Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Archive for the ‘archeology’ Category

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

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I ran across a story about some mesolithic deer masks now on display in England. Pictured above. Found at the Star Carr site in England, dating to around 11,000 years ago. The mesolithic means they were no longer stone age hunters hunting big game, but had started to settle down and utilize a wider variety of food sources. So villages, houses, fishing nets, textiles and pottery even, but no agriculture. That’s the neolithic, which started about 5,000 years ago in Europe. These were very much modern humans though, just as smart as anyone today. And they had language, but no written language.

And while their scientific understanding of the world would be lacking, they would have had remarkable knowledge about the various plants and animals in the natural world around them. What was edible, how to prepare it, medicinal herbs, the seasons … to a depth and detail that would be breathtaking to one of us, raised cocooned from the natural world. I’m not trying to make a noble savage case, just trying to point out they were different from us, but not primitive in any meaningful lifestyle way. If a hundred of us and a hundred of them had to contest naked for possession of an island, they’d be feasting on the last of us in no time.

So yes, the deer skull masks, they were what got me here. They were found at Star Carr, a remarkably preserved mesolithic site in England. Usually from 11,000 years ago all we have are stones and bones, often only stones. At Star Carr we have tons of those, plus all sorts of wood artifacts preserved too. So it’s a wonderful snapshot of life in the mesolithic. However, since they left to written records, there are some big gaps in our knowledge. While we have a pretty good idea what the useful objects we find are for, what non useful objects were for is still a mystery.

And this is where we get back to the deer skull masks. What the heck were they used for? No one as yet has come up with a practical use for them. One suggested they might have been used (with hide still on them I suppose) for camouflage when hunting deer. There has not been a chorus of approval from other archeologists, who question just how stupid a deer would have to be to be fooled by a human in a deer mask. It’s reaching in other words. No, the mainstream view is that they were ritual objects, masks to wear during some sort of religious or spiritual purpose.

I guess. There’s certainly plenty of evidence that modern hunter-gatherers use ritual objects. On the other hand I wonder if the modern puritan streak in our culture colours people’s perception. By that I mean the idea that life is full of practical stuff, and what isn’t practical is religious. Humans now spend all sorts of energy doing impractical things. Even modern hunter/gatherers only spend about 20 hours a week on essential stuff like procuring food and shelter. (Wait, only 20 hours a week, why the hell did we invent civilization with 40 plus hour work weeks? Good question.)  1,000 years from archaeologists are going to find we spend enormous amounts of time and money building football stadiums. Will they think our stadiums are cathedrals? Few today would consider football a religious activity, with the exception of New York Jets fans.

So I dunno, I think there’s lots of non-utile possibilities for a deer mask. Games, sports, plays, telling stories to kids, stand up comedy sketches, anything. The possibilities are as endless as the human imagination. Granted half the reason I wrote this post is I think the masks are cool looking. Hell, that might have been the only reason they were made. And as well just how amazing it is that modern science is able to uncover how our ancestors lived. For more Star Carr pictures and information, this link is pretty good.

Coming soon, slaves and Roman fathers. Hope everyone is having a good week. I’m getting over Dick’s death. At least he left his mark. It’s right there on the highway, a big burned spot I will be driving over for years.

Copyright © 2019 Doug Stych. All rights reserved.

(Image: One of the deer masks found at Star Carr. Credit: Unknown, used without permission. I found it on a number of sites with no attribution, and Pixabay. So I’m guessing it’s public domain under US copyright law.)

Written by unitedcats

November 20, 2019 at 6:19 am

ÖTZI

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Oetzi_the_Iceman_Rekonstruktion_1

(Image credit: Thilo Parg / Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

A few days ago on Facebook I posted about the anniversary of the discovery of Ötzi in the Ötztal Alps. Those are the Alps between Austria and Italy. (Yes, that’s how he got his name.) Pictured above in all his reconstructed glory. He was discovered on 19 september, 1991. He is Europe’s oldest known natural mummy, over 5,000 years old. And a number of my Facebook readers had never heard of Ötzi, much to my amazement. Even better they thought his story was fascinating. And I thought, what a great topic for a blog!

