Monday, April 9, 2018

New Nazca Lines and the Worldwide Problem of Geoglyphs

Interesting news from Peru, where a drone study of the desert surrounding the famous Nazca Lines has turned up new, undocumented formations. Above are some of the famous, long known works. These are cool and also arouse our wonder; in a world without the technology needed to see them properly, why were they made? For the gods, one supposes, but why? In the case of Nazca one theory is that the first lines pointed to things, either sacred mountains and springs or astrological events like the solstice rising of key stars. The thing seems to have kept developing almost as if under its own momentum, with ever more complex figures being created partly because people had gotten good at creating them. So the technology of making these huge drawings came first, and then the idea that they would be pleasing to the gods. Or so some people say.

Above and below are two of the new discoveries. These were not known because they are older and much fainter than the famous formations, completely invisible from the ground and very hard to see from the air without the enhancements that have been applied to these photographs.

The generic name for formations like this is "geoglyphs." Geoglyphs are a hot issue in archaeology right now because people are finding them all over the world. This is generally done using Google Earth, but there are other sources of imagery like the old Corona spy satellites and drones.

The term covers a variety of different site types. For example, the large, V-shaped stone corrals of the Middle East, known as "kites" and apparently used in hunting wild antelope or goats, are sometimes called geoglyphs. (From the Saudi desert) So are what look like old settlements in the Amazon.

The term endures because so many formations have been spotted whose nature is completely unclear; maybe they are practical, maybe they are the ruins of structures, or maybe they are spiritual or works of art. Best to keep things simple by calling them geoglyphs.

But this creates a serious potential problem in my profession. Besides all the serious scholars engaged in this work, searching the globe for geoglyphs has become the hobby of a growing class of crackpots. People have claimed to find ancient solar temples in the patterns of modern railroad lines and electrical wires. Those are easily brushed aside, but what about patterns at the very edge of detectability? Because as the Nazca example shows, geoglyphs will fade over time even in the desert, and in plowed areas or grasslands they may have been rendered invisible to all but the most discerning eye. There is also the old archaeological problem of what is a spiritual site and what might have had a practical use, which is often, given the state of our knowledge, unresolvable.

Now imagine that you are the archaeologist for a new windfarm in the American west. An amateur researcher claims to see an ancient medicine wheel glyph in aerial imagery of your site, but you can't see it. A local Indian tribe gets wind of the discovery and its leaders demand investigation, or just demand that the site of the glyph be considered sacred. What happens? Who decides what is a real geoglyph and what isn't? How would you go about finding out? The field is too new for there to be any guidelines, leaving us to flounder around as best we can.

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