Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Roman water law inscription found in Laodicea

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

A marble slab inscribed with Roman-era water laws has been unearthed in the ancient city of Laodicea in western Turkey. The highly detailed law law was written by the Laodicea Assembly in 114 A.D. and approved by Aulus Vicirius Martialis, proconsul of the Roman Asia province, in the provincial capital at Ephesus. It was carved on a slab and erected in the city to put fear in the heart of all water scofflaws.

The Roman affinity for practical engineering ensured cities had access to public water. Aqueducts carried enormous quantities of water from nearby sources to the urbs where it was split up into lead pipes and reservoirs supplying the fountains, baths and drinking water throughout the city. Keeping people from illegally tapping into the pipes to supply their own homes was a constant struggle. If too many people helped themselves, not only would the water flow be disrupted for their neighbors, but the sewer system tied into the water system suffered as well since it required regular flushing. Backed up sewers and low water supply make for uncomfortable and dangerously unsanitary conditions in any city.

Water management was thus an essential aspect of city administration and violators of the common water good were subject to heavy penalties. In Laodicea, anyone caught polluting the water, damaging the pipes and channels, opening sealed pipes or stealing the city water for private use would have to pay fines as high as 12,500 denarii. A legionary was paid 300 denarii a year in the early second century A.D., so fines in the thousands would be complete disasters for regular people. Many of the most egregious public water thieves were quite wealthy since they had homes into which city water could be easily and discretely diverted, so it was important that the fines be large if they were to act as any kind of deterrent.

[Excavations head Professor Celal Şimşek of Pamukkale University] said the 1,900-year-old rules to prevent water pollution had a very special place, adding, “The fine for damaging the water channel or polluting the water is 5,000 denarius, nearly 50,000 Turkish Liras. The fine is the same for those who break the seal and attempt illegal use. Also, there are penalties for senior staff that overlook the illegal use of water. They pay 12,500 denarius. Those who denounce the polluters are given one-eighth of the penalty as a reward, according to the rules.”

A translation from the Greek of one section of the inscription:

“Those who divide the water for his personal use, should pay 5,000 denarius to the imperial treasury; it is forbidden to use the city water for free or grant it to private individuals; those who buy the water cannot violate the Vespasian Edict; those who damage water pipes should pay 5,000 denarius; protective roofs should be established for the water depots and water pipes in the city; the governor’s office [will] appoint two citizens as curators every year to ensure the safety of the water resource; nobody who has farms close to the water channels can use this water for agriculture.”

Founded in the 3rd century B.C., Laodicea was part of the Kingdom of Pergamon when its last king Attalus III bequeathed it to Rome in 133 B.C. Laodicea was hard hit during the two decades of war between Rome and Mithridates VI, King of Pontus, and it was only after the end of the last Mithraditic War (75-63 B.C.) that the sleepy town grew into prosperous city under Roman rule. Strabo, who was himself a native of Amasya, Pontus, (now Turkey) and whose family held important positions under Mithridates VI, describes the rise Laodicea in Book XII, Chapter 8.16 of his Geography:

Laodiceia, though formerly small, grew large in our time and in that of our fathers, even though it had been damaged by siege in the time of Mithridates Eupator. However, it was the fertility of its territory and the prosperity of certain of its citizens that made it great: at first Hieron, who left to the people an inheritance of more than two thousand talents and adorned the city with many dedicated offerings, and later Zeno the rhetorician and his son Polemon, the latter of whom, because of his bravery and honesty, was thought worthy even of a kingdom, at first by Antony and later by Augustus. The country round Laodiceia produces sheep that are excellent, not only for the softness of their wool, in which they surpass even the Milesian wool, but also for its raven-black colour, so that the Laodiceians derive splendid revenue from it[.]

