A week ago in Israel two archaeologists announced the discovery of a Neolithic town that existed 9,000 years ago on a piece of land that otherwise seemed totally vacant. To their surprise they unearthed a place that apparently housed about 3,000 people. It had streets, homes and burial grounds, well below the surface.
It was a busy little town. The archaeologists found arrowheads and spearheads, jewellery and trade goods that clearly came from distant places. They found warehouses containing huge quantities of lentils and other legumes, preserved over the millennia.
The discovery was carried out by Hamoudi Khalaily and Jacob Vardi from the Israel Antiquities Authority, who said this was the first Neolithic community found in Israel of comparable size to others. It’s about five kilometres west of Jerusalem on the banks of Nahal Sorek, near the ancient road leading from the Judea lowland to Jerusalem.
As archaeologists, Khalaily and Vardi have won the lottery. In future their names will always be mentioned whenever people talk about this strange town, whatever they decide to call it.
As I mentioned when discussing archaeology in an earlier column, Brian Fagan, an authority in this profession, points out that both the science and art of archeology were created in modern times.
That gives his profession its ability to tell something vital about the true history of the world. Not long ago, in the early 19th century, it was assumed that humans had been on earth for 6,000 years, more or less. But in modern times, human-like bones of Neanderthals have raised questions about that. Exotic art objects have suggested the endless diversity of humans and a new chronology of human life has been assembled with the help of geologists. All assumptions were challenged and everything has changed.
“Now the timescale is three million years and counting,” Fagan wrote. Archaeology pushed humanity’s knowledge backwards, creating a new historical horizon for all of us, opening a vast landscape of the past.
But it may be that archaeology has other surprises awaiting us. Sarah Parcak, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, recently wrote a paper on the subject: How Space Technology is Revolutionizing Archaeology. She explains that “The human story, the story of us, is evolving at breakneck speed.” From space, high-tech equipment can spot variations on the ground that suggest large platform mounds, ceremonial centres, ringed villages and fortified settlements — all evidence of buried moments in civilization. In that way, scores of promising sites have been identified around the world. They await the curious scholars who will spend their time answering the questions the hidden sites are asking.
After the space exploration reports give the location of an ancient site, researchers must survey the site on the ground, a process known as “ground-truthing.” That leads to months or years of sophisticated digging.
In a recent Nature publication, a team led by archaeologist Jonas Gregorio de Souza announced 81 previously unknown pre-Columbian sites in the Amazon basin area of Brazil, using satellite imagery and ground surveys. Based on their findings, they estimate 1,300 other sites dating to between 1250 and 1500 AD could be found in just seven per cent of the Amazon basin, with potentially more than 18,000 others in total. More than a million people may have lived in areas that today seem largely uninhabitable.
Mapping sites from space is fun, Parcak says, but getting to explore them is what takes her back in time, often thousands of years, to eras when people believed in different gods, spoke languages now extinct and lived in places assumed never to have been occupied.
Who were those people? For archaeologists, the future of the past seems full of promise.