Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Earliest evidence of inhaled psychoactive cannabis found in tomb

Saturday, June 15th, 2019

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main compound in cannabis that causes its psychoactive effects, residue has been discovered on braziers in a burial ground in western China. The graves where the braziers were found date to 500 B.C., making them the oldest evidence of cannabis being smoked for consciousness-altering purposes.

There is evidence of the cannabis plant being used for its oil and fibers going back 4,000 years, but not that it was cultivated, and wild cannabis has negligible quantities of  THC. Cannabis plants have been found in burials dating to between 2,400 and 2,800 years ago in China’s Turpan Basin indicating a ritual significance, but again, there is no evidence of them having been consumed in any way.

It’s unclear from the archaeological record when cannabis began to be selectively bred and cultivated to enhance its psychoactive properties. The first historical account of the use of inhaled cannabis is in Herodotus’ Histories. In Book IV, he describes a Scythian king’s funeral thus:

Such, then, is the mode in which the kings are buried: as for the people, when any one dies, his nearest of kin lay him upon a waggon and take him round to all his friends in succession: each receives them in turn and entertains them with a banquet, whereat the dead man is served with a portion of all that is set before the others; this is done for forty days, at the end of which time the burial takes place. After the burial, those engaged in it have to purify themselves, which they do in the following way. First they well soap and wash their heads; then, in order to cleanse their bodies, they act as follows: they make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed.

Hemp grows in Scythia: it is very like flax; only that it is a much coarser and taller plant: some grows wild about the country, some is produced by cultivation: the Thracians make garments of it which closely resemble linen; so much so, indeed, that if a person has never seen hemp he is sure to think they are linen, and if he has, unless he is very experienced in such matters, he will not know of which material they are.

The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.

Herodotus lived around 484 – 425 B.C. and is believed to have written The Histories between 440 and 430 B.C. So far, this thin sourcing is the most historians have had to go on regarding the origins of the inhalation of psychoactive cannabis in Eurasia.

Researchers unearthed 10 wooden braziers containing stones with traces of burning from eight graves at the Jirzankal Cemetery in the eastern Pamir mountains. Using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS), researchers tested samples of organic material from 10 brazier fragments and four of the stones inside the braziers. They found cannabis biomarkers on all the wooden vessels, on nine of the vessels’ burned residues and on two of the four stones. This is strong evidence that cannabis plants were burned by placing them on hot stones inside wooden braziers.

Not only that, but the cannabinoids found in the braziers contained higher levels of cannabinol (CBN), the oxidative metabolite of THC, than of cannabidiol (CBD), which is not psychotropic. If the plants burned had been wild, the levels of CBN and CBD would be roughly equivalent. The greater levels of the former indicate this was a plant either recognized and foraged as being a better high, or deliberately cultivated for it.

Some of the skeletons recovered from the site, situated in modern-day western China, have features that resemble those of contemporaneous peoples further west in Central Asia. Objects found in the burials also appear to link this population to peoples further west in the mountain foothills of Inner Asia. Additionally, stable isotope studies on the human bones from the cemetery show that not all of the people buried there grew up locally.

These data fit with the notion that the high-elevation mountain passes of Central and Eastern Asia played a key role in early trans-Eurasian exchange. Indeed, the Pamir region, today so remote, may once have sat astride a key ancient trade route of the early Silk Road. The Silk Road was at certain times in the past the single most important vector for cultural spread in the ancient world. Robert Spengler, the lead archaeobotanist for the study, also at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, explains, “The exchange routes of the early Silk Road functioned more like the spokes of a wagon wheel than a long-distance road, placing Central Asia at the heart of the ancient world. Our study implies that knowledge of cannabis smoking and specific high-chemical-producing varieties of the cannabis plant were among the cultural traditions that spread along these exchange routes.”

The study has been published in the journal Science Advances and can be read in its entirety here.

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Intact 40,000-year-old wolf head found in Siberia

Thursday, June 13th, 2019

The perfectly preserved decapitated head of a Pleistocene wolf has been found above the Arctic Circle north of Yakutia, Siberia. It was discovered last summer by Pavel Efimov on shore of the Tirekhtyakh River, but the find was only announced this week at the opening of a Woolly Mammoth exhibition in Tokyo.

The soft tissue is in excellent condition. Muscles, brain, fur, skin are all intact, preserved for 40,000 years in the Siberian permafrost. The fur is very thick, described by researchers as “mammoth-like.” It is brown now, giving rise to questions from the public that it looks more like a bear rather than a wolf. That was not its original coloring; its an effect of burial in the permafrost which has permanently altered the fur’s color. Even if the fur were thoroughly washed, it would still look brown, and there’s no way to determine the original color.

The wolf was a fully grown adult between two and four years old when it died, and was rather petite compared to most modern wolves. The head is 40cm (15.7″) long. The head of modern Arctic wolves varies in length from 66cm to 86cm (26-34″). Interestingly, a CT scan of the head revealed that some parts of the skull are more developed than those areas are in the skulls of today’s wolves. 

“This is a unique discovery of the first ever remains of a fully grown Pleistocene wolf with its tissue preserved. We will be comparing it to modern-day wolves to understand how the species has evolved and to reconstruct its appearance,” said an excited Albert Protopopov, from the Republic of Sakha Academy of Sciences. 

How the wolf’s head became detached from its body is unknown, but it was almost certainly not cut off by people as there is no evidence humans inhabited the gelid region 40,000 years ago. Its likely that it was severed by ice. Expanding ice often beheads dead animals trapped in it, leaving characteristic traces on the soft tissue. Researchers in this area have seen this phenomenon at work. The ice acts like an axe or a knife, cutting cleanly through necks. It’s possible some other force was involved in the decapitation of this wolf, however, because the cut is more ragged than ice expansion cuts usually are. A trace expert will be called in to examine specimens taken from the sever point under a microscope.

No other parts of the wolf have been found so far. Researchers plan to visit the find site to excavate it looking for additional remains.

Here’s a brief but amazing video of the head being turned and examined by researchers:

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Watch the Penn Museum sphinx move live!

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

The largest sphinx in the western hemisphere is on the move right now! The Penn Museum’s 25,000-pound sphinx from the reign of Rameses II is being moved to its new location in the Main Entrance Hall. This is the first time it has seen daylight since it was installed in the museum’s Lower Egypt Gallery in 1926.

See it all go down in real time in the video below.

Posted by Penn Museum on Wednesday, June 12, 2019

They’re using a system of air dollies to raise it just enough above the ground that it moves at a hover. There are four dollies under each corner that use pressurized air to lift the sphinx. The ramp is at a slight incline to enlist the aid of gravity while still keeping the rate of movement under close control.

The museum is undergoing a major transformation of its exhibition spaces, so you won’t be able to see the sphinx in its new home until the grand reopening on November 16th.

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Allectus aureus sells for $700K

Saturday, June 8th, 2019

The gold coin of Allectus found by a metal detectorist in a freshly-plowed field near Dover, Kent, has sold for £552,000 ($703,000), far above its pre-sale estimate of £70,000-100,000. The auction at Dix Noonan Webb (DNW) in London on June 6th saw fierce bidding on the extremely rare coin, minted by the usurper Allectus between 293 and 296 A.D., driving the price way up until it finally went to a private collector bidding over the phone.

As Christopher Webb, Director and Head of DNW’s Coin Department noted: “I am delighted with the phenomenal price achieved in today’s sale. This is the most expensive coin that we have ever sold at Dix Noonan Webb – as well as being one of the world’s most expensive Roman coins, it is the most money ever paid for a coin of Allectus and it is now the most valuable Roman coin minted in Britain to have been sold at auction. It was a unique opportunity to acquire a stunning coin and the only other one known struck from the same pair of dies is in the British Museum.”

He continued: “There are only 24 aurei of Allectus known worldwide. Gold coins were initially produced to pay an accession donation in AD 293 but continued to be issued throughout his reign and were probably demonetized after his death in AD 296, as no coins of Carausius or Allectus are found in later hoards.”

The next time someone finds an ancient Roman aureus, they won’t be allowed to sell it to the highest bidder. Revisions to the Treasure Act of 1996 will plug the loophole that allows single coins, even ones of unquestionable museum quality due to their age, precious metal content, rarity and historical importance, to be kept or sold by finders at their whim so they can disappear into anonymous private collections like this one now has.

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Highly polished Stone Age axe found in Wales

Saturday, June 1st, 2019

A rare highly polished stone axe head has been unearthed in an excavation in Llanllyr, central Wales. A team of staff and students from University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) working on a module that allows undergraduates to get fieldwork practice in archaeology excavated mounds believed to date to the Neolithic era (4,000-6,000 years ago). Most of the artifacts recovered in this area date to the Middle Ages, so the discovery of a Neolithic stone axe in excellent condition was a happy surprise.

Dr Martin Bates, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David has been jointly leading the team.  He said:

“Running an excavation like this is an important part of our teaching here at Lampeter and giving our students the opportunity to gain the skills an archaeologist needs is very important.  When we began our excavations we did not anticipate finding Neolithic artefacts so this is a bonus for the team.  Hopefully, we can come back next year with a new group of students and continue our investigation of this important piece of Ceredigion’s history”.

Joe Neal a second-year student in Archaeology was the lucky student who found the stone axe.  He commented

“It’s a great find for us, I couldn’t have hoped to find anything better. This is my first dig and the first time I have found anything, so this is great”.

Dr Ros Coard, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at UWTSD, added

“The University of Trinity Saint David has run excavations at the Llanllyr site over a number of years but mostly found later medieval material, so to find a much deeper pre-history is exciting and broadens our understanding of the Aeron Valley and this part of Ceredigion. It is a most unusual and unexpected find certainly warranting further exploration of the area”.

The mounds are shallow bumps in marshland now, but in the Neolithic they were dry ground. Evidence of human activity, namely flint knapping artifacts, have been found on the mounds. A whole axe head has never been found here before, and this one was very finely ground and still has a nicely polished edge. This took a great deal of work to produce and is still in excellent condition. It’s surprising that it would have been deliberately discarded on the mounds. The wooden handle it was probably hafted with is gone.

The team has collected core samples of the landscape. These will hopefully allow researchers to create a layer map of vegetation that can help date finds like the stone axe.

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Early Neolithic mother & child burial found in Bulgaria

Friday, May 31st, 2019

Archaeologists excavating the prehistoric settlement of Slatina in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia have discovered an extremely rare early Neolithic grave. It is about 7,600 years old and contains the skeleton of an adult woman believed to have been buried with her child. She was placed in fetal position and interred with her baby in her arms next to a house on the periphery of the settlement.

Discovered by construction workers in 1950, Sofia’s Slatina Neolithic Settlement was first excavated in 1958 and was dated to the 3rd millennium B.C. Unfortunately the urban sprawl of Sofia in the 1970s destroyed much of the settlement, reducing a site originally estimated cover 20 acres to a tenth of its size. Later excavations, which have been ongoing since 1985, extended the timeline of habitation significantly. In fact its earliest layers date to around 6000 B.C., the Early Neolithic when the first farmers and livestock breeders settled in Buglaria.

Two phases of Early Neolithic development have been identified from the pottery at the settlement. The first, named the Slatina phase, featured pottery vessels with white decorations. The second, the Kremikovtsi phase, featured pottery with red, brown and burgundy decorations. One home had pottery remains from both phases, used to create six layers of flooring alternating crushed pottery with a thick coating of clay.

Most of the finds have been dwellings and household items. The houses vary in size enormously. One of the larger homes has an area of more than 3200 square feet; another 1600 square feet; one of the smaller ones just over 100. Made of wattle and daub with wooden posts supporting the walls, these are the largest known homes from the Early Neolithic.

The latest excavation has unearthed numerous implements used in daily life — a bone spoon, pottery vessels, a stamp — and in religious rituals — sections of sacrificial altars. Working tools like kilns and millstones have also been found and archaeologists have been able to gather a great deal of information about how the Neolithic settlers of Slatina lived.

There is very little information, on the other hand, about how they died and were buried.

“The upcoming research [of the 7,600-year-old grave] is going to provide information about the physical features of the people who in today’s Bulgaria gave the start of the first European civilization,” the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences says.

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The Birdman of Sibera

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a man buried with dozens of bird beaks at the Ust-Tartas archaeological site in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Between 30 and 50 beaks were found assembled together at the back of the individual’s skull. Because of this placement and how the beaks appear to be massed together to form a single object, researchers believe it was a garment — a collar, a headdress, a robe, perhaps a form of protective armature (for ritual purposes, not combat).

The beaks were removed en bloc for laboratory excavation at the Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography. They will have to be examined by ornithologists to determine which birds they came from, but their long, thin dimensions suggest they’re heron or crane beaks. So far only one skull as been found connected to its beak. The rest visible on the top layer are beaks alone lined up closely side-by-side. It’s not clear how the beaks were put together. No mounting holes have been found so far that would have made it possible to attach them to each other or to a fabric backing. Fully excavating the block, separating out the individual beaks to count, document and study them will take months of painstaking work.

