28 March 2010

New dating method

No I'm not talking about Match.com, I'm talking about a new dating method for archaeological artifacts announced last week. Scientists at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society announced "non-destructive carbon dating" an entire artifact--not just a small sample as is currently employed--is placed in a special chamber with a plasma, an electrically charged gas similar to gases used in big-screen plasma television displays. The gas slowly and gently oxidizes the surface of the object to produce carbon dioxide for C-14 analysis without damaging the surface.

The chamber could be sized to accommodate large objects, such as works of art and even the Shroud of Turin. Obviously this new technique is still being refined and further testing will give curators and museum cnservators the confidence to have their most precious objects analyzed in this way.

The scientists working on this new technique hope to analyze objects such as a small ivory figurine called the "Venus of Brassempouy," (pictured here) thought to be about 25,000 years old and one of the earliest known depictions of a human face. The figurine is small enough to fit into the chamber used for analysis.

See the full news brief here.

23 March 2010

Queen of Sheba

For anyone in the Los Angeles area:

UCLA event explores quest for historic Queen of Sheba on April 3
By Meg Sullivan

If she actually existed, the Queen of Sheba may have been African. Then again, she could have been Arab. While she may have been from Yemen, near today's city of Ma'rib, she probably was also active in Ethiopia, near the modern city of Aksum. 

But so far, archaeologists have not found a tomb, palace or temple that can be definitively attributed to the prominent figure from the Hebrew Bible and the Quran.

"We know there was an empire that spanned about 1,000 years and had many queens and kings," said Michael Harrower, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. "But we don't have archaeological evidence for a specific queen that we can say was Sheba. In fact, the biblical character may be a compilation or summary of history of the time."

But if archaeology so far has not uncovered the historic Sheba, it has made considerable headway in understanding the 3,000-year-old empire that archaeologists call the Kingdom of Saba — the Arabic name for "Sheba" — whose location and era are consistent with biblical accounts of the queen.

On Saturday, April 3, the Cotsen Institute will present a talk at which Harrower and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory principal scientist Ronald Blom will discuss these findings. The free event, which is open to the public, begins at 2 p.m. in the Lenart Auditorium of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, on the Westwood campus. Parking is available in Lot 4 for $10.

Showcasing the latest advancements in satellite imagery and computer mapping, "The Ancient Universe of the Queen of Sheba" will explore a 200,000-square-mile-area, stretching east from Ethiopia across the Red Sea into Yemen and Oman on the southern Arabian Peninsula. Topics will include the Kingdom of Saba's impressive irrigation system, its coveted reserves of frankincense and its long-distance trade routes to the Mediterranean.

"If the Queen of Sheba really did exist, frankincense would have undoubtedly been among the generous gifts that she brought in the biblical account to King Solomon in ancient Israel," Harrower said.

Recent computer modeling has allowed researchers to map the watershed that fed the Ma'rib Dam, one of the greatest of antiquity and the lifeblood of the area's food supply during the era, Harrower said. It also has allowed researchers to deduce likely trade routes based on topographical information showing the easiest and most efficient routes through rugged mountainous terrain, arid wadis (washes) and vast, sandy deserts.

A specialist on the Horn of Africa and southern Arabia, Harrower has co-directed field expeditions to Ethiopia, Yemen and Oman. Blom is renowned for his analysis of imagery from the Space Shuttle Challenger that led to the discovery of the ancient lost city of Ubar in 1992. An outpost for camel caravans transporting frankincense across the Arabian desert, Ubar was on the margins of ancient kingdoms that competed with Saba for control of precious frankincense.

18 March 2010

Dogs originate in ancient Near East

From the New York Times:
"Borrowing methods developed to study the genetics of human disease, researchers have concluded that dogs were probably first domesticated from wolves somewhere in the Middle East, in contrast to an earlier survey suggesting dogs originated in East Asia.

This finding puts the first known domestication — that of dogs — in the same place as the domestication of plants and other animals, and strengthens the link between the first animal to enter human society and the subsequent invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.

A Middle Eastern origin for the dog also fits in better with the archaeological evidence, and has enabled geneticists to reconstruct the entire history of the dog, from the first association between wolves and hunter gatherers some 20,000 years ago to the creation by Victorian dog fanciers of many of today’s breeds.

A research team led by Bridgett M. vonHoldt and Robert K. Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, has analyzed a large collection of wolf and dog genomes from around the world. Scanning for similar runs of DNA, the researchers found that the Middle East was where wolf and dog genomes were most similar, although there was another area of overlap between East Asian wolves and dogs. Wolves were probably first domesticated in the Middle East, but after dogs had spread to East Asia there was a crossbreeding that injected more wolf genes into the dog genome, the researchers conclude in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature."

