Category Archives: NORTH AMERICA

California Museum Repatriates Remains and Artifacts

California Museum Repatriates Remains and Artifacts

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History turned over to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians the partial remains of about 1,000 Chumash and pre-Chumash people who had lived throughout the South Coast over a time span of 13,000 years.

In addition, UCSB turned over the human remains of 400 individuals and nearly 4,000 funerary objects. Most of these were unearthed when the UCSB campus was first being built in 1950 and date back as far as 4,000 years. 

This historic transfer was done in accordance with the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a law requiring museums and institutions of higher learning to turn over such remains and artefacts to federally recognized Native American representatives upon request.

Tribal Chairman Kenny Kahn

That request was issued in late October 2021 by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. The last of the remains, as well as a large number of funerary artefacts, were transferred from the Museum of Natural History and UCSB to the Santa Ynez Band officials in late April. 

In a carefully crafted press release issued by both the Santa Ynez Band and the Museum of Natural History, Tribal Chairman Kenny Kahn stated, “These items have come home to our tribe, and it allows us to do the important work of repatriation and reburial.

We will continue to have a close working relationship with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and consider it to be a collaborative partner in the community.”

Museum director Luke Swetland added, “The Museum has been honoured to care for this important cultural heritage for many years and finds it deeply satisfying that we can transfer custody back to the Chumash Community.”

The Museum’s Chumash and pre-Chumash collection, the most extensive in the world, included remains from 1,011 individuals and 36,943 associated funerary objects. With one notable exception, the bones in the museum collection date as far back as 7,000 BCE.

The exception is three femur bones found protruding from a creek channel on Santa Rosa Island in 1959 by Phil Orr, the museum’s then-director of anthropology.

Scientific analysis has proved those bones to be 13,000 years old, a discovery that makes them the oldest human remains found anywhere in North America.

The discovery adds considerable credence to a theory of human migration known as the “Kelp Superhighway Hypothesis,” which suggests that the first humans arrived in North America not by land, as has long been proposed, but by sea, following the coastline of the Pacific Rim of northeastern Asia and Beringia down to South America, where plentiful kelp beds provided sufficient food for the early explorers.

Most of the remains and artefacts transferred to the tribe show the technology and art developed by Chumash and pre-Chumash residents of the region, how they adorned themselves, what tools they had at their disposal, and what materials they used, and how they buried their dead. 

California Museum Repatriates Remains and Artifacts
Ancient Chumash beadwork

The collection of Native American remains and artefacts kept by museums and institutions of higher learning has long been a highly charged issue.

The Museum of Natural History first began amassing its collection in 1922 under the direction of museum anthropologists David Banks Rogers and John Peabody Harrington, who worked closely with Chumash people in the region recording their language and culture.

By the 1970s, the presence of Native American monitors emerged as a force for cultural preservation at any major construction sites located near what had once been tribal land.

In 1989, the museum created the California Indian Advisory Council, which included representatives from as many of the local Chumash bands as possible, not just those representing the Santa Ynez Band.

For the past 40 years, the museum ​— ​under the direction of John Johnson, the museum’s most recent anthropologist ​— ​collaborated with many academic researchers to study the museum’s collections consistent with the best practices established by the Society for American Archeology and the American Alliance of Museums.

In addition, Johnson has engaged closely with many Chumash individuals to study their cultural heritage, he said, “as a way to enlarge their understanding of themselves and their community.” 

Aztec war sacrifices found in Mexico may point to the elusive royal tomb

Aztec war sacrifices found in Mexico may point to the elusive royal tomb

Aztec war sacrifices found in Mexico may point to the elusive royal tomb
An archaeologist works on a 500-year-old partially-excavated stone box containing an Aztec offering

A newly discovered trove of Aztec sacrifices could lead archaeologists to an elusive Aztec emperor’s tomb. Such a discovery would mark a first since no Aztec royal burial has yet been found despite decades of digging.

The sacrificial offerings, including a richly adorned jaguar dressed as a warrior, were found in Mexico City, Reuters reports.

