Prehistoric women: Not so simple, not so strange

18:00 28 March 2007

Exclusive from New Scientist Print Edition.

Germaine Greer


This is a review of The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the true roles of women in prehistory by J. Adovasio, Olga Soffer & Jake Page, Collins, $27/£13.72, ISBN 9780061170911


Jim Adovasio is the leading expert in the perishable artefacts of the Palaeolithic – baskets, cordage, woven fabric – all associated, if somewhat arbitrarily, with women. To correct the astigmatism that has hitherto seen prehistory as the story of early man, Adovasio – director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute in Erie, Pennsylvania – has joined with Olga Soffer, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and journalist Jake Page to produce The Invisible Sex.


The roles of women even in our own time are not easy to define; yet our intrepid threesome has encapsulated more than 3 million years of human femaleness in fewer than 300 pages, rather too many of which are taken up with moaning about the sex bias of anthropologists of yore.


Palaeontologists disagree just as often and as radically as economists do, and yet they insist on describing what they do as science. The trail of inference that leads from fossil fragments to conclusions about sex, gender and social structure has more in common with the Da Vinci code than with scientific method. The only way the authors of The Invisible Sex can uncover women’s true roles is by assuming that a certain class of objects is associated with women. At the same time they want to dispute the generally accepted notion that weapons are boys’ toys.


As it turns out, they neither have their cake nor eat it. They report that thousands of years ago women were buried at Indian Knoll, Kentucky, with bannerstones, which were used as weights on spear launchers, and interpret this as evidence that the women were champion hunters. Any ethnographer could suggest dozens of other possibilities.


One of the more arcane aspects of the argument of The Invisible Sex is a certainty that the “onset of gendering” was “relatively late”. Although the authors use evidence from studies of apes in discussing the very earliest humans, they do not comment upon the highly gendered behaviour of most ape species, in which males are competitive, females cooperative, females forage industriously for themselves and their families, males feed themselves, and so on. A motherless young male chimpanzee will play the role of a receptive female to curry favour with adult males. You can’t get much more gendered than that.


Though the authors mock the idea of early man thriving on a version of the Atkins diet, they also sneer at the “gathering” side of prehistoric nutrition as producing “enough plant life for a bit of wild salad” and try valiantly to show that women were involved in hunting. In all the hunter-gatherer societies we know about, women’s food was less valued than that offered by men but it is what the group lived on. The difference is rather like the difference between the three meals mothers still put on the table every day and the posturings of the celebrity chef.


Anmatyerre women of Australia’s Northern Territory will tell you that they regularly go “hunting”. On a day’s hunt, equipped with crowbars and axes, they will take game like goannas, lizards, snakes, scrub fowl and other small animals, as well as collecting larvae, eggs, honey and, depending on the season, an array of seeds, nuts, fruits and bush medicine. Carbohydrate being in short supply, energy is not wasted in lugging food about. It is cooked and eaten there and then. Some might be taken back to the men’s camp if an adult male relative is known to be ailing.


The authors of The Invisible Sex take the occasional swipe at ethnography, but they could do with reading a lot more of it, if only to enrich their notions of just how elaborate and highly patterned hunter-gatherer life still is, which would in turn suggest to them a far greater range of possible interpretations of their cryptic evidence. A day in the bush with Anmatyerre women is all it takes. And, yes, they do have weapons. In return for my driving them to a distant hunting ground, they gave me a beautifully crafted ironwood club that I keep by my front door.


Writer, broadcaster and academic Germaine Greer is author of numerous books, including The Female Eunuch.



Cavemen Preferred Full-Figured Ladies

Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News


March 27, 2007 — Thin may be in now, but prehistoric men 15,000 years ago prefered full-figured gals, suggest dozens of flint figurines excavated from a Paleolithic hunting site in Poland.


Since almost identical depictions have been found elsewhere throughout Europe, the figurines indicate a shared artistic tradition existed even then.


The findings are published in the current issue of the journal Antiquity.


Co-author Romuald Schild explained that the artifacts offer "a cultural inventory" for the late Magdalenian era (18,000-10,000 years ago).


In the paper, Schild and colleagues Bodil Bratlund, Else Kolstrup and Jan Fiedorczuk describe the carvings as "stylized voluptuous female outlines" that "are cut out of flint flakes."


The same symbolic representations of women displayed in the artifacts extend across Europe, added Schild, a researcher in the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.


Because the site, near the Polish village of Wilczyce, served as a late autumn/early winter hunting camp, it is likely men created the figurines when they were taking breaks from hunting arctic foxes, woolly rhinoceros and other game.


