Showing posts with label archaeology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label archaeology. Show all posts

02 October 2012


The book 'Britain Begins' tells the story of the landscape and people who lived in these islands from the end of the last great ice-age (when they were still part of mainland Europe) right up to the end of the Saxon period. It's a great read.

Part of north-west Europe 10 000 years agoI'm currently working my way through 'Britain Begins', Barry Cunliffe's latest book. Sir Barry Cunliffe is a well-regarded archaeologist working at Oxford University. In fact he's Emeritus Professor of European Archaeology at the University's Institute of Archaeology.

In the book he traces the origins of human occupation in what is now the British Isles, though at the time of the early settlements some 10 000 years ago, most the North Sea was an extension of the North European Plain and Britain was part of the European continent.

Part of an illustration from the book (right) shows some of the Atlantic coastline of Europe around 30 000 years ago, along with the ice sheets in grey and today's coastlines in orange. (Doggerland in my title refers to the central part of what is now the North Sea. It was an area of rolling hills and river valleys.)

Although the ice retreated almost completely from Britain by 15 000 years ago, sea levels remained low for some time and migrating hunter-gatherer communities would have been able to live in the new landscapes right across areas that are now the English Channel and the North Sea.

What a fascinating insight into a time before history began. Although we don't know the details of life in those days, Cunliffe is able to draw a lively picture in a general way. He writes of the separation of Ireland...

The return to temperate conditions beginning around 9600 BC set in train the processes that created the British Isles familiar to us today. The first stage was the separation of Ireland from the mainland. This occurred around 9000 BC as the deep river valley, scoured out by the flow of meltwater from the Scottish ice-cap, was progressively flooded by the rising sea until the last land bridge between the north of Ireland and the Inner Hebrides was broken through. The deeper waters of St George's Channel and the North Channel, now below 50 fathoms, mark the course of this original valley.

It's a great book and I highly recommend it. Cunliffe condenses a great deal of scientific and archaeological data into a cohesive description of Britain from the final stages of the ice-age to the time of the Norman Conquest and the end of Saxon rule. The book is accessible to the interested layman (like me!) but will also find a special place on library shelves in schools and universities.

If you're interested in the history of these islands - buy a copy!

01 December 2011

Western wall not built by Herod

Recent archaeological work suggests the Jerusalem Temple's Western Wall was built at least twenty years after the death of Herod the Great.

Large blocks of stone thrown down by the Romans
Two Roman coins dated to 17 AD were found in a mikveh (a ritual bath) underneath the bottom row of stone blocks of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Herod died 21 years earlier than this, so he cannot have been responsible for building the outer wall.

If this is right, then when the disciples discussed the Temple with Yahshua, the outer compound wall was only about ten years old; very possibly still under construction.

In some ways it makes the conversation even more striking. The Second Temple was the latest wonder, a fantastic piece of engineering, in some ways more than the equal of the Greek Parthenon or any of the buildings in Rome. Something to be proud of, a statement of the power of the Most High in the minds of all the people of Judea.

Yahshua left the Temple and was walking away when his awestruck, enthusiastic disciples came over to call his attention to its buildings. "Look, Master. See these huge blocks of stone, so new and beautifully fitted together! Just look at the amazing carvings and the expensive, donated ornament glorifying the Most High."

"Yes, just look at it all", he said. "In all seriousness I'm telling you that not one stone will be left standing on another, the whole lot will be thrown down". (Based on Matthew 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6)

And that is exactly what happened. In 70 AD, less than 40 years later; the Roman army under Titus captured the city, tore down the Temple, and threw the stones over the wall where some of them lie to this day.

See also: Old coins force re-think on Jerusalem's Western Wall, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount Not Completed by King Herod

16 February 2010

Hebrew origins - recent evidence

A pottery shard found in 2008 may be the earliest known text in an early form of Hebrew and dates to the 10th century BC. The western gate of Khirbet QeiyafaThis is around the time of King David and would push the archaeological record of the language back by about 400 years from the previous oldest recorded sample.

The new evidence may also support the idea that parts of the Bible were written far earlier than previously thought. The piece of pottery recently unearthed at Khirbet Qeiyafa carries an ink inscription. As recently interpreted by Gershon Galil it closely resembles several Bible passages from Exodus, Psalms, and Isaiah. Earlier translations are less clear.

Gershon Galil's version reads
You shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord]. Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an] [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and] the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king. Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.