“We have enormous expectations right now,” lead archaeologist Leonardo Lopez Lujan said.

“As we go deeper we think we’ll continue finding very rich objects.”

Discovered off the steps of the Aztec’s holiest temple, the sacrificial offerings also include a young boy, dressed to resemble the Aztec war god and solar deity, and a set of flint knives elaborately decorated with mother of pearl and precious stones.

The offerings were deposited by Aztec priests over five centuries ago in front of the temple where the earliest historical accounts describe the final resting place of Aztec kings.

The interior of a stone box shows an Aztec offering including a set of black flint knives decorated to represent warriors

Only around a tenth of the box has been excavated but plenty of artefacts have already been uncovered, including a large number of shells, and bright red starfish that it’s believed represented the watery underworld the Aztecs believed the sun travelled through at night before emerging in the east to begin a new day.

“There’s an enormous amount of coral that’s blocking what we can see below,” said archaeologist Miguel Baez, part of the excavation team.

Route to an Aztec king?

Chroniclers detailed the burial rites of three Aztec kings, all brothers who ruled from 1469 to 1502.

According to these accounts, the rulers’ ashes were deposited with opulent offerings and the hearts of sacrificed slaves.

In 2006, a huge monolith of the Aztec earth goddess was found nearby with an inscription corresponding to the year 1502, which is when the empire’s greatest ruler and the last of the brothers, Ahuitzotl, passed away.

Elizabeth Boone, an ancient Mexico specialist at Tulane University, notes that the jaguar may represent the king as a fearless warrior.

“You could have Ahuitzotl in that box,” she said.

An ancient skeleton with a prosthetic eye was discovered 15 years ago

An ancient skeleton with a prosthetic eye was discovered 15 years ago

Believe it or not, fake eyes have existed for thousands of years. Besides improving the physical appearance of the patient needing the artificial eye, fake eyes also prevent tissues in the eye socket from overgrowing and prevent foreign debris from entering the eye without a bandage or eyepatch.

An ancient skeleton with a prosthetic eye was discovered 15 years ago
Rome’s National Museum of Oriental Art displayed the reconstructed face of a female skeleton which was found in Iran’s Burnt City wearing a fake eye. The museum closed in 2017 and its collections were transferred to the Pigorini National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography in Rome.

Though prosthetics may seem like a more recent medical development, they actually have one of the oldest origins in medical history.

The world’s oldest prosthetic eye, for example, was discovered in Iran’s “Burnt City” in 2006. Archaeologists determined that this eye is from approximately 2900-2800 BC and was found still embedded in the eye socket of a woman’s skull.

The discovery of this eye reveals the ancient history of prosthetics including eyes, legs, and arms. The detailed craftsmanship of the eye also reveals early ideas regarding light, sight, and the purpose of prosthetics. By analyzing the structure, location, and purpose of the ancient prosthetic, we can infer more about the Burnt City itself as well as how this creation shaped medical advancement over time.

The world’s oldest fake eye was discovered in the “Burnt City” in Iran in 2006 and it dated from 2900-2800 BC!

Iran’s Burnt City and the Oldest Ever Fake Eye

Shahr-e Sukhteh is the archaeological site of an ancient Bronze Age urban settlement in what is now southeastern Iran. This site is called “ the Burnt City ” because most of the city had been burnt by multiple fires starting around 3200 BC. Due to the age of the artefacts discovered at the site, archaeologists believe the city was abandoned around 2350 BC, though it is unclear if a fire was the ultimate reason for the city’s sudden abandonment.

Multiple excavations have been done in Burnt City since 1997. Famous discoveries from the site include an ancient dice table game, a skull displaying ancient brain surgery, a marble cup, and an adorned piece of leather from the Bronze Age.

The most interesting discovery, however, was the world’s oldest known fake eye in 2006. The eye was found in the remains of a woman estimated to be six feet tall, and physical evidence from the eye confirms it would have been worn during her life rather than inserted after her death. They estimated that the woman was between 25 to 30 years old at the time of her death.

