Bumper Update Pt. 5- News Roundup 2: Pocahontas, why Egypt’s history is under threat and why you shouldn’t trust the media

Time for the second news roundup of the bumper update! We start with Pocahontas, the real one, not the Disney film. Archaeologists in America are currently excavating the capital of the Pocahontas’ tribe, where she rescued Captain John Smith from death at the hands of her father the chief. Usually archaeology involving Native American’s past is a very sensitive subject, with all sorts of clashes of ideas and sometimes even legal battles. This site however is being investigated with the help of Native Americans leaders, aiding interpretation and ensuring their wishes, such as not disturbing burial grounds, are met. This comes as part of a deal which loans the 57 acre Virginia farm to archaeologists for more than a decade, allowing it to be researched and eventually preserved.

Many in the area see this as an important landmark in the presentation of their history, hoping it will help people understand that before Europeans arrived there were in fact complex civilisations in the Americas. Kevin Brown, chief of the Pamunkey tribe, said “History didn’t begin in 1607 and there are a lot of people who overlook that.” Now I’m not sure that anyone actually thinks that, not even in Texas, I mean the Europeans had to live somewhere before they came over to America! Anyway, everyone knows history started in 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. From what I gather though history education in America does only really focus on European American history, which is a real shame. Finally, for this story, stupid comment of the week (maybe I should make this a regular feature) goes to Kathleen Kilpatrick, the Director of the state’s Historic Resources Agency, who said of the site “In tangible ways, it is their Jamestown”. Quite what these ways are I’m not sure, it certainly wasn’t their first settlement in North America, it wasn’t a colony, and it wasn’t beset by cannibals. At least not so I’ve heard. Yet.


There has been yet more news from Egypt recently, this time concerning the sheer scale of damage being done to the country’s archaeology. First up, the Gate of Ramses IX of the Ramesside Temple of Ra in Cairo has been set alight. A spokesperson for the Supreme Council of Antiquities said shortly afterwards that there was no information about the extent of damage or whether the fire was actually in the ancient area. Quite how they cannot know this if it was the gate that was burned I don’t know. It seems rather like an attempt to downplay any uproar to me. Meanwhile Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna said that, as a result of the fire, the gate’s inscriptions are in a very bad condition. Along with previous attempts to damage the temple, she believes it to be part of a systematic campaign aimed at seizing the land on which the temple lies. In order to ensure adequate protection she believes the site should be made a tourist attraction.

In more remote areas the present instability has had even greater effects. Since March, at Aswan on the western bank of the Nile, an ancient Egyptian necropolis, Qubbet Al-Hawa (Dome of the Winds), has been illegally excavated and tombs looted by armed gangs looking for antiquities to sell. The area contains vividly decorated tombs belonging to local nobles from the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, some of which are open to the public for viewing. Since the revolution no guards have been in place at this site, allowing this looting to take place in the unexcavated areas of the site. Monica Hanna recently launched a campaign called Egypt’s Heritage Task Force to keep an eye on ancient sites and encourage Egyptians to protect their heritage.

At the burial ground Abu Sir al Malaq, used from 3250 BC until 700 AD, armed gangs have threatened Hanna as she tries to document the destruction. Mummified bodies, coffins, bones and artefacts lie littered across the site and some Islamic religious leaders have ordered pagan antiquities to be destroyed and issued directives on the appropriate way to loot them. Here too, police and local authorities are unable, or at least unwilling to try to stop the criminal gangs and locals who desecrate the site. Whilst some of the site was excavated in the early 20th century, much of it was not, and now Hanna estimates that 70% of it is gone, with new pits dug each time she visits. The local antiquities director however suggests that the site is “80% stable” and points out that recently 15 looters were arrested and 9 coffins recovered. Again this seems to be a case of government officials trying to downplay the situation, refusing to admit the extent of their lack of control. Compared to the huge scale of destruction 9 coffins amounts to very little.

Abu Sir al Malaq (Shawn Baldwin, Tribune Review)

Abu Sir al Malaq (Shawn Baldwin, Tribune Review)
















Moving away from Egypt now, a discovery of more than 30 anchors off of the island of Pantelleria, Sicily has provided a more in depth look at one of the events of the First Punic War (264-241 BC) between Rome and Carthage. Pantelleria was fiercely contested during the Punic Wars due to its strategic location, and was taken by the Romans in 255 BC, but lost again a year later. Leonardo Abelli, from the University of Sassari, claims that this is evidence of Carthaginian ships cutting them free in order to escape quickly. They also seem to have abandoned part of their cargo to improve their speed. Two years ago the same team found around 3,500 coins nearby, and a casual reading of the news story seems to suggest that these two finds are linked, especially given Abelli’s assertion that they were deliberately left there, the intention being to come back for them later. This is certainly how I first read the story and I instantly realised that something was amiss. In actual fact these two finds must be the result of different events if Abelli’s theory about the anchors is correct. The reason is as follows; the Romans are known to have taken the island in 255 BC and the dates of the coins were from 264-241 BC. This is an excellent example of the principle terminus post quem, the earliest point at which something could have happened. Given that some of the coins dated from 241 BC they could not have been left there before then. It is also not likely that they were left much after this date, or else we might expect some later coins. Clearly then, this is not related to Rome’s taking of Pantelleria in 255BC and probably not its retaking in 217 BC. It is therefore currently a bit of a mystery as to why a Carthaginian ship would leave these mass of coins in their own waters and not come back for them.


Finally, archaeologists are returning to the car park in Leicester where they discovered the body of Richard III, in order to learn more about the Church of the Greyfriars and exhume the stone coffin they previously found. This is believed to contain the body of a 14th century knight. For those of you who like watching people dig holes and clean soil in real-time, a public viewing platform is being constructed at the site. This site is definitely something of an anomaly in archaeology, as usually we are dealing with a host of unknowns and can only ever guess at the identity of the individuals we find. Richard Buckley, who led the last dig, pointed out that archaeologists “are not in the business of finding named individuals”, but I think Leicester Archaeological Services might have found themselves a new business because they have a suspected name for the 14th century knight; Sir William Moton. One wonders which member of the aristocracy they are going to dig up next. My vote is for Henry V, that way we can do facial reconstruction to see what he really looked like!

According to the BBC, the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton “led to a widespread reappraisal of his reputation”. I can’t see why though, his body was very much how people expected, he wasn’t hideously deformed but he did have a spinal problem. The form of his body has nothing to do with his acts or reputation. It seems to me that those in the Richard III Society have been making quite the media push since its discovery. Whilst some of their points may well be valid I can’t bring myself to support the agenda of a group of people who clearly deny evidence and make up rubbish to fit their preconceived ideas (for example “he couldn’t have been a hunchback, he wore armour”- He was king, he could afford non-standard armour). So, until they prove otherwise I’m happy to accept that Richard III killed his way to power, it’s not like half the other members of the medieval aristocracy didn’t do similar things. The Greyfriars site is due to become part of a permanent exhibition opening nearby in 2014.


So that’s two more reasons not to believe anything the media tells you (except for me of course). Be sure to read the final post in the bumper update for news on the future of A Series of Small Walls. See you soon….


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