Archive for June, 2007

Lines in the Desert – Part 2/4: What About the Nazca Lines? (300 BC – 800 AD)

By: The Scribe on June, 2007

Nazca line drawing of a monkeyThe Nazca desert stretches for about 80 kilometers along the Pampas de Jumana in Peru, and contains some incredible images that can only be clearly seen and identified when viewed from high in the air. These ‘Nazca lines’ cover this area of desert: there are several hundred very simple geometric patterns and lines across the plateau, and over 70 insect, animal, and human figures with curving lines. Some of the largest figures are around 270 meters long… and have spawned some interesting theories as to their purpose and methods of creation.

It appears that the Nazca lines were created by removing the iron-oxide coated pebbles from the desert surface, causing a contrast between the pebbles and the lightly colored ground underneath. The drawings have actually managed to survive throughout the centuries due to the very little rainfall in the region – only about 20 minutes of rain every year – making this one of the driest places on Earth. With little rain to displace the pebbles, and the extremely flat-lying ground to avoid wind displacement, the lines have remained virtually untouched since their original creation.

Nazca line drawing of a dog

Possibly the most pressing questions about these drawings are: why did the Nazca make them, and how did they manage to create such elaborate images if they could only be seen from the air? For anyone on the ground, the drawings simply appear to be random lines of light-colored earth, and nothing lower than several hundred feet in their air would allow someone to even begin to see a complete design on the ground, due to their extensive size.

All ‘whys’ aside, the ‘how’ has seems to have reached an acceptable conclusion: using some simple tools and early surveying equipment, the Nazca planned out their designs and then implemented them using wooden stakes and string lines. Some ceramic pieces found on the desert surface nearby suggest that these were used to displace or collect the gravel being moved – ceramic pottery can be quite durable, though also easily disposed of and replaced when broken. With some careful measuring and basic mapping skills, it has been suggested that a small team of people could create one of the larger figures in a matter of days.

That takes care of the ‘how’… but what about the ‘why’?

…to be continued…

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: It was aliens…obviously!

Lines in the Desert – Part 1/4: Who Were the Nazca? (300 BC – 800 AD)

By: The Scribe on June, 2007

A map of the NazcaThe Nazca culture of ancient Peru is perhaps best known for its legacy of mysterious, giant drawings left behind in the Peruvian deserts. However, before delving into the history and lore of these incredible creations, it’s worthwhile taking a look into who the Nazca people were in the first place, and what may have prompted them to create such fantastic artwork in the middle of the desert.

The Nazca people lived in the Nazca region, as shown in yellow on the map above, between 300 BC and 800 AD, and based their culture around a capital city known as Cahuachi. The population of the city was relatively small, however it was quite popular as a religious pilgrimage destination, visited primarily for ceremonial events and celebrations. It was occupied between 1-500 AD, and its situation in the landscape overlooked many of the Nazca desert lines.

Interestingly enough, Cahuachi also contains around 40 mounds with mudbrick or ‘adobe’ structures on top, which have been under excavation for the past few decades – with many more decades of work still to come. Some of the most interesting things learned about the Nazca culture through excavation was their skill at making clothing, as well as their impressive pottery vessels.

Nazca pottery

Consider this: one thousand years before any other Peruvian cultures on the north coast, the Nazca learned how to make clothes out of llama and alpaca wool. In fact, most of the designs found on Nazca pottery seem to have originated from textile patterns, suggesting that the Nazca were a highly creative people with vivid imaginations.

There were several distinct artistic phases to Nazca pottery, and the first began with simple designs of fruit, plants, animals and people, as well as some mythical scenes. As time passed, the drawings became more realistic, and the next phase saw an increase in background designs, humans, and bodyless demons. This was followed by phases of militaristic pottery, vessels with elite portraiture, and eventually images of disjointed figures, with the more familiar style of South American iconography that is still very difficult to interpret.

The disembodied heads sometimes shown on Nazca pottery were initially suspected to be renditions of ‘trophy’ heads, and this has since been archaeologically confirmed by several real caches of severed and ritually prepared heads in Cahuachi! Less gruesome animals commonly shown on Nazca pottery were whales, sharks, fish, snakes, hummingbirds, and plants like cacti and Peruvian flowers.

So, if they had such an established ritual culture already – as suggested through the severed heads from their capital city – why did the Nazca create giant drawings in the desert?

…to be continued…

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: More about the Nazca

A Brief History of Ancient Greek Coins (ca. 600 BC)

By: The Scribe on June, 2007

A history of Greek coinsLooking at almost any modern coin, it’s rare to find one that contains anything other than this standard decoration: an important civic symbol on one side, and a bust of a ruler on the other. Believe it or not, this traditional coin setup actually began several thousand years ago in ancient Greece.

The first coins to be minted actually came from two places, where the idea of making small metal medallions that could be traded as currency seems to have developed simultaneously. At the end of the 7th century, both China and Lydia had begun to make plain, round coins for trade. The Greek historian Herodotus, in his work the Histories, briefly mentioned that the Lydians were minting coins around 600 BC. Either way, it wasn’t for another 150 years that coins became prominent around the Greek city-states.

Before the Greeks used minted coins, they made use of small iron rods for currency, called ‘obols’. Since around six obols could fit into the hand of an adult, six obols became equivalent of one drachma coin, once the system transferred over to coinage. In ancient Greek, the word drachma actually means “the graspable” – thus making it a logical choice of name.

The island of Aegina was the first place in Greece to mint coins, made out of silver with a very basic geometric shape on either side. Around 500 BC, the Attic drachma had become widely used in the cities, but hadn’t yet spread to the outlying areas. These early Greek coins had Athena’s owl stamped on one side, the head of Athena on the other, and were made of almost pure silver.

The Athenians produced huge quantities of coins during the Classical era, around 450 BC, in order to finance their enormous building projects on the Athenian acropolis. They also needed finances to pay for the Peloponnesian War, and it wasn’t long before Athens was demanding the required tribute payments from surrounding city-states in coinage.

Although the pictures on ancient Greek coins remained the same basically until the rise of Alexander the Great – when he would mint his own coins with his image on them – this means that the artistic history of the ancient Greeks can be traced with these coins, as artists’ techniques and tools developed over several centuries.

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: More great ancient history!

World’s Oldest Bugs! Yes, They’re Still ‘Icky’. (ca. 420,000,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on June, 2007

World's oldest bugBack In 2003, scientists stumbled across the fossilized remains of what has been dubbed the world’s oldest land-dwelling creature. Discovered in eastern Scotland, paleontologists have determined that the fossilized millipede is more than 420 million years old, beating out the previous record of a 400-million-year-old spider-like creature that was also found in Scotland.

The millipede has been dubbed “Pneumodesmus” by scientists, and it was actually discovered by an amateur scientist who found it near the fishing port of Stonehaven, along the coast.

The fossilized remains show a highly developed system of breathing for the creature, which has caused palaeontologists to wonder whether there were even earlier versions of millipedes with more primitive internal systems, suggesting that this one was the result of natural micro-evolutionary processes.

In 2004, a second fossil from around 438 million years ago was discovered in Scotland’s Rhynie, and was inside a piece of old, red sandstone. This fossil is considered the world’s oldest insect, and has been dubbed “Rhyniognatha hirsi”. Although its lack of wings may cause some to wonder whether it should be considered a land creature, the mandible structure is definitely that of an insect.

Since Scotland seems to be the haven for ancient fossilized bugs, scientists are beginning to understand why there is such a plethora of bug life on Earth today. If insects and crawling bugs had a ‘head start’ on over other living creatures millions of years ago, the amount of diversity of insect and bug life certainly begins to make logical sense!

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: A brief history of ancient Greek coins.

Previous page | Next page