Sunday, June 22, 2008

Scientists Use Lasers to Probe Step Pyramid

The Step Pyramid in Saqqara is Egypt's oldest.

Dozens of American and Japanese scientists, archaeologists and workmen gathered one dawn last week at the base of the Step Pyramid to begin a laser-scanning survey of Egypt’s oldest pyramid complex.

The goal is to use a high-tech laser to create a three-dimensional model of the pyramid, using infrared signals to gather elevations and coordinates at thousands of points along the edifice’s six gigantic steps. The result will be a detailed map of the pyramid plus the three-dimensional model as a valuable reference for restoring the pyramid and monitoring its condition.

The Step Pyramid was built during the reign of King Djoser of the Third Dynasty, 2687-2668 B.C. It is the world’s earliest known stone structure of its size and is the first of the Egyptian pyramids.

The project is a collaborative venture between Americans from the Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA) and Japan’s Osaka University, with the laser scanning expected to take about four weeks. For more information, click here for the complete article in Al-Ahram Weekly.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ruins in Iran Reveal Greek Influence

Ruins at Istakhr in southern Iran.

Geological surveys in southern Iran reveal formations inspired by ancient Greek architecture dating back to the Sassanid period from 226 to 651 C.E.

“The design is loaned from Hippodamus' style of urban planning during a series of armed conflicts with Persia's great rival to the west, the Roman Empire,” according to Ali Asadi, expert on the archeology of Istakhr. He explained that wars during the period brought Roman slaves to the area now occupied by Fars Province in Iran, and that the slaves incorporated the Greek designs into local construction.

Hippodamus (498 BC - 408 BC) was an ancient Greek architect and urban planner famous for his use of repeated square geometric shapes. Istakhr, where the geological surveys are being conducted, was once the capital of the Sassanid Empire but today only archaeological sites of the city remain.

Archaeologists Find New Section of Sacred Road

The Saqqara Serapeum is a tunnel of underground tombs for sacred bulls. Archaeologist have now unearthed the portion of the sacred road on which priests carried the mummies of bulls from the mummification chamber to the place of interment in the tunnel.

New sections of the ancient roadway known as the Way of the Sphinxes were discovered last week, giving archaeologists hope that additional significant discoveries await them in the area of Saqqara, -- located in the ancient capital of Memphis -- south of present day Cairo.

The area recently yielded the so-called “lost pyramid” tomb of King Menkauhor from Egypt’s 5th dynasty, around 2450 B.C. The discovery of the tomb and new sections of the sacred road are clear indications of the importance of Saqqara.

“During the whole history of Egypt,” Ola El Aguizy said, “Memphis and Saqqara had remained very important. I’m discovering tombs in Saqqara of people of the 26th dynasty who were re-using tombs of the 19th dynasty. It’s a sacred place, and so many important people wanted to be buried here.”

The newly discovered part of the sacred road was where Egyptian priests carried the mummies of bulls en route to interment. The bulls were bred by pharaohs and, when they died, were embalmed and taken to a mummification chamber. Once mummified, the bulls’ mummies were carried along the Way of the Sphinxes to the underground burial chamber called the Serapeum.

The sacred path – which archaeologists believe originally was bordered on both sides by rows of sphinxes – was discovered by French archaeologist Auguste Mariette in 1850 and became known as the Way of the Sphinxes.

“When I say we’ve discovered 30 percent of the Egyptian monuments, I take Saqarra as the first example,” said Zahi Hawass of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. Saqqara is a virgin site, and it’s very important for us to do this excavation to understand more about the pyramids of the Old Kingdom.”

A settlement of workers living near the site of the Menkauhor tomb will be relocated to allow a wider search for more temples.

Here is the National Geographic article on the discoveries of the pyramid and the new section of sacred road.

A covered sarcophagus rests inside the Saqqara Serpeum, near where mummified bodies of bulls bred by pharaohs are interred.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Blind Man & the Cub ~ Aesop Fable #37

There was a blind man who was in the habit of identifying any animal that was placed in his hands by touching it. Once they gave him a wolf cub. Even after stroking the animal he was not sure of its identity, so he said, "I'm not sure whether it is the cub of a wolf or a fox or some similar creature. But I do know this is not the kind of animal that should accompany a flock of sheep!"

