Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Bronze Age hair ring, ingots found in Anglesey

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Four Bronze Age artifacts discovered in Wales by a metal detectorist were declared treasure trove at a coroner’s inquest on Wednesday. A gold and silver ring and three fragments of copper ingots were found on farmland in Cwm Cadnant, on the North Wales island of Anglesey, by Philip Cooper in May and June of 2013. Although archaeologists believe the artifacts were buried together as a single hoard, over the centuries they’d been scattered by movements of the earth and farming activities so Cooper found them several meters apart.

The find was reported to Ian Jones, curatorial officer at the Oriel Ynys Môn, an art and history museum in Anglesey, and Roland Flook, curatorial archaeologist at the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust. The artifacts were then examined by archaeologists at the National Museum of Wales who determined that the ring is a piece of Bronze Age jewelry known as a hair ring and that the ingots were a shape know as cake form used as raw material in the making of tools and weapons, typically found buried in Late Bronze Age hoards. That puts the date of the hoard at 1000-800 B.C.

The hair ring is made of a bar of gold that was curved and then had silver strip wrapped around the surface horizontally to give it a handsome two-tone striped look. It’s a pennanular design — an incomplete ring — and the terminals are flat. One side of it is heavily worn from repeated use before it was buried. They are commonly found in England, Ireland and Wales, including Anglesey.

A more simple piece made of sheet gold rather than bar and without the silver stripes was discovered at Trearddur during an excavation in advance of construction conducted by the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust in October of 2007. Although these adornments are thought to have been worn in the hair, they could also have been worn as earrings with the curved gold bar being inserted into a pierced lobe. The image to the right is the Trearddur hair ring at twice life size, so you can see how it could fit in an ear although it would certainly require a largish hole.

Adam Gwilt, principal curator for prehistory at National Museum Wales, said: “This gold hair-ring is finely made and was once worn by a man or woman of some standing within their community.

“It could have been made of gold from Wales or Ireland. The copper ingot fragments are an important association with the ring.

“It would be interesting to know whether they were transported and exchanged over a long distance by sea, or perhaps smelted from local ores mined at Parys Mountain or The Great Orme.”

They may be able to determine the ingots’ geological origin through isotope analysis and by comparing the concentration of trace elements to known sources of Bronze Age copper ore.

Now that they have officially been declared treasure, the artifacts will be assessed for market by experts and local museums given the chance to acquire them by paying the finder and landowner a finder’s fee in the amount assessed.

Thanks to a £349,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Museum Wales in conjunction with the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Wales (PAS Cymru) and The Federation of Museums and Art Galleries of Wales (The FED) has established the Saving Treasures, Telling Stories program which will fund the acquisition of artifacts by museums in Wales. The program just began in January of this year and will run through December of 2019.

Oriel Ynys Môn will draw on this fund to secure the hair ring and ingots for its collection where they will join the hair ring found at Trearddur in 2007 that was donated to the museum by the landowner.

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Roman tombstone of “Bodica” found in Cirencester

Friday, February 27th, 2015

The excavation of the site of the former Bridges Garage in Cirencester has unearthed a wealth of Roman funerary material from 75 graves, including pottery, jewelry and an extremely great chicken. Now Cotswold Archaeology (CA) has made another rare find: a tombstone with an inscription naming the deceased that may be covering her grave. Roman gravestones are rare — less than 300 inscribed ones have been found in the UK, 10 in Cirencester — but this one is in very fine condition, with the pediment atop the stone unbroken and the inscription is still sharp and complete.

The inscription is five lines long and reads: “DM BODICACIA CONIUNX VIXIT ANNO S XXVII.” DM is an abbreviation for Dis Manibus, literally “to the spirits of the dead,” a frequently used dedication on tombstones, so the full inscription translates to “To the spirits of the dead, Bodica, wife, lived 27 years.” It only fills the top half of the stone and there are horizontal lines on the bottom half that suggest it would be filled in with another inscription at a later date, perhaps when the husband died, but then it never happened. The tomstone is made out of Cotswold limestone and is elaborately decorated and impeccably carved. Bodica’s husband must have been quite well off to be able to afford such an expensive piece.

The Cotswold Archaeology team has been digging since January as a precursor to the construction of an addition to the St James Place Wealth Management structure that was built on the Bridges Garage site. They’ve discovered a total of 55 graves and were almost finished with the excavation when they found the tombstone.

“The problem we had was how to lift the stone without damaging the burial underneath. We could already see the skull and the rest of the body were covered by only a thin layer of soil,” [said Cliff Bateman, the Project Manager.]

