Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Skeleton with backwards feet found in Dorset quarry

Sunday, September 25th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating Woodsford Quarry in Dorset have unearthed a sarcophagus containing a skeleton whose feet were bent backwards. The sarcophagus, carved out of a single large block of limestone, was found in a grave 5’11″ long, 1’10″ inches and just one foot deep. Initial osteological examine found the skeleton was that of a young man in his 20s or 30s who was about 5’10″ tall. There are no indications from the bones of disease or possibly fatal trauma.

Hills Quarry Products contracted Thames Valley Archaeological Services (TVAS) to survey the Woodsford site and excavations have been ongoing for years. At least 11 othr burials have been found at the quarry, but because the soil is highly acidic, no human remains survived. The solid limestone coffin protected these bones from the ravages of the environment, although its lid is long gone, probably destroyed by farming activity which archaeologists have found evidence of going back 4,000 years to the Bronze Age.

Director of TVAS, Dr Steve Ford, explained why this was such a significant find. He said: “In the Roman period, burial in a sarcophagus was moderately common in Italy but very unusual in Britannia, where even wooden coffins seem to have been rare.

“A stone sarcophagus was certainly a very prestigious item, and their distribution across the country is restricted. Only around 100 are known and it is believed that this might be only the 12th to come from Dorset, with 11 others all from Poundbury.

“It is possible that the practice reflects a folk memory of a longer tradition in the South West, however, where stone lined cist burials can be traced back to the New Stone Age around 3000 BC.

“In fact, this sarcophagus may have been reused, as it was several centimetres too short for the corpse, whose feet had to be tucked under him.”

The skeleton will be subjected to further testing to determine if possible the cause of death and a burial date. After analysis is complete, the skeleton, sarcophagus and other artifacts from the Late Iron Age through the Roman era (1st century B.C. to the 5th century A.D.) discovered at the site will be donated by the landowner to the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

Ancient burned scroll virtually unwrapped

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

In 1970, an excavation of an ancient synagogue in the town of En-Gedi just west of the Dead Sea unearthed a parchment scroll. The town was inhabited from the late 8th century B.C. until it burned down in early 7th century A.D., and the scroll bore mute witness to En-Gedi’s fate. It was found inside the synagogue’s Holy Ark and was badly charred, so severely damaged that there was no way of unrolling it to read its contents. The lightest touch would cause the carbonized chunk to crumble. Radiocarbon dating determined the scroll dates to the 3rd or 4th century A.D.

Forty-five years later in 2015, the Israel Antiquities Authority and University of Kentucky computer science Professor Brent Seales announced that high-resolution micro-computed tomography scanning and new virtual unwrapping software engineered by Seales and his crack team of students had been able to peer into the blackened, crispy scroll and read the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus. That makes the En-Gedi scroll the oldest book from the Torah found since the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls (1st century B.C. – 1st century A.D.) and the only ancient Pentateuchal book ever found in a Holy Ark.

The noninvasive technology works by converting the 3D scans into 2D images on which the writing is legible. Computer algorithms partition the 3D scans into segments with writing on them. The surface is then rendered into a 3D model where all textures — writing, ink — are positioned exactly where they were they found in the original scan. From the 3D model a flattened 2D version of the surface texture is generated which unwraps the rolled up surface onto a flat page.

Since last year, Seales’ team has virtually unraveled five complete wraps of the parchment scroll. While the text itself is less than thrilling (they find one scroll and it has to be Leviticus?), the implications for future research are deeply exciting.

Besides illuminating the history of the biblical text, our work on the scroll advances the development of textual imaging. Although previous research has successfully identified text within ancient artifacts, the En-Gedi manuscript represents the first severely damaged, ink-based scroll to be unrolled and identified noninvasively.

The University of Kentucky team has worked on scrolls found at Herculaneum that were carbonized in the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed the town and its better known neighbor Pompeii, but that was four years ago and they were only able to pick out a single blurry unidentifiable letter. I dearly hope they give it another try now.

