Eliann Stoffel – Unlocking the Secrets of a Forgotten Mammoth

A rather large bone, revealed by his bulldozer, prompted William McEvoy and his crew to cease work on the road and call the police. The police then called the local archaeological society, who, in turn, called an archaeologist at the local Natural History Museum.

When word got out that a mammoth had been discovered, visitors began pouring in to see the site.  Just a few miles outside of the town of Kyle in Saskatchewan, Canada, the excavation of these fragile bones from the hard clay was witnessed by an ever-growing number of people.  It is estimated that 20,000 visitors came to see the site that autumn in 1964.

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Eventually, the plaster casts protecting the bones were taken to the Natural History Museum (now known as the Royal Saskatchewan Museum); radiocarbon dating was conducted.  Possible museum displays and skeletal reconstructions were discussed.

And then?

Nothing.

Once the cause of great local excitement, the bones of the Kyle Mammoth faded from view.

The references above to archaeology are not errors.  Although the bones found were paleontological in nature, the focus on the find—and, indeed, the very reason they were recently resurrected—was to determine whether there was any evidence of human-proboscidean interaction.  When no stone tools were recovered in the surrounding sediment and with no obvious signs of butchering on the bones, interest in the fossil seems to have collectively disappeared.  For over 50 years, the various bones found on that stretch of road have been shelved in the Museum’s collections.

“I had always planned on doing my thesis at the University of Saskatchewan and I knew I wanted to do my thesis on hunting and butchering strategies utilized by Paleoindian people,” explained Eliann Stoffel, a recent graduate, in an email.

Her interest was not specific to any one species of megafauna. She hoped to study any and all large animals ancient people may have hunted: camels, bison, horse, proboscidea.

“I had approached my supervisor, Dr. Ernie Walker, with this topic and he had spoken with a member of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, Frank McDougal, who had suggested taking a look at the Kyle Mammoth.”

Which is how the long-forgotten fossil came back into view in 2015.

“We knew that the mammoth belonged to a time when people were in North America and actively hunting mammoths so we had the possibility of finding some sort of evidence of humans on the Kyle mammoth.”

This evidence is rare in the area known as the Northern Great Plains, an area that encompasses Saskatchewan (as well as another Canadian province and five U.S. states).

“It was one of those projects,” she said later by phone, “that, as soon as it came up, I couldn’t turn it down.  It needed to be done.”

Travelling between Saskatoon and Regina (where the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and the fossil are located), Eliann spent many hours studying and analyzing the bones from the 1964 excavation.  This included five boxes of bone fragments as well as 56 complete or near-complete bones, such as vertebrae, mandible, a partial tusk, and ribs.  Also included were ungulate bones, which—like the mammoth—did not comprise a full skeleton and did not present any clear association with its proboscidean fossil companion.

 

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About 20% of the mammoth skeleton survived; image courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan

 

Eliann’s thesis presents a comprehensive taphonomic analysis of the mammoth bones, and this was done because she and her advisors “knew that we needed to keep in mind that we might not find any evidence of human involvement.”

The idea of determining who or what made any kind of marks on a fossil seems like an overwhelming challenge.  This was not an animal that died the other day.  In this case, it died roughly 12,000 years ago. That is a considerable amount of time in which—after an animal is butchered, killed or otherwise dies of natural causes–it can be scavenged after death, it can be moved and scraped by natural elements, it can be affected by its fossilization, and then possibly affected by the process of discovery (in this case, by a bulldozer). How is anyone able to read the marks on fossil bones and know what they represent?

“[T]he first giveaway is the colour,” she wrote. “Bone, when it has been buried for a long time, tends to become stained from the surrounding sediment but only the outer surface. So when someone (an excavator) knicks the bone, the unstained inner portion of the bone is exposed and tends to be a lighter colour.

“The other indicator can be the clustering of marks. [With] butchering, there tends to be more than one cut mark on the bone in the same general area, usually at muscle attachment sites, and they tend to be orientated in the same direction. Rarely do you find cut marks that intersect each other. They are usually parallel. In accidental knick marks there is usually just the single mark and it tends to be located in a spot that you wouldn’t generally find cut marks (i.e. on joint surfaces or midshaft of a long bone).”

 

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Photo of the Kyle Mammoth right mandible from her thesis; courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan

 

Contrary to initial review in the 1960s, Eliann discovered a few tantalizing signs that this mammoth may have, indeed, suffered from trauma induced by ancient humans.  From a suspicious-looking lesion to a possible puncture wound on vertebrae to a puzzling set of lines in a bone fragment, there was reason to wonder whether humans had been responsible for these scars.

Ultimately, however, the first two were determined to be pathological. The lesions conform to known understanding of malnutrition in the form of osteolytic lesions.

Knowing her hope to find evidence of human interaction, I asked if this was a bit of a disappointment.

“[I]t was a bit of a kick in the knees,” she admitted, “but still a super interesting avenue of study in terms of pathology. I am more than thrilled with my findings though!”

 

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figure-5-1-kyle-mammoth-eliann-stoffel-thesisImages courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan

 

Another startling discovery appeared in what she describes as a “spongy” bone fragment, shown above, which contain traces of blood vessels.

“I remember bringing it to my supervisor and we both scratched our heads over it…So we called on our resident bioarchaeologist Dr. [Angela] Lieverse to take a look and she wasn’t sure but suggested possibly something vascular. Sure enough, when I searched for studies fitting that criteria, a couple articles turned up. So it seems that it is an occurring phenomena but possibly not that common,” Eliann wrote.

Ultimately, Eliann determined that this was a young male woolly mammoth (between 28 – 35 years old) that was still growing at the time of its death.  She estimates it was 328.66 cm (approximately 10.8 feet) tall.  While the large open wound on one of the vertebra points to a possible puncture wound from Clovis weaponry, other pathological features point to a mammoth suffering from malnutrition.

Eliann’s enthusiasm for those who helped her in her research was apparent.

“[T]he folks at the [Royal Saskatchewan M]useum were more than happy to help in any way possible,” she expressed, “and it is something that I have always appreciated! Also my major funders [were] the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation, the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, and, of course, the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the [University of Saskatchewan].”

More than just a strenuous academic endeavor, Eliann’s research has painted a picture that has been missing for decades on a significant local paleontological find.

“The [people in the] town of Kyle identify with this mammoth.  As you come into Kyle, there’s this statue of a mammoth.  Their sign that says ‘Welcome to Kyle’ has a picture of a mammoth on it.  It’s clear that they identify with it.”

 

 

A Mammuthus primigenius-sized THANK YOU to Eliann Stoffel—not only for her time in emails and by phone–but also for her gracious permission to use a number of pictures from her work!  Her thesis is fascinating and well written.  I recommend it to all!  Eliann, may you find many mammoths with evidence of human association in the future!

Another enormous thank you to Dr. Angela Lieverse, head of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan, who was also responsible for the generous use of images from Eliann’s thesis!

And I am very grateful to Dr. Emily Bamforth at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum for connecting me to Eliann! I could not have written this otherwise. THANK YOU!!

*****

References:

  1. The Kyle Mammoth: An Archaeological, Palaeoecological and Taphonomic Analysis, Eliann W. Stoffel, July 2016, University of Saskatchewan
  2. Shedding Some Light on the Kyle Mammoth, David Zammit, Swift Current Online, Nov. 13, 2016; the article that brought Eliann Stoffel and the Kyle Mammoth to my attention!
  3. PDF about the Kyle Mammoth from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum

Screenshot Kyle Mammoth RSM

Screenshot from the aforementioned PDF of the Kyle Mammoth, Royal Saskatchewan Museum

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The Ancient Graffiti Project – Ancient Words Revived by Modern Scholars

What began as a way for her students to have more hands-on experience with epigraphy blossomed into an enormous international project. At least 50 people have contributed thus far, and there is still much, much more to do.

Dr. Rebecca Benefiel, Associate Professor of Classics at Washington and Lee University, didn’t want to simply teach about ancient Roman monuments; she wanted her students to try to edit inscriptions directly.

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Image of Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius by Frans Sellies, courtesy of Getty Images

 

She, herself, has been studying Ancient Roman epigraphy for years. Most people might recognize the wealth of text carved in stone throughout the Roman Empire.  But what most might not know is just how much ancient graffiti remains.

“One of the fascinating aspects of ancient graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel said, “is that when they do survive, they survive exactly where they existed in a way that stone inscriptions almost never do.”

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Electoral campaign messages in Via dell’Abbondanza, Pompeii, Italy; October, 2004; photo by Raphael Gaillarde, courtesy of Getty Images.

Stone, inscribed or not, could be reused in ancient, as well as not so ancient, structures. (This is how the famous Rosetta Stone was found in Egypt.  Originally a public notice carved in stone, one of Napolean’s soldiers discovered it amongst reused construction material when rebuilding a fort—a stone saying the exact same thing in three languages: ancient Greek, Demotic and Egyptian hieroglyphs.)

Graffiti, on the other hand, exists in the very place it was etched into plaster by their ancient writers.  This is significant, and not just because where people left their messages might surprise us today.

“[U]nlike modern graffiti, we find [ancient graffiti] inside people’s homes,” offered Dr. Alex Pappas, Assistant Professor of Classics at San Francisco State University, “which invites questions about who’s reading these, who’s seeing them, who’s understanding them inside as opposed to just outside on the street.”

Dr. Benefiel’s enthusiasm for epigraphy is infectious.  We connected by video conference to discuss the Ancient Graffiti Project this past summer.  In August, the project held a 5-day workshop on Ancient Greek Graffiti at the Center for Hellenic Studies in DC.  It was on the last day of that workshop that I was able to ‘meet’ Dr. Benefiel, her colleague, Dr. Holly Sypniewski,  their students and other members of the Ancient Graffiti Project such as Dr. Alex Pappas.  From the position of the camera, I was able to witness an entire room full of scholars at work.

The energy in that room, the passion expressed by both professors and students as they answered my questions, was almost palpable.  And really, that level of enthusiasm is very easy to understand.

So much of Earth’s history is abstract. That abstraction is wonderful for the imagination, but frustrating when one genuinely wants to know who ancient people were, what they hoped and dreamed, what their daily lives were like, how they may have struggled or thrived.

Ancient writing reaches through the ages in ways that artifacts do not. It has the power to revive—even if only slightly–those who lived so long ago and are now gone.

And because the eruption of 79 CE buried so much of Pompeii and Herculaneum, we are able to see graffiti in-situ in ways that other ancient sites might not provide.  Unlike text carved in stone, anyone could scratch their message into plaster walls.  Much like today, those messages are from everyday people and include political sentiment, sexual conquests, the simple declaration of “I was here” and more.

 

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Frescoes in the Criptoporticus Domus, one of six restored domus at UN World Heritage Site Pompeii, on December 24, 2015 during the official opening to the public. The six domus restorations were carried out under the 105-million euro Great Pompeii Project funded by the European Commission and aimed at safeguarding the unique UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo by Mario Laporta; caption and image courtesy of Getty Images.

 

Studying those messages, however, is not new.  When I asked about the resources available to those who wish to work with ancient Roman graffiti, Dr. Benefiel mentioned a series of books entitled the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (“CIL” for short).  She pointed the camera to the end of the table, where scholars were pouring over two enormous tomes.

There are currently 17 volumes in that series, not including supplemental volumes, each volume specific to the graffiti within a modern country or region that was once part of the Roman Empire.  These books were first published in the 1800s.  Since that time, more sites have been excavated, new graffiti has been discovered, not to mention that the entire system of mapping and naming within Pompeii has changed.

