6 December 2016
Bone objects discovered in ancient cremated remains
Archaeologists studying Neolithic and Early Bronze Age human remains in the Manx Museum collection for the 'Round Mounds of the Isle of Man' project have made an exciting discovery. Contained within a box of cremated bones excavated in 1947, osteologist Dr Michelle Gamble, discovered a collection of small bone objects that had not been noticed by the excavators. The bones had been buried almost 4000 years ago at Staarvey Farm in what is now German parish, Isle of Man.
Basil Megaw who was director of the Manx Museum excavated the site, discovering a stone-built cist containing fragments of burnt bone, two flint tools, and two Collared Urns buried upside-down. But it is only now that the bones have been studied in detail.
Dr Gamble said: "there was a large quantity of cremated bone from this site. Within this burial, we have four skeletons, very fragmented and mixed together - 2 adults, one of which is a male, an adolescent, and an infant. The bone objects were burned as well and mixed in with the cremated human remains."
Dr Chris Fowler, co-director of the Round Mounds of the Isle of Man project, said: "I opened my email to find a photograph of an extremely rare Bronze Age object - a bone pommel from a bronze knife. This would have been fitted to the very end of the hilt. There are only about 40 surviving knife and dagger pommels of this period from the British Isles, and none have been found on the Isle of Man before".
The size and shape suggest it was once attached to a 'knife-dagger'. Several other bone objects were found: a burnt bone point or pin, bone beads, and four enigmatic worked bone strips.
It is rare to find cremated remains buried in both a Collared Urn and cist. The objects may have been worn by one or more of the dead as they were placed on the funeral pyre, or may have been placed by the dead on the pyre by mourners. It is possible that there were multiple episodes of burial in the cist.
Round mounds are found through the British Isles and in Continental Europe. In the British Isles the earliest round mounds appeared in the Neolithic period, after c. 3800 BCE. More were built periodically over the next 2500 years or so.
The current project aims to investigate what these sites and their associated burials, people and artefacts can tell us about life on the Isle of Man and interaction with other communities across Britain, Ireland and potentially beyond. It includes analysis of the landscape location of the mounds, geophysical survey at several sites, and re-analysis of both previously excavated remains and records of previously destroyed or excavated sites.
The project, which began in September, is directed by Dr Rachel Crellin (University of Leicester) and Dr Chris Fowler (Newcastle University) and has received funding and support from Culture Vannin and Manx National Heritage. For more information about the project please visit: roundmounds.wordpress.com.
Edited from isleofman.com (5 December 2016)
First polluted river from before Bronze Age
An international team of researchers may have discovered what could be the world's first polluted river, contaminated approximately 7,000 years ago. In this now-dry riverbed in the Wadi Faynan region of southern Jordan, Professor Russell Adams, from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Waterloo, and his colleagues found evidence of early pollution caused by the combustion of copper.
Neolithic humans here may have been in the early stages of developing metallurgy by learning how to smelt. This period, known as the Chalcolithic or Copper Age, is a transitional period between the late Neolithic or Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age.
"These populations were experimenting with fire, experimenting with pottery and experimenting with copper ores, and all three of these components are part of the early production of copper metals from ores," said Adams.
People created copper at this time by combining charcoal and the blue-green copper ore found in abundance in this area in pottery crucibles or vessels and heating the mixture over a fire. The process was time-consuming and labour-intensive and, for this reason, it took thousands of years before copper became a central part of human societies.
As time passed, communities in the region grew larger and copper production expanded. People built mines, then large smelting furnaces and factories by about 2600 BCE. But people paid a heavy price for the increased metal production. Slag, the waste product of smelting, remained. It contained metals such as copper, lead, zinc, cadmium, and even arsenic, mercury and thalium. Plants absorbed these metals, people and animals such as goats and sheep ate them, and so the contaminants bioaccumulated in the environment.
Adams believes the pollution from thousands of years of copper mining and production must have led to widespread health problems in ancient populations. Infertility, malformations and premature death would have been some of the effects. Adams and his international team of researchers are now trying to expand the analysis of the effects of this pollution to the Bronze Age, which began around 3200 BCE.
The Faynan region has a long history of human occupation, and the team is examining the extent and spread of this pollution at the time when metals and their industrial scale production became central to human societies.
