Archive for June, 2010

Last week I blogged about the information potential within the melting ice patches. You can read that the discovery in Canada’s  Northwest Territory here. Today I read a report of another ancient hunting tool revealed by the melting ice. This time the object was found high in the Rocky Mountains near the Yellowstone National Park.  It was University of Colorado’s Craig Lee that discovered the 10,000 year old atlatl dart. He says the dart still has visible personal markings made by the hunter. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a picture of any of these markings.

There is a very important point that Craig Lee brought up in a recorded interview about the importance of organic remains. This is a topic that I did not bring up in my last post but Lee’s comment is so important that I am driven to post again about these ice patch discoveries.

Ninety-five percent of the archaeological record that we usually base our interpretations on is comprised of chip stone artifacts, ground stone artifacts, maybe old hearths, which is a fire pit, or rock rings that would have been used to stabilize a house, so we really have to base our understanding about ancient times on these inorganic materials. But ice patches are giving us this window into organic technology that we just don’t get in other environments.

Craig Lee, University of Colorado at Boulder holding 10,000 atlatl dart. Photo: Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado

These discoveries are incredibly important because we may find artifacts that we’ve never seen before or have only few examples of due to their organic components. Dry climates with little precipitation have been known to preserve organic materials. An example would be a preserved wicker basket found in a dry cave. Most organic materials like wood and clothing would not have been preserved in a North American climate such as Canada or the northern United States experiences. It is rare to find organic artifacts preserved in this region. This type of archaeology needs to be supported. As I posted last week, once exposed to the environment these artifacts need to be removed from the soil because they will not survive long.

View video interview with Craig Lee



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The Moai of Easter Island are monolithic human figures commonly believed to be carved between 500 and 1000 years ago. There are roughly 887 Moai statues found, most of which have rather disproportional head to body ratio. These figures are huge, on average standing over 13 feet tall and weighing over 14 tons, they make quite the presence on the island. Hundreds of these Moai statues are still unfinished at the quarry site. Obviously, this is a good starting point to figure out how the statues were built and then transported. Like Stonehenge and other monolithic sites, the transportation and construction techniques are debated. After all, the architects did not leave behind written records of the construction. Even the construction of the pyramids of Egypt, built by a culture that did leave a great deal of written record, is debated.

Ideas about how the Moai were transported include efforts using ropes, wooden sleds, wooden rollers, or by a rocking process. Many Moai lay on their sides along the road. The main theory is that this was the road used for movement of the figures and that the Moai found toppled over were merely abandoned during transportation. For a long time this seemed like an acceptable theory based on the evidence. However, with 21st century technology we are able to go back and analyze archaeological sites and this often leads to new discoveries. University College London and the University of Manchester have recently used new geophysical surveying equipment on Easter Island and determined that each of these so called abandoned Moai were actually propped on platforms, just the same as the other upright Moai, and had just fallen from the platforms over time.

The UCL and U. Manchester study has concluded that the roads were not built to transport the Moai but rather for ceremonial purposes. University of Manchester’s Dr. Colin Richards says in regard to the road system:

“they lead – from different parts of the island – to the Rano Raraku volcano where the Moai were quarried. Volcano cones were considered as points of entry to the underworld and mythical origin land Hawaiki. Hence, Rano Ranaku was not just a quarry but a sacred centre of the island.”

The shape of these roads is concave in shape, obviously making it difficult to transport large objects using human energy. Dr. Sue Hamilton of University College London further explains why they came to the conclusion about the use of the roads.

“It all makes sense: the moai face the people walking towards the volcano. The statues are more frequent the closer they are to the volcano – which has to be way of signifying the increasing levels of importance.”

Based on the evidence, I would agree that the roads were ceremonial. However, does this absolutely disprove that the same roads were used to transport the Moai? “The truth of the matter is, we will never know how the statues were moved,” said Dr Richards of U. Manchester. I find it surprising that he would make such a definitive statement. After all, the original evidence of the fallen Moai indicated that they had been abandoned during transportation. It took 60 years for Dr. Richards to find new evidence to argue the contrary. There are many things we do not know. Sometimes it is acceptable to say ‘we may never know’. But never in regards to history should be say “we will never know.” In another 60 years we might have uncovered something on Easter Island to completely change what we know about their culture.

If you are interested in current research check out the Easter Island Statue Project.





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Ethos, Interrupted is one year old!

I apologize for my lack of posts over the past several months.  The only thing that matters is that I’m back!

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Melting arctic ice is rarely ever said to be a good thing. Usually what’s exposed by melting ice and permafrost (frozen soil) is methane gas.  However, this time the ice revealed ancient hunting artifacts- treasure to the anthropologist. A recent press release from University of Calgary’s Arctic Institute of North America reported that in high in the Mackenzie Mountains in Canada’s Northwest Territories melting ice patches have exposed hunting tools, some dating back thousands of years.
The results have been extraordinary. Andrews and his team have found 2400-year-old spear throwing tools, a 1000 year-old ground squirrel snare, and bows and arrows dating back 850 years…”The implements are truly amazing. There are wooden arrows and dart shafts so fine you can’t believe someone sat down with a stone and made them.”

Tom Andrews of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, NT Canada

This has become a race against time. The ice continues to melt, and if artifacts are exposed and not removed from the ground within a few years they would be destroyed either by being trampled by caribou or dissolving in the acidic soils.  Tom Andrews, who was the lead archaeologist on the International Polar Year Ice Patch Study, says this has now become and “ethical obligation to collect these artifacts as they are exposed.”  I couldn’t agree with this statement more.  It is an ethical duty to study those who came before us so that they might live on forever.

Source: Arctic Institute of North America

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