Digging Deeper

4 mins read

In Brian Fagan’s latest instalment of all things archaeological that are both exotic and entertaining he goes under the ice, investigates mass graves in Mexico, and reveals why trees felled the Maya.

An underwater ‘Pompeii’?

Some people are talking about a Pompeii in North America, which is pushing it a bit, but the discovery in question is a fascinating one. Archaeologists have identified an entire ancient landscape, submerged during the retreat of the Laurentide ice sheet, which had covered almost all of Central and Eastern Canada during the Ice Age. Its retraction, some 15,000 years ago, led to the formation of the Great Lakes; of these, Lake Huron flooded between 10,000 and 8,000 years before present – at a time when the climate in the area was similar to that of the arctic today.

This would have been an ideal environment for caribou. Lake Huron’s shoreline with its rocky cliffs and dead-end canyons would have made an excellent landscape for ambushing migrating herds in spring and fall. Using a remote-controlled submarine and surveying about 72 square kilometres of the lake near modern-day Presque Isle, Michigan, archaeologists John O’Shea and Guy Meadows of the University of Michigan recovered sonar images of lines of rocks superimposed one upon the other to form a long parapet. Piles of boulders lie at the end of the parapet. In one place, they located what appears to be a circular parapet about 5m in diameter, perhaps the foundations of a dwelling. The submarine’s communications cable snagged on a pile of boulders with a vertical flat rock atop it. Meadows believes this structure resembles an inukshuk, a form of rock ‘sculpture’ used by modern-day Inuit to show that they have been in an area. All of these submerged features are similar to caribou drive lines set up in the Canadian arctic for many centuries.

Rise and fall of the Maya

In recent years, intense debate has surrounded the decline and so-called collapse of Maya civilization, which has been attributed to all manner of causes, from climate change and drought to internecine warfare and environmental collapse. In truth, all these factors and more must have contributed to the rapid implosion of many Maya cities, among them Copan and, perhaps the greatest city of them all, Tikal. Palaeo-ethnobotanist David Lentz at the University of Cincinnati has recently sampled wooden beams and lintels from all six major temples and two palaces from Tikal, which flourished under a powerful lordly dynasty from around AD 292 to 869, 577 years of recorded history. At the height of its power, Tikal’s lords may have ruled over about 300,000 people, although the estimate may be somewhat high.

Anyhow, back to Lentz’s timbers. The Maya preferred to use the timber of slow-growing sapodilla trees in their buildings. Sapodilla also had the advantage of being easy to carve with inscriptions. Before AD 741, they used this strong timber. About then, they abruptly switched to logwood, a smaller, gnarly tree that is virtually impossible to carve. Lentz believes that deforestation and erosion had decimated sapodilla forests near the city, forcing the builders to switch to lower quality timber. Sapodilla are drought resistant, bear edible fruit, and are ideally suited to the humid, but drought-plagued Maya environment. Lentz’s beams and tree-rings hint fairly definitively that resource depletion was a significant factor in Tikal’s decline.

Salubrious slavery

I’ve been reading The Hemmingses of Monticello, a study of Thomas Jefferson and his slaves, whose descendants now number in the thousands. The book deals expertly with the ambiguities of slave ownership and is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the complexities of early American society. The ambiguity comes open even more forcibly with James Madison’s Montpelier. Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, advocated liberty and freedom for all, yet kept 100 slaves when he became President in 1809. After two terms in the White House, he retired to Montpelier, the family estate in Orange County, Virginia. A small community of enslaved African-Americans cared for him there until his death.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has just completed a restoration of the mansion and is now excavating the so-called South Yard, where Madison’s household slaves lived. The servants lived in three small wooden duplexes, each divided into one-room houses, a standard slave house design found widely in Virginia. How many lived in each is unknown, but probably far more people than might appear.

The dwellings themselves were of higher quality than usual for slave quarters. Glass fragments abounded in the excavations, which suggest the duplexes had glazed windows, certainly not the case for the humbler field-hand’s shacks elsewhere on the plantation. Judging from the lack of burnt clay from floor level hearths, house fireplaces burned inside raised cribs, which would have been the case if there were wooden floors. A paling fence surrounded the South Yard, which lies surprisingly close to the mansion.

It is said that the Madisons would take their guests to visit their servants, in what was, for the time, a picturesque facility. Indeed, the atmosphere was said by visitors to be ‘salubrious’. Quite where the enslaved carried out such prosaic activities as butchery, cleaning, and other less ‘salubrious’ activities, remains to be investigated. Were such activities in sight of the mansion, or carefully hidden away? Fortunately, Montpelier’s grounds have not been farmed, so future chances of making important discoveries remain high.

Mahaffy’s camel

A cluster of Clovis artefacts found along the edge of an ancient drainage ditch in Boulder, Colorado, are causing a considerable stir in the rarified world of Palaeo-Indian scholars. Fortunately, Patrick Mahaffy, a biotechnology entrepreneur, turned his 11,000 BC finds over to Douglas Bamforth of the University of Colorado – eight bifacially flaked knives, a chopping tool, and numerous flakes. He also paid for protein residue analysis tests on the artefacts. Four of the finds tested positive for animal protein, including bear, horse, wild sheep, and extinct camel.

The Mahaffy Cache, as it is now called, was not a ceremonial deposit, as was sometimes the case with caches, but an accumulation of workaday tools that has given us an unexpected insight into the ways in which Clovis people moved across their game-rich landscape. And it is nice to find the extinct camel stepping out from osteological obscurity, at least in death, to become a living beast.

Brian Fagan is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of many general books on archaeology. His next volume, Cro-Magnon, will be published in early 2010.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 37. Click here to subscribe

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