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Office of News and Information
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September 23, 1995
CONTACT: Emil Venere

News Tips on Archaeology and Egyptology from Johns Hopkins

Attention, GOP:

Public housing may not be an invention of the modern welfare state after all. A Johns Hopkins University archaeologist working in northwestern Syria has found ruins from the Late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BC) that he thinks might be government-built apartments for lower-class workers. Glenn Schwartz says texts from the ancient Near East often refer to low-status citizens who labored for society's great institutions in return for rations. "We know a lot about the system from the texts, but we have very few, if any, archaeological reflections of this system," Schwartz said. "I would like to explore the possibility that here we have discovered what you might think of as government housing for dependent workers."

Ancient Syrian city died, rose from dead, died again -- Was Egypt to blame for the second collapse?

Schwartz has discovered evidence that an ancient economic and cultural center in northwestern Syria was thriving much more recently than previously believed. Archaeologists had known that the site now known as Umm el-Marra was occupied in the early and middle Bronze Ages, dating back to 2600 BC. But Schwartz and his team of archaeologists have discovered that the city also was occupied during the Late Bronze Age, 1600 to 1200 BC, a time when Syria was dominated by great empires for the first time. The finding is especially important because archaeologists believe that Umm el-Marra might be the site of the ancient city of Tuba, noted in an Egyptian listing of cities that were apparently defeated or destroyed in the Egyptian empire's north Syrian campaign. Adding to the intrigue, the Hopkins expedition also found evidence that the city suffered a catastrophe early in the Late Bronze: many dwellings were burned, suggesting that the city was pillaged. "It might be tempting to suggest that the destruction of Umm el-Marra in the Late Bronze might be linked to Egyptian imperialism," Schwartz said. "But I have to stress that we have no definitive evidence of this."

Did changing climate cause the city's first death?

Ancient pollen deposits may yield clues to the mysterious first collapse and subsequent rebirth of what is now Umm el-Marra thousands of years ago. Grace Brush, a Johns Hopkins professor of environmental engineering, plans to take core samples from lakes in northwestern Syria, collecting ancient pollen to learn what types of plants were growing in the area at various times. In doing so, Brush hopes to help resolve questions surrounding Ummel-Marra's first collapse. Sometime around 4,000 years ago, the city ceased to exist. And then, perhaps several hundred years after its collapse, the city re-appeared. Why? Brush says she thinks she may have an answer: Scientific studies have shown that many civilizations declined about 5,000 years ago. That time period also was marked by global climate changes. A good way to tell whether climate change might have been responsible for Umm el-Marra's collapse is to study any changes in the types of vegetation growing in the region at the time.

New Tomb Discovered

A team led by Johns Hopkins Egyptologist Betsy Bryan accidentally discovered a previously unknown tomb adjoining one they were excavating in ancient Thebes last January. Bryan decided to get rid of a pile of dirt and debris that kept falling back into the opening of the shaft the team was excavating. "When we did that we exposed a secondary entrance into a previously unknown tomb," Bryan said. The tomb chapel is 50 feet long, cut into the limestone cliffs of Luxor, where a honeycomb of burial chapels hold many secrets about life in ancient Egypt. Bryan will return in December to continue work at the site.

Burial Chamber Unearthed

Bryan's team also discovered two chambers at the base of a 30- foot-deep burial shaft just outside the 3,400-year-old tomb they had originally come to document. After finding two skeletons and burial debris in the shaft, Bryan and her crew emptied dirt from the chambers, where they came upon two well-preserved amphoras -- the classic storage jars used by the ancients. Attached to the handles of one of the vessels was a perfectly preserved rope, and workers also found a sheet of papyrus bearing some sort of text. Bryan will continue research at the site when she returns in December.

Photographer-Turned-Inventor Devises New Method

Photographer James VanRensselaer didn't expect to become part of a science team when Hopkins Egyptologist Betsy Bryan called him one day in 1994. She needed photographs of sheets of plastic on which her team had traced the intricate paintings that line the walls of an Egyptian tomb chapel in ancient Thebes. When VanRensselaer, a senior medical photographer at Hopkins, tried to photograph the large tracings, he soon found that there was no established method to do so. The sheets were too large to handle with traditional methods -- the largest one was 35 feet long -- and without backlighting they could not be photographed well. So he invented a new method. In the attic of his Baltimore home, he custom-built a vertical light box, using angle iron, plate glass and white plexiglass. The result: vivid large-format color transparencies that can be made into prints or scanned into a computer for publication and further refinement. VanRensselaer presented a research paper about the method in August, during a meeting of the Biological Photographic Association Inc. in San Antonio, Texas.

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