Conservators removed a steel truss from around the recovered Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley yestoday, granting the first unobstructed view anybody has had of the boat in almost 150 years. Story with photos here. The Hunley, you may recall, was the first submarine ever to make a successful attack on another vessel. It sank the USS Housatonic in 1864, but then itself sank almost immediately afterward. Underwater archaeologists managed to raise the wrecking of the Hunley in 2000 and it has been sitting in a tank of water in Charleston until today.
Category Archives: Archaeology
Current Archaeology has a nice short article about the growing realization that there was a lot more warfare going on during the Neolithic than was once believed. A similar change in thinking has been going on in the Americas as well over the past decade or so, which I touched on in a previous post. Many older publications contain little or no mention of violence in the archaeological record, and I’m glad to see that a more balanced approach is gradually catching on.
Again with the Mayans! This time an architect* named Richard Thornton has provoked a bit of controversy lately with his claim that the Brasstown ruin in Georgia was built by Mayan refugees fleeing the collapse of their civilization. Part of what got the ball rolling on the internet seems to be the fact that Thornton referenced the work of archaeologist Mark Williams. Shortly thereafter, Williams himself posted a comment calling Thornton’s interpretation “complete and total bunk.”
Anybody who thinks this kind of denunciation would put the matter to rest obviously doesn’t have a lot of experience on the internet. Naturally, a great many people jumped in to support one side or the other. Not surprisingly, it appears that most of the archaeologists who have posted have agreed with Williams.
I will admit going in that I am not a specialist in either the Southeast or Mesoamerica. However, when I read Thornton’s article, and his further explanation of his methods, several things immediately stood out. First, the size of the Mayan group he posits is utterly beyond belief: he claims that the population of the Mayan kingdoms decreased by about 15 million people at the end of the Classic Period, and although he doesn’t quite say that they all went to Georgia, he clearly imagines that a large fraction of them did. It is simply not plausible that a population movement of that size could have occurred that recently without leaving a massive amount of evidence. And not just at one site in Georgia, but all along their route of travel.
Second, I noticed that a great deal of Thornton’s argument is based on linguistic parallels between Muskogean languages on the one hand and Mayan/Totonac on the other. The fact that the latter two are grouped together is itself telling, as they are not in any way related. Thornton relies heavily on the work of the People of One Fire Team, who compared vocabularies of various southeastern and mesoamerican languages and found a number of common words. Without having to go any further I can already say that this method, at least, is bunk. (Although it remains widely popular with cranks.) Matching up a few words here and there is simply not the way linguistic relationships are established. Not that such minutia should even be necessary: had millions of Mayans settled in the United States, their descendants at the time of European contact would certainly have been speaking a Mayan language, not a Muskogean one. Again, the evidence would have been blindingly obvious long before now.
I also have to say that it’s very convenient that only the illiterate farmers went on this migration, leaving behind all the people who could have left behind glyphs to describe their incredible exodus.
And finally, since part of Thornton’s argument is based on the claim that the name “Brasstown” was a mistranslation of a Cherokee name meaning “Place of the Itza,” I present an alternate explanation for the name.
* Some reports on this story have called Thornton a historian. However the Examiner, where he writes and where he published his theory about Mayans in Georgia, identifies him as an “architect and city planner with a very broad range of professional experiences.”
Paul Davies and Robert Wagner at Arizona State University have an interesting proposal: They want to use crowd-sourcing to search high resolution images of the lunar surface for evidence of extraterrestrial visits. Although they admit that the likelihood of actually finding something seems small, the cost of this sort of effort would also be extremely small, as almost all of the work would be done by interested volunteers.
For myself, I’m happy to see exo- and xeno-archaeology starting to receive serious consideration outside of the usual conspiracy theorist circles. I’ve long thought that if there are any advanced technological societies out there, it’s more likely that we will encounter evidence of their past activities than the beings themselves. The science of archaeology exists at all because artifacts so frequently outlast the people who create and use them. I can’t think of any reason to expect that to be different in space.
I admit it. Sometimes I really enjoy reading demotivational posters. Especially when I find one that has a connection to archaeology.
It has long been accepted that a Norse colony was briefly established in North America at a place called L’Anse aux Meadows around 1,000 years ago. Two written accounts of that colony, together called the Vinland Sagas, date from several hundred years later. Differences between the two sagas, added to the fact that both were written long after any eyewitnesses had died, suggest that they should only be used very cautiously as sources of information about the settlement.
For example, neither of the sagas even hints at intermarriage between Norse men and American Indian women. However, a recently published analysis of mitochondrial DNA from Iceland strongly suggests that it happened at least once. More than 80 living Icelanders have been found with a genetic variation that probably came from North America before the time of Columbus. Because mitochondrial DNA is only inherited through the maternal line, this means that at least one Viking explorer brought an Indian woman back to Iceland with him.
I haven’t had a chance to read the full article yet (it can be downloaded here), but from the abstract, this looks like a very intriguing finding.
Lately I’ve been enjoying Steven LeBlanc’s Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest. The anthropology of war is a topic that I believe has not received nearly as much study as it deserves. Interestingly, LeBlanc himself seems at the beginning of this book to be struggling against the idea that studying warfare is somehow dishonorable. He also seems to have some odd misconceptions: At one point he writes, “If the winners are automatically labeled ‘aggressors’ and therefore bad, then you are not studying the past, you are simply using ethnocentric values to interpret it.” This statement seems odd, given the examples of war we have seen in more recent times. Surely nobody would argue that the winners of World War II were the aggressors, much less that they were “bad” for having won.
LeBlanc lays out a threefold division of southwestern prehistory (which he designates, naturally enough, Early, Middle, and Late), and presents in some detail the evidence for warfare in each period. I haven’t quite finished the book yet, but so far I’ve been finding his arguments quite interesting, and to some degree compelling. Clearly, warfare is much more important in understanding the prehistory of the Southwest than many archaeologists have assumed. However, I’m not entirely convinced that LeBlanc is right to attribute the causes almost entirely to environmental factors and resource shortages. I don’t doubt that conflict over resources is important, but it is not the only reason people go to war. Ideology, for example, is often a factor as well. And I think as well that it’s important to try and identify who it is within a society that makes the decision to go to war. These are not questions that are easy to answer from the archaeological record, to be sure. But I believe that they are important ones, that should be investigated wherever possible.
A good brief update on the continuing work to understand this very important Neolithic site. As an undergraduate I read James Mellaart’s book on Çatalhöyük in my Intro. to Archaeology class. I remember being struck by that fact that he seemed to pay much more attention to the artwork than to the fact that he found two physically distinct populations buried there, although there are no apparent signs of social differentiation. I wondered who those people were, and what was the nature of their association.
At the end of the Times article is a quote from the field director, Shahina Farid, that I particularly like: “People always ask what’s the best thing you’ve ever dug up? And I don’t know because it’s not an item, it’s a story. It’s the story that goes with it that excites me.”
NASA has just released a group of photos showing the Apollo landing sites taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. From an archaeological standpoint, these photos are important for two main reasons. First, they document the current condition of some of the most significant cultural heritage sites in existence. The lunar landing sites certainly should be preserved for future generations, and the first step to preserving any site is determining what condition it is in right now.
Second, photos like these are important because they help improve our understanding of what happens to objects left on the lunar surface. Archaeologists use the term taphonomy to refer to the various decay processes that occur after an artifact or feature enters the archaeological record (i.e. gets abandoned or lost). Understanding these processes is crucial to making sense of the remains that we find in the field. Because we have been exploring space for such a short time, detailed information on long-term environmental processes is hard to come by, and still largely theoretical. This set of photos will help provide the data that future space archaeologists will draw upon.