Death Across the World

Today in class we learned of many theories surrounding Stonehenge, the surrounding sites, and it’s existence as a whole. One such theory that I found interesting was the division of the land of the living and the land of the dead. To reiterate in accordance with the theory, Stonehenge was considered the land of the dead, symbolically marked with stones, which are not living and never were. Compartively, Woodhenge was the land of the living, and thus was made with wood, which was formerly living. I find it so interesting that stone and wood were used with such symbolism. It’s so simple and yet it created a monument that lasted for hundreds of years. It’s a great testament to the sentiment that simplicity is a good thing.

It’s also interesting that this practice of dividing up space for the living and dead wasn’t just practiced in this situation. Of course all over the world today there are cemeteries, places specifically designed and allocated for those who are no longer with us. And society tends to stay away from cemeteries unless they are there to visit and pay homage to a loved one. However some people in history have done as the builders of Stonehenge did and taken it a step further. The most obvious of these are the ancient Egyptians, as we’ve previously learned. To them, the whole west bank of the Nile was considered the land of the dead, and the east bank the land of the living. As such, many a necropolis was built to the west of the Nile, such as the Pyramids at Giza and the Valley of the Kings. It goes without saying that as a whole, the living tend to remove themselves from the dead.

However, not everyone fears the Great Beyond. El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a perfect example of a celebration in which a culture embraces death. It is primarily celebrated throughout Mexico and it is a day to remember those who have died and celebrate death as a whole. Skeletons and skulls are common decorations and sugar skulls are a traditional treat. Though other cultures do have ways to honor their dead, the Day of the Dead is a particularly unique way to accept death instead of fearing it as so many others do.

In the end, we all die. Depressing as it may be, its a fact of life. And it’s interesting to see the variety of ways that different cultures deal with death. Often they’re similar, but the differences really help to define the culture.

The Importance of Archaeological Context through Stonehenge

It couldn’t be stressed enough that archaeology is really all about context; however, it never struck me how little context I had until we started discussing Stonehenge. Truly, the monument was little more than an impressively lain circle of really, really big rocks to me. I had never given it much thought – in my mind, it was built because it was there, and nothing more. Sure, aliens didn’t build the thing, yet I never really questioned how rocks of that size were able to be moved so far and stacked in such a manner. So to me, Stonehenge was a big circle of rocks which was the set piece for one of my favorite episodes of eleventh-doctor Doctor Who, and little more.

So let’s examine what we might imagine about Stonehenge with such limited knowledge. Thinking it just a monument of stone, I’d probably simply assume it some sort of spiritual monument, but I wouldn’t be able to hazard the slightest guess as to its purpose. And then in class, we were shown that a mound surrounded the circle of rocks, and that the mound existed before the rocks. Now we have some context – perhaps it was a sort of meeting ground, or a place of celebration or worship. To me, the mound suggested a gathering.

Then, the interesting details: the entrance to Stonehenge lined up with the sun rising and setting on the solstices. Now we’re leaning even more towards celebration or worship, or some other spiritual activity. We should also consider that the entrance consisted of a very long path bordered by a mound on each side – this might suggest some sort of parade or procession, though it may just be a sort of stage for the sun.

Interestingly, a nearby henge was constructed whose entrance also lined up with the solstices, but in the reverse order of Stonehenge. The sites were likely linked in purpose, but how? We now have two different sites which are – in a way – opposite of each other, each linked closely to the sun. In many cultures, the sun is linked to cycles, often life and death. It could very well be that one site is linked with life, and the other with death. Somewhat recently, many cremated remains have been found at Stonehenge. Perhaps we are now finally starting to understand the purpose of Stonehenge.

So now we’ve gone from completely clueless about Stonehenge to having a pretty good guess as to what it represented in its time, all from simply examining the context of its location. If you thought Stonehenge was just a circle of rocks, you wouldn’t get very far at all; however, so much can be gleamed when things are viewed in a greater context.

Neanderthals: Human or Foreign?

Neanderthals are commonly known as cavemen.  For many years, these people were believed to be our common ancestor.  Fairly recent scientific discoveries actual show that the Neanderthals were a completely different species of human.  Humans and Neanderthals have a different subspecies of the “homo” genus.  They are classified as either “homo sapien neanderthalensis” or under a completely different species, “homo neanderthalenis.”  The first of the Neanderthals are believed to have existed from 600,000-350,000 years ago.

Neanderthals lived in parts of Europe as well as western and central Asia.  Their name is derived from the location in Germany where their fossils were first discovered, “Neander’s Valley”.  Many archaeological assemblages have been associated with past Neanderthal communities.  Sites containing Neanderthal remains and tools include Aurignacian and Gravettian cultures.  Information relating the abandoned artifacts suggest that Neanderthals further developed engineering stone tools for better use as new populations began to rise.  Neanderthals were much stronger than the modern humans.  They had particularly thick bones which gave them a large amount of strength in the arms and hands, but considerably slowed them down.  Studies show that from birth, Neanderthals had the same brain size as modern men, but as they got older, they brains grew to fit their longer, broad skull.

The date of extinction is highly contested between historians and archaeologists.  Fossils dating between 33,000 and 32,000 years old have been found in the Vindija Cave in Croatia, and Neanderthal artifacts from Gorham’s Cave located in Gibralter suggest that they are less than 30,000 years old, contradicting the earlier notion that the Neanderthals died out sometime around 30,000 years ago.  A recent study that re-dated fossils from two different Spanish sites proved that the fossils were as old as 45,000 years old suggesting that the Neanderthals died out earlier than expected.  Skeletal remains from Cro-Magnon, early modern human, have been found with distinct Neanderthal features.  Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals probably intermixed, blurring an distinct extinction date.  Neanderthals may have continued to exist in mixed races with the Cro-Magnon, our earliest ancestors.

The other day I was watching the History Channel pertaining the conflicts between the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals.  The documentary suggests that the Cro-Magnons migrated out of central Africa and into northern and southern Europe.  When the Cro-Magnons migrated from Africa, they encountered the Neanderthals.  The Neanderhals were stronger than the Cro-Magnons, but they weren’t as swift and their tools were far less superior than those of the Cro-Magnons.  Historians from the special concluded that Neanderthals had no relation to modern humans, and that they were most likely killed off by an invading Cro-Magnon species.  These Cro-Magnons became to be our earliest ancestors.

http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-neanderthalensis

Mayan Temple

I love watching movies about ancient Mayan societies, because its fun to know how they lived and the rituals they practiced. I was even more interested in their sun god and how well they worshiped it. The whole craftsmanship and time put in to build these temples and facades on the outside of temple walls. Reasons why they abandon curtain site also intrigued me.

In 2010 the temple of El Zotz was found in the Guatemalan jungle, this temple was unique to all others because of the artwork distributed on the outside. It should the night sun god at all times of the day and during this time of day light would shine on that particular face. There was three faces representing these times, one face being shark like to represent sun raise next a cross eyed looking faces, which drinks blood representing the noon of day. Last a face was of the jaguar, which showed the face of dusk because that’s when they came out to hunt, and things. The sun was meant a lot to them is signaled a new beginning.

Even though the temple was small compared to others it is still very important. It is believed that a very important person is buried in the royal tomb of this great temple.  Supposedly this person is the first king of El Zotz. The temple also had many layers to it, which showed growth over time as people added to it. These layers showed that the temple was a living thing to them. In the process of building these layers the hacked of the noses and eyes of the kings, then built copies over it on the new layer.

In 2010 only 30 percent of the temple was exposed and it displayed these three-dimensional of the sun god standing five foot tall.  These faces on the temple could tell us many things about Mayan culture and how important the sun god was to them. The roles the sun god played in the abandonment of a site, if it played any at all. As they study the temple the see that it was not in use for a long time. They think it was left for ruins in the fifth dynasty. This temple was also well persevered, they use of small rocks and earth to cover the base of the temple to better hole the structure.  After reading this article I learned that they Mayan people use to smash down one temple to build a new one on top of it.

Mayans

Today at the end of class professor Watrall said that we would be looking at the Mayans next. I am personally am quite interested in this topic therefore will be talking about them in this blog post. Probably wouldn’t have been posting about the Mayans if I knew that the blog post were due today.

The Mayan culture was centralized in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala. They were one of the most dominant cultures of Mesoamerica. The Mayans were different from the rest of the indigenous populations of Mesoamerica, Maya was a centered in one geological block covering the Yucatan Peninsula and present day Guatemala. Having control of this secure area made it difficult for other indigenous populations to invade the Mayans.

