archaeology

Research: Rare inscription names mysterious Etruscan goddess

Greg Warden with Etruscan steleArchaeologists translating a very rare inscription have discovered the name of a goddess in a sacred text that is possibly the longest such Etruscan inscription ever discovered on stone.

The discovery indicates that Uni – a divinity of fertility and possibly a mother goddess at this particular place – may have been the titular deity worshipped at the sanctuary of Poggio Colla, a key settlement in Italy for the ancient Etruscan civilization.

“We can at this point affirm that this discovery is one of the most important Etruscan discoveries of the last few decades,” said SMU professor emeritus Gregory Warden. The University is the main sponsor of the archaeological dig.

“It’s a discovery that will provide not only valuable information about the nature of sacred practices at Poggio Colla, but also fundamental data for understanding the concepts and rituals of the Etruscans, as well as their writing and perhaps their language.”

Scientists discovered the ancient stone slab embedded as part of a temple wall at the Poggio Colla dig, where many other Etruscan objects have been found, including a ceramic fragment with the earliest birth scene in European art. That object reinforces the interpretation of a fertility cult at Poggio Colla, Warden said.

Poggia Colla steleNow Etruscan language experts are studying the 500-pound stele to translate the text. It’s very rare to identify the god or goddess worshipped at an Etruscan sanctuary.

“The location of its discovery – a place where prestigious offerings were made – and the possible presence in the inscription of the name of Uni, as well as the care of the drafting of the text, which brings to mind the work of a stone carver who faithfully followed a model transmitted by a careful and educated scribe, suggest that the document had a dedicatory character,” said Adriano Maggiani, formerly professor at the University of Venice and one of the scholars working to decipher the inscription.

“It is also possible that it expresses the laws of the sanctuary — a series of prescriptions related to ceremonies that would have taken place there, perhaps in connection with an altar or some other sacred space,” said Warden, co-director and principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project that made the discovery.

Warden said it will be easier to speak with more certainty once the archaeologists are able to completely reconstruct the text, which consists of as many as 120 characters or more.

While archaeologists understand how Etruscan grammar works, and know some of its words and alphabet, they expect to discover new words never seen before – particularly since this discovery is not a funerary text. Permanent Etruscan inscriptions are rare, as Etruscans typically used linen cloth books or wax tablets. The texts that have been preserved are quite short and are from graves.

Besides being possibly the longest Etruscan inscription on stone, it is also one of the three longest sacred texts to date. The sandstone slab, which dates to the 6th century BCE and is nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide, was discovered in the final stages of two decades of digging at Mugello Valley, which is northeast of Florence in north central Italy.

Other objects unearthed in the past 20 years have shed light on Etruscan worship, beliefs, gifts to divinities, and discoveries related to the daily lives of elites and non-elites, including workshops, kilns, pottery and homes. The material helps document ritual activity from the 7th century to the 2nd century BCE.

— Margaret Allen

> Read the full story and see more images at SMUResearch.com

Research: How hiding in plain sight saved the Jicarilla Apache

Book cover of 'Becoming White Clay' by B. Sunday EiseltNorth America’s Jicarilla Apache tribe cloaked themselves in trade, diplomacy, and intermarriage and nearly escaped incarceration on an American Indian reservation. How they did it has been a mystery of the historical American Southwest – until now.

“In some ways, the Jicarilla still remain invisible,” according to SMU anthropologist Sunday Eiselt.

The Jicarilla Apache, an amalgamation of nomadic tribes that in the 18th century migrated off the plains and settled in the northern Rio Grande of New Mexico, were accustomed to armed resistance, guerrilla tactics and inter-tribal warfare.

They fought alongside the Pueblo Indians in the Revolt of 1680 and later resisted Comanche raiders, sometimes as contract fighters and security guards for the Spanish and American trade caravans. Then quietly, deliberately and peacefully they slipped off the radar of Spanish colonization and U.S. Manifest Destiny until 1888, when the Jicarilla became the last Native American tribe forcibly settled on a reservation.

“This was not an accident of history,” says Eiselt. The Apache, particularly the Jicarilla, were experts at invisibility — not just physically, but also socially and economically. For example, Jicarilla warriors on raids would paint themselves during the journey to the plains with white clay to avoid detection by their enemies.

The protocol beckoned supernatural or spiritual protections to bring the warriors home safely. Just as white clay was a warrior strategy for self-preservation, it stands as a metaphor for the primary message of the book.

“By ‘becoming white clay’ in their social and economic dealings,” Eiselt contends, “the Jicarilla turned the tables on non-Indian expansion and disappeared into the cultural fabric of the Southwest’s Pueblo colonies as other Native Americans were being forced onto reservations.” The Jicarilla, without firing a shot, not only avoided confinement and even extermination for nearly two centuries, they rescued their culture from extinction.

“The Jicarilla essentially colonized the colonies,” says Eiselt, an expert on the Jicarilla. “They became invisible to government authorities because they were always on the move, they intermarried with the Pueblo and Hispanic peoples, and they established long-standing trade with them. They disappeared by becoming essential, an everyday part of the frontier society of New Mexico, which sustained Spanish, Mexican and ultimately U.S. interests.”

Encapsulation of one society within a larger, dominant or more powerful society is a phenomenon known as enclavement. As a strategy it was not new to the ancestors of the Jicarilla. In fact, enclavement may have occurred multiple times as their Athapaskan ancestors migrated from Canada to the American Southwest beginning as early as the 12th century, Eiselt says.

“Few scholars recognize how significant the Jicarilla contribution was to the survival of the traditional cultures of New Mexico,” says Eiselt, whose new book “Becoming White Clay” (University of Utah Press, 2012) is a comprehensive study of one of the longest-lived and most successful nomadic ethnic group enclaves in North America. “There hasn’t been a whole lot of research into the Jicarilla, even though they’ve always been there and their contribution to New Mexican history is almost entirely underappreciated.”

“Sunday Eiselt has produced the definitive work on Jicarilla Apache history and archaeology,” says Ronald H. Towner, University of Arizona. “She uses a strong theoretical approach to enclavement and combines history, archaeology and ethnohistory to not only describe past Jicarilla movements and cultural development throughout the Southwest, but to explain how and why Jicarilla social organization at different scales structured that development during times of warfare, removal from traditional lands and economic stress. Eiselt’s scholarship is second-to-none.”

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

Calendar Highlights: Sept. 6, 2012

A Taste of Tango: Break out your dancing shoes and join the Meadows Wind Ensemble for “A Night in Buenos Aires: A Celebration of Tango.” The program features numerous tango performances that are sure to dazzle and inspire you – and even includes works by Igor Stravinsky and John Phillip Sousa! The performance begins at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7 in Caruth Auditorium. Admission is $7 for students, faculty and staff. For more information, call 214-768-2787 (214-SMU-ARTS).

Back to the Boulevard: The Mustangs’ first home game of the season is at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8. We are up against Stephen F. Austin and hope to see everyone in white supporting our team. Pony up!


Jammin’ in the Atrium: Starting Sept. 12 you can add zest to your Wednesday lunch hour and join the Meadows World Music Ensemble for a jam session. The sessions start at noon in the Taubman Atrium, Owen Arts Center, and feature art and music from various cultures.

Annual archaeology lecture: Jeremy Sabloff, president of the Santa Fe Institute, gives the 2012 Fred Wendorf Distinguished Lecture in Archaeology at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13. Sabloff will discuss the development of Maya hieroglyphic texts and other exciting advancements of study in “Settlement Pattern Studies and the Emergence of the Current Model of Ancient Maya Civilization.” The lecture takes place in McCord Auditorium, 306 Dallas Hall. (Left, Jeremy Sabloff, photo courtesy of the Santa Fe Institute.)

Spanish art influence: This semester the Meadows Museum of Art will host the exhibit: “Diego Velazquez: The Early Court Portraits.” Velazquez was the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV and had large influence over the portraiture of the period. In the Meadows Museum from 3-6 p.m. on Thursday, Sep. 13 a free symposium, featuring three guest speakers, will take place. The exhibit will open the following Sunday, Sep. 16, 2012 and run through Jan. 13, 2013.

The Opera Stars of SMU: The opening showcase of the 2012-13 Opera Free For All series begins at 1 p.m Friday, Sept. 14 in the Bob Hope Lobby of the Owen Arts Center. The showcase will feature 60-second arias by Meadows Opera Theatre Ensemble members. Performers will strategically use their allotted time to stand out and make a lasting impression.

Latin Spice: Latin American Heritage Month begins Sept. 15, 2012. President Lyndon Johnson first introduced this month-long celebration of Latin history and culture; Sept. 15 was chosen as the start date because on that day in 1821, five Latin American countries gained independence. During this month we recognize and appreciate the accomplishments of the Latin American community.

Research Spotlight: Trial by fire, and how humans respond to it

The 2011 Wallow Fire in ArizonaAn interdisciplinary team of researchers will examine how humans in the Southwest have responded to changes in the surrounding forests over multiple centuries. The research is funded by a four-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The project is about forest fire history, fuels and forests, how human activities have changed them, and the influence of drought and dry conditions, said Thomas W. Swetnam, principal investigator on the grant and director of the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

Christopher Roos, archaeologist and assistant professor of anthropology in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, is co-principal investigator for the study, which will use tree-ring and archaeological methods to reveal the fire history of the forest and of the forest close to the human settlement sites.

In addition to Roos and Swetnam, co-principal investigators are T.J. Ferguson, a professor of practice in UA’s School of Anthropology; Sara Chavarria, director of outreach for UA’s College of Education; Robert Keane and Rachel Loehman of the USDA Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana; and Matthew J. Liebmann of Harvard University’s department of anthropology.

The scientists are focusing on New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, where native peoples lived within the ponderosa pine forest in significant numbers for centuries before Europeans came to North America.

While fire is a natural part of the Southwest’s forests and grasslands, the region’s massive forest fires this year were exacerbated by decade-long drought. In addition, more people are living in or near fire-adapted ecosystems, increasing the likelihood that human activities will affect and be affected by forest fires.

The team will study the interplay among human activities at the wildland-urban interface, climate change and fire-adapted pine forests.

“Humans and fire are interconnected all the way back to our beginnings,” Swetnam said. “Drought and dry conditions are going to keep going on, so there’s an urgency in understanding what’s happening. We’re seeking to know how we can live in these forests and these landscapes so they are more resilient in the face of climate change.”

Courtesy of the University of Arizona

Left, Arizona’s Wallow fire, the largest in the state’s history, burned from May 29 to July 8, 2011, scorching more than 538,000 acres in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. The fire was named for the Bear Wallow Wilderness area, in which it originated. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service.)

> Get the full story from the SMU Research blog

Research Spotlight: 3-D map confirms ancient Mayan structures at ‘Head of Stone’ site

Brigitte Kovacevich at Holtun, 'Head of Stone,' in GuatemalaArchaeologists have made the first three-dimensional topographical map of ancient monumental buildings long buried under centuries of jungle at the Maya site “Head of Stone” in Guatemala.

The map puts into 3-D perspective the location and size of Head of Stone’s many buildings and architectural patterns, which are typical of Maya sites: 70-foot-tall “triadic pyramid,” an astronomical observatory, a ritual ball court, numerous plazas and also residential mounds that would have been the homes of elites and commoners, according to SMU archaeologist Brigitte Kovacevich.

The buildings date from 800 B.C. to 900 A.D., says Kovacevich, an expert in Meso-American cultures in the Department of Anthropology of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. She is co-leader of an international scientific team that has been granted permission by the Guatemalan government to work the site, which has never before been excavated.

