Stories tagged archaeology


Time to rethink when Bible was written

An inscription, written in ink on a pottery shard, found about 18 miles from Jerusalem, is believed to be the earliest example of Hebrew writing. Carbon dating places it in the 10th century BC (1,000 years older than the Dead Sea scrolls).

(Gershon Galil, University of Haifa) deciphered an inscription on a pottery shard discovered in the Elah valley dating from the 10th century BCE (the period of King David's reign), making it what is believed to be the earliest known Hebrew writing. Science Daily

What did it say?

English translation of the deciphered text:

  • you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
  • Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
  • [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
  • the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
  • Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.

After some three and a half billion years of life’s evolution on this planet – and after almost two million years since people recognizable as human first walked its surface – a new human burst upon the scene, apparently unannounced.

It was us.

Until then our ancestors had shared the planet with other human species. But soon there was only us, possessors of something that gave us unprecedented power over our environment and everything else alive. That something was – is – the Human Spark.

What is the nature of human uniqueness? Where did the Human Spark ignite, and when? And perhaps most tantalizingly, why?

In a three-part series to be broadcast on PBS in 2010, Alan Alda takes these questions personally, visiting with dozens of scientists on three continents, and participating directly in many experiments – including the detailed examination of his own brain.

"The Human Spark"

Twin Cities area show dates and times:

  • Wednesday, January 6, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 7, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 7, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Wednesday, January 13, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 14, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 14, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Wednesday, January 20, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 21, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 21, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Sunday, January 24, 1:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 2:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 3:00 pm, on 2

"Our Origins: Exploring the Human Spark"

Twin Cities area show dates and times:

  • Sunday, January 24, 4:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 8:00 pm, on MN
  • Sunday, January 31, 12:00 pm, on LIFE

Calakmul: I'm not sure if this is the spaceport or the Institute for Marketable Prophesies.
Calakmul: I'm not sure if this is the spaceport or the Institute for Marketable Prophesies.Courtesy J&P Voelkel
The ancient Maya: keepers of arcane knowledge, masters of the celestial spheres, 7th century astronauts… prophesiers of DOOM!

Yes, how the Maya knew what they knew remains a mystery to the arrogant forces of modern “science,” but we know that what they knew was totally awesome and sinister. Because, like, they carved it in stone and painted it on walls, and we all know that anything carved or painted on a wall is pretty much a sure thing. That’s how I know that for a good time I will call 555-5646, and why I’m certain that one day this will surely come to pass. And it’s why I’m sure that the world will end in 2012.

I mean, sure, there are people who still follow many of the traditions of their Mayan ancestors, and they say that 2012 doomsday predictions are nonsense, and that they’re based on the willful misinterpretations of another culture’s beliefs and calendar system, but… those people are obviously ignoring the wisdom of the ancients. You know, the wisdom of the ancients?

Recently excavated murals at the Mayan site of Calakmul are further enhancing our vision of these ancient, mystical people. The colorful murals, preserved on the covered wall of a built-over structure (the Maya sometimes added layers to older pyramids, creating a larger structure with a new face) apparently depict scenes of everyday Mayan life. It’s a unique discovery, because most of the imagery archaeologists uncover shows much grander stuff—royalty, and scenes from mythology. But this one just seems to show normal Mayan people doing normal stuff.

Of course, the above statement has to be understood within the context of the popular understanding of the Maya. I mean, “normal stuff”? What’s normal for people who flew around in spaceships, predicting the end of the world?

Let’s take a look, hmm?

This part of the mural, at first glance, seems to show a man in a wide, sombrero-like hat dishing out ul, a traditional maize gruel, to another man, who is drinking it. Obviously things aren’t so simple as this. The wide hat? It’s no hat. That man is wearing a satellite dish, so that he can stay in contact with teams of Mayan astronaut-priests, as they divine the future from high orbit. And the drinking guy—yes, he’s drinking, but it’s not corn gruel. He’s drinking magic potion. The mural does have a hieroglyphic caption that says “maize-gruel person,” but that must be a type. The lords of destiny don’t eat. And they especially don’t eat corn.