Archaeologists who discovered the fake eye say that the prosthetic eye was made of a mixture of natural tar and animal fat, which likely kept it moist and durable during its use 4,800 years ago. Those studying the eye were fascinated by the detailed craftsmanship. The eye had individual capillaries drawn with golden wire less than half a millimeter thick.

A circular pupil was carved into the front with parallel lines drawn around it to form a diamond-shaped iris. Two holes with gold wire were found on either side of the artificial eyeball, which illustrated how the eye would have stayed inside its socket. This soft gold wire would have made insertion gentle while still providing the support needed to keep the eye from falling out. They would have also helped to let the eye move gently in its socket.

Those studying the eye inferred that it had been worn while the woman was still living because of preserved eyelid tissue that had been stuck to the eye. They also found evidence from this tissue and surrounding tissue on the woman’s skull that she may have developed an abscess on her eyelid due to its rubbing against the artificial eye while blinking.

Archaeologists found multiple clay vessels , ornamental beads, and jewelry pieces in the ancient woman’s gravesite. They also found a leather sack and a bronze mirror, both of which were still in excellent condition. These discoveries led archaeologists to believe that this woman was of high social status and was perhaps a member of the royal family.

Only individuals of significant social status would have had such ornate jewelry , clay, leather, and copper. This would also support her reason for having a fake eye. If she were in a position of power or high rank, she would have needed the eye to maintain her physical appearance and would have been one of few with the financial resources needed to customize an artificial eye that fitted her.

Fake eyes or prosthetic eyes have been around since about 2800 BC and today they are still made for the same purposes.

From Tar, To Gold, To Glass, To Acrylic

Details in the craftsmanship of the discovered fake eye show that the creator had a significant understanding of ocular anatomy. From the thin layer of gold to represent the iris to the tiniest blood vessels illustrated with gold wire, the eye was designed to be tasteful yet accurate for the wearer. In addition to these details, some bits of white colour was found on the white part of the eye, which suggests that the eye was once delicately painted to realistically illustrate an eye.

Other details about the eye lead archaeologists to conclude that the eye was handmade in Burnt City, rather than made elsewhere and imported. This tells us that at some point in Burnt City’s history, ocular health was studied by medical and craft professionals. This focus may have led to other medical advancements in treatment for ocular conditions such as infection or blindness in the city, though additional evidence of this has not been found.

The development of artificial eyes in other areas has been somewhat different from the eye discovered in Burnt City. In the 16th century France, surgeons made artificial eyes out of gold and silver to be worn either in front of or behind the eyelid.

Shakespeare referenced eyes made of glass in King Lear in 1606. In the 1800s, enamel artificial eyes were attractive but not durable, and advancements continued until today’s prosthetic eyes, which are made of hard acrylic, a type of durable plastic material.

Prosthetics have certainly come a long way since the time of the tar and animal fat eye found in the Burnt City. However, analysis of that eye still shows an impressive ancient understanding of ocular anatomy, which is fascinating to consider when thinking about ancient Iran. As medical knowledge advances, perhaps someday we may see even more durable and effective prosthetics for those who need them.

Ancient mystery in NC: Judaculla Rock holds 1,500-year-old petroglyphs

Ancient mystery in NC: Judaculla Rock holds 1,500-year-old petroglyphs

In the mountains of Jackson County in North Carolina lies a large mysterious rock covered in petroglyphs that have yet to be deciphered. For the Cherokee Indians, the rock and surrounding area is a sacred site where ceremonies used to take place. Indeed, Judaculla Rock is surrounded by rumours and legends, including strange sounds and UFO sightings during the night.

Judaculla and the Cherokee Indians

According to Cherokee oral tradition, in ancient times Judaculla was a slant-eyed giant with seven fingers who lived in the mountainous area, and the stone was his territorial marker. They believed the seven-digit claw marks are his handprints and a long, straight line drawn on the rock was a boundary: cross that, and they were impeding onto his hunting territory.

The name Judaculla means “he has them slanting” or the “slant-eyed giant,” and the Cherokee attributed him with superhuman strength and capabilities like flying or teleporting from mountaintop to mountaintop. Legend had it that Judaculla was even capable of controlling the wind, rain, thunder and lightning.

