Preserving now for the future

Space archaeology aims at making sure our history isn’t lost to time

Each day that slips by us turns a little more of the present into the past.  The things we are doing today may be aimed at carving a road into the future, but it’s imperative that we don’t let the evidence of our passing get lost and forgotten.  One branch of archaeology, the growing field of space archaeology, is aimed at doing just that.

Recently, archaeologists went out of their way to recover the remains of the Saturn V rockets from the Atlantic Ocean.  As older rockets tended to do, they launched in stages and would leave bits of themselves behind once those parts were no longer useful.  In order to keep them from falling on anyone’s head, the rockets were launched over the ocean.  These pieces of the Saturn V rockets had been sitting in the ocean for more than 50 years now, under threat of being lost forever.  It was up to Jeff Bezos, the founder of the Internet giant Amazon to rescue them.

Finding the rockets was no easy task.  This major undertaking employed flight data from the original launch combined with sonar scanning and some undersea robots to seek out the proper location.  Unfortunately, the engines recovered are not complete and the main goal, the recovery of the famous Apollo 11 rockets, has not yet been achieved.  The action of the ocean on the metal made it difficult to figure out exactly which rockets were which.

Bezos won’t get to keep the rocket parts he found, of course, since they’re still technically owned by NASA.  But his motivation wasn’t to grab them up for himself, but to recover and preserve them for prosperity.  His next goal is to see if the rockets can be reassembled so that they can go on display at the Smithsonian space museum for the entire world to see.

The dying art of archaeology

Lack of student interest and university funding threatens the future of the past.

Archaeology is a complicated study and with the addition of new technologies and methods of discovering historical sites, the discipline often requires reliance upon other fields to operate properly.  But while those peripheral technological fields may be growing, the actual study of archaeology itself may be in danger.  Along with the shrinking of archaeology programs within universities, this discipline has a number of other problems that may prove to be hurdles in the future.

The numbers of people practicing within the field are already low, but now they are getting worse.  People are tending to think of archaeology as not being a viable course of study.  It’s easier to secure employment and a larger paycheck if one devotes their university time to things like business, engineering or computers.  In our economic climate, the pursuit of an economically viable trade often overrides the desire to study something you love, especially when you consider the steadily rising cost of higher education.

In conjunction with that shift comes the dwindling numbers of archaeology programs available.  University funds are being channeled into areas where those who control the money are reasonably sure that they can find students to fill seats and pay tuition.  Thus, they are forced to model their curriculums on economic factors as opposed academic ones.  Since education is one of the major areas to suffer due to economic difficulties, these decisions must be made constantly.  Thus, archaeology sees fewer students, less classroom time and less funding overall.

It’s unfortunate that we have to sit back and watch this happening.  The study of our past is important in understanding not only ourselves, but the future as well.  If people lose the motivation and ability to put priority on archaeology, many sites and artifacts may be lost while we sit around trying to make up our minds.

This week in the war of history

A few victories and a major defeat for the protection of our past.

The war for the past is fought every day in every country.  It is fought for by the people who want to preserve our history and culture and by those who see profits or misguided ideology as the best answer.  And every day that the war is fought, there are more casualties.  Not necessarily casualties of human lives, but losses of sites and artifacts that can never be replaced.  Like every fight, there are victories and losses.  Here are a few of the highlights of the battles of the last few weeks.

First of all was a victory by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) against some tomb raiders.  This group was found trying to loot a 1st-century burial chamber near the site of Kibbutz Metzer, and the IAA suspects that they may be the same group that has been looting sites in the area for months now.  It’s too late for many of the stolen artifacts, but hopefully, with the arrests, no more history will be pawned away.

In another win for our side, some 3500-year-old rock carvings, stolen from a Native American site, were finally recovered.  Against the odds, authorities managed to find these amazing discoveries, although no one has of yet been arrested in connection with the original theft.

And last of all, another bit of greed and religious blindness taking precedence over the importance of preserving a country’s history.  The Iran Cultural Heritage and Handcraft Organization (ICHHO) is a group that is supposed to be dedicated to protecting Iranian culture.  Instead, they do pretty much the opposite. 

A construction project was approved by the ICHHO that will have as a casualty the ancient city of Jondi Shapur.  The city has before now been ignored due to the fact that it is a pre-Islamic site, and the proposed construction will finish it for good.  Dozens of sites have been destroyed for similar reasons under the not-so-watchful eyes of the ICCHO

This week is a bit better than most, although the loss of an entire country’s worth of history and culture may be the result if something doesn’t change in minds of Iranian protection authorities.  Hopefully, with education and dedicated, we’ll get to a point where every week has more wins than losses.

History and fraud

How much does the need to be right influence the truth of history?

Browsing through the latest archaeological finds (as I am wont to do), I sought to find out what the explorers of history had stumbled across this week. Instead, I came across an interesting and somewhat disturbing story that revolves around a man by the name of Simcha Jacobovici. Apparently, this individual is a Biblical historian who has been many times famous and many times condemned for the sometimes controversial finds he’s made with regards to the history of Christianity. Several have accused him of being false with his finds and one man even went so far as to declare him a fraud outright.  This, in turn, prompted Jacobovici to sue him.

Though the lawsuit itself is ultimately unimportant, the questions it raises are.  Being that Jacobovici’s finds had mostly to do with Christian history, I have to wonder how much of the resistance is legitimate archaeological debate and how much of it is instead nothing more than a group of Christian history-seekers who desire to keep their version of events as the legitimate one.  Is it the religion itself that is causing such resistance?

I also have to wonder at the lawsuit.  Jacobovici claims that the words spoken against him were libelous and that they resulted in him losing funding for a television project.  But isn’t the reward in archaeology in the discovery of the truth?  Or is it more geared toward making cash from some media project?

Too often archaeologists feud simply for the sake of being right.  Findings and theories are refuted because a particular group has a vested interest in being right, for religious reasons or otherwise.  Religion is certainly the biggest one, though cries of fraud have also been heard when one archaeologist is trying to defend his own theories.

In my opinion, these sorts of things do nothing more than work against the finding of truth.  If Jacobovici is indeed a fraud, then he won’t be able to hide for long.  His findings will be refuted (through scientific examination) and his name brought down in time.  But if he is right, then even those who disagree with him need to open themselves to the possibility of a new history for the Bible. It is the speculation and creativity of these scientists that forms theories and eventually leads to understanding and screaming senselessly back and forth at each other is not helping humanity understand the truth of its past.

Destruction in the Gaza Strip

Archaeological sites and artifacts being lost along with lives.

The Middle East is one of the cradles of humanity.  This means that it also happens to be one of the places in the world that is packed near solid with artifacts of the past.  And, unfortunately, as modern circumstance dictates, it is a place of much conflict.  So many cities, artifacts and other pieces of history lie beneath the soil, spanning thousands of years, but human wars once again threaten the safety of these historical treasures.  This time the target is the Gaza Strip, and the main offender is Israel.

Israel and Israeli-occupied Palestine have been in perpetual conflict for decades now.  As the fighting continues, so too does the inevitable destruction of precious archaeological sites.  With more than 5000 years buried in the Gaza Strip, detailing both Palestinian and Jewish history, one would think that both parties would have a vested interest in making sure they come to no harm.

Instead, the contest for this land has damaged and destroyed everything from small artifacts to entire sites.  When whole cities are buried, it’s hard to shoot anything anywhere without hitting something of value.  The latest attack was the Israeli bombing of sites they saw as key to Palestinian resistance.  The non-human casualties consisted of a Byzantine church, a set of ancient city walls and even the offices of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities - the very people in charge of preserving the sites.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of fixing the damage done is next to none.  There’s too little money going around and too many potential projects.  In addition, the situation is made more complicated because people sometimes link the Ministry with terrorist organizations, which means they receive very little outside funding. 

Many of those digging and trying to preserve the artifacts are doing so for little or no pay.  Another major problem is Israel’s tight control over what is allowed in Gaza.  Archaeologists are unable to get much of the equipment they need to excavate properly, so they’re doing so with severely antiquated tools.

All this history left undiscovered is a horrible crime, almost as horrible as the killing that seems will never stop.  A pointless conflict is damaging the clues to both peoples’ past.  If something isn’t done quickly, all this human knowledge will be lost permanently and it will be our own faults as humans, considering only our immediate needs instead of those of future generations.

Archaeology’s new tool: Bone-sniffing dogs

Training dogs to find hundreds-of-years-old bones.