Moral: In the same way, bad people are revealed by their features.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Murals Believed Oldest in Western Hemisphere

A section of the red-and-white mural in the Ventarron temple complex, believed to be the oldest ever discovered in the Americas.

Archaeologists continue to investigate the discovery of the oldest murals ever found in the Western Hemisphere, first unearthed about seven months ago in Peru.

The murals are part of a massive clay temple with an altar for fire worship, according to Walter Alva, leader of the archaeological team that made the find. Named Ventarron, the temple is at least 4,000 years old – making it one of the oldest sites discovered in the Americas – and was built by an advanced civilization predating the Incas by several centuries.

“This discovery shows an architectural and iconographic tradition different from what has been known until now,” Alva says. The paintings feature red-and-white designs, with one depicting a deer being hunted with a net.

The site of the temple complex is in northern Peru, near the city of Lambayeque, nearly 500 miles from Lima. It is unusual for being constructed from bricks made of nearby river sediment rather than stone.

“What’s surprising are the construction methods, the architectural design and, most of all, the existence of the murals that could be the oldest in the Americas,” Alva says.

Archaeologists continue to explore the Ventarron temple in northern Peru, where they have already unearthed murals and a fire altar.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Montezuma's Meditation Room Unearthed

The Aztec emperor Montezuma meditated on the visions of his seers and shamans in the room recently unearthed.

Mexican archaeologists have found remains of an Aztec palace once inhabited by the emperor Montezuma. During restoration of a building in downtown Mexico City, experts identified pieces of a wall and some basalt flooring believed to have been part of a room where Montezuma meditated.

“This is another piece of the puzzle, and we hope to find several more pieces,” Elsa Hernandez, leader of the archeology team working at the site, said Monday.

The emperor’s palace complex comprised five interconnected buildings containing Montezuma’s office, chambers for his several wives and children and even a zoo. The newly unearthed section belongs to the Casa Denegrida, or Black House, which Spanish conquerors described as a windowless room, painted black, where Montezuma reflected on visions told to him by seers and shamans. Some historians believe it was Montezuma’s reliance on such visions that led to his downfall because he initially thought the Spanish invaders to be divine.

Montezuma died after the Spaniards captured him in 1521, leading to collapse of the Aztec empire.

Click here for the complete article in the International Herald Tribune.

Digging at Armageddon

The city gate of Megiddo in northern Israel.

Hundreds of volunteers – students, construction workers, housewives and others – are helping archaelogists explore the site believed to be Armageddon, the reputed site of the forthcoming battle to end all battles.

Known today as Tel Megiddo, the large mound of dirt already has been the site of a number of ancient decisive battles between Hebrew, Egyptian and Assyrian peoples. 

“Megiddo is one of the most interesting sites in the world for the excavation of biblical remains,” says Prof. Israel Finkelstein, noted archaeologist from Tel Aviv University. “Now volunteers and students from around the world can participate in the dig, which lets them uncover 3,000 years worth of history – from the late 4th millennium B.C.E. to the middle of the first millennium C.E.”

While some come to Tel Megiddo because of the New Testament prophecy that it will be the site of a Judgement Day apocalyptic battle, others are interested in the research because Tel Megiddo also may provide clues related to the reign of the Old Testament’s King Solomon. The city was destroyed around 1130 B.C.E.

“There has been an important revolution in biblical history in the last decades,” says Prof. Ze’ev Herzog, head of the archaelogy institute at Tel Aviv University. “We’re now uncovering the difference between myth and history, and between reality and ideology of the ancient authors. This is the role of our generation of archaeologists – to unearth the real, historical reality to find out why and how the biblical records were written.”

Click here for complete article in Science Daily.

Within the walls of Megiddo was a palace 260 feet long and 100 feet wide- a huge building for it's time. Pictured here is a replica of biblical Megiddo, around 1000 BCE.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Featured Site: Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Here is the stylobate – the continuous base supporting a row of columns – of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, near Athens.

