Beyond The Terra-Cotta Warriors

In 1974, whilst digging a well outside the Chinese city of Xi’an, China, workers unearthed a life-sized warrior made of clay. Once archeologists arrived, they discovered more warriors, numbering in the thousands. Each warrior’s armor and facial expressions are slightly different. The warriors are positioned due to rank. Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di ordered the construction of the structures. To date, four pits have been dug, three of which uncovered warriors, horses, carriages, and weapons.

Pit Containing Terra Cotta Warriors

When studying or discovering these pits, one may be inclined to presume that China under Emperor Qin was more warfare based, or that Emperor Qin valued his soldiers and military prowess most and therefore wished to be buried alongside such things.

Since then, many nearby archeological sites have been located through excavation, remote-sensing, and ground-penetrating radar. These additional findings have located over 600 more pits, one of which was the Emperor’s tomb that amasses almost 38 square miles. These further observations and studies have provided archeologists and other researchers with more knowledge about the Terra Cotta Warriors site and Emperor Qin.

Since the initial pits were studied, researches have discovered countless other artifacts that help decipher more about the site and Emperor Qin. For instance, clay figures of  acrobats and musicians have been found. In addition, life-sized figurines of swans, cranes, ducks, and other animals were located. Experts found evidence of European techniques used on artifacts. Therefore, could Europeans have influenced the construction and furnishing of the Terra Cotta site? This added another layer of complexity and meaning to the previous notions about the Terra Cotta archeological site and Emperor Qin.

Terra Cotta Animals from the Qin Dynasty

Approximately 700,000 workers are believed to have worked to create the site. Found alongside the worker’s graves are government officials’ graves. These sites show a distinct structural organization by which the Emperor was able to construct such a massive complex. Following the Emperor’s death, experts have determined from artifacts and skeletons of the Emperor’s family that a family blood-war over power occurred. From skeletons of princes and the destruction of Terra Cotta warriors and artifacts, archeologists determined that some of the pits had been raided and partially destroyed during the blood-wars.

From the more recent findings and studies, researchers have asserted that the Terra Cotta site actually represented Emperor Qin’s court in his lifetime; it represented his surroundings and what he valued. Soldiers, animals, government officials, and other objects were discovered at the site. These provided knowledge as to the size and organizational complexity of the Qin Dynasty. Historians and Archeologists believe the site serves as an replica of the societal organization of the Qin Dynasty. When first explored and studied, many believed that the site merely contained clay statues of soldiers. Today we know it contains many more artifacts, which provide in depth insight into the organization and life during the Qin Dynasty.


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Further Reading:

Chinese Authorities Smash Fake Terracotta Warriors Attraction

Giving New Life to Mummies through X-ray Technologies

X-rays are a part of life — you get them when you’re at the dentist, when your bag goes through security at the airport, or when you visit the doctors for a broken bone. But what if I told you that they are now becoming a part of death as well? Scientists have been using a method called X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to analyze Egyptian mummy wrappings to better understand the past.

To first give a sense of what X-rays are, they’re a type of radiation in the electromagnetic spectrum between gamma rays (which are the smallest and the most energy packed) and the visible light spectrum (the light that you and I can see). X-ray fluorescence essentially shoots a beam of X-rays at the sample, which in turn gives off its own unique set of fluorescent X-rays. Those can be used to identify the sample’s elemental composition and  highlight patterns or words that aren’t visible to the naked eye — which is where the mummies come in.

Roman and Greek inscriptions highlighted by XRF

Ancient Egyptians used to layer old, previously-written-on papyrus with plaster to create their mummies, but until just recently, it was impossible to discern what was written on them. It’s like trying to read an article from a newspaper transformed into an aged, multi-layered paper mache object. The liquid in the plaster fades the ink and thins the paper. The layers of paper oriented in all different directions make it nearly impossible to see what was written below the surface. However, XRF (and other X-ray imaging techniques) solves many of these problems. To start, scientists determine the composition of the papyrus to distinguish it from an element in the ink — such as iron or bromine. They can then detect and highlight the ink using these X-ray techniques.

Testing a mummy head at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab to find non-destructive technologies that reveal the hidden writings

One of the advantages of this type of technology is that it’s non-destructive, meaning that this would hopefully deter people from submerging the papyrus in water or resulting to other destructive techniques to try to uncover the message. As of right now, scientists are still perfecting the imaging software, but some preliminary tests have discovered what some people of the ancient past used to write about. Joshua Sosin, a member of this project from Duke University, said, “We have hate mail, the strange diary ramblings of a hypochondriac, contracts and bills of sale.” The more writing we can uncover, the more we can understand the people who had ordinary lives and thus better understand the society they lived in (as opposed to mainly using historical text from influential writers or people publicly displaying their thoughts).

