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Text by: Amy Carpenter

Earth is filled with remnants from humanity's past, artifacts and lives awaiting discovery. Shards of pottery lie scattered beneath the soil. Sunken ships rest in the silken sand of the sea floor, their bowels filled with gold and sparkling jewels. Entire towns lie dormant, encased in volcanic rock. Jungles encircle edifices with reaching branches, overgrowth swallowing up treasures and hiding them from our view. Desert sands blow over entombed armies of stone. Stories of people whose lives ended swiftly due to unimaginable tragedy turn from fact to rumor to legend as the material evidence of their existence fades back into the earth and its seas. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years later, a curious scientist wonders about the legend and searches for clues. As the scientist finds treasures in the ground or sea, he pieces them together, creating a picture of the lives of the people who left behind these materials when they died. This is archaeology.

In our modern culture, when we think of an archaeologist, we picture a knowledgeable (and handsome) professor who transforms into a whip-wielding, fedora-wearing adventurer when he goes in search of long lost artifacts. In reality, however, archaeology is rarely (if ever) about racing against evil tomb raiders, risking life and limb to get the treasure safely housed in a museum. The archaeological process involves in-depth research and painstaking recovery with a lot of science thrown in.

The Process of Archaeology

The first step in an archaeological project is coming up with a reason to dig. This reason, or hypothesis, can come from many sources, including legend and myth, or from a happenstance discovery made by an individual. After a hypothesis is formulated, evidence is presented to locate where the material and/or buildings can be found. Maps of the surrounding area are made, and land surveys are conducted. Finally, excavation can begin. But excavation itself entails much planning and patience. A map for the dig is designed. Sites are divided into grids, and researchers record their finds, noting carefully where objects are found in relation to a fixed point. The primary tool of the archaeologist is the masonic trowel, but archaeologists also use brushes, spoons, sieves, and other fine tools to clear away the dirt and debris covering specimens. Photographs and drawings are taken as well, to document the findings. Specimens are sent to labs for testing and preservation. Some objects and buildings cannot, or should not, be removed and are tested and preserved on site. The archaeologist considers all these findings and interprets them, publishing them so that other researchers (and all of us ordinary people) can learn about their discoveries.

During the process of excavation, beautiful works of art are often found. In the context of archaeology, art comes to have a broader meaning. Art becomes not just a painting or sculpture to be understood and reacted to, but a window to a world previously unknown to modern civilization. Archaeological art comes to us in many forms — wall paintings, statues, magnificent edifices, fragile textiles and paper, containers, petrified organic material, and a myriad of other specimens. Our definition of art broadens as we learn about other cultures whose purposes for creating art may have differed greatly from our own.

The Anasazi

The Anasazi lived in the Four Corners region (where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet) of what is now the United States. Originally nomadic, they settled in this arid, desert region sometime in the early part of the first millennium A.D. Their civilization blossomed from about 700 A.D. to 1300 A.D. and ended when they inexplicably abandoned their dwellings and moved away. Their descendants are the modern-day Pueblo Indians, although the Navajo Indians also inhabit the land which was once the Anasazi's. In fact, the name "Anasazi" comes from the Navajo word for "ancient enemies" or "ancient ancestors."

This ancient culture is most famous for its cliff dwellings, which were carved and built out of the cliffs surrounding their homeland. These monolithic works of art originated from pit houses, which were basically half-buried houses. The pit house had an entry hole through the roof, along with a hole in the ground (called a "sipapu") symbolizing the emergence from the underworld. Eventually, the Anasazi began building their homes above ground, using sandstones bricks and mortar. They built their pit houses closer together, merging them into larger conglomerates with many rooms. As their homes morphed into above-ground structures, the Anasazi put separate pit houses (which came to be known as "kiva") in front of their homes to be used for ceremonial purposes.

The Anasazi are also famous for their intricately designed pottery, which came from humble beginnings. Originally, they were basket makers, but they eventually discovered how to make clay into vessels, and basket making became less popular. At first, they painted simple figures on the pots, but in time, they discovered a sophisticated way to paint (using a brush made from the yucca plant) black, geometrical designs on top of a painted white background. Pottery-making was a feminine art, and patterns were probably passed down from mother to daughter.

