December 7, 2011

Archaeology in the 19th century

We cannot determine all the uses to which primitive man must have put his rude and ineffective weapons; we can only wonder that with such he was able to maintain his existence among the savage beasts by which he was surrounded; and we long to form to ourselves some picture of the way in which he got the better of their huge strength as well as of his dwelling place, his habits, and his appearance. Rude as his weapons are, and showing no trace of improvement, it seems as though man of the drift period must have lived through long ages of the world's history. These implements are found associated with the remains of the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros, animals naturally belonging to the arctic or semi arctic climate which succeeded the glacial era; but like implements are found associated with the remains of the bones of the lion the tiger and the hippopotamus all of which, and the last especially, are rarely found outside the torrid zone. This would imply that the drift implements lasted through the change from a frigid to a torrid climate and probably back again to a cold temperate one. Still the age of the drift implements does not seem to comprise the whole period of man's life before what is called the polished stone age begins.

Hearst Museum # 7-4881
handaxe; brown flint
England; Swanscombe
Collected by the British Museum of Natural History, unknown date 

There is a remarkable series of discoveries made in caves in various parts of Europe which are of a more interesting character than the drift remains and appear to carry us farther down in the history of man. These caves are natural caverns generally formed in the limestone rocks and at present the most remarkable finds have been obtained from the caves of Devonshire, of the Department of the Dordogne in France, from various caves in Belgium, and from a very remarkable cavern in the Neanderthal near Dusseldorf in Germany; but there is scarcely any country in Europe where some caves containing human bones and weapons have not been opened. The rudest drift implements seem older than almost any of those found in caves and on the whole the cave remains seem to give us a picture of man in a more civilized condition. They show us more of his way of life and a greater variety in his implements which are made not of stone only but of wood and bone as well. We have various worked bone implements harpoons with many barbs whereby no doubt man slew the animals which afforded him food and clothing. Some implements of stone and bone which have been found in caves have been called arrow heads; but they are in all probability lance heads, for it seems doubtful whether these primitive men had made the great discovery of the use of the bow and arrow. We may imagine that their lance or harpoon was their great weapon; and a curious and close inquiry has discovered by the marks on some of the animal bones which are found mixed up with the cave implements, that the sinews had been cut from these bones, and used, it may be conjectured as thongs for the bone harpoons. Other implements of a more domestic character have been found - bone awls, doubtless for piercing the animals' skins that they might be sewn together with sinew thread, and bone knives and needles.

Hearst Museum # 7-3783
Lump of flint flakes and bone fragments in breccia
France; Dordogne; Cavern of Les Eyzies
Collected by the University of California Paleontology Department, 1963

What is still more interesting than all these, we here find the rudiments of art. Some of the bone implements as well as some stones are engraved or even rudely sculptured generally with the representation of an animal. These drawings are singularly faithful and really give us a picture of the animals which were man's contemporaries upon the earth so that we have the most positive proof that man lived the contemporary of animals long since extinct. The cave of La Madeleine in the Dordogne, for instance, contained a piece of a mammoth's tusk engraved with an outline of that animal; and as the mammoth was probably not contemporaneous with man during the latter part even of the old stone age this gives an immense antiquity to the first dawnings of art. How little did the scratcher of this rough sketch - for it is not equal in skill to which have been found in other caves - dream of the interest his performance would thousands of years after his death! Not greatest painter of subsequent times, and scarcely the greatest sculptor, can hope for near an approach to immortality for their works. Had man's bones been only found juxtaposition with those of the mammoth his contemporary animals, this might possibly have been attributed to chance of the soil, to the accumulation river deposits, or to many other accidental occurrences; or had the mammoth's bone only been found worked by man, there was nothing positive to show that the animal had not been long since extinct, and this a chance bone which had come into the hands of a later inhabitant of the earth, just as it has since into our hands; but the actual drawing of this old-world, and as it sometimes almost seen fabulous, animal by one who actual saw him in real life, gives a strange picture the antiquity of our race, and withal a feeling of fellowship with this stone-age man who drew so much in the same way as a clever child among us might have drawn to-day.

