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June 21 2012

Stonehenge enjoys a moment in the sun at summer solstice

As worshippers and revellers descend, the Wiltshire landmark is thriving – inspiring bouncy art and more wild theories than ever

In the 1930s there was an advertisement for an oil company that went: "Stonehenge Wilts, but Shell goes on forever." In 2012, with oil supplies falling and the remnants of the iconic slabs indomitable on the windswept plains of Wiltshire, the truth is surely otherwise.

"The stones themselves still stand, enduring in a society which is not," argues Christopher Chippindale, of the University of Cambridge's museum of archaeology and anthropology, who is also author of the book Stonehenge Complete. Today the World Heritage's foremost lintelled sarsen structure is not just enduring but thriving, spawning more academic research, wild theorising, bouncy art, and pagan robe sales than ever.

Just consider some of the Stonehenge activities that will take place in the next few weeks. At sunrise on Thursday, the 14,500 transcendence questing druids and varied revellers may have been outnumbered only by world weary media drones as they tried to celebrate the summer solstice at the 4.52am sunrise (ideally in line with English Heritage's stringent Conditions of Entry document, which might be downloaded by socially responsible pagans). Heavy rain overnight reduced the number of people who camped out or arrived early to witness the dawn compared with previous years, which have seen numbers of around 20,000.

And in London there was also a chance to get excited about mid-summer – for Stonehenge's inflatable simulacrum comes to town. Although the rain may have dampened spirits.

Jeremy Deller's Sacrilege, first placed in public on Glasgow Green, will be inflated to pop up in the capital as part of what sceptics would call that oxymoron the Cultural Olympiad.

Is there anything more fun than a 35-metre bouncy castle that looks like Stonehenge, you ask? Not until they make a bouncy Warwick Castle with water slide into a moat laced with gin, I reply.

What is Deller, the Turner prize-winning artist, up to? "It's a very entry-level way into thinking about ancient history for five-year-olds," he says. True, but several bouncing Glaswegians were at least 45 years older than that target demographic. "It's good to play with our history and culture. Stonehenge is part of British identity but no one knows what it was for."

Good point. Ever since King Arthur's dad, Utherpendragon, invaded Ireland, defeated an army and shipped Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury with the help of the wizard Merlin, the stones have sunk themselves ever deeper into British national consciousness.

In chapter 58 of Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, for instance, slimy Angel Clare and the dopey heroine are walking fugitively through darkling Wessex when "on a sudden, Clare became conscious of some vast erection close in his front [Oh grow up!], rising sheer from the grass … 'It is Stonehenge!' said Clare. 'The heathen temple, you mean?'"

Tess lies down on a sun-warmed stone. "'Did they sacrifice to God here?' asked she. 'No,' said he. 'Who to?' 'I believe to the sun. That lofty stone set away by itself is in the direction of the sun that will presently rise behind it.'"

Victorians wrote yards of this stuff: anybody who was anybody in 19th-century fiction got arrested, died, or got it on those stones.

Incidentally, if you are Irish and thinking that the paragraph above suggests Stonehenge is like the Elgin Marbles and should be repatriated immediately, think again; according to Geoffrey of Monmouth's marvellously unreliable 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain (the leading medieval account of Stonehenge's origin), Irish giants transported the stones from Africa to Ireland earlier and used them as a curative bath until they were nicked by King Arthur's dad.

Part of Stonehenge's appeal is that it's a riddle wrapped in mythology, swathed in druidical vestments and draped in a dodgy, if grand, relationship to the cosmos. Over the millennia, intellectuals have cast it as vast cosmic clock wound up by woad-daubed neolithic nudists (a theory embellished recently by archaeologists at Birmingham University's Ludwig Boltzman Institute).

Other thinkers, like the 17th -century architect Inigo Jones, maintained ancient Britons were too thick to have created such a sophisticated edifice, and concluded it must have been Roman.

Today we aren't sure who built it or why. Was it a burial ground, a magnet for crusty rave-ups, a sacred zone where our bearded forebears chillaxed old school, or a mystic portal to the celestial superhighway?

"Stonehenge sets a puzzle that has never been solved," notes Chippindale.

Could Stonehenge have functioned as a helipad for Lord Sugar's neolithic ancestors? It's not impossible. More likely it resembled a lecture theatre with uncomfortable seating and no power sockets. Archaeo-acoustic researchers at Salford and Huddersfield universities suggested as much recently after examining the 5,000-year-old-structure's acoustic properties.

Their work, at the site and at a concrete replica in Washington, indicates that Stonehenge had the sort of acoustics desirable in a lecture hall.

It wasn't only the sight of Stonehenge that would have blown ancient visitors away.

Bruno Fazenda, professor at the University of Salford, says: "As they walked inside they would have perceived the sound environment around them had changed in some way." Lucky them: all you can hear nowadays is the traffic howl from the A303.

Ever since those ancient days of magic stones shipped from Ireland, Stonehenge has satisfied a yearning among the citizens of these lands for mystic grandeur. That yearning will be kindled in July when the flaming French move in to Stonehenge.

Compagnie Carabosse will turn the site into a "fire garden" with flaming pots animating the stones, and cascades of candles lining the pathways. Think: rows of tea lights running down your garden path as you sink a sundowner, but much, much, more poncy.

Shortly afterwards, in the culmination of Stonehenge's 2012, diggers will move in to right one of the most grievous historic wrongs in modern Britain. The stones will be moved slightly to the right away from the A303 and into proper alignment with the sun.

I'm kidding. In fact, the bulldozers will rip up the inadequate car park and visitor centre that have been a national disgrace since 1968.

Simon Thurley, English Heritage's chief executive, said of the £27m makeover: "These are crucial steps which bring closer the transformation of the currently blighted Stonehenge landscape." The centre will be moved 1.5 miles away and visitors will get to the stones on a low-key transit system or, as others call it, a Noddy train. Noddy Goes To Stonehenge – what a film!

There have been films, indeed. In National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985), Mr Griswold gives an affecting speech on the monument's indomitability before climbing into his rental car and (can you see the gag yet?) reversing and toppling the thing like dominoes. Hilarious: in reality an Austin Maxi couldn't knock the skin off a rice pudding.

In the no less amusing Shanghai Knights (2003), this gag is reprised when the two main characters crash their car into Stonehenge. One says: "Who the hell would put a pile of stones in the middle of a field?" Somewhere someone's writing a PhD on Hollywood's symbolic castration of British heritage by means of such movie demolition jobs.

Stonehenge's image reached its mock-heroic apogee in the rocku/mocku-mentary This is Spinal Tap (1984). Picture the scene: the band's plotting a comeback tour involving a lavish stage show featuring a replica of the monument as a backdrop to their pomp rock classic, Stonehenge. Only one problem, the order for the prop goes wrong and instead of being 18ft high it's 18in tall, making the band a laughing stock.

Did Deller consider this pitfall in making his scaled-down bouncy version? You'd think.

He never thought, though, of emulating Steven Moffat's insanely elaborate cosmological topography in the 2010 two-part special of Doctor Who, The Pandorica Opens. All the doctor's many enemies hover above Stonehenge, while below in Underhenge lies the fabled prison of Pandorica holding the universe's most detested and feared prisoner, Jeremy Clarkson at the co-ordinates of a worrying fissure in the universe's frankly baffling structure.

Actually, it wasn't Clarkson but some being even more unimaginably evil.

Most of the filming took place at Foamhenge, a lightweight replica set up near Port Talbot. It was there that the doctor battled an army of cybermen and others in what proved to be a critic-slaying, award-winning and discombobulatingly mytho-metaphysical fuss. Very Moffat, very Stonehenge.

It was also indicative of what Stonehenge really is: an open text, endlessly interpretable and readily bendable to our times and imagination. "It is a mirror which reflects back, more or less distorted, that view of the past which the onlooker takes there," Chippindale says. Long may that continue. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 18 2012

Rock of ages: Australia's oldest artwork found

Archaeologist discovers Aboriginal rock art made 28,000 years ago in Northern Territory cave

An archaeologist says he has found the oldest piece of rock art in Australia and one of the oldest in the world: an Aboriginal work created 28,000 years ago in an outback cave.

The dating of one of the thousands of images in the Northern Territory rock shelter, known as Nawarla Gabarnmang, will be published in the next edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The archaeologist Bryce Barker, from the University of Southern Queensland, said he found the rock in June last year but had only recently had it dated at the radiocarbon laboratory of New Zealand's University of Waikato.

He said the rock art had been made using charcoal, so radiocarbon dating could be used to determine its age; most rock art is made with mineral paint, so its age cannot accurately be measured.

Barker said the work was "the oldest unequivocally dated rock art in Australia" and among the oldest in the world.

The oldest known rock art is in Spain, where hand stencils and red discs made by blowing paint on to the wall in El Castillo cave are at least 40,800 years old, according to scientists using a technique known as uranium-thorium dating.

Sally May, an archeologist from the Australian National University who is not involved with Barker's research, said his find was "incredibly significant".

"I don't think it will surprise anyone that rock art is that old in Australia because we know people have been here a lot longer than that, and there's no reason to believe they weren't producing art," she said.

Barker said he had found evidence that the cave where he found the rock art had been occupied for 45,000 years. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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December 22 2011

Napoleon Bonaparte and Egypt's lost scrolls

The recent destruction of an historic document in Cairo offers a stark warning that Egypt's art and history is under threat

Napoleon Bonaparte was an extraordinary and contradictory man: a warlord who saw himself as a champion of civilisation. One of his most ambitious attempts to prove himself a cultural as well as military titan was to commission a team of scholars to produce the legendary Description de l'Egypte. This was the first thorough attempt to study the antiquities and geography of this ancient civilisation, a vast artistic and scientific work that was published in 10 huge folio volumes as well as supplements, and contains 3,000 illustrations, among them pictures more than a metre wide.

A handwritten manuscript of this colossal work has been destroyed in the fire that consumed the Institute of Egypt during clashes in Cairo earlier this week. This is a tragedy, as a brief account of Napoleon's daring project will reveal.

Napoleon took 167 scholars with him when he invaded Egypt in 1798. He was there to undermine British global power by establishing a French colonial presence. Being Napoleon, however, his proclamations of cultural respect for Egypt went far beyond the usual hollowness of propaganda. At the Battle of the Pyramids, he famously told his troops: "Soldiers, from the height of these pyramids, 40 centuries look down on you ..." It is a reminder that should ring in the ears of both sides – revolutionaries and the army – when they are close to Cairo's fragile treasuries of world culture.

The 167 scholars were not there as a publicity stunt. They included architects, mathematicians – who measured buildings and statues – and civil engineers, writers, artists and printers. Napoleon ordered them to discover the remains of ancient Egypt, which he called the "cradle of the science and art of all humanity".

Nelson wrecked Napoleon's military plans in Egypt, but the scholars did produce their Description. I have it before me, in a modern edition published by Taschen. What a book. Meticulous engravings depict the wonders of Egyptian archaeology: the temples of Philae, for instance, are shown in their original setting on an island in the Nile, seen from every angle in measured architectural views. Today the temples are on another nearby island after Unesco moved them to save them from flooding caused by the Aswan Dam – so the Description's precise record of their original appearance is invaluable.

It goes on like that. The French team journeyed to all the great archaeological sites of Egypt and made the first precise studies of them. This book is a monument to human curiosity and reason. Out of it came a new understanding of the legacy of one of the world's most charismatic civilisations. Yet the French also studied the modern Egypt of their time, the natural history of the Nile, the Islamic architecture of Cairo, even agricultural techniques and industries.

One of four original copies of this great work in Egypt has been lost forever. It is a warning. Whatever the political stakes, all sides must respect Egypt's art and history. The Description of Egypt was a record of what Egyptians have created over millennia. Those astounding antiquities themselves, many of the greatest of which are in the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square, are just as vulnerable. Please protect them. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 22 2011

Preserving the Sex Pistols' graffiti is an archaeological swindle

Comparing the scribblings of the Sex Pistols to cave art is a rotten attempt to drag archaeology into populist culture. Archaeologists should know better …

Archaeologists must get sick of kneeling in the rain, mud soaking into their jeans, trying to identify an ancient coin as sceptical farmers look on. They must get fed up of spending years analysing the foundations of a Roman villa, only for all trace of their discovery to be covered up by a road or a housing estate.

They try to get their message (that the past is magical) across to a superficial world. They dress up as Vikings to take school groups around a dig. They write books bubbling with matey phrases and contemporary comparisons. But still the relentless juggernaut of stupidity rumbles down the motorway, and archaeologists flip their lids.

I am just trying to understand the thought processes that have led archaeologists writing in the journal Antiquity to call for Sex Pistols graffiti in a London house to be preserved and cherished in the name of "anti-heritage". They compare the wall drawings, mostly by John Lydon, with Paleolithic cave art.

The argument is bizarre for several reasons. When it comes to preserving the history of punk, how is that an innovative or provocative idea? Ever since Greil Marcus and Jon Savage wrote serious tomes on the Sex Pistols, the band have been recognised as fodder for cultural analysis and reverence. Lydon got so fed up with the pretensions of critical writing on the Pistols that he wrote his own memoir, giving his more down to earth version of the story.

From the point of view of Marcus's book Lipstick Traces, the moment when the Sex Pistols tore through the fabric of reality would constitute an epochal event, worthy of commemoration. But the academics behind this latest study seem unaware that such recognitions are now a routine part of cultural history. They suggest putting up a blue plaque as if it was a daring idea to take popular culture seriously. Have they looked at blue plaques in London lately? Near where I live there's a plaque to Kenneth Williams, star of the Carry on Films. A plaque to the Pistols would ruffle no feathers whatsoever.

Their real agenda is to provoke their own profession, to imply that archaeology should be about graffiti as much as it is about cave paintings. But here they are being the very opposite of subversive. Everything in our culture glorifies the immediate, the contemporary, and – as George Costanza once put it in Seinfeld – "stuff we don't have to think about too much." Archaeology has a subversive vocation to resist this shallow culture and make us recognise the existence of profoundly different pasts on our own soil.

The news stories that have leapt on the Sex Pistols "cave art" show how these disillusioned archaeologists are just playing to the prejudices of modern culture. Of course people love to be told the Pistols are more important than the remote past. But there is absolutely nothing subversive about such a claim. It is the cliched dumbness of our age. Archaeology has a duty to be different; this daft argument betrays that vocation. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 26 2011

Suspend your disbelief

Newly renovated, the National Museum of Scotland at last gives a collection of Victorian curiosities the extraordinary showcase they deserve. Jonathan Glancey takes a look inside

A hippopotamus suspended from the rafters. A colour television dating from 1937. A giant Victorian lighthouse lens that once illuminated the Firth of Forth. A seal gut anorak, looking like plastic, made by Inuit hunters in the 1850s. An exotic bird stuffed by Charles Darwin.

The collection of the old Royal Museum stretching along Chambers Street in Edinburgh's Old Town is an engaging but initially baffling affair. Where did all this stuff come from? And why has so much of it – at least 8,000 objects – only now gone on show for the first time since the museum was formally opened in 1866?

Housed in a magnificent Victorian building designed by Robert Matheson and Francis Fowke, the former Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art forms one half of today's National Museum of Scotland. The other half, next door, dates from 1998 and was designed by the architects Benson & Forsyth in a style that is half Scottish castle, half Le Corbusier monastery. Now, after a £46m renovation, the 19th-century museum reopens on Friday, and the two halves have finally been joined together.

While the Benson & Forsyth building is dedicated to showing objects made in Scotland, its restored Victorian sibling is a gloriously eclectic archive of the objects that Scottish explorers, inventors, soldiers and scientists brought back from their travels – as well as pieces from people such as Charles Darwin, who trained in Edinburgh.

Keen to plunge in, I head towards the grand steps leading up from Chambers Street to the even grander Lombardic Renaissance museum entrance. Dr Gordon Rintoul, director of National Museums Scotland, and his project architect, Gordon Gibb of Glasgow-based Gareth Hoskins Architects, stop me. "The entrance is this way," says Gibb, pointing to a dark, wide-mouthed opening in the base of the right-hand side of the museum's imposing 19th-century stone facade. While it seems odd to ignore the obvious way into the museum, this crypt-like entrance proves to be a dramatic and highly effective architectural manoeuvre.

Step inside, and you enter one of Scotland's finest and most unexpected new public spaces. Gibb has opened up a labyrinth of former storage spaces and dungeon-like workshops under the main museum floors. This brooding, low-lit vault – like the undercroft of a medieval cathedral – will receive visitors, feed them in a fine new brasserie at one end, offer them cloakrooms and then send them up from an atmosphere of romantic gloom into the soaring, daylit galleries above.

"The vault was originally divided by a stone wall," says Gibb. "We took that out to open up the space." This meant propping up the centre of the crypt with heavy-duty steel columns. "At the same time, we lowered the floors by over a metre to give us the height we needed to make this a public space. But, we wanted to keep the light levels low to create an atmosphere of . . ."

"Expectation?" suggests Rintoul.

Glass lifts and broad stairs lead up through apertures cut in the stones to the spectacular heart of the museum: a soaring, four-storey cast iron and timber structure surrounded by delicate and intricate galleries. Even on a dark and thundery day, the Grand Gallery seems almost unnaturally awash with daylight.

"It's like a giant Victorian birdcage," says Rintoul, and with its thin iron columns set close together and arched timber roof, that's exactly what the structure resembles. It is the Scottish masterpiece of Fowke, the Irish-born British military engineer best known for designing the Royal Albert Hall. Fowke, who died in 1865, worked on the museum with local architect Matheson. While the facade of the building is more Matheson, the "birdcage" hidden behind is far more Fowke, clearly influenced by Joseph Paxton's revolutionary Crystal Palace of 1851.

"We've stripped it back to its Victorian glory," says Gibb. "It was so clear from early on what we needed to do. Clear away the clutter, open up vistas and connect all the galleries leading off the Grand Gallery."

The architects' touch has been strong yet sensitive. Today, every part of Fowke and Matheson's design, built in stages from 1861 to 1889, does indeed link together. Here is a museum in which it is impossible to get lost. Wherever you walk, you will find yourself returning to the Grand Gallery. And, throughout, there is daylight: this is the least claustrophobic of museums.

The original museum was established in 1855 by George Wilson, an Edinburgh doctor and chemist, and his elder brother Daniel, secretary of the Society of Antiquities in Edinburgh. In the mid-1950s, the society moved into the Royal Museum, and the collections of the two institutions were merged.

When I ask Rintoul if the museum is a bit of a rattle bag, he corrects me. "A rattle bag? The collection is very wide-ranging, but it represents the sheer diversity of thought and activity that came out of the Scottish Enlightenment. Every object here tells a special story related to the ways in which Scotland went out to the world from the 18th century."

Part of the building's charm lies in the dramatic contrast between its grandiloquent stone facade and its light and airy interior, made even more theatrical because the exterior has been left untouched. Its stones bear sooty witness to 19th-century grime. Shrubs still sprout from cornices. Until a way is devised to clean these stones without razing layers of history, they will remain weathered and aged.

Before the current renovation, Fowke's crystal clear interior had become not so much dirty as cluttered. Rintoul's aim, from his appointment in 2002, was to sweep it out. As layers of paint were stripped away and bricked up doorways reopened, the building gave up its secrets. "We were helped by the fact that Fowke's original work was so very good and reusable," says Rintoul. "When we stripped the carpets from the galleries around the Grand Gallery, we were delighted to find the original American red oak timbers." The curators also discovered thousands of objects in store, most of them wrapped and crated in what is now the crypt-like entrance hall.