While some scientists are focusing on this technique for mummies, it could be applied to carvings in ancient pottery, discovering the layers of a painted vessel, or relatively dating an object (through elemental analysis using XRF) (see additional readings below). X-ray technologies open up a new method of analyzing artifacts that uncovers information that we previously thought was lost.



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Additional readings:

Disaster Archaeology: Joya de Cerén

Natural disasters are categorized as devastating events in nature that occur abruptly and often with terrible ramifications.  Violent storms, mudslides and volcanic eruptions have been the cause of destruction in many an ancient civilization, often leaving behind no trace of the people who inhabited them.  However, in a bit of an ironic twist, these same circumstances are what have preserved many ancient cultures for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years.  One such example of this is Joya de Cerén, the literal translation of which is ‘The Jewel of Cerén’.

One of the buildings uncovered at Joya de Cerén

Located in present day El Salvador, Joya de Cerén was a pre-Hispanic farming community that was active during the Mayan Classic period (A.D. 300-900).  This archaeological site was preserved in the same way as the famous Italian city of Pompeii.  Around 600 A.D. a nearby volcano, Loma Caldera, erupted and covered the surrounding area in thick layers of ash and other volcanic debris.  This natural disaster acted as a natural preserving agent that protected the architecture, artifacts, ecofacts and even the fields used by the ancient farmers.  All of which was still as the inhabitants had left them while fleeing.  As much as this site was a miraculous find for archaeologists with its remarkable level of preservation, it was made even more unique due to the fact that the area was largely non-elite.  For the most part research into Mayan culture has focused on the rich and elite of society as their marks have stood the test of time more easily than that of the general populace.

An piece of pottery recovered from Joya de Cerén

However, Joya de Cerén gives the world a rare view into the lives of common ancient Mesoamerican farmers.  The layers of volcanic ash allowed for the preservation of the architecture and artefacts of the ancient site that were left ‘in-situ’ or in their original positions of storage and use.  The personal dwellings give us a clear picture of the day-to-day lives of an ancient Mesoamerican farmer.  Religious items, animal remains and even the sleeping mats have been preserved, all ordinary items at the time that would seem to have no large importance on their own but provide much valuable information together (Joya de Cerén Archaeolofical Site).  Several other types of structures have been preserved as well, such as religious and community buildings, storehouses and even a sweat bath.  The fields were also well preserved and show what kinds of foods were the staple of these ancient people’s diets.  These structures and their intact contents give detailed information about how the village functioned as a community, their beliefs and traditions and even their dietary practices.  Again all features that might seem meaningless to the average person, but allow researchers to gain a clearer understanding of the life these ancient people lived and how that relates to the people in the present.


Banyasz, Malin G. “From the Trenches – Off The Grid – Archaeology Magazine Archive.” From the Trenches – Off The Grid – Archaeology Magazine Archive. Archaeological Institute of America, Mar. 2012. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.

Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. UNESCO, n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.


Further Reading:

The Importance of Ecofacts

In this fast-paced, money-driven world that we live in today, people are constantly striving to connect to the more simple times of the past. Studying ecofacts is one way people do this. As human beings, we are naturally materialistic. We are obsessed with getting that new iPhone, or that car that is a year newer and nicer than the one next door. This is how human beings have acted since the beginning of time. Those with the most gold or the most china were considered wealthy, elite, and superior to those around them. These material goods that people owned centuries ago are known as “artifacts” in the archeological world. Artifacts tend to be the findings that make the big headlines in the news or featured in the special museum event. Being that this is a materialistic world, it only makes sense that artifacts get the fame. However, I believe that ecofacts and inorganic materials are just as important to understanding the past as artifacts are.

Coming from a Native American background, my grandmother has always stressed the importance of respecting the land and all of the histories that it holds. When I was a young child, she gave me my first piece of petrified wood. It was amazing to be able to hold a piece of the world that other animals used to touch millions of years ago. This began my fascination with historical stones.

Archeologists discovering petrified oak in Wyoming.

