Posts Tagged ‘Ancient history’

History in the Remaking — Göbekli Tepe

Posted: October 21, 2012 by phaedrap1 in Monuments, News
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A temple complex in Turkey that predates even the pyramids is rewriting the story of human evolution.
They call it potbelly hill, after the soft, round contour of this final lookout in southeastern Turkey. To the north are forested mountains. East of the hill lies the biblical plain of Harran, and to the south is the Syrian border, visible 20 miles away, pointing toward the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, the region that gave rise to human civilization. And under our feet, according to archeologist Klaus Schmidt, are the stones that mark the spot—the exact spot—where humans began that ascent.Standing on the hill at dawn, overseeing a team of 40 Kurdish diggers, the German-born archeologist waves a hand over his discovery here, a revolution in the story of human origins. Schmidt has uncovered a vast and beautiful temple complex, a structure so ancient that it may be the very first thing human beings ever built. The site isn’t just old, it redefines old: the temple was built 11,500 years ago—a staggering 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, and more than 6,000 years before Stonehenge first took shape. The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture—the first embers of civilization. In fact, Schmidt thinks the temple itself, built after the end of the last Ice Age by hunter-gatherers, became that ember—the spark that launched mankind toward farming, urban life, and all that followed.

Göbekli Tepe—the name in Turkish for “potbelly hill”—lays art and religion squarely at the start of that journey. After a dozen years of patient work, Schmidt has uncovered what he thinks is definitive proof that a huge ceremonial site flourished here, a “Rome of the Ice Age,” as he puts it, where hunter-gatherers met to build a complex religious community. Across the hill, he has found carved and polished circles of stone, with terrazzo flooring and double benches. All the circles feature massive T-shaped pillars that evoke the monoliths of Easter Island.

Though not as large as Stonehenge—the biggest circle is 30 yards across, the tallest pillars 17 feet high—the ruins are astonishing in number. Last year Schmidt found his third and fourth examples of the temples. Ground-penetrating radar indicates that another 15 to 20 such monumental ruins lie under the surface. Schmidt’s German-Turkish team has also uncovered some 50 of the huge pillars, including two found in his most recent dig season that are not just the biggest yet, but, according to carbon dating, are the oldest monumental artworks in the world.

The new discoveries are finally beginning to reshape the slow-moving consensus of archeology. Göbekli Tepe is “unbelievably big and amazing, at a ridiculously early date,” according to Ian Hodder, director of Stanford’s archeology program. Enthusing over the “huge great stones and fantastic, highly refined art” at Göbekli, Hodder—who has spent decades on rival Neolithic sites—says: “Many people think that it changes everythingIt overturns the whole apple cart. All our theories were wrong.”

Schmidt’s thesis is simple and bold: it was the urge to worship that brought mankind together in the very first urban conglomerations. The need to build and maintain this temple, he says, drove the builders to seek stable food sources, like grains and animals that could be domesticated, and then to settle down to guard their new way of life. The temple begat the city.

This theory reverses a standard chronology of human origins, in which primitive man went through a “Neolithic revolution” 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. In the old model, shepherds and farmers appeared first, and then created pottery, villages, cities, specialized labor, kings, writing, art, and—somewhere on the way to the airplane—organized religion. As far back as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, thinkers have argued that the social compact of cities came first, and only then the “high” religions with their great temples, a paradigm still taught in American high schools.

Religion now appears so early in civilized life—earlier than civilized life, if Schmidt is correct—that some think it may be less a product of culture than a cause of it, less a revelation than a genetic inheritance. The archeologist Jacques Cauvin once posited that “the beginning of the gods was the beginning of agriculture,” and Göbekli may prove his case.

The builders of Göbekli Tepe could not write or leave other explanations of their work. Schmidt speculates that nomadic bands from hundreds of miles in every direction were already gathering here for rituals, feasting, and initiation rites before the first stones were cut. The religious purpose of the site is implicit in its size and location. “You don’t move 10-ton stones for no reason,” Schmidt observes. “Temples like to be on high sites,” he adds, waving an arm over the stony, round hilltop. “Sanctuaries like to be away from the mundane world.”

