Inner Eurasia

Details of the history of inner Eurasia revealed by new study

Details of the history of inner Eurasia revealed by new study

Researchers combining genetics, archaeology, history and linguistics have gained new insights into the history of inner Eurasia, once a cultural and genetic crossroads connecting Europe and Asia

Inner Eurasia
Children from one of the Tajikistan communities included in the study. Credit: Elena Balanovska

An international team of researchers has combined archaeological, historical and linguistic data with genetic information from over 700 newly analyzed individuals to construct a more detailed picture of the history of inner Eurasia than ever before available. In a study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, they found that the indigenous populations of inner Eurasia are very diverse in their genes, culture and languages, but divide into three groups that stretch across the area in east-west geographic bands.

Inner Eurasia, including areas of modern-day Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, was once the cross-roads connecting Asia and Europe, and a major intersection for the exchange of culture, trade goods and genes in prehistory and historical periods, including the era of the famous Silk Road.

This vast area can also be divided into several distinct ecological regions that stretch in largely east-west bands across Inner Eurasia, consisting of the deserts at the southern edge of the region, the steppe in the central part, taiga forests further north, and tundra towards the Arctic region. The subsistence strategies used by indigenous groups in these regions largely correlate with the ecological zones, for example reindeer herding and hunting in the tundra region and nomadic pastoralism on the steppe.

Despite the long and important history of inner Eurasia, details about past migrations and interactions between groups are not always clear, especially in prehistory. "Inner Eurasia is a perfect place to investigate the relationship between environmental conditions and the pattern of human migration and mixture, as well as changes driven by cultural innovations such as the introduction of dairy pastoralism into the steppe," states Choongwon Jeong of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, co-first and senior author of the paper. In order to clarify our understanding of some of the nuances of the history of the region, an international team of researchers undertook an ambitious project to use modern and ancient DNA from a broad geographic range and time period, in concert with archaeological, linguistic and historical information, to clarify the relationships between the different populations. "A few ethnic groups were studied previously," comments Oleg Balanovsky from the Vavilov Institute of General Genetics in Moscow, also co-first author, "but we conducted more than a hundred field trips to study this vast region systematically, and reached communities speaking almost all of the Inner Eurasian languages".

Three distinct east-west groupings

For this study, the researchers analyzed DNA from 763 individuals from across the region as well as reanalyzed the genome-wide data from two ancient individuals from the Botai culture, and compared those results with previously published data from modern and ancient individuals. They found three distinct genetic groupings, which geographically are arranged in east-west bands stretching across the region and correlating generally to ecological zones, where populations within each band share a distinct combination of ancestries in varying proportions.

The northernmost grouping, which they term "forest-tundra", includes Russians, all Uralic language-speakers, which includes Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian, and Yeniseian-language speakers, of which only one remains today and is spoken in central Siberia. The middle grouping, which they term "steppe-forest", includes Turkic- and Mongolic-speaking populations from the Volga and the region around the Altai and Sayan mountains, near to where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet. The southernmost grouping, "southern-steppe", includes the rest of Turkic- and Mongolic-speaking populations living further south, such as Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks, as well as Indo-European-speaking Tajiks.

Previously unknown genetic connections revealed

Because the study includes data from a broad time period, it is able to show shifts in ancestry in the past that reveal previously unknown interactions. For example, the researchers found that the southern-steppe populations had a larger genetic component from West and South Asia than the other two groupings. This component is also widespread in the ancient populations of the region since the second half of the first millennium BC, but not found in Central Kazakhstan in earlier periods. This hints at a population movement from the southern-steppe region to the steppe-forest region that was previously unknown.

"Inner Eurasia has functioned as a conduit for human migration and cultural transfer since the first appearance of modern humans in this region. As a result, we observe deep sharing of genes between Western and Eastern Eurasian populations in multiple layers," explains Jeong. "The opportunity to find direct evidence for the hidden old layers of admixture, which is often difficult to appreciate from present-day populations, is very exciting."

"We found not only corridors, but also barriers for migrations," adds Balanovsky. "Some of them separate the historical groups of populations, while others, like the distinct barrier following the Great Caucasus mountain ridge, were obviously shaped by the geographic landscape."

Geographic locations of the Eneolithic Botai, groups including newly sampled individuals, and nearby groups with published data. The map is overlayed with ecoregional information, divided into 14 biomes downloaded from https://ecoregions2017.appspot.com/ (credited to Ecoregions 2017 © Resolve). Credit: Jeong & Balanovsky et. al. 2019. The genetic history of admixture across inner Eurasia. Nature Ecology & Evolution, http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0878-2.

Two ancient individuals resequenced in this study originated from the Botai culture in Kazakhstan where the horse was initially domesticated. Analysis of the Y-chromosome (inherited along the paternal genealogical lines) revealed a genetic lineage which is typical in the Kazakh steppe up to the present day. But analysis of the autosomes, which both parents contribute to their children, show no trace of Botai ancestry left in present-day people, likely due to repeated migrations into the region both from the west and the east since the Bronze Age.

The researchers emphasize that their model of three groupings does not perfectly explain all known populations and that there are examples of both outliers and intermediate groups. "It is important to organize a future study for further sampling of sparsely populated regions between the clines, for example, Central Kazakhstan or East Siberia," states Johannes Krause, also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and senior author of the paper.

