Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Tiny avian dinosaur is actually medium lizard

Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

The paper that identified the skull of an animal preserved in amber as a new species of avian dinosaur has been retracted. Trapped in amber 99 million years ago, the skull definitely looks like a bird’s with dozens of small teeth, but newly released data points to it being a 99-million-year old lizard instead of the smallest dinosaur.

The new data “do definitively say that we were wrong”, says Jingmai O’Connor, a palaeontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, who co-led the now-retracted study. But, she contends, the specimen cannot be reclassified until the other fossil data are published.

Andrea Cau, a vertebrate palaeontologist in Parma, Italy, was among the scientists who were sceptical of the original classification. The fossil has several characteristics typical of lizards that have never before been seen in a bird-like fossil from that era, Cau says. And because so many of the specimen’s features are lizard-like — about ten, by his estimate — “the idea that it was  instead a lizard could not be excluded”. Cau is not surprised by the retraction, and notes that reclassifications, especially of incomplete fossil specimens from unknown groups, are not uncommon in the field.

Although the fossil is no longer thought to be the smallest-known dinosaur, O’Connor and Cau both say that it is still compelling because of its unusual combination of features. “The specimen is still very interesting to science,” O’Connor says.


California man indicted for Roman mosaic looted from Syria

Saturday, August 1st, 2020

Four years after a massive mosaic looted from warn-torn Syria was first confiscated, its trafficker has been indicted in federal court. It’s not much of a charge for so bold a crime; just one count of entry of goods falsely classified, which he has admitted doing already.

The mosaic is 18 feet long, eight feet high and weighs one ton.  It depicts Hercules, the skin of the Nemean lion draped over his left arm, his club on the ground next to him, on his 11th Labour, stealing the golden apples of the Hesperides. In this scene he is shooting an arrow at the eagle coming to feast upon Prometheus’ endlessly regenerating liver. It is believed to date to the 3rd or 4th century A.D. and the style is consistent with mosaics found in Idlib, a city in northwest Syria near the border with Turkey.

The FBI seized the mosaic in 2016 in the home of Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi in Palmdale, California, as part of an investigation into looted antiquities. He had imported it through Long Beach in 2015 along with two other mosaics and 81 vases. The paperwork declared the mosaics to be “ceramic tiles” and the entire shipment, mosaics and modern vases, to have been been acquired in Define-Hatay, Turkey, and to be worth a total of $2,199. The raid on his house turned up another ginned up document which even more ridiculously claimed he had bought the mosaic rolled up like a carpet in a 2009 yard sale from a family who had owned it since the 1970s.

Alcharihi admitted to authorities that he had paid $12,000 for the objects and lied on the form to dodge duties. He also admitted that he knew the mosaic was ancient, not a vague assortment of “ceramic tiles.” The feds found emails from him to a potential buyer in which he said the mosaic had been lifted from a historical building in Idlib and which included photographs of the mosaic in situ in 2010.

In 2018, the US Attorney’s Office of Los Angeles filed an asset forfeiture complaint against the mosaic, alleging Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi had illegally imported it into the country using fraudulent documents. Only now have the slow wheels of justice ground out an indictment, meagre though it may be.


Dog-handled authepsa found in Die

Friday, July 31st, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered a rare copper authepsa, a vessel used to heat water, in an excavation around the cathedral of Die in the Drôme department of southeastern France. A team from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) was excavating a location on Place de la République where a tree was going to be planted when they unearthed the remains of an ancient building. It was built in the second half of the 1st century and destroyed in a fire at the end of the 2nd century.

It is 47 cm (18.5 inches) high and consists of two compartments: a reservoir for liquid and a heating chamber. The tank has a capacity of about a gallon and was made of a single very thin (2 mm) piece of copper alloy. The heating chamber runs diagonally from the base of the vessel through the center and is welded to a two-inch hole in the side of the belly through which hot coals were fed to heat the liquid in the reservoir. The opening in the base of the heating chamber is plugged with a copper hemisphere held in place by two transverse iron rods that perforate the base. This blocked the coals from falling out of the chamber while still providing an exit route for the ashes. The vessel was mounted on an annular base with two small square vents.

