Two twelfth-century settlements a hundred kilometers apart in Arizona were apparently built by discrete cultures, but they have at least one trait in common: In each complex is a hidden, hollow compartment that once held large chunks of alien iron — fragments of a 50,000-year-old meteorite.
While it’s not clear what, if any, interaction there was between the two communities, the existence of these twin meteorite “shrines” is a connection worth investigating, says Ken Zoll.
“The sites themselves are not necessarily linked, but the practice is linked,” said Zoll, executive director of the Verde Valley Archaeological Center in Camp Verde, Arizona.
Zoll, who researches archaeoastronomy — the study of how ancient cultures tracked celestial events — discussed the little-known meteorite caches earlier this month at the 2013 Pecos Conference, an annual meeting of Southwestern archaeologists.
The first of the two sites was reportedly discovered by looters in 1927, southeast of present-day Camp Verde. And in many regards, Zoll said, it was unique among the ruins that rim central Arizona’s Verde Valley.
For one, unlike the older pithouses and small masonry structures found elsewhere, it was an arrangement of pueblo-style rooms that formed a near-perfect square, about 61 meters on each side.
For another, inside its eastern wall was a stone-lined vault, or cist, that held a bundle wrapped in an ornate blanket made of turkey feathers. Inside was a 61-kilogram mass of misshapen metal, a meteorite.
“The fact that it was wrapped in a feathered turkey blanket adds to the significance,” observed Zoll. “It takes over a year to make. So obviously it made it a very sacred location.”
The building complex, situated on Wingfield Mesa, was likely built in the 12th or 13th centuries by the southern band of the Sinagua, a culture of farmers and foragers who were contemporaries of the Ancestral Pueblo, the Salado, and the Hohokam.
But Zoll noted that while most residences were built in phases as communities grew, Wingfield’s public square seemed to have been built all at once, suggesting that it was made for a singular function.
“It’s a big square of rooms with a huge plaza in the center,” he said. “We have two others (in the Verde Valley) that are very similar, but this is the only one that seems to be built with a single purpose in mind and in a single-construction phase. … And so we think it was built as a shrine or religious center. ”
The second site, he said, was discovered just a year after the Wingfield meteorite was found, some 115 kilometers to the north, outside the city of Flagstaff.
There, a local pot-hunter named A. J. Townsend was looting the ruins of pithouses built by the Sinagua’s northern band, and found a square stone cist just below the surface.
Under the lid was a broken mass of rocky metal, 24 kilograms of iron that local scientists soon dubbed the Winona meteorite, named for the ruins, also from around the 12th century, where it was discovered.
Its fragments, now on display at Flagstaff’s Museum of Northern Arizona, remain the largest single specimen of rocky-metallic, partially melted meteorites now called winonaites.
And this distinctive chemistry would prove to be significant, Zoll said, because analyses of both the Wingfield and Winona meteorites performed decades later found them to be identical.
“The exact same structure — that meteroite — was found at the Winona ruins east of Flagstaff,” he said. “So here we have northern and southern Sinagua sites that had this meteorite embedded within them.”
Indeed, much of northern Arizona is “just strewn with all kinds of different sizes and shapes of meteorites,” Zoll added — all detritus from the giant meteorite strike that formed Meteor Crater some 50,000 years ago.
So while neither of the Sinagua settlements could have witnessed the impact, the hunks of molten metal — in cultures that pre-dated metalworking — still seemed to have held some special significance.
The question is what, and whether those communities were alone among Arizona’s ancient settlements in their apparent reverence, Zoll said.
Zoll discusses the two meteorite sites in a book to be published this fall, Ancient Astronomy of Central Arizona. But he urged more professional investigation of the topic. Winona village ruins have not been studied since the 1930s, he said, and the square encampment at Wingfield Mesa has never been excavated.
His aim, he said, is to “broaden the idea, for other archaeoastronomers to look for these things.”
“Because the significance is, here we have a pattern,” he said. “There could be a lot more [structures with meteorites in them] that we just don’t know about.”
Were the rulers of the great ancient Mesoamerican civilizations related?
Of these, Teotihuacan, the 2,000-year-old, metropolis that was the first great city of the Western Hemisphere, has long been a mystery. Located 25 miles northeast of the current Mexico City, this ancient civilization left behind the ruins of a master-planned city grid with immense pyramids covering eight square miles and having a unique culture. But even the Aztecs, who gave the city its present name, did not know who built it. They called the monumental ruins "the City of the Gods."
