Category Archives: Archaeology

“More Fun than Winning the Lottery”

That was the reaction of an amateur treasure hunter in Britain who stumbled upon a hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure in a neighbor’s field. Archaeologists are proclaiming it the greatest collection of medieval treasure ever found in Great Britain.


“This is just a fantastic find completely out of the blue,” Roger Bland, who managed the cache’s excavation, told The Associated Press. “It will make us rethink the Dark Ages. That’s basically what it’s going to do.”

The seventh century hoard, found by 55-year-old Terry Herbert on farmland in western England two months ago, consists of about 1,500 pieces of gold and silver, some inlaid with precious stones. So fine is the craftsmanship that experts say it could have belonged to Anglo-Saxon royalty.

The treasure will likely be sold to a museum, making the finder (and his neighbor) very rich men.

UPDATE: A much more detailed account of the story can be found here.


The Bones Speak

DNA testing on skeletons recently unearthed at a site in Germany reveal that human society hasn’t changed much in 4,600 years.

In one grave, a man, a woman, and two young children were buried together. DNA tests showed that the four were related, i.e., they were a traditional nuclear family unit. But the bones showed evidence that this family and the others at the site had all died violently, apparently in a village raid.

So take your pick on the primary history lesson: Here is evidence that the traditional family has always been the foundation of society. Or here is evidence that mankind has always been at war with itself.

Personally, I see a third lesson that tips the scales toward a more optimistic view of humanity: Apparently there were enough survivors from the raid that they took the time to honor their dead and bury the victims, many of them in an eternal embrace. Even in the midst of a violent world, people still have the capacity for love.

UPDATE: Read more details here and here.

Iceman Was an Alien?

Well, sort of.

The 5,000-year-old corpse that was discovered high in the Alps a few years ago apparently is not related to modern Europeans, according to DNA tests.

The scientists found that the mummy’s DNA doesn’t match the DNA of modern Europeans. This suggests that while men and women shared the Iceman’s genetic heritage at some point in the past, they don’t have descendants in Europe now.

“Apparently, this genetic group is no longer present,” study co-author Franco Rollo, a researcher at Italy’s University of Camerino, said in a university news release. “We don’t know whether it is extinct or it has become extremely rare.”

The scientists were also able to determine that he was a murder victim, shot in the back with an arrow and struck in the face with a spiked club. Hmmm. Maybe this was a mob hit.

Indiana Jones and Karen Allen

David Kaplan confesses to having a crush on actress Karen Allen, who, in the latest Indiana Jones movie opening this week, reprises her role as the archaeologist’s love interest from the original movie.

Those beguiling freckles, the radiant blue eyes, the husky voice, the enchanting smile—and the white dress she wears as Marion Ravenwood in the first of the “Indy” movies. If you didn’t have a crush on her from early on in the movie when she drinks men under the table and then decks Indy with a right to the chin, or when she escapes a harrowing pit of snakes, then that dress surely would have been enough.

You can catch a glimpse of her near the end of this trailer for the movie. (Alas, she’s not wearing the white dress.)

UPDATE: Here is an interesting interview with Karen Allen (bonus: includes a pic of her in the white dress).

Last of the Czar’s Family ID’d

DNA analysis has confirmed that the remains of two individuals found last year near the Russian village of Yekaterinburg are indeed those of Prince Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria. The remains of their parents, Czar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, and three siblings were found in a shallow grave nearby in 1991. DNA tests confirmed their identity as well. The royal family was executed by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918 during the turmoil that brought the communists to power.

The discoveries effectively close the book on the various stories that have circulated through the years that one or more of the children had survived and lived out their lives elsewhere.

The tragic story of the Czar’s family was dramatized in the 1971 film, Nicholas and Alexandra.

Literature and Culture

David Plotz, writing in Slate, describes a recent visit to The Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, which houses a collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls. His article is an interesting recounting of the history of the Scrolls, the Essenes, and the fortress at Masada. But the following paragraph really caught my attention.

The difference between the Jews and the Canaanites, Moabites, Edomites, and all the other Ites who bedeviled us in the Bible is that we wrote the book, and they didn’t. Jews survived not because we went forth and multiplied—we didn’t—but because we kept going to the library. Again and again, Jews as people have barely survived extermination, skirting wipeouts at the hands of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans. We were scattered by diaspora, savaged by the Inquisition and Holocaust. If you are religious-minded, you may believe that Jews persisted because God chose us. But even if you’re not, you must acknowledge that the holy books are the root of our survival. Jews endured because our book endured. We remained a people because we preserved a culture, and we preserved a culture because we kept a book.

This is an excellent defense of the power of literature to preserve a culture, despite every effort to wipe it out. This prompts a couple of sobering thoughts.

First, it might explain why Christianity is in decline across much of the Western world today. Christians on the whole no longer look to “the Book” — the Bible — as the lodestone of their faith. The Bible is routinely disparaged and ignored as the source of guidance and hope — and that by the very people who ought to be zealously defending it.

Second, on a broader level, this concept portends doom for a nation whose education system no longer honors its literary heritage. Children who pass through our education system today are not exposed to the literary genius of earlier English and American authors like they once were. The result is a generation of young Americans who look with disdain on anything older than last week’s edition of People Magazine as outdated and irrelevant.

Literature is to a culture what blood is to a human body. When we lose it, we die.

Revealing the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

In A.D. 9, German tribes entrapped and annihilated a Roman army of 15,000 men somewhere in northwestern Germany. The battle changed the history of Europe for the next 2,000 years. Known to history as the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (or Teutoburger Wald), its location was long lost to historians. Dozens of possible locations were suggested, but no one knew for sure.

In 1987, a British army officer serving in the area of Osnabrück did some research and developed a theory that the battle was fought nearby, at a hill named Kalkriese. He began scouring the area with a metal detector, and found numerous Roman coins, sandal nails, bits of armor, and other artifacts that confirmed his hunch. In the years since, archaeologists have been busy excavating the area, finding all manner of pieces — including human bones — that have definitively established this as the battle site.

Fergus M. Bordewich wrote an article in the Smithsonian Magazine a couple of years ago describing the battle and its aftermath, and the story of its rediscovery. Fascinating reading.

UPDATE (1/5/08): Jona Lendering has written a much more detailed description of the battle, including the history before and after, an analysis of the ancient literary sources of information, and the archaeological evidence. A must read for students of this battle.