Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category


Posted by Gerald on July 9, 2008

Archaeology had an article a couple of months ago about China’s project to build a replica of one of Zheng He’s treasure ships.  This is being constructed in Nanjing using the materials mentioned in the written sources and using hand tools.  This ship is then going to re-trace the voyages of Zheng He’s fleet – sailing all over the Indian Ocean and hitting all the major ports.

The Chinese government is doing this to demonstrate China’s new role in the world.  They are writing history to suit their ambitions (no surprise there – who doesn’t?)  They are using this story as a way to draw a distinction between China and the West.  The story is that Westerners sailed all over the place bringing disease and violence and planted colonies.  The Chinese brought gifts and trade and then went home.

The problem with this is that the vast fleet Zheng He commanded included thousands of soldiers.  One of the leading non-Chinese experts on the Ming dynasty made the point in the article that these voyages were about showing power and projecting it even in the absence of invasion or the creation of colonies.

My reaction was one of familiarity.  A dominant technological and economic power sails advanced ships around the world.  It doesn’t create colonies, but establishes unequal diplomatic and economic relations with less powerful and wealthy countries.  It overawes with its culture and wealth, but also uses the veiled threat of force to establish itself.  Through this all, it is guided by an unshakable sense of its own superiority.

Isn’t this neocolonialism?

Once again, China proves how it has already invented almost everything the West later came up with.  Just as Europeans began their first forays into imperialism, the Chinese were already transcending imperialism by moving on to the more subtle oppressions of neocolonialism.  Now the Chinese are using their wealth and technology all over Africa and Asia.  Even as the former colonial world celebrates its independence from the dominance of the West, it is finding its way into the system being created by the once and future champs at world domination.


Posted in Archaeology, China, History | Leave a Comment »

Amazonian Harvest

Posted by Gerald on June 29, 2008

I’ve just finshed a a very interesting article about agriculture in the Amazon (“Amazonian Harvest” by Mara Hvistendahl, Archaeology, July/August 2008.  You can see some of it here.)  Over the last few years I’ve become fascinated by what archaeologists have been finding in the Amazon rain forest.  Starting in the 1950s a group of anthropologists and archaeologists started to challenge a prevailing idea that the Amazon was an impossible area for dense human settlement without slash-and-burn agriculture and the resulting deforestation.  There are extensive earthworks and pottery remnants as well as documentary evidence going back to the 17th century that indicates there was once extensive settlement in the region.  Research has started to suggest that the people there found ways to manage water and the forest that allowed for a dense population without the destruction that became common with the Spanish strategy of “Cut it, fell it, burn it, and farm it.”

This article discusses some work in the Bolivian Amazon as well as the way it is being used to promote the idea of a more sustainable model of agriculture for the region.  This is part of a tradition of “action archaeology” meant to use discoveries of the past to create positive change.  This idea dates back to the 1950s as well where it was first used in areas of the Near East.  Archaeologists discovered methods dating from the Byzantine Empire that had been used to farm areas that were considered unfarmable desert at that time.  Agricultural experts and local farmers were able to adapt the historical methods to grow food and commercial crops in the region.  Local farmers and activists are promoting a similar model in the Amazon.

As a student of history, I’m as intrigued by the question of why as I am by the question of how these people farmed the way they did.  One thing that jumped out at me while reading this was that slash-and-burn methods weren’t used in this part of the Americas until the Spanish came with iron and steel.  The introduction of iron also transformed African agriculture.  Some theories suggest that several cereal crops grown in sub-Saharan Africa couldn’t be grown until iron hoes and knives were available.  What interests me in the Amazonian case is the idea that perhaps the very lack of “advanced” metallurgy might have been the thing that led local people to develop superior farming methods for that environment.  My theory would be that these methods were then lost when the region was formally subdued and organized under the mission system.  This led – as always – to a huge demographic disaster.  As the Amazonian Indians were dying off from newly introduced diseases, they were also forced to adopt European farming methods.  The result was the loss of the earlier methods and a legacy of unsustainable agriculture that were part and parcel of the story of imperialism in the region.  All of the stuff in this paragraph is just my take, but I think it makes sense.

Posted in Archaeology, History | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Drought, Pollution, and Treasures

Posted by Gerald on July 19, 2007

The drought in Florida has dropped the level of Lake Okeechobee to the lowest levels ever recorded.  In the process it has left toxic muck whose removal might help the environment of the lake.  It has also exposed human remains and artifacts, some dating back thousands of years.

Read about it here.

Posted in American history, Archaeology, news | Leave a Comment »

An Apocalypto Question

Posted by Gerald on July 5, 2007

Just in case there is someone reading this who is real up on their Classical Mayans, I’ve got a question:

There is a scene in the city where our protagonist and his buddies, who have been captured in a brutal raid, are placed on sale in a slave market.  Folks are bidding, etc…  It strongly reminded me of all those accounts I read about the American slave markets during the Atlantic trade.  Was the Mayan slave trade that commercial?  Do we even know?  From what little I’ve read about the Maya, I had always just assumed that the slaves were simply in the hands of the political and religious elites rather than being a commercial commodity.

Anyone know?

Posted in Archaeology, film, History, Maya, Mel Gibson, Movies | Leave a Comment »

I Saw Apocalypto

Posted by Gerald on July 4, 2007

In celebration of July 4, the day that nothing happened, I saw some friends, did some blogging, started reading a (relatively) new history of the Late Roman Period while listening to British folk music, and then spent the evening watching the DVD of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

The film has an incredibly simple story, about half of which seems to be either an homage to, or a blatant rip-off of, The Naked Prey.  It has lots of gory violence and some beautiful visuals of a Mayan city.  It also has the seemingly required gratuitous historical inaccuracies, like the appearance of Spanish ships in the last few minutes (Spaniards didn’t show up until about three centuries after the last Mayan city was deserted.)

I found an interesting review entitled “Is ‘Apocalypto’ Pornography” by a professor of archaeology and an expert on the Maya named Traci Arden.  You can read it here.

I found her review of the film quite worthwhile, but I saw something different.  She saw an essentially colonial message with the Maya depicted as decadent and in need of saving and the arrival of the Spanish as providing the saviors.  Certainly the Maya are depicted as decadent.  There are numerous depictions of bloody violence, especially in grisly sacrificial rites in the city.

I do not disagree with Prof. Arden about the colonial message here, but I think there was another message on top of it – a cautionary tale.  The first frame of the movie shows a quote from good ol’ Will Durant about how no great civilization was ever conquered from without until it had destroyed itself from within.  This is a transfer of the standard old Gibbon, etc… narrative about the “Fall” of the Roman Empire transferred to the Maya.  I do not think Gibson was trying to tell a colonial story (although I think he did) and I don’t think he was trying to tell a Roman story (although I think he borrowed one).  I think he was trying to tell a modern story about the “decline of the west.”  The moral is that we can’t be destroyed from without unless we destroy ourselves from within.  This is right in line with his general political and religious conservatism.

Where I got my personal dose of irony here was from my reading earlier in the day.  I have started Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians.  Heather is trying to take the startling work in the study of Late Antiquity and pull it together into a new narrative to replace the older “Rome and the Barbarians in endless struggle as Rome rots from within due to a) Christianity (old school) or b) economic decline (newer school) or c) fill in your favorite Roman rotting agent here; until such time as the barbarians bring down the empire.”  The more recent scholarship seems to point to a more nuanced and surprising story that I am just starting to read.  It was just funny to me to turn on this movie about Mayans and suddenly see Gibbon all over again.

As an action film, this is pretty good.  As a historical depiction of the Classical Maya it su… isn’t so good.  For some very cool visuals of life in a Maya city, it has stuff I’m going to steal for my World Civ course – but I’ll turn it off before we get to the temple.  However, if you are going to watch it, be sure to bring you Edward Said glasses with you.

Posted in Archaeology, film, History, Maya, Mel Gibson, Movies, opinion, Personal, reviews, Roman History | 5 Comments »

Cool Huh?

Posted by Gerald on July 1, 2007

I find this kind of thing fascinating.

Chinese archaeologists have found a previously unknown chamber in the tomb complex of Qin Shihuang, not far from the site of the “terracotta army.”

Read about it here.

update: Also in archaeological news, researchers have found what they believe to be the earliest hominid fossil yet found in western Europe.  This is cool in that it helps substantiate the idea that homo antecessor was in western Europe a million years ago.  This sort of find is showing us a human pre-history that is more varied and more complicated than had long been thought.

Posted in Archaeology, China, news | Leave a Comment »

A Woman’s Moment of Triumph?

Posted by Gerald on June 27, 2007

This might be the kind of news you have got to be a history teacher, or history buff, to get excited about, but since I AM a history teacher, I’m excited.

A team of scientists have announced they have identified the mummy of Hatshepsut, a woman who ruled as Pharaoh during the Middle Kingdom period in ancient Egypt.  Hatshepsut was, by most accounts, a very capable ruler who extended Egyptian trade and built on a large scale.  Unlike the more famous Nefertiti, she was not simply Queen, she was Pharaoh in her own right – only the second woman to claim the title of King of Upper and Lower Egypt.  She certainly has a solid claim to being the most successful of Egypt’s female rulers.

This could be seen as a kind of triumph in that there was an attempt made under the reign of her successor, Thutmose III, to lessen – or completely obliterate – her historical memory.  The reasons for this are a matter of dispute, but the fact is that she disappeared from the historical record for a long time.  Now she is not only back, but she is getting her own special on the Discovery Channel.

Take that, Thutmose!

Posted in Archaeology, Egypt, Egyptology, Hatshepsut, History, Pharaoh | 5 Comments »