Tag Archives: archaeology

Friday essay: invisible no more – putting the first women archaeologists of the Pacific back on the map


Mary Elizabeth Shutler in Vanuatu, in the1960s. Permitted to join the first archaeological expedition to New Caledonia in 1952 as a ‘voluntary assistant’, she was the only French speaker and chief interlocuter with the Kanak people.
Family archives, reproduced with the kind authorisation of John Shutler & Susan Arter.

Emilie Dotte-Sarout, The University of Western Australia and India Ella Dilkes-Hall, The University of Western AustraliaHistory is the study of “present traces of the past”, as historian Judith Allen once put it. In our Pacific Matildas research project, we are recovering the hidden traces of the first female archaeologists in the Pacific.

Historians of western science have well documented the “Matilda effect”: how female scientists were written out of history, with barriers to accessing education, qualifications and professional roles.

Often, women had to practice science via alternative pathways (such as by making scientific illustrations). This rendered them invisible in the records and/or concealed by the “halo effect” – where prominent scientists (typically older, white men) were credited for the work of less recognised collaborators.




Read more:
Women have been written out of science history – time to put them back


Archaeology, the discipline that uses material remains of the past to trace human history, has long been associated with the image of a solitary masculine adventurer rather than a woman with a trowel in hand. The TrowelBlazers project, for instance, seeks to remedy this by celebrating women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists.

Pacific Matildas focuses on our own region, Oceania, to tell the stories of the first women in the field, to understand the barriers they faced and highlight their legacies.

The Hienghene area far to the north of Noumea. Pacific Matildas focuses on women archaeologists of Oceania.
James Shrimpton/AAP

Our interactive map locates the research conducted by 50 women identified as Pacific Matildas: the first women to participate in the development of archaeology as a science.

Our timeline starts with those rare women who took part in European voyages of exploration. It ends with the exponential entry of women into professional archaeology after the 1960s.

The earliest we know of was Rose de Freycinet who accompanied her husband, Louis de Freycinet on an expedition around the world in 1817-1820.

Rose de Freycinet by Jacques Arago.
Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Rose was the first woman to record her circumnavigation, writing down her observations of Indigenous groups in places such as Australia, The Mariana Islands and Hawai’i, including details on their customs and material culture. Although not directly related to archaeology (the discipline was just emerging), her writings are important as the first direct source voicing a female, western view of the Pacific.

The Pacific Matildas include lesser known researchers such as Mā’ohi expert Aurora Tetunui Natua, who collaborated with many 20th century western archaeologists in French Polynesia. They also include more recently recognised scholars, such as New Zealand’s Janet Davidson, renowned for her pioneering research across many Pacific islands and her work in NZ cultural heritage.

As well as putting the women back on the Pacific map, our bibliographic catalogue compiles some 2,000 written works produced by or through the labour of these women, so their scientific legacy can be rediscovered, analysed and referenced. Importantly, we include not just English references but some in French, German, Spanish and Tahitian.

Rose de Freycinet in front of the tent to the right of the observatory, Shark Bay, Western Australia in 1819; reproductions of original watercolours painted on the Freycinet voyage by Jacques Arago and Alphonse Pellion.
Wikimedia Commons

Pacific Matildas are not always listed as authors of these works. We have sometimes had to identify their contributions by reading against the grain: finding traces of their essential roles in the acknowledgements or prefaces of publications; in unpublished reports and in archival documents such as photographs, field-notes, journals and letters.

One such example is Jeanne Michel Leenhardt, an indispensable collaborator in New Caledonia to both her famous pastor-anthropologist husband Maurice Leenhardt and early archaeologist Marius Archambault.

Jeanne Michel was born in 1881 in France and well educated. Her father was an influential art historian and curator at the Louvre Museum; her mother was born and raised in Hawai’i as the daughter of the minister of foreign affairs. Jeanne Michel married Leenhardt in 1902, eager to embrace the missionary vocation.

Jeanne Michel and Maurice Leenhardt.
Association des amis de Henry et Stella Corbin

During almost two decades living in New Caledonia, she took an active part in her husband’s research. She gathered ethnographical information – notably from women – discussed his ideas and edited his writings. These writings also considered the island’s prehistory in collaboration with Archambault’s work.

Back in France, she continued to work with her husband, attending scientific meetings and conferences with him. Jeanne Leenhardt is never officially mentioned as a collaborator in her husband’s writings. But historical archives, family letters and other accounts help to document her essential role.

Interestingly, women who succeeded in practicing as archaeologists or anthropologists, often did have their skills acknowledged and were well respected by their contemporary male peers. While the latter had stable professional positions, the women mostly had to navigate insecure positions, working as “assistants” or “volunteers”. Thus the legacy of their research has faded quickly compared to the men of the time.




Read more:
Hidden women of history: Ennigaldi-Nanna, curator of the world’s first museum


Beyond ‘founding fathers’

The Pacific Matildas map is a striking reminder that all along, women were actively present in the field. But we, the younger generations of Pacific archaeologists and historians of science, have been blinded when it comes to seeing them and their contributions.

A screenshot of the Pacific Matildas map.
Author provided

For instance, when studying Pacific archaeology in the 2000s (in France and Australia), we would hear about “founding fathers”. This included Edward Gifford, leader of archaeological expeditions in the 1940s and 1950s in the Pacific southwest, attached to the discovery of Lapita (first settlement) sites dating back 3,000 years; José Garanger, who started the only course in France on Pacific prehistory in the 1970s; Te Rangi Hiroa, Maori scholar of Polynesian cultural history and director of the influential Bishop Museum in Hawai’i in the 1930s, or Ralph Linton, first PhD in Pacific archaeology in 1925, at Harvard.

We learnt a lot less about the successful academic career of Mary Elizabeth Shutler, who played a critical role in the first professional archaeological expedition (led by Gifford) to New Caledonia in 1952. Born in California as Mary Elizabeth Hall, she began studying anthropology at UC Berkeley in the late 1940s. There, she met and married fellow student Richard. When he was invited to join the Gifford expedition, she was able to join as a “voluntary assistant” because she spoke French.

In fact, she was the only French-speaking team member, becoming the main interlocutor to local Kanak fieldworkers and expedition guides. She gathered oral traditions and cultural information related to archaeological sites they excavated – including, possibly, the name of the famous Lapita (Xapeta’a) site, on the west coast of New Caledonia’s Grande Terre.

