Friday, April 29, 2011

The Phaistos Disc

The Phaistos Disc is a disk of fired clay from the Minoan palace of Phaistos on the Greek island of Crete, possibly dating to the middle or late Minoan Bronze Age (2nd millennium BC). It is about 15 cm in diameter and covered on both sides with a spiral of stamped symbols. Its purpose and meaning, and even its original geographical place of manufacture, remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of archaeology.

The disc was discovered in 1908 by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in the Minoan palace-site of Phaistos, and features 241 tokens, comprising 45 unique signs, which were apparently made by pressing pre-formed hieroglyphic "seals" into a disc of soft clay, in a clockwise sequence spiraling towards the disc's center.

Many attempts have been made to decipher the code behind the disc's signs. While it is not clear that it is a script, most attempted decipherments assume that it is; most additionally assume a syllabary, others an alphabet or logography. Attempts at decipherment are generally thought to be unlikely to succeed unless more examples of the signs are found, as it is generally agreed that there is not enough context available for a meaningful analysis.

Although the Phaistos Disc is generally accepted as authentic by archaeologists, a few scholars have forwarded the opinion that the disc is a forgery or a hoax. This unique object is now on display at the archaeological museum of Heraklion.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. The figures, dating from 210 BC, were discovered in 1974 by some local farmers in Lintong District, Xi'an, Shaanxi province, near the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor.

The figures vary in height, according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots, horses, officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians. It is estimated that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses.

Only a portion of the site is presently excavated, and photos and video recordings are prohibited in some areas of the viewing. Only few foreigners, such as Queen Elizabeth II, have been permitted to walk through the pits, side by side to the army.

Perhaps the weirdest finds in the dig were the extremely sharp swords and other weapons which were found coated with chromium oxide, that made the weapons rust resistant. Chromium only came to the attention of westerners in the 18th century. The alloys of tin and copper enabled weapons such as bronze knives and swords to avoid rust and remain sharp in spite of 2000 years of degrading conditions.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Olmec Heads

The Olmec were a Pre-Columbian civilization living in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico. They were the first Mesoamerican civilization and predate the Aztecs, the Mayas and the Incas. Not much is known about their lost culture, except for the colossal head statues they carved.

Not much is known about these mysterious statues, due to the fact that there are no pre-Columbian texts that even acknowledge their existence. No two heads of the unearthed 17 are alike, and probably represent unique persons. Speculations to the identities of these persons range from ballplayers to religious leaders and heads of state.

The heads range in size from 1.47 to 3.4 meters high. It has been calculated that the largest heads weigh in at 50 tons. The heads were carved from single blocks of stone and then transported dozens of miles to their final resting places. It has been estimated that moving a colossal head required the efforts of 1,500 people for three to four months.