2 July 2015
Excavation begins at England's Marden Henge
Archaeologists are embarking on a three-year series of excavations in the Vale of Pewsey, between the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury - a little explored archaeological region of international importance.
The project will investigate Marden Henge, built around 2400 BCE - the largest henge in the country, and one of Britain's most important but least understood prehistoric monuments. Excavation within the Henge will focus on the surface of a Neolithic building revealed during earlier excavations. The people who used this building may also have helped to build Stonehenge.
According to Dr Jim Leary, Director of the University of Reading Archaeology Field School: "This excavation is the beginning of a new chapter in the story of Stonehenge and its surrounds. Using the latest survey, excavation and scientific techniques, the project will reveal priceless insight into the lives of those who witnessed its construction."
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, adds: "Bigger than Avebury, ten times the size of Stonehenge and half way between the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Sites, comparatively little is known about this fascinating and ancient landscape. The work will help Historic England focus on identifying sites for protection and improved management, as well as adding a new dimension to our understanding of this important archaeological environment."
The six week dig runs from 15th June to 25th July. Visitors are welcome to see the excavation in progress every day, except Fridays, between 10am and 5pm. Groups must book in advance.
There will also be a chance for the public to visit the site on two 'Open Days' - Saturday 4th July and Saturday 18th July. (To visit the excavation, follow Sat Nav SN10 3RH.)
Edited from University of Reading PR (15 June 2015)
Was this the first recorded murder?
In a remote part of Northern Spain, at an archaeological site known as Sima de los Huesos (literal translation - Pit of Bones), a team of researchers have found what could possibly be the first recorded case of a murder being deliberately committed. The site in question is actually an underground cave system, with the only access being through a narrow 13 metre vertical shaft.
Several skeletal remains have been found in the caves (totalling at least 28 individuals so far), at the bottom of the shaft, dating from approximately 430,000 years ago, in the Middle Pleistocene Era. The team have managed to piece together one skull, from 52 fragments. Complete that is except for two identical holes, which it is believed, were caused by two blows on the upper forehead from an unknown source.
This conjecture has been confirmed by using modern forensic techniques, which prove beyond doubt that the blows/impact was sufferer before either an accidental or deliberate fall down the shaft (too identical to be caused by impact during the fall). Accidental? It is thought not, the current theory being that the cave was actually part of some funerary or sacrificial site.
One member of the team, Rolf Quam, a paleoanthropologist from Binghampton University (USA) is quoted as saying "One implication of the study is that murder is a very ancient human behaviour". Danielle Kurin, from the University of Santa Barbara USA (who is a forensic anthropologist, but was not part of the research team), added "Keeping in mind these guys were robust and this was one of the denser parts of the skull, you would need a lot of force to make a fracture that causes the bone to get knocked into the brain." Rolf Quam added: "We are pretty sure that these two fractures are the result of two repeated blows with the same implement, and that implies a clear intent to kill".
Edited from PhysOrg, Mirror (27 May 2015), Stuff.co.nz, The Scotsman (28 May 2015)
30 June 2015
Iron Age warrior lived with arrowhead in spine
A horrific spinal injury caused by a bronze arrowhead didn't immediately kill an Iron Age warrior, who survived long enough for his bone to heal around the metal point, a new study of his burial in central Kazakhstan finds.
"This found individual was extremely lucky to survive," said study researcher Svetlana Svyatko, a research fellow in the school of geography, archaeology and paleoecology at Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland. "It's hard to get a vertebral wound without damaging the main blood vessels, which would have resulted in an immediate death."
The male warrior was likely between 25 and 45 years old, and stood 174cm in height, which was tall considering that his people stood an average of 165cm in height, the researchers said. They found his grave, an elaborate burial mound called a 'kurgan,' after getting a tip from local people who live in the area.
The researchers have studied the area in central Kazakhstan for more than 20 years. Their work has shed light on the area's culture and the emergence of the powerful Scythians (also known as the Saka), a population of fierce nomads who lived on the central Eurasian steppes from about the eighth century BCE to about the second century CE, said study researcher Arman Beisenov, the head of prehistoric archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology in Kazakhstan.
