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Tue, 21 Feb 2017
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The Masada mystery - Mass suicide or twisted science for political ends?

© Photo by HG/Magnum
Aerial view of Masada showing the Roman ramp.
In 73 or 74 CE, 960 Jewish zealots - men, women and children - committed suicide on top of the mountain of Masada by the Dead Sea in Israel rather than be captured by the Romans. The story, told by the Roman historian Josephus, is one of the most famous from antiquity. But did it actually happen? Yigael Yadin, the late Israeli archaeologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who excavated the site in the mid-1960s, said that it did. Moreover, he also said that the objects found during his dig proved it. His subsequently published book, Masada: Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand (1966), was a bestseller.

It was no secret that Yadin's excavations at sites in Israel, such as at Hazor in the 1950s and at Masada in the 1960s, were in part under­taken in the hope of reinforcing Jewish claims to the land by linking them to biblical stories and other famous events. Some have long charged Yadin with a political agenda detached from the truth - and cast a shadow over his interpretations of the finds at Masada and elsewhere in the Levant. In 1995 and 2002, Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a sociologist also at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published his own interpretation of the finds from Masada in two separate books - The Masada Myth and Sacrificing Truth. He con­cluded that Yadin had been incorrect in many of his interpretations, perhaps deliberately so, in the interest of creating a nationalist narrative to help the young state of Israel forge an identity for itself.

Subsequently, Amnon Ben-Tor, who is now the Yigael Yadin Professor of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and who had excavated with Yadin at Masada, published a spirited defence of Yadin and his findings, titled Back to Masada (2009). In this book, Ben-Tor went through the archaeology again, dismissing each of Ben-Yehuda's points and basically confirming Yadin's point of view.

Yet the dispute goes on. The story of Masada is more than just a story of the archae­ological excavations. It is an example of how archaeologists use histori­cal information to supplement what they find during their excavations and to flesh out the bare details provided by the archaeological discov­eries. Yadin made particular use of the writings of Flavius Josephus - the Jewish general turned Roman historian who wrote two books about the Jews in the first century CE and who is the primary source for what might have taken place on top of Masada nearly 2,000 years ago. And Masada shows how the relationship between archaeology and the historical record cuts both ways; since we cannot be certain that Josephus's discussions are 100 per cent accurate, we can use archaeology to corroborate - or to challenge - the ancient text.

Masada also serves as a cautionary tale about using (or misusing) archaeological evi­dence to support a nationalistic agenda, as some scholars have suggested Yadin did. The debate over Masada involves the trustworthiness of Josephus's account; the credibility of Yadin, perhaps the most famous of all Israeli archaeolo­gists; and the influence of nationalism on the interpretation of archaeo­logical discoveries. Whom do we believe? How should we view this seemingly tragic, heart-wrenching ancient site and event? And can we ever tap evidence from thousands of years in the past to establish the origins, legal claims and birthright of peoples today?

Archaeology

Could a giant polar bear skull found at an eroding Alaska archaeological site be the legendary 'weasel bear'?

© UIC Science
A huge, unusually shaped polar bear skull, left, emerged in 2014 from an eroding archaeological site southwest of Utqiagvik. It is quite different from most modern polar bear skulls, right.
Aboriginal hunters from Arctic Canada have a couple of names for what they say is an extremely rare polar bear that is huge, narrow-bodied, fast-moving and lithe: "tiriarnaq" or "tigiaqpak," meaning "weasel bear." Now the thawing and rapidly eroding Chukchi Sea coastal permafrost has produced evidence that one of these legendary weasel bears — or some other strange kind of bear — roamed Arctic Alaska centuries ago.

A huge, fully intact and unusually shaped polar bear skull emerged in 2014 from an eroding archaeological site about 13 miles southwest of Utqiaġvik (Barrow). It is one of the biggest polar bear skulls ever found — and quite different from most modern polar bear skulls. It is slender, elongated in the back and has unusual structural features around the nasal area and other areas.

"It looks different from your average polar bear," said Anne Jensen, an Utqiaġvik-based archaeologist who has been leading excavation and research programs in the region. Through radiocarbon dating and subsequent analysis, Jensen and her colleagues estimate that the big bear skull — which appears to be the fourth largest ever found — is from a period between the years 670 and 800. It is possibly the oldest complete polar bear skull found in Alaska, inspiring a name for the departed creature that owned it: The Old One.

Blackbox

Volcano may explain mysterious 100-Year Maya Dark Age

A new study theorizes that in 540 CE, a small and until recently seemingly unremarkable volcano in southern Mexico, El Chichón, was responsible for plunging the Maya civilization into a hundred years of chaos. The Maya prospered from 250 to 900 CE, they developed calendars, a writing system, new mathematics, amazing cities and pyramids. However, there remains a mysterious 100-year period during which the Maya inexplicably stopped construction projects, abandoned some regions and engaged in war, that archeologists have been unable to explain.

An early indication an ancient volcanic eruption could have been the reason behind the gap came from sulfur particles trapped within the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland. Michael Sigl, a chemist with the Paul Scherrer Institute, determined a massive eruption might have occurred in 540 CE, coinciding with the beginning of the Maya "Dark Age." Tree ring records also suggest that sulfur particles up high in the atmosphere triggered a global temperature drop of between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius around the same time. A volcanic eruption had impacted the world's climate, however, its location was undetermined.

Comment: For a more in-depth study, read Earth Changes and the Human-Cosmic Connection


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Linguist's research supports waves of migration into the Americas

© Wikimedia Commons
Graphic illustration of Beringia, showing light blue areas of Beringia that are now underwater with the rise of sea level during modern times.
University of Virginia linguistic anthropologist Mark A. Sicoli and colleagues are applying the latest technology to an ancient mystery: how and when early humans inhabited the New World. Their new research analyzing more than 100 linguistic features suggest more complex patterns of contact and migration among the early peoples who first settled the Americas.

The diversity of languages in the Americas is like no other continent of the world, with eight times more "isolates" than any other continent. Isolates are "languages that have no demonstrable connection to any other language with which it can be classified into a family," Sicoli said. There are 26 isolates in North America and 55 in South America, mostly strung across the western edge of the continents, compared to just one in Europe, eight in Africa[?] and nine in Asia.

"Scientists in the past few decades have rethought the settlement of the Americas," Sicoli said, "replacing the idea that the land which connected Asia and North America during the last ice age was merely a 'bridge' with the hypothesis that during the last ice age humans lived in this refuge known as 'Beringia' for up to 15,000 years and then seeded migrations not only into North America, but also back into Asia."

In a Feb. 17 presentation to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Sicoli will join other scientists discussing "Beringia and the Dispersal of Modern Humans to the Americas." Since much of Beringia, theorized to have been located generally between northwest North America and northeastern Asia, has been under water for more than 10,000 years, it has been challenging to find archaeological and ecological evidence for this "deep history," as Sicoli calls it.

Recent ecological, genetic and archaeological data support the notion of human habitation in Beringia during the latest ice age. The new linguistic research methods, which use "big data" to compare similarities and differences between languages, suggest that such a population would have been linguistically diverse, Sicoli said.

Archaeology

Archeologists discover 1500-year-old astronomical observatory in southern Iran

Archaeologists and historians discovered an observatory from the 3rd or 4th century during excavations in the south of Iran.

Traces of the ancient observatory were found during the excavation of the Paregan mound in the province of Khormozgan in southern Iran. The remains likely belong to the reign of the Sassanian dynasty from 224 to 651 CE, Ali Asadi, the head of the archaeological team, told Tasnim news agency. The Sassanian Empire was the last imperial dynasty in Persia, now modern-day Iran, which ruled before the rise of Islam.

"Judging by the location of ceramics, this object belongs to the reign of the Sassanian dynasty," Asadi said. "However, scientists continue to work on the dating of the found artifacts."

USA

Great leaders always call out the bankers

A common thread between many of the world's great political and social leaders is their willingness to call out the major banks and bankers for their complicity in establishing and maintaining economic tension and international conflict in our world.

Jesus whipped the money changers when he drove them from the Temple for turning his Father's house into a den of thieves, and since the days of Christ, history is the story of a never-ending struggle between houses of finance and public interests.

Banks are in a unique position of power in our world, and can generate extraordinary profits without actually producing anything. Through the issuance of currency and credit, they can control the amount of money available to the economy and create economic booms and busts, seizing titles to land, homes, businesses, and property. They hold extraordinary influence over government for their role as financiers of everything from public works to war, and enjoy extraordinary pecuniary advantage and privilege.
"The few who understand the system, will either be so interested from its profits or so dependent on its favors, that there will be no opposition from that class." — Rothschild Brothers of London, 1863

Info

Stones were 'killed ritually' to remove the stone's spiritual powers 12000-years-ago

© Université de Montréal
Claudine Gravel-Miguel is with anthropologist Vitale Stefano Sparacello at the Arene Candide site in 2011.
Researchers studying broken pebbles found in the Arene Candide Epigravettian Cemetery in Italy have concluded that about 12,000 years ago, the stones were used to decorate the dead and then "ritually killed" to remove the stone's spiritual powers.

Researchers at the Université de Montréal, Arizona State University and the University of Genoa analyzed 29 beach pebble fragments recovered in the Caverna delle Arene Candide complex on the Mediterranean Sea in Liguria, Italy. The site is a necropolis containing the remains of some 20 adults and children from the Upper Paleolithic period.

© Université de Montréal
Pebbles were refitted during analysis.
The cave was first excavated in the 1940s and is located about 90 meters above sea level on the upper margin of the former Ghigliazza quarry. The cave has great archaeological importance because it is a reference site for the Neolithic and Paleolithic periods in the western Mediterranean.

What is particularly interesting about the study is that occasionally, pieces of rock or pebbles uncovered during an excavation go unstudied, simply being regarded as artifacts of no consequence.

In this study, by closely examining the stone pieces that were found microscopically, as well as by conducting other tests, it was discovered that a funeral ritual was carried out some 5,000 years earlier by humans than previously thought.

The Palaeolithic, or Stone Age, is the longest period of human history. The Upper Paleolithic Period began about 40,000 years ago and can be identified by the emergence of regional stone tool industries and is associated with the modern Cro-Magnons. Keep in mind that during this period, complexities and specialization in stone tools were a step up from early stone age tools.

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Ancient temples of unknown architecture discovered in Sudan

© New Historian
Veteran archaeologist Charles Bonnet has discovered three temples constructed in the Sudan thousands of years ago, a find which may provide new information about Africa's ancient buried past. Dating back to between 1,500 and 2,000 BCE, the oval and round structures were unearthed in 2016 near Kerma, the well-known archeological site in northern Sudan.

Bonnet, considered a master student of the rich archeological history of Sudan, says in an AFP article that the newly discovered sites were different than anything discovered to date, adding, "This architecture is unknown ... there is no example in central Africa or in the Nile Valley of this architecture."

Discovered at Dogi Gel (Red Hill), the temples are located just several hundred meters from Kerma, where Bonnet and his research team have spent decades excavating. "At Kerma the architecture is square or rectangular shaped... and here just a kilometres away we have round structures," Bonnet says in the article, "We don't know of many round temples in the world... we don't have examples to compare."

It's believed that the treasure trove of artifacts found in the three temples provides a never-before-seen view into ancient African history, a subject that has always been challenging for researchers. The recently discovered architecture is completely new, and doesn't resemble either Egyptian or Nubian architecture, the two primary archaeological influences of the region.

Archaeology

Gold-decorated spear is tip of the iceberg at Carnoustie dig

© GUARD Archaeology
A gold-decorated bronze spearhead has been heralded as a discovery of international significance by the archaeological team that unearthed it at Carnoustie. The weapon was part of a hoard uncovered at Balmachie last year during an archaeological evaluation in advance of Angus Council's development of two grass football pitches.

GUARD Archaeology's project officer Alan Hunter Blair summed up the excitement of his team. He said: "The earliest Celtic myths often highlight the reflectivity and brilliance of heroic weapons. Gold decoration was probably added to this bronze spearhead to exalt it both through the material's rarity and its visual impact. "It is one of only a handful of gold decorated bronze spearheads that have been found across Britain and Ireland, so this find alone is of international significance."

Info

Secrets of the Saguache stone snakes in Colorado

© Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
Along an entire hillside, variations of a stone wall or stone snake stretch in several directions. The stacked stones are granite weighing 175 pounds per cubic feet. Many of the larger stones may weigh as much as 300 pounds. Who placed them in this configuration and why remains unknown.
There are secrets in the San Luis Valley at the northern edge of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. One of the most interesting is the riddle of large stone snakes, who built them, when and why. I couldn't believe it myself until I walked the ground and visited the snake nest.

In Saguache County, thousands of years of human habitation have left their mark on the diverse wetlands, sage flats, piñon-juniper uplands, ranches and farms that make up the northern edge of this closed basin. To the south lies Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and to the west the San Juan Mountains.

"The valley is a veritable crossroads of human history, a cultural corridor spanning eons of time, from Paleolithic hunters to pre-Columbian Native American cultures, from Spanish conquistadors to fur trappers, from transcontinental explorers to modern tourists in motor homes," writes Michael M. Geary in Sea of Sand.
© Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
At the entrance to the private property known as the Snake Nest in Saguache County, Colorado, a handmade sign reads Snake Nest Private Protected Preserve. The owner is interested in conserving wildlife as well as archaeology.
So, who built the stone snakes, which are 347 yards long on private property? Are they three sacred snakes chasing one another's tails or does this long linear feature represent south-facing stone walls built by Hispano sheepherders? If so, the walls do not connect. They enclose nothing.