Hidden History Revealed By Receding Glaciers

Michael Gwyther-Jones, Flickr

Well at least global warming is good for something.

The rise in Earth’s temperature is making snow lines and glaciers recede on mountain ranges all over the world. While this is a worrying trend, it’s revealing hidden bits of history to archaeologists.

In Norway, the receding Lendbreen glacier at 6,560 feet above the sea level has revealed an ancient wool sweater dating to the Iron Age. Carbon dating has revealed that it’s 1,700 years old. It was made of sheep and lamb’s wool in a diamond twill, and was well-worn and patched from heavy use. The Norwegian research team estimates that the person who wore it would have been about 5 feet, 9 inches tall.

The results of the study have recently been published in the journal Antiquity.

This isn’t the first discovery thanks to receding glaciers. The most famous, of course, is the so-called “Iceman”, a well-preserved corpse of a man who died in the Alps around 3300 BC. Last year we reported the discovery of the bodies of soldiers from World War One in the Alps. in Norway, about 50 textile fragments have been recovered in recent years, although the sweater is the first complete garment.

Most discoveries have been accidental, with hikers and mountaineers reporting their finds to the appropriate authorities. In the Iceman’s case, people originally wondered if the well-preserved body might have been a recent murder victim!

So if you’re hiking near a melting glacier, keep an eye out for ancient artifacts and bodies, and remember that it’s illegal to pocket them. Do science a favor and call a park ranger.

British Museum Opens Exhibition On Life And Death In Pompeii And Herculaneum

Pompeii
Today the British Museum in London opens what is sure to be the hit exhibition of the year.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” examines the daily life of the Roman world, as it was preserved in two cities buried under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Through fine art and mundane objects, we get to see what life was like for ordinary Romans.

Romans like the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, whose likenesses were preserved in a fresco on the wall of their house. “Baker” is a misleadingly humble term for Terentius, who was obviously well-to-do, and who had a literate wife who is shown as his business partner.

The exhibition is laid out like the House of the Tragic Poet, one of the homes excavated at Pompeii. A video reconstruction prepared by Giunta Regionale della Campania shows what it looked like when it was being used. As you wander through the atrium, bedroom, kitchen and garden, you learn about different aspects of Roman culture.

The ash that buried the cities and killed its inhabitants preserved frescoes and graffiti that show us a snapshot from the time. Slogans from an election held a few months before still adorn public walls, including a painting of a candidate distributing free bread. Other graffiti boasted of sexual conquests or lost love.

A large amount of the exhibition space is devoted to brightly colored frescoes that once decorated interior walls. Some show religious or natural scenes. One room that overlooked a garden had walls painted like a garden, giving the illusion of being outside.

%Gallery-183881%While much of the focus is on the upper classes, several displays show how the more common Romans lived. In the kitchen, for example, we see the workplace of the slaves. Here, there’s a simple altar for them to worship their gods, and a worktable covered in carbonized food. One blackened loaf of bread bears the stamp, “Made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus.”

The kitchen also revealed an odd fact about Roman homes – it was where the toilet was usually located. One wonders how many Romans died because of this ignorance of microbiology.

Another oddity of Roman life was how sexual the art was. What we may see as crude today was considered funny or magical to the Romans. A young woman wore a pendent in the shape of a penis to ensure luck and fertility. A phallic wind chime was supposed to bring luck to the household. Then there’s the sculpture of the god Pan porking a goat. Nobody is sure what the Romans were thinking when they made that one.

The final part of the exhibition is dedicated to the sobering casts of the dead. When the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the eruption, they rotted away, leaving their ghostly shapes in the hardened ash. Archaeologists have poured plaster into many of these cavities to reveal men, woman, and children in their death throes. A particularly poignant scene is of a family of four. One child still sits on the mother’s lap, while another, who could have been no more than four, lies nearby, her face so well preserved as to be recognizable.