Edited from EurekAlert! (2 December 2016)
Ancient Americans mutilated corpses in funeral rituals
Ancient people ripped out teeth, stuffed broken bones into human skulls and de-fleshed corpses as part of elaborate funeral rituals in South America, an archaeological discovery has revealed.
The site of Lapa do Santo in Brazil holds a trove of human remains that were modified elaborately by the earliest inhabitants of the continent starting around 10,000 years ago, the new study shows. The finds change the picture of this culture's sophistication, said study author André Strauss, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
"In reconstructing the life of past populations, human burials are highly informative of symbolic and ritual behavior," Strauss said in a statement. "In this frame, the funerary record presented in this study highlights that the human groups inhabiting east South America at 10,000 years ago were more diverse and sophisticated than previously thought."
The site of Lapa do Santo, a cave nestled deep in the rainforest of central-eastern Brazil, shows evidence of human occupation dating back almost 12,000 years. Archaeologists have found a trove of human remains, tools, leftovers from past meals and even etchings of a horny man with a giant phallus in the 14,000-square-foot (1,300 square meters) cave. The huge limestone cavern is also in the same region where archaeologists discovered Luzia, one of the oldest known human skeletons from the New World.
In their recent archaeological excavations, Strauss and his colleagues took a more careful look at some of the remains found at Lapa do Santo. They found that starting between 10,600 and 10,400 years ago, the ancient inhabitants of the region buried their dead as complete skeletons.
But 1,000 years later (between about 9,600 and 9,400 years ago), people began dismembering, mutilating and de-fleshing fresh corpses before burying them. The teeth from the skulls were pulled out systematically. Some bones showed evidence of having been burned or cannibalized before being placed inside another skull, the researchers reported.
"The strong emphasis on the reduction of fresh corpses explains why these fascinating mortuary practices were not recognized during almost two centuries of research in the region," Strauss said. It seems that this strict process of dismemberment and corpse mutilation was one of the central rituals used by these ancient people in commemorating the dead, the researchers said.
Edited from LiveScience (30 November 2016)
Fires set by Ice Age hunters destroyed forests throughout Europe
An international team, including climate researcher Professor Jed Kaplan of the University of Lausanne and archaeologist Professor Jan Kolen of Leiden UniversityLarge - discovered that scale forest fires started by prehistoric hunter-gatherers are probably the reason why Europe is not more densely forested.
It may be that during the coldest phase of the last Ice Age, some 20,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers deliberately lit forest fires in an attempt to create grasslands and park-like forests. They probably did this to attract wild animals and to make it easier to gather vegetable food and raw materials; it also facilitated movement. Another possibility is that the large-scale forests and steppe fires may have been the result of the hunters' negligent use of fire in these semi-open landscapes.
The researchers combined analyses of Ice Age accumulations of silt and computer simulations with new interpretations of archaeological data. They show that hunters throughout Europe, from Spain to Russia, were capable of altering the landscape. This first large-scale impact of humans on landscape and vegetation would have taken place more than 20,000 years before the industrial revolution.
Searching for evidence of this human impact explains why there are conflicting reconstructions for this period. Reconstructions of the vegetation based on pollen and plant remains from lakes and marshland suggest that Europe had an open steppe vegetation. But computer simulations based on eight possible climate scenarios show that under natural conditions the landscape in large areas of Europe would have been far more densely forested. The researchers conclude that humans must have been responsible for the difference. Further evidence has been found in the traces of the use of fire in hunting settlements from this period and in the layers of ash in the soil.
Edited from ScienceDaily (1 December 2016)
Southwestern clay figurines may be fertility symbols
Curious clay figurines that have been found in southern Arizona (USA) appear to be fertility symbols used by desert farmers as much as 3,000 years ago, according to new research. Only a few of the figures have been found, primarily at the sites of two pre-contact villages excavated near Tucson.
The long, bulbous objects are likely the earliest clay figures yet found in the American Southwest. And since the first of them was reported in 2005, experts have speculated about what they were, with theories ranging from healing charms to children's toys. The prevailing theory has held that they were objects of ancestor veneration, perhaps the representations of departed family members or more distant kin. But new research based on the most recently discovered figurines suggests that they are distinctive tokens of fertility, using both male and female symbolism to signify sexual duality.
