Old, Old School
By R. D. Flavin


     Taking a break from my usual leisure reading (mostly Marvel comics with the occasional issue of Celtic Life Magazine), I was perusing this week's copy of New Scientist and was intrigued by the cover story, “Civilisation's true dawn” by David Robeson (Oct. 5, 2013; 220, 2937: 32-37).  The article leads off with the recent discovery of a “small ampitheatre” in Wadi Faynan, Jordon that dates to 11,600 BP., and has an archaeologist who worked at the site speculate that “sacrificial blood might have once flowed in front of a frenzied crowd” because of the presence of some grooved “gullies.”  Talk about old, old school, such seems 19th century sensationalist, rather than something offered by new science and archaeology.  The Neolithic structure was built a couple thousand years before farming was all-the-rage and the article puts forward the theory that the inspiration was religious rather than utilitarian.  That's fine with dandy argument, religion and archaeology is a tricky conjoining, but it's still exciting to see popular recognition of the many wicked early and cool sites in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A/B in the Near East.  Yeah, who doesn't like a glossy magazine with talk of “sacrificial blood”?

Wadi Faynan from New Scientist p. 34; “communal structure” with “main architectural features (Mithen et al. 2011, p. 356).”

     The structure (or “small ampitheatre”) was identified in 2011 and has been designated WF16 Structure O75 (Mithen et al. 2011, p. 351).  Apparently, an archaeological team has been investigating the Jordanian site since at least 2007 and the oval structure at Wadi Faynan has been rightly compared to such other early Levantine and Anatolian sites such as Jericho, Israel and it's mysterious “tower,” and Göbekli Tepe, Turkey and its more than 200 erected pillars in about 20 circles.  As it goes, while discovery and recovery are rare and wonderful, interpretation and context can often be subject to whim and bias.  Practice makes perfect and all of that...  In late 2011, Archaeology Magazine (Jan/Feb 2012; 65, 1) hailed the “Neolithic Community Center(s)” as one of the “Top 10 Discoveries of 2011,” with a mention that the “people of the time might have used the building as a venue to collectively process plants, such as barley and pistachio.”  The formal announcement of WF16 O75 came with a paper in the the journal Antiquity (Mithen et al. 2011), and though I've read over it a couple of times, I haven't been able to find reference to “sacrificial blood.”  Maybe there's a difference between a glossy magazine and a peer-reviewed journal?

     In the Antiquity paper, the authors wrote: “Although the gullies initially appear as if they were designed to carry liquids, they dip down in the center of their course and the mud-plaster is not stable when damp.  Indeed, two of these features are simply smooth ridges in the plaster floor, while the channel in a third has been deliberately filled with plaster.  Their main purpose may have been to partition the internal area (Ibid. p. 354).”  The excitement the excavators feel about the structure is warranted, though the two lead archaeologists seem to differ concerning interpretation and context.  In the Archaeology Magazine mention, Bill Finlayson provided a possible interpretation as a venue to process plants, while Steven Mithen in New Scientist casually dismisses pre-agricultural plant processing activity in favor of an imagined savagery by a “frenzied crowd.”  With a “Golly-gee-whiz” moment, I understand that the glossies (for the most part) are designed to grab the consumer's attention over the dozens of other offerings on the magazine rack, yet ...just up and jumping to “sacrificial blood” sensationalism seems rather premature and unscientific.  Communal, sure, and cultic, maybe, if utilitarian origins are fully investigated.  Come on, this ain't our first whacky and unfounded claim of blood sacrifice!

"Sacrificial Altar" at America's Stonehenge, NH, and 19th century Apple Cider Press in Hadley, MA.

     Here in the Boston area, we've had more than a half-century of sensationalism up in North Salem and Salem, New Hampshire and the tourist site of “Mystery Hill,” now known as “America's Stonehenge.”  The property was purchased and heavily rearranged in the late-1930s and 1940s and the enigmatic ruins locally referred to as “Jonathan Pattee's Cave” was opened to the public in the late 1950s and has remained popular with the gullible ever since.   Aside from the silliness of imaginary astral alignments between this and that star and some rocks that were moved several times over the years, probably the main attraction has been the infamous “sacrificial table” and whispers of screaming princesses and bloodletting.

     Tales of “Strange Visitors” have been around since the In Search Of... show with Leonard Nimoy aired on April 24, 1977 (S01 E02), with discussions of Phoenicians, Romans, Irish, and other Old World types taking in the scenery of the backwoods of southern New Hampshire.  During the 1980s, state archaeologists and historians began to draw attention to the many lye manufacturing stones in the New England area that resemble the “sacrificial table, and by the 1990s attention was shown local apple cider presses.  Both lye and apple stones have a similar design, with lye stones having narrow and shallow grooves, and cider presses needing some deeper and wider groves to accommodate the desired cider.  However, tourists will be fickle as many more visit Old Sturbridge Village than America's Stonehenge every year, perhaps preferring cider to blood (though more than likely the full dinning rooms as opposed to the snack-shop at America's Stonehenge). And, speaking of “Stonehenge, the New Scientist published a time-line graphic that showed a date that doesn't seem right. Wrong, in fact.

"Monumental discoveries" time-line graphic from 10-5-2013 New Scientist, p. 35.

     Much like the use of BP (or B.P., “Before Present”), the New Scientist time-line graphic notes major early construction from 2000 “Years ago” to 10,000 back, with still earlier notations of Jericho and Göbekli Tepe, and a few before those.  Knocking off the 2013 CE, we have Wadi Faynan at one end with ca. 9,600 BCE, “farming” at ca. 6,000 BCE, the Great Pyramid of Giza at ca. 2550 BCE, and ...Stonehenge at two thousand year ago during Roman times?  Wait, what?  Don't we date the finished Stonehenge to the same ca. 2550 BCE era, though some argue for earlier stone work to 3,100 BCE?  The area itself shows as an ancient burial ground with some weird rocks leaning there and here, yet most contemporary scholars would skip over the 1655 CE guess by Indigo Jones and John Webb that the stones were erected by Romans to honor the god, Caelus.  Other guesses have been recent with Danes, backwards with Druids, but since the Radio-carbon dating revolution and its related dendrochronology fine-tuning, Stonehenge and all those spectacular Wessex finds have been securely dated to pre-Roman, and even pre-Celtic times.  I'm going to toss off a guess and say that the New Scientist graphic designer ...wasn't paying attention and forgot the difference between BCE, BP, years ago, or just hadn't a clue about Stonehenge.

     I guess the cover-story, “Civilisation's true dawn” needed sensationalism to meet and greet their market.  As the Antiquity paper allows for non-fluid usage, it seems like something involving a few bucks and an ego to imagine a simple hunter-gatherer folk smashing and sifting barley and pistachios, and then walking a dozen feet to see a frenzied bloody sacrifice with lots of blood.  That's such an old, old school way to teach the young and inquisitive – sensationalism.  I look forward to the new archaeologists (and new scientists) who don't play violent video-games as much.  Maybe WF16 O75 was a peaceful place of coming together and sharing.  Until everyone started eating the roots of Mandrakes and either became as dark gods or fell asleep.  I can't say, but my money's on something utilitarian, rather than Vegas in the Desert.

Mithen, Steven J., Bill Finlayson, Sam Smith, Emma Jenkins, Mohammed Najjar and Darko Maričević.  2011.  “An 11 600 year-old communal structure from the Neolithic of southern Jordan.”  Antiquity.  85, 328: 350-364.

Hoping for some old, new school....


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