Researchers from the study conducting field work along the Amur River. Credit: Yuri Bogunov

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte


labor practices Middle East Allison Mickel Lehigh University

Better labor practices could improve archaeological output

Better labor practices could improve archaeological output

New analysis illuminates how much archaeological knowledge production has fundamentally relied upon site workers' active choices in responding to labor conditions

 

labor practices Middle East Allison Mickel Lehigh University
An excavation site in Petra, Jordan. Credit: Allison Mickel

Archaeological excavation has, historically, operated in a very hierarchical structure, according to archaeologist Allison Mickel. The history of the enterprise is deeply entangled with Western colonial and imperial pursuits, she says. Excavations have been, and often still are, according to Mickel, led by foreigners from the West, while dependent on the labor of scores of people from the local community to perform the manual labor of the dig.

In a recently published paper examining some of this history specifically in the context archaeological excavations undertaken in the Middle East? Mickel writes: "Even well into the 20th century, locally hired excavation workers continued to benefit little from working on archaeological projects, still predominantly directed by European and American researchers who paid extremely low wages and did not share their purpose, progress, hypotheses, or conclusions with local community members."

Over time, the teams have gotten smaller in size, but hiring and labor practices remain the same, explains Mickel, an assistant professor of anthropology at Lehigh University, who specializes in the Middle East.

"We haven't really changed the hierarchy of how we hire or the fact that workers are paid minimum wage--sometimes as little as a few dollars a day, which is not very much to spend even in their own context, for work that is dangerous and has a lot of risk to it," she says.

In a new paper, "Essential Excavation Experts: Alienation and Agency in the History of Archaeological Labor," published in Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress, Mickel illuminates the ways that nineteenth century archaeologists working in the Middle East managed local labor in ways that reflected capitalist labor management models. She focuses on two case studies from early Middle Eastern archaeology by examining the memoirs of two 19th century archaeologists: Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni, known for his work in Egypt, and British archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard, best known for his work in Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian city about 20 miles south of Mosul, Iraq.

Mickel's analysis reveals the different ways local laborers responded to similar conditions. Her examination ultimately reveals how much archaeological knowledge has fundamentally relied upon the active choices made by the local laborers who do the digging.

Divergent responses to exploitative labor practices

Mickel argues that the framework established by the German philosopher and economist Karl Marx of the capitalist mode of production can be seen in 19th century archaeological work in the Middle East and, in many ways, in archaeological projects today. This includes Marx's assertion that, she writes, "...the capitalist mode of production leads to workers experiencing a sense of powerlessness and an inability to fulfill the potential of their own skills, expertise, and abilities."

In Mickel's analysis, Belzoni's approach to securing and retaining local laborers for his work in Egypt, which began in 1816, exemplified the conditions of modes of production that lead to his workers' "...alienation in the Marxist sense," beginning with how little he paid them.

She writes: "Monetarily devaluing the archaeological work of native Egyptians in this way engenders an understanding that archaeological labor is quite literally of little worth--one that in Marx's view deeply impacts the self-image of the workers in a production process. Not only were the workers paid next to nothing for performing the manual labor of Belzoni's endeavors, they were also not involved in the conceptualization of the project. In the end, the antiquities were subsequently shipped thousands of miles away, challenging both ideologically and spatially any relationship between the workers and the archaeological objects being unearthed through excavation, as well as the knowledge gleaned from them."

Mickel also writes about Belzoni's use of strongarm tactics to maintain the workforce he employed. These include resorting to physical violence and bribery?strategies Belzoni used, in one example, on a foreman to force laborers to return to work during a strike.

During his famed excavation of the Memnon Head in 1816, Belzoni had to leave the site for an extended period of time in order to raise funds. He believed, writes Mickel, "...that the workers and their families were too lazy to dig on their own..."

"Indeed," she continues, "no substantial digging proceeded in Belzoni's absence by the time he returned. The reasons for this surely have nothing to with any indolence on the part of the native Egyptian workforce, but rather can be explained in terms of alienation."

In examining Layard's memoir, Mickel finds that although Layard worked in the same region and during the same time period as Belzoni, his workers' responded to similar working conditions very differently.

"Operating under extremely similar circumstances," writes Mickel, "the groups of workers examined here made very divergent decisions about how best to respond to an exploitative labor system, whether to rise up demonstratively against it or to resist the devaluation of their work by establishing themselves as essential to the production of artifacts and historical knowledge."

Layard's strategies for hiring and managing a local labor force had much in common with Belzoni's, including elements of capitalist labor relations modes such as low wages. Additionally, Layard's memoirs suggest "...that he viewed the total excavation endeavor as metaphorically signifying the superiority of Western civilization over Oriental peoples and cultures."

And yet Layard's workmen, explains Mickel, often appear in his writing as trusted experts in the excavation process: "These men developed impressive excavation abilities that Layard himself recognized, repeatedly hiring the same groups of people for season after season and site after site. One native Assyrian man whom he hired again and again, Hormuzd Rassam, ultimately went on to lead his own excavations on behalf of the British Museum at places like Nimrud and Nineveh; Rassam even published his own archaeological memoirs for popular distribution like Layard and other archaeologists of the time"

Mickel compares these two contexts and concludes: "Operating under extremely similar circumstances, the groups of workers examined here made very divergent decisions about how best to respond to an exploitative labor system, whether to rise up demonstratively against it or to resist the devaluation of their work by establishing themselves as essential to the production of artifacts and historical knowledge."

Focusing attention on the divergent decision these two groups of laborers made reveals how much is owed to archaeological workers' localized responses to a structure designed to maximize benefit to the archaeologists and minimize workers' control within the project, asserts Mickel.

She writes: "What would the archaeological record look like if this was not the case? How would archaeological knowledge be transformed if the means of its production were not controlled by archaeologists alone but shared with local stakeholders?"

Digging and questioning

As part of her work, Mickel supervises and participates in excavations in regions such as Petra, Jordan and Çatalhöyük, Turkey, while researching the history of archaeology and its contemporary practice.

Mickel has spent two to three months each summer in Turkey and Jordan, and between 2011 and 2015 spent a year at both sites, conducting dissertation fieldwork on a Fulbright grant.

"What I find in [Petra and Çatalhöyük] is relevant to a lot of other contexts because archaeology is fairly regional in its practice," she says.

Beyond digging, Mickel examines records of archaeological excavations for the individuals listed as site workers. She visits their homes and asks questions about the site workers' experiences on the excavations.

"I found that this system has led to one in which workers are doing this dance all the time in archaeology where they are integral to carrying out an excavation, they work for almost nothing, they are good at what they do, they have decades of experience in addition to generational knowledge that's been handed down. ... Most of these people, for context, their fathers worked in archaeology, their grandfathers worked in archaeology--it's almost like a family business for them to be there. So they have a ton of knowledge, but if I tell them how much I admire their expertise, they react really negatively to that label of expertise."

Mickel believes that an improvement of labor practices would benefit not just workers, but archaeology as a whole. She argues for ways in which the field could be producing better science if archaeologists were to change their labor practices.

"This isn't charity work," says Mickel. "If we want to have better archaeology, if we want to know more about the past, then we need to find ways to benefit from the knowledge that local people have been hiding for decades and decades and decades from us."

###

Read more about this story in Lehigh's newsroom: Allison Mickel Examines the Limiting Labor Practices of Modern Archaeological Excavations.

 

Press release from Lehigh University


Francavilla Marittima Calabria University of Basel Cultures in contact

An exhibition presents 10 years of Basel excavations in Francavilla Marittima

Cultures in Contact - An exhibition presents 10 years of Basel excavations in Francavilla Marittima

Francavilla Marittima Calabria University of Basel Cultures in contact
Foreign lifestyle and local tradition: The finds from a male tomb of Francavilla Marittima, Calabria, testify to the adoption of Greek drinking and eating habits by the Italian elites in the 8th century BC. The large clay pot was used for mixing wine and water, the bronze kettle (right) for cooking meat. The iron ax and the bronze fibulae identify the deceased as a member of the local upper class. Photo: © Victor Brigola, Stuttgart.

More than 30 ancient graves have been uncovered by archaeologists and students of the University of Basel as part of an educational excavation in southern Italy. The graves date from a time when the first Greeks and Orientals arrived in the region about 3000 years ago and document the cultural exchange with the local population. The results and methods of the research project will now be presented in an exhibition at the University Library of Basel, which opens on 12 April 2019.

Even in ancient times, the south of Italy was a hub for migration. The Iron Age settlement of Francavilla Marittima (ca. 800-700 BC) played a key role as a contact point between the local population and traders and colonists from Greece and the Near East.

Since 2009, the Basel project has been researching the burial site of this settlement and has uncovered 33 graves of women, men, and children to date. Grave goods such as vessels, figurines, jewelry, and weapons offer a wealth of information about the lifestyle of the local elite and their reaction to the arrival of colonists.

Productive cultural exchange

“Initially, we suspected strong differences between the locals and the colonists,” states the archaeologist Prof. Martin Guggisberg, who has been leading the excavation. “After 10 years of research, however, we see the relationship in a new light: not confrontation and opposition determined the picture, but dynamic processes of cultural transformation that led to the gradual establishment of a new, Greek order from around 700 BC onwards.

The research team discovered evidence for the intertwining of the traditional and the new in the tomb of a local ruler. Among his grave goods were different sorts of vessels and bowls that point to Greece and prove the adoption of new drinking and cultural practices. By contrast, his inhumation in fetal position underlines his adherence to the local tradition.

Iron swords buried in plaster coat

Since the swords were not well preserved, they had to be retrieved in a plaster coat. They were then x-rayed with a computer tomograph in the local hospital.

Of special importance is also the discovery of three iron swords. They belong to the oldest documents of this new weapon type in Italy and document the penetration of new fighting techniques from the East. Since the swords were very badly preserved, the research team first used a plaster coat and then digital analysis methods to reconstruct them graphically and in 3D print.

The swords in the computer tomograph.
One sword, three views: the found swords belong to the oldest documents of this new weapon type in Italy. Since the metal in the ground was corroded, the researchers used digital analysis methods, which made it possible to "print" one of the swords three-dimensionally and reconstruct it graphically.

From excavation to exhibition

Over the years, more than 70 students participated in the teaching excavation in Francavilla Marittima, learning how to use pickaxes, trowels, and brushes as well as the latest surveying technology and digital documentation methods. The students conceived the exhibition “Cultures in Contact” under the guidance of Atelier Degen+Meili, an exhibition consultancy based in Basel. The result of the collaboration is a presentation that not only makes visible the cultural contacts at the time but also presents the working methods of the project.

Prof. Dr. Martin Guggisberg from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Basel will introduce the exhibition on 12 April 2019 at 5.30 pm. Further speakers will be Prof. Dr. Thomas Grob, Vice President of the University of Basel, Dr. Pietro Maria Paolucci, Italian Consul in Basel, as well as Dr. Franco Bettarini, Mayor of Francavilla Marittima.

Francavilla Marittima: Basel excavation and exhibition

Cultures in Contact – 10 years of Basel excavations in Francavilla Marittima, University Library Basel, Schönbeinstrasse 18-20 (1st floor), Basel. The exhibition runs until 9 June 2019. Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 8 am – 10.30 pm, Saturday 9 am – 7 pm, free admission. On 15 May 2019, 6.15 p.m., there will be a theme evening with Prof. Martin Guggisberg. Public guided tours: 16 April and 15 May 2019, at 6.15 pm.

The Francavilla Marittima project is the result of a successful cultural collaboration between Switzerland and Italy. It has received support from various partner institutions, including the Archaeological Soil Research of the Canton of Basel-Stadt, the Department of Prehistoric and Scientific Archaeology of the University of Basel, and the Institute of Forensic Medicine of the University of Bern, the Max Planck Institute for Human History, Jena, the Museo Nazionale Archeologico della Sibaritide, the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Catanzaro, Cosenza e Crotone, the Municipality of Francavilla Marittima and the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali of the Italian State. The excavations are supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Voluntary Academic Society of Basel, the Max Geldner Foundation and the University of Basel.

 

 

Press release from the University of Basel/Universität Basel


desert kites U2 spy plane Iraq Near East

Declassified U2 spy plane images reveal bygone Middle Eastern archaeological features

Declassified U2 spy plane images reveal bygone Middle Eastern archaeological features

Researchers from Penn and Harvard are the first to make archaeological use of U2 spy plane imagery, and have created a tool that allows other researchers to identify and access the Cold War-era photos

desert kites U2 spy plane Iraq Near East
FIGURE 12. Chains of desert kites as visible in U2 imagery from mission 1554, January 30, 1960 (Roll 14L, Frame 1783). Web map version at https://arcg.is/0jreeP.

In the 1950s and early '60s, with the Cold War at its peak, the United States flew U2 spy planes across Europe, the Middle East, and central eastern Asia, taking images of interesting military targets. Though the missions typically connected Point A to Point B, say an air field and an important city, in many cases the camera kept recording between those spots, capturing thousands of photos of the desert, steppes, fields, and villages below.

Such a collection can represent a goldmine for landscape archaeologists like Emily Hammer of the University of Pennsylvania and Jason Ur of Harvard University. But for decades, all film and documents from these missions--code-named CHESS by the U.S. government--remained classified. And even when they became public in 1997, they weren't indexed or scanned.

Until now, the majority of this kind of historical aerial documentation came from the CORONA spy satellite program, which the U.S. ran between 1959 and 1972. But only the highest-resolution CORONA images, taken during the program's final five years, are useful for most archaeological purposes. The U2 photos are earlier and a higher resolution than even the best CORONA images, offering the chance to see historical features undecipherable by CORONA or already gone by the time of those missions.

Knowing the potential insight offered by the U2 images, Hammer and Ur began sifting through the materials. By analyzing thousands of high- and low-resolution frames, they discovered many historical and archeological features, including prehistoric hunting traps, 3,000-year-old irrigation canals, and 60-year-old marsh villages no longer visible today. The work, which they published in the journal Advances in Archaeological Practice, represents the first archaeological use of U2 spy plane imagery--and a new and exciting window into history.

"The photos provide a fascinating look at the Middle East several decades ago, showing, for example, historical Aleppo long before the massive destruction wrought in the ongoing civil war," says Hammer, an assistant professor in Penn's Near Eastern languages and civilizations department. "Plus, the work and the accompanying online resources will allow other researchers to identify and access U2 photos for the first time."

Hammer and Ur have both conducted research in the Middle East for decades, in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. They've also both used CORONA spy satellite imagery extensively. However, many of those image sets didn't date back as far as Hammer wished they would. "We knew that U2 spy planes must have taken thousands of images across large parts of the Middle East, but there was no easy way to access or reproduce the film negatives," she says.

A chance encounter with Lin Xu, a researcher who had retrieved U2 images of his hometown in China, led Hammer and Ur to press on. "Seeing the amazing quality of those archival photos," Hammer says, "we knew that it would be worth the detective work it would take to build a systematic index of them."

It wasn't an easy process. Ahead of time, they had to select the film rolls they wanted moved from the National Archives' storage center in Kansas to the aerial film section in Maryland. Once there, the researchers unspooled hundreds of feet of film over a light table to identify pertinent frames, then photographed the negatives in pieces using a 100-millimeter macro lens. Later, they stitched together and adjusted each frame, before geo-referencing the photos using GIS software to match up images with coordinates of real-world places.

Despite the tedium of some of the individual tasks, the process excited Hammer. "As you turn the spool of a film roll following the path of the U2 plane, you may not know exactly what you'll see in unfamiliar places, so there's often a sense of exploration and discovery," she says. "Other times, the pilots were flying over regions I knew by heart from travel and study, and I would almost hold my breath, hoping that the plane had veered just a little to the right or left."

The hours of work paid off, revealing many important archaeological features, including prehistoric hunting traps called desert kites in eastern Jordan, an Assyrian canal system in northern Iraq, and marshes in southern Iraq, case studies the researchers highlighted in their paper.