The artifacts were found among ruins dating back to what's known as the Early Agricultural period, a time from about 1,850 to 3,500 years ago, when settlers in this part of the Sonoran Desert had begun farming as well as foraging, but well before the advent of the more advanced irrigated farming developed by the Hohokam.
"I have done some limited research on Hohokam figurines in the past, but I had never seen anything like these Early Agricultural period figurines," said Dr. Mark Chenault of the firm Westland Resources who was part of the team that found the most recent cache of figurines.
Vaguely anthropomorphic in shape, the figures are 7 to 10 centimeters long (about 2.75 to 4 inches) and consist of a long body sometimes decorated with human features like eyes or braided hair. At the bottom are two oblong bulbs that had been interpreted as legs or buttocks.
"The ancestor veneration idea applies mainly to Hohokam figurines, and the Early Agricultural figurines look very different," Chenault said. Most notably, the ancient Tucson figures appear to have prominently sexual traits. Their shape is distinctly phallic, he noted, but some have also been found to include female traits, such as breasts. This suggests to Chenault that the objects may have represented both sexes at once, embodying a duality of male and female sexuality in a single figure.
Such gender fluidity doesn't appear elsewhere in the archaeological record of the Early Agricultural period, Chenault said, but the concept of sexual duality figures prominently in other pre-contact cultures in Mesoamerica from the same period, such as the Tlatilco culture from the Valley of Mexico.
It's still unclear what specific purpose these figurines served. The fact that some of them have been found in caches, where they were intentionally stored or hidden, suggests they may have been used only for certain rituals, like to commemorate an individual's entry into puberty, or to stimulate the fertility of the earth for growing crops. But what ritualistic role, if any, that the objects might have played remains unknown.
Edited from Western Digs (22 November 2016)
4 December 2016
Stone Age could be when Brits first brewed ale
How far back does beer-making go in Britain? One 1980s archaeological dig at Kinloch on Scotland's Outer Hebrides Isle of Rhum found apparent residue from a long-evaporated beverage in pottery dating back about 4,000 years. Microscopic analysis detected pollen grains suggesting high levels of heather, with some meadowsweet and royal fern.
Caroline Wickham-Jones, one of the excavation's archaeologists, said: "If you regarded them as a recipe then you can ask 'what would they make', and one of the things was heather ale as a fermented drink - but it might easily have been a mouthwash or something." Wickham-Jones and her team enlisted the help of a Glenfiddich distillery to brew a new ale inspired by this potential recipe. "It was fabulous," she says.
Large pots and evidence of heat-cracked stones have been found at Skara Brae, a 5,000-year-old settlement in the Orkney islands just north-east of Scotland. Local archaeologist Merryn Dineley believes that some of the pots were used for roasting malt - the germinated and heated cereal grains that ferment to produce alcohol.
Jessica Smyth, an archaeologist and chemist at University College Dublin, says that proving conclusively that specific alcoholic beverages were drunk as far back as the Neolithic is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible. Microscopic analysis of residues can never provide complete proof that an alcoholic beverage was once held in a vessel.
Oliver Craig, an expert in bio-molecular archaeology at the University of York, says: "If you've got sprouted barley, that's good evidence for beer production." But such confirmation is difficult to find at pre-Roman sites in Britain. According to archaeologist Chris Stevens of University College, London, there is even a theory that between 5,300 and 4,400 years ago during the Neolithic period, Britons had a shortage of cereal grains for several hundred years due to climatic changes.
Aside from ales brewed with fermented grain, it is possible that early Britons were fermenting honey. Wickham-Jones says the heather "ale" that may have been drunk at Kinloch would more likely have been of this type.
Edited from BBC (1 December 2016)
30 November 2016
Amazing discovery of prehistoric rock art in Australia
Sometimes a stroke of luck or an accidental event can lead to the most amazing discoveries. Giles Hamm of La Trobe University, Australia, had been surveying gorges in the Flinders Ranges in Southern Australia, in the company of local tribal elder, Clifford Coulthard. Clifford suddenly had to answer a call of nature and wandered out of sight, into a side gorge, which formed a type of rock shelter. It was there that he saw some amazing rock art.