The Cherokee believed that Judaculla was able to take ordinary people to the spirit world and was able to communicate with people. It appears to be a similar type of god-like creature as the ones mentioned in all mythologies around the world.

Petroglyphs on Judaculla Rock.

The Petroglyph-Covered Judaculla Rock

Judaculla rock can be found just 6 miles (9.66 km) from Cullowhee, an anglicized form of Judaculla-whee, meaning “Judaculla’s Place.” The stone itself is a curvilinear-shaped outcrop of soapstone rock with more than 1,500 petroglyphs all over it. The symbols are tightly packed together and include many stick-like figures, two strange seven-digit hand/claw prints, thousands of cup marks, as well as many other carvings. It measures about 22 meters squared (240 sq ft).

The petroglyphs probably date back to between 2000 and 3000 BC and during digging around the stone, quarry tools were discovered. No other stones in the area were found with similar markings, making the stone even more mysterious. The site has been included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ancient mystery in NC: Judaculla Rock holds 1,500-year-old petroglyphs
The petroglyphs of Judaculla Rock.

Deciphering the Petroglyphs of Judaculla Rock

Theories about the content of the petroglyphs on the rock are abundant. They span from maps to religious symbols with a secret message or just graffiti made by ancient people.

Rock art may represent animals or humans or other figures of importance. Recently a team of scientists used laser-guided equipment in order to create a detailed view of the Judaculla Rock for studying. Unfortunately, the weather has started corroding the rock and the symbols will gradually disappear since the rock is ­­open to the weather.

Medium reported that in 1945, the Cherokee Chief Blythe believed “the rock carvings to be a record of a peace treaty between the Cherokee and the Catawbas.” Other theories include the petroglyphs representing a “game conservation law,” picture map of a battle or even the record of a treaty. Nevertheless, the ubiquitous gaggle of pseudo-science sleuths is never far behind.

Judaculla Rock.

Rumours and Pseudo-Science Revolving Around Judaculla Rock

Many rumours and legends surround the mysterious rock including strange sounds and UFO appearances. Stories abound about ghost sounds around Judaculla Rock during the night, which Atlas Obscura claims are “made spookier by the location of a cemetery a few hundred feet away.”

Unfortunately, for the time being, the secret meanings of the Judaculla rock will remain locked. In the meantime, a silent battle is taking place to protect the site from over-tourism and to define the true meaning of the site. Some theories even claim that the site is surrounded by electromagnetic anomalies, adding to the enigma of Judaculla rock.

In fact, America Unearthed from the History Channel made a “documentary” about Judaculla Rock back in 2014, much to the dismay of local experts and custodians who opposed the access approved by the county, which has owned the site since the 1960s. “Already, some groups have placed online absurdities about Judaculla and the Rock, encouraging visits to the Rock by some weird or unstable folks,” wrote Keith Parker, whose family owned the Judaculla rock site for decades, in an email at the time to the county in protest at them being allowed to film at the ancient site, reported Smokey Mountain News.

Adding to the mystery, across the Atlantic, within the rolling green hills of Scotland, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of stones engraved with identical cup marks and cup and ring motifs as those evidenced on the Judaculla Rock. This has led some to wonder how it’s possible that somebody in the distant past carved the same motifs on separate continents?

These theories have angered the Cherokee population. “From the Cherokee perspective, Judaculla Rock is a cultural validation of who we are as a people,” wrote Dr Tom Belt, a Cherokee culture and language expert at Western Carolina University to the county in protest to filming by the History Channel, reported Smokey Mountain News. “Correct and conscientious stewardship of these gifts is a moral responsibility to those who have passed and to those yet to come.”

Aztec House and Floating Gardens Discovered Under Mexico City

Aztec House and Floating Gardens Discovered Under Mexico City

Archaeologists have uncovered the ruins of a dwelling that was built up to 800 years ago during the Aztec Empire in the Centro neighbourhood of Mexico City, Mexico, during works to modernize the area.

Aztec House and Floating Gardens Discovered Under Mexico City
Excavated walls of the Aztec house, and one of the funerary vessels.

The centuries-old abode was discovered by archaeologists and construction workers ahead of an initiative to update electrical power substations.

The dwelling is believed to date from the late Postclassic period (A.D. 1200 to 1521) and would have been located on the border of two neighbourhoods in the city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, according to a statement from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). It spans over 4,300 square feet (400 square meters), or about half the size of a baseball diamond.

During the Late Postclassic, the area that is now being excavated was a residential and agricultural centre, and archaeologists at the site also found the remains of channels and a jetty (a platform where boats stop to load or unload) used in the Aztec chinampa method of farming.

The chinampa technique involved growing crops on small areas of artificial land (sometimes referred to as floating gardens) on shallow lake beds.

Archaeologists found more Aztec artefacts in the residential area of the excavations. Under the Aztec building’s thick adobe floors, the excavation team found a pair of funerary vessels that contain the bone remains of infants, as well as several burials associated with an offering of censers (vessels in which incense is burned), whorls (a spinning machine or spindle) and spinning tools.

The researchers also unearthed a stone statue that stands just over 23.5 inches (60 centimetres) tall. The statue, also from the late Postclassic period, depicts a man wearing a loincloth who looks as if he is throwing something.

Archaeologists believe that the statue may have been unfinished, as it lacks polish on the body, and they speculated that it may have been hidden at the time of Spanish intervention in the Aztec Empire, which began around A.D. 1521 according to the statement.

Investigations into the remains of the dwelling also show evidence of saddlery and ceramic workshop, which existed on the site in the colonial era of the 16th and 17th centuries. 

During the 19th century, it’s possible that part of this site was used as public baths, archaeologist Alicia Bracamontes Cruz, who is involved with the excavation, said in the statement.

Researchers uncovered remnants of these baths, including bathroom tile floors and a drainage system. It’s likely that wealthy people used these baths, according to descriptions in the chronicles of José María Marroquí, a 19th-century Mexican physician and historian.

Archaeological work is expected to continue in the area as a pipeline bank is constructed to go inside the new substation.

The earliest evidence of the Maya divination calendar was discovered in an ancient temple

The earliest evidence of the Maya divination calendar was discovered in an ancient temple

Archaeologists in Guatemala have discovered the oldest evidence of the Maya calendar on record: two mural fragments that, when pieced together, reveal a notation known as “7 deer,” a new study finds.

The two mural fragments with the 7 Deer day-sign and partial hieroglyphic text, among a total of 249 fragments of painted plaster and painted masonry blocks collected during archaeological excavations of the Ixbalamque context.

The two “7 deer” fragments date to between 300 B.C. and 200 B.C., according to radiocarbon dating done by the research team. This early date indicates that this Maya divination calendar, which was also used by other pre-Columbian cultures in Mesoamerica, such as the Aztecs, has been in continuous use for at least 2,300 years, as it is still followed today by modern Maya, the researchers said. (Notably, this is not the Long Count calendar that some people used to suggest the world was going to end in 2012.) 

“It’s the one calendar that survives all the conquests and the civil war in Guatemala,” the latter of which was waged from 1960 to 1996, study first author David Stuart, the Schele professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas at Austin, told Live Science. “The Maya of today in many communities have kept it as a way of connecting to their ideas of fate and how people relate to the world around them. It’s not a revival. It’s actually preservation of the calendar.”

The researchers found the mural fragments at the archaeological site of San Bartolo, northeast of the ancient Maya city of Tikal. Stuart was part of the team that discovered San Bartolo in 2001. “It’s in the remote jungles of northern Guatemala” and famous for its Maya murals dating to the Late Preclassic period (400 B.C. to A.D. 200), he said. 

The earliest evidence of the Maya divination calendar was discovered in an ancient temple
A reconstruction of San Bartolo at the phase when the 7 deer day-sign mural fragments were created.