This video explains the virtual unwrapping process and how it worked on the En-Gedi scroll.

The full study replete with technical details has been published in Science Advances and can be read in its entirety here.

Cutting edge leather shoe found at Vindolanda

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

You’d think the Roman fort of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall was a footwear manufacturing concern rather than a military outpost with an attached a civilian settlement considering how many shoes have been found there. Literally thousands of shoes, their leather preserved in excellent condition by the waterlogged soil, have been unearthed at the fort and settlement over the decades. This season the excavation team has added another 350 shoes to the tally since digging began in April. One of them is making headlines for its stylish resemblance to the Adidas Predator soccer cleats favored by some of the biggest names in the game like David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane.

The shoe was found in the Severan ditch, ground zero for what appears to have been a frenzied bout of closet cleaning in 212 A.D. which resulted 420 shoes being tossed into the ditch. Most of them show signs of extensive wear or were cannibalized for parts to repair shoes that survived the great purge of 212.

This leather sandal is in good condition with only a tear along the seam of the hell. The shoelaces are gone, but there’s a slot where they would have tied together. Vindolanda spokesperson Sonya Galloway:

“The boot is the modern day equivalent of around a size one, and would have been worn by a child between the ages of eight and ten.

“It is a good quality shoe. “[J]ust like the children of today, Roman children would have been very fashion conscious. The discovery of shoe, which is very well made, shows the affluence of the Romans.

“It is the kind of shoe which would have been worn by a wealthy Roman child.”

Archaeologists think they have at least one shoe for every individual who lived at Vindolanda during the 300+ years it was inhabited. The differences in quality, design and wear attest to the diversity of economic status in the fort and settlement. They provide an extremely rare glimpse into the way people from all walks of life (pun intended) lived at Vindolanda during the Roman occupation.

The handsome shoe will now join its leathern brethren on display at the Vindolanda Museum.

Human skeleton found at Antikythera shipwreck

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

Archaeologists diving the site of the Antikythera shipwreck in the Aegean Sea have discovered human skeletal remains. The Return to Antikythera team, which has been exploring the site since 2012, found the bones under a foot and a half of pottery fragments and sand on August 31st. They recovered the cranium, a partial jawbone with three teeth, ribs, the long bones of the arms and legs and some other pieces. The rest of the skeletal remains are still embedded in the sea floor.

This isn’t the first time human remains have been found at the Antikythera wreck site. Famed marine explorer Jacques Cousteau found a smattering of bones during his two-day survey of the site in 1976. Osteoarchaeological analysis concluded that those bones were the remains of at least four people, although only three individuals could be identified: a young man, an adult woman and a teenager of undetermined sex. Having been treated for conservation purposes and exposed to a variety of temperature and environmental conditions, those bones can no longer be tested for DNA, not that they were ever prime candidates for recovery of ancient DNA.

That was a long time ago, aeons in terms of scientific technology, and this latest find isn’t just a bone here or there scattered by currents and marine life. This is the undisturbed skeleton of one person whose remains appear to have been protected by a thick debris layer, and it is the first ancient skeleton to be recovered from a shipwreck since the dawn of DNA analysis. Researchers are excited at the prospect of being able to extract a testable DNA sample from the bones, something that has never been attempted on an ancient shipwreck victim, to find out more about a crew member or passenger of the ancient merchant vessel laden with luxury objects that sank in around 65 B.C.

Within days of the find, [Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution archaeologist and co-director of the excavations team Brendan] Foley invited [Hannes] Schroeder, an expert in ancient-DNA analysis from the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, to assess whether genetic material might be extracted from the bones. On his way to Antikythera, Schroeder was doubtful. But as he removes the bones from their bags he is pleasantly surprised. The material is a little chalky, but overall looks well preserved. “It doesn’t look like bone that’s 2,000 years old,” he says. Then, sifting through several large pieces of skull, he finds both petrous bones — dense nuggets behind the ear that preserve DNA better than other parts of the skeleton or the teeth. “It’s amazing you guys found that,” Schroeder says. “If there’s any DNA, then from what we know, it’ll be there.”

