Celebrating World Archaeology

11 mins read

Turkey: Reconstructing Roman Ephesus (CWA 1)

The first issue looked at one of the largest towns in the Roman Empire- Ephesus, in Asia Minor, now modern Turkey. Here the Austrian Archaeological Institute has been conducting a major campaign of reconstruction. Their first success was the reconstruction of the Library of Celsus (below), but more recently they have just completed their excavation of a whole insula (block) of town-houses and erected a state-of-the-art cover building over them. We were one of the first visitors, and were able not only to take a guided tour around the wealthy houses with their rich decoration – but also to take a look at the very clever covering built over them.

Greece: The mysterious art of the Cyclades (CWA 26)

Fast forward a thousand years from Neolithic Malta, and we come to the Cycladic islands of Greece. Here, the stark abstract figurines found in these islands have had an enormous effect on modern art. They are normally found only in graves – but what was their function?
The Greek island of Keros is uninhabited today but pits have been discovered here, filled with fragments of figurines. These figurines had been made elsewhere, broken elsewhere and the fragments brought to Keros for burial. Colin Renfrew has been excavating some of these pits and is gradually beginning to fill in the gaps in the story of the Cycladic civilization.

Italy: Pompeii before Vesuvius (CWA 4)

Remarkably, perhaps, Pompeii still continues to be at the centre of modern work. Traditionally, work at Pompeii has been devoted to elucidating the city that was destroyed by Vesuvius in AD 79; but by that time it was already over five centuries old, and there is a splendid opportunity to excavate down beneath the destruction to discover the history of Pompeii – and indeed the history of Italian towns – and to chart the rise of Rome.
Pompeii began surprisingly early, possibly dating as far back as the 6th century, when the city walls may have been built. However the great expansion began in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, when Pompeii came under Rome’s influence. The pace of development grew even hotter in the 1st century BC, despite Pompeii joining the Social War against Rome in 91 BC. In a special issue devoted to Pompeii, we looked at the excavations in two houses, the House of Amarynthus and the House of the Vestals to chart their history over the centuries before their eventual destruction.

Albania: The magical city of Butrint (CWA 2, CWA 14)

Visiting the city of Butrint is sheer magic. Today it is easily accessible from Corfu, but in Greek and Roman times it was a major port along the Adriatic coast, where Aeneas called in on his way to Rome. It was extensively excavated in the 1930s but then Albania became isolated and thus the site escaped modern development.
Since the opening up of Albania, Butrint has become a World Heritage Site, development has been kept at bay, and it has become a wonderful site to visit. But what is there to see? On the slopes of the hillside there are the vivid remains of a Greek town, with a sanctuary of the healing god Asclepius and an accompanying theatre. There are also, surprisingly, the remains of an early Christian basilica and an adjacent palace that has recently been revealed, showing the survival of the town into the 5th and 6th centuries.
So where was the Roman colony? The answer came in excavations across the narrow waterway, where the Romans laid out their colony on the flat ground. Here there is a great Roman town waiting to be discovered, the outlines of which are slowly being revealed by the patient excavators.

The Near East

Jordan: Lot’s Monastery (CWA 5)

One of the most spectacular stories of all was the account of the discovery of Lot’s monastery. The Biblical tale is well known: how, guided by God, Lot escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, though unfortunately his wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt. After escaping, he and his daughters hid in a cave where they watched the awesome destruction of the wicked cities.
Now the cave in which Lot and his daughters hid has been discovered. Or rather, in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, a cave was located, which was deemed to be Lot’s cave, and a monastery was built around it. This monastery has now been discovered, complete with some fine mosaic pavements, with interesting inscriptions. Part of the monastery overlaid the cave, which the archaeologists entered and excavated. To their surprise, they discovered some Middle Bronze Age pottery of precisely the right period for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Were the 6th century monks just lucky? Or was there some memory passed down that this was indeed Lot’s cave?

Iraq: Nimrud and the Curse of Queen Yaba (CWA 11)

The Assyrians have had a bad press. From the 10th century down to their destruction in 612 BC, they dominated Mesopotamia, but they were generally regarded as the bad boys of the Bible – despite their wonderfully romantic names such as Tiglath Pileser III. But is their age old reputation for uncouth fierceness wholly justified?
The great city of Nimrud was explored by Layard in the 19th century and the sculptures he found are now among the highlights of the British Museum. In the 1950s, Max Mallowan, with his wife Agatha Christie, continued the work. More recently, the Department of Antiquities in Iraq took over, uncovering a series of royal tombs, many looted, before making the spectacular discovery of the tomb of Queen Yaba, wife of Tiglath Pileser III, who ruled from 744 to 727 BC. His wife was buried, as was the custom, in the women’s quarters, beneath the floors of one of the side rooms. The archaeologists went through the floor, uncovered a stairway, and reached the burial chambers where they found a fabulous collection of gold and jewellery – along with a blood-curdling curse!