Here, we see the color version of the above image, as well as several other scenes of ancient Mayan life, including a man labeled “tobacco person,” who is holding a vessel full of what may be tobacco, or possibly Tobacco-brand ancient Mayan rocket fuel. There’s also the woman labeled “clay vessel person,” who may be holding a stack of clay vessels, or perhaps a stack of crystal balls, still in their brown paper wrappers. The murals also seem to show a woman making tamales, and a man eating them. But that’s just one interpretation. Another way to look at it might be, like, she’s making little pieces of the future. And he’s eating them. He could be eating the 2012 piece right there. The expression on his face may hold key information for us.

It just shows to go you. Some people are going to look at this and think, “Hey, look, normal ancient Maya people doing normal stuff and wearing normal clothes. What a fascinating glimpse into the lives of a seldom-depicted portion of a long-passed society.” And they’re free to think this way, but they’ll have no excuse for acting all surprised in three years.


A "Bellarmine" or "Greybeard": Sort of an industrial strength pottery witch bottle. Look at that scary, bearded face. Wouldn't that scare you off, if you were a curse?
A "Bellarmine" or "Greybeard": Sort of an industrial strength pottery witch bottle. Look at that scary, bearded face. Wouldn't that scare you off, if you were a curse?Courtesy Public domain
Wrap yourselves up in your least haunted quilts, Buzzketeers, and warm up a mug of your holiest liquid, because it’s that time of year again. It’s the time to throw out your old pumpkins, to put a towel over that spot on the stoop where the pumpkins were, to brush up on your circles of protection, to cover your orange sweaters in black marker, to splash your black sweaters in orange paint, and to prepare some fresh witch bottles.

Because witches are frisky this time of year, and a frisky witch is a dangerous witch.*

That’s right, it’s October, the season we call Halloweeny. And if we want to survive Halloweeny curse-free and with all digits and eyeballs intact, we’re absolutely going to need witch bottles. I don’t know about you, but I want that.

Do you remember a Buzz post I made two years ago about witch bottles? Rhetorical question—of course you remember. Here it is. You’ll recall that we covered some of the basics of apotropaios techniques. What you have to do, more or less, is think like an eleventh century peasant, and fill a bottle with some stuff that might cause discomfort in a witch’s urinary tract. What should go in there, exactly? Just follow your heart—this was before science, really, so whatever seemed like it would absorb evil magic and/or give a witch trouble in the bathroom and/or kill a witch from a distance was what you would go with. Nowadays, the scientific method has shown us what the best materials are for achieving each of these goals (the ShamWow, White Castle sliders, and lightening, respectively), but it’s nice sometimes to do things the old timey way.

So, a refresher: Get a little bottle, fill it with bent pins, thorns, and spiky things (for the witch’s discomfort), as well as items from your body, like hair, fingernails, or belly button lint, and then top it all off with good, old fashioned urine. Then you’re going to want to bury that bottle somewhere close, like under your fireplace. Apparently, whatever curses were directed at you will be confused by the other pee-soaked bundle of lint, fingernails and hair in your house, and it’ll attack that. Alternatively, some sources say you can throw the bottle in your fireplace, and when it explodes the witch will die. But then you’ve got a house full of broken glass and boiling hot urine, so I wouldn’t recommend it.

I’m bringing witch bottles back up partially because it has been two years, and witches, like diarrhea and terrorism, are an ever-present threat. But the subject was brought to my attention yesterday because I noticed this article: Archaeologists unearth 17th century bottle used to scare off witches. Pretty neat, huh?

The artifact, among many others, was buried under a parking lot in Staffordshire, in England. You might not think it, but big, old cities are swimming in potential archaeology. People have been living in some cities for thousands of years, after all, just building over older stuff, and archaeology is all about finding where people were a long time ago, and finding out what these people did.

Several large pottery kilns have been dug up in the same area, suggesting that the region may have been a major pottery producer and exporter. A pit full of leather scraps, left over from shoe making seems to indicate that a shoemaker lived and worked at that spot 400 years ago. And the witch bottle implies that someone in the neighborhood was concerned about witches. (JK—we’re all concerned about witches. That’s why I’m just putting the finishing touches on (in) a milk jug beneath my desk. Try to curse me now, Springsteen!)

Also, I put this link in the old post, but I had totally forgotten about it. Apotropaios—all about how people used to protect themselves from perceived malicious forces. Wild.

*I might be thinking about frisky lions here, actually.


Oldest string found

Fibers found in a cave have been carbon dated to 34,000 years ago. Some of the fibers were twisted, indicating they were used to make ropes or strings. Others had been dyed. Learn more by clicking this link: Archaeologists Discover Oldest-known Fiber Materials Used By Early Humans ( via Science Daily).

