Forward strides!

It’s fascinating to see how often archaeology has been appearing in the news in the past few weeks; with important new discoveries not only cropping up on the archaeology sites I follow on Facebook but also the National and International news.

In the midst of so much negative press coming out of Egypt, two recent discoveries at Giza have put a welcome positive spotlight on the country.They have transformed the way we envisage 4th Dynasty Egypt, and developed some vital context; all too often the pyramids are seen as striking World Wonders rather than apexes of a working community. Excavations by the Ancient Egyptian Research Associates, led by Dr. Mark Lehner, have uncovered the remains of a bustling harbour and a 21-room elite house. The harbour, including a large basin dug over 1kms from the nearest Nile channel, would have been used to move stone for building the pyramids as well as rations for workers and other luxury items. Lehner’s team have come across evidence for far-ranging trade links, with granite from Aswan, Levantine wood including cedar and juniper (now reduced to charcoal) and a style of pottery known as combed-ware jars, also hailing from the Levant. While this basin is located near a satellite town, a larger city served as home to many of those involved in the mammoth project, with large rectangular buildings once thought to house ordinary workers. However recent research has thrown up evidence that these may actually have housed soldiers or sailors, thanks to the finds of cedar charcoal and a hippo hip; fancy items not usually available to ordinary folks!

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Possible reconstruction of the barracks housing sailors or soldiers (Courtesy of AERA).

The house has thrown up the most interesting finds. Aside from the obvious assumption that such a large house must have belonged to someone in the upper echelons of society, archaeologist Richard Redding observed that all cattle bones (and there were over 100,000) belonged to animals under 18 months. They was also no evidence of forelimbs, the traditional offering to the gods. Evidently these people lived high on a diet of gods’ leftover veal! Additionally, 4 leopard teeth were found, probably from the leopard skins priests wore in this period.

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View of the magnificent 21-room villa overlooking the pyramids (courtesy of AERA)

The pottery obviously has intrigued me the most, as a type I came across frequently during my undergraduate years. Combed-ware storage jars become hugely popular in the 4th dynasty and are thought to have contained a liquid (wine for all those priests partying on veal!). At this point in the Old Kingdom, these traded vessels are found only around Giza and at a few other select royal sites, indicating that their import was very closely regulated and is a classic example of elite groups controlling resources as a mark of power. Take a look at ‘Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Old Kingdom. An archaeological perspective’, published in 2009 by Sowada, for more information on the changing patterns of trade in the Old Kingdom – I have to say, it is one of my favourite books. No dry academic treatise here!

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Just had to put one of these in… beautifully preserved combed-ware jar (Courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

These findings have fascinating repercussions for our understanding of Ancient Egypt in general. Almost like redeveloping a blurry photograph, life in the Pyramid age is becoming more and more vivid. Rather than a sandy, empty plain, something akin to the hustle and bustle of the London Docklands is appearing, and you can almost hear the shouts of sailors as they unload beautiful smelling cedar and huge jars filled with Levantine wine, delivering them to sem-priests on the quieter surburban fringes who are parading round in leopard fur cloaks, with the head left on in all it’s glory.

It just goes to show how little we know even about some of the most studied monuments in history. It should be no surprise then that we are still discovering startling things about the human past which are even further back through the mists of time.

I have been following the recent furores in the news about our human ancestors with interest. Human evolution has always been an interest of mine, and it have always been pretty mournful that I was never able to take modules in it at university. The discovery that between 2% and 4% of the genetic blueprint of modern non-Africans came from the Neanderthals pretty firmly puts the flag in the camp of those who always supported the idea interbreeding must have occurred. Although it seems they gave us some not-so-nice genes – such as those causing type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and, strangely, smoking addiction – it’s thanks to them that those of us up north have the more handy benefit of thicker skin, nails and hair to keep us warm in precisely the kind of weather we’re currently suffering. Hot on the heels of this news was the subsequent announcement by te same research team that Neanderthal genomes have been found present in the Khoisian tribes of South Africa, groups that speak in a unique clicking language and were previously thought to have genetically split from other human groups long before any others. According to David Reich from Harvard University, this indicates a back-to-Africa migration about 3000 years ago. Evidently, all over the world we share a slight Neanderthal heritage.

My favourite of these archaeology announcements, however, I think is the discovery of ancient footprints on the Norfolk coast last week. The footprints, which were found by Dr Ashton of the British Museum, are 800,000 years old and the oldest such found outside Africa. Study of the foot sizes suggests a family group, with one adult male and several smaller individuals, young males or perhaps females. 

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Looks just like the imprints you make on the beach (Courtesy of Martin Bates)

The prints were revealed by a rough tide washing away layers of gravel which had preserved them ever since they were made. Within two weeks these fleeting links to the past were washed away, with archaeologists racing against the clock in freezing conditions to record them before they vanished forever. 

What I find draws me to this find is the snapshot it provides of one moment. It flashes up in my mind so vividly, this group making their way barefoot across the landscape to -where? What were they thinking as they walked? Perhaps, like many families travelling today, they were having a big argument with Dad about whether they were going the wrong way and had got lost. 

Sentimental, perhaps, but it is this feeling that history is somehow linked to the present that intrigues and fascinates so many people. These are just a tiny selection of the new discoveries popping up in the news weekly, and it is nice to see that this year, academia is all guns ahead for announcing these important discoveries as much, and as publicly, as possible.

My old trowel.

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