Read the rest of the story here

New site report resource

This just in: a new website managed by Dr. Elizabeth Stone over at SUNY Stony Brook is helping to bring over 500 Mesopotamian archaeological site reports both to Iraqi scholars, who might not otherwise have access to these resources, and to scholars at large. The website description reads in part:

"The Archive of Mesopotamian Archaeological Reports (AMAR) collection is under development as part of the Iraq Cultural Heritage Program Grant, funded by International Relief and Development (IRD) in cooperation with the Cultural Affairs Office, US Embassy Baghdad, and the Cultural Heritage Center, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Department of State.

The aim of the AMAR project is to digitize 500 archaeological site reports describing archaeological excavations both in Iraq and in the immediately surrounding areas (Turkey, Syria, Iran and the Gulf). This will include both out-of-copyright as well as in-copyright and in-print materials. This online collection is intended to provide basic sources of information to our colleagues in Iraq, and also other archaeologists working in the Middle East. October 2010 is the projected completion date."

The archive is divided in to two parts: pre-1900 publications and post-1900 works. The 'pre-1900' is especially exciting since these sources are, not surprisingly, hard to come by. Plus, digitizing them also helps preserve the works for long after the physical copies have deteriorated.

14 March 2010

Haute museums

The following article in the New York Times travel section by Seth Sherwood brings to mind a question always on the minds of anyone in the museum community, especially in this economy: how can we get more visitors?

This question, of course, has as many answers as there are frazzled curators out there. Some focus on outreach and education, especially to local schools and local community groups. Some favor the blockbuster, money-making shows that attract large crowds and equally large revenue. Others still focus on attracting affluent clientèle not through what the museum has in its collection or on display, but through the building the museum is housed in or, in this case, the restaurant there to serve museum visitors.

But are visitors actually coming for the visual culture or museum artifacts, to learn about ancient societies or the latest trends in contemporary art? Or are they simply there to eat at the latest hot spot and "be seen," literally, as "art objects?" This article favors the latter and frankly it makes me depressed for the future of museums.

Where Art and Haute Cuisine Meet in Paris

The rectangular white box beckoned from the exhibition room, mysterious and inscrutable. As winter clouds rolled across the Parisian sky, I watched as visitors to the Palais de Tokyo contemporary-art museum paused before the work — “Untitled (A Curse),” by the American conceptual artist Tom Friedman — and puzzled over its significance. Were we staring at something groundbreaking or derivative? Would this provocative creation be remembered as genius or bunk?

Later, on the museum’s roof, similar questions filled my mind as a guide ushered me and 11 others into another much-hyped rectangular construction with avant-garde ambitions: the Nomiya restaurant. Designed by Laurent Grasso — a winner of France’s prestigious Marcel Duchamp Prize — the minimalist glass box is a temporary installation, and like an exhibition, it has a corporate sponsor (Electrolux) and a limited run, ending in December. Floating over the skyline, the translucent structure certainly dazzled the eye. But would this grand intersection of art and gastronomy turn out to be sublime or a sham?

For years, Paris museums have mostly offered charmless dining rooms and cafeterias serving uninspired food, at odds with their institutions’ cutting-edge agendas and masterpiece-filled exhibition halls. But in the last few years there has been a notable shift. From bold experiments to understated havens of cool, a clutch of new restaurants has sprung up in museums and other cultural institutions all over the city.

Brand-name cooks have been courted by hot spots like Nomiya and Mini Palais, in the venerable Grand Palais, where an expanded and remodeled restaurant is expected to reopen this summer with the Michelin-starred chef Eric Fréchon overseeing the menu.

Celebrity architects have further raised the bar at restaurants like the glassy, postmodern Les Ombres in the Musée du Quai Branly (the restaurant, like the museum, was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel), and the belle époque dining room at the Musée d’Orsay, which was given a few modern touches by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, a museum specialist. And nearly the whole fledgling crop is pairing ambitious dishes and décor with panoramic views.

Read the rest of the story...

Akhenaten going come

Mummy of Egypt's monotheist pharaoh to return home

CAIRO (AP) - The DNA tests that revealed how the famed boy-king Tutankhamun most likely died solved another of ancient Egypt's enduring mysteries - the fate of controversial Pharaoh Akhenaten's mummy. The discovery could help fill out the picture of a fascinating era more than 3,300 years ago when Akhenaten embarked on history's first attempt at monotheism.

During his 17-year rule, Akhenaten sought to overturn more than a millennium of Egyptian religion and art to establish the worship of a single sun god. In the end, his bold experiment failed and he was eventually succeeded by his son, the young Tutankhamun, who rolled back his reforms and restored the old religion.

No one ever knew what became of the heretic pharaoh, whose tomb in the capital he built at Amarna was unfinished and whose name was stricken from the official list of kings.

Two years of DNA testing and CAT scans on 16 royal mummies conducted by Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, however, gave the firmest evidence to date that an unidentified mummy - known as KV55, after the number of the tomb where it was found in 1907 in Egypt's Valley of the Kings - is Akhenaten's.

The testing, whose results were announced last month, established that KV55 was the father of King Tut and the son of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III, a lineage that matches Akhenaten's, according to inscriptions.

KV55 had long been assumed to be too young to be Akhenaten, who was estimated to be in his 40s at the time of his death - but the testing also established the mummy's correct age, matching the estimates for Akhenaten.

"In the end there was just one solution for this genetic data fitting into the family tree and this showed us this must really be Akhenaten and could not be any other," said Albert Zink, director of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy in Bolzano, Italy, who worked on the project.

Now experts are planning more tests to uncover further details about Akhenaten's royal family. The new attention could also give a push to a planned new Akhenaten museum that will showcase his mummy near Amarna, his capital midway down the Nile in what is now the province of Minya, 135 miles (220 kilometers) south of Cairo.

Read the rest here

10 March 2010

Lost in translation

This book review in the Jerusalem Post by Jerome E. Copulsky brings up a number of goods points about translations, translators, and the Hebrew bible. Copulsky reviews Joel M. Hoffman’s new book, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, where Hoffman touches upon the more egregious errors of the King James Version and also takes to task modern English translations for being "shaped by theological or ideological prejudices" and failing "to capture the nuances of the original Hebrew text."

Certainly the notion of essential meaning being "lost in translation" is applicable here and Copulsky brings up a good point about the wisdom behind the Koran not (traditionally) being translated into other languages but remaining in the original Arabic. Hoffman goes even further though, arguing that it is possible "to recover the original meaning of the Bible" through a context-based analysis. However his type of analysis seems to be purely linguistic without consideration for what archaeologists, historians, or religious scholars can bring to the table.

I agree with the reviewer that this, and the idea that we can be objective readers approaching the 'original' text, are major shortcomings. As Copulsky rightly points out:
The very act of reading is already interpretative; there is no recovery of meaning that is innocent of an act of interpretation. It is not surprising, then, that Hoffman’s analyses of these biblical texts result in a kind of modern midrash; the original meaning he uncovers is sometimes surprisingly, perhaps comfortingly, contemporary (the Song of Songs is about the equality of lovers in a romantic relationship), or oddly banal (Isaiah 7:14 is not prophesying a virgin birth but proposing that “life itself can be miraculous,” an analysis divorced completely from the historical and political context of that chapter, the Near East during the eighth century BCE).[Emphasis mine]
I am a collaborative scholar by nature, so I like to see both the language/text experts and dirt archaeologists work together to arrive at a more holistic picture of ancient societies. Alas not all feel this way and many a time I have come across scholars like Hoffman who do not consider the archaeological and/or historical evidence that, in the end, would have only enriched their research.

A case in point comes from my own experience in studying biblical Hebrew. I remember we were translating Joshua, chapter 2 where Joshua's two spies are hidden in the house of the harlot. The original Hebrew says she "lived inside the city wall," which sounded strange to all the linguists but made total sense to me. "It was probably a casemate wall," I said to the class and proceeded to draw a lovely picture on the chalkboard of a city fortification composed of two concentric walls with rooms or voids in between them. Most of the time these void spaces were filled with rocks or other debris to help strengthen the wall, but as urbanization and urban crowding happens, at many sites you can find ancient houses butted up against the inner wall and sometimes spilling in to the fortification itself. The point is, without this archaeological knowledge, the phrase "she lived inside the city wall" makes no real sense.   

08 March 2010

Ancient insects

Amongst all the other news--like croc mummiesSyria's Stonehenge, and more DNA debate about the KV55 mummy [Akhenaten or not?]--this little notice floated to the top of the pile. Dad, you will especially like this one, for obvious reasons.