Unlike most discoveries from the ancient world, Göbekli Tepe was found intact, the stones upright, the order and artistry of the work plain even to the un-trained eye. Most startling is the elaborate carving found on about half of the 50 pillars Schmidt has unearthed. There are a few abstract symbols, but the site is almost covered in graceful, naturalistic sculptures and bas-reliefs of the animals that were central to the imagination of hunter-gatherers. Wild boar and cattle are depicted, along with totems of power and intelligence, like lions, foxes, and leopards. Many of the biggest pillars are carved with arms, including shoulders, elbows, and jointed fingers. The T shapes appear to be towering humanoids but have no faces, hinting at the worship of ancestors or humanlike deities. “In the Bible it talks about how God created man in his image,” says Johns Hopkins archeologist Glenn Schwartz. Göbekli Tepe “is the first time you can see humans with that idea, that they resemble gods.”

The temples thus offer unexpected proof that mankind emerged from the 140,000-year reign of hunter-gatherers with a ready vocabulary of spiritual imagery, and capable of huge logistical, economic, and political efforts. A Catholic born in Franconia, Germany, Schmidt wanders the site in a white turban, pointing out the evidence of that transition. “The people here invented agriculture. They were the inventors of cultivated plants, of domestic architecture,” he says.

Göbekli sits at the Fertile Crescent’s northernmost tip, a productive borderland on the shoulder of forests and within sight of plains. The hill was ideally situated for ancient hunters. Wild gazelles still migrate past twice a year as they did 11 millennia ago, and birds fly overhead in long skeins. Genetic mapping shows that the first domestication of wheat was in this immediate area—perhaps at a mountain visible in the distance—a few centuries after Göbekli’s founding. Animal husbandry also began near here—the first domesticated pigs came from the surrounding area in about 8000 B.C., and cattle were domesticated in Turkey before 6500 B.C. Pottery followed. Those discoveries then flowed out to places like Çatalhöyük, the oldest-known Neolithic village, which is 300 miles to the west.

The artists of Göbekli Tepe depicted swarms of what Schmidt calls “scary, nasty” creatures: spiders, scorpions, snakes, triple-fanged monsters, and, most common of all, carrion birds. The single largest carving shows a vulture poised over a headless human. Schmidt theorizes that human corpses were ex-posed here on the hilltop for consumption by birds—what a Tibetan would call a sky burial. Sifting the tons of dirt removed from the site has produced very few human bones, however, perhaps because they were removed to distant homes for ancestor worship. Absence is the source of Schmidt’s great theoretical claim. “There are no traces of daily life,” he explains. “No fire pits. No trash heaps. There is no water here.” Everything from food to flint had to be imported, so the site “was not a village,” Schmidt says. Since the temples predate any known settlement anywhere, Schmidt concludes that man’s first house was a house of worship: “First the temple, then the city,” he insists.

Some archeologists, like Hodder, the Neolithic specialist, wonder if Schmidt has simply missed evidence of a village or if his dating of the site is too precise. But the real reason the ruins at Göbekli remain almost unknown, not yet incorporated in textbooks, is that the evidence is too strong, not too weak. “The problem with this discovery,” as Schwartz of Johns Hopkins puts it, “is that it is unique.” No other monumental sites from the era have been found. Before Göbekli, humans drew stick figures on cave walls, shaped clay into tiny dolls, and perhaps piled up small stones for shelter or worship. Even after Göbekli, there is little evidence of sophisticated building. Dating of ancient sites is highly contested, but Çatalhöyük is probably about 1,500 years younger than Göbekli, and features no carvings or grand constructions. The walls of Jericho, thought until now to be the oldest monumental construction by man, were probably started more than a thousand years after Göbekli. Huge temples did emerge again—but the next unambiguous example dates from 5,000 years later, in southern Iraq.

The site is such an outlier that an American archeologist who stumbled on it in the 1960s simply walked away, unable to interpret what he saw. On a hunch, Schmidt followed the American’s notes to the hilltop 15 years ago, a day he still recalls with a huge grin. He saw carved flint everywhere, and recognized a Neolithic quarry on an adjacent hill, with unfinished slabs of limestone hinting at some monument buried nearby. “In one minute—in one second—it was clear,” the bearded, sun-browned archeologist recalls. He too considered walking away, he says, knowing that if he stayed, he would have to spend the rest of his life digging on the hill.

Now 55 and a staff member at the German Archaeological Institute, Schmidt has joined a long line of his countrymen here, reaching back to Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy. He has settled in, marrying a Turkish woman and making a home in a modest “dig house” in the narrow streets of old Urfa. Decades of work lie ahead.

Disputes are normal at the site—the workers, Schmidt laments, are divided into three separate clans who feud constantly. (“Three groups,” the archeologist says, exasperated. “Not two. Three!”) So far Schmidt has uncovered less than 5 percent of the site, and he plans to leave some temples untouched so that future researchers can examine them with more sophisticated tools.