Most of the carvings show a slight curve in the breast area. Very exaggerated curves depict the buttocks, while tiny rounded tops served as heads. One figure's head was, at one point, polished and retouched.


Examination of the flint artifacts under high magnification revealed they were in "mint" condition with no signs of use as tools.


The book The Nature of Paleolithic Art by R. Dale Guthrie contains images of nearly identical renderings. It seems shapely women also inspired stone carvings and cave art, some of which date to 35,000 years ago.


Among the human depictions, "female images dominate and are nude, almost every one full-figured above and below," explained Guthrie, an emeritus professor in the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.


Guthrie believes most of their creators were young men. He suggests it is not too difficult to theorize what was on their minds in their free time.


"Think of it, Paleolithic people must have been surrounded by a wealth of other available images," said Guthrie.


"For example, the (art subject) repetition could have involved: babies, butterflies, frogs, song birds, small mammals, flowers, beautiful clothes, battle scenes, shields, clan symbols and so on. These are absent or virtually unknown in Paleolithic art."


In addition to animal bones and the flint figurines, the researchers found hundreds of carefully perforated arctic fox teeth that had either been strung into a necklace or placed in a pouch before disposal of the animal's remains. The researchers believe the teeth may have had some kind of ritualistic, spiritual meaning.


The teeth and bones were found preserved in an ice wedge, where they had remained frozen in time until their recent discovery.



Iran loses fight over "Lost Paradise" relics

Thu Mar 29, 2007 11:56AM EDT

By Peter Griffiths


LONDON (Reuters) - Iran lost a legal fight on Thursday to recover 5,000-year-old treasures it says were looted from one of its most important archaeological sites, known as "The Lost Paradise".


In a ruling that could affect other countries' attempts to secure the return of antiquities, Britain's High Court rejected Iran's claim that it owned the artifacts.


Iran was trying to stop the Barakat Gallery, an antiquities specialist based in London and Beverly Hills, selling vessels made from a grey-green stone called chlorite and decorated with snakes, lions and eagles.


Lawyers acting for Iran said the treasures were among thousands of pieces stolen by looters after floods washed away the topsoil and exposed the ancient city of Jiroft in 2001.


Senior judge Charles Gray said Iran had failed to prove its legal ownership of the jars, cups and other items but gave permission for his ruling to be challenged at the appeal court.


"I have come, with some regret, to the conclusion that Iran has not discharged the burden of establishing its ownership of the antiquities under the laws of Iran," Gray said.


The gallery's London lawyers, Lane & Partners, said the antiquities were mainly bought at auction in Europe and were valued at about 250,000 pounds ($491,000).


They said the court ruling would give countries "pause for thought" before trying to regain artifacts.


"We do understand the Islamic Republic of Iran's desire to preserve (its) rich and diverse heritage," the gallery said in a statement. "However, there must also be protection for those of us who, quite legitimately, are dealing in antiquities.


Iran's lawyers said the ruling was a setback for those trying to stop looters and return antiquities to their countries of origin.


"It will be of great concern to many countries throughout the world as it places their archaeological heritage at further risk," said lawyer Jeremy Scott. "The judgment will have implications for all countries with buried cultural relics, such as Greece, Italy and other Mediterranean states.

Reuters Pictures



"(It) will make it very much easier for British dealers to trade in goods considered looted in their countries of origin."


On Thursday, Greece said it was only a matter of time before Britain was forced to give back the ancient Elgin Marbles, called the Parthenon marbles in Greece.


Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said the campaign was growing stronger after the U.S. J. Paul Getty Museum returned artifacts to his country.



Neolithic settlement in Ptolemais plain

A settlement dating back to the Neolithic period (approx. 6,500-6,000 BC) has been uncovered during an archaeological dig in the Ptolemais plain, in an area situated at an altitude of 700 metres, between Mts. Vermio and Askio and called Yellow Lake (due to the marsh that had developed there and was dried up in the middle of the 20th century).


The new finds were presented Friday night at a special event at the Archaeological Museum in Aiani, Kozani, where the older finds from the region are housed and on display.


It is believed to be the one of the oldest settlement in the Balkans, following a settlement discovered in Nikomideia, Imathia prefecture.


A dense dwelling complex has been discovered, with 31 distinct positions confirmed. Digging has been conducted in the region for approximately 20 years, and extends over tens of stremma, but are hampered by the fact that many of the positions are inside the Public Power Corporation's (PPC) expanse of lignite mines development.


The digs are being funded by the PPC, as required under legislation concerning archaeology, but the increasing need for mining larger quantities of lignite creates problems for the digs, given that the rate of growth of technology and energy needs is speedier than the archaeological research, according to archaeologist George Karamitrou-Mentesidi.



