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Cool Places by Satellite: Its Not Old, Its Roman
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5. It’s not old, it’s Roman

Satellite view
Here at the mouth of the Red Sea are the GATES OF GRIEF, alternatively known as Mandeb Strait, separating Africa from the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The distance is about 25 kilometers (16 miles). At around 85,000 years before present (bp) a band of people crossed from west to east here. Over the next 10,000 years their descendants spread along the seacoast around India, through the Malay Archipelago, and all the way up into southern China.

Two girls
At 74,000 bp the Toba super volcano exploded in Sumatra, blasting 2800 cubic km (700 cubic miles) of ash into the air. The resulting 6-year-long “nuclear winter” killed most of these people off. A DNA bottleneck in our genes suggests there may have been as few as 2000 survivors, but in any case they rebounded and all non-Africans now descend from them.

The firm of Tarek Bin Laden (a half brother of Osama) has announced that it will build a $200 billion complex featuring a bridge across Mandeb Strait. This would connect Djibouti to Yemen and rank, at this writing, as the world’s ninth longest. Right now any ferries making the crossing have to contend with heavy traffic bound for, or coming from, the Mediterranean — not to mention Somali pirates. In addition great numbers of people drown annually trying to swim it (with the sharks not helping any).

Satellite view
In 1986 some members of a French archaeological team surveying the GREAT PYRAMID OF KHUFU AT GIZA saw a desert fox disappear into a crevice two-thirds of the way up its northeast edge. It seemed unlikely to them that the tiny animal would have climbed all those blocks from the ground to reach that perch in the first place, so it must have scooted up through an unknown interior passageway.

As it happens, French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin has been proposing the existence of a tunnel winding its way up the pyramid's sides about 10 meters (33 feet) beneath its skin, used to transport its blocks while laying its upper 140 or so courses. In 1987 a microgravity survey imaged that squared helix right where he said it would be. Such a ramp — internal as opposed to external — would have greatly reduced the human labor required and would solve much of the classical mystery of how Khufu could have built his pyramid.

Most of your King of the Hill tourists make a beeline for Giza and then call it a day, but pyramid-wise there’s also a great deal to see — and far smaller crowds to fight — at Saqqara, Meidum, and Dahshur:

1.  At SAQQARA you have the Step Pyramid of Zoser (c 2630-2611 bce) and its complex. These are among the world’s oldest stone structures. The complex’s builders carefully finished their blocks to simulate the reed matting and other perishable materials their new medium replaced. They also used a lot of brilliant turquoise-glazed tile. 2. At MEIDUM you can see a pyramid of Khufu’s father Snefru (c 2575-2551), which he may have usurped from his predecessor, Huni (c 2599-2575). Its outer masonry fell away at some point — some say during construction; others, centuries later. In either case a treasure trove of ancient workaday artifacts might lie under that vast rubble mound encircling it. 3. Lastly, at DAHSHUR you can see Snefru’s Bent Pyramid at 7 o'clock and his Red Pyramid at 11 o'clock. The Bent Pyramid abruptly switches to a shallower, safer slope halfway up; its engineers likely feared a catastrophe like that at Meidum. The Red Pyramid is in some ways more spectacular than any other, including Khufu’s.

Satellite view
Pyramids of Emperor Jing and Empress Wang Ji
“US Flier Reports Huge Chinese Pyramid In Isolated Mountains Southwest of Sian,” blared the New York Times on March 28, 1947. The flier, Colonel Maurice Sheahan, estimated it to be 300 meters (1000 feet) high and 460 meters (1500 feet) wide at the base.

In this case the story had gotten a little garbled. What Sheahan saw and photographed was the MAOLING MAUSOLEUM, the earthen mound resting place of Han Dynasty Emperor Wu (157-87 bce). It’s nowhere near as large as he reported; but surrounded not by mountains but by flat farmland it’s quite imposing just the same at 46 meters (150 feet) high and 240 meters (790 feet) wide. Nearby and quite similar are the mounds of his father EMPEROR JING (188-141 bce) and stepmother EMPRESS WANG ZHI (left and right, respectively). This latter site is known as Han Yangling and now operates an underground museum to display some of the thousands of artifacts it has yielded.

Emperor Qin terracotta army
Soldier and horse of Emperor Qin
Far more frequently you hear of the MAUSOLEUM OF QIN SHI HUANGDI, founder of the first dynasty of a unified China who died in 210 bce. The Chinese have wisely delayed excavating the actual tomb there — which historian Sima Qian (c 145-86 bce) described as the ultimate treasure cache — until they can muster the resources to process, catalog, and preserve all that stuff. You’ve probably seen many pictures of Qin’s vast terracotta army. The Han Yangling soldiers are much smaller and, besides horses, thousands of dogs, goats, pigs, and sheep accompany them. They also smile a lot more, probably reflecting the stabler politics of that era.

There are dozens of other mound tombs of emperors and nobles in this general region of Shaanxi province. Few of these have been excavated, at least officially, though minor looting is a problem. Here are a bunch, moving east to west: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], and lastly another apparent emperor-empress set, [11]. It’s interesting that the more westerly among these, 6 through 11, rotate about 10 degrees counterclockwise from the cardinal compass points. They must be chronologically related.

The term pyramid is convenient and sells newspapers but exaggerates a bit here since few if any of these features terminate in a sharp apex. They slope mildly, typically 20 degrees as opposed to the 43 to 52-plus of their Egyptian counterparts. For a granular material like slightly damp soil, 20 degrees or so represents its natural “angle of repose.” Anything much steeper would sooner or later slump back down to that value.

Satellite view
As the Giza complex is to Egypt, POMPEII (which Mark Twain reminds us has three syllables: pom-PAY-ee) is to Italy. It draws 2.5 million tourists annually. But other chariot ruts less traveled for which we can thank the same August 24, 79 ce eruption of Vesuvius, also accessible to visitors, are: HERCULANEUM, OPLONTIS, STABIAE, and the ruins under the modern town of BOSCOREALE.

Pompeii spanned 66 hectares (160 acres), of which two thirds — well over a hundred city blocks — have been excavated. Some of the mysteries of the spectacular frescoes of Pompeii and its neighbors are only now being unraveled, particularly that distinctive red. It derives from the mineral cinnabar, mercuric sulfide, as everyone expected. But when you just grind up cinnabar and paint it on you get a noncommittal rusty orange color without the glowing saturation and opacity you see here.

It turns out that this “Pompeian” cinnabar had a bimodal particle size distribution: many grains in the 10-15 micron range (like baby powder), but the rest far smaller at 2-3 microns (like typical bacteria). Through trial-and-error the artists must have happened onto a specific pulverizing ritual to achieve this. Two other pigments they relied on were Egyptian Blue (Egyptian Blue) and goethite (Goethite). Egyptian Blue was entirely synthetic, made by firing sand, lime, copper, and washing soda together in a kiln. Goethite or brown ochre is an iron mineral which also occurs in Gusev Crater on Mars, confirming that there is (or was) water there.

Satellite view
Herculaneum was about a third the size of Pompeii and is about a quarter to a third excavated (by satellite you can easily see where it disappears under the modern landscape, especially to the south). One of Herculaneum’s greatest treasures is the papyrus library inside the estate of a well known intellectual of the day, Lucius Calpurnius Pisone Cæsoninus. Crude attempts to unroll these carbonized scrolls forever obliterated many of them, but modern technology can now image their texts non-destructively. In time they may well double or triple our inventory of ancient literature.

Oplontis is the site of the spectacular villa of Nero’s second wife, Poppaea Sabina, who had also owned the House of the Faun in Pompeii. You’ll frequently read that Nero kicked her to death in the stomach in 65 while she was pregnant, though the three historians who promoted that scenario were dedicated Nero-haters. When Vesuvius erupted the Oplontis villa and many other area structures were still undergoing repairs from an earthquake in 62.

Beginning: Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.
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© 2008 Peter Blinn   


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