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Noah’s round ark takes to the water

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

The author examining the Ark Tablet in the British Museum. Image by Dale Cherry.Five years ago, the news broke that premier cuneiform scholar Dr. Irving Finkel, Deputy Keeper of Middle East at the British Museum, had translated a new account of the ancient Babylonian Flood Story on a clay tablet from 1,750 B.C. and found directions for making a round ark. There are multiple versions of the deluge myth in the ancient Near East. One features Ziusudra, King of Sumer, as the Noah figure and is found on a single tablet from the 17th century B.C. excavated in Nippur, Iraq. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of Utnapishtim who was tasked by the god Enki-Ea to build a boat that would save his family, craftsmen, plants and animals from the flood the other gods were sending to destroy humanity. The earliest surviving Gilgamesh tablets date to the 18th century B.C. The Akkadian version is named after its hero, Atra-Hasis, and is found on fragments of tablets also dating back to the 18th century B.C. The Flood Story on the tablet recently translated by Dr. Finkel is the Akkadian Atra-Hasis version.

Drawing of Gilgamesh tablet pieced together from fragments in Smith's "Chaldean Account of Genesis"All of these versions of the Flood Story precede the Biblical version with the one God and Noah by a thousand years, a fact that caused a sensation in 1872 when British Museum Assyriologist George Smith announced he’d found the first cuneiform account of the Great Flood, now known to be the 11th Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Smith published his find in the 1876 book The Chaldean Account of Genesis, a seminal volume in the history of Assyriology even though several of his translations, admittedly makeshift solutions to missing bits in the sources (he suggested Gilgamesh was to be read Izdubar), have since been corrected.

Finkel published his translation of the Atra-Hasis tablet last year in The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, a fascinating archaeological detective story that manages that rare feat of conveying its author’s contagious enthusiasm along with the scholarly information. I’m sure in someone else’s hands the analysis of cuneiform tablets can make for dry reading, but Dr. Finkel’s ebullience shines through on every vigorously-turned page.

That endlessly renewable resource of enthusiasm played a key role in the translation of the round ark tablet. Dr. Finkel first encountered the small cuneiform tablet in 1985 when it was one of several pieces Douglas Simmonds brought to the British Museum for expert assessment. Douglas’ father Leonard was in the Royal Air Force after World War II and had amassed a significant collection of Near East artifacts during his travels. After Leonard’s death, Douglas researched the objects. Finkel had already helped him with several cylinder seals and clay tablets before the fateful 1985 encounter.

As one of very few people in the world who can sight-read cuneiform, Finkel was able to read the clean first verses of the tablet: “Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atra-Hasis…” That passage is famous among Assyriologists as the opening lines of the Atra-Hasis Flood Story. Finkel was thrilled at such a rare find and asked to keep the tablet so he could translate the whole thing which is covered in cuneiform front and back, but Mr. Simmonds was unwilling to part with it. It wasn’t until 2009 when Dr. Finkel spotted Douglas Simmonds at the Babylon, Myth and Reality exhibition that the latter finally agreed to bring the tablet in for translation.

The Ark Tablet, ca. 1,750 B.C. Image courtesy Douglas Simmonds.The sixty lines of the Ark Tablet go into unprecedented detail on the design of the boat and the materials used in construction. None of the other Atra-Hasis tablets describe the vessel. This is most of what’s on the front of the tablet:

Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall!
Atra-Hasis, pay heed to my advice,
That you may live for ever!
Destroy your house, build a boat;
Spurn property and save life!
Draw out the boat that you will make
On a circular plan;
Let her length and breadth be equal,
Let her floor area be one field, let her sides be one nindan high,
You saw kannu ropes and aslu ropes/rushes for [a coracle before!]
Let someone (else) twist the fronds and palm-fibre for you!
It will surely consume 14,430 (sutu)!”
“I set in place thirty ribs
Which were one parsiktu-vessel thick, ten nindan long;
I set up 3,600 stanchions within her
Which were half (a parsiktu-vessel) thick, half a nindan high;
I constructed her cabins above and below.”
“I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her outsides;
I apportioned one finger of bitumen for her interior;
I had (already) poured out one finger of bitumen onto her cabins;
I caused the kilns to be loaded with 28,800 (sutu) of kupru-bitumen
And I poured 3,600 (sutu) of ittu-bitumen within.
The bitumen did not come to the surface [lit. up to me];
(so) I added five fingers of lard,
I ordered the kilns to be loaded … in equal measure;
(With) tamarisk wood (?) (and) stalks (?)
…(= I completed the mixture).

These quantities are enormous, enough palm-fiber rope, wooden ribs and stanchions to build a coracle 3,600 square meters in area, almost two-thirds the size of a soccer field, with walls 20 feet high. If the amount of rope described here were laid out in a single line, it would reach from London to Edinburgh. The vats of bitumen were necessary to waterproof a boat whose hull is, after all, made of rope.

The back of the tablet is more damaged than the front, with significant chunks missing, but what is there continues the discussion of bitumen application and then describes Atra-Hasis and his family getting on the boat. In one moving passage, Atra-Hasis prays to the moon god Sin that the coming tragedy be averted. Sin’s reply includes a line that will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has ever heard the Noah story.

“Sin, from his throne, swore as to annihilation
And desolation on (the) darkened [day (to come)]”
“But the wild animals from the steppe [(...)]
Two by two the boat did [they enter]…”

Armed with this unique description, Dr. Finkel contacted ancient ship specialists to see if they could construct a scale version of the ark. The project was filmed for a television program called The Real Noah’s Ark which first aired on Britain’s Channel 4 last September. It apparently aired as Rebuilding Noah’s Ark on the National Geographic channel, but I missed it. The British Museum’s YouTube channel just posted a five-minute introduction to the episode a few days ago, which was the first I’d heard of it. The program doesn’t appear to be available on demand from the Channel 4 website at the moment, or at least it’s not working for me. It has, however, been posted on Vimeo and I strongly urge you to watch it while the watching’s good.

Simply stated, this show has everything: Mesopotamian history, issues in ancient urban water management, the Ziggurat of Ur, dangers military and ecological, southern Iraq’s enchanting marshlands, cuneiform tablets and the laser-scanning thereof, ship design, archaeological geology, traditional crafts, how reeds can be used to make an AMAZING house, bitumen drama, flood legends and their transmission from Babylon to Judea, the reality of regular flooding in the Fertile Crescent, several exceptional beards and at the end, a big ol’ round boat.

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Khaled al-Asaad. Archaeologist. Hero.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

I haven’t posted about the nightmare of IS’ systematic destruction and looting for profit of antiquities in territories under their control because it’s so horrifying I can barely stand to read the headlines, never mind do the additional research necessary for a post. Every new outrage is covered in excruciating detail by press outlets everywhere anyway, so I thought this blog might provide a little respite from the onslaught instead of adding to it. Today’s news requires that I make an exception.

Khaled al-Asaad, archaeologist, author and longtime director of antiquities and museums in Palmyra, Syria, was murdered by Islamic State fanatics yesterday. He was 82 years old. He was beheaded in front of an assembled crowd near the ancient ruins he spent his life studying and protecting. His body was then reportedly strung up on one of the Roman columns in Palmyra that he had helped restore with a placard listing his “crimes,” namely apostasy, loyalty to and regular communication with the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, representing Syria at conferences with “infidels” and being the director of Palmyra’s collection of “idols.” There are photographs that purport to be of his bloodied, decapitated body in other locations around the city as well.

While IS militants like to film themselves destroying archaeological sites and artifacts for propaganda purposes, the vast majority of their offenses against history are the same as any other criminal organization’s: the looting and sale of antiquities on the black market. They’ll sledgehammer a few statues in a museum on camera to make it look like they’re principled religious fanatics bringing down idols, but filthy lucre wins over so-called principles any day.

Asaad was involved in the transfer of the museum’s portable antiquities — the artifacts IS likes to steal to fund their wars — to comparative safety in Damascus. Before his death, he was held by militants who had heard some absurd rumor that ancient gold artifacts had been buried in the ruins instead of being shipped out with everything else. They interrogated him for over a month, by what atrocious means we do not know, but he refused to speak.

From a statement by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova:

“They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra,” the Director-General said. “Here is where he dedicated his life, revealing Palmyra’s precious history and interpreting it so that we could learn from this great city that was a crossroads of the ancient world. His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history.”

A former colleague of his, Amr al-Azm, told The Guardian:

“He was a fixture, you can’t write about Palmyra’s history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled Asaad. It’s like you can’t talk about Egyptology without talking about Howard Carter.”

The Guardian also has a lovely article written by Jonathan Tubb, Assistant Keeper of the British Museum’s Middle East Department and a good friend of Asaad’s that testifies to his warmth, generosity and passion for the history of his native city.