The ancient Maya culture at its peak during the Classic period has been well-documented by archaeologists studying the civilization’s large urban centers, such as Tikal, which was one of the most powerful and long-lasting of the Maya kingdoms.

In contrast, “Head of Stone,” called “Holtun” in Maya, is a modest site from the Pre-Classic period, 600 B.C. to 250 A.D., she says. The small city had no more than 2,000 people at its peak. Situated about 35 kilometers south of Tikal, “Head of Stone” in its heyday preceded the celebrated vast city-states and kingship culture for which the Maya are known.

Holtun’s structures – more than 100 of them – now are overgrown with a thin layer of centuries-old jungle foliage and soil. The site is about one kilometer long and half a kilometer wide, or almost three-quarters of a mile long and one-third of a mile wide. The large mounds protruding here and there from the jungle floor signal to archaeologists the familiar building arrangements customary at a Maya site, Kovacevich says.

As with most Maya sites, looters have tunneled into many of the important structures. Kovacevich and her colleagues will dig more tunnels to further explore the buildings with the help of Guatemalan experts skilled at working Maya sites.

The 3-D mapping has confirmed an “E Group,” a key Maya architectural structure. Holtun’s “E Group” dates from 600 B.C. to 600 A.D. and consists of stair-step pyramids and elongated buildings that likely served as astronomical observatories central to Maya rituals. A stepped pyramid to the west of a long narrow building directly oriented north-south served as the observational structure and was related to veneration of sacred ancestors, Kovacevich says.

Adjacent to the “E Group” are four structures that face one another around a central patio. The pattern usually indicates a residential group, where cooking and food processing were carried out on the patio, Kovacevich says.

“The closeness of the residential structure to the “E Group” suggests these were very early elites, and possibly kings,” she says. “Kingship was just being established during this period.”

A triadic pyramid dating from 300 B.C. to 300 A.D. sits at the north end of the site. As is typical at Maya sites, three pyramids about 10 feet tall sit atop a high platform that rises about 60 feet from the jungle floor, Kovacevich says. One of the pyramids faces south, flanked on either side by the other two, which face inward around a central patio. The platform sits atop – and obscures – an earlier sub-structure platform, buried underground and decorated with monumental masks that are visible from the looters’ tunnels.

During the Classic period, kings were typically buried in Maya pyramids. During the Pre-Classic period, however, that isn’t the case and they were typically buried in their residence. It’s possible an early king of Holtun was buried in one of the residential structures, Kovacevich says.

“Ancestors are buried beneath the floor and kept very close and venerated,” she says. “The more ancestors a residence has, the more times the family redoes their floor, making a new floor, and so their mound gets higher and higher. A person with more ties, more ancestors, has more status.”

Written by Margaret Allen

> Get the full story and a slideshow at the SMU Research blog

Research Spotlight: No evidence for Clovis comet

Lubbock Lake site excavation New research challenges the controversial theory that the impact of an ancient comet devastated the Clovis people, one of the earliest known cultures to inhabit North America.

Writing in the October issue of Current Anthropology, SMU archaeologist David Meltzer and Vance Holliday of the University of Arizona argue that there is nothing in the archaeological record to suggest an abrupt collapse of Clovis populations.

“Whether or not the proposed extraterrestrial impact occurred is a matter for empirical testing in the geological record,” the researchers write.

“In so far as concerns the archaeological record, an extraterrestrial impact is an unnecessary solution for an archaeological problem that does not exist.”

The comet theory first emerged in 2007 when a team of scientists announced evidence of a large extraterrestrial impact that occurred about 12,900 years ago.

The impact was said to have caused a sudden cooling of the North American climate, killing off mammoths and other megafauna.

It could also explain the apparent disappearance of the Clovis people, whose characteristic spear points vanish from the archaeological record shortly after the supposed impact. The findings are reported in the article “The 12.9-ka ET Impact Hypothesis and North American Paleoindians.”

As evidence for the rapid Clovis depopulation, comet theorists point out that very few Clovis archaeological sites show evidence of human occupation after the Clovis.