Desert kites, stone-wall structures that date back 5,000 to 8,000 years, were used to trap gazelle and other similar animals. The dry desert of eastern Jordan preserved many of them, but agricultural expansion in western Jordan dismantled or destroyed many more. The satellite images bring them back to life, showcasing a web of diamond-shaped enclosures with what look like long kite tails, offering the best view, to date, of these important hunting tools.

canal system Assyrians Iraq U2 spy plane Middle East
FIGURE 16. Ancient canals in northern Iraq: (a) U2 photograph of the subterranean canal above the Assyrian capital city of Nimrud (Mission 1554 Frame 398, January 29, 1960); (b) U2 photograph of Assyrian canals, tunnels, and sites at Negub (Mission 8648 Frame 853, October 30, 1959); (c) canals and site on the right bank of the Upper Zab River (Mission 1554 Frame 402, January 20, 1960). Web map version at https://arcg.is/uDb94; (d) DigitalGlobe image showing the growth of the modern town of Khabat over the features in 16c (June 2, 2016).

The second feature, the canal system in northern Iraq, provides insight into how an early empire maintained its power and governed, Hammer explains. "The Assyrians built the first large, long-lasting, multi-cultural empire of the ancient world, so many people are interested in how they organized territory, controlled people, built their huge cities, and managed the land," she says. "The irrigation system fed the royal capitals, made agricultural surplus production possible, and provided water to villages."

Finally, the U2 images of southern Iraq present the layout, size, and environmental position of Marsh Arab communities in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of which disappeared after massive hydroelectric dams in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq impounded the rivers, and especially after the government of Saddam Hussein deliberately drained the marshes. Before that, "people lived a unique lifestyle there for thousands of years, herding water buffalo, building houses and all manner of things out of reeds, living on floating islands of reeds, planting date palms, and fishing," Hammer says. "Now we can study the spatial organization, demography, and lifestyles of these communities."

Though the three archaeological features represent different historical time scales, going back thousands of years or just decades, they all demonstrate how humans are changing the natural landscape, often in ways visible only from a 70,000-foot view.

Aerial images like those from the U2 spy missions allow archaeologists like Hammer and Ur to travel back in time. "The activities of ancient human communities frequently left large-scale traces on the landscape," Hammer says. "You can't see these patterns when you're standing on top of them, but just like stepping back from the blobs of paint on an Impressionist painting reveals the full picture, aerial and satellite imagery allow the patterns to emerge."

###

Emily Hammer is an assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also in the Anthropology and Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World graduate groups and is part of the Price Lab for Digital Humanities.

Jason Ur is a professor of anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University and director of its Center for Geographic Analysis.

 

Press release from University of Pennsylvania

Pictures and captions from the paper Near Eastern Landscapes and Declassified U2 Aerial Imagery, by Emily Hammer and Jason Ur, Advances in Archaeological Practice, published online: 12 March 2019; 2019 © Society for American Archaeology. The article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence CC BY 4.0.


UC researchers find ancient Maya farms in Mexican wetlands

UC researchers find ancient Maya farms in Mexican wetlands

University of Cincinnati archaeologists say these farms likely produced cotton and other goods to support Yucatan trade routes

University of Cincinnati student Jeff Brewer stands above UC geography professor Nicholas Dunning at an archaeological site in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Credit: Nicholas Dunning/UC

Archaeologists with the University of Cincinnati used the latest technology to find evidence suggesting ancient Maya people grew surplus crops to support an active trade with neighbors up and down the Yucatan Peninsula.

They will present their findings at the annual American Association of Geographers conference in Washington, D.C.

The Mayan civilization stretched across portions of Mesoamerica, a region spanning Mexico and Central America. The oldest evidence of Maya civilization dates back to 1800 B.C., but most cities flourished between 250 and 900 A.D. By the time Spanish ships arrived in the 1500s, some of the biggest cities were deserted. Researchers at UC are trying to piece together the life history of the Maya before the Spanish conquest.

Nicholas Dunning, a professor of geography in UC's McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, was part of a research team that found evidence of cultivation along irregular-shaped fields in Mexico that followed the paths of canals and natural water channels at a place called Laguna de Terminos on the Gulf of Mexico. The archaeologists expect to find evidence of habitation when they begin excavations.

The extensive croplands suggest the ancient Maya could grow surplus crops, especially the cotton responsible for the renowned textiles that were traded throughout Mesoamerica.

"It was a much more complex market economy than the Maya are often given credit for," Dunning said.

University of Cincinnati geography professor Nicholas Dunning, left, and assistant professor Christopher Carr have been studying ancient Maya sites in Mexico. Credit: Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Local workers brought the Laguna de Terminos site to the attention of researchers about seven years ago.

"A forester working in the area said there seemed to be a network of ancient fields," Dunning said. "I looked on Google Earth and was like, 'Whoa!' It was an area in the Maya Lowlands that I'd never paid any attention to. And obviously not a lot of other people had, either, from the perspective of looking at ancient agriculture."

Satellite images revealed a patchwork quilt of blocks along drainage ditches that suggested they were built. Archaeologist also studied imagery NASA created of the region using a tool called Light Detection and Ranging, or LIDAR, that can depict the contours of the ground beneath the leafy canopy of trees and vegetation. Their review confirmed Dunning's suspicions: the area was covered in ancient farm fields.

"It appears they developed fairly simply from modifications of existing drainage along the eastern edge of the wetlands," Dunning said. "They probably deepened and straightened some channels or connected them in places, but then further expanded the fields with more sophisticated hydro-engineering."

LIDAR gives scientists a never-before-seen picture of the Earth's surface even after centuries of unchecked jungle growth conceals the remains of ancient structures. Researchers look for telltale signs of human activity: squares and rectangles indicating old foundations and circular pits from man-made reservoirs and quarries where the chert used in stone tools was mined. On the LIDAR maps, any hidden structures pop out, including ancient roads and former villages.