Whatever mysterious rituals were conducted in the temples, they ended abruptly before 8000 B.C., when the entire site was buried, deliberately and all at once, Schmidt believes. The temples had been in decline for a thousand years—later circles are less than half the size of the early ones, indicating a lack of resources or motivation among the worshipers. This “clear digression” followed by a sudden burial marks “the end of a very strange culture,” Schmidt says. But it was also the birth of a new, settled civilization, humanity having now exchanged the hilltops of hunters for the valleys of farmers and shepherds. New ways of life demand new religious practices, Schmidt suggests, and “when you have new gods, you have to get rid of the old ones.”

Author

Patrick Symmes

Evidence of Viking Outpost Found in Canada

Posted: October 21, 2012 by phaedrap1 in News
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Sharpeners may be smoking guns in quest for New World’s second Viking site.

Archaeologists dig in the Tanfield Valley.

 

For the past 50 yearssince the discovery of a thousand-year-old Viking way station in Newfoundlandarchaeologists and amateur historians have combed North America’s east coast searching for traces of Viking visitors.

It has been a long, fruitless quest, littered with bizarre claims and embarrassing failures. But at a conference in Canada earlier this month, archaeologist Patricia Sutherland announced new evidence that points strongly to the discovery of the second Viking outpost ever discovered in the Americas.

 

While digging in the ruins of a centuries-old building on Baffin Island (map), far above the Arctic Circle, a team led by Sutherland, adjunct professor of archaeology at Memorial University in Newfoundland and a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, found some very intriguing whetstones. Wear grooves in the blade-sharpening tools bear traces of copper alloys such as bronze—materials known to have been made by Viking metalsmiths but unknown among the Arctic’s native inhabitants.

Taken together with her earlier discoveries, Sutherland’s new findings further strengthen the case for a Viking camp on Baffin Island. “While her evidence was compelling before, I find it convincing now,” said James Tuck, professor emeritus of archaeology, also at Memorial University.

picture: viking ship

 

Archaeologists have long known that Viking seafarers set sail for the New World around A.D. 1000. A popular Icelandic saga tells of the exploits of Leif Eriksson, a Viking chieftain from Greenland who sailed westward to seek his fortune. According to the saga, Eriksson stopped long enough on Baffin Island to walk the coast—named Helluland, an Old Norse word meaning “stone-slab land”—before heading south to a place he called Vinland.

In the 1960s two Norwegian researchers, Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, discovered and excavated the Viking base camp at L’Anse aux Meadows (map) on the northern tip of Newfoundland—the first confirmed Viking outpost in the Americas. Dated to between 989 and 1020, the camp boasted three Viking halls, as well as an assortment of huts for weaving, ironworking, and ship repair.

 

Viking Yarn

As reported in the November issue of National Geographic magazine, Sutherland first caught wind of another possible Viking way station in 1999, when she spotted two unusual pieces of cord that had been excavated from a Baffin Island site by an earlier archaeologist and stored at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.

Sutherland noticed that the strands bore little resemblance to the animal sinew Arctic hunters twisted into cordage. The cords turned out to be expertly woven Viking yarn, identical in technique to yarn produced by Viking women living in Greenland in the 14th century.

The discovery prompted Sutherland to scour other museum collections for more Viking artifacts from Baffin Island and other sites. She found more pieces of Viking yarn and a small trove of previously overlooked Viking gear, from wooden tally sticks for recording trade transactions to dozens of Viking whetstones

The artifacts came from four sites, ranging from northern Baffin Island to northern Labrador, a distance of a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers). Indigenous Arctic hunters known as the Dorset people had camped at each of the sites, raising the possibility that they had made friendly contact with the Vikings.

Intrigued, Sutherland decided to reopen excavations at the most promising site, a place known as Tanfield Valley on the southeast coast of Baffin Island. In the 1960s U.S. archaeologist Moreau Maxwell had excavated parts of a stone-and-sod building there, describing it as “very difficult to interpret.” Sutherland suspected that Viking seafarers had built the structure.

Clues Etched in Bronze, Brass, and Iron

Since 2001 Sutherland’s team has been exploring Tanfield Valley and carefully excavating surviving parts of the mysterious ruins. They have discovered a wide range of evidence pointing to the presence of Viking seafarers: pelt fragments from Old World rats; a whalebone shovel similar to those used by Viking settlers in Greenland to cut sod; large stones that appear to have been cut and shaped by someone familiar with European stone masonry; and more Viking yarn and whetstones. And the stone ruins bear a striking resemblance to some Viking buildings in Greenland.

