Context and Great ZImbabwe

Context is very important to Archaeology. Context is the relationship between artifacts. By looking at the relationships between artifacts, Archaeologists are able to learn about the history and recreate past events. Without context, it is impossible for archaeologists to create an accurate picture of the past. The history of Great Zimbabwe and its people is an example of the need of context to create accurate representations of the past using artifacts.
Great Zimbabwe is the ruins of a city located in the southeastern hills of Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe. Great Zimbabwe was a city that existed approximately between the 12TH AND 15TH AD. It acted as the capital of the kingdom of Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe civilization was one of the most significant civilizations that existed during the medieval period. The ruins are all that is left of a great trading civilization that existed in the interior of Africa. Zimbabwe controlled most trade throughout southern Africa. The city of Great Zimbabwe acted as a center for the trade of gold and ivory. The site began declining during the 15th century prior to being abandoned around 1450 AD.
The remains of Great Zimbabwe were first excavated by J. Theodore Bent and Cecil Rhodes. When Great Zimbabwe was first discovered, archaeologists did not understand what great Zimbabwe was or why it was abandoned. It was believed that the civilization of great Zimbabwe simply disappeared without a trace. As time passed, more information was discovered about Great Zimbabwe and archaeologists understood the context behind Great Zimbabwe. With more context Archaeologists about Great Zimbabwe, such understanding its role as the capital of the Zimbabwe empire and as a center of trade, it has become possible to develop educated theories about the decline and abandonment of Great Zimbabwe. With context, archaeologists have developed multiple theories explain the reason for the decline and abandonment of great Zimbabwe. Some theorists believed that changes in climate caused the abandonment of Great Zimbabwe. Another theory is that a decline in the abundance of gold and ivory in the area caused a decline in trade, this made Great Zimbabwe less viable as a place for the population to live. Some  archaeologists believe that the decline of Great Zimbabwe was caused by the arrival of Europeans in the African continent disrupting trade.

This Is an aerial view of the Great ZImbabwe Ruins

This Is an aerial view of the Great ZImbabwe Ruins
In the past it was thought that the inhabitants of Great Zimbabwe disappeared and that there was no traces remaining of the civilization other than the Great Zimbabwe ruins. Archaeologists did not conduct studies into populations that lived near the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. When archaeologists began studying the Shona population near the Great Zimbabwe ruins, they discovered that the population knew about the Great Zimbabwe ruins and were actually the descendants of the Great Zimbabwe civilization.

Shona People. Believed to be the descendants of Great Zimbabwe civilization

Shona People. Believed to be the descendants of Great Zimbabwe civilization

Great Zimbabwe is an example of the important role context plays in archaeology. Without context, it is impossible to create accurate depictions of the past. Context is what allows archaeologists to turn artifacts into theories about the past.

Further Reading:



Cultural Ecology and the Anthropocene

“Cultural Ecology” is the anthropological study of how a group of humans adapted and how societies developed in the context of their environment; weather patterns, climate, native flora and fauna, available materials, and so on. “Environment” is divisible into three categories; abiotic, biotic, and cultural. The abiotic environment of a society includes land, water, minerals, and climate, while the biotic environment is the living things within the environment, such as plants and animals. The cultural environment focuses on the interactions of human beings and the development of societies. Cultural ecology is capable of examining both the effect of environment on a human society, and the effect of human society on its environment.


A woman in the Caribbean tending the fields.

A woman in the Caribbean tending the fields.

Haiti now has only 2% forest cover.

Haiti now has only 2% forest cover.

Archaeological techniques allow us to infer what life in a society is or might have been; in the context of an environment one might infer how a society affected its environment, or why a certain society adapted in a specific way. Though this is largely used to study societies, it can also allow researchers to see how an environment, itself, has changed. For example, the changes in Haitian culture and environment. We may discern that Haiti was once lush and forested, and assume that the natives adapted accordingly. However, after the colonization of Haiti by the Europeans, the forests were razed to clear land for sugar plantations, and slaves from many African nations were brought to work the fields. Today, Haitian culture is comprised of the various cultural traditions brought by slaves from many different nations. As for the environment of Haiti, Haiti now has only 2% forest cover, and has lost virtually all of its topsoil, making it impossible to grow food, and causing widespread drought. As such, a staple of Haitian culture has become its dependence on imports for 93% of its food, and Haiti’s resultant poverty.

