Monday, October 31, 2011

Naming Names

Zimbabwe is the only country named after an archaeological site, yet although Great Zimbabwe itself dates back to 13th-15th centuries CE, the country has only been officially called by that name since 1980.  From 1923 until 1965, it was a self-governing British colony known as Rhodesia.  Then, in 1965, the country’s white minority declared independence from England illegally, and operated as the Republic of Rhodesia - reinforcing the association with Britain’s chief colonial industrialist, Cecil Rhodes, who founded the British South Africa Company in 1889.  Under the prime minister Ian Smith, and despite UN sanctions, it remained a white supremacist state until 1979, when the black majority came to power under Robert Mugabe.  It was only then that the new country was named after the great pre-colonial ruins that more than anything symbolized the ancient connection to the landscape of the native African population.

The need to name and classify is essential to humans; there is even thought to be a gene for it.  Whenever naming is required, the wheel is reinvented in order to precisely reflect the essence of what the thing or idea being named is.  Fixing its place and defining its identity with specific clarity is essential in order to ensure that when the thing is called by whatever name it is given, no other hands rise in acknowledgement.  In theory, a name reflects the discrete individuality of that which is named; thus Americans saddle their children with badly spelled invented names, although they refuse to amend the Constitution which is seen as written in stone, while France formally regulates the use of the French language through the Académie française and had, until quite recently, an enforced national policy governing acceptable and legally permitted given names.    

Names signify specific individual things.  Churches, temples and mosques are all sacred spaces first, then houses of worship, and then buildings.  But not all buildings are houses of worship, and not all houses of worship are either churches, temples or mosques, and, of those, not all are sacred spaces.  The old nightclub, Limelight, on 18th  street and 6th Avenue was an Episcopal church that was deconsecrated, and repurposed, so that although it remains a building that appears to be a house of worship -indeed, it’s a rusticated brown stone Gothic church with a typical pointed arch door that looks like dozens of other Episcopal churches-  it is no longer the latter, since it is not a sacred space.  Recent developers have made it into an indoor mall while maintaining the church exterior.  Now it is a building that looks like a church -is a church- but functions as an agora, and is neither a house of worship, nor a nightclub, although it could still become a sacred space if the shopping is good enough.  Names and nouns represent things and ideas that are concurrent interdependent parts of both greater categories and smaller groups.  Since these relationships can be of incalculable number, and are simultaneously fluid yet permanent, it is essential that names and nouns maintain their fixed and discrete autonomy.  If one word is changed, everything linked to it is transformed through kinetic reaction.

Assigned names maintain order.  Otherwise, it’s like writing about musicians such as , the Artist (Formerly Known as Prince),  Prince,  or TAFKAP,  and Sean Combs, aka Diddy, P. Diddy, Puff Daddy and now Diddy-Dirty Money.  But that was his name in March.  After that it was Swag, the first expiration-dated name, to be used for one week only starting 5/24/11 and reverting to Diddy  on 6/1/2011.  This analogy is not merely cute, it’s appropriate.  If naming reifies that which is named, then changing its name transforms it to some degree into something else.  Whether it changes so subtly that the shift is invisible, or completely to the point of unrecognizability,  it is nevertheless made fundamentally different.  The act of  of renaming causes uncertainty, shifting the point of view by destabilizing the taxonomic equivalent of the lowest common denominator of language, which is the noun, be it proper or common.

The geographical area currently known as the State of Israel has formerly been known as, in no particular order, Palestine, the British Mandate, the Palestinian Mandate, the Roman Province of Palaestina, Παλαιστίνη, Israel, Canaan,  Philistia, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, among numerous others.  It has been in the possession of  the empires of Egypt, Greece, Rome, France, Syria, Turkey, Germany, England, and of the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Holy Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and Mamelukes, at one time or another, and sometimes more than once.  These nomenclatures represent different rulers, their assorted points of view,  and the various desires of past and current territorial occupiers.  Each different name in each different language describes a separate perception of what that landscape represents to the speakers of that language; how it defines the conception of the named place in relation to the observer-speaker.  The names given to the area are not mere translations of the same word and identical ideas, but subtly and profoundly different interpretive identifiers of the same place as viewed by different parties and subject to the idiosyncratic characteristics of the language as well as the time in which the words themselves were forged.