So yes, nice couple out for a stroll in the Alps in 1991. They stumble across a body half frozen in the ice. They, and pretty much everyone else, figured it was some recent victim (as in years or decades old) of the dangers of travelling in the Alps. Such discoveries happen all the time. Fairly quickly it was realized Ötzi was older, much older than the usual crop of dead bodies found in the Alps. Thousands of years older in fact. I have followed Ötzi’s story from the beginning. What follows is partly from memory, partly from recent internet research. Enjoy.

So, he died about 5,250 years ago. At first it was thought some mishap had befallen him, or maybe just cold and exposure. Eventually though, it was determined to be murder most foul. OK, maybe a hunting accident, who knows. He had been struck in the back with an arrow, and bled out fairly quickly. Probably was murder though, his body had some other wounds indicating he had been in a fight or fights before his death. One study indicated that the blood of four different individuals was found on his weapons. No one was ever able to replicate the study though, so maybe not. The shot that killed Ötzi was a great shot, fired from considerably below him. Might explain why his killers didn’t get to his body and take his stuff.

And he had some great stuff, he was fully kitted out. Bow, arrows, knife, clothing, first aid kit, and niftiest of all, a copper axe. Yes, humans had started smelting and casting copper. Every copper axehead ever found was polished to a mirrored sheen, a labor intensive undertaking in the era before emery cloth. Thus the axe likely marked Ötzi as a high status or wealthy individual. Or a thief I suppose, “Shoot him, he’s got my axe!” Anyhow, a tremendous amount was learned from his possessions. One thing that stuck out for me in particular, there were over a dozen items made from wood. And every single item was made out of the exact type of wood best suited for the item in question. The same goes for the items made from animal hide. These people were plenty smart.

In some ways his stuff was the most important thing about him. This wasn’t some guy buried naked in a bog, or a body in a grave. This was a guy with all his possessions with him. In fact archeologists were so interested in that aspect that they went up and excavated everything around where Ötzi was found down to bedrock. And counted every seed, whatever. They got most of his hair and two of his fingernails doing this. Anyhow, here’s an article listing all his stuff with pictures.

Ötzi was about 45 at the time of his death. So he’d been around. Five foot three inches tall. Wiry, in good shape. Suffering from parasites and recurring bouts of a serious illness. Lots of tattoos, over fifty. All soot tattoos, just black lines. He is in fact the oldest known tattooed person. They may have been for medical pain relief or acupuncture type healing, as most of them were found on places like joints or his spine. His previous few meals were still in him, ibex, red deer, and chamois meat. Bread, roots, veges. His DNA shows he was lactose intolerant, so lactose tolerance was still not universal in Europe. They were also able to tell from his tooth enamel that he grew up about 50km south of where he was found, but later in life he moved to the region where he died. His bones also showed he spent a lot of time climbing up and down steep slopes, unusual for any era. So he might have been a mountain shepherd.

Whoever he was, Europe was a very different place then. There certainly were little villages, but no real towns as we would know them. It would have been mostly wilderness, though some agriculture had started.  There were dogs, but no cats yet where he lived. The bread Ötzi ate was apparently from cultivated grains. There had been standing stones and such in Europe, but Stonehenge was still centuries away.. Ötzi had likely never seen anything bigger than a wooden hut or hall. He might have heard tell though. The world’s very first cities were springing up in the Middle East, though the first pyramids were still centuries away.

Ötzi’s DNA shows he was most closely related to people who now live in Corsica and Sardinia. And interestingly enough scientists found 18 people currently living in the Alps who were descended from Ötzi, or a close male relative. His mother’s DNA didn’t live on, but his father’s did. Kind of wild knowing some of the people still living in the region are his direct descendants. Immortality in several ways. His DNA lives on, and countless millions of people know of him. It would have been very difficult to explain to him today’s world.

And no matter what we learn, we can only guess at who Ötzi was. His dreams, memories, fantasies, loves and all that made him human died with him on that cold mountain. We can only wonder. RIP Ötzi, long gone but not forgotten.

Copyright © 2019 Doug Stych. All rights reserved.

