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Archaeology Facts

Finders, Not Keepers

Unlike your stereotypical bloke with a metal detector waving it over beaches and fields looking for lost Roman hoards, archaeologists do not keep anything they find. Well, they’re not supposed to, anyway! In fact, by law in the US at least, anything found on state or federal land belongs to the public. Great! I’ll just go and borrow some of that gold jewelry for my fancy night on the town – I’ll bring it back, promise! Archaeology is concerned with gathering as much information about the history and culture of the site as possible. Every shard, seed or bone they find is bagged, tagged, photographed, researched and catalogued. The most common things archaeologists find are bits of glass, metal artifacts and bricks. Obviously these played an important role in the lives of the people living at the time but once you’ve seen one bit of broken brick, you’ve probably seen them all. Most of the excavated stuff is kept in archives somewhere but the most interesting examples make it out into exhibitions for the general public to view. 

Cheese Dreams

Wouldn’t it be nice to always have your favourite snack on hand so whenever you felt like it you could just nibble off a chunk? Do you have a food that you like so much you could eat it forever? Maybe that’s what the mummies unearthed in the Chinese Taklamakan desert were thinking when they headed off to the afterlife. Nearly 4000 years after they were buried, archaeologists excavated their tombs and found several mummies sporting fetching necklaces made of what could be the world’s oldest cheese. Nobody actually tasted the ancient treat but after analysis in the early 2000s it was confirmed as something without rennet and similar to kefir. Maybe the cheese had some powerful beauty properties too as the mummies were in pretty good nick for being several millennia old. Let’s also hope that it didn’t give them strange dreams for all eternity.

Under the Sea

If digging through the dirt isn’t really your thing but you still have a treasure-hunting itch to scratch and a wetsuit fetish to satisfy, maybe underwater archaeology is the discipline for you. Over 70% of the Earth’s surface is water, after all, so just imagine all the hidden artifacts waiting to be brought to the surface. And it’s not all about the shipwrecks either; following natural disasters or just the passage of time, whole cities can end up submerged beneath the waves. Currently, what is recognised as the oldest submerged city to be discovered is Pavlopetri in the south of Greece, thought to be over 5000 years old. Underwater vehicles and sonar may be used to identify and measure possible sites but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of excavating an area, most of the hand tools used are actually the same as for traditional archaeology, albeit with a waterproof twist. 

Artifact to the Stars

Possibly the first underwater archaeological excavation, which was carried out in 1901, recovered one of the most interesting objects ever found – the Antikythera Mechanism, named after the island it was found near. This ancient Greek artifact was recovered from a shipwreck, the wreck itself being dated to somewhere around 80-50 years BC. What made this find so unusual was that the mechanism was made up of intricate gears and cogs, pre-dating the next instance of such technology by at least a thousand years. As only fragments were found, the workings of the device have always been a mystery but in 2020, researchers at University College London finished recreating a digital model of the entire thing. What they’ve found is a sort of hand-cranked astrological calendar, capable of tracing and predicting the position of planets, solar and lunar cycles and eclipses. The next step is to make a physical version of this genius device to see what the past can tell us about the future. 

Stone Temple Giants

A venue for rock concerts? Merlin’s personal mode of transportation? A very large clock? For an incomplete circle of standing rocks, Stonehenge sure does a lot to keep its name in the papers. The stones, located in Wiltshire, England, have baffled historians and archaeologists alike for hundreds of years and new discoveries are being made all the time. As recently as 2019, researchers found the remains of a matching circle in Wales, leading them to believe that this was the original location of the Stonehenge bluestone circle before it was lugged all the way over to the current site. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who we can thank for popularising the legends of King Arthur, wrote that the wizard Merlin captured a stone circle called “The Giants’ Dance” and had actual giants move it all to Wiltshire. Now that the location had been confirmed as (broadly) matching Geoff’s description, who’s to say this isn’t, in fact, how the stones were moved?

THE CAVE OF HORROR

Oooh, the Cave of Horror. What would you expect to find in there, do you think? Pretty painted pots and delicate gold jewelry? Well, no. As the name suggests, this cave in Israel became the graveyard for 40 people who seemingly starved to death in it during the Bar Kokhba Revolt sometime between A.D. 132 and A.D. 135  – an ultimately unsuccessful uprising by Jews against the Roman Empire. But wait, there’s more! In the last few years, as well as a 6000 year old mummified child’s body, various arrowheads and some fragments of translated Dead Sea scrolls, archaeologists also discovered the world’s oldest basket, clocking in at 10,000 years old. So there you go, maybe not a cave of wonders exactly, but not all horror after all.