The French named the Eastern Mediterranean le Levant to signify it as the place where the sun rises.  Levant means rising, and the sun really does seem to rise from there, especially if you’re viewing dawn from Western Europe.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ibis and the Sacred Animal Necropolis

The Ancient Egyptians are known for their intricate human mummies and their complex journey in the underworld. However, there has been evidence of animal mummies as well. Animal cults, in Saqqara during the Late Period, were at their height. Saqqara is an ancient burial ground in Egypt with numerous pyramids, including the world famous Step pyramid of Djoser. It reflected a period of less troubled times. As Dr. Ikram stated in her book, Divine Creatures, shrines, temples, the embalming and burial of animals were an expression of religious nationalistic feeling. This Late Period with the Greco-Roman Period was decorated with votive animal mummies given as gifts to the gods. Tons of animals were embalmed during this time: fish, cows, bulls, sheep, cats, dogs, baboons, jackals, ibises, falcons, hawks, crocodiles, shrews, scorpions, and snakes were all included. Most of these animals were chosen because they had something to do with or had a specific relati
on to the Egyptian gods. Animal mummies were important throughout rituals from the beginning of the Ptolemaic period, around 305 BC, through to the Roman period.

I have always been extremely fascinated with the
Egyptian depiction of animals and their roles as gods. It just seems like a beautiful concept to look for admirable traits in nature and identify with animals. When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this month, I noticed a particular shelf of animals displayed. The animals were so tiny and carved so intricately, I could not fathom the kind of craftsmanship that goes on to make these. Each of these creatures are so finely detailed, it is absolutely incredible. In search of focusing on one animal in particular, I chose the ibis bird because there is so much literature about ibis mummies and how Egyptians valued this bird and preserved the ibis to the afterlife.

There are over 5 million ibis mummies at Saqqara
and it is estimated that there were over 10,000 birds buried annually in ibis catacombs. Another discovery from the Third Dynasty shows ibis mummies in lidded pottery only 700 meters away from the Step Pyramid enclosure. One large tomb of the Third Dynasty had the remains of sacrificed bulls around it and fragments of Ptolemaic-Roman offering pots with the remains of ibis mummies. Another excavation showed the skeleton of another bull laid on clean sand and hundreds of ibis mummies in their lidded pots. Some of them were elaborately wrapped with appliqués connecting them with Thoth and Imhotep. This complex is known as the South Ibis Catacomb. Cemeteries filled with mummified
ibis birds have been found at Abydos and near Hermopolis.

The ibis bird, which belongs to the stork family, was regarded in particular as sacred and worthy of burial and mummification. Ibis is also a hieroglyphic symbol. Revered in ancient Egypt, Ibis was associated with wisdom and the ibis-headed god Thoth, who was the scribe of the gods, god of learning, and a deity. Thoth gave the hieroglyph of life to Osiris. Thoth could also be represented as the baboon and North Saqqara was a burial place for both animals.

These burials and shrines at Saqqara became a place pilgrims would come for to pay respects to, especially to the god Thoth. At Saqqara, the cult of the relatively unknown deity Thutmose, a young ibis, was particularly popular among women.

Ibis mummies were mummified with their feet grasped and plunged into a vat of liquid resin. Then they were elaborately wrapped in linen bandages. Often times they were placed into ceramic jars which later were placed into catacombs. Some of the mummies were set rigid with palm-ribs, which was the same technique used on human mummies. Mummification of the ibis included desiccation and evisceration. Large volumes of ibises have been found and understood to have been specially reared in or around the temples. At the Sacred Animal Necropolis at Saqqara, several ibis eggs in a courtyard have been identified as the ibis hatchery. Ibis temples have also provided information for specific breeding sites.

