History Below, History Above

We arrived yesterday in Athens. We were sad to leave Istanbul behind—it was a great place, and a real revelation. I would recommend Istanbul to anyone, and hope to come back again one day.

Athens is a pretty place, with a more diverse, urban feel. You also need to watch your step, because there is history below and above. The history below is found in the many excavations, most of which are below ground. The history above is the Acropolis, which towers over the city. You can turn a random corner in the central city and see a view like the one below. it’s amazing.

Bronze Age Detective Work

What historians now view as the “Bronze Age” was a period of about two thousands years of civilization and human cultural and social development among a number of long-established kingdoms in the Middle East. With Egypt as the wealthy and ancient anchor, kingdoms with names that are familiar to those who have read the Old Testament of the Bible or Homeric poems–the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Trojans, the Philistines, the Canaanites, and a host of other “ites”–were thriving societies. Writing had been developed and was the accepted way to record events and send messages, cuneiform script was the lingua franca of the day, artisans plied their trades, commerce among different cultures spread different goods from different places across across the Fertile Crescent, and tin–along with copper, a key ingredient in smelting the bronze that was the principal metal used in making swords, chariots, and other key items–was a highly valued substance.

But at some point between 1200 B.C. and 1150 B.C., most of these ancient kingdoms that had existed for hundreds if not thousands of years suddenly crumbled, never to rise again. What happened?

I recently finished 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric H. Cline, an interesting volume that tries to answer that question. And the ultimate answer is: we just don’t know for sure. Archaeological finds and digs give us lots of information about some of the Bronze Age civilizations. Clay tablets with cuneiform script tell us that kings of different kingdoms communicated with each other, provide information about commerce and issues like famines, and present the victors’ views of conflicts and invasions. The discovery of sunken Bronze Age ships in the Mediterranean Sea shows that trade was occurring between different kingdoms, and diggings that have uncovered objects that must have been imported from faraway places show us how extensive that interaction must have been. Telltale signs, such as tilted walls that indicate earthquakes, or layers of ash that show that a city has been burned to the ground, also provide clues. But the reality is that no one knows for sure.

Cline’s ultimate conclusion is that prior scholarship that blames “the Sea Peoples” for the widespread series of collapses is too simplistic. The “Sea Peoples” were a group identified by hieroglyphics on Egyptian artifacts that boasted of Pharaoh Ramses III’s victory over them, after the “Sea Peoples” had purportedly toppled other ancient kingdoms. The “Sea Peoples” are part of the mystery surrounding the collapses; no one knows who the “Sea Peoples” were, or precisely where they came from. They clearly played a role in the fall of civilizations, but Cline’s conclusion is that they were likely one of a series of cascading factors–that also included earthquakes, changing climate conditions that produced drought and famine, weak kings leading weakening kingdoms, and internal rebellions–that simply produced too much pressure for the ancient civilizations to bear. So they collapsed, and the Hittites, and the Assyrians, and other kingdoms fell into the historical dustbin forever.

What’s interesting about a book like this one is that much of it is speculation. Archaeologists are like historical detectives, finding clues and trying to piece together a coherent narrative, but with only fragments to draw upon, absolute certainty is impossible, and educated guesswork necessarily has to fill in the gaps. We’ll likely never know for sure what happened to bring the Bronze Age to an abrupt and deadly close, unless and until time travel is invented–but it’s fascinating to speculate about it.

Rediscovering Pompeii

In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying nearby Pompeii — a thriving Roman village during the height of the Roman Empire — killing the inhabitants, and covering the town in a thick and deep coating of volcanic ash.

pintura-de-gladiadores-e-descoberta-na-antiga-cidade-de-pompeiaHidden under its ashy cloak, Pompeii lay undisturbed, and forgotten, for hundreds of years.  The blanket of ash had the effect of preserving the town as it existed on the date of the eruption.  Excavation of the site at Pompeii didn’t begin until the mid-1700s, and continued haphazardly until the mid-1800s, when systemic, organized preservation efforts began and Pompeii became known as a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of what everyday life was like during the heyday of Rome.

Interestingly, Pompeii is still disclosing her secrets.  A huge, hundred million dollar preservation, restoration, and excavation project is underway at the site, which is aimed at repairing the parts of Pompeii that were crumbling and making new discoveries.  And new discoveries have been made, including uncovering an inscription that helps archaeologists better date the eruption of the volcano, a tavern with a vivid fresco of a bloody but victorious gladiator, and other colorful paintings and decorations.  And there are still areas that remain unexplored where the preservationists hope that excavations will yield additional surprises.

We visited Pompeii on our trip to Italy years ago.  It was a hot day, we stupidly did not bring bottled water with us for the visit, and the combination of broiling temperatures and the volcanic dust that still is found at the site made that day the thirstiest day I think I’ve ever experienced.  Still, it was fascinating to get that peek at life in the distant past.  With new discoveries being made, it may be time to make another visit to the town that time forgot.

Ancient Brews

I had no idea that a curious branch of archaeology is focused on reconstructing the hooch guzzled by the ancients . . . but it seems like a very worthwhile scientific endeavor.

