As the guy at National Geographic responsible for keeping track of a bunch of scientists, I never know who or what I'll engage with each day. It could be dinosaurs for breakfast, poisonous frogs for lunch, and Inca gold for dinner. I'll post the highlights here as I encounter them. If you have questions or comments about archeology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, or any Society-funded projects, this is the place to post. I'll check things out and invite experts to weigh in on postings from time to time.

July 2008

Posted Jul 30,2008

Neolithic_skeletonThis early Iranian, seen here in a reconstructed Neolithic grave at the museum in Kerman, comes from a late chapter in the human story in Iran. Photo by author.

There is no reason to think that human ancestors were not in Iran as early as 1.8 to 1.6 million years ago. Iran is a crossroads that these ancestors, such as Homo erectus, likely passed through as they moved out of Africa at that time to new habitats as far north as Dmanisi in Georgia and as far east as China and Indonesia.

Fereidoun Biglari of The Paleolithic Research Center at The National Museum in Teheran, is leading efforts to search for evidence of early humans in Iran. He has had success finding tools, but no human remains from early time periods, such as the Homo erectus found at Dmanisi, have been found. It may just be a matter of time before he succeeds.

Biglari and his colleagues will also find more evidence from later time periods, such as when early modern humans emerged out of Africa 100,000 years ago. Don’t be surprised if someday you hear that the remains of Neanderthals have been found in Iran as well. They were present in the Levant and Central Asia at this time. A famous Neanderthal site, Shanidar, lies just across Iran’s western border with Iraq. I was pleasantly surprised to see an illustration from a National Geographic article on the Shanidar Neanderthals on display at the Tehran museum. We know Neanderthals traveled as far east as Uzbekistan; the path led through Iran.

The point is that, relatively speaking, people have always been in Iran. This is in contrast to the Americas, where people arrived just 14,000 years ago. This sense of having been in a place for a long time is alien to Americans, but familiar to Chinese, Africans, and other cultures with deep, deep roots. It is true of Iranians as well.

Dr. Hassan Fazeli Nashli, director of the Center for Archaeological Research in Tehran, described to me how people have lived on the Iranian plateau for a very long time. The Persian Empire, which was ruled by a series of dynasties over hundreds of years, was but a chapter in a much longer story.

Do you think we should look for human ancestors in Iran? Where would you look?

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Posted Jul 28,2008

Alamut_3 Did you know that not far from Tehran is where the infamous Assassin cult, the Hashshashin, was created? Its leader, Hassan-i Sabbah, built his fortress on top of this massive rock in the 11th century. I'll take you there and talk about how Iranians view this enigmatic character today in a future installation on this blog. Photo by author.

There is perhaps no more important role for National Geographic than to attempt to increase understanding between peoples, particularly at times when tensions between states and the resulting hyperbole at a state level obscures or prevents a dialogue between peoples—you know, real people.

The genesis of the August cover story on Iran lies in part with that idea, but also in the simple fact that the magazine has not visited the major archaeological sites of Iran since the revolution there in 1979. A whole generation of Americans has grown up without seeing the wonders of ancient Persia at Persepolis, Cyrus’s tomb at Pasargadae, or Darius’ panel at Bisetun. It is fair to say that since the revolution, the connection in American minds between Persia and Iran has faded to the point where many might be surprised to hear of it. It doesn’t take long, in talking to Iranians, to find that Persia is alive and well, interwoven into the fabric of modern Iranian society in unexpected ways.

The NGM article takes on a two-fold task. First, the photography displays the amazing archaeological heritage of ancient Persia and Iran. Second, the text attempts to open a window into the world of Iranians living in Iran today by exploring their self-image. How do they see themselves? How do they relate to their Persian past and their Islamic present? What can they share with us about themselves that will help us understand them?

I visited Iran in 2007 to help with preparations for the August story. I took a 2,500 mile road trip in a taxi that started in Tehran and looped counter clockwise around the country. On this all-too-brief excursion I was impressed by the generosity of the people, the beauty of the landscape, and the richness of their history. This month, I will use this blog to share my experiences there and add some information and perspectives to what appeared in the magazine. So stay tuned for the first installment.

In the meantime, what did you think of August’s cover story?

