Category Archives: anthropology

River of Avon—Providing a Wetland Link Between the Living and the Dead, Mysteries of Stonehenge Revealed in an Ancient Streambed

When it comes to Stonehenge, many theories abound. What was its purpose? Why build there? One of the recent theories comes from an archaeologist, Mike Parker Pearson at University of Sheffield in England, who has been researching the link between Stonehenge and the Durrington Walls. He found a correlation between the two monuments—and the geographic and ecological connection to the River of Avon. If Stonehenge was a cemetery, as many believe, and the Durrington Walls stood for the living, then the River of Avon connected the land of the living to the domain of the dead, carrying the ashes of cremated loved ones after royal burial rites.

Pearson leads the team of researchers on the Stonehenge Riverside Project.http://www.shef.ac.uk/archaeology/research/stonehenge The team discovered natural underground gullies in an ancient streambed that made a direct path between Stonehenge and the river—strangely enough, in perfect line with the sun’s rays during the Winter and Summer Solstices. This astrological event might have influenced the monuments’ architects and engineers, thought to have built Stonehenge around 2900 B.C.http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/
05/080529-stonehenge-cemetery.html

The River of Avon is Britain’s largest unimproved floodplain and has been a favored area for anglers, naturalists and conservationists. But land use changes over time have broken the links between the adjacent wetlands in the floodplain and the river. As a result, there have been a number of recent wetlands restoration projects, including the 2009 Strategic Restoration and Management of the River Avon, which won a Living Wetlands Award in 2010http://www.waterlink-international.com/news/id430-Ciwems_Living_Wetlands_Award_For_STREAM.html and Wetlands West, formerly known as the Severn and Avon Vales Wetlands Partnership, which aims to protect wetland habitat and create floodplain and water resources management practices for that watershed. http://www.severnwetlands.org.uk/restorationzones.asp In addition, there have been other local municipal wetland restoration projects like this one that created the community Avon Meadows Wetland in 2008:http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1059717.

For a virtual tour of the World Heritage Site, including Stonehenge, the Durrington Walls and the River of Avon, go to: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/
properties/stonehenge/explore/stonehengemap/
 This ancient and mysterious tie to wetlands is one of several that I unearthed in an earlier Strange Wetlands blog post on Lost Worlds, Lost Wetlands.

Lost Worlds, Lost Wetlands

Mesopotamia is argued by many historians to be one of the “cradles of civilization.” Historically, the Marsh Arabs depended on the marshlands of the region for 5,000 years, going all the way back to ancient Sumeria. These wetlands show up in epic poetry of early Mesopotamia:

‘Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood,
the mayfly floating on the water.
On the face of the sun its countenance gazes,
then all of a sudden nothing is there’.
– ‘He who saw the Deep’,
(The Epic of Gilgamesh, 1,200 B.C.)

Most of the marshes of Mesopotamia, including the delta plains of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in the Middle East, were destroyed by the year 2000. The marshes were lost to hydro-engineering for dams (flood control and electricity), canals and reservoirs (irrigation, farming), all of which reduced the annual floods, which used to renew the waters in the wetlands. The once-thriving marshlands have dried out due to a 20-50% decrease in the flow of water from the major rivers throughout the region. In addition, Saddam Hussein drained large wetlands to punish the tribes—Marsh Arabs—living in those areas and to expose the rebel hiding places, in the 1990s.http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/
Features/WorldOfChange/iraq.php

A number of international organizations pulled together to bring attention to the loss of wetlands there, including World Wildlife Fund, which recorded over 278 species of bird in the Mesopotamian ecoregion. Nearly half of those identified are wetland birds. http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/ecoregions/mesopotamian_delta_marshes.cfm A marsh restoration project through the United Nations Environment Program began in 2006. For an image of the Vanishing Marshes of Mesopotamia, go to: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=1716 For a technical report,http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/imagerecords/1000/1716/meso2.pdf

For those who research archaeological use of wetlands for agriculture, the Mayan use of the “seasonal swamp,” known as el Bajo la justa,” in northern Guatemala is also very interesting. In the latter years of the ancient Mayan culture, archeologists surmise that the Mayans must have expanded the way they farmed the lowlands, including wetlands, in order to support a larger population. But this has been a subject of much debate: whether these “bajos” (interior wetlands) were used for agricultural purposes. A 1995 study by T. Patrick Culbert funded by the University of Arizona looked this issue: http://www.famsi.org/reports/94033/94033Culbert01.pdf

Last fall an issue of Nature featured new findings. A study identified more evidence that wetlands were used for agriculture by the Mayans: The new “research suggests that the Maya built canals between wetlands to divert water and create new farmland,” according to Timothy Beach, a physical geographer at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.. Archaeologists often explore the question of any ancient civilization, how did they feed a large population? The answer for the Mayans was wetlands.
http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101105/full/news.2010.587.html For more background information on the history of Maya agriculture and the role of wetlands, go to: http://www.authenticmaya.com/maya_agriculture.htm

Finally, I’ll leave you with something fun to ponder: the true whereabouts of the lost city of Atlantis. Is it buried in the marshlands of Spain after all?  According to a new film, Finding Atlantis, on National Geographic (TV channel), a documentary-maker from Hartford University in CT has proposed just that. To find out how to see the film, visit: http://channel.nationalgeographic.
com/episode/finding-atlantis-4982/Overview
 and come a little closer to understanding one of the world’s greatest mysteries. Yet again, the answer to the riddle could be wetlands. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/8381219/Lost-city-of-Atlantis-buried-in-Spanish-wetlands.html

Bog Bodies: Not for the Faint of Stomach

I get sucked into crime television dramas-“Bones,” a show about a forensic anthropologist, is currently my favorite. One episode involved a corpse found in a bog, which had preserved the remains and helped the fictitious Dr. Brennan solve the mystery of the bog man. A simple Google search reveals that “bog bodies” are a popular topic of research and interest. Also called, “bog people,” they illicit curiosity, how did this person die? How old are the remains? Human remains left in bogs can be preserved for hundreds if not thousands of years. For example, in ancient Aztec bogs, bodies were held in place with wooden stakes; National Geographic had a special program that explored this phenomenon. There’s even a scary movie coming out this year called, “Legends of the Bog,” which takes place in rural Ireland (Note: the USA version is simply called, “Bog Bodies,” which comes out this June.) Here are a few links to sink into bogs with bodies:

Tales of the Living Dead: Bog Body and Aztec Death (National Geographic TV)
http://www.electricsky.com/
catalogue_detail.aspx?program=118

Bog Body
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bog_body

Preserved bodies tell the tale of ancient ‘bog people’
The Paramus Post – April 2006 http://www.paramuspost.com/
article.php/20060428173048520

Reluctant Time Travelers – Bog Bodies of Europe (1997)
http://www.utexas.edu/courses/wilson/ant304/projects/projects97/dentep/dentep.html

“Bog bodies” (scroll down this blog for the entry about bog bodies)
http://darkmoonnightmagick.blogspot.com/2009/04/bog-body.html

Bodies of the Bog
http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/bog/

Legends of the Bog (movie – 2009)
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0928375/ andhttp://www.bogbodiesthemovie.com/story_2.php