Submitted by gaf on April 23, 2012 - 13:47
A generation of students found out the hard way that archaeology isn't anywhere near as much fun as Indiana Jones made it look. Still, experts in the field do have their exciting, and even shocking, days at the office. Mainly, these occur when they discover baffling artifacts that are half a planet away from where they should be, proving that a whole lot of what we thought about history was dead wrong. Like ...
#5. Cocaine Discovered in Egyptian Mummies
When Columbus and his buddies made it to the New World, aka not India, they found more than just future smallpox sufferers waiting for them. There was a whole cornucopia of never-before-seen plants and animals growing in the Americas, not to mention new and interesting ways to use beads. So while the natives came away from their first European encounter with raging infectious diseases and honeybees, Europeans were introduced to the glories of tobacco, narcotics made from the coca leaf and a whole mess of open-air nudity. If you've ever needed evidence that history is unfair, there it is.
At least that's the story we know. And if that's true, then how did some Egyptian mummies wind up with traces of cocaine in their bodies?
In 1992, German scientists were testing their mummies when they found remnants of hashish, tobacco and cocaine in their hair, skin and bones. Now, hashish comes from Asia, so it's not unfathomable that a royal Egyptian would know a guy who could get him the hook-up. But tobacco and cocaine were strictly New World plants at the time of the mummification. It'd be like if some celebrity today tested positive for heroin that could only have been grown on Venus.
So how did it happen? All we have are theories. Maybe the sites were contaminated by hard-partying archaeologists (although you'd think that if somebody had old pics of themselves snorting coke off of a mummy's ass, they'd have uploaded that s*** to Facebook by now). Or maybe the mummies themselves were fake, like maybe they were disco-era archaeologists who just took their love of mummification too far.
So the German scientists did what anyone trying to protect their reputation would do -- they had an independent lab test the mummies themselves. They found the same dope. The Germans then went to work testing hundreds of ancient mummies, finding nicotine in a third of them. Not only that, but actual tobacco leaves were discovered in the guts of Ramses II (of Exodus fame, maybe). And among those leaves, an actual dead tobacco beetle was found, which means that some ancient Egyptian just smoked the hell out of his cigarettes.
#4. Ancient Hebrew Inscribed on a Rock in New Mexico
Picture this: You're an archaeologist minding your own business in New Mexico when a guy comes up and tells you he's got something to show you. Once you check to make sure he's wearing pants and double check to make sure you've got a gun, you follow him to this town outside Albuquerque called Los Lunas. And there he shows you a 90-ton rock inscribed with ancient writing. No big deal, right? Everyone knows Native Americans have lived in the area since at least the 1850s, it's only natural they'd scratch some graffiti up every now and then. People get bored.
This is exactly what happened to archaeology professor Frank Hibben in 1933. Only he had the sense to recognize that the scribbling wasn't Native American writing -- it was Hebrew. Ancient Hebrew. And the message wasn't "Custer sux balls," it was the Ten Commandments.
Believe it or not, while people in the 1930s were gullible enough to think Martians were invading Earth in the most melodramatic way possible, they were cynical enough to call b******* at the claim that anyone in ancient America knew Hebrew. Yet when experts took a look, they were confounded. For one thing, the script included some Greek letters, which indicated that the script was etched by someone comfortable with mixing Greek and Hebrew (if no one comes to mind, ancient Samaritans fit that bill perfectly).
So that was weird. And the rock was the same basalt of the mountain right behind it, so it was definitely local. But that doesn't mean that the ancient script on the rock was ancient, right? Any old American with a theology degree and a chisel could have done it (again, there was literally nothing else to do for entertainment back then). It also doesn't help that the guy who discovered the rock in the first place was later implicated in artifact fraud (though the allegations were never proven). The whole thing was just too weird to be anything but a hoax.
Yet when a modern geologist examined the inscriptions and compared them with carvings nearby, he concluded that the scratchings could be between 500 and 2,000 years old. And that's as much as we'll presumably ever know -- by this point, too many people have handled the artifact for dating tests to get any kind of accurate results.
#3. Ancient Roman Statues in Mexico
Anyone with a third grade understanding of world geography (or access to Google Maps) knows that Rome and Latin America aren't neighbors (fiery tempers and flat bread recipes don't count as proximity in the map world). Even when Rome was at its apex and was conquering Africa, England and everyone's hearts, places like Mexico were nowhere on their radar. Not just because radar didn't exist, but because as far as the Old World was concerned, the Western Hemisphere didn't exist. Once you got past Portugal, it was nothing but Neptune, water dragons and the edge of the planet.
