The future of Indiana Jones.

Cosmos recently did an article about finding “lost cities” with satellite imagery. They specifically talked about how easy it is to find new sites from your own office, usnig freely available maps from Google, NASA, etc., and questioned the future of “the quintessential, khaki-clad archaeologist pictured in countless movies and novels”. If it’s so easy to find these places from an office in LA, whither Dr. Jones?

Personally, I think it may breed more Drs. Jones. There will never be a replacement for being “on site”; this map search is a replacement for wandering around in the woods looking for humanity. Imagine the excitement of the woods-wanderers when they’re told “Go to such and such coordinates and you’ll find a previously undiscovered Mayan temple”.

The article is certainly worth the read, the science of chlorophyll illumination because of limestone building materials is really cool. But don’t put away your khakis just yet.

The Lost Romans

There’s a small villiage in the Liqian province of China where people have a disturbing color of hair; yellow. Local people have always wondered why they look different from their neighbors, and in the 1950’s it was put forth that they were the descendants of a lost legion of Roman soldiers.

DNA samples were recently taken from male inhabitants to see if we can find a tie between Liqian locals and the Romans.

Wikipedia has a whole page about Roman/Chinese relations as well as a bit about Liqian specifically. The Sydney Morning Herald also has an excellent article.

Mohenjo-Daro: Best city name ever?

Here’s a great site about the Harappan civilization, which flourished from 2600-1700 BC in the Indus River Vally in India and Pakistan. This civilization had been forgotten by the ages until archaeologists began uncovering it in the 1920s. It had huge, well-planned cities which compared favorably to the older civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Unlike those civilizations, however, it had little in the way of elaborate palaces, temples, or monumental artwork. Since the Harappan script has not been deciphered, what this might mean for the political and religious organization of the Harappan cities is largely unknown.

About 1500 BC, the “Vedic Aryans” moved into the region. The “Vedic” refers to the group as the originators of the “Vedas,” the Hindu scriptures; while the term “Aryan” is derived from the word the originators of the Vedas used to refer to themselves. The same word is used in the Zoroastrian texts, and in fact the place name Iran is a version of the word “Aryan” . 19th-century (AD) scholars made a linguistic link between these groups and groups moving at about the same time into Greece and across Europe–all of these groups spoke related languages, from the Indo-European family, at least by the time that the languages started to be written down. Based on the racial thinking of the time, these scholars dubbed all of these groups “Aryan”, and attributed to them a racial capacity for building great civilizations.

Which gives one to ask a number of questions: First, does a shared language equate to a shared race? Modern scholars would say no, especially because “races” are impossible to define biologically (much less linguistically), and are largely a product of politics rather than science.

Second, if the Aryans were such great civilization-builders, how do we address the fact that at least in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley, great civiiizations arose with no help from “Aryans”? And that it took 1000 years after the end of the Harappan civilization and the arrival of the Aryans for another urbanized civilization to appear? Not to mention that it took close to another thousand years and the influence of Rome for anything like civilization to develop anywhere in Europe?

It comes as news to no one that the concept of the “Aryan race” has been discarded by scholars over time. But it’s a little alarming to think how much “politics” is capable of influencing supposedly scientific notions, not to mention the softer social sciences. I wonder which of our deeply held, supposedly scientific notions will one day prove to have led us astray?

The Uruk period

With the Uruk period in ancient Mesopotamia we see the very beginnings of writing and are, therefore, almost into a historical period! How exciting! I’m sure that’s how the ancient Mesopotamians felt about it.

As in the Ubaid period, the term “Uruk” refers to three things: a time period, an ancient city (now an archaeological site), and a material culture. The time period is ca. 4000-3000 BC, and the city is the main and almost the only source of information we have for the period.

The Uruk period saw the development of several cultural factors which marked the transition from relatively egalitarian, sedentary agricultural towns to what we would call a “civilization.”

One of these was the development of public architecture. This architecture was “monumental,” in that it was built to impress; it was “public” because it was meant to serve, belong to, or encompass the whole community rather than a single family (even if not everybody got to participate directly in what went on in these buildings).

The city of Uruk had two major public complexes in the Uruk period. One of these was the Anu ziggurat and White Temple, both dedicated to the Mesopotamian sky-god Anu. Several architectural features of the building complex had appeared first in the Ubaid period, showing the continuity between the two phases.

