Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 favorite, back by popular demand. It was originally posted on September 15, 2012. Enjoy!
With so much violent conflict in the world today, many important archeological sites are in grave danger. Timbuktu in Mali, Aleppo in Syria: today they are home to rape, murder, war and political unrest. Militant Ansar Dine Islamists linked to Al Qaeda are now in control of all of northern Mali and have reportedly vowed to destroy the storied mausoleums of Timbuktu, a cultural and intellectual center that played a huge role in the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Aleppo, a key site in the history of Christianity and well-traversed by people from many ancient civilizations, has seen weeks of fierce fighting between the forces of Syria President Bashar al-Assad and rebel fighters. The city’s Temple of the Storm God dates from the third to the second millennium BCE and is one of the oldest structures in the world — and shelling and military helicopters now threaten its existence.
With all this in mind, here are five recent archaeology finds that remind us why the study and preservation of the past matters more than ever in our digital age.
1. A 16th-Century Well Under a Retiree’s Living Room
Colin Steer started digging beneath the living room floor of the house he’d lived in for almost three decades in the UK. The floor had sunk and he was curious. After three days of digging down 17 feet, he found the shaft of a well that may date back to the 16th century.
As he says in the Telegraph, “I always wanted to dig it out to see if I could find a pot of gold at the bottom, so when I retired at the end of last year that’s what I started to do.”
2. A Well-Preserved Wooden Boat From Roman Times
Prior to the construction of a car park in the French Riviera city of Antibes, archaeologists discovered the well-preserved remains of a wooden hull from a shipwrecked boat that was probably a merchant ship in the 2nd or 3rd century, when Antibes was Antipolis and under Roman imperial rule.
Marks from saws and adzes can still be seen on the wood of the boat. Another small find gives us a snapshot into the people who built the ship, notes the Guardian:
The archaeologists have made some touching discoveries, including a little 15-centimetre brush that must have been dropped by a shipwright busy caulking the hull. It most likely fell through a gap between the floor of the hold and the outer shell, only to be discovered 19 centuries later.
It makes you wonder, did the shipwright go looking for his brush, never knowing that it would be found (intact!) millennia later?
Photo by NazarethCollege
3. Items From a Japanese Bathroom
There have been a number of reports about the debris cast into the ocean by the devastating March 2011 tsunami in Japan. Citizen scientists have been engaging in floating archaeology to sight and gather debris. 1,000 miles east of Japan in the Pacific Ocean, crew members of the Sea Dragon have found a 150-foot-section of a boat, a soccer ball, a volleyball and a Bridgestone tire marked with the words “made in Japan.”
Ken Campbell and two other professional sea kayakers started the Ikkatsu Project in May to examine the islands off the coast of Washington, whose cliffs are “virtually inaccessible” by foot. A pile of lumber yielded the “lid of a potty-training toilet, a laundry hamper, a bottle of cherry-flavored cough syrup, several brown glass bottles and pieces of a washing machine marked with Japanese characters” — perhaps from a bathroom that was washed out to sea by the tsunami?
Photo of debris from the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in Japan via Wikimedia Commons
4. A Medieval King’s Long-lost Grave Site
Wikipedia and the internet have given us the sense that “everything” is now available for us to know if we just go online. But there really is plenty about the past that we are yet ignorant about. A case in point is a recent find in Leicester in Britain. Archaeologists dug under a parking lot to find the very Greyfriars friary where King Richard III — the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty who was killed after two years on the throne — is thought to have been buried. Medieval window tracery, glazed floor tile fragments (perhaps part of the cloisters walk) and a section of wall have all been uncovered.
Richard III is the subject of a play by Shakespeare. His death in 1485, in the Battle of Bosworth Henry Tudor, was the decisive battle in the War of the Roses which is sometimes seen as marking the end of the Middle Ages.
Photo of King Richard’s field, Battle of Bosworth, near Shenton, Leicestershire, where the king died by Bill Sibley via Wikimedia Commons
Photo of plague on memorial to Richard III by Bill Sibley via Wikimedia Commons
5. Tools That Are Over 4,000 Years Old
University of Sheffield archaeologists recently found 4,200 year old obsidian tools in Tell Mozan, a site in Syria near its borders with Turkey and Iraq. Obsidian is naturally occurring volcanic glass and has been used for millennia to make stone tools; today, it is still used in scalpels for certain medical procedures. By examining the mineral composition of the obsidian, archaeologists were able to discover that the tools came from 200 kilometers away in eastern Turkey, revealing ancient trade routes and commercial interactions among ancient societies.
A comment from the leader of the research, Dr Ellery Frahm, shows how the study of the past can be valuable in the present and not only for our knowledge of historical events. As Dr. Frahm says:
The current situation in Syria is tragic and precarious. Because of both professional and personal interests, I follow developments in Syria closely. It can be so overwhelming and heartbreaking that I have to take a break from it, which, unlike the people who are living through the fighting, I have the luxury of doing. Whatever the future holds, there will be a lot of work to do there, both humanitarian and archaeological, and I’m very much interested in the interfaces between them. How can archaeology perhaps help Syria recover from this?
Ruins and tools lost long ago cannot speak. But what they can tell us — about our history, about the present day — more than merits preservation and study so one day we can indeed just go and read about such things online.
Photo of Tell Mozan via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Impassionedcinema