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Ouro Preto, Brazil


Friday, December 04, 2020

OTG Ouro Preto Brazil CityscapeOTG Ouro Preto Brazil StatueThe mining city of Ouro Preto, in southeastern Brazil, is one of the best-preserved colonial settlements in the New World. Tens of thousands of Europeans, Africans, and Indigenous people flooded the mountainous region surrounding the city after major gold deposits were discovered there in the 1690s. In the late seventeenth century, the area was home to hundreds of Indigenous groups, mostly speakers of the Jê language group. At the end of the eighteenth century, when the area’s gold deposits began to diminish and profits dwindled, Ouro Preto was one of the wealthiest and most populous urban centers in South America. The city is noted for its baroque architecture and public artwork, much of which is attributed to the architect and sculptor Antônio Francisco Lisboa, more commonly known as Aleijadinho. It is also famous for its role in several important conflicts. These include the 1706–1709 War of the Emboabas, a struggle among competing factions of Europeans for control over land, slaves, and natural resources, and the 1789 Minas Conspiracy, a failed bid for independence from Portugal.


Archaeologist Luana Campos Akinruli of the Federal University of Minas Gerais says that while histories of Ouro Preto have focused on these Eurocentric events, archaeology has begun to shed light on the experiences of Ouro Preto’s African and Indigenous populations. “Recently, a panel of graffiti attributed to individuals living in a basement senzala, a slave quarters, was found in a building in the historical center,” she says. “It’s a treasure that can tell us much about the daily lives of enslaved African and Afro-Brazilian peoples.” Additional archaeological sites in Ouro Preto relating to mining, including the Chico Rei Mine and the Morro da Queimada Archaeological Park, present interpretations of colonial-era mining and the traditional African mining knowledge that was integral to the industry’s success.


OTG Ouro PretomapTHE SITE 

Walking tours of Ouro Preto are available from a number of outfits. If you choose to design your own route, however, anthropologist Manuel Lima Filho of the Federal University of Goiás suggests beginning at the Church of Santa Efigênia, an eighteenth-century baroque masterpiece on a hill overlooking the city. The construction of the church is believed to have been funded by—and the building has long been associated with—the city’s Afro-Brazilian community. From there, walk along the cobbled streets toward the Praça Tiradentes, the city’s main square, which is named for a martyr of the Minas Conspiracy. In addition to visiting the Chico Rei Mine and the Morro da Queimada Archaeological Park, Lima Filho recommends stops at museums devoted to the Minas Conspiracy and to the life and work of the architect Aleijadinho.



Drive just over two hours west of Ouro Preto to visit the Inhotim Institute, an open-air contemporary art museum and botanical garden that covers thousands of acres and features the works of renowned international artists.

Bathing With the Toad Goddess


Friday, December 04, 2020

Digs Guatemala Sweat BathDigs Guatemala Toad GoddessTo the Maya people living in the city of Xultun in Guatemala’s Petén rain forest, a sweat bath was a sacred place symbolizing the circular nature of time and the cycle of birth and death. In excavations of Xultun’s sweat bath over the past decade, archaeologist Mary Clarke of Boston University has found that the building is painted with images of a goddess who has the features of toads and iguanas. A person entering and leaving the sweat bath, Clarke says, would have metaphorically passed through the body of the goddess in an act of death and rebirth. Radiocarbon dates establish that the Xultun sweat bath was first used from A.D. 562 to 651. It was then ceremonially buried. A combination of radiocarbon and ceramic typology dating revealed that the sweat bath was later uncovered and reused from A.D. 850 to 971, when Xultun was beginning to decline. Clarke has unearthed a large cache of offerings to the goddess, including toad and iguana carcasses, the remains of a young person, and large numbers of pottery sherds and stone tools. Why the sweat bath was reopened is not clear, but Clarke thinks it may have been an attempt by the people of Xultun to appeal to the goddess to heal their overexploited environment.

