Destruction of Archaeological Sites in Palmyras

Conflict and warfare have always posed threats to buildings and sites that hold cultural significance. Examples range from the destruction of Tenochtitlán during the Spanish ‘conquest’ to current destruction of sites in the Middle East by the Islamic State. ISIS’s destruction of one site in particular, Palmyras in Syria, has recently made news. Palmyras was a city at the crossroads and major trading center between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.

The Roman Theater’s intact facade in March 2016

Though records of the city go back for 3,800 years, the height of the city was under Roman occupation in the 3rd century A.D. Its mix of merchants from many cultures lead to Palmyras’ unique architecture and blend of Roman and Near Eastern styles (Romey). Palmyra was once of Syria’s most popular tourist location, until the outbreak of conflict in 2011 (Romey).

Satellite images showing the Roman theater (Dec. 26, 2016) before it was damaged

Satellite images of the Roman theater (Jan. 10 2017) after damage by ISIS militants

ISIS first captured Palmyra in May 2015, but were driven out by regime forces. They then retook the city on December 11, 2016 (Deeb). An ISIS leader announced in a radio broadcast on May 27, 2015 that the ruins in Palmyra would not be damaged (Almukhtar). However, as Syrian government forces moved closer to the city, the ISIS began to bulldoze and detonate structures such as the Roman Theater known as the Tetrapylon (2nd cen. AD), the Temple of Bel, which dated back to A.D. 32, and the Temple of Baalshamin. Before demolishing the theater they used it as a stage for executions and propaganda. 

In August 2015 they executed Khaled al-Asaad, the former director of the Palmyra museum, outside the museum next to the ruins (“Syrian archaeologist killed in Palmyra by IS militants”).

Khaled al-Asaad the archeologist who was killed by ISIS in 2015

al-Asaad was imprisoned for a month before his execution, during which time ISIS members interrogated him about the location of valuable artifacts. One of ISIS’s main sources of revenue is the sale of artifacts they have looted (Harkin). In addition to looting sites, it is clear that ISIS has been using the archaeological site as a literal stage to give them national attention and advertize their platforms.

The destruction of these sites has been called a “war crime” by the the UNESCO spokesperson (“Palmyra’s archaeological heritage under ISIS attack”). Palmyra was a crossroad of different cultures and religions, which is evident in the fusion of Roman, Greek, and Near Eastern architecture. It has a “spirit of… encounter and openness” (“Palmyra’s archaeological heritage under ISIS attack”). It is this spirit, which the historical site embodies, that makes it so anathematic to ISIS. By destroying the historical evidence of religious and cultural tolerance and killing people that share this knowledge like al-Asaad, ISIS hopes to destroy the future of tolerance in this area.

Work Cited:

Almukhtar, Sarah. “The Strategy Behind the Islamic State’s Destruction of Ancient Sites.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 July 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

Deeb, Sarah El. “ISIS Destroys Part of Palmyra’s Roman Theatre.” The Archaeology News Network. The Associated Press, 20 Jan. 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

Harkin, James. “The Race to Save Syria’s Archaeological Treasures.” Smithsonian Institution, 01 Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

“Palmyra’s Archaeological Heritage under ISIS Attack.” ARA News, 21 Jan. 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

Romey, Kristin. “Why Palmyra, Recently Liberated, Is a Historical Treasure.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 28 Mar. 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

“Syrian Archaeologist ‘killed in Palmyra’ by IS Militants.” BBC News. BBC, 19 Aug. 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.


Further Reading:

Video showing more of Palmyra’s ruins before ISIS:

More on the destruction of the Temple of Baal:

More on the destruction of Palmyra:

List and descriptions of other sites ISIS has damaged or destroyed:

More on ISIS’ looting of antiquities to fuel the Iraq Insurgency:


Race in Professional Sports

As the runners take their places, each waving to the camera as her name is announced, two aspects of the professional athletes’ physical appearance become apparent: one, all the 400 meter runners are incredibly muscled and lithe, and two, there is one single runner with much lighter skin tone than the others. Why do the arenas of certain professional sports appear to be unbalanced? Are people with certain skin colors genetically predisposed to possess greater athletic prowess?