On closer investigation they discovered evidence of well-crafted stone tools and the bones from a long extinct marsupial, with the name Diprotodon Optatum. When the artefacts were radio carbon dated they were astounded to discover that they dated from approximately 47,000 BCE, not long after it is believed that humans first arrived in Australia. In fact, this find pre-dates any similar find by approximately 10,000 years.
Hamm published his findings in the journey Nature and is intrigued by what he found: "The old idea is that people might have come from the East, from the Levant, out of Africa, and these modern humans may have come with a package of innovative technologies". He went on to say "But the development of these fine stone tools, the bone technology, we think that happened as a local innovation, due to a local culture evolution".
Not everyone, however, is convinced. The dating comes from analysis of burnt eggshells and the layer in which they were discovered. Huw Barton, bio archaeologist from the University of Leicester (UK) believes the fragments may have dropped lower and represents human occupation 10,000 years later, in line with other finds in the area. Further study is obviously needed.
Edited from The Guardian (2 November 2016)
Violent deaths led to disrespectful burials
A team from the University of Arizona (USA) has been conducting a study of ancient burial sites in the Sonoran Desert, on the border between the USA and Mexico. The subject of their study was the way in which people had been buried, in the period from 2100 BCE to 50 CE.
What became apparent was that people who had appeared to die a natural death, either through old age or disease, had been buried with dignity and respect, carefully placed in the grave, with respectful poses, usually curled up and on their side. Others, however, had obviously suffered a violent death, as evidenced by bone fractures and chipped bones (evidence of projectile penetrations). These bodies had been thrown into their graves in haphazard and awkward ways, as if they had been violently thrown in.
So what is the explanation for these disrespectful burials? One theory put forward by University of Arizona bio archaeologist, James Watson, is that "We're arguing that the way they were tossed into these pits is a form of continued desecration of the body. It's moving from violence on the living individual, through to the process of death, to violence on the corpse".
Family feuds could be another reason. The time zone studied tallies with an explosion in the local population, with pressure being put on the areas each family occupied and these may have been the result of localised border disputes or simply the removal of the head of a neighbouring family, simply to gain control of their wives and land and increase their own prestige and social standing. The analysis continues.
Edited from EurekAlert! (24 October 2016)
Copper Age human bone amulet discovered in Bulgaria
A team of researchers from Sofia University (Bulgaria) have been excavating a known Chalcolithic Settlement on the edge of Kaleshkovo, in the Southeast of the country.
A study of the necropolis shows evidence of respectful burials, but curiously, with parts of the cranium removed. Also found were round amulets, which were made from the top front of the skulls. These amulets had been carefully crafted, with a central hole, suggesting that they were hung around the neck.
So why were they made? It is possible that the practice is a parallel with a known and documented ritual carried out by Native Americans, to remove part of the scalp is to steal the enemy's power, or it may simply have been a very personal way of maintaining a form of contact with a departed loved one. But this settlement had more secrets to reveal.
Further excavations uncovered a wealth of pottery. The team leader, Associate Professor Petya Georgieva, is quoted as saying "What's interesting about the Kozareva Mogila settlement is that it was probably a pottery production centre. This shows that a very simple local production such as pottery making was already included in exchange. The Late Aenolithic is a time when the structure of society changed, it became more complex, ceramics trade started. This shows a societal shift because it is normal to trade with rare goods, whereas clay is found everywhere, and if I am asked if this was a society on the threshold of civilisation, the answer is positive".
Edited from Archaeology in Bulgaria (18 October 2016)
28 November 2016
Huge Bronze Age gold torc unearthed in Cambridgeshire
A gigantic gold torc, so big one expert thinks it may have been worn to protect a pregnant woman, has been found in a ploughed field in Cambridgeshire (England). It was made from 730 grams of almost pure gold more than 3,000 years ago.
The workmanship closely resembles one from nearby Grunty Fen, found in 1844 and now in the collection of the archaeology museum of Cambridge University. However, like many torcs that were apparently buried for ritual reasons, that one had been coiled up.
"There was a lot going on in Bronze Age East Anglia," said Neil Wilkin, the curator of Bronze Age Europe at the British Museum, "but it's been a while since we've had anything as hefty as this."
Torcs are usually described as collars, with the longer ones thought by some to have been worn as belts, but Wilkin said this torc was longer than even extra-large waist measurements of men's trousers. Wilkin said they were never found buried with the remains of the dead, and he wondered if it could have been loaned by the tribe to be worn as protection by a woman in late pregnancy. Alternatively, he thought it could have been a magnificent ornament to give extra value to an animal about to be sacrificed.
The site and the finder have remained anonymous, but the discovery was reported to Helen Fowler, the local finds liaison officer through the network of archaeologists recording such finds. She said she was 'gobsmacked' when it came out of the finder's briefcase. The last torc she had handled was bracelet sized, but this one was far too big to fit on her weighing scales.
Wilkin said the workmanship was astonishing: the torc was shaped from a square section bar of gold, and then twisted and burnished. "If you take callipers, and measure the gaps between the twists, they are absolutely spot on accurate."
It is hoped Ely Museum will acquire the torc, with the reward shared between finder and landowner. The slightly shorter and lighter Corrard torc, found in Northern Ireland, was valued at up to £150,000 (€ 175,000 / US$ 186,000) three years ago.
Edited from The Guardian (28 November 2016)
26 November 2016
Treasure hunters damage ancient hill fort in Sussex
An ancient hill fort dubbed 'one of the jewels in the crown' of the South Downs National Park (southern England) has been damaged, police have said. Illegal metal detecting is believed to be behind the disturbance to the ground at the 5,000-year-old Cissbury Ring site near Worthing in West Sussex. Its ditch and ramparts enclose some 65 acres and it is a habitat for butterflies, flowers and rare plants.
The damage caused at the largest hill fort in Sussex, which police have said is 'irreversible', has provoked outrage in the metal detecting community. Sussex Police has now launched an investigation as the site is protected by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.
Paul Roberts, Historic England's inspector of ancient monuments for Kent, Sussex and Surrey, said: "Irresponsible and criminal metal detecting destroys evidence of our national story that belongs to us all. It is a great shame that Cissbury Ring has now been damaged by the selfish action of a few."
Police said illegal metal detecting was a 'shady, unscrupulous act', and they have appealed for information. PCSO Daryl Holter, Sussex Police's heritage crime officer, said: "It is unlikely we will know if items were removed, but any such interference is simply stealing our past and robbing us of the opportunity to interpret and understand it."
Metal detecting is only ever allowed on National Trust land under a special licence. The National Trust has appealed to the public to report sightings of illegal activity to the police.
Edited from The Telegraph (25 November 2016)
Burnt mound being excavated in Scotland
Prehistoric and Bronze Age finds have been made during work to construct the new Inverness West Link road (Highland, Scotland). Pottery fragments and the remains of kilns used for drying grain were among discoveries made at Torvean.
Archaeologists who have been monitoring the building of the West Link displayed some of the items at Lochardil Primary School. The new road is being built for Highland Council to ease traffic flow through Inverness.
The finds include Bronze Age burnt mounds. These mounds are large piles of burnt waste, often including ashy deposits and stones that have been shattered by heat. They are usually horseshoe-shaped and found close to streams, and archaeologists say that they are the product of repeated events of burning. The mounds are connected to the heating up of stones which were then placed in water-filled pits to heat water, possibly for use in cooking, washing wool or even as small saunas.
Edited from BBC News (22 November 2016)
4,500-year-old Canaanite citadel's final hours
Excavations beneath a layer of ash and rock inside a pillared hall of the ruined palace within a 4,500-year-old citadel Khirbet al-Batrawy, on the fringes of the black desert in northeastern Jordan, have uncovered four copper axes, a bearskin, and a highly decorated drinking cup, along with dozens of ceramic pots, jars, cups, and storage vessels.
The citadel of sits on top of a naturally fortified triangular hill overlooking the fertile Zarqa River valley. The city rose to prominence in the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE, largely due to its strategic location at the intersection of two important trading routes: one northeast into the Arabian Desert and Mesopotamia, and one south to the Arabian peninsula. This was the period of 4th, 5th, and 6th pharaonic dynasties in Egypt - a time of brisk trading of salt, copper, bitumen and sulfur, as well as gems, spices, and exotic goods.
Excavations have uncovered an impressive citadel heavily fortified with mud-brick walls, towers, and gates, sitting on three-meter high stone foundations. On top of the hill was a 2,000 square metre palace complex.
In 2300 BCE the citadel came to a violent and fiery end. The ceilings of the palace collapsed in the blaze, burying everything. Finds include copper arrowheads, carnelian beads, fragments of a potter's wheel, along with large quantities of ceramic storage jars containing barley, beer, red ochre and animal fat, and a large quantity of intact pottery vessels, some decorated with snake and scorpion motifs, and imported vases. Twenty storage jars with a storage capacity of 150 litres were arrayed along the sides of the main hall, as well as a large number of smaller vessels.
The hall appears to have been a dining hall, where all precious items had been gathered. The four copper axes were found at the base of a pillar, earning the building the title, "Palace of the Copper Axes." A double-handled vessel with a spherical body and a squat grooved pedestal set apart from the ceramic assemblages was found near the pillar.
Edited from Haaretz (13 November 2016)
25 November 2016
Oldest bone jewellery found in Australia
A piece of bone in Australia looks as if it was designed to be worn in the nasal septum - making it the oldest bone jewellery anywhere in the world belonging to Homo sapiens. The find shows that the first humans to reach Australia 50,000 years ago were as culturally advanced as their counterparts in Africa and Europe.
Sue O'Connor at the Australian National University in Canberra found the delicate, 13-centimetre-long artefact in a rock shelter in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Analysis revealed red ochre stains and stone tooling marks.
O'Connor's team believes the bone is more likely to be jewellery than a tool, based on comparisons with sewing needles and ornaments made by 19th and 20th-century Indigenous Australians. The shape, ochre staining and wear patterns closely match modern nose bones. Langley says that nose bones were commonly worn in Australia until recently, but their meaning differs between groups. Many other cultures around the world also wore jewellery in septal piercings, and the practice continues today.
Findings of early bone tools and ornaments have been rare. Langley says the discovery of ancient bone technology in Australia is important because it reshapes our understanding of the first inhabitants. Ian Lilley at the University of Queensland says: "This shows that the first people in Australia were just as capable as those everywhere else of complex actions. So whether this artefact was used as a nose bone or for sewing skins doesn't really matter - it's evidence of complicated behaviour."
Neanderthals may have been making jewellery 80,000 years before modern humans reached Europe. Eagle talons dated as 130,000 years old from a Neanderthal site in Croatia show features suggesting they were used in a necklace or bracelet. The oldest jewellery yet found of any kind made by early modern humans are 100,000-year-old shell beads from sites in Africa and the Middle East.
Edited from New Scientist (18 November 2016)
People consumed milk and cheese 9,000 years ago
Researchers analysing more than 500 pottery vessels from 82 sites in the northern Mediterranean dating from the seventh to fifth millennia BCE found that dairy farming was popular in some areas, but not all. The eastern and western parts of the northern Mediterranean commonly practiced dairy farming - including parts of modern-day Spain, France, and Turkey - but northern Greece did not. There, meat production was the main activity.
The varying landscape in the northern Mediterranean likely influenced what sort of animals the Neolithic people domesticated. Rugged terrains are more suitable for sheep and goats, while open well-watered landscapes are better suited for cattle.
The new analysis supports the team's earlier work showing that milk use was highly regionalised in the Near East in the seventh millennium BCE. Information about ancient dairy use and meat production can help scientists understand what factors drove the domestication of cud-chewing animals.
According to Cynthianne Spiteri - junior professor of archaeometry at the University of Tuebingen in Germany, and the study's lead researcher - dairying began with the onset of agriculture, and likely helped early farmers. "[Milk] is likely to have played an important role in providing a nourishing and storable food product, which was able to sustain early farmers, and consequently, the spread of farming in the western Mediterranean," Spiteri says.
Study researcher Oliver Craig, a professor of archaeology at the University of York, says organic remnants in the pots show that Neolithic people certainly exploited milk, and suggest that they were transforming milk into products such as yogurt and cheese, to remove the lactose which some people are unable to digest.
Craig explains: "We know that much of the world's population today are still intolerant to lactose, so it is very important to know at what point people in the past were exposed to it and how long they have had to adapt to it."
Edited from LiveScience (17 November 2016)