My Little Unicorn

Imagine holding on to a secret belief all your life no matter what everyone else says and one day it comes true! That’s what happened for Otto van Guericke when he found what he thought to be the proof of unicorns existing in 1663. Excited by a load of old bones that had been discovered near the town of Quedlinburg, he set to work fashioning them into the skeleton of the mythical creature. Or maybe what it could have looked like. If it had no back legs or much of a body of any sort. True, there was a large horn in the bone hoard but to any trained eye (or probably most eyes), it clearly came from the Ice Age woolly rhino and not, unfortunately, a delicate and not-actually-real horned horse. Van Guericke did manage to get an illustration of his weird-looking creature published and the author of the book, Gottfried Leibniz, also believed this was some sort of hybrid creature of legend. In the years since, other bones from the skeleton have been identified as those of woolly mammoths so sorry Otto, old pal, looks like your imagination went a step too far this time. 

The Spider God is Coming

As if 2020 wasn’t already a nightmare of a year on its own, try stepping into the shoes (or maybe those snazzy strappy sandals) of the archaeologists in Peru who discovered a mural of a massive spider on the side of an ancient temple. A massive spider holding knives. The spider dates back over 3000 years and is believed to be a depiction of a spider god which is related to weather and fertility. Yep, nothing says “makin’ babies” more than a huge arachnid wielding deadly weapons. The spider was only discovered accidentally when local farmers started demolishing the area to use for crops but has now been recognised as an archaeological site and work will continue there once the COVID pandemic is over. Or maybe, you know, just let the scary spider god sleep. 

The OG Archaeologist

When thinking about non-Hollywood archaeologists, you tend to imagine studious people from the present-day or recent past investigating human history or possibly Victorian-era fellows mounting expeditions to the far off lands of Egypt. But what about before then? Were people just not interested in their shared past? Don’t be silly, of course they were. The first archaeologist is thought to be King Nabonidus of the Neo-Babylonian Empire who reigned from approx. 556-539 BC. Now that’s a long time ago to start with but he ended up starting the first archaeological excavations when he found temple foundations dating all the way back to 2200 BC. Setting a great example for the future, he recorded his findings, dated them (OK so he was off by a bit but it was a couple of thousand years ago) and even restored the temples! His exploits were recorded for posterity on clay cylinders and, depending on how good your cuneiform is, you can read them for yourself at the British Museum. Don’t worry, translations are also available. 

What Came First?

Sometimes archaeological findings can be causes for big disputes. Take the Ayodhya site in India, for example. A mosque had been on the site since the 16th century but some Hindus believe it had been built over the birthplace of Hindu deity, Lord Ram. In 1992 a wave of violence swept the area and the mosque was destroyed. In 2002 the Archaeological Survey of India examined the area and found that while there had been a structure there before the mosque, there was only evidence of a large wall and some pillar bases. In its report, the ASI stated that whatever had been there before was pretty big so sure, a temple to Lord Ram could have existed there. It did not say that it also could have been any number of other things, a fact pointed out by subsequent researchers who thought it was more likely that two mosques had been there originally. Nevertheless, in 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the site at Ayodhya must be given over to the government to build a Hindu temple to Lord Ram. In this case, it seems that politics has won out over facts.

The Past Just Got Hotter

We’ve all heard of carbon dating and counting tree rings but are there any other ways for archaeologists to date things? Well, Tinder jokes aside, yes there are. One really clever way is by using something called “thermoluminescence”. No, it isn’t the stuff they splash around crime scenes to find blood spatter, that’s luminol. It’s a process of heating things to find their age. It’s especially useful with pottery and ceramics, or any things that have previously been exposed to high heat. After a piece of pottery is fired, it naturally absorbs environmental radiation. If it is then reheated in the future, the radiation is released as a measurable amount of light. This is the aforementioned thermoluminescence. This amount can then be backtracked to the original date the artifact was created. Pretty clever, eh? Thermoluminescent dating or TL dating as it’s handily called, can date things up to about 200,000 years old which is probably outside of the age range you can choose on Tinder.

Let’s Get Experimental

So, you’ve identified and excavated a site. You’ve found some clues as to how people lived in that era and you’ve got nearly all the pieces but some things are missing. What to do? Well, if you were an archaeologist in the 1970s, you could go to Little Butser in England and experiment away. Now known as Butser Ancient Farm, this site has played home to experimental archaeologists through the years, testing theories on the way people worked and lived from the Stone Age on. Lots of buildings, boats and even toilets have been recreated to test different building techniques and ancient crops and rare breed animals also live at the farm. It’s a pretty cool way of being able to experience the past and actually get up close and personal with our ancestors’ everyday lives. Don’t get too up close to the privies though. Ancient plumbing was never the best. 

