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From the Trenches

Burials and Reburials in Ancient Pakistan

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Monday, February 11, 2013

pakistan-swat-valley-skeletonWhen development work began on a parcel of land in the village of Udegram in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, the landowner likely never imagined that he would find a human burial. Soon a team of archaeologists, working with funding from the Archaeology, Community, and Tourism Project of the Pakistani-Italian Debt Swap Program, persuaded him to stop building for a year while they excavated the site. They uncovered not just a lone burial, but more than 30 graves that are approximately 3,000 years old. Many of the burials have two skeletons, which Luca Maria Olivieri of the Italian Archaeological Mission, one of the archaeologists working on the site, believes is evidence of a complex funerary ritual. “This [ritual] involved decomposition in graves enclosed in wooden fences, reopening of the graves for a second burial and partial burning of the bones, sealing the graves, and, finally, the construction of a burial mound,” says Olivieri. The burials contain a great many grave goods, including high-quality ceramics, cloth, copper and bronze pins, ivory spindles, and chlorite spinning whorls.

The First Spears

By ZACH ZORICH

Thursday, February 28, 2013

kathu-pan-south-africa-spearAnalysis of 210 stone tools from the site of Kathu Pan in South Africa shows that people were probably hunting with stone-tipped spears by about 460,000 years ago, roughly 200,000 years earlier than previously believed. The study, led by University of Toronto doctoral candidate Jayne Wilkins, confirmed that the tools had broken in ways similar to other stone spear points that have been thrust or thrown into the bodies of animals. In addition, 23 of the tools appear to have been thinned at their bases to make them easier to attach to the shaft of a spear. To test their interpretation, the team made 32 replicas of the tools from Kathu Pan, hafted them to wooden dowels, and fired them into springbok carcasses using a crossbow that allowed for precise control of force. The replica spear points were damaged in ways similar to their ancient counterparts. The early date for the tools also suggests that the first stone-tipped spears were used by Homo heidelbergensis, the species of human that was the ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans.

Messages from Quarantine

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Thursday, February 28, 2013

north-head-quarantie-stationThe North Head Quarantine Station near Sydney, Australia, was used to isolate people—usually newly arrived immigrants—suspected of carrying infectious disease. Between 1828 and 1984, 13,000 people passed through the station (more than 500 never left and were buried on site). Some of these people left records of their stays in the form of inscriptions on two sandstone outcrops at the site. The more than 1,000 inscriptions include everything from names and initials to medallion-like carvings to commemorative plaques. Many contain information about ships and their passengers. “They provide a material portal through which we can access something of the stories of the ordinary men, women, and children who migrated to Australia,” writes Annie Clarke of the University of Sydney. A more recent addition, likely from well after the site became a park, reads: “Rebecca will you marry me? Tim.” Good thing he signed it to avoid any confusion.

Let Slip the Pigeons of War

By ERIC A. POWELL

Thursday, February 28, 2013

wwii-carrier-pigeon-codesColin Hill, a member of the Royal British Pigeon Racing Association, was astounded to learn last year that in the 1980s, the remains of a WWII courier pigeon were discovered in the unused chimney of a home near London. Among the doomed homing pigeon’s bones was a container holding a message consisting of 27 five-letter codes. Hill, also the curator of the pigeons exhibition at Bletchley Park, home of Britain’s wartime code-breaking effort, knew that the birds were often trusted with urgent military communications, so he couldn’t believe the discovery had gone unnoticed for three decades. Hill lobbied the GCHQ—the British equivalent of the National Security Agency—to decode the message, which may have been sent during the D-Day landings.

 

The government has declared the code unbreakable, but perhaps the heroic columbid didn’t die in vain. Its last mission has focused worldwide attention on the legacy of Allied homing pigeons. More than 250,000 saw active service in WWII, and 32 received the Dickin Medal, the highest British military award offered to animals. Among them was “G.I. Joe,” an American bird whose timely delivery of a message helped save 100 British lives in Italy. His stuffed remains are on display at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.   

Deconstructing a Zapotec Figurine

By ZACH ZORICH

Thursday, February 28, 2013

zapotec-warlord-figurine-atzompa

 

The site of Atzompa in southern Mexico was a suburb of the great Zapotec capital city of Monte Albán 1,200 years ago, when a man and a woman were laid to rest there in an elaborately painted tomb (“High Rise of the Dead,” November/December 2012). Recently, a team from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History finished excavating a colorful figurine from among the objects left with the deceased. Some researchers believe it may be an image of the man buried there, or of one of his ancestors. Interpretation of the figurine’s clothing, jewelry, and vivid coloration has much to say about Zapotec culture.

 

The seated statue is more than 30 inches tall and wears an elaborate headdress that would have been part of a costume symbolizing a person’s name and station within Zapotec society. According to Marc Zender, an expert in Mesoamerican iconography at Tulane University, painted figurines similar to this one were not rare among the Zapotec, but the variety of pigments used on this one seems to be something special.

 

A bar with three dots on the figurine’s apron is a glyph that represents the number eight. Above that is a circular glyph that means “earthquake” or “tremor.” Zender explains that the symbols spell out the day in the Zapotec ritual calendar when the person was born, and would also have been his name: Eight Tremor.

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