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Posted Jul 15,2008

Ulu_burun_2 Don Frey, left, and Yasar Yildiz are true pioneers of underwater archaeology. They are standing in front of the Uluburun shipwreck exhibit at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Turkey. Photo by Chris Sloan.

Shipwrecks have been popular at National Geographic magazine for decades. One of our most famous coverages was the Uluburun shipwreck off the coast of Turkey. That wreck site was excavated over a decade in the 1980s and 1990s by George Bass, who many consider as the father of underwater archaeology. Understanding the difference between Bass's concept of underwater archaeology and treasure hunting is important for anyone concerned about preserving the past.

Recently I have had the pleasure of meeting many underwater archaeologists, many of whom would not be doing what they are doing if it were not for Bass. On a recent trip to Turkey I visited two sites where some of these archaeologists are hard at work.

At Yenikapi in Istanbul I met Cemal Pulak and  Sheila Matthews, both of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, founded by George Bass. Yenikapi is the name of a historic neighborhood in Istanbul, but it is now synonymous with an archaeological site that is perhaps the largest active archaeological dig in the world. Excavations for a major transportation hub in the city revealed the remains of a Byzantine harbor. More than 30 boats from that period have now been found. Pulak, Matthews, and their crew of grad students are meticulously excavating a few of these wrecks. The Istanbul Archaeology Museum has overall responsibility for the project and various universities are deeply involved in excavating and conserving the majority of the boats. Thanks to Bass and his colleagues, methods for proper excavation and conservation of waterlogged boats have been identified and the massive project is proceeding as rapidly as possible under the patient (but for how long?) eyes of construction supervisors.
Pulak, far right, and Matthews show me a detailed drawing of a Byzantine boat they are excavating. Every board of the boat, including every nail hole, is illustrated at 100% scale. Photo courtesy of Aydin Kudu.

A short plane hop south from Istanbul brings one to the coastal town of Bodrum. The place reeks of history, sun, and seafood. In the center of the harbor is a crusader castle built from the stones of one of the seven wonders of the world, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. Now the castle is the home of the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Its current director is Yasar Yildiz, another associate of George Bass's who proudly displays the pictures he took, or the pictures he is in, from National Geographic stories about Turkish shipwrecks.

Bass left other legacies at Bodrum. There is a branch of the Institute for Nautical Archaeology there, perched neatly in the hills on the outskirts (ie; five minutes to the harbor) of town. There, another amazing individual, Tuba Ekmekci presides as the director. This is no outpost, however. It is a beautiful headquarters away from headquarters with big windows, clean offices, and manicured gardens. It has a world class conservation facility in its bowels, and some of Ekmekci's most recent activity concerns preparing the water-logged beams and boards from the Yenikapi harbor boats for the long preservation process. It takes years for polyethylene glycol to replace the water in the cells of the wood. But the result is wood that will last another 400 years. In the end, some of these boats will be reconstructed for public display.

And that is what it is all about, in my opinion. Furthering knowledge and public education. That's the nut of the difference between underwater archaeology and treasure hunting. What George Bass and other underwater archaeologists have shown is that through meticulous excavation there is a tremendous amount to be learned. If an archaeological excavation is rushed, information will be lost. It is as simple as that.

The Yenikapi harbor excavation is an example of the dilemma facing archaeologists, city planners, and the public in many places. There is clearly a need for improvements in public transportation, but there is also a need for preserving cultural heritage. In cities all over the world, people are struggling to find the balance. Yenikapi, however, is shipwreck archaeology in the middle of a city. Most other shipwreck sites, I would argue, aren't under the same pressure. Why then, do we tolerate anything less than the Bass approach to underwater archaeology?

UNESCO has presented the countries of the world with a "UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage." Only 17 countries have ratified the convention so far. It seems high time to recognize that shipwrecks are the cultural heritage of the world and should be treated as a cultural treasure deserving of the Bass approach, not a treasure to be looted.
On a final note I will share with you a wonderful photo by Don Frey, the fellow on the left in the picture at the top of this post. Don was a physicist before he met George Bass and was seduced by underwater archaeology. He designed measuring and recording equipment for divers and excelled in underwater photography and filming. He was the president of INA from 1982 to 1988. In this photo he captures the impressive balloon lift of a block of stone from a ship that was carrying enormous Roman column sections (foreground). It is currently being being excavated by INA's and Texas A&M's  Deborah Carlson, a National Geographic Society grantee. Photo courtesy of Don Frey/INA.