Schroeder agrees to go ahead with DNA extraction when permission is granted by the Greek authorities. It would take about a week to find out whether the sample contains any DNA, he says: then perhaps a couple of months to sequence it and analyse the results.[...]

Schroeder guesses from the skeleton’s fairly robust femur and unworn teeth that the individual was a young man. As well as confirming the person’s gender, DNA from the Antikythera bones could provide information about characteristics from hair and eye colour to ancestry and geographic origin.

The video captures the moment of discovery and the divers’ unbridled joy.

The Return to Antikythera team 3D scan every artifact they discover so that scholars all over the world can examine their finds. Here is a 3D model of the bones in situ.

Here are the femurs recovered from the sea floor and in the laboratory.

Oldest known indigo dyed textile found in Peru

Sunday, September 18th, 2016

In 2009, archaeologists found textile fragments at the Preceramic settlement of Huaca Prieta in the Chicama Valley on the northern coast of Peru. The desert climate preserves organic materials and a great many early textiles made from wild cotton indigenous to the area have been unearthed there. What makes these fragments so significant is the dyed blue threads which are the oldest known indigo dyed textiles in the world, 1,800 years older than the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty textiles previously believed to be the oldest indigo dye.

Occupied between 14,500 and 4000, Huaca Prieta’s large ceremonial mound was first excavated in 1946 by archaeologist Junius Bird, curator of South American Archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History. There he unearthed the oldest known cotton textiles with recognizable figures — humans, birds, snakes — in the Americas. Those textiles are now in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Bird’s trenches are still being excavated today and a number textile fragments are visible peering through the soil. It was in of those trenches, stratum 44 of trench HP-3, that archaeologists discovered two textiles with blue dye about 6200 to 6000 years old. The fragments are weft twining with warp stripes in different colors: the natural tan of the cotton, yarn woven with a white fiber from a local vine in the milkweed family and the blue. Chromatographic analysis of the textile confirmed the presence of an indigoid dye.

Different plants can be used to make indigoid dyes. What they all have in common is indigotin, the main component in blue dye, and indirubin, an isomer of indigotin. There is no currently available test that can distinguish between the different genera of plants that are sources of indigo dye. Researchers believe the Huaca Prieta dye was derived from plants in the Indigofera genus which are native to South America and still used as dye plants today.

Early examples of the use of blue yarns that were most likely colored with indigo are known, but dye analysis had heretofore been unavailable. The composition of the indigoid dyes identified in the fabrics presented here reflects that of earlier findings in Latin American and Asian contexts, in that proportions of indirubin relative to indigotin are significantly higher as compared to European productions. To date, there is no firm evidence to explain these differences, but plant species, harvesting, dye preparation, and actual dyeing, as well as differential conservation processes of essential dye components, may have, alone or in combination, contributed to this observation. One interesting hypothesis, requiring further confirmation, is that ancient vat dyeing technologies favored the formation and uptake by the yarn of indirubin. This would have resulted in a more purplish hue produced by a reddish indirubin and a bluish indigotin.

The textile fragments are now in the Cao Museum in Trujillo, Peru.

3,000-year-old pot contains burned cheese residue

Saturday, September 17th, 2016

A clay pot discovered during an archaeological excavation near Silkeborg in central Jutland, Denmark, in 2012 has the residue of 3,000-year-old burned cheese coating the interior. The pot was found upside down in a garbage pit. Museum Silkeborg archaeologists were excited by the find because the pot was intact and in near mint condition, a rare find for a Bronze Age vessel made between 777 B.C. and 588 B.C. They didn’t realize until they cleaned the soil off of it that the crusty remains of some whitish yellow food substance were stuck to the inside walls.

The color and texture were not something the archaeologists had seen before. Charred grains and seeds are a more common sight in ancient cookware — the ever-tricky porridge has been getting burned to the bottom of pots for thousands of years — but the yellowish film was a mystery. Samples of the crusty substance were subjected to macrofossil analysis at the Moesgaard Museum in the hope it might identify any plants, meat or fish. The results were inconclusive. The test found the substance was a foamy, vitrified material, possible the residue of oil or sugar.

Museum curators sent samples to the Danish National Museum next, where chemist Mads Chr. Christensen used mass spectrometry to identify the substance. He was able to narrow it down to a product made with the fat of a ruminant, likely bovine. With no similar sample to compare the mass spectrometry results, he wasn’t able to get more specific than that.

“The fat could be a part of the last traces of curds used during the original production of traditional hard cheese. The whey is boiled down, and it contains a lot of sugars, which in this way can be preserved and stored for the winter,” says [Museum Silkeborg curator Kaj F.] Rasmussen.

“It is the same method used to make brown, Norwegian whey cheese, where you boil down the whey, and what’s left is a caramel-like mass that is turned into the brown cheese that we know today from the supermarket chiller cabinet,” he says.

When things don’t go according to plan and the cheese burns to the pot, the smell is pungent, to put it charitably, and attempts to scrape the foul crust off the clay pot doomed to failure. It’s easy to picture a Bronze Age cheesemaker dumping the whole mess into the trash.

I’m not familiar with brown Norwegian whey cheese. It sounds … interesting. Has anybody tried this delicacy?

Unique figurine of woman found at Çatalhöyük

Friday, September 16th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the Neolithic urban settlement of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey have unearthed the figurine of a voluptuous woman in excellent condition. More than 2,000 figurines have been found at Çatalhöyük, but very few of them intact like this one. Several of them were also Mother figures; this is the first one to be found intact and with finely crafted details. It is also unusual in that it was discovered under a platform next to a piece of obsidian where it appears to have been deliberately placed likely for ritual purposes rather than discarded in garbage pits where archaeologists have found many broken statuettes, mostly made of clay. The beautiful Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, for example, who is herself a zaftig female archetype seated on a throne and captured in the very act of giving birth, was found missing her head and the right hand rest in the shape of a leopard or panther head.

The figurine is 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) long, 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) wide and weighs one kilo (2.2 pounds), a large, heavy piece for Çatalhöyük. (The Seated Woman is 12 centimeters high.) Her hands and feet are small, markedly out of proportion to her large breasts, belly and buttocks, and her hands are placed under the breasts. She would not have been able to stand vertically on those small feet. The figurine is made of marble, another rarity, and was shaped by extensive polishing of the stone. Details — slanted eyes, a Modigliani-like flat nose, mouth, navel, etc. — were then incised on the figure.

It dates Neolithic occupation of the site, between 7100 and 6000 B.C., so the figurine is at least 8,000 years old. The exaggerated female features — breasts, hips, thighs — of such figures, carved by people for more 40,000 years, have often been interpreted as mother or fertility goddesses, but recent scholarship suggests some of them may represent venerable high status older ladies of the community.

Çatalhöyük is a fascinating site, founded in a period of transition between highly mobile hunter-gatherers and settled farming communities. No identifiable public buildings have been found thus far, just domestic structures built so close together than people had to use roofs and ladders to move between them. Residents grew a few different kinds of plants and kept cattle — not domesticated yet, mind you — for milk and meat. Large cattle horns were popular decorative features incorporated into the homes. The dead were buried under the houses; there was no dedicated cemetery or burial ground.

The Çatalhöyük Research Project has been excavating the settlement since 1993, combining excavation with in situ conservation and curation of artifacts to ensure the long-term preservation of this extraordinarily signficant site. Full details about the newly discovered figurine will be published in the team’s 2016 Archive Report later this year.

World’s oldest snowshoe found in Italian Dolomites

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

On August 5th, 2003, Simone Bartolini, cartographer and head of the State Borders division of Italy’s Military Geographical Institute, was in the Pfossental Valley in the Italian Dolomites doing a topographical survey of the border with Austria when he came across an old snowshoe made by hand out of birch and twine. A birch stick about 1.5 meters (five feet) long had been shaped into a rough oval closed with twine, and then more twine stretched taughtly across the middle to support the foot. One of the twine supports was broken in the middle, but otherwise it was in excellent condition.

Bartolini thought it was maybe a hundred years old, the rudimentary work of a local farmer perhaps, and hung it on the wall of his office in Florence as a charming curiosity. That’s where it remained for 12 years until 2015 when Bartolini attended an exhibition of artifacts found in the glaciers at the Archaeological Museum of Bolzano. After a conversation with museum director Angelika Fleckinger, it dawned on him that his snowshoe might be a lot older than he had realized, so he gave it to the Office of Archaeological Heritage of Bolzano for further study.

Researchers had it radiocarbon dated by two independent laboratories and their results were the same: the snowshoe was made in the late Neolithic, between 3800 and 3700 B.C. That makes it 5,800 years old, by far the oldest known snowshoe.

“The shoe is evidence that people in the Neolithic period were living in the Alps area and had equipped themselves accordingly,” said Dr Catrin Marzoli, the director of the province’s cultural heritage department.

It was unclear why people were travelling through such an inhospitable region, she said. They may have been hunting animals, fleeing enemies from a rival tribe, or visiting pagan sites of worship.

If you live in an environmentally challenging region, you adapt. People gotta move sometimes for any number of reasons. The snowshoe was found at an altitude of 3,134 meters (10,280 feet) in the Gurgler Eisjoch pass which has been used by mountain travelers for thousands of years. Ötzi the Iceman, whose naturally mummified body was found just a few miles west of the snowshoe in 1991, was treading that well-worn trail between what are now Italy and Austria when he was killed, and microscopic evidence in his bones and digestive system indicate he had trod that path many times in his life. Ötzi died 500 years after that snowshoe was made.

The snowshoe will now join the Iceman on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano.

22 ancient inscribed gold plates found in Java

Monday, September 12th, 2016


Construction workers in the Indonesian province of Central Java have unearthed 22 inscribed gold plates from the 8th century. The crew was digging for an aquifer project in the village of Ringinlarik when they came across a stone box in a rock pile. A small container at 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) long, 13.5 centimeters (5.3 inches) wide, and six centimeters (2.4 inches) high, the box was intact with its lid still on — one of the workers thought it looked like a jewelry box — and its contents apparently undisturbed.

Gutomo, an official with the Central Java Heritage Conservation Agency (BPCB) confirmed the gold found was 18 carats. Each plate has an inscription in ancient Javanese letters. The inscriptions are names of cardinal and ordinal directions of Dewa Lokapala’s wind Gods.

The inscriptions are names of cardinal and ordinal directions of Dewa Lokapala’s wind Gods.

“We recorded eight names of wind Gods. We have also declared the location as a heritage site,” Gutomo said.

Dewas, also known as devatas or dewatas, are minor Hindu deities that govern specific areas of nature and humanity. The Devata Lokapala are the Guardians of the Directions, overseers of the four cardinal points — Indra (east), Yama (south), Varuṇa (west) and Kubera (north) — and four ordinal points — Agni (southeast), Nirṛti (southwest), Vayu (northwest) and Īśāna (northeast). Javanese Hinduism includes a ninth member of the party, representing the center point, and calls them the Dewata Nawa Sanga, or Nine Guardian Gods.