At the few sites that do, Clovis and post-Clovis artifacts are separated by archaeologically sterile layers of sediments, indicating a time gap between the civilizations. In fact, comet theorists argue, there seems to be a dead zone in the human archaeological record in North America beginning with the comet impact and lasting about 500 years.

But Meltzer, Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory in SMU’s Dedman College, and Holliday dispute those claims. They argue that a lack of later human occupation at Clovis sites is no reason to assume a population collapse.

“Single-occupation Paleoindian sites – Clovis or post-Clovis – are the norm,” Holliday said. That’s because many Paleoindian sites are hunting kill sites, and it would be highly unlikely for kills to be made repeatedly in the exact same spot.

“Those of us who do our research in the archaeology of this time period would actually be surprised if these sites were occupied repeatedly,” Meltzer says.

“So there is nothing surprising about a Clovis occupation with no other Paleoindian zone above it, and it is no reason to infer a disaster,” Holliday said.

In addition, Holliday and Meltzer compiled radiocarbon dates of 44 archaeological sites from across the U.S. and found no evidence of a post-comet gap. “Chronological gaps appear in the sequence only if one ignores standard deviations (a statistically inappropriate procedure), and doing so creates gaps not just around (12,900 years ago), but also at many later points in time,” they write.

Sterile layers separating occupation zones at some sites are easily explained by shifting settlement patterns and local geological processes, the researchers say. The separation should not be taken as evidence of an actual time gap between Clovis and post-Clovis cultures.

Holliday and Meltzer believe that the disappearance of Clovis spear points is more likely the result of a cultural choice rather than a population collapse.

“There is no compelling data to indicate that North American Paleoindians had to cope with or were affected by a catastrophe, extraterrestrial or otherwise, in the terminal Pleistocene,” they conclude.

Written by Kevin Stacey, University of Chicago Press

(Above, Lubbock Lake site excavations on a lake bed dated 13,000 to 12,000 years old, the time of the purported extraterrestrial impact. Photo by Vance Holliday.)

> Read more from the SMU Research blog

Research Spotlight: Site-trampling study gives a new look at old digs

Metin Eren's site-trampling research - water buffalo in Jurreru Valley, IndiaArchaeologists who interpret Stone Age culture from discoveries of ancient tools and artifacts may need to reanalyze some of their conclusions.

That’s the finding suggested by a new study that for the first time looked at the impact of water buffalo and goats trampling artifacts into mud.

In seeking to understand how much artifacts can be disturbed, the new study documented how animal trampling in a water-saturated area can result in an alarming amount of disturbance, says archaeologist Metin Eren, an SMU graduate student and one of eight researchers on the study.

In a startling finding, the animals’ hooves pushed artifacts as much as 21 centimeters into the ground – a variation that could equate to a difference of thousands of years for a scientist interpreting a site, said Eren.

The findings suggest archaeologists should reanalyze some previous discoveries, he said. “Given that during the Lower and most of the Middle Pleistocene, hominids stayed close to water sources, we cannot help but wonder how prevalent saturated substrate trampling might be, and how it has affected the context, and resulting interpretation, of Paleolithic sites throughout the Old World,” conclude the authors in a scientific paper detailing their experiment and its findings.

“Experimental Examination of Animal Trampling Effects on Artifact Movement in Dry and Water Saturated Substrates: A Test Case from South India” has been published online by the Journal of Archaeological Science. For images, additional information and a link to the article, see www.smuresearch.com. The research was recognized as best student poster at the 2010 annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.

The idea that animal trampling may reorient artifacts is not new. “Believe it or not, there have been dozens of trampling experiments in archaeology to see how artifacts may be affected by animals walking over them. These have involved human trampling and the trampling of all sorts of animals, including elephants, in dry sediments,” Eren said. “Our trampling experiments in dry sediments, for the most part, mimicked the results of previous experiments.”

But this latest study added a new variable to the mix – the trampling of artifacts embedded in ground saturated with water, Eren said.

Researchers from the United States, Britain, Australia and India were inspired to perform the unique experiment while doing archaeological survey work in the Jurreru River Valley in Southern India.

They noticed that peppering the valley floor were hardened hoof prints left from the previous monsoon season, as well as fresh prints along the stream banks. Seeing that the tracks sunk quite deeply into the ground, the researchers began to suspect that stone artifacts scattered on the edges of water bodies could be displaced significantly from their original location by animal trampling.

“Prehistoric humans often camped near water sources or in areas that receive lots of seasonal rain. When we saw those deep footprints left over from the previous monsoon season, it occurred to us that animal trampling in muddy, saturated sediments might distort artifacts in a different way than dry sediments,” Eren said. “Given the importance of artifact context in the interpretation of archaeological sites and age, it seems like an obvious thing to test for, but to our surprise it never had been.”

Eren and seven other researchers tested their theory by scattering replicated stone tools over both dry and saturated areas of the valley. They then had water buffalo and goats trample the “sites.” Once sufficient trampling occurred, the archaeologists proceeded to excavate the tools, taking careful measurements of where the tools were located and their inclination in the ground.

The researchers found that tools salted on ground saturated with water and trampled by buffalo moved up to 21 centimeters vertically, or a little more than 8 inches. Tools trampled by goats moved up to 16 centimeters vertically, or just over 6 inches.

“A vertical displacement of 21 centimeters in some cases might equal thousands of years when we try to figure out the age of an artifact,” Eren said. “This amount of disturbance is more than any previously documented experiment – and certainly more than we anticipated.”

Given that artifacts embedded in the ground at vertical angles appear to be a diagnostic marker of trampling disturbance, the researchers concluded that sites with water-saturated sediments should be identified and reanalyzed.

Written by Margaret Allen

(Above, water buffalo do their part in a site-trampling research project in India’s Jurreru River Valley. SMU graduate student Metin Eren was one of 8 researchers on the study.)

> Read more from the SMU Research blog

Research Spotlight: The archaeology of childhood

Stock antique ABC blocksGalleries, shops and restaurants built inside restored homes ring the historic plaza of Ranchos de Taos in northern New Mexico. The plaza, once a hub of village life in Ranchos de Taos, is notably absent of children these days. Their families have been driven to the outskirts of the Catholic village by a booming tourism industry that has pushed up property values.

But the children left their mark, says SMU archaeologist Sunday Eiselt, who for three years has led digging crews in some of the homes through her work at the University’s Archaeology Field School at the SMU-in-Taos campus. They’ve unearthed children’s artifacts up to 100 years old, including pieces of clay toys, tea sets, doll parts, clothing, mechanical trains, jacks, marbles, child-care implements, modern plastic Legos, Barbie doll parts, action figures and jewelry.

Eiselt’s interest in childhood artifacts is unique because children are rarely documented in archaeological narratives – particularly in the Spanish borderlands, where they appear as victims of slavery and boarding schools.

Her pilot excavations in 2007 and 2008 revealed patterns that suggest children were integral to the workforce and household economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1930s, the evidence shows, they were drawn from the workforce into the home and pulled as a consumer into the expanding commercial market as well as into the public education realm, says Eiselt, an assistant professor of anthropology in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

Now Eiselt is launching the SMU-in-Taos Childhood Archaeology Project – thanks in large part to community relationships and trust formed over the past few years. A systematic and scientific examination of children’s lives will provide new perspectives on the dynamics of Spanish and American occupation of New Mexico, she says.

“When state resources and institutions are aimed at children’s lives, cultures are irrevocably changed,” she says. “We’re asking, ‘What can the archaeology of children tell us about the transformation of Hispanic Rio Grande communities over time?'” We’re investigating the impact of state expansion on child-rearing and education in the Spanish borderlands by examining childhood on the Ranchos de Taos Plaza.”

Read more at the SMU Research blog

By | 2009-09-29T11:42:18+00:00 September 29, 2009|Categories: Research|Tags: , , , , |