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Modern Archaeology

November 11, 2007

By Fagan, Brian

Archaeology continues to be an irresistible lure to publishers, broadcasters and the general public. And the last fifteen years have seen an extraordinary number of spectacular finds across the globe and equally spectacular revelations from ever more sophisticated lab techniques. Brian Fagan, who has taught archaeology since the 1960s, reviews the brave new world of modern archaeological discovery. THE TERRACOTTA ARMY, the royal tombs of Ur, and Olduvai Gorge’s Zinjanthropus boisei: some archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century are household names. However, for the most part, we excavators work in quiet anonymity, far from the blaring headlines, despite the efforts of university public relations officers to promote even a minor find as being of international significance. In the popular eye we’re still romantic figures, perhaps a trifle eccentric, who poke into royal tombs and dig in the shadow of pyramids. The epic work of Austen Henry Layard at Nineveh and of John Lloyd Stephens in the Maya rainforest in the 1840s, and of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy and Mycenae a generation later, set the tone. Lost civilizations emerging from clinging vines, and, above all, pharaohs’ gold, are irresistible lures for the romantically inclined. That redoubtable traveller Rose Macaulay was seduced by her rambles through long-deserted cities, and wrote in her classic travelogue The Pleasure of Ruins (1953) of ‘the marble and gold of palaces, the laurel and jasmine of gardens, [that] are now brambles and lagoons; the house built for Caesar is now dwelt in by lizards.’ The study of the past, though now a highly specialized science, will never escape the lure of ruins.

Part of the romance of discovery comes from the personalities of the major archaeologists of a century ago. Hollywood’s Indiana Jones is said to be a composite of at least three genuine excavators of yesteryear. Many of the great discoverers were compelling figures, such as Leonard Woolley of Ur (1880-1960) or Harriet Hawes (1871- 1945) who excavated the Minoan village at Gournia on Crete almost alone in the first years of the twentieth century, when the site was inaccessible except by mule; or palaeoanthropologists Louis (1880- 1960) and Mary Leakey (1913-96) of Olduvai Gorge fame.

The world of archaeology was an intellectual village in their day, where everyone knew everyone else and the gossip was ferocious. Just a handful worked outside the narrow confines of Europe, the Mediterranean, and North America. In 1959, the year Mary Leakey found Zinjanthropus, there were under a dozen archaeologists in sub- Saharan Africa and less than a handful in Australia and New Zealand. Considering the small numbers and the shoestring budgets, the quantity of important discoveries was astonishing.

Today, the number of archaeologists working around the world has mushroomed to perhaps 10,000. Many of them are engaged in heritage and monuments administration, but a large number are actively involved in excavation and discovery. The great expansion of archaeology coincided with the explosion of higher education during the 1960s, at the same time as radiocarbon dating burst on the study of the remote past like a thunderclap. I vividly remember the nervous frisson that swept through our comfortable world when radiocarbon samples suddenly dated the beginnings of agriculture in southwestern Asia previously thought to have occurred in the fifth millennium BC – to 6,000 BC and then even earlier. Soon afterward another new method, potassium argon dating, pushed human origins back to at least 2 million years ago. More recently, even earlier human ancestors date to at least 4 million.

Today’s archaeology bears less and less resemblance to that of a half century ago. The best excavators of the 1950s were maestros of their craft. Their successors have refined digging and archaeological survey into a fine-grained science, by the use of subsurface radar and other technologies to probe the earth, and by close collaboration with scientists from many disciplines – everyone from botanists to ice-core climatologists, even beetle and earthworm specialists. Many recent discoveries have come from the laboratory rather than the trench, through work on hominin fossils, artefacts, on human bone and occasionally surviving tissue, and from cutting- edge research on ancient DNA. We can ‘excavate’ a person’s ancestry through their genes, trace their lives through bone strontium, and analyze the traces of their last meals from pottery buried with them in their tombs. We know more about the medical history of pharaoh Rameses II than he did himself. We’ve become experts on ancient feasts and emperors’ wines, on sources of stone axes and the conservation of ancient mummies.

