Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Will 2700-year-old tomb link Olmec to Maya?

Researchers excavating a Zoque Indian site in Chiapa de Corzo have uncovered a 2700-year-old tomb of a dignatary and, perhaps, his wife inside the earliest pyramid found so far in MesoAmerica.

The tomb held a man aged around 50, who was buried with jade collars, pyrite and obsidian artifacts and ceramic vessels. Archaeologist Emiliano Gallaga said the tomb dates to between 500 and 700 B.C. Based on the layers in which it was found and the tomb's unusual wooden construction, "we think this is one of the earliest discoveries of the use of a pyramid as a tomb, not only as a religious site or temple," Gallaga said.

The body of a 1-year-old child was laid carefully over the man's body inside the tomb, while that of a 20-year-old male was tossed into the chamber with less care, perhaps sacrificed at the time of the burial.
The older man was buried with jade and amber collars and bracelets and pearl ornaments. His face was covered with what may have been a funeral mask with obsidian eyes. Nearby, the tomb of a woman, also about 50, contained similar ornaments.

The ornaments — some imported from as far away as Guatemala and central Mexico — and some of the 15 ceramic vessels found in the tomb show influences from the Olmec culture, long considered the "mother culture" of the region. - Fox News
Like many people of my generation, I was taught that the earliest culture to construct pyramids was the Maya.  But this find clearly illustrates native peoples that preceded the Mayans used monumental architecture for ritualistic purposes as well.

I found this interesting article that gives further background on the Zoque people.  It also points out that the earliest archaeological remains of "public architecture" was not in Central America at all but at Watsons Brake in northern Louisiana!

The appearance of ceramics in Mexico coincided with either the arrival of a new people or sudden fluorescence of an existing people around 1600 BC in the tepid lowlands of what is now the states of Vera Cruz and Tabasco, adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico.  They called themselves the Zoque. According to their own legends, they crossed the Gulf of Mexico in three great flotillas of giant canoes, to arrive in their new homeland. Three thousand years later the Aztecs called the inhabitants of this region, the Olmecs, which means “rubber people.”  It is not known if the builders of the ancient ceremonial complexes in Vera Cruz and Tabasco are one and the same as the people occupying the region in 1500 AD.  However, the process of making rubber by mixing the saps of an indigenous rubber tree and an indigenous vine seems to coincide with the arrival of the Zoque.  

Around 1400 BC the first large ceremonial complex appeared in the Zoque lands.  Known today by the Spanish name of San Lorenzo, it featured earthen mounds and geometric forms grouped around plazas. The theocratic elite lived near the ceremonial complex, but the commoners were dispersed in hamlets and farmsteads across a large expanse of territory.  It is quite likely that the farmers only lived in the same location as long as their soils remained fertile.  There was very little exposed stone in the region so all of the architecture was of wood, clay and earth.  The palace of the king or high priest has stone columns to support its roof, plus stone cisterns and steps. Any stone used in art, was imported from 80-150 miles away by river transportation. 
San Lorenzo was abandoned around 900 AD. - The Mesoamerican Connection by Richard Thornton, Examiner.com

Colossal head from Monument 4 Veracruz Mexico Omec 1200-900 BCE Basalt

 Mr. Thornton goes on to describe Zoque stone sculptures depicting men with beards led some people to jump to the erroneous conclusion that the Americas must have been initially settled by early Europeans based on this evidence.

[Colossal head from Monument 4 Veracruz Mexico Omec 1200-900 BCE Basalt.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch at the DeYoung Museum of Fine Art, San Francisco, CA]

The fact is that several indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere wore beards and even mustaches.  These include the tribes of the Northwest Pacific Coast, the Aztecs, and the Creeks of the Southeast.  The chroniclers of the de Soto Expedition (1539-1543) commented on an elderly Okonee (branch of Creeks) leader who had a beard down to his belly button. - The Mesoamerican Connection by Richard Thornton, Examiner.com
I have been privileged to see one of the more iconic Olmec stone sculptures of men wearing leather helmets at the DeYoung Museum of Fine Art in San Francisco.  The DeYoung has an excellent collection of early American Art and I would encourage you to put it on your agenda the next time you travel to the Bay Area.

Here's a slideshow of some of the wonderful art I photographed there several years ago:





Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica (Cambridge World Archaeology)   The Olmecs: America's First Civilization (Ancient Peoples and Places)   Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Sixth Edition

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Nilometer discovered along the Avenue of the Sphinxes

While working on the the restoration of the Avenue of the Sphinxes, a 2.7-km (1.7-mile) ancient processional roadway that connects the grand temples of Luxor and Karnak on the east bank of the Nile River built by Amenhotep III (1410-1372 B.C.), scientists have uncovered a 5th century Egyptian Christian church and a "nilometer," a structure used to measure the level of the Nile during floods.  The Nilometer is cylindrical and crafted of sandstone with New Kingdom (1569-1081 B.C.) clay vessels at its bottom.

[Image Courtesy of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquites (SCA).]

"The structure, 7 meters (23 feet) in diameter, was encircled by a spiral staircase descending into the Nile. The steps allowed for a quick reading of increase in water level, thus forecasting floods."  - Discovery News

In ancient times the Nile would overflow its banks between June and September.  The ancient Egyptians divided their year into three seasons with the period of inundation being one of the three.  Tax levels were set based on the quantity of the anticipated flood.  So, predicting the quantity of the inundation became a carefully guarded responsibility of select priests and many nilometers were enclosed in temples to exclude all but priests and Egyptian rulers.


The simplest nilometer was a marked vertical column submerged in the waters of the river.  A very ornate version of this design, built in 861 CE by the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil, can still be seen on the island of Rhoda in central Cairo.

The second type used a a flight of stairs leading down into the water, with depth markings along the walls. The best known example of this kind can be seen on the island of Elephantine in Aswan.  [Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Rajor]

The type found along the Avenue of the Sphinxes represents the third and most elaborate design that incorporated a cistern connected to the river by a channel.  Another example of this type can be seen at  the Temple of Kom Ombo north of Aswan




The Nilometer and the Sacred Soil: A Diary of a Tour Through Egypt, Palestine, and Syria    Global Treasures Kom Ombo Egypt   Amenhotep III: Perspectives on His Reign   Chronicle of a Pharaoh: The Intimate Life of Amenhotep III

Friday, May 07, 2010

2300-year-old Egyptian noblewoman centerpiece of renovated Nelson-Atkins gallery

The burial treasures of a 2300-year-old Egyptian noblewoman named Meretites, which means "beloved of her father", is the centerpiece of the newly reopened Egyptian gallery at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Robert Cohon, curator of art of the ancient world at the Nelson-Atkins points out that the arrangement of the art and subtle lighting is intended to give the impression of a tomb without being frightening.

"We want children to come in here, and want to know more," Cohon said. They will see the inner coffin painted with a huge golden-faced, blue-haired Meretites, as well as the myriad Egyptian gods and goddesses there for her journey into the afterworld." 

"Egyptian art has been a surreptitious pleasure for so many," Cohon continues. "This may also be a child's first exposure to death."

I was so excited to read about the Nelson-Atkins $1.7 million renovation.  They sound like they have a wonderful ancient art collection that spans over 4,000 years and there is a chance I may be going to Kansas City in July. 

[Image courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art]

My husband expressed his wish to go to the Military Vehicles Preservation Association national conference that is being held in Kansas City this year.  Its still a little iffy, though, with the gas prices climbing towards $4 a gallon again.  If there wasn't a possibility that he would buy some vehicle or large part, we could take my little fuel-efficient Scion but if we're attending a MVPA event, we'll probably need to take my husband's truck in case he wants to drag something back to Oregon.  At least now I have as much motivation to go as he does!

In addition to the funerary art of  Meretites that was purchased from a German collection back in 2007, the Egyptian galleries includes stone portraits of famous kings and queens from Sesostris III to Ramses II, from Nefertiti to the Ptolemies.  The museum's website points out that none of their recent purchases are contested by Egypt so they won't be in danger of repatriation.

Their Near Eastern collection includes grave goods from kings and queens of Ur and sculptures from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud as well as the ceremonial center of the Persian Empire, Persepolis.  It will be interesting to compare their artifacts to those on display at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

The museum's Roman collection apparently centers on works of art from the second century CE created during the reigns of the emperors Hadrian and Severus.  Their Greek collection mentions a sculpture of a young athlete.  I couldn't find an image of it but wonder if it is engaged in a particular sport or is more of a representation of a victorious youth?  

Steven Holl: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Bloch Building  Funerary Art of Ancient Egypt  The Severans: The Roman Empire Transformed  Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome   Assyrian Reliefs from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II: A Cultural Biography   Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia