Friday, October 27, 2006

I Really Don't Know What To Say...

I ran Blogger's spellcheck feature on the Friday Archaeology Blogging below, the first time I have ever used it (I didn't realize that it existed, as regular readers here probably already guessed). Anyway, it didn't recognize the word "blog."
Friday Archaeology Blogging
Actually appearing on a Friday, this time!

Dorset bone disc

So, I though maybe I'd look at something a wee bit closer to home this time. Inuit stories speak of a people they encountered when they first began to spread across the Eastern Arctic in about A.D. 1000, a people the Inuit referred to as the Tuuniit, or "giants." In all likelihood, these large but gentle and even timid people were members of what archaeologists have termed the "Dorset" culture. This culture occupied the Eastern Arctic from c. 500 B.C. until the early years of the second millennium A.D. They hunted seals on the ice, and lived in rectangular longhouses.

Remains of a Tuuniit longhouse

Some of the most striking pieces of Tuuniit material culture are the driftwood masks that have been found at Dorset sites. These are generally interpreted as having a ritualistic or shamanistic purpose (someday I'm going to do a Friday Archaeology Blogging on the tendency of archaeologists to label anything we don't immediately understand as a "ritual object", but today is not that day). Other art objects, such as the bone disc shown above, are also associated with the Tuuniit. Oddly for a culture that had perfected ways of hunting in winter despite the abnormally cold climate of that time, the Tuuniit do not seem to have knowledge of the bow, either as a projectile weapon or a means of drilling holes. This is particularly strange given that both the predecessors of the Tuuniit and the people who came after them made ample use of that tool.

Driftwood mask

In about A.D. 1000 , the temperature in the Arctic increased, and the effects of this warming eventually spelled the end of the Dorset culture. First of all, it must have played merry hell with the sea ice, with a commensurate disruption of seal hunting. Secondly, it increased the prevalence of game animals, and that brought other people into the region. The Thule culture, ancestors of the modern Inuit, arrived from Alaska, and even the Vikings got in on it, settling in Greenland and Newfoundland. It is tempting, and probably even correct, to identify the "Skraelings" encountered by early Viking settlers with the Tuuniit, as the Skraelings shared, according to some Norse legends, the qualities of size and gentleness (although it must also be pointed out that "Skraeling" may have been a generic term for all the peoples the Vikings encountered on this side of the pond). The newcomers from both directions were more technologically advanced than the Tuuniit, particularly in the area of boats, and by about A.D. 1500, the Tuuniit were gone, essentially squeezed out of their original territory, although there is some speculation that isolated communities of them survived until the early 20th century.

Anyway, a fairly basic and general Friday Archaeology Blogging this week, and I'll confess that part of the reason I wanted to blog about the Dorset/Tuuniit people was as an excuse to put up that gorgeous picture of the driftwood mask. Back to Romans next week, but in the meantime, I'll leave you with a shot of the sort of terrain in which the Tuuniit lived and prospered for 1500 years.

Bylot Island, where the mask shown above was found

Lack of Surprise Here, Folks

West Edmonton Mall waterpark slapped with cleanup order
Last Updated: Thursday, October 26, 2006 | 3:55 PM MT
CBC News

Health authorities have issued a cleanup order for West Edmonton Mall's waterpark, citing filth and a lack of ongoing maintenance.

It is hard to imagine the depths of misanthropy to which one can be dragged on the occasion of a visit to West Edmonton Mall (aka The West Edmonton Grand Mal). I live about 20 minute's walk from the place, and I probably don't visit it more than once or twice a year (generally around 5:00 p.m. on December 24th). There's just something about a crowded, noisy, 5.3-million-square-foot space with stale, recycled, air and over-stressed people trying to keep track of squalling kids while making their way through some of the most gawd-awful kitschy interior decoration (I mean, for fuck's sake, a full-size fiberglass replica of the Santa Maria?!?!?) you will ever see anywhere (see, I'm not even at the mall, and hatred of the human race is already kicking in). Take that charming package and put it in the middle of crime-ridden suburban Hell surrounded by a particularly nasty parking lot, and you've pretty much got WEM. At least they're not in the dolphin-enslavement business anymore, having switched over to sea lions after all the dolphins died. And the roller-coaster hasn't killed anybody since 1986, so I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.

Part of the problem is the immense damage that WEM has done to what I'll call the social fabric of Edmonton. A downtown core that's empty after 5:00 in the evening, and the terrible suburban sprawl to the south and west (oh yeah, and the north as well; parts east of Edmonton have Refinery Row, along with some of the worst cancer rates in Canada) of the city are direct results of the mall's malign influence. Whyte Avenue and, to a lesser extent, 124th Street, have been trying hard to stand in for places people actually go to socialize, but the former is still victimized by out-of-control drinking and ham-fisted policing, while the latter still has a ways to go before it becomes a magnet for people looking to have a pleasant time.