Engineers to help find Homer's Ithaca

By DEREK GATOPOULOS, Associated Press Writer Mon Mar 26, 11:02 PM ET


ATHENS, Greece - A geological engineering company said Monday it has agreed to help in an archaeological project to find the island of Ithaca, homeland of Homer's legendary hero Odysseus. It has long been thought that the island of Ithaki in the Ionian Sea was the island Homer used as a setting for the epic poem "The Odyssey," in which the king Odysseus makes a perilous 10-year journey home from the Trojan War.


But amateur British archaeologist Robert Bittlestone believes the Ithaca of Homer is no longer a separate island but became attached to the island of Kefallonia through rock displacement caused by earthquakes. The theory could explain inconsistencies between Ithaki and Homer's description of Odysseus' island.


"Because no one has ever been able to find Ithaca, people felt the Odyssey was like a Lord of the Rings story," Bittlestone said in an interview. "This would say Ithaca was a real place — it doesn't say Odysseus was a real person, that's another jump."


The Dutch-based engineering services company, Fugro Group, will use high-tech surveying equipment normally used in oil-and-gas exploration for the Ithaca project, due to start this summer and last about three years. The Greek Geological Society is also sponsoring the research.


"The technology will be very varied and that attracted Fugro to this," said Steve Thompson director of airborne survey at Fugro. "It's unusual to be faced with a problem where you can apply the broad range of services that we have."


"We're all secretly hoping the thesis is true," he added. "But we are approaching this is in a very scientific way."


To test the theory, engineers and geologists will examine rock where Bittlestone believes a narrow sea channel once existed, possibly separating Kefallonia from a flat peninsula called Paliki. They hope to discover whether it is made of solid rock or debris, which would suggest Paliki was once an island.


Homer describes Ithaca as low-lying and "furthest to the sea" — but Ithaki is mountainous and is not the outermost Ionian island. Paliki, on the other hand, is generally flat and could theoretically have been the outermost island.


Kefallonia lies in a seismically active area, and was rattled Sunday by a magnitude 5.9 earthquake, followed by scores of aftershocks Monday.


Thompson said the company would sink sensors into bore holes, and likely follow up with sonar analysis of the seabed, as well as using material detectors that dangle from a helicopter and undersea sensors dragged through the water by ship.


Bittlestone, a management consultant, said he came up with the theory while reading up for a Greek holiday in 2003 and gained support from two British academics who help attract archaeologists to excavate in Paliki.


The academics — James Diggle, a professor of Greek and Latin at Cambridge University, and John Underhill, an Edinburgh University professor of stratigraphy — co-authored a book with Bittlestone about his hypothesis, "Odysseus Unbound — The Search for Homer's Ithaca."


On the Net:

Odysseus Unbound: http://www.odysseus-unbound.org



Ruling clears way for Lusitania dive

Gregg Bemis is planning a dive to investigate the Estonia shipwreck in the Baltic Sea despite complaints from the Swedish government.

more Lusitania archival video, BritishPathe.com


History.com video gallery: Lusitania historic footage

By Anne Constable | The New Mexican

March 28, 2007


S.F. man hopes to explore wreck off Irish coast as early as summer 2008


The Irish Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a lower court decision allowing Santa Fe venture capitalist Gregg Bemis to conduct a forensic dive to solve mysteries about the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915.


Bemis, who ran for Congress twice and three times for the state Legislature as a Republican, has been the sole owner of the wreck since 1982.


The British passenger ship sank 18 minutes after a torpedo pierced its starboard side, killing 1,198 passengers and crew. It now lies 300 feet below the surface in Irish territorial waters approximately 12 miles off the southwest coast.


The long-awaited, 30-page decision clears the way for Bemis to plan a forensic dive to the wreck as early as the summer of 2008.


Ireland, which claims the Lusitania is an archaeological site, fought Bemis' requests to explore the sunken ship. The case was presented to Ireland's High Court in 2003, but the ruling in his favor was not issued until June 2005. The appeal to the Supreme Court by the minister of the environment and culture, which Bemis attended, was not heard until December 2006.


Finally, he said Tuesday, "I think we're finished and can get on with the project."


Bemis has sponsored many dives to the sunken ship. In July 2004, he made a 62-minute decompression dive to the wreck and, he believes, set an age-group record. He was 76 at the time. But so far, no one has had a close look inside.


Bemis will be searching for evidence of what caused the second explosion heard by survivors. He believes the ship was carrying high explosives and not just the munitions and chemicals listed on its manifest. Others believe an explosion in the ship's steam-generating plant is a more plausible explanation.


A popular conspiracy theory at the time had it that Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, conspired to have the Lusitania sunk to draw the U.S. into World War I. U.S. President Wilson, who sent only a formal protest to Germany, was criticized in Britain as a coward. The U.S. didn't enter the war for two more years.


"This is one of the major wrecks of all time. When you think of the drama -- Churchill and Wilson -- it becomes a very exciting and potentially worthwhile project," Bemis said.


In addition to solving mysteries, he hopes to recover items from the Lusitania to display in museums, although valuable art long rumored to have been on board belongs to the Irish government.


Bemis estimated the cost of the dive and a documentary recording the historic event at $4 million. He said he expected funding to come from a major media outlet.


While the logistics are not that complicated, Bemis said, it will be a technical operation that will make a "great show" that Bemis will be directing from the mother ship.


A team of divers will work for a week or more under pressure the whole time. They will move from a pressurized habitat on the surface of the ocean to the wreck via a transfer vehicle that is tethered to the mother ship. While working in the water, they will wear dive suits with an "umbilical cord" tying them to the transfer vehicle.


The divers will cut a 6-foot-round hole in the ship to begin the exploration.


The challenge is to find out exactly where the torpedo hit and the location of the second massive explosion.


Bemis said he believes the explosion was probably set off by the torpedo, but that's never been determined. "I'm pretty sure I know, but you can argue all day if you don't have pictures," he said.


The forensic dive will also involve small, remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, each containing a camera and lights that can be manipulated from the surface.


Bemis said he expects to find "chaos" inside the Lusitania due to the explosion and because the structure has been collapsing. "It will be very dangerous," Bemis said, and the visibility will be poor.


Bemis said he'll be trying to line up equipment that is available from about four to five oil and gas service companies in Europe, but they are booked one to three years in advance.


Divers are no problem. "They're banging at my door already," Bemis said. "This is much more fun than their usual work."


Contact Anne Constable at 995-3845 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.




    * British passenger ship, built by John Brown & Co. Ltd., Clydebank, Scotland; launched June 7, 1906; 785 feet long; 31,500 tons.

    * Made maiden voyage from Liverpool, England, to New York, Sept. 7, 1907.

    * Left New York on its 102nd trans-Atlantic trip May 1, 1915; carried 1,256 passengers.

    * Hit by a torpedo launched from a German U-boat May 7, 1915, off the coast of Ireland.

    * 1,198 casualties, including 128 Americans and 94 children.





    May 7, 1915 Lusitania sinks off the coast of Ireland.


    Mid-1930s Wreck located.


    1938 First visit to the wreck since the sinking, by Jim Jarratt.


    1953 British salvage company Rizdon Beezley spends time over the wreck.


    1960 Second visit claimed by John Light, ex-Navy diver and photographer.


    1967 Ship auctioned off by the London-Liverpool War Reclamation Board to Light for about 1,000 British pounds. Law banned the sale for 50 years.


    1968 Santa Fe businessman Gregg Bemis and fellow investor George Macomber give financial backing to Light to conduct a salvage operation.


    1971 Plans for the dive grind to a halt.


    1982 Bemis conducts a salvage operation, raising dishes, silverware and other objects, including a bell and a whistle; Macomber sells his Lusitania interest to Bemis.


    1985 British court recognizes Bemis' claim to ownership of items taken in the 1982 salvage operation.


    1987 Law of the Sea changed to extend the territorial waters of a country from three to 12 nautical miles.


    1993 Bemis views the wreck from inside a minisub. National Geographic Society documents underwater research on the ship for a television special.


    1994 Delaware-based divers group Fifty Fathom Ventures joins a British group to conduct a dive on the wreck without Bemis' permission; new United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea takes effect.


    1995 A federal court in Norfolk, Va., declares Bemis the sole owner of the Lusitania; he sponsors the first of eight annual summertime dives to observe and photograph the wreck; Ireland's Commission of Public Works issues an Underwater Heritage Order under the National Monuments Amendment Act protecting the site.


    1996 An Irish court rules Bemis is the sole owner of the British liner.


    2000 Bemis files first application to Irish authorities to conduct a forensic dive.


    2001 Ireland's minister for arts, heritage, Gaeltacht and the islands refuses to grant a license for the dive.


    November 2003 Bemis appeals the denial and makes his case before the High Court in Dublin, Ireland.


    June 2005 An Irish court rules Bemis can conduct the forensic dive.


    March 27, 2007 Irish Supreme Court upholds Bemis' right to make the dive.