When I was a kid, the notion of the archaeologist hero was defined by Indiana Jones, the swashbuckling adventurer saving treasures from Nazis and heart-extracting cult leaders. But Indiana Jones is fiction and if he weren’t he’d be a looter. A man who spends half a century dedicated to the study of his beautiful city’s rich history, excavating its ancient glories and sharing them with the world in museums and books; a man who, when the storm of violence approaches, works assiduously to hide those priceless artifacts from the monsters who would destroy them or disperse them into the hands of greedy, amoral collectors around the world; a man who then refuses to leave the city even though he knows he will almost certainly be a target of said monsters; a man who, at 82 years of age, sustains a month of God knows what kind of interrogation methods without breaking; a man who gives his life for love of history. That man is the hero.

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Mass grave points to Early Neolithic massacres

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

A mass grave discovered during road work in Schöneck-Kilianstädten, near Frankfurt, Germany, in 2006 is evidence of a massacre in a community of Early Neolithic farmers. The human remains were discovered by construction workers who alerted the University of Mainz to the find. Bioarchaeologist Christian Meyer and his team removed the bones in blocks of soil so they could be fully excavated and studied in laboratory conditions at the university. Radiocarbon testing of the skeletal remains found they date to between 5,207 and 4,849 B.C. That places them squarely in the Linearbandkeramik, or Linear Pottery, Culture (LBK) which flourished in central Europe from 5,500 to 4,500 B.C.

The bones were in very poor condition, most of them in fragments, but researchers were able to determine that the deceased had not been laid to rest in a respectful manner. There were no grave goods — a common feature in Neolithic burials — and no articulated remains. The bones of at least 26 people — 13 adults, one teen, two preteens and 10 children under six years old — were mixed up together in the one grave, indicating they had been thrown into a pit in a haphazard manner. Osteological analysis found extensive perimortem blunt force and arrow injuries on the bones. Arrowheads were also found amidst the remains. These people were slaughtered and then dumped in a mass grave.

This isn’t the first LBK massacre site discovered. Similar graves have been found in Talheim, Germany, and Asparn/Schletz, Austria, but the bones from the Schöneck-Kilianstädten show signs of mutilation that has not been detected at the other sites: the deliberate breaking of legs. More than half of the shin bones were intentionally broken, either by torture just before the victims died or by mutilation immediately after death.

All three LBK massacre sites date to around the same time and archaeologists have found no evidence that people of another culture were involved in the mass killings. This appears to be LBK-on-LBK violence.

Chris Scarre, an archaeologist at the University of Durham, England, who wasn't involved in the study, said its conclusions seemed well supported by the evidence.

"What is particularly interesting is the level of violence. Not just the suppression of a rival community — if that is what it was — but the egregious and systematic breaking of the lower legs," said Scarre. "It suggests the use of terror tactics as part of this inter-community violence."

LBK people were the first farmers in central Europe and the later age of the massacre sites suggest the populations may have come under pressure leading to escalating conflict and violence. No younger women were found in the Schöneck-Kilianstädten or the Asparn/Schletz graves, which could indicate a Sabine women-style abduction scenario. As for what the pressures may have been that spurred communities to violence, the study authors hypothesize that it was a combination of factors. From the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Although the underlying supraregional causes for the recognized increase in mass violence in the late LBK undoubtedly were complex and multifactorial, a significant increase in population followed by adverse climatic conditions (drought), possibly coupled with the inability of long-settled farmers to practice the avoidance behavior by which hunter-gatherers typically evade conflict, seem to have been important components of the overall picture.

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Bronze Age knife found on Isle of Wight beach

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

When Oxfordshire couple Christopher and June Preece vacationed last month on the Isle of Wight, they didn’t just bring sandals and sunscreen with them. Christopher packed his trusty metal detector too, so he and his beloved could take romantic walks on the beach sweeping the sand, yearning for a sweet serenade of loud beeps. The dream came true when they found a few metal artifacts under a slab of clay as they explored Sandown Beach: one wedge-shaped blade and one round token.

Chris said: “We love searching for items with our metal detectors and were walking on Sandown Beach when it buzzed and we noticed that the objects looked unusual.

