Nature meets Culture at Archaeology Weekend!

Posted: April 10, 2013 - 16:17 , by Robert Mason
World Culture, World Cultures, Archaeology | Comments () | Comment
Finial in the form of a lion's head, Syria, ivory, c. 800-600 BC, 996.86.1

Humans would have been aware of the other creatures that shared their world from earliest times. At first they would have had an eye towards possible predators or competitors, then possible prey as they became hunters.  As the cognitive ability of Early Humans developed, they would observe the nature of the animals which co-habited this Earth with them. The nature of animals would become very important as humans started to define themselves, and epithets like "as brave as a lion," "as strong as a bull," or "as noble as an eagle" displayed as much of what they observed in nature as what they thought of the humans they applied these terms to.

This year, Archaeology Weekend at the ROM (April 13th to 14th) will feature not just hands-on displays and activities, and opportunities to meet ROM experts, but will also feature a special display of ROM artefacts brought out of the vaults to show the importance of the animals of the natural world to the humans of the past. But it will only be on display this weekend so hurry on over to the ROM!

THE PROUD LION: This lion pictured above, carved in western Syria in the 9th-7th century BC, is lucky not to represent an extinct sub-species. The Asiatic lion, Panthera leo persica, was hunted to extinction throughout most of its range in the 19th century, and now exists only in one reserve in western India (originally a private hunting preserve). The last pride of lions in Iran was shot in 1963, even though the lion was a national symbol, and had pride of place on the Iranian flag at the time. It is perhaps the proud bearing and courage of the lion that made it vulnerable, because it attracted the attention of hunters that wanted to prove something about themselves (ROM Photography pic). Sadly, both the lion depicted and the elephant with which it is made are now extirpated in Syria.

THE POWERFUL BULL: Above, Kay Sunahara of the Greek & Roman section selects figurines of the powerful bull. The bull was a symbol of strength from earliest times, and it should be remembered that the earliest bulls encountered by humans, the wild Aurochs, or Bos primigenius, would have been as tall at the shouder as the full height of a modern human. Domesticating these massive, iconically powerful creatures into milk-cows might have been one of the greatest achievements of the Neolithic Revolution! According to DNA analysis this probably took place in a few villages in northern Mesopotamia, in what is now southeast Turkey, about ten thousand years ago. Today there are 1.3 billion cows in the world, and they are all descended from about 80 individuals in those Mesopotamian villages! 

THE MIGHTY ELEPHANT: Today there are no elephants between Sub-Saharan Africa and India, and are endangered even there, but in Ancient times elephants were far more widespread. A subspecies of the African elephant  (Loxodonta africana pharaoensis) was once found in North Africa (the elephants of Hannibal), while the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) was found as far west as Syria and as far east as China. Although they may sometimes be a symbol of power and strength, the intelligence and social nature of the Indian elephant means that even wild animals may be domesticated, and typically it is domesticated elephants which are being depicted in ancient art, like this 13th century AD tile from Kashan, Iran. However, although used in warfare in the Mediterranean, these elephants were extirpated in the 1st century BC due to demands for ivory and for games in Rome.

THE CLEVER MONKEY: This pot with a monkey on it, being examined for stability by April Hawkins of the New World Archaeology section, was excavated at the Maya site of Lamanai by ROM archaeologists, and is dated to the 15th-early 16th centuries AD.  Three types of non-human primates are found in the Maya region: the Howler monkeys (Aloutta pallita & Aloutta pigra), the Spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) and the Capuchin monkey (Cebus capucinus). Revered by the ancient Maya, the monkey was a supernatural patron of the arts and writing, often depicted as the "Monkey-man scribe."  Throughout the lands of Mesoamerica, and right up to the time of  contact with Europeans, monkeys were associated with arts, music and dance.  The unchecked spread of agriculture and resource extraction activities threaten both monkey habitat and archaeological sites. 

THE DYNAMIC HORSE: The dynamism and speed of the horse (Equus ferus) was appreciated at least as far back as the last Ice Age, when Upper Palaeolithic hunters depicted them on caves and other objects in France, such as this object made of antler (possibly an arrow-shaft straightener or a spear-thrower, and what better to impart swiftness to the arrow or dart than calling on the spirit of the horse?). The horse was domesticated possibly at least twice, with one centre being the Eurasian steppes, where horses were certainly domesticated 5,500 years ago as evidenced by DNA and the wear on teeth by use of the bit. However, the “Arab” horse may have been domesticated about 10,000 years ago, and there is also DNA evidence for a different horse strain in what is now Spain. Possibly what would once have been a related wild population spreading from Western Europe through the Middle East to Central Asia is now extinct, with what was once thought to be the last “wild” horse, the Przewalski's horse, now shown by DNA evidence to not be an ancestor of the domesticated horse at all (photo by Bill Pratt).