The changes of environment as a result of human interaction is the distinguishing attribute of the Anthropocene Era, a geological era in which humans have become so great a geological force as to cause changes in the natural environment on a global scale. Cultural ecology, in its study of human environments, gives us insight into what environments may have been like in the past, as in the case of the once-verdant Haiti. This enables members of many disciplines, archaeological and ecological, to study how an environment has changed, and determine how human action may have led to such changes. It also allows us insight into a society’s reaction to the changing environment—did they flee, adapt, or die out? Did they recognize the change as the result of human activity? Did they attempt to fix the changes? Cultural ecology can be used to study both the changes in an environment, and the societal reactions, allowing archaeologists and ecologists alike to study the development of the Anthropocene as a human-powered geologic era.

More Reading:



Cambata, Altaire. “The Global Impact of Climate Change .” Ecology, n.d. Web. <>.

Standish, Alex. “The Anthropocene: A Man-made Epoch.” Spiked.

Haiti Friends.

Gunn, Michael C. “Cultural Ecology: A Brief Overview.” University of Nebraska- Lincoln.

Modern Archaeology and Cancer


Cancer research is a hot topic in today’s medical community. Many of society’s best and brightest work tirelessly to eradicate cancer from world, developing new drugs, surgical techniques, and prevention methods. Curing cancer, however, is largely contingent on pinpointing its causes. This is where archaeology plays a role. Is cancer strictly a result of modern lifestyle, or was it present in ancient times? If it was, what were the rates at which cancer was contracted in different areas over different periods of time? Is there any overlap between the causes of cancer in the modern world and in the past? These are all questions archaeologists can answer.

Two colleagues at Manchester University, Rosalie David and Michael Zimmerman, have done extensive research on cancer in the past. They have searched for references to the disease in classical literature, looked for evidence in the fossil record and in mummified bodies, and even gathered data about other pathologies contracted in ancient times to establish a frame of reference with respect to modern times.[3] Their findings: cancer is man-made. In the journal Nature Reviews: Cancer, the two archaeologists reported a “striking rarity of malignancies in ancient physical remains” that might “indicate that cancer was rare in antiquity”[1][2]. Said Professor David, “There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle”[3].

Many disagree with the above viewpoint.  According to Cancer researcher Dr. Robert A. Weinberg, “There is no reason to think cancer is a new disease. In former times, it was less common because people were struck down midlife by other things.” Furthermore, the scarcity of evidence for cancer in David and Zimmerman’s research can be accounted for by a number of factors.

Mummified remains often retain soft tissue, and are promising prospects for evidence of ancient cancer

Mummified remains often retain soft tissue, and are promising prospects for evidence of ancient cancer

Cancer generally develops in soft tissue, which tends to disappear before archaeologists can find it. Additionally, there are large gaps in archaeological records. For a long time, archaeologists only collected skulls. There is no telling what sort of cancer evidence was present in discarded skeletons[1]. Recent findings, such as a 4,200-Year-Old case of breast cancer [4] and a skeleton with cancer from 3000 years ago,[5] suggest even further that cancer is not a modern phenomenon.

Figure 2 An X-ray of an early medieval man exhibiting signs of metastatic carcinoma--a cancer that begins in soft tissue but then spreads to bones

Figure 2 An X-ray of an early medieval man exhibiting signs of metastatic carcinoma–a cancer that begins in soft tissue but then spreads to bones

So is cancer a disease brought about by modern lifestyle choices? It appears as if the answer is both yes and no. As research continues to be done, it appears as if cancer was less prevalent in ancient times. While modernity has increased the incidence of cancer, it cannot be blamed entirely; says Dr. Weinberg, “Cancer is an inevitability once you create complex multicellular organisms and give the individual cells license to proliferate. If we lived long enough, sooner or later we would all get cancer.”[1] It appears as if archaeology has provided us with the following conclusion: cancer is not strictly a result of modern living, but there are still common lifestyle changes that need to be made in order to reduce its presence.







Further Reading

New Early Human Species Discovered in South Africa

2015-09-13 (1)

This is a reconstruction of Homo naledi built following 700 hours of work by paleoartist John Gurche.

On Thursday September 10, 2015 a group of scientists excavating a cave system in South Africa released their findings claiming that they may have made an important discovery about human evolution.  In late 2013 and early 2014 the scientists discovered fifteen nearly-complete skeletons in a nearly-inaccessible chamber, now called the Dinaledi Chamber, and are now classifying them as a new species of hominin called the Homo naledi.  The species warranted classification in the homo genus because of surprising human-like features, such as teeth and skull features similar to other members of the genus, and hand shapes that suggested tool-using capabilities.  It also appears to be one of the genus’s most primitive members because it possesses a much smaller brain, shoulders shaped like those of apes, and extremely curved fingers demonstrating climbing capabilities.