Despite this, and historical sources clearly demonstrating her active role in archaeological fieldwork, the monograph for the expedition is authored by Edward Gifford and Richard Shutler.

An elaborately decorated pot found during an archaeological dig in Vanuatu, shedding light on Lapita settlement and society in the region.
Colin MacGregor/AAP

Mary Elizabeth Shutler then pioneered ethno-archaeological studies of pottery in Vanuatu. She led archaeological excavations and analyses with her husband in the archipelago, while studying to obtain her PhD in 1967 and raising three children. Later, in the US, she went on to a successful academic career in a number of American universities.

Opening doors

Similarly, few would be familiar with the work of Tahiti’s Aurora Germaine Tetunui Natua, who coordinated fieldwork access for archaeological research conducted in French Polynesia between the 1950s and 1980s – including some led by “founding fathers”.

Born in Papeʻete in 1909 in a respected scholarly local family with strong links to Tahiti and Maupiti, Natua was an early local collaborator to western scientists. She spent some time in France – one of the first Pacific islanders to join the newly formed Society of Oceanists in 1945 – and became archivist-librarian then curator of the Museum of Tahiti, a position she held for more than 30 years.

Taputapuātea Marae of Raiatea, French Polynesia, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Shutterstock

Her essential collaboration in anthropological and archaeological research conducted in French Polynesia is traceable in a long trail of acknowledgements and references found in several published and unpublished works. Historical sources show she was excavating with the scientists and present in the archaeological operations from the very beginning – as negotiator, translator and supervisor of the land access.

She was there too, in the final stages of conservation and analysis of the artefacts discovered – as a recognised scholar, librarian and curator. For western researchers, she was literally a key person: opening (or closing) the doors to Polynesian archaeology.




Read more:
The stories of Tupaia and Omai and their vital role as Captain Cook’s unsung shipmates


Pioneers

As far as we know, the second and third PhDs ever earned in Pacific archaeology were obtained by women. One of them was Margarete Schurig. We know little about her as she tragically died soon after completing her doctoral dissertation on Pacific pottery in 1926 at the University of Leipzig.

The other was Laura Maud Thompson who completed her PhD on “Native trade in southeast New Guinea” in 1933 at UC Berkeley. Thompson was born in Hawai’i in 1905 to English and American parents. She studied anthropology on the mainland in the 1920s – among the very first women to do so.

In her memoirs, she recounted the prejudices she faced as a woman. She could not enrol in Harvard as women were not admitted. She left Radcliffe, where she was studying as a graduate, after a professor of Oceania studies requested she sit in the hall rather than the lecture room where she might “distract” the men.

The Bishop Museum, Hawai’i, where Thompson worked.
Shutterstock

Despite this, she worked as assistant ethnologist at Hawaii’s Bishop Museum on archaeological collections from the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean. She undertook fieldwork in Fiji and then the Mariana, publishing her archaeological results and ethnological analyses. The rest of her long and successful career shifted towards more socio-cultural and applied anthropology, in North America and Guam, where she developed strong relationships with the CHamoru people.

Thompson’s research on Guam was based on analysis of collections and field-notes gathered by husband and wife team Hans and Gertrude Hornbostel. Born in Switzerland in 1893, Gertrude had moved with her family to Guam at the age of eleven.

Traces of ancient buildings on the island of Guam.
Shutterstock

There, she learned to speak fluent CHamoru and became known as “Trudis Alemån” – a name she later published under. Gertrude met and married Hans in 1914, assisting him with his work as an anthropologist. She collected, recorded and translated CHamoru stories, songs and customs, producing illustrations of important archaeological sites and artefacts.




Read more:
Where were all the women in the Stone Age?


‘Wives’

Many “wives” of noted archaeologists took part in archaeological excavations, data analysis, and monograph writing, sometimes only to have their contributions mentioned in the acknowledgement section.

Take the research of Douglas and Carolyn Osborne in the mid-20th century. The pair met as graduate archaeology students at the University of New Mexico, marrying in 1941. From 1954-55, they conducted some of the first systematic surveys and excavations of prehistoric sites in Palau. Carolyn is not a co-author of the seminal 1966 publication, The archaeology of the Palau Islands, an intensive survey. Instead her role and contributions are simply acknowledged by her husband. He writes:

The work of laboratory analysis and recording, including shard analysis, cataloguing, photographic developing, and negative filing was all done by my wife, Carolyn. It would not have been possible for me to do the extensive survey work that was accomplished had I not had my keen and well-trained partner with me.

What is clear is that Carolyn’s involvement was crucial to the success of the research. What is less clear is how she ended up absent as co-author of a work for which she was largely responsible.

Katherine Routledge, circa 1919.
Wikimedia Commons

Even the work of one of the best known, trailblazing field archaeologists, Katherine Routledge, in Rapa Nui (Easter Island) has not been properly considered in all its importance. In 1914, Routledge, a British archaeologist and anthropologist, was among the earliest to conduct planned archaeological excavations in the Pacific.

Her legacy was under-explored until archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg wrote a 2003 book about her, examining her unpublished field-notes and other archives.




Read more:
The truth about Easter Island: a sustainable society has been falsely blamed for its own demise


The intellectual context for Routledge’s expedition, the field and excavation methods applied, the complex relationships established with the Rapa Nui community and the results of her work – notably her conclusions that the large statues, mo’ai, were indeed linked to the past of the Indigenous people of the island (and not to a mysterious civilisation) – still needs to be integrated into the general narratives about the history of Pacific archaeology.

Mo’ai statues in the Rano Raraku Volcano in Easter Island, Rapa Nui National Park, Chile.
Shutterstock

There are many more stories to tell about the Pacific Matildas. More often than not, these open doors to even more hidden histories – especially those of Pasifika people who played an instrumental role in the work of early archaeologists.

Historians are gathering increasing evidence that “minority” groups found ingenious alternative ways to participate in the development of science. Yet we cannot ignore the intersectionality of various factors of oppression – typically race, class, gender and complex colonial relationships – which made it harder for some people to do so.

That’s why it is important to continue fighting discrimination and supporting diversity in scientific research. One of the best tools we have is to talk loudly about the figures, such as these women, who played an instrumental role in building our scientific knowledge of the world. For too long they have remained hidden behind “founding fathers”.

The Matildas were identified as “women” mainly by their collaborators and the dominant social structures around them, which might not always correspond to their own chosen gender identity, a complex matter we acknowledge.