Yet, we too are enjoying a triumphal era of archaeological exploration. More important discoveries have been made in the past fifteen years than since Victorian times. We may not discover a forgotten civilization in a week or excavate entire cities with huge armies of local workers as our forebears could do, but today’s discoveries are equally dazzling in their range and complexity. Archaeological finds still encompass the golden and the spectacular, witness the flamboyant tombs of the Moche Lords of Sipan, dating to about AD 400, found on Peru’s north coast in 1989. But most major discoveries reveal the lives of ordinary people, the folk who laboured far from the limelight. The great strengths of archaeology lie in its ability to study human societies as they change over enormous periods of time, and to look at them as functioning entities, not just at royal courts or richly adorned cemeteries. And at places like medieval Winchester or Colonial Jamestown in Virginia, the spade still does much to flesh out historical records and to reveal the bustling diversity of medieval and early modern communities.

Many of the revelations of recent years have transformed our knowledge of early human evolution, from a ladder-like progression to an intricate tree of evolving hominins. We are now certain that tropical Africa was the cradle of human-kind over 4 million years ago. We also know that an astounding diversity of potential human ancestors roamed the East African savanna between 2 and 3 million years ago, among them the genus Homo, known from East Turkana in northern Kenya and from Ethiopia’s Afar. New fossil discoveries tell us that Don Johanson’s famous Lucy, the diminutive 4-million-year- old Ethiopian hominin known as Australopithecus afarensis which he found in 1974, had gorilla-like characteristics, but walked upright and was at home in the trees. We also now know that by 2 million years ago more advanced humans, generically known as Homo erectus, had appeared in Africa and that some of their descendants were living in what is now Georgia in Central Asia 1.8 million years ago. And a remarkable find of about eighty human fossil fragments, many of them children, in deep caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain, dates to about 780,000 years ago – remote ancestors of the Neanderthals.

One of the great controversies of archaeology revolves around the origins of Homo sapiens, but the discoveries of recent years leave us in little doubt that our ancestry lies in subSaharan Africa. The 1980s brought mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) into the headlines, DNA that is inherited through the female line, with the then-controversial theory of an African Eve, of genetically ancestral populations south of the Sahara about 180,000 years ago. Then came the discovery by Tim White of Homo sapiens skulls at Herto in eastern Ethiopia which date to about 160,000 years ago, and a raft of less well-known discoveries that revealed traces of more modern human behaviour in many places throughout Africa in later millennia.

Another scientific advance, Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating, now allows us to date tiny specks of charcoal, even individual seeds, and this has enabled us to trace the great diaspora that carried modern humans through the late Ice Age world in the last 100,000 years. Thanks to AMS, we now know that modern humans had replaced Neanderthals in Europe after 45,000 years ago. (DNA from Neanderthal bones shows that the two populations could not interbreed.) Homo sapiens was well established in East Asia before 60,000 years ago, in Australia and New Guinea by 45,000, and on the Solomon Islands by 30,000. There were Ice Age wallaby hunters in Tasmania by 35,000 years ago. But many enigmas remain, notable among them the diminutive humans excavated on the island of Flores, Indonesia, dating to about 18,000 years ago. Do these people, nicknamed the Hobbits, and known scientifically as Homo floresiensis, represent an entirely new species of dwarf human, or are they medically abnormal? The jury is still out.

Three quarters of a century ago, the prehistorian Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957), a genius at popularizing archaeology, wrote of a ‘Neolithic Revolution’ in southwestern Asia, which saw people domesticate crops and animals and settle down in permanent villages, a development that he claimed to have taken place in southwestern Asia around 4,000 BC. Today, new excavations and sophisticated flotation methods that recover large samples of wild and domesticated seeds by passing them through fine sieves and water, show that the origins of farming and animal domestication go back to at least 9,000 BC. The German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt has shown that human society had changed dramatically even before agriculture began. At Gobelki Tepe in southeastern Turkey, he has uncovered a series of subterranean shrines with carved monoliths, which appear to be places that commemorated the dead, the ancestors. Such a concern may have developed as growing populations of hunter- gatherers exploited eversmaller territories and developed much closer ties to ancestral lands. Hawaii, New Zealand, and Rapa Nui, some of the most remote landmasses on Earth, had been settled by Polynesians by about AD 800. Meticulous excavations and AMS radiocarbon dates are now pinpointing the dates of first settlement with much greater precision, but mysteries remain. Did Polynesians sail even further eastward and land on the coast of South America? The answer may come from the DNA extracted from bones of chickens. A handful of bones from a site in Peru share identical DNA with Polynesian birds, hinting at human contact between native Americans and Polynesians at least a century before the Spaniards arrived in the Americas.