Visible ruins of the temple date from the 4th Century B.C. and were erected on the remains of an earlier temple, dated to the 6th Century B.C., which itself was erected on the site of a 7th Century B.C. construction attributed to the architects Trophonios and Agamedes.

The 6th Century B.C. temple was named the "Temple of Alcmeonidae" in tribute to the Athenian family funding its construction. An earthquake destroyed it in 373 B.C., and the third temple was completed on the site by 330 B.C. The third temple is attributed to Corinthian architects Spintharos, Xenodoros, and Agathon.

(Photo courtesy of the University of Colorado, 2006)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Latest Pictish Stone Found in Scotland

A gravedigger in Conningsburgh, Scotland, last week unearthed an 18 x 11-inch sandstone slab believed to date from about 700 A.D. and revealing mysterious Pictish symbols.

The Picts lived in northern and central Scotland in the early Middle Ages. Last week’s find was the ninth such stone to be discovered in the Cunningsburgh area in 130 years. The graveyard itself has yielded four of the Pictish stones bearing the ancient alphabet known as ogham.

This latest stone bears a design called “double-disk and Z-rod,” one of the most common Pictish motifs. “We don’t know what the ancient symbols mean, and I think that’s absolutely fascinating,” Dr. Ian Trait, collections curator at the Shetland Museum and Archives, told the Shetland Times. Click here for the complete article.

(Photo courtesy of the Shetland Times)

Workers Find Gold Jewelry in Greek Grave

Workers on a subway construction project in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki last week discovered a 2,300-year-old grave laden with golden jewelry, including this gold wreath pictured with two ancient clay pots. 

The grave contained remains of a female skeleton, traces of her wooden coffin, four gold wreaths and gold earrings in the shape of dogs’ heads. Also found were a bronze mirror, bronze vase and six clay pots. 

Photo courtesy of Greek Ministry of Culture

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Andes Rose More Rapidly than Earlier Thought

Sediment analysis shows that part of the Andes rose relatively suddenly from below sea level to over 12,000 feet about 10 million years ago.

South America’s Andes – one of the world’s tallest mountain chains – soared to their height much more suddenly than scientists have previously thought. Earlier studies contended that the slow collision between the Nazca Plate and the South American plate gradually lifted the Andes skyward.

But new analyses of South American sediments deposited in a high-altitude region of Bolivia and Peru now points to a much more abrupt growth of the towering range between 10 and six million years ago.

In examining the sediments, John Eiler, a geochemist at the California Institute of Technology, and his team of researchers suggest that eclogite – a dense rock often forming at the base of the earth’s crust – broke loose beneath the Andes and sank into the earth’s mantle. The resulting lightened continental crust then shot upward, raising the mountains in far fewer millennia than scientists had believed.

The presence of marine sediments in the region indicates that it sat just below sea level about 65 million years ago. Growth of the Andes was slow between 25 and 10 million years ago, but then the region rose some 2.5 kilometers to its present elevation of 12,500 feet.

Other evidence supporting the team’s contention includes the changing size, shape and variety of fossil leaves found in the sentiment, chronicling climate changes that resulted from the Andean uplift.

Here is the article in Science News.

Remains of Beheaded Acrobat Reflect Status

The headless skeletons of an acrobat and two other people were found on the floor of this Mesopotamian building that became the site of human sacrifices.

Researchers have concluded acrobats had a respected social ranking in the northeastern Syrian city of Nagar around 4,300 years ago. That would seem good for the acrobat until someone of such a social standing was needed for sacrifice to appease the gods.

A headless acrobat’s skeleton was unearthed recently near the remains of two other headless people, some mules and assorted metal valuables. According to researchers from the University of Cambridge who are investigating the mud and brick construction known as Nagar, the area was temporarily abandoned in about 2300 B.C. following some sort of natural disaster. Residents then returned and sought to appease the gods by sacrificing valued individuals, animals and objects.

The building where the remains were discovered was used in Nagar for breeding and raising mules that pulled kings’ chariots and war wagons. It is believed the building was shuttered and remained closed following the sacrifices.

“The hub (the ancient Mesopotamian term for acrobats) at Nagar were well known, maybe even famous entertainers, so perhaps their fame was a reason for choosing one of them for sacrifice,” Joan Oates of the Cambridge team told Science News.

Lost Pyramid of Menkauhor is Rediscovered

Foundations of the pyramid lost since the 1850s were found under the sands of Saqqara.

A lost pyramid that housed the tomb of King Menkauhor was rediscovered this week in the sands of Saqqara, a royal burial complex south of Cairo. Known as the “headless pyramid” because only its foundations remain, the structure was first discovered about 1850 by German archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius.

“After Lepsius the location of the pyramid was lost and the substructure was never known,” according to Zahi Hawass of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. “It was forgotten by people until we began to search this area and a hill of sand maybe 25 feet high.”

King Menkauhor ruled for eight years during Egypt’s 5th dynasty around 2450 B.C. Nothing in the pyramid specifically names Menkauhor. However, it resembles the pyramid next to it, belonging to Teti, first pharaoh of the 6th Dynasty, which helped pinpoint the time of its construction.

The pyramid’s burial chamber contained the lid of a sarcophagus made of gray schist, a type of granite often used during the period of the Old Kingdom, to which the two neighboring pyramids belong.

Here is the National Geographic article on the discovery.

A worker dusts off the large sarcophagus lid found in the burial chamber of King Menkauhor's tomb.

(Photos courtesy of National Geographic Society)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Fox & Cock in a Tree ~ Aesop Fable #149

A dog and a rooster became friends and made a journey together. When night fell, they came to a place in the woods. The rooster took his seat up in the branches of a tree while the dog went to sleep in a hollow at the foot of the tree. The night passed and day dawned and the rooster crowed loudly, as roosters do. A fox heard the rooster and wanted to make a meal of him, so she ran up and stood at the foot of the tree and shouted to the rooster, “You are an excellent bird and so useful to people! Why don’t you come down and we’ll sing some songs together, delighting in one another’s company?” The rooster replied, “Go over to the foot of the tree, my dear, and tell the watchman to let you wait there for me.” When the fox went to announce herself, the dog suddenly leaped up and grabbed the fox and tore her to pieces, much to the rooster’s relief.

Moral: If you are wise, you take up arms to save yourself whenever you run into trouble.

A Preferable Hypothesis

A few years ago I spent some time climbing through the ruins of a pueblo constructed by a branch of the Anasazi, a tribe at the heart of one of North America’s most persistent archaeological mysteries. I defy anyone to study the architecture of these dwellings perched high on canyon walls, to stand silently as the hot afternoon sun passes over the cool adobe and to not admire the ancient people who dwelt there.

The mystery concerns why the Anasazi left their Colorado pueblos 700 years ago and traveled into Arizona and New Mexico and set up home in far less hospitable surroundings. There has been speculation that this creative and peaceful people were nearly destroyed in their original habitat by drought that decimated their food supplies and made them warlike, to the extent that they turned to cannibalism and fled their homeland in a mad stampede.

That's why I was relieved recently to read an account of the latest archeological theories. Researchers now are describing a far more orderly Anasazi migration that may have been motivated, at least in part, by a new religion. Early Anasazi religion had involved multi-story “great houses” for worship – round, subterranean structures with sturdy roofs – frequently only by priests and a select few others.

By the mid-13th Century, however, the places of worship were uncovered and resembled amphitheaters. Serving bowls became larger and seem to have been designed for ritual communion. Some researchers contemplate that the tribe experienced its equivalent of the Protestant reformation, that the journey southward was something like the Mormon journey west, and that evidence of this newer, more evangelical religion resulted in the Kachina rituals that survive today on Hopi and Zuni reservations.

I admit, the idea of a new, more open religion appeals to me much more than warfare and cannibalism as we come closer to solving the mystery of the Anasazi.

Photo “Anasazi Sunbeam” by Ian Parker, 2005

Friday, June 6, 2008

Stonehenge Found to be 500-Year Burial Site

Researchers conducting an important new dig at Stonehenge have concluded that the mysterious Neolithic site served as a burial ground from as early as 3000 B.C. and for the next 500 years.

“Stonehenge was a place of burial from its beginning to its zenith in the mid third millennium B.C.,” according to Parker Pearson, the archaeology professor from the University of Sheffield who’s heading up the project. “It’s now clear that burials were a major component of Stonehenge in all its main stages.”

Previously, Stonehenge was thought to be a burial site for only about a century, but the new radiocarbon datings of cremated bones unearthed there indicate it was most likely the burial ground for generations of the area’s ruling family. The cremated remains of an estimated 240 people were buried at Stonehenge, which could amount to around 30 generations of the family.

This new information was released this week as part of the large Stonehenge Riverside Archaeological Project funded by The National Geographic Society. Details of the nearby dig at Durrington Walls is discussed in my May 3 blog post below. More details are in this Washington Post article.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Discovery Points to Earlier American Habitation

In the world of archaeology, early is going backward by millennial leaps. We've learned in recent weeks of two notable discoveries placing events at least a thousand years earlier than had been previously thought.

In a dramatic find, an Oregon archaeologist discovered an area of a coastal cave that prehistoric people had used as … well, an outhouse. The fossilized feces contained 14,000-year-old human protein and DNA. The discovery means humans were in North America at least a thousand years before the so-called Clovis people. Scientists have dated the Clovis culture – named for the town in New Mexico where artifacts have been unearthed – at around 13,000 years ago.

Sites in Florida and Wisconsin also have prompted speculation that humans were in North America at periods earlier than Clovis. “Other pre-Clovis sites have been claimed, but no human DNA has been obtained, mostly because no human organic matter had been recovered,” says Dr. Eske Willerslev, who performed the DNA analysis on the Oregon discovery at the University of Copenhagen.

Scientists still assume these early humans were Asians who crossed the Bering land bridge and migrated southward along the Pacific coast and then spread inland.

In a second archaeological announcement, we learned that a 4,000-year-old gold necklace was unearthed in a Peruvian burial pit. The nine cylindrical beads are the oldest example of worked gold found in the Americas.

The beads, resting at the base of a skull in a grave, are provoking a rethinking of human society. Archeologists and historians have traditionally considered gold ornaments to signify a well-developed society capable of producing items of high status. This new finding, however, indicates that gold ornamentation existed in a society in the early stages of transitioning from hunter-gatherer to a more agrarian community, at least in the southern portion of the Americas.

Stonehenge Dig Reveals Expanded Site

Archaeologists keep learning more about Stonehenge and are shedding more light on the Neolithic religion that prompted construction of the mysterious 4,600-year-old monoliths.

Current excavation work is funded mostly by the National Geographic Society and performed under auspices of six British universities. The project began in 2003 and its current focus is excavation of the largest Neolithic village ever found in England. Known as Durrington Walls, the site is less than two miles from the well-known monoliths.

Recent digging has shown that Durrington Walls had earthen banks and ditches enclosing rings of huge wooden posts set in the same pattern as Stonehenge’s giant stones. This is leading archaeologists to believe Stonehenge and Durrington were closely connected and the builders of Stonehenge likely resided in the village at Durrington Walls.

So far, eight houses have been discovered and many more suspected to have existed in the area. Each house was built of woven sticks and crushed chalk, with a hard clay floor, central fireplace, and was only about 16 feet square. Excavators have unearthed messy debris everywhere inside the houses – broken pots, shattered jars and a litter of animal bones. Two houses on the west side of the village, however, separated from the others by a wood fence, are free of debris, leading some researchers to speculate they were shrines or something similar.

While Stonehenge is believed to have been a place of worship of an ancient solar cult because of the astronomical alignment of the giant stones, it’s now clear that even the roads of the period had similar purposes. A road paved with flint at Stonehenge lines up with the summer solstice sunrise. A similar road recently discovered at Durrington (shown at right in National Geographic photo) lines up with the sunset of the summer solstice. Conversely, the giant stones on Salisbury plain are aligned with the winter solstice sunset, while the wooden circle at Durrington lined up with sunrise of the same day.

Radiocarbon dating puts the Stonehenge site as being built between 2600 BC and 2400 BC, while Durrington Walls is from the same epoch, sometime between 2600 BC and 2500 BC.

“The evidence shows us these two monuments were complementary,” Dr. Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield recently told the New York Times. “Stonehenge was just half of a larger complex.”