Swallowed by the Sea: Ancient Egypt’s Greatest Lost City; Lost Kingdoms of Central America;Treasures Decoded

Swallowed by the Sea: Ancient Egypt’s Greatest Lost City was a one-off programme presented by Lucy Blue about the city of Heraclion which existed at one of the mouths of the Nile for around a thousand years. It vanished beneath the waves in the 2nd Century BC, and in modern times it was thought to be purely mythical. However at the beginning of the 21st Century a team of French underwater archaeologists discovered the site off the modern coast of Egypt and have been excavating it ever since. Towards the end of the programme they discussed why it might’ve sunk – the best hypothesis is liquefaction of the islands it was built on, due perhaps to an otherwise minor earthquake. This means that this region – several islands – would’ve suddenly subsided, and ended up under sea level. And this is pretty exciting from an archaeological point of view. The site is a snapshot of what a Ptolemaic era trading port looked like – there’s (obviously) been no rebuilding or demolition and no treasure hunting or retrieval of people’s possessions.

The bulk of the programme focussed on what they’ve learnt about the layout of the city, and the artifacts they’ve been able to bring up to the surface. The whole city covered an area of around 2km2, built across several islands. There were many temples as well as more mundane buildings (including homes, and the apparatus of a port town). The finds range from tiny to enormous (including some huge statues). One of the interesting classes of find are the many boats they’ve found. These include functional boats of course. More interestingly it includes the first example of a ceremonial barque of a type that’s been seen in many inscriptions, but never before discovered. There are also remnants of rituals carried out around this boat – bowls containing burnt offerings that had been carefully slid into the river under the boat. Other interesting finds are coins – particularly interesting as the Egyptians’ didn’t use coins in their own economy. These coins look like Greek coins, but were struck locally (they’ve found the moulds) and used to pay the mercenaries hired to protect the city.

I wasn’t very keen on the way the programme tried to make out that Heraclion was somehow a centrally important Egyptian city. I didn’t really follow the explanation for why Blue believed it to be linked to conferring kingship on the Pharaoh, and I didn’t think the programme needed a “it’s the bestest city ever” hook to make it interesting. Other than that I enjoyed the programme, worth watching.

Lost Kingdoms of Central America was a four part series presented by Jago Cooper about four different pre-Colombus civilisations in Central America. It was a follow up to his series about South American cultures (Lost Kingdoms of South America, post). The cultures presented in this series ranged from the earliest known civilisation in Central America (the Olmec people), through to the culture that Columbus met when he discovered the West Indies (the Taino). The other two were the people who lived in what is now Costa Rica at a time when this was an independent region between the empires of the Aztecs and the Incans. And lastly the people who built Teotihuacan – not the Aztecs, as I first thought it was going to be, but the people who lived there first. In fact when the Aztecs later came to Teotihuacan they thought it was the work of giants or gods.

An interesting and enjoyable series. I didn’t always come away from an episode thinking I’d learnt much about the culture in question – but I think that was because not much is known in many cases.

Treasures Decoded was a six-part Channel 4 series, that we missed the first episode of. The format of each episode was that they looked at a particular ancient object (or building) which has some sort of iconic status, and then discussed what’s known (via several expert talking heads) about it. There was also always some “Controversy?!” angle to the programme – of varying degrees of dubiousness – which I guess was there to provide drama. (Previous sentence needs to be read with an image in mind of me rolling my eyes 😉 )

We’d only originally intended to watch the second episode – about the Great Pyramid at Giza – but then the next one was about the bust of Nefertiti and after that our completist urges kicked in and we finished the series. The Great Pyramid one had quite a lot of info about how and why the Pyramid was built – what sort of stone and how it was worked and so on. The controversy was provided by an engineer who speculates that the Pyramid is in fact a shell filled with rubble – conventional wisdom is that it is fully built out of shaped blocks of stone. His angle was that it would be easier to build that way, but the egyptologists interviewed felt it was important not to impose our own cultural mindset on the Egyptians. I.e. they may well’ve done it the hard way because it mattered that much more to them.

The one about the bust of Nefertiti avoided the obvious controversy (did the archaeologist who found it smuggle it out of Egypt) in favour of a convicted fraudster’s opinion that it was clearly a fake. The conman was convincing enough whilst talking, but my belief in him was undermined somewhat by the fact that as a previously successful conman he was bound to be convincing. If it is a fake, then it was done to such a high standard that it would pass modern forensic tests on the pigments used which any forger of the early 20th Century wouldn’t even know he needed to avoid.

Next episode was Blackbeard’s ship – it has almost certainly been discovered off the coast of America where it is known to have sunk. At the very least there is a ship of the right era and type in the right sort of place which is being excavated. The controversy was a bit weak even by the standards of the series, hinging round disagreements about whether it had sunk accidentally or been deliberately run aground by Blackbeard.

The last couple of episodes were a bit cringemaking, to be honest – I think we rolled our eyes all the way through both to some degree or another. One was about the Ark of the Covenant and suffered from us watching it the same week that we had a talk about it at the EEG (post). The programme focussed heavily on the (controversial) idea that the Ark was nicked from the Temple by Solomon’s son’s priests who brought it to Ethiopia where it has remained every since. I wasn’t convinced. The last episode was Christ’s Holy Spear, which is in a museum case in Vienna. Now, about halfway through the programme they did admit that all the evidence suggests it was made about 8 centuries after Christ, so the real point of the programme was about how the actual object was made and came to gain its reputation. Which was actually interesting, but not only did they take far too long going “oh but could it be Roman and really be the lance that pierced His side on the cross”, but also there were random Nazi and Hitler references the whole way through because apparently Hitler was obsessed with it. And no, Hitler didn’t commit suicide the very same moment the Spear was captured by the Allies.

A bit of a mixed bag, the better episodes were both not religious relic based and were the ones where I knew enough about the subject in hand to navigate my way between solid opinion and flights of fancy. Not recommended.

Other TV watched last week:

Episode 2 of A History of Art in Three Colours – James Fox looking at the history of art through the lens of three different colours, gold, white and blue.

Episode 1 of Oh! You Pretty Things – series about the relationship between pop music and fashion in Britain from the 1960s onwards.

Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World; The Search for Alfred the Great

Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World was a one-off 90 minute documentary about the history of Easter Island presented by Jago Cooper. The canonical story about the Easter Island culture is that they became so obsessed with building the Moai statues that they cut down all the trees to move them around, at which point the soil promptly eroded away and the culture collapsed due to being unable to grow food. Violence, destruction of statues and cannibalism followed. There’s then a moral lesson drawn about what we, the modern global society, should learn about using up all your resources.

The thesis of Cooper’s programme is that when you actually examine the evidence it’s clear that the traditional story is wrong. Over the course of the programme Cooper talked to several experts in the history and archaeology of Rapa Nui (the proper name for Easter Island and it’s people) both from Rapa Nui and from other countries. The experts didn’t always agree on the details (most notably about the date of arrival of people on Rapa Nui) but the overall picture was clear. Easter Island is the last inhabited place on Earth to become inhabited, somewhere between 100AD and 1200AD. As the Polynesians spread out into the Pacific Ocean they had a standard method of colonising new islands. A group would go out in boats looking for new lands, and when they found something suitable they’d take note of where they were then plant some yams and return home. A larger colonisation group would then set out with all the amenities they’d need to set up a self-sustaining society, and by the time they got there they would have yams to eat. Rapa Nui was the last island found in this eastward migration, and because it’s so far from any other land it became isolated after it was settled. From whenever that was till the arrival of the first Dutch ship in 1722 AD the Rapa Nui people believed themselves to be the only people in the world, and the island was the only land in the world surrounded by an endless sea.

Rapa Nui was forested when the islanders arrived, and did become deforested over the next several centuries. However, this wasn’t anything to do with moving statues and wasn’t even a catastrophe. Cooper told us that the statues are more likely to’ve been moved by “walking” them using ropes, rather than pulled on wooden runners. And even if they were using wood to move their statues, it wouldn’t’ve needed that many trees. One of the experts interviewed had done the calculations – he knew how many trees could’ve grown on the land, how many trees you’d need to cut down to move a single statue a particular distance, how many statues had moved how far. And it was an insignificant number of trees to move all the statues using wood, as compared with the starting number.

Instead of being the results of foolish disaster it’s much more likely that the trees were cleared to create space to grow crops just as is the case in other places around the world. The Rapa Nui people used several methods to keep the soil thus exposed both there and fertile. One things they did was to use rocks to cover the fields in a technique called “stone mulching” (I didn’t quite understand how this worked beyond the obvious idea that the rocks stopped the soil from blowing away – wouldn’t it also stop plants from germinating?). There is also evidence that they landscaped areas so as to collect and channel water – the only fresh water on the island comes from rain – and they planted trees in the damper areas generated by this. And they planted some crops (like banana trees) in caverns where the roofs had fallen in – shaded and out of the wind.