Using high-tech chemical analysis of residues found at ancient archaeological sites — and some scientific guesswork — the researchers have developed the actual recipes that ancient civilization used in their brew.  In the town of Jiahu in China at approximately 7000 B.C., for example, the locals quaffed a beer-wine-sake concoction made of grapes, grain, hawthorne fruit, and more.  The Norsemen circa 3300, on the other hand, were tipping back a brew made of bog myrtle, honey, lingonberries, and bog cranberries.  (Hey, nothing like bog myrtle and bog cranberries to really add that extra kick!)

Of course, alcohol was an essential element in the development of human civilization.  Some archaeologists believe that the reason early humans stopped their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and decided to settle down is that they wanted to raise grain crops that they knew could be fermented in all kinds of interesting ways.  Studying the development and consumption of alcoholic beverages therefore seems like a good way to learn something meaningful about human civilization.

Interestingly, Dogfish Head Brewery will actually be producing some of these ancient recipes for our modern consumption.  That development will allow us to determine for ourselves the most important element of these antique cocktails:  how do they really taste?   And, upon careful reflection, would the ancients probably have rather cracked open a Budweiser?


In A Saxon Grave

The BBC has a story about the discovery of a Saxon grave dating from the mid-seventh century A.D.  The burial site was discovered near Cambridge.

The interesting aspect of the find is that the individual who was buried, thought to be a 16-year-old girl, was found with an exquisite gold and garnet cross on her chest.  Scientists believe that the burial site dates from the point at which Christianity was introduced to the otherwise pagan British Isles, and therefore the cross indicates the girl may have been one of the early converts.  Even more interesting, the girl was buried with a bag of precious stones and a small knife — which indicates that some of the pagan beliefs that the body would need material goods at some point still held sway.  The cross, precious stones, and knife also suggest that the girl was from a noble family, and perhaps even royalty.

Although I think the find is interesting, because you learn a lot about a people from what they choose to be buried with, it always makes me uneasy when scientists invade gravesites.  I don’t care how ancient they may be, human remains deserve to lie undisturbed.

Outdoing Indiana Jones

Modern technology is allowing for amazing advances in, of all things, the discovery of sites and artifacts of ancient civilizations.  The most recent example is found in Egypt, where the new field of “space archaeology” — which seems oxymoronic — has produced the discovery of 17 lost pyramids and thousands of previously undiscovered tombs and settlements.

The space archaeologists use space telescopes, powerful cameras, and infra-red imaging to identify materials buried beneath the surface.  Ancient Egyptians built using mud brick, which has a different density than the surrounding soil and allows the outlines of buried structures to be detected.  One use of the technology was applied to make discoveries at the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis, which will forever be recalled by fans of Indiana Jones and Raiders Of The Lost Ark as the home of the Well of Souls and the Ark of the Covenant.

You don’t need a bullwhip, a well-worn hat, and the ability to take a punch to be an archaeologist — a satellite, a camera, and a creative approach to using new technology will do just fine.  And what is really exciting about this development is the potential uses of this technology in Babylon, and Persia, and other sites in the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere.  Who knows what other evidence of ancient civilizations will be found buried beneath the sands?

As Timeless As Wine (Or Human Behavior)

Archaeologists have uncovered the world’s oldest known wine press in southern Armenia.  The wine press was found in a cave and is being dated to 4,000 B.C. — 6,000 years ago.  In short, the wine press is so old that it predates even the rise of the ancient Egyptian civilization.

The archaeologists believe that the wine press produced a dry red vintage using some kind of foot-stomping method.  They also speculate that the wine was a special vintage used in a burial ritual by a complex ancient society.

I think the key facts in the article suggest a different back story.  Those key facts are (1) a cave, (2) wine, and (3) the world’s oldest discarded leather shoe, which also was found in the same cave.  Do those facts sound to you like the ingredients of a burial ritual?  Or, do those signs point to a secret drinking place where the lazy ne’er-do-wells of the tribe could escape to kick off their shoes, stomp a few grapes, guzzle homemade hooch, and enjoy some drunken hilarity with their buddies away from the tribal chief, the high priest, and angry spouses?  To confirm this theory, the archaeologists need only start looking for dice, chicken bones, and signs of ancient graffiti in the vicinity.

The wine press may be 6,000 years old, but human beings really haven’t changed that much over the millennia.

Out Of Africa, Much Earlier Than Expected

This article reports on recent archaeological findings that raise interesting questions about accepted theories of human evolution and, in particular, about when human ancestors first moved out of Africa. Paleontologists have discovery ancient human remains — dating back some 1.8 million years — in modern Georgia, near the Caucuses. The remains are significantly smaller in physical size, and brain size, than previously identified Homo Erectus remains, and are by far the oldest proto-human remains found out of Africa.

Previously, the prevailing view was that human ancestors first journeyed out of Africa 1 million years ago and began to colonize the world. This discovery suggests that the human diaspora began much earlier — and may even indicate that there are significant issues about where certain human species actually originated.  The story of human evolution is a fascinating one, and much remains to be discovered and written.