One past or two? Ancient History and Archaeology in archaic Sicily.

I’ve been looking at the colonisation of Sicily by the Greeks in the early 1st millennium BC. Some time around the mid-eighth century it seems as though parts of Greece exploded leaving Greek cities around the Mediterranean. It’s not that distance so much that interests me it’s the distance between Ancient History and Archaeology in explaining how this happened. A lot of ancient historians see archaeology as a method of filling in the gaps in the historical record. I think there’s much more to be said for using them as two independent approaches to a common past.

Blue pins: Greece, Chalkis and Eretria Euboea - Italy, Pithekoussai and Naxos
Yellow Pins: Greece, Corinth - Italy, Syracuse
Green Pins: Greece, Megara Nicaea - Italy, Megara Hybalea
Red Pin: Italy, Himera
View Greek Colonies in a larger map

Ancient Historians have Greek colonisation pretty much worked out, barring the finer details. In the case of the western Mediterranean the earliest vessels set sail from Euboea, the first colony not being on Sicily at all but Pitheokoussai in the Bay of Naples around 750 BC. Dates for Sicily in the magisterial An inventory of archaic and classical poleis, which I’m about to deeply disagree with, 735/4 BC for Naxos from Euboea, 733/2 for Syracuse from Corinth and 728 for Megara Hyblaea from Megara Nicaea in mainland Greece. The prevarication on the dates is because Greek years did not start and end at the same time as ours. The dates and origins are derived from Thucydides and there’s good reason to assume they’re accurate. In the case of Pithkoussai, the earliest layers do have Euboean pottery. The same goes for Naxos. In Syracuse, the earliest pottery is indeed Corinthian, if you ignore Euboean and Athenian pottery below the Corinthian (Boardman 1999:163-4) and the indigenous pottery that is found before settlement that continues during through to 650 BC at the site (Frasca 1983:597-8). Megara Hyblaea in contrast has Corinthian pottery in its early layers. The solution is to conclude that pottery is diagnostic, unless the answer is wrong in which case it’s merely evidence of trade. In this case the same is true for the east Greek wares (Boardman 1999:174).

Megara Hyblaea poses more of a problem. The earliest burials at the site are not typical of Megara Nicaea. In fact the homeland styles don’t start appearing till around 650 BC (Shepherd 1995:51-82). I’m kicking myself for not making a note where I read that the earliest letter forms in Megara Hyblaea were also not similar to Megara Nicaea. Finally temples in Megara Hyblaea do not appear till after about 650 BC. None of this proves that Megara Hyblaea was not founded from Megara Nicaea, and the historical record is wrong. However, if the historical record is accurate then is there likely to be a stronger archaeological trace of ethnic and economic links?

If these colonies didn’t come from Greek settlers arriving en masse then where did they come from? Syracuse is traditionally thought to be an excellent example of Greek settlement in action because a native settlement is clearly removed with a destruction layer and a Greek layer over the top. In fact the archaeological record is more of destruction lenses, with some native houses continuing in use and with some continued use of native pottery. Is this more indicative of Greek arrival in native settlements? Himera, founded in the mid-seventh century BC, was surrounded by indigenous settlements (Vassallo 1996). The shock of the arrival of this new city on the native settlements was negligible. The closest comparison I can think of is the Islamisation of Swahili towns on the East African coast. Wynne-Jones (2007, and other papers by other authors) note two possible origins for the self-identified Omani towns. Either they were settled by Omanis, or else élites attracted Omanis in via exchange and inter-marriage. The lack of settlement shock means that places like Kilwa Kisiwani are assumed to have been native developments that pull settlers in, rather than sites of settlers pushed out. The traditional model for Greek colonisation is a push model from a limited number of sites. Is a pull model feasible?

Ancient Historians are happy that cities could pull in trade, to account for inconvenient pottery at sites, so the possibility for pull colonisation is not in doubt. What is lacking is evidence this happened, but it is possible that the evidence is not in Sicily, but rather Greece. Olympia and Delphi are both home to treasuries from cities around the Greek world. These were both from homeland cities, and from colonies in the Mediterranean who were placing themselves in the heart of the Greek world. At Olympia we can see this started happening. Gela, a city in southern Sicily, put down one of the early treasuries (Gardiner, 1925 dates it to the second half of the seventh century BC, but most recent books I’ve read while fact-checking this give an uncited date in the sixth century BC. If you know where this date comes from I’d be delighted if you let me know in the comment box.) and many other cities from the west followed. None of this conclusively settles the argument in favour of a pull model, but it does raise the question as to why Thucydides is so uncritically followed by ancient historians who would normally pull out all sorts of overlooked detail with forensic skill. Ancient Historians in turn could ask, if the push model is flawed, why did Thucydides write about these pushes out to settle colonies – and this is where I’m most puzzled of all.