Though the natives knew about these cliff dwellings, the rest of the world did not discover them until the late 1800s. One of the most impressive cliff dwellings, the Mesa Verde Cliff Palace, was discovered by cowboys. A few years later, the nearby Spruce Tree Dwelling was discovered by ranchers who were searching for stray cattle. Archaeologists later excavated these sites, and the dwellings have been restored and preserved as part of the U.S. National Parks system.

During excavation, archaeologists discovered treasure troves in piles of refuse thrown out by the ancient Anasazi. They found pieces of pottery and tools, along with remnants of food. Though these items were ordinary, they gave extraordinary insight into the everyday lives of the Anasazi. Truly, one man's trash became another man's treasure.

The Maya

During the time of the Anasazi, another great civilization came to power farther south in what is now Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Known as the Maya, their land was bordered on the east by the sea and covered with verdant forests. Both the Anasazi and Maya were trading cultures, and artifacts found in both regions suggest that they knew of and traded with one another.

The Maya existed as a people for centuries before their zenith (known as the Mayan classical period — 250 A.D. to 900 A.D.). By the time the Spanish Conquistadors reached the Americas, the Maya had lost their greatness but were still around in smaller numbers. The Spanish explorers saw the physical remnants of the Mayan civilization and took word back to Europe, but interest was minimal, and this great, classical culture faded into legend.

The Maya left great works of art on the walls of their buildings and in the tombs that lie beneath those buildings. Unlike other ancient American civilizations, the Maya left behind a textual history along with their art. This textual history (in the form of glyphs) has survived through a precious few books, as well as on stones and walls. This text has given archaeologists a richer understanding of Mayan culture, filling in the gaps that ancient artwork has left behind.

The Maya are most famous for their enormous temples and pyramids. Rising above the tops of the tangled trees, they stand as a beacon to the archaeologist. At first, archaeologists did not know the purpose of these temples. There appeared to be no entry into them, only steep staircases on the outside leading to the top, where it was obvious that rituals and sacrifices were performed. The temples themselves were made of rubble underneath the smooth outer stones. Eventually, however, archaeologists were able to pierce the facades of some of these stony mysteries. What they found inside was astounding.

Alberto Ruz Lhuillier was an archaeologist and director of research at the site of the ancient Mayan city Palenque. While searching the Temple of the Inscriptions, he noticed a stone in the floor of the temple. It had several drilled holes. Ruz Lhuillier determined that there must be a sealed room beneath the stone. He and his workers removed the stone and dug down below the floor through the rubble. Upon his first view of the chamber, Ruz Lhuillier gave the following description:

Out of the dim shadows emerged a vision from a fairy tale, a fantastic, ethereal sight from another world. It seemed a huge magic grotto carved out of ice, the walls sparkling and glistening like snow crystals. Delicate festoons of stalactites hung like tassels of a curtain, and the stalagmites on the floor looked like drippings from a great candle. The impression, in fact, was that of an abandoned chapel. Across the walls marched stucco figures in low relief. Then my eyes sought the floor. This was almost entirely filled with a great carved stone slab, in perfect condition.

The stone slab Ruz Lhuillier saw was the sarcophagus of the Mayan king Hanab Pakal, who reigned from 615 to 683 A.D. An intricate scene is carved on the lid of the sarcophagus. Hanab Pakal lies on his back as death is about to swallow him up (a king lying on his back was an unusual depiction in Mayan art, for it usually symbolized defeat). The king himself is made to look like the Maize god, the greatest god of the Maya. Out of his body grows a tree, also a sacred symbol of the Maya. The symbolic meaning is that Hanab Pakal was a great king whose life and death brought prosperity, goodness, and renewal to those around him.

This was the first tomb found beneath a Mayan temple. Since then, archaeologists have found many tombs sealed within the temples and pyramids of the Maya, leading them to conclude that these buildings were essentially ancestral shrines.