Women’s 400 meter final, London Olympic Games 2012

While some point to genetics, others highlight culture for explanation. In his book Taboo, journalist Jon Entine posits that genetic differences among groups of people, or “races,” predispose certain populations to be better athletes, with minimal cultural influence. However, as Ian Kerr of Western Michigan University rebuts, genetic differences among groups of people do not exclusively account for athleticism. In fact, “scientists cannot find any specific genetic markers that define the characteristics of athleticism (speed, height, strength) in one group or “race” more than any other.” Therefore, while some groups of people may seem to be better at certain sports, such as Kenyan athletes winning the majority of professional long distance running events in the past decade, their athleticism cannot be tied to their skin color. Such superficial classification cannot explain any biological differences that may be thought to account for increased athleticism, because there is no such scientific evidence.

Genomes such as the ones pictured do not reveal a predisposition for athleticism in any group or “race” more than another

Anthropologists and archaeologists have long proved that ancestry does not equate to inferiority or superiority of certain groups of people. According to archaeologist Charles Orser in his work Race and Practice in Archaeological Interpretation, “racialization is a process that seeks to define and compartmentalize the human community on the basis of outward characteristics,” and such a process inevitably leads to “the construction of social inequality.” Genetics do not and cannot validate notions of inferiority or superiority of groups of people. To do so, as civil rights lawyer Vinay Harpalani argues, one would have to prove that, in the case of skin tone in sports: “1) there is a systematic way to define Black and White populations; 2) consistent and plausible genetic differences between the populations can be demonstrated; 3) a link between those genetic differences and athletic performance can be clearly shown.” Harpalani’s three-step system is scientifically unprovable, thereby dismissing claims that certain populations are inherently superior to others.
Therefore, using principles of bioarchaeology, or the analysis of past human remains to understand their larger culture, the belief in the superiority or inferiority of certain populations is debunked. Differences among groups are due to environmental factors, or training, in the case of sports. While cultural pride at times seems to stem from physical differences, true cultural pride should rise from mostly social, cognitive, and traditional roots. Therefore, when next the runners take their marks, they should not focus on the color of their competitors’ skin, but instead on their skill.

Further Reading



Bioarchaeology Helps Shed New Light on Ancient Mysteries

Since Howard Carter unveiled the tomb of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen in 1922, the world has been fascinated with the king. One major question surrounding Tut is the circumstance of his sudden death. Using bioarchaeology, archaeologists may have found a conclusive answer.

From examining Tut’s body along with written records, it’s evident that Tut died around 19 years old and his burial was rushed and unexpected. The tomb is small for a pharaoh, so Egyptologists speculate that it wasn’t originally intended for Tut, but they needed to bury him quickly (more on this that may lead to new discoveries in the link at the bottom). Bioarchaeology confirms Tut’s hurried burial. Mold-like spots appear on the tomb walls, and comparison of old and new photographs prove they haven’t changed since 1922, suggesting the spots are ancient. Recent microbial analysis confirms this by showing that the spots contain melanins, a sign of the metabolism of fungus, but no living microbes were found. The environment of the walls’ wet paint combined with foodstuffs buried with Tut would’ve created the perfect environment for microbial growth, resulting in the spots.

A photo of the southern wall of King Tut’s tomb with visible mold-like spots

What could be the reason for Tutankhamen’s early and unexpected demise? Many have speculated about murder, a chariot accident, and even an unfortunate hippopotamus encounter. However, the bioarchaeology tells a much less dramatic story. Previously, the chariot accident was the leading theory on Tut’s death, as some chariots were buried with him and according to his mummy’s early CT scans, he suffered a fatal blow to the head. Bioarchaeologists debunked this theory when they determined Tut’s head injury was post-mortem (after death), probably sustained either in the mummification process or the mishandling of the body by Carter’s team. Also, bioarchaeology reveals from new CT scans that king Tut couldn’t even stand on a chariot, let alone ride one, as he had a clubfoot. In his tomb, archaeologists found 130 used walking canes, supporting the analysis that Tut needed a cane to walk.

The reason for his deformities? King Tut was born out of incest. Genetic testing of Tut and other mummies confirms that his father and mother were full siblings (further details of this found in the link at the bottom). While incest to keep the royal bloodline pure was not uncommon, it could have disastrous effects for the offspring, like Tut.