Egypt: The biggest tomb (CWA 12)
Africa has compelling remains from across the continent, yet Ancient Egypt continues to fascinate. One of the recent highlights there has been in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, where the biggest tomb of all is being excavated, known as KV5. This was built by Rameses II, not for himself but as the burial place for his numerous sons. Whereas most other tombs have half a dozen, or perhaps even a dozen, rooms, this has 130 chambers so far excavated, with more to come. However, almost all these chambers were empty and had never been used. It is astounding to think that, although the entrance had been discovered, the true scale of Egypt’s biggest tomb had remained unrealised for so long. Now, an American team is hard at work uncovering its full extent. Although only the corridors are being cleared, leaving most of the rooms untouched for future generations, many surprises are still expected.

Ethiopia: Miraculous architecture (CWA 7 and CWA 18)
Ethiopia, the mountainous country far to the south of Egypt where the River Nile rises, is a Christian country with one of the oldest forms of Christianity. Its capital, Axum, flourished in the Roman period, and the remains of this empire were described in CWA 7. However, some of the finest churches are in Lalibela, where the soft stone enables churches to be carved out of the rock.
According to tradition, they were all built in around AD 1200, in the reign of King Lalibela, who was helped in his task by armies of angels. However, the pragmatic archaeologists argue that the churches were built over a rather longer period of time, and a major article in CWA 18 illustrated some of these amazing churches.

Asia and the Far East

Pakistan: Peshawar, gateway between East and West (CWA 16 and CWA 19)

Peshawar, at the entrance to the Khyber Pass, has always been one of the great gateways between East and West. Alexander the Great passed through, as did the Moguls, the intrepid Durrani dynasty, and the British. At the centre is the great caravanserai known as Gor Khutree, originally built in 1641 by a Mogul princess. It is now being restored, and will soon seek world heritage status.
Here, the deepest excavations in the world are being conducted, a long slice through the whole history of the North West frontier. Having dug through the various periods, the indefatigable archaeologists are now reaching the Ghandaran period, the great age of the Buddhists that spanned the 5th century BC to the 5th century AD. But still they have not reached the bottom: will they eventually find remains of the great Indus civilization?

Korea: Tomb of the world’s ‘other Tutankhamun’ (CWA 8)

From the 4th to the 8th centuries AD, Korea enjoyed one of the world’s great civilizations. This was the period known as the Three Kingdoms, when three great kingdoms produced some of the finest art and culture the world has ever seen.
In AD 523, King Muryong, the 25th king of the Baekje, the most artistic of the Three Kingdoms, died in his capital Gongju and was buried in the royal acropolis. Fortunately for him, the entrance was concealed by the construction of a later tomb, and thus remained untouched until it was discovered by accident and excavated by Korean archaeologists. In its wealth and magnificence, this is truly Korea’s ‘Tutankhamun’ and it is now on display in a magnificent new museum.

Belize: The Maya uncovered (CWA 1)

The Maya in Mexico and central America have been among the most fascinating discoveries of recent years: the decipherment of the Maya script has meant that the Maya are moving from prehistory into history.
New sites are constantly being discovered: at La Milpa, in Belize, Norman Hammond has been exploring an extensive city with a Great Plaza at the centre where the huge throne was discovered, in which we see the excavator (above) seated. But what of the surrounding area that produced the agricultural surpluses that made the palaces possible? The excavators carried out two long transects through the jungle and found that the central core was surrounded by an extensive hinterland, where instead of the houses being closely packed together, they were spread out in little farmsteads each surrounded by its garden and orchards.

Five years remembered

It is amazing to think it has been five years since we launched Current World Archaeology. Yet in that time, we have covered so many sites, made so many new discoveries, and in so many different parts of the world. In the course of doing this, we have worked with scores of archaeologists and made many friends along the way. Every article is written in close conjunction with the archaeological ‘source’: sometimes they write the first draft and we edit it, sometimes vice versa; and we have been delighted and often humbled by the care and attention they have given to ensuring that the articles are both accurate and fully-illustrated.
We would like to thank all the archaeologists for their help and look forward to further stories about the latest discoveries on their sites in the future.

Malta: ancient idols (CWA 7)
Moving back in time, the great Neolithic temples on Malta are among the oldest stone temples in the world. Many of them were erected before even the pyramids were built. Yet, what was their purpose, and how were they used? The temples are sometimes accompanied by underground burial places and one of these, at the Brockdorff stone circle, at Xaghra, on Gozo, has recently been excavated. The worshippers passed through a stone circle, along a processional way, and then down a stairway into the underground cave. There, lying on the ground in front of the altar, they found a bundle of idols, quite unlike any others known. What was the purpose, and how were they used? Were they ‚’tribal’ emblems, held in the hand by the leaders of the different groups? In CWA 7, excavation directors Caroline Malone and Simon Stoddard were able to speculate on these rituals, and even offer some tentative answers.

Jordan: the secrets of Petra (CWA 10)
At Petra, the Nabattean ‘rose red city half as old as time’, the highlight is the ‘Treasury’ – now generally thought to have been a royal tomb – dramatically sited at the end of a long winding cleft in the rocks. Yet how did it actually work? The answer is being revealed in an excavation at a site known as the Soldier’s Tomb, hidden away down a side valley little visited by tourists. Here, there is a wonderful temple façade carved out of the rock, which faces onto a rectangular courtyard and opposite which is the dining room where feasts were held for those celebrating the dead chief buried there. The careful excavation is revealing the secrets of both how the tombs at Petra were carved out of the rock and the feasting ceremonies that took place around the tombs.

Syria: the Macarbe royal burials at qatna (CWA 7)
How do you bury the dead? The royal tombs at Qatna in Syria, dating to the Middle Bronze Age, revealed a truly macabre series of ceremonies. The burial chamber lay on the far side of the town from the palace, approached by a long tunnel. The archaeologists followed the tunnel until they found a shaft, at the bottom of which was the burial chamber, still intact.
The tomb was cruciform in shape: at the centre was the feasting chamber, with benches round the walls where the mourners sat and ate ritual feasts in honour of the dead. The dead were then placed in side chambers in varying degrees of decay. Painstaking excavation enabled the archaeologists to reconstruct the macabre final ceremony that took place shortly before the city was finally overwhelmed and destroyed by the Hittites in 1340 BC.

Egypt: the marble of Mons Porphyrites (CWA 8)
High in the mountains of Egypt’s eastern desert, one of the world’s most magical marbles is to be found: porphyry. Porphyry is a red marble, which the Roman Emperors considered extremely beautiful and reserved it for their palaces. Porphyry is only found in the eastern deserts of Egypt and must be quarried from near the top of the mountain. It is then brought down the mountain, undergoes a 200 mile journey across the desert to the Nile, is then shipped down the Nile before being trans-shipped to Rome. Such a laborious journey ensured it was an extremely expensive commodity.
Recently, not only have the quarries been excavated, but also the accounts have been found, and these record the everyday life in fascinating detail. In particular, it emerges that there were no slaves. If you have to bring in all food and supplies from 200 miles away, it is essential every workman counts and therefore they used the best, most highly paid workforce: after all, the pay was only a small part of their overall cost.

Japan: The oldest pottery in the world (CWA 1 and CWA 11)
Japan boasts many firsts, and the Jomon culture in Japan has produced some of the oldest pottery in the world. Jomon pottery, with its elaborate decoration, existed throughout much of the Neolithic and Bronze Age, lasting down into the 1st millennium BC. Throughout this period, a large number of exotic pots were produced, often ornamented with corded decoration.
However, recent work has also shown that it has its origins very early indeed – even as early as 10,000 BC, as far back as the end of the last Ice Age. Discoveries made in northern Japan, as well as in the neighbouring parts of both Russia and China, have produced pots that suggest cooking involving pots became a necessity right back in this early period in this part of the world. At CWA, we continue to be enthralled by this fascinating story.

Colombia: The land of gold and shamans (CWA14)
The mountain ranges of the Andes are not only fertile for agriculture but are also rich in gold. A thousand years before the Spaniards arrived, they were already producing superb gold jewellery and burying the objects in fantastically rich tombs. By the time the Spaniard first arrived, the tombs had been forgotten, but over the last century the expansion of agriculture has meant the rediscovery not only of the remains of their agricultural activities but also of the tombs.
Sadly, the tombs have been extensively looted, though many of the best pieces ended up with the National Bank of Colombia, which founded the National Gold Museum. Recently, archaeology has begun to fill in the occupational background, not only looking at the tombs but also at the settlements, with the evidence of the fertile agriculture – and also the pipes through which the priests or shamans inhaled hallucinatory drugs to enable them to carry out their ritual practices.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 31. Click here to subscribe

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