The neck is fashioned into a pouring spout. A cast pouring handle is soldered to the body with a lead-tin mixture. The handle is highly decorative, shaped as dog with his muzzle resting on his front paws. The shape of the vessel and the base is of a type used to heat water for use in personal ablutions. They were easy to carry and could be used out of doors, so it’s also possible it was used to serve a mixture of water and wine.

Authepsae of this type are extremely rare. Only six are known to be extant, and this is the second ever found in Gaul. The pot itself can’t be absolutely dated, but the other one discovered in Gaul roughly dates to between the 1st and 3rd century A.D. The unusual dog-shaped handle might held narrow down the date range once it’s cleaned and restored. Some charcoal found in the heating chamber was radiocarbon dated to 130-260 A.D.

There is archaeological evidence of settlements in the Die area dating back to the Neolithic, but urbanization only kicked off in the 1st century A.D. under Roman rule. By the early 2nd century, Die was a thriving capital of the Gallic Vocontii people and would take on even greater prominence around the turn of the 3rd century as a religious center for the cult of mother goddess Cybele. The authepsa was a luxury item and must have belonged to one of the city’s elite. The room in which it was found had important painted wall decoration, confirming that it was the home of a wealthy person.


Core reveals source of Stonehenge sarsen stones

Thursday, July 30th, 2020

The core drilled out of one of Stonehenge’s sarsen stones in 1958 has answered one of the ancient site’s greatest mysteries: the source of its sarsen megaliths is West Woods in Wiltshire, 15 miles north of Salisbury Plain.

The smaller bluestones have been identified as coming from the Preseli Hills in southwest Wales and the Altar Stone (the central megalith in the circle) from the Senni Beds of east Wales 200 miles from the Salisbury Plain, but the origin of the massive sarsens has been debated by historians for four centuries. The prevailing theory since the 16th century is that they were transported from Marlborough Downs about 20 miles north of Stonehenge, mainly because that’s where you find the most and largest sarsens in Britain today.

Weighing an average of 20 metric tons and up to 23 feet high, the sarsens are so huge that moving them and installing them in the circle was an enormous undertaking in the 3rd millennium B.C. (or any time, for that matter). There were originally about 80 sarsen megaliths. Only 52 remain today, 15 of them in the iconic Trilithon Horseshoe. One of the trilithons in the horseshoe, uprights 57 and 58 and lintel 158, had collapsed in 1797. In 1958, the Ministry of Works re-erected the trilithon. The uprights had longitudinal fractures, so to reinforce the cracked stones so they could bear the weight of the lintel, three holes an inch in diameter were drilled all the way through the meter-thick width of the stones 57 and 58 and metal ties inserted into the holes.

The whereabouts of two of those cores are unknown. They were considered waste material at the time, and the one only survived because Roger Phillips, then employed with diamond cutting firm Van Moppes, kept it as a souvenir after he bored it out of Stone 58. After prizing it and carrying it with him across the world for decades, Phillips donated it to English Heritage in 2018.

What was trash in 1958 is archaeological treasure today, and researchers immediately jumped on the opportunity to study the core, the sarsens in situ and sarsen boulders in the wild, so to speak. University of Brighton researchers scanned each of the 52 extant sarsens using non-invasive portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry (PXRF) to determine their chemical composition. Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) and ICP–atomic emission spectrometry (ICP-AES) were then used to analyze the core from Stone 58 and a sampling of sarsen stones from 20 areas in southern Britain. By comparing the chemical signatures, researchers were able to determine the likely source of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge.

The meter-long core had to be cut in half lengthways, alas. English Heritage kept one of the half-cylinders. The others was cut into three samples for testing. The trace element signature comparison of Stone 58 with the sarsen boulder samples eliminated all but West Woods in southeast Marlborough Downs.

