Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Glyphs Detail Life of Mayan Priest

Mayan priest from National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

An ancient Mayan hieroglyphic script is providing details on the life of a high priest, including his blood sacrifices and acts of penance. The text consists of 260 glyphs carved into a series of seashell earrings and manta ray stingers found inside a burial urn that contained the remains of the important Maya priest.

The urn was uncovered during excavations 11 years ago in Comalcalco, in southeastern Tabasco state.

The text covers 14 years in the life of a Maya priest who lived in the eighth century A.D. It includes references to blood sacrifices and acts of penance preceding the spring solstice. Maya priests used manta ray stingers to pierce their earlobes, tongue, forehead, penis and other parts of the anatomy, in painful, bloodletting sacrifices to induce a hallucinogenic state in which they believed they could talk to their gods, INAH said.

One of the glyphs refers to the equivalent modern date of January 31, 771.

Click here for the AFP article.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Jesus-Era Dwelling Unearthed in Nazareth

A priest examines the excavation of the 2,000-year-old dwelling.

Archaeologists yesterday unveiled the first dwelling in Nazareth dating to the era of Jesus. At the time Jesus is believed to have lived, Nazareth was a hamlet of around 50 impoverished Jewish families. Today the ornate Basilica of the Annunciation marks the site, and Nazareth is the largest Arab city in northern Israel, with about 65,000 residents.

Two thousand years ago there were no Christians or Muslims ~ the Jewish Temple stood in Jerusalem ~ and tiny Nazareth stood near a battleground between Roman rulers and Jewish guerrillas. The Jews of Nazareth duggrottos to hide from Roman invaders, said archaeologist Yardena Alexandre, excavations director at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

According to the Associated Press:

Based on clay and chalk shards found at the site, the dwelling appeared to house a "simple Jewish family," Alexandre added, as workers carefully chipped away at mud with small pickaxes to reveal stone walls.

"This may well have been a place that Jesus and his contemporaries were familiar with," Alexandre said. A young Jesus may have played around the house with his cousins and friends. "It's a logical suggestion."

Archaeologist Stephen Pfann, president of the University of The Holy Land, noted: "It's the only witness that we have from that area that shows us what the walls and floors were like inside Nazareth in the first century."

Alexandre said workers uncovered the first signs of the dwelling last summer, but it became clear only this month that it was a structure from the days of Jesus.

Alexandre's team found remains of a wall, a hideout, a courtyard and a water system that appeared to collect water from the roof and supply it to the home. The discovery was made when builders dug up the courtyard of a former convent to make room for a new Christian center, just yards from the Basilica.

It is not clear how big the dwelling is. Alexandre's team has uncovered about 900 square feet of the house, but it may have been for an extended family and could be much larger, she said.

Click here for the Associated Press article.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Solstice

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice, 2003.

[Today is the Winter Solstice, one of the most venerated days throughout recorded history. Here, I’ve selected several paragraphs of interest from the relatively lengthy Winter Solstice write-up on Wikipedia.]

The Winter Solstice occurs when the earth's axial tilt is farthest from the sun at its maximum of 23° 26'. For most people in the high latitudes this is commonly known as the shortest day and the sun's daily maximum position in the sky is the lowest. The seasonal significance of the Winter Solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days.

. . . The solstice itself may have been a special moment of the annual cycle of the year even during neolithic times. Astronomical events, which during ancient times controlled the mating of animals, sowing of crops and metering of winter reserves between harvests, show how various cultural mythologies and traditions have arisen.

. . . The winter solstice may have been immensely important because communities were not certain of living through the winter, and had to be prepared during the previous nine months. Starvation was common in winter between January and April, also known as the famine months. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

. . . Since 45 BCE, when the 25th of December was established in the Julian calendar as the winter solstice of Europe, the difference between the calendar year (365.2500 days) and the tropical year (365.2422 days) moved the day associated with the actual astronomical solstice forward approximately three days every four centuries until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar, bringing the northern winter solstice to around December 21. Yearly, in the Gregorian calendar, the solstice still fluctuates slightly but in the long term, only about one day every 3000 years.

. . . Since the event is seen as the reversal of the Sun's ebbing presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods have been common and, in cultures using winter solstitially based cyclic calendars, the year as reborn has been celebrated with regard to life-death-rebirth deities or new beginnings such as Hogmanay's redding, a New Year cleaning tradition. In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses met on the winter and summer solstice, and Hades was permitted on Mount Olympus. Also reversal is another usual theme as in Saturnalia's slave and master reversals.

Click here for the Wikipedia entry.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Signs Found of Early Amazonian Civilization

Geoglyphs such as this on the Brazilian border are about 2000 years old.

Traces of a previously unknown ancient civilization are emerging from beneath the felled trees straddling Brazil's border with Bolivia.

The traditional view is that before the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese in the 15th century, there were no complex societies in the Amazon basin. Now deforestation, air travel and satellite imagery are indicating otherwise.

"It's never-ending," says Denise Schaan of the Federal University of Pará in Belém, Brazil. "Every week we find new structures."

Some of them are square or rectangular, while others form concentric circles or complex geometric figures such as hexagons and octagons connected by avenues or roads. The researchers describe them all as geoglyphs.

According to New Scientist:

Their discovery, in an area of northern Bolivia and western Brazil, follows other recent reports of vast sprawls of interconnected villages known as "garden cities" in north central Brazil, dating from around AD 1400. But the structures unearthed at the garden city sites are not as consistently similar or geometric as the geoglyphs, Schaan says.

"I firmly believe that the garden cities of Xingu and the geoglyphs were not directly related," says Martti Pärssinen of the Finnish Cultural and Academic Institutes in Madrid, Spain, who works with Schaan. "Nevertheless, both discoveries demonstrate that [upland] areas of western Amazonia were heavily populated much before the European incursion."

The geoglyphs are formed by ditches up to 11 metres wide and 1 to 2 metres deep. They range from 90 to 300 metres in diameter and are thought to date from around 2000 years ago up to the 13th century.

Click here for the New Scientist article.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Advanced Balkan Society Predated Greece, Rome

Front and back of fired-clay female figurine, circa 4050 BC.

Archaeologists and historians are assembling the history of a society that existed in the Balkan foothills around 5000 BC ~ long before the rise of Greece and Rome ~ and produced surprisingly advanced art, technology, and long-distance commerce. No one knows what these people called themselves, but historians are now labeling them simply “Old Europe.”

According to the New York Times:

For 1,500 years, starting earlier than 5000 B.C., they farmed and built sizable towns, a few with as many as 2,000 dwellings. They mastered large-scale copper smelting, the new technology of the age. Their graves held an impressive array of exquisite headdresses and necklaces and, in one cemetery, the earliest major assemblage of gold artifacts to be found anywhere in the world.

Until recently, the most recognizable artifacts from Old Europe were terracotta “goddess” figurines, originally regarded as evidence of the spiritual and political power of women in society.

Although excavations over the last century uncovered traces of ancient settlements and the goddess figurines, it was not until local archaeologists in 1972 discovered a large fifth-millennium B.C. cemetery at Varna, Bulgaria, that they began to suspect these were not poor people living in unstructured egalitarian societies. Even then, confined in cold war isolation behind the Iron Curtain, Bulgarians and Romanians were unable to spread their knowledge to the West.

The story now emerging is of pioneer farmers after about 6200 B.C. moving north into Old Europe from Greece and Macedonia, bringing wheat and barley seeds and domesticated cattle and sheep. They established colonies along the Black Sea and in the river plains and hills, and these evolved into related but somewhat distinct cultures, archaeologists have learned. The settlements maintained close contact through networks of trade in copper and gold and also shared patterns of ceramics.

New research, archaeologists and historians say, has broadened understanding of this long overlooked culture, which seemed to have approached the threshold of “civilization” status.

Click here for the New York Times article.

Fired clay architectural model from Old Europe, circa 4050 BC.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Like Greece, Temples in Sicily Face the Sunrise

Ruins of Greek temple at Selinunte on Sicily.

Nearly all temples constructed on the island of Sicily during its Greek period 2,500 years ago are oriented toward the eastern horizon, according to a new study by Alun Salt, an archaeoastronomer with the University of Leicester in England.

Though many temples on mainland Greece also line up with the sunrise, it is less frequent on the mainland than on outlying colonies, implying an effort by outlying colonies to strengthen their ties to the home territory, Salt tells LiveScience.

"If you were a Greek living in the Greek homeland, you knew you were Greek. The Greeks in Sicily were Greeks living at the edge of their world. They may have felt they had something to prove," says Salt, who noted that most temples in Sicily were also built on a larger scale than those in Greece proper.

According to LiveScience:

Temples were an important part of life in ancient Greece. Offerings to various gods were commonplace, as were rituals associated with the ancient Olympic Games. Temple ruins now dot the landscape of mainland Greece, with orientation favoring the sunrise in many, but not all.

Of the 41 temples in Sicily that date from the Greek period, however, only one of the doors doesn't face east, Salt found.

The phenomenon of east-facing temples may have been stronger in Sicily simply because doing things the "right" way helped forge a stronger bond with the mainland.

Sicily became a Greek state in the 8th century B.C., when Greeks first settled on the Mediterranean island, now a province of Italy.

Click here for the LiveScience article.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

More Evidence Points to Neolithic Cannibalism

Some of the 7,000-year-old skeletal remains unearthed at Herxheim.

Archaeologists say evidence points to Neolithic cannibalism in a settlement in southern Germany some 7,000 years ago. Over a period of decades, skeletal remains indicate hundreds of people were butchered and eaten before parts of their bodies were thrown into oval pits.

Cannibalism at what is now the village of Herxheim may have occurred during ceremonies in which people from near and far brought slaves, war prisoners or other dependents for ritual sacrifice, according to Science News.

Until now, the only convincing evidence of Neolithic cannibalism came from 6,000-year-old bones in a French cave. A 1986 report concluded that the remains of various animals and at least six people were butchered and discarded there.

Herxheim offers rare evidence of cannibalism during Europe’s early Neolithic period, when farming first spread, the researchers report in the December Antiquity. Artifacts found at Herxheim come from the Linear Pottery Culture, which flourished in western and central Europe from about 7,500 to 7,000 years ago.

Click here for the Science News article.