“I have a keen interest in history and immediately thought they were very old, because the knife has a green colour which is often found on old copper. The shape also gave me an indication it was an historical artefact.

“We decided to take it to the visitor centre in Newport so that it could be passed on and identified.”

The staff at the visitor centre in the Newport Guildhall called the local finds liaison officer, Frank Basford, to examine the objects. He found that the blade was late Bronze Age knife made of copper alloy. It is incomplete and the break is very old so it’s probably been this way a long time. The tang, collars and blade survive identifying it as a chisel-like implement that was used to work leather. Just two inches long from curved cutting edge to the tapered end of the tang and weighing half an ounce, the tool’s small size was practical for the crafting of leather; it wouldn’t have made much of a weapon or chopping blade. It’s a rare piece, but others of similar design have been found before. The style dates it to around 1,000-800 B.C.

The metal button is also made of copper alloy. It was made in one piece with an integral drilled shank (most of which is now missing leaving just the stub behind) that would have been sewn to the garment. The front of the button is stamped or punched with a border of small circles. Inside each circle are incised patterns of parallel lines. In the center of the button is a saltire (a diagonal cross) with a little circle nestled in each angle. This piece too was dated from its style. Other buttons of this type date to the 17th century, so it’s likely this one does too. It is 1.2 inches in diameter, which means the 17th century button is more than half the width of the Bronze Age blade.

Because they’re made of copper alloy rather than gold or silver, it’s likely neither piece would have met the threshold to be declared official treasure at a coroner’s inquest. That means the finders would get to keep the artifacts instead of the Crown claiming them and giving a local museum the chance to acquire the pieces in exchange for a reward to be paid to the finders in the amount of the fair market value of the artifacts. The finders are avid history buffs, however, so they forewent the whole rigmarole and just straight donated the blade and button to the Newport Roman Villa museum.

June added:

“To be told the knife is several thousand years old is just incredible. We never thought what we found was so old.

“As it was found on the Island, we are very keen for residents and visitors to enjoy it and were happy to donate it to the council’s museum’s service so it can go on display.”

:love:

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French student finds 560,000-year-old tooth

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

A French art history student has discovered an adult human tooth around 560,000 years old in the Arago Cave in Tautavel, southern France. It is one of the oldest human fossils ever found in Europe (the oldest is a 600,000-year-old jawbone found in Germany in 1907), and the oldest human body part ever found in France by 100,000 years. Its significance is bolstered by the scarcity of human remains in Europe from this period. There’s something of a gap in the record between 500,000 and 800,000 years ago and very little new material has been found. This one tooth is therefore of outsized importance.

Volunteer excavator Valentin Loescher, 20, one of more than 30 young people from France and around the world participating in this season’s excavation, discovered the tooth the afternoon of Thursday, July 23rd, in a section of the cave liberally sprinkled with animal remains. The volunteer digging next to him, Camille Jacquey, 16, was on a break when he found it. When she returned, they showed the find to Amélie Vialet, the paleoanthropologist leading the excavation team, who identified it as an adult human incisor from a lower jaw. Its age was determined by stratigraphic analysis; the layer in which the tooth was found has been dated with a variety of methods to confirm its range, so researchers are satisfied that the tooth is at least 550,000 years old, and maybe as much as 580,000 years old.

Yves Coppens, professor of paleoanthropology and prehistory at the Collège de France, who was part of the 1970s team that discovered the remains of the famous early human ancestor known as Lucy in Ethiopia, told France Info radio: “A tooth can tell us a whole range of things. Its shape and wear and tear tells us about the eating habits of the person in question; the tissue reveals a lot of information. The DNA can give an idea as to who this person was.”

If there’s any tartar on the tooth, they might be able to do stable isotope analysis on it to determine the ancient person’s diet.

There have been volunteers excavating the Arago Cave yearly since 1964. Thousands of people have given their time and dedication to the site for the past 50 years and they’ve been exceptionally productive. More than 600,000 prehistoric objects and remains have been unearthed since excavations began, most famously 140 bones and bone fragments from a single 450,000-year-old Homo erectus known as Tautavel Man. In a blissful historical coincidence, one of the volunteers in the 1979 excavation that unearthed a piece of Tautavel Man’s skull was Camille Jacquey’s mother.

