An Ancient Taino Frog-Man Could Hold the Key

By: The Scribe on Friday, November 9, 2007

The plaza of a settlement from the ancient Taino people is lined with stone carvings like these. This could be the largest Taino settlement in the Caribbean!

At an ancient settlement in Puerto Rico, archaeologists have unearthed bodies, rock art, and large structures that may have belonged the to the Taino people – a Pre-Columbian indigenous culture which is thought to have migrated to the Caribbean from either South America or Mexico many centuries ago.

The Taino people were among the first cultures to run into Europeans when they arrived in the Americas, and thus it appears that this settlement probably dates from between 600 and 1500 AD. In fact, the site may even be the largest Taino settlement in the entire Caribbean, making it the most significant settlement these people ever developed – for starters, the site appears to have evidence of not only Taino occupation during the height of the culture, but also an occupation dating far back to a pre-Taino period.

The site on Puerto Rico is extremely well preserved, and while archaeologists knew that the area contained indigenous artifacts, the scope and significance of the site only became clear once construction began on a modern dam nearby. It was during the monitoring process of this work that a fascinating discovery was made: nearby to the dam site, there was a large plaza that covered approximately 40 meters by 50 meters of ground.

The plaza appears to be what the Taino called a ‘batey’, which was a rectangular area that the people built their settlements around – then they would use the plaza for things like ball games and ceremonial rituals. A number of the stones in the plaza also have ancient petroglyphs etched into them, which at the very least indicates the important functionality of the space. All evidence currently points to this being the largest known ancient ‘batey’ in the entire Caribbean as well. A number of the petroglyphs on the plaza’s stones depict a male figure with attached frog legs, which may hold a key to determining the origins of the Taino.

In and around the settlement, there have also been several burials located where some of the bodies were interred in rather unique positions – their legs were bent at the knees, and the bodies placed face down in the grave. This burial position hasn’t been seen at any other indigenous sites in the Caribbean, and it may also give indications as to from where the Taino originated.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

No Incan Dinner Parties During the Summer (ca. 1500 AD)

By: The Scribe on Thursday, November 8, 2007

A professor from Trent University did a study on food consumption and Incan mummies, finding that more people died during the summer than the winter.

An anthropology professor from Trent University recently put together a study on the diets of the Inca who lived in ancient Peruvian town. By studying the remains of 500-year-old Incan mummies, she was able to reconstruct what kinds of foods they ate, how much they consumed, and when the food was eaten.

A number of Incan mummies were uncovered at the coastal town of Tupac Amaru, in the midst of an ancient cemetery. Since this area of Peru is extremely dry throughout the entire year, the preservation conditions for organic materials is very good – many of the ancient mummies are so well preserved that parts such as skin, hair, eyelashes, and fingernails remain on the bodies. In some cases, tattoos have even survived the decomposition process and are still visible.

Tissue samples taken from the mummies – including pieces of hair, nail, skin, bone, muscle and tendon – were tested in order to obtain the chemical signatures that are left behind when human beings consume foods. Typically, a piece of bone will record the diet of an individual over the past fifteen years, due to its extremely slow growth rate. Also, since hair averages a growth rate of one centimeter per month, it can record an individual’s dietary habits during the weeks before death.

The study revealed that the Inca had rather extreme seasonal fluctuations in their diet: in the winter, the Inca ate mostly tubers, which includes items like potatoes, while in the summer their primary subsistence was on corn. For the mummies from this area of Peru, that was quite an odd find – historians have known that the Inca normally had an excellent ability to maintain a healthy stash of food stores and supply the food to their surrounding populations, but it appeared that the people here were relying heavily on cultivated foods in their diet.

That means that the Inca from this region were in a rather precarious position – for some reason or another, they weren’t getting access to stored food in any significant quantities from the centralized distribution of the Incan capital cities, and thus these people had no fallback plan for surviving crop failures. Also, the evidence gleaned from the mummies showed that most of the people died during the summer, which was contrary to typical thinking. Normally, ancient populations lost more people during the winter’s harsh conditions than in the summer – but for this group of Inca, the summer’s lack of dietary choices caused malnutrition and a susceptibility to disease.

