Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Ruins of ancient air conditioning found in Kuwait

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of an ancient air conditioning system in a 7th-8th century structure on Failaka, a Kuwaiti island in the Persian Gulf. Researchers from the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) and Kuwait’s National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters excavating the Nestorian Christian village of Al-Qusur discovered the foundations of a stone tower with a complex system of canals inside.

“According to a preliminary analysis, it’s a unique so-called windcatch-tower, utilising an ingenious interior cooling system based on the flow of air, caught by openings in the tower superstructure,” [SAV Archaeological Institute director Matej Ruttkay] claimed.

Windcatchers work by evaporative cooling. Heat converts water to vapour which takes heat with it as it evaporates, just like sweat does for the body. The technology is commonly associated with traditional Persian desert architecture used all over the Middle East today, but there are versions of windcatchers going back to the 19th Dynasty of Pharaonic Egypt (ca. 1300 B.C.). Paintings on Egyptian tomb walls depict roof ventilators that pulled out warm air by suction, but that system is insufficient for the greater heat of the Persian Gulf.

The Failaka tower enhanced the cooling power of the windcatcher by passing the air over the below-ground water canals into the living spaces of the palace, lowering the temperature of the air dramatically. Modern versions of this system have been clocked cooling the interior of a home to 25°C (77°F) when the external air is 40°C (104°F). It’s a sophisticated approach, impressive for the time and location, and as far as the archaeologists who found it know, is the oldest of its kind ever discovered.

Failaka was first settled around 2000 B.C. by Mesopotamians from Ur who ran a trading concern from the island. By 1800 B.C., the Mesopotamians had either left or been escorted off the island by the Dilmun civilization, which at the height of its power encompassed modern-day Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and coastal Saudi Arabia. The Dilmunites were maritime merchants who controlled trade in the Persian Gulf. Strategically located at the entrance to Kuwait Bay with an easily defended coastline and native sources of water, Failaka was an important hub of their network. They built extensively on the island, constructing a large temple and nearby palace over the ruins of the old Mesopotamian structures. The construction was imposing. The temple was 60 feet square supported by massive limestone columns made of blocks that had to be imported from the mainland, evidence of how prosperous the Dilmunites were, how significant the Failaka settlement was to them and how big and strong their ships were to make such imports possible.

In the 7th century B.C., Mesopotamians under Nebuchadnezzar II returned to Failaka and remained there until the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire after the death of the last king, Nabonidus. Then the Greeks took a turn. Alexander the Great and his successors controlled the island from the 4th to the 1st century B.C.

A Nestorian Christian community settled the island starting in the 5th century. The village of Al-Qusur was in the fertile center of Failaka. Today bounded by marshland, when the Nestorians lived there it was fertile agricultural land with tidy irrigation systems and easy access to the sea. Two churches have been found dating to the 5th and 6th centuries, along with a number of modest courtyard homes and farmsteads. The peak of Failaka’s Nestorian era was the 7th and 8th century. The settlement was abandoned in the 9th century.

The Kuwaiti-Slovak Archaeological Mission has been exploring Failaka since 2004. This season’s aim was to use field excavation, geophysical surveys, aerial photography and 3D modelling to discover the largest structure in Al-Qusur. They were successful beyond their wildest dreams, finding a palatial building dating the 7th-8th century A.D. that was previously unknown. Its architecture of stone masonry foundations topped with mud brick walls is relatively well preserved and its dimensions far eclipse those of the more than 140 settlement structures that have been found at Al-Qusur since it was first excavated in the 1970s. Also it had air conditioning.

Artifacts found in the palace include ceramic and glass vessels, stucco and tile stamps with Christian symbols and Byzantine coins. The latter helped narrow down the date of the find.

Amphorae with 1,300 lbs of Roman coins found in Spain

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

On Wednesday, April 27th, workers digging a trench in Olivar del Zaudín Park in Tomares, a suburb of Seville, Spain, discovered a cache of clay jars nestled three feet under the surface. They alerted the Civil Guard who found there were 19 Roman-era amphorae crammed full of bronze coins from the late 3rd and early 4th century A.D. The number of coins has yet to be determined, but the total weight of them is a staggering 600 kilos (1,300 pounds).