Oh, and the entire series—including directions to the graffiti themselves—is in Latin.

“Working with CIL is certainly not a quick or easy process,” explained Dr. Benefiel.  “It requires a lot of correlation and patience.”

 

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Floor covered with mosaics in the Pacuius Proculus Domus, one of six restored domus at UN World Heritage Site Pompeii, on December 24, 2015 during the official opening to the public. Photo by Mario Laporta; caption and image courtesy of Getty Images.

 

Dr. Benefiel’s own scholarship—the questions she pondered as she tried to work with ancient graffiti—and her work with the Epigraphic Database Roma (EDR) helped to bring about the Ancient Graffiti Project.

The EDR is another staggering endeavor to bring ancient writing to the 21st century. This resource, in conjunction with other databases, seeks to provide free online access to inscriptions made throughout the entire Ancient World.

The idea for the Ancient Graffiti Project arose after she and her students digitized an entire Pompeii city block for the EDR.  What if there were a resource, she wondered, that provided information regarding where each graffito was found?  Rather than studying ancient words in isolation, she wanted to give that writing context.

Working with a colleague in computer science, they and their students created a search engine that pulled in information of that digitized city block.  The Ancient Graffiti Project is the result, and it is the remarkable work of ever-growing collaboration.

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Photo of Dr. Holly Sypniewski and a student experimenting with an iPad for photo documentation of a graffito at Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project

 

As Dr. Holly Sypniewski, Assistant Director for Digitization (Ancient Graffiti Project) and Interim Associate Dean of Arts and Humanities at Millsaps College, explained, “Rebecca and I both teach at liberal private arts colleges and universities where we have pretty considerable teaching loads. We’re not at large research institutions, and we don’t have graduate students to work with us on our projects. We have our undergraduate students, and this has been, for me, one of the most satisfying aspects of this project: finding ways to get my students involved in hands-on research that gives them the opportunity to apply their knowledge in exciting ways.  Our students conduct research on inscriptions, use technology to manipulate images, organize data, and work on the coding end of the Ancient Graffiti Project Database.   We are lucky to work with such talented students!”

In addition to those from Millsaps and Washington and Lee, students from the University of Richmond contribute to the project under the supervision of Dr. Erika Zimmermann Damer, a project member.

“They’re working with primary evidence in a way that you often don’t get to when we’re talking about 2000 years ago,” added Dr. Benefiel. “And they’re building something. They’re helping design a tool, a tool that we want to be able to be used both by the scholarly community and the public at-large because graffiti, they fascinate! They capture your attention. So if someone wants to know how you might draw a camel 2000 years ago, they can find it!”

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Photo of two students measuring a graffito for Ancient Graffiti Project records at Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project

 

The sheer amount of graffiti within homes in Pompeii—not to mention their very central and visible locations—might give modern readers pause. Certainly, there was graffiti upon ancient walls and structures (even tombs!) But what does that indicate?  Why were people writing inside?  Why weren’t these messages written in less-trafficked areas or painted over by their residents?

Dr. Benefiel poses these questions and others in the book Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World, co-edited with Peter Keegan and published this year.  Discussing graffiti in Pompeii alone, she mentions that 1700 examples were found outside on building walls and 1000 examples on public buildings (including about 100 examples in the purpose-built brothel).

The number of graffiti found within homes?

3000.

It is important to note that, although graffiti may have been etched into central rooms and hallways within a home, one could easily miss it.  These were not brightly colored declarations; they were etchings in plaster.  Interestingly, those who wrote these messages took pains not to write over existing graffiti. Rather, messages may occur near and around each other.  These messages also avoided all wall paintings, respecting the artwork contained within.

Seeing examples of writing prompts even further questions.  Who was writing these messages?  What percentage of the population was literate?  Can one decipher the gender of the author?

“We have many more names of men appearing in the graffiti, however, we have women who are being addressed in the graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel responded.

Examples she gave are:

“Greetings to Quartilla.”

“Greetings to Sabina.”

“And we do have some graffiti that are written from the perspective of a woman. So we have ‘Methe’, the female name, ‘loves Chrestus’ and then a prayer: “May Pompeian Venus be propitious to both of them, may they live harmoniously.”

Mary Beard, in her 2008 book The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, states that anyone could have written the graffiti in Pompeii; this was not just a function of the elite.  All members of ancient Roman society appear to have participated.  In one example, she suggests that the imprints of coins, pressed into the plaster close to the floor, is the work of a child. In another, she wonders whether ancient looters may have etched the words “House tunneled” near the door of one house, referencing the type of entry required for anyone to access the buried rooms.

The example given by Dr. Benefiel above illustrates this even further. When discussing her favorite graffito, she added details as to why this same graffito was her favorite.

“1) It starts with the name ‘Methe’ and then it says, 2) ‘She’s a slave of a woman named Cominia. 3) She’s from the town of Atella.  4) And she loves Chrestus.’ So she’s a slave, she’s a female, and she’s got three identifying markers: We know who she is, we know where she comes from, we know who she belongs to.  She’s expressing her love.  And then she’s writing—in a public space—to Pompeian Venus, who was the divinity for the city, and she writes a remarkably touching prayer.”

“I like the fact that [graffiti] can sometimes tell us a little bit about the people who are writing them,” she continued, “and they can tell us what they were thinking, but also what mattered to them.”

Artifacts, artwork and writing with Pompeii and Herculaneum indicate that these were multicultural cities with influences that extended beyond the Roman empire.  Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this lies within the statuette of Lakshmi, an Indian goddess.  Graffiti within those cities appears in both Latin and Greek, sometimes a mixture of the two in the same graffito.

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Photo of the entire Herculaneum Graffiti Project team from summer 2014 in the Augustalium in Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project for which Dr. Jacqueline DiBiasie Sammons (University of the South) serves as the Field Director.

 

“[There are] all sorts of fun obstacles to overcome,” Dr. Benefiel replied with a laugh when I asked her about any difficulties when translating the graffiti.

“They were written by individuals, in their individualized handwriting, with their individualized thoughts. There is no mediator between the person who’s writing and the final text.

“So you have to understand the handwriting, you have to understand the inside joke, you have to understand abbreviations or non-abbreviations, you have to understand that an ‘e’ can be written as two vertical lines or as we write an ‘e’.

“When we get to the Greek graffiti, there’s something even more special happening because we’re operating in an environment where you’ve got a mix of cultures.  So some people are bilingual (some people are speaking Latin and Greek). Some others are much more comfortable in Latin and could throw a word of Greek in here and there. Others are native Greek speakers that are now living in a Latin environment. Others are travelers passing through.”

 

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Contemporary graffiti on a picnic bench at Musquash Conservation Area in NH; photo taken by the author of this blog

 

After working and researching so many different graffiti, presumably written by so many different people, I wondered if either Dr. Benefiel or Dr. Sypniewski gained any insight into these ancient people.  Did they, for example, see any big differences between those writing ancient graffiti with those who do so today?

“I would say that you see the exact same range of graffiti in antiquity, for the most part, as you would today,” said Dr. Sypniewski. “Perhaps with the exception of the simple artistic tagging. There isn’t as much of an emphasis on decorative letter shapes because the medium doesn’t allow for that. It’s much harder to draw into plaster than it is to spray paint, for example, or to paint over something.”

 

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Contemporary graffiti; photo by Mr. Din, courtesy of Getty Images

“I would suggest,” Dr. Benefiel offered, “that what we see from the ancient graffiti is that in antiquity people were using graffiti to communicate positive messages much more frequently than we do today.”

Matthew Loar, then a PhD graduate from Stanford, now an Assistant Professor at the University Nebraska-Lincoln, had the following to say: “I think oftentimes when people study Classics, they study Greek and Latin literature. They’re looking at words on a page; it’s very 2-dimensional.  You get this sense of a society that was highly literate and was reading and writing high forms of literature. At least, this is what I thought once upon a time as a young undergraduate.

“But I think the thing about graffiti is that you realize that this was a really playful culture, that writing was very much an everyday practice. It was very ad-hoc. Every surface was game for writing. I mean, there are words all over the city in every place that you look, on every wall—inside, outside—homes, taverns, brothels, forums….you name it; there is writing on the wall there.

“I think that was a really surprising thing for me to learn at first. And it makes me feel like I can still wax poetic. I can commune with the ancients when [I] walk through the city of Pompeii or Herculaneum.”

 

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House of the Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite, Herculaneum; photo by Images Etc. Ltd, courtesy of Getty Images

 

“I think one of the fabulous things about graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel mused, “is that when you look at them, there’s an immediacy.  If you get a sense of what the handwriting looks like, it takes you to the person that was writing that graffito.

“I think that it’s hard to think about a graffito without the person behind it. And so in that way, when we are thinking about these writings, we are repopulating the city.”

————-

I cannot thank Dr. Rebecca Benefiel, Dr. Holly Sypniewski, their students or colleagues enough for graciously enabling me to interrupt their work at the Center for Hellenic Studies this past summer!!  Given the collaborative nature of Dr. Benefiel and the Project entire, it is not surprising that she generously invited me to speak with multiple scholars, rather than doing a one-on-one interview.  I was excited and amazed then; I remain excited and amazed now.  Thank you all for your remarkable generosity and thoughtfulness!  I cannot wait to learn more and see for myself how your project evolves!

You, too, can follow the Ancient Graffiti Project or test out their search engine at http://ancientgraffiti.wlu.edu!

 

References:

  1. Ancient Graffiti Project website
  2. The Culture of Writing Graffiti within Domestic Spaces at Pompeii, by Rebecca R. Benefiel, pg. 80 – 110 of Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World, Edited by Rebecca Benefiel and Peter Keegan, 2016, Brill Publishers
  3. Magic Squares, Alphabet Jumbles, Riddles and More: The Culture of Word-Games among the Graffiti of Pompeii, by Rebecca R. Benefiel, pg. 65 – 79 of The Muse at Play: Riddles and Wordplay in Greek and Latin Poetry,  Edited by Jan Kwapisz, David Petrain and Mikolaj Szymanski, 2012, De Gruyter
  4. Dialogues of Ancient Graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii, Rebecca R. Benefiel, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 114, No. 1, January 2010
  5. The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, by Mary Beard,  2008, Belknap Press of Harvard University

 

Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World

Dr. Ben Thomas: (Part 2) Searching the Jungle for Maya Artifacts

“I talk to students and the last time they probably discussed the Maya was in the 4th grade. So they have a 4th-grade understanding of it. Which is kind of interesting to me.  I’m always like: when are the American kids going to learn about American history?”

Along with his work at the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) as Director of Programs, Dr. Ben Thomas teaches Mesoamerican art at Berklee College of Music.  His undergrad and PhD work focused on archaeological sites in Central American countries.

The ‘American history’ of the Maya goes back to about 12,000 BCE, and it is a culture that continues to exist today in Mexico and the Yucatán peninsula.

The ancient Maya were the first known to create the zero—an extraordinarily complex mathematical concept. They were astronomers. They were, among many other things, writers, artists, scientists, farmers, builders, engineers.  Remnants of their great cities exist in the pyramids and stone structures that survive amidst the jungles.

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Group A plaza at Caracol, the largest Maya site in Belize; photo courtesy of Tom Schwabel, Getty Images.

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Mayan Temple at Caracol, Belize; photo courtesy of Steve Geer, Getty Images.

It is the writers and artists that pull at my imagination the most.  Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Maya people were prolific writers.  They created thousands of books, known today as codices, filled with pages of beautiful Mayan characters inked on pounded bark.