“We decided to dig a hole next to the grave and then gently roll the stone over onto a pallet set within the hole. This could then be lifted out by a crane and transported to a secure store.”

Cotswold Archaeology has a short timelapse video of the lifting of the headstone here, and since the BBC filmed the event and broadcast it live, its article has two videos, one of the lifting of the stone, and one interview with CA archaeologist Neil Holbrook after the stone was turned over to reveal the inscription.

What makes this discovery all the more remarkable is that the tombstone survived at all. First it remained intact and virtually undamaged when it fell on top of the grave. Then it had to survive the stone foragers who looted graves and buildings to use as masonry for new construction. Archaeologists think that the headstone fell over relatively soon after it was installed and then was covered by soil so later looters missed it.

Then it had to outwit modern development. Before the Bridges Garage was built in the 1960s, the site was excavated by archaeologist Richard Reece who found 52 burials and an engraved headstone (not connected to any human remains). Then a building was constructed and an area large and deep enough to accommodate two huge underground fuel tanks was dug up, so archaeologists didn’t expect to find much of anything intact when they surveyed the site in 2011 before new construction. Instead they found an extensive burial ground with intact artifacts and human remains. The tombstone and the fragile human remains just under it came within inches of destruction.

CA’s Chief Executive Neil Holbrook said it was amazing the tombstone had survived “When they built the garage in the 1960s they scraped across the top of the stone to put a beam in. If they’d gone a couple of inches lower they’d have smashed it to smithereens.”

The stone dates to 100-200 A.D. It was found on top of adult human remains and next to the remains of three very young children. This could very well be Bodica and her children buried in a family grave. If it does prove to be Bodica’s grave, it will be the only of its kind ever found in Britain. Roman gravestones aren’t often found with associated remains; finding one with a name engraved on it which identifies the remains is the kind of thing you find in exceptional preservation conditions like Pompeii.

Experts will study the tombstone and remains in depth, a process that could take two or so years, in the hopes of answering some of these questions. After that, the stone will be given a permanent home in a museum. The Corinium Museum has been the fortunate recipient of other treasures unearthed at the Bridges Garage excavations — the cockerel is on display there now — so they’re hoping they’ll get Bodica’s headstone as well.

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World’s only woolly rhino calf found in Siberia

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Two hunters have discovered the exceptionally well preserved remains of a baby woolly rhinoceros in the Abyysky district of Siberia’s Sakha Republic. The Siberian permafrost is a rich source of pre-historic skeletal and fossil finds, but on rare occasions the deep freeze is found to have preserved the carcasses of fallen Pleistocene animals in such good condition that even soft tissues survive. While bison and mammoths have been found before (female mammoth, two baby mammoths, juvenile mammoth), this is only the second time a woolly rhinoceros has been found frozen rather than mummified or skeletonized, and it’s the first woolly rhinoceros calf that has ever been found in any condition beyond than the occasional bone.

The little fella was first spotted by hunters Alexander “Sasha” Banderov and Simeon Ivanov (the Siberian Times made a rather unfortunate error in translating Ivanov’s first name) when they were sailing on a stream flowing into the Semyulyakh River last summer. They saw some hair hanging from the top of a ravine on the right bank. At first they thought it was the remains of a reindeer, but they couldn’t confirm or deny because the carcass was far out of their reach. When they returned to the spot in September, the ice had thawed and the section of frozen earth containing the remains had thawed enough to break off and fall onto the river bank. Although a section of the carcass sticking out of the ice had been devoured by wild animals (there are visible teeth marks), the head was intact and its two horns immediately identified it as a rhinoceros.

Banderov and Ivanov retrieved the rhino and carried it home to their village where they placed it in a glacier to keep it frozen. Knowing that scientists would want to examine this remarkable find, they contacted Albert Protopopov, head of the Mammoth Fauna Department of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha, Yakutia. It took almost six months to get the carcass 1,800 miles away to Yakutia due to the challenges inherent in transporting anything across vast distances in the Siberian winter.

On February 25th, the Academy held a press conference announcing the discovery, its arrival in Yakutia and its name: Sasha, after one of the hunters who found it. Protopopov emphasized what a unique opportunity they have to study a baby woolly rhinoceros. Before now they hadn’t even had the chance to examine a single tooth from a woolly rhino calf, never mind a complete skull and head with a surviving ear, eye, nostrils and mouth. There is also copious surviving wool and two legs with intact hooves. (The parts in the middle were eaten.)

Although it will take several months to get dating results, Sasha has to be at least 10,000 years old because that’s when the woolly rhinoceros became extinct. Scientists estimate the calf was about 18 months old at the time of death which was probably as a result of falling into a pit.