The Sutton Hoo ship, the Maya lord at Tikal in Guatemala – some of archaeology’s most dramatic finds are tombs, graves, and mummies. The past two decades have produced more sensational burials from southwestern Asia. Iraqi archaeologists have unearthed the sepulchres of three Assyrian queens of the eighth century BC, buried under the floor of a palace at Nimrud. An international team of excavators has uncovered the undisturbed tombs of at least three generations of kings at Qatna, Syria, from the sixteenth century BC. Qatna itself was a powerful state between 1900 and 1350 BC, a dominant but now little-known partner in eastern Mediterranean trade for many centuries. Other burial discoveries, like those of the Golden Mummies at Bahariyah, Egypt, made international headlines. But perhaps the most remarkable discoveries involve less exalted individuals, like the Amesbury Archer, buried near Stonehenge in about 2470 BC. Strontium analysis of his teeth reveals that he was brought up in Central Europe, startling testimony to the distances that people travelled during the Early Bronze Age. The archer was a metalsmith, perhaps one of the first in Britain, which may account for his high prestige.

Royal tombs and art have always gone hand-in-hand. Even before the days of states and monarchs, the artistic traditions of the past are closely tied to belief and ritual, which is why the sensational discovery in 1994 of the Chauvet cave in France’s Ardeche is of such importance. It is a magnificent gallery of Cro-Magnon art that has been sealed since at least 24,000 years ago. The earliest paintings date to at least 31,000 years ago and are of a level of sophistication that rivals the famous friezes at Altamira and Lascaux, which are half their age. (So is an ivory mammoth figurine of 35,000 years ago found in Vogelherd cave in southern Germany in 2005.) Even more importantly, Chauvet will give us unparalleled insights into some of the rituals that unfolded in the dark cave. And thanks to AMS radiocarbon dating, it will be possible to decipher the multiple layers of animal drawings on the walls.

In 2001, the Mayan archaeologist William Saturno made a stunning find of early Maya art in a buried room at San Bartolo, Guatemala, a frieze of the creation featuring the Maize God of primordial tradition and some of the earliest known Maya glyphs, dating to between 400 and 200 BC. In Maya society, and many others of the past, there was no boundary between the world of the living and the supernatural realm which is why it is important that we attempt to comprehend the intangible. Much cutting-edge research in archaeology now focuses on religion and ideology, topics considered inaccessible a generation ago. For instance, the lords of Moche, a coastal Peruvian state of the early first millennium AD, were aware that coastal fisheries would occasionally be interrupted by what we now call El Nino episodes, when the ocean currents temporarily reverse. The anchovy fisheries would vanish as cold water ceased to flow to the sea surface. Exotic tropical fish brought by a south-flowing current appeared off the Moche homeland; at the same time, savage rainstorms would descend on the coastal desert and generations of irrigation works would be swept away within hours. In 1995 Steve Bourget of the University of Texas and a team of Peruvian colleagues uncovered the remains of sacrificial victims in a small plaza at the great Moche shrine of Huaca del Luna, where they also found murals of tropical fish such as eagle rays and swimming crabs. This suggests that the Moche lords incorporated the hazards of El Ninos into the complex ideology that propagated their special relationship to the supernatural world. Such ideology gave these lords with the authority to rule during periods of chaos, when the people might question their infallibility as divine rulers.

The broad sweep of archaeological discovery covers all time periods, and includes sites above and below water and long forgotten cities. It has also moved into much more recent times. William Kelso has uncovered the foundations of the first English houses in North America at the 1607 settlement of Jamestown, Virginia despite the almost universal historical and scientific opinion that the entire settlement had been washed away by the waters of the James River. Kelso eventually located the remains of an entire lost settlement, and thousands of artefacts from it. The Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady Sous did the same when she investigated the extensive plazas and pyramids of the 4,600 year-old city of Caral on the Peruvian coast north of Lima in the late 1990s. This remarkable settlement extends the date of cities in the Andes back in time by more than 2,000 years.

Archaeology particularly excels when it uncovers people with no trace in the historical record, the anonymous artisans and labourers who laboured in the shadows, building pyramids, temples, and fortifications. Mark Lehner has spent several field seasons exploring the longvanished workers’ community close to the pyramids of Giza. He uncovered dwellings, the town cemetery, which tells us much about the skilled artisans of Giza, and the facilities where teams of labourers baked bread and prepared the dried fish that were the staple rations of the entire pyramid workforce. Lehner’s finds and recent survey work on the Giza Plateau is transforming our understanding of the pyramids and those who built them.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of archaeology in the past two decades is the way in which excavation after excavation has been able to document the great, often unsuspected, diversity of ancient societies, not only in the teeming streets of growing cities, but in ethnic enclaves, slave plantations, and military barracks. Time and again, as was the case in Annapolis, Maryland, where finds of African ritual artefacts show how anonymous groups like slaves tried to maintain their cultural identities in the face of oppression and powerful doctrines of social inequality.

Archaeologists have long sought the past under the surface of the oceans, since scuba-diving technology has provided a means of investigating ancient shipwrecks. Among them is the Uluburun ship, which foundered off southern Turkey in 1310 BC, laden with a rich cargo from at least ten regions of the eastern Mediterranean world, and which was excavated over eleven years up to 1994. Underwater archaeology is not a treasure hunt, as many people still believe, but it has the same goals as excavation on land – to understand human behaviour. The underwater discoveries of recent years result from investigations that have this firmly in mind. Some boats may even be excavated on land: David O’Connor and Matthew Douglas Adams have studied some of the world’s earliest boats far up the Nile at Abydos, and have shown how boats played a fundamental role in ensuring the immortality of the earliest pharaohs. At the mouth of the Nile, the French scholar Franck Goddio is mapping Alexandria’s imposing Classical harbour and also investigating warships sunk during the epochal Battle of Aboukir Bay in 1798, where Nelson destroyed an anchored French fleet.

Underwater investigations involve complex detective work, which continues long after excavation is complete. Thirty years of investigation has produced a remarkably complete portrait of the warship HMS Pandora, wrecked on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, while transporting Bounty mutineers in 1791. The wreck of the American Civil War submarine Hunley was discovered in 2000, and research on its crew members is still in its early stages as technicians probe delicately through the compacted sludge of the interior.

A century ago, the archaeologist was usually an amateur, casually trained and often working in a remote land with few assistants. Excavators like Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings, Alfred Kidder in the southwestern United States, and Leonard Woolley in Mesopotamia had a genius for improvisation on minimal budgets. Carter moved Tutankhamun’s treasures in mining cars along track relaid every few hundred metres, in 100[degrees]F (37[degrees]C) heat. Woolley recovered the wooden frame of a Sumerian lyre by the simple expedient of pouring plaster of paris into small holes in the ground. Such achievements pale alongside the miracles of modern science, which allows a researcher to reconstruct the countenances of our forebears, to trace ancestry with DNA, and to work with European climatic records deduced from tree-ring sequences that extend back over 10,000 years. From solitary adventurers, we have turned into team workers, with much of our work conducted far from the heat of a trench. Many of the most sensational discoveries of the twentyfirst century will come in the laboratory. Today we can locate new sites from space, tell the direction of the wind on the day of an ancient hunt, and say whether a stoneworker of 10,000 years ago was left-handed. We may have accounted for the world’s ‘lost’ civilizations, but the work of understanding those who created them and our humbler forebears has hardly begun. The soil still holds many secrets, but it doesn’t take a genius to predict the most spectacular find of the coming century. The great burial mound of China’s First Emperor Shi Huangdi, who died in 210 BC, remains unexplored. The sheer scale of his mausoleum beggars the imagination. The terracotta regiment and other offerings unearthed around the sepulchre hint at the extraordinary riches inside the burial mound. Shi Huangdi’s tomb is said to contain a map of China with the rivers delineated in mercury. Remote sensing has detected traces of a large wooden structure inside the mound. So far Chinese authorities have postponed any excavations, on the grounds that they lack the resources and skills needed to investigate this ultimate in royal sepulchres. But when they do, the finds will surely dwarf those of other ancient rulers.

Above: A robot rover being placed in a small shaft on the southern wall of a tomb chamber in the Great Pyramid at Giza, in September 2002. After 60 metres, it reached a stone ‘door’, through which it drilled a hole, revealing a second ‘door’; their meaning and origins remain unknown. Opposite above: the skull of Homo Floresiensis, a one-metre tall humanoid of a previously unknown species discovered in the Philippines in 2004, and dating to just 12,000 years ago.

Below: Seahenge, a wooden circle with an upturned tree stump in the centre, found in Norfolk in 1998. Dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating indicate construction began in spring or early summer, 2049 BC.

The largest known hoard of Viking silver was found at Spillings, on the Swedish island of Gotland, in 1999, comprising more than 14,000 coins of AD 530-870 and 500 arm rings (below) which were also used as a form of money.

Above: a reconstructed gold mask, over 100 centimetres high, from the Sican, or Lambayeque, culture which flourished AD 900-1100 in the northern coastal region of Peru. This region has produced spectacular finds in recent years. Two tombs in the Huaca Loro pyramid were excavated in the early 1990s by Japanese archaeologist Izumi Shimada; the eastern one revealed more than a ton of grave goods, two-thirds of which were bronze, silver or gold. The king, surrounded by sacrificed women, was buried upside down, his decapitated head placed in front of him; close by was a female skeleton with her legs wide open. The positions of the two apparently were carefully choreographed to symbolize the latter’s rebirth.

Right: a Siberian mummy is studied in a laboratory in Moscow.

The Nebra Sky Disk, the oldest representation of the heavens in the world, was unearthed by metal detectorists illegally in Germany in 1999, and secretly put on sale. Dating from 1600 BC, it shows the Moon and the Pleiades, and by allowing the harmonization of the solar and lunar years, it could have been used as a calendar. The arcs on the left and right, and at the bottom, were all added at a later, unknown, date.

A team of Finnish and Bolivian archaeologists found a remarkable hoard of 500 ceramic vessels on an island on Lake Titicaca in 2004- 05. From the Tiwanaku culture (AD 500-1100), these provide a new insight into the life and tunes of the pre-Inca Andean people.

Egypt continues to produce remarkable archaeological discoveries, despite more than 200 years of work there. Since the early 1990s Mark Lehner has been excavating ‘pyramid city’, the town at Giza built for the tens of thousands of workers on the pyramids (below). He has revealed a planned city of barracks, cooking areas, bakeries, administrative regions and a paved and drained main street, and revealed that the workers were well fed on beef and other meat Meanwhile the French archaeologist Franck Goddio has been diving off the Ptolemaic and classical city of Alexandria, since 1992. The statue of Hapi, god of the Nile inundation (left), is the largest known, and was found at Heracleion, off Aboukir Bay. Other finds offer an incredible snapshot of Egyptian life, economic conditions and trade.

The science of facial reconstruction based on CT scans of the skull has dramatically aided the popular understanding of archaeological research. Other techniques have also helped bring the dead to life. The teeth of the Spitalfields Lady (reconstruction, left), an elite 4th-century Roman burial in London found in 1999, were shown by their DNA to match to present populations of the Basque region of Spain, while study of their oxygen isotopes that are produced from drinking water suggest she was brought up in southern Europe. Her coffin contained silk from the eastern Mediterranean, and her head rested on a pillow of bay leaves.

The Ringlemere Gold Cup, found at Sandwich in Kent in 2001, is a Bronze Age treasure recovered by a metal detectorist. Originally made from a single ingot of gold with a pointed base, it has been crushed in modern times by farming equipment. The number of ancient objects found by amateurs in Britain and brought to the attention of professional archaeologists has risen dramatically in the last ten years with the introduction of new legislation on ownership and the rights of the finder and the land-owner.

The Chauvet Cave is named after one of the cavers who discovered it in December 1994. As well as the 420 Upper Palaeolithic paintings and engravings of animals, the cave floor revealed footprints, flints and charcoal, and animal skulls have been carefully arranged. Professional study of the cave began in 1998.

Analysis of ice cores has improved knowledge of ancient climate change. Cores from Antarctica go back over 400,000 years, and those from Greenland indicate rapid wanning immediately after the last Ice Age and document a 1,000-year cold snap of 10,800 BC, which plunged Europe into near-glacial conditions. Study of seacores have revealed that in 5500 BC the Mediterranean broke through the land barrier and created the Black Sea.

In 1996 a trove of mid-6th-century Buddhist sculptures was unearthed by workmen levelling a sports field in Qingzhou, in Shandong province of China. More than 400 statues were recovered, dramatically changing perceptions of the history of this area, previously thought to have been a cultural backwater at that time.

In 1991 a body was found in the ice of the high Alps near the Austrian-Italian border, so well preserved that initially it was thought to be that of a modern mountaineer. It turned out to be a uniquely well-preserved Bronze-Age hunter with a copper axe and flint dagger, who had an arrow-head embedded in his back. Dated to 5300 BC, ‘Oetzi the Iceman’ became an archaeological celebrity; his leather shoes, fur leggings and grass cape survive, along with his bow and arrows. Analysis of the contents of his gut offer information on his diet, and a recent CT scan suggests he may have died from a wound to the head.

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Brian M. Pagan is emeritus professor of Archaeology at the University of California and the Editor of Discoveryl Unearthing . the New Treasures of Archaeology (Thames & Hudson, 2007).

Copyright History Today Ltd. Nov 2007

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