Around the world in 100 issues

The CWA articles mentioned in the feature below can all be accessed free online via Exact Editions until 31 March 2021. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles.


A composite reconstruction of a Homo sapiens skull
The first of our kind. A composite reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils from Jebel Irhoud, based on scans of multiple original fossils. Dating back 300,000 years, these early Homo sapiens already have a modern-looking face that falls within the variation of humans living today. (Image: Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig [CC by SA 2.0])

As CWA reaches a milestone, we sifted through our back issues in search of the most exciting discoveries about our shared past. Ten sites have been selected to tell stories from the last 300,000 years that have been brought to light by archaeology.

One of archaeology’s greatest thrills is that decades of assumptions can be swept away in an instant. Sometimes, spectacular one-off discoveries – like Tutankhamun’s tomb – change how we view entire eras. On other occasions, it is the less-thrilling, but just as decisive, gradual accumulation of data that grinds down established theories. Harnessing new technologies can also pay dividends, by bringing new insights that build an ever richer and more complex picture of the past. Thanks to the dedication of archaeologists working around the world, visions of the past are never static. Instead, discoveries both little and large continue to bring ancient lives into clearer focus. Over the last 17 years, CWA has had the privilege of reporting stories freshly won from the earth. Here, we examine ten sites that showcase how much our knowledge has been enriched.

Jebel Irhoud

Archaeologists tend to be suspicious of anything claiming to be a beginning or end, as seemingly abrupt changes usually turn out to be a product of much longer periods of transformation. This is also true of the emergence of our species, but the arrival of Homo sapiens can justly be claimed as a pivotal moment – for us, at least. It used to be thought that the cradle of humanity lay in eastern Africa around 200,000 years ago, so the discovery by a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology of 300,000-year-old Homo sapiens bones at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco caused quite a stir (CWA 84 and 91). The remains of several individuals were found at the site, including facial bones that are almost identical to those in modern humans.

This development is not just of interest for demonstrating that Homo sapiens was apparently around for far longer than anyone suspected. It is also key to understanding how we came into being. Rather than humanity evolving from a single group in one part of Africa, it is now thought more likely that numerous populations from many places on the continent contributed to our origins. Because Africa’s climate periodically rendered regions uninhabitable, groups could become isolated for long enough to adapt to their surroundings by developing new tools and a unique biological make-up. When conditions eased, re-establishing contact with other populations allowed both cultural and genetic mixing, gradually giving rise to the package of modern human characteristics.

Göbekli Tepe

New ways of being were also brought to the fore when an extraordinary complex was founded in what is now Western Anatolia during the 10th millennium BC. To put the age of Göbekli Tepe in context, it makes Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid at Giza, which broadly date to the mid 3rd millennium BC, look like mere whippersnappers. Göbekli Tepe means ‘Potbelly Hill’, which seems appropriate enough for a site that lies in the Fertile Crescent, where farming first took hold. The hill itself was entirely artificial, and concealed one of the great archaeological finds of modern times (CWA 53). Once believed to be Byzantine in origin, survey by Klaus Schmidt in 1994 picked up the telltale traces of much earlier activity.

An enclosure at Göbekli Tepe, with T-shaped monoliths forming a circle and two bigger T-shaped monoliths in the centre
One of the enclosures discovered at Göbekli Tepe, showing the huge, T-shaped monoliths. (Image: N Becker, Göbekli Tepe Project, DAI)

Excavation within the mound revealed a stunning complex of roughly circular enclosures, containing T-shaped monoliths standing over 5m high. These soaring stones bear fabulous carvings, including animals, such as foxes, snakes, boar, aurochs, gazelle, cranes, storks and more. That these reflect a rich mythology is implied by a headless and ithyphallic man shown surrounded by scorpions, snakes, and vultures. Such creatures were presumably selected because of their association with death, suggesting an underlying story we can now only guess at. All the signs are that Göbekli Tepe was a major religious centre, and it has been proposed that the very need to feed the groups assembled for the communal effort required to create this sanctuary could have helped bring about the shift from a hunter-gatherer to a farming lifestyle.

Dhaskalio

In the early Bronze Age, the winds of change were also blowing at the islet of Dhaskalio. Today, this rocky mass rises from the Aegean just off the island of Keros, and the two were probably joined by a natural promontory when people began congregating nearby around 2700 BC. These expeditions to what was – and is – a remote destination also seem to have been motivated by religious zeal. Indeed, the site has been claimed as the oldest known maritime sanctuary in the world. At first, these pilgrims were content to deposit special objects – many of which had been broken elsewhere – such as fine marble figurines and bowls in two deposits at bays on Keros (CWA 26).

The rocky islet of Dhaskalio in the Aegean sea
Excavations under way on Dhaskalio, a rocky islet that was terraced and transformed into what appears to be the Aegean’s first planned town. (Image: Cambridge Keros Project)

Attention turned to Dhaskalio in around 2550 BC (CWA 91 and 97). Adding artificial terraces to this unpromising outcrop made it suitable for building, allowing it to become what may be the first planned settlement in the Aegean, and a step towards urbanism in Europe. Between about 2400-2300 BC, a set of monumental structures were built on the summit of Dhaskalio. Recent excavations led by Colin Renfrew and Michael Boyd have examined buildings that proved to be workshops, while abnormal traces of copper across the islet point to widespread metalworking. As early Bronze Age levels were also detected under the great palace at Knossos on Crete, perhaps Dhaskalio was not the only such sanctuary town.

Ban Non Wat

Bangles being excavated from a burial
The trappings of wealth. Charles Higham excavating the bangles in one of the elite burials at Ban Non Wat.

If exciting developments were afoot in the early Bronze Age Aegean, that of Southeast Asia once seemed to be surprisingly lacking in social change. Instead, cemetery after cemetery turned up individuals laid to rest with modest grave goods, such as a few pots and beads, rather than the showy trappings of an emergent elite. That run ended in 2003, with a spectacular series of burials excavated at Ban Non Wat, Thailand, by Charles Higham (CWA 31 and 35). The site had its origins in the Neolithic, with the Bronze Age cemetery established in about 1000 BC.

The first super-burial the team encountered included an abundance of fine pottery, and a skeleton that had been manipulated so that its long bones created a platform cradling the skull, which was positioned facing the rising sun. A second skeleton occupied the central position in the grave, associated with beads, bangles, and a bronze axe. Another super-burial followed, this time containing two women, one wearing 24 shell earrings. As the number of wealthy interments grew, so too it became apparent that the South-east Asian Bronze Age heralded seismic social change, creating elites who were not shy about advertising their status.

The Griffin Warrior

Those responsible for burying the so-called ‘Griffin Warrior’ flaunted his social standing, too. He was laid to rest in Messenia, Greece, in about 1450 BC, at around the time the Minoans of Crete were being eclipsed by the Mycenaeans of Greece, heralding the rise of mainland Europe’s first civilisation. The Griffin Warrior’s tomb lay near the Homeric palace of Pylos, where excavations had revealed occupation from about 1900-1200 BC, as well as clay tablets referring to a wanax or king. Survey in 2015 by a University of Cincinnati team revealed a suggestive cluster of stones in a field, and test excavation unearthed the outline of an unplundered rectangular grave (CWA 82).

Gold ring engraved with image of a bull and a person leaping over it
One of the Minoan-style signet-rings found in the Griffin Warrior’s tomb. It shows an athletic display of bull leaping. (Image: Dept of Classics, University of Cincinnati/Chronis Papanikolopoulos)

The contents of the tomb proved extraordinary. As well as containing the armour, boar’s-tusk helmet, and weapons of a warrior, there was a bronze mirror with ivory handle, two gold cups, four beautiful gold signet-rings, 50 seal stones, and over 1,000 beads. Two depictions of a griffin – on a seal stone and ivory plaque – gifted the deceased his modern name. It is the signet-rings that are most intriguing, though, as both the manufacture and the imagery – including bull leaping – are Minoan in style. Seemingly, then, the mainlanders were adopting some of the trappings of the culture they were destined to eclipse.

Garamantes

Cultures were also colliding in the Sahara in the 1st century BC. When a Roman general advanced into the desert in 20 BC, he encountered a group known as the Garamantes and captured, among other sites, their capital at Garama, now known as Old Jarma. Garama lay in a productive oasis, far from the coastal cities sprouting in response to the colonial or trading ambitions of Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. Instead, the Garamantes were Libya’s first internal urban power, and the fortunes of Garama waxed and waned for more than 2,000 years.

Mud-brick fortification stands out against the blue sky in Libya's desert
The Garamantes developed a sophisticated civilisation based on oasis agriculture. This mud-brick fortification or qasr is one of the sites examined by the Fazzān Project. (Image: © Toby Savage)

Survey and excavation of Old Jarma and its hinterland by the Fazzān Project (CWA 9 and 53), led by David Mattingly, have shed much light on the Garamantes’ accomplishments, and teased out a biography for a centre that rarely troubled the authors of surviving written sources. Despite annual rainfall of less than 20mm, the Garamantes managed to harness groundwater to support agriculture, and even seem to have had enough surplus to run a Roman-style bathhouse. As their power grew, so too the Romans discovered that military expeditions could travel in both directions, as by AD 69 the Garamantes were able to besiege the coastal city at Lepcis Magna.

Thonis-Heracleion

While limited water provided a challenge for the Garamantes, its abundance brought about the downfall of Thonis-Heracleion (CWA 60, 95, and 97). This extraordinary submerged city was discovered off the coast of Egypt by Franck Goddio and his team in 2000, when survey equipment detected strong magnetic anomalies. What they found beneath the waves is more the stuff of adventure fiction than real-life archaeology. Statues of gods, pharaohs, and queens littered the seabed, while a stele inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphics identified the site as the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion.

Underwater archaeologist inspects huge Egyptian stele with torch
This stele revealed that the submerged settlement discovered by Franck Goddio and his team was the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion. (Image: Christoph Gergik © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)

This emporium once lay at the mouth of the Nile, allowing it to grow wealthy on the back of commodities flowing from the Mediterranean into Egypt’s riverine backbone. The city boasted a complex array of ports and channels, with over 60 shipwrecks still lying within them. Urban life, though, was focused on a great temple dedicated to Amun Gereb, which contained colossal statues of a king, queen, and – appropriately enough – Hapy: the corpulent god symbolising the fertile flooding Nile. Thonis-Heracleion went into decline when a rival town was founded at Alexandria, and finally slipped beneath the waves after a devastating earthquake in the 8th century AD.

Pachacamac

Another deserted city can be found sprawling over an area of 600ha at Pachacamac, Peru. This was one of the jewels of the Inca world, but these imperial overlords were not its founders. Instead, the city was more than 1,000 years old when it was annexed by what became the biggest pre-Columbian empire. Excavations by Peter Eeckhout, who has worked at the site for over 25 years, have shown how the Inca cannily capitalised on the city’s traditions to cement their empire (CWA 54 and 92). For a time, the city had belonged to the Ychsma. Their chief deity, also called Ychsma, drew pilgrims from the surrounding areas.

Conservator works on wall-painting at Pachacamac, which shows a yellow figure outlined in black, on a red background
A mural undergoing conservation at Pachacamac. Yellow and black liquid seem to be streaming from the yellow figure’s arms, perhaps symbolising abundance and fertility. (Image: Peter Eeckhout, ULB)

The Inca took this tradition of pilgrimages and ran with it, creating what has been likened to a pre-Hispanic Lourdes. The god Ychsma was renamed Pachacamac, and extraordinary journeys were made in his honour. Pilgrims travelled from across the empire to seek the oracle’s favour, with some travelling hundreds of miles. Arrival at the city only marked the beginning of their devotions, though, as it took over a year to progress through the sacred courts to reach the sanctuary. By appropriating a local god, the Incas eased the task of achieving acceptance in the region, while encouraging Pachacamac’s cult on an empire-wide scale helped to build a sense of a unified ‘Inca’ identity.

Maya LiDAR

The remains of variously vying and allied city-states can also be found in the jungle of Guatemala. The sight of Maya pyramids puncturing the tree canopy at Tikal is one of the iconic images of archaeology, but recent survey of a 2,144km² area of jungle has revealed how much of the Maya world lay shrouded and unsuspected beneath the dense foliage. LiDAR uses aircraft-mounted lasers to strip away features obscuring the ground surface, exposing previously subtle features. This paid off handsomely in Guatemala, revealing a stunning 60,000 new structures, including sites that were previously entirely unknown, as well as 105km of roadlike causeways and 59km of defences (CWA 96). Even at Tikal, two new pyramids were detected.

Two Maya pyramids rise above the jungle canopy at Tikal
Maya pyramids rise above the jungle canopy at Tikal. Recent LiDAR survey has revealed just how much lay obscured beneath the foliage. (Image: Diego Grandi/Dreamstime)

This investment in defences supports a shift in the Maya narrative that has been under way since the 1940s. It was once thought that the Maya co-existed in a state of relative harmony, but uncovering grisly murals depicting the graphic consequences of ritual warfare began to point to a more violent reality. This journey continued with the deciphering of Mayan texts, which suggested more widescale warfare than previously suspected. Now the LiDAR has made a logical next step in this direction by revealing what seems to be a previously unknown type of Maya site: a fortress.

Lawrence of Arabia

A First World War British button
The detritus of guerrilla warfare: a First World War British button. (Image: Great Arab Revolt Project)

The final project on our global tour is another that is inextricably linked to warfare. An expedition to examine Lawrence of Arabia’s contribution to the First World War in southern Jordan was launched in CWA, which seems fitting not only because it was led by Neil Faulkner, a former editor of our sister publication Current Archaeology, but also because conflict archaeology has really come into its own over the course of CWA’s lifespan. The feature on Waterloo in this issue is a fine illustration of that, while the Great Arab Revolt Project has delivered fascinating insights into another form of combat, one often referred to as ‘guerrilla warfare’ (CWA 23, 27, and 78).

Rather than the set-piece slaughters associated with massed infantry assaults on Western Front trenches, Lawrence and his Arab allies relied on hit-and-run attacks. These were mounted against Ottoman forces that, on paper, were overwhelming superior. The success of this tactic of appearing in unpredictable places, striking, and vanishing was ably demonstrated during the very first season of work. Sites of strategic significance, such as the Ma’an railway station, were secured by impressive defences, including lengths of trenches and army camps, tying down hundreds of Ottoman soldiers. At such places, there was little more than a scatter of British-issued munitions to testify to the presence of their nimble tormenters.

New pasts

This digest of the last 300,000 years via ten projects is a tribute to just how much can be learnt about our shared heritage. Thanks to the endeavours of archaeologists working on these sites, and countless others worldwide, we can be certain that the past still holds plenty to look forward to. All of us here at CWA are excited to learn what new breakthroughs the next 100 issues will bring.


This article appeared in issue 100 of Current World Archaeology. Click here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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