Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Neolithic skeleton is UK’s oldest case of rickets

Friday, September 11th, 2015

A recent study has found that a skeleton unearthed on the Scottish island of Tiree a century ago is the UK’s oldest case of rickets.

In spring of 1912, A. Henderson Bishop, a wealthy pig-breeder and amateur archaeologist, led a small team of antiquaries to excavate an area near the town of Balevullin on the northeastern part of the island where artifacts and architectural remains had been exposed by wind erosion. They focused their attentions on an early Iron Age structure and its environs, collecting artifacts like flints and hammer-stones from the sandy soil. While gathering surface artifacts, they came across a flat stone pile under which they found skeletal human remains. A little digging turned up another three inhumations.

The islanders heard about the finds and protested that the team was digging up their ancestors to ship them to a London museum. They reported their suspicions to the Duke of Argyle who told Bishop and his team to leave Tiree without taking anything with them. Hoping for a reprieve, they showed their modest artifacts to the local Factor (estate manager) who allowed them to take their finds, including the first skeleton, off the island. It would up in the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian collection.

Because the inhumations were found near the Iron Age structure, the skeleton was classified as Iron Age. This misclassification proved to be the reason why it has now been properly classified. A recent accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating project by University of Bradford and University of Durham researchers sought to date human remains found at Iron Age sites in Scotland. When the Balevullin skeleton was tested, it was found to be much older, dating to between 3340 and 3090 B.C., late Stone Age, not Iron Age.

The result took everyone by surprise, firstly because it was clear from a visual examination of the bones that this individual had suffered from rickets, a disease usually (but not always) associated with the endemic malnutrition and gloom of early modern slums rather than the fresh outdoorsy life of the Neolithic Inner Hebrides. It was also unexpected because while Britain is replete with Neolithic funerary structures — mainly monumental chambered cairns — with individual inhumations, monumentless inhumation cemeteries are extremely rare. Only one other flat inhumation cemetery in known in Britain: two adults and a child buried at Barrow Hills in Oxfordshire.

The Balevullin skeleton is 68% complete which allowed researchers to determine the individual was likely a woman. She was around 25-30 years old and between 4’9″ and 4’11″ tall, very petite even by the standards of Neolithic Britain. Her sternum is severely deformed with a condition known as pigeon chest. The ribs exhibit associated deformations, as do the humerus bones whose shafts are bowed and rotated. The one surviving femur is also deformed although less so than the other bones.

All of these bone deformations are classic signs of vitamin D deficiency. Some of them point to rickets during infancy, and all of them are typical of childhood rickets. Evidence of bone repair suggest she suffered repeated periods of vitamin D deficiency in early and later childhood. This was confirmed by stable isotope analysis.

Strontium, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon isotope analyses performed on a tooth and rib revealed that the individual grew up in the Northern or Western Isles of Britain, so was probably a local Tiree girl. Her diet was based primarily on terrestrial plants and proteins with very little in the way of marine vegetables and fish. As weird as that seems, it is consistent with other Neolithic remains from farming communities on the western seaboard (and with medieval Viking settlers in Greenland). It seems the island life in the Neolithic era did not involve eating much of the abundant fish and seaweed all around them. The levels of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the layers of dentine in the tooth indicated a major dietary or physiological stress between the ages of four and 14, perhaps a result of weaning or the removal of marine proteins during a period of famine or illness.

Professor Ian Armit, from Bradford University, said: “The earliest case of rickets in Britain until now dated from the Roman period, but this discovery takes it back more than 3,000 years. There have been a few possible cases in other parts of the world that are around the same time, but none as clear cut as this.”

Professor Armit said it was unclear how the woman would have developed rickets.

“Vitamin D deficiency shouldn’t be a problem for anyone exposed to a rural, outdoor lifestyle, so there must have been particular circumstances that restricted this woman’s access to sunlight as a child,” he said.

“It’s most likely she either wore a costume that covered her body or constantly remained indoors, but whether this was because she held a religious role, suffered from illness or was a domestic slave, we will probably never know.”