The clarity of Fowke's design gave the architects the lead they needed. "We wanted the architecture to stand on its own," says Gordon Gibb, "with the exhibits layered in." The architecture of the building can now be read as clearly and cleanly as it was when the museum first opened.

This approach is very much in tune with Gareth Hoskins's other projects. The Architecture Galleries at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, which opened in 2004, house fragments of buildings, models and drawings of many ages and styles, and yet the overall feel is as clear and illuminating as a shaft of light. With the Culloden Battlefield Memorial Centre, near Inverness (2007) – a building rooted in the landscape – the practice has helped tell a rich and complex story through a clear-cut design free of gimmicks. Yet the centre has a quietly powerful presence inside and out, reinforced by a long stone and timber wall projecting uninterrupted to the battlefield and countryside beyond.

Back in Edinburgh, the clear layering of objects on show in the renovated museum is a joy. The displays, designed by museum installation specialists Ralph Appelbaum Associates, gather collections of objects into particular stories that explain where they came from, how they were gathered and why they matter.

Dr Henrietta Lidchi, the museum's keeper of world cultures, walks me through its uppermost galleries. "Museums try to contain cultures," she says, "but here we like the idea of cultures moving on, morphing and changing. We work with peoples from around the world making connections and using the museum's resources as a tool for sparking off new ideas; these can be in jewellery, fashion – the list goes on."

So just as Scots went abroad to collect the objects displayed here, so the new National Museum of Scotland is now taking its message out to the world. Director, curators, designers and architects have revitalised a superb building that you will surely want to experience for its own sake before plunging, layer by layer, into the depths of its beautifully presented collections.

Before I leave, I do another turn around the galleries, looking at some of the newly found objects, lured first by the scaly throated tree-creeper stuffed by Darwin during his expedition around the world onboard HMS Beagle, then by the Nobel prize medal awarded to Alexander Fleming, the Scottish biologist and pharmacologist, for the discovery of penicillin, and, then by a painted buckskin worn by a native American chief long before Custer's last stand. Above all, though – and happily encasing these things – here is one of the truly great, and beautifully remodelled, Scottish buildings. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 28 2011

Rachel Maxwell-Hyslop obituary

Foremost scholar of western Asiatic art and archaeology

Rachel Maxwell-Hyslop, who has died aged 97, was one of the foremost scholars of western Asiatic art and archaeology of her time. Her best-known work is Western Asiatic Jewellery: c.3000-612 BC, a bold, erudite attempt to gather together in a single volume everything important that was known on the subject. Still the standard reference work, it establishes what is characteristic about the jewellery of the near Middle East, drawing on Rachel's encyclopedic knowledge of the region's material culture, and relates it to the jewellery of neighbouring Egypt and Greece. She also wrote extensively on the weaponry and agricultural tools of bronze-age western Asia.

Born in London, she was the daughter of Sir Charles Clay and his wife, Violet, daughter of a Liberal attorney general. Her father was a noted antiquarian and librarian at the House of Lords. After going to Downe House school, Berkshire, Rachel studied French at the Sorbonne in Paris, and then gained a postgraduate diploma in the archaeology of western Asia at the Institute of Archaeology, London University. In 1938 she married Bill Maxwell-Hyslop (cousin of Sir Robin, the Conservative MP for Tiverton), with whom she had three children, Andrew, Gillian and Hilary.

Her earliest excavations included cleaning Roman pavements at Verulamium, in modern St Albans, Hertfordshire, and digging pits at the Maiden Castle site, near Dorchester, with Mortimer Wheeler, at the start of his three years of excavations there, in 1934. Those experiences left her wanting to work outside Europe, so when Wheeler founded the Institute of Archaeology that year, she was one of its first three students, even before it had found a home at St John's Lodge in Regent's Park, London.

She was impressed by the expectations of Sidney Smith, who pioneered the new course in Mesopotamian studies: "He constantly emphasised the importance of assessing every kind of evidence – historical, archaeological, architectural, pottery, metalwork, etc – and of linking it to economic, religious, mythological and legal texts, while also considering technical, scientific problems." Literature, language and archaeology were thus linked "to provide evidence not only of material culture, but of people's everyday lives".

In 1946, she joined the staff of the institute. The following year Max Mallowan arrived as professor of western Asiatic archaeology, a new post funded by his wife, the detective novelist Agatha Christie. Rachel became an assistant lecturer, and then lecturer (1952-66). She found working with Mallowan stimulating: in Easter terms in the 1950s she looked after the administration of his excavation at Nimrud, in Iraq, and he sent her to study how materials were analysed.

From 1937 to 1990 she also researched, travelled or excavated in Cyprus, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Syria and Iran. In 1989, she returned to Nimrud with Barbara Parker, another of the three students from 1934, who had married Mallowan after Christie's death.

Like her father, Rachel was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, in 1950, and also a fellow of the British Academy, in 1991. She continued to work in her later years, standing down as president of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq only on her 93rd birthday.

She enjoyed playing the piano, painting and gardening at her house at Little Tew, Oxfordshire. In later life, she gave up Turkish cigarettes in favour of occasionally smoking lavender from her garden in a pipe, all the while following her mother's family in remaining a staunch supporter of Liberal politics.

Bill died in 1993. Rachel is survived by her children and three grandchildren. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 27 2011

Letter: It was me at the dig, not the archbishop

Astonishingly, this is the second time I have been mistaken for the archbishop of Canterbury (Artists offer depressed Channel port a sense of place and new perspectives, 27 June). I am in fact the man with the windsock white hair, shown helping out at the archaeological dig at the magnificently sited Roman Villa on Folkestone's East Cliff, in the film made by artists collective CAMP for the second Folkestone Triennial. The site itself is turning out to be of national importance. Beneath the villa, finds, such as a Neolithic flint arrowhead indicate that the site has probably been in continuous occupation since at least 3000BC and may have been Britain's main point of trade with the continent, as it has an easy landing place with immediate access inland via the North Downs Way, which comes down to the sea at that point. This second year of digging will begin on 11 July and all are welcome to visit, including the real archbishop of Canterbury.

The first instance of misidentification occurred one evening on my entry into the Canterbury Cathedral precincts through a secondary gate. I was smartly dressed in a suit together with a new deep-purple Pierre Cardin shirt which had a white collar. As I went for my wallet to produce the free pass issued to all local residents, the security guard said: "No, no, my lord." I instantly realised he had mistaken me for the archbishop and passed quickly on, extremely embarrassed. I have never worn the shirt again.

Nick Spurrier

Folkestone, Kent © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 20 2011

Badge dug up in field is medieval treasure

Scrap of twisted silver found by metal detector in Lancashire will be part of British Museum's exhibition of reliquaries

A scrap of twisted silver found a few weeks ago by a metal detector in Lancashire will take its place among masterpieces of medieval art at the British Museum, in an exhibition opening this week of the bejewelled shrines made to hold the relics of saints and martyrs.

The badge made of silver found by Paul King, a retired logistics expert, is a humble object to earn a place in an exhibition called Treasures of Heaven, but it is unique. It will sit among gold and silver reliquaries studded with gems the size of thumbnails – or the sockets from which they were wrenched by thieves – once owned by emperors, popes and princes.

The badge, the only one of its kind ever found in Britain, provides a link 500 years ago between this corner of rural Lancashire and the great pilgrimage sites of mainland Europe. It shows one of the companions of St Ursula, one of the most popular mystical legends of medieval Europe. She was said to be a British princess who sailed with 11,000 virgin companions to marry a pagan prince in Brittany, but diverted to go on a pilgrimage to Rome – and in some versions of the story, Jerusalem.

After many adventures they came to Cologne, where all were slaughtered by Hun tribesmen. When a large cemetery of Roman era bones was found in the city in the 11th century, they were declared the remains of the saint and her companions, and her cult spread across Europe.

King, a member of the South Ribble metal detecting club, found the silver plaque at the end of April in a field some miles from his home in Walton-le-Dale, where he had already found several hundred Victorian coins, but returned with the blessing of the landowner for a sweep with his new more high-powered metal detector.

"I knew immediately she was something special," he said. "I think she was hidden deliberately – she was folded over, not damaged by a plough strike in any way. It is extraordinary and moving to think how much history is locked up in this little piece of metal."

Although a church in Cologne holds her shrine and a whole chapel still decorated with the supposed bones of her companions, there were so many bones that the relics spread across Europe and beyond. Some of the most beautiful reliquaries, life sized busts of fashionably dressed young women, were made to hold the bones. The badge from Lancashire is a representation of just such a shrine - and so close in style and early 16th century date that it may come from the same Bruges workshop as the one in the exhibition on loan from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The Metropolitan reliquary, of a gently smiling young woman with her hair in a modish plaited style, is so alluring it has become the exhibition poster. The badge would have been bought as a souvenir by the Lancashire pilgrim from just such a shrine.

British Museum curator James Robinson said he was "beside myself with excitement" when he saw an image of the find. "To be honest if I hadn't been working on the exhibition it might have taken me a while to clock it – as it is I recognised her immediately as one of the companions of St Ursula. I hesitate to call it a miracle, but it is a most extraordinary coincidence that this should turn up just at this time."

He believes it is even possible that a similar reliquary may have been the centre of a shrine in Britain, destroyed as the cult of relics was condemned as idolatrous and blasphemous by religious reformers.

"The badge may be the only fragile, ephemeral piece of evidence for a cult of St Ursula in the north of England, that might have had at its centre a bust reliquary of continental manufacture."

The exhibition will include reliquaries which the faithful believed once held the breast milk of the Virgin Mary, the umbilical cord of the baby Jesus, the arm of Saint Luke - holding a golden pen to symbolise the gospels he wrote - and many still containing fragments of wood claimed to come from the cross on which Christ died. A carved icon of the Virgin which according to tradition was taken from the neck of the dead emperor Charlemagne, was one of the treasures of Aachen cathedral until it was given as present to Napoleon's Josephine. Some of the loans have never before left the churches or villages where they have been venerated for centuries. Many were believed to have miraculous powers, and made the places that held them wealthy pilgrimage sites - as Canterbury cathedral was for the relics of the martyred Thomas a Becket, and Santiago de Compostela in Spain remains to this day.

King, who has always been interested in history and spends days researching his finds in museums and archives, reported it under the Portable Antiquities scheme which encourages metal detectors to report all their archaeological finds, but she proved to be silver and so legally treasure which must be reported. When valued - the price will be shared between King and the landowner - Robinson hopes the British Museum will acquire her to find a permanent resting place in its medieval galleries.

Treasures of Heaven, British Museum, London, 23 June – 23 October © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 09 2011

Broken idols of Keros: Greek mystery explained

Cambridge scientists dig up evidence of beautiful marble figurines broken then buried by Greeks 4,500 years ago

To say it has been an archaeological mystery may be an understatement: why are fragments of beautiful but deliberately smashed bronze age figurines buried in shallow pits on a small, rocky Greek island whose main inhabitants have always been goats?

Today, academics at Cambridge University will release findings that shed light on the 4,500-year-old puzzle of Keros, a tiny Cycladic island in the Aegean.

It appears Keros was the ceremonial destination for a ritual that involved islanders breaking prized possessions and making a pilgrimage with fragments for burial.

"It is rather remarkable," said Professor Colin Renfrew, who led the most recent excavations.

"We believe that the breaking of statues and other goods was a ritual and that Keros was chosen as a sanctuary to preserve the effects."

The Keros story began in 1963 with Renfrew himself. Then a long-haired research student – he is now Lord Renfrew – he stepped off a caïque boat on to the island (human population: two goatherders) after being tipped off about a site of archaeological interest.

"I was amazed to find fragments of marble bowls and marble figurines," said Renfrew. The fragments were of a type of sculpture found across the Cyclades, examples of which can be seen in the British Museum and have inspired artists including Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore.

The Keros sculptures were almost all broken. Archaeologists found thousands of marble vessel fragments and hundreds of figurine body parts, such as a pair of thighs, a folded arm or an elongated foot.

The matter rested there until 1987 when Renfrew, by now the Disney professor of archaeology at Cambridge, returned to Keros to begin more serious excavation.

That led him to the discovery that the breakages were not the result of careless looting. "It became clear that this was a very strange site."

In 2006 Renfrew found an unlooted site of buried broken figurines and the remains of a settlement on an islet about 100 metres away, Dhaskalio.

There the team found evidence of a kind of bronze age guesthouse where visiting villagers would have congregated on their pilgrimage.

Geological examinations showed it was built from imported marble rather than the flaky local limestone.

The team had found – from around the same time the Pyramids were being built – evidence of huge amounts of marble being transported across the sea to build Dhaskalio.

Renfrew's theory is that Cycladic villagers would have used the figurines and bowls in a ritualistic way, perhaps carrying them in processions as icons are carried in Greek villages today.

"After they had been used for some time, perhaps decades, the time would come that it would go out of use," he said. So they were broken and fragments taken to "one remarkable ritual centre".

Renfrew said it was likely that the islanders would go to Keros at regular intervals, in much the same way that the ancient Greeks held the Olympics every four years.

"No doubt it was a ceremony of renewal – a new generation of icons being used and a new generation of people growing up."

The evidence suggests fragments were ritualistically deposited on Keros for about 400-500 years, until around 2000BC.

Renfrew said there were still many more puzzles at Keros and Dhaskalio to be answered. The latest research will be published as a basis for further investigations. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 16 2011

London parish's descent from glamour to grime charted in exhibition

Archaeological finds in St Giles on show at Museum of London give insight into the lives of the infamous Rookery slum dwellers, once the capital's most notorious slum

The skin is about to be ripped back from one of the most foetid slums in Britain, a London parish which became such a byword for filth and squalor that the phrase "a St Giles cellar" literally signified the lowest depth of abject poverty.

A unique collaboration of archaeology by the Museum of London, and historical research and new paintings by the artist Jane Palm-Gold, will reveal the lives of the thousands of people who once lived crammed into the Rookery, a warren of semi-derelict homes, alleys and courtyards where Renzo Piano's huge multi-coloured office and residential blocks now rise behind Centre Point in the West End.

The archaeological finds, to be displayed for the first time in the exhibition as the excavators launch their report on the site, chart the startling decline from 17th-century affluence to Georgian squalor, as the old houses were subdivided and let out as common lodgings – with so many Irish Catholic residents, it was dubbed "Little Dublin" or "the Holy Land".

Luxury imported china and glass, and charming objects such as the fuddling-cup, a puzzle vessel for tavern drinking games, gave way to the cheapest and poorest: 19th-century finds include chamber pots, clay pipes, gaming tokens, cheap flashy jewellery probably worn by prostitutes, and a baby's feeding bottle which may often have held gin, when one in four premises was a gin shop – and far fewer possessions of any kind than are found in comparable sites.

One excavated cellar is believed to have been home to many families, and had an open sewer running across the floor. Another massive cesspit provided many of the finds.

Sian Anthony, who led the dig, found evidence backing residents' complaints that landlords frequently boarded pits over and left them full, rather than pay for them to be cleaned out.

An 1847 medical report described the area as "a disgrace to a civilised country," and in 1849 some residents actually wrote to the Times: "We live in muck and filth. We aint got no priviz, no dust bins, no drains, no water-splies, and no drain or suer in the hole place."

One outsider recorded in 1852 – when the area had slightly improved: "In a back alley opening onto Church Street was a den which looked more like a cow-house than a room for human beings – little if any light came through and yet 17 human beings ate drank and slept there; the floor was damp and below the level of the court; the gutters overflowed; when it rained, the rain gushed in at the apertures."

The archaeologists also found one of the infamous secret passages, which meant the police – if they dared venture in – found it almost impossible to catch criminals, who could escape through a maze of escape routes through, over and under buildings.

Palm-Gold's paintings, inspired by historic prints including William Hogarth's Gin Lane, track the contemporary wild side of the area where she lives. She personally witnessed all the depicted incidents from the windows or balcony of her flat in her panorama Crack Lane. They include the crack dealer who broke open and moved into the bin store of her own buildings, two men found dead in the community Phoenix Gardens, a couple having sex by the churchyard steps, a punter attacked by two prostitutes joined by two crack dealers, and a drug user smashing open letter boxes to steal not the contents of the envelopes but the identities, a flourishing local trade.

On another occasion she saw police hunting through bushes, looking for drugs. When they finally gave up, she watched two men ripping back a grating covering the opening to the church crypt to recover the drugs they had thrown in.

It all repelled and fascinated her predecessors – Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson and Gustav Dore were among the artists drawn to the area. As she pored through hundreds of prints in the British Museum and other archives, she came to recognise characters drawn by many artists, who reappear as ghostly figures in her own pictures: Billy Waters, king of the beggars; Old Simon Edy with his flowing hair and beard who lived under a broken staircase in Dyott Street; blind Charlie Wood with his dancing dog, Bob.

She moved to the heart of the area in 2003 – the road past her door was once the dirt track to a huge leper hospital – and absolutely loved it. "It is completely wild, and some of the things I have seen you would just not believe, but I have never had better neighbours anywhere. They'll carry me out of here in a box."

* London's Underworld Unearthed: the Secret Life of the Rookery, Coningsby Gallery London, 17 May-3 June © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 11 2011

Who are the Coptic Christians?

The clue to the identity of this small religious minority survives in the art and archaeology of ancient Egypt – and reveals a most magnificent ancestry

Attacks on churches, communal divisions – Cairo has recently seen conflicts between some Muslims and Coptic Christians. But who exactly are the Copts and how did they come to be in Egypt? Part of the answer lies in Coptic art.

The sands of Egypt make it an archaeological wonderland. Ancient Egyptian statues and buildings rise above those sands, and these stony sepulchres made the wonders of the pharaohs famous down the millennia. But in the 19th and 20th centuries excavators such as William Flinders Petrie developed truly scientific archaeological techniques and looked beyond the tombs of the kings into the buried worlds of Egypt's past. Petrie, who excavated at Fayoum, looked not just for treasures but pottery and cloth.

Egypt's climate preserves materials that usually perish, including wood, papyrus, and cloth. Even shoes from ancient Egypt's later period under Roman rule have survived. Another stunning type of material discovered by early 20th-century archaeologists was Coptic woven art. Early Christians in Egypt buried their dead with finely woven clothes and shrouds that have survived along with Biblical papyri, paintings and sculpture. In 1910, the Coptic Museum in old Coptic Cairo opened to show such relics released from the earth.

The attraction of Coptic art is that it is full of Mediterranean, Greek and Roman echoes, such as border decorations of embroidered grapes that recall the god Bacchus, while being anti-classical and popular because of its raw portrayal of all-too-human faces. Another fascination is the possible connection between early Christian portrayals of Mary and Jesus, and ancient Egyptian statues of Isis and Horus.

So to return to that question I asked above, exactly who are the Copts? The answer is clear from this connection. Coptic Christianity dates back to the first couple of hundred years after the lifetime of Christ. The people who converted to Christianity were the ancient Egyptians, as well as Jewish, Greek and Roman inhabitants of Egypt. This is even clearer when alongside the art of Coptic Egypt you consider the Coptic language preserved in ancient papyri and manuscripts and still used in the Coptic liturgy today.

In the British Museum in London is the Rosetta Stone, a black inscribed slab that has been central to world history ever since the French scholar Jean-François Champollion used its specimens of the same text in different ancient languages to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. Champollion studied Coptic as part of his quest, because he rightly saw that it was descended from ancient Egyptian. That is, the language of the Coptic liturgy is the language of ancient Egypt.

So who are the Copts? They are the ancient Egyptians. Their art, language and religion are directly descended from the art, language and religion of the land of the pharaohs.

Their survival is a tribute to the religious tolerance of Islam. How many Islamic communities survived in medieval Christian Europe? As for modern times, a Europe that murdered six million Jews less than a century ago is in no position to vaunt its tolerance. But, the Coptic minority is no side issue. This culture has the right to respect, protection and a political voice in the new Egypt. It can claim to be the most Egyptian culture of all. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 16 2011

How early man used his head

Skulls unearthed in a Somerset cave were skilfully fashioned into cups with the rest of the bodies probably being cannibalised

A macabre collection of bone cups made from human skulls, unearthed in a Somerset cave, are the oldest of their kind, researchers believe.

The extraordinary vessels are the handiwork of early modern humans, who used stone tools to prepare and finish the containers around 14,700 years ago after the last ice age.

The three cups, made from the skulls of two adults and one three-year-old child, were dug up several decades ago, alongside the cracked and cut-marked remains of animal and human bones at Gough Cave in Cheddar Gorge, south-west England. They have now been re-examined using new techniques.

The human bones show clear signs of butchery, implying that the bodies were stripped for meat and crushed for marrow before the heads were severed and turned into crockery.

There is no suggestion that the cups are trophies made from the remains of dead enemies. It is more likely that making skull cups was a traditional craft and their original owners died naturally.

"It would probably take a half day to prepare a skull cup," said Silvia Bello, the palaeontologist who led the study at the Natural History Museum in London. "Defleshing the skull was a skilled and lengthy business."

Researchers said it was impossible to know how skull cups were used, but historically they have held food, blood or wine. Some are still used today in Hindu and Buddist rituals. "To us they can still seem a little strange," said Bello. "I wouldn't have my cereal in one."

Writing in the journal Plos One, the scientists describe revisiting excavated remains from the cave, including a skull cup unearthed in 1987 by Chris Stringer, head of human origins research at the museum. Detailed examination of 37 skull fragments and four pieces of jaw using a 3D microscope revealed a common pattern of hard strikes followed by more finessed stone tool work that turned a freshly decapitated head into a functional cup or bowl.

"This is the first time we've understood how this material was processed, and the fact that the skulls were not just cut and butchered, but were shaped in a purposeful way," said Stringer.

The discarded human bones had the same cut and saw marks found on butchered animal bones at the site, and some were cracked open or crushed, as was done with animal bones to expose nutritious marrow. Only the skulls seem to have been treated with special care. The cuts and dents show they were scrupulously cleaned of any soft tissues soon after death.

"They systematically shaped the skulls to make them into cups. They scalped them to remove the hair, they removed the eyeballs and ears, they knocked off the faces, then removed the jaws and chiseled away the edges to make the rims nice and even. They did a pretty thorough job,' Stringer said.

The smaller cup, made from the child's skull, would have leaked because the cranial bones had not fully fused together, but the larger two might have carried food or around two pints of liquid.

"We assume it was some kind of ritual treatment. If there's not much food around they may have eaten their dead to survive. Perhaps they did this to honour the dead, to celebrate their lives," Stringer added.

The cave dwellers were among the first humans to return to Britain at the end of the last ice age. The island was unpopulated and almost completely under ice 20,000 years ago, but as the climate warmed, plants and animals moved across Doggerland, a now submerged land bridge that linked Britain to mainland Europe. Where food went, early humans followed and brought art, craft and toolmaking skills with them.

The ages of the remains at Gough Cave suggest it was home to humans for at least 100 years. The cave is well-sheltered and, with skin flaps over the entrance, would have made a cosy abode, Stringer said. The residents were ideally placed to hunt passing deer and wild boar, while up on the Mendip Hills roamed reindeer and horses.

In the 1900s, several hundred tonnes of soil were removed from the cave to open it up as a tourist attraction, a move that may have destroyed priceless ancient remains. The skull cup and other bones unearthed in 1987 survived only because they were lodged behind a large rock.

In 1903, field researchers working in the cave's entrance uncovered Cheddar Man, the oldest complete skeleton in Britain at more than 9,000 years old. A painting of a mammoth was found on the wall in 2007. Other artefacts from the site include an exquisitely carved mammoth ivory spearhead.

A precise replica of one of the skull cups, complete with cut marks, will go on display at the Natural History Museum in London from 1 March for three months. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 14 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams delves deep into cinema's foundations

Perhaps the human link is missing, but Werner Herzog's 3D documentary about prehistoric cave art asks new things of film

A few hours after Wim Wenders's somewhat unforgiving film about Pina Bausch unspooled in Berlin, so too did another 3D documentary – this one directed by Wenders's contemporary and sometime rival in the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s, Werner Herzog. Though all his work tends to blur the line between fiction and reality, Herzog has been focusing on making documentaries for the last two decades – roughly parallelling the collapse in quality of his "acted" films (though the recent Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done may have arrested the decline). Cave of Forgotten Dreams is fully worthy to stand alongside Herzog's non-fiction masterworks, such as Grizzly Man, My Best Fiend and Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

Its ostensible subject is the recently discovered Chauvet cave paintings, located in an underground chamber in the Ardèche in southern France. Hermetically sealed for millennia after a landslide buried the entrance, they are in preternaturally perfect condition, and all the more spectacular for being encased in staggeringly beautiful rock formations.

Herzog and his crew have a strictly limited time-frame to get their footage, are heavily restricted in terms of lighting, and are in any case confined to a narrow metal walkway constructed to link the numerous cave chambers. But Herzog is nothing if not used to adversity, and makes something of a virtue of all this in his gravelly voiceover, pointing up the difficulty with which the footage is obtained. Moreover, the bobbing torch-beams and minimal battery-lights are in fact perfect for illuminating the underground images, giving some sense of how the originals would have been seen when they were first made and helping the horses, lions and rhinoceroses almost surge off the cave wall.

But more than anything else, the restrictive conditions have a most unexpected result: they energise the 3D photography far beyond anything I've seen before. So far, film-makers have tended to go deep-focus and widescreen, packing the frame with oddities and angles or popping things into the viewers' eyeline. By necessity Herzog has to take the opposite position, and the effect is simply stunning. Rock deposits jump out as if they are filmed in extreme close-up, details of paintings are almost tangible as they trace the lines of jagged stones, and the labyrinthine caves stretch away from the camera with dizzying depth.

All that's missing from Cave of Forgotten Dreams is what you might call the human dimension. Herzog likes to grapple with the extremes of consciousness and experience and, despite that fantastic title, he fails to make much headway here. Not that he doesn't try: in his voiceover he offers some wonderfully Teutonic observations about the 30,000-year-old paintings – "Are we crocodiles who look back into an abyss of time?" – but perhaps the living material, the scientists and archaeologists, aren't as responsive as he'd like. His pitch is to infer that dreams infect us all, and are the link that spans the 30,000 years to the original cave-painters. Only one paleontologist, swathed in reindeer hide, seems to take it on board – but then you realise he's simply modelling how ice-agers would have dressed, nothing that Tony Robinson wouldn't have done.

Be that as it may, Herzog has conjured up something magical here, perhaps able to speak for itself in a way that makes his customary philosophising unnecessary. It's almost like watching the reinvention of the cinematic medium. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 13 2011

Tutankhamun statues stolen

Egyptian minister says thieves targeted most-valuable artefacts after breaking in through roof and descending by ropes

Thieves have stolen 18 priceless artefacts from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, including two gilded statues of King Tutankhamun, during the political unrest.

Zahi Hawass, the antiquities minister, said the losses were discovered during an inventory of the museum after the protests died down.

Among missing items are a statue of Tutankhamun being carried by a goddess and another of him harpooning. Also stolen is a limestone statue of the pharaoh Akhenaten holding an offering table, a statue of Nefertiti making offerings and several other stone and wooden artefacts.

Hawass said that an investigation is underway and that the "police and army plan to follow up with the criminals already in custody".

The museum is on the edge of Tahrir square, the heart of three weeks of protests that brought down the president, Hosni Mubarak. It was raided on 28 January by thieves who climbed up a fire escape and then used ropes to lower themselves into the museum.

The thieves appear to have carefully selected some of the most valuable objects while ignoring less important artefacts. "They are not something you would come and randomly find," an Egyptologist at Cairo's American University, Ikram Said Salima Ikram, told Reuters.

Restoration work has already started at the museum to repair the damage by looters. Hawass said that 70 pieces were damaged.

The army guarded the museum and its 125,000 antiquities, including Tutankhamun's funeral mask, throughout the unrest. The building was threatened when the neighbouring ruling party headquarters was burnt down.

At one point, protesters formed a human chain to surround the museum and protect it from thieves and looters. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 09 2011

Geoff Egan obituary

Archaeologist who brought the mudlarks in from the cold

Geoff Egan, who has died of coronary thrombosis aged 59, was the leading UK expert in medieval and later small finds, and pioneered liaison between archaeologists and the "mudlarks" who search for finds on the Thames foreshore. Digging in thick mud against the tide, mudlarks have retrieved a fascinating trove of metal artefacts left by generations of Londoners on the riverbanks.

Mudlarks were once shunned by many professional archaeologists, who deplored what they saw as their unscientific methods of retrieval, but many developed great expertise and some, such as Tony Pilson, donated their collections to the Museum of London and the British Museum.

Geoff had done some mudlarking himself before he became a professional archaeologist. Together with his colleague Hazel Forsyth, in 2005 he published Toys, Trifles and Trinkets, detailing Pilson's collection. This pioneering work studied a class of artefact (children's metal toys made between about 1200 and 1800) that had not been recognised by archaeologists before the mudlarks' discoveries brought significant numbers to light.

As the specialist in medieval and later non-ceramic finds in the Museum of London archaeology service, Geoff played a key role in producing the series Medieval Finds from Excavations in London, an essential reference for all specialists in this period, and he was personally responsible for two volumes: The Medieval Household (1998) and Dress Accessories (1991, with Frances Pritchard). He also wrote Material Culture in London in an Age of Transition: Tudor and Stuart Period Finds from Southwark (2005).

Another area of interest centred on the lead seals that were affixed to textiles sent out in trade from the 14th to the 18th centuries. Geoff appreciated that recording the locations where these items are found can give us much information about the cloth trade, for a long time the main source of England's prosperity. His study of these led to a doctorate from the Institute of Archaeology, London, and also resulted in the publication of Lead Cloth Seals and Related Items in the British Museum (1994).

Geoff was a key player in the project to catalogue a series of finds from the enigmatic site of Meols, thought to have been a beach market, on the Wirral coast. The monumental catalogue, written with David Griffiths and Rob Philpott, is another important reference work. In all, Geoff contributed more than 100 papers and notes to national and county journals.

Geoff was born in Wembley, north-west London, the only son of Daphne and Harold Egan, the government chemist from 1970 to 1981. He was educated at what he described as the "academic hothouse" of Harrow County school, and gained a place at Peterhouse, Cambridge, to study classics, although he subsequently switched to archaeology and anthropology.

After graduation in 1975 he worked for a while at Kew Gardens, but a love of travel took him to Norway, where he worked on an archaeological excavation at Trondheim. On his return to Britain in 1976, he obtained a job at the Museum of London and stayed there for the next 34 years, working his way up to be a fieldwork director, then a finds specialist. In the 1970s the redevelopment of the City of London led to an upsurge in archaeological excavations, and the museum's urban archaeology unit, as it then was, was created to respond to this need.

Geoff's expertise was of great value to the portable antiquities scheme, established in 1997 to record finds made by members of the public. He had a part-time role with the scheme from 2004 and in July 2010 was appointed to a full-time post as finds adviser for the scheme, based at the British Museum.

In the month before he died Geoff had spoken at an archaeological colloquium in Lübeck, Germany, while the next week he was speaking at a metal detecting club in Blackpool. His enthusiasm was infectious. When ITN proposed to make a series of programmes called Mud Men on finds from the Thames foreshore, shortly to be screened on the History Channel, the mudlarks urged them to engage Geoff's services. As far as they were concerned, he was "god".

Geoff was greatly loved by his peers and built up many friends in European and American museums. Perhaps the organisation that gave him greatest pleasure was the Company of Arts Scholars, Collectors and Dealers, one of the newest of the city guilds. He served as its master in 2009-10, and one of his proudest moments came last summer when he joined members of the guild who exercised their right as freemen of the City of London to drive a flock of sheep across London Bridge.

Geoff was a magpie. His home in Wembley, where he lived all his life, was crammed with the fruits of his collecting, from pottery sherds and other antiquities neatly classified in cabinets to a huge collection of books. He even kept the many tickets he accumulated on his travels. He never took to modern technology. ITN were surprised to learn that he did not possess a mobile phone and the ways of computers were a bit of a mystery to him. Geoff would have been more at home with a quill pen.

He is survived by his cousin, Graham.

• Geoffrey Egan, archaeologist, born 19 October 1951; died 24 December 2010 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 04 2011

Law forces reburial of ancient finds

Bones and skulls from ancient settlements will be reburied and lost to science under controversial legislation that threatens to cripple archeological research

Human remains from Stonehenge and other ancient settlements will be reburied and lost to science under legislation that threatens to cripple research into the history of humans in Britain, a group of leading archaeologists says today.

In a letter addressed to the justice secretary, Ken Clarke, and printed in the Guardian today, 40 archaeology professors write of their "deep and widespread concern" about the issue.

The dispute centres on legislation introduced by the Ministry of Justice in 2008 which requires all human remains excavated at digs in England and Wales to be reburied within two years, regardless of their age. The decision, which amounts to a reinterpretation of law previously administered by the Home Office, means scientists have too little time to study bones and other human remains of national and cultural significance, the academics say.

"Your current requirement that all archaeologically excavated human remains should be reburied, whether after a standard period of two years or a further special extension, is contrary to fundamental principles of archaeological and scientific research and of museum practice," they write. Signatories include Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London; Stephen Shennan, director of University College London's archaeology institute; and Helena Hamerow, head of archaeology at Oxford University.

The ruling applies to any pieces of bone uncovered at around 400 dig sites, including the remains of 60 or so bodies found at Stonehenge in 2008 that date back to 3,000BC. Archaeologists have been granted a temporary extension to give them more time, but ultimately the bones will have to be returned to the ground.

The arrangements, the archaeologists say, may result in the squandering of future discoveries at sites such as Happisburgh in Norfolk, where excavations are continuing after the discovery of stone tools made by early humans 950,000 years ago.

"If human remains were found at Happisburgh they would be the oldest human fossils in northern Europe and the first indication of what this species was. Under the current practice of the law those remains would have to be reburied and effectively destroyed," said Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology. "This applies to everything. If we were to find a Neanderthal fossil or a Roman skeleton, it would all have to be reburied."

Prior to 2008, guidelines allowed for the proper curation and study of bones of sufficient age and historical interest, while the Burial Act 1857 applied to more recent remains, such as those exhumed from the St Pancras Old Church cemetery to build the London Eurostar train terminal. The Ministry of Justice assured archaeologists two years ago that the ruling was an interim measure, but has so far failed to revise its decision.

Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at Sheffield University, said: "Archaeologists have been extremely patient because we were led to believe the ministry was sorting out this problem, but we feel that we cannot wait any longer.

"Whereas we have museum collections of ancient and prehistoric human remains that have been dug up in some cases hundreds of years ago, we are about to lose all of the well-excavated, well-documented skeletal material that has been excavated since 2008," he added.

The ministry has no guidelines on where or how remains should be reburied, or on what records should be kept.

Removing the need to rebury ancient human remains within two years would give archaeologists the option to study excavated bones with new scientific techniques that constantly emerge from research laboratories, the letter says.

Remains from dozens of sites are immediately at risk of reburial, including eight bronze and iron age bodies found at Clay Farm in Cambridgeshire, 50 or so skeletons from the cemetery of a medieval hospital in Bawtry, South Yorkshire, and a remarkable Viking mass burial site excavated during work on the Weymouth relief road in 2009.

"The government is asking us to destroy important materials, not preserve them for future generations, a situation that is against its own heritage policies, contra to the public will and not in the interests of the general public at large," said Duncan Sayer, an archaeologist at the University of Central Lancashire.

"This is a law that was not designed for archaeology and is doing a considerable amount of damage, and because of it we may prevent people in the future from ever being able to explore their past because we have destroyed it." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 10 2010

The Ancient World | Mesopotamia

We look to Greece and Rome for the roots of the modern world. But, as Michael Wood reminds us, civilised life in Iraq began 4,000 years earlier

Driving north out of Samawa towards Baghdad, a short way beyond the Euphrates bridge, a tarmac track leaves the main road, heading eastwards into a scarred, dun-coloured wasteland. Soon you enter the real desert, swept by sandstorms. Then, after 60km or so, a haunting scene unfolds.

Looming out of the haze, the eye begins to make out a low range of brown hills, at first shapeless, then taking form: the eroded stumps of ziggurats to the Goddess Ishtar and Anu ("Lord Sky"). This is Warka, a site few places on earth can match for sheer atmosphere, and a landmark in the human story.

William Loftus, the first outsider in modern times to see these sights in 1849, was almost overwhelmed: "I know of nothing more exciting or impressive than the first sight of one of these Chaldaean piles, looming in solitary grandeur from the surrounding plains and marshes ... Of all the desolate sites I ever beheld, that of Warka incomparably surpasses all".

4,000 years of history

Named Uruk by the Akkadians, Unug by the Sumerians, Erech in the Bible and Orchoe by the Greeks, the city was founded in the fifth millennium BC and survived into the first millennium AD. It was ruled in later times by Romans, Persians and Muslim Arabs before in the seventh century AD it was abandoned, except for the Bedouin, whose black tents still hug the horizon. To what extent Uruk really was the "mother of cities" is still hotly argued by archaeologists. It is claimed to be the birthplace of writing, mathematics and literature, and few would dispute that it is one of the most potent memory places of humanity.

The size of the site is testimony to the scale of the achievement of Mesopotamia, the world's first civilisation. Inside its silted gates, poking out of huge dunes, it is 3km wide and the circuit, dating back to around 3000BC, is 9km. Where the past century of archaeology has exposed them, you see great platforms and revetments of burned brick like the foundations of small skyscrapers. In places below the visitor's feet are strata 75 feet deep, which contain the shattered bric-a-brac of human history: Islamic glass, Hellenistic bowls, Parthanian clay coffins, greenish black-patterned Ubaid sherds and the little clay sickles used by the first dwellers in the Mesopotamian plain around 5000BC. In this one place is the image of civilisation: its rise, growth, triumphs – and perhaps its end too.

Like the cultures of the Nile or the Indus, Mesopotamia, as its name suggests ("the land between the rivers") owed its existence to a river system. Large-scale human societies had begun to grow from about 10,000BC in an arc through Syria, Palestine, Anatolia and the Zagros mountains. Starting with the first larger scale settlements at Jericho and Catal Huyuk in Anatolia, these were well built but still relatively small. It was only when sophisticated irrigation techniques were developed that the plain of southern Iraq was opened up to sustain a huge concentration of people and resources. Yet even this was still a relatively confined area: Mesopotamia had 25,000 sq km of irrigated land – similar in size to early dynastic Egypt.