Access The Pacific Matildas Bibliographic Database (© India Ella Dilkes-Hall and Emilie Dotte-Sarout, 2021) and The Pacific Matildas Geographical Visualisation (© India Ella Dilkes-Hall, 2021).The Conversation

Emilie Dotte-Sarout, ARC DECRA research fellow, The University of Western Australia and India Ella Dilkes-Hall, Forrest Foundation Prospect Fellow, The University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Unearthing Falerii Novi’s secrets in the hot Italian summer: an archaeologist reports from the dig


Shutterstock

Emlyn Dodd, Macquarie UniversityLocated about 50 kilometres north of Rome, the ancient city of Falerii Novi lies buried beneath agricultural fields and olive groves. City walls still stand in an almost complete circuit and visitors pass through the monumental western gate to enter the site.

The findings from detailed ground-penetrating radar mapping were published a year ago. Now the real business of digging has begun.

At the ancient site, our teams have already discovered remnants of daily life from more than 2,000 years ago. We hope excavation will yield rare insight into antiquity with its preserved urban layout, just like at the buried city of Pompeii.

A ‘new’ city

Ancient authors Polybius and Livy tell us the city was founded by Rome in 241 BCE, following the defeat of a revolt led by the inhabitants of nearby Falerii Veteres (now Civita Castellana). According to one source, 12th-century chronicler Zonaras, Rome forcibly resettled the defeated Faliscans to a less defensible location — Falerii Novi or “new Falerii”. Its construction, intimately associated with the Roman road Via Amerina, is a rare example of preserved Roman Republican urban planning.

ancient ruins
The Ancient Roman road Via Amerina.
Shutterstock

The city was occupied through Roman antiquity and to the early medieval period (6th and 7th centuries CE). It was on a key strategic trading route leading north from Rome, perhaps from Ponte Milvio, through central Italy.

We know little of its later history, except that the still-standing church of Santa Maria di Falleri was founded by Benedictines in 1036, disbanded in 1392 and the building was in ruins by 1571. It is now largely restored with excavated Roman roads visible beneath the floor.

When and how Falerii Novi became buried remains a mystery. How did such a large walled city become covered in so much soil? And what happened in late antiquity to cause its abandonment? The current dig may answer those questions too.

The church of Santa Maria di Falleri in 1972.
Wikimedia Commons



Read more:
Cave of Horror: fresh fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls echo dramatic human stories


Old digs, new tricks

Three scattered attempts at excavation have been made previously. From 1821–30 a Polish team explored around the theatre area and in a (now lost) residential and commercial street-side strip. Towards the end of the 19th century work was attempted at a number of locations near city gates. And local Soprintendenza archaeologists looked at an area on the western flank of the suspected forum from 1969-75.

The site’s historical importance and immense potential, alongside developing technology, led to renewed archaeological attempts.

From 1997–8, topographic survey and surface collection were combined with magnetometry to get a broader sense of the city’s urban layout, chronology and neighbourhoods. This revealed structures including theatres, bathhouses, villas, temples and a forum a few feet under the ground.

Later, this was extended outside the city walls, revealing tombs, buildings and roads leading towards an amphitheatre.

Ground-penetrating radar map of buried structures at Falerii Novi, entire city on right and detail of possible bathhouse on left.
L. Verdonck, Google Earth, Antiquity Journal

Recently a survey of the entire city using cutting-edge ground-penetrating radar produced sharper images and created a three-dimensional rendering of sub-surface features. Completely new structures were revealed, including a colossal structure, over 100 metres long, thought to be a colonnaded temple against the north city wall.

The detailed map produced by these efforts is now being used to pin-point excavation areas.




Read more:
Six reasons to save archaeology from funding cuts


Breaking new ground

I’m one of the people working on the first season of systematic excavation (started in June) by a collaborative team from the Universities of Harvard and Toronto, the British School at Rome and under the concession of the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per la Provincia di Viterbo e l’Etruria Meridionale.

We have opened a series of over 120 small test pits across the site. These will provide an initial understanding of various neighbourhoods — domestic, productive, religious, civic — along with chronological and spatial densities of habitation and material.

We start digging at 8am, stopping for breaks through the heat of the day, and finishing around 4pm. The work is sweaty and dirty in the hot Italian summer, but the promise of this site excites and energises everyone.

people sifting dirt in field
Sampling via test pits is under way but larger trenches will follow.
B. Fochetti, Author provided

Work so far has revealed clues to the early occupancy of the site soon after founding in 241 BCE. What archaeologists call “black gloss ware” — a typical type of Roman Republican pottery — has been pulled out of test pits. Small pieces of Roman glass, metal slag and other ceramics are also present. Pieces of shimmering, iridescent green-glazed medieval pottery were also found, highlighting continued, post-Roman occupancy.

Next, larger-scale trenches will be opened at areas of interest. Perhaps around domestic structures and insulae (groups of buildings). Revealing the macellum marketplace, might tell us what was bought and sold, what commercial structures looked like and who was engaged in these activities. A taberna (typically a one-room shop) on the edge of the central forum may tell us about the goods and services on offer.




Read more:
A batshit experiment: bones cooked in bat poo lift the lid on how archaeological sites are formed


Testing the soil

A team from Ghent University is following up previous work on site with Cambridge University. This year they are taking core samples (called augering) up to 5 metres below the current ground level. This gives archaeologists a snapshot of the site across time: human impacts on the landscape, environmental data, habitation and material changes.

Analysing core samples from up to 5m below the surface.
A. Hoffelinck

Early results are starting to show the very real and profound effect of Roman settlement in the area. Pottery from cores also indicates occupancy over a long time, perhaps even earlier than told to us by Polybius and Livy.

Work will continue in 2022 when the first large trenches are opened and a new view of life at Roman Falerii Novi is illuminated.




Read more:
Pompeii: ancient remains are helping scientists learn what happens to a body caught in a volcanic eruption


The Conversation


Emlyn Dodd, Assistant Director of Archaeology, British School at Rome; Honorary Postdoctoral Fellow, Macquarie University; Research Affiliate, Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Ancient Egyptian City Found



How do archaeologists know where to dig?



A variety of clues can tip off archaeologists about a promising spot for excavation.
Gabriel Wrobel , CC BY-ND

Gabriel D. Wrobel, Michigan State University and Stacey Camp, Michigan State University

National Geographic magazines and Indiana Jones movies might have you picturing archaeologists excavating near Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge and Machu Picchu. And some of us do work at these famous places.