When the first ships arrived, on Easter Day 1722, they found a vibrant and healthy society – which was rather surprised to find it wasn’t alone in the world. That visit was brief, and amicable. When the next ships arrived, about 50 years later, they found a much reduced population and notably that the Moai statues were toppled over. What had changed? The traditional story involves civil war and cannibalism, but there’s no archaeological evidence for that at all. Instead Cooper said the most plausible explanation is that European diseases caused a severe drop in population in this previously isolated society. I think he said that 90% of the population is thought to’ve died – and so of course you have societal changes, that’s a very traumatic event. The statues show signs of being deliberately lowered to hide their faces. One possible explanation is that the honoured ancestors who were supposed to protect them had failed so were toppled. Another is that the Rapa Nui wanted to hide what had happened to their people from the ancestors, so this was a way of covering their eyes. Society was still basically healthy, however, as shown by the evolution of new rituals (like the birdman cult).

And then the European powers did what they did so often – many of the natives were taken off as slaves to work in South America. Those who remained were forced to live in only one small part of the island and poorly treated, while the rest was given over to intensive sheep farming. This use of the land is what caused the soil and the ecosystem to become as poor as it is today. At one point in the 19th Century there were only 36 families on Rapa Nui who had children – and all the native Rapa Nui people today are descended from these people. The culture has only survived in fragments from oral histories written down in the early 1900s – these same fragments are what started the modern fascination with Easter Island. The modern Rapa Nui are fiercely proud of their island, and its history, and are trying to get independence from Chile (their current political rulers).

This was a fascinating programme, well worth watching. Cooper does get a little carried away with how perfect life was before the Europeans arrived, but I think that’s partly to highlight the contrast between the traditional story about the island and what the evidence tells us.

Another one-off programme that we watched this week was The Search for Alfred the Great. This was presented by Neil Oliver and followed the recent attempts to find the bones of King Alfred. The structure of the programme was three intertwined strands – a biography of Alfred, the history of his bones after his death and the scientific examination of the bones we have.

The biography of Alfred didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know – we’ve recently watched Michael Wood’s series about Alfred and his heirs (post) which covered the subject in more depth. The history of Alfred’s bones was new to me, however. His body has been moved at least twice since his original burial. These initial two moves are well documented – he was buried first in the Old Minister at Winchester. Then after completion of the New Minister (that he himself set in motion) he was reburied there. After the Norman Conquest there was another rebuilding of the church (to its current form) and the monks associated with the first New Minister were moved to somewhere else – Alfred was reburied in their new abbey. After the dissolution of the monasteries during the Reformation the story of Alfred’s bones gets more murky – they stayed buried as the abbey was demolished around the graves and were forgotten to some extent. When the area was redeveloped into a prison in the 18th Century the convicts doing the ground breaking for foundations discovered sepulchres and bones – the valuable bits were sold, the bones were scattered. But an antiquarian did write about it, and about how these might’ve been Alfred & his family’s tombs. Later a Victorian claimed to have re-found and re-dug up these bones – eventually those were bought by a local church which re-interred the bones in the churchyard with a note that they were probably Alfred. This Victorian is the dodgy link in the evidence chain.

And this is where the modern analysis comes in. The bones from the churchyard were exhumed and analysed using modern techniques. I was a little surprised when near the end of the programme the carbon dating all came back as “too recent” – the 5 skeletons in the grave dated between 1100 AD and 1500 AD. Surprised because I thought I’d read that they’d found something plausible. All became clear shortly afterwards when Oliver moved on to talk about a modern partial excavation of the disturbed abbey site. This had turned up a few bits of human bone but funding had run out before proper analysis was done. Carbon dating on a fragment of a man’s pelvis indicated a date of ~900 AD, so the right era. There is nothing to say if it’s Alfred or not, but it’s possible. The main take home message is that it is likely worth excavating the rest of the site properly so see what else might be found (if anything).

An interesting programme. And well done to Oliver and the other people involved in making it for making a programme that was still worth watching even tho the central question wasn’t answered!

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Survivors: Nature’s Indestructible Creatures – series presented by Richard Fortey looking at three mass extinction events and showing us modern examples of the species that survived them.

Episode 2 of Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve – a programme about the history of (Christian) pilgrimage, pilgrimage sites and the modern incarnation of it.

Episode 1 of Baroque! From St Peter’s to St Paul’s – gloriously over the top series about Baroque art and architecture, presented by Waldemar Januszczak.