Though Teotihuacan at its height was roughly contemporary with the early stages of the Mayan cities located far to the south in the jungles of southern Mexico and Guatemala, archaeologists have long noted pronounced differences between the cultures and only minor evidence of interaction. Now, startling new evidence from an excavation still in process at Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Moon is revealing a Mayan link with the great city's aristocracy - and may soon be sending reverberations through foundations of Mesoamerican archaeology.
The excavation, directed by Saburo Sugiyama, professor of archaeology at Aichi Prefectural University in Japan and research professor at Arizona State University, and Ruben Cabrera of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, has found a distinctive burial in the pyramid, one of Teotihuacan's oldest and largest structures, containing three ceremonially positioned bodies, other ceremonial items, and jade artifacts that appear to be of Mayan origin.
"The jade objects are especially interesting," said Sugiyama, a leading authority on Teotihuacan, who has been excavating sites in various parts of the city for decades. "We believe that some of them came from Guatemala.
"Some jade objects were carved in Maya style and we know that they were often used as symbol of rulers or royal family members in Maya societies. We have to study the objects and bones further, but the offerings strongly suggest a direct relation between the Teotihuacan ruling group and the Maya royal families."
Among the items is a spectacular jade statuette of a person with relatively realistic features and big eyes. Jade is a rare and precious material in Central America. The nearest and most likely source of the stone is located in the Motagua Valley in Guatemala, which seems to further confirm the objects' Mayan origins.
The burial site is located at the top of the fifth of the pyramid's seven layered stages, and appears to have been created as an offering during the construction of the sixth stage, which is dated circa 350 A.D., near the time of Teotihacan's greatest power and prosperity.
According to Sugiyama, the bodies found in this tomb offer further evidence that the burial is a unique and important find. Since 1998, Sugiyama and his team have excavated several other human burials in the Pyramid of the Moon containing symbolically important animals (such as pumas, coyotes, eagles and serpents), large shells, weapon points and artwork, but the human remains in the earlier discoveries all appeared to be bound captives - offerings dedicating stages of the pyramid. The current discovery is somewhat similar in its ceremonial and symbolic objects, but differs significantly in the positioning of the human remains.
"Unlike the earlier burials we've discovered in the Pyramid of the Moon, these three bodies didn't have their hands tied," Sugiyama noted. "In addition, they were found in a cross-legged seated position, which is very rarely, if ever, found in burials here.
"The position, however, can be seen in images in murals, sculpture or figurines as priests, gods, or warriors in Teotihuacan and other related sites."
Similar body positioning has also been found in burials at Kaminaljuyu, a Mayan site in the Guatemalan highlands. Archaeologists have, in fact, found indications of noble Teotihuacan visitors and of their possible influence on government in the art and records of a number of Mayan cities, including Tikal and Copan. Some evidence has also been found for the presence of Mayan visitors in the common residential and commercial districts of Teotihuacan.
"The archaeological evidence appears to point towards Teotihuacanos intervening in Mayan politics, " said ASU archaeologist George Cowgill, an authority on Teotihuacan. "But many people still dispute that there was really any significant influence because they were two distinctly different cultures. "Dr. Sugiyama's discovery makes it all more complicated by adding some big new pieces to the puzzle. It certainly makes it harder to see the Mayans as not much influenced by Teotihuacan."
"I think this is significant because for the first time we have data indicating a Mayan ruling class connection at Teotihuacan, from the heart of one of the city's major monuments," said Sugiyama. "More importantly, these new data tell us about the government Teotihuacan itself, which is one of the biggest questions," he said. "These three people were evidently from the highest socio-political status group."
The three bodies are all male, and are estimated to be approximately 50 years of age at burial. Sugiyama also notes that the bodies were lavishly adorned. "They have the richest ornaments ever found in a burial at Teotihuacan after more than a century of research," Sugiyama said.
"The quality of the offerings is just exceptional. If we had found only one of these bodies, we would suspect that he had been a ruler or at least a royal family member, but we discovered three. This leaves us with critical questions of identification that still need to be resolved," he said. "And there is still a possibility that we may find another grave below the current burial complex and/or at other places inside the Moon Pyramid."
The excavation of the Pyramid of the Moon ended in mid-October because of Sugiyama's teaching commitments in Japan. Sugiyama plans to continue with the digging next August.