Thucydides was an Athenian general and his history is a History of the Peloponnesian War. The foundations of Sicilian colonies are mentioned, but they’re only mentioned as they are relevant to Thucydides’ aim, which is recording the conflict between Athens and Sparta. Thucydides wrote at the end of the fifth century BC. This means that he was not witness to the foundation events. Instead of recording the mid-eighth century and the settlement of Sicily, he is recording what people in the fifth century thought happened three hundred years earlier. This solves a lot of problems. For example, in the mid-eighth century BC a lot of Greek cities did not exist. Corinth only came into being as a polis around 750-ish BC, it organised quickly enough to send out fully fledged cities within twenty years. We have no date for the cities of Euboea forming, but if history is followed then they were establishing a colony at Pithekoussai before Corinth was a polis. Is perhaps more likely that Thucydides saw cities in Sicily and described the foundation of cities because what he knew where there were fifth-century cities that needed to be explained? Possibly, but then why the detail about the order of settlement?

Megara Hyblaea and petrochemical plants
Megara Hyblaea is surrounded by petrochemical plants, giving at a pervasive stench of death. The consequent lack of tourists and facilities gives it the impression of somewhere that was built to be an abandoned city.
There is a less manipulated version of the photo at Flickr.

The dates do not only give an account of when something happened, but also of precedence. The major sea routes to Sicily arrived first at Naxos, possibly because this was the polis closest to the striking landmark Mount Etna. It’s geographical location as the first place you arrive at in Sicily suggests that it should have chronological primacy too. Syracuse, with its power and harbour is clearly the next most prestigious city. Fifth-century Greeks would not have cared that eighth-century sailors beached their vessels rather than use harbour. The history then becomes not what happened, but a tale to explain why things are the way they are now. Puzzlingly, this is not new. It’s the first lesson on any ancient history course, so the emphasis on Thucydides as a reliable source is odd.

This doesn’t simply mean that archaeology is good and history bad. It does mean that using history to analyse archaeology and vice versa is a very poor substitute to using archaeology to analyse archaeology and history to analyse history. The archaeological record gives a very different story to late prehistoric Sicily than the history recorded by Thucydides. Yet at the same time, the historical record gives a much richer account of the local ethnicity and allegiances of the fifth century BC than the archaeology. Corinthian pottery might get everywhere, but the history clearly shows that does not make everyone Corinthian. It also opens another possibility that both archaeological and historical attempts to explain Greek colonisation in Sicily could be flawed.

The notion of Greek ethnicity is based in history. I believe that the history is anachronistic, but Hall (2004) goes further. He argues that the idea of a Greek ethnicity is, in this period, possibly anachronistic. Did a Greek identity arise as a response to increased interaction across the Mediterranean? It’s common for historians to talk about ancient Greeks as though they are one thing over the course of several hundred years. We see a process of becoming Greek, and by the fifth century there is a difference between the Greeks and the barbaroi. While the archaeological record shows Greek pottery getting everywhere, the ethnic information – that some people still thought of themselves as Sikels – is purely from the historical data, which is late fifth century. This is after the invasions from Persia in Greece, and the battles with Punic forces in Sicily. Is a hunt for Greek cities taking a recently developed sense of common identity and anachronistically searching for it into the past? Hall’s proposal raises the possibility that much work, including my own, is excessively teleological.

There was one past for archaic Sicily. Instinctively I can’t help but feel that approaches that pull archaeology and ancient history together should be a good thing. However, I wonder if there’s a danger that when you do try that it becomes effectively one discipline judged by the approach of another. By keeping a distance between the two approaches you get the advantage of two independent viewpoints.

Ireland and the ‘vagaries of war’

There’s a somewhat long tirade by way of an introduction to this post on distance, perceptions from afar, and the current state of Ireland so, indulge, or bear with, me while I set the scene!

Writing in the Irish Times just before the visit of the queen of England to the Republic of Ireland in May, wherein, as we are not subjects of her majesty, we are not required to bow or curtsey, or capitalise the word ‘queen’ (I may have made that last bit up – or my Republican Grandmother did), Irish comedian Dara Ó’Briain notes that:

‘There is a joke that all Irish comics have a version of, but the most economic expression is from Andrew Maxwell. He would declare in an English comedy club “The Irish love the Muslims…” and after a long, long pause, “They’ve really taken the heat off us”.’