Still, some Arctic researchers remained skeptical. Most of the radiocarbon dates obtained by earlier archaeologists had suggested that Tanfield Valley was inhabited long before Vikings arrived in the New World. But as Sutherland points out, the complex site shows evidence of several occupations, and one of the radiocarbon dates indicates that the valley was occupied in the 14th century, when Viking settlers were farming along the coast of nearby Greenland.

In search of other clues to help solve the mystery, Sutherland turned to the Geological Survey of Canada. Using a technique known as energy dispersive spectroscopy, the team examined the wear grooves on more than 20 whetstones from Tanfield Valley and other sites. Sutherland and her colleagues detected microscopic streaks of bronze, brass, and smelted iron—clear evidence of European metallurgy, which she presented October 7 at a meeting of the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology in St. John’s, Canada.

 

Norse-Native American Trade Network?

Sutherland speculates that parties of Viking seafarers travelled to the Canadian Arctic to search for valuable resources. In northern Europe at the time, medieval nobles prized walrus ivory, soft Arctic furs, and other northern luxuries—and Dorset hunters and trappers could readily stockpile such products. Helluland’s waters teemed with walruses, and its coasts abounded in Arctic foxes and other small fur-bearing animals. To barter for such goods, Viking traders likely offered bits of iron and pieces of wood that could be carved into figurines and other goods, Sutherland says.

If Sutherland is correct, the lines of evidence she has uncovered may point to a previously unknown chapter in New World history in which Viking seafarers and Native American hunters were partners together in a transatlantic trade network. “I think things were a lot more complex in this part of the world than most people assumed,” Sutherland said. James Tuck agreed. “It’s pretty convincing that there was a much larger Norse presence in the Canadian Arctic than any of us thought.”

 

Heather Pringle

National Geographic

Dolmen_at_ ale_stones

The remains of a 5,500-year-old tomb near Ale’s Stones, a megalithic monument where, according to myth, the legendary King Ale lies buried, has been discovered by Swedish archaeologists. The discovery is the product of a geophysical investigation of the area carried out in 2006.

Intrigued by a circular structure measuring about 165 feet in diameter with a rectangular feature in its center, archaeologists of the Swedish National Heritage Board decided to dig a trial trench.

“The outer circle was difficult to prove, but we did find vague traces at the spot, possibly imprints of smaller stones,” archaeologist Bengt Söderberg told Discovery News.

In the middle, the researchers found “several components” that are evidence of a dolmen, a megalithic portal tomb usually made of two vertical stones supporting a large flat horizontal stone on top.

“The components consisted of imprints of large stones belonging to a central grave chamber, which was surrounded by large stones and a brim of smaller stones,” Söderberg said.

Dolmen_stones_ at_ale_stones

Oriented north-south, the 65- by 26-foot dolmen dated to the Swedish early Neolithic period, about 5,500 years ago.

“We also found a blade, a scraper and some flakes of flint. This is not unusual when it comes to this type of graves,” Söderberg said.

According to archaeologist Annika Knarrström of the Swedish National Heritage Board, the dolmen was likely “the grave of some local magnate.”

“However, we have little data to really tell who was buried there,” Knarrström said.

The newly discovered dolmen lay just 130 feet from the spectacular Ales Stenar (“Ale’s Stones”), also known as “Sweden’s Stonehenge.”

Located near the fishing village of Kåseberga, the structure consists of 59 stones, each weighing up to 4,000 pounds, that appear to form a 220-foot-long ship overlooking the Baltic Sea.

Ales_stenar_kaseberga

Although some researchers argue that the stone formation was assembled 2,500 years ago, during the Scandinavian Bronze Age, most scholars agree that it dates back some 1,400 years, toward the end of the Nordic Iron Age.

Like Stonehenge, the enigmatic stone ship has raised many theories about its purpose. According to local folklore, it was the final resting place of a legendary leader known as King Ale. Other theories suggest it was an ancient astronomical calendar, a cemetery, or a monument to the Vikings. The newly discovered dolmen might provide new clues on the pre-history of the monument.

“Our findings confirm what we have long suspected: Some stone-built monuments might have stood on the ridge long before the Ale’s Stones,” Knarrström said.

The older stones, as well as those making the dolmen, were most likely reused to build the stone ship.

“This discovery also confirms our belief that the site must have attracted people in all times,” Knarrström said.