But archaeologists like us want to learn about how people from the past lived all over the planet. We rely on left-behind artifacts to help fill out that picture. We need to excavate in places where there’s evidence of human activity – those clues from the past aren’t always as obvious as a giant pyramid, though.

Finding that evidence can be as simple as strolling past clearly distinguishable ruins – ah, there are some broken pots or carved stones right over there. It can be as complex as using lasers, satellite imagery and other new geophysical techniques to reveal long-lost structures. The right skills and tools are helping researchers locate traces from the past that would have been overlooked even a few decades ago.

Open eyes, open ears, open minds

The simplest and oldest identification method is a pedestrian survey: looking for evidence of human activity, either on unstructured strolls or when walking in a grid. Unless the evidence is crystal clear – like those broken pots – such surveys usually need a trained eye to read the clues.

In Belize, where one of us (Gabe) works, remains of houses and even large temple pyramids that were abandoned over 1,000 years ago are usually covered in trees and plants; exposed sections look like stone piles.

I brought my father to a site where workers had removed the thick foliage so archaeologists could thoroughly map the site. Another archaeologist and I excitedly discussed the visible architectural features – patios, terraces, the stubs of walls. Finally, my dad threw his hands up in the air and said “All I see are rocks!”

But our trained eyes recognized that the piles of stones or earthen mounds we saw were suspiciously aligned. Stare at archaeological sites long enough and you’ll notice them too.

man beside a rocky mound
Archaeologist Josue Ramos from the Belize Institute of Archaeology stands beside a mound of rocks newly revealed in cleared jungle. Its size and shape show that this site is part of an ancient building.
Gabriel Wrobel, CC BY-ND

Understanding what you see also can require familiarity with local geology and flora. And who is more familiar than the people who live in a region? It pays for archaeologists to make friends with the locals and to be very respectful of their knowledge. In my work in Belize, most of the settlement and ritual cave sites where my students and I work were initially identified by local hunters who know the forest and its landmarks intimately.

One time, I was walking through the jungle in Belize when a local friend of mine stopped suddenly in what appeared to me as a random cluster of trees. He said “This must have been someone’s farm.” He’d seen specific domestic plants that are commonly found in gardens in his village. Not being as familiar with local flora, I never would have noticed this subtle difference. So, even living plants can be considered part of human-modified archaeological sites.

High-tech remote sensing

In recent years, archaeologists have begun to use new methods to find archaeological sites that had previously been overlooked. These techniques, broadly referred to as remote sensing, allow us to peer through dense forests without clearing them, digitally removing jungle growth and centuries of soil to reveal long-lost structures hidden beneath. High-resolution scans using lasers or 3D photographs can even detect subtle undulations of ground surfaces that are not visible to the human eye.

Digital Elevation Model
The view of fields around the Maya site of Saturday Creek, Belize. The image on left stitched together thousands of photographs into a single 3D surface. The image on the right used virtual illumination to highlight small changes in elevation to identify ancient house mounds.
Models created by Mark Willis, used with permission of Eleanor Harrison-Buck, CC BY-ND

For instance, LiDAR – light detection and ranging – fires pulsed lasers to determine distance based on what reflects back and how quickly. When used from a plane, millions of points are collected, resulting in a detailed topographic map of the landscape. Specialists working with these data can remove trees and other objects to digitally expose ground surfaces.

A recent example at the ancient Maya city of Tikal, Guatemala, revealed around 61,000 structures in the jungles surrounding the city’s center. The density of settlement came as a shock because, despite extensive pedestrian survey in the past, even experienced archaeologists failed to recognize most of these ephemeral remains.

Increasingly, archaeologists find sites by searching satellite imagery, including Google Earth. For instance, during a recent drought in England, the remains of ancient features began to appear across the landscape and were visible from above.

This image presents magnetic data from the Hollywood Mounds site, a Mississippian mound center in Tunica County, Miss. Excavation verified that the rectangular shapes are the remains of wattle-and-daub structures.
Bryan Haley

Remote sensing can also focus on smaller areas. Geophysical techniques are commonly used before excavating to scan the ground where researchers know archaeological remains are buried. These nondestructive methods help pick out buried anomalies from surrounding soils by distinguishing their density, magnetic properties or conduction of electrical currents.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]

The shape and alignment of these features can often provide clues about what they are. For instance, the dense walls of a building will show up as distinct from the surrounding soil.

What will archaeologists of the future find?

As you look around for evidence of human activity in the past, remember you’re actively involved in making the archaeological sites of the future. Since archaeology is the study of anything material left behind by human beings, that definition also fits what remains after Nevada’s annual Burning Man festival, for example, or as migrants journey across the U.S.-Mexico border.

tailgaters in a parking lot with litter visible
Tailgating (and associated trash) in the University of Idaho’s Kibbie Dome parking lot in 2011.
Curtis Cawley, Kaitlin Frederickson, Allison Neterer and Wendy Willis., CC BY-ND

In fact, there are archaeological sites nearly everywhere you look. One of us (Stacey) once studied trash left behind during tailgating parties. My students and I wanted to understand if alumni and students were drinking different types of alcohol. Using archaeological methodologies, we discovered that alumni partied with expensive alcohol, such as wine and microbrews, while students drank what they could afford: cheap, corporate beers, with Coors Light and Bud Light being the most common beers of choice.

We made this archaeological “discovery” by carefully mapping and identifying trash prior to and during the game. While most of it was picked up, smaller pieces undoubtedly found their way into the soil, perhaps to be discovered by a future Campus Archaeology Program.

Microplastics on a beach in Vietnam
Future archaeologists will find a lot of plastic – like these microplastics on a Vietnamese beach – in layers of the Earth dating to the current era.
Gabriel Wrobel, CC BY-ND

We archaeologists used to dig primarily at sites that were easy to find. Technology is changing that. In fact, applications like Google Earth are making possible a new era of citizen science, with researchers sometimes enlisting the help of members of the public to comb through data. Through efforts by archaeologists to engage and educate the public, including incorporating volunteers into lab and field work, giving public lectures and workshops, and creating accessible web resources, we hope to show that the story of our past is often hidden in plain sight.The Conversation

Gabriel D. Wrobel, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Michigan State University and Stacey Camp, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


What archaeology tells us about the music and sounds made by Africa’s ancestors



Shutterstock

Joshua Kumbani, University of the Witwatersrand

Music has been part and parcel of humanity for a long time. Not every sound is musical, but sound has meaning and sometimes the meaning of sound is specific to its context.