Over the years, canines have been used in a wide variety of scientific endeavors.  Animal and plant conservationists have long been using these furry critters in their own work due to the dog’s superior sense of smell being able to root out rare or desired species.  Now, one ambitious dog trainer from Australia is looking to train them to a new purpose, one that involves digging up old history.  Or old bones, to be exact.

The first in this new line of sniffers goes by the name of Migaloo and so far her training has been a resounding success.  She’s able to find bones hundreds of years old, despite there being no distinct scent to them that we know of.  Migaloo was focused to be able to pick up the scent of bones by tempting her with her ball, which is, apparently, her most favorite thing in the world. 

After the initial months of training, her skills were put to the test using old Aboriginal bones taken from a museum and buried.  Though it may seem a bit odd to be snatching bones from a museum, the end result is well worth the initial investment.  So far, if Migaloo comes within 10 feet of a bone, she can sniff it out.  She’s managed to pinpoint the location of a 600-year-old burial ground among other things.

The next step, says the trainer, is to see if they can get her to be able to sniff out other archaeological remains, such as pottery or fossils.  Considering that pottery makes up the vast majority of archaeological finds, this could be a priceless boon to history hunters worldwide.  More dogs will be trained to do the same thing and eventually they may end up as common elements in the search for remains of the past.

If this program proves to be as successful as it first promises to be, it could greatly reduce the workload of archaeologists, removing the need for a lot of blind digging.  This could consequently create a rapid rise in the number of burial sites discovered and, if they can be trained to seek out other things, a rise in the number of known sites in general.  I personally find it amazing that we can use something as simple as a dog and get as many results as we do from our advanced technology.  I guess the old tried-and-true methods of detection still hold weight even in today’s world.

Digging up the history of beer brewing

3500-year-old brewery proves that people of the past were beer snobs as well

Beer is one man-made item that sits on the shelf beside such inventions as iron, the printing press and electricity when it comes to the significance it has had on shaping the lives of people over the course of history.  Though it may not have led to any scientific revelations (or may have?), it’s been present in cultures all over the world for thousands of years.  Much is known about how beer has made its way from the medieval days to the place it holds in the present day, but as far as ancient beer brewing goes, there’s still much to be learned.

One new discovery has archaeologists digging up a 3500-year-old microbrewery in Cyprus.  Dating from the Bronze Age, the site contains a kiln used for malting, pottery for storage, tools of various sorts and several other items that suggest that people back then were just as much the craft beer snobs that we are today.  They found evidence of organics that would have been used in the flavoring of beers, meaning that “beer-flavored beer” wasn’t the only thing that people enjoyed after a long day’s labor.

Back in the day, beer was considered to be the healthier alternative to other foods.  People often drank beer instead of water, due to the lack of precautions involved in the maintenance of clean water and a distinctively underwhelming sewer system.  It wasn’t just an excuse to get drunk, this belief, but an actual fact of the times.  Laws regarding its use or warnings to people about the damage it could cause weren’t a high priority.  And so these microbreweries popped up wherever people created a demand.

Who knows?  Maybe such finds will lead brewers in the modern age to rediscover some of the lost arts of creating unique and tasty brews.  If only for that, digging up the past is worth it.  Now, if only they could get the beer companies to sponsor such digs, we might be able to kill two birds with one stone.

Excavation on Syrian-Turkish border echoes wars of the past

Famous Biblical battle site reminds us that war never ends.

As if to demonstrate the endless cycles of war that human beings are prone to, one of the most important archaeological sites in Turkey lies on their border with Syria and also happens to have been the site of a famous Biblical battle.  The site is called Karkemish, a rich tapestry of temples, palaces and carvings depicting the world as it was dozens of centuries in the past.  And for one reason or another, it has been quite the task for archaeologists to finally get the site unearthed.


The first record of war in this area comes in the defeat of Assyrian and Egyptian armies at the hands of the Babylonians, more than 5000 years ago.  From there, the history of the region is mostly unrecorded, until it was found once more and set for excavation. 

The world famous T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) was part of one of the original attempts to clear away the earth from the location, though that attempt was stopped by war as well - World War I to be precise.  When workers went back, again they were stopped, this time by a conflict between the Turks and French in the region.

The message behind Karkemish seems to be that war will always repeat itself.  For thousands of years people have been killing each other, and that’s only what we know from recorded history.  Today, it’s Syrians doing the killing, bringing their own echoes of the past.  It is ironic that this important battle site is being consistently halted by war, as if to remind us of something.

Excavators hope to have the site open so that the public can view it by the year 2014, though the presence of the Syrian Civil War makes that timeline questionable.  A fair portion of the site is on the Turkish site and is already being overrun by settlers there.  Not to mention the possibility of war coming to the area. 

Hopefully, none of the site will end up more damaged than it already has been over the last century.  And maybe human beings will learn something from this - that war leads to little more than destruction and that we must learn the lessons of the past in order to have a better future.

Finding history in small things.

How even something as common as a button can tell a story

When I first started doing my studies of archaeology at the university, I was surprised to discover how much very small things can tell about a long extinct society.  My own revelation came in the form of potsherds - broken pieces of pottery.  Entire legions of archaeologists are devoted to the study of potsherds and even a small sampling of them can tell volumes about the time they came into existence, the people who created them and the society that those people lived in.  Now, once again the small things are showing their importance to understanding our past.

In this instance the key objects consist of a button and two coins found near the vast underwater ship graveyards of St. Augustine.  These three artifacts are providing researchers with clues that reveal the origins of some of the ships in the area.  With more than 50 known wrecks at St. Augustine, sorting through them all can be quite the task.

The button is from a uniform and is marked with the number 74.  This connects it to the 74th Regiment of the British Army, a Scottish military unit that was part of the British Revolutionary War fleet.  This fleet was said to have fled from Charleston in 1782 and 16 of the ships were recorded as sinking in the region of St. Augustine.  The coins may help to collaborate this link.

The next thing that archaeologists are looking to do is to find records of a cargo manifest and match it to the artifacts already found at the site.  If successful, they will be able to put names to the ships and make positive identifications.  All this because a button and two coins pointed them in the right direction.

Many people think that the world of archaeology is about finding great tombs and sunken treasure, but the truth of the matter is that it’s about finding many small clues to create a bigger picture.  This reality may perhaps be less glamorous than Indiana Jones makes it look, but the connection of these small finds is far more intriguing and challenging.

Was Jesus married?

Newly discovered writing has Jesus making reference to his “wife.”

It’s been a debate that has been going around theological circles for some time, the question of whether the historical Jesus had a significant other or not.  Most evidence would suggest that the answer is indeed negative, but the study of the possibility has been plagued by religious dogma for more than 2000 years.  The various brands of the Christian religion have always been patriarchal, and the presence of an important female figure in the Bible is something that most would prefer not to address.  A new piece of evidence, however, is forcing the issue once more.

The evidence in question is a piece of Coptic Christian scroll dating from around the 4th century CE.  It’s just a tiny piece of papyrus, but the words “Jesus said to them, my wife…” happen to appear on it.  There is further writing that suggests that the wife being referred to may be Mary Magdalene and that she may also have played a role as one of Jesus’s disciples.

Of course, the scroll has more than its share of problems and can not be taken as pure evidence that Jesus was married after all.  Early testing suggests authenticity as far as dating goes, but more tests still need to be run.  Also, the term “wife” is debated as to whether it actually means the same thing we think it to mean today, given the translation.  Some are saying the text may be Gnostic in origin, linking it to the 2nd century branch of Christianity that used alternate gospels and has since been denounced by the more “official” churches of today.

At the heart of the debate is an issue that may greatly affect how the study of the scroll will be approached.  The Catholic Church refuses to allow women into the priesthood and those with an interest in keeping the status quo will no doubt dismiss the evidence without giving it a second though.  It will be the task of more liberal theological scholars to examine and either prove or disprove what is written on this ancient scroll.  They will also have to work against the popular elements of the church whose interests lie in finding it to be false.

It may be a small bit of evidence and not enough to change the way people think about Jesus and the Christian religion, but it is the pursuit of knowledge here that matters.  Even those who are against the idea should be supporting the research instead of adhering to their dogma in the face of things that could threaten it.  Being stubborn does no good when trying to find the truth behind history.  Unfortunately, when it comes to religion, history tends to be whatever works best for keeping beliefs from changing.  And unless more of this scroll can be found, the truth behind the matter may never be known.