Wednesday, February 14, 2007

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.

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