Archive for August, 2007
During the Neolithic period around 5000 years ago, some tasty new creatures arrived on the shores of Great Britain… namely, sheep, pigs, and cattle. Up until this time, the people of England had mainly subsisted on fish and other marine species for the majority of their diet – however, with the introduction of these domesticated animal species, along with some new domesticated plants like wheat, the palates of the ancient Brits took a bit of a turn.
Historians have been aware for quite some time that the ancient Britons stopped eating fish at some point along the way, but whether it was a gradual or rapid process has been up for debate. By 4000 BC, there is evidence that domesticated plants and animals were in the area, but did the people adopt these new food sources easily, or did they continue munching on fish sticks when a T-bone steak was available just a few steps away?
Studies of animal and human bones left around some Neolithic archaeological sites in Great Britain have revealed that, in fact, the ancient Brits heartily embraced their new culinary options. Believe it or not, the maxim “you are what you eat” actually rings true to a degree – human bone and tissue is made up of elements from the various foods ingested during a person’s lifetime. When that person dies, the bones retain what could be described as a ‘record’ of what someone has eaten over the course of their lifetime.
The bones examined from the ancient British sites showed that these Neolithic people – who had previously relied on marine species and fish to fill their diets – almost completely abandoned eating fish and seafood once the new domesticated plants and animals arrived. Apparently, the farming lifestyle seemed more attractive than sitting around and fishing.
Farming plants and animals may have been preferred over eating fish due to several factors: the potential for a steadier, more reliable food source; climate change; or cultural pressure. According to the evidence, the fishing lifestyle that had been in place for hundreds of thousands of years was just given up – abandoned – over the course of one generation!
One thing is certain: it is only after this complete shift to domesticated plants and animals that larger populations and more complex societies began to appear in ancient Britain… and rather rapidly, as well. While historians are quick to point out that humans could produce and obtain more food through these domesticated species than they could gather through marine trapping and fishing, there is another explanation that no one seems to have bothered considering… maybe hamburgers just taste better!
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The two-handled ancient Greek bowl shown here was created around the year 515 BC, and is considered to be one of the finest existing Greek vases today. Referred to fondly as the ‘Euphronios krater’, the bowl was made out of terracotta in the calyx-krater style, and would have been used to mix wine with water. It can hold about 45 liters of liquid, and was decorated with the red-figure pottery style.
The bowl represents a collaborative effort between two men who were known as some of the best artists to have lived in the 6th century BC in Athens. The potter’s name was Euxitheos, and the painter was Euphronios – looking at the vessel, it is not difficult to see that the shape of the bowl and the figural composition work together almost perfectly to create a vivid scene that conforms precisely to the proportions of the vessel.
Quite unusually, both the painter and the potter signed their names to this bowl! Usually it was only the painter who signed his name, however on this piece, both men who worked on it gave themselves credit for the work – which seems to suggest that they both believed that it was one of their best pieces ever created.
There are two scenes on the Euphronios krater . The first side depicts an episode from the Trojan War: the death of Sarpedon, son of Zeus. On either side of the dying man, personifications of Sleep and Death lean over to pick up Sarpedon and carry him off to his homeland for burial. Behind the youth is Hermes, directing the way for the body to be carried. The level of detail in this scene is so intense and graphic that not only did Euphronios choose to illustrate the scene while Sarpedon is still bleeding profusely from his wounds, but you can also see extremely delicate details such as his eyelashes and toenail cuticles!
On the opposite side, Athenian youths arm themselves for war or training – the scene seems rather generic, however the ideal of young, fit, trained men ready for battle was an important part of Athenian culture at the time the vessel was crafted.
Along with the painters’ signatures, there is an inscription on one side that reads: “Leagros is handsome.” Incredibly, this inscription was what allowed historians to date the bowl accurately to around 520-510 BC, because it was at this time that textual evidence explains that Leagros was considered by many people to be the handsomest man in Greece!