The most significant finding of the expedition was that Homo naledi may have practiced a form of behavior previously thought to be unique only to humans.  The isolation of the chamber and presence of few other animal bones led the team of scientists to believe that the bodies had been intentionally left there, perhaps as a burial ritual.  The deposition of bodies in the same location is generally a cultural practice, and it appears that burials were repeatedly carried out in that specific location over the course of many years.  The location was so incredibly isolated that when the team first discovered the chamber, bones lied directly on the surface, as they had not been affected by erosion, scavengers, or other climate conditions.


This is a map of the archaeological site, showing the complexity of the cave system and location of the fossil site.

The isolation of the archaeological site posed significant challenges for the team of researchers.  The first expedition lasted 21 days during November 2013 and consisted of tedious extraction of the bones by carefully using toothpicks and brushes to gently remove the fossils and transport them up to the surface through a 7.5-inch chute.  Sixty cavers and scientists were working on the excavation site, which also trained six women to be “underground astronauts” to fit through the narrow 18-centimeter cave opening.  The depth of the cave made full excavation impractical, so the scientists were forced to finish removing the bones during a week-long expedition in early 2014.

Exploration of human origins has made significant strides as more remains of ancestors are being found.  However there had been a million-year-long gap in the fossil record in which lies the beginning of mankind.  The origin of the homo genus has been shrouded in mystery, but this discovery may help to fill in the pieces of the puzzle and uncover the true origin of mankind.

Sources: (images are also from this site)

Further Reading: (detailed published study report)

The NOVA/National Geographic Special, “Dawn of Humanity,” premieres September 16, 2015, at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on PBS in the United States and is streaming online now at:

The Creation and Discovery of Skara Brae – The Power of Storms

The now-archaeological-site, once-village of Skara Brae on the coast of the Orkney Islands of Scotland was subjected to huge storm during the late Neolithic period – burying its structures deep under a layer of sand, which acted as a preservative for the buildings and their contents for multiple millennia – four to be exact. The protective quality of the sand kept the structures and everything within them shockingly intact since around 3200 – 2200 BC. The very gradual drift of sand after the storm embedded the village of Skara Brae into the earth, making it uninhabitable for the original Stone Age villagers.

So, was it the storm alone that drove away the native inhabitants of Skara Brae? Not exactly. “The fall” of Skara Brae as a society and abandonment of it as a geographical location was actually due to long term erosion along the coast and changes in the society’s needs, not only the single event of the storm (though the storm did intensify and speed up erosion) (Orkneyjar). Even before the major storm, island conditions such as the spray of salt water and sand probably made the land virtually unworkable and unfit for food production. While that may have been okay for a while, eventually people moved away to more productive areas where they could get a more constant supply of food. The few who remained most likely finished out their lives in Skara Brae without repopulating the area.

Outside view of a Skara Brae building, separated from others by a passage.

But how was Skara Brae found if it was under a massive layer of sand? Well, another natural disaster occurred 4,000 year later in 1850, a violent storm “whose winds and extremely high tides” ripped up the earth and grass from Skerrabra – a large mound on the island (Orkneyjar). Foundations, walls, and remains of stone buildings and houses were discovered underneath the mound, to the surprise of those living there at the time. But 75 years later, in 1925, another storm came around, damaging the excavated ancient structures. Accordingly, preservation efforts were put in place through the construction of a sea wall (an embankment erected to prevent the sea from encroaching on an area of land), which actually exposed even more stone buildings! During this time period, most archaeologists believed the settlement to be from the Iron Age – around 500 BC. But finally, as we know now thanks to radiocarbon dating in the 1970s, the buildings were proved to be from the late Neolithic period and inhabited for 600 years.

Excavation of a Skara Brae home, complete with artifacts and features such as furniture and drains.

Excavation of a Skara Brae home, complete with artifacts and features such as furniture and drains.

While so far storms seem to have acted in an oddly beneficial way for the archaeological preservation and exposure of Skara Brae’s long-hidden cultural artifacts and features, an increase in erosion rates have posed an environmental and archaeological threat. Steps are being taken to minimize the effects of this accelerated erosion due to natural and human causes.

For Further Reading on Skara Brae:


Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2010. Print.

What Coffee Says About Us



Figure 1: Ancestral Pubeloan mug from the Mesa Verde region (de Pastino).

