Archive for August, 2007

Early Mayan Manioc Field Preserved by Volcano (600 AD)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

A grad student works in an ancient planting bed for manioc, buried under ten feet of ash 1,400 years ago!

About 1,400 years ago, the Loma Caldera volcano near the ancient village of Ceren decided it was time to erupt. As a result, the little Mayan village of Ceren was buried under ten feet of ash – and was probably abandoned when the people realized that their mountain was in rather shaky condition.

Fortunately for today’s archaeologists, the ash layer perfectly preserved what was underneath – including a field of a nutritious crop called manioc. Also referred to as yucca or cassava, there had been no previous evidence for Mayan cultivation of manioc… however, this find may finally provide clues as to how the Mayan civilization was able to prosper and feed such a large population.

It has been long known that the Mayans grew and ate corn and beans, but what they grew to supplement this diet has, for the most part, been speculation based on artistic depictions and clues from various Mayan codex scrolls. This calorie-rich tuber would certainly have played a prominent role in ensuring the people ate a healthy and substantial diet – and helped to support their enormous cities such as Copan and Tikal.

Along with finding this ancient but freshly planted field of manioc, ground penetrating radar helped to locate the remains of homes, religious buildings, workshops, storehouses, kitchens, and even a community sauna at Ceren!

Was there anything they didn’t make into a pot?! The Moche made ceramic pottery that depicts manioc, too…

Other Central and South American cultures would also later come to rely on manioc as a large component of their diet, including the Pre-Columbia civilization of the Moche.

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Tomorrow: More Ancienty Goodness!

Griffins vs. Deer (325-300 BC)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

Marble table support in the form of griffins attacking a doe.

In this marble table support piece, two griffins with upraised wings tear violently into the flesh of a fallen doe – a symbol of civilization’s oppression of barbarism, or perhaps more candidly, the oppression of any group of people who did not conform to the ‘proper’ Greek way of life. Mythological creatures that blended together elements of lions, snakes, and eagles were quite popular in Greek art around 300 BC, and images of these creatures were often used as a metaphor for the struggle and confrontation between life and death.

Aside from some very minor additions, this piece of sculpture was carved from one, single block of marble – but it did not always appear the way it now stands. In fact, the entire sculpture was once covered in richly colored paint, some of which still remains in trace amounts. There are small spots of blue still visible on the griffins’ wings, bright red on their manes, traces of brown on the deer’s body, and some remnants of green on the base.

Adding an element of the macabre to an image that already exudes violence, small traces of red paint that represent blood remain around the mouths of the griffins and inside of the claw scratches on the deer’s body. If it were not for the cut marks along the top and inner surfaces of the wings, it would not be obvious that the 3-foot-high sculpture served as the base for a table!

Although very few examples of furniture of this elaborate magnitude have survived, the unfortunate truth is that the exact provenance of this piece is unknown – it is only known to have come from someplace in Southern Italy, called “Magna Gracia” in ancient times – and it was probably looted many years ago from a site near the Italian town of Foggia. While it is currently on display at the Getty Villa, it is under negotiations to return to Italy in the near future.

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Tomorrow: Mmmm Manioc…Ancient Manioc!

Ancient Sugar-Free Gum! (ca. 4,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

Delicious ancient gum from Finland!In the summer of 2007, a student in western Finland working on an archaeological dig came across an interesting find – it was a lump of birch bark tar from about 6,000 years ago! Based upon the time period that it was from, as well as the appearance of the lump of hardened substance, it didn’t take long to deduce that it was, in fact, a piece of ancient chewing gum.

It is known that during the Neolithic period, humans used birch bark tar as an antiseptic to treat mouth sores like gum infections, or even for household tasks such as repairing a pot. Birch bark tar in particular contains something called “phenols”, which are antiseptic compounds that help to treat infections naturally.

Chewing sugar-free gum – whether it is modern gum or ancient birch bark tar – also helps to stimulate the production of saliva in the mouth, which works as a preventative method against tooth decay.

In the case of this ancient piece of birch bark tar, there are tooth marks remaining on the piece of gum that confirm it was in someone’s mouth thousands of years ago! Interestingly enough, an amber ring and a slate arrowhead were also found near the ancient treat.

Even if they weren’t necessarily aware of the gum’s medicinal properties, it appears that humans of all millennia have enjoyed popping a tasty, chewable treat into their mouths… perhaps they even had their own troubles with scraping used gum off of sandals.

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Tomorrow: Eagle vs. Shark? Forget it…Griffins vs. Deer!

Astyages, Last King of the Medes – Part 2/2 (ca. 585 – 550 BC)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

Artist’s conception of Cyrus II.After Cyrus II came of age, Harpagus convinced the young man that the Medes were ready and willing to revolt against their now despotic king, Astyages. Cyrus then organized a federation consisting of 10 Persian tribes, and attacked his father… though for some reason – or as Herodotus claims, “blinded by divine reason” – Astyages appointed Harpagus as the leader of his army. Naturally, Harpagus was not eager to fight for the man who had killed his son, and instead marched on the Median capital with Cyrus, both Persian and Median armies in tow, and took Astyages captive.

Although the details of Herodotus’ tale are more likely based around fairy tale than fact, the end of the story has been confirmed by another ancient document called the Chronicle of Nabonidus. The document explains that in the 6th year of the reign of King Nabonidus of Babylon,

“king Astyages called up his troops and marched against Cyrus,
king of Ansan [Persia], in order to meet him in battle. The
army of Astyages revolted against him and in fetters they
delivered him to Cyrus. Cyrus marched agast the country
Ecbatana; the royal residence he seized; silver, gold, other
valuables of the country Ecbatana he took as booty and brought
to Ansan.”

The Nabonidus Chronicle!

At the very least – whether Harpagus was involved with the army’s defection or not – the details in the Chronicle of Nabonidus imply that after three years of fighting, king Astyages’ troops mutinied and handed him over to Cyrus. Unfortunately for Cyrus, Astyages’ allies did not take the capture of the allied king so well – shortly after the capture, King Croesus of Lydia attacked Cyrus II to avenge Astyages. With Harpagus at his side – for which there are confirmed records – Cyrus defeated Croesus’ advances and ended up overthrowing Lydia as well.

What happened to Astyages after his capture remains unknown. Although the ancient sources agree that he was treated with mercy and leniency not typically given to captive kings, the details of how this occurred differ. While Herodotus claims that the king was left imprisoned for the rest of his life, other sources suggest that Astyages was reinstated as a governor in Parthia, and later met his death at the hands of a political rival. Which version of the tale is actually true is likely to remain unknown indefinitely.

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Tomorrow: Ancient Sugar-Free Gum!

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