Mr. Protopopov explained: “Even to find a skull of a baby rhino is very lucky indeed. The possible explanation to it is that rhinos bred very slowly. Mothers protected baby rhinos really well, so that cases of successful attacks on them were extremely rare and the mortality rate was very low. Woolly rhinos are less studied than mammoths. We are hoping Sasha the rhino will give us a lot of answers to questions of how they grew and developed, what conditions they lived in, and which of the modern day animals is the closest to them.”

The team will focus first on extracting DNA from the carcass. Because the hunters were so brilliantly conscientious about keeping Sasha frozen, the odds of the scientists being able to extract testable DNA are better than usual. They hope they’ll be able to report on the first test results in a couple of weeks.

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Objects from 1,500-year-old settlement found in Poland

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

Archaeologists excavating near the village of Skomack Wielki in northeastern Poland have unearthed numerous bronze, iron and pottery artifacts from a settlement dating to the 5th or 6th century A.D. Artifacts from this period in this area are rare, and most of the ones that have been found were discovered in cemeteries.

Among the most valuable finds are ornaments, brooches and buckles made of bronze, as well as toiletries (tongs) and knives. In one place, archaeologists discovered cluster of entirely preserved 7 ceramic vessels. They differ in size, finish (some carefully smoothed, some rugged), decoration in the form of plastic strips, ornaments made with fingers or engraved. “The whole deposit gives the impression of a specially selected set, although at this stage of research it is difficult to say what was the purpose of selection and of the pit, in which the vessels had been placed” – commented Dr. [Anna] Bitner-Wróblewska.

Although the population of the area in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages is generally associated with the Sudovian/Yotvingian tribe, archaeologists believe the community in this settlement was a West Baltic tribe called the Galindians who had established connections with peoples to the north, south, west and east of them going back as far as the 2nd century A.D. when Greco-Egyptian astronomer, mathematician, poet and geographer Claudius Ptolemy mentioned them in his Geographia. The range of the ancient tribe was whittled down to a central core in the wake of the upheavals of the late Imperial period. By the 6th/7th century Ptolemy’s Galindians survived as the Old Prussian clan of the Galindis. These artifacts, therefore, are from a significant transitional period in the history of the region.

The pottery vessels, still filled with soil, have been removed to the National Archeological Museum in Warsaw where the contents will be examined under laboratory conditions. The museum is a partner in the Polish-Norwegian Modern Archaeological Conservation Initiative “Archaeology of the Yatvings” which seeks to explore the mutli-period settlements of Baltic tribes (the Yatvings of the title) in the early medieval centers of Szurpiły and Skomack Wielki in Poland’s Warmińsko-Mazurskie region. This is the first archaeological initiative in Poland to prioritize non-invasive methods of investigation like aerial exploration and geophysical surveys to locate and identify archaeological remains and determine how well preserved they are.

The project began last year with non-invasive analysis of the sites followed by targeted excavations. It is scheduled to continue through 2016. The ultimate objective, in addition to learning more about the little-known settlement structures of ancient and early medieval Yatvings, is to develop a usable model of heritage protection coupled with archaeology that will give local communities a fuller understanding of their rich history and a preservation-based approach to cultural tourism.

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3,500-year-old Bronze Age hoard found in Poland

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

A 3,500-year-old Bronze Age hoard containing the head of an ice axe, fragments of a spiral necklace and a bracelet with tapered ends, all made of bronze, was found last month in the village of Rzepedź in Bieszczady Mountains of southeastern Poland. The hoard was discovered by Łukasz Solon from the nearby town of Sanok who was visiting the old wooden church of St. Nicholas with his girlfriend. They were walking towards the north side of the village when Łukasz noticed a metal object sticking out of the ground. Its green patina contrasted against the brown grass reminded him of artifacts he had seen in the Historical Museum of Sanok, so instead of indulging a perfectly natural curiosity and digging it up, Łukasz left the object alone and alerted the museum experts when he got home.

Archaeologist Peter Kotowicz from the Historical Museum of Sanok and Marcin Glinianowicz from the Carpathian Archaeology department of Sanok’s Folk Architecture Museum went to the site the next day and recovered the exposed object. They recognized it as an ancient bronze ice axe and immediately applied for an emergency permit to conduct an archaeological survey of the spot. The day after that, permit in hand, they excavated the find site.

First they explored the area with a metal detector and found fragments of bronze spirals and a strong signal indicating that there was more to found deeper underground. They dug a small trench about two feet square and carefully raked into the soil, recovering multiple pieces of bronze spirals until, about a foot under the surface, they encountered potsherds that were the edges of a clay vessel about 10 inches in diameter. Much larger sections of bronze spirals lay within the vessel’s perimeter. Underneath those archaeologists found another 15 bronze spiral fragments and a bracelet with tapered end broken in two pieces. When they got to the bottom they discovered the earthenware vessel had been deliberately placed upside-down on a circular sandstone plate.

According to Kotowicz, the discovered objects were probably made south of the Carpathians. “The treasure is probably related to the communication route, which ran from the nearby Łupków Pass through the Osława and San valleys” – noted the archaeologist.

Bronze monuments from Rzepedź have been preliminarily dated to approx. 1500 years before Christ. “We do not yet know who and why had hidden the treasure so carefully. Axe and jewellery are most likely related to the Piliny culture, then existing south of the Carpathians” – noted Kotowicz.

The Piliny culture is one of the Urnfield cultures, named after their practice of cremating their dead, placing the remains in urns that would then be buried in cemeteries that in some cases have been found to contain thousands of urn burials. Archaeologists have found pottery vessels of different shapes and sizes, bronze pins, bracelets, rings, weapons and more in those Piliny cemeteries and in settlements and hoards. The bronze work is particularly exceptional, the product of a well-developed metallurgic trade courtesy of the Carpathian mountains’ plentiful supply of ore. The area was an important center of metallurgy from the Early Bronze Age on, introducing innovations in the making of alloys and other metallurgic techniques.

The bronze spiral fragments in the Rzepedź hoard are typical of jewelry that has been found at Piliny sites. They used that spiral configuration in all kinds of designs: arm rings, leg rings, wrist guards, finger rings, pendants.

In order to ascertain whether the hoard was a one-off buried in a remote location far from the madding crowd or part of a larger settlement, the find site will have to be more extensively explored. A survey or the wider area has already begun, a first step to a broader program of research under the aegis of the regional conservation office.

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Rare Roman cremation burial finds go on display

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Last October, John Steele was scanning a field in Whitchurch, north of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, at a Weekend Wanderers metal detecting group rally when he discovered some fragments of iron and copper alloy artifacts. There were also pieces of red Samian ware vessels, an indication that the site may have been an ancient burial. The group alerted Finds Liaison Officer Ros Tyrell. Buckinghamshire County Council archaeologist Eliza Alqassar realized this could be a significant discovery and commissioned Oxford Archaeology to excavate the find site.

The excavation was challenging. Soil conditions were difficult and the earth had been churned up by heavy farming machinery leaving some artifacts so crushed and dispersed that it was hard to figure out what they were. Oxford Archaeology spent three days excavating and documenting the site. They found iron nails and organic deposits indicating there had once been a wooden burial casket 3’7″ long and 2’4″ wide buried at the site. The wooden structure of the casket has decayed, but it contents survived: a bronze jug with a decorated handle, two Samian ware cups, two Samian ware dishes, a pottery flagon, two glass vessels, a bronze patera (a shallow libation bowl), an iron lamp or lamp holder, two unidentified lead objects and a cremation urn.

The cremation urn was in such bad condition that archaeologists lifted the entire soil block around it for excavation back at the Oxford Archaeology lab. Inside the urn were iron hobnails from a shoe, a red jasper intaglio engraved with the goddess Minerva and a smaller figure, possibly Mercury, holding up a wreath. The cremated bone fragments belonged to an adult, possibly female, buried in the 2nd century.

The wealth and rare combination of artifacts suggest she was someone of high status. Burials from this period containing objects in a variety of metals, glass and ceramics are very rare. There are only a handful of comparable rich cremation burials found to contain glass and bronze artifacts and lamps all unearthed in southeastern England (this burial in Wendover found in 2000 is comparable down to the original discovery by metal detectorists). The Whitchurch find is the westernmost of these burials. The iron lamp or lamp holder is also a rare find. The bronze jug handle, elaborately decorated at the base with a sacro-idyllic scene of figures worshipping at an altar that has no known parallels. It’s a unique piece of national importance, especially since it was properly excavated in a dated and documented context.

In the months since the discovery, three artifacts have been cleaned and conserved: the bronze jug handle, one of the Samian cups and the jasper intaglio. The three of them will be on display at the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury for the next three months in a bid to raise interest and funds for thorough conservation of the rest of the metal artifacts. They need £3,000 to clean and stabilize the objects so they’re suitable for permanent display and for publication.

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Restored Berthouville Treasure at the Getty

Monday, February 9th, 2015


For the first time since it was discovered in 1830, the entire Berthouville Treasure, a group of exceptional Roman silver objects, has left France and is on display at the Getty Villa in Malibu. Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville exhibits the complete 93-piece treasure — which includes a statue of Mercury, elaborately decorated silver pitchers and cups, a repoussé silver jug, plain silver beakers, a spoon collection and a number broken handles, rims and fittings — along with a selection of luxurious jewels, like the eight gold, emerald, pearl and amethyst necklaces of the Treasure of Naix, all on loan from the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (the department of coins, medals and antiques) of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

On March 21st, 1830, farmer Prosper Taurin was working his field in Berthouville, near Bernay, Normandy, when his plowshare jammed against an ancient Roman tile. Once dislodged, the tile was found to be protecting a trove of 95 or so Roman silver and gold objects buried only eight inches beneath the soil. Weighing a total of 55 pounds, the stand-out pieces were two statuettes of the god Mercury and about 60 vessels.

Several of the vessels were incscribed with votive dedications to Mercury, including a group of nine ultra deluxe gilded silver vessels — a pair of wine pitchers with scenes from the Trojan War, a pair of drinking cups decorated with scenes of centaurs, a pair of drinking cups with masks, a silver and gold beaker with scenes from the story of Corinth and Isthmia, a large bowl with a central medallion of Omphale and Eros laying on Hercules’ Nemean lion skin and a ladle decorated with Mercury, a goat and a tree — made in the 1st century. These nine pieces all bear the inscription “MERCVRIO AVGVSTO Q DOMITIVS TVTVS EX VOTO,” or “To August Mercury from Quintus Domitius Tutus as vowed,” and are superlatively high quality silver and gold work from 1st century Italy.

Subsequent archaeological excavations of the site in 1861 and 1896 found two temples, a theater and hypocaust-heated rooms: a Gallo-Roman sanctuary built in at least two stages. One of the temples was dedicated to the important Romanized Gallic deity Mercury Canetonensis, the same god name-checked in the vessels’ votive inscriptions. The other was dedicated either to his mother Maia or his wife Rosmerta. The hoard was buried under the brick paving in the gallery of the sanctuary.

Archaeologists did not encounter evidence of a town or cemetery in the vicinity of the sanctuary, so it seems likely to have been a pilgrimage site. The objects date from the 1st to the late 2nd centuries A.D. and are therefore thought to have been buried in the late 2nd, early 3rd century. They could have been buried for their own preservation during turbulent times, but given the context they may have been cached for ritual purposes rather than under extremis.

Taurin put the treasure in the hands of a local nobleman who prevented archaeologists from examining it. An expert from the Louvre and one from the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque Royale, today the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, were allowed access to the group to arrange a sale. The Cabinet acquired the treasure for 15,000 francs, a modest sum even then. At the library in Paris the objects were cleaned and the fragments that could be puzzled back together were. There the Berthouville Treasure remained (with some individual pieces taking occasional short trips elsewhere in France) for 180 years.

In December of 2010, the whole treasure was shipped to the Getty Villa for an extensive program of documentation, analysis, research, cleaning and conservation. Each of the 93 objects (plus four unrelated platters from late antiquity in the Cabinet collection) were photographed and X-rayed to assess their condition and for evidence of how they were manufactured. After a metallurgic study, conservators began to clean the surface of the vessels with simple damp cotton swabs. The grime and dust removal promptly revealed gilding and inscription details that had long been obscured. Further progress was made with mild cleansers and solvents like acetone and ethanol which were able to remove the thick tarnish layers, accretions and corrosion that the 19th century conservation had been unable to budge.

The restoration project took four years to complete and the beautiful results are now on display in California. The exhibition runs at the Getty Villa through August 17th, 2015, after which it returns to Paris whose citoyens will get a chance to see the treasure clean and shiny for the first time.

Here’s a nifty video from the Getty conservation team on how Roman silversmiths would have made the Cup of the Centaurs.

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St. Louis Society board resigns over artifact sales

Friday, February 6th, 2015

Last fall, the St. Louis Society (SLS) of the American Institute for Archaeology (AIA) caused a stir when it put the Treasure of Harageh up for auction at Bonhams, London. The collection of Twelfth Dynasty jewelry and vessels were unearthed by a British School of Archaeology team excavating in Middle Egypt during the 1913-14 season under the direction of William Matthew Flinders Petrie. As the St. Louis Society had contributed to the funding of the dig, in return they received an exceptional group of artifacts from the reign of Pharoah Senusret II (1897-1878 B.C.). The Society had tried to place the objects from Tomb 124 at Harageh in the Saint Louis Art Museum and in the Washington University museum, but were not successful, so most of the time the artifacts were kept in a safety deposit box. The steep costs and suboptimal conservation conditions of the storage and the desire to fund a community archaeology program ultimately spurred the St. Louis Society to sell the Treasure.

Most of it was saved at the last minute, taken out of the auction the day before thanks to a private sale to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A Tenth-Eleventh Dynasty travertine head rest was bought at the Bonhams auction by an anonymous buyer for $44,000. Undeterred by the outcry, the SLS then offered two Mesoamerican artifacts — a Maya effigy vase (550-950 A.D.) from the Quirigua, Guatemala, and a Zapotec seated figural urn (550-950 A.D.) from Monte Albán, Mexico — they received as recompense for funding the fieldwork of American archaeologist and groundbreaking Maya scholar Sylvanus Morley in the 1910s. The effigy vase sold to a university museum for $21,250, the figural urn to an unknown private buyer for $3,750.

The AIA is opposed to the sales of antiquities, believing they should be curated for the public good, conserved by experts and made available for study, but its charter with the St. Louis Society only explicitly prohibits the sale of ancient artifacts of dubious, undocumented origin. The origin of these objects was clear and unblemished. Still, the AIA released a statement expressing its concern over the pending sale and promising an urgent investigation into the situation. The SLS board held there was nothing wrong with the sales, ethically or legally. Obviously the AIA disagreed on the ethics of auctioning off archaeological material, and pointed out that the board had acted unilaterally without consulting the SLS membership which was at the very least divided on the question.

On January 10th, the Council of the AIA held its annual meeting in New Orleans. They discussed the SLS sales and decided on a strong course of action: if the SLS board didn’t resign in its entirety by February 1st, the AIA would revoke the St. Louis Society’s charter. You can read SLS President Michael Fuller’s statement at the meeting here. I’m not prone to agree with cultural heritage organizations selling ancient artifacts to the highest bidder, but I think he made some excellent points, particularly about how the AIA needs an actual policy on the sale of documented artifacts and how the national society could have helped them place the artifacts in museums and prevented this mess from happening in the first place instead of reacting after the fact.

Three days after the AIA passed its resolution, the St. Louis Society held an extraordinary meeting attended by two thirds of the membership. After a vigorous debate, a narrow majority of the members voted to retain the board. On January 25th, the SLS board met again and decided to comply with the AIA resolution. All nine of the board members resigned effective Monday, January 26th. An interim board is in place until new elections are held at the next annual meeting. The AIA is satisfied and the St. Louis Society will remain a chapter in good standing.

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Remains of ancient mound in Ohio found during mall construction

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

In 2008, a small mound on North Bridge Street in Chillicothe, Ohio, was bulldozed by commercial developers. There was no archaeological survey of the site, despite Ohio’s rich history of ancient Native American mounds, because sadly there are no laws even slowing people down from destroying ancient remains on private property. Whatever development plans were in the works in 2008 never came to fruition and the property lay fallow until this year.

A few weeks ago, Guernsey Crossing LLC began building a mall on the 13-acre site. This time people concerned about the late lamented mound reached out to archaeologist Dr. Jarrod Burks, president of the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy, who contacted the developers and struck up a deal: Burks and a team of volunteers would be given three weeks to excavate the site where the mound had once been. They started out with a magnetic survey of the site to identify the perimeter of the mound and the best areas to excavate.

After two weeks, they’ve found a cluster of burned bones that are most likely from a cremation, Burks said, and another set of unburned bones and teeth. In addition, after painstakingly and carefully feathering away the soil a few specks of dirt at a time, they’ve uncovered shards and pieces of prehistoric pottery and a great deal of burned wood that will be able to be dated by its carbonization.

Burks, whose paying job is with Ohio Valley Archaeology in Columbus, said the mound probably dates from between 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. Before flattening, it was about 2 1/2 feet high. The area is about 80 feet in diameter.

Archaeologists can’t tell if the burned bone fragments are human or animal, but the uncharred bone discovered next to the burned pieces are human, so it’s likely the burned ones are too. The pottery fragments are the source of the preliminary dating based on design and style.

Basically what’s left is a thin layer of the mound floor, still intact after bulldozing just below the surface. Floors may not sound glamorous, but they’re extremely important archaeologically speaking. These postholes are unusually large, one wide enough to hold a post six to eight inches in diameter. The hole seems to have been deliberately filled in after the post was removed, perhaps during the construction of the mound.

That they’ve been able to find postholes is highly significant because they impart a great deal of information about the construction of the site, and since so many of Ohio’s ancient mounds were destroyed long before archaeological practices paid much attention to, well, holes, this little ex-mound may teach us new things about the architecture of these structures.

The mound is going to be a mall parking lot soon, so the team has to clear out everything they find for further study. The Native American tribes would prefer that human remains not be disturbed, but unfortunately that’s not an option here. Burks is working with the developers to ensure the area isn’t entirely bereft of recognition of its ceremonial and historical importance.

While we’re on the subject of ancient Native American mounds in Chillicothe, things are going gangbusters at the Junction Group Hopewell Earthworks. After a frantic two-week period of fundraising last March, the earthworks, none of which are visible above ground but their foundations are still extant underground, were saved when heritage and ecological preservation non-profits including the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy and Arc of Appalachia rallied to raise funds to buy the archaeological and environmentally important parts of the Stark family farm. Almost 1,000 individual donations were raised in that fortnight of mad activity, enough to allow the coalition to buy 193 acres — earthworks, woodlands and a 1.25-miles stretch river corridor — at auction for $1.1 million.

Most of that purchase price, 75% of it, came from a matching Clean Ohio Fund grant which wasn’t actually granted yet when they bought the land. Arc of Appalachia noted at the time that “we raised roughly $375,000 through the generosity of over 900 donors, funds which we will use to leverage a Clean Ohio grant to pay the remaining balance of acquisition funds needed.” They seemed confident but I was concerned about whether the grant was a sure enough thing to consider the Junction Group Earthworks well and truly saved.

Well, I’m delighted to report that the Clean Ohio Fund matching grant came through and in July of last year, Arc of Appalachia Preserve System director Nancy Stranahan and Heartland Earthworks Conservancy director Bruce Lombardo officially closed on the property. They’re wasting no time on their goal of making the site a public park. The new Junction Earthworks Archaeological Park and Nature Preserve is slated to open this year, perhaps as early as this spring. There are tons of additional expenses involved in making it a proper park facility so donations are still very much open. Click here to donate to the Junction Earthworks Park Development Fund online.

Meanwhile, the same Jarrod Burks mentioned above, who happens to have done the first magnetic survey of the Junction Group site in 2005 which revealed that the foundations of the earthworks were was still left undergound, has returned to make a more detailed survey. The original scan covered about 15 acres and with a single hand-held magnetometer, produced relatively low density data. This scan is being done with a four-probe magnetometer on a rolling cart which will collect far higher density data over the same ground thereby identifying smaller features (cooking pits, burials, postholes) the first machine couldn’t detect, and will eventually cover the entire 89-acre field.

Dr. Burks began scanning in November and is still doing it whenever weather permits, which isn’t often this winter. They only had two weeks and three weekends to complete the project in 2005. Now that they own the land, they can afford to take their time. You can see Jarrod Burks at work with his neat four-magnetometer scanner in this aerial footage by drone photographer Tim Anderson. The enclosure ditches, which are not visible above ground, have been marked out by mowing the soybean stalks left after harvest.

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Ancient Siberian trepanation recreated

Friday, January 30th, 2015

A multi-disciplinary team of scientists at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, part of the Russian Academy of Science’s Siberian branch, have recreated the ancient trepanation technique of the nomadic people who inhabited the Altai region of western Siberia between the 6th and early 2nd centuries B.C. A neurosurgeon, a radiologist, anthropologists and archaeologists examined three skulls with antemortem trepanation holes excavated from grave mounds in the Altai mountains and then attempted to perform comparable surgeries using a period-accurate tool on a modern cadaver’s skull.

Skull from Bikeh III, male 50-60 years old, 5th–4th centuries B.C.All three skulls were unearthed from humble graves. The grave goods and associated burial rites indicate the interred were of relatively low social status, which means at least some of the poorer Altai nomads had access to quite high level health care. The types of graves and funerary rituals are all different, suggesting the subjects came from diverse cultural groups. One of the skulls was excavated from mound three at the Bikeh III burial ground. It belonged to a male between 50 and 60 years old and dates to the 5th–4th centuries B.C. A second skull, excavated from a cyst grave in Kyzyl-Dzhar IV mound two, is that of a woman who died at around 30 years of age. The last is from an undercut, timber-frame grave in Kyzyl Dzhar V mound three and is the skull of a man aged 40-45. Both date to around the 4th-3rd centuries B.C.

Using multi-slice computer tomography scans, researchers first examined the skulls in minute detail to identify any damage or defect that led to the surgeries and to analyze the methods and tools used by the ancient surgeons.

TSkull from Kyzyl-Dzhar-V, 40-year-old man, 4th-3rd c. B.C.he skull of the 50-60 y.o. male showed no visible evidence of head trauma, but rather that he suffered from a congenital skull deformation — a flattening of part of the occipital bone caused by an improper closing of the lambdoid suture. This was not a dangerous or painful condition at this point in his life and there’s no sign of trauma or tumors, so it’s not obvious why surgical intervention was attempted. Whatever was ailing him, it didn’t leave tell-tale signs on the cranium. The skull of the woman bears evidence of severe trauma: fractures in the right temporal bone and at the base of the middle cranial fossa, possibly caused by a fall from a height. The skull of the 40-year-old man indicates he suffered significant head trauma causing damage to his left temporal and parietal bones. That injury resulted in a hematoma — bleeding in the brain that forms a clot — which would have inflicted a variety of painful symptoms including headaches, vomiting and difficulty moving his right limbs.

Both men had pieces of their left parietal bone removed. The older gentleman’s skull has a semi-oval hole that is 45 by 52 mm (1.8 by 2 inches) at the outer perimeter with an inner hole of 22 by 34 mm (.87 by 1.34 inches). The younger fellow’s skull has a round hole that is 63 mm by 64 mm (2.5 inches) on the outside, 40 mm by 41 mm (1.6 inches) on the inside. The young woman’s skull has an irregular round trepanation hole in the back of the parietal bones centered on the sagittal suture. It’s 39 mm by 36 mm (1.5 by 1.4 inches) on the outside, 23 mm by 16 mm (.9 by .6 inches) on the inside. The inner and outer measurements are a result of a two-stage process: first a larger surface layer of bone was cut out with a sharp tool leaving a thin layer of skull, then a hole was cut into the thinned out bone with short, frequent movements.

Skull from Kyzyk-Dzhar-IV, 30-year-old woman, 4th-3rd c.The men’s skulls both have extensive bone regrowth at the surgical sites, which means they survived and went on to live for years after the operation. The woman was not so lucky. She died either during surgery or right after it, and little wonder since her surgeon did an atrocious job. The surgeons who operated on the men cut holes that were just large enough to address the problem (remove the hematoma from the younger man; possibly remove parasites from the older one) and at a safe distance from the sagittal sinus, into which all the major veins from the top of the skull open. The woman’s trepanation hole is right above the superior sagittal sinus, so it’s a fair assumption that she died from massive bleeding.

The two successful surgeries were performed with distinct finesse by knowledgable surgeons. They may have developed this knowledge independently, perhaps developed from expertise in embalming, from the fast and thorough butchering of stock and game that a nomadic existence requires, or from making objects out of animal bone, a craft that was extensively practiced by the Altai nomads in the 5th century. There’s also a chance they may have had contact with western medical practices during war, trade or travel. Hippocrates wrote the treatise On Head Injuries in the 5th or early 4th century B.C. which specifically addressed the importance of avoiding the blood geyser areas of the brain when digging holes into the skull.

Knives (a-e) and saw (f) from Minusinsk MuseumSince even with today’s technology scraping or cutting or grinding bone leaves particles from the tool on the bone, the team tested the new bone growth on the two men who survived the operation for material that would identify which kind of tool was used. X-ray fluorescence and mass-spectrometric analyses discovered particles of copper and tin, which means the skulls were cut with a bronze instrument. The lack of arsenic further narrows it down to stannic bronze which at the time of the burials was being used in the Minusinsk Basin. The Martyanov Museum in Minusinsk has a large collection of stannic bronze tools — knives, saws, lancets, tweezers, probes — that archaeologists have posited had a surgical purpose. Unfortunately they were not excavated in context (looters sold them to the museum in the late 19th, early 20th century), so it’s hard to pinpoint a date of manufacture.

Experimental brass knifeNeurosurgeon Dr. Aleksei Krivoshapkin first tried to use one of the blades from the museum on a skull, but it was too soft and couldn’t get purchase on the bone. Archaeologist Andrei Borodovsky made an experimental knife out of a brass alloy of copper, tin and zinc. That addition of zinc made for a functional skull-cutting tool that the team could test on a cadaver skull.

Trepanation experiment on modern cadaver skullHere’s the most amazing part of this fascinating foray into ancient brain surgery: the operation took 28 minutes. Using a freaking brass knife and Altai cutting techniques, it took Dr. Krivoshapkin less than half an hour to make a two-inch hole in a skull. I was just reading the other day about how Cervantes’ father was a surgeon and it was seen as a low job, akin to a butcher, but look at the incredible skills that butcher heritage brought to the surgical table. I hope Cervantes Sr. was all “Yeah, that’s right. I’m an amazing butcher. You wish you could do with living tissue what I can do in 28 minutes. Haters to the left.”

 

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