Woolly rhino calf died 34,000 years ago

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Sasha, the woolly rhinoceros calf discovered last year by hunters preserved in the permafrost of Siberia’s Sakha Republic, is 34,000 years old. When the find was announced, scientists hadn’t yet had the chance to date the remains. They knew it had to be at least 10,000 years old because that’s when the woolly rhino went extinct. Radiocarbon testing found that Sasha lived and died during the Karginsk interglacial period, a time between ice ages when what is now the Sakha Republic had a much warmer climate than it does today.

Researchers from the Academy of Sciences Republic of Sakha who performed a necropsy on Sasha estimate the baby was around one and a half years old when it (the sex of the animal hasn’t been determined) died. This was determined from the size of the skull which is the same as it would be for an 18-month white rhinoceros calf. Its age will be pinpointed with more accuracy when scientists take detailed measurements of the teeth.

Meanwhile, the initial necropsy has already pinpointed a probably cause of death.

Dr Albert Protopopov, head of the Department of Mammoth Fauna Studies, in Yakutsk, said: “The nasal passages of the rhinoceros were clogged with mud, so that we can say that most likely it drowned.” He explained: “Paleontologists believe that the mortality rate in babies of such large animals was very low. We will try to find out in the course of these research what killed this very rhino calf.”

The rhino is missing its midsection, but even so it’s exceptionally well-preserved. The front and back legs and most of its skin, covered with thick light grey hair, are intact. The head is in such condition Sasha looks asleep. The eyes, ears and tongue are all still there. The excellent state of preservation gives scientists confidence that they will be able to recover viable DNA for testing, a prospect that excites scientists all over the world who will be given the opportunity to study this unique specimen. Dr. Protopopov again:

“The DNA of woolly rhino is poorly studied indeed. This find gives us the opportunity to compare the woolly rhino with the modern rhinos and find out how far they are from each other on the evolutionary path.”

The University of California, Santa Cruz will analyze any DNA in the hope they can sequence the woolly rhinoceros genome and compare it to modern rhinoceroses. A plethora of Russian scientists will have a crack at the Sasha apple, as will researchers from the University of Amsterdam, the University of Groningen, the University of Leeds, the University of Bristol and the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota.

The Academy of Sciences Republic of Sakha were thoughtful enough to film the necropsy and release clips of it on YouTube.


Vast stone monument found under “super-henge”

Monday, September 7th, 2015

In the Salisbury Plain three kilometers (1.8 miles) from Stonehenge lie the banks of a “super-henge” known as Durrington Walls. It’s super because of its sheer size: 500 meters (1640 feet) in diameter, 1.5 kilometers (one mile) in circumference with a surrounding ditch 18 meters (59 feet) wide with an outer bank 40 meters (131 feet) wide. Heavily eroded, the outer slope of the ditch and inner slope of the bank form a ridge that is one meter (three feet) high at its highest points; the ridge is the “walls” of Durrington Walls. It was built around 2,600 B.C. in the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age.

Using the latest and greatest ground penetrating radar technology, the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape project has found that underneath the bank is a row of up to 90 standing stones, 30 of which appear to be intact and are as much as 4.5 meters (15 feet) high. Others are broken or missing, the latter identified by huge foundation pits. Even incomplete and unexcavated, this is the largest stone monument ever found in Britain.

At Durrington, more than 4.5 thousand years ago, a natural depression near the river Avon appears to have been accentuated by a chalk cut scarp and then delineated on the southern side by the row of massive stones. Essentially forming a C-shaped ‘arena’, the monument may have surrounded traces of springs and a dry valley leading from there into the Avon. Although none of the stones have yet been excavated a unique sarsen standing stone, “The Cuckoo Stone”, remains in the adjacent field and this suggests that other stones may have come from local sources.

Previous, intensive study of the area around Stonehenge had led archaeologists to believe that only Stonehenge and a smaller henge at the end of the Stonehenge Avenue possessed significant stone structures. The latest surveys now provide evidence that Stonehenge’s largest neighbour, Durrington Walls, had an earlier phase which included a large row of standing stones probably of local origin and that the context of the preservation of these stones is exceptional and the configuration unique to British archaeology.

This new discovery has significant implications for our understanding of Stonehenge and its landscape setting. The earthwork enclosure at Durrington Walls was built about a century after the Stonehenge sarsen circle (in the 27th century BC), but the new stone row could well be contemporary with or earlier than this. Not only does this new evidence demonstrate an early phase of monumental architecture at one of the greatest ceremonial sites in prehistoric Europe, it also raises significant questions about the landscape the builders of Stonehenge inhabited and how they changed this with new monument-building during the 3rd millennium BC.

