These structures are 2000 years older than the Egyptian pyramids.

I am fascinated by archeology. I should have been an archeologist. I just couldn’t get past the idea of dealing with heat, and digging in the dirt, in places far from home. Minor details. But hey, I still love reading about the blood, sweat and tears other people have put into making sense of our history. I can read articles for days, and you don’t have to apply for grants to do that.

And there I was, perusing the latest archeological papers, when I came across this one on mustatils. This is the Arabic word for rectangle, and that is a perfect description of these 7000-year-old structures. Scattered over 77,000 square miles of northwestern Saudi Arabia, there are more than 1,000 of these mustatils, and they’re older than the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge.

They are, of course, rectangular in shape. The long walls are relatively low, usually less than 3 feet high, and can be anywhere from 60 to 1500 feet in length. The narrow end walls are more substantial, the lower end containing the narrow doorway, and the higher end containing what appears to be a chamber with a slab for animal sacrifice. Some mustatils show evidence of pillars and niches, and many have interlocking circular cells near the sacrifice chamber. There is no evidence that these structures had roofs, and the side walls are too low in many cases for these to be animal pens.

The fact that there are so many of these structures over such a wide area implies that there was a widespread common cultural belief at the time. Back then, what is now desert was wet and green, and it seems that the people relied on cattle. One mustatil still had the bones of cattle within it, and one can find drawings of cattle on local rocks. These people were definitely part of a cattle cult, and celebrated these creatures.

The number of mustatils indicate that this area of Saudi Arabia was densely populated and fairly unified 7000 years ago. This is in great contrast to the current sand-blasted, mostly deserted landscape of today. It will be fascinating to learn more about this culture as further studies commence.

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The Dolmen de Guadalperal

2,000 years older than Stonehenge.

If, like me, you have always been fascinated by Stonehenge, you’ll be quite thrilled to hear about the one silver lining to global climate change. According to this article, the Dolmen de Guadalperal rose above the waterline for the first time since Francisco Franco had a dam built which flooded that area of Extremadura, Spain in 1963. Due to extreme drought, this archeological site was suddenly high and dry.

As you can see from this beautiful short video, what remains of these dolmen are about 100 standing stones. Not nearly as tall as the ones at Stonehenge. The tallest stones here are about 6 feet. But I’m grateful to whoever took that video, because to get to that site requires a hike of several hours. The idea of hiking that long in a place known for its heat, and not being sure at the end if the dolmen will be completely covered in water, is rather unappealing to me.

But this site is very significant. It’s believed to be about 7,000 years old, which is 2,000 years older than Stonehenge. Unlike Stonehenge, archeologists believe that this was once a completely enclosed building. The Romans may have damaged it. It was a mystery to them, too.

While Franco’s dam brought electricity and water to underdeveloped western Spain, it flooded this site as well as a Roman city that was called Augustóbriga. That city included a temple, which was dismantled and moved to higher ground when the dam was being built. The city also had an aqueduct and thermal baths and paved roads. What a loss.

The Dolmen of Guadalperal, when intact, would have consisted of a long, dark hallway that opened into a central room where the dead would be interred. During the summer solstice, the hallway would be lit up, and the sun would shine on the ancestors for a few moments. It must have been spectacular.

The people who lived in this area also left evidence that they were some of the first in the world known to make flour, and that was 1,000 years before the dolmen were erected. They were also using honey, and eventually brewing their own beer.

The dolmen, which are made of porous granite, are suffering from being constantly submerged in water. They are toppling and cracking. And now the damage is accelerating as they go from cold, wet conditions to hot, dry ones. There was talk of moving the stones to higher ground, but it would have had to have been done extremely carefully. Only the government can decide their ultimate fate, and governments tend to move slowly.

Alas, per this article, the government chose to do nothing, and the dolmen are already covered by water again. This makes me sad.

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We’ve Been Battling Pests for 200,000 Years

They hated creepy crawlies as much as we do.

I am fascinated by all things archeological, so I was intrigued by an article in Science News entitled, “Study: Humans have been sleeping on beds for 200,000 years”.

