Archaeologists Discover Nearly 5000 Cave Paintings In Mexico

Mexican Cave Paintings could be more than 40,000 years old
Mexican National Institute of Anthropology

Archaeologists have made a startling discovery in a remote region of Mexico that could have an impact on what we’ve previously known about early inhabitants in North America. While exploring numerous sites in the northeastern region of Burgos, researchers have come across nearly 5000 cave paintings, which would be a remarkable find at any time. But these paintings seem to pre-date any kind of settlement by Hispanic people in the region, possibly revealing the presence of previously unknown inhabitants in the San Carlos mountain range.

All told, there are 4926 paintings spread out across 11 different archaeological sites. Of those, 1550 are found in a single location whose walls are extremely covered in the artwork. Using simple red, yellow, black and white paints, the artists left behind primitive images of humans, animals, insects and other abstract items in a place that was not previously believed to have been inhabited by any type of organized cultures. The paintings suggest that as many as three groups may have lived in the region, however, which adds yet another layer to the mystery.

At the moment, there is little known about the ancient cultures that made these paintings. The scenes splayed out on the walls indicate that it was a nomadic tribe of hunters and gatherers who used rudimentary tools to aid in their work. No such tools have been found at any of the sites, however, leaving researchers to speculate about the level of sophistication the tribes possessed. Scientists hope to chemically analyze the paint used in the art to determine its age, but at the moment they estimate that the cave paintings were done some 40,000 years ago. If that is accurate, it would put them amongst the oldest known artwork in history.

Industry Destroys Part Of The Nazca Lines

Nazca Lines
A limestone quarrying company operating illegally within the bounds of the Nazca Lines has destroyed some of the enigmatic figures.

The archaeology news feed Past Horizons reports that heavy machinery removing limestone from a nearby quarry has damaged 150 meters (492 feet) of lines along with completely destroying a 60-meter (197-foot) trapezoid. So far the more famous animal figures have not been affected.

The Nazca Lines are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Peru’s most visited attractions. These giant images of people, animals, plants, and geometric shapes were scratched onto the surface of the Peruvian desert by three different cultures from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. A plane ride above them makes for an awe-inspiring experience. Sadly, tourism is also threatening the Nazca Lines.

Here’s hoping the Peruvian government will start taking notice and preserve one of its greatest national treasures.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

A Sneak Peek At The Soon-To-Reopen National Museum Of Iraq

National Museum of Iraq
The National Museum of Iraq is as battered and defiant as the country it represents. Battered because it has suffered looting and neglect, defiant because its staff fought to protect it. Now they’re rebuilding and the museum will soon reopen.

I got a sneak peak while visiting Iraq and was overawed. I knew I would be. Here is the treasure house of the dawn of civilization. Giant statues of Assyrian guardian demons stand next to cases filled with wide-eyed Sumerian statues pleading with their gods. Detailed bas-reliefs from excavated palaces show scenes of war and hunting. Cases full of cylinder seals show scenes of Babylonian life in miniature.

My favorite was the writing. The first scribes developed a simple system around 3300 B.C. or even earlier. Clay tokens represented objects such as sheep or jugs of beer. These were often sealed in clay envelopes with an impression of the tokens on the outside, thus creating the first contracts. Soon tablets were used with a system of writing that was mostly pictorial – a bull’s head represented a bull, etc. As the needs of the developing civilization grew more complex, so did the system of writing. The pictures morphed into almost unrecognizable collections of lines, and words for abstract ideas appeared. The writing was done with a stylus on soft clay to make a series of wedge-shaped impressions called cuneiform.

Looking at these ancient texts was hypnotic. The same process we’re engaged in right now, with me writing and you reading, was going on 5,000 years ago in a vastly different culture. We don’t have to know each other or even be in the same country to communicate. It was an incredible innovation that opened up countless possibilities for the human race.

As I studied the galleries I was amazed that anything survived the chaotic days after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. The Coalition troops hadn’t been given any instructions to protect the museum, so looters broke in and ransacked the place. Museum staff came back in force and drove them off, a brave act considering the looters were armed. Eventually the museum workers convinced the U.S. Army to post some guards.