In another burial found next to the Birdman, archaeologists discovered a two-layered grave. The top layer held the remains of two children around five and 10 years old at the time of death. A wooden overlay covered the bottom layer, separating the children’s grave from the one beneath them. In the bottom were the remains of an adult male buried with numerous artifacts.

The most unusual of the grave goods was a set of two bronze circles and a bronze rectangle. They were placed near his skull with the two circles underneath the rectangle almost like a pair of eyeglasses. The circles are slightly mounded and have small circular apertures at the peak. Fragments of organic material were found inside the hemispheres, indicating they may have been part of a funerary mask or headdress. If that’s the case, the holes in the bronze circles could have been cut to allow vision. Across his waist and on his left arm were five polished crescent-shaped stones thought to have had ritual uses.

“These are unique items, we are very excited indeed to have found them,” said Lidia Kobeleva.

“Both men must have carried special roles in the society. I say so because we have been working on this site for a while and unearthed more than 30 burials. They all had interesting finds, but nothing we found earlier was as impressive as discoveries in these two graves.

We suppose both men were some kind of priests.”

The burials in this area are from the Bronze Age Odinov culture which inhabited the Ishim river basin of Western Siberia around 4,800 years ago.

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Imperial head found in medieval Rome

Saturday, May 25th, 2019

A beautiful larger-than-life white marble head of a statue from the Imperial era has been discovered in a late medieval wall. It was discovered Friday morning by archaeologists from the Capitoline Superintendence for Cultural Heritage excavating the Via Alessandrina, a 16th century road that runs between the Forums of Trajan, Augustus and Nerva. It was the main artery of the Alessandrino neighborhood, the first systematic urban renewal project in the area between the Forum of Nerva and Trajan’s Column. Beginning in 1570 at the behest of Cardinal Michele Bonelli, nephew of Pope Pius V, the site was reclaimed from water, scattered ancient remains and vegetation, raised and leveled for new construction. The road is all that remains of the neighborhood now. It was demolished between 1930 and 1933 to make way for the construction of what would become Via dei Fori Imperiali.

Archaeologists were excavating a wall from the early days of the Alessandrino neighborhood, dozens of feet above the ancient layers of the city, when they found the head of the statue face down in the wall. The head had been recycled by the medieval builders and plugged into the wall like a regular block of stone. The masons didn’t even attempt to make it more block-like, thankfully, and it’s in very good condition, despite its detachment from its body long ago, its stint as another brick in the wall above ground and below. 

The head bears a resemblance to the Ephesus group of Amazons carved in the 5th century B.C. by the greatest artists of the Classical period (Phidias, Polyclitus, Kresilas) and widely copied for the gardens and homes of the Roman elite. (Here’s one example in the Capitoline.) However, archaeologists believe it’s a representation of Dionysos who was often depicted as an androgynous youth. The figure wears a diadem of ivy leaves adorned with an ivy bloom, a characteristic Dionysian attribute, tying back the long, thick, wavy hair. The mouth is parted, the visage benevolent and unlined. The eye sockets are hollow now, but originally would have held eyes of glass or gemstone. That style of eye is typical of the first two centuries of the empire.

The sculpture has been transported to the Imperial Forums Museum where the remaining soil will be removed and the head conserved before being put on public display.

You can see how it was placed in the wall in this cool video of its discovery.

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First Iron Age bark shield found in England

Friday, May 24th, 2019

University of Leicester archaeologists have discovered an Iron Age bark shield, the first of its kind ever found in Europe. It was made sometime between 395 and 255 B.C., the Middle Iron Age.

The shield was found in 2015 during an archaeological survey at the site of the Everards Meadows development in the Soar Valley south of Leicester. It was buried face down in a deep waterlogged pit, which is why the barks and wood it was made out of survived the centuries. The pit was probably a watering hole for livestock before the shield was deposited; the excavation discovered a trackway, ditches and land boundaries indicating the site was likely used in stock rearing by the small farmsteads in the community.

The shield, which measured 670 x 370mm [26.3 x 14.6 inches] in the ground, is unique, the only bark shield every found in Europe. It was carefully constructed with wooden laths to stiffen the structure, a wooden edging rim, and a beautiful woven boss to protect the handle. The outside of the shield was painted and scored in red chequerboard decoration.

Detailed analysis shows that the bark was from either alder, willow, poplar, hazel or spindle tree with the outer layer of bark forming the inside of the shield. The stiffening laths were made of apple, pear, quince or hawthorn whilst the rim was a half-split hazel rod. Analysis to date suggests that the boss was formed from a willow core stitched together with a flat fibre of grass, rush or bast fibre, and the handle was of willow roundwood, flattened at the end and notched, and fixed to the bark with twisted ties. The outer surface of the shield was scored with lines forming a chequerboard pattern, with parts painted with red hematite-based paint.

The shield was severely damaged before being deposited in the watering hole.  Analysis by Dr Rachel Crellin (School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester) suggests at least one irregular elliptical hole was likely to have been damage caused by the pointed tip of an iron spear, whilst other groups of parallel incisions may show where edged blades have hit and rebounded. Further research is planned to help understand if this occurred in battle or as an act of ritual destruction.

The discovery of this shield rewrites the history of weaponry in Iron Age Britain. Before now, bark shields had only been found in the southern hemisphere and historians believed they were simply not used in the northern hemisphere. The damage to the Enderby Shield indicates that they were indeed made as weapons of war, and experimental recreations have confirmed that evenly though it was only a tenth of an inch thick and incredibly lightweight, the reinforced bark shield was strong enough to withstand projectile impact.

The recreation of willow and alder bark shields also found that they could be manufactured quickly and easily using materials from a local woodland and a few simple tools. The finished shields varied in shape because of the wood elements shrank and curved as they dried. Built as rectangles, once they were dry they had hourglass shape, a design seen in some metal shields from the period.

It’s not clear why the shield was in the bottom of the watering hole – perhaps it was thrown away because it was broken, or perhaps it was deliberately placed there as a ritual act. Radiocarbon dates for the shield and for other material in the watering hole suggest that more than a decade had passed between the shield’s manufacture and its disposal. The damage to the shield may well hold the answer to this question. 

 

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Jadeite tool found at Maya salt works

Monday, May 20th, 2019

Archaeologists have unearthed a jadeite tool with a rosewood handle at a Maya salt works site in Belize. This is the first time the wooden handle of one of these tools has been found intact, preserved by the waterlogged mangrove peat at the Ek Way Nal site in southern Belize. It dates to the Maya Classic Period (300–900 A.D.) when the Paynes Creek Salt Works, a network of 110 ancient salt works operated in a mere three square mile area.

The jadeite of the gouger and the wood of the handle are very high-quality materials. The stone is translucent green, the most prized color of jadeite which ranges from translucent to opaque. The jadeite’s translucency is caused by the tight microstructure of its grains, which makes it much harder and more durable than the opaque versions of the stone. Its beauty and the high degree of difficulty in working it made translucent jadeite the preferred greenstone of Maya royalty. It is usually found in the tombs of the highest rank, like King Pacal’s tomb at Palenque, and at ceremonial sites where it was used in religious rituals and as diplomatic gifts. Grave goods of jewelry, carved plaques and statuary were important indicators of elite status.

The hardness of the translucent jadeite that made it so desirable for royal adornment also made it desirable as a tool. The handle is Honduras rosewood, a dense, finely grained wood that even today is considered difficult to carve, so it too was a strong, sturdy material ideal for a tool.

An analysis of the stone found that it is 98% jadeite by volume and that its quality and translucent blue-green shade approaches gem grade. That such expensive materials were used to make a utilitarian object like a gouger attests to the importance of salt in the Classic Maya economy, and the deep pockets of the salt workers themselves. They weren’t “working in the salt mines” in the modern sense of the idiom.

“The salt workers were successful entrepreneurs who were able to obtain high-quality tools for their craft through the production and distribution of a basic biological necessity: salt. Salt was in demand for the Maya diet. We have discovered that it was also a storable form of wealth and an important preservative for fish and meat,” said lead researcher and anthropologist Heather McKillop, who is the Thomas & Lillian Landrum Alumni Professor in the LSU Department of Geography & Anthropology.

The tool would not have been used to gouge hard materials like stone or wood. It was found in a salt kitchen, so researchers believe it was probably used in jobs like scraping salt, gutting calabash gourds, or cleaning fish or meat before salting.

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