Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Vikings in Space

For archaeology buffs like me, it was fascinating to learn about the work of a woman named Sarah Parcak, who has been taking the archaeology world by storm in recent years with her use of satellite technology to unearth amazing new sites. I first heard about Parcak's work in Egypt. One might think virtually every inch of earlier civilizations had already been unearthed in what is probably the most explored region in the world. But using satellite data, Parcak has uncovered not just a tomb here and there but entire cities never before known, including probable new pyramids still beneath the sands. With the click of a button, Parcak turns what appears to be a barren landscape into an entire city. There are hundreds of buildings, temples, large public squares, graveyards, etc. never before seen or even speculated about by Egyptian researchers. It is, quite literally, magic, via science.

Another of Parcak's initiatives has been to locate more Viking sites in North America. To date, only one such site has been confirmed, at L'anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland that has been dated to 1000 A.D., basically obliterating the myth that Columbus discovered the new world. I visited L'Anse aux Meadows way back in the 1970s and was so enthralled by that discovery that I have since written two novels about the Vikings. In one of my mysteries, I imagined the discovery of another Viking site in a bog in Nova Scotia. Turns out I wasn't too far off. Parcak has located via satellite what looks to be only the second such site in North America. It is located on the southwestern coast of Newfoundland, an island offshore actually named Point Rosee.

Parcak and colleagues, using suggestive satellite images of rectangular construction to direct their searches, began test digs on Point Rosee that turned up evidence of a hearthstone likely used for working iron. This method was used by the Vikings and is the basis for the belief that the site was Viking. It is only the second pre-Columbian site for iron working found in the Americas. The excitement of the archaeologists involved is infective. One can only imagine the new realms opening up in the study of archaeology as a result of satellite technology.

Another, equally fascinating, archaeological discovery was made about a dozen years ago deep in a flooded underground cave system in the Yucatan of Mexico. The long, connected caverns go for hundreds of miles beneath the surface. Thousands of years ago, these caverns were not flooded and were visited by Paleoamerican people. Here, in a deep underground pool, Explorers found the bodies of dozens of long since extinct creatures like saber-toothed tigers, cave bears and giant sloths. And, incredibly, they also found the skeletonized body of a fifteen-year-old Paleoamerican girl. She had for some reason, probably searching for water, in what was then a very dry climate, worked her way deep into the caverns where she likely took a fall and died. After her remains were recovered they were dated to thirteen thousand years of age, among the oldest remains ever found in North America. It was the first discovery ever of an early human in direct association with the remains of the animals they must have actually hunted.

About half of the young girl's bones were recovered, along with her remarkably preserved skull. She clearly lived a life of incredible hardship. She was rail-thin, suffered from a poor diet and had serious injuries to some of her limbs. Scientists were also able to determine that she had given birth prior to her death. The most stunning find of all was enough of her DNA to confirm the idea that a single group of Asian emigrants gave rise to the earliest American settlers and to the Native American populations of North America.

As a fiction writer, I am always reminded of the old saw that truth is stranger than fiction. It's one reason that I have used archaeology as part of the impetus for my books. I inherited this interest from my mother, who wrote murder mysteries in the 1960s and 70s. Her books were set among the ancient Hittites of Turkey and the early Maya civilizations in Mexico. What might she think today, I wonder, if she knew about our fifteen-year-old Paleoamerican ancestor found in the Yucatan. I can see her planning her next mystery.

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