Volunteers needed to explore Atlantis

Helike, Atlantis
Want to spend next summer excavating the lost ruins of Atlantis? Well, you can! There are only two catches–it may not be Atlantis, and you won’t get to ride in a UFO.

Wide-eyed crystal clutchers need not apply. This is real science and is far more interesting than New Age fantasy.

Archaeologists excavating the once-lost ancient city of Helike in Greece, are looking for volunteers this summer. The city is located in the Peloponnese, the peninsula in southwestern Greece that’s home to Corinth and Sparta. Inhabited from the Bronze Age onwards, it was thought lost after a massive earthquake in the winter of 373/372 B.C. supposedly sloughed it into the sea. All that was left were a few vague stories and the occasional statue trawled up in fishermen’s nets.

Helike, AtlantisSome scholars theorize Helike’s demise may have led to the legend of Atlantis, the famous lost kingdom that also sank into the sea. Others claim a more likely inspiration for Atlantis was Thera, also known as Santorini, an Aegean island that experienced a massive volcanic explosion in the mid second millennium BC that blew away most of its land and may have disrupted the nearby Minoan civilization.

In 2000 and 2001, a Greek team found Helike and discovered that it hadn’t sunk into the sea, but rather got submerged under an inland lagoon that later silted over. Not nearly as romantic, but nostalgia’s loss is our gain. Evidence of over three thousand years of habitation have been found. Intriguingly, excavators found a settlement dating to c.2600-2300 BC that may also have been submerged after an earthquake.

The city was dedicated to Poseidon Helikonios, god of the sea and the earthquakes. The citizens even put the god on their coinage. Considering that their entire city was destroyed by an earthquake and water, it appears their faith was misplaced.

Volunteers are needed for this summer’s excavations. You don’t need any prior experience and you’ll be trained in archaeological tasks like excavation, mapping, and lab work. If you’d rather dig somewhere else, there are hundreds of archaeological excavations around the world needing your help this summer. This list of links will get your started in your search.

Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Check the Helike Project website for more photos of this amazing site.

Harla: Ethiopia’s lost civilization

Harla, harla, Ethiopia, archaeology, Harar
Eastern Ethiopia’s history is shrouded in mystery. Most archaeologists investigate early hominids like Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis, or study the great civilizations of the north like Gondar and Axum. The east, though, is virtually unknown, and only enigmatic ruins and strange legends remain.

Scattered around eastern Ethiopia all the way to Somaliland and the Red Sea are the ruins of towns with large stone buildings unlike anything made by the modern Oromo and Somali peoples. These are the remnants of the little-known Harla civilization. Wanting to learn more, I contacted archaeologist, author, and Harar tour guide Muhammed Jami Guleid (guleidhr @yahoo.com). “Dake”, as everybody here calls him, helped me travel to Somaliland last year and is an invaluable resource for local culture and history. He knows everybody and he’s excavated Harla graves in Ethiopia’s Somali region and in Somaliland.

They were a race of giants, people say, and immensely strong. They’d perform amazing feats of strength like playing with balls made from the entire hide of a goat. A schoolkid we gave a lift to told us the Harla were three meters tall! This rumor probably came about because of their unusual graves. They’re long and thin, sometimes three or four meters long, although the skeletons in them aren’t unusually tall. The graves are usually covered with a layer of ash (probably from burnt offerings), the skeleton of a sacrificed cow, and below that a stone slab sealing the tomb.

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Harla skeletons are often buried with pots resting above their head. Inside the pots are black sand (why? nobody knows), necklaces of gemstones, and silver coins that are slightly smaller than a dime. There seems to be writing or designs on the coins but they’re old and poorly minted, and if they ever once said anything, they’re unreadable now. The necklaces are usually agate, but also ruby and amber. The style of the pots, coins, and jewelry are the same both in the mountains around Harar and in the Somali lowlands all the way to the Red Sea. This has convinced Muhammed Dake that the sites all belong to the same culture.

Legends say the center of this civilization was around Harar, which makes sense since it has the best land in the region. The kings of Harla were wizards who boasted about their powers. One said he’d make a river of milk between two mountains; another bragged he could make a sorghum plant that could be laid down and be used as a highway all the way to the Awash River, 150 miles away. Allah got angry at all this and destroyed them. A few Harla survived and fled to Kush in the Sudan, the site of another great civilization.

The Hararis are believed to be descended from the Harla. The closest Harla site to Harar is at the Oromo village of Harla, from which the civilization gets its name. We have no idea what the Harla called themselves. When Allah destroyed the civilization and the survivors fled to Kush, one woman stayed behind to found the modern town of Harla. With a population of about 2800, it’s a half-hour drive from Harar on a winding mountain road that offers sweeping views of the lowlands to the north.

When we arrived at the modern Harla I saw the Oromo there looked and dressed a bit different than other Oromo I’d met. The women didn’t wear the usual Western-style striped shirt that’s almost a uniform for Oromo women in this region. Was this a remnant of their different origins? It’s hard to say, but the modern residents of Harla say they’re of different origins than the rest of the Oromo. Over the years they’ve taken on Oromo customs and the Oromo language, but still consider themselves a distinct people.

Like everywhere else, Muhammed Dake seems to know everyone in Harla. Some of the villagers showed us the ruins. There are thick walls of stone cemented together with a type of plaster that’s still strong after centuries of weathering. Some remain standing above the height of a man, and one field is filled with a network of walls, showing the ancient town was a cluster of closely built structures. In one spot, a tree has grown up through a wall. Plants may be slow, but are almost unstoppable. This tree cracked through the tough Harla plaster and grew around the ancient stones, lifting them into the air as the tree grew. Now the building looks like it’s frozen in the middle of an explosion, its stones suspended several feet above the ground. The local kids love to climb this tree, using the Harla stones embedded in the wood as footholds.

Muhammed Dake believes the Harla people were pagan, judging from how they built their graves. They don’t look either Muslim or Christian. But the Harla village presents another mystery. At one ruin that looks constructed in the Harla style, a villager pulls away some bushes along one wall to reveal a niche. To confirm my suspicions he raises his hands and says “Allahu akbar” (God is Great). It’s a miqrab, the niche in a mosque that points the way to Mecca. And it does point the right direction. Is this mosque from the Harla times? If so, the Harla were the first Muslims in the region, predating the Harari people who can trace their roots back to the tenth century.

Or perhaps it’s a later ruin. So little is known about the Harla, and so little archaeological research has been done here, that for the time being all we have are legends of a race of giants who once ruled the land.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region!

A photo tour of Russia’s aging wooden churches

Ever seen an unknown sight on a postcard and had a sudden urge to visit? Professional photographer Richard Davies knows the feeling well. Davies, who specializes in architectural photography, discovered a postcard series of unique fairy-tale style wooden churches located in Northern Russia and decided he simply had to visit. The result is Wooden Churches, a series of beautiful photographs of these forgotten landmarks.

The wooden church architecture of Russia is unlike anything on earth. Largely built during the 18th and 19th Centuries, these iconic structures have weathered a storm of changes ever since, ranging from harsh winters to the churches’ abandonment during the years of Soviet Communism. Many of the structures today remain in a state of tragic disrepair, damaged by vandals, neglect and the constant barrage of the weather.

Davies’ photo collection perfectly captures the beauty and neglect of these amazing structures. The barren Russian landscapes, the sense of decay and the intricate architecture will make viewers feel like they’ve stumbled upon the remains of a fantasy civilization. It’s a great way to raise awareness for preserving these amazing landmarks before they crumble to dust.

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