Archive for November, 2007

Salad Dressing is Probably Past the ‘Best Before’ Date (ca. 400 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

Remnants of from ancient salad dressing found at the bottom of the Mediterranean is probably well past its due date, though it shares many common characteristics with today’s oregano-based dressings.A 2,400-year-old shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Chios in the Aegean sea contained a rather tasty surprise – DNA testing on the insides of some of the amphorae yielded a recipe for Greek salad dressing! The shipwreck currently lies 70 meters deep, and is located about a kilometer away from Chios.

Scientists were able to obtain samples of the ancient dressing after sending several underwater robots down to the shipwreck to collect two of the jars. Amphorae were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to transport liquids and other commodities – things like wine, oil, spices, grain, or olives – and are shaped like large cones. Since they’re made out of earthenware pottery, they have an incredible lifespan, preserving for hundreds of thousands of years, even underwater!

Studies on amphorae from shipwrecks often help to reveal the country of origin of the ship and how old it was, and it isn’t unusual for the jars to often still contain remains of their original contents – finds like this have helped to dramatically increase the amount of information available on trade in the ancient Mediterranean.

The amphorae from Chios were normally shaped like this, and held all varieties of trade items, from wine, to grain, to oregano-flavored olive oil! The DNA contents of the amphorae from this shipwreck revealed several common yet interesting ingredients: the jars contained olive oil mixed with oregano. This came as a bit of a surprise to archaeologists, since the island the ship had left from was a major exporter of fine wines – it had been assumed that any ship leaving Chios would have held plenty of amphorae full of wine.

While further investigations revealed that another amphora from the ship likely contained wine – which means there was probably plenty aboard – the oregano-flavored oil seems to have been the primary trade item on this vessel, making up at least two-thirds of the 350 amphorae found on the ship.

It’s likely that strong winds developed soon after the ship left port, causing it to capsize without warning. It is fairly common for the area around Chios to develop sudden storms or fluke winds that are exceedingly dangerous for sailing, however since they are unpredictable, sailors couldn’t simply not leave port for sake of potential trouble.

Olive oil in a modern storage jar.

As a result, it turns out that not only did the ancient Greeks like their salad dressing, but the island of Chios was responsible for a more diverse agricultural program than previously assumed. These people certainly knew what they were doing, as well – in the rural areas of modern Greece, the older women are well aware that adding oregano and other spices to oil helps not only to increase the flavor, but also to preserve the life of the oil much longer.

By exporting flavored oil with an intentional longer lifespan, it’s possible that this ancient preservation method accidentally helped to preserve the oil’s DNA for archaeologists to find two thousand years later.

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Tomorrow: Baby Spears – but not the Britney kind.

Camping for Mammoths in the Ice Age (ca. 13,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

This place in Russia was an Ice Age camp site 15,000 years ago, where hunters spent their time on excursions to hunt mammoth.Near Lake Evoron in the Far East of Russia, an ancient camping site has been discovered which was the temporary home of hunters during the Ice Age for their hunting excursions.

The camp dates to approximately 13,000 BC, which is an incredible find – primarily because so little is known about the Ice Age which occurred in that time period. It is a point in history that is poorly studied, primarily because of how little archaeological evidence remains from that era.

The site was found in 2007 while researchers were on an archaeological expedition to Lake Evoron, and it is situated next to the Amur River. It appears to be the largest of four Stone Age sites from the area, and it was the discovery of several artifacts that pointed toward the site’s use as a mammoth hunting camp.

Several stone arrowheads, flint pikes, and a stone scraper were found here, and if the site is excavated, those few pieces could multiply into hundreds of stone tools, likely buried at a moderate depth below the surface.

The discovery of ancient sites in this area of Russia isn’t unusual – in 2006, an Iron Age burial mound was found with a piece of iron dagger, though it dated only to around 500 BC. This Paleolithic campsite is obviously much, much older, and may point toward a better understanding of this little-known time when the world was covered in ice.

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Tomorrow: Ancient Salad Dressing

Ancient Murals at the Fire Temple (ca. 2000 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

This 4,000-year-old fire temple from Peru was built by an advanced, pre-Incan society which deliberately buried it after the temple had served its use.

It was around 4,000 years ago that an advanced civilization lived in the northern coastal desert of Peru, pre-dating the Inca and building massive, complex structures to their deities. Who were the people of this advanced civilization? Currently, the question of who they were remains unanswered – however, they left behind a large, colorful temple for future historians to admire.

The temple is massive, and was constructed in an unusual way for the people of ancient Peru – whoever built the temple created their own mud bricks to use for building the structure, instead of using carved stones or rocks as most Peruvian civilizations did. The ability to create mud bricks from local sediment is considered an advanced function of society – so whoever constructed this temple knew exactly what they were doing.

What the temple was used for isn’t too difficult to surmise – on the front of the building there was a staircase leading up to an altar. The kind of altar here, and the location of the altar on the building, point directly to its use for making offerings to deities and engaging in fire worship.

The fire temple had several of its walls painted as well, which makes these murals possibly the oldest wall paintings known in the Western Hemisphere. One of the red and white murals shows a deer being hunted and trapped in a net, which makes this fire temple a place of very different iconographic and architectural tradition than what was previously known to be the case in the area.

The murals found on the fire temple’s walls are the oldest known wall paintings in the entire Western Hemisphere! The iconography is extremely different from any other known cultures in Peru.

With a size of approximately 2,500 square meters – nearly half the size of a football field – the Peruvian fire temple is close to the modern city of Lima, about 755 kilometers away. Adding to the curiosity factor of the building is a skeleton of a monkey and a piece of turquoise, as well as the way which the dirt was burying the building – it appeared as though once the people finished using this building, they deliberately buried it! The monkey skeleton and turquoise, found near ritual areas of the temple, were probably ceremonial offerings to commemorate the building.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

Horus of Hierakonpolis (ca. 3700 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

This falcon figurine and its wings were discovered by a team digging at Hierakonpolis in 2007, and is currently the earliest known depiction of a falcon in history. The photo was taken by dig director Renee Friedman of the Hierakonpolis Expedition.

In 2007, Archaeology magazine reported that a team digging at the ancient Egyptian city of Hierakonpolis – about 400 miles south of Cairo – had discovered something in the site’s ‘elite cemetery’ that validated the city’s role in the development of the Egyptian state around the time of the First Dynasty.

The name Hierakonpolis translates as “the city of the falcon”, and what was found there was the earliest depiction of a falcon ever discovered – something which meant a lot to the Egyptian people throughout the Dynastic period. However, before that in the Predynastic period, the falcon was one of the clearest surviving examples of a symbolic image or motif that would carry on from those early centuries into the Dynastic period.

Once the Dynastic period arrived in Egypt, the image of a falcon symbolized the king or Pharaoh, who was supposed to represent the embodiment of the god Horus – the falcon-headed deity of Egyptian religion. Horus was the patron god of kingship, and therefore the discovery of this falcon-shaped figurine at Hierakonpolis actually pushes back the association of falcons with royalty to nearly half a millennium earlier than previously thought.

The team that found the figurine was headed by archaeologist Renee Friedman, and the piece was actually located inside of one of the city’s structures that surrounded the largest known early Predynastic tomb in Egypt. Unique finds weren’t unusual for this tomb – previously, the tomb yielded an ivory carving of several hippos as well as a buried African elephant – suggesting that whoever was buried in the tomb was extremely important, and likely a very powerful ruler. With the discovery of a falcon carving, due to its association with royalty, there can be little doubt that it was a very important king who owned this tomb.

Egyptian art often depicted Horus, who was shown as a falcon-headed deity, due to his high importance in representing kingship and authority.

The falcon figurine is about 2.4 inches large, measuring from the tip to its tail, and appears to have been the work of a very skilled craftsman – and while the profile and shape of the figurine are similar to later falcon representations, the major difference is that the wings for this piece were carved free from the body and left attached only by a small, singular point. The falcon was carved out of a piece of malachite-veined basalt, which is what gives it the multi-colored appearance.

The city of Hierakonpolis may be familiar to some as the home of the legendary king Narmer, who Egyptologists used to credit as the founding father of Egypt – he was cited as the man who single-handedly unified the entire country and established the First Dynasty around 3100 BC. However, the discovery of a falcon figurine here in association with a royal burial – and according to the excavators, a number of other ‘falcon wings’ were found in the same area, though they had originally been mistaken for ears from human sculptures – presents some fairly compelling evidence for the leading role of Hierakonpolis in the birth of the Egyptian state, which apparently took much longer to develop than anyone had previously suspected.

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Tomorrow: Wall Paintings at an Ancient Peruvian Fire Temple

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