02 Nov 2015

Notes from a Time Sifter

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Flags, symbolism, and identity

During the summer of 2015, flags became a topic in the news when it was decided to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina.  Flags are strong symbols representing many things and so provoke intense feelings among people.  They have been used for that reason for a very long time. The word “flag” comes from “fflaken”, an Old Saxon word meaning “to fly” and have been used as a way to identify a group or an idea since prehistoric times. Cloth flags “fly” in the breeze but not all flags were made of cloth.

The earliest flags appear to have been made of wooden poles with carvings at the top.  Egyptian Nome leaders carried standards as early as the Early Dynastic Period (31st century b.c.e.). Others were made of metal attached to a pole. The oldest metal “flag” is made of bronze and dates to the 4th millennium b.c.e.  It was found in Kerman, Iran. Other images of “flags” have been found on ancient Greek and Phoenician coins indicating the common use of flags.

As far as we know, the Romans were the first to fly a cloth flag.  More than two-thousand years ago, Romans fastened a piece of colored and decorated fabric to the end of a spear.  It was called a “vexillum” which means “guide” and was used to keep the unit together because the soldiers could see it above the battle.  Later Romans tied cloth flags to a pole creating the flag we know today.  Flags were also carried onto the battlefields so that one could tell the difference between friend and foe. The flag’s symbols were painted on shields for the same reason, and by the Middle Ages, painted on suits of armor to demonstrate the ancestry of the knight who wore it. This was the origin of the “Coat of Arms “originally intended to protect and identify the wearer, and later used to brag about one’s heritage (medievalclassroom.com).

Flags also identified the owners of ships as they sailed the seas.  During the “Age of Exploration” (15th – 17th centuries), rival ships attacked each other and pirates roamed the seas to steal cargo.  Pirate flags warned of the consequences of resistance by raising their flags which were red, signifying blood, or black, signifying death.  Sometimes the pirate flags carried the picture of a skull with crossed bones or swords beneath the skull to show that there was no mistake in their intentions.  The pirate flag that we see in the movies with a white skull on a black background called the “Jolly Roger” is accurate except that the white skull usually had a red background.  Its name comes from the French jolie rouge that translates as “pretty red,” but meant “don’t even think about resistance.”  Colors were important and still are. Red still means danger and a black flag can mean death or determination.  White flags meant peace and are still the universal symbol of surrender.  Blue generally stands for truth and justice, and green signifies hope and love (vexillologymatters.org ).  Maritime international code flags spell out messages to alert sailors to distress.

Important leaders and regions have used flags as symbols also.  The oldest state flag in the world that is still in use by an independent nation is the national flag of Denmark, the “Dannebrog.”  It has flown since 1219 (funtrivia.com).  By the 18th century, flags that were used to identify the nations of the world became more common.  Today, all nations have their own flags, now called vexilloids after the Roman flags, and they symbolize the same intense patriotic feelings they provoked so many thousands of years ago.

22 Oct 2015

Ancient Human Teeth Found in a Chinese Cave Predate Homo Sapiens in Europe

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As reported in the science journal Nature, modern humans must have left their African homeland and migrated eastward to southern China at least 80,000 years ago. This contrasts with the date that our ancestors are known to have arrived in Europe, which was 45,ooo years ago. The article goes on to suggest that Homo sapiens was prevented, for some reason, from moving into Europe for tens of thousands of years. Anthropologist María Martinón-Torres, from University College London – a member of the team that made the discovery – is confident of the reason. She blames the Neanderthals.

Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and emerged from the continent about 100,000 years ago and swept eastward with little apparent resistance from other hominid species they encountered. But when they headed north, they reached the Levant and met the Neanderthals at the southern edge of their European domain. And there they stopped our spread. Essentially Europe was too small for the both of us.”

Check out the full story, and some contrary interpretation at this link:

Read the full story by Robin McKie as reported in The Guardian.


08 Oct 2015

Notes from a Time Sifter

Comments Off on Notes from a Time Sifter Ancient civilizations, Ancient Egypt, China, Explorers, Maya, Tombs, Uncategorized, Vikings


LiDAR, GPR, Magnetometers and More will Help Solve Archaeological Mysteries

Every archaeological excavation uncovers things that we do not know.  Sites are not always easy to find, and some, when discovered, are often difficult to understand.  Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist for National Geographic, believes that because of new methods and technology, archaeologists will find new sites and solve many unknowns during the twenty-first century. The October, 2015 issue lists seven of these.

(1) Using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), Hiebert believes that we will find unknown cities and civilizations of Central and South America that are now covered with dense jungle. LiDAR “sees” under the overgrowth to reveal buildings and foundations. Some remains have already been discovered with LiDAR (see MIT Technology Review, 6/26/15) that amazed archaeologists, and there are probably many more to be found. In addition, GPR (ground penetrating radar) allows archaeologists to “look” underground, no digging required.  GPR can survey very large areas for small features like tombs.

(2) Hiebert speculates thatthe “lost” tombs of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan could be found using GPR.

(3) The tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di surrounded by terracotta soldiers is known, but the artifacts are fragile so there is a reluctance to allow the opening of the tomb.  GPR and magnetometers (instruments for detecting the presence of ferrous or magnetic materials) can survey the interior of the tomb, and robotic devices can actually enter the tomb without harming the artifacts.

(4) We cannot yet decipher  the Minoan writing system called Linear A , (Sir Arthur Evans) so we do not know what language they were speaking.  If we knew, we could tell where they came from and what they were thinking. “Big Data,” a computer program invented by Jeff Jonas (National Geographic, 5/6/14), and IBM’s Watson (ibm.com/smarterplanet/us/en/ibmwatson/) can find connections that might allow us to finally read Linear A.  That would match the knowledge we have from Egyptian hieroglyphics deciphered by Jean Champollion, and the cuneiform of Mesopotamia that Henry Rawlinson figured out how to read.

(5) These computer analysis programs that can synthesize geographical and archaeological data could also help in understanding the purpose of the Nazca lines in Peru  (nationalgeographic.com).

(6) Hiebert thinks that even global warming will help uncover unknown data.  The ice sheets and glaciers are melting, exposing things that have been frozen for thousands of years.  A forty-thousand year old Ice Age mammoth was found in a receding glacier in Siberia in 2007 (National Geographic, May 2009).

(7) New Viking sites are being revealed along the Canadian coasts where temperatures have risen.  Hiebert believes more will be exposed and that these could change the history of the “discovery” of America.

Fredrik Hiebert sees an exciting future for twenty-first century archaeologists. The October, 2015 issue of the National Geographic magazine presents the story with its usual fantastic pictures.  The National Geographic Society was founded in 1888.  The first wildlife pictures were published in their magazine in 1906, and in 1912, they gave an archaeology grant to Hiram Bingham to excavate Machu Picchu.  They have continued to support scientific adventures, including archaeology, ever since. We hope they continue forever.

17 Sep 2015

New Hominid Species Discovered in African Cave, an astounding discovery reveals clues to what made us human

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Dr. Lee Berger

Dr. Lee Berger

Every once in a while a new discovery in anthropology is so exciting it fires imaginations far beyond the halls of science. The discovery of Homo naledi is one of those times. Wits University  announced the discovery  on September 10, 2015 of a new species of human relative, and named it Homo naledi.

And most remarkable, besides shedding light on the origins and diversity of our genus, Homo naledi also appears to have intentionally deposited bodies of its dead in a remote cave chamber, a behaviour previously thought limited to humans.
The story itself, as told on PBS’s NOVA, is enthralling. Details include renowned anthropologist Professor Lee Berger buying a motorcycle for an out-of-work former student, telling him to go find some fossils; said student tapping into the community of cavers to help him; two amateur cavers exploring deep into a fissure and finding a barely accessible chamber littered with bones; a knock on the anthropologist’s door at nine o’clock at night, with the message “you WILL want to let us in”; shrieks and profanity as he views the astounding video from the cave; and a social media job posting for “skinny scientists who are not claustrophobic”.
What they found is an unprecedented trove of hominin fossils — more than 1,500 well-preserved bones and teeth — representing the largest, most complete set of such remains found to date in Africa. The discovery of the fossils, cached in a barely accessible chamber in a subterranean labyrinth not far from Johannesburg, adds a new branch to the human family tree, a creature dubbed Homo naledi.

“We have a new species of Homo, with all of its interesting characteristics,” says John Hawks, a University of Wisconsin-Madison paleoanthropologist and one of the leaders of a team that painstakingly retrieved the fossils under excruciatingly cramped and difficult conditions. “We now have the biggest discovery in Africa for hominins.”

In addition to identifying an entirely new species in the genus Homo, the collections of fossils, which bear no marks from predators or scavengers, are strong evidence that Homo naledi was deliberately depositing its dead in the cave, according to Hawks, a UW-Madison professor of anthropology.

“We think it is the first instance of deliberate and ritualized secreting of the dead,” says Hawks. “The only plausible scenario is they deliberately put bodies in this place.”

Read more at:

Video and story of Dr. Berger, Wits University

University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Fossil trove adds a new limb to human family tree.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 September 2015. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150910131807.htm

02 Sep 2015


Comments Off on NOTES FROM A TIME SIFTER: The Roanoke Mystery Uncategorized
Images from the Trustees of the British Museum, All Rights Reserved

Images from the Trustees of the British Museum, All Rights Reserved

Archaeologists love to solve mysteries, and one of the most interesting American mysteries is the disappearance of the men, women and children who vanished from the Roanoke Island colony between 1587 and 1590. They were the third group of England’s first attempts to establish a presence in North America.  We know what happened to the first group of 107 men that landed on Roanoke Island in 1585. They were all soldiers and adventurers sent by Sir Walter Raleigh who had a charter from Queen Elizabeth to explore and draw maps while the ships returned to England for supplies. Within a year the explorers had angered their Native American neighbors, so when Sir Francis Drake stopped at Roanoke on his way back to England after his attack on Spanish St. Augustine, they eagerly took the opportunity to sail home. When Raleigh’s supply ships returned to the settlement, they found it deserted and sailed back to England, but left 15 men behind to protect Raleigh’s claim. In 1587, Raleigh sent a third group, not soldiers this time, but 115 men, women and children who arrived to find only a skeleton (probably the remains of one of the 15 men). In spite of these frightful circumstances, the colonists agreed to stay and promised to leave a coded instruction if they left the settlement before the ships returned with reinforcements. Part of the message was to be a Maltese cross, a code meaning that they had been attacked. The ships were delayed in England by a war with Spain, and did not return to the colony until 1590 when they found the colony abandoned and houses were taken down. Only the cryptic messages, “Croatoan” carved on one of the wooden posts of the palisade surrounding the tiny settlement, and “CRO” scratched on a tree, remained (Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation, 1590).  There was no Maltese cross, but the word “Croatoan” was the name of the Native American Indians on an island 50 miles south. However, a search could not be conducted at that time because of bad weather, and the ships returned to England without any information about the settlers.

Interest in the mysterious disappearance has continued for more than 400 years.  Stories of gray or blue-eyed Indians with yellow hair spread, but no definitive evidence was ever found. Now, archaeologists believe they have an answer. New evidence shows that the colonists did have a relationship with the Native American settlement on the island of the Croatoan (Hatteras Island) as well as with another Indian settlement about 50 miles northwest of Roanoke Island at Albemarle Sound near what today is Edenton, North Carolina. These conclusions were reached because of new technology now available to archaeologists (New York Times, Aug. 11, 2015, and National Geographic, Aug. 7, 2015.

The first new evidence comes from a map of the entire area drawn by John White, an artist and cartographer of Raleigh’s 1585 and 1586 expeditions.  It shows the Virginia and Carolina coasts as well as Indian villages of the area. John White had put patches over two areas on the map.  The patches could not be removed without damaging the map so no one knew what the patches covered.  But in 2012, archaeologists applied X-ray spectroscopy to the patch covering the Albemarle site that revealed a sketch of a fort underneath. This was also the site of an Indian village, and a fort would indicate the presence of the English in this area as early as 1586, White’s second trip to North America.  Tree ring analysis indicates that a severe drought hit the Roanoke area between 1587 and 1589. An English fort at the inland site would have been a logical destination for starving Roanoke colonists.  At the very least, it shows that the colonists knew that the site had been explored by the English as a likely place to plant a settlement. Excavations have not revealed a fort, but using LIDAR, radar that can “see” under the foliage, archaeologists found English artifacts such as ceramics at Roanoke colony that match the ceramics at Albemarle. The ceramics, called Border ware, were made in England at pottery industries on the Surry/Hampshire border during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Border ware found at Roanoke and Albemarle was specific to the time of the Roanoke settlement.  No Border ware has been found at the Croatoan Indian village on Hatteras, but other English artifacts are there such as a16th century signet ring and gun hardware (Phelps, Croatan Archaeological Site Collection).  These indicate close interactions between the settlers and the Indians at both sites. The presence of women and children could have softened the relationship between the settlers and the Indians who had initially been friendly to the first group of male explorers in 1585 and were again friendly at the first landing of explorers at what eventually became Jamestown (Archer Diary, 1607, National Archives CO 1/1).

DNA studies of Croatoan descendants are ongoing in the search for clues (Associated Press, 6/11/2007) and archaeologists will certainly be excitedly digging for more answers.

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