Sugiyama and Cabrera's research is sponsored by the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, Arizona State University, and Mexico's
Translation of recently unearthed hieroglyphic stairs on an ancient Maya pyramid in Guatemala provides dramatic evidence that two great Maya city-states and their allies were locked in a brutal superpower struggle that may have set the stage for the later collapse of the classic Maya civilization.
The newly translated stone hieroglyphs - complete with references to piles of skulls and flowing blood - were partially exposed last summer during a hurricane at the site known as Dos Pilas, deep in the Guatemalan rain forest. "The hundreds of new glyphs fill in a vital 60-year gap of unknown Maya history and clarify many of the political and military relationships of this critical period," says Federico Fahsen, a noted Maya epigrapher and adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University.
Fahsen directed the team that uncovered, catalogued and deciphered the inscriptions, an effort supported by the National Geographic Society, Vanderbilt University, the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies and Guatemala's Ministry of Culture.
The 18-step hieroglyphic staircase, of which only eight steps were previously known, supports the theory that the Maya world in the seventh century was divided into two superpower blocs — one under the control of the city-state Tikal and the other dominated by Calakmul. Tikal, then known as Mutul, was located in what is, today, northern Guatemala, and Calakmul was about 60 miles further north, in Mexico.
The discovery of the glyphs is reported in the October 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine. The glyphs, —among the largest texts ever discovered— detail how Calakmul, known as the "snake kingdom," was involved in the wars that occurred in this part of the ancient Maya world. Previously, scholars working in the region viewed the conflict between Dos Pilas and Tikal as primarily a dynastic quarrel between two brothers. This theory was in accordance with the more traditional interpretation of the Maya states in this region as independent regional powers. The glyphs, however, reveal a very different story.
Written on the staircase is the actual history of Dos Pilas. It begins on the central section of the pyramid's stairway with the birth of a king, Balaj Chan K'awiil, on Oct. 15, 625, and the establishment of Dos Pilas as a military outpost by the great city of Tikal, about 70 miles to the northeast, in 629. Dos Pilas was important to Tikal for its proximity to the middle stretch of the Pasión River, the superhighway of the Maya world. A stronghold in Dos Pilas allowed Tikal to exert control over this major trade route between the highlands and lowlands for coveted items such as jade, obsidian, quetzal feathers, and shells from the Caribbean.
As told by the glyphs, Balaj Chan K'awiil was installed as ruler of Dos Pilas by Tikal at the age of four. "Balaj Chan K'awiil became a very big warrior," says Fahsen. "He almost never stopped fighting and for many years was loyal to Tikal." According to the translations, the central section of the steps also tells the ceremonies that the young man went through, always as a friend of his brother, the ruler of Tikal, not
as an enemy as previously believed.
Then, when the king was in his early 20s, Calakmul attacked and defeated Dos Pilas. After capturing Balaj Chan K'awiil, Calakmul put him back on the Dos Pilas throne as a "puppet king" who was allowed to keep his land in exchange for allegiance.
The degree of involvement of Calakmul came as a surprise to Fahsen. "When I read those glyphs, I had to blink to make sure I was reading it correctly," he says. "I had never heard of Calakmul actually invading and defeating the king of Dos Pilas. We thought that, at most, they may have had a weak alliance of some type."
The record continues to describe how Balaj Chan K'awiil, now loyal to Calakmul, launched a decadelong war against Tikal that ended in his victory. His forces sacked Tikal and brought its ruler — his own brother — and other Tikal nobles to Dos Pilas to be sacrificed. "This west section of the steps was very graphic," says Fahsen. "It says, 'blood was pooled and the skulls of the thirteen peoples of the Tikal place were piled up.' The final glyphs describe the king of Dos Pilas 'doing a victory dance,'" he adds. Following the victory over Tikal, Dos Pilas embarked on a campaign of conquest with Calakmul's backing and became a major regional power.
"Rather than being an independent actor as previously thought, it now appears that Dos Pilas was a pawn in a much bigger battle," says Arthur Demarest, Ingram Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University, which helped sponsor the effort at Dos Pilas. "In today's terms, Dos Pilas was the Somalia or Vietnam of the Maya world, used in a war that was actually between two superpowers."