The murals at San Bartolo are in a massive complex known as Las Pinturas, which the Maya built over hundreds of years. Every so often, the Maya would build over an old complex, constructing larger and more impressive structures. As a result, Las Pinturas is layered like an onion. If archaeologists tunnel into its inner layers, they can find earlier structures and murals, Stuart said.

The researchers collected ancient organic material, such as charcoal, within the layer where the mural fragments were discovered. By radiocarbon-dating these fragments, they could estimate when the murals were created.

However, these murals weren’t in one piece. In total, the team discovered about 7,000 fragments from various murals. Of this colossal collection, the team analyzed 11 wall fragments, discovered between 2002 and 2012, with radiocarbon dating. These included the two pieces that formed the “7 deer” notation, which includes a glyph, or image of a deer under the Maya symbol for the number seven (a horizontal line with two dots over it).

These fragments with the 7 deer day-sign dated to between 300 B.C. and 200 B.C.
The second dot over the line (top) is missing but is thought to be the number 7.
Mural fragments on masonry blocks from the Ixbalamque structure. It dates to the same time period as the 7 deer fragments but depicts the image of the Late Preclassic period Maya maize god.

Four Maya calendars

The Maya had four calendars, as “they were very interested in timekeeping,” Stuart said. “They had very elaborate and elegant ways of tracking time.”

One is the sacred divination calendar, or Tzolk’in, from which this “7 deer” notation originates. This calendar has 260 days consisting of a combination of 13 numbers and 20 days that have different signs (like deer). 

The 260 days don’t make up a year, however. Rather, it’s a cycle similar to the seven-day week. The notation “7 deer” doesn’t give you a date; it doesn’t tell you the season or year in which something happened. “It’s like saying Napoleon invaded Russia on a Wednesday,” Marcello Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University, who wasn’t involved with the study, told Live Science.

Today, the 260-day cycle in the Tzolk’in calendar is used for soothsaying and ceremonial record-keeping, Stuart said. “There are date keepers, as they’re called, in Guatemala today,” Stuart said. “If you said the day is 7 deer, they would go, ‘Oh yeah, 7 deer, that means this, this and this.'”

An illustration showing the detail of the 7 deer day sign found at San Bartolo, Guatemala.

The other Maya calendars are the Haab’, a solar calendar that lasts 365 days but doesn’t account for a leap year; a lunar calendar; and the Long Count calendar, which tracks major time cycles and caused a lot of brouhahas when some people (mistakenly) thought it was foretelling the end of the world in 2012, Live Science previously reported.

“[I remember] all that nonsense back in 2012 about the end of a cycle,” Stuart said. “Everyone was saying, ‘It’s the end of the calendar.’ But no, they didn’t understand there was yet another cycle after that.”

There are other calendar notations that might be older than the newly described 7-deer finding, but these artifacts are challenging to date because they were carved into stone (which does not hold any radioactive carbon that can be dated). Moreover, these carved stones were possibly moved around, meaning a date from the site might not reflect the date of these calendars, Stuart said. For instance, a proposed Tzolk’in calendar found in Oaxaca Valley, Mexico has dates ranging from 700 B.C. to 100 B.C., according to several studies.

When these four types of calendars are taken into account, this “7 deer” notation is the “earliest evidence of any Maya calendar, possibly [the] earliest securely dated evidence anywhere in Mesoamerica,” Stuart said. 

Surprising deer

The archaeologists were surprised to find the deer glyph. Later Maya Tzolk’in notations almost always write out the word for deer rather than drawing a glyph of the animal, Stuart said. In effect, these fragments might be evidence of an early stage of Maya script, he said.

“We speculate a little bit in the article that it may be that this is an early phase of the writing system where they haven’t quite established the norms that we’re used to,” Stuart said. He added that it’s unclear where in Mesoamerica this calendrical system began.

These two lines of evidence help tie everything together, Canuto noted. “The text seems to suggest something really archaic, and then the radiocarbon and the context of the dating seems to support that,” he said.

The study is “meticulously done,” Walter Witschey, a retired research professor of anthropology and geography at Longwood University in Virginia and a research fellow at the Middle American Research Institute, told Live Science in an email. The finding is “evidence for the earliest known calendar notation from the Maya region,” he said. 

Ancient ritual bloodletting may have been performed at carvings found in Mexico

Ancient ritual bloodletting may have been performed at carvings found in Mexico

Archaeologists in southern Mexico have discovered 30 carvings depicting capital I-shaped ballcourts cut into rocks. These carvings may have been used in ceremonies involving water and “ritual bloodletting,” new research finds. 

Ancient ritual bloodletting may have been performed at carvings found in Mexico
The image at the top shows one of the ballcourt carvings, its edges have been highlighted in the photo to make it easier to see. The image below shows a ballcourt at the site of Monte Alban, it is of a similar design to the carved ballcourt.

The carvings, in the ancient settlement of Quiechapa, are badly weathered, but small features in a few cases can be made out, such as one carving that appears to show a bench on the ballcourt. 

“Ballgames were of great significance to people throughout ancient Mesoamerica,” study researcher Alex Elvis Badillo, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Systems at Indiana State University, wrote in an article published Jan. 11 in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica

The shape of the ballcourts changed over time, and the rules of the ballgame are not known and may also have changed. The ballgame was played at least as early as 3,600 years ago, involved a rubber ball and two opposing sides, and was played from what is now the American Southwest, in Arizona and New Mexico, to as far south as Colombia in South America, Live Science previously reported. Much is still unknown about the ballgame but it appears to have held some level of religious and ceremonial importance scholars believe. 

It’s unclear when exactly these carvings were crafted. Quiechapa dates back at least 2,300 years and possibly earlier, and people in southern Mexico began using I-shaped ballcourts around 2,100 years ago, Badillo told Live Science in an email, adding that “I think it is logical to suggest that these carvings would have been made sometime after [100 B.C.], however, it is hard to say when these carvings were made.” 

The researchers found the 30 carvings in natural rock outcrops at two sites in the area. “This is the highest density in which this type of ballcourt representation occurs throughout Mesoamerica,” Badillo wrote in the study.

The biggest carving is 13.4 inches (34.1 centimeters) long while the shortest is 3.1 inches (8 cm) long, Badillo said. The archaeological team documented the carvings using structure-from-motion (SfM) photogrammetry. In this system, photos were taken of the carvings from different angles and uploaded to a computer program, which used the images and an algorithm to create a virtual, 3D representation of the carvings. 

This image shows one of the ballcourt carvings after the photogrammetry process.

Bloodletting rituals

It’s not clear what the carvings were used for, but the researchers suggested that ancient Mesoamericans may have used them for rituals. The Spanish priest Juan Ruiz de Alarcón (lived 1581 to 1639), who lived in what is now Mexico following Spain’s conquest of the area in the 16th century, “describes certain rituals during which a [Mesoamerican] priest would have people spill blood into small cavities that they had made in stone,” Badillo wrote in the study, noting that those cavities could include the ballcourt carvings. 

“The idea that water and blood are considered sacred and are symbols that are central to Mesoamerican cosmology is well established in the [scholarly] literature,” Badillo wrote in the paper. 

“These seemingly inert stone carvings in Quiechapa’s landscape may have been part of deeply meaningful and active social performances that included ritual bloodletting for many possible purposes, including maintaining balance and agricultural fertility, marking important moments in time, or fomenting intra- and inter-community bonds,” Badillo wrote. 

However, he cautioned that until more evidence is found, archaeologists can’t be certain that rituals were performed at these carvings. 

Badillo presented the findings at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) annual meeting held in Chicago from March 30 to April 3. The ballcourt carving surveys were carried out as part of the Quiechapa Archaeological Project (PAQuie).

3-D Photogrammetry Reveals 1,000-Year-Old Etchings in Alabama

3-D Photogrammetry Reveals 1,000-Year-Old Etchings in Alabama

Deep in a damp cave in northern Alabama, archaeologists have made a giant discovery. On a subterranean ceiling just half a meter high, researchers have uncovered the largest cave art discovered in North America: intricate etchings of humanlike figures and a serpent, carved by Native Americans more than 1000 years ago.

3-D Photogrammetry Reveals 1,000-Year-Old Etchings in Alabama
A humanlike figure was carved into the ceiling of 19th Unnamed Cave in Alabama (left), which archaeologists outlined virtually to make clearer (right).

“It’s exemplary and important work,” says Carla Klehm, an archaeologist at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville (UAF).

Although the U.S. Southwest is famous for petroglyphs carved into canyons and cliff faces, much of the southeast’s rock art is hidden underground in caves. “Forty years ago, no one would have thought the southeast had much cave art,” says Thomas Pluckhahn, an archaeologist at the University of South Florida who wasn’t involved with the paper. But over the past few decades, archaeologists including the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Jan Simek have shown that’s not the case.

Simek first visited the 19th Unnamed Cave—called that in scientific papers so as to protect its precise location on private land—in the 1990s. In its cool, damp depths where no external light filters in, the flashlights of Simek and his colleagues revealed faint impressions on the ceiling depicting birds, snakes, wasps, and overlapping patterns of lines. The art resembled designs found on pottery in the southeast from the Woodland period, between 1000 B.C.E. and 1000 C.E.

The ceiling of the cave descends to just over half a meter high where the glyphs are located, so the researchers had to lie on their backs to see most of the images, Simek explains. There’s no place to stand and see the entire ceiling, he says.

Photographer Stephen Alvarez lights up the 19th Unnamed Cave in order to photograph its ceiling.

To get a more complete picture of the art, Simek revisited the cave in 2017 with Stephen Alvarez, a photographer and founder of the nonprofit Ancient Art Archive, which documents ancient rock art around the world and shares it online via virtual reality. Alvarez wanted to use a new technique called 3D photogrammetry to create a realistic 3D model of the cave—and see whether they could uncover additional images that had gone unobserved in the tight space.

The researchers climbed down into the cave and used a tripod to start taking photos. Over a period of 2 months, they took nearly 16,000 overlappings, and high-resolution images. Next, they stitched the photos together, using computer software to align the images in 3D space; researchers could then manipulate the resulting model using virtual reality software, Alvarez explains. “We could light the space any way we wanted and drop the floor away” to virtually step back and see the entire ceiling, he says.

As the researchers manipulated their images to make the drawings more visible, five huge glyphs that were previously too large and faint to be seen came into relief. They included three humanlike beings dressed in regal garments, a swirling figure with a rattlesnake like tail, and a long serpent with scales.

The images measure between 0.93 meters and 3.37 meters long, making the biggest of them the largest cave art in North America, the researchers report today in Antiquity.

The images, likely made by etching into fresh mud on the damp ceiling, are undated. Charcoal fragments and wood smoke streaks on the cave walls, perhaps from the artists’ torches, date to the first millennium.

The Woodland Native Americans who lived in the area at that time resided in village settlements, built large earthen mounds for religious worship, and traded extensively across the south, east, and midwest. Their descendants remained in the region for centuries; but by the late 1800s, many had been forced west under the fledgling U.S. government’s policies of Native American removal.

The newly described figures share characteristics with other rock art formations in the southeast, like cliff drawings at Alabama’s Painted Bluff, and also in the Southwest, like the humanlike pictographs in Canyonlands National Park.

The figures are also similar to those found on Woodland-style pottery. Though the exact meaning of the glyphs is unclear, caves like the one in which they were found were often linked to the underworld, the researchers say.

While completing the work, the authors consulted with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose tribal homeland includes the area where the cave is located.

Creating the glyphs required “an extraordinary degree of artistic skill” says UAF George Sabo. But much about the artists remains a mystery. “Who were they in their communities?” he wonders.

Though the cave’s location is undisclosed to protect the art from vandals, the team created a video from its model so anyone can explore it virtually. Klehm is excited to see 3D photogrammetry continue to reveal hidden art at other sites—and make it accessible. “[This] can help us see things that we can’t see, to go beyond what the human eye is used to looking for,” she says.