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From the Trenches

Mesopotamian Accounts Receivable

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Monday, February 10, 2014

Mesopotamian Clay Ball SealsIt was surely hard to keep accurate accounts before writing was developed, but Mesopotamian merchants found a way in the form of clay balls that researchers call “envelopes,” filled with tokens and impressed with seals. Dozens of these envelopes have been found, but deciphering their meaning is problematic—broken ones are difficult to reconstruct accurately and, until recently, intact ones could not be studied without first breaking them.

 

Sumerologist Christopher Woods and his team from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago are now using CT scans to peer inside 18 intact envelopes that date to more than 5,000 years ago, excavated from Choga Mish in Iran in the 1960s and 1970s. The team observed that the tokens come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and sometimes have surface incisions, all of which could represent different commodities or amounts. “If the contents [of a transaction] were contested,” Woods writes, “the envelope could be broken open and the tokens verified.” The balls also have seal impressions around the middle and on each end, which might represent the identities of buyers, sellers, or witnesses to a transaction. More scans will help researchers build a corpus of envelopes that can be deciphered. “We are now at a point in terms of technology where we can collect more and better data using nondestructive methods than we could if we physically opened the balls,” according to Woods.

Triangulating Buddha's Birth

By NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN

Monday, February 10, 2014

Nepal Early Buddhist Site Excavation

 

Buddhist scholars and devotees are split into two camps over when Buddha was born, in large part because the sage’s birth preceded formal writing by several centuries. Some say the mid-sixth to seventh century b.c., while others believe it was later, in the mid- to late fourth century B.C. What they do agree upon is his birthplace: Lumbini, Nepal.

 

Archaeologists working at Lumbini have now uncovered evidence that appears to support the earlier birth date. Digging within the grounds of the Maya Devi Temple, named after Buddha’s mother, the team unearthed a succession of temples carefully oriented to re-create the cosmos and place Buddha at its center. The oldest, which would have been outlined in timbers, dates to the sixth century B.C.

 

Nepal Early Buddhist Site PriestsThe timber temple sits beneath a newer brick structure dating to the third century B.C. that was built by Ashoka, a proselytizer of Buddhism and ruler of the Mauryan Empire that held most of South Asia at the time. Archaeologists found root features at the center of the Ashokan temple, evidence that it was built around a sacred Bodhi Tree, a common feature of Buddhist shrines that symbolizes enlightenment. The team believes the timber structure was built around one as well. “Our sequence starts in the sixth century B.C., with the creation of a sacred space around a tree, and this pattern is later replicated twice,” says lead archaeologist Robin Coningham of the University of Durham. “The earlier structures were not destroyed, but were carefully enshrined one under another, indicating the importance of preserving that continuity.”

Game of Stones

By NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN

Monday, February 10, 2014

Pict Stone Gamers ReassemblyIn the seventeenth century, the 1,200-year-old Hilton of Cadboll Stone had a great fall. Now, National Museums Scotland (NMS) is enlisting video game players to help put it together again.

 

The sandstone slab was carved by the Picts of northern Scotland around A.D. 800, likely to celebrate their conversion to Christianity. In the 1670s, a storm toppled it and a cross emblazoned on one side was damaged. Originally discovered in 2001, the bottom portion of the 7.5-foot-tall stone was in 3,000 pieces, ranging in size from two to eight inches. Reassembling it by hand would prove a daunting task.

 

Enter the techies. A Scottish company called Relicarte has transformed the fragments into 3-D virtual objects and made them available to the public in a special application. Starting in late October 2013, gamers could use their spatial reasoning skills to reassemble the slab. “The ability to manipulate 3-D images easily and interact over social media is key,” says Mhairi Maxwell, an NMS curator. “Archaeology has always had to draw upon a diverse range of skill sets for understanding the past—it is both an art and a science.” The researchers don’t know how long the process will take, but it will certainly be faster than the old-fashioned way.

How to Pray to a Storm God

By ERIC A. POWELL

Monday, February 10, 2014

Turkish Sanctuary Amulets

 

Archaeologists excavating an ancient mountaintop sanctuary in southeastern Turkey have unearthed more than 600 seals and amulets left at the temple as votive offerings. Originally dedicated to a Near Eastern storm god, the sanctuary was in use from the first millennium B.C. until the seventh century A.D. But around 200 B.C., the temple was rebuilt, a process that sealed off the site’s older layers and protected the objects intentionally left behind by generations of worshippers seeking the storm god’s help.  Dating from the seventh to fourth centuries B.C., the artifacts come from all over the Near East and depict both simple geometric symbols and intricate scenes of men praying. Some show a royal hero in the midst of fighting animals or mythical creatures. University of Münster archaeologist Englebert Winter says worshippers would have worn the amulets in everyday life to ward off evil, and that offering them to the storm god was an intensely personal pious act. “People consecrated to the god an object that was closely associated with their own identity,” says Winter.

Scuttled but Not Forgotten

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Monday, February 10, 2014

Japanese WWII-Submarine I-4000Nearly half a mile beneath the surface of the Pacific, southwest of Oahu, lie massive remains tied to a stunning tale from the last days of World War II and the first days of the Cold War that followed. Archaeologists using Pisces V, a manned submersible operated by the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, found the wreck of I-400, a Japanese submarine remarkable not only for its size (400 feet long, twice that of a German U-boat), but also for its capabilities (it held three aircraft with folding wings that could be launched by catapult) and mission (its crew trained to attack the Panama Canal). Following the end of hostilities in the Pacific, the Allies had agreed to share military technology seized from Japanese forces. But I-400 and its sister vessels were simply too advanced and important—the United States scuttled the ships rather than share their secrets with the Soviets.

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