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An Overlooked Inca Wonder

Thousands of aligned holes in Peru’s Pisco Valley have attracted the attention of archaeologists


Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Peru Band of Holes 1Members of the public regularly get in touch with Charles Stanish, an expert on Andean cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. Two years ago, Stanish received a call from a man in Pittsburgh who had just seen a program claiming that aliens played a large role in the lives of ancient people. He was interested in getting Stanish’s take on a particular Peruvian site purported to be the handiwork of extraterrestrials. “I always try to be nice to people like that,” says Stanish. “For whatever reason, they are interested in the ancient past, and I share with them what archaeologists know about the subject.” In this case, the man asked Stanish what he thought about the idea of aliens constructing a strange alignment of pits, known popularly as the “Band of Holes,” in Peru’s Pisco Valley. Though he has worked in the area for more than 30 years, Stanish had never heard of the site. He and his colleague Henry Tantaleán took a look at its coordinates on Google Earth for themselves, and were surprised by satellite imagery showing that the Band of Holes is indeed a highly unusual artificial feature. It seemed to be made up of thousands of small depressions running upslope. “I’d never seen anything like it,” says Stanish. “It really seemed unique.” It was also only 10 miles from Stanish and Tantaleán’s own excavations in the nearby Chincha Valley. Intrigued, they decided to try to understand the curious site.


Together, Stanish and Tantaleán speculated as to what the Band of Holes might have been. They reasoned it could have been part of a defensive structure, or served as a marker for a trail, or might even be a geoglyph in the tradition of the nearby Nazca lines. In searching the archaeological literature, they found that the site had first been documented in 1931 by aerial photographer and geographer Robert Shippee. Since then, a few archaeologists had visited and described it as being made up of segments of shallow holes running a mile up a hill known as Monte Sierpe. The consensus seemed to be that the holes were made to store something, but exactly what remained unclear. Despite the fact that previous generations of archaeologists knew about the site, no excavations had been conducted, and no obvious artifacts had been found near the holes. There was no agreement on when it was built or by what culture. For Stanish and Tantaleán, the mystery was deepening.

 Peru Band of Holes 2


In the 2015 field season, Stanish set up his team in the Chincha Valley and then drove with Tantaleán to Monte Sierpe. From below, the row upon row of holes creeping up the slope made for an imposing view. “Really, it is very impressive,” says Tantaleán. “I’d never seen anything like it in my entire career.” They quickly found a small amount of pottery dating to just before the time the Spanish invaded Peru, when the Inca ruled this part of it. There were also other signs it could be an Inca site. “I began to suspect it dated to the Inca period because at the base of the site there are tombs similar to those in the Chincha Valley that date to the time of the Incas,” says Tantaleán.


The World's Oldest Writing

Used by scribes for more than three millennia, cuneiform writing opens a dramatic window onto ancient Mesopotamian life


Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Cuneiform lagash scribe statueIn early 2016, hundreds of media outlets around the world reported that a set of recently deciphered ancient clay tablets revealed that Babylonian astronomers were more sophisticated than previously believed. The wedge-shaped writing on the tablets, known as cuneiform, demonstrated that these ancient stargazers used geometric calculations to predict the motion of Jupiter. Scholars had assumed it wasn’t until almost A.D. 1400 that these techniques were first employed—by English and French mathematicians. But here was proof that nearly 2,000 years earlier, ancient people were every bit as advanced as Renaissance-era scholars. Judging by the story’s enthusiastic reception on social media, this discovery captured the public imagination. It implicitly challenged the perception that cuneiform tablets were used merely for basic accounting, such as tallying grain, rather than for complex astronomical calculations. While most tablets were, in fact, used for mundane bookkeeping or scribal exercises, some of them bear inscriptions that offer unexpected insights into the minute details of and momentous events in the lives of ancient Mesopotamians.


First developed around 3200 B.C. by Sumerian scribes in the ancient city-state of Uruk, in present-day Iraq, as a means of recording transactions, cuneiform writing was created by using a reed stylus to make wedge-shaped indentations in clay tablets. Later scribes would chisel cuneiform into a variety of stone objects as well. Different combinations of these marks represented syllables, which could in turn be put together to form words. Cuneiform as a robust writing tradition endured 3,000 years. The script—not itself a language—was used by scribes of multiple cultures over that time to write a number of languages other than Sumerian, most notably Akkadian, a Semitic language that was the lingua franca of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires.


Cuneiform babylon jupiter tabletAfter cuneiform was replaced by alphabetic writing sometime after the first century A.D., the hundreds of thousands of clay tablets and other inscribed objects went unread for nearly 2,000 years. It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century, when archaeologists first began to excavate the tablets, that scholars could begin to attempt to understand these texts. One important early key to deciphering the script proved to be the discovery of a kind of cuneiform Rosetta Stone, a circa 500 B.C. trilingual inscription at the site of Bisitun Pass in Iran. Written in Persian, Akkadian, and an Iranian language known as Elamite, it recorded the feats of the Achaemenid king Darius the Great (r. 521–486 B.C.). By deciphering repetitive words such as “Darius” and “king” in Persian, scholars were able to slowly piece together how cuneiform worked. Called Assyriologists, these specialists were eventually able to translate different languages written in cuneiform across many eras, though some early versions of the script remain undeciphered.


Cuneiform bisitun wall inscriptionToday, the ability to read cuneiform is the key to understanding all manner of cultural activities in the ancient Near East—from determining what was known of the cosmos and its workings, to the august lives of Assyrian kings, to the secrets of making a Babylonian stew. Of the estimated half-million cuneiform objects that have been excavated, many have yet to be catalogued and translated. Here, a few fine and varied examples of some of the most interesting ones that have been.