7 June 2013
Rare Greek Neanderthal site found
Until recently, evidence of Neanderthal settlement on the Greek peninsular had been very scarce. Now new excavations at the Kalamakia Middle Paleolithic Cave site, in southern Greece, have been yielding a wealth of new information. The excavations are being lead by Katarina Harvati, from the University of Tubingen.
At the time of its occupation the cave would have been much further from the sea than it is now, with a wide fertile strip providing most of the food that the Neanderthal group would have needed. Remains of several individuals have been identified, including males, females and children. A study of dental wear shows that their diet was quite varied, with a mixture of plants, meat and sea foods.
Although this type of find in Greece is rare, Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist at Lehman College, City University of New York, is not surprised and is quoted as saying "This is not unexpected, given their [Neanderthal] presence along the Mediterranean coastal area from Gibraltar, through Spain, France, Italy, Croatia and in Israel, Syria and other parts of the Middle Eastern Levant. I expect Harvati's new fieldwork project to recover additional fossils from Greek sites, which have not yet produced human remains, and I hope to see more complete specimens in the future."
Edited from Discovery News (22 May 2013)
Bahrain preserves its heritage
Recent excavations in Bahrain have uncovered the remains of a settlement once inhabited by the enigmatic Dilmun civilization. This ancient civilization, said to date to the third millennium BCE, was part of a very important trade route linking Bahrain with the Sultanate of Oman, Syria and Turkey.
The site under investigation is located near the current village of Saar, and actually includes two distinct areas. The first area is strictly residential, with a secondary burial centre. Although old, this particular site is not the most important Dilmun settlement found, as underneath the Qal'at al Bahrain, in the north of the island, no less than seven layers of settlement have been uncovered.
The site has long been buried beneath a protective layer of sand, but not that it is exposed extensive preservation work is under way. The archaeologist in charge of the site, Salman al-Mahari, is quoted as saying "We have no immediate plans to carry out further excavations. We want to protect the site and to interpret what we have unearthed for visitors."
The importance of Bahrain as a cultural and trading centre 4,000 years ago has been somewhat under played, leading Khalifa Ahmed Al Khalifa, assistant director of programs at the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage, to remark on the development of Bahraini archaeology "There has been a lot of academic work carried out over the past decades. The idea is to simplify and interpret all this academic information so that local people and international visitors can grasp the importance of our heritage. It is quite a challenge that we're facing, but with the help of new technology we'll be able to place Bahrain on the [ancient] global map."
Edited from BBC News (21 May 2013)
The origins of the spear
It has proved quite a challenge to identify the stage at which early man transitioned from short range (and dangerous) hunting by stabbing with a spear, and took the more pragmatic approach of throwing them from a safer distance The difficulty lies in identifying the different types of marks made on impact.
Now an archaeology student from South East archaeology in Canberra (Australia), Corey O'Driscoll, has been studying them for his undergraduate thesis. He originally became interested after reading articles on the wounds caused to humans by medieval weapons. There have been several studies of this type, with claims for the earliest use of spears going back over 500,000 years but none of these were conclusive and raised strong doubts over their validity.
Corey O'Driscoll decided to conduct his own experiments. He knapped spear and arrow heads and either fired from a bow or threw spears at a variety of sheep and cow carcasses. Then, after rotting or boiling the flesh away, he examined the marks made. Marks made by projectile weapons are quite distinctive from butchering marks, and show signs of either drag or fracture. He then noticed what proved to be a critical element. As the impact from these thrown weapons was fairly high velocity, minute fragments of the arrow or spear head broke off on impact and became embedded in the fracture or puncture mark. He then went on to examine mammal bones found at Pinnacle Point Cave in South Africa, which had also been found to have minute fragments of stone imbedded in the puncture marks, very similar to his experimental ones. These mammal bones have been dated between 91,000 and 98,000 years ago.
This thesis could have substantial implications, prompting archaeologist Tina Manne, from the University of Queensland (Australia), to remark that they have "...Incredibly wide-ranging applicability and the potential to further our understanding of when this technology was adopted elsewhere."
