A perspicuous reader finds affinities between Archaeology Odyssey magazine and a Victoria’s Secret catalogue
Sell the Dump
Most people are not aware that shards (broken pottery pieces)—once registered in logs, photographed or drawn in notebooks—are usually put into a discard pile (dump) at excavations. How much better to label these pieces and sell them to tourists, collectors, museums and universities to help fund the digs. Locals could be employed, thereby giving them work and perhaps a sense of pride in their nation’s past—and making them less likely to loot.
California State University
Much of Professor Colin Renfrew’s most recent letter in the Looting Forum (sidebar to The Forum, AO 06:02) is convincing, but there are certain troubling loose ends.
Although Professor Renfrew mentions the need for “careful excavation and full publication” of every site, he doesn’t go far enough. Many carefully provenanced collections lie unstudied in basements of universities and museums, sometimes for decades. This reminds me of a former geologist colleague who would never submit his geologic mapping for peer review or publication. He said he wanted to wait until the Quaternary Period had ended, so that his mapping of Quaternary alluvium would be complete. In reality, he had simply lost interest in the project. For archaeology the stakes are higher, since the act of excavation is also an act of destruction. Are archaeologists who fail to publish their sites any better than looters?
Professor Renfrew appears to equate in-situ provenance with interpretation. This is often, but not always, the case. We know much about the Dead Sea Scrolls, even though many of them were bought on the market and remain unprovenanced. On the other hand, well-provenanced pieces are not always well understood, even after decades of study.
Moreover, it is disingenuous to pretend that all archaeological sites can be completely excavated by archaeologists. This ignores reality, a reality in which humans will investigate anything in their neighborhood that arouses curiosity. One cannot legislate against curiosity.
Damning looters and collectors is far less productive than working with them. What Professor Renfrew appears to suggest is that archaeology, rather than being part of every person’s patrimony, should remain a preserve of academics. This just will not work.
Try Market Solutions!
You have three excellent specimens in the
Even Renfrew would have to admit that the current tactics are producing lousy results. Laws severely prohibiting the sale of antiquities have not stopped illegal excavations, but they have forced the market underground. In other words, laws have done little to protect our heritage, but they have done much to keep it hidden from us.
If archaeological sites were privately owned, would not the owners take pains to preserve their assets? Would they not protect their sites from looters? Would they not make sure that every object was provenanced and documented, thus greatly increasing its value?
What About the Bends?
In “Heavens! An Ancient Model of the Cosmos” (Ancient Life, AO 06:02), you say that to excavate the Antikythera shipwreck off the island of Crete divers plunged to depths of 200 feet without scuba gear or air tanks. How could they do so without suffering from the bends? I’m holding my breath for a reply.
Dan L. Davis, a research associate with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, replies:
In the decades before the invention of the aqualung in the 1940s by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan, Mediterranean sponge divers used metal helmets for underwater work. These heavy helmets, usually mated with a drysuit covering the entire body, were fed with air from a pump on the surface via a rubber hose. In order to manage this large bubble of air surrounding the body, divers were heavily weighted and often worked upright, riding in stages up and down and walking to work rather than swimming. Although round copper helmets are now the stuff of diving nostalgia, metal helmets and drysuits are still used today for some underwater work.
In the early 1900s, when the Antikythera wreck was partially salvaged by divers, dive tables regarding decompression were rudimentary and not strictly followed. According to most reports, the depth of the wreck ranged between 130 and 160 feet (not 200 feet, as reported in Archaeology Odyssey). These depths are problematic for air diving. Air contains about 21 percent oxygen and 79 percent nitrogen. Nitrogen dissolves into human tissue as depth (and therefore pressure) increases. When the diver begins to ascend (and pressure decreases), the nitrogen begins to come out of solution. If the ascent is not slow and controlled, the nitrogen may come out of solution too quickly in the form of bubbles. As these bubbles grow and travel throughout the body’s tissue, they lodge in joints (elbows, knees, shoulders) where they can cause intense pain, a natural response to which is to bend over—what we loosely call “the bends.” Worse, these bubbles may pinch and damage nerves and may even affect the body’s central nervous system. Permanent disability and even death can result.
The Greek sponge divers had a basic understanding of these physical laws and took measures to minimize the risk. They restricted their bottom time to nine minutes: four for the descent and five for recovery work on the bottom. By the standards of today’s U.S. Navy dive tables, the shallowest portion of the wreck lies at the edge of safe diving. However, working at these depths day after day, month after month, took its toll on the divers. They did suffer from decompression illnesses. Of the ten divers who began the project, two became permanently disabled.
I was enjoying Francine Prose’s “Ferocious Elegance,” AO 06:02, until I read the following: “What are we supposed to make of the fact that this portrayal of the plunder of Africa [the capture of animals in Africa, as depicted in a mosaic] was most likely done by artists who had themselves been imported from Africa to decorate the mansion of the Emperor Maximian?” The author then states that the presence of African prostitutes in Sicily suggests that we moderns are guilty of upholding the ancient tradition of the “exploitation of Africa for the enjoyment and entertainment of Europe.”
I understand that there are people who drone on about the apparent inequities of the past and the present. But must we drag that mess into the happily clean world of archaeology? Archaeology Odyssey suffered an endless barrage of messages about the pornographic content of an Egyptian papyrus featured in a past issue (David O’Connor, “Eros in Egypt,” AO 04:05). You did not countenance moralizing in regards to artifacts then, and I don’t believe that you should now.
Recently, while my wife was looking at a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, I was perusing the March/April 2003 Archaeology Odyssey. The pictures of bikini-clad women from the fourth century A.D. (Francine Prose, “Ferocious Elegance,” AO 06:02) and the 21st century A.D. were oddly similar.
Death Mask Debate
Denise Schmandt-Besserat suggests that Neolithic skulls from the Levant and Anatolia were decapitated, their jaws severed, and their teeth pulled out (“Stone Age Death Masks,” AO 06:02). Then a plaster chin was supposedly modeled on the upper jaw. The author further connects the practice of Neolithic skull collection and decoration with the 008violent decapitation of enemies in Mesopotamia.
In my research on these plastered skulls, I have found no evidence of violent decapitation, of the severing of mandibles or of intentional postmortem dental evulsion. Nor were plastered chins generally modeled on the upper jaw. Rather, the bodies were allowed to decompose naturally before the skulls were carefully removed from the skeleton. What were formerly interpreted as cuts are marks made by Neolithic sanding of the skulls, either to roughen the skull so that the plaster could adhere or to remove plaster already in place.1 CAT scans and photographs of the skulls have demonstrated that the teeth were not all removed.2 Plaster modeling was used to create a chin beneath the upper jaw and teeth. In a number of instances, the plaster was modeled on the actual lower jaw.
The author also claims that the plastered skulls from Jericho were thrown into a ditch. According to Kathleen Kenyon, however, the large cache of Jericho skulls came from an abandoned house, not a ditch.3
Denise Schmandt-Besserat replies:
A photograph in “Stone Age Death Masks,” AO 06:02, shows a headless skeleton at Ain Ghazal with the lower jaw severed from the skull. One skull from Ain Ghazal (number 88–1) has a small fragment of the mandible still attached to the jaw, clearly attesting that force was involved in the process of removing the head. In both instances, the skeletal remains suggest both decapitation and the severing of the mandible.
Also, the teeth alveoli (sockets) of the maxilla (upper jawbone) in the Ain Ghazal skull 88–1 show no trace of healing. This indicates that the upper dentition was removed post- mortem before plastering.
The chin of the Jericho skull shown in “Stone Age Death Masks”, AO 06:02, was clearly reconstructed over the upper jaw. Conservator Carol Grissom of the Smithsonian Institution, who restored three of the Ain Ghazal plastered skulls, has published an excellent illustration of skull plastering, including the reconstruction of the chin (see “Three Plaster Faces,” an online article  by Patricia S. Griffin, Carol A. Grissom and Gary O. Rollefson, http://menic.utexas.edu/menic/ghazal/).
That the large cache of Jericho skulls was discarded as rubbish is stated on page 78 of the 1981 final report of the excavation, Kathleen Kenyon’s Excavations at Jericho.
My article in Archaeology Odyssey is a popular version of a scientific paper entitled “From behind the mask: Plastered skulls from ‘Ain Ghazal,” Origini 24 (2002), pages 95–140. Interested readers can consult this paper for a more complete treatment of the plastered skulls and a full bibliography.
Farms or Fertility Symbols?
In “Villages of Stone,” AO 06:02, Robert Tykot argues that the Sardinian nuraghi (round stone towers) were fortified farmsteads.
One problem with this interpretation has to do with the proliferation of these structures on Sardinia, with some 7,000 towers discovered so far. How did such a small island create such a productive economy within such a lawless environment? Another problem is the suitability of a solitary tower as an economically viable defensive structure for a farmstead, whereas the standard model worldwide is a fortified open space in which equipment, farm animals and the entire household can all be protected.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Mr. Tykot’s interpretation is that there are many similar ancient tower structures around the world—the Balearic Islands, Ireland, Scotland, the Arabian Peninsula (Saba) and the Hindu Kush, for example—and no one describes these other structures as simply defensive homesteads.
What is common to all these tower structures, I believe, is their religious symbolism. They are probably associated with fertility rites that once were practiced throughout the Near East and Europe.
All around Europe—from Ireland and England to Mycenaean Greece and perhaps Malta—early societies built underground chambers with passages arranged to accept the dawn rays of a solstice or equinox. These underground chambers were not tombs; they were ritual sites representing the womb of Mother Earth fertilized by the sun. In this way, they ensured the continuity of the land. In later cults, the divine fertilizing agent came to be symbolized by the phallic tower, the complement of the underground chamber that symbolized Mother Earth. This is why we find so many round-tower structures in so many places around the globe.