Anthropologists and archaeologists are debating and tackling the questions why the extreme increase in animal mummies happened during the Greek and Roman rule. Edward Bleiberg, the curator of Egyptian, Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Art and the Manager Curator of Ancient Egyptian, African and Asian Art of the Brooklyn Museum suggests there is a connection with traditional ancient Greek animal sacrifice, since these Egyptian animals were certainly sacrificial since x-rays show that the majority of them died young in a violent death. Was there a fusion of a new culture? Archaeologists are still researching the significance of these animal mummies.

Below is a video link describing the process of animal mummification:

Dr. Salima Ikram Explains How Animal Mummies Were Made


Giakoumis, Melina. "Return of the (Brooklyn) Mummies." Archaeology Magazine. 16 Aug. 2010.

Ikram, Salima. Divine Creatures. Cairo: American University in Cairo, 2005.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Limits of Linear Thinking
Location of Discovery

Researchers at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Institute recently dated Acheulean tools found in Lake Turkana, Kenya as 1.76 million years old, making them the oldest known specimens of this type. Previously, Acheulean tools were believed to have developed between 1.4 to 1.6 million years old.
Acheulean Tools

The tools were discovered in a sediment level which also contained Homo erectus skulls, indicating that this species was responsible for their production. Interestingly, Oldowan artifacts were found alongside the Acheulean ones. The Oldowan tools consisted of sharp stone flakes and rock cores. Oldowan technology, described as "earlier and simpler" in the New York Times Article "Earliest Signs of Advanced Tools Found," is believed to have originated around 2.6 million years ago.
Oldowan Tools

The idea that the two technologies could coexist should not be surprising, yet the Times article makes a point of stating, "It was possible that the Acheulean technology was imported from a place yet to be identified," before acknowledging the possibility that it originated within the area. Even after the idea of local development is addressed, the article quotes "archaeologists and geologists" involved in the discovery as "concluding that there may have been multiple groups of hominids 'distinguished by separate stone-tool-making behaviors and dispersal strategies' co-existing in Africa 1.76 million years ago."

The article does not (probably deliberately) incorporate terms associated with a linear archaeological timeline, such as Old Stone Age, Early Stone Age, or even Modes 1 and 2 (terms which correspond, respectively, to Oldowan and Acheulean technologies). However, the references to Acheulean tools as "more advanced" and "more sophisticated" than the Oldowan ones indicate the pervasiveness of the underlying assumption that evolution follows a linear progression.

The article's subject, the discovery of the coexistence of both types of tools, contests this assumption, yet the author still manages to incorporate it. The idea that the Acheulean technology must have either been brought in from an outside source or developed by groups separate from those using Oldowan technology ignores the possibility that one group could be using both types of tools at once. Perhaps Oldowan tools were better suited for certain purposes, they were easier to make, or the materials used to make them were more readily available and thus groups continued to make them alongside the Acheulean ones.

Dr. Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History was quoted in the article as being surprised that "the Acheulean evidently didn't catch on widely for several hundred thousand years after it was invented." It makes sense that he would be surprised if the existence of a linear timeline is taken for granted - why would anyone continue to use an outdated and rudimentary tool when given the option of a newer model? The fact that the two types coexisted indicates that there is no linear progression from one to the other, and therefore it is inaccurate to classify Oldowan technology as less advanced just because it developed first.

In fact, Mode 5 microliths, often classified as the "most advanced" form of Stone Age tools, have been discovered at Howieson's Poort and Stillbay in South Africa dated between 70,000 and 65,000 years ago. However, the use of these microliths disappeared, and the Mode 3 technology returned. The Mode 5 microlithic technology did not reappear again until thousands of years later. The Mode 3 prepared cores must have served some purpose, then that the Mode 5 tools could not fulfill at the time, indicating that the Mode 5 microliths are not necessarily more useful or more refined. This example demonstrates the incompatibility of a purely linear framework with archaeological evidence.