Archaeologists believe the stones were toppled and the later henge whose earthwork remains are visible above ground built on top of them. The former standing stones became the awkwardly flat southern perimeter of the Durrington Walls henge. Here’s a digital model of the standing stones as they would have looked when they still stood that fades into the later bank.

That C-shape is familiar. Remember the stone circle found on Dartmoor that was the southernmost point of a crescent formed by other stone circles? The Dartmoor stones fell around 4,000 years ago, so the circles and the henge could well have been contemporaries.

Lastly, here is an extremely adorable picture of one of the magnetometer surveys in the area.


Roman coin hoard with name on pot found in Sofia

Saturday, September 5th, 2015

Archaeologists excavating Sveta Nedelya square in Sofia, Bulgaria, have discovered a hoard of 2,976 Roman coins in a clay pot with a lid. It’s the largest Roman coin hoard ever found in Sofia, but that’s not the only exceptional thing about this find: the clay pot has a name scratched on its side. The vessel contains 2976 silver denarii from the 1st and 2nd centuries, the earliest from the reign of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79) and the latest from the reign of Emperor Commodus (177-192). There are coins bearing the faces of every Antonine emperor — Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius — and their wives, daughters and sisters — Sabina, Faustina the Elder, Faustina the Younger, Bruttia Crispina and Lucilla.

It was hidden under the floor of an ancient public building and we know who buried it, one Selvius Callistus who had the presence of mind to scratch his name on the pot perhaps to prove ownership should it be disputed when he returned to collect his treasure. Unfortunately these tiny photographs are the only ones I could find and they don’t show the name. Usually that would be a deal-breaker for me — I discard potential stories all the time if there are no good pictures — but I’ve written about a great many coin hoard finds and this is the first one with a name carved on the vessel.

EDIT: Still no shots of the name, but here are some decently sized pictures of the find courtesy of Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova’s Facebook page. Now that I can see them properly, the coins soaking in that blue solution give me the willies. They’re all scrunched together in the foot of what looks like a trifle bowl. Surely cleaning them one at a time, or at least in a tray where they aren’t rubbing against each other, would be more appropriate treatment for 2,000-year-old coins.

Founded by the Thracian Serdi tribe in the 8th century B.C., the city that would become Sofia was called Serdica. It was conquered by the Romans in 29 B.C. who renamed it Ulpia Serdica. Thanks to its location just south of the Danube frontier at the crossroads of several trade routes, the city grew to prominence within the empire. When Diocletian divided the province of Dacia Aureliana into two parts at the end of the 3rd century A.D., Serdica was awarded the status of municipium, the administrative center/capital of the new province of Dacia Mediterranea.

For a short time between 303 and 308 A.D., Serdica had its own imperial mint. The Thessalonica mint had been shut down and its employees moved to Serdica to operate the new mint. Although it was only in operation for five years, the Serdica mint was important while it lasted. Coins struck there bear the mintmark “SM” for sacra moneta (sacred money or mint) which means it was one of very few mints where gold solidi were produced. Most mints struck regular coinage marked “MP” or moneta publica.

The city prospered under Roman rule, even as the Goths and Capri devastated the former Roman province of Dacia north of the Danube (modern-day Romania) in the 3rd century. It was razed by the Huns under Atilla in 447 A.D. during his second campaign against Theodosius and the Easter Roman Empire but was rebuilt a century later by Byzantine emperor Justinian I. In 550, Justinian’s cousin Germanus was based in Serdica where he was assembling an army to wrest Italy from Gothic control. Before he could leave, he had to fight the invading Slavs. The Battle of Serdica was a great victory for the Byzantine Empire, although it only delayed the inevitable a little while.

The hoard and vessel are currently being conserved at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences’ National Institute of Archaeology. They are expected to go on public display on September 17th at the official reopening of the Sofia History Museum in its new location, the restored Central Mineral Baths, a beautiful Vienna Secession style building constructed in the first decade of the 20th century which was a municipal bathhouse until 1986 when it fell into disrepair and was closed out of concern that the roof might collapse on bathers.


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[.]


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.


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.


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.


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.”



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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