Head Space


Friday, December 04, 2020

Digs Hungary SkullsWhen archaeologists first excavated a fifth-century A.D. cemetery in Pannonia, an ancient Roman province in present-day western Hungary, they found that a large portion of those buried there had intentionally deformed skulls. In all, 51 of 96 men, women, and children interred in the Mözs-Icsei dűlő cemetery between around A.D. 430 and 480 had elongated, oblong heads.


To learn more about the people buried in the cemetery, Zsófia Rácz, an archaeologist at Eötvös Loránd University, and her colleagues performed isotope analysis on samples taken from the skeletons’ bones and teeth. The results showed that 23 of the people had strontium isotopes that are not found locally, suggesting that they came from elsewhere. All these newcomers had modified skulls, leading Rácz and her team to conclude that this practice was imported and introduced to the local Pannonians, some of whose skeletons also have oblong heads.


The researchers aren’t certain why skull modification took hold in this region of the Carpathian Basin after the fall of the Roman Empire, but Rácz speculates that the unusual skull shapes may have been a way of cultivating group identity. “This kind of modification can be a tool for creating or maintaining different social identities,” she says. “It may signify status, ethnicity, familial affiliations, or communal affiliations.”

Offerings at Sea


Friday, December 04, 2020

Digs Israel FigurinesWhen hundreds of Phoenician ceramic figurines and vessels were first recovered from the seafloor off northern Israel almost 50 years ago, archaeologists interpreted the artifacts as cargo from a fifth-century B.C. shipwreck. Now, University of Haifa archaeologists Meir Edrey, Adi Erlich, and Assaf Yasur-Landau have reassessed the artifacts and determined that they were deliberately cast into the water, likely as part of a ritual that was repeated from the seventh through third centuries B.C.


Unlike other Phoenician caches of ritual statuettes, Edrey explains, all the figurines retrieved from the site depict women. “Some have protruding bellies or a hand placed over the abdomen, and others are even carrying children,” he says. “These attributes suggest that this assemblage was related to a specific cult connected with fertility and childbearing.” A few of the figurines portraying pregnant women bear the symbol of the Phoenician goddess Tanit. This symbol appears frequently in inscriptions at some central Mediterranean sites where infants were sacrificed in exchange for divine favor. Says Edrey, “These figurines could represent a local manifestation of this practice, in which they might have been used as a substitute for actual human infants who were often promised even before they were born.”

Persian Steel


Friday, December 04, 2020

Digs Iran SlagDigs Iran CrucibleAs early as the eleventh century A.D., Persians added chromium to iron to produce a strong type of steel that could be made into tools, armor, and weapons. Guided by medieval texts that describe areas where steel was manufactured, Rahil Alipour, an archaeologist at University College London, located a site named Chahak in southern Iran. There, she found broken ceramic molds called crucibles in which steel had been made, as well as slag, the waste product of metal production. Embedded in the slag were droplets of steel that were found to contain between 1 and 2 percent chromium by weight. “That might not sound like much,” says Alipour, “but it really does make a difference in the mechanical properties of steel.”


Among the evidence that chromium was intentionally added is a tenth- or eleventh-century recipe for crucible steel recorded by the Persian polymath Abu-Rayhan Biruni. The recipe includes an ingredient called rusakhtaj, which translates to “the burned.” Alipour notes that the mineral chromite, a form of chromium readily available near Chahak, is black, which may explain the description of the material in the recipe as burned. The area also has plentiful iron deposits. “We know that people of the past would choose their production centers around the materials they needed,” she says, “so that may be the reason why they chose Chahak.”


The steel droplets also contain around 2 percent phosphorous, which would have lowered the metal’s melting temperature, making it easier to produce. But the phosphorous would have made the finished product more fragile. This accords with historical accounts that blades made with Chahak steel sold for a high price, but often proved brittle and rapidly lost their value. Alipour says it’s unclear whether phosphorous was intentionally added to the mix.