"That's the magic of LIDAR," UC assistant research professor Christopher Carr said.??Carr spent a career practicing engineering before returning to UC to study and eventually teach in the geography department. He approaches questions about the ancient Maya from an engineer's perspective.

Carr pointed to a map of Yaxnohcah, Mexico, showing a small reservoir the ancient Maya apparently dug in a wetland far from cultivated fields or known settlements.

"What were my ancient counterparts thinking when they built that water reservoir? What did they want to accomplish?" he asked.

Carr also used the LIDAR imagery in the project to follow an ancient Maya road that perhaps hasn't been traveled in more than 1,000 years. The road is perfectly visible on the LIDAR map but is virtually impossible to discern when you are standing right on it, Carr said.

"There's vegetation everywhere. But when you've been doing this for a while, you notice little things," Carr said. "I'll have a LIDAR image on my smartphone that shows me where I am, but I don't see anything but rainforest. You just walk back and forth until you can feel something underfoot and follow it."

Identifying possible roads is important for another interest of the UC researchers: ancient Maya marketplaces. Dunning and Carr are working at Yaxnohcah with researchers such as Kathryn Reese-Taylor from the University of Calgary and Armando Anaya Hernandez from Universidad Autónoma de Campeche to unlock the mysteries of the ancient Maya economy. Additionally, they and graduate student Thomas Ruhl have been analyzing NASA's LIDAR imagery across the Yucatan Peninsula to identify more ancient marketplaces.

Unlike pyramids or even many homes, marketplaces had no foundations or permanent structures, researchers said. They were built on low platforms or cleared areas, perhaps like a seasonal fair or flea market. But they were an important part of life in Maya culture.

Maya farms
UC assistant professor Christopher Carr examines an ancient quarry in Yaxnohcah, Mexico. Credit: Nicholas Dunning/UC

Dunning said the presence of roads between Maya cities would lend credence to the value the ancient Maya placed on trade with their neighbors. He thinks some of the larger squares identified on the LIDAR maps represent these open markets.

"In some areas, they have this very distinct physical signature," Dunning said. "So far, we've identified several possible marketplaces. We don't know for sure that they're marketplaces, but they have an architectural layout that is suggestive of one."

Soil analysis at other locations identified evidence of ancient butcher shops and stone masons. Dunning solicited the help of UC's botanists who are conducting analyses that might shed light on his marketplace hypothesis. But the LIDAR maps themselves are instructive.

"I look at spatial patterns. If you look at these big structures and small pyramids, you can tell they're important structures," Carr said. "And then you have this 'lightweight' thing next to it. That's what a marketplace looks like to me."

Dunning said the ancient Maya likely sold perishable goods such as maize and a starchy tuber called manioc. And they traded "mantas," or bolts of the ornate and richly patterned textiles made from the cotton they grew. These were prized by the Spaniards who arrived in the 1600s.

"We don't have direct evidence of what the textiles look like in this area. But if you look at ancient paintings and sculptures, people were wearing very elaborate garments," Dunning said.

Dunning first explored the historic sites of the Yucatan Peninsula at age 14 when he and his older brother drove down to Mexico from Illinois.

"We took a train to the Yucatan and used public transportation to get around to the sites," Dunning said.

He applied to the University of Chicago partly because it offered a Mayan language class. Dunning returned to Mexico while in college to conduct his first field research. He's been back many times since.

"My interest in archaeology is in human-environment interactions, including agriculture," Dunning said.

Dunning is learning more about how ancient Maya people shaped their world to overcome challenges and take advantage of natural opportunities. Dunning's work also took him to a place called Acalan near the Gulf of Mexico.

"Roughly translated, Acalan means 'place of canoes' because it's very watery," Dunning said. "And getting around by water is far easier than any other means in that area."

Then as now the region is covered in thick tropical rainforest. Researchers have to be wary of cheeky monkeys that will throw fruit or worse from the treetops. Carr said one encounter left him sore for days.

"There was this aggressive spider monkey. He'd seen me a couple days earlier. And he's back shaking the trees," Carr said. "And all of a sudden, I'm lying flat on the ground. A branch hit me in the shoulder and knocked me to the ground."

Visiting archaeologists at Yaxnohcah stay at a former Army outpost that was converted into a staffed research station.

"Living conditions are actually luxurious by camping standards. You're in the field all day and you're dirty and tired. But you can take a shower. And when you're finished, someone has cooked you a meal," Carr said.

At Laguna de Terminos, UC researchers are working to collect clues about the ancient Maya before they are lost to development. Many of the wetlands are being drained or plowed up for grazing pasture.

Dunning said ironically these low-yield pastures provide far less economic value to today's farmers than the seeming bounty of crops the ancient Maya derived from them more than 1,000 years ago. Their study warns the land-use practices are causing environmental damage to some of these valuable wetlands.

"It's a shame because the grazing isn't particularly good. The economic production from that land use is minuscule compared to what was produced by the Maya," Dunning said.

 

Press release from University of Cincinnati


Ancient Caribbean children helped with grocery shopping in AD 400

Ancient Caribbean children helped with grocery shopping in AD 400

Caribbean children clams shells starvation food Saladoid people Virgin Islands
Researchers found a variety of modified shells at the St. Thomas site, including three beads cut from shell and polished, top row, two beads made from Oliva shells, bottom left, and two Cyphoma shells. Credit: William Keegan et al.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Researchers have long thought that snail and clam shells found at Caribbean archaeological sites were evidence of "starvation food" eaten in times when other resources were lacking. Now, a University of Florida study suggests these shells may be evidence of children helping with the grocery shopping - A.D. 400 style.

