Archive for April, 2013
This is a story that could be straight out of an Indiana Jones movie: An ancient artifact made from space rock, stolen by Nazis and recovered decades later!
Sounds crazy, right? But that’s exactly what happened! In 1938, a Nazi expedition recovered a thousand-year old Buddhist statue that weighs about 10kg and is 9.5 inches tall. No one is quite sure how the statue was found, but a large swastika carved into the statue may have been the source of encouragement for the team to take it back to Germany (note that before the Nazis adopted the swastika for their own purposes, it was simply a geometric shape used by many ancient cultures).
Once the statue arrived in Munich, it went through its paces and ended up as part of a private collection… until 2009.
The statue, also called the “Iron Man,” was studied by a team from Stuttgart University. They were able to determine the statue is made of ataxite, a very rare class of iron meteorite. According to team leader Dr. Elmar Buchner, “the statue was chiseled from an iron meteorite, from a fragment of the Chinga meteorite which crashed into the border areas between Mongolia and Siberia about 15,000 years ago.”
Now, the statue itself isn’t actually of Buddha, but portrays a Buddhist god named Vaisravana, god of wealth and war. It’s believed to have originated from an 11th-century pre-Buddhist Tibetan Bon culture.
It’s not that unusual that this ancient culture would have carved a statue out of meteorite, either. Many ancient cultures worshipped meteorites through their own rituals and tributes, and it makes logical sense that a devotional statue would be created from the material… despite how hard it is to work with.
It’s also the only known meteorite statue to depict a human figure.
Little else is known about the statue at this time, due to the lack of information surrounding its Nazi retrieval. However, it’s still considered an invaluable artifact that reveals more about the ancient Bon culture—and Nazi artistic preferences.
Advances in scientific technology are making it easier for historians and archaeologists to re-examine things like mummies, works of art, and ancient buildings, in order to look for things they may have missed the first time around—particularly things that are invisible to the naked eye, or hidden by centuries of grime, retouching, or decay.
Recently, archaeologists began using imaging technology much like that found in airport whole-body scanners… and they discovered a hidden face beneath the surface of a Roman wall painting.
The image they found is thought to be thousands of years old, and is literally underneath another famous painting at the Louvre. It’s not weird or strange to find one painting on top of another—plenty famous “master” painters are known to have re-used canvases, covering old paintings with new works or “wiping out” an old painting they weren’t happy with—because it was cheaper or a good way to enhance colors and shapes.
On walls, frescoes—which are paintings made as wet wall plaster is drying, allowing the artist’s paint to seep into the plaster as it sets—fade over time, so it wasn’t unheard of for a building owner to either commission a new work to replace the faded image, or just to have a new painting done if he got bored of the old one.
No one’s quite sure yet who the Roman man is in the image underneath the existing painting—guesses are swirling are to whether it might have been a Roman senator, a self-centered landowner’s portrait, maybe a well-known ruler—but you can be sure that historians are all over this one.
The image they’ve revealed so far with the imaging technology is an eye, nose, and a mouth, and the art style is ancient Roman—pegging its origins at several thousand years old.
So, now that they’ve found a “Waldo”, it’s time to find out who he actually is!
It’s exciting for an archaeologist to find a tomb filled with ancient remains… but it’s even more exciting to discover that beneath that tomb is another tomb!
In 2011, archaeologists in Peru were thrilled to find a tomb in the Lambayeque region containing a pre-Incan priestess and eight other bodies, but as the dig continued, the team found what they’re calling a “basement tomb.” The contents of the tomb are slowly revealing new things about the religious and political structure of the area.
The basement tomb contained four preserved bodies of “waterlogged human remains,” and it’s thought that the tomb was actually created with the intention of flooding. The bodies were stacked inside the tomb, with one particular elite individual decorated with shell and pearl beads, face covered with a copper sheet and wearing a spool-shaped earring bearing a wave design.
These indicators of status seem to denote that the three additional bodies in the tomb were intended to accompany the elite individual into the afterlife.
But the weirdest part is that the basement tomb was intentionally dug beneath the water table—in a region frequently subject to draught in ancient times. Notably, the tomb is part of ceremonial complex that archaeologists are suspecting was used for a cult that worshipped water.
Why would the ancient priests want a tomb to flood? Dig leader Wester La Torre has said that perhaps they thought this would ensure the region’s agricultural fertility for the year ahead—and while the tomb is technically pre-Inca, it may have been a precursor to later beliefs: “The Inca believed that the dead became a seed, which sprouted new life, the way that this was buried suggests the same process of fertilization, in which the seed, the person, is reborn.”
And while the dig team hasn’t yet identified whether the elite individual is male or female, it’s possible that person had something to do with the priestess discovered buried overhead in 2011.
Of course, there are dissenters who point out that there’s no reasonable way to know where the water table was 800 years ago. But regardless of whether the tomb flooded or not, both the burials are important additions to the historical record of a lesser-known period of world history in the region.
What’s the big deal about a bunch of ancient trees, anyway?
The Phoenicians thought these Lebanese trees were a great all-purpose resource, using them to build everything from houses, palaces, and temples, to their famous Phoenician ships!
The size and strength of the cedars were what made these trees valued above any other tree wood in antiquity—it smelled great, grew straight (perfect for building things with!) and its strength was unmatched. If you think West coast redwoods are tall and strong, they have nothing on the cedars of Lebanon.
It’s thought by many historians that access to this critical resource is what helped put the Phoenicians “on the map”, so to speak, of ancient history. Demand for this particular cedar wood grew very rapidly once others learned about it, especially from Egypt and Mesopotamia where—let’s face it—there were very few trees at all.
Think about it—palm trees are pretty flimsy, and acacia trees aren’t big enough to make a board much larger than a few feet in length.
The Mesopotamians had a solution to their no-tree situation that worked for them… and while it meant not using these super-trees from Lebanon, they were able to float stronger trees down the Euphrates and Tigris from the north. But the Egyptians? Well, they were at a significant disadvantage.
Ancient Egypt is well known for its battle-hungry Pharaohs, which made Egypt almost full dependent on the Phoenicians for the wood needed to build ships, wagons, and other machines of war—and daily life, too! Resin from these trees was used in the mummification process, and Lebanese cedar dust has been found inside some ancient tombs.
As a result, the cedars of Lebanon quickly became one of the biggest centerpieces of society for people like the Phoenicians—and the trees’ importance and legacy even made their way into literature of the Ancient Near East, with references to the cedars of Lebanon used as a symbols of enduring strength and uprightness.
Because of their importance, the cedars have been under threat of deforestation for centuries. One of the earliest conservation efforts was actually begun by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 118 BC.
Today, there are sadly very few groves of Lebanese cedars left in the world, though re-forestation efforts are slowly ongoing.
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