Ó’Briain’s point is that, in Britain, the Irish have ceased being identified a major ’terror threat’. We have been normalised in British society. The visit of the queen signals a further stabilisation of our relationship with our nearest neighbours and the culmination of a long and difficult peace process on our Island. Unfortunately no member of the public, other than some local celebrities (they’re always smaller than you thought, you  know) were allowed within 50km of her majesty, in case we’d do something embarrassing like keep our hands in our pockets or something! Our local media framed the visit as ‘the Nation growing up’, a sign of our ‘maturity’, and carefully sanitised the past.

(Photo: Whitehouse)

President Obama’s later visit, predicated on his (very) tenuous family links to a small village in County Offaly (see Moore Group’s blog here), took place over less than 24 hours, and copper fastened his vague Irish credentials, as well as providing US media outlets the golden opportunity to promulgate the great Irish clichés (drink) and document the new national stereotypes – our newly poor property developers and other Celtic Tiger grotesques (sorry, but I’m too stuffed with potatoes, and langered with porter to summon up any outrage). Inevitably, the local media for both visits were fawning and obsequious, and internationally the most memorable images presented were of a British queen politely ignoring a pint of Guinness, and an American President embracing one (and sinking it with gusto). Guinness, owned by the multinational company Diageo, had a great advertising opportunity and, after the guests had left, promptly announced 400 future layoffs. No mention or query during Obama’s visit about US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner’s apparent blocking of an IMF plan to allow Ireland to burn some of our bondholders, thus maintaining the financial burden on the country and adding greatly to our general misery and wretchedness – no, it was all hugging babies, our two countries being bound by affection, history and friendship…. Nice articulate, inspiring, bondage, nonetheless.

Meanwhile back in the US, Imagine Ireland is pitching Irish ‘Culture’, which according to their website ‘is the means by which most Americans now encounter Ireland’. Funded by the Irish Government, the project aims to connect with Irish-Americans (all 40 million of them – down mysteriously from 70m in the previous census [maybe I made that up too]) and other Americans (all 271,353,043 of them), by presenting a wide ranging programme of arts and cultural events and collaborations across the States.

‘Brand Ireland’ has clearly been in overdrive for the past month.

These events, and the associated marketing, are all part of a huge effort to repair our perceived international reputational damage as a result of our economic collapse, to change our tourism pitch from the overly expensive Celtic Tiger garish spa tourism of the early 21st century to ‘culture’ (archaeological sites, music and drink) and green tourism, and to present a new, positive face to the world. So, the main pitch of our tourism chiefs is that Ireland is a place of fun, stout and ‘the craic’, with green fields and archaeological sites featuring prominently in that marketing, depicting a country which is both rural and traditional. The Presidential and queenly visits provoked an all-pervasive ‘positive thinking’ rhetoric in both the new and old media and even infected the pubs (the cynics have only now in the past week begun to rear up again). In the end this might sell a few more pints of Guinness over the next few years and fill up our empty hotels (financed by ill-advised tax breaks for the ultra-rich in the noughties).

From the dizzying heights of the Celtic Tiger years, when we were ‘the envy of the world’, a shining light of economic openness, Ireland has now descended into economic freefall, and our cultural heritage sector has not escaped the collapse. The current best estimate by the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland (IAI) of numbers working in the profession is 350 – from a peak of 1700 in 2008. This may even be overestimated, as, anecdotally, we’re hearing of widespread unemployment nationwide, with people working only sporadically and others on short term or part time hours, a scenario reflected in my own business, which now employs 4, down from a peak of 18 four/five years ago.

It’s in this context that my attention was drawn to the recent AIA ball and its focus on Ireland. Part –funded by Imagine Ireland as an element of their great American Journey, the Gala was addressed by our cultural ambassador, Gabriel Byrne (of In Treatment and Bracken fame). The event seems to have been a great success and showcased our remarkable cultural heritage and stock of monuments with apparently excellent addresses by both Pat Wallace of the National Museum of Ireland and Gabriel Byrne; but I was surprised by a small paragraph describing how some of the proceeds from the Gala were to be used:

Each year hundreds of irreplaceable archaeological sites are destroyed by unrestrained development, looting, the vagaries of war, and environmental changes.  With the help of gala attendees, we are able to preserve these sites for the future.

During the Gala, guests had the special opportunity to  support the AIA’s efforts to preserve Irish cultural heritage—a portion of the proceeds from the Gala auction will be used to directly support archaeological sites in Ireland…

This may be a case of a simple cut and paste on the part of an AIA website editor. However, it did elicit a brief stir on twitter with a few Irish archaeological tweeters noting the tone and import of the paragraph, a paragraph which was later repeated in the introduction to a new AIA Irish Archaeological Heritage Google Earth skin announced here. As Charles Mount points out in his blog ‘I hope this misplaced rhetoric won’t discourage any visitors to Ireland’. Further to Charles’ blog post the section was removed from the Google Earth announcement on the AIA site (although it still appears on the ‘Saving Irish Sites‘ section of the website).