Researchers found thousands of discarded shells at a site in downtown St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, likely evidence of ancient Saladoid children foraging for shellfish. Adult foragers typically would discard shells immediately after extracting the meat, meaning few shells made it back to archaeological sites, said William Keegan, curator of Caribbean archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. This site, however, was littered with them.

"It's not that people were starving. It's that children were contributing to their own subsistence in a meaningful and very efficient way," Keegan said. "We need to think of children as active members that influence site materials and their distribution. It changes the whole attitude about the collection in the archaeological site."

For the most part, children have remained invisible to archaeologists until now, Keegan said. This study, the first to document child labor in an archaeological context, provides an important model for identifying children in the past and their contributions to their communities.

"Children are really the last group to receive any attention because to archaeology, they sort of look like little adults," he said. "Efforts to identify children so far have emphasized badly made objects, miniatures and things that look like toys - it isn't a complete perspective."

Children may have had a role in foraging, which for the Saladoid people meant collecting mollusks for food.

"If your parent needs to go to the grocery store, you have to go with them," Keegan said. "If you can do more than pull candy off the shelf, then you're that much more helpful."

Shells deposited in middens - mounds of shells and sediment that were once ancient garbage dumps - led Keegan's research team to believe that shellfish had been intentionally brought to the site, eaten and the shells then thrown away. The team also developed seven criteria to help determine if shellfish at archaeological sites were collected by children.

Shellfish collected by children are most easily identified by variety and size, Keegan said. Child foragers tend to be generalists, meaning that they're more likely to collect small shells indiscriminately. This research suggests that small, easy to transport and low-yield mollusks found in high amounts on a site indicate the presence of child foragers, he said.

"It looked like someone had sent a biology student with a one meter square and told them, 'Collect everything,'" Keegan said. "You can certainly collect a whole bucket of these things and you've got a good meal, but it's a waste of time for an adult to focus on those really small resources when they could be out collecting specific snails and clams that they know they can get a certain nutritional return on."

Recent construction has disturbed much of the site, and researchers were only able to excavate a snapshot of what was once there, Keegan said.

Because the Caribbean is a largely understudied area in archaeology, Keegan and his team had few ethnographic descriptions of the Saladoid's lifestyles to draw from. They chose to compare their findings with current research in the Pacific Islands, where foraging habits and available resources have remained virtually unchanged for millennia.

"It's not a direct application," Keegan said. "It's an analogy that shows what we're seeing in the living population is consistent with what we see in an archaeological population."

Evidence suggests that foraging together was a way Saladoid people built kinship, a practice still seen today in the Pacific Islands. The Saladoid people were a matrilocal society, meaning familial lineage was traced through women and men were frequently absent from day-to-day life.

"The women would often go on trips with children to collect things farther away," Keegan said. "The community functions holistically. By about age 15, children are involved in fully adult activities."

Keegan's work suggests that in some respects, children could actually outperform adults at certain tasks. Whereas adults focused on collecting larger shellfish from deeper waters, children were able to scour shallow areas for smaller shellfish that would be difficult for adult fingers to grasp.

"Children like being included. The same sorts of things children need in traditional societies are basically what we still need today to grow up to be healthy, useful adults," Keegan said. "In fact, it wasn't uncommon for children to collect small animals as pets."

Because the site is located on St. Thomas' main street, Keegan and his team were able to engage bystanders in their discoveries.

"What I think is unusual is that the road caps the site. Below the pipes, everything was completely intact," Keegan said. "The archaeologists were fenced in - all day long people were coming up to the fence, and we were showing them what we had, but that's all part of it. We want people to get excited about what we're doing."

Excavation was a collaborative effort that included several experts from different disciplines, lending a broader perspective to the team's findings, Keegan said. The team was assembled by David Hayes, a founding member of the St. Croix Archaeological Society and project collaborator.

"For us, it's always a new puzzle, trying to get the pieces to fit together. One of the real joys of this project was that even though there were specialists for each area, we were all together in the field," Keegan said. "We were all working on the issues together, talking about things and getting a broad picture of what was going on rather than just a narrow focus of one archaeological material."

Archaeologists concluded that thousands of discarded shells at a site in downtown St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands are evidence of ancient Saladoid children foraging for shellfish. West Indian top snails, like the modern specimen pictured here, were the most common mollusks at the site. Credit: Florida Museum of Natural History

Press release from the Florida Museum of Natural History


Vicente Sodré astrolabe Esmeralda Vasco da Gama Portugal

Earliest known Mariner's Astrolabe research published today to go in Guinness Book of Records

Earliest known Mariner's Astrolabe research published today to go in Guinness Book of Records

Guinness World Records have independently certified an astrolabe excavated from the wreck site of a Portuguese Armada Ship that was part of Vasco da Gama's second voyage to India in 1502-1503 as the oldest in the world, and have separately certified a ship's bell (dated 1498) recovered from the same wreck site also as the oldest in the world.

The scientific process of verifying the disc as an astrolabe by laser imaging is described in a paper published today (17/03/2019) by Mearns and Jason Warnett and Mark Williams of WMG at the University of Warwick in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

Guinness World Records have independently certified an astrolabe excavated from the wreck site of a Portuguese Armada Ship that was part of Vasco da Gama's second voyage to India in 1502-1503 as the oldest in the world, and have separately certified a ship's bell (dated 1498) recovered from the same wreck site also as the oldest in the world. Credit: David Mearns

The Sodré astrolabe has made it into the Guinness Book of world records is believed to have been made between 1496 and 1501 and is unique in comparison to all other mariner's astrolabes.