My first thought was that this doesn’t surprise me. Primates make nests to sleep in. And who doesn’t prefer to be comfortable? I doubt that that urge is a newfound one.

But what really interested me about the article was the composition of the beds. It seems that in Border Cave, an archeological dig in South Africa, a scientific analysis was done of the bedding, and it was determined that it was made of the very grass that is growing outside of the cave to this day. Well, that’s a nifty use of the available resources, I must say.

But beneath those layers of grass, scientists discovered, always lies a layer of ash. It is believed that this ash layer warded off some bugs and dehydrated others. Or, at the very least, these people may have been burning their bedding when it became dirty and/or infested. Based on the tools scattered about, it seems they sat upon these beds to work during the day as well. And camphor was found on top of the bedding. That’s an effective insect repellent. It is easy to surmise that bugs were a nuisance back then, too.

From this one little article I learned that these early humans had a sense of organization, and knew how to take advantage of local resources.  They enjoyed comfort, and they hated lice and ticks and other creepy crawlies as much as we do.

Way to adapt, guys! And thank you for doing so. It allowed you to stick around long enough to produce descendants that eventually led to us. Well done!

Border Cave, South Africa

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The Oldest Bridge in the World

Further evidence of Iraq’s rich architectural heritage.

It is very unusual for me to direct my readers to blog posts by other authors, but this one really spoke to me. It’s about the oldest known bridge in the world, located in Iraq. As a bridgetender, I have an obvious interest in bridges, but this story also appeals to me as a history lover and a feminist.

Archeologists are working to preserve this 4000 year old bridge in Tello, Iraq. Not only are they learning about the rich history of the area through the many artifacts that are being uncovered, but they are also training several female archeologists in a region that had all but been destroyed by ISIS until quite recently.

Once the preservation is complete, the plan is to create a visitor’s center to encourage tourism and education in the area. This bridge is also a symbol of pride for the Iraqi people, as further evidence of their rich architectural heritage. Even though the waterway that this bridge used to span is long gone, this structure is still bridging a gap, and I find that impressive.

I encourage you to check out this blog post, along with its attached video which was produced by the British Museum. It’s really quite fascinating, in a geeky, historical, bridge-loving kind of way.

oldest bridge

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Developmental Greed

If developers had their way, much history would be lost to us.

I’m very grateful that most cities now have rules in place that require developers to have archeologists examine their land, especially in historically sensitive areas, before they’re allowed to build upon it. Most builders, of course, consider this a massive nuisance, and a waste of their time and money. But if these requirements didn’t exist, a lot of history would be lost to us, and we would miss out on opportunities to discover more about who we are and where we came from.

Those of you who think government already meddles too much in our business need to think again in this instance. Laws, rules, regulations, none of these things would be necessary if we could all be counted upon to do the right thing. Unfortunately, greed seems to be the primary motivator for most people.

Here’s a prime example: The Miami Circle. Once upon a time, a developer planned to put a high rise on some very well-placed real estate in downtown Miami, which he had purchased for 8.5 million dollars. Unfortunately for him, some archeologists discovered what Wikipedia describes as “the only known evidence of a prehistoric permanent structure cut into the bedrock in the Eastern United States”

Much time and political wrangling occurred while everyone tried to figure out what to do about this situation. Needless to say, the developer was not pleased. And he was no doubt losing quite a bit of money while everyone was spinning their wheels.

Finally, the State of Florida decided to buy the land back from him. I agree that he deserved to be made whole. No doubt about it. And that would probably mean giving him more than 8.5 million, considering all the wasted time. But the guy asked the state for 50 million. Because he could.

I have no respect for this guy. I mean, yeah. I could see where he might want 15 million. But 50? Come on, dude. You’re holding the Florida taxpayers for ransom.

The state finally gave him 26.7 million for the site. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places. We are still learning more about the Tequesta Indians, who were the original developers of this site. The wood found there may be 2000 years old. You can watch an interesting documentary about the site on Youtube here.

