Science Friday: Can you dig it?

So this is something that I’m trying out and may or may not maintain for the long haul.

Welcome to the first-ever Science Friday at the Picayune-Democrat. My goal here is to highlight science news, blogs and commentary which might be of particular interest to homeschoolers–but which I hope will grab everyone else’s attention, too. ‘Cuz science is just cool.

Today’s topic: archaeology, a subject near & dear to my heart.

My interest in grubby old things dug out of the ground started in second or third grade, when I checked out a book from the library (on what subject, I cannot recall) that discussed archaeologists’ unearthing of some fantabulous object from the reign of Charlemagne. It mentioned that Charlemagne’s reign lasted from 768 to 814.

The notion completely boggled me. 768? How could a date have only three numbers in it? Of course, if I thought carefully about it, I knew that Jesus must have been born in the year 1, and that cities and empires and suchlike had obviously existed long before that; but still, for some reason, that three-digit date blew me away with its utter ancientness. I imagined how it would be to sift through layers of dirt, to feel something solid under my fingers, to lift it into the light and see the telltale glimmer of gold, undimmed by time, through  its shroud of dust.

I had been bitten by the archaeology bug. And, more specifically, by the medieval archaeology bug. Egyptian and classical archaeology never grabbed me the same way, for whatever reason (and Egyptology still hasn’t, though I did eventually develop an unhealthy fascination with Greece and Rome… though, really, the Hellenistic period is my favorite). It was all about crumbling skeletons in musty crypts, hoards of Celtic gold and Viking silver, sooty smudges in the earth marking out where humble village houses had once stood.

Archaeology holds the same fascination for many kids–and why wouldn’t it? It’s got those initially seductive elements of adventure, surprise, discovery, hidden treasure. And once you’ve gotten past those, there’s the sheer Sensawunda that comes from seeing and touching something that was actually made and used by people now long dead, hundreds or thousands of years ago. You realize that even the humblest shard of pottery or gnawed end of bone can be a clue that helps you reconstruct a real story about real lives.

The last few weeks have seen some astonishing archaeological finds revealed around the globe:

Hatshepsut’s mummy? Despite my professed uninterest in all things Egyptological, the story of Hatshepsut is still pretty darn interesting. Elevated to the throne as regent for her underage stepson after her husband’s death, Hatshepsut seized power with both hands and made a host of powerful enemies in the process. At least in her surviving statuary portraits, she wore the false beard and male dress that signified her powers as pharoah. She even began grooming her daughter to succeed her, dressing the girl as a young man. She constructed an elaborate temple complex in southern Egypt, probably
to establish her religious power independent of the existing priesthood
structures. After her death, this complex was vandalized and most of her portraits were defaced as her stepson attempted to obliterate her memory. Now, testing on a mummy discovered in a humble tomb reveals it may be the body of the long-lost queen. A tooth discovered in a wooden box with Hatshepsut’s name on it matches exactly to a broken root in the mummy’s jaw, and DNA analysis of the mummy’s astonishingly well-preserved liver shows a relationship to Ahmose Nefertari, founding matriarch of Egypt’s 18th dynasty.

Inca gunshot victim. The skeleton of the first known gunshot victim in the New World has been discovered. Several hundred bodies were found in a cemetery outside Lima, Peru, apparently slain by the conquistador Pizarro’s army. One skull  was pierced by two holes, exactly opposite each other; nearby, archaeologists found a bone plug with the markings of a musket ball still in it. Further analysis revealed traces of lead around the edges of the wound, confirming that the skeleton–that of a man in his late teens or early twenties–had been shot in the head. This man was probably killed during the Inca uprising of 1536, soon after the conquistadors’ arrival in Peru; within 70 years, nearly 80 percent of the Inca were dead. (This link goes to a short but very cool and informative video from National Geographic.)

Here, kitty, kitty. You already knew cats were not like dogs–here’s some scientific explanation of why. Genetic research shows that cats are descended from a subspecies of Felis sylvestris native to the Near East, known as lybica. Unlike dogs, cattle, sheep and camelids, they appear to have domesticated themselves, evolving into a (relatively) friendly species that could (relatively) peacefully coexist with humans; their emergence as a species parallels the development of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent area and the resulting boom in rodent populations as granaries provided new dining and dwelling options for these pesky creatures. Cats, ever the opportunists, stepped up to exploit this valuable new highly-concentrated food source, and those individual cats which could prove (relatively) endearing to their human cohabitants enjoyed higher breeding success. They moved into people’s homes and basked in the warmth of their fires; they bore their litters in safer, more protected places; they may even (this is 100% Molly-conjecture here) have had lower rates of skin parasite infestation as humans petted and groomed them. And now, all these thousands of years later, everyone who shares a home with a cat has official scientific confirmation: You don’t own your cat. Your cat owns you.

Tune in next Friday, one hopes, for more sciencey stuff, one hopes. Possible topics: the search for planets in other solar systems? the physics of LEGO? the current administration’s monkeying about with the Endangered Species Act? Who knows? But I am surely open to suggestions.

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About Molly Newman

Writer, cook and trivia/spelling bee hostess, living it up in North Portland.
This entry was posted in Lighter Side of Science. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Science Friday: Can you dig it?

  1. azureavian says:

    you are just so darn cool. i love this post and so look forward to more.

  2. Amy Sorensen says:

    In another life I want to be an archeologist. I agree with you, it’s the perfect fascination for kids, and I think if you really get bit, the itch never goes away. Even though I read it on Saturday instead of Friday ;), I love this post!

  3. Summer says:

    The Inca thing blew me away. So cool…..talk about evidence sticking around after the crime was committed.
    I love historical archaelogy quite a bit and this post was a nice lil’ find before trudging off to work.

  4. Jac says:

    Although it’s not medieval, my favorite anthropology website is johnhawks.net/weblog
    He’s a paleoanthropologist with widespread interests and a sense of humor. I try to read him everyday…(nerd alert).

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