Beware of Greek Bearing Ships

Has anything ever struck you as fishy about the Trojan Horse story? You know, a load of Greek warriors hid inside a giant wooden horse which was delivered to Troy as a mysterious gift and said Greek warriors hopped out in the night and took the city? Well, of course the whole thing is a legend but come on, a horse? If it sounds unlikely then you could be right and we’ve been misunderstanding the brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey all these years. Back then, it was very common for ships to have wooden horse heads at the front and they were even known as “horse ships”. Armed with this knowledge, it makes more sense that the “horse” reference was to a ship given as a gift, again a far more common occurrence than hastily-erected giant wooden animals. And probably far more comfortable to hide in. Turkish archaeologists have recently discovered pieces of wood at the site of Troy which they have declared to be part of the Trojan Horse, however, these were the same type of wood used for shipbuilding, lending even more credence to the idea that an actual horse structure was just a load of manure. 

Blow Up Pompeii

Pompeii is arguably the most famous archaeological discovery of all time but did you know that it houses a more recent and deadly secret? That’s correct, hidden among the parts of the city yet to be fully excavated are several unexploded bombs from World War 2. The historical site was bombed by the Allies in 1943 to disrupt supply routes and due to incorrect intelligence about the German army being camped there. Damaged buildings were reconstructed after the war but seemingly shoddy modern techniques couldn’t hold a candle to the Romans as one of these rebuilds, the House of the Gladiators, collapsed in 2010. While archaeologists have discovered and defused nearly 100 bombs from the Pompeii site, it is estimated that there could still be as many as 10 unexploded surprises waiting to be uncovered. These are all in areas well away from the touristy parts so there’s no need to watch your step just yet. 

How Old is Old?

When does the contemporary become the historic? How old does something have to be to be thought of as historically interesting? According to the Smithsonian, anything older than 50 years can potentially be of archaeological significance. That’s pretty recent if you ask me but still a couple of decades before unearthing Beanie Babies will be a worthwhile pursuit. In Belgium in the early 2000s, archaeologists were asked to research the location of a planned motorway as it was going to cut through a part of the country that had seen heavy action during World War 1. Apparently this time period was not considered that interesting as it was not that long ago and there was plenty of historical and physical evidence already. Using cutting-edge aerial technology and sensors so as not to disturb the existing landscape, the archaeologists discovered miles of trenches, artifacts and human remains. The site was considered so important to the understanding of the First World War that the motorway project was abandoned. 

Stone Cold Shoulder

Found in 1799, the Rosetta Stone is a thoughtfully future-proofed guide to translating Egyptian hieroglyphics. The large stone, which was discovered by French soldiers, has three examples of the same Royal decree carved out in three languages – Greek, Egyptian demotic and hieroglyphics. Scholars were able to use current knowledge of Greek to translate the other portions even though it still took them over twenty years to work out that the hieroglyphics were actually phonetically based and not just symbols. Being discovered in Egypt, written in Greek and recovered by the French, the Rosetta Stone is, of course, housed in the The British Museum. It’s protected from the public now but in the past anyone could touch it if they so chose. Thankfully, in spite of the many manual intrusions, none of the meanings of the hieroglyphs were changed during that time. Unsurprisingly, Egypt has regularly petitioned the British Museum for the return of the stone to its homeland but has so far been met with a wall of silence, although the Brits were kind enough to send a replica in 2005. Maybe some things were lost in translation after all. 

The Modern Mummy

Any hoax takes dedication and no small amount of chutzpah to pull off so you can’t help but admire the perpetrators behind the case of the Persian Princess mummy. Following an earthquake in Iran at the beginning of the 21st century, a sarcophagus was discovered with a mummy inside. The mummy had a breastplate stating that she was the daughter of Xerxes which immediately set archaeological hearts fluttering as no Persian royal mummies had ever been found before. The carved sarcophagus itself was pretty convincing and no flags were raised until further detailed tests were carried out. It turned out that not only was this not a two and half thousand year old mummy, it was, in fact, the body of a woman who had died less than five years previously. Her cause of death was given as a broken neck but the jury remains out on her identity and whether she was murdered. As if leaving historians with egg on their faces wasn’t bad enough, this has to be one of the most elaborate ways in history of getting rid of a body.

Just Say Nomad

Drugs have been a controversial yet integral part of humanity since time began. In 2013, archaeologists in Southern Russia discovered some paraphernalia belonging to the Scythian nomads who were renowned for being pretty scary horse-riding warriors around 700-200 years BC. Intricately carved golden objects with what was confirmed as traces of cannabis and opium inside were excavated from a burial mound and confirm historical  reports that the Scythians seriously liked to party. As well as indulging in narcotics and wine, they also liked to take baths where they would chuck hemp seeds onto hot stones and breathe in the vapours which takes the idea of a relaxing bath and sauna to a whole new level. It wasn’t all hedonism though; drug-taking was also performed as part of  their religious rituals and someone had to stay sober enough to craft all these gold pieces in the first place. Although not that much is known about these fierce nomadic people, it seems that they would have been fun at parties. If they weren’t trying to kill everyone, that is.

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