Ecofacts such as stones were absolutely essential to the survival of the early man. Stones were used to build shelters, hunt prey, skin prey, plow land, and so many other things that were necessary to survive millions of years ago. The discovery of stone ecofacts has allowed archeologists to better understand what types of environments early humans once lived in. Petrified wood shows the type of trees that belonged in the area, which we can relate to the types of animals that were available to hunt in these days. When archeologists find petrified oak, they can assume that a forest once existed in that area, so it is unlikely that fishing was the main source of food for the people that lived there. Archeologists can use things such as petrified wood and old stones to better understand how the world once worked, and what humans did to survive.

Handaxe from Europe during the Stone Age.

Just one hundred years ago we did not know that humans existed in the Stone Age, but thanks to stone tools, some over two million years old, we now know that humans were very active in this era. Ecofacts as simple as stones play a huge role in connecting us to our past.



Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice with 295 Illustrations. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015. Print.


For further reading:

A Case Study of Ourselves and Our Waste

Bill Rathje was an archaeologist who pioneered the field of garbology, studying modern trash to learn more about what society discards. Garbologists excavate and analyze the contents of city landfills to determine the societal patterns of wastefulness. In his book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, Edward Humes reports that “17 percent of the garbage by weight… consisted of food waste,” and “nearly equal portions were completely edible” as compared to legitimate trash (Humes 159). This pinnacle of extremely high resource use and waste has been dubbed the Classical Period in a civilization’s chronological arc. In previous civilizations, this period of resource abuse has been quickly followed by a sharp decline in amount of available resources, and consequently the decline of the entire civilization.

Twin Moai statues in the quarry Rano Raraku

One such civilization that parallels our current global situation is a 63-square mile island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Rapa Nui. By the 1700s, transmission of diseases from South America decimated the island’s population, and that toll was only worsened by the rampant slave trade in that area. There was little evidence of a once complex society with the ability to coordinate infrastructure capable of feeding tens of thousands of people and constructing massive stone Moai statues.

However, archaeologists have discovered plenty of evidence for logical explanations regarding this isolated civilization and its gigantic Moai by performing a wide variety of tests, including radiocarbon dating and palynology. Through this evidence, scientists are able to track the use of resources on the island throughout the rise and fall of this civilization. As the islanders increased their resource exploitation, primarily by felling large palm trees, their production, output, and sophistication greatly increased.

The complete deforestation of Rapa Nui is evidenced by the lack of a single tree

However, overhunting and vast deforestation led to immediate consequences such as losses of raw materials, wild-caught foods, and crop yields (Diamond 116). The long-term consequences of the islanders’ irresponsibility with their resources “start with starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism” (Diamond 119). Clearly, this ancient people went through the predictable rise and fall of all great civilizations to date.

It may seem drastic, but this is directly analogous to our current global situation, as we are presumably isolated in space with many environmental issues pressuring our large-scale decisions. However, it is not only the major decisions about removing forests that cause all of the harm to our environment, and in turn our civilization. Rather, the small decisions we make every day about relatively simple things can make the big difference. Through his “groundbreaking” research, Rathje has provided us with invaluable insight into how we are readily approaching the end of our Classical Period. Once we use up all of these resources, our civilization will begin to collapse and continue to spiral downward. But if we each make conscious effort to make the little decisions better for our future environment, we can extend our Classical Period far into the future.



Diamond, Jared M. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2005. Print.

Humes, Edward. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. New York: Avery, 2012. Print.



Twin Moais

Massive Deforestation on Rapa Nui


Further Reading:

Jared Diamond TED Talk: Why do societies collapse?

University of Washington Garbology Project

Pre-Industrialization Garbage Archaeology

Garbage is a term that evokes images of filth and grime. However, garbage is useful to archaeology. Recently, archaeologists have analyzed garbage in landfills to gain better insight into the way people think and to better understand cultures and their value systems. Landfills can be found all over the globe, but finding garbage from the distant past proves more difficult, as archaeologists must find sites where refuse is still intact. Fortunately, many of these kinds of sites have been identified.

Interestingly, some of the best preserved garbage from the past few centuries has been found in toilets. A team of archaeologists recently uncovered a number of privy pits in Philadelphia, PA, from the 18th century. One of these pits was dated to 1776, placing it and its contents at the beginning of the American Revolution both in location and time. It is more than likely that this pit was dug around the time when Benjamin and Mary Humphreys bought a house at its location on July 10th, 1776. This pit, labelled Feature 16, had an interesting array of refuse within. In one of the holes, items typical of a tavern were found, such as tankards, drinking glasses, bowls, and alcohol bottles, many of which had been patched or repaired. Using paper records, the archaeologists found that Mary Humphreys had been arrested in July of 1783 for running an illegal tavern. These two radically different pieces of evidence work together to tell a story of a Revolutionary-era woman and her “disorderly house.”