So, to wrap this rant up, I felt a very definitely evil glee when I read that Capital Health had descended on the place and declared it a cesspool.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Friday Archaeology Blogging

Now appearing pretty much on any day that isn't a Friday, it seems...

Anyway, one of the things that happened to me during the last month or so, during the recent silence on this site, is that my 16-year-old cat Claudia passed away (peacefully, quietly, and at home, which is about as much as one can hope for). So, this particular edition of Friday Archaeology Blogging is going to be a brief and general survey of ancient pets, particularly cats. And, by "pets" I mean animals domesticated for reasons of comfort and companionship, rather than food, hunting, protection, vermin control, etc.

The Egyptians and Earlier

The Egyptians' attitude towards cats is well known; they viewed them as sacred, and our first written records of cats come from that civilization. Indeed, cats were often mummified by the Egyptians (as were many, many other animals), and cat mummies are found in many Egyptian tombs, suggesting at least some sort of emotional bond between the deceased person and his or her animals.

Egyptian cat mummies

We even have an early mention of a named cat from Egypt. A cat found in a tomb near Thebes, dating to about 1450 B.C., seems to have been named "The Pleasant One."

Tomb painting from the tomb in which The Pleasant One was found

However, actual "pet-ification" of cats may predate the Egyptians by millenia, as suggested by the recent discovery of a neolithic burial on Cyprus which dates to roughly 8,000 B.C.

Now, there is no evidence here beyond the circumstantial to indicate that the cat buried in this case was a pet. However, the inclusion of the animal in a tomb is evidence that it was at the very least of value to the deceased person, and I can't help but see this as a stepping stone to the kind of master-pet relationship that became common later on.

The Romans

A bird (a duck?) portrayed on a 2nd century A.D. mosaic from Italica, in what is now Andalucia.

The Romans do not seem to have held cats in quite the same esteem as the Egyptians. Cat footprints are found on ancient Roman terracotta roof tiles, indicating that somebody's cat had gone for a walk while the tile was drying in the sun, but there is little evidence for cats as pets. However, the Romans did keep other pets, as shown by a poem of Catullus, written in the mid-first century B.C., lamenting the death of a bird (Latin text here):

CATVLLI CARMEN III (adapted from a translation by Walter Sullivan [JTK)

Mourn, oh Cupids and Venuses,
and all people of charm and refinement:
the sparrow of my girlfriend has died,
the sparrow, delight of my girl,
whom she loved more than her own eyes.
For it was honey-sweet and it knew its
mistress as well as a girl knows her mother,
nor would it move itself from her lap,
but jumping around hither and thither,
he used to chirp continually to his mistress alone:
now he embarks on that gloomy journey
from which, they say, no one ever returns.
Curses on you, evil shadows of Orcus,
you who devour all beautiful things,
so lovely a sparrow have you taken away from me.
O evil deed! o miserable little sparrow!
Now because of you my girl's swollen little eyes
are red from weeping.

I would note, concerning this poem, that there is debate about the actual meaning of the poem. I have heard it argued, implausibly in my humble opinion, that the bird here represents the poet's relationship with the girl, a relationship which has now ended (the logic being that the sparrow was a sacred bird of Venus, goddess of love, and that furthermore we know that Catullus did break up with his girlfriend, and that it was extremely traumatic for him). This seems to me to be a clear case of reading too much into a piece of literature.

Pre-Incan Peoples of Peru

To jump briefly and illogically across the pond, I thought I'd end by mentioning this. According to the article, archaeologists in Peru have been excavating an actual dog cemetery, approximately 600 to 1,000 years old, wherein the animals were often buried with blankets and treats. Care taken to ensure an animal's comfort in the next life again speaks quite clearly to the animals status, at least in part, as pets.

An ancient Peruvian dog

I suppose the point here is that people have been domesticating animals for "non-utilitarian" purposes for a heck of a long time, and pretty much globally (I actually couldn't find much evidence at all for cultures that didn't have pets). Long may we continue to do so.

Ancient Egyptian wall-painting
Fear Not!!!!

Friday Archaeology Blogging is in the works, and should be up later on today. The spirit was willing this weekend, but Blogger was weak...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

In Which A Mr. Peter MacKay, Esq., Of Pictou, Nova Scotia, Makes Tie Domi's 'List'

Good article here about MacKay's latest bout of petulance. The best line:

Stephen Harper cannot have a man child holding Canadian diplomacy in his hands.

Of course, as we all know, this is just a horrible plot by desperate Liberals to steer attention away from the blinding brilliance that is Stephen Harper and co.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Hello, All!

Apologies for the long silence from these parts! However, things should be somewhat back to normal now, although daily posting may be too much to expect. Anyway, expect more here soon, especially given the impending elections, leadership conventions, etc.

And indeed, Rev., there is a Friday Archaeology Blogging in the works, although it will probably not go up until tomorrow evening!