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K. Kris Hirst

Kris's Archaeology Blog


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The Popol Vuh

Wednesday May 28, 2014

This is the account of when all is still silent and placid. All is silent and calm. Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky.

Page from the Popol Vuh in the Ayer Collection of the Newberry Library
First page from the 18th century Popol Vuh in the Ayer Collection of the Newberry Library
Photo Credit: Paulo Cesar Coronado

So begins the creation myth of the Maya as it is reported in one of the most discussed and misrepresented documents in Maya history: the Popol Vuh, or Council Book, a manuscript written by the Quiché Maya in the early Spanish colonial period of the mid-16th century AD.

Contributing writer Nicoletta Maestri recently wrote an article describing the contents and history of the Popol Vuh, and places the stories of the Maya creation and the Hero Twins in the context of what archaeologists have learned from other places. Great stuff!

  • The Popul Vuh, from Nicoletta
  • The Hero Twins in Maya mythology
  • Popul Vuh: translation and commentary by Allen J. Christenson from Mesoweb (this link leads to directly to the pdf which will start downloading)

The Sampul Tapestry

Wednesday May 21, 2014

A pair of 2000-year-old trousers was reported in Antiquity this quarter; and you wouldn't think it, but the story of their construction is a fascinating one that illustrates the crossing of cultures in the 2nd century BC along the Silk Road between the Han Dynasty capital of Chang 'An and a west central Asia thoroughly changed by the exploits of Alexander the Great.

Head of a Greek-Macedonian Lancer on the Sampul Tapestry
Head of a Greek-Macedonian Lancer on the Sampul Tapestry. Photo by Shizhao

In 1984, four mass graves were discovered in a cemetery near the village of Sampul, an oasis in the Tarim Basin of western China north of Tibet. In one of them was discovered a pair of ornamental trousers, cut from a tapestry that once hung in a princely residence of west central Asia. The story of the Tapestry Trousers of Sampul illustrates a complex combination of cultural imagery, and at the same time highlights the less-than-cordial aspects of cultural exchange along the Silk Road.

Making String in Prehistory

Monday May 19, 2014

Making string is an often overlooked but incredibly important, tiny skill useful to human beings: but it is a building block for what would become textiles.

Inuit Sculpture of Girl with Cat's Cradle, National Gallery, Ottawa, Canada
Inuit Sculpture of Girl with Cat's Cradle, National Gallery, Ottawa, Canada Photo by Jen Millward

String making was an essential tool of the paleolithic person. String was used in prehistory to tie things up; to make clothing (as in the string skirt of the Iron Age Egtved girl; to make bags for carrying things; bowstrings for hunting; nets for fishing and small game trapping; to hang decorative pendants. And, in an extraordinary case, to make quipu, that communication strategy of 5,000 years of South American society.

More on Textiles in Archaeology

1540 Battle at Mabila, Alabama

Wednesday May 14, 2014

Mabila was the Mississippian town where a great battle was fought in 1540, between the Spanish conquistador and explorer Hernando de Soto and the Mississippian chief Tascaluza.

De Soto at Tampa Bay
De Soto at Tampa Bay, Florida. Drawn by Seth Eastman, engraved by James Smilie in 1853. Library of Congress Illus. in E77 .S382 [Microfilm RR]

The documents chronicling the de Soto expedition through the American deep south are a bit of slog sometimes: De Soto rides into town, demands goods and bearers, kidnaps the leader, then moves on to the next town and repeats the process. But by the time de Soto got to Alabama, word had come down the pike, and Tascaluza had a different plan.

Today, Mabila is known only from historical records--despite decades of searching and a handful of contenders, scholars have not definitively identified the site. Archaeologists consider it one of the great unsolved mysteries of American archaeology.

Dilmun: Trading with Mesopotamia

Friday May 9, 2014

Dilmun was an important trading center on the Persian Gulf, connecting the great civilizations of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and Meluhha (the Indus Valley of modern day Pakistan and India).

Location of Dilmun
Location of Dilmun in the Persian Gulf. Base map by Koba Chan

First recorded in cuneiform records nearly 6,000 years ago, Dilmun remained a backwater until ~2000 BC, when the trade center of Magan in modern-day Oman folded, for unknown reasons. Although Dilmun, centered on the modern-day island of Bahrain, did not produce much except dates and copper, it served as a conduit, moving agricultural and luxury goods and ideas between the two great powers. As an old Sumerian myth reported "Dilmun - its dwellings are good dwellings, its barley is very small barley, its dates are very large dates".

Read more about Dilmun

Textile History at Guitarrero Cave

Monday May 5, 2014

Guitarrero Cave is a rockshelter in the inter-mountain region of Ancash province in Peru. The cave has evidence of human occupation back to 12,100 years ago, and in the cave were found cords and textile fragments direct-dated to that occupation.

12,000 Year Old Textiles from Guitarerro Cave in Peru
Both sides of a fragment of a woven mat or basket container from Guitarrero Cave. Black grimy residue and wear from use is visible. Photo © Edward Jolie and Phil Geib

The textile fragments show a z-twist design and are made from agave and bromelid fibers, plants which are today found outside the cave opening. Guitarrero cave is the oldest to date example of textiles in the Americas. However, it's most likely that the technology was brought to the Americas with the first colonists, called Pre-Clovis, since using textiles is something we humans have been doing for some 30,000 years.

Jolie EA, Lynch TF, Geib PR, and Adovasio JM. 2011. Cordage, Textiles, and the Late Pleistocene Peopling of the Andes. Current Anthropology 52(2):285-296.

Secrets of the Dead: the Lost Gardens of Babylon

Friday May 2, 2014

Next Tuesday, May 6th, the PBS series Secrets of the Dead will air a new video from Channel Thirteen and Bedlam Productions, called the The Lost Gardens of Babylon, and in my opinion a vast improvement over the last entry.

Secrets of the Dead

The Lost Gardens of Babylon recounts the somewhat controversial theory of Assyriologist Stephanie Dalley, who believes that the famous ancient wonder called the Hanging Gardens of Babylon was actually built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib for his palace at Nineveh.

Put it on your calendar, this is great stuff, far more typical of the series than the last outing!

Bronze Age Innovation and Trade

Monday April 28, 2014

A handful of Steppe Society archaeological sites in central Eurasia have produced evidence for the international connection and spread of plant domestication in the Bronze Age of the late third millennium.

Begash in its Landscape Setting
Begash in its landscape setting, with the layout of the 2005 excavation trenches. © M. Frachetti 2005

The so-called steppe societies were nomadic hunters, gatherers and traders who traversed the vast and ecological varied spaces between Hungary and Manchuria. The new research published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B in April 2014 shows they had access to domestic plants from cultures to the east and west of their domains.

Spengler III RN, Frachetti M, Doumani P, Rouse L, Cerasetti B, Bullion E, and Mar'yashev A. 2014. Early agriculture and crop transmission among Bronze Age mobile pastoralists of Central Eurasia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281(1783). doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.3382

Mongooses in Iberia

Friday April 25, 2014

Mongooses (Herpestes spp) are kind of like cats, in that they really never became what you could call domesticated, but they do make great pets. Like cats, they also make for an interesting story on their quasi-domestication, nonetheless.

Egyptian Mongoose - Herpestes ichneumon
Egyptian Mongoose - Herpestes ichneumon, 1780 drawing by Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber. Image by Nordelch

Native to Africa and Asia, the Egyptian mongoose was brought to southwestern Iberia in the 7th century AD, when the Umayyad dynasty of the Islamic civilization conquered what is today the Andalusian region of Portugal and Spain. In the process, the Umayyads and their successors unarguably established a terrifically blended culture in the form of art, music, food and architecture. According to recent research, they also brought with them their pet mongooses.

New Support for the Southern Dispersal Route

Wednesday April 23, 2014

A new article in the journal Proceedings of the National Science this week provides support for the Southern Dispersal Route, the most-recently identified migration route for human beings out of Africa.

Map of Archaeological Sites which Have Evidence of Southern Dispersal Route
Map of some of the archaeological sites with evidence of the Southern Dispersal Route. K. Kris Hirst

We modern humans evolved in Africa during the Middle Paleolithic period, sometime between 195,000 and 160,000 years ago, and left from there to colonize the world. Most recognize (at least) three waves of human migration. A small group of humans left sub-Saharan Africa about 130,000 years ago, and got as far as the Levantine coast. A second, much more successful group, left about 65,000 years ago, and eventually colonized much of Europe and Asia.

And somewhere between 130,000 and 70,000 years ago, or so the theory goes, a group left Africa and apparently followed the coastlines of Arabia, India, and Indochina, reaching Australia and Melanesia.

In 2014, Reyes-Centano et al. reported that mtDNA studies of modern humans from all over the world contain support for the Southern Dispersal Route. People from Australians, Papuans, and Melanesians share ancient polymorphisms that indicate they are descended (in part) from a separate migration event, which occurred at least 130,000 years ago.

Reyes-Centano H, Ghirotto S, Détroit F, Grimaud-Hervé D, and Barbujani G. 2014. Genomic and cranial phenotype data support multiple modern human dispersals from Africa and a southern route into Asia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.

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