Lost Kingdoms of South America; Rome: A History of the Eternal City

The last episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America looked at the Chimú people and their Kingdom of Chimor. They lived in the coastal areas of Peru from around 800AD through to 1400AD when they were conquered by the Incas. The coast of Peru is a desert broken up by river valleys created by the melt water from the Andes running down to the Pacific Ocean.

Cooper started the programme in the ruins of Chan Chan – the capital city of Chimor, which was fairly large & would’ve been inhabited by ~35,000 people at its peak. I’m not sure if this was just the people who lived inside the city (the elite in palaces, and the artisans in houses squeezed in between) or if it also included the poorer people who lived around the walled city & grew food etc. The city is now a tourist attraction & actually a lot of what you can see is reconstruction based on photos & drawings from the past.

The Chimú had arisen after the collapse of a preceding civilisation, the Moche. They grew from a small settlement to a medium sized kingdom on the basis of their irrigation works. Cooper spoke to an archaeologist who works on this, and he was saying that the biggest problem the Chimú faced was that “if all you do is add water to the desert, then you get nothing but wet desert”. Which made me giggle a bit, I liked the turn of phrase. Basically they had to bring in top soil from the river valleys as well as build canals. And unlike our canals which are built straight they built their canals with twists & turns to slow down the water & prevent it eroding the land so much.

The management skills that the culture had to develop to build up their irrigation systems translated well to the management of an empire, and the Chimú set out to conquer themselves one. One neat thing while watching this programme was that J & I had been talking just beforehand about something we’d seen a while ago about some other South American culture (the Lambayque people) and then it turned out they were one of the people’s the Chimú conquered. Cooper told us one reason the Chimú kept conquering was that each new monarch inherited the title from his or her predecessor, but the wealth was inherited by other members of the family. They had to make their own reputation to receive tribute, and the best way to do this was to conquer somewhere new & prove you were worth giving food & wealth to.

Before we watched this episode J & I had been laughing about how all the previous episodes had been dwelling on the happy, happy, hippy side of the cultures, and how all the cultures chosen had apparently got no or little hierarchy. But then this one was the complete opposite – the Chimú had a very strict hierarchy, and you couldn’t change the class you were born into. They even had it built into their creation legend – the commoners came from a copper egg, the women of the royal families came from silver egg, and the men of the royal families from a golden egg. The King was so important he walked on crushed Spondylus shells (which were even more valuable to the Chimú than gold).

And it seems that they practised human sacrifice, of children. The remains of some children between 10 & 14 years old, and in good health, have been found – each was bound and then had their chests cut open & the ribcage forced open. So here we’re back to the gruesome sorts of things one thinks of about Mesoamerican & South American cultures – like the Aztecs & the Incas. The sacrifices were probably due to the extreme weather events that the Chimú land suffered – during an el Niño year the desert can experience extraordinarily heavy rainfall. Around the time the child sacrifices were made there is a band of clay (wet desert!) in the strata, indicating a particularly bad spell of this sort of rainfall.

Overall this was a good series & Jago Cooper is a good presenter. I enjoyed seeing the remains of the different cultures & the scenery of the places they lived – and I thought they did well with emphasising both the differences between the sorts of lives these various people’s lived & our own, and with making them feel like real people. Perhaps a bit too much emphasis on the happy, happy hippy thing in some of the episodes (particularly the one about the Tiwanaku).

We finished off two series this week, because the third episode of Rome: A History of the Eternal City was also the last. This covered the 600 years or so of Rome’s history – at a gallop! It started where it left off last time – with the Papacy leaving Rome to take up residence in Avignon. Montefiore told us how St. Catherine of Siena was so horrified about the Papacy not being in Rome that she wrote several letters practically commanding the Pope to return, and then eventually travelled to Avignon herself and brought the Pope back.

During the Renaissance the Popes and the elite families of Rome indulged themselves in decadent & lavish palaces full of works of art. This is the time of the Borgia Popes, and the time of Michaelangelo etc. And even the Papal residences began mingling classical pagan themes with Christian themes in their decoration. To add to all this expensive building & decoration Pope Julius II (chosing his papal name partly in honour of Julius Caesar) decided it was time St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt in a suitable style. To pay for these works the Church sold indulgences – forgiveness for your sins (even the ones you hadn’t committed yet). And this is what so incensed Martin Luther that he kicked off the Reformation.

Because the subject of this series is Rome Montefiore then told us about the counter Reformation – the Catholic Church’s own answer to the excesses of the Renaissance. Although that didn’t mean giving up the lavish art habit – Pope Fig Leaf as Montefiore said he’s remembered (real name Pope Clement XIII) just had them paint over the genitalia in the Renaissance art so the paintings were more modest. And Montefiore went to a church which had a large Baroque statue of the Ecstasy of St. Theresa which might have everyone clothed, but it’s still spectacular & lavish & sensuous.

