message is unmistakeable: Mesoamerican civilization deserved to be destroyed and conquered by Christianity. If this was just some academic exercise, it still would be wrong and inaccurate (while some parts of the film visually look good and recreate nifty bits of costume and architecture, much of the movie is highly inaccurate). But this movie will harm the efforts of the millions of Mayas in Mexico in Central America to survive and thrive in societies that already have power structures arrayed against them, and that in many cases are still victims of a centuries long Conquest that is not over.

If you want to read further about this, here are two reviews and comments by other Mesoamerican archaeologists

EDIT: Another bad review of the film from an archaeologist, and mixed reviews from Mayas.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Roman Roundup - Gladiators, Gauls, and the Legendary Birth of Rome

A series of discoveries from Roman archaeology

In Rome, excavation has supposedly uncovered the Lupercale, the legendary origin cave of the Eternal City. It was turned into a shrine, and included by Rome's first Emperor Augustus in his private household. As a Mesoamericanist, I find the parallels to Teotihuacan to be extraordinary. That city was also the biggest in its region, an imperial capitol, and it was founded from a cave. In the case of Teotihuacan, which is a late contemporary of Classical Rome, a massive pyramid was built over the cave. The cave may be at least partially natural, but it was artificially modifed, and came to serve as the orientation for the grid network of streets and residential compounds.

Not far away from Lupercale, the treasure of the last Pre-Christian Roman Emperor has been found. Hidden before Constantine defeated Maxentius at Milvian Bridge, the insignias, weapons, and glasswork is a reminder of a major historical shift in Roman and European history.

A Roman-British Colosseum in Chester was much smaller than the famous ampitheatre in Rome, but it may have otherwise been a close copy. The exterior would have looked very similar to the Roman original. Inside, archaeologists have found bits of weapony and skeletal fragments, in accordance with historical accounts of Roman gladiatoral combat and sacrifice. This kind of brutality is on display in carvings recovered by Italian police during a raid on a looter's warehouse.

Roman entertainment of another sort is now on display, as a famous brothel in Pompeii has been restored and re-opened as a museum exhibit (not an operational brothel).

Back on the frontier, a French Roman-era cemetery is puzzling experts. The burial patterns do not appear to be Roman, but are reminiscent of pre-Roman religious practices. The problem? The remains are centuries younger than the Roman conquest of Gaul. Could these practices have continued literally underground or been resurrected (really, I'm not trying to pun here, it's just happening)? Or is there another answer?

Pagans Rising: The Stonehenge Settlement and Repatriation or, Who Controls the UK's Past?

The big archaeological news of the week has been the discovery of a large Neolithic residential site near Stonehenge, that most famous of all standing stone sites and emblem of British prehistory. This piece discusses the festival aspects, interpreted as seasonal, of the settlement and ceremonial architecture of a massive woodhenge at the site as well as nearby Stonehenge.

The article also notes the ties to modern pagans. Modern paganism is no small thing in the UK. The Catholic Cardinal of England and Wales states that Britain is no longer a Christian country, that it has gone pagan. Of course, he's lumping in all kinds of things he deems to be un-Christian or not of organized religion, and not just Pagan believers. Perhaps this is much ado about nothing, as three-quarters of Britons identified themselves as Christian in 2001, with Wiccans and other Pagans making up less than 0.1% of the country.

Despite these relatively small numbers, Pagans increasingly participate in the heritage of archaeological and sacred sites in the UK. The solstice celebrations at Stonehenge and other megalithic sites are the most famous. Last year some Catholic youths confronted Pagans during festivities in Glastonbury, throwing salt at them in a magical attempt to cleanse the town.

Meanwhile in Greece, a small group of Pagans have semi-legally (it seems, the coverage is not clear) started worshipping Zeus and the Classical Greek gods at ancient ruins in Athens. Greece is famous for the close ties between the church and the state, so this is no empty act.

Now, in a move echoing that of indigenous and minority people aross the planet, British Pagans are claiming the bones recovered from prehistoric sites as their ancestors and demanding repatriation from museums. The efforts have so far not been successful, in particular due to the great time depth between a modern claimant and the remains, without openly known ancestry traced between the modern and their claimed ancestors. This in turn echoes the issues around Kennewick Man, or as an alliance modern indigenous people have called him, the Ancient One. That case cannot be the same, due to the colonial aspect of the last five centuries and their legacy today. But all of this gets very complicated, quickly.

EDIT (Feb. 20, 2007): Stonehenge altar stone, long missing, may have been identified. Would modern pagans insist this piece is necessary for the proper use of Stonehenge, or do they stay where they are? Standard conservation practice is not to reverse later changes to architecture). How is the decision made?

EDIT (April 5. 2007): Craig Childs points out the issues involving Stonehenge and modern societies.

EDIT (April 7, 2007): An amulet from Suffolk may be similar to an amulet in a burial near Stonehenge. The Suffolk amulet dates to 1900 - 1700 BC, at which point Stonehenge would have been largely in its final form. The news article calls them "Stonehenge Amulets" but there is no particular reason for that to be the case.

EDIT (July 5, 2007): Pagans are protesting temporary modifications, for a television show, to Britain's famous Long Man geoglyph. Of course, the age and origin of the sculpture are still not certain, at least from an archaeological or mainstream historical perspective.

Hiatus Over: Dissertation Draft Submitted, Maya Meetings Attended

I've been missing from this blog and Spooky Paradigm because I've been too busy preparing the draft of my dissertation. As of last week, it was in the hands of my committee. I still have revision to do, a defense to make, and official copies to print before it is really done.

Immediately after I turned in the draft, we had the Maya Meetings here at Tulane, organized by the Stone Center for Latin American Studies, with a focus on mural art. San Bartolo was of course a major topic of discussion, in Dr. William Saturno's presentation as well as others, but Yucatan was covered extensively. This included the amazing finds at Ek Balam. That was nice to see, presented by Dr. Alfonso Lacadenas, since I had worked at the site for a month or so back in 1995. Dr. Francisco Estrada Belli presented new eviidence for the Teotihuacan entrada into the Maya world in 378 AD, found in the Holmul region of eastern Guatemala. There were other papers, though those based on presenting results of recent field research made more of an impact on me.

So, now I can finally get back to having a little time to myself and to writing here and at Spooky Paradigm. Not much mind you, I am still quite busy. But at least some