All posts by Joe Zanetti

Collapse in the New World

Out of all the ancient states we have covered throughout the semester, the ancient states of the New World fascinate me the most. I must admit, I was most looking forward to going over Mesopotamia, as I have always been interested cuneiform, Mesopotamian mythology, ziggurats, etc. Professor Watrall’s lectures on Mesoamerica and Andean South America painted a vivid picture of how people lived in those areas of the New World. What interested me the most was that collapse for these states was centered around environmental disasters and European conquest. While environmental disasters conquest had a hand in the collapse of ancient states in the Old World, they play a more prominent role in the New World.

Going back to the end of the Classic Maya, we see a pattern of environmental disasters. From our textbook, it is suggested that three major droughts occurred during the last years of the Classic Maya period. Droughts can upend an entire society, throwing everything into chaos, causing death and destruction. It’s true that other factors contributed to the collapse, but the Droughts were the tipping point for Mayan collapse.

We see the Moche collapse from El Ninos and droughts. The Moche were hit with devastating drought cycles, causing crop yields to drop at a significant rate. The Moche also suffered from an earthquake that hit the Andes, resulting in the rivers being choked with debris from landslides. Even the Moche capital was flooded by an El Nino. At Tiwanaku we see the same thing again. A drought cycle brought Tiwanaku to its knees, spanning decades, leading to the inevitable collapse of the central government, and field systems falling into disrepair.

Aside from environmental disasters, many ancient states of the New World succumbed to European conquest, most notably from Spanish Conquistadors. Cortes lands in Vera Cruz in 1519; by 1521, Tenochtitlan was conquered. The Conquistadors, with their horses and guns, proved too much for the Aztecs, and the whole region was under Spanish control by 1531. A byproduct of Spanish conquest was disease. Disease ravaged the people of the New World, spreading through Mesoamerica and killing everyone it infected. Syphilis was the main disease that caused so much death.  The Inca would suffer the same fate; Francisco Pizarro and his soldiers laid waste to the Inca, which, up until that point, was the largest empire in the New World.

The ancient states of the New World are unique in the sense that their stories are one of extreme adaptability, having to adapt to extreme climates, but at the same time, being at the mercy of those climates and environments. Floods, earthquakes, droughts, and El Ninos all wreaked havoc across the New World. What also makes the New World unique is the records we have of Spanish conquest. We have exact dates of when these ancient states fell because of records kept by Spanish priests. Another thing that makes this unique is that this is contact (horrible contact) between the Old and New Worlds. It’s a contact that had devastating and tragic consequences for the people that had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting the Spanish Conquistadors.

Bonus Blog: Underwater Convergence on the Adriatic

Dr. Potrebica’s lecture brought one word to mind: convergence. That region, the Balkans: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Greece, Albania, and the other surrounding countries are a convergence of culture. You have Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Islam all converging on that one region, creating a cornucopia of culture, knowledge, language, customs, beliefs, etc. The region is also known as a converging point for conflict. With that being said, it’s no surprise (still fascinating) that there are more than four hundred registered underwater sites in that area. It’s a converging point of trade, a gateway between East and West.

Doctor Petrobica’s presentation gave us an astonishing look into the lives of people that span across time and space, as far back as the time of the Neanderthal, as Kashtel Shtalifich is the only underwater Mousterian site. From there, we were shown a chronology of maritime trade. From the 1st-5th century BC, we were shown pictures of Roman shipwrecks, containing oil lamps, fine pottery, combs, phallic pendants, you name it. This material culture opens a window into the lives of people that lived thousands of years ago; it’s the closest we can get to living through them. At the Island of Ilovik, from the mid 2nd century, a Roman shipwreck possessed one of the largest cargo of amphorae in the Eastern Adriatic, which tells us popularity of it, and its efficiency for transport and storage of various goods and products. At other sites at different islands, sarcophagi were found with the lids still on them, along with dice, tableware, and coarse ware. Many of these items are everyday items, going to the average person, much like us.

Medieval shipwrecks have also been discovered and registered. At Sv. Pavao, at the Island of Mljet, dated to the 16th century AD, a shipwreck contained Iznik, which is Turkish pottery, along with silver Turkish coins, and a bell with the year 1567 inscribed on it. Conflict between European powers and the Ottoman Empire was prevalent in this region, but as Doctor Potrebica said, trade was stronger than politics; people loved their goods. Despite constant warfare, trade was the one constant that never stopped.

I was especially in awe of the 20th century shipwrecks, such as the Austro-Hungarian battleship, German torpedo boat, the Barun Gautsch (Titanic of the Adriatic), and the B-24J Liberator (an American heavy bomber). American, German, Austro-Hungarian, whether it was World War I, which the Ottoman Empire was involved in, or World War II, where Germany and its allies (Hungary, Bulgaria,  and others) were dominating the Balkans, you can see this region as a converging point. All the material goods found at these sites tell us stories of regular people living regular lives; they paint us a vivid picture of maritime trade routes going back to the days of the Roman Empire; they tell us stories of conflict in a region that has always been labeled as a hot spot for it. These more than 400 sites can also tell us what the future may hold for that region of the world. Doctor Perebica’s lecture really gives you a sense of just how culturally rich the region is, but also how fragile it is.

Ancient Mysteries.

Out of all the chapters and articles we have read thus far, The Harappan culture fascinates me the most. Why? Because we know only a fraction of who they were and what they did. Learning about the undecipherable Harappan script made me think about a brief conversation I had with a friend a few years back. At that time I was considering aiming my academic studies towards archaeology, and my friend says, “Why pursue archaeology? There really isn’t much left to discover.” I told him that discoveries are made on a daily basis; some discoveries are bigger than others, but the point is that there is always something waiting to be discovered, deciphered, excavated, interpreted, cataloged, etc. Knowing so little about the Harappan culture, and nothing, save for a few ideas, about the script creates an atmosphere redolent with mystery. To be honest, I like that, and it perfectly illustrates that there is still much we don’t know, not just about Harappan or its script, but other scripts such as Linear A, Olmec scripts, Proto-Elamite, or even the system of Quipu.

Will any of these scripts ever be deciphered? It’s quite possible. There could be a breakthrough with the Harappan script next week, or it may be another twenty years before it happens. Just recently the ancient Viking code of Jotunvillur was deciphered, which was described as a form of “medieval text messaging.” The discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799 allowed for a critical breakthrough with Egyptian hieroglyphics, opening a massive gateway into the ancient Egyptian state. If that breakthrough can be made with the Harappan script, we’ll be able to enter into a world that we know only a little about, mostly filled with speculation and conjecture. Maybe that one tomb or burial needs to be discovered that will serve as a window into Harappan life on a level that we only dream of. These types of breakthroughs could answer many questions, but could also (and probably will)  create even more questions that need answering, further pushing for even more excavations and discoveries.

I know this post isn’t really about anything specific, but reading about the Harappan culture made me think about why I love archaeology and everything it encompasses. I use words like “mystery,” which probably has a cheesy effect and makes me come off as wanting to discover Atlantis or ancient aliens, but it just emphasizes wanting to learn more about a people that lived thousands of years ago; to learn more about their way of life; to learn more about their language; their relationships and family structures. Each new look gives us better insight into ourselves and our own world.

Looking Beneath the Surface

I love that this class focuses on comparative studies between the different ancient states that existed throughout the world. Many people love talking about how ancient states were so similar to one another, implying some type of global connection or some other thing that we are not yet aware of, but they don’t bother to dig a little bit deeper and discover that all of them vastly different. I remember reading a while back that writing in Mesopotamia grew out of the necessity to facilitate records and financial transactions; however, I wasn’t aware that writing in ancient Egypt served an entirely different purpose, that it was for state-oriented affairs, such as ceremonies, commemorations, and even incantations that help Pharaoh in the afterlife. It’s fascinating to learn about the genesis of ancient states.

The other thing I was surprised to learn was the processes that gave rise to agriculture in both lands. Egypt had the fertile Nile, but the people of Mesopotamia had to basically manufacture their fertile grounds through irrigation an d the digging of canals, which required cooperative labor and a degree of central control, leading to dependency on farmers.  While this is probably one of those issues that, in the grand scheme of things, is not important, but I’ve read people debating which rose first, ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia. I’ve read some literature that says Eridu is considered to be the first city, while others disagree and say otherwise.

Something else I read a while back and found interesting was that many temples and other structures were made to be open spaces. Professor Wattral mentioned large public temples, and I recall reading that everything was open to the public; everything was treated as some type of public ritual. Even mundane transactions were done in the open and treated in a ritualistic manner. I may be simplifying this too much, but I don’t have the book in front of me to double check. I’ve always been fascinated with Mesopotamia because it is supposed to be where administration began; where writing began. The earliest form of mathematics were said to originate in Mesopotamia, along with astronomy, and I think that was during the time of Babylon. Images of the Assyrian library of Nineveh are conjured, and I think of all the literature and knowledge that was obtained and kept at the library. Mesopotamia makes me think about the tower of Etemenanki, which many scholars believe is the Tower of Babel mentioned in the Bible. Mesopotamia is truly wondrous.

“A ruler didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, it’s unification day!'”

Professor Watrall’s comment (my blog post title) had me laughing for the rest of the night. It did, however, remove from me the thought that Egypt’s unification was an overnight, or even week-long event. I took an intro to archaeology class in community college, and ancient Egypt was briefly covered.  My professor mentioned unification 3050 BC, and that it was Narmer who unified Egypt. She stated Narmer’s unification and the date as fact, and I just accepted it and never put anymore thought into the matter. Now, taking this class has given me new perspectives on ancient Egypt, especially since it is professor Watrall’s specialty.

Contrary to what my professor said in community college, it is absolutely impossible to put an exact date on Egypt’s unification, let alone determine who the ruler was that did it, even though many argue it was Narmer. What I would love to know are the processes that made this unification happen. Yes, we have the various conquests that are depicted in the palettes, and even though the palettes have been deciphered, can they be trusted to depict the truth? I always thought about propaganda in the times of ancient kingdoms and what it would depict and say. As we were told about the kings list in the Temple of Seti, bias and kings omitted is abound.

The whole idea of Egypt’s unification being a gradual process, spread over several years and many rulers, also made me think about the construction of the pyramids, which I am sure we will be delving into very soon. I don’t want to go off on a tangent about about this, but I have had many people (one a family member) tell me that it just wasn’t possible for the pyramids to be built with what they had , that it would take a lifetime. I was told that ancient Egyptians didn’t have the tools necessary to be build such monumental structures. My responses were always rather simple; I would tell them that they underestimate the power and determination of a ruler, or that construction was capable under a collective effort of workers, trial and error, etc. With ingenuity and resources, the pyramids could be built in a matter of years. I’m sure our discussion on the pyramids will also include whether or not Egypt used slaves to build the pyramids, which also made people tell me, “If Egypt didn’t have slaves, then how were the pyramids build?” I will just stop right here, but I look forward to lectures involving ancient Egyptian theories on building, as I know that many explanations have been given for the building of the pyramids.