Several hundred meters from the Anu ziggurat is the “Eanna precinct,” dedicated to the rather alarming goddess Inanna, who was the patron goddess of Uruk.

Along with monumental architecture, monumental art made its first appearance in the Uruk period. The best-known of these artifacts is the Warka vase (Warka being another version of the word Uruk). It depicts a procession of people bringing offerings to Inanna. The difference between this object, which shows specialized knowledge and excellent workmanship, and earlier art which mainly consisted of small clay figurines, marks a change in the way society worked.

Along with these changes, the Uruk saw a continuation of the trend of social complexity (professional specialization and differences between socio-economic classes). This can be seen in the production of the above monumental buildings and art; and also in such texts as the “Standard Professions List,” which lists various jobs held by people (though most people’s livelihood still came from agricultural pursuits both now and throughout Ancient Near Eastern history).

The Uruk also saw an increased settlement hierarchy (large cities surrounded by smaller towns which are themselves surrounded by smaller hamlets, each playing a part in the centralization and distribution of various kinds of goods). Cities were still independent at this stage, and most likely in various relationships of cooperation and competition with each other.

Most important to the beginning of a truly historical period, the Uruk saw the origins of writing in the form of cuneiform script representing the Sumerian language. Cuneiform consisted of impressions made with a reed stylus in carefully prepared, moist clay. It began as a pictographic text, and may have had a three-dimensional precursor in the from of bullae and tokens (scroll down for pictures, but read the text if you like). Both bullae and tokens and the earliest writing were probably ways of keeping track of things: stored goods, goods being shipped from one place to another, etc. The development of cylinder seals at this period is another aspect of such record-keeping bureaucracy: officials in charge of such things had their own seals, and used them to make impressions on bullae, tablets, and other pieces of ancient red tape to show that whatever transaction was taking place was officially approved.

Much as there was an “Ubaid expansion” in the previous period, there was an “Uruk expansion”: a period in the middle to late Uruk in which characteristic Uruk artifacts are found in western Iran, northern Mesopotamia, northern Syria, and parts of Anatolia. It is not clear what type of interaction this “expansion” represents. The most prominent theory, promoted by Guillermo Algaze, is that the Uruk expansion represents a Marxist-style World System. According to this theory, the Uruk enclaves represented by the Uruk material culture were trading colonies intended to ensure access to foreign resources for Mesopotamian cities. The Uruk peoples dominated the regions they touched through economic means rather than through military or political might.

There are, as you might imagine, a number of objections to this theory. First, there is no evidence of power asymmetry between the Mesopotamian “core” and the Anatolian (for example) “periphery”: the Anatolians controlled production of Anatolian traded goods and their side of the exchange. The terms of the exchange were not set by the Mesopotamian side of things.

Second, the Marxist model suggests that long-distance trade would have fundamentally changed the societies it touched, re-forming them along the lines dictated by the needs of the “core” entity. But this has not been established, as Algaze himself concedes.

Finally, the model assumes the existence of a political entity with the level of organization and resources needed to control a far-flung region. But Mesopotamia was not unified at this period, rather it consisted of several competing city-states. Algaze suggests the existence of several “cores” controlling parts of the “periphery,’ but this is a theory for which we will probably never have enough documentation to prove its truth or falsity.

Next: the Early Dynastic period
(Objections to the World Systems model from Gil Stein and Piotr Steinkeller).

Google Earth: the armchair archaeologist’s dream come true

You, yes you, can do archaeology without sacrificing a decade of your life to the slavering maw of higher education! Last year, an Italian programmer made the news when he stumbled across the ruins of a Roman villa using Google Earth. Since then, other archaeologists have started tapping into Google Earth as a free and easy way to scout out potential archaeological sites:

Madry got out his laptop, fired up Google Earth and looked over lands in Burgundy, near his research area. Immediately, he spotted features that, to his trained eye, resembled outlines of Iron Age, Bronze Age, ancient Roman and medieval residences, forts, roads and monuments.

In 25 years on the ground, “I’ve found a handful of archaeological sites. I found more in the first five, six, seven hours than I’ve found in years of traditional field surveys and aerial archaeology,” he said.

The Google Earth Blog has some additional comments. Very cool!