17 December 2008

The Antikythera Mechanism

The heavily corroded remains of an intricate and strange looking mechanism were found in 1901 in a Mediterranean shipwreck. The calendar dial of the deviceSixty years later after painstaking cleaning and study, it emerged that the device was a mechanical analogue computer for predicting the movements of the sun and moon in the sky. Various replicas have been built based on the known features of the mechanism.

The Antikythera mechanism makes it abundantly clear that the Greeks were advanced, not only in their scientific knowledge, but also in their mechanical technology. Reports from ancient writers like the Roman author, Cicero, describe mechanisms such as Antikythera. But until the corroded remains were recovered and studied these written accounts seemed fanciful. Surely the ancient world had nothing this advanced?

More recent studies have used high resolution X-ray tomography, and better reconstructions have become possible.

One of the later reconstructions can be seen working in the video below. If you view the video from You Tube you can switch to a higher resolution.

The X-ray tomography data has opened up a new window into the workings of the device. But it has also enabled historians to read a considerable amount of Greek text from the metal surfaces. This text consists partly of labels on the various scales and displays the mechanism used to present the positions of planets, calendar dates and so forth. The remainder of the text is a guide on how to use the device.

A great deal can be learned from the inscribed text. The names of the months varied from place to place in the ancient Greek world and this means we can determine its place of manufacture or intended use to be the central Mediterranean, not as originally supposed the eastern Aegean.

A longer and more technical video is presented on the Nature website (select the high resolution version and watch it in full-screen for the best view). There are also links to the Nature paper by Freeth, Jones, Steele, and Bitsakis, and a Nature news story (though there's a fee for the full text of these).

Wikipedia's article on the mechanism provides more detail for the average reader and has an excellent list of references, links, and suggested additional reading. One of the links is an article from New Scientist giving a good deal of background.


19 July 2008


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Why am I interested in astronomy? I think it's because I'm fascinated by the vastness of the Universe and the amazing variety of objects it contains - including, of course, the Earth.

I don't remember when I developed this interest. I do remember being 14 or 15 years old and saving my pocket money to buy 'The Observer's Book of Astronomy' (I still have it), and around the same time I remember watching 'The Sky At Night', a monthly TV program that is one of the longest running series ever. It was (and still is) presented by Patrick Moore whose enthusiasm was intense and exciting. That was in the days when TV was only available in black and white.

I remember being even younger and looking at a nearly total eclipse of the Sun through heavily smoked glass, it was 30th June 1954, just a few weeks before my sixth birthday. Dad wanted me to see the eclipse because there wasn't going to be another like it in the UK until 1999!

I also remember projecting an image of the sun with an old telescope, and drawing the sunspots when there were any to be seen. I used the same telescope at night to look at Jupiter and the four Galilean moons.

The fascination has never left me. The more you learn about distant objects, the more you understand about the structure of the Universe, the more amazing it all seems. When I was a small child space exploration was the stuff of science fiction, but when I was nine the Russians launched Sputnik and space became a real place that could be visited. The world had changed, and so did astronomy.

To me it seems an immense priviledge to have witnessed the beginning of spaceflight and the blossoming of modern astronomy. Astronomy had blossomed once before with the invention of the telescope in the early 17th century, but the flow of new information slowed to a crawl once resolution of the instruments reached the limits imposed by the Earth's shimmering atmosphere. But now we could image and measure from outside the atmosphere and a whole new series of possibilities opened up. I drank it all in.

For me, astronomy is special amongst the sciences. It's special because it reveals how vast and how old the Universe is; it gives a better perspective of our own smallness. So there is a tangible link with my Christian beliefs, astronomy helps me to understand that bringing the Universe into existence was a task requiring unimaginable authority and imagination.

Then there are links with photography because imaging is such an important technique in astronomy. Many astronomical images are breathtakingly beautiful, if you want to enjoy some you can do much worse than visit the 'Astronomy Picture Of The Day' (APOD).

Computing is essential in modern astronomy, and computer simulations of the night sky are interesting and instructive. There are clear links between astronomy and other sciences such as physics, chemistry, and even biology. And there are links with technology too, how would you do astronomy without a spacecraft, a telescope, a camera - it's a long list.

There are powerful links with history and archaeology, astronomy allows dates to be tied to recorded events like solar eclipses and planetary conjunctions. If a Chinese, Egyptian or Sumerian record says there was an eclipse on the 12 day of the eighth month of the third year of so-and-so's reign we may be able to lock the ancient calendar onto a date in our own calendar.

I could continue, but I think you get the idea. We live in an amazing place, so big that this Earth of ours is just a tiny speck. Astronomy shows us how small we truly are. It gives us a sense of proportion. And it's connected with almost everything we are and do.

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