A 3-D rendition of what Tut would’ve have looked like during his lifetime, based on updated and extensive CT scans of his mummy

A clubfoot and an incestuous birth wouldn’t have been enough to kill Tut, but it would’ve weakened his immune system. Bioarchaeology’s analysis of Tut’s body found signs that he contracted malaria, possibly many times during his life. Tut possibly had some immunity to malaria because of his geographical location, but with Tut’s weakened immune system combined with a leg fracture (with possible complications), it’s likely that the disease killed him.

Pop culture depicts King Tutankhamen as a mysterious king under a golden mask who tragically died young, but bioarchaeology shows the real picture: a deformed teenager, barely able to walk, suffering from malaria and the effects of incest.



Further details of genetic testing:


Further Reading:

On the Life of Akhenaten (Tut’s likely father):

On the debate of hidden chambers in Tut’s tomb:


Image Sources:

Tut’s tomb southern wall:*:1000

Tut body recreation:



Experimental Archaeology: The Cognitive Ability of Neanderthals

The homo neanderthalensis, or the Neanderthal, went extinct around 40,000 years ago. The Neanderthals were closely related to humans, sharing most of the same DNA, with their latest common ancestor being between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago. When most people think of Neanderthals, they see the blundering cave man with limited cognition, similar to a very early hominin species or chimpanzees, very different than that of a modern human. More recent discoveries by archaeologists in Gibraltar challenge those assumptions.

Openings to caves in Gibraltar

The human species is distinguished from other life forms by our ability to use symbols. These symbols can be anything from markings on cave walls or early monetary systems. Archaeologists also look at various artifacts and symbols to evaluate the cognitive ability of archaic humans. Modern societies and populations are taken into account in order to give context to the artifacts. Because there are no living societies of Neanderthals to compare to the findings of archaeologists, other methods are used to provide context, like experimental archaeology.

In 2012 archaeologists found an engraving in Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, a British territory off the south coast of Spain. Gibraltar is known to be a long-term residence of Neanderthals and is home to a Neanderthal museum and many ongoing excavations. The engraving was of an incomplete cross-hatching of three and two lines. These lines are significantly different from the cracks and fissures of the exposed lime-dolostone of the cave.

Cross-hatching pattern made by Neanderthals

The archaeologists then attempted to recreate the markings in the cave on excavated portions of the same rock from the same cave to learn more about the nature of the tools used. First they tried using a stone with a tip similar in size to the engravings, held it in place and scratched it back and forth to create a marking of the same depth. This method gave way to a marking that was rough and uneven with fringe on either end, which was not present in the engraving. They also discovered that the lines would not have resulted in a misplaced swing of a tool used to cut pigskin. The marking matched up best with lines created with careful incisions going in one direction.

Graph of width vs. number of strokes of different tools used to recreate engraving

They also needed roughly 200-300 cuts to create a line with the same dimensions as the markings in Gorham’s cave. This leads to the need to protect one’s hand and extensive knowledge of tools. The archaeologists conclude that “this discovery demonstrates the capacity of the Neanderthals for abstract thought and expression through the use of geometric forms.”

Maybe we don’t give Neanderthals the credit they deserve, and more research needs to go into challenging the idea that the cognitive ability of the predecessors of our species, and Neanderthals, are inherently lower than that of our own.

Further Reading:



Repatriation and NAGPRA

NAGPRA was a law enacted in 1990 that describes the rights that tribes have regarding human remains and cultural items “with which they can show a relationship of lineal descent or cultural affiliation” (National Park Services). NAGPRA is used in repatriating ancestors and their belongings back into the ground after being kept in museums and universities. The process of reclaiming one’s ancestors includes consultations between organizations and tribes, creating inventories of artifacts, proof of cultural affiliation, and eventually repatriation.

Kaats’ and Brown Bear Totem Pole that is on display at the Peabody Museum in the NAGPRA Gallery.

“‘Cultural affiliation’ means that there is a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically” (National Park Services). Many tribes have a hard time proving lineage. Since many tribes were put into reservations that weren’t their own, they can’t prove that an artifact or ancestor is their own. Present day tribes are different from tribes that these ancestors may have been from. In the 19th century during forced assimilation and removal policies, many tribes were combined or gotten rid of all together. This means that the ancestor’s tribe may no longer exist in its original form. When an ancestor can’t be places into a current tribe, the land where the person or cultural object is found is said to belong to whichever tribe owns that land.