Montefiore moved us pretty briskly through the rest of Rome’s history picking out just a detail here & there. The sack of Rome by unpaid mercenaries at the end of the Reformation period was used to highlight the ludicrousness of a more modern Pope’s flouncing about being “practically a prisoner” when he wasn’t nearly so threatened (personally or physically). But the threat was still there as this was the end of the Church’s domination of Rome – the fascist Mussolini dealt the death blow when he confined the Pope’s authority to the area of the Vatican State, and the rest of Rome was then under secular Italian rule. And that’s pretty much where we left the story.

I did enjoy this series, but it felt very rushed to fit the whole three millennia into 3 episodes. Even though the theme was the religious history of Rome it felt a bit too much like a history of the papacy for the last couple of episodes.

Lost Kingdoms of South America; Rome: A History of the Eternal City

The third episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America was about El Dorado – and the cultures that might’ve been the truth behind this Spanish legend. The legend as we know it today is about a golden city, but the original Spanish writers talk about a man who scatters gold dust over himself “as if it were salt” and washes it off in a sacred lake – a man who regards the wearing of solid gold ornaments as “vulgar”.

The culture that probably gave rise to these legends are the Muisca who lived in southern Colombia until around 1600AD. They were a couple of loose confederations of villages covering quite a large area – no single leader for the whole group, but they shared a culture. There’s DNA evidence from burials that’ve been excavated which shows that the elite were not a hereditary caste – the burials with lots of grave goods aren’t more related to each other than they are to the burials without grave goods. The archaeologist telling us about this bit said they also didn’t use violence to determine who had power, but I’m not sure what he was basing that on.

They didn’t appear to regard gold as valuable in itself, nor did they wear gold ornaments. Gold is also not found on Muisca lands. But they did trade salt they mined from their land for gold from other peoples – and they ascribed spiritual significance to it and used it to make offerings to their gods. Cooper spoke to a man whose people carried on some of the ancient traditions and their stories tell that one of the rituals took place on a sacred lake, and this could well be the source of the El Dorado legend.

The form of their offerings (well, the ones that have survived) were little flat figures, each one uniquely decorated. They were made by the lost wax method of casting, where first you make a wax model of the thing you want to make, then you encase it in clay and fire that (so that the wax evapourates) and then pour in the molten metal. When it sets, you break it out of the mould. Cooper visited a man who makes replicas of these today, which was kinda neat – he used a blowtorch to melt the gold 🙂 The figurines are distinctive not just in decoration but because they don’t really seem finished – as they were never worn or displayed they haven’t been polished and there are still rough edges from breaking it out of the mould.

Cooper also talked about the Tairona culture who lived in north eastern Colombia on the Caribbean coast. They were a culture that had a common ancestral language & culture with the Muisca, that had originated in Mesoamerica. The Tairona also put spiritual significance on gold, but expressed this differently – their gold ornaments were very different in style (including reclining bat-men as fertility symbols) and they were finished & polished. Their significance was to do with their shininess, and other shiny things were also spiritually significant. There are descendents of the Tairona still living in Colombia today, and still living in traditional villages – there was a segment of the programme in one of their villages with Cooper talking to one of the few of the villagers who spoke Spanish.

The second episode of Rome: A History of the Eternal City covered the rise & fall of Christian Rome from the beginnings of Christianity until the Popes left Rome for France in the 14th Century. At the beginnings of Christianity’s presence in Rome it was just another one of the many small cults that had sprung up in the empire (like the Mithras cult we listened to an In Our Time about the other day). The thing that set Christianity apart was that Christians refused to make the proper sacrifices to the state gods (like the Emperor) and so when scapegoats were needed it was easy to see them as unpatriotic. So they were persecuted and their deaths were often public spectacles – especially during the reign of Diocletian.

This changed when the Emperor Constantine won an impressive victory after ordering his soldiers to display the sign of the cross. After this he tolerated, and promoted, Christianity within the western Roman Empire – even converting himself on his death bed. One of the things Montefiore showed us in the programme was one of the relics that the Emperor’s mother brought from Jerusalem to Rome. I knew she’d brought what she thought to be the cross that Jesus was crucified on to Rome, but I hadn’t known she’d brought a staircase back with her! This is apparently the staircase that Jesus walked up on the way to his trial by Pontius Pilate, and even today pilgrims come to go up it on their knees so that they have touched the place that Jesus put his feet.