Photos: Top: Archaeologists clearing part of the trench with Ale’s Stones in the background. Credit: Annika Knarrström, Swedish National Heritage Board.

Middle: Detail from the west brim of the dolmen. Archaeologist Annika Knarrström puts a mark on one of the many small stones in the brim, after digitally measuring its position. Credit: Bengt Söderberg, Swedish National Heritage Board.

Bottom: Ale’s Stones, also known as “Sweden’s Stonehenge,” consists of 59 stones that appear to form a 220-foot-long ship overlooking the Baltic Sea near the fishing village of Kåseberga. Credit: Anders LageråsI/ Wikimedia Common

 

Discovery News

Tomb of Mayan Queen Found

Posted: October 7, 2012 by phaedrap1 in News
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K'abel_burial

Archaeologists in Guatemala say they have discovered the 7th-century tomb of Lady K’abel, one of the greatest queens of classic Maya civilization.

Unearthed during excavations of the royal Maya city of El Perú-Waka’ in northwestern Petén, Guatemala, the grave contained the skeletal remains of a mature individual buried with rich offerings such as dozens of ceramic vessels, numerous carved jade, shell artifacts and a small, carved alabaster jar.

According to the archaeologists, the white vessel strongly suggest the tomb belonged to the warrior Queen Lady K’abel.

Carved as a conch shell, with a head and arm of an aged woman emerging from the opening, the alabaster jar portrayed a woman, mature with a lined face and a strand of hair in front of her ear, while on the other side it featured a brief glyphic text consisting of four hieroglyphs.

The final two glyphs named the owner as “Lady Waterlily-Hand, Princess of Calakmul.”

“This is almost certainly an alternative spelling of the name of Lady K’abel, as both names consist of hands holding waterlilies and both are titled as princesses of Calakmul,” David Freidel, professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis and co-director of the expedition, said.

The most powerful person in Waka’ during her lifetime, Lady K’abel is known in Maya archaeology because of a beautiful and detailed portrait of her in a stela dated to 692 A.D. The carved stone slab was looted from Waka’ in the 1960s and is now in the Cleveland Art Museum.

Lady K’abel ruled with her husband, K’inich Bahlam, for at least 20 years (672-692 A.D.). She was the military governor of the Wak kingdom for her family, the imperial house of the Snake King, and carried the title Kaloomte’, which translates to “Supreme Warrior.”

“The significance of this woman’s powerful role as a ‘Kaloomte,’ a title rarely associated with Maya women, provides tremendous insight on the nexus of gender and power in Classic Maya politics,” Olivia Navarro-Farr, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at The College of Wooster and co-director of the expedition, said.

The discovery of the tomb of the seventh-century Maya queen occurred while Navarro-Farr investigated “ritually potent” features at El Perú-Waka’, such as shrines, altars, and dedicatory offerings.

Conch effigy

The tomb was found underneath various phases of a masonry shrine that had been placed on a staircase.

The shrine contained a monumental fire altar which had been dedicated by the sacrifice of a mature woman buried underneath it.

“Below that last shrine was a buried earlier version and it was below this earlier shrine that the royal tomb was found,” Freidel and Navarro-Farr said.

It soon became clear to the archaeologists why the structure received so much ritual attention throughout its final occupation.

“The golden age of the city, and the great queen and her husband who presided over it, were remembered and celebrated by ordinary people with their humble offerings,” the researchers said.

Inside the tomb the team led by Freidel and Navarro-Farr found the skeletal remains of an individual, whose skull was almost covered by ceramic vessels.

Deterioration of the bones did not permit a clear identification of the subject as male or female.

“If female, the interred individual had more robust than gracile features,” the researchers said. The traits would match the queen’s portrait on the stela on display at the Cleveland Art Museum.

One further clue favoring the identification of the skeleton as a queen was the presence of a large red spiny oyster shell on the lower torso.

“Late Classic queens at Waka’, including K’abel, regularly wore such a shell as a girdle ornament in their stela portraits while kings did not,” the researchers said.

According to Freidel, the newly uncovered tomb is a rare situation in which Maya archaeological and historical records meet.

“To put the discovery into perspective, there are five maya tombs in Classic Maya history that are indentifiable as to the person inside them — this is one of those five,” Freidel said.

Photos: Top: The burial chamber. Queen K’abel’s skull is above the plate fragments. Credit: El Peru Waka Regional Archaeological Project. Bottom: The carved alabaster vessel (shown from two sides). Credit: El Peru Waka Regional Archaeological Project.