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Remembering the Shark Hunters

Unique burials show how ancient Peruvians celebrated dangerous deep-sea expeditions


Friday, March 20, 2020

Peru Fisherchiefs Shark TeethExploring the beliefs of complex cultures that flourished before the advent of writing challenges archaeologists to imagine how the buildings and artifacts those people left behind express long-vanished belief systems. On the Moche River, six miles inland from the arid northern coast of Peru, loom structures that were central to a people who left behind abundant evidence of their worldview. These buildings, the 15-story adobe-brick Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, are among the largest built by the Moche, who thrived in northern Peru from about A.D. 200 to 800. Moche artisans produced a rich array of murals, pottery, and other artifacts depicting humans engaged in ceremonies and interacting with mythic creatures. Thanks to these vivid depictions and the lavish burials of priests and nobles, archaeologists can reconstruct how the Moche may have conducted rituals at major sites such as the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. But what of the people who lived in smaller settlements far from the major Moche centers? What religious traditions did they follow and what beliefs did they rely on to make sense of the world around them?


In an effort to answer these questions, University of Florida archaeologist Gabriel Prieto has spent years excavating ancient fishing villages north of where the Moche River flows into the Pacific Ocean. In the summer of 2019, he and his team excavated a stone-and-mudbrick platform on a bluff overlooking the Pacific coast at a site known as Pampa la Cruz. Such platforms, which served as temples, were often built by ancient Peruvians, including the Moche, to be used by priests and other important members of the community as stages on which to perform religious rites. Prieto soon discovered that this particular platform, rising a modest six feet high, was decorated with a typical Moche painting that depicts three warriors leading two naked captives. It also concealed evidence of a unique ritual event. Beneath the platform, Prieto unearthed the burials of more than a dozen deep-sea creatures, including nine sharks. The skeletons of two sunfish and two yellowfin tuna, uncommon species on the Peruvian coast, were also identified, as well as two Kogia whales, which are some of the rarest toothed whales in the world. All the animals seemed to have been purposely buried by the people of Pampa la Cruz, who constructed the platform sometime between A.D. 500 and 750. “We were very surprised,” says Prieto. “Perhaps there were offerings of sea animals elsewhere in South America, but we haven’t found them yet.”


Peru Fisherchiefs MapThe only comparable discovery in the New World was made more than 2,000 miles north, in Mexico City, where the Mexicas, or Aztecs, buried marine species as well as land animals in and around the ritual site of Templo Mayor. “The Aztecs were later than the Moche,” says Harvard University archaeologist Jeffrey Quilter, who visited Pampa la Cruz when the burials were being unearthed. “But both examples reflect the widely shared appreciation by indigenous Americans of animals as important, powerful creatures.” He notes that different animals were sometimes believed to be masters of different planes of reality, including the underworld, which was often imagined as an aquatic realm. “The Pampa la Cruz case is interesting because the animals are oceanic,” says Quilter. “So it seems that the temple had a special role as an intercessor or expression of the forces of the deep.”


Inside a Medieval Gaelic Castle

A tiny Irish island holds the secrets of an unknown royal way of life


Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Ireland Lough Key RockFrom the twelfth to the seventeenth century, the MacDermots ruled the kingdom of Maigh Luirg in the Irish province of Connacht from a small island in Loch Cé (now Lough Key) known as the Rock. They were the right-hand men—and sometime rivals—of the O’Conors, the kings of Connacht, whose power center lay at the modern village of Tulsk, some 20 miles away. It was Diarmait, king of Maigh Luirg from 1124 until his death on the Rock in 1159, who gave the MacDermot clan its name.


In the sixteenth century, the king Brian MacDermot commissioned the Annals of Loch Cé, which remain among the most important written records of medieval Irish history. They are the primary source for the history of the kingdom of Maigh Luirg (Anglicized as Moylurg), which occupied roughly the same territory as the northern section of the modern county of Roscommon. The Annals, which survive in only two manuscripts written primarily in Early Modern Irish, with some sections in Latin, were compiled using earlier Irish annals as sources. They record more than five centuries of political, ecclesiastical, and military events, succession and land disputes, and even notes on the weather. They begin with the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, a contest that pitted Brian Boru, the high king of Ireland, against a coalition composed of the king of Dublin, Sigtrygg Silkbeard; the king of Leinster, Máel Mórda; and a force of Vikings from across the region. The Annals end in 1590, when most of the Gaelic families in Ireland, including the MacDermots, were thrown off their lands by the Anglo-Normans—the ruling class of England after the Norman Conquest in 1066—who had invaded Ireland centuries earlier, in 1169.


Ireland Lough Key MapSurprisingly, there are relatively few references to the Rock of Loch Cé itself in the Annals, or in other contemporaneous historical works. In 1187 (or 1184, scholars are not certain), the Annals record that lightning struck the island, causing a fire. In 1207, the king Tomaltach MacDermot died on the Rock. A further reference is made to a siege of the island in 1235 by an Anglo-Norman force. During the attack, the invaders used siege engines called perriers and fireboats made from demolished wooden houses. The siege forced the MacDermots to abandon the island for a decade. Then, over the next three and a half centuries, the Annals record periodic attacks on the Rock, countless clashes over succession, and the deaths of numerous MacDermot kings. But with only one exception—the mention of a “great, regal house” that was built on the Rock in 1578 by Brian MacDermot—nowhere are the buildings of a royal residence ever described.


The sand-colored stone walls, turrets, and empty windows that can be seen on the Rock today, though picturesque, are not the remains of a MacDermot stronghold, but a product of the imagination of John Nash, the nineteenth-century Welsh architect of Buckingham Palace. In the seventeenth century, an Anglo-Irish noble family named the Kings took possession of the Rock. More than a century later, Robert Edward King commissioned Nash to build the Gothic-style folly, the ruins of which are now visible on the Rock and on guidebook covers, restaurant walls, and travel posters. But it is the MacDermots’ much earlier castle—hidden, perhaps, by crumbling walls, creeping vegetation, and feet of mud—that archaeologist Thomas Finan of Saint Louis University has now set out to find.

The Castle of Heroes
Medieval Cattle Raiders




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