This season only began in May and the team has already made thousands of finds. Besides unearthing the tooth, the team has been able to determine what kind of pollen and vegetation were in the area, even the source of the flint knapped by the cave’s users (it’s a site about 20 miles away). They know the area was a treeless, arid steppe around the time the individual left the tooth in the cave, cold, snowy, windblown. Researchers hope the tooth may fill in some of the missing information about the people of who navigated this harsh landscape.

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Five oversized Bronze Age axes found in Jutland Christmas tree farm

Sunday, July 26th, 2015

Just before Easter of this year, Christmas tree farmer Esben Arildskov asked a metal detecting friend Bent Rasmussen to survey a field on his farm in the village of Boest near Nørre Snede in Jutland, Denmark. Bronze artifacts had been found on the field before, and Arildskov wanted to be sure any historic artifacts were recovered before he cleared the area for planting. That responsible choice proved prescient. Rasmussen’s metal detector alerted to a large metal find and when he dug down, he found two large bronze axe heads. He immediately stopped digging and notified experts at the Museum Midtjylland of the find.

The two axes Rasmussen unearthed are 30 and 26 centimeters (one foot and 10 inches) long. The larger one weighs almost a full kilo (980 grams, 2.16 pounds); the smaller weighs 650 grams (1.4 pounds). Bronze Age axes are usually half this size, so the museum’s archaeologists were excited by the find. They examined the site and realized there was more to be found underneath the surface. They had to wait until after Easter to get started so on April 7th the official excavation began. Archaeologists, museum curators, journalists, neighbors and interested observers made the dig something of a party, complete with coffee and homemade cake. They had good cause to celebrate when three more oversized axes were unearthed. The axe hoard was painstakingly buried, each axe placed deliberately on top of the others inside a pit that was padded with grass.

Radiocarbon dating found the axes were made between 1,800 and 1,500 B.C., a period bridging the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age. This places them among the earliest bronze artifacts ever discovered in Denmark.

Bronze axes from this era are so rare only five of them have been found before in Denmark, Sweden and northern Germany. That means the Boest find has in one fell swoop doubled the number of these Bronze Age axes in the archaeological record of northern Europe. When you consider that
Bent Rasmussen and his brother, enlisted by Bent during excavations to cover more ground with their metal detectors, found another four smaller axes and a spear tip, it’s clear that this field in Boest was an important place during the early Bronze Age.

The would-be Christmas tree lot continued its archaeological hot streak when rows of large postholes were discovered. Four parallel rows of holes so large the posts they held would have been at least the height of a man. At first archaeologists thought they might be the remains of a dwelling or a fence, but as they kept excavating they kept finding more postholes. Ultimately they were able to follow an uninterrupted path of postholes for 109 meters before it disappeared into the forest. Now they’re thinking it may have been a processional route leading to burial mounds known to be on the property. This find is unique in Danish history, more akin to the pre-stone standing structures of Avebury and Stonehenge. Archaeologists hope to be able to excavate the entire processional in the near future, but first the funding has to be secured.

At the end of April, archaeologists unearthed another treasure across the post rows and slightly to the right of the axe hoard: two gold bracelets, one gold finger ring and two flint blades. The bangles weigh 21 grams (.74 ounces) apiece while the ring weighs a massive 16 grams (.56 oz). Modern wedding rings weigh a single gram, so this ring is exceptionally heavy. The gold deposit also dates to the transitional period between the Stone and Bronze Ages.

The axes are being conserved at the Museum Midtjylland after which they will be sent to the National Museum in Copenhagen for further analysis. Museum Midtjylland hopes the axes will be available for display this summer. Esben Arildskov has accepted that he won’t be planting Christmas trees on this land anytime soon, but he’s consoled by the fact that he’s the owner of a Bronze Age ceremonial center with huge axes and gold rings the weight of 16 regular rings buried hither and yon. He, his wife Birthe Rosvig and two daughters (aged five and eight) are thrilled to have found actual treasure in their back yard.

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Birmingham Qur’an folio one of world’s earliest

Saturday, July 25th, 2015

A partial Qur’an manuscript in the University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library has been radiocarbon dated to between 568 and 645 A.D., which makes it one of the earliest Qur’ans known to survive, perhaps even the earliest. The Prophet Muhammad lived around 570 to 632 A.D., so the sheep or goat who whose skin was used to make the parchment was his contemporary or died very soon after he did.

Muslim tradition holds that the Prophet received the revelations of the angel Gabriel in the last two decades of his life, transmitting them orally to his closest and most trusted companions who memorized them word for word. According to Sunni Islam, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and after his death the first caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, fearing that the people who memorized the scripture would die before they could pass it down, ordered the verses written down. That text was then used by the third caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan, as the basis for the definitive version of the Qur’an which was widely copied and distributed in 650 A.D., just 18 years after Muhammad died. (The Shi’ite tradition holds Uthman Ibn Affan solely responsible for collecting the revelations into a single written scripture.)

The manuscript consists of two folios with parts of Suras 18 through 20 written in a beautiful tilted Arabic script called Hijazi that is so clear it can be easily read by Arabic readers today. The pages have been in the library for decades, one of more than 3,000 of Middle Eastern manuscripts collected by Chaldean priest Alphonse Mingana in the 1920s at the behest of Edward Cadbury, chocolate magnate in a long line of chocolate magnates who, when they weren’t busy making delicious creme-filled confections, founded a consortium of colleges later absorbed by the University of Birmingham. The folios were mistakenly bound with the folios of another Qur’an written 200 years later in a very similar hand. There are no records of where Mingana acquired these particular leaves, but the parchment and script look like Qur’an fragments from the earliest mosque in Egypt (founded 642 A.D.) that are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

Dr. Alba Fedeli noticed the folios while doing research for her PhD. While the handwriting on those two pages at first glance seemed identical to that on the rest of the manuscript, she saw that the content stuck out, that it didn’t seem to fit with what came before and after. Fedeli pointed out the discrepancy to Susan Worrall, director of the library’s special collections, who decided to have them carbon dated by experts at the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. They were shocked by the results.

Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, Lead Curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library, said: “This is indeed an exciting discovery. We know now that these two folios, in a beautiful and surprisingly legible Hijazi hand, almost certainly date from the time of the first three Caliphs. [...]

“The Muslim community was not wealthy enough to stockpile animal skins for decades, and to produce a complete Mushaf, or copy, of the Holy Qur’an required a great many of them. The carbon dating evidence, then, indicates that Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library is home to some precious survivors that – in view of the Suras included – would once have been at the centre of a Mushaf from that period. And it seems to leave open the possibility that the Uthmanic redaction took place earlier than had been thought – or even, conceivably, that these folios predate that process. In any case, this – along with the sheer beauty of the content and the surprisingly clear Hijazi script – is news to rejoice Muslim hearts.”

The folios will go on display at University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts from October 2nd through October 25th.

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Floor of 4,000-year-old dwelling found in Ohio

Friday, July 24th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating the Burrell Orchard site in Sheffield, Ohio, have discovered the floor of a dwelling built 4,000 years ago.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere in Ohio. It’s very significant, a much more significant site than we previously thought,” [excavation director Dr. Brian] Redmond said. “These are house structures. This was like a village site.”

The builders lived in what archaeologists classify as the Late Archaic period in North America, so far back that they don’t have a tribal name.

“We have no idea what they called themselves or what language they spoke,” Redmond said. “The only reason we know anything about them is archaeology.”

The floor is about three inches thick and composed of yellow clay that was dug up elsewhere and carried to the site. Features were built into the floor, among them a basin, cooking pits, storage holes that held tools and food supplies like hickory nuts. Around the perimeter of the floor are post molds, spots of decayed organic material left in post holes that once held hickory saplings. Those saplings were tied together at the top and draped with mats of woven cattails to make a proto-wigwam.

This is remarkably solid construction for nomadic hunter-gatherers. They didn’t live here permanently, but rather visited the area to hunt and forage. It must have been an excellent spot for their purposes — productive, sheltered — because they stayed there for months before moving on only to return again over and over.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History team under Dr. Redmond first explored the Burrell Orchard site in 2008 when they discovered multiple layers of middens — ancient refuse piles — under the surface. Flint flakes, broken weapons, fire-cracked rocks, butchered animal bones and the remains of many cooking pits were found in deposits as much as 1.6 feet deep. Shovel-test excavations pinpointed the perimeter of the buried midden deposit: it is more than an acre in surface area. So vast a trash collection indicates the site was used for centuries by dozens, possibly hundreds, of hunter-gatherer families as a food collecting and processing spot.

The 2008 excavation also revealed the first of post molds. Some of them appeared to be the remnants of simple structures like food drying racks, but others were found in groups of three or more, which suggests the posts were used to make a more elaborate structure. They found layers of yellow-brown clay as well. While similar clay layers at archaeological sites in Illinois and Kentucky were found to be the floors of Late Archaic homes, at first the team thought the yellow clay might just be the natural subsoil underlying the middens. Digging underneath the layer revealed prehistoric artifacts, however, so either the clay was backdirt dug up from nearby pits that sank into the natural subsoil, or it was deliberately placed there to act as a floor or working surface. Now we know it’s the latter.

In 2014, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Archaeology in Action program began excavations at the Burrell Orchard site to follow up on the post molds and clay found in 2008. One of the excavation pits found the yellow clay layer with an arc of post molds following the edge of the clay that penetrate through the layer. When they returned this year, they scanned the field with Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and found a section that generated a very similar signal to the one caused by the 2014 floor discovery. The excavation turned up the same kinds of materials — flint flakes, fire-cracked rock, burned animal bones, burned soil, charcoal — found in the shallower layers of the 2014 find. Then the team struck gold: the yellow clay layer, this one less deep than the one from the year before. A core sample them revealed there was a second yellow clay layer at the same depth as the one found in 2014. It looks like the Late Archaic people using the site constructed a dwelling over the floor of an older one, which makes sense when you’re returning to the same spot for generations.

Dr. Redmond has blogged about the 2014 and 2105 excavations on the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s website. I suggest reading the entries chronologically to follow the discoveries as they were made.

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Sharp flint dug cavity out of tooth 14,000 years ago

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

Researchers have found the earliest known evidence of dentistry in the molar of a Palaeolithic man who lived between 13,820 and 14,160 years ago. The young man, who was around 25 years old at the time of death, had a cavity removed with a sharp flint, beating the dental work previously thought to be the oldest (a molar found in a Neolithic graveyard in Pakistan that was perforated by a bow drill) by 5,000 years.

The skeleton was found in the Ripari Villabruna rock shelter in the Dolomite mountains of northern Italy in 1988. The skeletal remains had been laid to rest in a shallow grave along with what were probably the hunter’s most prized possessions: a flint knife, a hammer stone, a flint blade and a piece of sharpened bone. Stones decorated with red ochre marked the burial mound. The bones were in usually good condition and a large cavity in his lower right third molar was noticed at the time, but the attempted treatment was not visible to the naked eye. It was only when researchers recently examined the molar with a scanning electron microscope (SEM) that they realized the cavity was signficantly larger than the decayed tissue and that there were striations and chips on the walls of the cavity even in the most inaccessible parts of the tooth.

The striations look like tiny versions of cut marks on bone. The research team experimented with sharpened wood, bone and flint points on the enamel of three molars and confirmed that the striations and enamel chipping on the cavity walls were made before death by pointed stone tool scratching and digging into the lesion. That means someone took a very small, very sharp tool, probably a flint, and dug out as much of the decay as they could. The striations go on in all different directions so the cavedentist really got down in there, changing angles and positions to clean out the rotted parts. The pain and difficulty of this procedure suggests that the dangers of tooth decay were known in the Late Upper Palaeolithic.

Evidence of Palaeolithic concern for dental hygiene has been found before. They were known to use toothpicks made of bone or wood to clean food particles stuck between their teeth, but this is the first evidence of treatment of tooth decay. It’s the first evidence of surgical intervention period.

The find represents the oldest archaeological example of an operative manual intervention on a pathological condition, according to researchers led by Stefano Benazzi, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Bologna.

“It predates any undisputed evidence of dental and cranial surgery, currently represented by dental drillings and cranial trephinations dating back to the Mesolithic-Neolithic period, about 9,000-7,000 years ago,” Benazzi said.

You can read the full study here (pdf).

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