13 December 2017
Study shows how Neolithic weapons were made to kill with one strike
A weapon used by Neolithic people could kill with one blow, according to a new study which used forensic detection methods to recreate violence from the period.
Experts created a replica of a 5,500-year-old wooden club to inflict damage to a synthetic human skull. They found the so-called Thames Beater, pulled out of waterlogged soil on the north bank of the River Thames and carbon dated to roughly 3530 to 3340 BCE, would have made a lethal tool in the hands of its wielder.
Archaeologists from the University of Edinburgh used tools normally employed to analyse the impact of gun shots. The researchers wanted to test whether the cricket bat-like paddle could have been used to inflict the kind of damage found on bodies buried in Western and Central Europe during the Neolithic era. One fracture pattern observed by the team mirrored damage to a skull from a 5200 BCE massacre site called Asparn/Schletz in Austria.
Meaghan Dyer, PhD candidate at the university, said: "No one was trying to identify why there was blunt-force trauma in the period. We realised we needed to start looking at weapons. We wanted to see if we could come up with a really efficient method to determine which tools could be used as weapons. We didn't go out aiming to replicate a particular injury, and when we got that fracture pattern, we were quite excited."
Experts believe that if they can link specific weapons to specific injuries, they can start to reconstruct scenes of violence in the Neolithic era. They think weapons like the Thames Beater would only have been used in instances when they wanted to kill their opponent. The team had also discovered that direct blows can result in fractures previously attributed to falls. This could suggest that deaths put down to accidents may have in fact been the result of violence.
Edited from The Daily Mail (11 December 2017)
New theory: Stonehenge was built as part of a fertility cult
Accortding to a new study, Stonehenge could have been built as part of a fertility cult, with the stones positioned to cast phallic shadows inside the monument during midsummer. Archaeologist Terence Meaden, examined nearly 20 stone circles throughout Britain, filming their changing silhouettes during sunrise on ritually significant dates.
Prof Meaden said the builders of Stonehenge, and other megalithic circles had created a 'play without words', in which one special stone cast a growing phallic shadow, which penetrated the egg-shaped monument before hitting a central 'female' stone symbolising fertility and abundance. It is the first time it has been suggested that these stones were oriented in order to create a 'moving spectacle'. Prof Meaden also discovered that a similar light show happens at Drombeg Stone Circle in Co Cork, where he spent 120 days photographing sunrise at the site over five years.
The circular shape of the Stonehenge monuments allowed the same 'play' to recur at important dates in the neolithic farming calendar throughout the year, Prof Meaden believes. "Stones were positioned such that at sunrise on auspicious dates of the year, phallic shadows would be cast from a male-symbolic stone to a waiting female-symbolic stone," said Prof Meaden. "At Stonehenge, on days of clear sunrise, the shadow of the externally-sited phallic Heel Stone penetrates the great monument in the week of the summer solstice and finally arrives at the recumbent Altar Stone, which is symbolically female. This could be a dramatic visual representation of the consummation of the gods between a Sky Father and the Earth Mother Goddess."
He found that the 'fertility play' occurs on eight ritually significant dates, starting on the winter solstice. Further studies of six other stone circles in Co Cork and Scotland found that they also aligned to the calendar.
However other experts were less convinced by the theory. Barney Harris, an archaeology doctoral student from UCL said: "If it was so important to cast shadows back into the henge then why not do it during the midwinter sunset as well as at the midsummer sunrise?" Professor Mike Paker-Pearson, also of UCL, said: "Why would phalli have lintels on top? It's just bonkers."
Edited from The New Zealand Herald (10 December 2017), The Irish Independent (11 December 2017)
Uncovering varied pathways to agriculture
Around 15,000 years ago, the Natufian culture appeared in what is today's Middle East. This culture, which straddled the border between nomadic and settled lifestyles, had diverse, complex origins. This finding arises from new research by a team of scientists and archaeologists from the Weizmann Institute of Science and the University of Copenhagen.
The hunter-gatherers of the Natufian culture were spread over modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria around 14,500 - 11,500 years ago. They were some of the first people to build permanent houses and tend to edible plants. These innovations were most likely crucial to the subsequent emergence of agriculture during the Neolithic era. Previous research had suggested that the center of this culture was the Mount Carmel and Galilee region, and that it had spread from there to other parts of the region. The new study by the Copenhagen-Weizmann team, challenges this 'core region' theory.
Excavations of the Shubayqa 1 site uncovered a well-preserved Natufian site, which included, among other things, a large assemblage of charred plant remains. These kinds of botanical remains enabled the Weizmann-Copenhagen team to obtain the largest number of dates for any Natufian site yet in Israel or Jordan. The dating was undertaken by Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto at the Weizmann Institute of Science.
Over twenty samples from different layers of the site were dated, showing that the site was first settled not long after the earliest dates obtained for northern Israel. Either Natufians expanded very rapidly into the region (which is the less-likely explanation), or the settlement patterns emerged more or less simultaneously in different parts of the region.
"The early date of Shubayqa 1 shows that Natufian hunter-gatherers were more versatile than previously thought. Past research had linked the emergence of Natufian culture to the rich habitat of the Mediterranean woodland zone. But the early dates from Shubayqa show that these late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers were also able to live quite comfortably in more open parkland steppe zones further east," says Dr.Tobias Richter, who led the excavations at the site from 2012 to 2015. Some of their subsistence appears to have relied heavily on the exploitation of club rush tubers, as well as other wild plants and the hunting of birds, gazelle and other animals.
These new dates do not always jibe with the idea that climate change was the main driver of abandonment or resettlement, although it clearly played a role. Boaretto says that the 'core area' theory may have come about, in part, because the Mt. Carmel sites have been the best preserved and studied, until now. In addition to calling into question the idea of the Natufian beginning in one settlement and spreading outwards, the study suggests that the hunter-gatherers who lived 15,000 to 12,000 years ago were ingenious and resourceful. They learned to make use of numerous plants and animals where ever they were, and to tend them in a way that led to early settlement. The authors say that this supports a view in which there were many pathways to agriculture and "the 'Neolithic way of life' was a highly variable and complex process that cannot be explained on the basis of single-cause models."
Edited from EurekAlert! (7 December 2017)
Mapping Venezuelan rock art
Rock engravings located in Western Venezuela - including some of the largest recorded anywhere in the world - have been mapped in unprecedented detail by University College London (UCL) researchers. The engravings, some of which are thought to be up to 2,000 years old, include depictions of animals, humans and cultural rituals. One panel is 304 square meters containing at least 93 individual engravings, the largest of which measure several metres across. Another engraving of a horned snake measures more than 30 metres in length.
All the rock art surveyed is located in the Atures Rapids (Raudales de Atures) area of Amazonas state in Venezuela, historically reported as the home of the native Adoles. Eight groups of engraved rock art were recorded on five islands within the Rapids. Drone technology was used to photograph the engravings, some of which are in highly inaccessible areas. Historically low water levels in the Orinoco River at the time the research was carried out also meant more of the engravings were exposed.
Dr Philip Riris (UCL Institute of Archaeology) said: "The Rapids are an ethnic, linguistic and cultural convergence zone. The motifs documented here display similarities to several other rock art sites in the locality, as well as in Brazil, Colombia, and much further afield. This is one of the first in-depth studies to show the extent and depth of cultural connections to other areas of northern South America in pre-Columbian and Colonial times. While painted rock art is mainly associated with remote funerary sites, these engravings are embedded in the everyday - how people lived and travelled in the region, the importance of aquatic resources and the seasonal rhythmic rising and falling of the water. The size of some of the individual engravings is quite extraordinary."
Rock engravings of the Middle Orinoco River have been studied before, but never in this level of detail. The research therefore offers the opportunity for new insights into the archaeological and ethnographic context of the engravings.
Almost all of the engravings found in the Rapids are inundated and exposed to varying degrees by seasonally rising and falling water levels in the Orinoco. In one panel surveyed, a motif of a flautist surrounded by other human figures probably depicts part of an indigenous rite of renewal. Performances conceivably coincided with the seasonal emergence of the engravings from the river just before the onset of the wet season, when the islands are more accessible and the harvest would take place.
Edited from EurekAlert! (7 December 2017)
12 December 2017
Oetzi the Iceman gets the big screen treatment
There can be no more famous a person in European archaeology than 'Oetzi the Iceman'. The remains of this 5,300 year old Alpine hunter have been at the centre of an unprecedented degree of attention and examination since a German couple first stumbled across him in the ice of the southern Tyrol, on the borders of northern Italy and southern Austria. In 1991.
Now a German film maker has dramatized his life into a feature film. The film fictionalises Oetzi's travels through the Otztal Alps and speculated on how and why he eventually died, to lie preserved in the ice for thousands of years.
Despite Oetzi's existing vast popularity with tourists, ever since he was displayed under controlled conditions in a special museum in Bolzano, northern Italy, the museum is bracing itself for an even higher number of visitors following the film's release. Even though there has been some criticism from some academic quarters, the film attempts to show how Oetzi might have lived and hunted. They have even gone to the extent of making the actor who portrays him speak in a pre-Roman language called Rhaetic, which it is believed was spoken in that area at the time.
Despite what will undoubtedly lead to more interest in this intriguing figure there are serious concerns that the interested generated could lead to Oetzi's destruction. This increased attention by both the public and scientists are having an effect on the controlled conditions in which he is preserved.
The museum is having to conduct a constant process of hydration to the remains, keeping it cool at the same time. The fear is that microbes and bacteria could be introduced during the process and the forensic scientist in charge of the process, Oliver Peschel, is so concerned that he is quoted as saying "If we're not extremely careful Oetzi will go bad on us". Despite these dire concerns scientists are far from finished examining him!
Edited from The Guardian (3 December 2017)
Unusual Bronze Age find in Suffolk
As part of the standard pre-construction archaeological investigations, before any major development in the UK, some remarkable finds have been made on a housing development near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk (UK).
Whilst the site have provided exciting evidence of continuous settlement and use for thousands of years from the Iron Age, the Roman occupation, medieval period and more recent 20th. Century activity, the main attention has been focused firmly on the Bronze Age discoveries.
The unusual element centres around the uncovering of two mounds comprising stones, which would have been heated up to allow the transfer of the heat to a reservoir of water, as part of the process in the preparation of animal skins. Not unusual in itself you may think but it is the location, away from a natural water course, that has caused the excitement.
The dig is being led by Suffolk archaeology and a member of the team, Alex Fisher, is quoted as saying "The findings give us more information about how the land was used at various periods in history but the Bronze Age discoveries are particularly exciting because they are surprising. The burnt mounds were unexpected in this region and the fact that they do not follow the usual patterns also throws up yet more questions, which helps us discover more about the history of the area"".
Edited from East Anglia Daily Ti8mes (30 November 2017)
Glimpse of Britain's Neolithic civilization
Around 140 kilometres west-southwest of London, midway between the monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury, an extraordinary Early Neolithic long barrow known as Cat's Brain was excavated this past summer by the University of Reading Archaeology Field School. The site likely dates to around 3,800 BCE.
It has long been assumed that Neolithic long barrows are funerary monuments. They are often described as 'houses of the dead' due to their similarity in shape to the long houses occupied by those living at the time, but limited evidence for human remains from many of these monuments calls this interpretation into question.
Indeed, the excavations at Cat's Brain failed to find any human remains, instead revealing a surprisingly large timber hall, suggesting that it was very much a 'house for the living'. Measuring almost 20 metres long and 10 metres wide at the front, it was built with posts and beams raised over deeply cut foundation trenches. Some of the timbers were colossal, and it's general appearance is that of a robust building with its entrance centred in an impressively large facade, and interior space for considerable numbers of people.
Timber halls appear to have lasted two or three generations before being deliberately destroyed or abandoned.
Towards the end of excavations, researchers uncovered two decorated chalk blocks which had been placed in a posthole during the construction of the hall.
Edited from Newsweek (20 November 2017), The Conversation (20 November 2017), Salon (3 December 2017)
7 December 2017
Adornments tell about culture of Paleolithic people
Sungir Upper Paleolithic site is about 200 kilometres east of Moscow, and dates to 29,000-31,000 years BP - one of the earliest records of Homo sapiens in Europe. Scientists began to study the site over 30 years ago. The encampment of prehistoric hunters includes a burial site of a 40-50 year old man and a grave of two children who died at around 10 to 14 years of age. Excavations have revealed over 80 thousand different artefacts.
Led by Moscow State University archaeologist Dr Vladislav Zhitenev, a group studying bone jewelry found at the site found that many items were crafted specifically for burial purposes, while others were worn on a daily basis.
Dr Zhitenev says the children's grave contains more adornments and other burial items than any other Upper Paleolithic burial site in Eurasia. Pendants made from the teeth of Arctic fox, bone beads, and other personal ornaments show signs of having been worn for a long time. Other ornaments found at the burials were hurriedly made, evidently crafted specifically for the burial ceremony. These include a large but roughly polished horse figurine, and a carelessly made tusk disk. It is thought some burial items were made by children. Separated by several generations at most, the style of the ornaments found in both the children's grave and the later adult burial are identical.
Influenced by many cultures of Europe and the Russian Plain, Sungir adornments are difficult to classify. They have a lot in common with the Aurignacian culture that was widely spread in Western and Central Europe in the Early Upper Paleolithic, as well as artefacts some early sites in Kostenki, all combined with stone objects crafted using a Neanderthal technology, although the remains are of Homo sapiens.
Dr Zhitenev plans to focus further studies on intercultural communication, comparing sites with and without a Neanderthal component.
Edited from EurekAlert! (30 November 2017)
Neolithic women's arm bones stronger than today's elite female rowers
The study of ancient bones suggests agricultural work had a profound effect on the bodies of women living in central Europe between the early Neolithic and late Iron Age, from about 5,300 BCE to 100 CE.
University of Cambridge study co-author Dr Alison Macintosh, says: "We think a lot of what we are seeing is the bone's response to women grinding grain, which is pretty much seated but using your arms really repetitively many hours a day."
By medieval times, the strength of women's arm bones was on a par with that of the average woman today.
The research builds on previous work on male leg bones by the same team, which revealed a decline in strength since the late Iron Age.
Dr Macintosh reveals: "Early farming men had these really strong leg bones - when you compared them to living men they were close to what you see in living runners, suggesting they were really active."
The team examined the remains of 94 women spanning about 6,000 years from around 5,300 BCE through to the 9th century, from countries including Germany, Austria, and northern Serbia, as well as scans from bones of 83 living women runners, rowers, footballers, and others not particularly athletic.
The results demonstrate that while the arm bones of women from the Neolithic to the late Iron Age showed variations in strength, they were consistently stronger than those of rowers, football players, and non-athletic women for their left arm, and the latter two groups for their right.
While grinding grain was likely a key factor in boosting ancient women's bone strength, pottery making, planting and harvesting crops, tending livestock and other strenuous occupations could also have contributed.
"Women have been doing rigorous labour over thousands of years that's really been underestimated so far because we haven't been comparing them to living women," Dr Macintosh concludes.
Edited from The Guardian (29 November 2017)
6 December 2017
Unique Iron Age artefacts reveal prehistoric feasting
Eleven cauldrons, an ancient sword, fine ring-headed dress pins, an involuted brooch, and a cast copper alloy object known as a 'horn-cap' are among unprecedented Iron Age finds by University of Leicester archaeologists at a site in Glenfield Park, about 160 kilometres north-northwest of London - the most northerly discovery of such objects on mainland Britain and the only find of this type of cauldron in the East Midlands. Excavation director John Thomas, from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, calls it "one of the more important discoveries of recent years."
Believed to have been a ritual and ceremonial centre for a community that hosted large feasts, evidence suggests the site was used over a long period of time by multiple generations.
Thomas says: "The quantity and quality of the finds far outshines most of the other contemporary assemblages from the area, and its composition is almost unparalleled. The cauldron assemblage in particular makes this a nationally important discovery," adding that, "Due to their large capacity it is thought that Iron Age cauldrons were reserved for special occasions and would have been important social objects, forming the centrepiece of major feasts, perhaps in association with large gatherings and events," adding that, "The importance of cauldrons as symbolic objects is reflected in their frequent appearance in early medieval Irish and Welsh literature, which has been drawn upon in studies of Iron Age society."
The cauldrons are hemispherical copper alloy bowls with iron rims and upper bands with two iron ring handles attached, made in a variety of sizes, with rims ranging between 360mm and 560mm in diameter. They are rarely found in large numbers. Most appear to have been deliberately laid in a large circular enclosure ditch surrounding a building, suggesting they were buried to mark the cessation of activities associated with this part of the site. Other cauldrons were found buried across the site.
Scans reveal exceptionally rare evidence for decoration from the period. One is a complete cauldron with has raised stem and leaf motifs close to the handles on the iron band. Another has been identified on a small copper alloy bowl fragment, which has a domed rivet or raised boss decoration.
Edited from Leicester Mercury, PhysORG (27 November 2017)
5 December 2017
Iron Age remains found during roadworks in Scotland
A possible Iron Age structure, tool and pottery pieces have been unearthed during roadworks in the Highlands of Scaotland. Archaeologists made the discoveries on the Crubenmore to Kincraig stretch of the A9 road.
The experts have now found pottery fragments, part of a plough and a previously-unknown structure close to a prehistoric underground structure called Raitt's Cave, near Kingussie.
As with all major infrastructure projects, Transport Scotland appointed a team of experts to check for previously-hidden ancient structures and other significant finds. Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) took up the task and opened a number of trenches to investigate anomalies identified in a survey.
Traces of a previously-unknown structure were identified together with a scattering of pottery fragments and a possible stone Ard point - a stone worked into a point for use as part of a plough.
The pottery was identified by Iron Age expert Martin Carruthers as a possible collection of early fragments from the period. These findings led the archaeologists to believe the structure may be associated with the Raitt's Cave souterrain. This underground structure is a scheduled monument and is very large compared with most similar pieces in the north of Scotland.
Souterrains remain a point of contention, as their use is still debated by archaeologists across the UK. It is believed they may have been used for storage, defence or some unidentified ritual, but commonly they are associated with settlement in the Bronze and Iron ages.
Edited from The Herald, BBC News; Metro.co.uk (4 December 2017)
Prehistoric graves discovered in Norway
Archaeologists from Norwegian University of Science and Technology have unearthed Bronze Age graves ahead of planned road construction at Sandbrauta in Melhus municipality (Norway). "We don't often make a find like this," says Project Manager Merete Moe Henriksen.
Three smaller stone chambers typical of the period lie to the side of a larger stone ring. The stone ring is part of a burial mound that contains numerous graves. Local conditions have preserved the site remarkably well. Up to two metres of clay from a landslide covered the area: this mass of earth provides traces of a mudslide that may have taken place already in prehistoric times, perhaps just after people were laid in the graves. The clay settled like a lid over the graves, sealing the site and keeping it in good conditions.
According to the museum, the find represents an invaluable source of knowledge of the Bronze Age's burial traditions in central Norway. "We found charcoal and burned bones in the graves," says project manager Henriksen.
Archaeologists have known that there could be exciting discoveries here since 2014, when they conducted a pre-roadwork investigation with the county's cultural heritage council. They found signs of human activity from earlier times.
Museum Director Reidar Andersen hopes that some of the discoveries from the site will be exhibited at a later date. He believes the potential is great for an exhibit; however, the area will become inexorably changed with the planned roadwork. In any case, the survey area is being mapped using photogrammetry, so that the archaeologists end up with a detailed three-dimensional map.
Close to the big burial mound, the museum found part of a rock slab with indented figures, shaped like bowl depressions and a foot. These are motifs that have been found on other rock carvings from this time, but the foot figure is distinct because, unlike most others, it is portrayed with toes rather than as a foot with a shoe on. The archaeologists believe that the slab may have been part of a burial chamber in the mound.
So far, no findings have been made that would confirm the presence of a settlement at the site. Postholes could indicate this, but might also have been part of a structure connected to the graveyard.
A casting mould for bronze axe heads was found on the same site. The mould might have been deposited as grave goods, but might also show that casting of bronze objects took place in the region. Both the carvings on the rock and on the mould suggest that the gravesite was probably used in the Late Nordic Bronze Age, between 1100 and 500 BCE.
Edited from Gemini Research News (4 December 2017)
Bronze Age elite forged iron weapons and jewelry from meteorites
How could people living during the Bronze Age pull off the difficult process of making iron? They didn't, concludes a new study; instead, they got the iron for the rare iron artifacts discovered from the period in an easy-to-use form: meteorites hitting Earth.
There have always been rare objects made of iron long before the Bronze Age faded. Archaeologists have been stumped by these objects because iron is much more difficult to process than bronze, and they didn't think any Bronze Age civilizations had the skills needed to do so.
Albert Jambon, a mineralogist at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in France, tackles these weird early iron exceptions in a paper, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Jambon wanted to determine plausibility that there was some, as he describes it in the paper, 'precocious smelting' of iron during the Bronze Age.
So Jambon tracked down the early pieces of iron that popped up during the Bronze Age, when iron was more valuable than gold. Those included a Syrian ax made around 1400 BCE and bracelets found in Poland from about 700 BCE.
Then, he analyzed those items, looking at ratios of the elements iron, cobalt and nickel to evaluate the iron's origins and found that everything before about 1200 BCE seemed to come from meteorites. Iron from meteorites is much harder to track down than terrestrial iron, but it's much easier to process. That means that while it was certainly a luxury item because of its rarity, it doesn't represent a previously unknown technological advance.
Pre-smelting iron artifacts made from meteorites have been discovered around the world, including in Greenland, eastern North America and Tibet.
Edited from Newsweek (4 December 2017)
Jersey calls for return of ancient dolmen rebuilt in England
Dolmen stones discovered in 1785 near the Jersey capital Saint Helier were taken to the Oxfordshire estate of Jersey governor General Henry Seymour Conway three years later as a retirement gift. The estate is now on the market for 7 million pounds, and residents of Jersey are hopeful they can buy the stones and return them to the island, a British Crown Dependency just off the coast of Brittany.
Built from slabs of pink granite, the dolmen is now in the grounds of Templecombe House in Henley-on-Thames, about 60 kilometres west of London. One man is planning to crowdfund 8 million pounds online in a bid to purchase the estate, repatriate the dolmen, then resell the estate.
The stones formed one of dozens of dolmens across the island. Many were broken up for building materials in the 17th and 18th centuries. General Conway was persuaded by his cousin - author Horace Walpole - to pay for the transport of his gift. Walpole wrote: 'Pray do not disappoint me but transport the Cathedral of your island to your domain on our continent.'
The island has attempted to claim back the dolmen and the issue was brought up in Parliament in 1928. In the book Megaliths in History in 1973, author Glyn Daniel wrote: 'It is not a mock megalith or folly; it is a genuine antiquity but has no right to be in southern Britain.'
Edited from Daily Mail (25 November 2017)
Neolithic link between Cyprus and Lebanon
At the site of Prastio-Mesorotsos in the Paphos district (Cyrpus), a number of shallow pits were found many containing broken objects placed in a ritualistic manner, including stone vessels, human remains and a fragment of an anthropomorphic clay figurine.
The discovery of a rare stone-shaped engraved object confirmed that the site was in use during the Aceramic Neolithic period, from around 7000 BCE. These engraved stone objects have also been found in the neighbouring location of Choletria-Ortos, Choirokitia and Lebanon. Although their use has not yet been established, these objects reveal contact between Cyprus and inhabitants of other coasts at a time when the island's special Neolithic culture is thought to have been developed.
The discoveries were announced at the completion of this year's archeological investigations at the site, under the direction of Andrew McCarthy from the University of Edinburgh, and the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI).
The archaeological site is situated around the valley of the Diarizos river; its location and its easy access to a variety of raw materials are elements that appear to have contributed to its longevity. During the 10th excavation period, the research team conducted excavations in four areas revealing remains dated to the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Early and Middle Bronze Age.
In previous seasons the team discovered a series of Early Bronze Age roundhouses, which show a continuity from the preceding Late Chalcolithic period. The most significant architectural and social change seems to have occurred between the Early and Middle Bronze Age when the whole settlement changed from a small, open-air village to a more organised settlement with terraces.
In the excavation area are remains of these terraces in good condition where a wall seems to have had a height of up to two floors. This helps to understand how the settlement would have looked like during the Middle Bronze Age shortly before its inhabitants abandoned it: a village built on various levels with dense terraces and walls.
Edited from CyprusMail Online (4 December 2017)