Imagine going to your local Starbucks and ordering a coffee. Once you’re done with your coffee, you throw out the cup in the garbage can outside of the Starbucks or at your office. What will happen to that cup 500 years in the future, or even 1,000 years? What if it is in a landfill, still trying to decompose, and a garbologist from another civilization is performing an archeological search and they find this? Well, when they examine the contents, they will find traces of cacao. This is where context matters. Taking a look at our location, they will come to the conclusion that we did not have the adequate environment to grow cocoa beans in our backyards or at any facilities nearby, and the closest place with optimum conditions would be Hawaii, nearly 5,000 miles away. What can they deduce from this? Well, from the sheer volume of cups and mugs with cacao traces, they will deduce that our civilization was highly advanced because it had a complex trading system with other locations and carried items across vast distances very efficiently.

A recent a study has found traces of cacao, across the prehistoric Southwest, in ceramic cups. And context here, too, is important. The study looked at a region spanning from Colorado to Chihuahua. This region, too, did not have suitable conditions to grow cocoa beans for caffeinated drinks. The study looked at 177 pottery samples, with 40 of them, or 22%, containing traces of cacao. While 22% does not seem high to us now, it was surely significant back then because it meant that they had a steady supply and traded with people from other regions, much like us now. Additionally, the study found that there were traces of other plants in these pottery samples that had high amounts of caffeine, which means that they were well-aware of the beneficial effects that caffeine has on the brain (or at the very least, the person). And, as the author of the article puts it,

“It was a striking reminder of the great economic reach of the Ancestral Puebloans, whose sites had already turned up other Mesoamerican items, like copper bells and remains of scarlet macaws.” (De Pastino)


Figure 2: Image of cacao (Cacao-pic).

The juxtaposition of the modern day person and a person from the prehistoric Southwest shows that there are a vast number of similarities between civilizations, despite a large difference in the times that these civilizations emerged and became prominent. One can only speculate as to what cacao was really used for in the past, for it is difficult to get into the mind of our ancestors. However, it is entirely possible for it to be for the same reason as us: a medicine for fatigue or waking oneself (which they may have taken to be spiritually). Needless to say, we still resorted to the same resolution to our problem, which in itself is amazing to think of. Perhaps a civilization from the future will come to the same resolution and drink coffee as they study their ancestors, who were drinking coffee while studying their ancestors.

De Pastino, Blake. “Cocoa, Caffeinated ‘Black Drink’ Were Widespread in Pre-Contact Southwest, Study Finds.” Western Digs (2015): n. pag. Web. 9 Sept. 2015. .

Cacao-pic. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. .

What Modern Technology is Telling Us about Stonehenge

Less than three kilometers from the well-known site of Stonehenge lies the Durrington Wall site; while it was long known as a location of interest, with features including timber circles and a recently discovered Neolithic settlement, new information showing that the site also once included as many as ninety stones, now buried beneath the surface, was released in early September 2015.

Preliminary map with data from project. Durrington Wall marked at top left in yellow, stones marked there in red.

Preliminary ‘invisible’ map of region with data from project. Durrington Wall marked at top left in yellow, stones marked there in red.

Through the Hidden Landscapes Project, researchers were able to survey the land with sophisticated magnetometers, as well as laser and radar arrays, which produced high quality images that showed many features including these new ones at the Durrington Wall site. The data collected from this five year project will be merged to form a detailed map of the so-called ‘invisible’ landscape, which the researchers hope will be useful in tying together the full scale of Stonehenge and the surrounding areas.

A magnetometer in use during the Hidden Landscapes Project.

A magnetometer in use during the Hidden Landscapes Project.

But the researchers are still most excited about the radar and magnetometer data from the Durrington Wall site. The data revealed foundations where stones had stood and stone fragments, as well as full sized stones, some around fifteen feet in height. While radar works by bouncing a signal off of a subsurface object, a magnetometer measures small fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic that can be caused by artifacts or features; a magnetometer can be attached to a tractor, to facilitate movement and data gathering. In the digital images, the stones clearly form a row along one part of the Durrington Wall site.

This new discovery is particularly significant, as it has led the researchers on the project to rethink assumptions held about Stonehenge and the great area. Until the discovery of the stones at Durrington Wall, Stonehenge was believed to be the only major site to include stone structures of this magnitude. The new information that there was another large stone site at the same time as Stonehenge (or possibly even earlier), has lead researchers to question preconceived notions regarding the builders, their relationship with the land around Stonehenge, and the presence of great monuments of this scale and type.

Without the top of the line geophysical and remote sensing technologies that the Hidden Landscapes Project made use of during this survey, the stones beneath Durrington Wall that have led to these new questions might not have even been found. Through technological advances and the funding to use them, the archaeological community has the opportunity to reexamine some widely held assumptions, revise some of its theories, and continue to expand its understanding of the past.

Further Information

Virtual film representation of stone structures at Durrington Wall:

Download link of official press release pertaining to Durrington Wall discovery: