Neanderthal Bones!

Over the course of 13 years, a group of archaeologists from Greece and France excavated a cave in Greece, known as Kalamakia.  The cave is about 65 feet deep, and is situated in limestone cliffs on the west coast of a peninsula on the Greek mainland.  The team, led by Katerina Harvati, found archaeological deposits from 39,000 to 100,000 years ago.  The team found scrapers and tools which were characteristically Neanderthal in design, made of flint, seashells, and quartz.  In addition, they also found portions of 14 skeletons in the cave – mostly small bone fragments and teeth.  This, however, was enough to show that there was a “thriving and long-standing” population of Neanderthals that lived in the area.  This is the first discovery of Neanderthal remains in Greece, and inspires the idea that there may be many more undiscovered remains of Neanderthals in the country.

The remains date to the Middle Paleolithic, during the ice age.  Like similar sites in France and other areas around the Mediterranean, the site had a mild climate, and supported human and Neanderthal populations, in addition to a wide range of wildlife.  The team says that there is evidence that the populations in the area coexisted with “deer, wild boar, rabbits, elephants, weasels, foxes, wolves, leopards, bears, falcons, toads, vipers and tortoises.”

The discovery of Neanderthal remains in the cave reinforce the prevailing theory of human and Neanderthal dispersal from Africa, as they lie right along one of the primary routes that early ancestors may have taken.  The remains are of both children and adults, showing that this wasn’t some sort of isolated hunting camp, but a location that full families lived at, likely for extended periods of time.

The discovery wasn’t made before now because the majority of archaeologists working in Greece are focused on the rich classical archaeological resources that the country has to offer.  In the future, the team hopes to investigate a myriad of similar sites in Greece, which would help to answer more questions about Neanderthals.  Of particular interest to the team are the questions that this find raises about possible human-Neanderthal coexistence and their spread into Europe.    The location of this specific cave also inspires questions about the seafaring capabilities of both ancient humans and Neanderthals.

This site is significant to archaeology today because it reflects the vast archeological resources that are still available for excavation around the world today.   There has been so much history, especially in a place as richly cultural as Greece, that we can’t just focus on one aspect of history, but that there is so much more to discover from other periods of time.  This holds for other sites around the world as well, and proves that there is a massive amout of discoveries that have yet to be made.



Avebury’s Better Henge

“It does as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge as a Cathedral doeth a parish church.”  Such were the words of John Aubrey, describing the megalithic complex which has now become integrated into the surrounding landscape of the area.  Although its stones were of impressive size and spacing, the truly remarkable feature of Avebury was the enormous ditch and bank that surrounded it.  This has since eroded and filled in, but is still fairly impressive; at its peak, excavations have revealed that the ditch was likely three times as deep as it is today. Cut into the white chalk of the area, this must have been a thrilling and brilliant sight, especially in full sunlight.

The henge at Avebury is incredibly large.  It is composed of a main ring of 98 sarsen stones, with two inner rings, side by side, each comprised of around 30 stones.  The stones comprising the henge were, like those of the more famous Stonehenge, originally of Marlborough Downs, and were transported the dozens of miles to their eventual destination.  While these stones were not worked, they were placed with the least eroded side to the center, much like their counterparts at Stonehenge.  There were likely originally over 600 stones that comprised the henge and related complexes, but for various reasons, the majority were destroyed or deposed.

In the late 1600s, the majority of the stones were destroyed for various reasons.  The main culprit seems to be one Tom Robinson, who was apparently a housing speculator.  He headed gangs that broke them up for building material in the nearby houses and other structures. Many of the houses, and especially Avebury Chapel, can be seen to have used portions of the megaliths as building material.  As the various areas remained largely unprotected until nearly 1930, there was considerable destruction of the entire complex.

Today, there has not been very much archaeological research poured into Avebury henge and the related structures.  Many of the stones’  original placements are now marked by concrete plinths, especially along the original stone avenues leading up to the henge.  In modern diagrams of the henge, it is amazing how much of the original area is covered by modern-era structures, especially where the original center stone circles were.

I suppose that we should feel lucky, as modern archaeologists and tourists, that our predecessors didn’t have the change to completely demolish the henge, and that there were those who began to diagram it before the wholesale destruction began in earnest.  The pervading lesson from Avesbury, though, is that once something is destroyed, it is very difficult to know exactly what it is we lost.  We can only get a vague idea that it was something massively important to someone, at one point in time.

Egypt as a Civilization

Recently, I was playing the game Sid Meier’s Civilization V, better known as Civ V. In this game, you choose one of 24 modern and historic civilizations, ranging from Babylon to India to America.  When the game begins, you settle your civilization, and begin production of workers, military units, buildings, and world wonders.  You also research new technologies to improve your civilization and unlock new structures and units.  There are several ways to win – through crushing other civilizations, through a diplomatic victory (create the UN), a scientific victory (research and build a spaceship), and a cultural victory (create a utopia). The various civilizations have most things in common, but each has a few attributes, based on the civilization’s cultural identity.  One of Japan’s, for example, is Bushido: warriors that fight as if they were at full strength, even when damaged.  The Iroquois move through forest very quickly.  The Aztecs’ Sacrificial Captives attribute gives them a cultural reward for every unit killed.  The Spanish have a Conquistador unit which can fight and also found new cities.

