Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saturday, October 16, 2010

House A.D. - Could Archaeology Help Cure Cancer?

Exactly how old is lupus?

Not just archaeologists. Biological anthropologists, historians, and others. But it felt good to say.

Researchers from the University of Manchester have identified the first evidence of cancer from an Egyptian mummy. Rather than suggesting that cancer is older than was thought, the lack of other signs of cancer in the many mummies examined over the decades suggests that cancer was quite rare. Likewise, they found that historical records only begin to describe cancer in the 17th century. Though not claiming that the disease is new, they are suggesting that it was rare in antiquity, and has become common in industrial societies because of man-made carcinogenic environments and conditions. Similar findings are reported from analysis of a skeletal collection from Croatia. And some scholars even believe that ancient drinks and concoctions might have worked against cancer.

I am skeptical that cancer is purely recent. The authors of the Egyptian discovery suggest that cancer would survive taphonomic processes in mummies better than regular tissue, but I'll find that more likely if, after this publication there are not many more tumors found. Lower life expectancy probably accounts for some of the discrepancy (a rebuttal notes that virtually all the mummies in this study were under the age when most cancers occur), and despite the authors' faith in medical observation in the past, there is a shift in the importance of observation and especially recording starting right around the time they notice an upswing in recorded cases. And as for the idea that there is nothing in nature that causes cancers, surely this can't be meant to exclude skin cancer from sun-damaged skin?

But for the moment, let's put the accuracy of the findings aside. For the purposes of an intellectual exercise, let's assume that the findings are correct, and cancer was rare in antiquity, becoming more common in the 17th century and on. What changes around 1600 that might account for this? The obvious event to point to, from my biased perspective, is the re-uniting of the New and Old Worlds. Genes and species passed back and forth that had been largely separated for thousands of years. At least one famous carcinogen, tobacco, became popular throughout the world at this time.

What about technology and pollution? Industrialism does increase, but closer to the late 1700s and into the 1800s. And plenty of toxins and heavy metals were used in antiquity including lead and tin in drinking and liquid storage vessels and cosmetics. Lead from Classical Greek and Roman industries in the Mediterranean can be detected in Greenland ice cores (abstract, news article).

Regardless of the specifics of this study, utilizing history and anthropology to examine the history of current diseases in order to understand their origins and nature, is a one more way that scholarship often stereotyped as frivolous is contributing important information of practical use to people today.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Weird Archaeology 101 Pop Quiz: Ancient Shekel in Massachusetts?

Good afternoon class,

We've had a few sessions, so I thought I'd give you a pop quiz.

A builder comes to you and says that during the the reconstruction of a wharf in Manchester, Massachusetts, he found a 2000-year old silver shekel of Tyre (Lebanon) in a hole in the nearby sand. He notes the irony in finding it on Holy Thursday, the day Christians commemorate the Last Supper, which is followed by Judas' betrayal of Jesus, for which he was paid in silver shekels. He takes it to the owner of the property. They take it to a numismatist, who determines it is authentic (dating from 126 BC - 66 AD), that it had been worn, and that there is evidence it had been submerged underwater for some time, though there is no formal paperwork to that effect.

The owner does not claim to know how the coin got there and suggests there are hundreds of possibilities. She has done some research on previous owners of the property, but has not found evidence of coin collectors. She also suggests both that an animal might have dropped it there from somewhere else (including possibly a seagull), or that the Phoenicians might have lost it during trade with Vikings in the area.

If this case was brought to your attention, what would your reaction be? Any suggested methods for the arrival of the coin? Possible courses of action?

Ancient Poetry and Texts in the Original Languages

Martin Worthington at Cambridge is spearheading a project to bring together scholars and record for public listening various Babylonian texts, initially poetry, in the original Akkadian.

On the site, Dr. Worthington points to similar projects including Anglo-Saxon Aloud and the Odyssey in Ancient Greek.