The remains of a punch bowl found in Feature 16. The ship depicted carried a message from Philadelphia to Great Britain to pressure Parliament into repealing the Stamp Act in 1765.

Recent archaeological studies in Pompeii have been focused on studying garbage to understand how ancient people disposed of their unwanted goods. Researchers found cracked dishware, dented metal-ware, and items with broken handles in an old farmhouse, and patched amphoras at a wine-bottling facility, which would suggest that these Romans did not throw things away and instead repaired and reused them until they were completely unusable. Archaeologists have also not been able to locate glass or ceramics on the streets of the ancient city, furthering this theory.

A street uncovered in the ruins of Pompeii

Analyzing garbage from before the Industrial Revolution reveals much about how people valued their belongings. After the Industrial Revolution, the concept of “disposable goods” arose. This is evident in what we throw away, from plastic wrap to half eaten meals. Garbage found from before this time reveals reveals artifacts that had been patched up and repaired numerous times until they were no longer usable. This reflects an entirely different mentality. What was thrown away had value, and was only discarded reluctantly after it had been well-worn. Histories gleaned from garbage are important, but understanding how people value their belongings is just as important to archaeology.



Punch Bowl


Further Reading:

Ancient Trash Collection



Tollund Man: Peat Bogs Today and in the Iron Age

Tollund man, discovered in a bog in Denmark in 1950, is so well preserved that the two brothers who found him thought he was a recent murder victim. Based on carbon testing, he lived during the Iron age and died around 3-400 BC aged 30-40 years. After being hanged he was laid in the peat bog in a sheepskin cap, a belt, and a noose tied around his neck. Instead of decomposing, the peat moss killed bacteria and prevented the decomposition of the body.

Tollund Man’s Preserved Remains

Ever since Tollund man was found, both archeologists and the media have debated and posed questions about the manner of his death. Superficially, the circumstances of Tollund man’s death seems to correspond with a section of Tacitus’ later description of the Semnones, a germanic tribe. He wrote in the second century, that, “They hang traitors and renegades in trees, cowards, combat evaders (afraid to go to war) and unnaturally immoral people they lower into filthy swamps and cover them with branches”(“Why Did He Have to Die?”). However, Tacitus was writing about 400 years after Tollund man was left in the bog and Tollund man’s burial does not seem to line up with the burial of a criminal. Archeologists have pointed out that he was placed in the bog in a sleeping position. It is also likely that those who buried him closed his eyes and mouth after death. Because of this his death is often seen as a sacrifice to a god. Other bog bodies do not show the same special treatment that Tollund man’s does. The bodies of Kayhausen boy (500-100 B.C.) and Yde girl (54 B.C.-128 A.D.) may have had physical deformities that ultimately led to violent deaths. Yde girl’s hair was also shaved on one side a sign that she might have been an adulteress (French).

Tollund Man’s Preserved Head

Though Tollund man was likely put in the peat bog to be forgotten, either as a criminal or more likely as a sacrifice to the gods, it was this location that insured his preservation. Bogs are treasure troves for modern archeologist, and the artifacts recovered from them can often reveal information about people’s lives that would not otherwise survive. Bodies are not the only things found in peat bogs, archeologist and locals have also found jewelry, weaponry, battle armor, farming equipment, and even butter (French). In the peat surround the Tollund man two peat spades and a wooden walkway were also found (“The Bog Where the Tollund Man Was Discovered”). Reconstructed image of peat cutting during the Iron age, when Tollund Man would have lived. The existence of these artifacts also point to the important role that peat bogs also played for ancient cultures. It has been argued peat bogs, were seen as ‘gateways to the spiritual world’ as well as a source of fuels, as it is still seen today (French). All together the bog artifacts can indicate what peat bogs meant to Iron age cultures and can help unravel the continued questions that the Tollund man and other bog bodies pose.

Reconstructed image of peat-cutting during the Iron Age

French, Kristen C. “The Curious Case of the Bog Bodies – Issue 27: Dark Matter.” Nautilus. N.p., 06 Aug. 2015. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.
“Why Did He Have to Die?” The Tollund Man – Death. Silkeborg Museum and Amtscentret for Undervisning, 2004. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.
“The Bog Where the Tollund Man Was Discovered.” The Tollund Man – The Bog. Silkeborg Museum and Amtscentret for Undervisning, 2004. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.

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