The amphorae and coins were transported to the Archaeological Museum of Seville where conservators have begun to clean, stabilize, identify and count them. Museum director Ana Navarro is not yet able to estimate the total number of coins in the collection. There are tens of thousands of them, that much is clear from the weight. Initial examination has found the coins were minted during the reigns of the emperors Maximian (r. 286-305) and Constantine (r. 306-337) and appear to be in brilliant uncirculated condition, with no signs of wear whatsoever. They are made of bronze but some of them show signs of having been silvered, ie, coated with a thin layer of silver totalling maybe four or five percent of the coin weight.

The amphorae are special too. Out of the 19 amphorae, nine of them were perfectly intact with their coins untouched inside. The other ten were damaged by the excavator at the time of discovery (a cloud with a silver lining because it gives archaeologists the opportunity to see how the coins were packed in the vessels). They are not of the kind used to transport the wine, fermented fish intestine sauce and grains that Romans were so fond of. They’re smaller than standard merchant amphorae and may have been designed specifically to carry cash. The amphorae were placed vertically in packed earth up to their shoulders and then covered by bricks and pieces of broken ceramic. It’s not clear if they were deliberately hidden underground due to social unrest, violence or danger, or if this was a deposit space inside a fort or military structure of some kind.

The find is unique in Spain and likely the rest of the Roman world. Navarro and her team contacted researchers in Britain, France and Italy and they all agreed that they have never seen so large and homogeneous an accumulation of coins from the late Roman empire. Because of their homogeneity, tight date range and amphorae, the coins were not a private treasure. Navarro speculates that they could have been pay for the army or civil servants, or perhaps destined for the imperial tax coffers. Less than a tenth of the coins have been examined at this point, so it’s too early to draw any conclusions.

The region in which they where they were found was a powerful economic center in the Roman Spain province. The ancient city of Italica, founded in 206 B.C. by Publius Cornelius Scipio, future victor over Hannibal in the Second Punic War, is just next door. Emperors Trajan and Hadrian were born there. It’s a good thing the coins weren’t kept in the big city, however, as after its decline the nearby city of Seville, Hispalis in Roman times, used Italica as a quarry. As late as the 18th century Seville was still feasting on the bones of its ancient neighbor. Seville demolished the walls of Italica’s amphitheater in 1740 and used the stone to build a dam and demolished the old Republican city in 1796 to build a road with its stone. It wasn’t protected until 1810 under Napoleon.

The Olivar del Zaudín Park’s land was two farmsteads in the Middle Ages, nothing worth messing with when there was a far more obvious ancient target drawing focus. They were eventually combined and made into an olive orchard. Olive trees still dot the landscape today. Just a few miles west of Seville, the 45-hectare site has never been developed and, thanks to its extensive flora and natural lagoon system with four lakes, is an ecological preserve for a plethora of nesting and migratory birds, insects, butterflies, reptiles, fish and amphibians.

The same fortunate happenstance that over the millennia preserved the site for nature also preserved 19 amphorae of coins. The crew was working on a canal project as part of a regeneration plan to restore the lagoons, sustain the olive trees and eventually build a bird observatory, work which has now been suspended as a consequence of the momentous find. An emergency excavation will take place before work resumes.

Drain digger finds Denmark’s largest Neolithic flint axe

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Tage Pinnerup was digging a new drain on his old friend Henrik Hansen’s property near the village of Kobberup on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula when he saw something sticking up out of the ground. It was a long, smooth almost rectangular piece of flint 50.5 centimeters (20 inches) long. Pinnerup had found a prehistoric axe before, so he recognized it as such, but because of how exceptionally large and finely worked it was, he figured it had to date to the Iron Age. A few days later he and Henrik Hansen found another one, this one 35 centimeters (14 inches) long.

They alerted the authorities to a potential treasure find, and Viborg Museum experts determined that they were not Iron Age, but rather Neolithic flint axes dating to 3800-3500 B.C. Back then the find site was a marshy area next to Tastum Lake, long since drained and converted into arable land. Because they were found in a bog, are a matched pair and so carefully worked, the axes weren’t likely to have been misplaced. Archaeologists believe they were deliberately deposited in the bog as ritual offerings. The 50.5 cm axe is the largest Neolithic flint axe ever discovered in Denmark.

“It’s fascinating that they could master the flint and produce such a perfect axe,” said Mikkel Kieldsen, an archaeologist and curator at Viborg Museum. “A lot of effort has been put into the axes, so the sacrifice must have really meant something.”

Flint is a challenging material to work. Like glass, it breaks easily and requires very careful handling. Judging from modern experiments replicating prehistoric flint tools, Kieldsen estimates it would have taken the craftsmen who produced these axes hundreds of hours to achieve so polished a result. Compare the slender length and cricket bat-like smoothness to this axe from around the same time as the Tastum axes, or these, which are about a thousand years younger and bear the characteristic divots and sheers of knapped flint.

That long, slender polish suggests these were not practical tools. The flint axe was an essential tool to Neolithic farmers who used it to clear wooded land for agriculture. It had to be sturdy, thick through the middle and razor sharp at the end to do the job properly. A narrow, long, thin axe would likely crack at the first blow. It’s connection to the still-new trend of agriculture made the axe a powerful cultural symbol and well as a highly prized piece of property, which is why they have been found in the passage graves and dolmens which were built in grand style at the same time the Tastum axes were made.

Archaeologists excavated the site further to see if their were any other artifacts to be found and came up empty. The axes are treasure trove and will be sent to the National Museum of Denmark for assessment next month. Before that happens, they will be on display at the Viborg Museum for the next three weeks.

Ancient skeleton mosaic found in Turkey

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

Turkish archaeologists have discovered an ancient mosaic in the remains of a house from the 3rd century that features a skeleton enjoying a large loaf of bread and pitcher of wine. It was found in 2012 in Turkey’s southernmost state, Hatay Province, in the provincial capital of Antakya, (Antioch in antiquity) during construction of a cable car system.

It is believed to have been the emblema, the elaborate centerpiece of a mosaic floor, in the triclinium (dining room) of an elegant villa. There are three scenes inside a rectangle with a woven guilloche border. On one end is missing a large section but the head and arms of a servant carrying a flame are visible. This represents the heating of the bath. The middle scene is almost intact and depicts two men moving towards a sundial on a column. The leader is a young man who was of some rank in the household, the son of the owner, perhaps, while the his manservant or butler follows. The sundial is set to between 9:00 and 10:00 PM and the text refers to him being late for dinner. The last panel has the recumbent skeleton, holding a drinking cup in one hand, his other arm thrown casually over his head, two loaves of bread and a wine amphora by his side. The motto “Be cheerful and live your life” is written on both sides of his head.

(Writer İlber Ortaylı disputes the eat, drink and be merry interpretation. He reads it as “You get the pleasure of the food you eat hastily with death” and thinks the structure was not a private home of a wealthy person, but a sort of soup kitchen trying to hustle people out the door as quickly as possible.)

There’s some confusion over the date of the mosaic. The first article about the find that I read said it was from the 3rd century, which means A.D., but later stories by the same press outlet date it to the 3rd century B.C. That in turn has been picked up by the international press. Greek was spoken and written by the elites in both periods, so the words are of no particular help.

This one says “Hatay is known for its Roman-era mosaics dating back to the second and third centuries BCE,” but those are not Roman dates. Antioch was founded by Alexander the Great’s general Seleucus I Nicator in 300 B.C. and was ruled by Seleucid monarchs until 64 B.C. when it was absorbed into the Roman Syrian province as a free city.

It doesn’t seem likely to me that this mosaic was created in the early years of the Seleucid monarchy. I think this is a Roman-era mosaic, because of its glass tesserae, the theme, look and quality of the piece. Indeed, Demet Kara, the Hatay Archaeology Museum archaeologist who provides the date in all the articles, compares the Antioch mosaic to other skeleton mosaics in Italy and those are unquestionably Roman.

While the theme of a skeleton or skull representing the inevitability of death was Hellenistic, the Romans developed it further in their art. They were fond of a skeleton partying with them in the dining room. There are several extant drinking, eating and reclining mosaics from the 1st century found at Pompeii and in Rome. The glorious Boscoreale treasure, a silver dining set buried before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., has two silver cups embossed with the skeletons of philosophers and engraved with Epicurean sayings like “Enjoy life while you can, for tomorrow is uncertain.” The cups, like the skeleton mosaics, were meant to remind diners of the fleeting nature of life and the importance of enjoying the moment, a relevant message for a room dedicated to the gustatory pleasures.

A large number of mosaics of exceptional quality have been found in Antakya because Antioch was an important city for centuries. In the Early Roman period, it was the third largest city in the world after Rome and Alexandria. The homes of wealthy and influential people were decorated at great expense with the best floor art money could buy. Antioch had its own mosaic schools and workshops that were internationally renown. Roman Antioch was replete with top notch mosaics.

Hatay’s mayor, Lütfi Savaş, has visions of tourism plums dancing in his head. Just this February he helped launch the Mosaic Road Project to promote four cities in the province that are rich in Greek and Roman-era mosaics — Hatay, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş and Şanlıurfa — as desirable tourist destinations. The plan is to build an archaeological park in Hatay, scheduled for completion in 2017, and to house the mosaics in a dedicated museum. Ortaylı thinks the skeleton mosaic should remain in situ and a new museum built on the site similar to Israel’s plan for the Lod mosaic.

Sicily goes to London

Monday, April 25th, 2016

The British Museum has opened a new exhibition, Sicily: Culture and Conquest, which brings together more than 200 artifacts from 4,000 years of Sicilian history, many of which have never been to the UK before. The exhibition focuses on two time periods when Sicily was at the forefront of art and culture: when it settled by Greek colonists in the 7th century and when it was ruled by Norman kings from 1100 to 1250.

Objects on display include pieces from the British Museum’s collection, other institutions in the UK and elsewhere, and some spectacular pieces on loan from Sicily.

A rare and spectacularly well preserved, brightly painted terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, is one of the highlights of the loans coming from Sicily. It shows a scene of an animal combat on the upper tier, while below stand three striking fertility goddesses. The British Museum is also fortunate to be receiving on loan a magnificent terracotta architectural sculpture of a Gorgon, the famous Greek monster, that was once perched on the highest point of a building at Gela in south-east Sicily. Terracotta ornaments were frequently used to decorate the upper levels of buildings on Sicily and are amongst the finest that have survived from the ancient world. Another important Sicilian loan is a rare and iconic marble sculpture of a warrior from ancient Akragas, modern Agrigento. Marble statues were likely to have been commissioned, carved and imported into Sicily from overseas or made by local sculptors, trained in the Greek tradition. Such rare statues decorated major temples or were part of sculptural groups, most of which are long gone.

The pieces from the Norman era emphasize what a cultural crossroads it was. The Normans conquered Muslim Sicily in 1072 and the court took full advantage of the rich well of artistic talent from diverse cultures — Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic — who had ruled the island before them. There’s a gold mosaic of the Virgin Mary of Byzantine style which is the sole surviving panel of the mosaics that once adorned Palermo Cathedral (only on display until June 14th), a 16th century copy of a 12th century map made by Arabic cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi for the Norman King Roger II, and a funerary inscription installed by the Christian priest Grisandus for his mother Anna in 1149. It features the eulogy in four different languages (well, three and a half): on top is Arabic written in Hebrew script, the left in Latin, the right in Greek and Arabic in actual Arabic on the bottom. The multilingual approach was common in Norman Sicily, with public inscriptions often written in several languages.

The exhibition runs through August 14th. If you aren’t likely to make it London in time (or even if you are, really), you’ll enjoy this behind the scenes look at some of the more spectacular objects in the exhibition guided by curators Peter Higgs and Dirk Booms.

And now, an avalanche of beautiful pictures.

4,500-year-old burial found in Peru fishing town

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

Archaeologists have discovered a 4,500-year-old burial at the archaeological site of Aspero, an ancient preceramic fishing town in northern Peru. Analysis of the bones revealed that the deceased was a woman about 40 to 50 years of age at the time of death. The burial was found in the Huaca of the Idols, one of two monumental platform mounds (earthwork terraced pyramids shored up with quarried stone walls and river rock fill which ranged in size from modest to huge) in the town. Her crouched body was wrapped in three layers, the inner two of cotton, the outer of reeds which was fastened closed with rope. Buried with her was a pottery vessel containing the remains of vegetables and seeds, a bead necklace, a Spondylus pendant and four tupus, bone brooches carved in the shapes of birds and monkeys.

The wrapping of the body, the location of the burial and grave goods indicate the woman was a high rank personage of the Caral civilization, the oldest civilization in the Americas which dominated a network of settlements in the coastal area of north-central Peru from around 3500 B.C. to 1800 B.C. First explored in 1905, Aspero was one of the first Caral sites identified by archaeologists before it was recognized as a civilization. Thorough, extensive archaeological documentation of the sites only began in the 1990s under the leadership of Dr. Ruth Shady (no relation to Slim) who named the civilization after the inland town of Caral which is believed to have been the biggest city and the oldest urban center in the Americas.

Dr. Shady and her team discovered the remains of the woman in Aspero. The combination of coastal and inland animals represented in the tupus is evidence of the close economic and cultural connection between the fishing-rich sites along the coast and the agricultural interior. Other than edible plants, the inland Caral towns appear to have focused on growing cotton which the coastal sites needed for their fishing nets. There’s also some evidence of maize being grown as a grain staple, but it seems fish was the primary source of food for coastal and interior towns.

With the archaeological study of these sites still being in its adolescence if not infancy, the discovery of the burial of a high status woman will provide new insight into Caral society.

Shady noted the importance of this discovery to further understand the dynamics of the oldest social organization in the Americas. [...]

“This find shows evidence of gender equality, that is, both women and men were able to play leading roles and attain high social status more than 1,000 years ago,” Shady underlined.

“Unparalleled” Roman villa found in Wiltshire

Monday, April 18th, 2016

In February of 2015, rug designer Luke Irwin was converting a small barn on his southwest Wiltshire property into a ping-pong room for his very lucky children. Not wanting to mar the beautiful landscape with an overhead cable strung from the farmhouse to the bar, Irwin insisted electricians lay the cables for the future game room underground. When they dug the trench, they came across a flat, hard layer 18 inches under the surface. It was a red, white and blue mosaic in a geometric woven pattern known as guilloche.

Irwin took a picture of the mosaic and sent it to the Wiltshire Council. Within 24 hours, council archaeologists were on the spot. They identified the mosaic as a top quality Roman work of the kind you’d see only in the most expensive, important villas in Roman Britain. Geophysical survey of the site found that the mosaic was in the destroyed or collapsed wing of a large Roman villa. The gateway where the mosaic was found leads to the modern farmhouse and outbuildings which obviously cannot be excavated, but archaeologists believe they were built in the center of where the ancient villa once stood. The farmhouse stands on a slab of Purbeck marble that is likely of Roman origin.

In April of 2015, the Wiltshire Archaeology Service, Salisbury Museum and Historic England worked together to dig a few test pits in key areas of the property. They were able to confirm that the villa was built between 175 an 220 A.D. and was regularly renovated through the mid-4th century. It was three storeys high with a footprint of at least 165 feet x 165 feet, and possibly as large as 230 by 230 feet. There’s evidence that it was pillaged in 360 A.D. only to be reoccupied in the 5th century.

Other artifacts discovered underscore how rich and important the owners of the villa were. There are hundreds of discarded oyster and whelk shells which would have been cultivated on the coast and been transported alive to Wiltshire from the coast in barrels of salt water. Archaeologists also found a Roman well in excellent condition, a bath house and, unassuming in the garden where it was used as a geranium planter, the stone coffin of a Roman child. There’s high status pottery, coins, brooches and copious animal bones both domestic and wild which bear the signs of butchering.

Only a few test pits have been dug, but Roberts said it was clear the walls of the villa were probably still more than a metre high, although they are buried under alluvial sediment from a nearby river. In addition, the mosaic has been revealed to be of particularly high quality. “Everything about this villa suggests it was made of the highest-quality materials,” added Roberts. “We have identified bits of stone that have come from at least 13 different British quarries. This was the country house of a powerful, rich Roman. Doubtless he also had a city house in London or Cirencester.”

Intriguingly, the house was not destroyed after the collapse of the Roman empire, said [Historic England archaeologist Dr. David] Roberts. Archaeologists have discovered timber structures erected in the fifth century. Roberts said the remains from this period, between the end of Roman occupation and the completion of Saxon domination of England, could open a window into one of the least understood periods in British history. It could also reveal how people responded to the collapse of the Roman empire, the superpower of the age.

Other than the construction of the labourers’ cottages that would be converted into the current farmhouse, the property has been left alone and undeveloped, used primarily as grazing land, since the villa was last inhabited in the 5th century. This gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to explore one of the largest Roman houses in Britain with little to no interference from later agriculture or construction. Dr. Roberts called the villa “unparalleled in recent years,” a “hugely valuable site in terms of research, with incredible potential,” and one of the best sites he has ever worked on.

And yet, the test pits have all been refilled and there are no current plans to further excavate this momentous find.

[Roberts] added: “Unfortunately, it would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to fully excavate and the preserve the site, which cannot be done with the current pressures.

“We would very much like to go back and carry out more digs to further our understanding of the site. But it’s a question of raising the money and taking our time, because as with all archaeological work there is the risk of destroying the very thing you seek to uncover.”

The discovery of the villa has inspired Irwin to design a line of rugs with mosaic patterns. They even made rug tesserae, little cubes of hand-woven silk set between wool lines. I like how they’ve distressed the rugs so that have faded and “missing” areas like real ancient mosaics.

Unique Pictish Stone on display at Elgin Museum

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016


Three years have passed since Andy Johnstone broke a plough on a 1,500-pound Pictish Symbol Stone in a field in Dandaleith, near Craigellachie in northeastern Scotland. Landowner Mr. Robinson reported the find to the Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service (ACAS) and its experts determined the stone is Class I, the earliest type of symbol stone. It dates to the 6th-8th century B.C. and the symbols — an eagle, a crescent, a V-rod, a mirror case symbol, a notch rectangle and Z-rod — are carved on two adjacent sides, a unique configuration so far as we know.

Mr. Robinson allowed the five and a half foot-long pink granite stone to remain on his property for a year before arrangements could be made to remove it for conservation. In 2014, the Dandaleith Stone was transferred to Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation in Leith, Edinburgh, where Graciela Ainsworth’s team conserved it, documented it and laser scanned it to create a 3D model of the stone.

Meanwhile, the symbol stone was declared a Treasure Trove and the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel allocated the find to the Elgin Museum, Scotland’s oldest independent museum (est. 1842), in Elgin, just 15 miles north of Dandaleith. The museum then had to raise the funds to pay the landowner and finder a fee equal to its assessed market value, plus more to pay for transportation, conservation and display. The fundraising was successful, thanks to contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, AIM, the Art Fund, the Pilgrim’s Trust, and Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service.

On March 1st of this year, the Dandaleith Stone was transported to the Elgin Museum by Graciela Ainsworth. She also brought the carved Pictish and early Medieval stones from the museum’s permanent collection that were conserved at her Edinburgh facility. The next day, the Dandaleith Stone was hoisted into position in the museum’s new display by the Elgin Marble Company which generously donated the equipment, time and manpower necessary to raise the massive stone and install it vertically next to a new row of lit shelves to display the museum’s other, much smaller carved stones.

The new Pictish Stone display opened to the public on Saturday, March 26th. Ploughman and finder Andy Johnstone was invited to cut the ribbon at the exhibition opening.

Burial ground unearthed at Laos’ Plain of Jars

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

Archaeologists have unearthed a burial ground at one of Laos’ most fascinating and mysterious ancient sites, the Plain of Jars. The remains are estimated to be about 2,500 years old. An international team of archaeologists from The Australian National University (ANU), Monash University and the archaeology division of the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism discovered seven burials and four probable burials with ceramic grave goods.

The Plain of Jars is a group of more than 90 megalithic sites in the central Lao province of Xieng Khouang which are peppered with monumental stone jars carved from a quarry five to six miles away and then dragged to the various jar groupings. This was an impressive feat as some of the jars are massive; the largest weigh 10 metric tons. Most of them are made of sandstone, but four other rock types — granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia — were also used. They range from three to 10 feet high, two to six-and-a-half feet in diameter and are basically cylindrical in shape although they funnel upwards a little with a wider bottom than top. Rims around the top suggest they used to have lids, but no lids have ever been discovered in situ. Other stone pieces have been found, however: discs placed on the ground over burial pits and unworked stone grave markers.

Each jar grouping contains between one and 392 jars, the latter of which is near a Hmong village that can only be accessed by foot. The group where the burial ground was recently discovered is called Site 1 and has more than 300 jars, stone discs and grave markers. Very little is known about the makers of the Plain of Jars megaliths. With no writing and few engravings on the stones, archaeologists haven’t had much to go on.

In the first excavations in the 1930s, archaeologists found evidence of cremation, including burned teeth and bone fragments, inside the jars. They also found unburned human skeletal remains buried around the jars along with pottery, iron and bronze objects, beads and other artifacts. After that, there was a gap of six decades before the next archaeological explorations of the site. For almost a decade (1964-1973), the Plain of Jars was pelted with an unspeakable number of bombs by the US in the Secret War against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communists. US planes dropped 262 million cluster bombs on Laos, almost all of them on the Plain of Jars, and 80 million of them never exploded. Many of the ancient stones suffered irreparable damage, and the unexploded ordnance made one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world so dangerous that archaeologists didn’t return until 1994, and even though they stuck to surveys and a handful of excavations then they were taking enormous risks.

UNESCO and the Mines Advisory Group NGO cleared seven of the jar sites between 2004 and 2007, one of which was Site 1. This opened the door for a major archaeological excavation that might answer some of the many questions about who made these jars and why.

One popular theory was that the jars were used as vessels for decomposing bodies. Once the soft tissues had decayed, the bones were then buried around the jars. This year’s discovery of primary burial where the individual was interred in the burial ground and never moved is therefore of great importance.

[The Australian National University archaeologist and dig leader] Dr O’Reilly said the dig had revealed three distinct types of burial.

“There are pits full of bones with a large limestone block placed over them and other burials where bones have been placed in ceramic vessels,” he said. “Our excavations have also revealed, for the first time at one of these sites, a primary burial, where a body was placed in a grave.”

He also said that determining the status of the buried individuals was difficult due to a lack of material objects buried with them, but hoped some genetic analysis might shed some light on whom these people were related to.

DNA and stable isotope analysis could provide key information on the ethnicity and geographic origin of the people who used the stone jars. The project will continue for five years, stretching further afield to the Assam region of northeastern India where there are megalithic jar sites that are similar enough to the Laotian Plain of Jars to explore whether there may be a link between them.

Ancient textiles found in Nepal suggest Silk Road ran further south

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

Analysis of rare ancient textiles discovered in a tomb in Nepal suggest the Silk Road network may have extended further south than previously believed. The textile fragments were found in the Samdzong 5, one in a complex of 10 shaft tombs dug into a cliff face in Upper Mustang, Nepal, between 400 and 650 A.D. (Samdzong 5 dates to around 500 A.D.). The complex is 4,000 meters above sea level and 30 meters above ground surface and can only be accessed climbing the cliff face. People didn’t even know they were there until an earthquake in 2009 sheered off the facade of the cliff and exposed the tombs. The earthquake also caused the ceilings of the tombs to collapse, damaging the contents and accelerating the decay of organic that had otherwise been well-preserved thanks to the high altitude and stable dry conditions inside the caves.

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of 105 people in the tomb complex, but Samdzong 5 only contained two sets of disarticulated remains, one of an adult, one of a child aged 8-12. The skeletal remains of the adult were found in a wooden coffin with an impressive array of associated grave goods: two large copper vessels, a ladle, iron daggers, cups and trays made of wood and bamboo, copper and bronze bangles and thousands of glass beads. The star artifact was a mask made of gold and silver that archaeologists believe was a death mask placed over the face of the adult. Pinholes border the edges of the mask, which indicates the mask was once sewn to fabric. Textile fragments were discovered in close proximity to the coffin and goods.

Small samples from four textiles were examined with a scanning electron microscope to identify the fibers and their source(s). Two of the samples are degummed silk in a fine tabby weave. The yarn is untwisted and glossy, typical of Chinese silk. These textiles almost certainly were traded over long distances to get to Nepal, because there was no local silk production. The other two samples were found to be animal fibers in a warp-faced tabby and a twill weave. Cloth beads and copper tubular beads were sewn into the textiles in parallel rows.

The metals and beads were also found to have originated outside of Nepal. Some of the metals came from either Tibet or India; the beads came from a number of sources including South Asia, Central Asia and Sassania. The pigments were analyzed using micro-Raman spectrometry (MRS), the organic dyes using high pressure liquid chromatography with diode array detection (HPLC-DAD). MRS identified cinnabar pigment; HPLC-DAD found Indian lac, munjeet, turmeric (curcuma) and dyer’s knotweed or indigo dyes. All of these materials can be sourced in India or environs.

Identification of degummed silk fibres and munjeet and Indian lac dyes in the textile finds suggests that imported materials from China and India were used in combination with those locally produced. Says Gleba: “There is no evidence for local silk production suggesting that Samdzong was inserted into the long-distance trade network of the Silk Road.”

“The data reinforce the notion that instead of being isolated and remote, Upper Mustang was once a small, but important node of a much larger network of people and places. These textiles can further our understanding of the local textile materials and techniques, as well as the mechanisms through which various communities developed and adapted new textile technologies to fit local cultural and economical needs.”

The use imported, expensive materials as well as local ones is all unique to Samdzong 5, as are the mask and coffin. The other tombs have very little cultural material of any kind, just the human remains. This indicates the person in Samdzong 5 was an elite individual.

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