Excavation of the Kuukpak sod house
Climate change doesn’t offer much that’s positive, but a small gift to science may be the archaeological artifacts that are exposed when ice melts. Dwellings, tools, and human remains, undisturbed for thousands of years, are suddenly accessible to study. Ötzi the Iceman was a prime example, found after 5,300 years when hikers stumbled on his body in a glacial gully of the Ötztal Alps. Such finds are valuable glimpses into ancient worlds.
Sites that are discovered because of a warming earth, however, come with a scientific expiration date. Once exposed to the elements, these finds can deteriorate or scatter, pushing archaeologists to work fast to study and preserve them before they’re gone.
Scholars can glean information about the ancient Greeks by examining the images and writings on their pottery. Some vases contain nonsense inscriptions, however: combinations of Greek letters that don’t translate to any known words. One scholar played a hunch about these gibberish words and, in the process, gave voice to languages that hadn’t been heard for thousands of years.
The work began with a study of 12 Greek vases in Athens from the period 550 B.C. to 450 B.C. Stanford University Research Scholar Adrienne Mayor and J. Paul Getty Museum Assistant Curator David Saunders translated inscriptions next to scenes of Amazons fighting, hunting, and shooting arrows. The inscriptions were written in ancient Greek but didn’t form Greek words, so they could only be transcribed by sounding out each letter.
(© South Tyrol Museum
Ötzi the Iceman died between 3500 – 3100 BC in the Tyrol region of the Italian Alps. Ice quickly covered him and preserved his body until German hikers discovered it in 1991. Ötzi was found with his clothing, tools, and weapons – a snapshot of Copper Age life and a rare gift to archaeologists.
He was also found with almost 50 tattoos.
Archaeologists had never seen tattoos from the Copper Age before. Body tattoos were known to exist in ancient times, but the only evidence of that work is contained on figurines and wall carvings, which might or might not be accurate. Ötzi’s skin was a direct record from the past, although the information it contained was unpretentious: simple lines and crosses on his ankles, wrists, knees, lower back and Achilles tendon. These wouldn’t be the designs or sites to pick if his purpose was only body decoration. Many scientists now believe, however, that his markings weren’t art at all, but systematic healing therapies.
The remnants of ancient cultures are often hidden by more than dirt. What isn’t eventually reclaimed by forests and jungles can be hidden by urban development. Technologies originally developed for other purposes, however, are being harnessed to survey large parts of the planet for science, and their effect on archaeology has been particularly dramatic. . .
Egypt may top most archaeological A-lists but Sarah Parcak, of the University of Arkansas, has shown that there’s still a lot left to excavate. She used satellite imagery to locate 17 new pyramids, 1000 tombs, and 3,100 ancient settlements without setting foot in Egypt’s sands.
Afghanistan isn’t a healthy place for hiking, especially for Westerners, so David Thomas, of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia used Google Earth to locate over 670 new archaeological sites in Afghanistan’s Registan Desert without leaving his lab.
A new brain imaging study has shown evidence that human language might have emerged together with advanced tool making skills. Because we can physically date much of the timeline for tool making, the work indicates that language could have emerged almost two million years ago – far earlier than Homo sapiens.
While the results aren’t definitive, the study demonstrates
- New technologies that monitor brain performance while people perform practical tasks, and
- New methods for dating events that don’t have physical records (like language) by associating them with events that do
Work like this brings neuroscience into the realm of experimental archaeology, offering new approaches to studying the past.