But when it comes to archaeology there is scant evidence of music or sound producing artefacts from southern Africa. This is because of poor preservation of the mostly organic materials that were used to manufacture musical instruments. Rock art offers depictions of musical instruments as well as scenes of dancing that can be linked with music performance, but here only music-related artefacts will be discussed.

I conducted original research as well as a survey of the literature available on these artefacts. Ethnographic sources were also consulted in order to attempt to provide a broader contextual background against which knowledge of the archaeological implements could be expanded. The Percival Kirby online musical instrument repository has also been used. Music archaeology is multidisciplinary in nature.

The result is one of the first reports on southern African sound- and music-related artefacts.

Research in music archaeology in southern Africa has just begun. Available evidence dates back from around 10,000 years ago, from the Later Stone Age up to the Iron Age. The artefacts fall into two groups, namely aerophones, where sound is produced by vibrating air, and idiophones, where sound is produced by solid material vibrating. These artefacts include spinning disks, bullroarers, bone tubes that could have been used as flutes or whistles, clay whistles, keys from thumb pianos (also called lamellophones or mbiras), musical bells and an ivory trumpet. The list is not exhaustive and more research needs to be conducted.

A man and a woman warmly dressed sorting through dug up objects in a cave.
The author and Professor Sarah Wurz digging at Klasies River.
Supplied

These music-related or sound-producing artefacts are made from various materials, including bone, ivory, metal and clay. The artefacts show how integral sound and music production was in the socio-cultural practices of people in the past, most likely for entertainment and rituals. Sound production and music making is a sign of being fully human.

Aerophones

Recent experimental work established that some Later Stone Age bone implements from the Klasies River Mouth and Matjes River sites are a spinning disk and a bullroarer respectively. Their replicas produced powerful whirring sounds and they can be referred to as sound-producing implements even though the purpose of the sound or their use cannot be clearly ascertained. They could have been used as signalling implements, toys, in ritual settings or in musical contexts, among others. Nowadays these implements are seldom found in the region.

A flat disc shaped like a mollusc with a hole through its thin end.
Bullroarer found at Matjes River.
Joshua Kumbani

Bone tubes, mainly in bird bone, have been recovered from Later Stone Age contexts from the southern and western Cape of South Africa and some were also recovered from historical contexts. Previously, these bone tubes were interpreted as sucking tubes and beads. But morphological analysis – or studying their form – has indicated that considering the various lengths and widths as well as their smoothened ends, they could have been used as flutes or whistles. There is no a clear-cut distinction between flutes and whistles.

Brown flute-like tube with etchings on it.
Bone tube from Matjie’s River.
Joshua Kumbani

If they were used as flutes they were single tone flutes since none has finger holes that can enable the production of more tones. Some of the archaeological bone tubes bear chevron and cross hatching patterns, but it is not clear if the decorations have a meaning or were just made for aesthetic purposes. The San and Khoe people in South Africa used reed flutes in the past. Flutes are still used today by various cultural groups in South Africa, for example the Venda people in South Africa use flutes when performing the tshikona dance.

Round, brown acorn-like object with a hole in one end.
Clay whistle from Mapungubwe.
Joshua Kumbani

Clay whistles have been recovered from the sites of K2 and Mapungubwe from Early Iron Age contexts. Similar clay whistles are very rare and are not mentioned ethnographically, but it has been said that the Basotho herders in Lesotho used similar whistles. Whistles can also be used during a musical procession or as signalling implements in sending a message.

An ivory trumpet was recovered from Sofala site in Mozambique. It has a blow hole and some decorations on its body.

Intricately carved brown object.
Ivory trumpet from Sofala site in Mozambique.
University of Pretoria Museums

Ivory trumpets are not common in southern Africa, but are known in west Africa. For example, in Ghana among the Asante people they had a spiritual significance and were associated with the royal court. Ivory trumpets are also said to have been used to announce the arrival of kings. The trumpets that are found in southern Africa are not in ivory.

Idiophones

Thumb piano, lamellophone or mbira keys have been recovered from the Later Iron Age contexts in Zimbabwe and in Zambia. This idiophone became popular with the introduction of iron technology and it is still used today. Some popular musicians play the lamellophone, for example Stella Chiweshe from Zimbabwe. Mbira is closely associated with spirituality, especially among the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The lamellophone is now a common musical instrument globally.

A small, brown, rusty metal object in the shape of an oar.
Thumb piano key from Great Zimbabwe site.
Foreman Bandama

Musical bells were found in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia from Later Iron Age contexts. Both double and single bells existed and, for example, at Great Zimbabwe both were recovered. Ethnographically, musical bells are known to have originated in West and Central Africa and they were most likely introduced to southern Africa through trade. These idiophones are said to have been played to announce the arrival of kings. Musical bells are still used today.




Read more:
How our African ancestors made sound in the Stone Age


Musical instruments are seldom found in the archaeological record and are not easily identifiable, so there is a lot of debate among researchers when it comes to identifying these instruments from the archaeological record. Some instruments may not have been musical instruments per se but rather sound-producing implements that were used to convey certain messages or used for ritual purposes.The Conversation

Joshua Kumbani, PhD Candidate, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Shillings, gods and runes: clues in language suggest a Semitic superpower in ancient northern Europe



Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire. Joseph Mallord William Turner, c 1815.
The National Gallery, CC BY-NC-SA

Robert Mailhammer, Western Sydney University

Remember when Australians paid in shillings and pence? New research suggests the words for these coins and other culturally important items and concepts are the result of close contact between the early Germanic people and the Carthaginian Empire more than 2,000 years ago.

The city of Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, was founded in the 9th century BCE by the Phoenicians. The Carthaginian Empire took over the Phoenician sphere of influence, with its own sphere of influence from the Mediterranean in the east to the Atlantic in the west and further into Africa in the south. The empire was destroyed in 146 BCE after an epic struggle against the Romans.

Carthaginian sphere of influence.
Adapted from Kelly Macquire/Ancient History Encyclopedia, CC BY-NC-SA

The presence of the Carthaginians on the Iberian Peninsula is well documented, and it is commonly assumed they had commercial relations with the British Isles. But it is not generally believed they had a permanent physical presence in northern Europe.

By studying the origin of key Germanic words and other parts of Germanic languages, Theo Vennemann and I have found traces of such a physical presence, giving us a completely new understanding of the influence of this Semitic superpower in northern Europe.

Linguistic history

Language can be a major source of historical knowledge. Words can tell stories about their speakers even if there is no material evidence from archeology or genetics. The many early Latin words in English, such as “street”, “wine” and “wall”, are evidence for the influence of Roman civilisation.




Read more:
Uncovering the language of the first Christmas


Punic was the language of the Carthaginians. It is a Semitic language and closely related to Hebrew. Unfortunately, there are few surviving texts in Punic and so we often have to use Biblical Hebrew as a proxy.

Proto-Germanic was spoken in what is now northern Germany and southern Scandinavia more than 2,000 years ago, and is the ancestor of contemporary Germanic languages such as English, German, Norwegian and Dutch.

Identifying traces of Punic in Proto-Germanic languages tell an interesting story.

Take the words “shilling” and “penny”: both words are found in Proto-Germanic. The early Germanic people did not have their own coins, but it is likely they knew coins if they had words for them.

Silver double shekel of Carthage.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

In antiquity, coins were used in the Mediterranean. One major coin minted in Carthage was the shekel, the current name for currency of Israel. We think this is the historical origin of the word “shilling” because of the specific way the Carthaginians pronounced “shekel”, which is different from how it is pronounced in Hebrew.

The pronunciation of Punic can be reasonably inferred from Greek and Latin spellings, as the sounds of Greek and Latin letters are well known. Punic placed a strong emphasis on the second syllable of shekel and had a plain “s” at the beginning, instead of the “esh” sound in Hebrew.

But to speakers of Proto-Germanic – who normally put the emphasis on the first syllable of words – it would have sounded like “skel”. This is exactly how the crucial first part of the word “shilling” is constructed. The second part, “-(l)ing”, is undoubtedly Germanic. It was added to express an individuating meaning, as in Old German silbarling, literally “piece of silver”.

This combining of languages in one word shows early Germanic people must have been familiar with Punic.

Similarly, our word “penny” derives from the Punic word for “face”, panē. Punic coins were minted with the face of the goddess Tanit, so we believe panē would have been a likely name for a Carthaginian coin.

A silver coin minted in Carthage, featuring the Head of Tanit and Pegasus.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

Cultural and social dominance

Sharing names for coins could indicate a trade relationship. Other words suggest the Carthaginians and early Germanic people had a much closer relationship.

By studying loan words between Punic and Proto-Germanic, we can infer the Carthaginians were culturally and socially dominant.

One area of Carthage leadership was agricultural technology. Our work traces the word “plough” back to a Punic verb root meaning “divide”. Importantly, “plough” was used by Proto-Germanic speakers to refer to a more advanced type of plough than the old scratch plough, or ard.

Close contact with the Carthaginians can explain why speakers of Proto-Germanic knew this innovative tool.

The Old Germanic and Old English words for the nobility, for example æþele, are also most likely Punic loanwords. If a word referring to the ruling class of people comes from another language, this is a good indication the people speaking this language were socially dominant.

Intersections of language and culture

We found Punic also strongly influenced the grammar of early Germanic, Germanic mythology and the Runic alphabet used in inscriptions in Germanic languages, until the Middle Ages.

Four of the first five letters of the Punic alphabet and the first four letters of the Germanic Runic alphabet.
Mailhammer & Vennemann (2019), Author provided

This new evidence suggests many early Germanic people learnt Punic and worked for the Carthaginians, married into their families, and had bilingual and bicultural children.

When Carthage was destroyed this connection was eventually lost. But the traces of this Semitic superpower remain in modern Germanic languages, their culture and their ancient letters.The Conversation

Robert Mailhammer, Associate Dean, Research, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


In a first discovery of its kind, researchers have uncovered an ancient Aboriginal archaeological site preserved on the seabed



S Wright, Author provided

Jonathan Benjamin, Flinders University; Geoff Bailey, University of York; Jo McDonald, University of Western Australia; Michael O’Leary, University of Western Australia, and Sean Ulm, James Cook University

For most of the human history of Australia, sea levels were much lower than they are today, and there was extra dry land where people lived.

Archaeologists could only speculate about how people used those now-submerged lands, and whether any traces remain today.

But in a study published today in PLOS ONE, we report the first submerged ancient Aboriginal archaeological sites found on the seabed, in waters off Western Australia.

The great flood

When people first arrived in Australia as early as 65,000 years ago, sea levels were around 80m lower than today.

Sea levels fluctuated but continued to fall as the global climate cooled. As the world plunged into the last ice age, which peaked around 20,000 years ago, sea levels dropped to 130m lower than they are now.




Read more:
Australia’s coastal living is at risk from sea level rise, but it’s happened before


Between 18,000 and 8,000 years ago the world warmed up. Melting ice sheets caused sea levels to rise. Tasmania was cut off from the mainland around 11,000 years ago. New Guinea separated from Australia around 8,000 years ago.

The sea-level rise flooded 2.12 million square kilometres of land on the continental shelf surrounding Australia. Thousands of generations of people would have lived out their lives on these landscapes now under water.

These ancient cultural landscapes do not end at the waterline – they continue into the blue, onto what was once dry land.
Jerem Leach, DHSC Project, Author provided

Landscapes under water

For the past four years a team of archaeologists, rock art specialists, geomorphologists, geologists, specialist pilots and scientific divers on the Australian Research Council-funded Deep History of Sea Country Project have collaborated with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to find and record submerged archaeological sites off the Pilbara coast in WA.

Location of the finds in northwest Australia (left) and the Dampier Archipelago (right).
Copernicus Sentinel Data and Geoscience Australia, Author provided

We studied navigation charts, geological maps and archaeological sites located on the land to narrow down prospective areas before surveying the seabed using laser scanners mounted on small planes and high-resolution sonar towed behind boats.

In the final phase of the research, our team of scientific divers carried out underwater archaeological surveys to physically examine, record and sample the seabed.

Archaeologists working in the shallow waters off Western Australia. Future generations of archaeologists must be willing to get wet!
Jerem Leach, DHSC Project, Author provided

We discovered two underwater archaeological sites in the Dampier Archipelago.

The first, at Cape Bruguieres, comprises hundreds of stone artefacts – including mullers and grinding stones – on the seabed at depths down to 2.4m.

A selection of stone artefacts found on the seabed during fieldwork.
John McCarthy and Chelsea Wiseman, Author provided

At the second site, in Flying Foam Passage, we discovered traces of human activity associated with a submerged freshwater spring, 14m below sea level, including at least one confirmed stone cutting tool made out of locally sourced material.