St Peter (one of the apostles) was one of the early Christian martyrs in Rome – the obelisk he was crucified in front of still stands outside the church that was built over his tomb (St Peter’s Basilica). The Roman bishops used this link with St Peter to strengthen their position in the church – saying that they were better than other bishops because they were the successors of an apostle. Montefiore showed us the tombs of the early bishops of Rome, which have their title “Papa” which as their status increased gradually became the title of the supreme head of the (latin) Church.

The programme covered the next thousand or so years pretty quickly, dwelling on just a few stories. The first of these was the fall of Rome – sacked by the barbarians, who were actually also Christians (albeit of a different type). And another was the period around the 10th Century which is sometimes called the Pornocracy (it really is! or at least wikipedia agrees with my recollection of the programme). This was a scandalous period with a family that makes the Borgia legend seem tame – one of the key figures was a woman who was the lover of at least one Pope, had at least one Pope murdered and made sure her son (by a Pope) was raised to be Pope himself. Other Popes of the time were related to her family as well – one was her grandson.

Lost Kingdoms of South America; In Search of Medieval Britain

The second episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America is about the Tiwanaku people, who lived in what is now Bolivia between about 500AD to about 1100AD. The main area they lived in is a large plateau in the Andes over 3500 metres above sea level. Cooper opened the programme by visiting some modern subsistence farmers in the area & showing us how difficult life can be on the plateau. The Tiwanaku people started out near a large lake on the plateau (Lake Titicaca) – this lake creates a slightly warmer micro-climate, and the soil near the lake is more fertile than elsewhere. The Tiwanaku increased the area where they were able to farm by using networks of channels between raised fields to irrigate the soil using the meltwater from the mountains.

The main archaeological site for the Tiwanaku people is a vast temple complex (over 5 square kilometres in area) called Tiwanaku – which means “stone at the centre”. This was constructed using massive stones brought across the lake, and made into walls for ritual areas & carved with faces of ancestors and gods. The religion of the people was about gathering together to make offerings to the gods controlling the environment, so that they would have successful harvests etc. Cooper went to a modern Bolivian “start of the growing season” festival, which was nominally Christian (in that it happened partly in a church, and people brought banners of Christ crucified with them) but also derived from the ancestral festivals of the people (and involved all the surrounding people in the area coming together and having a party). As with the Chachapoya this appears to’ve been a civilisation where there wasn’t such a strict hierarchy as we’re used to – there’s no indication of kings or leaders as such, no memorials to a single person. Instead the social bonds were formed at these festivals & a combination of close ties to the rest of the people and friendly competition is what drives the larger scale projects that require collaboration.

The rituals of the Tiwanaku people appear to’ve involved beer, and hallucinogens – the statues left at the site of Tiwanaku are normally of a person holding a beer cup in one hand and a snuff pipe (their drug paraphenalia) in the other. The archaeologist Cooper was talking to told us that the temple would originally have been painted in bright colours, and the people wore very bright coloured clothes which would add to the hallucinogenic experience. They also probably involved sacrifice – modern Bolivians will still sometimes sacrifice llamas at their festivals. There also appears to be evidence that at least on some occasions there was human sacrifice. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced by that segment of the programme – what they told us about was based on one single skeleton discovered buried at the Tiwanaku site of an individual who’d been hit over the back of the head. Perhaps this was a sacrifice, but without any other evidence how do you know it’s not just a murder? Presumably there was other evidence we just weren’t shown.

The beer cups are a distinctive shape with distinctive patterns, and as the Tiwanaku culture spread and met other cultures you can see those cultures adopt the beer cups & other trappings of the Tiwanaku lifestyle. Including head deformation! The Tiwanaku people wrapped the heads of babies to elongate the skull, or sometimes added boards to the wrappings to flatten the skull. The expansion of the Tiwanaku was presented as peaceful & involving bonding with people over a beer – but again I wasn’t entirely convinced by the evidence we were shown (not saying it doesn’t exist, just the way it was covered in the programme wasn’t convincing).

The Tiwanaku as a large “state” with a common culture appears to have collapsed around 1100AD, not through conquest but through a change in the climate locally that reduced the amount of meltwater for the irrigation of their fields leading to poor harvests. Eventually the Tiwanaku temple complex was abandoned. It was later discovered by the Spanish, and stones from it were used to build churches nearby (bizarrely including re-purposing statues as “St. Peter” and “St. Paul”). More recently Bolivian people have been reclaiming their past to some degree – including performing rituals at the Tiwanaku site. (But not deforming their babies’ skulls into elongated shapes …)

Somehow I got to the end of this particular episode & felt a bit like we were being given the “best side” of the Tiwanaku – even if it did touch on human sacrifice etc. It felt a lot like they were being set up as these chilled out stoned beer drinkers who just want to be friends, maaan. And I just don’t quite believe in 600 years of hippy peace & love with no conflict even as they spread to take-over a large territory. Maybe that just says more about me than about them, tho 😉

We’d started watching quite late in the evening, so didn’t have time for another hour long programme – instead we watched another episode of In Search of Medieval Britain where Alixe Bovey goes round the country looking at places on the 14th Century map called the Gough Map. This episode was about Scotland. It was quite funny looking at the shape it was given on the map – as Bovey said clearly the map maker didn’t actually know anything first hand or accurate about Scotland. None of the geography was right, but she still managed to go & visit a few relevant places. Particularly entertaining was the segment on wolves – apparently the best way to escape a wolf, according to a medieval Bestiary, is to take all your clothes off (to reveal your sinfulness) and stand on top of the discarded clothing banging two rocks together (to summon the apostles). This will so scare the incarnation of the devil (which is, after all, what a wolf is) that it will turn tail & run away. I hope no-one actually tried that 😉

She also visited the oldest cathedral in Scotland (in Glasgow), a herb garden (complete with herbalist), Stirling, the Isle of May (controlled access to the fishing ports at the south-east of Scotland, a very important part of the Scottish economy of the time), and a safe house in the border region where the border people would protect themselves from raiders. Or base themselves once they’d become raiders …

I do wish we’d managed to record more than two of these 🙁

Prehistoric Autopsy; Lost Kingdoms of South America

The last episode of Prehistoric Autopsy was about Lucy – one of the most famous fossils of our ancestors (and the only individual (as opposed to species) I’d actually heard about before this series). She was a member of the species Australopithecus afarensis and lived a little over 3 million years ago. She was discovered in the early 70s, and at 40% complete was one of the most complete specimens of a hominid from that era.

This programme felt like there was a bit more padding than the other two – not quite as much to tell us about, partly because there’re fewer fossils available to figure things out from. But there was still quite a lot 🙂 From the bones that do exist (both Lucy’s and others) they can tell that this species was bipedal & walked upright – even tho they don’t have the foot bones they can see the shape of the knee joints and the pelvis. This is corroborated by data from some preserved footprints, that are presumed to be Australopithecus afarensis because that was the only primate species that’s been found in that area at that time. Experts have analysed the shape of these footprints and compared it to both human and chimpanzee footprints in similar material. The Australopithecus afarensis footprints are much more like the human ones – they have a non-opposable big toe, and the pressure patterns (like deep heel prints) are similar to human ones.

They also showed us the pelvis bones of chimps, humans & Australopithecus afarensis – you can see the difference between the chimp one & the other two really clearly. But the differences between the Homo sapiens one & Australopithecus afarensis one are much subtler. The scientist Roberts was talking to also pointed out that you can see changes in the birth canal – Australopithecus afarensis would’ve found it harder to give birth than a chimpanzee because the canal is not as wide, due to the demands bipedalism puts on the shape. But not as hard as a modern human – the brain size of Australopithecus afarensis is still pretty small, only a little bigger than that of a chimp, so the fit would not be as tight nor would it require quite as much changing of position from the baby on the way out.

Australopithecus afarensis may’ve used tools. This was a pretty controversial piece of evidence – and Roberts & McGavin didn’t agree on how plausible they thought it was. And it was nice to see how that was presented – there wasn’t a feel of some fake monolithic “the opinion of the scientists”, it was presented in a much more true to reality way. Some scientists think this, others aren’t convinced, everyone’s interested in seeing more evidence. Actually the whole series has done well on this front, they took great care to tell you about the caveats and where the evidence was slim. Lots of “we think because of reasons” and less “we know”.

Anyway, back to the tools – there’s an animal bone, found in the same context as a juvenile Australopithecus afarensis, which has two parallel grooves on it. In the grooves are fragments of hard igneous rock (as opposed to the sandstone that was encasing all the bones). This may be evidence that Australopithecus afarensis used sharp rocks to butcher meat (in some crude sense). But it may also have been due to accidental trampling of a dead animal that drove a stone against the bone. Given chimps use tools like twigs, it wouldn’t be that surprising if Australopithecus afarensis did – but really there needs to be more evidence than a single bone.

They also had a segment on how Lucy might’ve communicated – which was probably via facial expressions as well as vocalisations, because pretty much all primates do that. To illustrate this they showed us a little bit about some new research starting on Japanese Macaques, which has the eventual goal of seeing how many different facial expressions they can tell apart (and I think they have hopes of figuring out what they mean, not sure how though).

The model they built looked really good, as all of them have. They said at the end of the programme that the models were going out touring museums round the country, but when I looked it up we’d missed all the dates (because we time-shifted the programme by 3 months). A shame 🙁 Although apparently the exhibition was aimed at kids, so maybe it’d’ve been a bit shallow. There also doesn’t seem to be a tie-in book for the series, another shame – I’d’ve bought it 🙂 I did find another Alice Roberts book on Human Evolution, so if I like the book of hers we have (when I get to it) then I’ll pick that up.

Having finished up Wartime Farm last week we started on a new series – this time something that we’re only time-shifting by a couple of weeks. The series is Lost Kingdoms of South America, which is clearly inspired by the previous BBC series called Lost Kingdoms of Africa. The primary difference between the two series (as well as which continent they’re on) is the presenter – the African one was presented by Gus Casely-Hayford, who is an art historian whose family come from Ghana. The presenter for this current series is Jago Cooper, who is an archaeologist who specialises in South American cultures but not (as far as wikipedia tells me) from South America. So that gives a slightly different tone to the programmes (not better or worse, just a different perspective).

This first episode was about the Chachapoya people of Peru. Who I must confess I’d never heard of before watching it (although it became clear I should’ve at least known the name). A good start – because I’d sort of assumed we were going to get first the Aztecs, then the Incas then perhaps the Mayans, you know all the peoples we’ve all heard of before. Instead we got an intriguing people whose society really wasn’t the same as our expectations for the place & time.

The Chachapoya lived in the north of Peru, in the Andes, from about 400AD until around the time the Europeans arrived on the scene. The name we use is the Incan name for them & it translates as the Cloud People because of their high altitude villages & towns. Cooper interviewed an archaeologist in Lima who said she thought only about 5% of their sites have been properly excavated, if that. So there’s a lot still to find out.

One of the themes of the programme was that when thinking about these people we really need to take our Western preconceptions and throw them away before we can understand them. For instance the first thing we think is “but why did they live so high?” – because that’s the altitude that was best for cultivation of maize & potatoes. They lived where they could grow their food, which is a perfectly sensible thing to do. And why did they live somewhere so remote? It wasn’t remote for them – both because the people were more willing to travel further between settlements, and because the rivers and the geography of the Andes at that point combined to funnel trade from the Amazon Basin to the Pacific Coast through the lands of the Chachapoya. So not remote, but on a busy trade route. Cooper showed us some artifacts found in Chachapoya sites that included things like feathers from birds only found in the rain forest in Brazil.

Early in their culture they buried their dead up in caves on mountain cliff-faces. These were astonishing – Cooper needed the help of modern equipment and experienced mountaineers to get to these caves where the bones lay. But the floors of the caves were worn through repeated visits, so this didn’t seem to be a case of burying your dead somewhere out of the way. Later they mummified their dead – and this is why I feel I should’ve heard of them, because I knew there were Peruvian mummies, I just didn’t know which culture made them. Which is poor, really – but now I do 🙂 These mummies weren’t like the Egyptian ones which were buried & left to last out eternity in their tomb. These mummies were carried around from place to place in bags, and sometimes taken out & displayed in some fashion. A very different relationship with the dead.

Another difference in their society from what we might expect is that they don’t appear to have had a hierarchy – the Spanish had referred to this in writing from the time they arrived in South America, but there’s also evidence for it in the archaeology. The villages that’ve been investigated don’t seem to have elite housing – all the housing is the same sort of shape & size. I wasn’t entirely clear how they can tell that the one larger building most villages have is a ceremonial site & not an elite site, but they were clear that this was the case. There are also no signs of elite burials – all the dead that have been found are treated in the same. This is pretty unusual for a human society.

They also don’t seem to’ve been bloodthirsty in the way that the Aztecs & the Incas are – no human sacrifice was mentioned, nor ritual bloodletting. And in another difference from the “canonical” South American civilisation story they were conquered & dispersed by the Inca before the Spanish arrived. The Spanish actually allied with the Chachapoya to fight against the Inca. Although the Europeans did deal the final blows to the Chachapoya way of life – both through converting them to Christianity, and via the diseases they brought with them.