Hearst Museum # 7-202
scratched bone
France, Dordogne, La Madeleine
Collected by the Musee de Toulouse, unknown date

Excerpts from:
THE DAWN OF HISTORY: An introduction to pre-historic study.
Edited by C. F. Keary M.A. of the British Museum
Humboldt Publishing Co., 1883

March 26, 2011

Pounders and quern

Before their visit to the town of Meroë, the African Expedition stopped to a less known locality, which was recorded by Henry Field with this paragraph in the 1949 Chronicles: 
About 2.5 miles slightly south of west of Hagar el-Mirwa our Rubatabi guide led us to a large ruined site, referred to on the map and locally as El Koneisa ("The Church"). Here thousands of sherds covered the continuous low mounds. We also collected many quartz pounders and a few fragmentary querns. The newly appointed Commissioner for Archeology, Peter L. Shinnie, who identified the pottery as third-fourth century Meroitic, deduced that this was no Christian church. The outer wall was of irregular outline with maximum dimensions of approximately 150 x 100 meters. The raised structure, now but rubble, in the northeast corner may have served as a watch-tower. Excavation would probably yield but little of significance except the ground plan.

Featured today are a few of the quartz pounders and one quern.
Peter L. Shinnie, who replaced A. J. Arkell as Commissioner for Archaeology and Anthropology in 1947, published many books and articles on his work in Sudan. It would be interesting to know if he agreed with Field upon the minor value of excavating El Koneisa or if the site was ever probed. Among the rubble Henry Field and colleagues noticed some petroglyps and despite their relevant weight they shipped two fragments to Berkeley. You can see them here.

Hearst Museum # 5-1006
Pounders, quartz
Africa; Sudan; El Koneisa
Collected by UC African Expedition, 1947-1948

Hearst Museum # 5-1021
Quern, fragment
Africa; Sudan; El Koneisa
Collected by UC African Expedition, 1947-1948

March 4, 2011


The ancient town of Meroë, in Sudan, had already been excavated for about thirty-five years when the University of California African Expedition was leaving Egypt and moving south through Sudan. In his 1949 chronicles, the anthropologist Henry Field wrote:
     during a brief stop at Meroë, we took some photographs and collected a series of sherds.
This fragment of a large decorated vessel is one of the sixty fragments that were collected from the surface that day. In the footnotes, Field specified that this town was:
     not to be confused with Merowe (Napata) on the bend of the Nile. [John] Garstang, who excavated here from 1909 to 1914, found the Temple of Amun, the baths and Temple of Aspert (circa 590 B.C.) and the Temple of the Sun mentioned by Herodotus. Reisner (1920-1925) excavated a cemetery of brick pyramids used about 355-300 B.C.
The origin of both towns is with the Twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt whose pharaohs were Nubians and briefly ruled in the 8th century B.C. They left a trail of inscriptions where they portray themselves as the custodians of an "Egyptian" identity that they felt was being diluted by Asian influence. Their military enterprises against the Assyrians, however, failed to gain them a decisive victory and they were eventually defeated and driven back to their homeland. In the following centuries the capital - Napata - lost most of its appeal. Without the labor and skills of Egyptian artisans, the city infrastructures and bureaucracy started to crumble and the common people went quietly back to the previous way of life. The final demise of Napata as a power center is still matter of research.
Reisner's opinion was that the Meroitic culture was merely a continuation of the Napatan, originating after the transfer of the capital to Meroë and still unable to stop the decline of its past fortune. He dated the rise of the Meroitic kingdom to 308 B.C. but he also believed that  Nubian kings would return to be buried at Napata, which remained their sacred cradle for many decades afterward.
His interpretation and chronology had been variously challenged by other historians. One line of criticism came from the reading of Herodotus whose Histories have no mention of Napata while he wrote about "the great city of Meroë which is said to be the capital of the other Ethiopians (II, 29)". Since Herodotus was writing around 450 B.C. it made more sense to them to favor the establishment of Meroë as the royal palace and burial ground at 538 B.C.