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Image of the Madrid Codex (also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex or the Troano Codex) at the Museo de America, Spain; in the Public Domain, courtesy of Michel Wal, Wikipedia.

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Page 49 of the Dresden Codex; photo in the Public Domain, courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

With the exception of four, all of them–these doorways into the minds and thoughts of ancient people–have disappeared from history. Religious zeal (a belief that these books were ‘the work of the devil’), colonial arrogance, and the desire to Christianize Mayas prompted the Spanish to have these books destroyed.  It is a loss that I cannot fathom, but one that I felt profoundly, physically in the pit of my stomach, gazing upon one of the four remaining Mayan codices at an exhibit last year.

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A rather poor image of the codex on exhibit in Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed; taken by the author last year at the Boston Museum of Science

 

Linda Schele and David Freidel, in the book “A Forest of Kings”, state that the Mayan word its’at means “one who is clever, ingenious, artistic, scientific, and knowledgeable” (page 379).  It is also, according to these authors, another word for a scribe or an artist.

 

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Maya scribe ink pot (a conch shell), in which different ink colors would be placed in each section; taken by the author at the Harvard Peabody Museum.

 

Although the majority of Mayan codices have been lost, some of their writing survives in stone. Mayan glyphs—carved upon stone altars, giant stelae, and other stone facades—were finally understood in the 20th century.  This remarkable achievement was thanks to years of work by a number of individuals, culminating in final decipherment in 1986 by a teenage epigrapher.

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Casts of Maya stelae from Guatemala and Altar Q in the foreground from Copán, Honduras at the Harvard Peabody Museum; photo taken by the author.

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Detail of a cast of a Maya stela from Guatemala at the Harvard Peabody Museum; photo taken by the author.  An important contributor to our understanding of Mayan glyphs and writing used to work at this museum: Tatiana Proskouriakoff.

 

Did this relatively recent discovery correlate to our understanding of the Maya?  Are we only now beginning to unravel the depths of ancient Maya culture?

“Maya archaeology, Mesoamerican archaeology, I wouldn’t say it’s in its infancy,” Dr. Thomas replied. “We’ve been doing this now since the late 1800s, but really systematically with scientific methodology since probably the early 1900s.

“I think we know a huge amount about the ancient people of the Mesoamerican region.

“Some things we [once] had no idea about we know a lot about now: about settlement patterns, about construction techniques, about trade networks, linguistics. So I wouldn’t say that the discipline of Mesoamerican archaeology is in its infancy, but certainly there’s a ton more to find.”

But, he added, “[s]ome of it will never be discovered because it’s under modern construction.”

Dr. Thomas spent time in Guatemala during his grad school years, but his dissertation fieldwork took place in Belize.  He was part of a group at Boston University called XARP, the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.  The Mayan ‘x’ is pronounced ‘sh’; hence, XARP is pronounced: sharp.  Xibun is another way of spelling ‘Sibun,’ the name of both a river and an area in central Belize.

 

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Map of Belize by Poligrafistka, Getty Images.

 

“When we were looking to do our research–to pick a new area,” he explained, “[the Sibun region] was very attractive to us because so much of it was not really understood.”

Part of the reason may have been due to the Sibun River’s frequent flooding; part of it may have been how inaccessible the area was—miles upon miles of dense jungle.

Looking at the sheer scale of the area, the massive distance on either side of this river, and seeing pictures of the dense brush and tree cover of the jungle, the task of finding anything remotely recognizable as an artifact from the Maya seemed insurmountable.

As Dr. Thomas had mentioned, “The organic material is gone, especially in Belize and the tropics in general in that area because it’s so hot and humid. And the soil is acidic. Organic materials do not preserve well.”

Absent enormous stone structures, how would anyone know where to even begin to look for ancient remnants?  Surely, they could be anywhere, and this was not an enormous team of archaeologists, equipped with technology like LiDAR to help them locate buried ruins.

The answer?

“We did a lot of research: looking at everything that was published about the area, we interviewed landowners, we talked to local people to get an idea of what they had seen on their property, we looked at all the maps and the geological surveys that had been done for Belize.

“Because of all the research we’d done, we [had a better understanding of] Maya settlement patterns. All of the studies would say, [for example], 70% of the Maya settlements are within a kilometer of a river.  There are things that you can look at to sort of try to set up a predictive model of where Maya sites would be.”

Xibun Archaeological Research Project - surveyor setting up the Total Station

Setting up a survey in the jungles of Belize. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

“The big thing I always tell people is that if it’s good for us to live there today, then it was good for [ancient people], unless something bad and really drastic has happened. [Generally speaking,] if there’s a good water source, plenty of good land for agriculture, food sources—whether it’s animal or plant—and some raw materials, that’s where people lived.”

“We had people walking through the jungle looking for things. And what you’re looking for is clusters of artifacts and features, but sometimes they’re so overgrown that you may not see them.”

“We had machetes, and we used them to clear as we were walking along.”

Despite this, I still couldn’t understand how Maya ruins—the soft limestone of their structures eroded over the centuries—could be found in such conditions.

“[When it comes to finding the archaeologically important mounds,],” he said, “you realize you’re walking uphill. Or, you know, you might be able to see [them directly.] After a while you get kind of used to it, how the land should look and what you’re seeing.”

Xibun Archaeological Research Project - walking over a pyramid that has been completely obscured by vegetation

Walking over a pyramid that has been completely obscured by vegetation in Belize. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

XARP - same pyramid that we were walking over after we cleared off the vegetation

The very same area as in the photograph above, but cleared of all vegetation, revealing the remnants of an ancient Maya pyramid. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

Images of dense jungle immediately brought another concern to mind: snakes.

Dr. Thomas smiled. “Snakes [were] an issue. Scorpions. But the things that [were] really, really annoying [were] the bugs: mosquitoes, ticks.”

Eventually, the XARP team sought answers to four questions about the Maya in the Sibun:

  1. What was the nature of Maya settlement along the river?
  2. What was the role of cacao in the Sibun and could we find evidence of ancient Maya cacao production?
  3. What was the effect of Christianity on the Sibun and could we find the visita mentioned in the Spanish records?
  4. How were the caves used?

Unfortunately, they were unable to find evidence of ancient cacao production.  Part of the issue was not knowing what, exactly, to look for.  How does one find remnants of ancient orchards?  And after years of modern cacao growth in Belize, in which hybrid cacao has been introduced, what does ancient cacao even look like?  Other clues to cacao production—the ceramics involved in drinking cacao, for example—would have provided evidence, but these could not be found.

 

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 Cacao pods; image courtesy of nullplus, Getty Images.

Caption from Getty Images: Cacao Plant with Fruit (Theobroma cacao). Maya are generally given credit for creating the first modern chocolate beverage. They ground cocoa seeds into a paste, and mixed it with water, cornmeal, chile peppers, and other ingredients. Photo courtesy of SPrada, Getty Images.

 

Their quest to find a visita, a Christian church built by Spanish conquerors, was also unsuccessful.  In the 1500s, Spanish overseers known as encomanderos were each given pieces of land (encomiendas) to use as they saw fit.  Visitas were built on this land to further Christianize the local people.

Because the Maya did not employ metal, anything made out of this substance would indicate a colonial presence. They may not have found a visita, but the team did find remnants of colonialists in the form of clay pipes, lead shot, a rusted knife, and gun flint.

“Before we started all this, we knew of 3 sites,” he explained, referring to the only known Maya sites in the Sibun region by the 1990s, one of which is on land owned by the Hershey Corporation.

Ben Thomas - Excavation in progress at another site along the Sibun

Excavating along the Sibun River. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

Ben Thomas - excavation 1

Ben Thomas - excavation 2

Ben Thomas - excavation 3

Ben Thomas - excavation 4

Ben Thomas - excavation 5

Stages of excavation. Photos courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project. Samuel Oshon–upon whose property these excavations were conducted–remembers seeing Charles Lindberg fly over his land!

 

“By the end of it, we had 22 sites, [19 of which we had discovered.] And we had mapped and explored about 18 caves in quite a bit of detail.”

Caves were, and continue to be, a particularly sacred place to the Maya.  They are, among other things, believed to be connected to Xibalba, the Maya Underworld, which was both feared and revered in equal measures.

Ben Thomas - cave

Photo of XARP exploring a cave, courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

“They were bringing things in [to the caves],” Dr. Thomas said of their discoveries in local caves. “So you find pots with the remains of food. But then some of [the pots], they’re upside down, and they had holes in them. They were doing something else with them.”

 

Ben Thomas - cave ceramics

Ancient Maya ceramics in a cave. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

 

A particularly significant artifact located in the caves were metates—the stone tools used to grind maize, perhaps the most important crop throughout the Maya universe.

“But those things are heavy!” he emphasized of the metates. “These things can weigh 40 – 60 pounds. It’s solid stone. And there [are] several of them.”

Ben Thomas - cave ceramics and metate

Photo inside a cave with ceramics and metate (grindstone) on the right courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

 

He described not only how difficult it was to get to, but then enter one particular cave.

“The fact that they’re bringing [metates] in there, [when] it’s not easy to do, I think it does speak to the importance of the rituals.  They’re willing to invest the time and the energy for these rituals.”

“But they’re also taking things out! We noticed on the sites [outside of these caves that] they would have stalactites or stalagmites, [sometimes] on the house floors, sometimes they’d be in burials.

“We think of a cave as a sacred space with spiritual energy [so], I think, taking something from there would have that spiritual energy connected to [it].”

“People still do it,” he said, referencing relics in many of today’s Christian churches, in which the bones of saints are enshrined.

Dr. Thomas and I had been conversing for well over an hour at this point.

“[Archaeology],” he concluded, “[is really] a database of human behavior, starting from thousands of years ago to now. We’re chronicling it: how people behaved, how they reacted to things.  A lot of times the collapse of societies is brought on [by events such as] climate change,  [for example; or] it’s brought on by overexploitation of natural resources; [or by] people not adjusting or adapting to their circumstances.  [Those are] all data-points that we have that people should be looking at. What are we doing to our environment now? How are we reacting to things now?”

“Because in some ways, none of this is new. I think what has changed now is the scale of things.”

*********************

I extend an enormous THANK YOU to Dr. Ben Thomas.  Not only was it a great honor and pleasure speaking with him for such an extended period of time, but it was no small task to find time in his extraordinarily busy schedule.  He helped pave the way for my increased interest and enthusiasm for the Maya culture. I am very grateful!
A huge THANK YOU to Caitlin Davis for connecting me to Dr. Thomas!

References:

  1. “A Forest of Kings”, by Linda Schele and David Freidel, William Morrow and Co., 1990
  2. “Breaking the Maya Code”, by Michael D. Coe, Thames and Hudson, 1992
  3. “Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World”, by Lynn V. Foster, Facts on File, Inc., 2002

 

Image of Palenque, a Maya city-state in Chiapas, Mexico; courtesy Getty Images.

Dr. Ben Thomas: (Part 1) International Archaeology Day

“I think the main thing about archaeology is that people love the idea of discovery,” Dr. Thomas mused.

“The thrill of discovery,” he amended.

I sat across from him in his corner of the office, an ocean of research and paperwork between us.

Our conversation proceeded to the symphony of phones ringing and professional conversations throughout the room: the soundtrack to daily work in most offices. Traffic—constant and, at times, unruly—was a barely muted cacophony just outside the nearest window.

But all other noise seemed inconsequential when he spoke.  It wasn’t just the content of his words and how quickly they drew me in, it was also the cadence, the honey-soaked lilt, the music of his voice. I didn’t realize English could sound so lovely.  Listening to him brought my favorite language to mind and for one of the very reasons it is a favorite.  In French, the words of a sentence are pronounced fluidly in one beautiful linguistic stream. And this is exactly how he speaks.

We were discussing archaeology in general, his work at the AIA, the ideas behind the annual Archaeology Fair in Boston, and his fieldwork in Belize.

Dr. Ben Thomas - AIA 5.6.15

Image of Dr. Ben Thomas at his desk in the AIA office, Boston; taken by the author

 

It was an absolutely gorgeous Spring day in Boston.  Against a cloudless blue sky, the streets were lined with pink and white cherry blossoms, the kind that dance like confetti whenever a breeze tickles the branches.

Dr. Thomas and I had been trying to connect for quite some time, our schedules finally meeting in the middle of the week.  With the address in my mind, I scanned the brick homes and then the commercial buildings for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), where Dr. Ben Thomas works as Director of Programs.

The AIA may have loomed largely in my mind, but it is housed discreetly on the 6th floor of a building owned by Boston University.  And it was there that I learned how one of the most exciting annual archaeological events came to fruition.

It started with Jane Waldbaum, one of the AIA’s governing board members, later the AIA President, who organized a family-friendly fair at the AIA’s annual meetings.  These meetings—like those of other large scientific organizations—are held at a different location each year, and they are geared toward professionals in the field.  The fair was a way of including the general public.

Dr. Thomas and his staff took that idea several steps further.

They brainstormed how to bring archaeology to more people, how to create a positive event—something that would engage a wider audience, not just the occasional announcement of a huge discovery and not in reaction to negative impacts within the field: looting, theft, vandalism.

“We wanted an event that said: ‘This is something that’s worth celebrating: our past, our culture, our cultural heritage, archaeology itself.’”

So they created National Archaeology Day.  There was no fee attached, there was no agenda. Any group could celebrate it and create its own set of events.  The idea was simply to highlight archaeology in all of its forms.

Meanwhile, he called Mike Adams, Outreach Manager at the Museum of Science Boston, and together they created the Archaeology Fair, now held each October at the museum.

“We wanted to tell people that archaeology can be local,” Dr. Thomas explained. “You don’t have to go to Egypt to experience archaeology; you can experience it in your own community. There’s always something going on.”

And, he continued, “[w]e wanted people to connect with each other, especially professionals and laypeople.”

The fair succeeds on both counts.  Thousands of people attend the event in Boston each year.  Tables of archaeological artifacts and archaeologists are dispersed in multiple areas throughout the museum. The day is filled with panel events and guest speakers, and anyone can ask any archaeologist questions about their work. While archaeologists who work in Egypt are often present, most of the fair consists of New England archaeologists who work in the area.  It is now in its 10th year.

mos - arch - welcome sign

mos - arch - arch tool kit leveillee

mos - arch - native american tools

 

mos - arch - fried mealworm - voelkel

Images of the Archaeology Fair at the Museum of Science Boston in 2013; taken by the author

 

Another goal of the fair is to clarify what archaeology actually entails, a confusion that persists today with paleontology.  Often, the two distinctly different fields are believed to be one and the same, when, in fact, archaeology revolves around ancient people and their artifacts; paleontology studies extinct creatures—those that are not human.

“[The general public appears to have] great enthusiasm for archaeology,” said Dr. Thomas.  “But there’s also a lot of misunderstanding about what archaeology is and what archaeologists do. For a lot of people, [archaeology is] just about finding stuff.

“We try to emphasize the fact that the ‘stuff’ is just the means to an end. I mean, ultimately, what we’re trying to study is human behavior: what these people did, where they lived, how they behaved, what they ate, how they interacted with each other.  And the artifacts are just the clues.

“It’s: Why? Who? When? How? Those are the things that we’re trying to get to.

“Finding things is just the first step. I shouldn’t say the first step; it’s the middle step, because you’ve already done a ton of research, you know why you are looking for something where you’re looking, and then, when you find it, you have to figure out what it means.

“What it means, I think, is the most fascinating, although not the most visibly glamorous, because you’re in a library somewhere doing research and typing up reports on the lab.”

National Archaeology day quickly transformed into International Archaeology Day—a reflection of its popularity well outside US borders.  The number of organizations that supported and celebrated it surprised everyone at the AIA.  Sponsors of the day now include the National Park Service and National Marine Sanctuaries.

International Archaeology Day 2015

International Archaeology Day 2015, screenshot from the AIA website

******************

You can find local events for this upcoming International Archaeology Day in October here: https://www.archaeological.org/archaeologyday/events

Previous posts about the Archaeology Fair in Boston:

  1. Caitlin Davis: Mayan epigraphy: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-caitlin-davis/
  2. Archaeology for Kids: Dig Magazine: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/archaeology-for-kids-dig-magazine/
  3. Origin of the Boston Archaeology Fair: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/boston-archeology-fair-its-origins-through-the-archaeological-institute-of-america/
  4. Marine Archaeology: Matthew Lawrence at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-matthew-lawrence/
  5. Dr. George Mutter: Ancient Egypt in 3D Photographs: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-dr-george-mutter-egyptian-images-in-3d/
  6. Alan Leveillee: Cultural Resource Management: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-alan-leveillee/

Before Porcelain Came To Pompeii: A Tale of Toilets (and Sanitation) in Ancient Rome

Here is something I never learned when researching the Dead Sea Scrolls for an exhibit: the toilet habits of an Essene sect from the first century BCE.  They are apparently described in two different sources: one of the Temple Scrolls (11QT) and from Flavius Josephus, an ancient historian.

Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, archaeologist and professor at Brandeis University, mentions them while comparing the sanitation records of other by-gone cultures in her latest book.

No such detailed records yet exist for ancient Roman society, but for Dr. Koloski-Ostrow, this is not a deterrent.

Using ancient literature, Roman graffiti, artwork, and the structures themselves, she pieces together an intimate and unique portrait of Ostia, Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ancient Rome during the 3rd century BCE through the 2nd century CE.

The mere existence of sewers and aqueducts might lead one to believe that the engineers of Ancient Rome were millenia ahead of the rest of the world in terms of cleanliness.

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[[Image courtesy Getty Images, the ancient roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard in France. It crosses the Gardon River in the Gard département of southern France. It was built in the first century CE and is an UNESCO world heritage site. The author of this blog was delighted (and awed) to walk across the top of it years ago.]]

The evidence seems to point in that direction, especially given that public toilets were built in many Roman cities.  Ancient Rome itself had latrines designed for 47 – 60 people in a row.

But do these structures actually indicate what we, in the 21st century, might assume about their function and purpose?

This is one of the many questions asked by Dr. Koloski-Ostrow in “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems,” released this past April by the University of North Carolina Press.

Archaeology of Ancient Sanitation

 

[[Image of the book cover, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems,” courtesy of UNC Press]]

In it, she focuses on a largely ignored part of ancient life, a subject that most people today might, quite frankly, find slightly repugnant.

Since 1992, prompted by the remark of a colleague into how little has been done with this topic, Dr. Koloski-Ostrow has been researching the structures related to toilets within Ancient Roman sites.

“Roman toilets, sewers, and drains are important archaeological features that embody ideas relevant to Roman society about cleanliness, physical health, concepts of beauty, and even notions of privacy.  If toilets are excavated properly, they can provide valuable data even about the diet and socioeconomic status of users, divisions between households where they are found, construction methods and maintenance.  While the understanding that outhouse archaeology is significant has made major strides in nineteenth-century American historical circles, this perception has been slow to affect the archaeology of the Roman world.  Part of the problem, of course, is that many Roman toilets and latrines were excavated more than a hundred years ago, as the science of archaeology was developing.  As a result, no one was taking much care to stratify dung piles, to sort garbage from house toilets, or to remove privy deposits.   These early excavations sought the greatest art treasures, which were unlikely to be found in toilets.” –pg. 38, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Surprisingly, this is not a discussion of artifacts found within sewers (although certainly this work has been done by other people).  Rather, this is an intriguing tour through an ancient society at-large, viewed from the perspective of urban design.

She attributes two theories as major influences upon her work: formation processes and the social theory of architectural design.  Viewed from these lenses—in which human behavior and decisions are tantamount–sanitation and its related structures become a fascinating puzzle to decipher.

The social theory of architectural design encourages one to ponder the motivation behind the building and location of an archaeological find. Why, for example, were many private toilets in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia positioned in or near the kitchen?  What decisions were made to include or not include windows in public latrines?  And therefore, was odor a concern in either of these cases?  When sewers were available, and no laws existed to prevent builders to connect to these sewers in town, why were so many private homes still using cesspit toilets? (More on this subject below.)

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[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, a street in Pompeii. Notice the raised stones.  This enabled citizens to cross the street and not get their sandals wet or dirty–from both water run-off and potential toilet refuse from those homes that connected their toilets to the street….]]

 

Formation processes, as its name suggests, focuses on the reasons behind “construction, use and ultimate abandonment” of archaeological features.

Aside from chamber pots, wealthy Roman citizens eventually had either cesspit toilets or toilets connected to city sewers within the home.

Not so for the general public.

“We know…that elite attitudes toward the masses and their living conditions were, at best, dismissive and, at worst, callous.” –pg. 75, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Within the crowded tenements of Ancient Rome, multi-storied buildings had shared latrines, if any at all.  Some were located on the ground floor; some, surprisingly, were constructed on higher levels.

And here we arrive at latrines.

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow believes the term “latrina” meant a public toilet in the 3rd century BCE.   The later word “forica” (“foricae” in plural) referred to multi-seat public toilets.  As already mentioned, the Largo Argentina in Ancient Rome provided seating for 47 people in one latrine; up to 60 people in another larger latrine constructed in the following century. Public latrines were not always part of Roman cities, and Dr. Koloski-Ostrow wonders whether these may have originally been built as a practicality: a way to keep human refuse out of city property, rather than a concern for human needs.

There were no apparent stalls or partitions.  A latrine consisted of either wooden or marble benches, and the holes were placed at the same distance from each other (with variations of just centimeters) throughout the centuries.  They were generally constructed over a main sewer branch.

 

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[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, sea sponges.  Ancient Romans are believed to have used such sponges on the end of a stick as toilet paper.]]

 

The windows, at least in early latrines, were small and built high up into the wall; she describes these facilities as “grim, dark and dirty.”

And she ponders who frequented them, whether social status mattered in their use.

“Another knotty question frequently asked about latrines is whether men and women used them simultaneously.  We might also ask if women used them at all.  The best response is probably not to seek a definitive answer, but to accept the fact that in all likelihood mixed latrine use varied from region to region or even from establishment to establishment, and certainly from country to city.  Personal choice must have played a role, and there were both prudes and perverts afoot in Roman life.  Chances are that if women entered a latrine on occasion, they were women of the lowest social order, enjoying the use of a public facility, a privilege that was rarely otherwise afforded them by the Roman city administration.” –pg. 31, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy”

When I asked what alternative a woman might have had, she responded by email, that it “is very related to the hierarchical nature of all of Roman society.”

“Women of high social status,” she continued, “would not have entered a dark, dank public facility any more than a man of high social status would.”

“First of all, women of high social status did not tend to be out and about in the Roman city during the day.  Their slaves and freedwomen would have done the necessary errands and shopping for these high status women.

“If a woman of low status (slave or freedwoman) were out of the house and needed to use a toilet, she may have stepped into a public latrine, but I’m guessing that she would have thought twice about it—given worries of robbery or assault.  Such places were convenient, like nasty toilets in the New York subways, for unsavory types to lie in wait.  So, women (low status) would have done their business outside the house and then rushed back home.  In the home were chamber pots and cesspit toilets for their needs.  You can see that I cannot prove any of this, but I have outlined whatever evidence I was able to find in the sources.”

