What in the world!

cropped essay photoWhat’s THAT in Bill Fitzhugh’s backpack?

Object 1. [far left, Horse Tooth] Electrical insulator? Ceramic kiln waster? Wrong on both counts! This is a 3000-year old horse tooth from the Mongolian steppe. I have been excavating Bronze Age Deer Stones in Mongolia for the past twelve years. One thousand deer stones—megalithic granite plinths standing for warriors—are among the most enigmatic monuments known from Central Asia. Their true age remained unknown until Smithsonian and Mongolian archaeologists discovered sacrificed horses arranged in rings around the deer stones. By radiocarbon-dating horse remains, we discovered the deer stones date to 700-1200 B.C. Horse teeth like this molar were the most reliable dating samples.

Object 2. [second from left, Swordfish Harpoon] The earliest harpoons in the world come from the Rift Valley in East Africa, date some 50-60,000 years old, and were used for catching fish. Toggling harpoons like this one can capture much larger animals, and were first invented by early maritime hunters in northern Japan about 6-7,000 years ago. They work by ‘toggling’ beneath the skin and blubber, allowing hunters to capture seals, walrus, and whales. This bronze harpoon is used by swordfish hunters along the New England coast. I bought this one in Chatham, Massachusetts. Its form copies a style of toggling harpoon used by Greenland Eskimos that was passed on to Dutch whalers in the 17th century.

Object 3. [third from left, Chinese Roof Tile] This fragment of green-glazed Chinese roof tile comes from the spoil piles of the German excavations at Kharakorum, the capitol city of the Great Mongol Empire. Kharakorum was founded in 1235 by Ogodei Khan, one of Genghis Khan’s sons, and was not finished until the 1260s. William of Rubruck, a Franciscan monk and emissary of the Pope, visited the city in 1254 and described its thirteen temples of many different religious denominations, including a Nestorian Christian church. It also had artists’ shops and the khan’s Great Palace, which Rubruck described as having a silver tree designed by the French goldsmith, Guillaume Boucher, which delivered fermented mare’s milk and four other liquors from its branches.

Object 4. [fourth from left, Inuksuk Model] Thule Eskimos and their Inuit descendents built inuksuks (“like a man”) as geographic and spiritual markers throughout the Central Canadian Arctic. Made of rough unhewn stones and assembled in the likeness of a human being, inuksuks have become the iconic motif of the Canadian Arctic and its Inuit people. Their original use is obscure, but their placement at prominent locations suggests use as geographic markers and way-finding aids. Others were erected in converging caribou drive lines to mimic humans and scare caribou into locations where they could be killed.

Object 5. [fifth from left, Iron Spike] Railroad spikes are pretty common, and their trail can be found girdling the world. Despite their ubiquity, some have more historical value than others! This spike comes from a section of Stalin’s gulag railway near Salekhard, north of the Arctic Circle at the mouth of the Ob River in Western Siberia (Russia). I collected this souvenir during an archaeological survey with Russian colleagues in the 1990s. The rail lines connect Stalin’s forced labor camps across the Russian Arctic and was built and maintained by tens of thousands of political prisoners, most of whom died in the process. Much of the steel rails and iron spikes were produced by German and American industry to aid in “developing Russia’s post-WWII economy.”

Object 6. [far right, Atlas vertebra] This small bone is the first cervical vertebra of a small seal. It is called the atlas vertebra because it articulates with the base of the skull, whose weight is borne on its two broad, wing-like flanges. The atlas has a small hole into which fits the pin-like bone extension on the upper surface of the axis vertebra, the second cervical vertebra, so-named because it allows the cranium to rotate easily right to left.

William W. Fitzhugh is a specialist in circumpolar anthropology and archaeology who has spent more than forty years studying and publishing on arctic peoples and cultures in northern Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, and Mongolia. He is founder and Director of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and a Trustee of The Center for Circumpolar Studies.

Register now to find out more about what Bill has in his backpack at The Arctic Roadshow, from 1-5PM on Saturday, March 22, at the Hulbert Outdoor Center, Fairlee, VT.