Fahsen and Demarest contend that the newly translated account supports the theory advanced by two Maya scholars — Simon Martin of University College, London, and Nikolai Grube of the University of Bonn — that this period in Maya history was a 'long world war' between the Tikal and Calakmul superpowers. Although Maya scholars had earlier characterized the recorded conflicts between different Maya city-states as regional and unrelated, the new evidence from Dos Pilas "supports the more extreme versions of Martin and Grube's vision," says Demarest, who previously viewed their theory skeptically.
After evaluating the new material, Demarest now conceives of this period as a time when the Maya civilization was on the verge of moving to a higher level of organization and consolidating into a single empire. "However, this didn't happen. Instead, the giant war went back and forth. After Tikal was sacked, it eventually roared back and crushed Calakmul. And then the Maya world just broke up into regional powers, setting the stage for a period of intensive, petty warfare that finally led to the collapse of the Maya," says Demarest. By 760, Dos Pilas was abandoned.
A joint Peruvian-Polish team have examined a previously unexcavated building in the well-preserved Inca retreat of Machu Picchu and found that the structure is astronomically aligned according to Prof. Mariusz Ziółkowski, Head of Pre-Columbian Research Centre at the University of Warsaw.
The team used 3D laser scanners to fully model and survey the building, named “El Mirador” (the vantage point), so as to get precise locations and alignments.
“Despite the difficult terrain we managed to perform 3D laser scans, which we then used to prepare a precise model of this amazing complex.” said Prof. Ziółkowski. Results of preliminary analysis indicate that it is a device used probably by a small group of Inca priests astronomers for precise observations of the position of celestial bodies on the horizon, against the distinctive Yanantin mountain peaks.
The Inca were well-known as astronomers who took careful note of the movements of the heavens in order to plan their agricultural and religious calendars.
The Polish researchers who have been working at Machu Picchu since 2008, have been focusing on the site’s archaeoastronomical significance. They presented their findings at the International Conference of the Societe Europeenne pour l’ Astronomie dans la Culture in Athens in September 2013.
El Mirador, was constructed of well made blocks of stone and was identified in an inaccessible part of the National Park of Machu Picchu by the park director, anthropologist Fernando Astete Victoria, during the prospective – inventory work conducted on the slopes of Mount Huayna Picchu. He then invited the Polish team to work with the Peruvian team to further investigate the site with the latest technology and so reveal a new alignment pattern unlike the Inca ceremonial complexes with south or west-oriented solstice.
Previous research by the Polish team had demonstrated Intimachay at Machu Picchu was an astronomical observatory far more complex and precise than it has been previously realised.
Long before people could look upon Earth from afar, completing a full orbit every 90 minutes, the Greeks and the Romans of antiquity had to struggle to understand their world’s size and shape. Their approaches differed: the philosophical Greeks, it has been said, measured the world by the stars; the practical, road-building Romans by milestones.
As the Greek geographer Strabo wrote at the time: “We may learn from both the evidence of our senses and from experiences, that the inhabited world is an island, for wherever it has been possible for men to reach the limits of the earth, sea has been found, and this sea we call ‘Oceanus.’ And whenever we have not been able to learn by the evidence of sense, there reason points the way.”
Strabo’s words will greet visitors to a new exhibition, “Measuring and Mapping Space: Geographic Knowledge in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” which opens Friday at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, at 15 East 84th Street in Manhattan. The show runs through Jan. 5.
Roger S. Bagnall, director of the institute, an affiliate of New York University, said the exhibition would not only cross ancient borders and cultures but also modern disciplines. “Our exhibitions and digital teams,” he said, “present a 21st-century approach to the ancient mentality concerning geographic space and how it is represented.”
The show brings together more than 40 objects that provide an overview of Greco-Roman geographical thinking — art and pottery, as well as maps based on classical texts. (Hardly any original maps survive; the ones in the exhibition were created in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance from Greek and Roman descriptions.)
“Geography is not just maps,” said the guest curator, Roberta Casagrande-Kim, a scholar of classical concepts of the underworld that go back well before Dante took his journey through the nine circles of hell. “There is also the cognitive side underlying mapping,” she said.
Making sense of the world’s dimensions must have seemed daunting at first. Plato wrote of Socrates saying the world is very large and those who dwell between Gibraltar and the Caucasus — in his memorable imagery — live “in a small part of it about the sea, like ants or frogs about a pond, and that many other people live in many other such regions.”
