Brian Fagan Digs Deeper

4 mins read

Robots roam at Teotihuacan, Mexico

Robots for exploring deep under pyramids are a new fashion in archaeology. One revealed a hidden door and a chamber in the Pyramid of Khufu at Giza in Egypt. Now, Mexico’s National Institute of Archaeology and History has unleashed a locally designed, camera-equipped remote controlled vehicle under the Temple of Quetzalcoatl in the heart of the ceremonial hub at the great city of Teotihuacan, Mexico. The archaeologists lowered a 30cm (1 inch) wide robot, named Tlaloque I after the Aztec rain god, into a vertical shaft, to see whether it was safe to enter. Grainy video footage revealed a 4m (12ft) wide corridor 12m (40ft) below the surface, with a perfectly fashioned arch roof.

The corridor extends more than 100m (328ft) under the temple. Geo-radar has shown that it opens into three chambers, which may hold burials of important personages. The tunnel was intentionally blocked with rubble between AD 200 and 250. Once the debris is removed, archaeologist Sergio Gomez and his colleagues will enter the passageway. Who knows what lies at the end? The excavators hope for undisturbed burial chambers, although, of course, the defile may just be a symbolic entryway to the Otherworld of Mesoamerican belief. Stay tuned…

Google Earth conjures up field systems

Talking of remote survey, Google Earth is rapidly becoming a flavour of the day for people engaged in such pursuits. And with good reason, for anyone can download the software and observe the earth. You can enjoy a 3D tour of ancient Rome, or if you are physical geographer Stephen Beach of Georgetown University in Washington, DC, look down on ancient Maya field systems. Beach and his wife Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach have carried out more than 60 excavations in low-lying wetlands in northern Belize. Plant remains from the trenches show that the Maya grew avocadoes, various grasses, and maize in fields where flooding was common. So they tossed the soil from mucking out the ditches on to adjacent land, thereby allowing the roots of their crops to grow clear of the waterlogged ground. Google earth has revealed a wetland system about 100km (62 miles) across, the farmers building canals to divert water and create new farmland. No one knows how extensive Maya use of wetlands was, partly because much of the farming took place away from major centres, but also because we lacked the technology to gaze down on larger landscapes. Enter Google Earth, and our perceptions of Maya farming are likely to change radically in coming years.

China Point

The Monterey Aquarium in northern California is one of those museums you should on no account miss, not least for the hypnotic exhibit of sardines swimming round and round in endless circles. Now, a bluff close to the aquarium, once known as China Point, has yielded a Chinese fishing village that was destroyed by fire in 1906. Chinese immigrants who came to work in California during the Gold Rush founded the settlement in the 1860s, leasing the land from a Monterey land baron, David Jacks.

Bones from the excavations tell us that the inhabitants raised pigs, fished, and harvested sea urchins. They would row out at night with bright firebrands suspended from their boats that attracted squid to the surface. The villagers salted the squid and shipped them back to China –thereby making a profit and avoiding an exorbitant salt tax back home. The close-knit community prospered during a period of violent prejudice against them.

No one knows what caused the 1906 fire, but it was mostly likely deliberately set, as were those at other Chinese settlements along the coast at the time. Once the fire was out, the Pacific Improvement Company, who had bought the land from Jacks, fenced off the site and prevented the Chinese from returning. Their houses were bulldozed into the sea. The finds from the excavations include fishing gear and imported mass produced bowls, also bottles and kitchenware. And it is a nice piece of historical justice that descendants of the original inhabitants assisted in the excavations.

Talking of Relationships . . .

Every American knows the stories of Erik the Red, exiled to Greenland, and of Leif Eiriksson, who sailed to Labrador and northern Newfoundland during the 10th century AD (if you ever visit Newfoundland, make a beeline for the L’Anse aux Meadows settlement, where sod-walled Norse dwellings overlook a shallow bay). Now geneticists have found mitochondrial DNA – the DNA passed from mother to child in 80 living Icelanders – with a genetic variation found mostly in Native Americans.

The Icelanders who carry this variation are descended from four women born in the early 1700s. That is as far back as the genealogies go, but the Native American DNA probably arrived on the island centuries earlier. Why? Because Iceland was extremely isolated during the cold centuries of the Little Ice Age and voyaging to Greenland and across the Davis Strait to North America ceased altogether. It is interesting that the Inuit populations of Greenland do not carry this genetic variant.

Norse historians are dubious, pointing out that Icelanders spent little time in North America. They found the local people hostile in the extreme, so relationships, especially with women, were virtually impossible. Nor did the Norse have a high opinion of people they called skraelings, ‘barbarians’. All we have at the moment is a tantalizing hint that at least one woman, maybe more, travelled to Iceland from North America. Final confirmation will only come with the discovery of ancient
Native American bones that display the same DNA variant. If they do, it will not be the first time that archaeology has rewritten history.

Pocahontas married here?

Bill Kelso has been excavating at Jamestown for years. Each year, he seems to come up with a new, fascinating discovery. He has done it again. Excavating in Jamestown fort, he has uncovered a series of deep holes that appear to have held the wooden columns of the settlement’s first church. Kelso believes the church had walls 18m (60ft) long and a thatched roof. Although the building lay in the centre of the fort, he was uncertain whether it was a church until his team unearthed a row of graves near what would have been the altar. If this is indeed the Jamestown church, then this was where Pocahontas married the widower John Rolfe in 1614. She bore him a son about nine months later and died in England at the age of 21. Who said archaeology isn’t romantic? Sometimes, a discovery restores your faith.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 45. Click here to subscribe

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