Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Vesuvius turned a man’s brain to glass

Thursday, January 23rd, 2020

The skull of a young man who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. has been found to contain the remains of his brain, but not in any of the mummified, saponified or even Heslington varieties seen before in an archaeological context. His brain was turned to glass.

The skeletal remains of an adult male about 25 years of age when he died were discovered in a small room believed to be the caretaker’s bed chamber in the Collegium Augustalium, the headquarters of the cult of the deified Augustus,  in 1961. The bones were on top of a bank of volcanic ash from the eruption. Pieces of the wooden bed he had been lying on were visible inside the bank. He was found in prone position face down, or rather what-was-left-of-his-face down. The heat of the pyroclastic surge had made his skull burst. Section of his exploded and charred skull were found in a rough semi-circle around the top of the bed. The bones of his chest were encased in a solidified spongy mass, likely formed by the combination of lungs and organs with volcanic material. Small bits of pumice are embedded in there.

The entrapped chest was unique for a victim of Vesuvius’ 79 A.D. eruption, as was another feature: a glassy black material filling the cranial cavity and encrusted on the inner surface of the bone fragments. While there were areas on the left tibia and a rib fragment that were partially glass-like in appearance, they were much less glossy and largely retained their original structure.

University of Naples Federico II forensic anthropologist Dr. Pier Paolo Petrone was studying the Collegium Augustalium remains when he noticed the black glassy texture in the cranium.

“I noticed something shining inside the head,” he told the Guardian. “This material was preserved exclusively in the victim’s skull, thus it had to be the vitrified remains of the brain. But it had to be proved beyond any reasonable doubt.”

Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry analysis of the protein content of the glassy material in the cranium found fatty acids that are specific to brain tissue, suggesting that Vesuvius turned this man’s brain was to glass.

From the results published New England Journal of Medicine:

Proteomic investigation of the glassy material inside the skull identified several proteins that are highly expressed in human brain tissues (Table S1). Adipic and margaric fatty acids, components of human hair fat from sebum, were detected exclusively in the glassy fragments (Table S2) but not in the adjacent ash or in charcoal from the archaeological site. Fatty acids that are typical of human brain triglycerides were also found in the putative brain material. These substances are common to animals and plants (Table S3); however, no evidence of plants or animals was found at the site from which the victim was recovered.

Features suggesting a maximum temperature of 520°C were detected on charred wood from the Collegium (Fig. S5). This suggests that extreme radiant heat was able to ignite body fat and vaporize soft tissues; a rapid drop in temperature followed. The detection of glassy material from the victim’s head, of proteins expressed in human brain, and of fatty acids found in human hair indicates the thermally induced preservation of vitrified human brain tissue.

Vitrification is a rare phenomenon on the archaeological record. Most of the vitrified material that has been discovered is charcoal, dry wood that converted to glassy hardness in an inferno of around 310-530°C.


Extremely rare Assyrian rock reliefs found in Iraqi Kurdistan

Sunday, January 19th, 2020

A team of Italian and Kurdish archaeologists have discovered 10 exceptionally rare Assyrian rock reliefs at the archaeological site of Faida in northern Iraqi Kurdistan. The reliefs were carved into the banks of an ancient canal four miles long that was dug out of the bedrock in the 8th-7th century B.C. to irrigate fields. Most known Assyrian bas-reliefs were discovered in royal palaces. The last time Assyrian reliefs carved onto rock faces, not on palace walls, were found was 1845. They were discovered by French consul Simon Rouet at the nearby ancient sites of Khinis and Maltai.

The panels depict a ruler, believed to be  Neo-Assyrian King Sargon II (r. 722–705 B.C.), leading a parade of Assyrian deities and animals. He is stands at both ends of the procession (Tablet 1 of the Epic of Gilgamesh: “He walks out in front, the leader, and walks at the rear, trusted by his companions”). The statues of seven Assyrian deities are carried in the parade on the backs of animals. Ashur, head of the Assyrian pantheon, rides on a dragon and horned lion. His wife Mullissu is on a throne supported by a lion. Ishtar, the “Queen of Heaven,” goddess of love and war, is on a lion. Her twin brother the sun god Shamash is on a horse. Moon god Sin is also on a horned lion, and storm god Adad is both a horned lion and a bull. Nabu, god of wisdom, literacy and scribes, is on a dragon. The animals bearing the representations of the gods face right, the direction of the current that flowed through the canal.

Sargon’s new capital, Dur-Sharrukin (modern-day Khorsabad), was 40 miles south of Faida, and the great metropolis of Nineveh (modern-day Mosul), a regionally important center of religious worship and trade since the 3rd millennium B.C. and the largest city in the world with an estimated population of 100,000 at its peak under Sargon’s son Sennacherib, was 10 miles southwest of Dur-Sharrukin. Improving the arability of the area around these important population centers was a priority for Sargon and his successors. Sennacherib would build a canal 30 miles long to bring water to Nineveh, a section of which was built with arches and cement and may have been the world’s first aqueduct.

We’re incredibly lucky the reliefs are still there. The tops of three of them were spotted by British archaeologists in 1973, but constant turmoil between the Kurds and the Iraqi government followed by the Iraq War made further exploration impossible. In 2012, archaeologists took advantage of a small window in the conflicts to discover another six reliefs. Then in 2014 ISIS occupied the area. The front line was 15 miles away from the precious reliefs, but thankfully they were so little known they weren’t subjected to the Islamic State’s greed for looting artifacts and selling them on the antiquities market or destroying them.

ISIS was kicked out in 2017, and in September and October of 2019, the Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project (LoNAP) was able to return to fully document the finds.

“The reliefs suggest that politically charged scenes of royal power and its divine legitimacy might have been commonplace,” said Harvard University archaeologist Jason Ur, who is researching ancient water systems in the region. The discovery shows that these works of art were “not just in the imperial palaces but everywhere, even where farmers were extracting water from canals for their fields.” […]

The expedition itself used advanced technologies, including laser scanning and digital photogrammetry, to record every detail of the stone panels and their context. A drone provided high-resolution aerial photos that will allow researchers to map the entire canal network.

These unique reliefs are still under constant threat. Looters damaged one of the panels last May in the attempt to steal it. Construction of a stable by a local farmer inflicted further damage on another panel. Increasing development is a major threat as well — the ancient canal was cut through when a new aqueduct was built in 2018 — and erosion is a constant enemy. The canal was cut into a hill and it is entirely full of layers of earth deposited as the hill eroded. LoNAP’s ultimate goal is to preserve the site — reliefs, including those of Khinis and Maltai discovered in 1845, and the canal system itself — as an archaeological park with UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.


4,000 axe-monies returned to Mexico

Thursday, January 9th, 2020

A collection of 3,990 Mesoamerican copper coins dating to between 1200 and 1500 has been returned to Mexico. The coins belonged to a US private collector who acquired them at a Texas coin fair in the 1960s.

Mexican authorities notified the FBI of the existence of the coins in 2013 when they were taken to Spain for an auction. Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) then began authenticating the coins in order to request their return.

As both countries were by then signatories to the UNESCO convention (Mexico in 1972 and the United States in 1983), the return process was completed six years later.

[Mexican Consulate in Miami spokesperson Jessica] Cascante did not divulge the name of the collector who obtained the coins in the 1960s, but said that he did so before it constituted a crime and turned them in voluntarily.

The press coverage describes the coins as “tongue-shaped” but in fact they were shaped like miniature axes. They were hammered from a copper-arsenic alloy blank into the shape of a hachuela, a hatchet or small axe, hence the term axe-monies. They were beaten so thin that they could easily be stacked and bundled, easily circulated and easily hoarded. Indeed, most of them have been found in hoards or caches, often in graves, sometimes still bound in packets or bundles. This collection was likely a single hoard.

Axe-monies arrived in western Mexico around 1200. The metalcraft was apparently imported from the Andes (modern-day Ecuador and Peru), where arsenical copper was hammered into axe-like shapes (longer styles in feather shapes have been found at Andean sites) with the same thin, stackable properties. They are archaeologically significant, therefore, not just for their age, currency value and general coolness as axe-shaped coins, but because they attest to an exchange of monies and metallurgic technology between the ancient Mexican and Andean peoples.

Chroniclers from the 16th century document axe-monies used as tributes — one Geurrero province owned the Aztec king 80 hachuelas a year — and depict merchants at the tiyānquiztli, the outdoor markets held in towns’ central squares at least weekly, carrying objects that look like hachuelas. A 1528 inventory of tribute from Michoacán stored in the arsenal of Mexico City lists 113 cases of copper axe-monies. In a 1548 letter, Francisco López Tenorio, the Spanish governor of what is now Oaxaca city, four new hachuelas were worth five Spanish reales, but once they were worn down, their value plummeted to 10 for one real. They would then be collected, melted down and remade.


Rich Roman cemetery found at school site

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020

A rich Roman cemetery has been discovered at the site of new school construction in Somerton, county of Somerset, southwest England. The remains of more than 50 individuals, adults and children, dating from 43-410 A.D. were unearthed. The quality of the graves and the goods interred indicate these were people of wealth and status.

Located on a ridge between two rivers, the Yeo and Cary, Somerton has been populated since prehistory. Most of the archaeological evidence of Somerton’s pre-Roman occupation consists of enclosures, field boundaries, crop marks and earthworks, not building structures or artifacts per se. It’s not until the Roman era that archaeological remains attesting to it having been a heavily permanent settlement. At least nine significant Romano-British farms or villas have been discovered. This indicates Somerton was an important agricultural hinterland for the urban center Lindinis (modern-day Ilchester),a 1st century Roman fort that by the 4th century had grown into a prosperous walled town replete with luxury homes. A Roman road has been discovered that linked Somerton to Lindinis nine miles to its south.

Burials believed to date to the Roman period have been found before — two in the vicarage garden in 1951, six in 1889 — but the dating is not firm. This is not only the first time a full Roman cemetery has been found in Somerton, but the first modern archaeological excavation of a Roman cemetery in all of Somerset. The excavation and analysis of the findings will shed new light on the transition from Iron Age British to Romano-British to Romanized life and death in Somerset.

The graves were dug in clean rectangles and then lined with local stones. After people were laid to rest, the graves were sealed with flat slabs. One of them was capped with a tented stone roof. These types of graves were expensive and time-consuming to build, rare in Roman Britain and extremely rare for a whole burial ground to be full of them.

The grave goods include pottery, jewelry, coins, a carved bone artifact (probably a knife handle). One large pot contained a chicken wing bone, the remains of a funerary offering. Small nails found at the foot of most of the are likely the remains of hobnailed boots. While the organic material has decayed, the position of one woman’s head suggests it was originally resting on a pillow.

[South West Heritage Trust archaeologist Steve] Membery believes the people who have been found would have lived and worked in a nearby Roman villa. The villa has yet to be discovered but what is believed to be an outhouse and a barn associated with it have been found.

Evidence has also been uncovered of an iron-age settlement predating the Roman cemetery. Membery said one of the most interesting elements of the cemetery was that it showed how local people adopted Roman burial customs. Bodies were squashed into the oldest graves but laid flat, in the Roman style, in the later ones, and grave goods were placed close to the head.

DNA analysis will be carried out to try to learn more about the people who were buried at Somerton. It is thought likely they were British people who had adopted Roman customs after the invasion.

The school construction was delayed during the excavation, but it will pick up again next month. The artifacts and human remains have been salvaged and will be studied further.


Heslington brain may aid dementia, Alzheimer’s research

Tuesday, January 7th, 2020

In August of 2008, an archaeological survey in advance of new construction on the University of York’s Heslington campus discovered a human skull still containing brain remnants in a waterlogged pit. Surviving brain tissue is extremely rare, but it has been found before in archaeological contexts with extraordinary preservation of soft tissues — animals and people in the permafrost, bog bodies, desert mummies, crypt burials. These finds had other surviving soft tissues, however. The Heslington brain was unique as it is the only surviving soft tissue in otherwise fully skeletonized remains consisting of a skull, mandible and a couple of vertebrae. It is also the world’s oldest known surviving grey matter.

The location where the brain was found had a spring that had been source for wells from the Bronze Age through the middle Iron Age when the site was continuously occupied. In one of a dozen djacent pits apparently used for ceremonial offerings, archaeologists recovered a darkened cranium with articulated mandible face-down in moist sandy clay. The contents, first thought to be silt, were observed through the foramen magnum, inspected through an endoscope, X-rayed and a sample examined. Researchers confirmed that there was actual brain in that there skull.

The remains were radiocarbon dated to between 673-482 B.C. when the individual was struck hard on the head or neck and then decapitated, as evidenced by perimortem damage to the vertebrae and skull. The head was thrown in the pit and the brain had been naturally preserved in the waterlogged environment. It shrank over the millennia, but was still soft and glistening with clearly recognizable folds. Through cracks in the brain’s surface, the brain’s interior revealed itself to be a beige material with a tofu-like texture. Raman spectroscopic analysis found its chemical makeup to be largely decayed protein with a small amount of fat. Raman spectroscopy also identified the biochemical signatures of pigments produced by cyanobacteria. Researchers theorized that the cyanobacteria may have played a role in the unusual preservation of the brain tissue.

Now a new study of the brain’s proteins has revealed more information about its condition that may have long-term implications for medical research, particularly as regards brain diseases characterized by protein changes like dementia, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s. Using electron scanning microscopes, University College London researchers were able to identify and unfold the brain’s preserved protein structures.

The researchers from University College London (UCL) show that of those substances which hold a human brain together, notably proteins, can fold themselves tightly into very stable structures, called aggregates.

Once unfolded – a process which [on the Heslington brain] took one year – these proteins regain many of the features typically encountered in a normal, living human brain. Scientists say the findings have implications for palaeoproteomics, biomarker research and diseases related to protein folding and aggregate formation.

Lead author Dr Axel Petzold, of the UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology, had spent years researching two types of filaments in the brain – neurofilaments and glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) – which act like scaffolds to hold brain matter together. He and his team found both of these were still present in the Heslington brain, suggesting they played a key role in keeping the brain matter together.

Typically, brains decompose quite quickly after death in a rapid process of autolysis – enzymes breaking up the tissue. The findings suggest that an acidic fluid may have got into the brain and prevented autolysis. Both filaments are typically found in greater concentrations in inner areas of the brain, but in the preserved Heslington brain there were more in the outer areas of the brain.

According to the researchers, this suggests the inhibition of autolysis would have started in the outer parts of the brain, potentially as an acidic fluid seeped into it.

The study has been published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.


Rare Bronze Age funeral pyre found in Denmark

Monday, December 30th, 2019

A rare Bronze Age funeral pyre was unearthed in Bellinge, a suburb of Odense, Denmark. The site was excavated by Odense City Museums archaeologists in spring 2019 in advance of construction of a housing development. There was a burial mound there, but excavation revealed no central burial as is customary in ancient mounds. Instead, the team found the remains of an early Bronze Age (ca. 800 B.C.) cremation bonfire.

The deceased was cremated on a 3×2-meter pile of wood contained within pilings. After the funerary conflagration, the bones were removed and buried elsewhere. What remains today is a thick layer of charcoal peppered with bone fragments and the postholes from the pilings. Bronze Age cremation pyres are extremely rare, and this one is in particularly good condition, rich with remains that will give archaeologists an unprecedented opportunity to discover new information about Bronze Age ritual. Using the archaeological information, the team recreated the pyre, a pig standing in for the Bronze Age human.

The mound was built on top of the cremation site. It was created by piling turf into a mound 75 feet in diameter and lining its perimeter in large stones. It overlooked the landscape for a thousand years before again being used for funerary purposes. Over the course of three centuries, more than 100 individuals were buried on the mound surface, making the Bellinge Common mound one of the largest Iron Age burial grounds on the island of Funen.

Most of the burials were cremated remains in earthenware urns. There are also some inhumations with grave goods including jewelry (silver, glass, amber and pearl), daggers, pottery with food and drink offerings.

The urns have been transported to the Møntergården museum in Odense where they will be excavated in public view beginning on January 21st, 2020. The museum is setting up a laboratory in the foyer where visitors can see the archaeologists at work and look into the urns as their contents are unearthed.


Manchester’s gold mummies visit the US

Sunday, December 29th, 2019

Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester, is undergoing a huge £13-million, three-year renovation that requires the closure of multiple galleries for the duration. Egyptian Worlds, which houses Manchester Museum’s extensive collection of mummies and artifacts from 5,000 years of Egyptian history, is among them. The galleries closed in August 2018 and are scheduled to reopen in 2021 in the transformed museum.

While the collection’s home is being rebuilt, Manchester Museum has arranged the first travelling exhibition of some of its most exceptional pieces from Greco-Roman Egypt (c. 300 B.C. – 200 A.D.). Golden Mummies of Egypt is centered around eight mummies unearthed over a century ago during University of Manchester excavations in Egypt. Through the mummies and other artifacts, including the always-evocative Fayuum mummy portraits, the exhibition explores beliefs about death and the afterlife from Greek and Roman Egypt and their link to the ancient traditional religion of dynastic Egypt.

The latest technology will give visitors a literal view from the inside.

The exhibition includes 360 degree interactive CT-scans of each mummy on display, allowing the visitor to see beneath the wrappings; audio-visual translations of texts bring the words of ancient people to life; iconographic visualisations animate the gods the Egyptians hoped to meet.

Golden Mummies of Egypt opens in the US at the Buffalo Museum of Science on February 8th, 2020. Its next stop will be the North Carolina Museum of Art where it will run from September 19, 2020, through January 10, 2021.

Never-before-seen details from the golden funerary mask of Isaious. Photo courtesy Manchester Museum. Detail from Isaious' brilliantly colored wrappings. Photo courtesy Manchester Museum. Detail from Isaious' brilliantly colored wrappings. Photo courtesy Manchester Museum.


Burial of Phoenician mother, father, child found in Israel

Tuesday, December 24th, 2019

The grave of a small nuclear family — two adults buried with a child — has been unearthed in the ancient Phoenician city of Achziv on the northern coast of Israel near the border with Lebanon. The cist grave is 2,800 years old. Achziv was an important Phoenician port city at that time and the family’s graves goods attest to their prosperity.

Discovered during a 2017 excavation, the grave was dug in the ground and then lined with field stones creating a clean rectangular structure that was then sealed by two large limestone slabs. Within its confines were the bones of a child between three to five years old, an adult woman and an adult man. The remains of the adults were in fetal position. The child’s bones had fallen into a heap so its burial position could not be ascertained.

Interred with the remains were a bronze bowl and seven decorated pottery vessels. One of them is the largest Phoenician amphora ever discovered in Israel. The child was buried wearing a bead necklace of gold, silver, agate, amber and carnelian.

A wealthy family’s tomb fits the archaeological picture of Achziv as a thriving community over the centuries with several distinguished families, which by the way had four cemeteries in ancient times. In the 1960s, several cist graves were uncovered, one with two bodies buried with cylinder seals, bronze bowls, a bronze double axe, lance heads, and an ivory bowl with lion couchant. Other graves contained pottery, figurines, scarabs, and bronze and silver jewelry, also pointing to wealth. […]

In 2015 the excavators found what may be the only known mold for a supposed death mask, of a man, in what seems to have been a cultic building from the ninth century B.C.E. in the city’s south. The building, of which remained two mud-brick walls and three white plastered stairs that may have led to a second story, also contained several intact vessels, including a carinated bowl, chalices, a cooking pot, a storage jar, a lamp, and a goblet of burnished clay, as well as burnt animal bones. The archaeologists suspect it served a cultic function. […]

It was while trying to better understand the apparently cultic area that the archaeologists stumbled upon the tomb containing the nuclear family, dating to around 800 B.C.E., when Achziv was at its peak and some 100 years before the city surrendered to Sennacherib’s army.


Unusual artifact may be prehistoric adze

Sunday, December 22nd, 2019

A stone artifact discovered near Monroe, North Carolina, in 1973 is now believed to be an adze that may date as far back as 3,000 B.C. It is triangular and comes to a point, but at seven inches long, two inches high and 1.5 inches wide, it is obviously not an arrowhead, common finds in North Carolina. The grooved ring at the base of the widest part of the triangle is a key clue to its usage.

This suspected grooved adz is made out of local meta-argillite and has a deliberately modified area where a handle was likely attached. This distinct “neck” was created using a technique of pecking and grinding. Unlike a typical grooved axe, the bit end of this tool would have been oriented perpendicular to the handle and was not ground smooth. Note the edge damage on the bit end. An adz is woodworking tool used to dress, shape, or smooth timber and could have been used prehistorically to make wooden bowls, dugout canoes, or other wooden objects. It is unclear how old this object is, but if it was made during the time that many of the grooved axes were being made and used, it would likely date to the Late Archaic period (3000-1000 BC).

Assistant State Archaeologist David Cranford has created a 3D model of the tool stitching together 46 individual photos with modeling software. Even at moderate resolution you can get a good view of the chipping at the tip end.


Ötzi’s cord is world’s oldest bowstring

Friday, December 20th, 2019

Ötzi the Iceman, the 5,300-year-old Neolithic glacier mummy discovered by hikers in the Otztal Alps in 1991, has set another record: he is the owner of the oldest known bowstring in the world. In fact, Ötzi’s whole kit — quiver, arrows, bowstring and unfinished bow — is the oldest hunting equipment in the world.

Made of three strands of twisted fibers, the cord was found in the quiver. The Iceman had carefully wound it into an S-shaped bundle and tied a knot at the end, not unlike how I store my extension cords. It looks like a hemp rope and experts at the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology where Ötzi and his stuff are kept were not able to determine whether the cord was made of plant or animal fiber. The former would be unusable for a bowstring because they lack the necessary flexibility to withstand the tension of the bow.

Only three examples of Neolithic bowstrings are known to have survived. A study by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) compared prehistoric bowstrings recovered from alpine glaciers. Using a microscopic fiber sample from the string found in Ötzi’s quiver, the team confirmed that it was made of the leg sinew of an undetermined animal, not from plant fibers, and therefore ideally suited for a bowstring. The cord is almost six-and-a-half feet long, long enough to fit the 5’11”-long yew stave Ötzi had almost finished fashioning into a bow when he was killed. Stretched out to its full taunt length, the cord, which is 4mm in diameter relaxed, would be 2-3mm in diameter, a perfect fit for the width of the notches in the arrows Ötzi carried. A loosely wound bundle of animal leg sinew was also found in his quiver, perhaps raw material for bowstring production.

The rest of Ötzi’s gear also lends unique insight into Neolithic hunting practices, touching on a range of subjects from trade to tool use to the kinesiology of the hunt.

Ötzi’s 1.83 m long, unfinished bow made of yew (Taxus baccata) gave a unique, informative glimpse into how Neolithic bows were manufactured. The bow was first freshly cut from an 8-10 cm thick yew tree. He had already made good progress with his work, but the bow probably needed to be shortened and thinned. The best shooting results are obtained when the bow approximately corresponds to the height of the archer. For Ötzi that would have been approximately 1.60m. The investigation was able to establish that Ötzi’s bow had been worked with a hatchet from both directions. Whether this had been done by Ötzi himself cannot be determined. The question of how to work the ends of the bow to fasten the string also remains open. Junkmanns proposed the hypothesis that Ötzi could have purchased the rough bow on the way, which would possibly explain why he had an unfinished bow with him in the high mountains.

Even the Iceman’s quiver is the only known Neolithic carrying case for arrows. It is 86 cm long and stitched from doeskin (Rupicapra rupicapra). One side of the quiver is reinforced with a hazel wood stick. At the upper end of the quiver a flap of stiffened leather protected the arrows carried within. If required, it could be opened very quickly and an arrow could be pulled out with a single motion of the arm.

The quiver’s interior held 14 arrows, two of which were ready to fire and complete with arrowheads and fletching. They represent the best preserved examples of Neolithic arrow production in Europe. Neolithic arrows were most often made from branches of suitable bushes like hazel (Corylus avellana) or, as with Ötzi, from the branches of the wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana). Three feather halves were attached to the end of Ötzi’s arrows with birch tar glue and bound with thin nettle fibers. They represent the only preserved fletchings in Europe. The three-part, radially-placed fletching for stabilizing the arrow during flight has remained virtually unchanged since the Neolithic.

The SNSF study has been published in the Journal of Neolithic Archaeology and can be read here.





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