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Gaul's University Town

New excavations have revealed the wealth and prestige of an ancient center of learning


Thursday, October 06, 2022

Autun Saint Pierre L Estrier NeighborhoodAutun MapThe Roman orator and rhetorician Eumenius delivered a speech to the Roman governor of Gallia Lugdunensis in A.D. 298 advocating for the restoration of the famous schools called the Maeniana in the city of Augustodunum, at the center of the province. At the time of Eumenius’ speech, the once-thriving city had fallen on hard times. In A.D. 269, its residents had taken sides against Victorinus, the emperor of the ill-fated breakaway state now known as the Gallic Empire (ca. 269–271 A.D.), and the city was besieged for seven months. Access to the high level of culture and education that had been central to Augustodunum’s identity fell victim to a combination of circumstances, perhaps including damage to the Maeniana, funding diverted to the conflict, or a diminished student population.


Augustodunum (modern Autun) had been founded around 13 B.C. by the emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.–A.D. 14) as a new capital for the Aedui, a Celtic tribe that was—mostly—allied with the Romans. By 121 B.C., the tribe had been awarded the title of “brothers and kinsmen of Rome.” The Aedui largely supported Julius Caesar in his campaigns in Gaul, with the exception of a brief defection in 52 B.C. when they joined an unsuccessful rebellion led by Vercingetorix, the doomed chief of the Arverni tribe. The capital of the Aedui had been located at the settlement of Bibracte, but when the tribe became a civitas foederata, or allied community, of Rome, it was moved 15 miles east to its new location. It was given a name that combined its Roman and Gallic identities: Augusto- for Augustus, and -dunum, the Celtic word for “hill,” “fort,” or “walled town.”


Autun Amber Jet Pins

Piecing Together Maya Creation Stories

Thousands of mural fragments from the city of San Bartolo illustrate how the Maya envisioned their place in the universe


Friday, July 15, 2022

San Bartolo Mural ReconstructedSome 2,000 years ago, Maya leaders in the city of San Bartolo entered a temple chamber with vibrant murals depicting supernatural beings and mythical humans painted on its walls. Then they destroyed them.


Although the murals—painted exclusively with black, red, yellow, and white pigments—had been executed by three master artists, some cycle of time known only to the city’s priests had ended, and so too had the murals’ life span. The artwork had probably been commissioned by the city’s rulers and had been on display for 50 to 100 years, but the time had come to build a new temple over the old one. This renovation meant tearing down part of the mural chamber, which was located at the base of the temple, known today as the Pyramid of Paintings.


Many of the figures painted on the chamber’s south and east walls were broken by hammer blows, and the plaster fragments containing their faces were removed. The walls were then knocked down. The chamber, which was just above ground level and opened onto a public plaza, was sealed off by a new wall. Builders faced the entire pyramid in a new layer of stone, and a new structure was built. Most of the chamber, which had been created during the sixth such renovation of the pyramid, was left relatively intact. But its remaining murals were hidden from view until 2001, when University of Boston archaeologist William Saturno discovered the chamber during a survey in Guatemala’s Petén rain forest. Until then, the site had been known only to the local Maya community.


San Bartolo Murals MapClose study of the intact San Bartolo murals revealed that the narrative they told is an ancient version of the creation story Maya people were still recounting when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. This story was recorded in an eighteenth-century text known as the Popol Vuh. These murals are among the earliest known Maya wall paintings, but their style and iconography seem to researchers to reach even further back in time. “One of the beautiful things about the discovery of San Bartolo is that it’s a distillation of a lot of key concepts of Maya cosmology in one place,” says archaeologist David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin. “We’re looking at a system of iconography that’s already quite developed and quite old by 100 B.C.”



Italian Master Builders

A 3,500-year-old ritual pool reflects a little-known culture’s agrarian prowess


Monday, November 22, 2021

Noceto Bronze Age Artificial PoolOn a hilltop at the edge of the town of Noceto on northern Italy’s Po Plain, a 2004 construction project had gotten just a few feet into the ground when a wooden structure began to emerge. A team of archaeologists led by Mauro Cremaschi and Maria Bernabò Brea was called in to investigate. “At the beginning, we thought it was probably some sort of residential building,” says team member Andrea Zerboni, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Milan. “But soon after we started the excavation, we noticed that the sediments inside the structure weren’t related to domestic activity.” Rather than material such as ash and charcoal, typically found where people lived or worked, the structure was filled with natural sediments of the sort that would be found in a lake. The structure they were excavating was not a building at all, the researchers realized—it was an artificial pool. What they have learned about this pool in the years since has provided surprising new insights into the social organization and ritual practices of a culture that thrived in this fertile region for centuries during the second millennium B.C. before disappearing. “The Noceto pool is unique in Italy—it’s unique in the world,” says Zerboni. “Building such a structure implies very careful planning, coordinating the work of many people, and a very clear architectural plan. We don’t expect to find such majestic structures from prehistory.”


Noceto MapWhen they reached the bottom of the pool after several years of careful work, the archaeologists marveled at the feat of ancient engineering before them. Twenty-six wooden poles were arranged vertically to form a tank measuring roughly 40 feet long, 23 feet wide, and at least 16 feet deep. More than 240 interlocking boards lined the pool’s earthen walls and were held in place by the poles. The poles, in turn, were pressed against the walls by two networks of horizontal beams that crossed the pool perpendicular to each other. And, for good measure, a pair of long beams were arranged diagonally to buttress the four corner poles. As the researchers would learn, the pool’s builders had good reason to take extra care to ensure the soundness of their design. “When we arrived at the bottom, we said, ‘OK, our job is done, we have finished the excavation,’” says Zerboni. “But we dug a few more trenches just to check what was below the tank, and we found evidence of another wood structure.” This turned out to be an earlier attempt at building a somewhat larger tank, which had collapsed before it was completed. It’s unclear whether the earlier design simply couldn’t withstand the pressure of the earthen walls or whether one of the area’s frequent earthquakes contributed to its demise. In any case, the upper tank, whose design included additional supports, held strong for millennia.