Several miles southeast of Palenque lies another Mayan archaeological site, Bonampak. Though small in scale, Bonampak holds a wealth of information within the walls of one of its buildings. The Temple of Murals, as its name implies, contains three rooms with magnificent fresco murals. The murals were discovered in 1946 by photographer Giles Healey, who was led to them by a remnant Mayan people. These modern-day Maya had kept the Temple of Murals a secret from outsiders until this point, so the murals were perfectly preserved.

The first room's mural depicts the presentation of an infant, possibly for coronation into an official office. The royal party then walks its way around the walls towards a cultural presentation. The mural shows the preparation of lords for the dance and portrays the musicians marching and playing their instruments with moving hands in imitation of vibration and movement, an advance technique even for western art.

The second room takes us into a very different scene. This room is full of battle and gore. In one scene, warriors defend a curious box. In another scene, captives are brought before the victorious king and sacrificed. The scene is cruel and disturbing and reveals the barbaric, bloody side of Mayan culture.

In the third room, the celebration rituals continue. Lords don great wings and dance around as captives are tortured and killed. Women receive body piercings as part of the celebration, while the baby from the first room sits in the arms of another lady. Nearby, the curious box sits unopened.

The paintings in the Temple of Murals were meant to tell a story, but in telling that story, the Mayan artists also gave us great insight into their world. The colorful imagery and the emotional scenes of celebration, war, victory, and defeat reach into our hearts and draw out intense reactions. This is archaeological art at its finest.



The Egyptians

Mayan architecture and text bears striking resemblance to another, more enduring and ancient civilization: the Egyptians. Like the Maya, the Egyptians had pyramids built around the tombs of their kings. The Great Pyramids at Giza are arguably the most famous of ancient Egypt's legacy. The Egyptians also used glyphs for their writing, and as with the Maya, archaeologists are able to understand more about the ancient Egyptians, because they left behind texts along with their art and architecture.

Though there have been many famous Egyptian kings, no king's name is more renowned than King Tutankhamun, or "King Tut" for short. King Tut came to power as a young boy in 1336 B.C. His father was an immensely unpopular, heretic king who sought to institute a new, monotheistic religion. Ancient Egyptians had always worshiped many gods and were terribly resistant to the idea of worshiping only one god. King Tut turned away from his father's beliefs and returned to the more conservative, polytheistic roots of Egyptian society. He reigned only a few short years, dying in his late teens in 1327 B.C.

King Tut was buried in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes. As was custom, his body was mummified and put in a nested sarcophagus, which was placed in a similarly nested, golden box. Egyptians believed that the soul would live on in an existence similar to mortal life, so they buried items with their dead that would be needed for a comfortable afterlife. King Tut was buried with his furniture, chariots, clothing, jewelry, and other essentials, along with many works of art. His tomb was sealed shut, although thieves broken open the seals many years later. They were caught before they could remove anything, and the tomb was resealed. Eventually, huts were built over the tomb, and the elements further buried the tomb in obscurity. King Tut's name was erased from memory as well as omitted from Egypt's list of kings. By modern times, no one knew of him.

Thousands of years after King Tut's death, an Englishman by the name of Lord Carnarvon financed an archaeological dig near King Tut's tomb. In 1908, he hired archaeologist Howard Carter to head excavations of nearby tombs. After 14 years, Carter's digging had yielded precious little findings. Lord Carnarvon was about to pull his funding when Carter finally found something promising: the door to a sealed tomb. He hastily sent a letter to Lord Carnarvon who, along with his daughter, Lady Evelyn, joined Carter several days later on November 26, 1922. As workers opened the sealed door, Carter held up his candle and gazed upon the tomb of the forgotten king:

…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment—an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by—I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get the words, 'Yes, wonderful things.'"

King Tut himself still lies in his tomb, which is carefully climate controlled. His body was exhumed and x-rayed in the 1960s and again exhumed and CAT-scanned on-site in 2005. The rest of his artifacts have been removed and studied and now tour the world in museum exhibits. Just as Carter described, there was much gold amongst King Tut's treasures, including the famous golden funeral mask. The ordinary objects, such as furniture, give us more insight into ancient Egyptian culture and artistry than any wall painting ever has. These objects and art, intended not for mortal eyes but for the enjoyment of the dead, are specimens of beauty as well as functionality.