The Mayans lived within three separate sub-areas with very distinct environmental and cultural differences. the northern Maya lowlands on the Yucatan Peninsula; the southern lowlands in the Peten district of northern Guatemala and adjacent portions of Mexico, Belize and western Honduras; and the southern Maya highlands, in the mountainous region of southern Guatemala. Most famously, the Maya of the southern lowland region reached their peak during the Classic Period of Maya civilization (A.D. 250 to 900).

The first of the Mayans settlements was called the Early Maya years ranging from 1800 B.C. to 250A.D. The first sub period during this time was called the Preclassic period or the Formative period. Much of the population during the Preclassic period were farmers. It was a very agricultural period where they grew many crops including corn, beans, squash, and cassava. Following the Preclassic period was the Middle Preclassic period which lasted until 300 B.C. In this time period many farmers expand their agriculture to both the lowlands and the highlands. The Middle Preclassic period saw the rise of the first major Mesoamerican civilization. Also during the Preclassic era Maya also displayed more advanced cultural traits and city construction.

The next era is called Classic Maya years ranging from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D. This was considered the golden ages of the Mayan Empire. Within the golden ages the Empire grew to 40 cities where the total population reached up to approximately to 2 million people. Many large structure were constructed during this time. These structures being amazing and majestic features of the Empire. The Classic Mayans worshiped many gods all based on nature. These including gods of sun, moon, rain, and corn.

From the late eighth century to the ninth century an unknown epidemic caused a shake in the Great Mayan Empire. One after another stone cities were abandoned in the southern lowlands. This reasoning behind why the Empire collapsed is truly unknown though scholars have their thoughts.

Ice Age Megafauna

In our lectures on the Upper Paleolithic Era, the subject of the megafauna beasts was lightly touched on a few times. It interested me a lot, so I chose to do my blog post on some of the european megafauna spoken about and depicted in the cave paintings we saw.

Megafauna are defined by  archaeologists as large bodied mammals, weighing more than 100 pounds. Most of the creatures in this group died off in the end of the Pleistocene Era either due to climate change or depletion from hunting. Some of the megafauna still exist today and are animals we know well. Examples include red deer, caribou, bison, brown bears and wolves. Now, the modern versions of these animals are considerably smaller than back then; megafauna of the ice age times were usually about 30% larger than their modern relatives, due to adaptations of the environment and climate in their times. Their were other megafauna, now extinct though, which were basically modern animals in an Ice Age guise, such as the cave lion and cave hyena. They have most of the same features as lions and hyenas today but again were larger and had some different characteristics. Cave lions had no mane like the male lions seen now, and cave hyenas had no spots like modern ones do.

Now we get to the really cool megafauna…

The cave bear, scientifically known as Ursus spelaeus, was close to the size of an Alaskan grizzly, weighing 880 to 1500lb.’s and having males often twice the size of females. This creature got its name because so many remains, prints, and scratch marks have been found in the caves that they hibernated and gave birth inside of. One cave, in Austria, was found to have a whopping 50,000 sets of remains in it, showing that the one cave was in almost constant use for countless generations.

Wooly Rhino, or Coelodonta antiquitatis, was a grazing mammal much like the modern white rhino. It it known to have been “wooly” because people have uncovered frozen carcasses with the shaggy fur still in tact; there was even a pickled rhino discovered in a salt deposit in Spain. Rather than the conical horn of rhino’s today, the wooly rhino had a long, flattened, curved horn that it used to sweep away snow and uncover grass for eating.

Aurochs (Bos primigenius) were wild oxen of the time, the ancestor of all European domestic cattle. This megafauna survived for a great long time after the Ice Age; Greek and Roman writing on the creature tells that it was a very aggressive animal, and herd members would use their immense size and antlers to fend of predators. Aurochs would dwarf the cattle today, standing about 7 feet tall at the shoulder.

My last specimen of megafauna is seen in the Giant Deer (Megaloceros giganteus), also known as the Irish Elk. This is only because of many remains of the creature found preserved in bogs of Ireland; the closest living relative is actually the Fallow deer. The giant deer was about the size of a moose yet lighter in build, standing 7 feet at the shoulder and weighing up to 1000 lb.’s. Giant deer are famed by those who know of them for their antler size, broad and flat like those of a moose but larger; they spanned 14 feet across, weighed about 100 lb.’s, and were heavily reinforced for fighting. There were forks of the antlers positioned to protect the eyes in battle. Skeletons found of the creature suggest that it was a very fast runner, probably the best ever produced of the deer family. Its long gaited stride enabled it to outrun and wear out predators without tiring out itself.

Sources used:

http://jkenny.hubpages.com/hub/The-European-Megafauna

http://archaeology.about.com/od/mterms/g/megafauna.htm

Some More Crazy Stonehenge Theories

In class today the four theories of the origin of Stonehenge caught my attention. I figured if there was two pretty ridiculous theories, I should be able to find some more, and I did.

The first alternate theory I found wasn’t all that crazy, it was actually pretty interesting. This theory states that Stonehenge was a center for healing. People from all over would travel to Stonehenge in hopes of healing whatever illness they had. Some people claim that the bodies found show evidence of physical injury or illness. The people who could not be healed and subsequently died were buried around Stonehenge, which would explain why bodies of people from far away places were there.

The next theory was right back in the crazy category. There are some people that are convinced that Stonehenge was a place for aliens to land their UFO’s. The logic behind this is that some of the stones at Stonehenge came from Preseli Hills of Wales, which is about 135 miles away. I agree that I do not know how it would be humanly possible to carry stones that weigh multiple tons a mere two feet, let alone 135 miles. However, I think popular culture turns to aliens as the culprits behind any feat of nature that does not have a definite answer.

With that said, I still do not see how any of the theories are valid. I understand the context of the theory about Romans and Druids building it, and I think the religious reasoning for the site is accurate but I am left to wonder how many men it would take to actually move a stone of that size. Not only move it but set it up in a certain pattern and then place another stone on top!  I began to think that there is probably a piece to this puzzle we have not discovered yet. Is there a type of make-shift trailer they would have a hundred men pull the rock on? And when they found these giant rocks to bring back to Stonehenge, how did they get them out of the landscape? I’m assuming a rock of that size wasn’t simply sitting on hill.

Whichever way you look at it, Stonehenge is one big mystery still. The use of this site may be pretty well known, but the origin is far from understood. I predict many more crazy, and some not so crazy, theories will surface in years to come.

I WAS HERE!

Chauvet Cave is probably my favorite site we’ve discussed so far in class. I had never even heard of Chauvet Cave, and had no idea that cave paintings were ever so truly artistic, and was amazed at how advanced humans were even thousands of years ago. The paintings are beautiful, and made even more amazing given their age, and made more mysterious and powerful given that they represent the emergence of our first “human” ancestors. I also find it incredible that those people, who lived thousands of years ago in an exotic frozen world with Cave Lions and Mammoths, left a message that remains beautiful and clear here to us, millenia later.

I was particularly interested in the hand prints, found in Chauvet caves and many others. I see this as the most basic primal, basic message that is not confined by time, region, language, or culture. That hand is a mark that forever and instantly says I WAS HERE. Across every barrier, someone can see that hand, place their hand on top, and be connected to that person and that moment in time.

In an Art History class last semester, we had a discussion of prehistoric hand prints during our section on Jackson Pollock. In his painting Number 1, in the top-right corner (http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/jackson-pollock/no-1-1948 to see!) he put his hand prints. Our analysis of this painting came to the conclusion that Pollock was showing how even through all the chaos and messiness of the world (and in his abstract splatter paintings), it was a primal urge to declare through the mess that HE WAS HERE, and that sometimes just “being there”, and being an individual person who has left some mark in the world is enough. Though I am certainly no Art History major, this painting still struck me as powerful, and is immediately what I thought of when I saw the hand prints in Chauvet Cave.

I knew I would love this class; I anticipated that I would love it because I am very interested in travel, and was hoping to add some places to my “must see” list. But truthfully, I am quite surprised at how much deeper anthropology goes beyond just “cool looking things”, and much of a connection that we, myself included, continue to feel toward these sites and to the people that built them. Plus I have indeed added things to my list, and am excited to be able to appreciate these sites beyond a little plaque condensing the entire history down to a nice tourist-friendly paragraph.