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The Frontiers Decade:
Archaeology Decade

Frontiers has traveled to archaeological sites around the world, giving viewers a window into ancient civilizations from Africa and the Middle East to the Americas. Fascinating and intriguing clues to the past have been uncovered, from mummies in China to fossils in South Africa, from Viking boats to Aleutian kayaks, Stone Age papyrus boats and more.

Interpret Bronze Age Finds
Rebuilding the Legendary Baidarka


About 4,000 years ago, a civilization flourished in Bactria, an ancient kingdom in what is now part of Afghanistan. Archaeological evidence suggests the people who inhabited this ancient river valley formed a thriving Bronze Age empire, believed to have been the center of the Zoroastrian religion.

Archaeologists working at the Bactria site found several major architectural structures believed to have been part of the ancient Bactrian empire. Each structure was built from dried bricks of a uniform size. One structure was built in circular form about 40 meters in diameter, similar to the diagram shown below. Nine compartments were spaced equidistant around the circumference of the structure and believed to be the bases of towers.

Archaeologists must make reasonable guesses about structures and artifacts found at archaeological sites. Victor Sarianidi, the Russian archaeologist excavating the site, believes the building was a temple. Others argue that it was a palace. Some archaeologists believe the circular building was used as a fort. When under siege, the Bactrian population could seek refuge behind its fortified walls. Still other archaeologists believe this building was a marketplace or bazaar and had no military function.

Now it's your turn to interpret the finds and make your own reasonable guesses. Imagine you are an archaeologist examining this architectural structure. You and your team have found artifacts in the walls of the circular building. Study the list of artifacts. For each artifact listed, determine its function and what it suggests about the building. Was it used as a fort, a market, a temple, a palace or something else? After you've identified the artifacts and their functions, defend your overall conclusion about the role of this ancient building.

Note: The building floor plan shown above is based on an architectural complex in another site at Bactria. This is an exercise in critical thinking. As in archaeology, there are no right or wrong answers. For example, a spearhead could be found in a marketplace or a fort. The activity is meant to be open-ended, but you must explain your answers to support your reasoning (e.g., the spear was found among human or animal remains).


  • bronze spearhead
  • pottery
  • crushed human skill
  • seal with 8-sided design
  • grave sites
  • gold crown
  • animal bones
  • dagger
  • jewelry
  • clay pots

  1. Locate the site of the Bactria dig on a world map. Archaeologists believe that the present-day city of Balkh (66 E, 37 N) is the site of the ancient capital of Bactria.

  2. Bactria linked the Bronze Age civilizations of Egypt, Indus and Mesopotamia. Its central location made it a vital crossroads for trade. Because different civilizations invented bronze (made of copper and tin) at different times, there is no global Bronze Age, but it's generally accepted that in the Middle East and Asia, the Bronze Age began c. 3500 B.C. and lasted until c. 1200 B.C. Make a timeline that shows what was happening in other civilizations that existed at the time of Bactria - in the Americas, Europe, Africa.

  3. For the latest in archaeological digs, see Scientific American's Discovering Archaeology at

For another story on Bronze Age finds, see "Copper Island" in Mediterranean on the Rocks (Show 1004). Other episodes featuring archaeological topics include Science in the Middle East (Show 304), Science Safari (Show 702) and Nordic Sagas (Show 803). Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for more information on these Frontiers shows and related activities!


Journey to a village in Alaska, where present-day Aleuts are introduced to a native craft not seen in nearly a century -- the baidarka, an ocean-going kayak of legendary speed and stealth. With limited information on the original craft's design, builder and designer George Dyson decided to reconstruct an authentic baidarka.

Thousands of years ago, the original baidarka was made from a wooden frame covered with sealskin. Aleut baidarkas could probably maintain speeds on the water of about 91/2 knots (10 mph).

To get the baidarka up to its reputed speed, archaeologists believe the Aleuts of old must have possessed unusual strength and stamina. Indeed, physical anthropologist William Laughlin, who has studied Aleuts for many decades, determined that the ancient Aleuts had enlarged humerus bones (long bone extending from the elbow to the shoulder), indicating unusually large muscles. The Aleuts probably kayaked in baidarkas every day, from childhood to old age. The push/pull kayaking motion puts maximum stress on the humerus - supporting the theory that exercise builds bones.

The real test of the rebuilt baidarka occurred when Dyson and his crew took the craft onto the ocean to find out if the baidarka could attain its reputed high speeds (Frontiers shows 203 and 305). Through Dyson's work on the ancient baidarka, Aleuts have been able to connect with a legacy from their ancestors.

An authentic baidarka measured about 15 feet long and 20 inches wide. In this activity, you'll build a model of an Aleutian baidarka about one foot long.


  • 5 1' lengths of 1/16" balsa stringer
  • polyurethane spray or latex-based paint
  • poster board
  • scissors
  • wax paper
  • kite string
  • white glue
  • glue brush
  • tissue paper
  • tub of water

  1. Photocopy, cut out and trace the bulkhead and bow templates (below) onto poster board. Each model needs three bulkheads and one bow piece.

  2. Place two balsa stringers on a flat surface covered with wax paper. Align and glue the bottom of the bulkheads to the stringers (see diagram below).

  3. When the glue has set, glue the three remaining stringers into place. Let dry.

  4. Carefully bring the five stringers together and secure with a piece of kite string. Add glue and allow to dry.

  5. When the frame has dried, attach the bow by gluing its top edge to either side of the center stringer. Then coat the entire frame with a fine layer of glue and cover it with sections of tissue paper.

  6. When dry, coat the tissue paper with polyurethane spray or latex-based paint.

  7. Test your model baidarka to see how it floats in a tub of water.


Builder and scientist George Dyson writes about the Aleutian craft in his book Baidarka. To find out more, search online for sites about baidarkas and sea kayaks. Since the original Frontiers episode was broadcast, Dyson has also written a book about the future of artificial intelligence, Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence (Helix Books, Addison Wesley, 1997).


Compare the ancient baidarka with other boats featured on Frontiers: the Viking long boat in Nordic Sagas ("Viking Ships," Show 803) and the papyrus boat in Mediterranean on the Rocks ("The Paper Boat," Show 1004). Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for more information on these Frontiers shows and related activities!


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
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