The artistry of archeology
Amovie screen gives many people their first glimpse of Petra, the city in the otherwise barren mountains of Jordan. Petra is so dramatic, so obviously filmable, that it seems to have been drawn in a Hollywood studio. To the cynical eye, it’s clearly artificial. That’s what I assumed when I saw Harrison Ford and Sean Connery riding horses past a towering Corinthian gate apparently carved into a mountain. It was the most arresting shot in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
But Petra is indeed real, a 2,000-year-old example of rock-cut architecture, hidden behind a mountain pass by the Nabatean Arabs who built it and grew rich taxing the caravans that passed nearby. Outsiders from the West regarded the place as at best a vague rumour until 1812, when a Swiss explorer sneaked into it dressed as an Arab, stayed one day, and revealed it to the world.
The building that provided a sumptuous backdrop for Ford and Connery is called the Treasury because some Nabateans once believed a story that it contained Petra’s riches. Archeologists have determined that it was the repository for the bones of 800 or so Nabateans, entombed in the cave walls. The facade, 45 metres high, must have been carved into the sandstone by men hanging on ropes from the top of the mountain. The same archeologists have determined that this surreptitious mountain city also had a market, public baths, a forum and a Roman amphitheatre.
Archeologists are probably given too little credit for their accomplishments. As well as being scientists, they are central to the humanities in our time. They have many of the qualities of artists. They follow strict rules but their ideas often reflect well-tuned intuition.
Their purpose is to lengthen and enrich the story of the Earth and its inhabitants. They thicken the story with carefully detailed facts, turning guesses into near-certainties. Occasionally the popular arts manage to wrap this process in a romantic aura, as with Indiana Jones. But their value to civilization is seldom acknowledged.
We are now living through the great age of archeology. The news last week of the discovery in Newfoundland of a probable Viking settlement provides an example. Technological advantages, like satellite imagery and earth-penetrating radar, have arrived at the same time that foundations, museums and even TV networks are willing to sponsor projects.
Archeology often turns up fresh news that depicts humanity as more various than most of us imagined. On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, for instance, art was recently found in limestone caves — and it was created, apparently, at roughly the same time as the famous cave art in France.
Nearly 40,000 years ago, Sulawesians were even experimenting with a kind of reproduction. Explorers found a stencil that seems to have been created by the artist blowing pigment around his or her hand. Like all such discoveries, the Sulawesi revelations ask questions. Did artmaking occur independently in Europe and Asia? Or was it brought by early humans before they left Africa and then spread across the world?
NASA has released clear satellite photographs that show in detail more than 200 colossal earthworks, previously unknown, in a remote corner of Kazakhstan, an oilrich country formerly part of the Soviet Union. These carefully patterned structures aren’t apparent from the ground but in some cases are as big as several football fields. After NASA took their pictures a Kazakh archeology fan spotted the importance of the shapes on Google Earth. The only humans who are believed to have lived there were nomads, who are not known for organizing such huge, long-range projects. It became a major subject of inquiry when archeologists gathered at a conference in Istanbul last year.
In Newfoundland, a satellite provided the first sign of a Viking settlement at Point Rosee, on the southwest corner of the island. When Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama saw space pictures of Newfoundland she said, “It screams, ‘Please excavate me.’ ”
She’s an expert, having spent some 10,000 hours of her life staring at satellite imagery to understand what it may tell her. In 2009 she wrote a book, Satellite Remote Sensing for Archaeology.
Poring over infrared satellite images, she saw a place in Newfoundland where dark soil discolouration and rectangular features suggested the presence of ancient buildings. When time has buried structures under the ground, vegetation on the surface is affected. In this case the patterns of growth suggested the outlines of a Viking community. When her team went to the site they found smelted iron in the earth. Smelting is not a known technique of indigenous people but customary with Vikings. Digging trenches revealed walls of turf, also a Viking style.
Until now the only known Viking settlement in North America was L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, discovered in 1960. Point Rosee is 600 kilometres to the south, suggesting that, a millennium ago, the Vikings were venturing much farther south. If there are two such settlements, there may be more.
Parcak was working with the science series NOVA for a two-hour television documentary, Vikings Unearthed, that premièred online Monday, and will air Wednesday on PBS.
“I am absolutely thrilled,” says Parcak. “Typically in archeology, you only ever get to write a footnote in the history books. But what we seem to have at Point Rosee may be the beginning of an entirely new chapter.” She continues to study pictures from space, confident in her prediction: “This is the unbelievable future of archeology.”
ARCHEOLOGY OFTEN TURNS UP FRESH NEWS THAT DEPICTS HUMANITY AS MORE VARIOUS THAN MOST OF US IMAGINED. — COLUMNIST ROBERT FULFORD