Mariner's Astrolabes were used for navigating at sea by early explorers, most notably the Portuguese and Spanish.

They are considered to be the rarest and most prized of artefacts to be found on ancient shipwrecks and only 104 examples are known to exist in the world.

They were first used at sea on a Portuguese voyage down the west coast of Africa in 1481. Thereafter, astrolabes were relied on for navigation during the most important explorations of the late 15th century, including those led by Bartolomeu Dias, Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

It is the only solid disk type astrolabe with a verifiable provenance and the only specimen decorated with a national symbol: the royal coat of arms of Portugal.

As the earliest verifiable mariner's astrolabe it fills a chronological gap in the development of these iconic instruments and is believed to be a transitional instrument between the classic planispheric astrolabe and the open-wheel type astrolabe that came into use sometime before 1517.

The thin 175 mm diameter disk weighing 344 grams was analysed by a team from WMG who travelled to Muscat, Oman in November 2016 to collect laser scans of a selection of the most important artefacts recovered from the wreck site.

Using a portable 7-axis Nikon laser scanner, capable of collecting over 50,000 points per second at an accuracy of 60 microns, a 3D virtual model of the artefact was created.

Analysis of the results revealed a series of 18 scale marks spaced at uniform intervals along the limb of the disk.

Further analysis by WMG engineers showed that the spacing of the scale marks was equivalent to 5-degree intervals. This was critical evidence that allowed independent experts at Texas A&M University to include the disk in their global inventory as the earliest known mariner's astrolabe discovered to date.

Prof Mark Williams from WMG, University of Warwick comments:

"Using this 3D scanning technology has enabled us to confirm the identity of the earliest known astrolabe, from this historians and scientists can determine more about history and how ships navigated.

Technology like this betters our understanding of how the disc would have worked back in the 15th century. Using technology normally applied within engineering projects to help shed insight into such a valuable artefact was a real privilege"

David Mearns of Blue Water Recoveries Ltd comments:

"Without the laser scanning work performed by WMG we would never have known that the scale marks, which were invisible to the naked eye, existed. Their analysis proved beyond doubt that the disk was a mariner's astrolabe. This has allowed us to confidently place the Sodré astrolabe in its correct chronological position and propose it to be an important transitional instrument."

Guinness World Records have independently certified an astrolabe excavated from the wreck site of a Portuguese Armada Ship that was part of Vasco da Gama's second voyage to India in 1502-1503 as the oldest in the world, and have separately certified a ship's bell (dated 1498) recovered from the same wreck site also as the oldest in the world. Credit: David Mearns & The University of Warwick

###

About WMG

WMG is a world leading research and education group and an academic department of the University of Warwick, established by Professor Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya in 1980 in order to reinvigorate UK manufacturing through the application of cutting edge research and effective knowledge transfer.

WMG has pioneered an international model for working with industry, commerce and public sectors and holds a unique position between academia and industry. The Group's strength is to provide companies with the opportunity to gain a competitive edge by understanding a company's strategy and working in partnership with them to create, through multidisciplinary research, ground-breaking products, processes and services.

Every year WMG provides education and training to schoolchildren through to senior executives. There is a growing part-time undergraduate programme for apprentices, as well as full-time undergraduates. The postgraduate programmes have over 2,000 students, in the UK and through centres in China, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Cyprus

For more information visit http://www.wmg.warwick.ac.uk

About David L. Mearns

David L. Mearns is one of the world's most experienced deep sea search and recovery experts. He has led the research and discovery of twenty-five major shipwrecks around the world and is best known for locating the wrecks of HMS Hood in 2001, the British bulk carrier Derbyshire in 1994, and the cargo ship Lucona sunk by a time bomb as part of an Austrian insurance fraud scheme. He was awarded an Honorary Order of Australia Medal for locating the wrecks of HMAS Sydney in 2008 and AHS Centaur in 2009. In 2015 he was a member of Paul Allen's team that successfully located the wreck of the Japanese super battleship MUSASHI and recovered the bell of HMS Hood on behalf of the UK Ministry of Defence. Most recently David led the privately funded search that located the Piper Malibu airplane carrying the Cardiff City footballer Emiliano Sala and piloted by David Ibbotson that crashed in the English Channel off the coast of Guernsey. For more information visit http://bluewater.uk.com/

 

· A gunmetal disc excavated from the wreck site of a Portuguese Armada Ship identified as a mariner’s astrolabe – and the earliest known example - by engineers at WMG, University of Warwick is to be published in the The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology

· The astrolabe was discovered by David L. Mearns of Blue Water Recoveries Ltd, who directed the three-year archaeological project in collaboration with Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture

· It has been named the Sodré astrolabe after the commander of the ship in which it was found: Vicente Sodré was the maternal uncle of Vasco da Gama and died when his ship, the Esmeralda, wrecked on the remote Omani Island of Al Hallaniyah in 1503

· It will be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest mariner’s astrolabe from as early as 1496

Vicente Sodré astrolabe Esmeralda Vasco da Gama Portugal
Guinness World Records have independently certified an astrolabe excavated from the wreck site of a Portuguese Armada Ship that was part of Vasco da Gama's second voyage to India in 1502-1503 as the oldest in the world, and have separately certified a ship's bell (dated 1498) recovered from the same wreck site also as the oldest in the world. Credit: David Mearns

 

Press release from the University of Warwick