From the fourth millennium BC came the first large cities, then states, whose culture and society would influence every aspect of life across west Asia – and further afield. In the third millennium BC, there were around 40 cities in Sumer and Akkad that made up the Babylonian plain. One big city-state, Lagash (whose site is more than 3km across), had 36,000 male adults in the third millennium BC, suggesting upwards of 100,000 people altogether. Uruk was probably of similar size. Each controlled an extensive territory: at Nippur, for example, 200 subsidiary villages clustered around five main canals and 60 smaller ones, joined by a web of countless small irrigation ditches – all subject to laws, customs and close control. These urban developments were fed by a trading network which, in the case of Uruk, linked Anatolia, Syria and the Zagros. Recent research has shown that Mesopotamia might not only have given birth to the world's first trading culture, but also the earliest private treaty stock market.

It is not surprising then that writing, written law, contract law, and international treaties are all found for the first time in the area. Not only does history begin at Sumer, but so does economics.

Art and war

So who were the people who made this breakthrough in human history? The Sumerians were the prehistoric population of the southern plain of Iraq. Their ethnic and linguistic affiliations are not yet clear; their language is not related to any known language, though there are many theories. During the third millennium BC a close cultural symbiosis took place between the Sumerians and the Akkadians, who lived in the middle of the plain – the area around and south of modern Baghdad. Many of the civilisational achievements of Mesopotamia are the product of that symbiosis. Sumerian itself, though, had died out as a living language by around 1600BC, leaving it only the preserve of Babylonian scientists, scholars and liturgists. By the time the last Sumerian texts were copied in cuneiform in the Hellenistic age of the second century BC, the language had long been superseded by Akkadian as the language of literature in Mesopotamia. And the Sumerians themselves had long disappeared into the multiracial mix that was ancient Iraq.

In the 1850s, when the first major excavations were conducted in Iraq, it was still commonly held that the cultural progenitors of western civilisation were the classical world of Greece and Rome and Judaeo-Christian religion. Though the Book of Genesis mentioned Uruk, Akkad and Babylon, it was never suspected that these much older civilisations had had a profound influence on the civilisations of the Near East and the Mediterranean world. At that time it was also not known that Mesopotamia had led the way in the invention of writing and literature; in mathematics, science, astronomy and geometry; in the invention of the wheel; and in the earliest law codes. Even today, when we count time and space in multiples of 12 and 60, we do so because of the Mesopotamians.

Creativity and conflict

But if Mesopotamia was a place of cultural and technological innovation, it was also the site of constant conflict. With no natural boundaries, and no protection from neighbours, it was always open to attack from nomads and outside invaders, and internally prey to continual disputes over resources – especially water. Not surprisingly, then, this is where organised law appears for the first time in history – as well as organised warfare.

The history of Mesopotamia was then both uniquely creative and uniquely violent and destructive; marked by invasions and devastating wars in which the great achievements of its civilisation were smashed many times, from the ruin of the Ur III dynasty through Mongols, Tartars and Seljuks, to the savagery of recent wars.

Nevertheless, a single civilisation survived through all these conflicts – one that is recognisably Iraqi: a land of "singular destiny" as the French historian Fernand Braudel put it. The character that emerges is very different from the optimism of Egyptian culture. Early Iraq was pessimistic in its view of human destiny – its poets knew the achievements of humanity were fragile and always fated to be wiped away. This insight informs the world's earliest literature and comes right down to the rich vein of modern Iraqi poetry. It perhaps also explains why lamentation became a ritual tradition in ancient Iraq and still is in Iraqi Shiism; a cultural personality that is still part of the way Iraqis are seen by other Arabs.

How and when did ancient Iraq end? One should note that in Iraqi culture there is no clear dividing line between the ancient world and the medieval. Alexander's conquest in 331BC might look like an ending on paper, but in fact it inaugurated Uruk's greatest age during a thousand years of multilingual Hellenic culture in a vast region stretching as far as India.

The Arab conquest of Mesopotamia in the seventh century AD looks like another cultural turning point, but even then, change was slow, with a more immediate impact on mentalities rather than material culture and custom. Just as Christianity inherited the Roman empire in the West, Islam inherited West Asia and the Near East; and in this sense Islam could be seen simply as a continuation of the much older culture that underlay it. Baghdad, the great capital of the caliphate founded in AD762, was still a vast Mesopotamian city, made of burnt brick in the ancient way. And if change was slow in Baghdad, it was even slower in the old cities. The sacred city of Nippur, for example, continued to be a provincial centre for scholars – Christian, Jewish and Muslim. It was a crumbling old Iraqi town, with its warren of alleys like today's Irbil or old Kirkuk, with mosques, churches and synagogues, its sufis and its Talmudic lawyers. Out in the countryside the old Mesopotamian religion survived until cAD1000, among pagan tribes in the south of the plain who worshipped the deities of the primal waters, the abode of the old Sumerian god Enki.

In Iraq, the real dividing line between the ancient and modern worlds was the Mongol invasion of 1258, when the country's vast irrigation works were ruined and the population decimated. But even then the ancient world never really ended. Even today, in the streets of Najaf during the Shia ceremony of Ashura, people still enact the communal ritual lament, which was so striking a feature of their ancient culture. Even in their traditional clothes one might see a link: Herodotus' description of typical Babylonian clothes – keffiya jalabiya and dishdash – can be seen anywhere today.

Another intriguing aspect of Mesopotamia's cultural influence is its impact on western and Arab literature. The rediscovery of its ancient literature in the 19th century stressed links with the Bible: stories of the Flood, Noah, the Tower of Babel or the Garden of Eden were all tales that far predated the Old Testament. Ezekiel's Babylonian vision of "the likeness and glory of God" is thoroughly Mesopotamian. But scholars have been far slower to cotton on to the fact that later Arabic and Greek literature is permeated by Mesopotamian ideas, images and stories. Especially influential was the cycle of tales about the legendary king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, which might just be the single most influential work of literature in the world. It is now clear, for example, that many of the Tales of the Arabian Nights are transformations of ancient tales that had long circulated orally. The same goes for Gilgamesh's great quest for the secret of eternal life, a journey of the soul that percolated into medieval Islamic mystical tales and even, it seems, into Dante's Inferno. Early Greek literature – especially Homer, Hesiod and the early epic tradition – was strongly influenced in form and content by Gilgamesh. Mesopotamian civilisation, in short, is still alive in the ways we think, count time and measure the world, but also in the stories that we love most.

Saddam's Mesopotamia

In the age of Saddam, the history of Mesopotamia was co-opted by the Baathists: massive restoration projects were undertaken, some impressive (such as the ziggurat at Ur), some megalomaniacal (such as rebuilding the palace at Babylon with Saddam's name stamped on to every 12th brick). Travellers in Iraq were confronted by huge murals and billboards of Saddam at Ur: Saddam on the white horse of Hussein at Karbala; Saddam receiving the Tablets of Destiny from Ashurnasipal himself. But the wars of 1991 and 2003 have left the country's incomparable heritage wrecked.

Previous generations, of course, had seen many of Iraq's treasures taken to London, Paris and Berlin. But what is left has suffered grave damage. Great sites such as Uruk and Nippur survived, but Babylon was badly damaged, and isolated sites have been systematically looted – Umma, one of the world's earliest cities, is now pockmarked by illicit diggers' pits; clay tablets from temple libraries have appeared on the art market. Iraq's National Library was also damaged, and many modern archives are reported destroyed.

Like the other great civilisations – Greek, Indian, Chinese, Persian – Iraq had the ability to remake itself over millennia, preserving its own distinctive vision. The author of the epic of Gilgamesh asks us to "walk the walls of Uruk … what human could ever equal them? Go up, go on; walk around – look at the foundations. Are they not magnificent? Didn't the Seven Sages themselves lay it all out?" His admiration of the achievements of humankind is all the more poignant as we walk around Uruk today under the contrails of allied jets amid the destruction of our time.

Michael Wood is a film-maker and broadcaster who first worked in Iraq more than 20 years ago. His latest book, The Story of England, is published by Viking © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 09 2010

The Ancient World | The Americas

The tragic demise of the Americas' native civilisations has too long distracted from its impressive cultural feats, argues Colin McEwan

Original civilisations developed in just a select handful of places across the globe. Two of these – the Andes and Mesoamerica – are found in the last continental landmass to be colonised by humanity. From the frozen reaches of Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, across the high grassland plains of North America, through the equatorial tropics and down the spine of the Andes to Patagonia at the uttermost end of the earth, the Americas boast an extraordinary range of landscapes and climates. These presented great challenges to human adaptive capacities and produced some remarkable and ingenious responses. In 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his party first beheld the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan as if floating on the shimmering waters of Lake Texcoco, in the Basin of Mexico. His incredulous companion Bernal Diaz extolled the vision of this great island metropolis, with its temples, plazas, ordered streets, gardens and causeways, as "surpassing anything to be seen in all of Europe".

Yet successive visitors have been as likely to dismiss America's native population as they have been to praise it. Writing some 300 years after Cortés, Charles Darwin described the Yahgan canoe Indians of Tierra del Fuego as "the most miserable wretches on the face of the earth", living on the very lowest rung of human existence. He would not have been aware that for decades, passing whalers and seal hunters had decimated the colonies of marine mammals upon which the Yahgan depended, introducing contagious disease and alcohol along the way, with devastating consequences.