Noceto Photogrammetry preview
Bronze Age Ritual Pool

Ghost Tracks of White Sands

Scientists are uncovering fossilized footprints in the New Mexico desert that show how humans and Ice Age animals shared the landscape


Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Whitesands Trackways DunesThe sun shines nearly 300 days a year over southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, where bright white sand ripples across the desert. Here, in White Sands National Park, the world’s largest gypsum dunes abut the dried-up bed of prehistoric Lake Otero, which once covered 1,600 square miles. In the summer, park temperatures can soar to 110°F, and the intense sunlight stings the eyes. It was one of those hot but slightly hazy days in May 2021 when Bonnie Leno and Kim Charlie, sisters from Acoma Pueblo, about 175 miles north, found the fossilized tracks of a giant ground sloth and two humans, all of whom lived at least 10,000 years ago, at the close of the Pleistocene Epoch.


Leno and Charlie didn’t expect to uncover evidence of ancient history at the park, but there they were, the kidney-shaped footprints of a 10-foot-tall, 2,000-pound long-extinct mammal and the imprints of human toes—the marks of two species that coexisted thousands of years ago. “I was down on the ground, brushing everything off,” says Leno, recalling the adult human footprint she found not far below the surface. “I was ecstatic.” Just inches away, she spotted the giant sloth track. “There were a lot of prints in that area,” says Charlie, who uncovered the tiny footprint of a child nearby.


Charlie is a member of the Acoma Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) board and participates in a consultation program with the National Park Service. Any time park employees conduct studies that might affect a Native cultural site, pueblos and tribes affiliated with that site are asked to consult on the research and preservation. Acoma is one of six Native groups currently studying and protecting the park’s prehistoric trackways, says David Bustos, White Sands’ resource program manager. He invited Charlie to accompany scientists and park staff on one of the first field trips to the park since the pandemic began in 2020. She in turn asked Leno, an Acoma cultural monitor who works with the THPO to study and assess archaeological sites in culturally sensitive areas. It’s a role that the sisters say is akin to retracing their ancestral footsteps.


Whitesands Trackways Leno CharlieWhite Sands has the world’s largest collection of fossilized Ice Age footprints, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. For several years, a team of archaeologists, geographers, geologists, environmental scientists, and tribal members has worked to find and analyze as many prints as possible. No one knows who the early human trackmakers were or whether they were genetically related to Native groups in the region today, but recent findings suggest people walked through these lands far earlier than scientists commonly thought. In 2019, researchers found human tracks amid sediment layers containing seeds from an aquatic plant that grew around the ancient lake. The discovery presented a rare opportunity—the scientists could radiocarbon date the seeds to derive an approximate age of the footprints. The results confirmed the presence of humans there between 23,000 and 21,000 years ago, at a time when much of modern-day North America was under ice. That discovery revived longstanding questions about how and when people first inhabited the continent. If the dates are correct, they would disprove a commonly held theory that humans arrived thousands of years later, toward the end of the Ice Age.


When Isis Was Queen

At the ancient Egyptian temples of Philae, Nubians gave new life to a vanishing religious tradition


Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Philae Isis Temple PylonsWhen the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 B.C., the country’s system of temples, which had sustained religious traditions dating back more than 3,000 years, began to slowly wither away. Starved of the funds that pharaohs traditionally supplied to religious institutions, priests lost their vocation and temples fell into disuse throughout the country. The introduction of Christianity in the first century a.d. only hastened this process. But there was one exception to this trend: In the temples on the island of Philae in the Nile River, rites dedicated to the goddess Isis and the god Osiris continued to be celebrated in high style for some 500 years after the Roman conquest. This final flowering of ancient Egyptian religion was only possible because of the piety and support of Egypt’s neighbors to the south, the Nubians.


Philae MapPhilae lies just south of the Nile’s first cataract—one of six rapids along the river—which marked the historical border between ancient Egypt and Nubia, also known as Kush. In this region of Kush, called Lower Nubia, the temple complex at Philae was just one of many that were built on islands in the Nile and along its banks. Throughout the long history of Egypt and Nubia, Lower Nubia was a kind of buffer zone between these two lands and a place where the two cultures heavily influenced one another. “Often official Egyptian texts were demeaning to Nubians,” says Egyptologist Solange Ashby of the University of California, Los Angeles. “But this cultural arrogance doesn’t reflect the lived reality of Egyptians and Nubians being neighbors, intermarrying, sharing cultural and religious practices. These were people who interacted for millennia.”


From 300 B.C. to A.D. 300, Nubia was ruled from the capital city of Meroe. The Meroitic kings took a special interest in Philae, where the most important Egyptian temple dedicated to Isis was located. In part this may have been because the island had been significant to the Nubians for centuries. Even its ancient Egyptian name, Pilak, which means “Island of Time” or “Island of Extremity,” may have been of Nubian origin. And while many of the other temples on Philae were built by Egypt’s Ptolemaic kings, Greek rulers who held sway from 304 to 30 B.C., the continued survival of the religious practices there owed much to the Meroitic kings. They, and later other Nubian rulers, funded annual celebrations at Philae and devoted resources to maintaining its temples in the centuries before Christianity finally eclipsed Egypt’s ancient traditions.

Cult of Isis
The Cult of Isis




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