Planet Earth

Top Archaeology Stories of 2003

A knotted Incan textile known as khipu may be a coded form of communication that stores twice as much data as Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs. | Gary Urton/American Museum of Natural History


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Alas, Babylon’s Ancient Treasures Disappear

Mesopotamia, which constituted the greater part of what is now called Iraq, was the birthplace of written language and one of the first cities, so its treasures are precious to all humankind. But since war rocked this cradle of civilization last spring, such legendary archaeological treasure troves as Nineveh, Nippur, Nimrud, and Babylon have been trashed. Gangs of looters, numbering sometimes in the hundreds, have pilfered cylinder seals, sculptures, urns, bronze tools, clay tablets with cuneiform writing, and even reliefs carved into walls—all to supply an illegal international trade in antiquities that stretches from Taiwan to New York. “It’s horrific,” says archaeologist McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Iraq since the 1960s. “The Iraqis are doing this to themselves—they’re destroying their past and destroying their future.” For now, Gibson says, archaeologists can do little to help stop the destruction. “The key is getting a government operating with force and control, and I don’t see that happening for a long time.” A slender ray of hope: Gibson and others are working to get legislation passed in Congress that would make unauthorized trade in Iraqi artifacts a crime.

Michael W. Robbins

Knotted Strings Hold Incan Secrets

During their heyday in the early 16th century, the Incas managed an empire stretching 2,500 miles along the Andes—and apparently did so without a written language. Or maybe, anthropologist Gary Urton of Harvard University contends, they invented a unique form of digital communication using knotted strings. The strings make up a complexly knotted, twisted, and tinted Incan textile called khipu, which Urton is convinced may have been a medium for recording the history of the empire.

The knots are often arranged in a decimal sequence, Urton says, and “they contain statistical information, census lists, records of goods in state warehouses, lists of tribute commodities like corn, potatoes, clothing, and textiles.” He theorizes that nonquantitative data reside in the types and placement of the knots, the fabrics and colors chosen, and other characteristics. In Signs of the Inka Khipu, published in August, Urton likens the information to that stored in the binary system of a computer code. Carrie Brezine, a mathematician and textile scholar, is compiling a database of characteristics of the 600 khipu specimens preserved in museums and private collections. By seeking matches and patterns, Urton hopes to decipher a form of writing as sophisticated as Egyptian hieroglyphs. “It’s not exactly code breaking,” he says. “The Incas were not trying to hide information. It’s just that we’ve lost the key.”

Michael W. Robbins

Ancient Aboriginal Art Discovered in Secret Cave

In May Australian researchers uncovered a hidden trove of ancient Aboriginal art in a remote cave northwest of Sydney. Overlapping layers of more than 200 drawings, paintings, and stencils on the cave walls span a period from around 2000 B.C. to the early 1800s. The images include a wombat, eagles, and human bodies with kangaroo, wallaby, and bird heads, hybrids that may represent ancestral beings in Aboriginal creation myths.

A group of hikers stumbled upon the cave while exploring Wollemi National Park in 1995, but getting a research team there proved problematic. Heavy floods stopped the first attempt at an expedition and a drought the second. “As there would be no drinking water and we could not drop in by helicopter, we decided to wait a few more months. Then a raging bushfire moved through that part of the Wollemi,” says Paul Taçon, an anthropologist at the Australian Museum in Sydney. When Taçon’s team finally reached the site last spring, the only water available “was the color of coffee but tasted like sulfur, iron, and rotting vegetation,” he says. “By the end of our trip we had acquired a taste for it.”

 —Michael Abrams

Traces of what were once roads and pathways radiate from Tell Brak, an ancient village in Syria. The picture was taken from an early U.S. surveillance satellite. | USGS

Cold War Spy Photos Reveal Bronze Age Roads

America’s first generation of spy satellites, launched between 1959 and 1972 to check on Soviet missile installations, were equipped with 70 mm cameras. The big challenge was retrieving the photographs. Film canisters were jettisoned from the satellites in small capsules and recovered in midair by specially equipped military planes. Remarkably, 102 Corona satellites returned more than 800,000 high-resolution images that were eventually declassified in 1995. From a military standpoint, the photographs are now hopelessly outdated. But they provide a bird’s-eye view of ancient lands that is beginning to transform our understanding of the birth of civilization.

Archaeologists Jason Ur and Tony Wilkinson at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute reported in March that Corona images of the Upper Kha-bu-r basin in northeastern Syria, near the borders of Turkey and Iraq, reveal a vast network of previously unseen early Bronze Age roadways. The constant tread of people and livestock beat the routes into the ground 5,000 years ago when the Upper Kha-bu-r basin was part of northern Mesopotamia. From ground level, the remnants of the pathways are too wide (about 200 to 400 feet) and too shallow (one to two feet) to be recognizable. But they are clearly visible in the satellite photos and suggest that early Bronze Age settlements relied on intensive food production in surrounding fields. Ur, the principal author of the study, says the extensive road system points to “a far more integrated agricultural economy than anyone had recognized.”

Michael W. Robbins

Donner Party Cannibalism Site Unearthed

In August archaeologists unearthed a hearth with charcoal and burned bones that could prove to be the first physical evidence of cannibalism by the Donner Party, a doomed group of Wild West pioneers who set out in 1846 from Illinois in ox-drawn wagons, bound for California. After battling the horrendous heat of the Utah desert, the party headed through the Sierra Nevada, where they were trapped after being caught in an October blizzard. Legend has it that members of the Donner Party who survived the long winter did so only because they “made meat of the dead bodies of their companions,” as the California Star reported in 1847. A team led by Julie Schablitsky, an archaeologist with the University of Oregon, searched the Alder Creek area 30 miles west of Reno, Nevada, and located a site where they suspect the Donner family had camped out for five months. Artifacts excavated at the site include a belt buckle, broken dishes, and a brass link from a delicate chain, “like a woman’s necklace,” says Schablitsky. “This indicates a female presence in the camp, which would not be the case if it had belonged to miners or hunters.” The critical piece of evidence is a bone fragment that bears the marks of a bowie knife or cleaver. Lab tests are now being conducted on the bone, which Schablitsky suspects is from a human arm or leg that was butchered and then cooked.

Annette Foglino

Ice Age Cave Art Unveiled in Britain

The scene was Nottinghamshire, best known for Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest. In April Oxford archaeologist Paul Pettitt and two colleagues—Paul Bahn, one of Britain’s leading Ice Age art specialists, and Sergio Ripoll, an archaeologist at the National University of Distance Learning in Madrid—descended into a cave at Nottinghamshire’s Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge frequented by Ice Age hunters. Perched atop ladders, the researchers examined the walls with oblique lights, specially designed to detect faint marks, and began to make out graceful, sweeping lines incised into the rock. It was the first discovery of Ice Age art in Britain: a beautiful engraving of an ibex, a sort of prehistoric goat. “There has not been a single bone of an ibex found in Great Britain.” says Pettitt. “You would have had to go to Belgium, Germany, or the Pyrenees to find one.”

The scientists also found a dozen other wall engravings, mostly of birds. The Creswell Crags art is estimated to be about 14,000 years old, although a more precise date for the engravings awaits testing of the stalactite crusts that surround them. In the meantime, the archaeologists continue to speculate on why the images were drawn. “Ninety-five percent of Ice Age art is animal representations,” says Pettitt. “Some of it may have functioned to assist the hunt, particularly where the animals appear to be attacked.” Perhaps, he concludes, tongue in cheek, “some of these drawings were humankind’s first menus.”

Charles Hirshberg

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