Subscribe to Archaeology

From the Trenches

Satellites on the Silk Road


Monday, February 12, 2018

Trenches Afghanistan Satellite Images


For thousands of years, Afghanistan has provided a passage for conquerors and commerce alike. It has also very often been a place of conflict. For decades, the U.S. Departments of Defense and State have had spy satellites collecting images over the country, some of which they are now sharing with researchers from the University of Chicago’s Afghan Heritage Mapping Project (AHMP). “The imagery is absolutely phenomenal,” says AHMP’s Kathryn Franklin. “Every single day in the lab someone says, ‘Do you see what I’m seeing?’ There’s something a little bit magic in it.”


Working with their Afghan colleagues, the AHMP’s goal is to record all of Afghanistan’s cultural features. One of the most recent stunning successes has been the identification of 160 large early modern caravanserais where travelers and traders would stop for the night as they and their camels made their way along the Silk Road carrying gems, spices, sugar, textiles, ceramics, paper, money, and slaves. Apart from their size and frequency, what makes the caravanserais so amazing, explains Franklin, is that the idea has persisted that as soon as people could use boats, they did so exclusively. “But now we have this overwhelming evidence,” she explains, “that these important routes were preserved and maintained by the Persian and Mughal Empires because trade and travel were important not just economically, but to their ideas of how to be a rich and powerful state.”

He’s No Stone Face


Monday, February 12, 2018

Trenches Wales Medieval Grave Slab


A recently rediscovered fragment of an abbot’s grave slab from North Wales may offer an unusual glimpse of a medieval personality. University of Chester archaeologist Howard Williams analyzed the two-foot-long stone piece and found that it once lay atop the tomb of an abbot named Howel who led an important Welsh abbey around 1300. Williams notes that the slab depicts Howel in realistic fashion—rare for the period—and wearing a broad smile. “It’s eerie,” says Williams. “The vast majority of these medieval funerary monuments show somber-looking characters who are focused on prayer, not grinning as if for a graduation portrait.” Williams notes that Howel was abbot during the English conquest of Wales in 1283, which left his abbey severely damaged. Records suggest Howel was a power broker during the period and might have been seen as an important source of stability in the community. Williams speculates that the monks who fashioned the slab may have been trying to capture Abbot Howel’s reassuring character. “That smile might have communicated that sense of ‘keep calm and carry on,’” says Williams. In troubled times, perhaps the fond memory of a smiling abbot offered some comfort to the monks he left behind.

The Mesopotamian Merchant Files


Monday, February 12, 2018

Trenches Turkey Kanesh Merchants Quarter


The world’s earliest evidence for a robust long-distance trading network comes in the form of thousands of clay tablets excavated from the Bronze Age site of Kanesh, in central Turkey. From about 2000 to 1750 B.C., this bustling city played host to a number of foreign merchants from Ashur, an Assyrian city some 700 miles to the southeast in modern-day Iraq. At the end of the third millennium B.C., Ashur’s king lifted the government monopoly on trade, opening the way for private merchants to operate donkey caravans that took luxury fabrics and tin north into the Anatolian heartland, where they exchanged their wares for silver and gold bullion in at least 27 city-states. In private archives at Kanesh, these entrepreneurs stored clay tablets inscribed with their business letters and contracts, as well as shipping and accounting records. A massive fire destroyed the merchants’ homes, but also baked and preserved these tablets, leaving a record of intensive trade whose detail wouldn’t be matched until the merchant houses of the Italian Renaissance began to document their activities.


Harvard University Assyriologist Gojko Barjamovic is currently collaborating with a group of economists, including the University of Virginia’s Kerem A. Cosar, to use mathematical models to analyze data from the tablets to reconstruct this vibrant trading system. Such is the fine-grained nature of these documents that the team has been able to use them to estimate the locations of 11 “lost” cities, ancient centers whose names are mentioned in the tablets but whose geographic position is unknown.


Trenches Turkey Kanesh Cuneiform TabletBarjamovic has long studied the Kanesh tablets and used traditional historical techniques to examine trade routes and posit the location of these lost cities. “I’ve traveled all over central Turkey to get to know the region,” says Barjamovic. “I’ve even stopped in towns and asked local old-timers where the trade routes were before modern roads were built.” Now, he has teamed up with Cosar and two other economists to analyze the tablets using quantitative techniques based on an economic concept known as the structural gravity model. First developed in the 1960s, the model, surprisingly, is based on Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which states that the mass and distance between two particles determines the gravitational attraction between them. This law was used in the mid-nineteenth century to predict the existence and location of Neptune based on anomalies observed in the orbit of Uranus. In a new application of the concept, modern-day economists use the structural gravity model to posit trade relationships between economic units based on their size and the distance between them. “It’s a very successful model,” says Cosar. “It can predict trade flows between cities or countries with an 80 percent success rate.”


The team began by isolating 2,806 tablets that mentioned travel itineraries between two or more cities. They then employed equations based on the structural gravity model to predict trade flow between different centers. “We know where Kanesh and the other known cities are located,” says Cosar. “Depending on how much a lost city interacted with known cities, we could estimate the distance between those cities, as well as their economic size.” The model predicted locations of the lost cities within a radius of about 20 miles. In many cases, the team’s estimates lined up with proposals made by historians. In other cases, they supported one historian’s proposal over another. Remarkably, the ancient economic sizes of the cities could also be used to predict the income and population of cities now located in the same regions in modern-day Turkey. The key to a city’s long-term success, it seems, lies in its position on natural trade routes, ones first plied by donkey caravans some 4,000 years ago.

Off the Grid

El Pilar, Belize


Monday, February 12, 2018

Trenches El Pilar Belize


El Pilar, an ancient Maya city that straddles the border between modern-day Belize and Guatemala, boasts more than 25 plazas and numerous houses, temples, and grand monumental structures. Archaeologist Anabel Ford, who first recorded the site in 1983, works with local Maya people, in cooperation with both governments, to run El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna. Much as it may have been some 2,300 years ago when first settled, the city remains nestled in the forest, one with the natural environment. This distinguishes El Pilar from other, perhaps better-known, Maya sites throughout Mexico and Central America, where trees are often removed and lawns manicured to accommodate tourists.


El Pilar, a major urban center at its height between A.D. 500 and 1000, featured large forest gardens, relying on swidden, or slash-and-burn, agriculture. Ford has worked for decades with the native Maya community to preserve indigenous agricultural and gardening practices. At El Pilar, as a result, visitors can explore the remains of the ancient city by following nature trails leading them through plazas, and can discover Maya ruins as some of the first archaeologists to encounter them did in the nineteenth century. “This is how I would like the site to be viewed,” Ford says, “through the roots and the trees and vines, so you really feel like you’re coming upon it for the first time.”


Trenches El Pilar Belize CaretakerTHE SITE

While the reserve is accessible from Guatemala, most visitors will likely arrive from Belize. El Pilar can be reached from the village of Bullet Tree Falls, just outside the town of San Ignacio. A Belize Institute of Archaeology sign in Bullet Tree Falls marks an all-weather dirt road that leads to the site. Local tour companies offer excursions, and visitors can arrive by taxi, rental car, mountain bike, or horse, or they can hike the roughly seven-mile road. Guests are encouraged to explore on their own, but site caretakers and local tour guides are a helpful resource for any interested traveler.



Belize’s Cayo District is home to a wealth of Maya historical sites. Begin your journey at El Pilar in the morning when it is coolest and then travel back to San Ignacio to have lunch and visit the nearby Cahal Pech, believed to have been an acropolis-palace for an elite Maya family during the Classic period, between A.D. 250 and 900.