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Filed Under: archaeology
Posted Jul 11,2008

Wcw20051_196 Xu Xing, co-leader of the Xinjiang expedition, made his name on the feathered dinosaurs of Liaoning, but he's now searching for their origins in older sediments of the relatively unexplored far west of China. Photo courtesy of Jim Clark

China has been known for its fossil treasures for centuries. Yet, until the 20th century, the bones of ancient creatures were ground into powder for traditional medicine. Some of these fossils were thought to be dragons, and thus the medicine, whether mammal or dinosaur, was called “dragon bone.” Today the Chinese celebrate their fossil heritage not by eating it, but by studying it carefully and putting it on public display. Some towns are so famous for their fossils that huge statues of dinosaurs decorate their streets and town centers. Regional natural history museums are popping up everywhere. The transformation of Chinese attitude toward its fossil heritage in the last twenty years has been no less startling than the transformation of its cities, lifestyles, and economy (see NGM May 2008).

Dinosaur-related press coverage in the 1990s was punctuated, even dominated, by discoveries from Liaoning Province, an area now famous for feathered dinosaurs. In this month’s issue of National Geographic, you can read about a new region that is bursting onto the paleontology scene—Xinjiang Province. Well, let’s qualify that. It is not a really a “new” region because paleontologists have long known it to be rich in Mesozoic fossils. Expeditions had been there as early as the 1920s. A famous Chinese-Canadian expedition was there in the 1980s. Knowing the potential of the area, others, including NGS grantees Luis Chiappe, Paul Sereno, and Thomas Martin have been there since.

Our July magazine story features Jim Clark and Cathy Forster of George Washington University and Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology who launched a multi-year project in the Junggar basin. The Junggar basin, they knew, had rocks of Middle Jurassic age (the Jurassic is the middle period of the three periods of the Mesozoic era). Rocks of this age are rare, at least on land, so we have a big hole in our understanding of Middle Jurassic dinosaur species. They were particularly interested in finding the fossils of small theropods. These would hopefully provide more information about the origin of birds (Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird, appears in the fossil record at around 150 million years ago, just after the Middle Jurassic).

I had the pleasure of participating in the Xinjiang expedition twice. I had an interest in finding primordial dino-bird fossils as well as a curiosity about Xinjiang.

Before I went there, I thought Xinjiang would be about as desolate a place as anywhere on Earth. After all, this is the home of the impenetrable Taklamakan desert, the Turfan depression (the lowest elevation on Earth after the Dead Sea), the Xinjiang mummies, and China’s nuclear testing ground. When I landed at the provincial capital of Urumqi (pronounced oo-roo-moo-chee), I was very surprised to find no tumbleweed, but shiny Toyota land cruisers, skyscrapers, and millions of people instead. The discovery of rich oil deposits, plus China’s policy of encouraging immigration to the province, had created a boom town.

Half a day’s drive from Urumqi, in the Junggar Basin, I found the Xinjiang I expected. Base camp was in the middle of a dry valley surrounded by equally dry mountains on three sides. It was reminiscent of the American Southwest, and some parts were as beautiful as the painted deserts there. There were no people there other than the expedition team.

Each morning we would eat breakfast and head off in different directions to look for fossils emerging from sediments. Many of the Chinese crew were technicians who were deployed assisting in extracting  huge blocks of fossils containing many specimens. It would take days with jackhammers and chisels to free the blocks and many men to roll the blocks onto trucks. Their work was quite dangerous.

Fossils were everywhere in this basin. We were tripping over bits of tritylodonts, a mammal-like reptile, and turtles. There were many sauropods as well, but their bones were most often found shattered. I spent my time wandering far from camp, looking for what I hoped would be an important specimen. I did not find any early birds, nor did anyone else, but I did find an important ancestor of crocs (which Clark and Xu unexpectedly named after me—Junggarsuchus sloani!) and a very early pterosaur.

Others on the expedition have found an incredible array of important Jurassic fossils, filling some important gaps in our understanding of what certain dinosaur groups looked like before the Cretaceous period have been filled. Those darn Jurassic dino-birds, however, remain to be found.

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Filed Under: paleontology
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