Uncharted: digging archaeology in land, sea… and air?

Indian Jones and the Treasure Tomb National Raiders

I’ve recently watched Uncharted, which has this Indiana Jones / National Treasure / Tomb Raider vibe to it. Rather unsurprising, given it’s based on a game (which I found out later).

Anyway, it’s a fun little movie if you’re looking for something that is absolutely non-brain-taxing, like history, travel, and action, don’t mind the occasional plot hole, and have no regards for priceless artefacts being destroyed.

And while it did serve it’s purpose for a fun evening, I am clearly not in the same camp as that last caveat. So I thought a bit about the latest in archaeology was in order (mostly connected to Roman time, of course!)

First, I certainly grew up on the above-mentioned movies, not to mention similar books, and they have their place in getting people excited about the past. Even semi-mindless action has its place as entertainment. But like everything you see on the screen, pretty much anything mentioned is probably wrong. (Seriously, from how relationships work to details of history — if a movie mentions New York City is in the US, it’s worth double checking; Hollywood’s that bad).

There are, of course, good movies out there. The Dig is a good example. Not without criticism about historical accuracy, but at least they try. As long as you come with the right expectations, it can be a fun movie. That said, seeing Magellan’s ship airlifted out of a cave (don’t ask me how they sailed them in there) and casually bumped around till they fall apart, and the ‘feel-good’ ending is some priceless treasures snuck off in someone’s pockets just makes me — and I presume any history and archaeology lover — cringe.

So in the interest for promoting non-Hollywoodian love of antiquities, here are a few interesting articles.

Leda and the Swan, Pompeii. No rolling this wall up in a neat capsa and hiding it under your tuxedo as you saunter away!

Digging things up

That has been classic archaeology for, oh, two-and-a-half millennia. Yes, you read that right. In the 6th century BCE, the Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus dug up Akkadian sites predating him by about 1700 years (2,200 BCE). He might have been the first recorded archaeologist, but he wasn’t the first to restore on ancient monuments: a son of Ramses II, Khaemweset, around the 12th century BCE was restoring Old Kingdom pyramids from the 27th century BCE.

But modern archaeology is, of course, much different a proper discipline, and uncovering or restoring old monuments is treated very carefully. The rebirth of Pompeii is a nice mainstream article about the restoration and challenges that this famous city faces. More than a review of recent discoveries, it details the complexity of a project of this magnitude. From an almost complete disaster 15 years ago with ancient building collapsing, to looking forward in making the a world-class heritage site. (No grave robbers in sight, thankfully).

All of this wasn’t there when I last was in Italy (well, it was, but buried; you know what I mean). Though international travel is still not an easy thing, I certainly hope to visit Pompeii in the future. The article ‘wanders’ through the recent discoveries, and I know I certainly would like to do the same.

Roman rostrum, or ship’s ram. These were below the water-line, meant to sink enemy ships by punching holes larger than those in the plots of Hollywood movies

Diving to things

Maritime archaeology is a much newer discipline, with its own focus (shipwrecks and submerged sites due to seismic activity) and challenges.

One of the challenges is that stuff is even less accessible than on land, and the sea — while utilised extensively for travel since antiquity — is big. Though the title The shipwrecks rewriting ancient history is perhaps a bit of a click-bait, it’s a great article. A chance observation (a rostrum at a dentist office) led to a rethink and eventual discovery of an ancient site. The ships discovered are Roman and Carthaginian, from the Battle of the Aegates – the final clash in the First Punic War.

Though the battle was known from historical sources, the exact location wasn’t. This discovery sheds more light on what marked Rome’s ascendancy in the Mediterranean.

Flying over stuff

Digitally removing vegetation to show the outlines of a levelled WWI army camp.

The latest in methods in uncovering buried things is flying high over the ground. Aerial archaeology is the latest discipline, and is aimed at helping locate potentially interesting sites in the country side (as opposed to digging a road and going, “hey look, someone left their ancestors here“). It may seem counter intuitive, but this vantage point offers a unique view on the land, including what’s under it. Starting with plain photographs, you can see features such as buried ruins by the patterns of grass growth (deeper over ditches, lighter over paved areas) or snowfall. For a lark, you can even use google maps to “fly” over areas and see if you can spot interesting patterns under fields. There has actually been discoveries made that way.

More interesting, though, is the use of LIDAR — laser imaging, detection, and ranging — which is pretty much 3D scanning of the terrain. This even allows researchers to digitally remove vegetation and show what lies beneath. If you want an excellent, in-depth article on the subject of aerial archaeology, this one from the BBC is slightly dated but still great. If you just want the pretty pictures, the Daily Mail comes to the rescue. That last one also links to the Aerial Archaeology Mapping Explorer, a tool to aid researchers by collecting aerial scans from around Britain. That’s where the pics are from, and there’s a short introductory video.

But wait, there’s more!

Once you found the stuff and dug it up, other questions crop up — like, how did it smell?

Wait, what?

Ancient ‘smellscapes’ are apparently a thing, and a few researches are trying to reconstruct how people in antiquity perceived their world through their noses. After all, smell is the most primitive, and therefore most powerful and evocative, sense. This is a wonderful article dealing with the subject and the research into perfumes of ancient Egypt: Ancient ‘smellscapes’ are wafting out of artifacts and old texts. Bonus points for mentioning a Roman tavern, and what people would have thought of as “smell like home”. (And if I may pun shamelessly, it’s mostly eau de eww).

If you’re more into taste, there’s Rome’s new museum dedicated to cooking. Even though its collections cover cooking utensils and books from the past 500 years, it’s definitely on my list of places to visit!

That’s it for now, hope you found it entertaining and vaguely educational. Just don’t take it as a reason to pick up a fedora and go grave robbing. You may end up waking something, and Felix’s services ain’t cheap.

Enjoying the articles, but wondering why I chase these odd bits of history? Glad you asked! Meet Felix, the protagonist of the Togas, Daggers, and Magic series, an historical-fantasy blend of a paranormal detective on the background of ancient Rome.

Come meet Felix and his world — olfactory trivia included — on the free short stories and novels!

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