A Series of Small Walls Returns!

I’m back! After a hectic few weeks I’ve finally found some time to trawl through the worlds media to bring you another news update. First up this week, we have more news from Egypt. I’m beginning to think that 80% of all archaeological news comes from there, though I guess that’s not surprising, you don’t find anywhere with a Britainology or Franceology department.

This time we have some good news though; Mike Dee and his colleagues at the University of Oxford have used Bayesian statistical modelling to analyse radiocarbon dates from two hundred artefacts from the Predynastic and First Dynasty periods. This allowed them to narrow down the existing ranges of around 300 years for each of the samples and as a result shorten the established time span for the emergence of the Egyptian civilisation, much of which was based on ceramic styles. The results, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, they argue show that Egypt went from groups of small migratory communities to a state with kings in just 600-700 years from 3800-3700 BC. Of course as with any dating technique nothing is exact but given the number of samples this seems to be quite a convincing case for changing things which have been assumed in past research. The news very much spins this into a grand story of course, and I admit that I have not read the research myself, but given that radio carbon dating is an absolute dating method, rather than a relative one, and that the date ranges for the artefacts were around 300 years, the maximum that this statistical modelling could have reduced the time line by is 300 years. This would be extremely unlikely given that the probability of possible dates would be clustered closer towards the stated date (e.g. in 3700 +- 300 BC, the more probable dates would be around 3700BC). As always it pays to read news and research carefully to get an accurate picture of what it really means.


There are a handful of other stories from Egypt in the news at the moment; one which caught my eye is on the diets of the pyramid builders. Having found 175,000 animal bones at the Giza settlement which housed the workers for the Pyramid of Menkaure, researchers from AERA concluded that the builders had a meat heavy diet. From this they then argued that the settlement was run by a central authority which organised large livestock drives to the settlement. However this is entirely dependent on how many were living at the settlement, they could have eaten a lot more fruit, vegetables and grains, but these are not easily preserved in the archaeological record. If we make some comparisons with the Great Pyramid of Giza which is around ten times the volume of the Pyramid of Menkaure the entire idea of a heavy meat diet is shown to be unlikely. Whilst there are a range of estimates for the number of workers and time taken to build the Great Pyramid, one suggests around 14,500 people working for ten years. If we then take the numbers for the Pyramid of Menkaure as being 1,450 people working for ten years, given its size, and the 1750,000 bones and bone fragments as each representing one animal (a very unlikely situation), then each worker (and perhaps their family if they lived there too) would have consumed one animal a month. This is hardly a huge amount of meat for a family, though perhaps more than other people at the time. Given that this is based on assuming every bone is from a different animal though the actual frequency of eating meat was likely far less and the conclusions of this research potentially flawed.


Next up is an issue which likes to rear its ugly head quite often, but for once someone is on my side! In case you haven’t guessed already it’s metal detecting. After years of trying to bring metal detector enthusiasts into the fold a number of archaeologists are now calling for the practice to be banned. It is estimated that there are more than 10,000 users in England and Wales, and that in 2011 nearly a million artefacts were found. Christos Tsirogiannis has spoken out against metal detectors noting (as I have repeatedly to anyone that will listen) that an objects context is vitally important for its archaeological value, something which is lost when an untrained person digs an object up.

As ever it is not a one-sided picture though; Suzie Thomas, a researcher into international antiquities trading, argues that metal detector users are producing vast amounts of data, particularly useful for subjects such as battle archaeology. The finds of cannon and musket balls allowing the reconstruction of the battle. I don’t feel this is an adequate justification however; if researchers were so desperate for this information they could get it themselves with this equipment and without endangering a great many other archaeological sites in the process.


Just in time for the turn in the weather we are experiencing, the next item is all about a sweater! As if that wasn’t exciting enough it dates from 230 to 390 AD and was found when an area of snow on the Lendbreen glacier in Norway melted. The details of the garment can be found in the current issue of Antiquity. Rapid melting of snow and ice in the mountains of Norway result in hundreds of finds each year, however complete garments from this period are very rare. Analysis has shown that two types of wool were used and were likely carefully chosen based on quality and pigmentation. The style closely resembles one found in Germany 150 years ago, and both share a weave found in many other fabric fragments, all suggesting a common style shared across much of northern Europe. So it seems that fashion was very much of a concern for people even outside of the large civilizations of the time.


A news item which I found particularly interesting was the development of a microplasma source capable of exciting matter in a controlled way. Now if you are anything like me, right now you are thinking “What they hell are you on about? What has that got to do with Archaeology?” Apparently this device could allow the development of an instrument that could be used in the field to radiocarbon date things. This could allow much faster dating and enable more informed decisions to be made whilst in the field. I’m sure the cost of such a device might be a bit on the astronomical side though. Even if its manufacture does not actually cost that much I can imagine such a game changing piece of technology being exploited significantly. Still it will be interesting to see how this progresses.


A story in a similar vein is that a new technique called portable X-ray fluorescence has been developed which makes use of a handheld device to determine the origin of obsidian. The chemistry of obsidian varies based on which volcano it comes from. The analysis of this chemical signature usually takes place in a lab months after a site has been excavated. This device allows this process to be done in the field whilst an excavation is taking place and takes just 10 seconds. As with the radiocarbon dating above, having this sort of information as early as possible can help in making decisions about how to proceed with a site, and in forming interpretations much earlier than previously possible.


In a rather more light-hearted story, team of archaeologists are looking for the tomb of Genghis Khan, apparently whilst trying to look their best. Publicity shots have Albert Lin from the University of California posing on horseback, suitably attired in traditional archaeological adventuring gear. Way to go promoting an honest view of archaeologists! His team are actually using rather modern techniques, radar and satellite imagery to search the area around the mountain Burkhan Khaldun, where they believe he is buried. Many are sceptical about the value of this research however, labelling it a treasure hunt, and noting that just finding a large burial complex does not indicate that it is Genghis Khan’s. A combined German and Mongolian team have, however, without anyone really paying much attention, discovered the palace of Ögödei Khan, Genghis’ youngest son and successor. This has not received much coverage because he is considerably less well-known around the world than his father. It is a real shame that such a significant find in the history of Mongolia and the world, given that Ögödei Khan continued his father’s reign of conquest, has not been recognised by the worlds media in the same way.


That’s it for this week, and next week I’ll have another update for you, honest.


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