(Image: Otzi kitted out. Credit: The author Thilo Parg has licensed this file under license CC-BY-SA-3.0 to Wikimedia Commons. This means that a free, even commercial use is possible if the following conditions are met:

Online media:

Clearly legible indication of the author next to the picture: “Thilo Parg / Wikimedia Commons”

Readable license name next to the image: “License: CC BY-SA 3.0”)

Written by unitedcats

September 27, 2019 at 4:33 am

MOON ROVER DREAMS

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01

Slow news week. History kind of goes in spurts, every once and awhile something big happens that shifts gears, but for the most part it’s just more of the same. (Iran and North Korea are great cases in point, while there is the occasional blip, for the most part things have been the same since 1979 and 1953 respectively.) So no big news, but I have a few half written posts. None I am inspired to finish right now. There’s always more Trump follies, but how people aren’t bored of that already is a mystery to me. In this day in history, well, 700 odd years ago the largest trebuchet in history was used to knock down a castle, but getting a whole post out of the story proved … challenging. So here we go, random inspirations …

Japan is planning a lunar rover for use in 2029. Pretty cool, inspired by this no doubt. OK, lots of doubt, but it’s still a cool parallel. We’re talking the full deal here, manned and pressurized. Refrigerated sake storage, the works. The sci fi of my youth finally coming true. I still remember stories and books from when I was a kid, where humans would have moon bases, if not interstellar travel, by the 70s. A wee bit optimistic it turns out, but better late than never. I know, I’ll write a post about interstellar travel. That’s the ticket. My desperate search for today’s content has borne future fruit. Interstellar travel is possible with today’s technology, and whenever I say that there are howls of protest. It will be a fun post.

In the opposite direction, a well preserved 500 year old ship has been found at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Too cool for words, even some of its rigging appears intact. It’s nearly 500 feet down, hopefully beyond the reach of looters. And hopefully we have the technology to investigate it properly. It would be nice (I almost said ‘awesome’ but caught myself) if they could bring it up intact, but alas I suspect the cost would be prohibitive. At least to a species with priorities like ours. The best part, guess why it is so perfectly preserved? Viking cowshit! I kid you not. Parts of the Baltic have been low oxygen dead zones for much of the past 500 years, and the culprit is thought to be human activity. Too much nutrient load washed into the sea causes algal blooms, which die, sink to the bottom, and their decomposition uses up oxygen faster than it can be replenished by the mixing of seawater. See, there is a silver lining to wide scale ecological destruction.

A truly nuts conspiracy theory is making the rounds. Birds aren’t real. That’s right, the government killed them all in the sixties and replaced them with bird mimicking drones. They were killed off with specially modified B-52s, hat tip to the chemtrails folks I guess. Of course it’s absurd. In fact the “theory” was made up by one guy, it’s little more than a thinly veiled marketing scheme. Still, won’t surprise me if some take it seriously. If the Flat Earthers have taught us anything, there’s no bar too low for a conspiracy theory to squirm under. That’s why no links here, the times are crazy enough as it is without encouraging more.

And speaking of truly nuts, another from my “Gee, I guess normal people don’t do that file.” I miss a lot of memos it seems. Or my ‘update normal human behavior file’ is corrupt. Who knows, teams of mental health specialists have no clue. That was a joke. Was it an ableist joke? I don’t know, I hope not. Moving right along, I am active on the social site Agnostic.com. I have a profile, it has a section for pictures. I have a few of me, but mostly it’s a dozen or so of my all time favorite memes, cartoons, pictures, etc. I like to amuse people, and I think they give insight into what kind of person I am. So the other day I thought I’d check out what kind of pictures other people had posted in their profiles. And to my dismay, every single profile I checked only had a few pics posted, and all were pictures of the person in question, maybe some with pets and family. Oh well, another reason I’m still single.

So Friday, interstellar travel, already I have lots of thoughts. As always, comments, suggestions, shares appreciated.

Copyright © 2019 Doug Stych. All rights reserved.

(Image: Apollo Moon rover. Credit: NASA, used in accordance with NASA guidelines.)

Written by unitedcats

July 24, 2019 at 4:02 am

The Phaistos Disc

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Phaistos-Disc

Ah, the Phaistos Disc. (Click on image above for full size version.) It’s a fired clay disc about 5 1/2 inches wide with symbols pressed into each side in a spiral pattern. There are 45 unique symbols, comprising a “message” of 241 symbols. It was discovered in 1908 in Crete, and apparently dates from around 1500BC, give or take a few centuries. It was found in the basement of a Minoan Palace, where apparently it had lain since the basement collapsed in an earthquake. OK, kinda cool I guess, what is its significance? The significance is that no one knows what it says. The Phaistos Disc is indeed one of the greatest mysteries of archeology, despite a century of scholarship, the disc remain unreadable.

