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On the Origins of Art


Monday, December 15, 2014

Trenches-Asia-Early-ArtArchaeologists have determined that cave art on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is just as old, if not older, than similar but much more widely known examples in Spain and France. A hand stencil was laid down there at least 39,900 years ago, they report, and a drawing of a piglike animal was sketched at least 35,700 years ago.


The researchers established the minimum age of the designs by dating mineral deposits that have formed on top of them. The deposits contain trace amounts of uranium, which decays at a steady rate to thorium, so their age can be calculated from the ratio of the two elements.


The discovery raises the question of whether human artistic expression was pioneered independently in Western Europe and Southeast Asia, or had evolved in humans before they left Africa. “We really can’t say either way, but my gut feeling is that rock art developed in Africa before our ancestors spread out of that continent,” says Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia. “Therefore, we would expect to find rock art of a similar age in many other parts of the world.”

A Tale of Two Railroads


Monday, December 15, 2014

Trenches-Railroad-ExcavationArchaeologists working with one of the world’s newest rail projects have discovered the remains of one of the oldest. Near London’s Paddington Station, researchers employed by the Crossrail tunnel project dug up the foundations of engine sheds, workshops, and turntables used to turn trains, built in about 1851 by I.K. Brunel, creator of the Great Western Railway, which linked London to western England. They also found traces of Brunel’s stone rail beds, which were among the last to be built at the wide-gauge measurement of seven feet. In 1846, Parliament had decreed that narrower, cheaper, standard-gauge rails would be phased in everywhere in Britain. However, archaeologists found no pieces of the actual iron tracks, barring a few twisted fragments. “Very likely they were all salvaged when the buildings were demolished in 1906, and the iron was recast and reused,” says Jay Carver, lead archaeologist for Crossrail. The timber sleepers—also known as ties—were also missing. Other discoveries include the well-preserved floor of a 600-foot-long shed where trains were cleaned and maintained and that, in its day, could hold dozens of locomotives and passenger coaches.


Trenches-England-Train-TurntableSince no records of the site’s dimensions were kept when it was demolished and covered over by a bus depot and a mixing plant, Carver and his team are mapping and photographing the yard to establish what it looked like in Victorian times, and maybe to reconstruct it. That would be a fitting tribute to Brunel, a legendary civil engineer who is one of the most revered Britons of all time, often ranking second only to Winston Churchill in popular polls. The Great Western Railway, opened in 1838, “was probably Brunel’s greatest achievement, and this was one of the most important structures associated with it,” says Carver.

The Price of Plunder


Monday, December 15, 2014

Trenches-Hasanlu-Tepe-CupThe Iron Age fortified hilltop site of Hasanlu Tepe in northwest Iran was sacked around 800 B.C. Much of the chaos and destruction from that event was long frozen in time, until archaeologists encountered well-preserved buildings, artifacts, and even human remains in their efforts to reconstruct the ill-fated settlement’s demise. The site was briefly explored in the 1930s, and large-scale excavation took place there between 1956 and 1977, sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Archaeological Service of Iran. In 1958, the discovery of Hasanlu’s most famous find, known as the Gold Bowl, brought the excavation international attention. The solid gold artifact weighs more than two pounds and bears remarkable repoussé and chase decorations (made by hammering the metal from both the back and front) depicting various mythological scenes. The spectacular vessel, however, was surrounded by an air of mystery. The bowl was found crushed beneath a layer of burned debris near three skeletons. How did the valuable object end up there? Were these individuals rescuing it from the burning city? Or were they stealing it?


Trenches-Hasanlu-Tepe-SiteshotMichael Danti, a Boston University archaeologist, is taking a new look at the find and its context, and his latest theory suggests a scene more sinister than heroic. The original Hasanlu Project produced massive amounts of data, but the speed, size, and scope of these excavations often resulted in limited documentation and publication of the material. Decades later, Danti is seeking to remedy this problem by reviewing and publishing the information. The process is providing new details about the site’s destruction nearly 2,800 years ago. “Whenever we reexamine a Hasanlu dataset we find something new and exciting,” says Danti. “The possibilities for reanalysis are incredible.”


Trenches-Hasanlu-Tepe-ExcavationHasanlu developed into a significant commercial and production center during the early Iron Age (1400–800 B.C.), owing to its location on important trade and communication routes between Mesopotamia and Anatolia. The citadel at the center of the settlement contained an array of monumental buildings, including palaces, temples, and large multi-columned halls. The evidence Danti is studying confirms that the citadel met with a violent end. Many buildings were ransacked and burned, which caused them to collapse. In addition, the remains of more than 250 people were uncovered, some with signs of systematic execution. “The horrific level of violence evident in the archaeological record left a mark on everyone who excavated the citadel,” Danti adds. “Hasanlu’s destruction level makes it a giant ninth-century B.C. crime scene.” According to Danti’s analysis of the Gold Bowl’s context, the valuable object was in the process of being looted by enemy combatants. The three soldiers, who, based on their military equipment and personal ornaments, probably hailed from the Urartu region north of Iran in modern Armenia, were in the process of plundering a wealthy, multistory complex as the citadel burned. They located the bowl and other valuables in a second-story storeroom. As they fled with their prize, the mud-brick building suddenly collapsed. The invaders were hurled to the floor below, where they were crushed by debris, and lay buried, side-by-side—thieves and their trophy—for nearly three millennia.

Off The Grid


Monday, December 15, 2014

Trenches-OfftheGrid-NewfoundlandMany people will be surprised to learn that the best-preserved early English colonial site in the Americas is located on a rocky peninsula in Newfoundland, Canada. Known originally (and still) as Ferryland, the site was visited seasonally by Beothuk Indians and, in the sixteenth century, by fishermen from several European countries. English settlers arrived in the early 1620s, and George Calvert (later Lord Baltimore) christened the colony Avalon, after the legendary island of Arthurian legend. Like the Plymouth Colony, it was an early bastion of religious tolerance in North America. Over the following decades, the colony established itself and grew—with several hundred inhabitants at its peak—but it was looted and burned by French soldiers in 1696. After that, the site was all but abandoned, leaving its ruins mostly undisturbed for three centuries. The first of 23 consecutive archaeological field seasons—so far—at the site took place in 1992. Barry Gaulton, an archaeologist with Memorial University of Newfoundland, says that approximately 35 percent of the original four-acre settlement has been unearthed. “The beauty of the site,” he says, “is that it’s so well preserved. Because the settlers built in stone, it’s all there to see. There’s no real imagination required. In terms of visibility, in terms of the settlement, everything is there. Archaeologists just have to slowly uncover it all.”


The site

Trenches-OfftheGrid-CruxifixFrom June to October, visitors can explore the remains of a variety of private and public structures. The parlor and a portion of the kitchen from the mansion house of Calvert and, later, David Kirke, the first governor of Newfoundland, can be seen. Nearby are the remains of a bakery/brewhouse, cobblestone street, warehouse, forge, and well. Along the waterfront are a seawall and a sea-flushed privy. Close to two million artifacts have been uncovered, including gold rings, Portuguese ceramics, fish bones, clay pipes, empty liquor bottles, a recently found tiny copper crucifix, and a lead token produced by Kirke—North America’s earliest locally produced colonial money. Visitors can also watch archaeologists and conservators at work. Many of the artifacts are on view at the interpretation center, which hosts historical demonstrations and has a reproduction of a seventeenth-century garden.


While you’re there

The Colony of Avalon site is in the modern town of Ferryland, which has a museum of its own and a regional arts center that hosts a dinner theater, concerts, and cultural festivals. Ferryland is known as the Irish heart of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Irish traditions continue to thrive. Nearby, the Ferryland Lighthouse, built in 1870, is a great location for picnics where the curious can see birds, whales, and icebergs. You can purchase a picnic lunch and borrow a blanket and books from the folks at the lighthouse.