Today’s topic: The humble turd. Poop. Crap. Dung. Whatever you want to call it, it is one of those topics of archaeological conversation not generally seen on the Discovery Channel and the like. Nevertheless, it makes up a very important part of archaeological analyses. The main reason it does so is because it is a direct piece of output from an animal’s body. And seeing as it’s coming from the digestive system, it often contains the remains of what was once eaten, thereby giving direct access to dietary data. And since it also can contain parts of the critter itself, you have a handy source of DNA and other molecules it picks up on the way through and out.
There are many ways to use fecal matter (both Numbers 1 and 2) for archaeological purposes. Obviously, the ’steaming pile’ (or not steaming as the case may be) is one. In polite company, turds, particularly the human variety, are usually called ‘coprolites’. Another is the packrat midden (midden being an accumulation of junk). These middens consist of large amounts of packrat excrement and other stuff they carry in to use as nesting material. Obviously, the seeds and what-not incorporated into the rat dung gives information on rat diet. Pollen can also find its way in, and by analyzing the relative proportions of different pollens at different levels one can say something about the types of plants in the neighboring area.
Other forms of animal poop can also tell you something about the kinds of animals that were around at any given time. Not only the types of animals that left the scat, but also the kinds of animals they were eating. Owl pellets, for example, often contain the partial remains of the critters (mostly rodents) that the owls ate and the changing abundances of prey items can tell you something about climatic conditions at the time.
Human excrement has seen much use in dietary studies. Not only can one examine the undigested detritus of individual plants and animals, but one can also analyze the fecal material chemically and, in some cases, make indirect observations of what was part of the diet.
It also helped to demonstrate fairly conclusively the presence of cannibalism in the US southwest.
A general list of references (multiple pages) of all sorts of dung-related types of analyses: The Dung File which, according to the author is “a list of references dealing with pollen, parasites, and plant remains in coprolites and latrine fills from archaeological and palaeoenvironmental sites”.
And this delightful site, An Idiosyncratic and Not Exhaustive Bibliography for Animal Dung and Archaeology
Finally, an important article on this subject involving plant studies, otherwise known as paleobotany, is:
Miller, Naomi F. and Tristine Lee Smart1 1984 Intentional Burning of Dung as Fuel: A Mechanism for the Incorporation of Charred Seeds into the Archeological Record. Journal of Ethnobiology 4: 15-28.
Prior to this paper, much research on the diet of ancient peoples (particularly in the Near East) assumed that the plant material found in hearths and such represented cooking debris from food preparation. This made it seem all the more unusual that people were finding a wide variety of plants heretofore not really considered viable (although still edible) human food plants. Why were they apparently consuming clover, for example? Then along came Miller and Tristine who demonstrated that in many cases, the people were using animal dung as fuel, which is still done today in many parts of the world. Since some plant material will pass through the gut of herbivores largely or partially intact, some of it will wind up in the dung and hence may be preserved in the hearth by virtue of charring while the dung is being used as fuel. This creates an “Aha” moment with many people. The upshot is that much of the plant remains thought to indicate human diet were really indicating sheep, goat, or cattle diet instead.
This has many other applications as well. As Cagle argued (in a brilliantly researched piece of work which YOU can purchase yourself for only £36.00!) at the Egyptian site of Kom el-Hisn, cattle dung may have been preferentially used as fuel by the elite members of the community since it provided a more controlled burning temperature and was generally a better alternative to the other available materials (very little wood was in the neighborhood). This conclusion also led to a number of others involving dietary preference (the elites probably ate more sheep/goat while the poorer folk consumed mostly pigs) and use/discard patterns for certain ceramic forms.
So really, there is a great deal one can learn from a turd.
Lighthouse museum? Proposal for a Pharos Museum
Designed by Sostratus during the reign of King Ptolemy II, Pharos was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World due to its immense height that reached 400 feet. Standing on a little island of the same name opposite Alexandria, it would guide sailors into the city harbour for 1,500 years till it was toppled by earthquakes around 1345. . . .
The site has repeatedly caught the attention of the archaeological community seeking to both showcase its rich history and increase public awareness about the world’s underwater archaeological heritage. Suggestions voiced during a Unesco conference in Alexandria in 1997 included the creation of an underwater museum in the form of a glass tunnel, an underwater archaeological park for visitors in wetsuits and a marine museum. The marine museum would be located in Qait Bey castle, built in 1477, where Pharos used to stand.
The underwater glass tunnell would be truly spectacular, but I have a feeling it will never get off the ground (or under the water). It would be extremely expensive, and would probably require inordinate maintenance, since the bay in which it would reside is incredibly polluted. But the concept of walking underwater and actually seeing many of these monuments where they lay on the sea floor is very tantalizing.
Builders working on an Oxfordshire highway have uncovered 1,000-year-old ruins built by a Norman adventurer. Workmen found part of a Norman causeway and arches under Abingdon Road and archaeologists were called in.
The road has now reopened after six weeks and it is hoped the ruins will go on show to the public.
CUZCO, Peru · It was just a sparkle on the horizon, where the sun hit what appeared to be a flat plain on an otherwise steep, untamed mountain in the Peruvian Andes. But Peter Frost, a British-born explorer and mountain guide, surmised that the perch would have made a perfect ceremonial platform for Incan rulers.
So Frost and the adventure hikers he was leading slogged through heavy jungle growth and at 13,000 feet uncovered remnants of the Incan civilization that flourished there. They found looted tombs, a circular building foundation and the stonework of an aqueduct.
The discovery in 1999 of Qoriwayrachina (pronounced co-ree-why-rah-CHEE-nah) was instantly hailed as a major find. It evoked the romantic image of the swashbuckling explorer unearthing a Lost City, an image embodied by Hiram Bingham, the American who in 1911 made the greatest Incan discovery of them all, Machu Picchu.
In the 21st century it would seem that the remote, rugged mountains around Cuzco have given up all of their secrets. But this region of southern Peru is still chock-full of ruins.
Ditto on much of the Maya area which is now overgrown. There are probably thousands of smaller temples (and even some big ones) and settlements that have yet to be discovered.
More reconstruction controversy Burma temples in red brick
For centuries this vast plain of temples has cast a spell over visitors to Burma (Myanmar), long after its imperial reign faded into history. Built using slave labor during two and a half centuries of dynastic rule, Bagan became a byword for Buddhist meritmaking.
. . .
Over the last decade, Burma’s military rulers have rebuilt many of the site’s temples using garish modern materials, piling bright red bricks atop crumbling ruins and erecting entire temples alongside ancient structures. Rich donors are urged to fund reconstruction as a way of earning religious merit.
The result, according to foreign experts, is the transformation of Bagan into a string of cookie-cutter pagodas that bear scant resemblance to the originals.
Okay, not much controversy here. This just appears to be dumb.
News from Iraq Airmen, Iraqis dig up ancient site
An ages-old mystery is being unearthed here thanks to some amateur archeologists serving with the 506th Air Expeditionary Group.
Iraqi archeologists have determined the air base has at least one site with artifacts dating back to between 1200 B.C. and 2600 B.C., possibly predating the ancient Assyrians. Other sites have been identified as potentially containing precious antiquities, but have yet to be excavated.
Okay, so not much excavation really.
Elgin marbles update New strategy to `reunite’ Elgin marbles
Sold by Elgin to the British Museum, the marbles of ancient Greek gods and warriors make up at least half of the Parthenon’s surviving sculptures, most of the rest of which remain in Greece.
The latest Greek campaign to regain them is pegged to the return of the Olympic Games to the country of their birth in August, when the government hoped it could unveil the “reunited” marbles to the world.
But the British Museum shows no sign of parting with its half.
And it sees Greece’s request of a loan during the Games as little more than a ruse.
n search of clues they believe could cast light on 10,000 years of Balkans history, archaeologists working in a key wetland along the Cetina river in southern Croatia have modernized their approach, switching shovels for a georadar.
Children ran in awe around the cart with the georadar as it circled around a village playground pulled by a small four-wheeler. Several meters (feet) beneath the concrete the radar found remains of a medieval church.