The kurgan was likely no more than 2m high and about 22.5m in diameter when built, Beisenov said. However, evidence suggests that robbers plundered the site in ancient times, and that local people reused much of its soil and stones for housing in the 1960s and 1970s, he said. The grave suggests the individual belonged to the early Saka nomadic aristocracy, but the plundered kurgan held only a few scattered bones, including ribs, fibulae (lower-leg bones) and a vertebra. Radiocarbon dating suggests the individual lived sometime between the eighth and sixth centuries BCE.
A close look at the man's bones revealed a bronze arrowhead - made of copper, tin, and traces of lead and iron - lodged in one of his vertebrae. The researchers also found a rib with a healed fracture, but it's unclear whether the man received these injuries at the same time as the arrow wound, the researchers said. It's also unclear how long he survived following his injuries, they said.
Computed tomography (CT) scans showed that the arrowhead, measuring 5.6cm long, caused more than just a flesh wound. In fact, it "teaches us is the power of the human body to heal," said Aleksey Shitvov, a research team assistant at Queen's University Belfast who works with the group, but wasn't among the study's authors.
Edited from LiveScience (29 June 2015)
Volunteers help restore ramparts of Northumberland hillfort
Volunteers from Northumberland National Park (North East England) have seen the culmination of many years of work as major conservation started to repair the crumbling ramparts of Harehaugh Hillfort in Coquetdale.
Harehaugh Hillfort was built by Iron Age people 2,500 years ago and the essential conservation work now underway will see the hillfort finally removed from the Heritage at Risk register. The work to save the hillfort is a direct result of more than 20 years of research, excavation and monitoring by archaeologists from Newcastle University that has been funded by Northumberland National Park Authority, Historic England and Natural England.
National Park volunteers and staff have been helping to fill 2,000 sandbags with organic topsoil to restore the profile of the badly-eroded sections of rampart. A layer of wire mesh will be laid over and across the sandbags and buried beneath a fresh layer of soil and organic grass seed to discourage burrowing animals from returning.
Chris Jones, historic environment officer for Northumberland National Park, said: "This is the biggest such repair project to any archaeological site of this type in the National Park. Volunteers from the National Park Heritage at Risk group are trained to identify, assess and record damage to scheduled monuments and work extremely hard to protect this and other important archaeological sites in the National Park."
Richard Carlton, from Newcastle-based The Archaeological Practice Ltd, added: "Our research has found a complex archaeological monument of some importance both locally and nationally. The monitoring work we carried out over a ten year period has found that the erosion on the ramparts which has taken place over a long period of time is significantly impacting on the archaeological remains and that repairs were necessary to help the landowner to protect the monument."
The repairs are being funded by an Organic Higher Level Scheme and will take about three weeks to complete. Earlier preparatory work was funded by Historic England.
Edited from Northumberland Gazette (5 June 2015)
Cornwall was scene of prehistoric gold rush
New archaeological research is revealing that south-west Britain was the scene of a prehistoric gold rush. Geological estimates now indicate that up to 200 kilos of gold was extracted in the Early Bronze Age from Cornwall and West Devon's rivers - mainly between the 22nd and 17th centuries BCE.
New archaeological and metallurgical research suggests that substantial amounts were exported to Ireland, with smaller quantities probably also going to France. It also suggests that the elites of Stonehenge almost certainly likewise obtained their gold from the south-west peninsula, as may the rulers of north-west Wales, who took to wearing capes made of solid gold.
The archaeologist who has carried out the metallurgical research, Dr Chris Standish of Southampton University, believes that although Cornwall's prehistoric gold production was of considerable cultural and potentially political significance, it was, for the most part, merely a by-product of an even more important industry - tin extraction. "The available evidence strongly suggests that in Bronze Age Cornwall and West Devon, tin wasn't obtained through mining, but was instead extracted from the areas' rivers, probably through panning or sophisticated damming and sluicing systems," said Dr Standish. "But, as well as finding tin in the sand and gravels of the streams and rivers, they also found gold," he added.
Indeed, fine woolly sheepskins may well have been used to 'catch' the tiny grains of both tin and gold - in a technique similar to that which, in ancient Greek mythology, probably gave rise to the concept of the Golden Fleece. Cornish tin was crucial to the development of the Bronze Age in Western Europe, Britain and Ireland - because in order to make bronze, the prehistoric metalworkers had to combine copper with tin.