Being one of the great ancient civilizations, Egypt is a potential player in the game.  Our discussions of Egyptian archaeology over the past weeks spurred me to investigate how they were represented in Civ V.  The Egyptians are led by Ramsses II, of whom the game gives a fairly extensive biography.  It outlines his life, calling him the “greatest and most powerful pharaoh,” something that his enormously complex tomb in the Valley of the Kings would corroborate.

The game also gives a fairly in-depth overview of the history of each culture.  Egypt’s speaks of wonders of architecture and the importance of religion, before concluding with some factoids.  Many of these serve to set the record straight for Egypt – saying Napoleon didn’t take the Sphinx’s nose, and that slaves didn’t build the pyramids.

On to the bonuses.  There are three: Monument Builders, the unit War Chariot, and the unique building Burial Tomb.  Monument Builders is exactly what is expected of Egypt: it gives them a production bonus that allows them to build World Wonders (ranging from the Pyramids to the Louvre and the Pentagon) 20% faster than other civilizations.  With all the pyramids and temples that litter Egypt, it certainly seems that the ancient Egyptians had some kind of advantage in building monuments!

The War Chariot is an upgraded version of the Chariot Archer unit that all civilizations have.  It’s “historical info” section calls the Egyptians the “early masters of the chariot,” saying that Amenhotep II claimed to have penetrated three inches of copper on some targets when shooting from one.  The discovery of chariots in Tutankhamen’s tomb would certainly imply that they were important to Egyptians throughout their history.

The third bonus that the Egyptians have is the Burial Tomb.  It is a building that replaces the Temple of most cultures.   It produces both culture (as the Temple does) and also Happiness for the city it’s built in.  It requires no cost for maintenance and upkeep (which makes sense, as once it’s sealed, you don’t need to employ people to keep it clean and perform offerings and such). However, if the city it’s built in is captured, the conqueror receives a double-size Gold bonus for capturing the city.  This too makes sense, considering the magnificent riches that such tombs contain.

Overall, Sid Meier’s Civilization V is well-researched and grounded in history.  The bonuses for the Egyptians match their cultural legacy, and represent them in a good light.  The developers did a good job with this one, incorporating history and cultural heritage seamlessly into a game, adding strategic wrinkles at the same time.

Flintknapping is hard!

My experience with flintknapping began in the fall of my senior year. I was in a survival class as an elective, so we learned how to build shelters, how to make fires, and other rudimentary skills. Among these skills was flintknapping. We would sit on the floor of the classroom – a garage-like room – and whack away at pieces of glass. The teacher did it as a hobby, and had made some interesting points and other tools. He demonstrated the flaking of volcanic glass, and showed that the resultant flakes were sharper than surgical steel.  We compared a flake about the size of a razor to a scalpel from the biology department; the flake sliced right through buckskin, where the scalpel encountered some difficulty on its way though.  We were very excited to begin making our own lithics using the method he presented.

We started by gathering our material that we would fashion into weapons: large pieces of glass windowpanes from the recycling. They were only perhaps a quarter inch thick, but the fragments we began with measured about three inches by four, in a triangular shape. We decided to try to just work on the edges, to get them sharp without destroying the main piece we were working with. Although it sounds like a simple task, we soon found otherwise. We made our tools ourselves, as well: our hard hammers (or “boppers,” as he termed them) were bars of metal, about a half inch thick, rounded on the ends. The soft hammer and pressure flaker were combined into the same tool, which we made by taking an inch-thick dowel – about the thickness of a shower rod – and hammering a nail most of the way into one end. The wooden dowel served as the soft hammer. To make the pressure flaker portions, we proceeded to strip the head off the nail with pliers, leaving a dull, somewhat rounded metal stub, perhaps half an inch long. Once this was filed into more of a point, our tools were ready.

We set off in no general direction, just experimenting with the tools and materials. We found that there were a lit of ways to hit the glass so that it shattered, and very few methods that would produce a productive result. We experimented to find the limits of the tools we used – what depths and areas of the glass would flake when it was struck in different ways.  The largest flakes I could get were about an eighth of an inch thick, and covered maybe a square inch.  Working with a thicker chunk of glass would probably have produced larger results.
We did the majority of our work sitting on the floor, with our laps covered by aprons.  This was so that the flakes and shards of glass that are an inevitable result of the process were easy to clean up. When class was over, we just shook the aprons into a trash bin, and vacuumed the cement floor with a shop-vac.  By the end of a few hours’ work, I had a vaguely triangular chunk of glass, which had some of the edges mashed into something that resembled a sharp, extremely jagged edge.  To think that this was using impurity-free glass and virtually optimal tools!  I can’t begin to imagine the time investment and skill that would have gone into using rock that fractures in unpredictable ways, using whatever tools can be found, and depending on your craft for survival!  Though they may look mundane, the tools and projectile points unearthed so frequently are truly works of art, products of a truly fine craftsman’s hand.