Pushin’ Back the Date

From NBC News (hat tip: Funk Heritage Center):

David Bustos heard about the “ghost tracks” when he first went to White Sands National Park in New Mexico to work as a wildlife scientist in 2005. When the ground was wet enough at certain times of the year, the ghostly footprints would appear on the otherwise blank earth, only to disappear again when it dried out.

It wasn’t until over 10 years later, in 2016, that scientists confirmed that the ghost tracks had been made by real people — and it’s only now that some of the ancient footprints at White Sands have been dated as the earliest in North America.

“We’d been suspicious of the age for a while, and so now we finally have that it’s really exciting,” Bustos said. “One of the neat things is that you can see mammoth prints in the layers a meter or so above the human footprints, so that just helps to confirm the whole story.”

The footprints at White Sands were dated by examining the seeds of an aquatic plant that once thrived along the shores of the dried-up lake, Ruppia cirrhosa, commonly known as ditchgrass. According to research published Thursday in the journal Science and co-authored by Bustos, the ancient ditchgrass seeds were found in layers of hard earth both above and below the many human footprints at the site, and they were radiocarbon-dated to determine their age.

The tracks at one location have been revealed as both the earliest known footprints and the oldest firm evidence of humans anywhere in the Americas, showing that people lived there 21,000 to 23,000 years ago — several thousand years earlier than scientists once believed.

More at the link

The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet

Hobby Lobby is a chain of big-box craft stores in the United States, privately held by David Green. Green is a committed Christian: he is a major donor to evangelical causes and keeps Hobby Lobby closed on Sundays. This stance earned him a certain notoriety back in 2014, when he successfully sued the government to be exempt from the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. He was not against contraception as such, just the obligation to fund “Plan B” drugs and IUDs, which prevent fertilized embryos from implanting themselves in the uterine wall, and thus constitute baby-killing, as far as he is concerned. A lot of people were upset about this – but not the sort of people who tend to shop at Hobby Lobby, so the chain abides.

Green’s major vanity project is the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. I certainly think that such an important book is worthy of a museum, although how it is presented will of course be controversial (“It’s not really a museum of the Bible, it’s a museum of American Protestantism” – Biblical scholar Candida Moss). An even bigger problem with the place has been how it acquires its material. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Arab Spring in 2011, there has been a great deal of instability in the Middle East, and thus a thriving black market for antiquities, which the Museum of the Bible has participated in – even, perhaps, funding ISIS in doing so! In 2018, the Museum returned some 5500 artifacts to Iraq, and agreed to pay a $3 million fine as punishment for illegally importing them. The latest news that the Museum has been stripped of the so-called Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a clay tablet measuring five by six inches and inscribed in Sumerian cuneiform, which will also go back to its country of origin. This one actually disappeared in the wake of the first Iraq War in 1991, and was purchased at auction at Christie’s in London in 2014, so the Museum is not entirely at fault here. Nonetheless, it would be nice if they applied the same scrupulosity to their acquisitions that Mr. Green does towards contraception.

Museums in St. Louis

In addition to the Civil War Museum, enjoyed a couple of other interesting ones:

• The World Chess Hall of Fame in the Central West End. It’s not a history museum as such, but it’s very well done. At the time of our visit, the first floor housed a display of historic and exotic chess sets, the second a temporary exhibit on “Chess Dining and Decor,” and the third a feature on child chess prodigies. The “Hall of Fame” as such was simply a large touch screen that allowed a visitor to look up all the big names, like Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky, Garry Kasparov, or José Raúl Capablanca. The museum is also marked from the outside by the “world’s biggest chess piece.” 

This chess piece is a king, of course (although whether it is “white” or “black” seems ambiguous). It is in the standard “Staunton” form, designed in the mid-nineteenth century and named for the English chess master Howard Staunton. The vast majority of chess sets sold today are Staunton sets, but there is no reason why you can’t mix things up a bit if you want! Here are some of the more interesting ones on display at the WCHOF:

An Austrian chess set, carved c. 1953 and representing a medieval court. 

A Ramayana-themed chess set from India from the early twentieth century.

A Chinese chess set from the mid-twentieth century. This one was most interesting – each piece was elaborately carved, and no two were alike. The rooks, knights, bishops, and all pawns took different forms, and the two sides didn’t even mirror each other (i.e. there were four different forms of rook, knight, and bishop, and sixteen different forms of pawn). 

A “safari” chess set from Kenya (early 21st century). 

A papier-mâché set from Mexico (1978). 

A Minoan-themed chess set by artist Christoforos Sklavenitis (1975). 

On the second floor: a “diner” chess set…

…and some chess-themed large-format magazine advertisements from the mid-twentieth century. Apparently chess was quite popular with middle and even working-class America back then. Who knew?

• The St. Louis Art Museum, currently featuring an exhibit on ancient Nubia, which was up the Nile River from Egypt and unsurprisingly shared much in common with it. But the precise relationship between these two cultural centers is a matter of debate, and inevitably informed by racial politics. That is, Nubians were much more phenotypically sub-Saharan than Egyptians were, which meant that Western archaeologists historically dismissed Nubian culture, seeing it as entirely derivative. In reaction, contemporary scholars have emphasized Nubian creativity and power, such as during the Bronze Age Kerma Period (Egyptian artifacts found at Kerma are likely the result of a Nubian raid into Upper Egypt, not because the Egyptians had established an outpost there) or during the Napatan period (eighth-seventh centuries BC) when Nubia actually ruled Egypt as the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty.

Some other distinctions:

Shawabtis (votive figurines buried with the dead) were indeed borrowed from Egypt, as you can see, but in Nubia they were reserved for royal use, and grew quite large in size and number. Some Nubian kings had collections bordering on the scale of Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army. 

Wikipedia.

Apparently there are more extant pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt, particularly from the Meroitic Period (sixth century BC-fourth century AD). They are generally smaller in size and more acute in shape than their Egyptian counterparts.

Napatan rulers had a fondness for horses, and buried them adorned with faience trappings. 

The Kerma period produced a distinctive style of pottery. 

Sudan is now on my bucket list!

The Lost Golden City

News of an interesting archaeological find from National Geographic:

‘Lost golden city of Luxor’ discovered by archaeologists in Egypt

The 3,400-year-old royal city was built by Amenhotep III, abandoned by his heretic son, Akhenaten, and contains stunningly preserved remains.

Three thousand four hundred years ago, a contentious ancient Egyptian king abandoned his name, his religion, and his capital in Thebes (modern Luxor). Archaeologists know what happened next: The pharaoh Akhenaten built the short-lived city of Akhetaten, where he ruled alongside his wife, Nefertiti and worshipped the sun. After his death, his young son Tutankhamun became ruler of Egypt—and turned his back on his father’s controversial legacy.But why did Akhenaten abandon Thebes, which had been the capital of ancient Egypt for more than 150 years? Answers may lie in the discovery of an industrial royal metropolis within Thebes that Akhenaten inherited from his father, Amenhotep III. The find, which has been dubbed the “lost golden city of Luxor” in an announcement released today, will generate as much enthusiasm, speculation, and controversy as the renegade pharaoh who left it.

Because the city was initially discovered just in September of last year, archaeologists have only scratched the surface of the sprawling site, and understanding where this discovery ranks in Egyptological importance is hard to say at this time. The level of preservation found so far, however, has impressed researchers.

“There’s no doubt about it; it really is a phenomenal find,” says Salima Ikram, an archaeologist who leads the American University in Cairo’s Egyptology unit. “It’s very much a snapshot in time—an Egyptian version of Pompeii.”

The site dates from the era of 18th-dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III, who ruled between around 1386 and 1353 B.C. and presided over an era of extraordinary wealth, power and luxury. In Amenhotep III’s final years, he is thought to have briefly reigned alongside his son, Akhenaten.

But a few years after his father’s death, Akhenaten, who ruled from around 1353–1336, broke with everything the late ruler stood for. During his 17-year reign, he upended Egyptian culture, abandoning all of the traditional Egyptian pantheon but one, the sun god Aten. He even changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten, which means “devoted to Aten.”  

More at the link.

Blue Beads in Alaska

From Gizmodo (hat tip: Robert Black):

Found in Alaska, These Blue Beads Could Be the Oldest Evidence of European Goods in North America

 
European-crafted glass beads found at three different indigenous sites in northern Alaska date back to the pre-colonial period of North America, in what is an intriguing archaeological discovery.

Somehow, these blueberry-sized beads made their way from what is now Venice, Italy, to the Brooks Range mountains of Alaska at some point during the mid-to-late 15th century, according to new research published in American Antiquity.

The authors of the paper, archaeologists Michael Kunz from the University of Alaska Museum of the North and Robin Mills from the Bureau of Land Management, suspect the beads were trade goods that, after passing through China’s Silk Road, eventually made their way through Siberia and eventually into Alaska via the Bering Strait. If confirmed, it would be “the first documented instance of the presence of indubitable European materials in prehistoric sites in the Western Hemisphere as the result of overland transport across the Eurasian continent,” the authors wrote in their study.

No biggie, right? In other words, indigenous North Americans had their hands on Renaissance jewelry prior to the arrival of European colonists, if this interpretation is correct. Mind blown.

These glass beads, with regional names like “Early Blue” and “Ichtucknee Plain” and scientifically known as the “IIa40” variety, have been found in North America before, including the Caribbean, the eastern coast of Central and North America, and the eastern Great Lakes region, but those finds date back to between 1550 and 1750. In case you flunked grade 2 history, Christopher Columbus reached the Americas in 1492. Dating these beads to the pre-colonial era is thus very significant.

Read the whole thing

Presumably the “Dung Gate”

From Newsweek (hat tip: Tim Furnish):

Toilet Found in 3,000-Year-Old Shrine Verifies Bible Stories Against Idol Worship

Archaeologists have discovered a symbolic toilet from the eighth century B.C. in Jerusalem that could be a clue to religious reforms in the Kingdom of Judah. Religious reforms, in this case, is a euphemism for quite literally defecating on the holy places one wishes to drive out of business.

The stone toilet sits in Tel Lachish, a sprawling Iron Age city and the Kingdom of Judah’s most important one after the capitol, Jerusalem. It was found in what the archaeologists believe to be a gate-shrine within Israel’s largest ancient city gate. The ruler at that time, King Hezekiah, enacted campaigns of religious worship and reform that made their way into the Hebrew Bible on multiple occasions.

In one corner of the shrine sits a stone seat with a hole in the center. The archaeologists believe that not only is it definitely a toilet, it’s a toilet that was installed for the express purpose of literally desecrating the shrine. Hezekiah, it seems, was just following instructions against idol worship in the scriptures:

“Then they demolished the pillar of Baal, and destroyed the temple of Baal, and made it a latrine to this day” (2 Kings 10:27).

Sa’ar Ganor and Igor Kreimerman, the archaeologists who conducted the excavations on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), described their work in the article “Going to the Bathroom at Lachish” in the November/December 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

More at the link.

Bronze Age Cash

From UPI (hat tip: Glenn Reynolds):

Objects suggest Europeans used standardized money 4,000 years ago

New research suggests groups of farmers living in Central Europe were exchanging standardized money — in the form of bronze rings and ribs — during the early Bronze Age, nearly 4,000 years ago.

According to the latest archaeological analysis, described Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, the use of standardized money in Central Europe may have developed independently from money systems that emerged in the Far East and Mediterranean.

Throughout the 20th century, hoards of rings, ribs and axe blades made of bronze have been recovered from early Bronze Age archaeological sites in Europe.

Most have been found in Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland and Poland, but also in France in Denmark.

Researchers have previously surmised that these bronze objects, of similar size, shape and weight, constituted a primitive money supply.

However, proving as much has proven difficult.

“It’s an idea that has been around for some time. There’s a paper by a German professor, Majolie Lenerz-de Wilde, from the nineties who had a first go at trying to show this using histograms,” study author Maikel Kuijpers told UPI in an email.

“The problem is that such a method does not work very well. So, it remained a plausible but poorly evidence suggestion,” said Kuijpers, an assistant professor of European prehistory at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Instead of relying on histograms — the visualization of numerical data — Kuijpers and Leiden colleague Catalin Popa used a psychology principle called the Weber fraction to analyze more than 5,000 bronze objects.

“We went back to this data, added a lot more and — importantly — developed a novel method to calculate standardization from the perspective that people in the past were not weighing with the use of scales, but with their hands,” Kuijpers said.

The Weber fraction describes differences in weight that are imperceptible to human hands – when two objects are similar enough in weight, they feel the same in a person’s hands.

