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From The Trenches

Mosaics of Huqoq

By MALIN GRUNBERG BANYASZ

Friday, October 05, 2012

huqoq

 

In June 2012, Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill began her second season of excavation in the village of Huqoq, in Israel’s lower eastern Galilee. There, in the remains of a Late Roman or Byzantine synagogue, she discovered an extraordinary mosaic depicting female faces flanking a medallion with Hebrew or Aramaic inscriptions. In another area of the floor, Magness uncovered an image of the Biblical judge Samson placing torches between foxes’ tails. Although archaeologists have found mosaics in three other synagogues in this area of the Galilee, the example from Huqoq is unprecedented—it’s the earliest securely identified image of Samson in a synagogue in Israel. “This scene comes right from Judges 15:4,” says Magness, “and shows Samson taking revenge on the Philistines, the Israelites’ traditional enemy.” It’s also interesting that in the Wadi Hamam synagogue only a few miles away, archaeologist Uzi Leibner of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found a mosaic in 2008 that he thought might also depict Samson. By comparing the clothing and size of the figures—both are portrayed as giants—it’s now possible to identify the Wadi Hamam image as Samson as well. The question remains, though, whether Samson had a special significance in this area of Israel. 

Off the Grid

By MALIN GRUNBERG BANYASZ

Friday, October 05, 2012

offthegridJust 11 miles long and three miles wide, Georgia’s Sapelo Island is a unique cultural destination with a long history. The barrier island’s first known residents were the Guale Indians, who occupied it on and off for more than 3,000 years. In the sixteenth century, Spanish missions and settlements sprang up, and after that, British and French settlers moved in. The nineteenth century brought the island’s plantation era and the 1819 establishment of Chocolate Plantation, built by Edward Swarbeck, a Danish merchant who traded in cotton and other commodities, as well as slaves. The remains of the once-prosperous cotton and sugar plantation are, today, one of the island’s great draws for tourists, according to Bryan Tucker, Georgia’s state archaeologist. The ruins are particularly interesting for their building material, Tucker says—a compound known as “tabby,” a Spanish recipe adapted for use in the southeastern United States.

 

The site
Don’t let the name fool you: No chocolate was grown at Chocolate Plantation. Its name comes from a nearby Guale village named Chucalate. Today, the plantation site consists of more than a dozen structures made of tabby, a mixture of lime, burned oyster shells, sand, and water. The labor-intensive construction process began by mining shells from midden deposits at nearby Native American sites. In addition to the large two-story plantation house and several outbuildings, the site also has nine buildings that were once slave quarters. These buildings typically had two floors, central chimneys, and finished tabby floors. They suggest that the resident slave community consisted of at least 18 households and between 70 and 100 individuals. Visitors can also check out a restored livestock barn and, for a taste of more modern history, a house purchased from Sears that was assembled on-site from prefabricated parts sometime after 1929.

 

While you’re there
Sapelo Island is easily accessible by ferry from the Georgia mainland. If, after seeing Chocolate Plantation, you can’t get enough tabby, get a large group of friends together and rent out the Reynolds Mansion, a nineteenth-century estate house partially made of the material. You can also take in the complex of three large 4,000-year-old rings of oyster shells built up by the Guale Indians (perhaps intentionally, but most likely accumulated around villages), as well as the island’s beautifully restored candy-striped lighthouse, originally built in 1820. And finally, Sapelo Island is a home to Gullah culture, African-American communities that have retained some of their African cultural heritage. People in these communities, such as Hog Hammock, are descended from the area’s slaves and still speak a creole language called Gullah, or Geechee. Visiting their communities is a cultural experience like no other. 

The Desert and the Dead

By ZACH ZORICH

Friday, October 05, 2012

z1Around 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, the Chinchorro, a group of hunter-gatherers living in the Atacama Desert on the coast of northern Chile, began mummifying their dead. But how the practice originated has remained a mystery. Many archaeologists, including Mario Rivera of the Field Museum in Chicago, believe that the ancestors of this hunter-gatherer culture migrated from the Amazon River Basin and brought with them some basic techniques for treating the dead, which they then developed into a more elaborate form of mummification. A team of Chilean researchers, however, has proposed an alternative hypothesis. They believe that a combination of environmental and demographic factors led the Chinchorro to develop mummification practices.

 

By comparing radiocarbon dates from Chinchorro sites with climate data obtained from ice cores and pollen samples, the researchers found that there was a greater amount of rainfall in the Andes Mountains, east of the Atacama Desert, at around the same time that there was an increase in the number of Chinchorro settlements. The team believes that the wetter climate in the mountains may have started a series of events that led to the development of the Chinchorro culture. Team member Pablo Marquet of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile believes that the population in the desert grew because the increased rainfall in the mountains would have meant more ground water to feed the desert springs upon which the Chinchorro depended for survival. The greater availability of water, coupled with the abundant marine food resources on the coast, may have allowed the desert to support a larger number of people than it previously had. “Here is one situation where climate change had a positive impact on the emergence of innovations,” says Marquet.

 

chinchorro-mummy

The larger population size would have set the stage for cultural innovations such as artificial mummification, according to Marquet. Even with rain falling in the mountains, the desert remained extremely dry—dry enough to naturally mummify dead bodies. The increased population would have meant that more slow-decaying corpses would have been visible in the desert. Marquet thinks that observation of these naturally preserved remains might have inspired the Chinchorro to augment the process and create artificial mummies of their own.

 

The Chinchorro mummified bodies by removing muscles and, in some cases, organs, and replacing them with sticks and clay or plant materials, Marquet says. The mummies’ faces were covered by clay masks, and the bodies were often coated with black or red pigments.

 

Rivera, however, is not convinced that environmental conditions led so directly to the practice of mummification. People living in very different environments, including the Pacific Islands and Amazon River Basin, have also practiced mummification, but without climates conducive to natural preservation, he points out. “You could get the same results in quite different environmental conditions,” he says.

Fractals and Pyramids

By NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN

Friday, October 05, 2012

fractalsWhen rain falls in a river valley, overflow from the river forms channels that spread out across the landscape. Even when rivers dry out, the branching channels persist, having carved geometric patterns known as fractals. Fractals have a self-similar nature, meaning that a glimpse from above at a small part of the valley network will appear similar in form to the complete network, just as a twig shows the same basic form as a whole tree.

 

German scientists are now using these fractals, or rather their absence, to identify landscapes altered by humans. Take the necropolis of Dashur, a 4,600-year-old site 20 miles south of Cairo, where King Sneferu erected pyramids and temples. Surveys around Dashur show that natural fractal patterns appear regularly—except within a two-and-a-half-square-mile section around the complex.

 

Arne Ramisch, a geographer at the Free University of Berlin, says the fractal-free region might have been used for transporting construction materials more easily, creating a more monumental appearance, or extensive quarrying. “Excavations from our archaeological colleagues revealed that in one of the many potentially man-made landforms a harbor was located,” Ramisch adds. “And this, in the middle of the desert.” 

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