Just because NAGPRA was created, doesn’t mean that all objects and human remains were given back easily. Many times petitions and claims to ancestors can be denied or postponed. Since the burden of proof to show cultural affiliation lies on tribes, the process to prove ancestry can take years and years. Although this law is the first step in helping return what was taken from Native Americans, it is only the first step. University and museum officials don’t always have accurate reports on their inventory and sometimes discredit tribes’ attempts to repatriate their ancestors. Due to the excessive red tape, some tribes won’t officially claim lineage because they want to get their ancestors back where they belong quicker.

I had never thought about the ethical or moral issues with keeping remains and artifacts for scientific study. It seemed to make sense from my point of view. When I look at repatriation through the lens of the people who are being scientifically studied, I immediately recognize ethical issues. This discussion reminds me of the keeping of Ota Benga, a Mbuti pygmy, in a human exhibit in the Bronx Zoo as well as in an anthropological exhibit in the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis, MO. It was justified at the time, because it was seen as furthering knowledge on people from Africa. The issue with this is the idea that there is a distinction between people from Africa and people from European descent that needs to be studied. This is the same with universities and museums holding onto Native American cultural items and ancestors. It was justified because at the time they were seen as an “other” that needed to be studied. Today we can recognize that they are people and studying their remains is unnecessary. Repatriation and NAGPRA is currently not only helping return Native American remains and cultural objects back to the ground, but inherent racism that began when Europeans first arrived to the New World.

Walking repatriated cultural objects and ancestors to the burial ceremony.

Further Reading:


February 27, 2017 Lecture by Shannon Martin hosted by Vassar College

Phrenology and “Scientific Racism” in the 19th Century

The pseudoscience of phrenology, the study of skull shapes as an indicator of mental  abilities, was founded by German physiologist Franz Joseph Gall in the early 1800s.  Gall claimed that the brain has multiple “organs” that each correspond to different mental traits or abilities. Because the human skull is shaped as it is because of the brain, he claimed that the study of the shape, size and geography of the human skull could yield information about these “organs” and the consequent mental capacity of the person to whom it belonged.  This field of study was based on a faulty science in which evidence that helps prove a researcher’s hypothesis is taken into consideration.  When this pseudoscience spread to the U.S. around the 1830s, it was used to prove prevalent yet baseless hypotheses about the inferiority of non-white races.

1830s image showing sections of the skull corresponding to different mental traits.

The U.S. in the 1830s and 1840s, when phrenology became popular,  was struggling to justify the continuation of slavery in the face of a growing abolitionist movement and was dealing with interactions between white western settlers and existing Native American populations.  In the case of slavery, physicians such as Charles Caldwell used phrenology to attempt to prove that African people were in their rightful place as slaves.  Caldwell studied the skulls of many different peoples, including Africans, at the Musee de Phrenologie in Paris.  In 1837, he concluded that the skulls of African people (a flawed generalization of an entire continent of diverse peoples) indicated a  “tamableness” that made them suited to be slaves, and required them to “have a master”.  This view of people of African descent as inherently mentally inferior contributed to the continuation of slavery and the segregation and racism that still persists in the U.S..

In the case of Native Americans, the work of physiologists including Samuel Morton helped justify their removal  from their land in the 1830s and 40s.  Morton’s 1839 book “Crania Americana” detailed skull configurations and consequent mental capacities of the four “separate species” he defined, including whites and Native Americans.  He saw differences between races as natural and dictated by God, rejecting the view that physical differences were created by environments.  His study of skulls concluded that Native American minds were “different than that of the white man” and was cited in articles targeted at western settlers encountering Native Americans.  One article stated that Native Americans were “adverse to cultivation, slow in acquiring knowledge”.  This view of Native Americans existence in society as not conducive to industrialization and “progress” helped justify Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies and allowed western settlers to continue taking the land of Native Americans.

Excerpt from “Crania Americana” showing the supposed differences between the skulls of different races. Morton claimed similarities between the skulls of primates and African people.

The flawed use of “science” to support exploitation of groups of people helped perpetuate racial oppression and distorted future views of the biological basis of race.

Further Reading