The assumption that certain technologies are inherently better than others is especially problematic given that certain groups still use stone tools in their everyday lives. Ethnographic analysis of these groups, then, can place them in the past without acknowledging their histories and their change over time. Although archaeologists have attempted to move beyond C.J. Thomsen's Three-Age System, they have, for the most part, simply created new idioms for their linear timelines. Even when the archaeological evidence visibly contests this notion, there can be a tendency to try to interpret it in a way that remains in accordance with these deeply embedded assumptions. In order to accurately analyze the actions of ancient hominids, how can we rid ourselves of the restrictions inherent in linear thinking?


Friday, October 21, 2011

Painting the Picture of the Past

Dr. Sada Mire is a department member of the institute of archaeology at the University College of London. Doctor Mire, focuses her research interests on culture heritage management, archaeological and anthropological theory and practice. In 2010,
Dr Mire headed a local team to Africa, where they uncovered cave paintings at over 100 different and unknown sites. Reporter Dalya Alberge of The Guardian in the United Kingdom, covered this story.

"UK archaeologist finds cave paintings at 100 new African Sites: Scientist unearths 5,000-year-old rock art, including drawing of a mounted hunter, in Somaliland." Some of the rock art found by Mire and her team has been dated back to 5,000 years ago. Interestingly, one of these pieces has been identified as one of the earliest depictions of a mounted hunter. Similar to many of the pieces that archaeologists have found up to this point, the cave paintings include animals such as antelopes, giraffes, and snakes. However, according to Alberge's interview, Dr. Mire was noted as saying, "These are among the best prehistoric paintings in the world." The clarity of these works are unmatched, but is that a matter of quality? Or the lack of their

In the article, Mire is cited, "Yet Somaliland is a country whose history is totally hidden. With wars, droughts and piracy in Somalia, hardly anyone has researched the archaeology until now. But its absolutely full of extraordinary well-preserved rock art." But is it really Somalia's turmoil that has made Somaliland an archaeological black hole? This is a large issue in respect to the development of Africa's cultural history. So many areas of Africa have been left unexplored. Not only is it a detriment to the representation of African history, but also a downfall in the outside world's understanding of a truly brilliant culture. These examples of ancient artwork reflect the vast abilities of early human populations. Their ability to depict their surroundings, use artistic techniques such as a variance of mediums, use art as communication, these abilities should not be neglected.

As a Somali-native, Dr. Mire took some stabs as to the meanings of some of the rock art she and her team found. In Dhambalin, an area about 40 miles from the Red Sea, features different pastoral animals: cattle, sheep and goats. Mire notes that the animals "have distinctive bands around their backs and bellies, which suggests farming or ritual traditions." Additionally, some of the more recently dated pieces, are "more mysterious." These include images of the moon in different stages and other geometric signs. The doctor believes these images "depict the ancient artists' view of the world, time and space." Of course these interpretations could be wrong, but her discoveries could be the catalyst for a much needed expansion of archaeological Africa.

How can we allow ourselves to overlook such a crucial part of evolution, the origins of our population? When it comes to exploring the origins of the African population and the evolution of the human population as a whole, it is not sufficient to only examine a selected few areas of a large and highly influential continent. Authors such as Diop and Posnansky have touched upon the need for the development of African Archaeology, and Dr. Sada Mire is on the right track. In my opinion, these findings are huge in the development of our archaeological knowledge. What we need is the further exploration of areas that are completely unknown. Extensive research has been done in some African states, like Egypt for example, which is a great start. However, it is the areas less known that may give us some of the answers we are looking for.

There is an incredible amount of information to uncover, but there are needs to be the desire from archaeologists willing to walk on paths unpaved.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Archaeological Genetics

Approaching archeology from a science background, I am constantly on a quest for the deeper scientific explanation for any observed behavioral change. It makes sense to me, for example, that people might want to settle down and build communities or farms; a stable controlled food source and a community to aid in protection seem like attractive options, and we see that while some communities did remain with a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, others domesticated cattle or began agricultural practices. While the development of these cultural practices and the archaeological records they leave behind are incredibly interesting, I can't help but wonder, how did these environmental changes influence human morphological or genetic composition?

A relatively common occurrence in human evolution, particularly in Saharan Africa tribes, is the domestication of cattle, sometimes even the sacred reverence of cattle, such as the cattle burials found at Nabta Playa.1 This domestication and semi-worship of cattle introduced several sources of food, through meat and dairy products. Interesting in itself, as it shows the emerging control of homo sapiens over their own environments, this domestication is even more interesting for the subsequent genetic changes it has induced in human populations.

Most mammals can not digest dairy products as adults; homo sapiens are no exception. The gene coding for the enzyme that digests milk products, lactase, is expressed after birth in order for infants and young toddlers to break down their mother's milk, but gradually decreases expression after weaning. This is not the case, however, in traditionally pastoralist populations, such as those in northern Europe and Africa .Through mtDNA transcription studies, as well as genomic sequencing of those with lactase persistence, the coding gene has been found to be dominant in pastoralist societies2. The high prevalence of this lactase persistence phenotype (~90%) compared to non pastoralist populations (~1-20%) suggests natural selection for the genotype that produces lactase well into adulthood, allowing pastoralists to exploit the dairy provided by their cattle, further equipping them for species survival. This relationship between cultural practice and biological fitness suggests that human culture has gradually outfitted the human population for greater survival.

Another example of this cultural influence on human fitness is the emergence of malaria resistance in Africa. In Western Africa, ancient agriculturalists began clearing rain forests for yam farming land as early as 8000 BC.3 This deforestation allowed for pools of water to form where they otherwise would not have, providing the perfect breeding ground for malaria carrying mosquitos. The gene that confers resistance to malaria, when possessed by a heterozygous person (a person who has two differing copies of the same gene), allows for normal phenotype (physical characteristics) with resistance to malaria, but when possessed homozygously (a person has two identical copes of a gene), this gene causes sickle cell anemia, a deadly disease of the blood. Because of its lethal capabilities, this gene is extremely rare in most human populations, thus rarely causing any sort of trouble, but in agricultural communities in warmer tropical climates where malaria carrying mosquitos are found, natural selection has favored a heterozygous genotype for the sickle cell anemia gene, making the gene, and subsequently, the disease, incredibly prevalent in those select populations4. Again with this example we see a genetic advantage selected for based on cultural mediation of environment. These genetic modifications suggest that though humans have found ways to selectively manipulate their surroundings for thousands of years, high cognitive functioning does not a modern human make. Homo sapiens still underwent, and are probably undergoing, relentless natural selection based on the self imposed changes within their societies.

This relationship between culture and genetics is not always so clear, though there are several more examples mostly relating to diet, skin tone, disease resistance, and sexual reproduction, which are the most survival related characteristics, but the reverse analogging of genetics can also be an effective method in tracing these genetic selections. Through genomic sequencing, a gene called RSEN/PSEN1 has been found to be more prevalent in African Yoruba societies than elsewhere.5 This gene cleaves amyloid plaques in the brain; the plaques that are the main effectors of brain function loss in Alzheimer's disease. In these Yoruba populations, Alzheimer's disease is exceedingly rare. Knowing what we do about gene-culture co-evolution in small populations, we can look at these populations with genetic resistance to Alzheimers and possibly extrapolate the historical environmental or cultural changes conferring this genotype. Further archaeological research must be done to propose any logical theories regarding this resistance to Alzheimers. Both disciplines, evolutionary genetics, and archaeology depend on each other to construct informed theses about the migrations and evolution of peoples across the world, and to answer the questions about ourselves that we desperately seek the answers to. Who are we? And why are we the way we are? We know why some peoples have malaria resistance and the ability to drink milk, but these genetic clues are merely a small piece to the infinitely large puzzle of human evolution.

1Wendorf, F. and R. Schild 1998, Nabta Playa and its role in Northeastern African Prehistory, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 17: 97-123.

