My Favorite Site – A Day in the Life at Dayr al Madina

This class was my first introduction to archaeology and it’s made me reconsider the field as a whole. I’ve begun to see archaeology as a field with strict scientific rigor. The goal of all archaeologists is to relearn the forgotten ways of our shared ancestors. These discoveries, these sites, these artifacts are data. Data in the same sense as physics and biology. Astrophysicists look back hundreds of millions of years to see for answers among their data – is it not the same for archeology? The result; the conclusion of all this information, is a view of humanity’s rise and fall since the inception of our race. Every artifact offers a look into the lives of people who are no different than you or I; they just happened to be born into a world separated by a few hundred years. We read about temples and palaces but my favorite finds are the houses, the small things that subtlety holds the stories of the people that carried them. That’s the cultural heritage – the spoon, the shard of pottery with writing on the back, the bed of straw. That’s why I like learning about the Valley of the King – not for all the kings and tombs and stuff – but for the small village of Dayr al Madina. I find it much more interesting because I have much more in common with a working man than with a royal pharaoh. Of course all the nice trinkets are beautiful to look upon but to get a glimpse at what life was like for a common man 2000 years ago is far more wonderful. They have receipts and notes and pots for bread – seems very boring but this debris of everyday life shows that these men and women weren’t so different from us. There is a sense of connection that crosses through the generational distance between us. I wonder, looking at a man’s house in Dayr al Madina, how he would have spent the hours there. Did he have a wife? Did he have a drink with his buddies after a long day of work? Did he just lie around some days or did he work at home? In 5000 years it is unlikely that my house will still exist as it does now, or that this country will look the way it does, and someday far in the future, maybe some young archaeologist will excavate my room and see the detritus of my life and in so doing connect with me across time.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are neat – More data, more problems

The Dead Sea Scrolls, other than having a badass name, are one of the great mysteries of modern archeology. Since their emancipation, these enigmatic extracts have eluded elucidation of examiners everywhere. I believe it is this air of mystery that makes them a fascination for all historians, anthropologist and archaeology. There is little actually known about the ancient artifacts but a great deal of speculation and importance still persists surrounding the scrolls. To quote Robert Cargill:

“Gone is the Ark of the Covenant. We’re never going to find Noah’s Ark, the Holy Grail. These things, we’re never going to see. But we just may very well have documents from the Temple in Jerusalem. It would be the great treasure from the Jerusalem Temple.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls were found by a Bedouin shepherd in a sea side cave in 1947. Since then scientist and researchers have been struggling to place the scrolls in their factual historical context.

The leading theory persists that a rebel group of Jewish priest, the Essene, fled to the nearby 1st century city of Qumran after unfavorable religious reforms. Once their, they wrote their lifestyle and wisdom into a coded text (a popular practice to prevent non-religious people from gaining religious knowledge). These scrolls, if properly deciphered, would shed light on the earliest days of Christianity and the historical context Judaism played in shaping the modern theologies of both religions.

A new theory, origination from Ronnie Reich’s expedition in ancient Jerusalem sewers, proposes that the sea side cave was a sanctuary for religious text from multiple origins; not just the Essene. The find suggest that ancient sewers were used to flee Jerusalem from the 70 A.D. Roman siege. These tunnels led to the Valley of Kidron which, in turn, leads to Qumran. Scientist analyzed pottery from Qumran and found that the clay used came from a wide array of areas; not just the local clay pits. Jan Gunneweg, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, used nuclear sequencing to determine the precise chemical composition of pottery shards from the two millennial old city. Gunneweg concluded that only half of the Dead Sea Scrolls pottery was from local Qumran.

While some believe that this suggest that the Dead Sea Scrolls have multiple origins and that Qumran served as a secret library for such writings, the majority of Dead Sea Scroll aficionados disagree. The overwhelming congruity among the scrolls themselves, and their content, suggest a singular origin for the writings.

This recent development further adds to the mystery surrounding the scrolls. I find the whole affair exciting because it just proves how much we still have yet to discover. The scrolls represent a question 60 years in the answering that is still chewed on by modern day archaeologist with cutting edge technology. One can only guess at what future technology will illuminate for the Dead Sea Scrolls and other unsolved mysteries.

full article at

Vikings were FABULOUS


Due to the prompt-less nature of our third blog, I thought I’d try to find something a little racier than the standard fair of archeological discoveries. Well not to disappoint, I found articles surrounding a mass grave of young Viking men in Dorset, England.
During routine construction work, a pit of over 50 skeletons of young Viking men was uncovered. The pit was clearly a mass burial but the jury is still out on what put those bodies in the ground. One theory is of a nasty illness wiping out the hardened warriors. Another is of an angry mob tearing apart a group of captured Viking warriors. Another theory is that of an offering of the human sacrifice kind. However, Dr. Britt Baillie believes they were unfortunate participants of the St. Brice Day Massacre. Apparently on November 13th, 1002, King Aethelred the Unready had had enough with all the Danish men. Following a Viking raid the king, being the reasonable sort, ordered all Danish men in England to be executed.
Despite the horrific demise of these 1000 year old men, I digress. The interesting bit is the fashion statement of these late marauders. Apparently filing groves into the front of your teeth was all the rage back then. These men had parallel horizontal groves carved into their incisors. These findings further support the worldwide craze Vikings had for sawing crap into their teeth (so metal). A Viking cemetery in Gotland produced a hoard of Viking skulls with this strange marking. Some teeth had complex intersecting lines in them instead of the standard parallel. Researchers, such as Caroline Arcini, believe the grooves would be filled with different colored charcoals – because if you’re going to file holes into your teeth, you just got to pack it full of dirt.
The Dorset skulls are the first evidence of this strange practice seen outside of Sweden. Further evidence found in Denmark seems to show that this practice was fairly common. At the time the article was written, Arcini was waiting on strontium samples to determine the background of our Viking fashionistas. In the meantime, Arcini wrote a children’s book on the subject – don’t ask me why.
In terms of this class, I find this article very relevant. If there is such a thing as “cultural heritage”, it most certainly manifests as strange practices like this. From now on, I’ll picture Vikings with a crazy charcoal-filled filled smile, because they weren’t intimidating enough already.

