Chaco Canyon mystifies again

Fascinating discoveries keep on emerging not from today’s excavations, but from digs of yesteryear. Such is the case with seven unburned maize cobs from Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico, one of Chaco Canyon’s ‘great houses’. They were excavated by George H Pepper and Richard Wetherill between 1896 and 1899 and lay quietly in museum collections until modern science caught up with them. In 2003, a geochemical study suggested that the seven corncobs were grown at two locations outside Chaco Canyon. These findings came at a time when modern-day experiments growing maize in the Canyon resulted in poor yields. Yet the seven cobs were larger and had more kernels than other ancient cobs from the surrounding San Juan Basin. Enter strontium isotope analysis, based not only on the seven cobs but also on maize from three widely separated locations.

Tests show that six of the Pueblo Bonito cobs were grown outside Chaco Canyon, but the exact locations of the fields that yielded them remain problematic. Unburnt cobs are rare at Pueblo Bonito, for such objects were often used as fuel. Five of the unburnt cobs in this small sample came from a single room, Room 3, which apparently remained in use for about 200-300 years. It was opened occasionally, but the corn remained unused. An offering room, or a forgotten storage area, or what? —like so much research involving today’s hi-tech, the results pose more questions than they answer. Chaco Canyon and its ‘great houses’ remains one of the most challenging enigmas of American archaeology today.

Peruvian gold

Nine cylindrical gold beads from a grave at Jiskairumoko near Lake Titicaca in highland Peru caused a momentary sensation some months ago. These are the earliest gold objects yet discovered in the Andes, buried with an adult sometime between 2155 and 1936 BC. The nine beads, interspersed with small green stones, lay at the base of the adult’s skull, probably the remains of a necklace.

Spectrometry tells us the gold beads were made from quartz-vein nuggets hammered and rolled into cylinders. Gold appears to have been a prestigious metal, associated with eminence and wealth, and with social status and leadership. The adult in the Jiskairumoko grave lived at a time when people in the region were moving away from hunting and gathering to more sedentary lifeways involving both agriculture and herding. This handful of beads may be a sign that local society was already becoming stratified into rulers and the ruled. Excavations in the highland lowland Andes have yielded many exciting surprises in recent years, among them the city of Caral, north of Lima. The Jiskairumoko find reminds us that research into the origins of complex human societies has hardly begun.

Unheralded discoveries

Staying in Peru, it’s amazing what’s off the public radar screen when it comes to archaeological discoveries. Even the most trivial Egyptian and Maya finds seem to attract international headlines, while other parts of the world, such as the Andes, are often ignored. Peru has seen its share of news stories in recent months, but some of the truly most spectacular finds never seem to have attracted widespread attention. The Lords of Sican, who ruled over a powerful kingdom on Peru’s North Coast from AD 900 to 1100, are a case in point.

Izumi Shimada has been working at the Sican capital, Huaca Loro, since 1978 and is now excavating an elite cemetery covered by the centre’s 25m high pyramid. So far, he’s uncovered two lordly sepulchres. The so-called East Tomb, a 10m vertical shaft, 3m square, yielded the burial of a 40-50 year old man, whose body was mummified, painted with red cinnabar paint, and then dressed in his full ceremonial regalia. His head was separated from his body, rotated right side up, and placed in front of his inverted body. His regalia included pectorals made with amber, amethyst, and other semi-precious stones, also a gold ceremonial knife, ear spools, and a golden mask. A pair of golden gloves and a shin cover lay by the body. A nearby chest contained at least 24 layers of rattles, crowns, headbands, and other gold and alloy ritual objects. This Lord of Sican lay with 15 bundles of unfinished cast bronze tools, 165 pounds (75 kg) of perforated, semiprecious beads, and about 1,100 pounds (500 kg) of hammered alloy sheet scraps. The grave contained 179 spondylus shells and 141 conus shells, mollusks with powerful spiritual associations, all imported from the coast of Ecuador and other areas far to the north.

The Sican finds are mind-bogglingly sophisticated and make Tutankhamun’s grave furniture look positively rural. What is it about Ancient Egypt that stirs peoples’ imaginations, while the Lords of Sican remain discreetly on the archaeological sidelines?

Searching for Franklin – again

Sir John Franklin perished aboard his icebound vessel off King William Island in 1848 under circumstances that are still a mystery. By the time of his death, his two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, had been trapped in pack ice for two years. The survivors attempted to drag a ship’s boat overland, and perished, leaving a trail of debris including, of all things, curtain rods, behind them. A hundred and twenty nine men lost their lives in the tragedy. Numerous unsuccessful attempts have been made to locate Franklin’s vessels. The Canadian forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie investigated some Franklin Expedition graves on King William Island in the 1980s and exhumed three burials, among them the well-preserved body of Petty Officer John Torrington. Beattie believes that lead poisoning from canned foods may have contributed to the disaster.  Images from his excavations have haunted college freshmen from the pages of textbooks for years.

Back in 1923, the Norwegian explorer Knud Rasmussen recorded local Inuit oral traditions of a deserted ship full of dead seamen in the ice off King William Island, but he found nothing. Now a Canadian government icebreaker is to search for the crushed ships with state-of-the-art sonar equipment. The expedition will extend over several summers.

Why is Ottawa suddenly interested in a virtually forgotten tragedy? Since global warming has made much of the resource-rich Northwest Passage more accessible in summer, there are good reasons for Canada to protect her sovereignty claims in the High Arctic. Until now, the Canadians have done little to maintain a strong presence in the north.

Thanks to what is turning out to have been a convenient, but obviously regrettable, tragedy a century and a half ago, that’s about to change. Underwater archaeology is to be part of the effort, in the capable hands of Robert Grenier of Parks Canada, who worked on the Red Bay whaling ships in Labrador.

Outreaching ancient doom

The news of the Franklin expedition seems to coincide with an increasing involvement of archaeology and archaeologists in the contemporary world. Finally, we seem to be realising that we have much to offer all kinds of seemingly exotic audiences. I find myself speaking to increasingly diverse groups about archaeology and what the study of the remoter past can tell us about such topics as climatic change, drought, and self-sustainability. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

The National Association of Counties is an organisation of local government officers—they wanted a talk on droughts ancient and modern, and on ways in which ancient societies conserved water. Several members of the 1,200-person audience commented that they had no idea that our forebears also grappled with environmental challenges. The National Association of Emergency Preparedness Officers was another recent audience. They wanted a talk on ancient emergencies and on peoples’ reactions to disasters, which have changed little from Pompeii to Hurricane Katrina. Judging from the questions, they found the lessons of the past relevant to their own thinking. It’s interesting that almost all these opportunities stem not from any interest in archaeology, but from concerns over contemporary issues and what we have to learn about them from the past. I suspect that a great deal of what we call public outreach will involve these kinds of audiences in the future, especially in an era of warming and extreme climatic events. My next talk—on lessons from ancient natural disasters—will be to The California Association of Hospital Administrators.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 32. Click here to subscribe

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