One potsherd can tell a very long story.

Hearst Museum # 5-1004
Africa; Sudan; Meroë
Collected by UC African Expedition 1947-1948

John Garstang's field notes and collections are curated at the Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool. 

February 26, 2011


Yesterday, one of our volunteers was very excited to learn that the PAHMA curates some of the oldest stone tools ever fabricated. Coincidentally, two of them were briefly featured two years ago for the University Cal-Day event. Before presenting them here I would like to sincerely thank our many volunteers without whose work many projects at the museum would simply not happen.

This chopper from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania was dated to 1.8 million years ago. It was likely made by Homo abilis that is considered to be the first tool-maker. The Oldowan tradition will continue until 800.000 years ago overlapping in places with the later and more elaborate Acheulean tools.

Hearst Museum 5-1997
Chopper or bashing stone, quartz
Tanzania, Olduvai Gorge, Site FLK I
Collected by J. Desmond Clark, September 1960.

The hand-axe, also from the gorge, was dated to 1 million years ago and attributed to the Early Acheulean. Similar hand-axes were originally crafted by Homo ergaster/erectus as early as 1.5 million years ago. A few millennia later they accompanied him in his early forays to the Middle East and Europe where they represent the oldest evidence of human presence outside of Africa.

Hearst Museum 5-7826
Hand axe, nephelenite lava
Tanzania, Olduvai Gorge, Site KRK-III or IV, surface
Collected by Richard L. Hay, 1962 or 1964.

Below you can read the short text that accompanied the objects in the gallery with a philosophical commentary. 

February 4, 2011


The Department of Anthropology at University of California, Berkeley was established in 1901. In the words of Frederick W. Putnam the department and the museum were "necessary" to properly organize several archaeological and ethnological expeditions maintained on behalf of the University by Mrs. Phoebe A. Hearst*.
Phoebe Hearst didn't seem particularly enthusiastic about European prehistory although she had few objects - such as this scraper from Sweden - in her personal collection. As patron of the museum she financially supported Alfred Emerson in his collecting trips to Europe and around the Mediterranean. The turn of the last century witnessed a wealth of prehistoric research in the Old World but he largely focused on classical archaeology.
Between the world wars, a few single objects and small lithic assemblages from important paleolithic sites - mostly in France - were acquired. By the late 1960's these accessions had ceased and only few exchanges with other institutions took place. Old World archaeology at UC Berkeley was then mostly dedicated to Africa while European prehistory remained in the background. By the time professors Ruth Tringham and Meg Conkey came to the department in 1978 and 1987 respectively archaeology had greatly changed its modus operandi since the days of Putnam and Emerson. Large shipments of artifacts across the globe were no longer the norm as maintaining the relationship between objects and their original context was more highly valued and European governments began to restrict the trade in archaeological objects.
Laws on the export of cultural heritage are now very strict worldwide. Although, in the course of my own archaeological research, the Croatian government always granted me permission to borrow archaeological materials to study, traveling through customs was often challenging.

When compared to holdings from other geographic regions, today PAHMA curates a smaller collection of prehistoric artifacts of European provenience. It contains type tools of most cultures and traditions with the notable exception of the neolithic. Featured today is the biggest (and also one of the oldest) object in the European prehistoric collection. The chopper was collected in the Tagus Valley, in Portugal, by J. Desmond Clark; it measures 14 x 23.5 cm (5'5" x 9'2" in). Acheulean tools appeared in Europe around half million years ago.

Hearst Museum 7-5064
Early Acheulean cobble chopper
Europe, Portugal, Barreiras do Vale do Forno
Collected by J. Desmond Clark, September, 1964

*Dr. Ira Jacknis, the museum anthropologist, wrote a thorough history on the origins of the museum and the roles of its early constituents. For those who'd like to read it, please follow this link.