Link to article:

House, M.D. :King Tut Edition


leg1 foot

Tut’s Fractured Left Femur and Left Clubbed Foot

It is no surprise that King Tutankhamen is Egypt’s poster boy when it comes to the pharaohs of antiquity. Equally unsurprising is the air of mystery surrounding the boy king’s death. The romantics in all of us would like to believe that in a Game-of-Thrones-esque play for power, the young king was murdered. The evidence, as it always seems to do, discount this fanciful account.

It has been postulated that he suffered from a genetic disease known as Marfan syndrome. As a Human Biology major, I might finally be able to contribute my line of study for the benefit of this anthropology class. Marfan syndrome is a connective tissue disorder. Connective tissue is found in almost every part of your body. It’s not only the cartilage that caps bones, or the ligaments that hold them together, but also blood vessels and the sutures between bones. One way Marfan syndrome can manifest is in an Acute Aortic Aneurysm (AAA); in which your aorta suddenly herniates and bursts. As an EMT, I know there are few things that change an ambulance into a hearse quicker than an AAA – a possibility for his quick death.

Where I have speculated, researchers from U of M have done extensive genetic and morphological studies. Tut’s overly flat head directly contradicts the elongated skull typical of Marfan syndrome. They discovered evidence of Friedburg-Kohler’s syndrome that manifest as King Tut’s lame left foot (the disorder represents a flaw in the load bearing function of the arch of your foot, thus making it difficult and painful to walk). Couple with the fractured left femur and the hoard of canes found with his tomb, it can be deduced that King Tut probably lead a sedentary lifestyle (simply meaning he doesn’t exercise all that much). A sedentary lifestyle does a myriad of negative things to your health, one being a weakened immune system.

DNA analysis also shows signs of a parasitic infection in the King. Add on the fact that he was super inbred (Targaryen?), and the compounding picture is of a frail, immuno-compromised boy who had a lot of difficulty getting around (left leg broken, left foot lame). While we will never be able to know 100% the cause of death, it seems more than likely that these factors directly contributed to his death at the hands of… (wait for it) Malaria! Malaria, in 2013 isn’t as big of a deal; but left untreated it can lead to multiple organ failure, swelling of the brain, and a herniated spleen. In 1300 B.C., a herniated spleen (which bleeds profusely) would have meant death – and quickly (explaining his crappy mummification).

While not as exciting as an internal struggle for control of the Egyptian kingdom, King Tut’s death was most likely attributed to a bout of malaria. Sorry, sometime science ruins cool stories.

Where there is Smoke, There is Probably Ancient Chemical Warfare

old bones


In my opinion, the most interesting part of archeology is not the unearthing of lost artifacts and old bones; but the stories, once lost, that can now be retold, centuries or even millennia after. Like this one, about 19 dead Roman soldiers who died in 256 A.D. in a very peculiar manner.

Robert du Mesnil du Boisson, an early 20th century French archaeologist, uncovered tunnels under the ancient Syrian city of Dura; presumably used in the 3rd century Persian siege of the Roman occupied city.  The tunnel, originating in an ancient necropolis, led beneath the city wall, where archaeologist found 19 dead Romans and a single dead Persian soldier.  Mesnil also noticed traces of sulfur on the walls (Supernatural, anyone?). After he had sketched the precise location of the bodies (as any archaeologist worth his salt would), he concluded that after a brief but ferocious underground battle, the Romans were lit on fire and died where they laid, stacked and stuffed into the tunnel entrance.

Fast forward a couple decades where Simon James, an archaeologist and historian, found something funny about Mesnil’s notes. For one thing, the 3 X 3 tunnels would be a difficult place for 19 Romans (and the one, presumably badass Persian that killed them all) to have a pitched battle. Also, the oddly neat arrangement of the skeletons didn’t agree with a chaotic, fiery scramble through a small tunnel. James’s theory is that the Romans were not run through with swords or emolliated. It was the smoke, not the fire.

James believes the evidence is much stronger when an all together different scenario is played out. The Persians in their tunnels, hearing the Romans digging to intercept, laid a trap. Upon entering the Persian tunnel, a great fire was lit with sulfur and bitumen thrown on to it. As the Romans were digging down at an angle to intercept, their tunnel would act like a natural chimney. As soon as they broke through, waves of sulfuric smoke would literally melt their lungs from the inside out.  The one unlucky Persian was probably too close to the fire and was killed himself – this is supported by the position of the skeleton, which appears to be clawing at his chest.  After the smoke had cleared, the Roman corpses were stacked into the entrance; effectively blocking off the Roman tunnel.

James believes that this is another example of the horribly creative chemical warfare seen in antiquity. What I found interesting about this story was the amazing way in which James, decades after Mesnil’s discovery, was able to depict a radically different story then what was previously proposed. Deduction is just as important of a skill in archeology as surveying or recording. Deductions, like those made by James, is the reason FOR archaeology. It’s not about preserving vanished artifacts; it is about recalling lost stories.

Here is the link to the full story: