Monday, March 29, 2010

New light on the neolithic era in the Euphrates valley

I have long been championing the cause of rethinking the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ in Greece and elsewhere, but it seems more and more to me that we should take a long look, and perhaps reappraise, exactly what was happening in the late Neolithic era in the Mediterranean and fertile crescent.

In Deir Ezzor, 432kms northeast of Damascus in Syria, a village named Tal Bokrous shows a level of sophistication which exemplifies why this period is thought of as a time of rapid development in human technology.
This site is the only one of the Middle Euphrates region which belongs to this particular phase beginning about 9500BC, considered the latest phase of the Stone Age.


The village has clear architectural features, and numbers an astonishing 188 houses (to date) along two sides of an open area within the urban setting. Each house, according to archaeologist Yarub al-Abdullah, includes three rooms made of sun-dried brick, painted with mud and plaster on both the wall and floor surfaces.
There are even traces of colourful wall-paintings representing fowl. The population of the village apparently depended on agriculture and livestock and both plaster louvers (part of feeding stalls?) and the remains of charred plants have been discovered.
Studies showed that barley grew naturally in the area, and then the locals developed agriculture with the cultivation of grain and lentils. They also worked such raw materials as they had to make various artefacts, including stone needles, drills, sculptures and utensils. The inhabitants also shaped and baked mud to make sculptures of women (two have been found) and a man's head.
The findings from the site have amplified our view of the agricultural societies in the Middle Euphrates and enriched our understanding of how people lived at this time. Further excavations at the site are eagerly anticipated!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Keeping Warm in the Ice Age - Oldest Wall found in Greece!

As my friends know, I love old walls. So I was very excited to hear the announcement by the Greek Ministry of Culture on Monday 22nd March that a 23,000 year old wall had been discovered in Thessaly.

Paleoanthropologist Dr. N. Kiparissi has been excavating in the cave of Theopetra near Kalambaka for the past 25 years (another life’s work – see my blog 2 March) and amongst other discoveries revealed the remains of a wall (below) which had apparently been built to partially block the entrance to the cave.

The wall was built to restrict the entrance to the cave by two-thirds, and this suggests that its purpose was to protect the inhabitants from the cold, given that the wall’s age matches the coldest period of the most recent ice age. The wall was dated by optical luminescence, a method which determines how long ago mineral grains were last exposed to daylight, and the result means that this is the oldest man made wall in Greece and probably one of the oldest in the world.


The cave can be found near Kalambaka, the town usually more associated with the monasteries of Meteora in Thessaly, Greece.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

An ancient mystery. Who buried these coins of Alexander the Great?

Chance archaeological finds are often intriguing in that because they lack background information or context, they necessarily lead to a great deal of speculation. The collection of coins recently found by a Syrian man has really set my imagination alight.

This gentleman was preparing his land in order to build on it when he discovered a bronze box. Just imagine how that must have felt, to find a metal box, green with age, in the soil. Images of treasure must have entered his head, of treasure chests brimming with gold jewellery and coins. On opening the box, even if he did not see the glint of gold, he was surely not disappointed, for it contained around 250 silver coins minted during the reigns of two famous figures of ancient history : Alexander III, also known as ‘the Great’ and a King Philip of Macedon.