2Tishkoff, S, et al., Convergent adaptation of human lactase persistence in Africa and Europe, Nature Genetics, 2007, 39:1


4Laland et al., Cultural Niche Construction and human evolution, Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 2001, 14:1:22-33.

5Voight BF, Kudaravalli S, Wen X, Pritchard JK, A map of recent positive selection in the human genome, PLoS Biol, 2006, 4(3): e72.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"The essential ingredient of feasting"

Although many students of archaeology may frequently think about beer, they most likely do not think about beer in the context of African archaeology. Luckily for those curious about both African archaeology and beer there is the enlightening article in the 2003 journal World Archaeology by John W. Arthur titled “Brewing beer: status, wealth and ceramic use alteration among Gamo of south-western Ethiopia”. In this article Arthur elaborates the importance of beer to many African cultures through an extensive literature review and his own ethnoarchaeological research of the ceramic pots of the Gamo people of south-western Ethiopia.

Ethnoarchaeology is defined by as “the branch of archaeology that studies contemporary primitive cultures and technologies as a way of providing analogies and thereby patterns for prehistoric cultures”. In Arthur’s research the ‘primitive culture’ (please excuse the offensive political incorrectness) is the Gamo people and their technology is the production of beer in large ceramic jugs. These jugs become extremely corroded on the inside by the acidity of the fermenting beer. Arthur makes the conclusion that this sort of ‘surface attrition’ found in ceramic jugs could be an indicator of beer production in other African archaeological sites. This finding is significant to archaeology because beer is argued earlier in the article to be important to the culture of the Gamo people as well as many other peoples present and past throughout Africa.

The production of beer requires a substantial amount of grain, bananas, or sorghum as well as many days work, usually done by women. Due to the land and labor-intensive requirements for production, beer is recognized as an important symbol of wealth. The Gamo people use beer in every single religious and political ceremony. This culture is dominated by a hierarchical caste system where the topmost caste, the mala, have complete control over agricultural land. The mala are the only group wealthy enough to produce beer and this subsequently gives them complete power over all religious and political rituals because they require beer. The richest of the mala is chosen by the community to be the ritual sacrificer who performs animal and beer sacrifices for the fertility and healthy the people, crops, and animals. Before the chosen rich mala is officially the ritual sacrificer he must provide two beer feast to all the people in his political district. These feast prove the ritual sacrificer’s wealth because they must produce enough beer and food for around 300 people. Through the beer feasts the community is brought together and the richest person must share his wealth with all. Consequently the Gamo avoid situations like Occupy Wall Street.

In conclusion, it is important to look for the production of beer in the archaeological record because this luxury good can indicate the social relations and wealth of the community. Evidence of ‘surface attrition’ or corrosion of large ceramic vessels indicates the production of beer. Many vessels could point to large-scale production of beer, which results from agricultural success. Large quantities of beer can potentially lead archaeologist to infer cultural qualities like trade, feasts, organization of work parties, taxes and wealth redistribution if paired with other archaeological finds or ethnographic evidence. Evidence of this important social lubricant could indicate complex cultures otherwise lost in the archaeological record.

This article makes me think differently about the significance of my own cultural practices surrounding beer consumption. In my college community as well as in the Gamo community beer brings people together. Although the alcohol content can have an affect on peoples' inhibitions, it can be argued that simply the act of sharing and participating in a common activity can enhance social interactions and strengthen community bonds. This concept reminds me of the classic scene in Judd Apatow's cult classic t.v. show "Freaks and Geeks". In the episode titled "Beers and Wiers" the dorky little brother, Sam, replaces the keg at his sister's house party with a keg of nonalcoholic beer. The party continues with normal high school debauchery and community building even without the interference of alcohol. I wonder if this social experiment would turn out similarly at my own house parties or even at the Gamo beer feasts.

Arthur, John. "Brewing Beer: Status, Wealth and Ceramic Use Alteration among the Gamo of South-western Ethiopia." World Archaeology 34.3 (2003): 516-28.