Which was why scholars were baffled when an ancient statue of a Roman head popped up in an old temple in Mexico.
In 1933, an archaeologist was digging around a burial ground about 40 miles away from Mexico City when he discovered this tiny little figure among the other offerings. And we should mention that this wasn't just a typical out-in-the-open burial dumping ground. The spot he was digging was previously under not one, but two undisturbed cement floors that were untouched since the 1500s. So it's not like a jokester could have purchased it at the nearest Roman-centered novelty store and dumped it in a cemetery to be hilarious.
And yes, we're aware that Columbus touched ground a few years before that, but white guys didn't make it to Mexico until 1519, and even then, it's unlikely they would have been carrying around Roman artifacts. And yes, they know it was Roman -- the beehive bouffant (or hat) and facial features match Roman artifacts of the second century.
So how did it get there? No one knows. But another discovery might shed some light on the mystery.
In 1982, an underwater archaeologist discovered a buttload of third century Roman vases in the harbor of Rio de Janeiro. A little more digging around led to the discovery of two rotting Roman-style ships, which were then promptly buried with sand by the Brazilian government. Apparently Brazil hates adventure, and also the idea of anyone messing with their version of history, which was that their land was discovered by the Portuguese, not the Romans. Seems like it'd be cooler to have been discovered by the Romans, but whatever.
#2. A Norse Coin in Maine
Imagine it's 1957 and you're on an archaeology dig in Maine. If it helps set the scene, picture yourself listening to Elvis Presley in a white tee with a cigarette pack in your sleeve while you dig around. The spot you're working on was once the largest Native American settlement in Maine, so you're looking for Native American-y stuff. Arrowheads and the like. But among all that is this coin that just doesn't fit. "That's because it's British!" said everyone at first, but the truth turned out to be much weirder. The coin was Norse (think descendents of Vikings), and a thousand years old at that.
It actually took 21 years for anyone to pay attention to the coin that looked like a half-eaten Oreo ...
... but when they did, the evidence was pretty conclusive. Not only was this an ancient coin minted during the reign of Norse King Olaf Kyrre, but the window of its production was pretty limited: 1065 to 1080. That's 15 years, for those of you too lazy to bother with rudimentary math. This coin must have been made within those 15 years, and in Norway. And it was found in Maine, USA, 5 inches beneath the surface of the earth, among 30,000 genuinely Native American artifacts found during the dig.
One lone Scandinavian coin among tens of thousands of American Indian relics. So how did it get there? There was zero evidence of the Vikings ever settling past the very top of Eastern Canada, and even that wasn't so much of a "settlement" as it was a "temporary campground, maybe." And that was hundreds and hundreds of miles away. So the story was probably amazing, and also one that we'll never, ever know.
#1. Ancient Japanese Speakers in New Mexico
We're starting to think aliens knew what they were doing when they totally and for real landed in New Mexico all those years ago. Weird s*** has been popping up in the Land of Enchantment since forever. They probably thought no one would notice their weird little melon heads among the Hebrew rocks and wacky turquoise shops.
Case in point: Tucked into New Mexico is one tribe of Native Americans who happen to speak a language unlike any around them. A language called Japanese.
OK, maybe the Zuni people aren't speaking Japanese-Japanese, but there are enough similarities between the two languages that a few experts are spooked. The theory of a Japanese/Native American connection came about when graduate student Nancy Yaw Davis took an anthropology class on Southwestern Native American culture. She noticed that some Zuni words sounded a hell of a lot like Japanese words, and at a rate way above random chance. For example, the Zuni word for "clan" is "kwe," while in Japanese it is "kwai." The word for "clown" is "newe" in Japanese and "niwaka" in Zuni. "Priest" is "shawani" in Japanese and "shiwani" in Zuni.
And then there was the whole syntax thing -- both languages use the verb as the last word of a sentence, a feature only 45 percent of languages share. That may not seem like a lot, but considering the Zuni language is nothing like the languages of the people who surround it, it's a pretty odd connection.
So then Davis really started digging, and that was when she discovered all kinds of spooky crap -- like that both the Zuni and the Japanese share frequency of Type B blood, a rare kidney disease and specific oral traditions about their origins. So her theory is that sometime around the 12th century Buddhist missionaries made it all the way to California and traveled inland. Somehow.
If Davis' theory is true, the Zuni walked away from the deal with Japanese genes and some kickass stories -- which is a whole lot better than, say, smallpox. So it could have been worse.