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Bulgaria’s Ancient Capital (681-893 AD)

By: The Scribe on Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Ruins from the ancient Bulgarian capital of Pliska, which existed during the earliest Medieval period and was the country’s first capital.

It was only after one of the bloodiest battles of the entire Middle Ages – The Battle of Anchialos – that the Bulgarians were able to rightfully settle in the area of territory known today as the country of Bulgaria. Initially, the area was known as the First Bulgarian Empire, and the first capital city was established by the Bulgarians’ ruler – Khan Asparukh.

The capital of Pliska was constructed in an area of 23 square kilometers, and had a moat and ramparts surrounding the outer walls. Refusing to take any chances against Byzantine invaders, even the inner walls of the capital were over 2.5 meters thick, and were built to about 12 meters high! The careful attention to stability, longevity, and strategic detail when it was built have caused the city to still be considered as one of the most impressive monuments of early Medieval architecture today.

Pliska was ahead of the neighbors in plenty of ways – the city had a functioning sewage system that was modeled on Roman sewers, and the heating systems throughout the entire city ensured that the people were kept safe and warm throughout the harsh winters. Fortress walls surrounded the city, both inner and outer, and at each corner there was a cylindrical-shaped tower for lookouts and nightly watchmen.

This is a reconstructed view of Pliska’s inner wall. The city wall was over 2.5 meters thick in order to protect from Byzantine invasion!

The interior of the city contained a palace for a later ruler, the Khan Omurtag, and this ‘Grand Palace’ contained a throne room and an adjacent Small Palace which served as the private residence of the Khans while they were in power.

In 811 AD, the city was sacked by the Byzantine army – but the Khan Krum was able to rid the city of its invaders after a short period. In an effort to help improve the city after its brief attack – and to maintain morale among the people – the next Khan actually hired and brought in several hundred artisans and craftsmen for the sole purpose of improving the city!

Pliska would see changes in its governmental structure, and in 865 AD, Christianity was adopted as the primary religion under Prince Boris. He constructed the Grand Basilica as a place of worship for the public, and in 886 AD, he established the Pliska Literary School in order to help ensure that the people were intelligent and well educated! However in 892 AD, the king’s son Vladimir revolted against the established changes, attempting to re-establish paganism as the official religion of Bulgaria.

View of the ruins of the early Medieval Bulgarian capital, Pliska. It didn’t last long as a capital, but its incredible architecture still amazes historians today.

Naturally, he was punished by his father – Vladimir’s eyes were “put out”, ie. blinded – and his younger brother Simeon was made ruler of Bulgaria. The period which followed has often been referred to by Medieval historians as the “Golden Age” in Bulgaria’s history. However, since the population and territory was growing – not to mention that Pliska still seemed to have deep-rooted pagan influences – Simeon soon moved Bulgaria’s capital from Pliska to Preslav, which was another fortified town in the same general area.

The importance of Pliska in the Bulgarian Empire gradually waned over the course of the 10th century, as Preslav saw a concentration of resources and governmental power. Two attacks by Byzantine raiders in 969 and 972 AD destroyed many portions of Pliska, and due to the shift of power into Preslav, the city was not rebuilt after the second raid.

A view down one of the ancient roads inside of Pliska. The very efficient sewage system was housed underneath these neatly paved roadways.

Although the ancient Bulgarian capital is in ruins today, the city of Pliska is still greatly admired by historians as an example of some of the finest early Medieval architecture ever created.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

Sometimes You Find Artifacts, Sometimes You Make Your Own – The Story of the Etruscan Terracotta Warriors (ca. 8th C BC… but actually 1915 AD)

By: The Scribe on Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Etruscan-3.jpg – The first of three “Etruscan terracotta warriors” that actually turned out to be very good forgeries.For a few years between 1915 and 1921, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was thrilled to have acquired three statues created by the Etruscan civilization in Italy, which flourished between the 8th and 2nd centuries BC. Unfortunately, what the Museum didn’t know at the time was… they were forking over thousands of dollars for fakes.

The perpetrators of the scheme were two young men by the names of Riccardo Riccardi and Alfredo Fioravanti, who were rather skilled in the visual arts. As it turns out, Riccardo’s father and brothers were pottery “specialists” – read: forgers – but Riccardo was the most skilled out of his family. Along with his friend Alfredo, he decided that he’d like to make himself a little extra cash.

The first Etruscan warrior statue was modeled as a large, one-piece figure, but since the kiln wasn’t large enough to fit the whole thing, it was broken up into 24 pieces for firing and then rebuilt. The right arm of the warrior is missing, because the forgers couldn’t agree on how it should be positioned – and in order to avoid more arguments and potentially getting it wrong, thereby resulting in the Museum’s discovery of forgery – they simply broke off the arm and threw it away before presenting the piece to the Met.

After the successful sale of the ‘ancient’ figure to the museum, the pair began to work on another piece: a giant warrior’s head. Using a description by the ancient writer Pliny, who had once described a 25-foot tall statue of the god Jupiter from an ancient Roman temple, the head was created to stand four and a half feet high. Naturally, this was broken into pieces as well – 178 this time – then fired, and shipped away to the museum.

The giant warrior’s head ‘Etruscan terracotta statue’ that turned out to be a complete fake. The pair was thrilled at their success! They’d expected things to go over well, but the Museum didn’t suspect a thing. Experts had been brought in to study the ‘ancient’ pieces and reports had been published on their meaning and place in the Etruscan culture… so the two men decided to embark on their most ambitious project thus far: the Colossal Terracotta Warrior. As they worked, the warrior took on a height of eight feet tall… but unfortunately, Riccardo was killed when he fell from his horse before the project was complete.

To replace him, Alfredo called upon two of Riccardo’s cousins, who weren’t nearly as skilled as he was. As they worked, the team became aware of a severe problem – the statue was going to be too large for the room they were creating it in! By the time they’d reached the waist, they realized that the well-known classical proportions of Etruscan sculpture was going to have to be ignored, since there was simply no space in the room to create a proper upper body – they’d have to open a hole in the ceiling to do that! The end result was a statue with perfectly proportioned legs… and a stocky, squat torso.

The Metropolitan Museum purchased the statue for an amount that is rumored to be the equivalent of around five million dollars today, and although the odd proportions were found troublesome by some scholars, the piece was still put on display. Still, rumors began to circulate as the art community tried to reconcile this piece with traditional Etruscan statues. Talk about the statues’ origins continued quietly for several decades, but the Museum refused to admit that anything had been amiss – after all, for the curator who’d acquired them, these pieces had been the distinguishing moment of her career.

The third and final forgery of an Etruscan terracotta warrior, only this time, the forgers made a mistake which resulted in the discovery of their scheme… and forced historians across the world to admit they’d been fooled. In 1959, an Italian scholar visited the Museum and was offered a tour through to see the Etruscan statues – but oddly enough, he mentioned that he didn’t need to see them since he already knew the man who had created them! Finally, the Museum admitted that something might be wrong. In 1960, a number of tests were conducted on the statues’ glazes – and it was revealed that the pieces contained chemicals that had not been used before the 17th century.

In 1961, Alfredo Fioravanti confessed to creating all three statues, signed a written version of the confession, and presented one of the statues’ missing thumbs to prove it. The scandal of the Etruscan terracotta warriors was valuable in at least one respect: it revealed how much damage can be done when Museums become too eager to acquire pretty objects rather than truly inquire into their historical value.

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Tomorrow: Ancient Bulgaria’s Pliska

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