We would never had the chance to learn all the fascinating things we’ve learned from this discovery if one greedy developer had been allowed to have his selfish way.

The Miami Circle

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Witch Bottles, Desiccated Cats, Concealed Shoes, and Witch Balls

I always find it a little disconcerting when I discover that something exists in the world that up to this point I knew nothing about. That’s the height of arrogance, I know. It’s crazy to expect to know everything. But it always makes me wonder what else I’ve been missing all along.

Case in point: witch bottles. I can’t even begin to tell you how I came across this topic. It was at the end of a crazy internet surfing expedition designed to keep me awake during an unanticipated graveyard shift. I remember that the original google inquiry was “Crows and Facial Recognition” for a previous blog entry, but how I got from there to witch bottles is a mystery. I doubt I could retrace my path if my life depended on it.

Anyway, witch bottles were very popular in the 17th through 19th centuries. Apparently they were used to ward off witchcraft. People would fill these bottles with a variety of things, including (my apologies in advance if you’re reading this over breakfast) urine, menstrual blood and human hair. Then they’d add sharp objects like needles, thorns and nails. In theory, witches would be attracted to your “essence”, enter the bottle, and be impaled forever on the sharp objects. People would seal these bottles tightly, and then bury them, often upside down, under their fireplaces. In later years the fluid of choice seems to have been holy water. Thank goodness.

After reading up on this bizarre tradition, that took me to another creepy topic; that of desiccated cats. It seems Europeans and Americans used to board these up in the walls of their houses to either bring good luck or ward off evil. It makes me shiver to think about these poor cats. I couldn’t intentionally kill one even if it meant bad luck would rain down upon me for life.

From there I went on to concealed shoes. Archaeologists have found thousands of them in the walls of buildings, and they assume they were placed there either to ward off evil or encourage fertility, or perhaps as an offering to a household deity. If you think we’re less superstitious now, think again. People still tie shoes to the bumpers of newlywed’s cars, which gives credence to the odd connection between shoes and fertility.

But of all these things, the one that unsettled me the most was the witch ball, because I’ve actually seen a whole bunch of these hanging in people’s windows or placed in gardens. I wonder how many of these people have them without knowing their mystical origins, because up until I wrote this, I just assumed these round glass spheres were simply pretty baubles. But no. Originally they were meant to entice evil spirits and capture them, or ward off the evil eye, or perhaps prevent a witch from entering the area because they’re not supposed to be able to abide their own reflection.

Funny to think that people are keeping talismans that many don’t even realize they have. Even funnier to think that in this day and age, people could be still displaying them for their original purpose. I’m glad I’m not superstitious like that. Knock on wood. Cross my heart and hope to die.


Why Not Build a Castle?

If I had the luxury of having any career in the world (and some magic guarantee that I’d be able to make a living at it), I would be an experimental archeologist. I love to learn by doing, and there’s no other job in the world that allows you to do just that to such an extreme degree. There’s so much that we don’t know about how things were done in the past, and the best way to figure it out is by actually getting in there with the tools and materials that were available at the time and working it out as you go along.

For example, there’s a medieval castle construction site in the Burgundy region of France that I’d love to check out. It’s called Guédelon Castle, and it’s been a work in progress since 1997. There was an excellent BBC series on it called Secrets of the Castle that I highly recommend. You can watch it on Youtube. It gives you a strong sense of the many things that they’ve learned about the castle building process that were previously unknown.

When you think about history, you tend to think it was all about kings and lords and popes. These were the people whose lives were written about. You also get the impression that life was all about one long series of wars. Those were the events that made the “headlines.” Very little is known about the day to day life of the commoners and laborers. They either couldn’t write themselves or didn’t have the time or supplies. But their lives are worth knowing about as well.

There’s so much to learn from the past. And sometimes the only way to learn it is to actually try to live it. Oh yeah. That’s the job for me.

[Image credit:]
[Image credit:]

I Was Here

Approximately 40,800 years ago, someone, possibly a Neandertal, painted the oldest known cave art in a place called the Cave of El Castillo in northern Spain. This is the first evidence we have of someone saying,  “Death shall not silence me.” And we’ve been saying it ever since.

Wanting to survive beyond your expiration date is a natural instinct. It’s what art, architecture and writing really is. By writing this blog, I get to say, “Barb was here” every single day. If you read it on one of the rare occasions when I’m asleep, I’m still talking to you. It’s like sending radio waves out into space. These messages will go on and on and on, with or without me. That’s a heady experience. When you leave your mark, you are cheating death. You are poking fun at the grim reaper.

Long before we developed writing, we were telling our stories through art and monuments. Archeology is the study of the physical stories that long dead civilizations leave behind. “This is who we were.” “This is how we lived.” “This is what we thought was important.” “This is how we want to be remembered.” “These are the mistakes we made.” “Learn from us.”

What an amazing first step that caveman in Spain took! Did he or she realize how important this was? Probably not. But maybe. And that, above all else, is why it’s so exciting.

Cave Paintings

[Image credit:]

The Past, Present and Future of War

If I were an historian, I think an interesting exercise would be to see if I could pinpoint one day in history, just one single precious day, when no country on earth was at war. I think it would be a lot harder to find than any of us would care to believe.

Having said that, most of us have not experienced war firsthand. We see it in the movies, read about it in the news, and hear about it from those soldiers who have come home and are willing to discuss it. And no American alive today has experienced the impact of a war within our own borders.

We cannot comprehend what it must be like to be sitting at home, perhaps having a cup of tea in our bunny slippers, only to look out the window and see soldiers running toward us, intent on rape, death and destruction. We don’t know that razor sharp moment of clarity when we realize that in less than a minute our lives will never be the same. It would be impossible to guess what it must be like to walk for days, painfully aware that people who hate you without even knowing you are at your heels, only to wind up in a refugee camp where you have nothing and are little more than a prisoner of your fate for years to come.

Experiencing of war is the epitome of living in the moment, because your past and your future have been taken away. That’s something you don’t see in the movies much– that concept of the ruin that goes beyond time. They can depict the “now” of war with a fairly brutal accuracy, but what about the once and future impact?

When I think about how war reaches back and destroys the past, it upsets me even more than the brutality of the present. For example,

  • The oldest known archeological site on the planet is in Turkey, right on the border with Syria. This has always been a high conflict area. Even more sites are in Iraq. What will become of them? Will we destroy what the sands of time did not already succeed in wearing away?
  • When I think of the footage of the 1700 year old Buddha statues that were blown up in Afghanistan by the Taliban in the name of religion, I weep. Those priceless sculptures can never be replaced.
  • During times of conflict, historians and archeologists basically pack their bags and go away, never knowing what they will find when they are finally able to return.
  • Likewise, the vast majority of the art that was stolen by the Nazis during World War II is still not back in its proper place, and for every piece of art that they stole, they most assuredly destroyed even more. They certainly did their best to wipe out the literature that didn’t meet with their approval.
  • You also have to consider the cultural heritage and traditions that are abandoned when entire groups of people are uprooted and scattered or slaughtered outright.
  • And then there are the family heirlooms and photographs that get left behind.
  • War also breaks the lines of family history. When your parents are killed, you are left with so many unanswered questions about your family, and you have to live with the fact that you can never get those answers.

War also shatters the future. For example,

  • During times of war, countries stop investing in their infrastructure. What would be the point?
  • Obviously the concept of creating jobs, encouraging invention and innovation, and nurturing foreign investment is relegated to the back burner.
  • Education also becomes a low priority when you are just struggling to survive.
  • Anger, bitterness, and physical as well as mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress have a long-term effect on societies which cannot be adequately measured, but should not be overlooked.

When war is waged, it’s almost as if someone drops a bomb in the middle of the vast plains of time, and the shock waves go both forward and backward in the continuum. There’s really no wholesale way to recover from that.

We are a belligerent species, so a certain amount of war is inevitable. But when nations choose to deploy troops, they should first rise above our concept of time, and realize that “now” is not all that matters.