Digging Deeper

3 mins read

In Brian Fagan’s lastest instalment of all things archaeological that are both exotic and entertaining he waxes lyrical about the Current Archaeology conference, is shaken by El Niños and digests Chaco Canyon chocolate.

Travelling is said to be good for the soul, but I don’t know that I would describe it as solace for mine. I’ve experienced a veritable cascade of journeys in recent weeks, the highlight being a week in the UK to attend the Archaeology Festival in Cardiff (organised by the Current Archaeology team). The sojourn began well with an unforgettable day on Hadrian’s Wall with a foot of snow on the ground, no one about, and brilliant sunshine. All this, and eight hours of jet lag on top of it, made for a unique experience. At least I had impeccable fieldwork credentials for the Archaeology Festival, with its formidable coveys of Roman experts!

A meeting of minds and mentors

The Festival was a splendid event, one of those beautifully organised conferences where everyone spoke to everyone else, even complete strangers. I met a wide range of archaeologists from younger generations than mine, also large numbers of loyal readers from both magazines, which was wonderful validation for one’s writing. It was so nice to put faces to an anonymous readership. I also spent far too much time with my dear friend archaeologist Francis Pryor, who has been one of my mentors for years—but that’s another story. Next year’s Festival is at the British Museum in London. Please make a point of going. This is something to be treasured.

Tragedy on the Supe River, Peru

Three thousand years ago, thriving communities of farmers and fisherfolk lived on the Pacific coast in the Supe Valley on Peru’s North Coast. Then suddenly, about 3,600 years ago, they vanished, for no apparent reason. ‘They just got the props knocked out from under them,’ says Michael Moseley of the University of Florida. They had no incentive to leave or change their ways, for they dwelt on highly productive bays and estuaries, where anchovies by the thousand could be harvested close inshore. According to Ruth Shady, a Peruvian archaeologist, they were also expert cotton farmers, who grew fruit trees and vegetables as well. Supe people were building elaborate ceremonial pyramids long before the Maya.

The sudden demise of this flourishing society was a mystery until a new generation of multidisciplinary fieldwork unravelled the story. This is a seismically active area so, when massive earthquakes struck, buildings collapsed in villages and ceremonial centres; great landslides buried fertile land in the adjacent river valleys. Thick silt layers testify to widespread flooding soon afterwards, coinciding with a massive El Niño that brought epochal rains, that washed away centuries of irrigation systems. El Niños are a fact of life along the Peruvian coast, almost invariably bringing heavy rains. In this case, the deluge caused the normally dry rivers to rise dramatically. Huge accumulations of debris washed downstream towards the Pacific. Sand and silt built up a large ridge that sealed off the previously rich coastal bays from the ocean. The land was uninhabitable and Supe society collapsed.

Archaeologists working along the Peruvian coast have long been aware of the ravages caused by El Niños on such well-known societies as that of the Moche during the 1st millennium AD, and on the kingdom of the Chimu with its capital Chan Chan in about AD 1200. But the Supe investigations take multidisciplinary research into the effects of climate on ancient societies to a new level.

One for chocoholics . . .

Chocolate was much prized in pre-Columbian America, by Maya lords and the Aztec nobility, who prized the frothy beverage made from cacao beans. The beans were a major trade commodity and also offered to the Aztec ruler as tribute by entire communities, who did nothing but grow cacao. Now the reach of the trade has been traced far northward, into the American Southwest. It seems that some people at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, tasted chocolate and acquired a taste for it. We know this because chemical residues in the form of theobromine, the base compound in both cacao beans and chocolate, occur on painted potsherds from the Canyon. Since the nearest cacao bean groves were about 2,000km to the south, one of two things happened. Archaeologist Patricia Crown and biochemist Jeffrey Hurst, the latter a scientist at the Hershey Technical Center, theorise that either some people from Chaco walked down to Mexico to acquire cacao beans; or, more likely, chocolate passed from hand-to-hand down trade routes that linked hundreds of communities, large and small, over enormous distances. Thanks to the miracles of food residue analysis, pioneered by Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum on beer and wine, we are learning all kinds of fascinating things from artefacts found decades ago. (The Chaco chocolate sherds were originally found in the 1920s.)

Finally, a tantalising mystery

Here’s a mystery of great importance to ponder. Who is the well known British archaeologist who is busy constructing a 1.8m model of Hitler’s Bismarck in his spare time? The answer, complete with picture, will appear in this column in about 18 months, when, I am told, the model will be completed. Pressure . . . Pressure . . . !

Brian Fagan is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of many general books on the past. He is most emphatically NOT building a model of the Bismarck.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 35. Click here to subscribe

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