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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard
While Roman soldiers stationed at the northern front of the empire and Hadrian’s Wall did battle to stave off attacks from “barbarian” tribes, they were also doing battle with a smaller, less obvious foe: those devious creatures now commonly known as head lice.
An excavation outside of Carlisle Castle in Cumbia revealed an ancient soldier’s haircomb, excellently preserved and including a fully intact, 3mm long louse. Based on stratigraphy, the comb and louse are about 2,000 years old!
The Roman fort of Luguvalium, an ancient site located near Carlisle Castle, was founded around 72-73 AD to help defend the Roman Empire’s border along Hadrian’s Wall. Since the Roman ground layers where the comb and louse were found is largely waterlogged, it’s quite the feat that both these items survived until present day. Thousands of additional artifacts were also found at the site, but the louse was among the most intriguing – according to site archaeologist Carol Allen, the louse is one of the largest and more complete examples of the creature ever found in the Roman world.
Along with pieces of wood and textile that normally don’t survive in this environment, it is hoped that the louse and assorted items will help to shed some light on what it was like to live inside a Roman fort in the 1st century AD. Unfortunately for the people who once lived there, at first glance it now appears as though the situation was less than hygenically ideal.
For the record, it is already known that lice have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, though complete ancient specimens such as the one found inside the Roman comb are rare, if not nonexistent in most parts of the world. However, it’s worth noting that the treatment of head lice has not changed much since ancient times – take a look at the ancient Egyptian louse comb and the modern louse comb pictured above.
Resilient, those lice.
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Tomorrow: Euphronios Krater
Appearing most often in burial scenes, the tekenu was a mysterious figure that shows up on tomb paintings and funerary texts – though who he is or why he appears remains unknown. The tekenu seems to be the figure or shape of a man, and is shrouded in either a bag, animal hides, or a sack that is placed on its own sledge in the midst of a funeral procession.
One theory suggests that this shrouded figure was actually a sack of spare body parts left over from the mummification process, since it was pulled alongside the canopic jars and sarcophagus containing the mummified corpse. If this is the case, the images of the tekenu where he has a face must mean that there was a mask or a false head placed at the “neck” of the sack, causing the tekenu to appear as if it was a real person. It may have also simply served as an image of the deceased individual himself.
Other suggestions have been made that try to link the tekenu to possible human sacrifice in ancient Egyptian history. One oft-cited piece of evidence for this comes from an inscription found on the Tomb of Rekhmire, which reads: “Causing to come to the god Re as a resting tekenu to calm the lake of Khepri.” The thought is that this may be a remnant from a time when humans were killed and thrown into a lake to appease certain gods – however, there is no additional evidence for this, nor for the tekenu ever having been a human sacrifice.
In fact, in the Tomb of Mentuherkhepshef (try saying that five times fast) from the 18th dynasty, there is a man lying on a sledge, just like the tekenu, but unshrouded. In another scene from the Tomb of Rekhmire, the tekenu is removed from his sledge and placed on a chair inside a tomb, placed with its head poking out of the bag. In the scene following this, the same man is sitting upright on the chair, wearing a shroud wrap but also clearly supposed to be alive.
Egyptologist Greg Reeder has interpreted this series of images as finally revealing who and what the tekenu was. Reeder’s theory is that this was a Sem priest who initially went into a trance at the beginning of the funeral procession, playing the role of a shaman who “visited the deceased in the otherworld… as the tekenu he is transported to the tomb wrapped in a shroud to help facilitate his ‘death’ so that he can be transported to the other world”.*
The priest’s visit to the spirit world was supposed to give him powers that subsequently enabled him to perform the traditional ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony that was held during all burial rituals. Essentially, the role of tekenu was then to go through a state of metamorphosis from the tekenu to Sem – a transition from death to life.
Of course, there are currently no other texts that might support this interpretation… but this is the most plausible theory thus far.
*Greg Reeder, “A Rite of Passage: The Enigmatic Tekenu in Ancient Egyptian Funerary Ritual”, KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt 5 (1994).
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Tomorrow: More great Ancient Standard