Overlooking the Kennet Valley to the north, West Woods covers a ~6-km2 area and comprises a plateau rising to 220 m above sea level that is dissected by two narrow valleys. The area once contained a dense concentration of sarsens, including a sarsen train mapped by the Ordnance Survey as recently as 1924. Most of the stones were broken up and removed from the mid-19th century onward. However, many large boulders remain, both in valleys and on high ground, and sarsen extraction pits are common, particularly in the northern woodland. West Woods lies within a concentration of Early Neolithic activity, being close to Avebury, numerous long barrows, and the causewayed enclosure at Knap Hill. Evidence of Mesolithic through Iron Age occupation has been recorded in the area, including a 40-m-long Early Neolithic chambered long barrow, sarsen standing stones, a sarsen polissoir used to sharpen stone axes, and prehistoric fields where now-wooded ground was previously open, cultivated land.

Why, in a region with the greatest density of extant sarsen stones in Britain, West Woods was selected as the primary source for the Stonehenge sarsens is unclear. Its significance most likely derives from the size and quality of the stones present there, making the area an important location for Neolithic people. Its topographic position on high ground south of the Kennet and its relative proximity to Salisbury Plain would also have made it an efficient place from which to obtain the sarsens. West Woods is located ~3 km south of the area where the majority of antiquaries and archaeologists have looked for Stonehenge’s sarsen quarries and, thus, lies slightly closer to the monument at ~25 km in a direct line.

The results of the study have been published in the journal Science Advances and can be read here.


8,000-year-old graves found in Sofia

Wednesday, July 29th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered four Early Neolithic graves in the Slatina district of Sofia, Bulgaria. Two graves from the same period were found at the site last year. These are the earliest burials ever unearthed in Sofia.

The graves were discovered during an rescue excavation in advance of a new housing development, but excavations have taken place in the area off and on for three decades. Archaeologist have recovered artifacts — ceramic vessels, loom weights, a spindle — and remains that are evidence of a settlement that was continuously occupied for 500 years, from the late 7th to the mid-6th millennium B.C. The newly discovered graves date to the beginning of the 6th millennium.

During the excavations, archaeologists from the National Archaeological Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences came across a double grave – most likely a man with a child.

The other remains are of a woman lying on her stomach and of a man who was laid out in a very special way – one of his hands remained under the skeleton

The skeletal remains will be studied further in a Bulgarian Academy of Sciences laboratory. They will be DNA tested in the hope of establishing if there was a familiar connecting between the individuals.


Gold diadem found in Roman sarcophagus in Izmir

Monday, July 27th, 2020

A Roman sarcophagus containing a gold diadem was discovered during construction in Izmir, Turkey. Workers came across the stone coffin when digging a foundation in the historical district of Konak and reported the find to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. A rescue excavation unearthed the sarcophagus with lid containing human remains, fragments of ceramic and fragments of a gold diadem. The crown was removed for study and conservation while the sarcophagus was fully excavated in situ.

It has not been radiocarbon dated yet, but archaeologists believe the sarcophagus and remains are from the 2nd century A.D., a period when ancient Smyrna was at its peak prosperity under the Roman Empire. The diadem is extremely rare and indicates the deceased was a member of the ruling class.

The settlement on the Gulf of Izmir dates back to the Neolithic, making it one of the most ancient settlements of the Mediterranean. The Greek city of Smyrna was founded there around 1,000 B.C. and at least by the second half of the 7th century B.C., there was a planned city built on a grid. It prospered through agriculture and trade, rising to become one of the most important cities in the Mediterranean basin.

Old Smyrna was destroyed by Persian forces under Cyrus the Great in 545 B.C., and would not be refounded until Alexander the Great defeated the Persians under Darius III in 333 B.C. It was absorbed into the Roman Asia Province two hundred years later and by the 1st century A.D. had reclaimed its place as a major urban center. Hadrian visited Smyrna in the 124 A.D. and Marcus Aurelius rebuilt it after an earthquake in 178 A.D. Most of the Roman-era structures that survive in the city date to the Aurelian reconstruction.