The Guardians are often found painted or carved on the walls and ceilings in Hindu temples, but Java has an even stronger historical connection to these deities because they appear on the Surya Majapahit, a symbol associated with the great Majapahit Empire which ruled over what is now Indonesia from 1293 to 1500. (Old time readers might recall the wonderful Majapahit piggy banks made centuries before pigs became a popular home savings motif in the West.) The Surya Majapahit has been found carved on many Majapahit structures, enough that archaeologists believe it was an emblem of the empire. It’s an eight-pointed star representing the rays of the sun with the major Hindu deities in the circular center and the Guardians on the outer perimeter next to the rays that point in the cardinal or ordinal direction they guard. The plates predate the Majapahit Empire by at least five centuries so they’re not related, but they do attest to the regional significance of the deities.

It’s not clear on what grounds the gold plates have been provisionally dated to the 8th century, but one big clue is a discovery made at the same work site earlier this year: the remains of a candi, the Indonesian word for a stupa, a Hindu or Buddhist temple. The use of volcanic rock and the structure of the temple indicated to archaeologist that it was younger than the Candi Prambanan, a 9th century Hindu temple about 40 miles southwest of Ringinlarik. Metal plates inscribed with incantations and prayers were placed in containers and buried under the foundation of temples along with other offerings to bless the temple, so it’s highly probable these 22 plates were in place when construction on the candi began.

Unique 3rd c. epitaph of Jewish woman translated

Saturday, September 10th, 2016

An Egyptian epitaph from the 3rd century A.D. has been recently translated revealing a unique combination of descriptors. The epitaph is part of a collection of Greek and Coptic artifacts in the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. The collection was donated to the library in 1989 after the death of the collector, Doctor Aziz Suryal Atiya, an eminent Coptic historian who taught history at the University of Utah and founded the university’s Middle East Center in 1959. The Aziz S. Atiya Middle East Library, an internationally renown center for research in Middle Eastern history with the fifth largest collection in the United States, has hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts and rare artifacts.

The inventory note for the epitaph described it as a “Coptic inscription, dating from the dawn of the use of the Greek alphabet, not earlier than the second century, but not later than the third.” The small limestone slab, seemingly unremarkable, was left untranslated for more than 25 years until it caught the eye of Brigham Young University adjunct professor of ancient scripture Lincoln H. Blumell. He realized the description was wrong, that the inscription was in ancient Greek, not in Coptic using Greek letters.

The inscription reads:

In peace and blessing Ama Helene, a Jew, who loves the orphans, [died]. For about 60 years her path was one of mercy and blessing; on it she prospered.

It’s the combination of the honorific “Ama,” a title used to describe Christian women, mainly nuns, in late ancient Egypt, with her Jewish identification that is unprecedented.

“I’ve looked at hundreds of ancient Jewish epitaphs,” Blumell said, “and there is nothing quite like this. This is a beautiful remembrance and tribute to this woman.” [...]

Considering the unique use of dual-faith identifiers and the timeframe alone, the epitaph is unique with no known parallels.

Additionally, Blumell notes there is even more to the inscription. Scholars have noted from other inscriptions that Egyptian women during this timeframe had a life expectancy of 25 years. To live 60 years, as noted in the inscription, was incredible. Also, during a time when any sort of social programs were unavailable to orphans, taking care of them was seen as a very noble pursuit. Serving the widows and orphans is a common call to action in the New Testament.

I had doubts about that life expectancy statistic. I thought it might be a misinterpretation of average life expectancy, an average which is extremely low in places and times when infant and child mortality was high. The average age of death skews far younger because so many children died young. Once people managed to survive to adulthood their real life expectancy was significantly higher. I was wrong. According to ancient census data from Egypt in the first three centuries A.D., fully 61% of women were dead by the age of 30. Men had it only slightly better with 59% dying before they hit their 30s. Helene was one of fewer than 6% of Egyptian women from this period who lived to see 60.

Blumell has published his findings in the forthcoming issue of the Journal for the Study of Judaism.

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