Is anything known about it? Not much. For a number of reasons scholars think it was meant to be read from the outside spiraling in. There are some other marks that may represent paragraph breaks, and a certain amount of editing and correction was done. So it’s pretty certain it is writing of some sort, not just decorative markings. It bears little resemblance to any other known writing, so scholars don’t really have much to go on. A few scholars still think it might be an early 20th century hoax, but most think it’s provenance is pretty solid. And a votive axe of similar age that was found in 1934, the Arkalochori Axe, shares some of the same symbols.  Though they are of no help in deciphering the Phaistos Disc because scholars concluded that the symbols carved on the axe were carved by an illiterate and were just strung together for looks. The bottom line is that 241 symbols simply isn’t enough text to decipher an unknown language written in an unknown alphabet. Until more examples of the text or a Rosetta Stone is found, it is unlikely the Phaistos Disc will be understood.

Of course this hasn’t stopped people from trying. Scholars of all stripes have made various stabs at it through the years. One particularly creative translation claims that the language is Basque, and the Disc reads as follows:

Side A: The lordling threshing the back of the vessels, the water-pitchers, the wine-holding olpe; | the lordling, fish with a pair of thongs, foul-skinned, leather scourge footed; | the lordling, horned reptile, the lordling of (or plying) the shuttle, | who smites the threads; the lordling, star holding a fowl | covertly (or in a bunch of flowers); the panting lord of the arrow, Rain-lord; | the lordling, little-horn, the lordling with plenteous-foaming hide, holding a fish; | the lordling, little-horn, the panting lord of the arrow, Rain-lord; | the lordling, little-horn; the lordling walking on a horseman (or hide), flaxen-coated; | the little horned one, sucking at the teat; the lordling, the thresher, | who holds a dewy spray, twin horse-head star; | the lordling with plenteous-foaming hide, the thresher, twin horse-head star.

Side B: The lordling skimming the girdle-tracks; the lord clenching the fist, bruising the skin | with delight, hewing at the flower of the teeth, | smiting with cestus, driving home; the lord walking on wings the breathless path, the star-smiter, | the foaming gulf of waters, dogfish smiter on the creeping flower; | the lord, smiter of the horse-hide (or the surface of the rock), the dog climbing the path, the dog emptying with the foot the water-pitchers, | climbing the circling path, parching the wine-skin, | the tall jars, the high-stemmed vessel, climbing the circling path, the solitary rocks; | the lord clasping to the breast the pillars; the dog holding and seizing the pitchers.

Well, that clears things up. As the gentle reader may surmise, this translation has not been accepted by the scientific community at large. And being an “unexplained” item, the Phaistos Disc has gotten plenty of attention from, shall we say, the more creative interpreters of all things ancient. Yes, some have seen signs of ancient aliens on the disc. One of the symbols even “looks like” a UFO on its side. And the Atlantis crowd finds support for their “theory” as well. It really is amazing to me that people with essentially no credentials whatsoever in a field actually think they will succeed where the experts have failed. Granted I’m sure it’s happened a few times in history, but still, we’re talking ancient languages and such, this is pretty arcane and academic stuff. Until actual evidence for UFOs or Atlantis is found, I think we can safely leave the Phaistos Disc out of that debate.

Lastly, the Phaistos disc does have one other unusual attribute. It apparently was made using movable type, IE the symbols weren’t carved by hand, they were pressed into the clay from stamps with raised symbols on them. This predates the next known invention of movable type by about 1500 years! In other words, some unknown and unsung genius invented a labor saving way to write more than a thousand years before anyone else hit on the same idea. My theory is that this is more proof of “Doug’s Theory of Laziness.” I posit that all of civilization’s great advances have been made or inspired by lazy people. In this case probably a bored slave who said “There’s got to be an easier way to inscribe all these fucking clay discs.”

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. Credit and copyright: Wikipedia User PRA. Coming soon, more ancient and archeological mysteries. The Hinterkaifeck pickaxe massacre. The Hollingsworth dog mummies. The Crocker Land expedition. Or whatever takes my fancy.)

Written by unitedcats

January 21, 2013 at 7:02 am

Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead?

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The conventional answer is yes, yes they did. In fact a quick web search will reveal any number of web sites touting this or that Neanderthal burial. They were almost human, they had stone tools and other implements of human culture, they were clearly human enough to mourn their dead. Apes, dolphins, and elephants mourn their dead. Neanderthal skeletons have been found in what appear to be graves, what’s the problem? The problem is that some academics with excellent credentials challenge the view that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead in the manner of humans. The claim is that because we bury our dead in a  ritualistic fashion, we have projected that behavior onto the scant evidence that exists for Neanderthal burials.

So, what is the evidence? Well, here is where the crux of the debate is. There are a few dozen cases where deceased Neanderthals appear to have been wholly or partially buried. The problem is that none of these cases is a “smoking gun” case. There is no such thing as a Neanderthal grave that was indisputably a grave. IE, body carefully laid out surrounded by tools, adornments, food, and other obvious items placed with the the dead in their grave:

burial_interp_large

The is the Amesbury Archer. Pretty hard to call that anything but a grave. There is no comparable Neanderthal site. Some of their graves might have had flowers and such buried with the body, but even that is debatable. A few did have a few grave goods, but again, it’s debatable. Worse, much worse in my opinion, there isn’t even a  Neanderthal grave where it is clear a hole was dug, the body placed inside, and the hole refilled with the dirt from the hole. In what cases were properly investigated (archeology has made a lot of progress since the 19th century,) the bodies appear to have been placed in natural depressions, and the dead weren’t always completely buried. Well, what does it matter? It matters because scientists are trying to answer the age old question, were Neanderthals human? IE could a typical Neanderthal have learned English and conversed with us? I’ve blogged about the Neanderthal speech debate here. If Neanderthals buried their dead as humans do, wouldn’t this mean they also believed in an afterlife of some sort? At the very least it would seem to indicate an understanding of individuality and life and death in a way that humans do. That’s the argument as I understand it, and the majority of Neanderthal researchers find it reasonably compelling.

The counter argument? The Neanderthals may have been simply disposing of the bodies. Aside from the smell, they would attract carnivores and scavengers. The picture is also muddied by the fact that Neanderthal skeletons have been found with marks where meat was carved from the bone. Cannibalism or ritual defleshing? No one knows. It’s also possible that the burial-like Neanderthal “graves” that have been discovered might simply have been Neanderthals mimicking their far more successful cousins, Homo sapiens, with no clear intent other than a vague idea that copying what they do might lead to more success for their hunts. Of course this gets into another muddy area, why did the Neanderthals eventually get wiped out when they came into contact with Homo sapiens? Current thinking, which is by no means definitive, is that they simply couldn’t compete with Homo sapiens much more sophisticated hunting and food gathering abilities.

In any event there’s no overarching point to this post, other than to point out that what we know about our closest known cousins in the human lineage is still subject to debate. And while the current consensus is that Neanderthals were humans (speaking figuratively,) it’s by no means cut and dry. Complicating the debate about Neanderthal cognizance even further, they had bigger brains than humans. Yet somehow their tool use remained rather simple and primitive right up to the very end. And then of course there is the messy business of humans and Neanderthals breeding with each other. Most people alive today have some Neanderthal genes, and we didn’t get them through cannibalizing Neanderthals. What was up with that?

Maybe someday, a post on recently discovered Neanderthal art as a follow up to this post about a Neanderthal “sculpture.” More posts on weird weapons of war are definitely coming up. And no, not a single person caught the smurf reference joke. I will not be posting about smurfs.

(The above images are claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. They aren’t being used for profit and are central to illustrating the post. For the top image, credit and copyright: Shanidar Burial. Image: JohnConnell, Flickr. The second image, I don’t know who holds the copyright, it’s posted all over the web. I’m guessing credit and copyright: Wessex Archeology. For more thinking on Neanderthal cognizance, this is interesting.)

Written by unitedcats

January 14, 2013 at 9:16 am