Environmental data and radiocarbon dates show these sites must have been older than 7,000 years when they were submerged by rising seas.

Our study shows archaeological sites exist on the seabed in Australia with items belonging to ancient peoples undisturbed for thousands of years.




Read more:
Explainer: why the rock art of Murujuga deserves World Heritage status


In Murujuga (also known as the Burrup Peninsula) this adds substantially to the evidence we already have of human activity and rock art production in this important National Heritage Listed place.

A submerged stone tool associated with a freshwater spring now 14m under water.
Hiro Yoshida and Katarina Jerbić, DHSC Project, Author provided

Underwater archaeology matters

The submerged stone tools discovered at Murujuga make us rethink what we know about the past.

Our knowledge of ancient times in Australia comes from archaeological sites on land and from Indigenous oral histories. But the first people to come to Australian shores were coastal people who voyaged in boats across the islands of eastern Indonesia.

The early peopling of Australia took place on land that is now under water. To fully understand key questions in human history, as ancient as they are, researchers must turn to both archaeology and marine science.

Archaeologist Chelsea Wiseman records a stone artefact covered in marine growth.
Sam Wright, DHSC Project, Author provided

Protecting a priceless submerged heritage

Submerged archaeological sites are in danger of destruction by erosion and from development activities, such as oil and gas installations, pipelines, port developments, dredging, spoil dumping and industrialised fishing.

Protection of underwater cultural sites more than 100 years old is enshrined by the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001), adopted as law by more than 60 countries but not ratified by Australia.

In Australia, the federal laws that protect underwater cultural heritage in Commonwealth waters have been modernised recently with the Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976) reviewed and re-badged as Australia’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Act (2018), which came into effect in July 2019.

This new Act fails to automatically protect all types of sites and it privileges protection of non-Indigenous submerged heritage. For example, all shipwrecks older than 75 years and sunken aircraft found in Australia’s Commonwealth waters are given automatic protection.




Read more:
An incredible journey: the first people to arrive in Australia came in large numbers, and on purpose


Other types of site, regardless of age and including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sites, can be protected but only with ministerial approval.

There is scope for states and territories to protect submerged Indigenous heritage based on existing laws, but regulators have conventionally only managed the underwater heritage of more recent historical periods.

With our find confirming ancient Indigenous sites can be preserved under water, we need policy makers to reconsider approaches to protecting underwater cultural heritage in Australia.

We are confident many other submerged sites will be found in the years to come. These will challenge our current understandings and lead to a more complete account of our human past, so they need our protection now.The Conversation

Deep History of Sea Country: Investigating the seabed in Western Australia.

Jonathan Benjamin, Associate Professor in Maritime Archaeology, Flinders University and ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Geoff Bailey, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology, University of York; Jo McDonald, Director, Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, University of Western Australia; Michael O’Leary, Senior Lecturer in Climate Geoscience, University of Western Australia, and Sean Ulm, Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


New Stonehenge discovery: how we found a prehistoric monument hidden in data



Archaeologists studying the monument site from above ground.
University of Bradford

Vince Gaffney, University of Bradford and Chris Gaffney, University of Bradford

The chances of finding another major archaeological monument near Stonehenge today are probably very small given the generations of work that has gone into studying the site. Stumbling across such a monument that measured more than 2km across must be highly unlikely. And yet that is exactly what our team from the Anglo-Austrian “Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes” research project has done.

We discovered a circle of pits, each ten metres or more in diameter and at least five metres deep, around Stonehenge’s largest prehistoric neighbour, the so-called super henge at Durrington Walls. More amazingly, the initial evidence for this discovery was hidden away in terabytes of remote sensing data and reams of unpublished literature generated by archaeologists over the years.

Durrington is one of Britain’s largest neolithic monuments. Comprising banks and ditches measuring 500 metres across, the henge was constructed over 4,500 years ago by early farmers, around the time that Stonehenge achieved it’s final, distinctive form. The site itself overlies what may have been one of north west Europe’s largest neolithic villages. Researchers suggest that the communities that built Stonehenge lived here.

The major archaeological monuments in the Stonehenge Landscape, outlined in green.
Vincent Gaffney, Author provided

Over the last decade, there has been a quiet revolution in the landscape around Stonehenge as archaeologists have gained access to enhanced remote sensing technologies. Around 18 sq km of landscape around Stonehenge has now been surveyed through geophysics. Now archaeologists are joining the dots within these enormous data set, and making associations they might not have done otherwise.

The first geophysical anomalies related to our new discovery were recorded (but not published) some years ago when a small number of peculiar circular splodges in the magnetometry data south of Durrington. These were initially interpreted as shallower features, possibly dew ponds, unlinked to the henge. But our research group realised that similar features had been recorded far to the north of the henge by archaeological contractors, interpreted as natural sink holes caused by solution of the chalk bedrock.




Read more:
How technology, not spades, revealed what lies beneath Stonehenge


Our mapping work suggested all these features were actually linked and part of a single, massive circuit surrounding the henge monument at Durrington. Detailed study, including drilling for underground samples, revealed the anomalies as massive pits, with near vertical sides, containing worked flint and bone. Radiocarbon dating suggested the features were from the same time as the henge.

Shafts and pits are known in prehistoric British archaeology, but the sheer number of massive pits and the scale of the Durrington circuit is unparalleled in the UK. The internal area of the ring is likely to be at least around three sq km. This arrangement of pits certainly gives the impression they bound an important space, and here there may be a comparison to be made with Stonehenge itself.

Stonehenge actually has a territory sometimes called the “Stonehenge Envelope”. This is marked by lines of later burial mounds clustering around the monument, covering an area similar to that of Durrington Walls. The space is marked so clearly that archaeologists have suggested only a special few people may have been allowed to enter the area.

This association of Stonehenge with death and burial has also led to interpretations that it was reserved for ancestors. Durrington, in contrast, is believed to be associated with the living. But our discovery of the pits suggest that Durrington did have a similar special outer area, as large as that associated with Stonehenge.

The pit circle also provide insights into the mindset of the people who built these massive structures. The pits appear to be laid out to include a much earlier monument: the Larkhill causewayed enclosure.