The İzmir No: 1 Cultural Heritage Preservation Board decided to announce the area as a third degree archaeological site due to the fact that the “pieces may belong to more than one sarcophagus burial in the area” and “the area provides important data about the range and the necropolis of the ancient Smyrna settlement.”

According to the decision, before the construction permit is granted in the excavated area and the surrounding area, drilling excavations will be carried out and a review will be made by the experts of the İzmir Museum Directorate.


Prehispanic glyphs, stele found on Puebla mountaintop

Saturday, July 25th, 2020

Residents of the village of Santa Cruz Huehuepiaxtla, Puebla, southeastern Mexico, have discovered two Prehispanic stele and dozens of glyphs carved on stone. They were in a remote location at the summit of the Cerro de la Peña mountain.

Archaeologists had to hike a rocky trail, much of it at a steep incline, for two and a half hours to reach the find site 2800 feet above sea level. They documented the two stele and 87 glyphs carved into the hilltop rock.

Believed to have been carved by Zapotec or Teotihuacán people, the archaeological relics have been dated to about 500 AD. Archaeologists believe that the site at which they were found was dedicated to a god of the underworld[, Mictlantecuhtli].

The best preserved stelae shows a person with horns and claws dressed in a loincloth. There are also stones engraved with images of an iguana, a bird that appears to be an eagle and a dios murciélago, or bat god, in the form of a woman.

The survey at the summit has revealed evidence of a ceremonial complex with seven pyramids and a ball court. The inscriptions on the stone slopes of the hilltop are written in the logographic ñuiñe script of the Mixteca Baja area in south-central Mexico. The Mixteca people occupied an area encompassing the modern-day states of Geurrero and Puebla, and the summit of the Cerro de la Peña affords an expansive view of the Mixteca territory. In 500 A.D., the complex of religious temples and royal palaces would ruled all they surveyed.

Glyph carved on rock at summit of Cerro de Peña. Photo courtesy EFE.


And three partridges in an apple tree

Friday, July 24th, 2020

The exceptionally intricate Roman mosaic floors discovered in the village of Yavru, Turkey, have gone on display at the provincial capital Amasya for the first time in seven years.

Archaeologists discovered the remains of a Roman villa in July of 2013 during an rescue excavation of a site targeted by looters. Large sections covering a total of 258 square feet over two rooms of the villa were found in excellent condition. A dynamic checkerboard of swirls, chevrons, triangles, zigzags, waves and other geometric patterns reminiscent of kilim rug motifs is unique on the archaeological record. The mosaic in the adjacent room features a central panel of an apple tree with three partridges enjoying its fruit.

Located in a valley in the mountains above the central south coast of the Black Sea, Amasya has the ideal temperate climate for growing fruits and is famous for its apples. The mosaic’s apple tree is a visual record of how far back the city’s association with its most famous agricultural export goes.

Archaeologists believe the villa was built around the early 3rd century by a wealthy farmer. The elite villa was converted into a church in late antiquity and later abandoned. The mosaics were raised in 2013. After extensive conservation, they were installed in the Amasya Archeology Museum against a photographic backdrop of the walls of the structure.

On a side note, when I wrote about the discovery back in 2013, all the available photos of the mosaic in situ were unnaturally brightly colored. I actually color-corrected them to tone that down a little because it was just so obviously wrong, something I have never done before or since, but I had nothing to go by to determine appropriate saturation, so they were still far too bright. Even accounting for lighting differences, it warms the cockles of my picture-obsessed heart to finally see the real palette after so many years.

 Apple tree detail today. Photo courtesy DHA.


Look inside the Gjellestad mound

Thursday, July 23rd, 2020

It hasn’t even been a month since the first excavation of a Viking ship burial mound in Norway in 100 years began, and fascinating new data is already coming to light thanks to soil analysis and digital technology.

Researchers from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) and the University of Oslo have analyzed five soil samples from the Gjellestad ship burial seeking clues to how the burial mound was constructed. The samples were taken during last year’s test excavation from the ship burial trench itself and from four different sites in the mound.