An early advance in Greek thinking was Aristotle’s discovery, in the latter half of the fourth century B.C., that the world must be spherical. He based this on observations of lunar eclipses, ships disappearing hull first on the horizon, and the changing field of stars observed as one travels north and south.
Then Eratosthenes, a librarian at Alexandria in the third century B.C., employed the new geometry to measure the world’s size with simultaneous angles of the sun’s shadow taken at widely distant sites in Egypt. That yielded a remarkably accurate measure of Earth’s circumference: it was clear that the world they knew — the three connected continents of Asia, Europe and Africa — was only a part of lands unknown, out of sight but not out of mind.
Other artifacts on view illustrate ancient methods of surveying and measuring lands, and some of the earliest efforts to measure longitude and latitude and to divide the world into climate zones. From north to south, both the Greeks and the Romans identified the frigid Arctic Circle, the northern temperate hemisphere, the torrid Tropic of Cancer, the southern temperate zone and the South Pole. The two temperate zones were believed to be the only habitable regions, but contact between the two was thought unlikely.
Across the wall of the first gallery is projected a digital replica of the Peutinger Map, more than 22 feet long and 2 feet high, illustrating how Roman mapping was at once practical and magnificent. It charts the empire’s roads, cities, ports and forts from Britain to India. Sketches of trees mark forests in Germany. Topography is minimal, roads are off-scale wide, towns are indicated by symbolic walls or towers — more of a traveler’s guide but much too large to serve as a handy road map.
In a study of the map, Richard J. A. Talbert, a historian at the University of North Carolina who specializes in cartography of the Greeks and the Romans, noted that in one sense it was an example of common Roman “journey” charts, much like the Greek “periploi” — mostly written descriptions of landmarks and ports mariners were likely to encounter.
Geographers then were less committed to drawing maps than to narrative wayfinding. Distances had priority over orientations; getting from here to there was more important than the lay of the land.
An early copy of the map came to light in the 17th century and was owned for years by Konrad Peutinger, a Hapsburg diplomat and map collector. It is now is in the Austrian National Library in Vienna.
The map, probably created in the early fourth century A.D., may have been intended to impress the emperor’s subjects and notable guests, Dr. Talbert has concluded. It was oriented with the capital at its center, showing that all roads indeed led to Rome.
Mapping was a tool of propaganda, just as many Roman coins showed the emperor Augustus, or Octavian or Diocletian, holding a globe, a symbol of the whole world in his power. Jennifer Y. Chi, the institute’s exhibitions director and a specialist in Roman sculpture, said that Augustus, in particular, “promoted his power systematically through many different media, and even the illiterate understood the globe’s symbolism.”
The rarely exhibited material is on loan from several American institutions, including the Morgan Library and Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, the American Numismatic Society and the libraries at Columbia and Harvard. The show is supported by the Leon Levy Foundation.
All in all, whether guided by the stars or by imperial roads, the Greeks and the Romans did well in preparing the way to geographic knowledge of worlds known and unknown, real and imaginary. They anticipated modern concepts of mapmaking: anything that can be spatially conceived can be mapped.
The most influential of the ancient Greeks was Claudium Ptolemy, the foremost scholar at the Alexandria library in the second century A.D. Two of his books, one on astronomy, and another on geography, were finally translated into Latin in the Middle Ages.
Notes accompanying the exhibition point out that Ptolemy’s “Geographia” provided ample information on locations of ancient lands and cities, enabling Renaissance cartographers to prepare the first fairly modern world maps, the “Mappa mundi” style that was followed for the next couple of centuries. The maps were decorated with the eight classical headwinds; symbols taken from Aristotle’s conception of the primary elements of fire, earth, water and air; and a scattering of zodiac signs around the edges.
Even Ptolemy’s errors were influential. Instead of sticking to Eratosthenes’ more accurate estimate of Earth’s size, Ptolemy handed down a serious underestimate that later apparently emboldened Columbus to think he could sail west to reach China or Japan.
Instead, he reached landfall in what became known as the West Indies — about the distance from Europe that Ptolemy had led him to expect, but with no “Grand Khan” in sight.
So it was perhaps no coincidence that the rediscovery of Greco-Roman geography fostered the age of Western exploration. After 1492, there were new worlds to measure and map. Within two centuries, exhibition notes remind us, “the primacy of ancient geographic knowledge and mapping conventions came to an end.”
New discoveries and technologies had made Greco-Roman geography obsolete. But its influence helped shape the way we still look at the world.