"It would almost certainly have attracted substantial numbers of prospectors. In an average year Bronze Age gold hunters there may well have been able to extract a total of more than 150 grams per year - with, conceivably, more than double that in a good year," said geologist, Simon Camm, a leading expert on Cornish gold and author of the only book ever written on the subject - Gold in the Counties of Cornwall and Devon.
Like much of the Cornish gold, some of the tin was almost certainly 'exported' to Ireland where it was mixed with Irish copper to make bronze. As the Bronze Age progressed, large quantities of tin were also exported to the great North Welsh copper mining area near Llandudno where it was used to make even greater quantities of bronze, especially bronze axes.
Although estimates suggest that up to 200 kilos of gold were extracted from the south-west peninsula during the Early Bronze Age, only around 270 gold artefacts from that period, totalling some eight kilos, have ever been found and recorded in Britain and Ireland.
Much of the gold was beaten into thin sheets that were then cut into crescent-shaped 'breast plates'. Recent research suggests that they may have been used as part of sun worship rituals. Unlike many Bronze Age treasures, they were not normally used as grave goods for the dead - but were instead buried in peat bogs and other places as votive offerings to the gods.
Sadly, the great majority of gold artifacts originally manufactured during that era were almost certainly repeatedly melted down over the centuries to manufacture later artifacts.
Edited from The Independent (4 June 2015)
29 June 2015
5,500-year-old fingerprint found on Danish vessel
Danish archaeologists doing a survey ahead of the construction of the Femern Belt link scheme, an immersed tunnel that will connect the German island of Fehmarn with the Danish island of Lolland, have found a 5,500-year old-ceramic vessel bearing the fingerprint of the artisan who made it. It was found in pieces in a former fjord east of Rødby Havn, on the south coast of Lolland, Denmark.
The vessel is known with the name 'funnel beaker,' a kind of ceramics which features a flat bottom with a funnel shaped neck. Such earthenware is characteristic of the Funnel Beaker Culture (4000-2800 BCE), which represents the first farmers in Scandinavia and the north European plain.
"It is one of three beakers at the site, which originally was deposited whole probably containing some food or liquid presumably as part of some long forgotten ritual," Line Marie Olesen, archaeologist at the Museum Lolland-Falster said. At the same site Olesen and colleagues last year found a 5,500-year-old flint axe with the handle still attached. The axe was deliberately jammed into what used to be the seabed during the Stone Age.
As the beaker was brought to the Danish National Museum for conservation, experts noticed a fingerprint on the interior surface. "It must have been left there while manufacturing the pot," Olesen said. "The fragile fingerprint, left unintentionally, is an anonymous, yet very personal signature, which somehow brings us a bit closer to the prehistoric people and their actions," Olesen added.
Last year the same archaeological survey unearthed 5,000-year-old footprints left by people who attempted to save parts of their fishing system before it was flooded and covered in sand.
Edited from Discovery News (26 June 2015)
Early Bronze Age sun-disc revealed to the public
For the first time, an early Bronze Age sun-disc from Monkton Farleigh in Wiltshire (England) is being exhibited for public view at the Wiltshire Museum, in time for this year's summer solstice. It is one of only 6 sun-disc finds and is one of the earliest metal objects found in Britain. Made in about 2,400 BCE, soon after the sarsen stones were erected at Stonehenge, it is thought to represent the sun.
The sun-disc was initially found in 1947 in a burial mound at Monkton Farleigh, just over 20 miles from Stonehenge, during excavations conducted by Guy Underwood. With it were found a pottery beaker, flint arrowheads and fragments of the skeleton of an adult male. It was kept safe by the landowner since its discovery and has only now been given to the Museum after careful cleaning by the Wiltshire Council Conservation Service.
The sun-disc is a thin embossed sheet of gold with a cross at the center, surrounded by a circle. Between the lines of both the cross and the circle are fine dots which glint in sunlight. The disc is pierced by two holes that may have been used to sew the disc to a piece of clothing or a head-dress, and may have been used in pairs. Until recently it has been thought that early Bronze Age gold may have come from Ireland, but a new scientific technique developed at Southampton University is suggesting that the gold may have come from Cornwall.
Museum Director David Dawson said "We have the best Bronze Age collections in Britain and we are delighted to be able to display this incredibly rare sun-disk through the generosity of the donors. It was kept safe since its discovery by Dr Denis Whitehead and the first time that it had been seen by archaeologists was when he brought it to show me at the launch of our new Prehistory Galleries in 2013."
Edited from Popular Archaeology (19 June 2015)
Prehistoric statuettes found in Peru
Researchers in Peru have discovered a trio of statuettes they believe were created by the ancient Caral civilization some 3,800 years ago. The mud statuettes were found inside a reed basket in a building at the ancient city of Vichama in northern Peru, which is today an important archaeological site.
The newly found statuettes were probably used in religious rituals performed before breaking ground on a new building. Two of the figures, a naked man and woman painted in white, black and red, are believed to represent political authorities. The third, a woman with 28 fingers and red dots on her white face, is believed to represent a priestess. The research team, led by archaeologist Ruth Shady, also unearthed two mud figurines of women's faces wrapped in cloth and covered with yellow, blue and orange feathers.
The Caral civilization emerged some 5,000 years ago and lived in Peru's Supe Valley, leaving behind impressive architecture including pyramids and sunken amphitheaters.
Edited from PhysOrg (9 June 2015)
28 May 2015
Megalithic monuments discovered in India
A team of archaeologists discovered several new megalithic monuments in Karbi Anglong district (Assam, north-eastern India).
The team, which was headed by Director Dr Deepi Rekha Kouli and comprised the Directorate's Technical Officer Nabajit Deori, Exploration Officer Chabina Hassan, Guide Lecturer Dilip Sarma, Photographer Apurba Gogoi and Foreman Arup Jyoti Deori, was assisted by the Gauhati University's (GU) Department of Anthropology in its venture. It was the first joint effort of the Directorate of Archaeology and the GU Department of Anthropology to study the megalithic tradition.
Technical Officer Deori said that the team explored the Nonjirong megalithic site, which dominates the western plateau of Hamren in Karbi Anglong. Although many of the monuments here have crumbled or disappeared due to natural causes, many of them are still standing. Among the five megalithic sites of Nonjirong, three sites have been previously reported, but two new sites have been discovered by the team.
The team visited and documented a site known as Hithi, located on a bank of a stream Umrenkhang. Both dolmens and menhirs are found at the site. The size of the menhirs varies from 1.53m to 0.58m while that of the dolmen slab varies from 1.35m to 1m found resting at the highest height of 0.88m from the ground level.
The megalith in Umchera is a single menhir erected by the side of a gravel road on the way to Kanduli. The front side of the menhir is flat and the backside is semi circular in shape. The upper portion is tapering towards the top. The measurement of the menhir is 2.95mx1.18mx0.80m.
Among the megalithic sites of Hamren subdivision, only the Tikka site is protected by a concrete boundary wall by the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council. The site has eight upright stones with dolmen slabs.
The team has done systematic mapping of the distribution of the megalithic monuments in Karbi Anglong Hills landscape, which has offered close insights into the system of settlement pattern on these hills at the time when the megalithic culture was prevalent in the area, Deuri said.
Edited from The Assam Tribune (24 May 2015)
The earliest depiction of a music scene
Israeli archaeologists found what they think is Israel's most ancient depiction of a music scene, Israel Antiquities Authority announced. The scene appears on a rare 5,000-year-old large storage vessel from the Early Bronze Age.
The relic was found in the 1970s at the Bet Ha-'Emeq site in the Western Galilee in northern Israel during an archaeological survey, but it was only recently that researchers have deciphered it. The impression was made by rolling a cylinder seal along the surface of clay, forming a series of repeating designs. It portrays three female figures, two standing and one sitting and playing a lyre.
According to the researchers, the impression reflects a musical rite which was part of a complex ritual known in Mesopotamia as the 'sacred marriage', a symbolic union between the king and a goddess (actually represented by a priestess). "This is the first time it is definitely possible to identify a figure playing an instrument on a seal impression from the third millennium BCE," said the researchers.
Edited from Indo Asian News Service (26 May 2015)
26 May 2015
Bronze Age Egtved girl was not from Denmark
Egtved Girl was a Nordic Bronze Age girl whose well-preserved remains were discovered outside Egtved, Denmark in 1921. Aged 16 to 18 at death, she was slim, 160 centimetres tall, had blonde hair and well-trimmed nails. Recent analyses show she was born and raised outside Denmark's current borders, and travelled great distances the last two years of her life.
The wool from the her clothing, the blanket she was covered with, and the oxhide she was laid to rest on all originate from the Black Forest, 800 kilometres away in southwest Germany - as do the cremated remains of a six-year-old child who was buried with the her. The girl's oak coffin dates the burial to the summer of 1370 BCE.
Senior researcher Karin Margarita Frei, from the National Museum of Denmark and the University of Copenhagen, traced the last two years of the Egtved Girl's life by examining the strontium isotopic signatures in the girl's 23-centimetre-long hair. The analysis shows that she had been on a long journey shortly before she died.
Kristian Kristiansen, of the University of Gothenburg and the University of Copenhagen, says: "In Bronze Age Western Europe, Southern Germany and Denmark were the two dominant centres of power, very similar to kingdoms. We find many direct connections between the two in the archaeological evidence, and my guess is that the Egtved Girl was a Southern German girl who was given in marriage to a man in Jutland so as to forge an alliance between two powerful families."
Denmark was rich in amber and traded amber for bronze. In Mycenaean Greece and in the Middle East, Baltic amber was as coveted as gold, and, through middlemen in Southern Germany, large quantities of amber were transported to the Mediterranean, and large quantities of bronze came to Denmark as payment. In the Bronze Age, bronze was as valuable a raw material, so Denmark became one of the richest areas of Northern Europe.
A great number of Danish Bronze Age graves contain human remains as well-preserved as those found in the Egtved Girl's grave. Karin Margarita Frei and Kristian Kristiansen plan to examine these remains with a view to analysing their strontium isotope signatures.
Edited from Phys.org (21 May 2015), Wikipedia
Hundreds of gaming pieces found in Utah cave
A cave on the shore of Utah's Great Salt Lake is giving archaeologists a rare glimpse into prehistoric gambling. Cave 1 has proven to hold a profusion of artefacts, most of which date to a span of just 20 to 40 years in the late 13th century CE, belonging to members of an obscure culture known as the Promontory. Researchers believe the Promontory people migrated from the Canadian Subarctic to the American Southwest.
Heaps of animal remains and children's footwear unearthed in the cave suggest this group was thriving in the late 1200s, when cultures like the nearby Fremont, who lived just a few kilometres away, had given up farming and were struggling to forage during a time of drought.
"The numbers and diversity of gaming artefacts that we see in the Promontory record are unparalleled in western North America," said Dr John Ives, an archaeologist who has been researching the cave complex for years.
Most of the game pieces are dice, made from split pieces of cane, one side decorated with cut or burned lines, the other side plain. Many were discovered near the entrance of the cave, around a large central hearth.
According to Alberta doctoral student Gabriel Yanicki, who is collaborating on the research, dice games were typically played only by women, for small stakes, or to allocate tasks like cooking.
Based on historical accounts, the pieces may have been used in a game in which three to eight dice were thrown to score points based on how many of the marked sides fell face-up, won by the first player to reach a predetermined score. While men usually didn't take part in dice games themselves, they often bet on the results.
The greatest significance of Cave 1's game pieces may not just be in how they were used, but in where they came from. The artefacts include gambling tools from nearly every part of the ancient American West.
The cane dice are similar to those found throughout much of the Southwest, but not elsewhere in the Great Basin. Researchers also discovered a die made from a beaver tooth wrapped in sinew, of a type used by the Klamath culture on the Oregon coast, 1400 kilometres to the west. "A spiral-incised stick looks similar to objects used in a guessing game played by a number of peoples in northern British Columbia," Yanicki says. A small sinew-netted hoop and feathered dart are indicative of gambling traditions from the Great Plains to the Colorado Plateau.
In a previous study of 200 moccasins found in the cave, Ives determined that the majority were in a style typical of the Canadian Subarctic. This and other clues suggest that the Promontory had only recently migrated to the Great Basin before settling in the cave, eventually giving rise to cultures that include the Apache and the Navajo.
Edited from Western Digs (18 May 2015)
25 May 2015
World's oldest stone tools
A recently published study reveals that stone tools found almost by accident on the shore of Lake Turkana, in Kenya, in 2011, are by far the oldest known.
The discovery challenges the notion that the things that made humans unique among primates all evolved around the same time, and suggests that other, more distant relatives knew how to fashion their own tools out of stone at least 3.3 million years ago.
Lead study author Sonia Harmand, of Stony Brook University and the Universite Paris Ouest Nanterre, says: "Our discovery instantly pushed back the beginning of the archaeological record by 700,000 years, or over a quarter of humanity's previously known material cultural history."
Many primates use items like sticks as tools, and other species even use rocks as tools, but actually making a tool was thought to be something exclusive to members of the genus Homo, which is believed to have appeared roughly 2.8 million years ago, and includes modern humans. The traditional view was that stone tool making, along with other key human traits such as language and meat-eating, evolved at that time.
It remains unknown what species made these stone tools. They could have been created by an undiscovered extinct human species, or by Australopithecus, which is currently the leading contender for the ancestor of the human lineage, or by Kenyanthropus, a 3.3-million-year-old skull of which was discovered in 1999 about 1 kilometre from where the tools were later found.
Analysis of carbon isotopes in the soil and animal fossils at the site revealed a partially wooded, shrubby palaeo-environment.
Replicating the toolmaking process, the researchers conclude the techniques used may represent a stage between the pounding used by earlier hominins and the knapping of later toolmakers. This discovery also has implications for understanding the evolution of the human brain.
Scientists are now looking at the surfaces and edges of the tools and studying the sediment in which they were found to try to reconstruct how they were used.
Edited from LiveScience (20 May 2015), CNBC (21 May 2015)
Most European men descended from just three ancestors
Using new methods for analysing DNA variation that provide a less biased picture of diversity, and a better estimate of the timing of population events, a team led by Professor Mark Jobling from the University of Leicester's Department of Genetics sequenced a large part of the Y chromosome, passed exclusively from fathers to sons, in 334 men from 17 European and Middle Eastern populations. The genealogical tree they traced reveals three very young branches, whose shapes indicate recent expansions which account for the Y chromosomes of 64 percent of the men studied.
Estimates of past population sizes show populations from the Balkans to the British Isles underwent an explosion in population during the Bronze Age, between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago. This contrasts with earlier results for the Y chromosome, and also with the picture presented by maternally-inherited mitochondrial DNA, which suggests much more ancient population growth.
Previous research has focused on the proportion of modern Europeans descending from Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer populations or more recent Neolithic farmers, reflecting a transition that began about 10,000 years ago.
Chiara Batini, also from the University of Leicester's Department of Genetics, and lead author of the study, adds: "Given the cultural complexity of the Bronze Age, it's difficult to link a particular event to the population growth that we infer. But Y-chromosome DNA sequences from skeletal remains are becoming available, and this will help us to understand what happened, and when."
Edited from Popular ARchaeology (19 May 2015), The Telegraph (20 May 2015)
21 May 2015
Newgrange to be X-rayed
The base of the 5,000- year-old Neolithic monument at Newgrange, Co Meath (Ireland), is to be X-rayed by a researcher in a bid to determine the origin of its granite boulders.
Dr Ian G Meighan of the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, who holds an honorary research position in Trinity College Dublin, is determining whether the boulders come from Newry or Mourne. He said work would get under way before the end of the year, using technology formerly used at Tara mines and now in the possession of Trinity College.
Speaking at the launch of 'First Light: the Origins of Newgrange' by Office of Public Works archaeologist Dr Robert Hensey, Dr Meighan said the X-rays would detect and quantify trace metals and identify the source of the granite. Newry and Mourne granite were "like chalk and cheese", he said.
'First Light: the Origins of Newgrange' is published as part of the 'Insights in Archaeology' series, by Oxbow Books, Oxford.
Edited from The Irish Times (20 May 2015)