Thursday, November 10, 2005

Innovators of Our Time in Smithsonian Magazine

There's a terrific article in the November '05 Smithsonian Magazine. They are marking Smithsonian Magazine' s 35th anniversary by revisiting scientists, artists and scholars who have enriched the magazine's and our lives. The good news is that there are a couple of archaeologists profiled:

1)Richard Leakey, now 61, son of Mary and Louis, the wonderful paleoanthropologists who put the Rift Valley on the map when it came to early hominids. His finds in Kenya, and now his working for world health, make a fascinating story. The quote from Leakey that appeals to those of us who teach the young about early humans: "I'm still keenly interested in what makes us human," he says. "I'd like to know when and how humans first left Africa and what events -- cultural and physiological -- made us into modern humans." I'd like to know that too!

2)Mark Lehner. Lehner has probably done more than anybody to advance our understanding of the ordinary Egyptian who built the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza. His focus has been to look at the creation of centralized states in the 3rd millennium BC of which the pyramids and the Sphinx are the most dramatic manifestation. He has opened a window onto the daily lives of the people who built the pyramids. Possibly most ingtriguing is that the pyramids were not built by slaves. The people who built the pyramids were probably a few thousand highly skilled and well-compensated full-time craftsmen and a cast of manual laborers. And all of them were well-fed.

It's one issue of Smithsonian Magazine worth saving for your library! (Other profiles include Bill Gates, Sally Ride, Gordon Parks, David Attenborough, James Watson and Andy Goldsworthy). Don't know some of these folks? Get the magazine!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Do you know about "CAMEL"?

The Oriental Institute's CAMEL (Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes) can survey ancient sites without digging in the dirt and distrubing the ground. Remember, that as archaeologists dig, they destroy. This project aims to survey ancient sites and disturb them as little as possible.

But what it can do is: "organize maps, aerial photography, satellite images and other data into one place allowing archaeologists to see how ancient trade routes developed and to prepare simulations of how people may have interacted, given the limitations of their space, the availability of resource and the organizations of their cities," so says the press release from the Oriental Instiute.

Scott Branting, Director of the project, oversees CAMEL from a computer lab at the Oriental Institute.

Turning on a computer Branting says: "The Near Eastern area is defined for the purposes of our collections as an enormous box stretching from Greece on the west to Afghanistan on the east, from the middle of the Black Sea on the north to the horn of Africa on the south."

And up pops an aerial surveillance photgraph taken for defense purposes during the Cold War. The image shows mounds on the surface of the steppe regions of modern Iraq, sites that are among the hundreds underexpored that are potentially valuable for future excavation when archaeologists can safely return. Many of these photos are from the 1950s and 1960s and even earlier so the terrain is different but the ancient material is still the same, buried deep within the earth.

Kerkenes Dag in central Turkey is a city, about 30 miles from Hattusa, capital of the ancient Hittite Empire. It was built sometime after the fall of the Hittites in about 1180 BC. Geoffrey Summers of the MiddleEast Technical University in Ankara directed a new dig at the site beginning in 1993. Branting joined the project in 1995 as a graduate student. From the beginning of the latest work at Kerkenes Dag, archaeologists have used nondestructive techniques to learn more. Global Positioning Systenm technlogy has also helped produce a virtual reconstruction of the entire city.

Using non-invasive techniques the team located the gateway of the palace complex and they are able to date the site. Scholars think it may be the city Herodotus called Pteria, conquered by the Lydian King Croesus in a failed effort to block the advance of the Persian Empire.

"If the equation of Kerkenes Dag with Pteria holds true, then we can even more precisely date the massive destruction of the city to around 547 BC and begin to understand something of its international importance," according to Branting.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


I've just returned from a sojurn on the west coast and would like to alert archaeology buffs to two terrific experiences:

In Vancouver, Canada. Don't miss the Museum of Anthropology. It's on the University of British Columbia campus. Built on a long-house replica, this is a wonderful place to understand First Nation as Canada designates them -- northwest coast cultures, including Kwakwaka'wakw, Nisga'a, Gitksan, Hida, Coast Salish to name but a few. There are wonderful resource/storage drawers of other cultures, from the Southwest to Europe as well. We arrived a little before 11:30 am, just in time for an excellent tour by an informed docent.

In San Francisco, at the just opened de Young Museum (stunning architecture) the opening show that runs until Feb. 5 is Hatshepsut: from Queen to Pharaoh. If you've not had a chance to see the wonderful statues of Hatshepsut at New York's Metropolitan Museum -- many of them are on exhibit here. Plus there are artifacts and statues from many other museums as well. A beautifully done show not to be missed if you're in the Bay area.