It was too late. Thousands of priceless artifacts had been stolen. Some were later recovered but most have disappeared into the private homes of “collectors.” Luckily, the museum staff had hidden some of the best artifacts in secret locations. They told no one, not even the Coalition, about their existence until the situation had stabilized.

%Gallery-170304%Now workers are busy finishing up the displays. Twenty-two galleries have been completed and there are five more to go. Some rooms survived the war relatively intact and will look familiar to those who were lucky enough to visit before the war. Others have been completely remodeled. The museum officials didn’t allow me to photograph those. It seemed an odd restriction. Wouldn’t they want people to see their hard work? When traveling in Iraq, you get used to random rules. You just have to shrug your shoulders and move on.

In one room I found a member of the staff restoring an Abbasid sarcophagus made of teak. As I studied the intricately carved designs he explained in perfect English that he was filling in the cracks and chips with a paste made from powdered teak and “micro balloons,” tiny polymer spheres that act as a chemically inert adhesive. I asked if I could take a picture of his work and he said no.

“That’s the museum’s rule, not mine,” he said apologetically.

He and his coworkers have done a good job. The difference between the traditional galleries and the remodeled ones is astounding. The new galleries have better lighting and signage and show off the museum’s artifacts to much better advantage. All the galleries, both new and old, have signage in both Arabic and English.

The National Museum of Iraq is due to have a grand reopening in two months. As with everything in this struggling nation, the date is subject to change due to security issues and funds not getting to the right place at the right time. The work is almost done, though, so one of the greatest museums in the Middle East will almost certainly reopen in 2013 to teach a new generation of visitors about the wonders of Iraq’s past.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Ghosts Of A Dictatorship: Visiting Saddam’s Palaces!”

All photos by Sean McLachlan

Egypt Reopens Important Tombs At Saqqara


Despite facing political turmoil, authorities in Egypt have been forging ahead with renovations of key archaeological sites. Last week saw the renovation and reopening of two important tombs, the Serapeum and the tomb of Akhethotep & Ptahhotep.

The Serapeum dates to 1390 B.C. and was a tomb for holy bulls. I visited in 1991 and the memories of the gloomy underground corridors and giant sarcophagi are still vivid in my mind. It was closed in 2001 due to water leaking inside and shifts in the earth that threatened the underground structure.

The tomb of Akhethotep & Ptahhotep housed a father and son who were both high officials for the last two pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty around 2375 B.C. The double tomb is brightly painted with scenes of religious rituals, agriculture, hunting, and children playing.

Both tombs are at Saqqara, 30 kilometers south of Cairo and the site of Egypt’s first pyramid.

Authorities plan to open five more tombs soon. The government has spent millions of dollars on this work and hopes to lure back tourists who have been scared away by the recent unrest.

Check out this video from the Chinese-American NTD Television for some striking visuals of these two ancient tombs.

Roman Cavalry Helmet To Be Star Attraction At Royal Academy Exhibition

Roman
A new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London will feature one of Britain’s most stunning archaeological discoveries of the past few years.

Back in 2010, a metal detectorist found this brass helmet in a field in Cumbria, northern England. It dates from the first to third centuries A.D. and is one of a few rare ornate cavalry helmets dating to the Roman period. These helmets were worn for tournaments and parades rather than battle.

Now it will be part of “Bronze,” an exhibition of works made of bronze or brass from the prehistoric period to the present day. More than 150 works from Africa, Asia, and Europe are organized into themes such as the human figure, animals, groups, objects, reliefs, heads and busts, and gods. Examples come from such widely different cultures as ancient Greece, Etruria, Benin, Renaissance Italy, and modern Europe.

To learn more about these helmets, check out this page on Roman parade helmets and this page on more standard-issue Roman cavalry helmets.

Bronze runs from September 15 to December 9.

[Photo courtesy Daniel Pett]