Edited from Science (17 May 2013)
3 June 2013
Iron in ancient Egyptian relics came from space
After carefully analysing a 5,000-year-old iron bead from Egypt, a team of specialists reached the conclusion that it is made from a meteorite. The iron bead is shaped like a tube, and was discovered in 1911 while exploring a cemetery at Gerzeh, about 70 kilometres from Cairo.
Researchers realised the iron in it was particularly high in nickel - a hallmark of iron meteorites. "Micro-structural and chemical analysis of a Gerzeh iron bead is consistent with a cold-worked iron meteorite," the researchers write. The ancient Egyptians had made it by hammering a fragment of iron from the meteorite into a thin plate, then bending it into a tube.
Eight other tube-beads were found alongside this one. They all contain iron, and date back to about 3,300 BCE - the oldest iron artefacts thus far in Egypt.
The first evidence for iron smelting in ancient Egypt appears in the archaeological record in the 6th century BCE. Only a handful of iron artefacts have been discovered in the region from before then, and all come from high-status graves such as that of the pharaoh Tutankhamun. "Iron was very strongly associated with royalty and power," says Diane Johnson, a meteorite scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, whose team performed the analyses. Objects made of such divine material were believed to guarantee their deceased owner priority passage into the afterlife.
Campbell Price, a curator of Egypt and Sudan at the Manchester Museum, who was not a member of the study team, points out that during the time of the pharaohs the gods were believed to have bones made of iron.
Edited from Nature (29 May 2013), Softpedia (30 may 2013)
Early Palaeolithic sites in Northern China
The Danjiangkou area is a pivotal region for human migration and cultural communication between south and north China. The discovery of hominid fossils and abundant Palaeolithic sites highlight its significant position in the Paleoanthropology and Palaeolithic archaeology of China.
In 1994 and 2004, Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences conducted two surveys around the margin of the Danjiangkou reservoir in the northwest of Hubei Province, and found 91 Palaeolithic open-air sites on different terraces along the Hanshui River and its tributary Danjiang River. In 2009 researchers carried out an excavation in the Guochachang 2 site, exposing an area of 500 square metres and uncovering 132 stone artefacts. These included hammer stones, cores, flakes, and chunks, as well as scrapers, choppers, picks, and hand axes. Analysis of the stone reveals that raw materials were locally available from ancient river gravels.
"The study on the Guochachang 2 site provides us very important data for understanding the early Palaeolithic culture in the Danjiangkou Reservoir area," said project leader LI Chaorong.
Edited from PhysOrg (29 May 2013)
Thousands of prehistoric artefacts returned to Greece
An archaeological open-air museum in southern Germany - consisting of reconstructions of stilt houses from the Neolithic and Bronze Age - will return 8,000 pottery fragments from the Neolithic Era, illegally excavated in 1941 near Velestino, Thessaly.
The repatriation of Greek cultural artefacts is among Greece's demands for German reparations from World War II, according to the foreign ministry. The ministry is collecting data for all antiquities illegally removed from Greece during the German occupation.
The two ministries are working together on the formation of an international cooperation network through the signing of bilateral agreements for the protection of cultural goods and the prevention of artefact trafficking. Greece has already signed agreements with Switzerland, China, the USA, and Turkey, and negotiations are ongoing with several other countries for the signing of similar agreements.
Edited from Enet English (29 May 2013)
2 June 2013
Scouts restore Long Man of Wilmington
A 235ft (72m) ancient chalk carving thought to be an Iron Age symbol of fertility has been repainted by British Scouts. The Long Man of Wilmington (East Sussex, England) was painted green during the Second World War so German bombers could not use it as a landmark. Now, as part of a UK-wide project, 40 Scouts have freshen up the man-shaped image cut into the South Downs.
The origin of England's tallest chalk hill figure - one of the largest in the world - has puzzled historians and archaeologists for generations. It was once thought the man, who holds two 'staves' and appears in proportion from below, was an Anglo Saxon warrior or Roman folly. But more recent research suggests it dates back to the mid-16th century.
The carving underwent a controversial makeover in 2007 when 100 women gave the Long Man a temporary female form, using their bodies to add pigtails, breasts and hips as part a TV fashion show. Angry druids and pagans protested over the 'disrespectful' TV stunt and the Sussex Archaeological Society apologised for allowing the filming to take place.
Margaret Paren, chairman of the South Downs National Park Authority, said: "The Long Man of Wilmington is an iconic figure in the South Downs National Park and we're very grateful to our local Scouts for giving up their time to give him a facelift." Tristan Bareham, chief executive officer of Sussex Past, said: "We're delighted to see local Scouts getting involved in our project with the South Downs National Park to maintain and preserve the Long Man."
Edited from The Argus (30 May 2013), BBC News (1 June 2013)
First ever prehistoric fashion show announced
The world's first prehistoric fashion show will take place in London (England) during the upcoming international Humanities festival sponsored by archaeologists at the University of Southampton and the Natural History Museum Vienna according to a press release from the University of Southampton.
The fashion show will display the use of pottery, metalwork, and textiles created during the period 1,800 to 500 BCE that are the findings of a three-year collaborative research project called 'Creativity and Craft Production in Middle and Late Bronze Age Europe' (CinBA).
The catwalk collection has been created by Dr. Karina Grömer and Helga Rösel-Mautendorfer from the Natural History Museum Vienna and was partly inspired by CinBA research into prehistoric textiles found at salt mines at Hallstatt in Austria. he wet and salty properties of the salt mine preserved the miner's clothing and accessories over thousands of years, making it now possible to chart the development of textile engineering in Europe using the many artefacts found at the site.
University of Southampton archaeologist Dr Jo Sofaer, who is leading CinBA, says: "I'm interested in finding out what drove Bronze Age people to make the leap from clothing which was purely functional - to using clothes, along with metalwork and accessories, as a form of expression. It is well understood that the Bronze Age saw huge advances in techniques to produce clothes, pottery and metal objects, but the wealth of creativity employed when making these goods is little recognised or researched. The clothing collections we'll be exhibiting at the fashion show demonstrate the intricate weaves, patterns and striking colours prehistoric people used in their dress."
Thirty costumes will be presented, worn by men, women and children: from Stone Age beginnings, through the creative impact of metal jewelry and woven textiles in the Bronze Age, ending with the colored costumes of a Celtic tribe from Central Europe. The idea is to display the development of clothing from a purely utilitarian function into an expression of art, wealth, status, identity, personality, and creativity that developed in the peoples of the Bronze Age in Central Europe.
Dr Grömer comments, "Usually a picture of dull and unattractive clothing comes into our mind, if we think about people from Prehistory. We would like to show, that the people from Stone and Bronze Ages made the best out of their materials, They used patterns, colour and nice jewellery. They had their style, their wish to express wealth, status, identity and personality. All the costumes are based on archaeological finds and they were handmade by us."
Edited from AlphaGalileo (30 May 2013), Examiner.com (31 May 2013)
Island off the Australian coast surveyed on ancient human life
A new archaeological survey will investigate human occupation sites at Barrow Island - a 202 km2 (78 sq mi) island located 50 kilometres (31 mi) northwest off the coast of Western Australia - from the time it was joined to the mainland between seven and eight thousand years ago.
UWA Archaeologist Professor Peter Veth, who has excavated ancient archaeological sites in the Monte Bello Islands over the past two decades, says Barrow Island is the next logical place to look for sites of human occupation that probably ended as sea levels rose. "We'd been looking at the opportunity for recovering drowned paleo-landscapes and sites for a long time," he says. "You look offshore and you are going to get islands which were once part of the mainland and they register oceanic sea level fluctuations, changing maritime systems, a whole range of configurations of faunas, human economies, behaviours which won't be the same as those on the retracted mainland today."
Prof Veth says the team will also be looking for evidence of any continuing Aboriginal presence between that time and the next known occupation, a 19th century pearling camp. "We will have one crew working on what we call aerial or open-site survey," Veth says. "The second will be working on [two] rock shelters or caves. The Indigenous archaeology [is] quite substantial and should have good deposits. The third crew will be working down on Bandicoot Bay on the historic pearling camp and they will be surveying the extent of the site and doing limited test excavations in the historic material area."
The excavation team will employ what he describes as 'wet sieving', a newly-developed technique designed to retrieve minute particles of organic matter such as bone fragments, seeds and charcoal on site. "Anything organic right down to one millimetre will be retrieved," Prof Veth said. "We hope to get charcoal from fuel that's many thousands of years old - possibly up to about 40 [or] 45 [thousand years]."
The three-week campaign will commence on 27 June.
Edited from ScienceNetwork Western Australia (30 May2013)
31 May 2013
Climate change - prehistoric style
In an extract from 'The Origin of the Species', Charles Darwin wrote that "Climate plays an important part in determining the average numbers of a species, and periodical seasons of extreme cold or drought seem to be the most effective of all checks". This theory has been dramatically proven by recent investigations into the cause of the extinction of the majority of major animals in North American, Europe and the Middle east 12,800 years ago.
It has long been known that a major climatic event occurred at that time but the cause of the event was open to speculation. Now a team from University College of Santa Barbara (USA), headed by emeritus professor in earth sciences, James Kennett, believes it may have found the answer.
They have been examining very small round objects, known as spherules, from dozens sites spreading across North America, Europe and the Middle east. Several theories had been previously proposed over the formation of these spherules, from volcanic activity, through lightning strikes to widespread fires. But the detailed analysis carried out by the team showed that their formation required temperatures in excess of 2,200 degrees Celsius. Therefore the only theory remaining was that of a massive cosmic shower.
The impact of this shower would have had the effect of blocking out the sun and causing a dramatic and extreme drop in temperature across the area obscured. This would explain the rapid decline in large mammal numbers and also the disappearance of the Clovis culture, which depended on hunting these animals for survival.
In citing the paper, which was the culmination of this research, James Kennett is quoted as saying "Based on geochemical measurements and morphological observations, this paper offers compelling evidence to reject alternate hypotheses that YDB (Younger Dryas Boundary) spherules (were) formed by volcanic or human activity; from ongoing natural accumulation of space dust; lightning strikes; or by slow geochemical accumulation in sediments. This evidence continues to point to a major cosmic impact as the primary cause for the tragic loss of nearly all of the remarkable American large animals that had survived the stresses of many ice age periods only to be knocked out quite recently by this catastrophic event".
Edited from EurekaAlert! (21 May 2013)
Apulian dolmen under constant threat by vandals
Vandals are keeping damaging and defacing a 3600-year-old monument in Southern Italy. Members of 'Puglia Scoperta', a local cultural association, reported that during their recent visit to the La Chianca dolmen, several large rock fragments have been found inside the corridor leading to the main chamber. It is still not clear if these fragments have been collected from the nearby drystone walls and thrown on the dolmen or if they are the result of heavy hammering to the side stones of the monument. In any case, this remarkable dolmen now lies sadly covered by modern writings amidst garbage.
La Chianca is probably the most famous dolmen in southern Italy. Located in Apulia, a few km from the town of Bisceglie, this megalithic monument dates back from the 16th Century BCE and it has been the focal point of many vandalic acts. Over the last 15 years or so, the monument has been defaced by many writings made using different markers: permanent black, correction ink pen, ballpoint pen, pencil, water-based coloured markers.
In 1999 La Chianca dolmen was first cleaned by Giuseppe Daurelio - from the Dept. of Physics, University of Bari - using an innovative laser cleaning technique. Then the monument was restored once again in 2007, when a team composed by G. Daurelio, S. E. Andriani, I. M. Catalano, and A. Albanese removed the new vandalic writings by using a Nd-YAG laser source. Degradation mapping and laser cleaning with photographs, taken before, during and after the process in situ, were carried out at that time, then different laser parameters and techniques were used to remove different ink types.
Many other prehistoric sites on that region are under the same threat or are getting neglected, and it is very sad to see how those vandalic acts are getting worse. It is hoped that the forthcoming mayor of Bisceglie will be able to make serious steps to protect La Chianca and other ancient monuments in the area.
Edited from Puglia Scoperta (5 May 2013), Bisceglie Live (6 May 2013), Barbadillo (10 May 2013)
27 May 2013
Why our early ancestors took to two feet
A new study by archaeologists at the University of York (UK) challenges evolutionary theories behind the development of our earliest ancestors from tree dwelling quadrupeds to upright bipeds capable of walking and scrambling. The researchers say our upright gait may have its origins in the rugged landscape of East and South Africa, which was shaped during the Pliocene epoch by volcanoes and shifting tectonic plates.
Hominins, our early forebears, would have been attracted to the terrain of rocky outcrops and gorges because it offered shelter and opportunities to trap prey. But it also required more upright scrambling and climbing gaits, prompting the emergence of bipedalism.
The York research challenges traditional hypotheses which suggest our early forebears were forced out of the trees and onto two feet when climate change reduced tree cover. Dr Isabelle Winder, one of the paper's authors, said: "The broken, disrupted terrain offered benefits for hominins in terms of security and food, but it also proved a motivation to improve their locomotor skills by climbing, balancing, scrambling and moving swiftly over broken ground - types of movement encouraging a more upright gait."
Dr Winder continues: "Our hypothesis offers a new, viable alternative to traditional vegetation or climate change hypotheses. It explains all the key processes in hominin evolution and offers a more convincing scenario than traditional hypotheses."
Edited from The University of York, Red Orbit (24 May 2013), World News Australia (25 May 2013)
Baby Neanderthal breast-fed for 7 months
A baby Neanderthal who lived in what is now Belgium about 100,000 years ago started eating solid food at 7 months old, revealing a new aspect of the evolution of breast-feeding. A new technique that uses elements in teeth helped researchers to determine when breast-feeding started and stopped.
"Breast-feeding is a major determinate of child health and immune protection, so it's important both from the point of view of studying our evolution as well as studying health in modern humans," study researcher Manish Arora, a research associate at Harvard's School of Public Health, said.
Until now, however, no one had an effective way of looking at bones and reconstructing breast-feeding history. Arora and his colleagues found that both in humans and macaques, the ratio of the elements barium and calcium in the teeth revealed what the baby had been eating when those teeth formed. The parts of the teeth that form in the gums before birth have very little barium, Arora said, probably because only a small amount of the element gets into the fetus through the placenta. After birth, barium spikes and stays high in the tooth; the profile changes again when babies (or macaques) start adding solid food to their diet of breast milk. "You find the amount of barium we can absorb from solid foods such as vegetables and meats is different from what we get from breast milk, so we can see this period of exclusive breast-feeding," Arora said.
Arora and his colleagues tested their new method on a very old tooth. They used a molar from the Scladina Neanderthal, a fossilized juvenile found in Belgium. Similar patterns as in humans and macaques appeared: a barium increase at birth, which stayed high until the Neanderthal was about 7 months old. At that point, the tooth indicated, the Neanderthal baby went into a transitional diet, consuming breast milk supplemented by solid food. The pattern is one that today's parenting experts would likely approve.
The Neanderthal's mixed diet continued for seven months until 14 months of age, when the baby abruptly weaned. No one knows what happened, Arora said. It's possible the Neanderthal became separated from its mother, or perhaps the mother got pregnant or gave birth to a younger sibling and cut her older child off from the breast.
So far, Arora and his colleagues have tested only the Scladina Neanderthal, and they aren't sure whether its weaning pattern is typical of the species. "We would very much like to do this on more Neanderthal samples and even beyond Neanderthal samples, on other extinct primates leading up to modern humans," Arora said. The goal would be to create an evolutionary map of breast-feeding practices in primates, he said. This line of research could also reveal insights into the long-term health effects of breast-feeding.
Edited from LiveScience (22 May 2013)
26 May 2013
Bronze Age boat reconstruction is changing view of era
Professor Van de Noort, along with shipwright Brian Cumby, was the driving force behind a project to build the first full-size replica of a boat used around British shores 4,000 years ago. Hewn from solid oak at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth (Cornwall, England) and launched in March, the volunteers who undertook the labour, along with several archaeologists, put the boat through its paces this week. Using specially crafted paddles, 19 men and women were guided in the fine art of powering seven tons of wood through the water. The short voyage was hailed a triumph of collaboration between academic and artisan.
Remarkably stable and relatively quick for its size, the crew was soon able to manoeuvre around buoys and other vessels with ease. Professor Van de Noort, who is based at the University of Exeter, said he was delighted with the results, adding that the project had proved the enormous value of experimental archaeology. "She moves well in the water - perhaps better than I'd expected," he said. "One thing we've learned already is that because she sits very high in the water, it is likely she can probably carry a much greater load than we first thought."
Professor Van de Noort explained that his interest in Bronze Age mariners went back many years. "I have studied this sort of boat for many years and have written a lot about what they did and what they meant," he said. "But after a while I began to think it was all a bit silly because everything we write is only hypothesis. It was then I decided we should a have a go at building one. Fortunately Brian is a brilliant shipwright and was keen to take it on."
The boat took a team of 50 volunteers 11 months to construct. The bulk of the hull was cut, using bronze adzes, from two huge oak trunks. Once shaped, they were "sewn together" using yew withies and sealed with moss and tallow.
"This is experimental archaeology at its best," said archaeologist and NMMC assistant curator Jenny Wittamore. A former student of Prof Van de Noort, she added: "A lot of people have preconceived ideas of what life was like in prehistory and there is an assumption that technology was very limited. So they were surprised to realise technology several thousand years ago was so complex. For me it is wonderful to change people's perspectives about what life was like in prehistory."
There are now plans to conduct further experiments to help build a clearer picture of Bronze Age travel and transportation.
Edited from Thisis Devon (25 May 2013)
Submerged structure in Sea of Galilee stumps archaeologists
A massive circular structure at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee (Israel) has puzzled researchers who have been unable to excavate it. Now archaeologists are trying to raise money to allow them access to the submerged structure, which is made of boulders and stones. The monumental structure, with a diameter of 230 feet, emerged from a routine sonar scan in 2003.
Archaeologists said the only way they can properly assess the structure is through an underwater excavation, a slow process that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. "It's very enigmatic, it's very interesting, but the bottom line is we don't know when it's from, we don't know what it's connected to, we don't know its function," said Dani Nadel, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa who is one of several researchers studying the discovery. "We only know it is there, it is huge and it is unusual."
Much of the researchers' limited knowledge about this structure comes from the sonar scan a decade ago. In an article published earlier this year, Nadel and fellow researchers disclosed it was asymmetrical, made of basalt boulders, is cone-shaped structure and lies at a depth of between three and nine and 40 feet beneath the surface, about 1,600 feet from the sea's southwestern shore. Its base is buried under sediment. The authors conclude the structure is man-made, made of stones that originated nearby, and it weighs about 60,000 tons. The authors write it "is indicative of a complex, well-organized society, with planning skills and economic ability."
Yitzhak Paz, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority who is involved in the project, said that based on sediment buildup, it is between 2,000 and 12,000 years old. Based on other sites and artifacts found in the region, Paz places the site's origin some time during the 3rd millennium BCE, although he admits the timeframe is just a guess.
Archaeologists were also cautious about guessing the structure's purpose. They said possibilities include a burial site, a place of worship or even a fish nursery, which were common in the area, but they said they wanted to avoid speculation because they have so little information. It's not even clear if the structure was built on shore when the sea stood at a low level, or if it was constructed underwater.
In order to fill in the blanks, archaeologists hope to inspect the site underwater, despite the expense and the complexities. "Until we do more research, we don't have much more to add," Nadel said. "It's a mystery, and every mystery is interesting."
Edited Associated Press, NY Daily News (24 May 2013)