Eventually, the ancient Egyptian dynasties died out, and Egypt was conquered, first by Alexander the Great and finally by the Romans in 30 A.D. At the time Egypt was conquered, a region on the western shores of Italy flourished as a vacation mecca for the rich and famous. This region included the cities of Herculeneum and Pompeii and lay at the base of the looming volcano, Mount Vesuvius.

Mount Vesuvius, like the North American Mount St. Helens, is a composite volcano. It does not erupt often, but when it does, the eruption is explosive and massive. The residents of Pompeii felt the rumblings of the volcano but did not worry, because the mountain had not had a major eruption for at least 1800 years.

One day in the latter half of 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius belched, rumbled, and then exploded, and a huge ash cloud appeared over its top. Burning ash and pumice rained down over the city, and the inhabitants of Pompeii cowered in terror. A pyroclastic flow enveloped the town, instantly killing everyone in its path and preserving them as they were in their moments of death. Pompeii was completely buried beneath pumice and ash. Written accounts of the disaster survived, but the memory of Pompeii faded, and the infamous, deadly eruption became a bygone legend.

In the 1700s, workers digging a well found remnants of the city of Pompeii, and excavation began in 1748. The excavation has literally taken centuries and still continues to this day. The grid network used to map out the excavation of Pompeii became the model for mapping out other archaeological excavations.

As archaeologists painstakingly removed layers of ash, they discovered a world of beauty and luxury. The rich residents of Pompeii lived in picturesque villas painted with colorful frescoes and lined with peaceful, stately courtyards. Their homes were heated by a sophisticated, highly technological plumbing system. Many of the frescoes depicted scenes from mythology (some embarrassingly erotic) while others were portraits of the people who lived in the houses, as with the famous portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife. First mistaken by archaeologists for the portrait of a nobleman, the fresco portrays a man with a rather dark complexion, dressed in a toga, holding a sealed scroll in one hand. His wife, who seems a bit more genteel, holds a writing implement in one hand and a tablet in the other. Surprisingly, Terentius Neo may have actually been a baker, though some theorize he was a lawyer or magistrate. He was either well off in his business or had married into money. Artists liked to paint their subjects holding writing tools, so the props in the portrait may simply have been gimmicks employed by the artist. Whatever the case may be, the portrait gives a glimpse of youthful, Roman marital bliss.

In the House of Faun, archaeologists uncovered one of the most famous of all Pompeii's cultural treasures: the floor mosaic of Alexander the Great. The mosaic was patterned after a painting by Philoxenos of Eretria which was made in the 4th century B.C. and depicts Alexander's defeat of King Darius III of Persia. Some of the mosaic is missing, but one can still see the upper half of Alexander as he rides on his valiant steed. Darius, with a look of panic on his face, is about to flee in his chariot. The mosaic was carefully moved to a museum, and a replica was recently created and put in its place on the floor of the House of Faun.

Most importantly, the people of Pompeii unintentionally provided of themselves a final, heartbreaking work of art. When archaeologists unearthed the city, they found hollows where the bodies of the people of Pompeii had decayed away, encased in the hardened volcanic ash. Archaeologists made plaster molds of these hollows to preserve the posture of the victims in their final moments before death. Smaller figures of children lay next to their parents, and one body is propped up on his elbow in a desperate attempt to get some air. Another body sits upright, with knees drawn to the chest, hands clasping at the mouth. Several bodies are contorted in agony. These plaster molds are living statues, frozen forever at the time of death. They are difficult to view, and yet, they evoke strong, sympathetic reactions in us. They teach us of death and the fragility of life. Most importantly, they show us human reaction in the face of inevitable annihilation.

Sites such as Pompeii are exciting wonderlands both for the archaeologist and the arm chair historian. There always seems to be one more artifact to be found, one more fact to be revealed. Archaeology constantly changes our understanding of ancient people. New finds can yield unexpected insights, shifting our paradigms and invalidating our sometimes hastily-made assumptions. Archaeological art aids us in solving the mysteries of the dead and also helps us identify with them and feel what they might have felt. The treasures dug up from the earth and brought up from the bottom of the sea may have monetary value, but their greatest worth is found in the stories they tell, stories of lost worlds and forgotten lives.