From the Ikram and Dodson edited volume "Beyond the Horizon: Studies in Egyptian Art, Archaeology and History in Honour of Barry J. Kemp" (Cairo, 2009):

Environment, Insects and the Archaeology Of Egypt

Eva Panagiotakopulu (University of Edinburgh)
Paul Buckland (University of Bristol)

Egypt lies in the overlap zone between two biogeographic realms, the Ethiopian (Afro-Tropical), which also includes the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, and the Palaearctic, represented by the warm temperate zone of the Mediterranean. Apparent in its now much depleted vertebrate fauna (cf. Manlius 2000; Manlius and Gautier 1999) and in its flora, where Mediterranean elements extend down into Middle Egypt (Zahran and Willis 1992), the overlap is also evident in its less well-studied insect faunas. Intuitively the Nile provides a natural pathway for African elements to reach the Mediterranean and this would have been more so during the early Holocene when stronger monsoonal circulation made much of the present desert savannah (e.g. Haynes et al. 1989). Yet there are surprisingly few southern species in Egypt’s invertebrate fauna, which is overwhelmingly circum-Mediterranean in its affinities. Egypt has approximately 2,700 recorded species of beetle (Coleoptera). Using the ground beetles, Carabidae, as an example, of the ~200 species recorded from Egypt, >95% are also found in Europe and the Near East, and a similar calculation for the water beetle families Dytiscidae and Haliplidae shows ~42 species of which 64% also occur in Europe. The scale of this overlap declines as distance from the  Mediterranean coast increases, but Upper Egypt still shows affinities with the Palaearctic as well as the Ethiopian Realm. Two major factors influence this pattern. One is the complex history of the Nile and its floodplain, with periods during the Quaternary when its flow appears to have failed completely (Said 1993; Butzer 1998). The other is the scale of destruction and redistribution of biota by human activity.

Click here for the rest (in pdf format)...

05 March 2010

Early horse castration

For all my horse loving friends and family out there, this short article from Horse Talk, New Zealand. Uhh, not an 'academic source' per se, but it will do:

Research points to early horse castration
March 2, 2010

Most of the horses in the terracotta army in a Chinese emperor's tomb had no testicles, pointing to the possibility of equine castration some 2000 years ago.

Yuan Jing, an archaeologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, studied the more than 600 terracotta horses within the tomb of Qinshihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, who ruled from 221 BC to 207 BC.

He noted that all the 520 horses that pulled chariots had penises but no testicles. However, some of the 116 cavalry horses were found to have testicles. Yuan said his findings gave some indication of how horses may have been handled by humans.

The tomb, located on the outskits of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi province, was unearthed in 1974 by peasants digging for water. Today, it is listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO and is a major tourist attraction. Researchers believe the terracotta army, which includes archers and infantrymen, was to help Qinshihuang rule in the afterlife.

There is evidence of pig castration dating back 3000 years, with descriptions of the practice written on shells. However, researchers have yet to unearth actual evidence of horse castration on ancient horse skeletons.**

**I'm no horse expert, but I think that the act of castration would not leave a mark on any bones that could then be analyzed by archaeologists. Am I right?

(Image from Tokyo National Museum exhibition, via Alexandria Archive)

01 March 2010

News blow-out

-Zimbabwe displays 'Ark of the Covenant' replica, based on the real ark that has been hidden away by the Lemba people. See my previous post.

-Items from the collection of the Palestine Exploration Fund are now online for your browsing pleasure. Pictured here: "The Gate of Huldah the Prophetess, Jerusalem" by W. Simpson, 1870. (Watercolor, pencil on paper).

-U.S. return 'cultural treasures' to Iraq including Neo-Assyrian gold earrings (7-8th centuries BCE), a Roman coin (circa 250 CE), and, get this, an AK-47 with a picture of Saddam on it. Uhh not what I would classify as a 'cultural treasure.'

-More sensational journalism from National Geographic: King Solomon's wall found--proof of Bible tale? See earlier story here in Science Daily.

-Amidst the turmoil, the Gulf Times is reporting the Iraqi General Authority for Monuments and Museums is working on a master plan for restoring Babylon and the Iraqi Museum. Sounds similar to what is hoped for at Ur. A 'master plan' is certainly needed since every group, both foreign and domestic, has their opinions about how to go about getting the museum functioning again and restoring damaged archaeological sites, but this means no one can agree on anything (hence nothing moving forward since 2003).

-For the first time in a looooooooong time there are some aerial photos from Warka (ancient Uruk) in the desert of southern Iraq. The image here is not a big mountain of sand, but actually the remains of the ziggurat that completely dominated the cityscape. Uruk is one of the earliest-founded cities in the world going back to 3,000 BCE!

-BBC News reports on new research being done by the University of California, Los Angeles that small dogs may have evolved from the Middle Eastern grey wolf. I will never look at chihuahuas the same again.

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