Sex is Depicted from Hindu and Jain temples of Khajuraho Wednesday, Feb 18 2009 

Temples of Khajuraho

Back when India was more stylish some lovers made monuments to their lovers just in case true love died or was forgotten. These monuments took years to build and hung around for centuries till the current horde of capitalism discovered their potential to attract tourists.

Built in the time of the Chandela dynasty over a period of 200 years, the Hindu and Jain temples of Khajuraho were originally 80 in number, however now only 25 stand in reasonable state over a park area of 21km. These temples are more than just a faded lover’s tribute and actually celebrate the act of love in all its intriguing variations (including orgies and animals).

What makes Khajuraho famous is the erotic art that covers the external façade. Strangely, the insides of the temples do not contain any erotic carvings. Most of the carvings are about the everyday life — women putting make-up, farmers, potters, musicians, dancers, etc. Sure, sex is a part of it, but only in so far as to match its importance in everyday life.

It takes time to take in the temples and truly appreciate the amount of detail and immense amount of ‘involvement’ the sculptors must have had in their art. The depictions are almost perfect.The broad-hipped, high-breasted women have lovely eyes and a taste for incredibly sexy jewelry and accessories such as bangles, anklets, necklaces, etc. They (the sculptors) have managed to find what makes Indian women unique and attractive and have incorporated this understanding into the face and bodily proportions that really represent the best of Indian beauty. Their knowledge of human anatomy is probably second to their willingness to depict the nature of all things sexual.

Extremely interesting, the confluence of religious idols and erotic art gives depth to each. Make sure that you arrive well in time to slowly walk around the temples, on an average; it takes about an hour to tour a single temple. There’s more than just the jaw-dropping display of sexual practices and enjoyment, the temples are an education on human life, spirituality and yes, some more sex.


A Remarkable Neolithic Mural Discovered in Syria Tuesday, Feb 17 2009 

Neolithic Mural • Syria

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In the fall of 2006, French archaeologists digging at the Neolithic site of Djade al Mugahara in northern Syria announced the discovery of a remarkable mural. Made up of red, black, and white geometric shapes painted 11,000 years ago, the small panel bore an uncanny resemblance to the early work of modernist masters Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.

The discovery didn’t make our list last year, but further excavation this past summer revealed that the team had only uncovered the very top of the mural in 2006. “During the 2007 campaign we excavated the complete panel, about three and a half feet by six feet,” says expedition leader Eric Coqueugniot. “We also discovered a new wall with similar geometric patterns in a very good state of preservation.” The paintings decorate the walls of a round communal building about 25 feet wide that probably served some ritual purpose. In the same structure Coqueugniot’s team discovered anthropomorphic figurines made of gypsum and chalk.

The rules guiding our selection of the top discoveries of 2007 disqualified the Djade al Mugahara mural from being included, since archaeologists announced the discovery of the masterwork in 2006. But archaeology is an incremental science, every season of excavation builds on the one before it, and the significance of a discovery made one year may only become apparent after further work. This year Coqueugniot’s team not only gave us a more vivid glimpse into the ritual life of Djade al Mugahara, but a sense of just how close Neolithic aesthetic sensibilities were to those of early European modernists, the kind of eerie connection with the past that only archaeology can make.

Discovery of Otzi the Iceman Thursday, Feb 12 2009 

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Ötzi’s Final Moments • South Tyrol, Italy

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The 5,300-year-old mummy–dubbed “Ötzi the Iceman”–found frozen in the Alps in 1991 made headlines again in 2007. Researchers at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, where Ötzi’s remains are housed, conducted CT scans that revealed exactly how he died: an arrow to the back pierced an artery; basically, he bled to death. Although X-rays and CT scans carried out in 2001 showed that an arrow had been wedged in his shoulder, this new evidence suggests the arrow inflicted the fatal blow (after which, the poor guy fell, hit his head, and suffered a brain hemorrhage).

For more than 15 years, scientists have been reconstructing every detail of Ötzi’s life, down to the contents of his last meal. One of their most interesting findings was that the Iceman sports some of the world’s oldest tattoos, most of which resemble blue-black hash marks. Many tattoo artists feel they are carrying on his tradition even today, a phenomenon that may have had a role in another significant story this year.

Archaeology Facts Behind Alexander’s Isthmus Wednesday, Jan 21 2009 

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Alexander’s Isthmus • Tyre, Lebanon

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There is no shortage of stories about Alexander the Great’s military accomplishments. One of them, his 332 B.C. conquering of the seemingly impenetrable Phoenician island fortress of Tyre, was revised a bit this year. History tells us that Alexander, after laying siege to the massive fort for seven months, made his final assault by having his engineers build a half-mile causeway connecting the island to the mainland–a stunning feat.

But a study published in May posits that Alexander got assistance from a submerged sandbar, so he crossed water only a yard or two deep. Geoarchaeologist Nick Marriner, of France’s National Center of Scientific Research, and his colleagues also theorize that the bridge or causeway that Alexander’s army built altered coastal currents and the flow of sand, helping permanently join the island of Tyre with the mainland. It’s always fascinating when archaeology and other forms of science can be applied to the historical record. In this case, geoarchaeology explains not only how Alexander made his assault, but also how he actually reshaped Lebanon’s coastline.

Discovery of the Lyuba the Baby Mammoth Friday, Jan 16 2009 

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The frozen carcass of a baby woolly mammoth discovered in Russia last summer is the most complete example of the species ever discovered.

What counts as archaeology? It’s a question we’re constantly asking ourselves when we decide what stories to cover. Basically, any discovery connected to the human past made by people who call themselves archaeologists is considered fair game. And when paleontologists find the remains of our hominid ancestors, we cover that too.

That rule of thumb left this year’s amazing discovery of “Lyuba” out in the cold when we assembled our list. A six-month-old baby mammoth, Lyuba was found last May eroding out of a riverbank in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula by Yuri Khudi, a Nenets reindeer herder. Russian paleontologist Alexei Tikhonov and French explorer Bernard Buiges (see “Mammoth Distortions”) soon learned of the find, and they quickly organized a scientific study of the remarkably well-preserved specimen, bringing in mammoth expert Daniel Fisher from the University of Michigan, among others.

The most complete mammoth carcass every found, Lyuba (named after Khudi’s wife) weighs about 110 pounds and is the size of a large dog. X-rays of her body revealed heartbreaking details, like the fact that she had nascent tusks no larger than a human finger. More discoveries are likely to come in 2008, when the baby mammoth travels to Japan for CT-scanning.

Strictly speaking, Lyuba is a paleontological, not archaeological, discovery. But every piece of information she can tell us about her brief life brings us closer to re-creating her world, a landscape she shared with our Paleolithic ancestors.

Discovery of the Greater Angkor, Cambodia Saturday, Jan 10 2009 

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This computer reconstruction of Angkor Wat is based in part on a new map of the site and the vast urban landscape that surrounded it.

The capital of a Khmer state that flourished between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, Cambodia’s Angkor is one of the most intensively studied sites in the world. But it continues to inspire more questions than answers, the most fundamental being why the sophisticated Khmer Empire collapsed. In 2007, research into the mysteries of the world’s largest preindustrial city reached a milestone with the completion of a 10-year mapping project, which yielded clues suggesting that the sprawling metropolis may have collapsed under self-induced environmental pressures related to overpopulation and deforestation.

“Angkor was a vast inhabited landscape…larger than anything previously known,” says Damian Evans, deputy director of the Greater Angkor Project (GAP) and lead author of the group’s findings. Their map covers more than 1,100 square miles, detailing thousands of features that were part of an elaborate irrigation system.

The GAP team combined previously existing ground surveys, aerial photos, and radar remote-sensing data provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to create the comprehensive map. It shows an urban center surrounded by dispersed agricultural villages, local temples, and small reservoirs. The team found evidence of silted canals and breached waterworks that suggest the people of Angkor were eventually unable to maintain the vast irrigation system because of erosion and increased flooding. The map also shows the metropolis extended miles beyond the ruins within today’s Angkor Archaeological Park. “Extremely valuable archaeological material stretches far beyond the World Heritage zone,” Evans says.

Archaeology Discovery of Homo habilis and Homo erectus Tuesday, Dec 9 2008 

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Whether they are mother-and-daughter species or two sisters, the relationship between Homo habilis and Homo erectus is becoming strained. A pair of discoveries near Lake Ileret in Kenya call into question the idea that H. erectus, the species from which modern humans evolved, is descended from H. habilis, the earliest hominid known to use stone tools.

A team of paleoanthropologists led by Meave and Louise Leakey of the Koobi Fora Research Project uncovered the upper jawbone of a H. habilis dated to 1.44 million years ago, and the skull of a H. erectus dated to 1.55 million years ago. H. habilis was thought to have gradually evolved into H. erectus over hundreds of thousands of years, fading out of existence around 1.65 million years ago. A previously discovered H. erectus fossil dated to 1.9 million years combined with the new finds show the two species lived together in the same lake basin for close to 500,000 years.

The discovery of a Homo habilis jawbone and a Homo erectus skull that are close in age has paleontologists rethinking the idea that H. habilis evolved into H. erectus. (National Museums of Kenya/Fred Spoor)

“I think increasingly they will be recognized as sister species that lived in the same area and did different things,” says Fred Spoor of University College London and a member of the team. H. erectus‘ smaller teeth and less powerful jaws suggest it was probably eating more meat. If the two species both evolved from a common ancestor, it changes the human race’s relationship to H. habilis. “Strictly speaking, if our scenario is correct,” says Spoor, “Homo habilis, as we know the species, seems to be a dead branch.”

Archaeology Discovery of Polynesian Chickens in Chile Thursday, Dec 4 2008 

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Scholars have long assumed the Spaniards first introduced chickens to the New World along with horses, pigs, and cattle. But now radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis of a chicken bone excavated from a site in Chile suggest Polynesians in oceangoing canoes brought chickens to the west coast of South America well before Europe’s “Age of Discovery.”

An international team, including bioarchaeologist Alice Storey of the University of Auckland, made the startling discovery after analyzing a recently excavated chicken bone from the Chilean site of El Arenal, a settlement of the Mapuche, a people who lived on the southern fringe of the Inca empire from about A.D. 1000 to 1500.

The team found that the chicken’s DNA sequence was related to that of chickens whose remains were unearthed from archaeological sites on the Polynesian islands of Tonga and American Samoa. Radiocarbon dating shows the El Arenal chicken lived sometime between a.d. 1321 and 1407, well after Polynesians first settled Easter Island and the other easternmost islands of the Pacific.

In 1532, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro recorded the presence of chickens in Peru, where the Inca used them in religious ceremonies. “That suggests chickens had already been there for a while,” says Storey. “It’s possible there are stylized chickens in the iconography that we have not recognized because we did not know they were there. I’m fascinated to see what [archaeologists] are going to do with this information.”

Archaeology Discovery of Lismullin Henge Wednesday, Nov 12 2008 

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Early last year, archaeologists working on the route of a controversial highway near the village of Lismullin, Ireland, stumbled across a vast Iron Age ceremonial enclosure, or henge, surrounded by two concentric walls. The 2,000-year-old site is just over a mile from the Hill of Tara, traditional seat of the ancient Irish kings and site of St. Patrick’s conversion of the Irish to Christianity in the fifth century A.D. The discovery of the massive henge, measuring more than 260 feet in diameter, confirms the long-held belief that the area around the hill contains a rich complex of monuments.

The extraordinary amount of archaeological remains on the Hill of Tara–burial mounds, religious enclosures, stone structures, and rock art dating from the third millennium b.c. to the twelfth century A.D.–makes it Ireland’s most spiritually and archaeologically significant site. Construction of the new M3 highway, meant to ease traffic congestion around Dublin, threatens not only the Hill of Tara’s timeless quality, but also newly discovered archaeological sites in the surrounding valley.

Lismullin, seen at right in an aerial shot taken during excavations, and other sites that stand in the way of the new road are now approved for destruction. Although archaeologists and concerned Irish politicians are rallying support worldwide for the protection of the Hill of Tara, the iconic site remains in great peril. At press time, the European Commission had initiated legal action against the Irish government over the M3, charging Ireland with failing to protect its own heritage.

Tell Brak is the World Oldest City Saturday, Nov 8 2008 

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Pottery sherds from Syria’s Tell Brak show that the Bronze Age city developed from a central core surrounded by satellite communities.

Archaeologists have long believed that the world’s oldest cities lay along the fertile riverbanks of southern Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq. There, in a land of plenty, went the idea, powerful kings began coercing their subjects to live together some 6,000 years ago. Their great invention–the city–later spread throughout the Near East. But last August, Harvard University archaeologist Jason Ur and two British colleagues turned that idea on its head. Their intensive field survey and surface collection of potsherds at the site of Tell Brak in northern Syria revealed that an ancient city rose there at exactly the same time as urban centers first sprouted up in southern Mesopotamia, but followed a very different model of development. “Urbanism,” says Ur, “is not one brilliant idea that occurred one place and then diffused.”

Tell Brak first came to scientific attention in the 1930s when British archaeologist Max Mallowan and his wife Agatha Christie started excavations there. But recently, a team led by Cambridge University archaeologist Joan Oates has unearthed new clues to the city’s early years. By 3900 B.C., the ancient metropolis sprawled across some 130 acres and boasted a flourishing bureaucracy and skilled artisans turning out fine marble chalices and other luxury goods for the ruling class.

Intriguingly, Tell Brak seems to have grown from the outside in. In the south, cities began as a central settlement–under a single authority–that grew outward. But Ur’s field survey shows that Tell Brak started as a central community ringed by smaller satellite settlements that expanded inward. “There isn’t a very tight control over these surrounding villages, at least at this beginning period,” says Ur. “So the assumption that we’re making is that people were coming in under their own volition.”

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