The man, who has not been named, took the box to the authorities and they are now with the Aleppo Department of Archaeology and Museums. Presumably this honest individual's identity is being withheld to deter illegal digs on his land, which is near to Najm Castle in the Manbej area of Northern Syria.
The box contained two groups of silver coins: 137 tetradrachma (four drachma) and 115 drachma coins. Of the tetradrachmae, 34 of these coins bear the inscription ‘Basileus Alexandros’ (King Alexander), while 81 coins bear the inscription ‘Alexander’ and 22 ‘King Phillip’.
When Alexander succeeded Philip II to the throne of Macedon, he initially continued to mint the gold and silver coins of his father. Soon, however, the need for a silver coinage that could be widely used in Greece caused him to begin a new coinage on the Athenian weight-standard. His new silver coins, with the head of Herakles on the obverse and a seated figure of Zeus on the reverse, went on to become one of the staple coinages of the Greek world. It is these coins that make up the bulk of this find.
The head of Heracles, wearing his distinctive lion skin cap, is often thought to be actually a portrait of Alexander himself. Certainly the figure represented bears similarities with how Alexander came to be portrayed, and we know that he was also sometimes shown with a Heracles helmet (for example, on the Alexander sarcophagus in Istanbul). He was also believed to be descended from the hero on his father’s side. The reverse depicts Zeus sitting on a throne with an eagle on his outstretched right arm.
On the death of Alexander in 323BC, his half brother Philip III Arrhidaeus succeeded him and the coins bearing the name King Philip belong to his reign. Philip III died in 317BC, so since there are no coins of later monarchs, it may be that the ‘treasure’ was buried sometime during this very short time span.
So, what caused the owner to part with his considerable treasure? The period of the Successors or Diadochi of Alexander were yeas of turmoil and warfare, and bands of mercenaries and troops criss-crossed the former empire of Alexander to fight in the battles of those contesting the thrones of the Hellenistic kingdoms. In periods of great unrest, it was common to bury your treasure to safeguard it. The fact that many of these hoards are recovered two millennia later shows just how perilous these periods were. We will most likely never know the identity of the owner of the coins, and what kind of life they led, or what circumstances forced them to bury their treasure, but since I read about the coins this morning my mind has been creating a variety of scenarios.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Further re-evaluation of ‘the Dark Age’ in Greece, this time from Crete

Sometimes a site becomes a ‘life’s work’ for an archaeologist. Such has been the case for Nicholas Stampolidis, who has been excavating the necropolis of Orthi Petra at Eleutherna on Crete for more than 25 years. But whilst some archaeologists dig for years and never greatly add to the corpus of knowledge, this excavation has been immensely rewarding for Professor Stampolidis, and his findings have certainly added to the scholarly debate around the so-called ‘Dark Age’ of Greece.

Within a single tomb, between 1992 and 1996, Professor Stampolidis and his team discovered a massive assemblage of 141 cremated individuals, all but two of whom were aristocratic men who may have met their death in battle. Tomb A1K1 is an elaborate rock-cut tomb containing fantastic burial goods dating from the ninth to the seventh century B.C., including bronze vessels, gold and silver jewellery, and military trappings.


However, it is the discoveries made since 2007 that are really exciting scholars: three jar burials containing the remains of more than 10 related female individuals and a monumental funerary building where a female of high status was buried with three others.

The four females ranged in age from about seven to seventy and were found in an eighth-century B.C. monumental funerary building. The floor of the building was stewn with thin strips of gold from the burial garments, and the women were surrounded by bronze vessels, figurines, and jewellery of gold, silver, glass, ivory, and semiprecious stones from Asia Minor, the Near East, and North Africa.

Other artefacts from the tomb: a stone ‘altar’, ritual bronze tools, and a glass phial for libations have led to the speculation that these women may have been priestesses or females from a family involved with the ritual welfare of the community. Clearly, women played an important role in the religious life of Eleutherna.

Anagnostis Agelarakis is a forensic anthropologist from is Adelphi University. She has discovered that all four women shared a genetic dental trait. Interestingly, the women buried in the three pithoi (large jars) also had this trait, and further research is expected to establish that they were also related.

Agelarakis has discovered a matrilineage of two centuries – an unprecedented find. The imported artefacts, such as the Mesopotaian phial, suggest that the women were of high social standing. The continuity of the wealthy grave goods, imported from afar, combined with the sophistication of many of the burials, certainly does not fit with past preconceptions of the ‘Dark Age’.

So, who did these priestesses serve? Mount Ida, home of the sacred cave of Zeus, can be seen from t
he site of Eleutherna. There is intriguing, but at present there is no evidence to point to a particular deity, but perhaps further work from the indefatigable Professor Stampolidis will uncover some.

Further information can be found on the website of the Archaeological Institute of America: Archaeology.