Category Archives: AFRICA

Climate change may be behind fall of an ancient empire, say researchers

Climate change may be behind fall of an ancient empire, say researchers

Despite a plethora of cuneiform textual documentation and archaeological excavations and field surveys, archaeologists and historians have been unable to explain the abruptness and finality of the historic empire’s collapse.

Numerous theories about the collapse have been put forward since the city and its destruction levels were first excavated by archaeologists 180 years ago.

But the mystery of how two small armies — the Babylonians in the south and the Medes in the east — were able to converge on Nineveh and completely destroy what was then the largest city in the world, without any reoccupation, has remained unsolved.

A team of researchers — led by Ashish Sinha, California State University, Dominguez Hills, and using archival and archaeological data contributed by Harvey Weiss, professor of Near Eastern archaeology and environmental studies at Yale — was able for the first time to determine the underlying cause for the collapse.

By examining new precipitation records of the area, the team discovered an abrupt 60-year megadrought that so weakened the Assyrian state that Nineveh was overrun in three months and abandoned forever. The research was published in Science Advances on Nov. 13.

An artist’s vision of the interior of an Assyrian palace, based on drawings made in 1849 by Austen Henry Layard on the site of 19th-century excavations.

Assyria was an agrarian society dependent on seasonal precipitation for cereal agriculture. To its south, the Babylonians relied on irrigation agriculture, so their resources, government, and society were not affected by the drought, explains Weiss.

The team analyzed stalagmites — a type of speleothem that grows up from a cave floor and is formed by the deposit of minerals from water — retrieved from Kuna Ba cave in northeast Iraq.

The layers of a stalagmite record the climate conditions of the time when they were created.

The speleothems can provide a history of climate through the oxygen and uranium isotope ratios of infiltrating water that is preserved in its layers.

Oxygen in rainwater comes in two main varieties: heavy and light. The ratio of heavy to light types of oxygen isotopes is extremely sensitive to variations in precipitation and temperature. Over time, uranium trapped in speleothems turns into thorium, allowing scientists to date the speleothem deposits.

Weiss and the research team synchronized these findings with archaeological and cuneiform records and were able to document the first paleoclimate data for the megadrought that affected the Assyrian heartland at the time of the empire’s collapse when its less drought-affected neighbors invaded.

The team’s research also revealed that this megadrought followed a high-rainfall period that facilitated the Assyrian empire’s earlier growth and expansion.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire rose during an unusual time of wet climate and collapsed soon after conditions swung to unusual dryness.

“Now we have a historical and environmental dynamic between north and south and between rain-fed agriculture and irrigation-fed agriculture through which we can understand the historical process of how the Babylonians were able to defeat the Assyrians,” said Weiss, adding that the total collapse of Assyria is still described by historians as the “mother of all catastrophes.”

Through the archaeology and history of the region, Weiss was able to piece together how the megadrought data were synchronous with Assyria’s cessation of long-distance military campaigns and the construction of irrigation canals that were similar to its southern neighbors but restricted in their agricultural extent.

Other texts noted that the Assyrians were worrying about their alliances with distant places, while also fearing internal intrigue, notes Weiss.

“This fits into a historical pattern that is not only structured through time and space but time and space that is filled with environmental change,” says Weiss. “These societies experienced climatic changes that were of such magnitude they could not simply adapt to them,” he adds.

With these new speleothem records, says Weiss, paleoclimatologists and archaeologists are now able to identify environmental changes in the global historical record that were unknown and inaccessible even 25 years ago. “History is no longer two-dimensional; the historical stage is now three-dimensional,” said Weiss.

Weiss’ previous research defined the 2200 B.C.E. global megadrought that generated societal collapse from the Mediterranean to China.

In addition to Weiss, researchers from California State University-Dominguez Hills, Xi’an Jiaotong University, University of Minnesota, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Ankara, and the University of Southern California contributed to the study.

Scientists explore Egyptian mummy bones with X-rays and infrared light

Scientists explore Egyptian mummy bones with X-rays and infrared light

Mummy’s bones are examined by lasers, x-rays and infrared technology which ‘ shine a light on ‘ daily life in ancient Egypt.

A collection of bone specimens from 2,000 to 4,000 years were tested using the Advanced Light Source at the California-based Berkeley Laboratories.

The bones are exposed to a range of wavelengths of clear light that can be used to investigate the composition, structure and other properties of the samples.

‘The bones are acting as an archive,’ said Mohamed Kasem from Cairo University who worked on the study.  

The researchers made ‘very thin slices’ of femur bones as part of the study, which they hope will be able to show how people lived, their diet, health and daily lives. 

A number of discoveries into the way the people of ancient Egypt lived are already being revealed thanks to the research – although a lot more time is needed to analyse the data, said Dr Kasem.