The pits form a circle around Durrington Walls in line with the Larkhill causewayed enclosure.
Vincent Gaffney, Author provided

Built more than 1,000 years before the Durrington Walls henge, such ditched enclosures were the first large communal constructions in Britain and they were clearly important to early farming communities. The decision to appropriate this earlier monument into the circuit of the henge must have been a deliberate, symbolic statement.

In fact, the pits appear to have been laid out in a notional circle so that they were all the same walking distance from the henge as the causewayed enclosure. Given the scale involved and the shape of the landscape, which includes several valleys, this would have been difficult to achieve without the existence of a tally or counting system. This is the first evidence that such a system may have been used by neolithic people to lay out what must be considered a sacred geometry, at the scale suggested by the Durrington pits.

The unexpected discovery of a unique set of massive pits within the Stonehenge landscape may also have implications in terms of the site’s management. There are similar individual features scattered throughout the landscape that are unexplored but may be of equal significance. Yet a proposed road (the A303) development includes a road tunnel that will pass close to the iconic site of Stonehenge itself and impact a large corridor of land directly associated with the site.

The issue of value is complex when we’re discussing a period of history in which the digging of pits clearly had a multitude of social values. We would do well to consider the implication of such discoveries before a tragic loss ensues. Future generations are unlikely to forgive us if we damage this unique landscape.The Conversation

Vince Gaffney, Anniversary Chair in Landscape Archaeology, University of Bradford and Chris Gaffney, Senior Lecturer in Archaeological Geophysics, University of Bradford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Stonehenge Pits Discovered



Who owns the bones? Human fossils shouldn’t just belong to whoever digs them up


Renaud Joannes-Boyau, Southern Cross University; Alessandro Pelizzon, Southern Cross University; Anja Scheffers, Southern Cross University, and John Page, Southern Cross University

All humans alive today can claim a common ancestral link to some hominin. Hominins include modern humans, extinct human species, and all our immediate ancestors.

Recent discoveries of hominin remains, including the skull of a Homo erectus in South Africa, have generated high levels of interest from the public and scientific community alike.

Fossils hold invaluable information about human history. But digging deeper, there is much complexity around the question of what a “fossil” is, and who should be granted ownership of them. This is the topic of our latest research article published in the journal Heliyon.

Fossils fuel debate

The question of what qualifies as a “fossil” remains open. The Oxford dictionary defines fossils as:

the remains or impressions of a plant or animal embedded in rock and preserved in petrified form.

Dinosaur poo can become fossilised. This is called a coprolite.
Shutterstock

But this definition doesn’t encompass the broader use of the word. Eggshells or coprolites (fossilised excrement) are neither direct remains nor the impression of an animal or plant, but archaeologists often refer to them as “fossils”.

The process of fossilisation can start immediately after an organism’s death, and the term “fossil” isn’t attached to a specific time period or state of preservation.

The term also relates to the perceived value, uniqueness or rareness of remains (and what they may reveal). Given such a breadth of meanings, it’s unsurprising attempts to regulate the status of fossils are fraught.

Hands off my fossil!

There was lively debate surrounding the 2015 discovery of Homo naledi in the Rising Star cave near Johannesburg, South Africa. The public’s access to the site and its fossils drew heavy criticism from researchers. This raised the question: should fossil discoveries be freely available?

The announcement of the discovery of Homo naledi fossils in 2015 in South Africa was met with mixed responses from the research community.
GovernmentZA / Flickr, CC BY-ND

Generally, around the world a person who excavates a fossil is allowed to keep it. Not only that, they can conduct potentially destructive analyses on it, and grant scientific and public access to the information it reveals.

Such practices can generate “gentleman’s club” syndrome, wherein members of scientifically influential groups have a better chance of accessing important fossils. But despite being accepted practice in the field, the “finders keepers” approach is legally problematic.




Read more:
Homo naledi may be two million years old (give or take)


Humans and human remains have a special status in most nations’ legal systems. While animals can be owned, humans can’t. Compounding this, the definition of “human” is itself contested, and this muddies the legal waters when it comes to discovering archaeological human remains.

For instance, recent DNA discoveries of interbreeding between Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis and Denisovans – as well as the fact that Homo naledi and Homo floresensis existed at the same time as modern humans – indicates scientists struggle to reach a consensus on where the boundaries of “human” lie.

The definition of “human” can also be culturally ascribed. Many indigenous peoples including communities from Australasia and Africa recognise an ancestral connection to species not always classified as Homo sapiens.

So what should be done with the fossilised remains of extinct species that aren’t “human” in the sense of belonging to Homo sapiens, but are nevertheless our evolutionary ancestors?

Are human remains things to be owned?

In Australia, as in most common law systems, there can be no “property” in a human corpse. While both burial and exhumation are regulated, ownership of a corpse is not.

The export of “Class A” cultural heritage, which includes human remains, is prohibited under the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986. Also, Australian state legislation regulating the scientific use of human tissue (such as the NSW Human Tissue Act 1983) doesn’t require any consent for samples excavated before 2003.

On the other hand, Australia also has a national repatriation program for Indigenous cultural patrimony. This program seeks to restore stolen human remains and sacred objects to their original communities.

Cultural subjects

The tension between scientific interests and spiritual beliefs is apparent in the context of repatriating human remains to Indigenous communities.

While fossilised human remains hold significant scientific value, their symbolic and spiritual value can’t be ignored, particularly to communities that feel a connection to them. Human remains would be best described as both scientific objects and also cultural subjects.




Read more:
Africa’s rich fossil finds should get the air time they deserve


Some scientists view repatriation and reburial of human remains as a deliberate destruction of a “source of information” that belongs to global humanity.

On the other hand, historical injustices and the imbalance of power between colonial entities and Indigenous people stand against such arguments. As a result, the repatriation and reburial of human remains becomes inseparable from broader legal arguments advanced by Indigenous peoples today.

Human, hominin and hominid fossils are far more than just objects to be owned. In fact, they reside at a contested and poorly regulated scientific, cultural and legal intersection.

We need common standards for ownership, protection and access controls. One solution would be to establish an international delegation with key stakeholders including scientists, lawyers, community representatives and policy makers.

Ideally, this could exist under the umbrella of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Such a body could foster constructive dialogue on how we value human fossils, and how we assign them ownership.The Conversation

Renaud Joannes-Boyau, Senior research fellow, Southern Cross University; Alessandro Pelizzon, Senior lecturer, Southern Cross University; Anja Scheffers, Professor, Southern Cross University, and John Page, Associate professor, Southern Cross University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


%d bloggers like this: