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The Road Almost Taken

An ancient city in Germany tells a different story of the Roman conquest


Monday, February 13, 2017

Waldgirmes Horse HeadThe oft-told tale of the Roman Empire’s expansion is one of violent conquest—its ever-widening borders pushed forward at sword point by Roman legions. Some of the bloodiest military engagements pitted Rome against the inhabitants of Germania, who are described by contemporary sources of the time as a loose confederation of uncivilized, quarrelsome, warlike, ferocious tribes to the north. The conventional wisdom goes that after a decades-long attempt to conquer the region east of the Rhine River finally failed in A.D. 9, Rome gave up on the Germans entirely. But what if there’s more to it than that?


In the 1980s, the chance discovery of sherds of Roman-style pottery on a farm in the Lahn Valley near Frankfurt led archaeologists and historians at the German Archaeological Institute’s Romano-Germanic Commission to begin excavations. What they uncovered was a Roman site they call Waldgirmes, after a nearby modern town. The ancient name is unknown. When German Archaeological Institute archaeologist Gabriele Rasbach started working at the site in 1993, she and her colleagues assumed they had found a military installation. Ground-penetrating radar surveys revealed carefully planned streets, the foundations of wooden buildings, and postholes that are evidence of 10-foot-tall timber walls. “It was clearly just like a Roman military camp,” says archaeologist Siegmar von Schnurbein, who was the director of the commission during the Waldgirmes excavation.


Although the discoveries were exciting, they were not necessarily surprising. The Roman army, fresh from its conquest of Gaul and bent on further dominion, had been active all across Germany, and the distinctive straight lines of Roman military camps are familiar to German archaeologists. “The military interpretation here is so strong that at first we didn’t think it could be anything else,” Rasbach says. As the Waldgirmes excavations progressed, though, archaeologists began to question their initial assumptions. “We found buildings that had nothing to do with the military,” says von Schnurbein, “and we still haven’t found anything resembling a barracks.”


The excavators began to realize that the site might be something else entirely. As they dug over the course of nearly 15 years, they uncovered specialty workshops for ceramics and smithing, and administrative buildings made of local stone and timber from the thick forests nearby. They found evidence of some Roman-style residences with open porticos in front, unlike the longhouse-style buildings preferred by the locals, as well as other hallmarks of a typical Roman town, including a central public space, or forum, and a large administrative building called a basilica. “There’s actually not a single military building inside the walls,” says Rasbach. What they had uncovered was a carefully planned civilian settlement.


Artifacts from the site further reinforced the identification of Waldgirmes as a town. Of the hundreds of objects archaeologists have excavated, just five are military in nature, including a few broken spear points and shield nails that could be associated with the army. When taken together, the artifacts and structures persuaded researchers that they were dealing with an entirely novel phenomenon: a new Roman city established from scratch in the middle of a potential province. From the forum to workshops, houses, and water and sewage systems—from which sections of lead pipe have been recovered—to its sturdy outer walls enclosing 20 acres, Waldgirmes had everything a provincial capital needed. “It’s the first time we can see how Rome founded a city,” says von Schnurbein. “You can’t see that anywhere else.”


Because the site was built predominantly of wood, archaeologists have been able to establish precise dates using dendrochronology, which uses tree rings as a time stamp. They determined that construction at Waldgirmes began around 4 B.C., not long after Roman troops reached the Elbe River, pushing the empire’s range deep into Germany. Waldgirmes’ architecture and the absence of a military presence suggest a relationship between Romans and Germans that runs against both the ancient and modern versions of the accepted story. “The fact that a city was founded in the Lahn Valley without a major military presence means there was a different political situation in the region,” von Schnurbein says—that is, different from what most historians have assumed. He concludes, “The Romans thought the Germans were loyal enough that they could build a civilian settlement here.”

Kings of Cooperation

The Olmec city of Tres Zapotes may have owed its longevity to a new form of government


Monday, March 13, 2017

Olmec Tres Zapotes HeadOn a sweltering day in 1862 at the foot of the Tuxtla Mountains in the Mexican state of Veracruz, a farmworker was clearing a cornfield when he hit something hard and smooth lodged in the earth. He thought it was the rounded base of an iron cauldron buried upside down, and, it being the 1860s, he reported the find to the owner of the hacienda where he worked. The farmworker’s boss told him to dig up the cauldron immediately and bring it to him. As the farmworker labored to uncover the object, he realized he had found not a large iron bowl, but a gargantuan stone sculpture with a pair of glaring eyes, a broad nose, and a downturned mouth. What had appeared to be the base of a cauldron was actually the top of a helmet worn by the glowering figure. What the farmworker had unearthed was a colossal Olmec head, one of the first clues to the existence of that ancient culture.


Over the next century and a half, archaeologists would uncover many more of these heads along the Mexican Gulf Coast and discover the ancient cities where they were carved. The site of that first fateful discovery became known as Tres Zapotes, after a type of fruit tree common in the area. Along with the sites of San Lorenzo and La Venta, Tres Zapotes was one of the great capitals of the Olmec culture, which emerged by 1200 B.C. as one of the first societies in Mesoamerica organized into a complex social and political hierarchy.


The key to the Olmecs’ rise appears to have been a strong, centralized monarchy. The colossal heads, each one depicting a particular individual, are likely portraits of the Olmec kings who ruled from ornate palaces at San Lorenzo and La Venta. Even though Tres Zapotes yielded the earliest evidence for Olmec kingship, 20 years of survey and excavations there suggest that, at its height, the city adopted a very different form of government, one in which power was shared among multiple factions. Further, while other Olmec capitals lasted between 300 and 500 years, Tres Zapotes managed to survive for nearly two millennia. The city, therefore, may have weathered intense cultural and political shifts not by doubling down on traditional Olmec monarchy, but by distributing power among several groups that learned to work together. According to University of Kentucky archaeologist Christopher Pool, who has spent his career excavating the city, that cooperative rule may have helped Tres Zapotes endure for centuries after the rest of Olmec society collapsed.


Olmec Tres Zapotes Pyramid MoundWhen Pool arrived at Tres Zapotes in 1996, he was the first archaeologist in over 40 years to take a serious interest in the site. Tres Zapotes had been recognized as an important Olmec center since shortly after the discovery of the colossal head, and in the decades to follow it had yielded a plethora of intricate figurines and stone monuments, including another colossal head. But important details of the site’s history remained unknown, including its size and how long it had been occupied. Pool set out to map the full extent of the ancient city, survey the ceramics he found scattered across the ground, and excavate the most compelling areas.


Battling dense fields of sugarcane, swarms of mosquitoes, and the occasional poisonous snake, Pool painstakingly reconstructed the layout of Tres Zapotes and how it had changed over time, and began to be able to compare it to the other great Olmec capitals. Between 1000 and 400 B.C., in a period called the Middle Formative, Tres Zapotes was a minor regional center covering around 200 acres. At the time, La Venta and its all-powerful king dominated the Olmec heartland. Like its predecessor San Lorenzo, which flourished between 1200 and 900 B.C., La Venta was organized around a single dominant plaza featuring administrative buildings, elaborate monuments, and elite residences. The kings whose likenesses are memorialized by the colossal heads lived in palaces that brimmed with precious exotic goods, such as greenstone imported from Guatemala and polished iron-ore mirrors from Oaxaca and Chiapas. Their subjects, meanwhile, lived in modest households arrayed around the central plaza. The concentration of wealth and power in the center of the city, as well as art that glorified individual rulers, suggests that “the Olmecs had a cult of the ruler,” says Barbara Stark, an archaeologist at Arizona State University who works on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

The First American Revolution

Exploring the legacy of the New World’s most successful native rebellion


Monday, February 13, 2017

Pueblo Revolt Black Mesa Image


An isolated volcanic outcropping, Black Mesa rises high above the floodplain of northern New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley. The land it’s on belongs to the people of San Ildefonso Pueblo, whose ancestors have farmed near the base of the mesa since at least A.D. 1300. A natural fortress, Black Mesa was the scene of dramatic events in 1694, when Pueblo warriors encamped on its summit withstood a months-long Spanish siege. That conflict was the culmination of what is known today as the Pueblo Revolt, an indigenous uprising that began on August 10, 1680. On that date, Pueblo warriors from 19 separate villages carried out a coordinated attack on Spanish missionaries and colonists across New Mexico. Within a few days, they had driven virtually all Spaniards out of the province. For the next decade, apart from occasional Spanish military expeditions, the Native American peoples of New Mexico enjoyed total independence. “The Revolt period is still so important to Pueblo identity,” says University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Joseph Aguilar, a member of San Ildefonso Pueblo. “In many ways it shaped the world we live in today.”


Historians have relied primarily on Spanish accounts to understand the period, but recently, archaeologists have begun to uncover a richer picture of Pueblo life in the aftermath of what some scholars call the “first American revolution.” Working closely with Pueblo communities to study sites established after the Revolt, archaeologists have found evidence for tremendous change in Pueblo society as well as widespread revival of traditions that had been suppressed by the Spanish. A major focus of this recent research has been on defensive villages built on mesa tops during the 14 years of Pueblo independence. Aguilar is the latest archaeologist to explore one of these sites and is now working at Black Mesa, mapping the Revolt-era settlement there and seeking to understand the role the site played when Spanish forces eventually returned to New Mexico. “We’re finding the Spanish accounts don’t always match up with what we see on the ground,” says Aguilar. “The historical documents are an important resource, but archaeology can help give us the native perspective on what happened.”


Pueblo Revolt PetroglyphsThe Pueblo Revolt came after nearly 100 years of Spanish rule in the Southwest. Spaniards first colonized New Mexico in 1591, when a group led by Governor Juan de Oñate established settlements among the Pueblo farmers living in the northern Rio Grande Valley. The Pueblo peoples shared an agricultural way of life, but were linguistically and culturally diverse. They inhabited upward of 90 villages, known as pueblos.


In New Mexico, as they did elsewhere in the New World, Spanish authorities introduced the encomienda and repartimiento systems, in which Native Americans paid heavy taxes to the government and were obligated to work for Spanish colonists. Franciscan missionaries were among those who initially settled the province, and they cracked down on traditional religious practices, ordering the Pueblo people to build churches in their villages and installing bells that became a hated symbol of colonialism. Their presence was intended to impose a Spanish and Christian conception of time. In some cases natives were also forced into new villages that were organized into European-style grids, rather than the contiguous groupings of rooms known as room blocks of a traditional pueblo.





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