The analyses show that the construction and use of the mound is carefully planned and executed. It wasn’t simply placing the ship with the deceased on land and shoveling soil over it, according to NIKU researcher and archaeologist Lars Gustavsen.

“Here, the area of the mound has been carefully prepared by removing topsoil so that the intact subsoil was exposed. It is this subsoil that we see in the GPR data as a distinct black area around the grave itself.”

“Our analysis shows that this is soil that has been formed on-site; and the characteristic dataset signature must therefore be due to the fact that the mound covering the grave has changed the physical properties of the soil – likely due to soil compression from the heavy mound” Gustavsen continues.

The mound itself was made of turf or sod, not topsoil. Researchers were able to determine that it was not local, that all the turf used to form the mound was brought in from the outside. This was a complex, well-planned operation that appears to have followed an established procedure seen in other large ship burial mound.

The IT department at Østfold University College has been able to convert the findings from the geophysical surveys and excavations into a remarkable digital representation of the  Gjellestad ship site. The site is far more complex than just the one burial mound and with the exploration of the site still in its early stages, archaeologists have been working continuously with the IT team to update them with the latest information, correcting details and revising errors to ensure the 3D model is as accurate as humanly possible.

All their efforts have paid off with an interactive rendering of the site’s history. After a pretty cool intro of Viking ships braving the cold dark ocean waters, the Gjellestad site appears. You arrow through an overview of the site’s use from the Bronze Age onward, showing the cycle of construction and destruction of longhouses and how the mounds proliferated on the landscape.

If you click “open map” in the lower left corner, you can navigate to select spots to find out more about them.  If you click on the ship, you get a fly-in tour of how it was built, including an illuminating cross-section showing how the turf was layered to protect the ship and keep it vertical while the mound was built up around it. There are links to videos about the 2019 excavation, the discovery of the ship’s keel and nifty 3D ship viewer. You can manipulate the ship to see it from all directions.

The quality of the rendering is top-notch. They didn’t ruin it by trying to create believable humans puttering around, but there are some awesome sheep. Fine details include hearth fires and their smoke, tree leaves moving in the wind, the variety of grasses and the quality fencing.


Iron Age butter dish, butter found in loch

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

The Scottish Crannog Centre is a living history museum with a reconstructed crannog and demonstrations of Iron Age woodworking, spinning, weaving, music, cooking and other activities of daily life on Loch Tay in Perthshire, central Scotland. A wealth of archaeological material has been recovered from the loch bed over the years, rich remains of the Iron Age people who lived in the lake’s numerous crannogs (wooden roundhouse on stilts) 2,500 years ago. The crannogs had a limited lifespan and when their stilts could no longer hold them up, they and all their contents collapsed into the water. The anaerobic conditions of the lake preserved organic remains in remarkable condition.

One of the objects retrieved is a wooden butter dish complete with remnants of butter. Scottish Crannog Centre archaeologist Rich Hiden:

“When they started excavating, they pulled out this square wooden dish, well around three quarters of a square wooden dish, which had these really nice chisel marks on the sides as well as this grey stuff.”

Liped [sic] analysis on this matter found that it was dairy material, with experts believing it likely originated from a cow.

Holes in the bottom of the wooden dish further suggest that it was used for the buttering process.

Cream would have been churned until thickened until it splits to form the buttermilk, with a woven cloth – possibly made from nettle fibres – placed in the dish with the clumps of cream then further pushed through to separate the last of the liquid.

The SCC was scheduled to open this year on March 29th, but was thwarted by a certain pathogen that shall remain nameless. With lockdown restrictions now easing in Scotland, the Scottish Crannog Centre reopens to visitors on August 1st. In the meantime, the museum’s YouTube channel has produced a weekly series of videos illustrating the crannog’s history in 10 objects. They’re on number eight now, a beautiful swan neck pin. The butter dish was the fifth in the series and while the video is all too brief, you get to see what the dish would have looked like intact and how it was used.





August 2020


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