In many areas, the two types of monument stand almost side by side. In Ireland, underground chambers and towers are scattered across the 058land. In Egypt, too, towers and temples are often clumped together. The connection between Egyptian obelisks and the phallus of the creator-god Atum is obvious, and the innermost sanctuaries deep within many Egyptian temples—invariably aligned with either sunrise or sunset—are similar to the Mother Earth symbolism in the north.
Robert H. Tykot replies:
Estimates indicate that a nuraghe (about 3000 stone blocks) could have been built by ten men from neighboring farmsteads contributing two to three months of labor per year for five years. This model, analogous to community construction by the Amish, does not require a particularly hierarchical social structure or a productive economy.
Indeed, metal production prior to about 1300 B.C. appears to have been quite low, and the collective giants’-tomb burials suggest that individuals were not wealthy. The nuraghi, along 059with the Corsican torri, Balearic talayots and Scottish brochs, may appear to have been irrational architectural solutions to a social problem, the problem of lawlessness, but a nuraghe would have provided protection against outside threats in the same way that a brick house keeps the third Little Pig safe from the Big Bad Wolf. In Sardinia, they were effective for the better part of a millennium.
There is little, if any, evidence to support Ralph Ellis’s interpretation that the Sardinian nuraghi were phallic fertility symbols. In fact, many early nuraghi were not round towers but low stone platforms with interior corridors. Nor is there any standard orientation to the nuraghi’s entryways; although the majority do face somewhere between east and south, there are many exceptions. Moreover, excavated nuraghi show abundant signs of domestic activity—hearths, cloth-making tools, grindstones—strongly suggesting that they were residences.
Should Archaeology Odyssey expand beyond the Mediterranean region and Near East? That question was posed in Editors’ Page: Looting by Bulldozer, AO 06:02. A sampling of your responses shows that you have strong but diverse opinions:
“Please, Please Don’t Change!”
Archaeology Odyssey is perfect. You have gone far enough “to the east and to north Africa.”
Please, please, please don’t change what you are doing. In six years you have only begun to scratch the surface of the ancient world surrounding the Mediterranean.
What I like most about Archaeology Odyssey is its focus on classical archaeology, history and culture. I would not like to see it depart from its original course—remember, Odysseus didn’t care much for such departures either!
The Mediterranean region should supply a lifetime or two of vital information for any scholar. Leave Mesoamerica for someone else.
If you want to start covering the Buddhist temples at Angkor Wat, you need to start a fourth magazine. Why not? I’d subscribe to it also.
The area surrounding the Mediterranean is the cradle of Western civilization, about which I never tire of reading. I think you have a real winner, so please don’t tamper with it. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“Show How China Influenced Rome”
Continue to focus on the Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent, though you might foray into parts of India or China—or any other areas that had contacts with the peoples you cover.
My interest is exclusively “Spain to Persia.” The exception would be those occasions when the Spain-to-Persia peoples ventured abroad: for example, Alexander’s reaching the Indus, trade along the Silk Road, or the Romans in England.
Archaeology Odyssey is outstanding for two things above all: its focus on the geographical areas with which Greece and Rome had contact (including Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Persia and points farther east), and its superb designs and photographs.
Unless a civilization came in contact with Western civilization, I would prefer to stick with the Mediterranean area. The review of Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China (Reviews, AO 06:03) was interesting because it showed how China was influenced by Rome. In turn, knowing how Rome was influenced by China would be interesting.
Reach out to Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan) but not to East Asia (Cambodia, China). Why not start another magazine just for Mesoamerican archaeology?
I have no problem with Central Asia and the Indus Valley, which were part of the greater ancient world, but Cambodia, Polynesia and the Iroquois nations are not what I buy this magazine for.
“Encompass the World!”
Yes, Archaeology Odyssey should cover stories across the planet. Your approach to the material is refreshing. Even if it takes ten years, I would like to see Odyssey wander around the globe.
It would be interesting to read about parts of the ancient world you don’t cover—not the archives of Tammany Hall or the secrets of Al Capone’s hideaways, but the early settlers of Austria’s Hallstatt region, for example. I would like you to cover everything up to, say, the beginning of the Renaissance.
Expansion is a great idea. An odyssey is a journey of self-discovery and should encompass the world and all its wisdom.
YES! YES! YES! There is more to our world history than just what happened in the “classical civilizations.”
Go for it! I would like to read about the ancient Mayans, Chinese, Indians (of India), Uzbeks, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Incans, Aztecs, and on and on. You must go beyond the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
My answer is an emphatic Yes! I would love to know more about the Maya and the Mississippians. A more global approach would be great.
We love your magazine. We think you should take it as far afield as you can go and still keep it as interesting as it is.
Sell the Dump