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow relied on ancient writers to help give her a sense of what import, if any, sanitation played on cultural perspectives of the time.

[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, bathing hall, Pompeii.]]

Praise for the Cloaca Maxima—the Great Sewer of Rome—can be found in Pliny the Elder, Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Strabo (a Greek geographer) and Vitruvius (himself an architect), among others.  But, she notes, these writers ultimately focus on water as a vehicle for cleanliness.

Discussing this sewer in the ancient city of Rome itself and its connection to the Tiber River, Dr. Koloski-Ostrow makes an important distinction between what we today consider “hygienic” and the possible ancient ideal of visible “cleanliness.”

“The Great Sewer undoubtedly did drain off into the Tiber excess street water, mud, animal dung, and other refuse that would have otherwise cluttered urban vistas, but I am unwilling to view it as part of a Roman sanitary revolution, despite the fact that the concept of ‘health’ and the sewer are closely interrelated…A truly important interrelationship to note is that between water and its potential to clean, to refresh, and to inspire economic growth, urban development, and industry.  The sewers did the job of moving stagnant and polluted water from where it was not wanted in the urban environment to someplace else.  Another way to see this is to say that the sewer—assuming it was not hopelessly blocked—moved dirty water from where it hindered cleanliness, economic growth, development and industry.

“As Romanized cities spread across the Mediterranean, the hydraulic technology, time, and expense that were necessary to lay underground sewers surely rivaled the effort required for all other parts of the urban infrastructure, including construction of multistory apartment buildings, streets, and aqueducts.  Just as networks of pipes were necessary for bringing clean water to fountains, public baths, and private houses, in many Roman cities sewer systems were there to take it away.  Connections between these aquatic underground networks and concrete concepts of hygiene, as we would understand them, really do not exist. The most we can say is that the Romans seemed to define hygiene as the removal of visible dirt.” –pg. 66, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

Remember, germ theory is a relatively recent phenomenon.   We might take for granted knowledge of microbes and their potential for disease, but this was not a solid connection in earlier human history.  This is not to say that ancient cultures were not clean (although by today’s standards, this might be debated), nor that refuse in all of its forms was not something they wanted to remove, but—as Dr. Koloski-Ostrow asserts throughout her book—it is a mistake to project 21st century understanding onto ancient structures.

From 1683 when Holland’s Anthony van Leeuwenhoek saw “small living animals” in his microscope to the late 19th century when France’s Louis Pasteur and Germany’s Robert Koch gave us concrete evidence of germs and disease, we have only just recently made this connection.

Sewers, in today’s mind, are a way to help keep disease out of our living arrangements.  We equate sewers with toilets, filth, and the often out-of-sight water treatment facilities that take care of the sewer contents.

“I want my readers to understand that having the ‘equipment’ to remove urine and excrement (sewers and latrines and house toilets) does not automatically translate to strong ideals of cleanliness and hygiene,” Dr. Koloski-Ostrow wrote.

When asked whether this was a controversial assertion in archaeological circles, she responded, “The scholarship on matters of filth in the Roman city have gone back and forth over the years. (‘Romans were clean freaks’ or ‘Romans were filthy, lice and stench ridden creatures.’)”

“…I’d rather say about it that my work will cause more discussion on the topic (rather than being radically ‘controversial,’) and I just hope that in the book I’ve provided enough careful research to show the complexity and richness of the topic.”

Bocca della Verita - Cosmedin

 

[[Above, Franco Sgariglia and Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow pose with their hands in the Bocca della Verità–the ‘mouth of truth’– in Rome, Italy.* (*Thank you to the person who corrected my original statement that it was in Cosmedin; not, in fact, a city in Italy!) Situated outside the Church of Santa Maria, brides and grooms place their hands in its mouth and say their vows.  It is believed that  this mouth will shut on anyone who does not tell the truth.  But Dr. Koloski-Ostrow, after studying the water wear on its face–determining that water flowed into rather than out of its openings like a fountain piece–believes that this stone piece was actually once a sewer cover!]]

[[Image from THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF SANITATION IN ROMAN ITALY: TOILETS, SEWERS, AND WATER SYSTEMS by Ann Koloski-Ostrow. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu]]

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[[Another image of the Bocca, from Getty Images]]

And certainly, she has done so.  Along with providing the reader new perspectives on what might have occurred in ancient construction, she describes fascinating anecdotes and possibilities.

As mentioned earlier, many private city toilets were cesspit toilets—something that some unfortunate person had to constantly empty when full—instead of simply connecting to the city sewer system that would carry all refuse away.

Why?

Consider two things: frequent flooding and the lack of systems to prevent methane and hydrogen sulphide gas build-up. Now consider what this means: in the case of flooding, unfortunate back-flow from the sewer right into homes.  And in the case of gases, the potential for frequent (and perhaps inexplicable?) explosions.

Dr. Koloski-Ostrow mentions how many archaeologists, from the first Pompeii dig to the present, were unwilling to focus on any of these ancient structures.  But this continues to be an unseemly topic for many people to openly discuss, in scholarly or other circles.

She prefaces her book with this concern.

“At times I have had my own fears either that everyone would gradually abandon me on account of my fascinations for the underside, or worse, that I would be known in scholarly circles as ‘Koloski-Ostrow on the toilet,’ which, it seems has happened.” – pg. xv, Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, “The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy

And while she describes the overwhelming support she’s received over the years from colleagues and friends, I still wondered how people react to her research now.

“Well,” she wrote, “I’d say that people snicker when they first hear about it.  When I explain, however, that I do not ‘just’ research Roman toilets and sewers, but the ancient technologies of water supply and distribution, urban infrastructure, ancient plumbing, and the social ideas that accompanied these topics, those snickers usually turn to rapt attention and interest.”

“I do not consider the work ‘trivial,’ but a serious new probe into the realities of life in the ancient Roman city.  My readers seem to agree after they engage with the research too.”

It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking read, written for those who are familiar with ancient Roman history, but readable for those who are not.

In response to whether she was surprised by anything she discovered, she answered, “I guess I was most surprised by how much work was necessary to do before I could sit down to put it all together—studying the archaeology on the ground at so many ancient sites, reading and assessing ancient Roman graffiti, and searching such a wide variety of classical texts (ranging over two to three hundred years of Roman writers) and analyzing Roman wall paintings.”

“It was a labor of love,” she concluded, “but a labor, nevertheless.”

———————-

For more fascinating details about ancient sanitation, including murders and bodies thrown into the sewers, please buy and read the book!

An enormous and sincere THANK YOU to Dr. Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow for her time; her open, generous and fascinating responses to my questions–especially in the midst of an incredible work-load on her part–and her graciousness in enabling me to use so many quotes from her book!  I am so grateful that she took the time to contact me directly. It was a great honor and pleasure connecting with her!  I look forward to reading her upcoming book, Pompeii and Herculaneum: Roman Daily Life in the Shadow of Vesuvius through Cambridge University Press.

Many, many thanks to Regina Mahalek and Matthew Somoroff at UNC Press for both connecting me with Dr. Koloski-Ostrow and for the pictures provided.

A big thank you to Colleen, the brilliant mind behind this post’s title. I am not good with titles; the original was a bit of a bore.  Thank you (coupled with a smile and a roll of the eyes) for the many ‘helpful’ titles offered by friends and family.

FULL DISCLOSURE: the author of this blog read an article about Dr. Koloski-Ostrow’s work in 2014, then requested and received a review copy of this book in 2015. I am profoundly grateful to the UNC Press for that book, as I thoroughly enjoyed it!

 

References:

  • The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers and Water Systems, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, University of North Carolina Press, 2015
  • Handbook to life in Ancient Rome, Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, Facts on File Inc., 1994
  • The Discovery of the Germ: Twenty Years That Transformed the Way We Think About Disease, John Waller, Columbia University Press, 2002
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[[Image courtesy of Getty Images, buildings of Pompeii situated below the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius]]

Dr. Brooke Crowley – Secrets Revealed from Mammoths & Mastodons in the Cincinnati Region

It may seem unlikely to uncover details about what an animal ate thousands of years after its extinction, absent of so much of the flora and fauna that co-existed with that animal.

It might seem even more improbable to illicit that information from fossilized teeth alone.

And yet, this is exactly what Dr. Brooke Crowley and Eric Baumann of the University of Cincinnati have done.

Brooke and Eric Baumann on Kardung La

[image of Eric Baumann and Dr. Brooke Crowley on Khardung La, India; courtesy of Dr. Crowley)

They sampled molars from eight different mammoths and four mastodons, each with a known provenance in the Cincinnati region. Analyzing stable isotopes within each tooth provided information not only about each animal’s diet, but also its habitat.

“Isotopes in our tissues,” Dr. Crowley, Assistant Professor of Quaternary Paleoecology, explained in a phone interview, “are environmental integrators.”

“What we like to say is that isotope values in an animal’s tissues can tell you something about its life. That could be the diet, it could be the environment the animal inhabits, or, in the case of strontium, it could be the actual locality where it lives.”

Over the past 30 years, studying stable isotopes has become an increasingly popular method of understanding both paleontological and archaeological finds in more depth.

These chemical signatures reveal details incorporated within the body over its lifetime and remain in its bones past its death. In other words, what one eats and drinks leave traces of elements that point back to that very same diet and to the region from which one drank water. That organic material has footprints, and scientists—using mass spectrometers and other types of analysis—can read and interpret them.

Remarkably, these chemical footprints remain, even after thousands upon thousands of years. And teeth, with their sturdy crystalline structure, seem to offer reliable stable isotope data.

Dr. Crowley and recent graduate Eric Baumann described their research in a paper to be published in Boreas. Carbon isotopes revealed broad information about what these twelve proboscideans ate; strontium and oxygen isotopes uncovered the region and climate in which these animals lived.

They began their research expecting to uncover that the two species were nomadic, that their teeth were discovered in areas geographically distant from their place of origin. They also expected that mammoths and mastodons ate different types of vegetation.

While their research confirmed the different diet, it provided surprising results for habitat: with the exception of one mastodon, all of these animals actually lived and remained within the Cincinnati region.

In response to why they originally thought these animals might be nomadic, Dr. Crowley pointed to the behavior of existing species.

“Most large animals aren’t sedentary.”

“In general,” she explained, “big creatures move a fair amount; they have large stomachs and they eat a lot of food. And there may be different reasons for moving. It could be a dietary need, it could be there’s some particular nutrient in the soil that they want from time-to-time, or there may be a particular region they like for birthing or mating.”

We see this today in humpback, gray and blue whale populations on either side of the North American continent, migrating from warmer regions in the ocean to colder regions thousands of miles north.

“African elephants, in particular, are typically very destructive by nature. They are what we call ‘environmental engineers.’ Their behavior changes the environment around them.”

Perhaps the most notable affect elephants leave in their wake are the trees they knock down. Consider, too, that elephants eat 160 – 300+ pounds of vegetation a day per elephant.

“[T]hey heavily modify an area. Then they move and modify another area. And they typically have pretty large home ranges. Some populations seasonally migrate from one place to another; others are just more continuously on the move.”

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But, she cautions, “we can’t necessarily use that information to interpret the behavior of extinct species. They’re not necessarily that closely related. But it is something we have to go on.”

In their research, the authors include data from water samples taken from rivers and creeks in Ohio and Kentucky.

What, one might wonder, do modern-day water samples have to do with ancient teeth and their composition?

Strontium within water reflects the geology from which it came. This information is stored within teeth, thereby leaving yet more footprints the scientists can interpret.

Of the types of isotopes analyzed, Dr. Crowley explained that “[a] lot more work has been conducted on carbon and oxygen. So we didn’t really need to establish a local baseline for either of those two isotopes. But strontium’s a little less studied, and we didn’t know what sort of regional variability to expect.

“Without any comparative baseline, it’s hard to interpret what strontium in the animals might mean. We could say, ‘well, they’re all really similar’, but if we didn’t really know what to expect for this region, we wouldn’t know if they’re similar to the region or if all of those animals may have come from somewhere else. So we needed to establish a local baseline.”

In other words, they needed to understand the chemical signatures within local water in order to see if they matched the chemical signatures within these teeth.

“[This is] the first step,” she continued, “in what will hopefully be a long-term research direction: thinking about North American fauna and ecological change over time here on our own continent.”

When asked if this meant she would study other extinct animals or continue researching mammoths and mastodons, her response was “potentially both.”

“Currently I’m [working on a] project using strontium isotopes to look in a little more depth at particular individuals.”

Brooke and a bison scapula

[image of Dr. Brooke Crowley with a bison scapula; courtesy of Dr. Crowley]

She referenced a mastodon from Michigan as an example.

“[W]e’ve sampled little increments of his tusk to see how he moved during his lifetime.”

“One drawback of teeth,” she mentioned, “is that they just give you a relatively brief snapshot in time, whereas a tusk gives you a continuous record of an individual’s life.”

But she is equally interested in what she described as “big-scale patterns” of behavior across various species. And in this research, ‘behavior’ refers to details about their diet, and whether specific species roamed or remained in a specific region.

“If there is any living taxa that we could sample,” she added, “it would be interesting to see how they may have changed, even if they didn’t go extinct.”

“There’s interesting work that’s been done,” she said, referring to research of one of her colleagues, “[regarding the origins of] fossil deposits that indicates mastodons may have retreated to a particular part of the United States just before the Terminal Pleistocene.”

The Pleistocene is a period of time on earth that dates from about 2 million years ago through about 11-10, 000 years ago. The ‘Terminal Pleistocene’ refers to an extinction event within this period.

“Prior to the Terminal Pleistocene, they were found all over the United States. At the Terminal Pleistocene, they’re only found in a little tiny patch of the United States. Something affected their distribution. And I call it ‘retreat’ because it’s a much smaller distribution than they had before.

“By analyzing isotopes in bones and teeth, we would potentially be able to build off of these fossil distributions to paint a more interesting ecological picture of the Terminal Pleistocene.”

Painting more interesting ecological pictures is a strong focus of Dr. Crowley’s work. A scientist who has travelled extensively throughout the world, her research has taken her to the Canary Islands, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Madagascar. Reading her blog and her website, one recognizes a distinct fondness for the aforementioned African country.

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When asked if Madagascar was where her heart was, she responded, “In many ways, yes. Part of that is that I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy into learning a lot about it. So, now I’m invested.”

“There are certainly conservation issues in our own country,” she continued, “but there are other places–and Madagascar is one of them–where there’s a real need to try to make some changes happen now for future conservation and biodiversity management.”

“Up until recently, the recent past of Madagascar was rather understudied. It turns out that there are a lot of interesting questions that are still unanswered.”

Her website, Agoraphotia.com, describes her specific interests:

I investigate ecological interactions among living and recently extinct animals using stable isotope biogeochemistry. My interests include niche partitioning, conservation biology, and paleoecology. I am particularly interested in the causes and consequences of recent extinctions, and the ecological repercussions of habitat fragmentation and degradation.

She has studied fossilized rodents, lemurs and orangutans; she has researched climate change; she has studied plants and soil.

She lists research projects in which she has been involved:

•Assessing the utility of stable oxygen isotopes in distinguishing dietary niches.

•Distinguishing isotopic niches of fossil rodents in the Dominican Republic.

•Establishing the stable isotope ecology of modern and Prehistoric Trinidad.

•Exploring ecological change following human settlement on the Canary Islands.

•Identifying responses of the animal community to climate change and human impacts in Madagascar.

•Quantifying spatial variability in bioavailable strontium and assessing changes in mobility patterns of extinct and extant North American megafauna.

Prior to the University of Cincinnati, she lectured at the University of Toronto and volunteered at the Royal Ontario Museum in the OWLS (Open the World of Learning to Students) program.

She describes herself as “a relatively new professor in Cincinnati”, one who actively works to try and include students into her research projects. In this, she feels she has been successful, as she has had a number of students involved in her postdoctoral and graduate research and currently has students working with her in the lab.

The study of proboscidean teeth that lead to the paper to be published in Boreas was, she said, “originally designed to be a student project.”

Given her vast and varied experience, one might wonder why the focus was extinct North American fauna.

Explaining that most of her students are either from Ohio or the surrounding region, she said, “It’s a little more relevant for them to think about animals that lived in their backyard than animals that lived on the other side of the planet.”

This, too, is why they used teeth from the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, rather than the collections of other neighboring state museums.

Brooke in Madagascar2

[image of Dr. Crowley in Madagascar next to a sign that warns visitors that “Lake Ravelobe is forbidden” and that “Crocodiles attack”; courtesy of Dr. Crowley]

“Many of the reasons that I do what I do and that I am where I am is because of other people who have helped me along the way or inspired me. And really one of the biggest reasons that I wanted to go into academia in the first place was because I feel like I have been empowered in many ways to try to make a difference.

“And I feel like that’s something that I can share with others and then try to make a difference by empowering others and helping them find their way and be compassionate as well.

“So that’s sort of my goal.”

She chuckled. “I don’t know how much I have really met that goal, but I do try, and I’m still pretty new to being a professor. So, I’m finding my way. It’s a challenge, but it’s a good learning experience, and I find it to be pretty rewarding.”

Brooke on a promontory in Tenerife

[image of Dr. Crowley on a promontory in Tenerife, Canary Islands; courtesy of Dr. Crowley]

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A Mammuthus primigenius-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Brooke Crowley for her generous time, help and fascinating responses to my questions!  What a great honor to connect with her!

You can read the paper in Boreas, Stable isotopes reveal ecological differences amongst now-extinct proboscideans from the Cincinnati region, USA:  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bor.12091/abstract

I had a very difficult time grasping the concept of isotopes. This is due to my struggle with chemistry in general and not a reflection of the gracious people below who took the time to try to help me understand it.  I extend sincere thank you’s to:

  • Dr. Brooke Crowley
  • my dad
  • my sister-in-law who studies science
  • Dr. Suzanne Pilaar Birch (@suzie_birch)
  • Ariel Zych (@Arieloquent) and Science Friday (@scifri)

If you are interested in understanding more, here is further reading:

  1. Dr. Brooke Crowley, Stable Isotope Ecology: http://crowleyteaching.wordpress.com/courses/stable-isotope-ecology/
  2. Stable Isotopes in Zooarchaeology: http://sizwg.wordpress.com/bibliography/
  3. New insight from old bones: stable isotope analysis of fossil mammals, by Mark Clementz: http://www.mammalogy.org/articles/new-insight-old-bones-stable-isotope-analysis-fossil-mammals
  4. Applications of Stable Isotope Analysis, K. Kris Hirst: http://archaeology.about.com/od/stableisotopes/a/si_intro.htm

[Repost] Echoes of Egypt – Online Exhibit from Yale Peabody Museum

Last year, Dr. Colleen Manassa, William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Associate Professor of Egyptology at Yale University, and Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, Assistant Professor of Intellectual Heritage at Temple University, discussed their fascinating Egyptian exhibit.  It was, at that time, available to the public in both physical and online form.  The physical exhibit ended this past January, but one can view the artifacts and read remarkable details of their history and significance at any point online.

Below is a repost of the original piece, in honor of International Archaeology Day, October 18th.  Please be sure to check your local museums for events or follow @ArchaeologyDay on Twitter!

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We are fortunate to live in a time when we can travel great distances from the comforts of our home and see marvels to which most people in the not-too-distant past did not have access.  Documentaries and the internet, books and photographs—all of these mediums enable us to review what is currently known after centuries of archeological research in Egypt.

But imagine a time when the art and the wealth of ancient Egypt were not largely known, and imagine seeing it for the first time.

“Eygptomania”—the fascination of all things related to ancient Egypt—spread across Europe after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798.

Traveling with the French military leader at that time were both soldiers and scholars (“savants”), and it is thanks to the savants that ancient Egypt was introduced to the larger world.

Savants and soldiers alike were in awe of what they witnessed.

The savants’ drawings of ancient temples, obelisks and other sites were published in a tome entitled Description de l’Egypte.  These images, along with the artifacts they discovered, would inspire wonder and archeological research through the present day.

That is the story most people know.

But take several steps further and dive into the wide-reaching influence ancient Egypt has had, not just on Europe on the 18th and 19th centuries, but on the larger world through today.

“Egyptianizing”, explained Dr. Colleen Manassa, William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Associate Professor of Egyptology at Yale, “refers to Egyptian-inspired design that is also informed by contemporary iconography and style.”

And it is this theme that permeates Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharaohs, now on exhibit through January 2014 at the Yale Peabody Museum.

Echoes of Egypt online

The exhibit is the result of two and a half years of work and the collaboration of myriad scholars.  It combines ancient artifacts with more recent artifacts from all over the world.

“One key to understanding the many echoes of Egypt in other lands and cultures is to explore how an architectural image and other iconographic aspects of a culture can be transferred from one time and place to another.”– from http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

“I was phenomenally lucky,” wrote Dr. Manassa, curator of the exhibit, “that every object I wanted to include in the exhibition was successfully loaned.”

These objects are as diverse as they are remarkable. Visitors might be thrilled to view a page of hieroglyph translation from Jean-Francois Champollion (1824) or a plate of Esna North from Description de l’Egypte.  But one can also see objects such as a mantleclock with Sphinx and Obelisks from Tiffany’s (1885), an American political cartoon (1877), and an announcement for a mummy unwrapping in Boston (1850).

Also on display is a parchment leaf from Shenoute’s White Monastery, so named for the color of its walls.  The parchment is written in Coptic, Egyptian language written in the Coptic alphabet, and its date is estimated between the 7th-8th centuries CE.  According to Daniel Schriever, Yale PhD Candidate and the person who wrote the information about this piece on the website, Shenoute is “the most important author in the Coptic language.”

“The Dahesh Museum was particularly generous with its painting collection,” wrote Dr. Manassa.

Example of these, such as “The Temple of Karnak, The Great Hypostyle Hall” by Ernst Karl Eugen Koerner  and “Campfire by the River: Kiosk of Trajan at Philae” by Hermann-David Salomon Corrodi, transport the viewer not just to ancient Egypt but how people in the 19th century may have seen it.

“The engagement—and occasional obsession—with ancient Egypt and the adaptation of its concepts and imagery are not confined to the forms and contents of the pyramids, temples and tombs that have so awed tourists since classical times, but exist within the history of ideas.” – from http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

This is an extraordinary exhibit, not just in its breadth of knowledge, but also in its very unique generosity: it is accompanied by a website that details every item on display.

In other words, Echoes of Egypt is available to anyone anywhere.

“The website was designed to be a true ‘online exhibition,’” Dr. Manassa wrote, “in which every object is represented alongside detailed catalog text.”

Dr. Manassa credits Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, Assistant Professor of Intellectual Heritage at Temple University and the assistant curator, for the idea and the design behind the website.  It was thanks to the work of both Dr. Cunningham-Bryant and the Yale CMI2 Team, she said, that the website came to fruition.

“CMI2” refers to Yale’s Center for Media and Instructional Innovation.  When asked about this, Dr. Cunningham-Bryant explained that it is this team “that develops and integrates technology with classroom content, specifically in new web-based formats. Our whole web team, excluding myself, were staff from CMI2. They donated their time to the exhibit and were a tremendous resource to the entire exhibition.”

“For the online exhibit,” Dr. Cunningham-Bryant continued, “we knew we wanted the most complete and enduring version of the exhibit possible since it was only a temporary physical exhibition. The web team and I spent a lot of time working on how to make the most user-friendly interface that still held true to the exhibit’s organization and structure, and told the same story.”

Somewhat akin to discovering an ancient Egyptian tomb, the website offers treasures that astound, inform and excite.  The more one explores, the more one finds. The details offer a wealth of information one would not find otherwise without access to disparate and sometimes obscure reference material.

Enabling the user to pick-and-choose what she or he wishes to view, one can ‘walk’ through the exhibit at one’s own pace, at one’s own schedule, and as often as one wishes.

Related items are listed under each image.  And each item contains more information about its history and its relevance. Reference materials, should one wish to know more, are listed below the text.

Dr. Manassa explained that there is more information on the website than within the exhibit, but that “there are signs with numbers you can type into a smart phone that directly bring up the website for that particular object.  So there is also an integration of the physical exhibit and the website.”

“Colleen had already been in touch with the various authors for the material as they were collaborating on the exhibition catalog as well,” Dr. Cunningham-Bryant wrote in an email, “For the online exhibition, I asked each author to provide accompanying references that would be accessible and useful for understanding the specific piece/theme.”

One exceptionally well-documented piece is a manuscript written in 1751 from Iraq.

“I was particularly proud of the loan from Bibliothèque nationale de France of the Arabic manuscript by Ibn Wahshiyya,” stated Dr. Manassa, referencing this specific piece, “which has never before been seen in the United States.”

“Arabic attempts to translate hieroglyphs were not common,” she continued, “but their existence eight hundred years before Champollion, particularly the assigning of phonetic (rather than symbolic) values to the hieroglyphs is an important aspect of intellectual history and the reception of hieroglyphs that is not often told.”

This is exactly the type of surprising information one learns throughout the exhibit.

Dr. Isabel Toral-Niehoff, the author of the details about that manuscript, offers fascinating thoughts on research the non-Arabic-speaking world has yet to learn.

“Although some preliminary work has been constructed, the major number of Arabic manuscripts regarding aegyptiaca remain unpublished and unstudied, so that lamentably, there is no critical evaluation of the copious material available until now,” she writes on the exhibit’s website.

“…Okasha El-Daly insists that the Arabs made a serious contribution to the field of aegyptiaca and that their achievements are unjustly neglected by current—mainly European—scholarship. The most famous statement in this context…is El-Daly’s claim that a few Arab scholars were even able to interpret hieroglyphs correctly some 800 years before Champollion.”

Mummies—while not the highlight of this exhibit—are indeed included.  And the one human mummy on display is on loan from, of all places, the Barnum Museum, as she was originally obtained in Egypt by the widow of the famed circus owner.

The text for this artifact is intriguing, startling and informative.

Dr. Manassa and S.J. Wolfe, senior cataloguer and serials specialist at the American Antiquarian Society, introduce the reader to mummy unwrappings that took place in this country in the 1800s.  They describe, as one of the central characters to this type of event, George Gliddon—a man born in England, but who eventually lectured on Egyptology in the States. He subscribed to polygenesis, a “highly racially charged” idea that human races come from different origins.  And one that he and his father tried to help prove by collecting mummy skulls.

Gliddon obtained a mummy for an 1850 lecture in Boston, and apparently advertised the mummy as the “body of the daughter of a high priest of Thebes.” His promotional efforts paid off, and the event sold out.

But the event did not end successfully; in fact, Gliddon eventually fled to Philadelphia.

(One might find this particular story amusing, and this author leaves it to the reader to enjoy it in full: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/mummy-mania/unwrapped-egyptian-mummy-female-fragments-linen-wrapping)

Perhaps because of the diversity of the artifacts (from paintings and ancient artifacts from Egypt to movie posters and political cartoons), the exhibit lingers in the mind, prompting thought and wonder long after one has reviewed the website (or reviewed the physical objects).

“[T]his exhibit was a labor of love for all of those who worked on it,” wrote Dr. Cunningham-Bryant, “and I am immensely pleased with how it turned out. I hope it helps the public engage with Egypt in a new way and demonstrates how much we as archaeologists, historians and museum professionals can do with the digital technology available to us enabling us to reach new and varied audiences.”

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To see the exhibit online: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

For a complete list of the scholars who contributed to this exhibit: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/contributors

To see the New York Times’ review of the exhibit: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/nyregion/a-review-of-echoes-of-egypt-exhibition-at-yale-peabody-museum.html

For more images from the Description de l’Egypte: http://description-egypte.org/

Many thanks to Melanie Brigockas at the Yale Peabody Museum!

A very special and sincere thank you to Dr. Colleen Manassa and Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, who responded so generously and so quickly, despite their incredibly busy schedules. 

And an enormous thank you to Dr. Manassa, Dr. Cunningham-Bryant, and to everyone who brought about the Echoes of Egypt exhibit!

Archaeology for kids! DIG Magazine

A very nice woman volunteering for the Archaeological Institute of America handed me a few copies of Archaeology Magazine on International Archaeology Day.

Somehow, the fact that I had nieces and nephews came up in our conversation, and she handed me a copy of a magazine I’d never seen or heard of prior to that moment: Dig Magazine.

First, I was excited: what a fabulous magazine!! Published in NH, no less! I wish this publication had been available when I was growing up.

And then, I was puzzled and a little frustrated.  Why wasn’t this magazine more widely available?

For anyone interested in archaeology (or paleontology–as they are including more of this topic as well), “Dig” offers fun facts, interesting articles, games, and great pictures throughout its pages.

Kids are encouraged to ask questions (online and by mail), take quizzes, and draw pictures.

It is a marvelous and entertaining way to introduce kids to these sciences.

And, for young girls–for whom strong and intelligent role models in many magazines can be rare–the archaeologist behind “Dr. Dig” is a woman.

I wanted to know more.

Rosalie F. Baker, Editor of Calliope Magazines, was extraordinarily kind in her responses to my emailed questions.

Dig Magazine March 2013

(March 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

1.  How long has “Dig” been published?

DIG began publication in 1999.

2. What prompted its creation?

A desire to inspire children to be inquisitive about the past. Even more, we wanted to further their understanding of how archaeologists uncover the past and then analyze finds to expand the known “picture” of the past.

Dig Magazine Dec 2013

(January 2014 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

3. How did the archeologist (Dr. Dig) come on board?

Everyone thought it would be a great idea to have a department where kids could ask questions about archaeology. We felt the best way to personalize this for kids was to create a character who would be present in every issue—Dr. Dig!

Her full name is Angela Murock Hussein. She has a doctorate from Brown University in Classical Archaeology and is married to an Egyptian Egyptologist.

Dig Magazine Oct 2013

(October 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

4. Why isn’t “Dig” more widely available?  Often, the only option kids have along these lines in local bookstores is “Kids” (National Geographic). Does this reflect challenges to magazines in general?

Getting the message out about the magazine is always a challenge. We are trying to become better known. But the magazine is available on most newsstands that carry children’s publications, such as Barnes and Noble. We’re also in hundreds of public and school libraries across the country. We believe the addition of our digital edition will also increase our visibility. A PDF version is currently available and a fully interactive digital edition will be launched in 2014. We believe the articles in each issue are exciting, engaging, and offer the latest information known on the topic as they are written by people in the field. We hope our content and our marketing push will help the magazine grow.

Dig Magazine May 2013

(May 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

5. How did you become involved in the magazine?

My husband and I had founded CALLIOPE magazine in 1981 and merged with Cobblestone Publishing in 1982. We featured an archaeology section in CALLIOPE. It seemed a perfect fit for me when Cobblestone took over DIG in 2001. And I have enjoyed every minute of it since.

Dig Magazine Jan 2013

(January 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

6. Has the magazine grown since its inception?  Are there any significant changes that have been made over time?

Yes, the magazine is continually growing. In fact, we just added a new department (Blogosaurus) —a column that focuses on the latest news about dinosaurs. While their study falls under the field of paleontology, many of our readers send us questions about dinosaurs and the new theories and finds. So, we thought we would feature a one-page department that presents a new find, a new way of thinking, or a fascinating discovery and then encourages readers to send us their thoughts on the topic. In January we will introduce a second new department – Field Notes—which is done with the Leon Levy Expedition, whose work focuses on the site of Ashkelon in Israel. We will be right onsite with the authors, engaged in digging, learning what tools are used, what happens when a find is made, and much more.

Dig Magazine July 2013

(July 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

7. Do you have any anecdotes about publishing the magazine or its readers that you’d like to share?

I think what is most exciting now are the Ask Dr. Dig programs we are developing. We have done four so far in different parts of the country. Some have been at large venues, others at small venues. Our intent is to offer more in 2014. The Dr. Dig program is about 60 to 90 minutes (last one, however, ran 120 minutes). An archaeologist dressed in the character of Dr. Dig lets attendees ask “Dr. Dig” questions they have always wanted to ask an archaeologist in person. Sometimes the archaeologist also does a presentation – a project that is related to some practice in the field of archaeology.

Check out the DIG Magazine website! http://www.digonsite.com/index.html

Ask Dr. Dig a question: askdr.dig@caruspub.com

Or see questions she has already answered: http://www.digonsite.com/drdig/index.html

Learn more about Dr. Dig (Dr. Angela Murock Hussein)! http://www.digonsite.com/drdig/AboutDrDg.html

Do you have a child (or a niece or nephew) who loves to draw?  Check out their Art page: http://digonsite.com/awesomeart.html

If your local bookstore doesn’t carry this magazine, please ask them to start doing so! Your voice matters.

Many, many thanks to Rosalie Baker for her generous responses and her time! And many, many thanks to Ann Dillon at ePals Media for the images of Dig covers!

Dig Magazine Nov 2013

(November 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

Boston Archeology Fair – Its origins through the Archaeological Institute of America

This past October 19th was the 7th Annual Archeology Fair, but it was my first experience of such an event, and I LOVED it.  It is the reason I reached out to some of the archeologists who participated and why I asked them about their remarkable work (please see previous posts).  For those who were not able to attend or did not know of the event, I wanted to be able to share how wonderful it was.

The event is the brainchild of Dr. Ben Thomas, Director of Programs for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).  As Kelly Lindberg, Site Preservation Program Administrator at AIA, explains below, Dr. Thomas worked with the Museum of Science, Boston (MOS) to bring this day to fruition.

The estimated number of people who attended that weekend is close to 5500. (“…the AIA and MOS estimate that we spread the wonderful world of archaeology to around 5469 people over the weekend.” from: http://www.archaeological.org/news/aianews/14283)

That is phenomenal.

Kelly very generously responded to further questions about the origins of this fantastic event:

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1. Per the flyers, this is the 7th Annual Archeology Fair. Does this mean it’s been held at the Boston Museum of Science for the past 7 years, or that it has been celebrated for 7 years?

Both, actually. The AIA began working with the MOS 7 years ago to bring together this great event, and we have held it at the Museum each year.

2. What prompted the AIA and the Boston Museum of Science to work together on this?

The idea for the fair started back in 2005 when our current Director of Programs, Ben Thomas, started working at the AIA. At that time, the AIA held an archaeology fair at each of its annual meetings, which are held in a different city each January across the US, and Ben wanted to start an annual fair in Boston, where the AIA has its headquarters. He approached Mike Adams, an educator at the Museum of Science who had attended our annual meeting archaeology fairs in the past, with the idea and everything developed from there. The AIA and the MOS had our first archaeology fair in 2007, and we have grown and expanded every year since.

3. How are the archeologists and presentations chosen for the fair? Are they always based in New England?

Each spring the AIA contacts a number of different professional organizations (historical societies, archaeological institutions, museums, university departments, etc.) in the New England area who share an interest in archaeology, history, anthropology, and other related fields; all our presenters volunteer their time at the fair.

4. Can you tell me more about your role in the fair?

I am the AIA’s point person for this event. I work mostly with presenters, getting commitments to present and making sure their activity needs are met. I also work closely with my colleague at the MOS to finalize scheduling, logistics, and publicity for the fair. On fair days I provide any support presenters and volunteers may need, from assisting at presenter tables to covering lunch breaks.

5. Do you want to share any anecdotes about the planning process or reactions to the fair?

Each year the AIA and MOS have the opportunity to work with a fantastic group of presenters and volunteers, and we are so glad to be part of these organizations’ outreach and education programs.

In addition, every year we see so many fair attendees with a great interest in archaeology, and we are honored to make this learning experience available to them.

6. Will the fair be on the same date at the same location next year? How far in advance do you start planning for the event?

We try to schedule the fair at the MOS to fall on the same weekend as International Archaeology Day, which is the third weekend in October, though scheduling conflicts do sometimes arise either at the AIA or the MOS. We start planning the next fair in the spring, generally March or April.

7. What do you enjoy most about archeology?

For me the best part about archaeology is learning about how people lived, and thrived, in the past; it amazes me how far we’ve come in a few short millennia.

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I cannot thank Kelly Lindberg enough for her time and fascinating insights, nor Dr. Ben Thomas, for creating such a wonderful event.  An enormous thank you to everyone involved in this year’s Archeology Fair!!

Please be sure to check the AIA’s website for archeological events throughout the year: http://www.archaeological.org/events

Please also check the MOS website for their events and exhibits: http://www.mos.org/public-events or http://www.mos.org/coming-soon

Echoes of Egypt – Exhibit at Yale Peabody Museum

We are fortunate to live in a time when we can travel great distances from the comforts of our home and see marvels to which most people in the not-too-distant past did not have access.  Documentaries and the internet, books and photographs—all of these mediums enable us to review what is currently known after centuries of archeological research in Egypt.

But imagine a time when the art and the wealth of ancient Egypt were not largely known, and imagine seeing it for the first time.

“Eygptomania”—the fascination of all things related to ancient Egypt—spread across Europe after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798.

Traveling with the French military leader at that time were both soldiers and scholars (“savants”), and it is thanks to the savants that ancient Egypt was introduced to the larger world.

Savants and soldiers alike were in awe of what they witnessed.

The savants’ drawings of ancient temples, obelisks and other sites were published in a tome entitled Description de l’Egypte.  These images, along with the artifacts they discovered, would inspire wonder and archeological research through the present day.

That is the story most people know.

But take several steps further and dive into the wide-reaching influence ancient Egypt has had, not just on Europe on the 18th and 19th centuries, but on the larger world through today.

“Egyptianizing”, explained Dr. Colleen Manassa, William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Associate Professor of Egyptology at Yale, “refers to Egyptian-inspired design that is also informed by contemporary iconography and style.”

And it is this theme that permeates Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharaohs, now on exhibit through January 2014 at the Yale Peabody Museum.

Echoes of Egypt

The exhibit is the result of two and a half years of work and the collaboration of myriad scholars.  It combines ancient artifacts with more recent artifacts from all over the world.

“One key to understanding the many echoes of Egypt in other lands and cultures is to explore how an architectural image and other iconographic aspects of a culture can be transferred from one time and place to another.”– from http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

“I was phenomenally lucky,” wrote Dr. Manassa, curator of the exhibit, “that every object I wanted to include in the exhibition was successfully loaned.”

These objects are as diverse as they are remarkable. Visitors might be thrilled to view a page of hieroglyph translation from Jean-Francois Champollion (1824) or a plate of Esna North from Description de l’Egypte.  But one can also see objects such as a mantleclock with Sphinx and Obelisks from Tiffany’s (1885), an American political cartoon (1877), and an announcement for a mummy unwrapping in Boston (1850).

Also on display is a parchment leaf from Shenoute’s White Monastery, so named for the color of its walls.  The parchment is written in Coptic, Egyptian language written in the Coptic alphabet, and its date is estimated between the 7th-8th centuries CE.  According to Daniel Schriever, Yale PhD Candidate and the person who wrote the information about this piece on the website, Shenoute is “the most important author in the Coptic language.”

“The Dahesh Museum was particularly generous with its painting collection,” wrote Dr. Manassa.

Example of these, such as “The Temple of Karnak, The Great Hypostyle Hall” by Ernst Karl Eugen Koerner  and “Campfire by the River: Kiosk of Trajan at Philae” by Hermann-David Salomon Corrodi, transport the viewer not just to ancient Egypt but how people in the 19th century may have seen it.

“The engagement—and occasional obsession—with ancient Egypt and the adaptation of its concepts and imagery are not confined to the forms and contents of the pyramids, temples and tombs that have so awed tourists since classical times, but exist within the history of ideas.” – from http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

This is an extraordinary exhibit, not just in its breadth of knowledge, but also in its very unique generosity: it is accompanied by a website that details every item on display.

In other words, Echoes of Egypt is available to anyone anywhere.

“The website was designed to be a true ‘online exhibition,’” Dr. Manassa wrote, “in which every object is represented alongside detailed catalog text.”

Dr. Manassa credits Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, Assistant Professor of Intellectual Heritage at Temple University and the assistant curator, for the idea and the design behind the website.  It was thanks to the work of both Dr. Cunningham-Bryant and the Yale CMI2 Team, she said, that the website came to fruition.

“CMI2” refers to Yale’s Center for Media and Instructional Innovation.  When asked about this, Dr. Cunningham-Bryant explained that it is this team “that develops and integrates technology with classroom content, specifically in new web-based formats. Our whole web team, excluding myself, were staff from CMI2. They donated their time to the exhibit and were a tremendous resource to the entire exhibition.”

“For the online exhibit,” Dr. Cunningham-Bryant continued, “we knew we wanted the most complete and enduring version of the exhibit possible since it was only a temporary physical exhibition. The web team and I spent a lot of time working on how to make the most user-friendly interface that still held true to the exhibit’s organization and structure, and told the same story.”

Somewhat akin to discovering an ancient Egyptian tomb, the website offers treasures that astound, inform and excite.  The more one explores, the more one finds. The details offer a wealth of information one would not find otherwise without access to disparate and sometimes obscure reference material.

Enabling the user to pick-and-choose what she or he wishes to view, one can ‘walk’ through the exhibit at one’s own pace, at one’s own schedule, and as often as one wishes.

Related items are listed under each image.  And each item contains more information about its history and its relevance. Reference materials, should one wish to know more, are listed below the text.

Dr. Manassa explained that there is more information on the website than within the exhibit, but that “there are signs with numbers you can type into a smart phone that directly bring up the website for that particular object.  So there is also an integration of the physical exhibit and the website.”

“Colleen had already been in touch with the various authors for the material as they were collaborating on the exhibition catalog as well,” Dr. Cunningham-Bryant wrote in an email, “For the online exhibition, I asked each author to provide accompanying references that would be accessible and useful for understanding the specific piece/theme.”

One exceptionally well-documented piece is a manuscript written in 1751 from Iraq.

“I was particularly proud of the loan from Bibliothèque nationale de France of the Arabic manuscript by Ibn Wahshiyya,” stated Dr. Manassa, referencing this specific piece, “which has never before been seen in the United States.”

“Arabic attempts to translate hieroglyphs were not common,” she continued, “but their existence eight hundred years before Champollion, particularly the assigning of phonetic (rather than symbolic) values to the hieroglyphs is an important aspect of intellectual history and the reception of hieroglyphs that is not often told.”

This is exactly the type of surprising information one learns throughout the exhibit.

Dr. Isabel Toral-Niehoff, the author of the details about that manuscript, offers fascinating thoughts on research the non-Arabic-speaking world has yet to learn.

“Although some preliminary work has been constructed, the major number of Arabic manuscripts regarding aegyptiaca remain unpublished and unstudied, so that lamentably, there is no critical evaluation of the copious material available until now,” she writes on the exhibit’s website.

“…Okasha El-Daly insists that the Arabs made a serious contribution to the field of aegyptiaca and that their achievements are unjustly neglected by current—mainly European—scholarship. The most famous statement in this context…is El-Daly’s claim that a few Arab scholars were even able to interpret hieroglyphs correctly some 800 years before Champollion.”

Mummies—while not the highlight of this exhibit—are indeed included.  And the one human mummy on display is on loan from, of all places, the Barnum Museum, as she was originally obtained in Egypt by the widow of the famed circus owner.

The text for this artifact is intriguing, startling and informative.

Dr. Manassa and S.J. Wolfe, senior cataloguer and serials specialist at the American Antiquarian Society, introduce the reader to mummy unwrappings that took place in this country in the 1800s.  They describe, as one of the central characters to this type of event, George Gliddon—a man born in England, but who eventually lectured on Egyptology in the States. He subscribed to polygenesis, a “highly racially charged” idea that human races come from different origins.  And one that he and his father tried to help prove by collecting mummy skulls.

Gliddon obtained a mummy for an 1850 lecture in Boston, and apparently advertised the mummy as the “body of the daughter of a high priest of Thebes.” His promotional efforts paid off, and the event sold out.

But the event did not end successfully; in fact, Gliddon eventually fled to Philadelphia.

(One might find this particular story amusing, and this author leaves it to the reader to enjoy it in full: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/mummy-mania/unwrapped-egyptian-mummy-female-fragments-linen-wrapping)

Perhaps because of the diversity of the artifacts (from paintings and ancient artifacts from Egypt to movie posters and political cartoons), the exhibit lingers in the mind, prompting thought and wonder long after one has reviewed the website (or reviewed the physical objects).

“[T]his exhibit was a labor of love for all of those who worked on it,” wrote Dr. Cunningham-Bryant, “and I am immensely pleased with how it turned out. I hope it helps the public engage with Egypt in a new way and demonstrates how much we as archaeologists, historians and museum professionals can do with the digital technology available to us enabling us to reach new and varied audiences.”

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Please be sure to visit the Yale Peabody Museum between now and January 2014 to see this exhibit: http://peabody.yale.edu/exhibits/echoes-egypt-conjuring-land-pharaohs

To see the exhibit online: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/

For a complete list of the scholars who contributed to this exhibit: http://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/contributors

To see the New York Times’ review of the exhibit: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/nyregion/a-review-of-echoes-of-egypt-exhibition-at-yale-peabody-museum.html

For more images from the Description de l’Egypte: http://description-egypte.org/

Many thanks to Melanie Brigockas at the Yale Peabody Museum!

A very special and sincere thank you to Dr. Colleen Manassa and Dr. Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, who responded so generously and so quickly, despite their incredibly busy schedules. 

And an enormous thank you to Dr. Manassa, Dr. Cunningham-Bryant, and to everyone who brought about the Echoes of Egypt exhibit!