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Remember Babylon?

From CNN:

Babylon was one of the glories of the ancient world, its walls and mythic hanging gardens listed among the Seven Wonders.

Founded about 4,000 years ago, the ancient city was the capital of 10 dynasties in Mesopotamia, considered one of the earliest cradles of civilization and the birthplace of writing and literature.

But following years of plunder, neglect and conflict, the Babylon of today scarcely conjures that illustrious history.

In recent years, the Iraqi authorities have reopened Babylon to tourists, hoping that one day the site will draw visitors from all over the globe. But despite the site’s remarkable archaeological value and impressive views, it is drawing only a smattering of tourists, drawn by a curious mix of ancient and more recent history.

The city — just 85km (52 miles) south of Baghdad, about a two hour drive, dependent on checkpoints — still bears the marks of ham-fisted attempts at restoration by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and a subsequent occupation by U.S. forces in 2003.

“They occupied Babylon. They wouldn’t let anyone in,” says Hussein Saheb, a guard at the historical sites at Babylon, recalling the day U.S. tanks rolled into view, before forces set up camp.

Following excavations in the early 20th century, European archaeologists claimed key features such as the remains of the famous Ishtar Gate — the glazed brick gate decorated with images of dragons and aurochs, built in about 575 BC by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II as the eighth gate to the inner city.

The original now stands as part of a reconstruction of the gate in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, whereas in Babylon itself, visitors enter through a replica. Yet remnants of Babylon’s former glory remain, with sections of the city’s walls still intact.

Later excavations and conservation work carried out under Saddam’s rule greatly despoiled the site, say archaeologists.

Iraqi archaeologist Hai Katth Moussa said that during a massive reconstruction project in the early 1980s, Saddam began building a replica of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II on top of the ruins of the ancient palace.

Like Nebuchadnezzar, he wrote his name on many of the bricks, with inscriptions such as: “This was built by Saddam, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq.”

After the Gulf War, Saddam began building a modern palace for himself on top of ruins in the style of a Sumerian ziggurat.

When U.S. forces arrived in 2003, they occupied the palace, which lies adjacent to Nebuchadnezzar’s palace and overlooks the Euphrates River, and left their own mark. Today, a basketball hoop remains in Babylon, while concertina wire left behind by the military is used to prevent visitors from climbing over a 2,500-year-old lion statue — an ancient symbol of the city.

Even in the new Iraq, Babylon faces ongoing threats. Only 2% of the ancient city has been excavated, but those buried historical treasures are threatened by encroaching development.

Tour guide Hussein Al-Ammari says an oil pipeline runs through the eastern part of the ancient city. “It goes through the outer wall of Babylon,” he says.

Yet despite the shortcomings in its preservation, Babylon holds a draw for small numbers of Iraqi visitors — even if only to enter Saddam’s marble-lined palaces, still a novelty 10 years after the dictator’s downfall.

Zained Mohammed, visiting with her family for the first time from Karbala, told CNN: “We were just looking for a change of atmosphere, to have the kids see something different.”

Babylon is certainly that.

Filed under: Archaeology, Heritage, , , , , , , ,

51 young males identified as brutally slain Vikings

The decapitated skeletons—their heads stacked neatly to the side—were uncovered in June 2009 in a thousand-year-old execution pit near the southern seaside town of Weymouth. (VSLM kept up to date and featured one of the first news here)

Already radio-carbon dating results released in July had shown the men lived between A.D. 910 and 1030, a period when the English fought—and often lost—battles against Viking invaders.
But until now it hadn’t been clear who the headless bodies had belonged to.

Analysis of teeth from ten of the dead—who were mostly in their late teens and early 20s—indicates the raiding party had been gathered from different parts of Scandinavia, including one person thought to have come from north of the Arctic Circle.

The new study, led by Jane Evans of the U.K.’s NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, investigated telltale chemical markers called isotopes, which can reveal a person’s geographic origins.

Oxygen isotopes from drinking water, for example, become fixed in people’s teeth as they age. Since isotope ratios vary with climate, Evans could tell that the had all been raised in much cooler regions than Britain.

“The values these individuals gave us could not be British,” Evans said, but the ratios do match those from Norway and Sweden.

In addition, nitrogen-isotope readings showed the men enjoyed a meaty, high-protein diet—similar to readings from remains from the same period found in Sweden.

“What’s fascinating about these findings is that Vikings are renowned for their pillaging, ransacking, and raping,” Evans said.
“But here we’ve got real evidence that it was the other way round: Anglo-Saxons rounded up these Vikings and executed them.”

Vikings Found With Hacked Heads, Naked Bodies

Many of the skeletons have deep cut marks to the skull, jaw, and neck. This suggests the men were war captives whose heads were savagely hacked off, said David Score of Oxford Archaeology, leader of the preconstruction survey that found the Vikings’ execution pit.

“The majority seem to have taken multiple blows,” he noted.

Other injuries hint that some of the slaughtered attempted to shield themselves from their executioners’ blows. For instance, the hand of one victim had its fingers sliced through, Score said.

The heads were neatly piled to one side of the pit, perhaps as a victory display.

Unusually, no trace of clothing has been found, indicating the men were buried naked.

Even if only their weapons and valuables had been taken, “we should have found bone buttons and things like that, but to date we’ve got absolutely nothing,” Score said.
Aside from their injuries, the headless Vikings “look like a healthy, robust, very strong, very masculine group of young males,” he added. “It’s your classic sort of warrior.”

Vikings Forced to Surrender?

The burial’s prominent location on a hilltop by the ancient main road to Weymouth also points to the victims being Vikings, Score said.

“Locations like this are classic sites for executions [by British-born warriors] in late Saxon and medieval times,” he said. “If you’re a Viking raider, you’re much more likely to leave people where you killed them in the town or on the beach.”

What’s more, the new isotope findings suggest that the slain men had much more diverse origins than would be expected among soldiers from the Saxons’ other enemies, such as ethnic Danes in northern Britain, tooth-study leader Evans noted.

Even before the new results were released, Kim Siddorn, author of Viking Weapons and Warfare, had thought the dead were Vikings.

“They had left their ship, walked inland, ran into an unusually well-organized body of Saxons, and were probably forced to surrender,” Siddorn speculated in July.

Despite the Vikings’ brutal reputation, there was actually little to differentiate Vikings and early English warriors on the battlefield, said Siddorn, also a founder of Regia Anglorum, a historical-reenactment society.

“You would find it very difficult to tell the difference between a Viking and a Saxon if they stood in front of you in war gear,” he said. Both used spears as their primary weapons, with swords and axes as backups, Siddorn added.

But Vikings usually had surprise and, in some cases, numbers on their side. “Whilst the Vikings were no better than the Saxons at fighting, they did come by the shipload,” he said.

“During the height of the Viking raids, it’s reasonable to say it was unsafe to live anywhere within 20 miles [32 kilometers] of the coast.”

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