With regards to ‘the vagaries of war’ mentioned therein, it should be pointed out that the conflict in Ireland is a sensitive subject and we have gone through a long and difficult peace process, building on the 1998 Good Friday agreement. Ireland is now one of the safest places in the world (consistently ranking in or around the world’s top ten safest and most peaceful places).

We haven’t had war in the Republic for 90 years (both my Grandfathers were locked up for that one – but that’s another story), we have one of the lowest murder rates in the world, no one carries a gun, and, shure, we’re half stupefied with de demon drink most of the time, so, ‘vagaries of war’ – not a threat to our cultural heritage or prospective visitors…

As to unrestrained development: Well, the recklessness of our bankers and the hubris of our property developers, aided by ineffectual government, political clientelism, the general global collapse and our innate cute-hoorism (see here and here) has put the kibosh (which word some would say is derived from the Irish word Cabáiste meaning ‘cabbage’, or caidhp (an) bháis meaning ‘cap of death’) on that.

Looting in Ireland has not been a huge problem, metal detectorists require a licence to prospect in the vicinity of archaeological sites, and our legislation, described by someone as ‘the most draconian’ in the world  ensures strong protection for our archaeological sites. In saying that, there was one disturbing recent incident of looting of a WW1 Uboat in Cork.

And, ‘environmental changes’; well apart from coastal erosion, sea level rise and other climatic processes, not a great problem…

No, the most pressing threat to Irish archaeology is none of the above… it is a combination of decreased funding, cut throat competition in an era of much reduced developer funded work, growing unemployment, emigration and the resultant brain drain. Experienced archaeological field workers face the choice of retraining, pursuing a new career path or leaving the country. Those who remain (and are lucky enough to have a job) face a different challenge – crap conditions and pay….   a reversion to the bad old days when archaeology was seen as a ‘vocation’ (this word is creeping back into the Irish archaeological lexicon and should be taken as code for badly paid, crap conditions), a job you do for the ‘love of it’. From the anecdotal evidence this is becoming a reality, with indications that those who remain in employment at the lower grades are being paid barely above the minimum wage (which itself has been reduced, but will apparently be raised again shortly).

Another problem is dissemination of all the data from the past few years. The last 20 years have resulted in an unprecedented number of discoveries and a wealth of new information on Irish archaeology, the road and house building boom producing unequalled amounts of data, but this is so far largely hidden in technical reports and unpublished material archived in formal Department locations. Although state agencies such as the NRA (National Roads Authority, nothing to do with guns) are busy publishing the results of the road projects, and some of the surviving consultancies are getting their data out (witness eachtra’s exemplary Journal and our own humble blog), there’s still a danger that much of this information will get lost along the way, if the excavators leave Ireland or consultancies shut down or simply no longer have the resources.

I’ve a much longer list of the problems and dangers for Irish archaeology in my head, but I won’t go into them here. Anyone who wants to read more on the great challenges and apparent opportunities, just click here for a discussion document on the Archaeological Profession in Ireland, arising from a recent seminar facilitated by the Irish Heritage Council.

Doubtless there are dangers to our cultural heritage, but certainly not from the vagaries of war, nor from looting or unrestrained development (perhaps from environmental changes).

Irish commercial archaeology has come a long way, and our knowledge of our past is being transformed but right now we’re busy taking stock of where we are and where we’re going, in terms of our society at large and also in terms of our cultural heritage. Tourism and our well preserved and presentable cultural heritage is an integral part of our future sustainable survival and perceptions from distant markets are important to that future. Our nations story of progress to independence, through poverty and emigration, sudden wealth and subsequent collapse, with the prospect of lasting unity and peace has not been untroubled, but, despite my earlier cynical tone, that trouble is largely behind us, and we wholeheartedly welcome all our visitors…  and they can rest assured that we won’t hurt them.

And as a reward for getting all the way to the end, please stand for Ireland’s alternative national anthem…

[yt video=UVj7cwnFtYI]Ireland Ireland Duckworth Lewis Method[/yt]

Gifts from the Distance: flotsam as a cultural resource in island societies

To a continental/ mainland mindset, islands can often seem marginal, although in fact they may have been at the centre of widely-connected seaborne trade routes. Despite the scope for maritime trade, material acquisition may be difficult. Island flora and fauna are usually impoverished relative to continents, particularly with respect to terrestrial species, and mineral resources may also be quite poor. In this scenario, items cast ashore by the sea (for simplicity I’m going to call them ‘flotsam’, although that term implies a specific provenance much narrower than the range of things I’m going to be talking about) can represent a valuable source of raw materials This post is going to briefly consider this in relation to the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, because those are the islands with which I’m (archaeologically) most familiar.

The Outer Hebrides (also known as the Western Isles) lie to the north-west of Scotland, separated from the mainland by a sea called the Minch, some 50 – 80 km wide. There’s a deep trough in the Minch, which means that there was unlikely to have been a land bridge to the mainland at any point during the Quaternary. To my eyes, raised in the gently hilly, verdant and closely managed landscape of southern England (see Colleen’s comments on this at Middle Savagery), the Western Isles are a wild, rugged place. It rains a lot, and is very windy. Although pollen and snail records indicate that there was fairly extensive tree cover in earlier prehistory, human activity and a change in climatic conditions with the onset of the Little Ice Age have left the islands virtually treeless. During the last glaciation most, if not all, of the island land surface was under ice some 400-700m thick, therefore the terrestrial plants and animals of the Outer Hebrides are all post-glacial arrivals. The geology of the islands is almost entirely Lewisian gneiss, which dates to the Precambrian, almost 3 billion years ago. It is not a good building material, as it is friable, does not produce regular blocks, and disintegrates when heated (Barber 2003, 21).

Part of Pobull Fhinn (Fionn's People) stone circle, North Uist, Outer Hebrides (photo by Matt Law)
Part of Pobull Fhinn (Fionn's People) stone circle, North Uist, Outer Hebrides (photo by Matt Law)

Despite these conditions, humans have lived on the islands for at least 9000 years. The earliest known site is at Northton, on the Isle of Harris, although no occupation dating to the Mesolithic has yet been found, most likely because sea level rise and the advance of blanket bog conditions across much of the interior since then make older sites difficult to find. In these resource-poor circumstances, the sea becomes incredibly important. There is open sea between the west coast of the Outer Hebrides and North America, and driftwood is frequently cast on the shores. Driftwood timber is a source of building material as at Iron Age Dun Vulan on South Uist and Dun Bharabhat on Lewis, as well as fuel for fires. At Norse-period Mound 3 of Bornais on South Uist, larch or spruce charcoal was identified. Neither taxon is native to Britain – the wood must have originated in North America or northern mainland Europe (Gale 2005, 163). Finds of probably North American spruce charcoal have also been reported from Barra and from Barvas on Lewis (Dickson 1992, 50). As late as the nineteenth century, household dressers were generally made from driftwood (Webster 1999, 59). An especially interesting piece of driftwood – a carved statue – is on display at Kildonan museum on South Uist (see

Stone may also be cast ashore. Pumice (which can float), most likely from the Katla volcanic system in southern Iceland, is a relatively frequent find at Hebridean sites (e.g. Newton & Dugmore 2003), and is occasionally fashioned into perforated floats for fishing nets, or used as sharpening stones. Similarly, flint tools found at archaeological sites in the Outer Hebrides may be from beach pebbles as there is no natural source on the islands. There is, however, a flint source at nearby Skye (Finlay 2003, 113).

Beached marine animals are another important resource. Whale strandings in particular are reasonably common. Whale bone is useful as a raw material for building and for tool and ornament production. In the Outer Hebrides, whalebone artefacts include combs, knifes, mattocks, pegs, plates, chopping boards and “pot lids” (Mulville 2002). The bone also has a high fat content, and is useful as fuel (blubber may also be used as fuel). At Iron Age Bornais, a number of burnt whale bones were found in association with metalworking debris (Mulville 2002, 44).

Beached whale on South Uist, September 2010 (image by Matt Law)
Beached whale on South Uist, September 2010 (image by Matt Law)

The utility of these gifts from the distance (as well as more local coastal resources such as fish, shellfish and seaweed) has implications for the organization of island societies. Routine exploitation of the coastline is an important task, and the unpredictable nature of, for example, driftwood landings, requires vigilant monitoring of the shore (Sharples 2005, 162). Access to these resources may be subject to close controls (indeed in the UK, items washed ashore are still subject to the control of the Receiver of Wreck). In the context of island and coastal archaeology, the distance implicit in the wide expanse of the oceans can be a positive influence, capable of bringing in materials otherwise unavailable (or only available via complex and potentially expensive trade arrangements) to past societies.


Barber, J., 2003. Bronze Age Farms and Iron Age Farm Mounds of the Outer Hebrides. Scottish Archaeology Internet Reports No 3. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Online at

Dickson, J.H., 1992. North American driftwood, especiallyPicea (spruce), from archaeological sites in the Hebrides and Northern Isles of Scotland. In: J.P. Pals, J. Buurman and M. van der Veen (Editors), Festschrift for Professor van Zeist. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 73, pp. 49-56.