Making string and rope at SMM

I volunteer in the Science Museum of Minnesota's Collections Gallery. I often watch Mary Johnson demonstrate spinning wool into string and Dick Enstead spinning string into rope.


Notice what they're all *not* looking at?
Notice what they're all *not* looking at?Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
If you’re into biblical archaeology, you might be interested to know that the patriarch of the Orthodox church of Ethiopia is claiming that they have the original Ark of the Covenant, and will be revealing it today.

If the man with the whip taught me anything, it’s that watching the ghostly things that come out of the Ark of the Covenant makes your face melt and your head explode. In fact, he taught me lots of stuff, like not to trust Austrian women, and that it’s okay to destroy archaeological sites if you do it in an awesome way, and that shooting people is easy and fun. But he also taught me about the face-melting thing.

I don’t know about y’all, but I don’t feel like having my face melt and my head explode, so I’m treating the supposed unveiling of the Ark of the Covenant with skepticism and caution.

Apparently the Ethiopian Orthodox Church keeps an ark replica in each of its churches. But I guess they have the real one too? And they plan to open a museum to display it. So that’s sort of interesting.

I wonder how the Ark has held up over the last 3000 years? It’s supposed to be made of acacia wood and gold, although images of the Ark depict it being carried by just two or four people. Considering how it’s also supposed to be full of broken stone tablets, I’m guessing it’s mostly made of wood to cut down on its weight (it was carried around a lot), and I think wood can get a little crumbly after a few millennia.

It’d be interesting to do some archaeological analysis on the box. I have the feeling, though, that the church wouldn’t be very enthusiastic about lots of radiocarbon dating being done on the Ark, genuine or otherwise. I guess to true test of veracity will be whether or not it electrocutes and melts everyone coming to see it.

PS—The only story I could find for this was on WorldNetDaily, which I'm not convinced is all that great a source. So take it with a grain of salt. I just thought it was interesting. (Face-melting, you know?)


I stumbled across this story on BBC news. A medieval church was discovered by a team of archaeologists from Lampeter University. The site was discovered in a city that is apparently unpronounceable by humans. A geophysical survey was used to detect the foundation of the church in Swyddffynnon, Wales. Given the amount of material, possible other buildings and additional evidence of human activity found it has been speculated by the team that this may be the site of a medieval village.

Egyptian archaeologists this week announced the discovery of nearly 30 mummies among 52 tombs in Lahun, a site about 75 miles south of Cairo. Click here to see samples of the new discoveries and learn why mummy coffins are decorated the ways they are.

Do you like a fine aged wine? How about this vintage found in the ancient Egyptian tomb of Scorpion I. It's a mere 5,000 years old with traces of medicinal herbs blended in. Drink it to your health!!!


Rule like an Egyptian: This statue of Hatshepsut can be seen as at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She posed as a man to rule as an Egyptian pharaoh from  1479-1458 B.C.
Rule like an Egyptian: This statue of Hatshepsut can be seen as at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She posed as a man to rule as an Egyptian pharaoh from 1479-1458 B.C.Courtesy User:Postdlf
There were a lot of women trying to break the political glass ceiling last year. Think Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin. And while their efforts were noteworthy, they were far behind the curve when it came to female leadership of a great nation.

April's National Geographic has a huge profile on Hatshepsut, the female ruler of Egypt from 1479 to 1458 B.C. who actually took on the appearance of a man to be able to lead the nation. That story is amazing enough, but the National Geographic piece goes on to tell about all the modern science that was used on a random, anonymous mummy to pin-point that it was the remains of this famous Egyptian leader.

It's a great summary of a project I've been a part of in the past year. We've been creating an exhibit called "Lost Egypt: Ancient Secrets, Modern Science." It will open Memorial Day time at COSI – a museum in Columbus, Ohio – and eventually travel here to SMM sometime on its six-year tour. A good portion of that exhibit will focus on how researchers can use modern technology – CT scanning and rapid prototyping to name two – to gather information on mummies without ever unwrapping them or doing physical damage to them.

If you're like a lot of people, you'll find ancient Egypt fascinating and want to check out this story on Hatshepsut or the Lost Egypt exhibit. Why do you think ancient Egyptian culture is so cool? Or what do you think of Hatshepsut's unique story? Share your thoughts here with other Buzz readers.