Tag Archives: archaeology

Reviews ~ How Old is This?

Bones, Rocks and Stars by Chris Turney Available for $12 -25.

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As I unpack all those books we’ve had for years I find treasures that I meant to read but, well, never got around to. It’s like Christmas in my house these days. This title is one I probably acquired through a book club. It was purchased to answer a question an avid history nut, such as myself, finds perplexing – how do we know how to date things?

This is no easy question in the world of historical and archeological investigation. It gets even touchier when we talk about the age of the earth, the universe, or the advent of man. For instance, you may hear something like, radiocarbon dating is unreliable. Fine, but why, and when? I felt it was time that I read the science and left the media hype to the tabloids and those with specific agendas. This book opened that door, and in an entertaining way. A lot of science, but an easy read.

Before I address the book itself, I would like to posit a thought. I have friends and followers with varying positions on evolution, creationism, and all the emotional baggage on both sides. I’ve been there, and reading up on the science is part of what gave me some sense of clarity.

For those who are more concerned with scriptural interpretations, I’d like to point out a few things that helped me. There are several chapters in Job where God puts forth on the wonders of the natural world. They are introduced with the question, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” Yes, indeed. The message in these passages burned in my heart was – don’t make assumptions. Look to creation for your answers, there is a reason things work the way they do.

Fast forward to New Testament times and the apostle Paul (whatever his reputation may be) and we find in Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (New American Standard). Again, things evident in nature are meant to tell a story. There are many more similar references.

So, why the mini-sermon? Because if I am to believe that we have some direction, that the ancient holy books of our species have something to say about the place we find ourselves and what we should do about it, then I have to believe that there is value in what is said. My thought is this. If we are admonished to look to nature for the creative power within — if the ancients of many religions tell us to look, to see, to contemplate the marvels before us—then why should we expect something other than truth? Should we expect to find an “appearance of age” to mislead us? Should we find things that are not what they appear to be? Man’s knowledge is not perfect. However, we do have the ability to seek, to find, to follow where the evidence leads. What’s more, I sincerely believe we are commanded to do so.

Thus, we get to the book. How do we date things? Turney leads the reader through a step by step process of what amounts to the history of sorting out just how old things are. Starting with how we date things using calendars, and how we convert ancient historical documents to modern calendars to get a sense of time. He describes the fascinating science of dendrochronology: the use of tree rings to count the years and study climate changes. Comparing these records with journals and legends we can better understand when events occurred and some of the reasons a culture changed or died out.

He carefully explains how we compare the ratios of compounds in samples, check for luminescence, uranium content and even radiocarbon dating. Yes, it is true, radiocarbon dating has it limits. Due to the half-life of the Carbon 14 atom it is only accurate to somewhere near 40,000 years. I also learned that these methods work not because of one test, but because of a series of tests in and around a sample to plot curves in order to reduce the chance of contamination skewing the sample.

The steps taken on specific claims show how the frauds are discovered, and how science corrects itself. He speaks with clarity and provides headline cases and inside adventures to show the reader how the conclusions were constructed. How we learned and how our knowledge is growing.

We live in an incredible universe of unbelievable wonder. Our own history is filled with lessons, information, wisdom that we cannot ignore. If we do not put these events in proper context, we cannot learn, we cannot be all that we are created to be. Check out “the science of when things happened.” I think you will find much to contemplate.

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Filed under My Bookshelf ~ Before Current Era, My Bookshelf ~ Current Era, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

Teaching the How With an Intriguing What

Book Review – The New Archaeology and the Ancient Maya by Jeremy A. Sabloff.  Available for around $30.00.

I am not certain if good teachers always make good writers, but there are books by teachers and professors that really make me want to sit in their classroom and practice osmosis.  This book happened to be a birthday gift from my husband a number of years ago.  It was a sure winner since it was not only about history, but the methods by which we reconstruct what we find and how we find it.

It was through Sabloff’s book that I realized something rather fundamental about western civilization’s first explorations into the field of “digging up bones and things.”  Archeology was funded by scientific societies formed by the wealthy.  The travelers to the far off and exotic places were either adventurer/scientists who could convince those societies to invest in their ideas, or those with enough wealth to enjoy the leisure to go themselves.  This doesn’t mean that the research was somehow substandard; it wasn’t.  Many of the drawings, maps, photographs and diaries of the early explorers contained an immense amount of information about civilizations the modern world had completely forgotten or never knew.

What did happen was that the observers went to the field with a point of view.  It may have been a particular scientist trying very hard to find answers to his own questions, or it may have been a member of the upper class with a bright and inquiring mind.  Thus, the results were produced with a bit of tunnel vision.  And, even though artifacts were a major goal in these trips, anthropology was not a priority, if it was thought of at all.  Dr. Sabloff tells the story of how the field of archeology moved from an adventure of the elite to the whole new science of the humanities.  With funding from universities, governments and private supporters, new technologies were applied to the field.  With a different point of view from the worker, the farmer, the doctor, the lawyer, the linguist, and oh so many other interested parties, the search for ancient civilizations grew to include all the supporting roles of the people who lived in these mysterious cities.  Information that came from the field was made available to an ever widening audience, who raised more questions, made more suggestions, and funded or went themselves to discover the pieces of our past.

That is only part of the story Dr. Sabloff tells in this book.  He uses this background of a changing science to show how our perception of the Mayans has changed.  How the techniques we can now apply show us how the every-day people lived and died.  Our new processes and thinking has given us better clues to unravel the mysteries of the disappearance and decline of so many great empires in the Americas.  We have learned to have a greater respect for the peoples that lived in these lands before the Asians and Europeans arrived.  Or, at least those that came here in the Current Era.  Who got here when is still a matter of intense academic controversy.

What Dr. Sabloff does with this particular volume is teach.  He teaches the reader how it’s done and what we learn as our abilities improve.  He also teaches a different perspective on this ancient empire, a civilization of pyramid builders in the deep jungles of Central America.  The book is full of illustrations, maps, photos and drawings from the records of the original explorers.

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Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Bookshelf (and a movie or two), My Bookshelf ~ Current Era