Finlay, N., 2003, Lithic Assemblages, in Barber, J., 2003. Bronze Age Farms and Iron Age Farm Mounds of the Outer Hebrides. Scottish Archaeology Internet Reports No 3. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Online at, pp.133-134.

Gale, R., 2005. The Shore. 3. Wood, in N. Sharples (ed.), A Norse Farmstead in the Outer Hebrides: excavations at Mound 3, Bornais, South Uist. Oxford: Oxbow. p. 163.

Mulville, J., 2002. The role of cetacea in prehistoric and historic Atlantic Scotland. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 12(1), pp.34-48.

Newton A.J. and Dugmore A.J., 2003. Analysis of pumice from Baleshare, in Barber, J., 2003. Bronze Age Farms and Iron Age Farm Mounds of the Outer Hebrides. Scottish Archaeology Internet Reports No 3. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Online at pp. 135-138.

Sharples, N., 2005,  A Norse Farmstead in the Outer Hebrides: excavations at Mound 3, Bornais, South Uist. Oxford: Oxbow

Webster, J., 1999. Resisting Traditions: Ceramics, Identity, and Consumer Choice in the Outer Hebrides from 1800 to the Present. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 3 (1), pp 53-72.

Terres Rouges, Luxembourg

Arbed Steel Works, Terres Rouges, Luxembourg by Geoffrey George.
Arbed Steel Works, Terres Rouges, Luxembourg by Geoffrey George.

This is the abandoned Arbed Steel Works, at Esch-sur-Alzette in the south of Luxembourg. I picked it as it’s a well-lit photo and it also has a great sense of distance, which is handy for the coming month. It turns out the site is more iconic than that. From British Pathé there’s a video showing “a molten stream of French ore, Belgian limestone, Dutch and German coke watched over by Italian labour and pouring out of a Luxembourg blast furnace marked the formal opening of the common market for steel of these six European countries.” So this abandoned structure is possibly a birthplace of the EU.

The site launches this week. So far the plan is that I’ll put up a Kindle post on Wednesday, partly because I’ll be at KindleCamp that day. Thursday will see the first Distance post, with Katy Meyers on Bioarchaeology. We have theme posts for Tuesdays and Thursdays for the first couple of weeks, but that still leaves plenty of space on the other days. If you’d like to blog here leave a note below or on our Facebook page, and Colleen or myself will get in touch.

Photo: Terres Rouges by Geoffrey George. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-BC-ND licence.

Machu Picchu, the classic view

Machu Picchu by Pedro Szekely
Machu Picchu by Pedro Szekely

The LA Times is currently going through 100 facts for 100 years of Machu Picchu. It is a lot older, but its existence was revealed to archaeologists in 1911, so this summer marks the 100th anniversary of work at the site. Exactly what the site is has been debated for many years. Current favourite is that it was a royal estate, but this does not rule out important ritual functions at the site as well. This is the view most people try and take of the site towards the peak of Huayna Picchu, which also has temples on it, so it is possible that Machu Picchu was placed intentionally at a specific point in the landscape, in this case about 2.5km or 1.5 miles up in the landscape.

The ability to farm at high altitude might be due to the llama’s habit of defecating communally, according to a report on the Guardian website. This made the llama dung easy to gather and then use as fertiliser.

As an experiment, you can download wallpapers for June based on this photo in 4:3 or widescreen formats. I’ve prepared them at hi-res, so they may need to be scaled down to fit your monitor. Let me know if they work in the comments below and I can produce more for July onwards.

Photo: Machu Picchu, Peru by Pedro Szekely. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence.

Links from Week 20

Katy Meyers has another excellent post at Bones Don’t Lie. To Exhume or Let Rest in Peace This relates to two burials. The first is the Leatherman, who I had never heard of and is a fascinating topic in his own right. The other is the exhumation of the Mona Lisa model. My first reaction to the Mona Lisa dig was “I’d hate to be the artist under pressure to produce a facial reconstruction”. When I found out that was the purpose of the dig I was then baffled as to why. Will the result show that Leonardo Da Vinci was actually an terrible artist and all his paintings are rubbish? My guess is examination of the skull will reveal that the enigmatic smile was more of a toothy grin.

NewMuseumKat at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology blogs about The Roman Britain & Ur Collections.

Michael E. Smith writes Why Anthropology is too Narrow an Intellectual Context for Archaeology. It’s not an argument you get much in the UK, so from my point of view it’s an interesting insight into how Americans view the past in the USA.

From Powered By Osteons comes news of the 9,000-year-old La Jolla Fisherman and -woman. UC San Diego is caught up in a rumpus over whether bones discovered while constructing the university’s President’s house should be studied or given to native Americans.

@archasa posts her slideshare presentation on Research Blogging which is relevant to archaeobloggers.

I spent ages reading this post on Plasauduon, Powys very badly as my Welsh is terrible. In a related discovery Heritage of Wales have also blogged in English on Plasauduon, Powys – Architecture 3D Visualisation Fly Through Animation.

Tropical Paradise, but who needs that?Mick Morrison has photos of his recent fieldtrip to Weipa in Far North Queensland. It takes more than blue skies and tropical seas and a fascinating archaeological project to make me jealous.

Via @nzarchaeology comes the bad news Historic Chatham Islands carvings defaced in the NZ Herald. It’s probably intended as a cultural assault according to the report.

Also from the NZ Herald comes this thought provoking column Brian Rudman: Te Papa holds ghoulish relics too. It’s a comment on the ethics of museums pursuing repatriation of some human remains while holding on to others.

Bad news for hungry archaeologists. The Newcastle Herald (Australia) has the headline 6500-year-old heritage junked and if that’s not bad enough, they’ve been stuck with a KFC outlet too.

The ever impressive CyArk is plugging their Tikal Multimedia Gallery and it’s well worth a visit.

This week’s stunning archaeological site threatened by a dam is are the Basha-Diamer carving in Pakistan. I didn’t know about these, but sadly it looks like I’ll have plenty of people to share my ignorance with.

Scots Gaelic speakers should catch Talamh Trocair: Arc-eòlas coimhearsnachd before Tuesday. It’s from BBC Alba and it’s on the iPlayer. I don’t know if this is available outside the UK. It could be BBC Alba want to protect the commercial rights so that both Scots Gaelic speakers outside the UK have to pay to watch. English speakers can follow the programme on Community Archaeology with subtitles.

Art Daily reports: Pre-Hispanic Cities Reproduced the Narration of the "Sacred Mountain" with Construction of Great Temples which explains what the story is about in the title.

You can found out more about the History of Archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg. I don’t have a note saying where I got that from, so I’ll guess it’s via @brockter.

The Institute for Archaeologists now have an Archives special interest group.

Chasing Aphrodite is a blog to go with the book of the same name reports on the ceremony officially inaugurating the Getty’s controversial statue of Aphrodite in its new museum home in Aidone. The photo does no justice to how amazingly steep, narrow and full the streets are in Aidone, which is the most terrifying place I’ve driven through.

Rollright Stones: aaw, come on! The Heritage Journal is unimpressed by offerings at the Rollright Stones.

An Ancient Greek City Uncovered in Russia is a reminder of how far the ancient Greeks lived away from the country we call Greece.

One of the strangest world’s oldest claims comes from North Carolina with the news that Blackbeard Ship Discovery May be world’s oldest. I thought it was an odd claim as I’ve seen plenty of older ships, but this is the oldest shipwreck in the world that’s off NC’s coast. There may be older shipwrecks in the world, but they’re not off NC’s coast and therefore presumably don’t count.

#Archaeology and #SocialMedia at #ACRNCASPAR

qr codeYesterday the CASPAR, the Centre for Audio-Visual Study and Practice in Archaeology and the Archaeology and Communication Research Network held a workshop at UCL’s Institute for Archaeology. The workshop was hashtagged on Twitter as #ACRNCASPAR and it’s been blogged by Daniel Pett. Below is the Storified collection of tweets by @jessogden.

The embed is proving temperamental at the moment, so if it doesn’t appear below, reload the page.

Wukoki Ruins

Wukoki Ruins
Wukoki Ruins. Photo by Anita Ritenour.

The Wukoki Ruins are part of the Wupatki National Monument in Arizona. The area seems to have been occupied between AD 500 and AD 1225, with the Wukoki Ruins occupied between 1110 and 1210. The National Parks Service has a nice line on their website saying that the current native peoples in the area still see the site as having spiritual significance so, despite no one living there anymore, the site is not abandoned.

This photo uses High Dynamic Range imaging, in order to get the sky and shadows properly exposed. Using the more traditional point ‘n’ click method there’s a good chance the sky and shadow areas would show a lot less detail. For more information on HDR photography in archaeology, see High dynamic range imaging for archaeological recording from the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory by David Wheatley (doi:10.1007/s10816-010-9100-1). A pre-print of it is available in Southampton’s archives.

Photo: Wukoki Ruins by Anita Ritenour. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.

Links from Week 19

Colleen Morgan reports on the TAG conference session Graffiti and the Archaeology of the Contemporary. It looks like it could have been one of the few conferences where the audience were more nervous than the speakers. She also participated in another innovative session on archaeological photography.

Donald Johanson and Richard Leakey were sharing a stage for the first time in 30 years. The legends wowed the crowd with the classics “We all come from Africa” and “Let’s look at Lucy”. If ogling a three million old ancestor doesn’t send a shiver down your spine then you’re clearly in need of a soul transplant. The Scientific American page uses Storify. Does anyone want to cover Twitter hashtags and Storify in a couple of blog posts?

At Powered by Osteons, Kristina Killgrove has news about Female Sacrificial Slaves. If you prefer your sacrificial slaves to be male, she can cater for that too. It includes some interesting comments on problems communicating between archaeologists in different regions.

Heritage Action look at the possibility that this year might be the last mass opening of Stonehenge at the Summer Solstice.

NUI Galway now has an Archaeological Theory blog. They open with a look at the Dover Boat. (h/t @diggingthedirt)

Antonine Baths at Carthage
Antonine Baths at Carthage. Photo by Graham Claytor.

The ISAW-NYU has been releasing photos from Carthage with a Creative Commons Licence. This one is the Antonine Baths with a Creative Commons BY licence, by Graham Claytor.

The AAA are looking for blog columnists. The work is monthly and based around the themes: Teaching Strategies, Field Notes, Multimedia Matters, Media Notes, Review Roundups. They’re open to other possibilities.

As a follow up to the story that Neanderthals may have died out earlier than thought, comes news that Neanderthals may have died out later than thought, thanks to a paper published this week in Science. (h/t @BoneGirlPhD) John Hawks has the key details from that paper blogged at his site.

Quite a few people linked to the story that Yale is releasing a mountain of digital images for free, and rightly so. It looks potentially very exciting, but I can’t tell as the site seems to be overwhelmed by lots of other visitors who think it also looks exciting too.

Sexy Archaeology has the latest edition of Four Stone Hearth.

Via @paregorios, Forty two sites are being considered for UNESCO’s World Heritage List in June. Some notable candidates are Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe (Sudan), Yapese Stone Money Sites in Palau and Yap, which would be Micronesia’s first listing and the Coffee Cultural Landscape (Colombia).

Paris for Perverts by Tony Perottet looks at the brothels of La Belle Époque from the late 19th century to the Great War as heritage site. Historical titillation, or a chance to give a voice to a profession that is usually ignored by polite society? (h/t @astrojenny)

CNN has an interview with Sada Mire, who’s examining the rock art of Somaliland. (h/t @JenniferLockett)

Undergraduates who are probably from the University of York (UK – not York University CA), have been doing a grand job at Harewood House near Leeds. The dig has relevance beyond West Yorkshire, as the fortunes of the Lascelles who built the house were based on sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

Alan Baumler reviews Francis Fukuyama’s new book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution at Frog in a Well China.

[A]ll in all I would say the book was not worth the money, despite all the promises of China discussions in the Table of Contents. Reading this book will not help you understand China better. I’m pretty sure it will not help you understand Europe better. If you are looking for something that can explain everything in general but nothing in specific, this may be the book for you.

Ouch! If you have a cruel streak you’ll be amused reading the whole thing.

Intelligent Life has a lengthy popular article on the overlooked artistic and archaeological treasures of Kimberley, Australia. Europeans convinced that there is little of interest in Australia should pay careful attention to the dates. The depth of culture is extraordinary. (h/t @astrojenny)

View Kimberley in a larger map

Can archaeology make a small contribution to Big History?

Via @williamjturkel comes news of the International Big History Association which is planning to hold its first conference in 2012 in Grand Valley, Michigan. Big History is a new term to me, though clearly it’s been around a while (PDF). The IBHA site defines it as “the attempt to understand, in a unified, interdisciplinary way, the history of Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity”. This puzzles me. Humans occupy a fleeting small portion of the Cosmos’s past, so how do you pull this all together. David Christian made a presentation at TED.

Sadly my first reaction is that Big History takes a complex and majestic story and abridges it to the point of triviality. My first reaction to Smail’s Deep History wasn’t complimentary either. It’s not that there’s nothing to talk about but rather that combining the story of human action in the past with the biological foundation of human physiology is not new to archaeologists, particularly to Palaeolithic archaeologists. What won me over to Smail’s way of thinking is partly the reminder that Historians are not Archaeologists, and that this is novel to historians, and also Smail’s book On Deep History and the Brain. While cognitive science and neuroscience have an input in Palaeolithic archaeology, this influence seems to diminish as we get closer to an archaeology of the modern-day. There are some exceptions. Lambros Malafouris is exploring the possibility of a Neuroarchaeology of the Bronze Age. I’ve had a go at combining Extelligence and TXM to the classical period, but not with any success that I’d want to publish yet. I’d be delighted to see other examples in the comments, but I think the development of cognition is seen as an evolutionary problem in the palaeolithic more often than it’s seen as a continual learning problem in humans of all periods. It’s possible that Big History could provide a framework to pull similar work into more recent periods.
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