Archaeologists are constantly uncovering new secrets from the past. Some of these discoveries make headlines (e.g., a lost city in Egypt).
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The lifelike portraits attached to mummies during Egypt’s Roman era have long posed mysteries that scholars are only now able to solve. The new exhibition Facing Forward at Harvard Art Museums, which opened today, explores what these paintings—and the mummies they were attached to—can tell us about Roman-era life.
The mummy portraits were painted in the first to third centuries AD. They stand “at the meeting point of Egyptian, Greek and Roman worlds,” according to the show’s catalogue.
Their likenesses of young people, who appear to be in their twenties, thirties and forties, are especially striking. Moreover, CT scans have confirmed that the ages of the mummies match up with those of their portraits. The exhibition includes two entire portraits and fragmentary remains of several others.
Mummy archaeology news are a rare art form. Most of the roughly 1,000 surviving paintings were discovered and excavated in the early 20th century, and came to museums through the antiquities trade.
Until recently, only 16 of the portraits had been studied in depth. Then, in 2013, the Getty Museum teamed up with researchers from 41 other institutions to cull information on around 285 of them—about a third of all known examples. The resulting database, called APPEAR (Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research), has begun to unravel some of the portraits’ mysteries.
A few clues have emerged: The artists seem to have formed workshops that used a range of paints, including tempera and encaustic—wax-based paints that are similar to oil. The varying shapes of the panels and their thicknesses suggest different workshop techniques. And the use of a variety of woods reveals that workshops had access to locally available materials, such as sycamore, pine and cypress, as well as possibly imported cedar.
The mummies themselves also provide clues to their socioeconomic status, as evidenced by the mixed quality of embalming and the presence of papyri with demotic Egyptian and Greek writing. The mummies of elites were treated with care, while those of lower-upper classes were left to rot.
As the exhibition progresses, we’ll be able to compare the portraits by moving a slider, which will allow visitors to see each one under normal light and with X-radiography. We’ll also be able to compare details, such as the way the facial features have been rendered, and how the hair has been painted or woven.
Unlike more contrived sites such as temples and graves, shipwrecks offer a glimpse of the past as it was experienced by actual people. This makes them particularly important to archaeologists. Often, a shipwreck will reveal not only the vessel itself but also its cargo. Taking advantage of this rich archaeological resource, researchers are uncovering a host of new information about the lives and work of sailors in ancient times.
In a case in point, two ships that wrecked off the coast of Dorset, England in 13th-century were loaded with Ming-era porcelain and other cultural relics. A team of underwater archaeologists has begun a year-long study of the vessels and their cargo. They hope to discover how the ships were made, who sailed them, and the types of goods they carried. This type of exploration is relatively new. Previously, only one well-preserved wreck — the Sydney Cove with its cargo of ceramics from Canton – had been investigated in this way.
Another of this year’s notable discoveries involved the icy wreck of Sir John Franklin’s H.M.S. Erebus. Researchers were able to return to the site in April and May, following two missed seasons because of the pandemic, to physically inspect the wreck and collect new survey and imagery data with a remotely operated vehicle. The crews found several brass pins that help date the vessel, as well as coins from Louis XIII that have imprinted fleur-de-lis designs. They also noticed that the ice has changed shape over time, which could be speeding up the deterioration of the wreck and its contents.
Other recent shipwreck findings include an investigation of the world’s oldest intact shipwreck. Lying in the Black Sea more than 2,000 years after it was lost, the 23-meter vessel has masts, rudders and rowing benches still intact. It closely resembles ships depicted on Greek wine vases of two millennia ago.
Researchers were able to carbon date a small piece of wood from the vessel and confirm that it dates back to around 2,200 BC. This means that the wreck may be as much as 1,200 years older than previously thought. The team is planning to return to the wreck next year to continue their research.
Archaeology isn’t always about sifting through dirt at dig sites—much of the work happens in labs where scientists analyze found objects to piece together humankind’s unrecorded history. 2021 was a good year for those efforts, with some pressing finds related to current events like the discovery of a palace door threshold in the ancient Iraqi city of Nimrud after it was destroyed by ISIS and the rediscovery of a sprawling pre-Hispanic mural.
One of the most interesting discoveries made this year, however, relates to an ancient leg amputation.
Biological archaeologist Brenna Hasset calls this type of find “fascinating and exciting,” but also a little macabre. She highlights a paper published this year about a tomb in Spain that contained the remains of a woman along with a number of personal items, including bracelets and necklaces and a silver diadem (crown). She says the presence of such luxurious objects suggests that the woman had a high social status, possibly even power.
Everybody poops, and although it might not garner the same initial excitement that a shiny artifact might, fecal matter can be among the most important archaeological findings. The preserved remains of poo, called coprolites, are often a treasure trove of information about diet and living conditions.
One of the most useful recent examples is a discovery that may shed light on how people changed when they settled down and started living in villages rather than continuing to be nomadic hunter-gatherers. Examining coprolites from Paisley Caves in Oregon, researchers were able to use ancient DNA to show that some of the poop actually came from the same individuals as the people who made the cave’s stone tools and butchery marks. Earlier analyses had been inconclusive because it’s hard to tell, when looking at feces, whether the DNA comes from humans or dogs.
But the new approach, based on biomolecular screening, allows scientists to distinguish between human and canine DNA in ancient fecal samples. And that’s a major step forward because, over the course of thousands of years, fecal material can become nearly indistinguishable from that of different species.
The new technique also gives archaeologists a more complete picture of what people ate in the past. Because bones only offer limited genetic information, examining coprolites is important to determine what the ancients were eating and what diseases they might have had.
Using the same technique, researchers recently identified Giardia in ancient dung from a cesspit used by the elite in Iron-Age Jerusalem. The presence of the diarrhea-causing parasite shows that even the richest of the wealthy couldn’t avoid dysentery, a common illness in antiquity.
While a discovery of 14,000-year-old poop might not grab headlines like a shiny Viking ship, it can provide a lot of valuable information about how people lived in the prehistoric world. And that’s especially true when the poop is fossilized, which makes it more likely to survive for long periods of time.
In the world of archaeology, exciting discoveries continue to shed light on our ancient past. Ongoing excavations and research provide valuable insights into human history and cultural evolution. From unearthing lost civilizations to analyzing ancient artifacts, archaeologists play a crucial role in piecing together the puzzle of our shared heritage.
- What is archaeology, and why is it important? Archaeology is the study of past human societies through the analysis of artifacts, structures, and other physical remains. It is essential because it allows us to understand the development of human cultures, technological advancements, societal organization, and how past civilizations interacted with their environments. This knowledge aids in shaping our present and future.
- What recent archaeological discoveries have been made? As of September 2021, some remarkable discoveries include an ancient Mayan ceremonial site in Mexico, a well-preserved Viking ship burial in Norway, and an Egyptian tomb containing mummies and artifacts. Additionally, new archaeological techniques, such as DNA analysis of ancient remains, have provided insights into human migrations and interconnections across history.