The team used a chemical-analysis technique, where a short laser pulse blasts away a small volume of material from a sample. The emitted light from the blast is then studied to determine what elements are present. 

‘We have found a lead, aluminium, and other elements that give us an indication of the environment and the toxicity of that time. That information is stored right in the bones,’ Dr Kasem said.

For example, while the ancient Egyptians didn’t use aluminium in metal-working, researchers have found that they used potassium alum, a chemical compound containing aluminium, to reduce cloudiness in drinking water. 

The team used X-rays to study how the collagen in the bones of the mummies compare to modern humans. When an X-ray is shined through the collagen the X-rays are scattered and the pattern of scattering they make can show researchers how healthy and well preserved the collagen is.

The collagen assemblies generally aren’t as well ordered in the ancient samples as in healthy modern bones, said Eric Schaible, a Berkley scientist.

The samples were brought over from Egypt by scientists from Cairo University and represent four different dynasties in Egypt: the Middle Kingdom, Second Intermediate Period, Late Period and Greco-Roman period. They have also examined soils taken from burial sites of the human remains.

‘So many factors affect preservation. One of them is how long the bone has been buried in soil and also the state of the bone and the different types of soil,’ said Dr Kasem.

Differences in embalming techniques could also affect the preservation of the bone and the chemistry they find in the X-ray studies.  ‘There are different qualities in the materials, like the cloth and the resins they used to embalm,’ he said. 

The soil samples will help distinguish whether chemical concentrations in the bone samples were related to the individuals’ health, diet, and daily lives, or whether the chemicals in the soil had changed the bones’ chemistry over time. 

The samples were recovered from two Egyptian sites – Saqqara, the site of an ancient burial ground and Aswan, the site of an ancient city on the bank of the Nile once known as Swenett.

It’s hoped the research into the way the soil interacts with the bones could help in future projects to preserve mummified remains.  

‘It’s very exciting to be involved in this project, and to learn about the journey these mummies have been on, in life and after death,’ Dr Schaible said.

Did ancient Egyptians trade nicotine and cocaine with the New World?

Did ancient Egyptians trade nicotine and cocaine with the New World?

Imagine the perfectly mummified Egyptian princess and priestess, Henut Taui, “The Lady of the Two Lands.” She was beautiful, powerful and gently alluring.

Imagine you’re thrust back in time and immediately invited to her palace to enjoy the most luxuriating experiences of the day.

As you sit near her throne, you’re showered with new delights and substances, the likes of which you never imagined you might find in Ancient Egypt, like cocaine and tobacco…

While this fantasy defies the narrative of mainstream Egyptology, there’s evidence it actually could have happened.

That’s because Henut Taui and the controversial “cocaine mummies” revealed a vast global trade network that linked the new world with Ancient Egypt.

During a study of the mummy of an ancient elite Egyptian – nicotine, and cocaine – Dr. Svetla Balabanowa found it shocking.

Soon the question came up: What did Lady Henut Taui have access to elements from the tobacco and coca plants about 3,000 years ago?

The interesting thing is that these plants only grew in the Americas at the time – not until the 19th century, they were shipped across the Atlantic.

The confusion led researchers to wonder if the mummy was fake or the tests were contaminated. However, a thorough analysis of the results shows that they were authentic. Does this mean the ancient Egyptians had reached the Americas?

An examination in the 1970s of the mummy of Ramesses II revealed fragments of tobacco leaves in its abdomen.

Archaeological findings show that Egyptians were adept at navigating the seas. For example, Queen Hatshepsut is known to have funded an expedition to the mysterious Land of Punt around 1477 BC.

A relief depicting the journey has been found at Deir el-Bahri (in modern-day Luxor). That mural shows large ships packed with men, gold, trees, and exotic animals.

The flora and fauna shown in the artwork are thought to have existed along the coasts of African and the Arabian Peninsula. These findings show that the ancient Egyptians could complete some longer oceanic voyages.

Members of Hatshepsut’s trading expedition to the mysterious ‘Land of Punt’ from this pharaoh’s elegant mortuary temple at Deir El-Bahri.

A 2011 discovery made on the Red Sea coast, furthered the belief in the seafaring capacity of the ancient Egyptians.

An archaeologist working in a dried-up lagoon came across the ruins of an ancient harbor. Timber, rigging, reed mats, steering oars, cedar planks, and limestone anchors were all unearthed.

Original knots which were joining the main pieces of the Khufu Boat. The cedar timbers of the boat’s curved hull were lashed together with hemp rope in a technique used until recent times by traditional shipbuilders on the shores of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean

Possible evidence of an unproven Egyptian voyage to the Americas has been found in the Marble Region of the Grand Canyon.

The Arizona Gazette reported on April 5, 1909, that two explorers funded by the Smithsonian found various Egyptian artifacts, including tablets with hieroglyphics, inside caves.

The problem is the Smithsonian has no known records of the discovery.

That find would provide strong evidence to support the belief ancient Egyptians reached the Americas – though it may also be considered inconvenient by some groups to go against the story of the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, as it could drastically alter perceptions of events and the celebration of traditions such as Columbus Day.

Egyptian tomb painting from 1450 BC. Caption: “Officer with sounding pole…is telling crew to come ahead slow. Engineers with cat-o’-nine-tails assuring proper response from engines.”

El-Kurru’s Carved Graffiti Reveal Another Side of Ancient Nubia

El-Kurru’s Carved Graffiti Reveal Another Side of Ancient Nubia

Now, northern Sudan, which has mostly desert boundaries with Egypt. Moreover, this part of the Nile Valley was once the domain of Kush, a strong African civilization. It traded in Egypt and in the Mediterranean region gold and the products of inner Africa.

For over 2000 years Kush has been the largest power in this region, reaching its greatest extent in conquering Egypt as its 25th dynasty from about 725-653 BCE. Kush was ruled from the capital of Meroe in the years 300 BCE to 300 CE.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the city was built on the Nile about 100 miles north of modern-day Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.

The ancient royal cemetery of El-Kurru, with the modern town of El-Kurru and the Nile in the background.

Other regions of Kush remained important, however. These included the older capital region of Napata, which centered on the “holy mountain” of Jebel Barkal and included the nearby pyramid cemetery of El-Kurru.

There were a number of temples and other sacred sites in Kush. And, as per the research in El-Kurru has documented, visitors to these sites had one particular religious ritual that may strike some as strange: they carved graffiti in important and sacred places.

These graffiti can still be seen today at several sacred sites in what was the kingdom of Kush – on a pyramid and in a temple at El-Kurru, at a seasonal pilgrimage center called Musawwarat es-Sufra, and in the Temple of Isis at Philae, at the border with Egypt.

A graffito of a chicken facing two leaping horses in the temple of El-Kurru.
A graffito of a chicken facing two leaping horses in the temple of El-Kurru.
One of the numerous boats on the pyramid walls, likely made by a Christian pilgrim.
One of the numerous boats on the pyramid walls, likely made by a Christian pilgrim.

The curators of an exhibition detailing the recently discovered graffiti from El-Kurru.

The exhibition is on view at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan until March 2020. It features photographs, text, and interactive media presentations that unpack the practice and its importance in Kushite society. 

A catalog written in conjunction with the exhibition presents selected examples of graffiti from the Nile valley and beyond, including the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

All accustomed to understanding ancient cultures almost entirely through the activities of the powerful elite and the art they left behind in their palaces, temples, and tombs. But that creates a distorted picture of ancient life – as distorted as such a picture would be today.

The graffiti featured in this exhibition allows a glimpse into some of the activities of non-elite people and their religious devotion to particular places. It’s a reminder that society is more than the elite and powerful.

Marking place and time

The graffiti at El-Kurru were discovered by a Kelsey Museum archaeological excavation, on a pyramid, and in an underground temple at the site.

El-Kurru was a royal cemetery for the kings of the Napatan dynasty, who ruled Egypt as the 25th dynasty. But the graffiti date to several hundred years after the kings’ rule. By this time the pyramids and funerary temple were partially abandoned, yet people were visiting the site and carving graffiti.

The funerary temple and the largest pyramid at El-Kurru.

The graffiti includes clear symbols of ancient Kush, like the ram that represented the local form of the god Amun, and a long-legged archer who symbolized Kushite prowess in archery. There are also intricate textile designs as well as animals – beautiful horses, birds, and giraffes.

The most common marks are small round holes gouged in the stone. By analogy with modern practices, these are probably areas where temple visitors scraped the wall of the holy place to collect powdered stone that they would ingest to promote fertility and healing.

Egypt says it’s unearthed large animal mummy, likely a lion

Egypt says it’s unearthed large animal mummy, likely a lion

Egypt, Cairo: The Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt reports that locals have uncovered the remains of an exceptionally large animal possibly the lion or lioness.

On Monday, the Minister informed, the mummy that it had been excavated in Saqqara, a town south of Cairo that was a vast necropolis in antiquity and is home to the famed Step Pyramid.

Mummified cats are often found by archeology, but a lion recovery is rare.

A first lion skeleton was found in 2004 which revealed the animal’s sacred status in ancient times.

The ministry says it will expand on the discovery at a press conference after running radar scans.

Egypt has stepped up promotion of its archeological treasures in hopes of reviving a tourism sector slow to recover from the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.