These wildly divergent accounts have coloured the European imagination to such an extent that pre-Columbian peoples and cultures are still prone to be tagged as primitive and mysterious. Prior to modern archaeological research, the ancient history of the Americas was framed within a greatly foreshortened and unrealistic timescale; only recently have we learned to appreciate that the rise of civilisation on this side of the globe broadly parallels advances elsewhere in the world, albeit with its own distinctive character.

Rise of civilisation

Most researchers agree that it took as many as 50,000 years for the North and South American continents to be populated; we certainly know that the earliest human colonists arrived in Patagonia around 10,000 years or so ago. With global warming following the end of the last ice age, favoured environments fostered the steady growth of settled communities and the gradual transition from hunting and foraging to farming. Just as was the case in the "Old World", some wild plants became highly productive staple crops – the outcome of thousands of years of human selection and breeding. In the South American lowlands these include cassava (which required a sophisticated processing technology) and other tubers, peppers, peanuts, tobacco and cotton. In the South American highlands, domesticated llamas and alpacas supplied vital meat and wool as well as serving as pack animals well adapted to the vertiginous terrain. The native American horse had long been extinct and the horse that we are familiar with from Westerns was only reintroduced in the 16th century by the Spanish. Guinea pigs were another vital source of food – complemented by potatoes, beans and quinoa. In Mesoamerica, maize (teosinte, literally "food of the gods") was all-important, and once separated from its wild progenitor (thus avoiding cross-breeding) it was widely adopted in both Meso and South America, fuelling demographic growth and increasing social complexity. The Maya revered maize and even modelled busts of their young maize god with flowing hair to resemble the silk tassel on an ear of corn.

As in other parts of the globe, competition for the best farmable land and precious water led to the rise of ruling elites who presided over agriculture and craft production. This, in turn, led to the growth of religion and the creation of artworks that reflected both spiritual and political concerns. Thus on Mexico's Gulf Coast from 1200BC onwards, the precocious Olmec culture nurtured the first great art style in Mesoamerica, with monumental sculpted heads of rulers weighing many tonnes. They were followed by the rise of the Maya city-states further south, whose stone reliefs mark key events in the lives of their kings and queens. In highland Mexico, farmers, craftsmen and traders supported the city of Teotihuacan, which housed as many as 200,000 inhabitants by AD600, making it one of the six largest urban centres of its time in the world. Teotihuacan still serves as an example of a model metropolis: a multi-ethnic urban centre fuelled by far-reaching trade networks.

In the Oaxaca Valley, the Mixtec and Zapotec progressively enlarged the site of Monte Alban, with its spectacular temples, tombs and ball courts. Meanwhile, further south, Peru's Pacific north coast spawned an early tradition of great U-shaped ceremonial settlements with monumental architecture and sunken plazas that preceded the introduction of pottery. One of those centres, Caral, has been claimed to be the first urban complex in the Americas.

Ritual and ceremony also left their mark at Chavín de Huántar on the eastern flank of the Andes, in the form of densely intertwined images of animals and birds, reminiscent of Celtic art. Chavín art exerted a seminal influence on Andean culture, and the coastal states of Moche (later Chimu) and Nasca developed innovative but strikingly different art styles. Painted fine-line Moche vessels can be compared with scenes painted on Greek Attic vases, while the bold polychrome aesthetics of Nazca pottery seem to look forward to Picasso's stylised abstraction. The contemporary Wari and Tiwanaku empires of the highlands created more geometric styles rendered on textiles, clay and stone.

Feats of engineering

Anyone who has ever trekked up the ancient trails that traverse the Andes and gazed down upon the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu – perched atop a high ridge overlooking the Urubamba river – will have marvelled at the ingenuity and skill involved in its creation. Surrounding the site are rhythmic tiers of terraces that played a crucial role in sustaining human habitation in such a spectacular location. By taming the steep mountain slopes, the Incas turned a previously unexploited eco-niche between the lower valleys and the high puna grassland into immensely productive agricultural terrain. Their mastery of the pragmatic demands of water management and irrigation technology blended a consummate knowledge of the landscape with an unrivalled aesthetic sensibility. The sweeping grandeur of these terraces at Pisac, Moray and Ollantaytambo still takes the breath away. On Peru's desert coast, irrigation had been effectively deployed for millennia to support intensive valley farming, coupled with a growing seagoing expertise that capitalised on the wealth of near-shore fishing resources.

Farming technology

In other challenging environments such as the seasonally flooded grasslands of Bolivia's Llanos de Mojos, around Lake Titicaca and in the great river basins of lowland Colombia and Ecuador, the creation of complex patterns of raised fields and canals fostered a favourable micro-climate that would have earned these early farmers miraculous harvests. Similarly ingenious techniques were applied in the Basin of Mexico and the Maya lowlands. All became highly managed, "domesticated" landscapes that demanded a huge input of labour to build and maintain. The Americas became in effect a laboratory for technological experimentation. Techniques and designs that were mastered range from embroidered Paracas textiles (which were the finest anywhere in the world in their time), to smelting and casting a range of metal alloys. The origins of metallurgy stretch back nearly 4,000 years in South America. The continent fostered an astounding cultural diversity in every available eco-niche, from coast to deserts and from riverine lowlands to high montane grasslands.

Reading the stars

Across the Americas, cultures tailored their calendars to mark the movements of the sun, moon and stars. The earliest public architecture was the product of collective endeavours to control the powerful invisible natural forces that govern seasonal changes and the success or failure of crops. The position of temples was often linked to the rhythms of the cosmos. Priests were charged with the task of aligning sacred sites and temples such as the kalasasaya (sacred enclosure) at Tiwanaku and the templo mayor (great temple) at Tenochtitlan on key sunrises and sunsets. They give us a glimpse of the impressive knowledge of pre-Columbian mathematics and astronomy.

Monumental structures were built in the form of terraced platforms, ranging from the earthen mounds of Cahokia in the Mississippi Valley near St Louis to the stone-faced Pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacan and the monumental adobe structures on the Peruvian coast, such as the Pyramid of the Sun in the Moche Valley. None assume the classic triangular form of Egyptian pyramids, and indeed owe nothing to external contacts or influences. They reflect a universal human tendency to segregate secular and sacred space, which can also be seen in the ziggurats of ancient Iraq. Temples may be placed on top of platforms to underline their special sacred character, just as rulers themselves are often enthroned on special seats to emphasise their new semi-divine status. Access to these sanctified realms was restricted: doorways and facades are adorned with powerful imagery featuring feared predators such as caimans, killer whales, jaguars, pumas and snakes. New materials and techniques including textiles, metalwork, pottery and stone were deployed in service to state ideology and to reinforce and communicate religious beliefs. At Chavin de Huantar, for example, the visual vocabulary of a new art style was first worked out on textiles and subsequently transferred to stone to create extraordinary sculptures. Impressive polychrome wall murals painted on plaster converted Teotihuacan into a painted city.

Unlike Eurasia, the Americas did not see the emergence of a major expansive empire until the 14th century AD – a feature that has led some mistakenly to dismiss the cultures of the ancient Americas as somehow more "backward" than the marauding Greece of Alexander the Great or Caesar's colonising Rome. In the Americas, as elsewhere in the world, sophisticated social systems were always susceptible to collapses and transformations. In the Maya realm, for example, palace complexes and elaborate inscriptions detailing the accession of kings and queens testify to the importance of kingship from around AD300 onwards. Yet by AD900 a number of Maya city states had suffered collapse. Parallel processes are apparent in coastal Peru around the same time, as evidenced by the recent discovery of the spectacular Moche tomb of the Lord of Sipan. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to effective economic integration and political control in both Mesoamerica and the Andes were the formidable environmental challenges posed by wildly contrasting landscapes. Nevertheless new kinds of kingship and governance laid the foundations for the explosive growth of empires that derived their wealth from systematic conquest and forcible appropriation of resources.

The Aztecs and Incas

Around 1400, two powers emerged intent upon exercising imperial control on an unprecedented scale. In Mesoamerica, the Aztec empire promoted a militaristic state ideology and developed extensive trade networks to secure valued materials, including obsidian and exotic and symbolically powerful materials such as the shimmering, iridescent feathers of the quetzal bird. Meanwhile the Incas drew upon earlier Andean traditions to create the largest native state in the Americas, expanding with remarkable rapidity from their homeland in the Cuzco Valley to rule over a vast swathe of Andean South America. Like the Aztecs, they pursued specific material goods, obsessively combing their empire for the thorny oyster (spondylus princeps) revered for the deep blood-red colour of its shell.

Where was the culture of the ancient Americas headed under these two powerful regimes? We will never know. Ultimately, strangers from across the ocean introduced a new and unexpected challenge. Just 300 Spanish conquistadores under the leadership of Cortés united with the Tlaxcallans and other enemies of the Aztec empire to exploit the leader Moctezuma's political indecision to full advantage, resulting in the conquest and collapse of the Aztec state. In the south, meanwhile, civil war left the weakened Inca realm vulnerable to Francisco Pizarro, who arrived in Peru in 1531 with a tiny force of 180 men and ended up capturing the Inca emperor. Thousands of years of independent cultural innovation in the Americas had now to wrestle with the unfamiliar ideas and practices from Europe, Africa and Asia. America's ancient inhabitants suffered grievously from the shock of conquest and subsequent colonisation, as the visitors' initial marvel at the continent's native culture turned into calculated exploitation.

Colin McEwan is head of the Americas section at the British Museum, and the author of Ancient American Art in Detail (British Museum Press) © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 08 2010

Uncovered: art that the Nazis mocked

Gallery: Art dug up recently in Berlin was part of an exhibition intended by the Nazis to mock modern art

November 05 2010

TERRA 541: Ceiba: Nature and the Maya Creation

Based at archaeological sites across Belize, CEIBA tells the story of wildlife in the Maya creation myth, at the center of which is the Ceiba tree - the bridge between the heavens, earth and the underworld.
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