Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

A light into shadow

I think my love of science comes from the joy of unlocking one at a time the pieces of the universe that were mysteries.  It's why I'm such a dilettante -- someone who, as an acquaintance once described me, has knowledge a light year across and an inch deep.  I find it all fascinating.  I was never able to focus on one thing long enough to really become an expert.  I'd start in one direction, but in short order I'd say, "Oh, look, something shiny!" and take off on some unrelated tangent.

I may not have much in the way of academic credentials, but it makes me a force to be reckoned with when playing Trivial Pursuit.

It's okay, really.  I enjoy the fact that my brain makes up for in breadth what it lacks in depth.  Which is why last week we had posts about astronomy, geology, glaciology, paleontology, and cosmology, and today we're on to archaeology.

Because of my love of mysteries, I've always been drawn to trying to understand civilizations whose relics are scanty or poorly-understood.  The Incas, Aztecs, and Mayas.  The ancestors of the First Nations of North America.  The Songhai Empire and the kingdoms of Benin, Congo, and Aksum in Africa.  The ancient history of Southeast Asia and Australia.  And while European history is generally considered to be well-studied and accessible, that's because most of the focus is on the Romans, Greeks, and Norse, who left extensive written records.  The Celts, Slavs, and the southern Germanic tribes, for whom we have far fewer extant records (and many of those were penned by conquering cultures which took few pains to represent them fairly or accurately), have an ancient history that is largely lost to the shadows of time.

Or... maybe not entirely lost.

Archaeologists are now using sophisticated technological tools to discern traces of long-gone settlements, recovering traces of civilizations that have been up till now complete ciphers.  The reason this comes up is a study by a team from University College Dublin, working with colleagues in Serbia and Slovenia, which used aerial photography to piece together the remnants of 3,500 year old settlements in the southern Carpathian Basin -- and found that the area was as thickly-settled as many of the far better known cultures who were at their height around the same time.

"Some of the largest sites, we call these mega-forts, have been known for a few years now, such as Gradište Iđoš, Csanádpalota, Sântana or the mind-blowing Corneşti Iarcuri enclosed by thirty-three kilometers of ditches and eclipsing in size the contemporary citadels and fortifications of the Hittites, Mycenaeans or Egyptians,” said UCD archaeologist Barry Molloy, who led the study.  "What is new, however, is finding that these massive sites did not stand alone, they were part of a dense network of closely related and codependent communities.  At their peak, the people living within this lower Pannonian network of sites must have numbered into the tens of thousands...  Uniquely for prehistoric Europe, we are able to do more than identify the location of a few sites using satellite imagery but have been able to define an entire settled landscape, complete with maps of the size and layout of sites, even down to the locations of people’s homes within them. This really gives an unprecedented view of how these Bronze Age people lived with each other and their many neighbors."

One of the circular hill-forts discovered through analysis of aerial photographs

Of course, this sets the imagination running.  Like the Australian fossilized bird footprints we looked at yesterday, these remnants only tell you so much, in this case tantalizing clues about how their cities were laid out, coupled with hypothesizing the purposes of buildings for which we only have traces of foundations.  But deeper information about the societies who lived there, their political and social structure, religious beliefs, and languages -- the relics we have are silent on all of that.  Who these people were, we can only speculate.

Still, it's a remarkable achievement.  "1200 BC was a striking turning point in Old World prehistory, with kingdoms, empires, cities, and whole societies collapsing within a few decades throughout a vast area of southwest Asia, north Africa, and southern Europe," Molloy said.  "It is fascinating to discover these new polities and to see how they were related to well-known influential societies yet sobering to see how they ultimately suffered a similar fate in wave of crises that struck this wider region."

And for me, looking at it from the outside, it's wonderful to cast some light into the shadows of a culture that heretofore was completely mysterious.  Knowing them, even if only a little, is thrilling.  I'll end with a quote from the inimitable Richard Feynman, from his book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out:
Fall in love with some activity, and do it!  Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter.  Explore the world.  Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.  Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best.  Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do.


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