Researchers determined 70 percent of the bronze rings were within the Weber fraction. Smaller but significant portions of the ribs and axes also fell within the Weber fraction.

More (including pictures) at the link.

News from Pompeii

From Reuters:

Archaeologists uncover ancient street food shop in Pompeii

ROME (Reuters) – Archaeologists in Pompeii, the city buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 AD, have made the extraordinary find of a frescoed hot food and drinks shop that served up the ancient equivalent of street food to Roman passersby.

Known as a termopolium, Latin for hot drinks counter, the shop was discovered in the archaeological park’s Regio V site, which is not yet open the public, and unveiled on Saturday.

Traces of nearly 2,000-year-old food were found in some of the deep terra cotta jars containing hot food which the shop keeper lowered into a counter with circular holes.

The front of the counter was decorated with brightly coloured frescoes, some depicting animals that were part of the ingredients in the food sold, such as a chicken and two ducks hanging upside down.

“This is an extraordinary find. It’s the first time we are excavating an entire termopolium,” said Massimo Ossana, director of the Pompeii archaeological park.

Archaeologists also found a decorated bronze drinking bowl known as a patera, ceramic jars used for cooking stews and soups, wine flasks and amphora.

More (including photos) at the link

Mayan Plumbing

From Smithsonian Magazine (hat tip: Dan Franke):

Researchers Uncover 2,000-Year-Old Maya Water Filtration System

The city of Tikal purified one of its reservoirs with technology comparable to modern systems

More than 2,000 years ago, the Maya built a complex water filtration system out of materials collected miles away. Now, reports Michelle Starr for Science Alert, researchers conducting excavations at the ancient city of Tikal in northern Guatemala have discovered traces of this millennia-old engineering marvel.

As detailed in the journal Scientific Reports, the study’s authors found that the Maya built the Corriental reservoir filtration system as early as 2,185 years ago, not long after settlement of Tikal began around 300 B.C.

The system—which relied on crystalline quartz and zeolite, a compound of silicon and aluminum, to create what the researchers call a “molecular sieve” capable of removing harmful microbes, heavy metals and other pollutants—remained in use until the city’s abandonment around 1100. Today, the same minerals are used in modern water filtration systems.

More at the link

An Age of Plunder

From the New York Times (hat tip: Dan Franke): a review of Toby Wilkinson, A World Beneath the Sands: The Golden Age of Egyptology

No civilization has visited itself upon the Western imagination as powerfully as that of ancient Egypt. With its fathomless mystery, its architectural majesty, its artistic inspiration, civic order and sheer volume of wealth, ancient Egypt has captivated us and compelled us not just to understand it but to possess it — to literally grab our shovels, dig up its stuff and haul it home with us.

Who’s “us”? By all accounts just about everybody in history who found himself in Egypt while the digging was easy, and even long after Egyptian law made it difficult. The idea was that possession of a nice piece of ancient Egyptian art would lend a stamp of legitimacy — a greater greatness, let’s say — to any empire or, indeed, any private back garden in Dorset. The Greeks pondered it, the Romans started it and various Europeans got awfully good at it. But, as the Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson demonstrates in his excellent new book, “A World Beneath the Sands,” nobody in history succumbed more feverishly to the compulsion to take hold of ancient Egypt nor succeeded at it more thoroughly than the British and the French.

Wilkinson’s ambitious focus is the hundred years of Egyptology between Jean-Francois Champollion’s groundbreaking deciphering of the Rosetta stone in 1822 and Howard Carter’s sensational discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. During that century of exploration and excavation the science of Egyptology was shaped as much by benevolent curiosity and genuine scholarly interest as by the cutthroat imperialist rivalry between Britain and France.

Both nations had a burning desire to best the other in the struggle to gain control of Egypt politically and archaeologically, and both used the Egyptian collections in their national museums — the Louvre and the British Museum — as the measure and symbol of their success. Whoever seized the biggest statues and tallest obelisks, whoever got the best and the most of Egyptian antiquity and lugged it home and filled their museum with it would be the de facto winner. Winner of what exactly isn’t Wilkinson’s present concern, but his evidence suggests it meant more than just colonial expansion or the crucial access to India that Egypt offered. The bitter contest was, it seems, as much pathological as it was practical.

Read the whole thing, and also Brian Fagan, The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt (2004).