These bodies will be one of the main draws to the exhibition, but I have to admit to a certain guilt at my voyeuristic fascination with them. What does our obsession with these casts say about ourselves? Cambridge historian Mary Beard has written a thoughtful essay on this and comes up with no easy answers.

This sort of blockbuster exhibition is something the British Museum does well, and this is one of their best yet. From the high art to crude graffiti, from naughty sculptures to a baby’s cradle, the breadth and richness of Roman life are brought to life in an experience no one with an interest in the ancient world will want to miss.

“Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” runs until September 29.

Egyptian Mummies Weren’t Given Enemas, Study Shows

mummies
Ancient Egyptian mummies have been an object of fascination. The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century B.C., visited Egypt and wrote a description of the mummification process. Since no ancient Egyptian text survives, his account forms the basis of many descriptions in modern books and museum displays.

Now a new study by two Canadian scientists suggests Herodotus may have gotten it wrong.

Yahoo News reports that two of the key points in Herodotus’ account – that the internal organs were dissolved with cedar oil enemas and the heart was always left in place – don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Researchers have examined studies of 150 mummies and put seven through CT scans and found little evidence of cedar oil. Also, in three-quarters of the mummies the heart was missing.

Herodotus also said that the brains were removed with a hook pushed through the nose. The study shows brains in about a fifth of mummies.

So why did Herodotus get it wrong? The study’s coauthor Andrew Wade of the University of Western Ontario says mummification was a lucrative business and its secrets closely guarded. In other words, Herodotus was handed a line. Imagine a bunch of mummy makers drinking wine by the Nile after a busy day at the office and laughing about that clueless Greek who showed up asking questions. “Cedar oil enemas? Yeah, save that for the tourists!”

Another possibility is that the mummy makers cut corners. In many animal mummies, used as offerings to the gods, researchers found only partial skeletons or wrappings that contained nothing. Temples made lots of money selling animal mummies to the faithful, and they created fakes to increase profits.

The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University has a longer account of Herodotus’ writings on mummification here. The study was published in the latest issue of HOMO: The Journal of Comparative Human Biology.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Pyramids Discovered In Egypt And Sudan

pyramids
You’d think archaeologists would have found all the pyramids of Africa by now, but two recent discoveries show there’s a lot more discovering to be done.

A team of archaeologists working in Luxor, Egypt, have just announced they’ve discovered the pyramid of Khay, a powerful vizier of the Pharaoh Ramses II (ruled 1279-1212 B.C.). The pyramid was made of mudbrick and originally stood 49 feet high.

In the seventh and eighth century A.D. it was dismantled and turned into a Coptic Christian hermitage. Hieroglyphic writing on the surviving bricks told the archaeologists to whom the pyramid belonged.

Earlier this month, archaeologists announced they had found the bases of at least 35 broken pyramids at the site of Sedeinga in Sudan. They’re about 2,000 years old and belong to the kingdom of Kush, which lasted from c.1000 B.C. to 350 A.D. before finally being conquered by the Empire of Axum in Ethiopia. For almost a hundred years from 747-656 B.C., the Kushites ruled Egypt as the 25th dynasty.

The Sedeinga pyramids really just pyramid-shaped tombs. The largest measures 22 feet to a side, while the smallest is only 30 inches to a side. Others in Sudan, such as those at Meroë, are much more grandiose. Those at the pyramid field at Nuri, shown here courtesy Vít Hassan, are up to 150 feet tall.

Last year, a satellite survey conducted by Dr. Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama found 17 suspected pyramids.

So how could these pyramids go missing? Well, most pyramids were much smaller than the famous ones at Giza and Saqqara that we always see pictures of. Shifting sands and erosion helped hide them. In the case of the Sedeinga tombs, later people took stones from them to build other structures.

Even some sizable pyramids have all but disappeared because they were made of inferior materials. Some of the last pyramids of Egypt are barely visible today because of shoddy workmanship or having been made with mudbrick instead of stone.

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