Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Snake fossil found to be boa with infrared vision

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

The Messel Pit was a quarry mined for coal and shale from the mid-1800s until 1971. Fossils were found there beginning in 1900, but the pit could not be scientifically explored until after mining ended. The fossils were preserved in the anoxic environment created when layers of decaying vegetation and mud were deposited on the bed of an ancient lake. Because of the unique conditions of the lake and the shale formation 47 million years ago, Messel Pit fossils are of exceptional diversity and so well-preserved that fur, feathers, scales, stomach contents, even multiple pairs of turtles frozen in the act of mating have been unearthed there. It is one of the richest fossil repositories, the richest source of early mammal fossils and the greatest source of information about the Eocene epoch in the world.

Quarrying left a crater 200 feet deep that some people thought would make an awesome landfill. After much protest at this ruinous plan, in 1991 the government of Hesse bought the pit and made it a protected cultural monument.  It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and is now operated by the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research.

Among the rare fossils that have been found in unusual number are complete snake skeletons from four species. Two of them are small, around 20 inches long, but one of them, Palaeopython fischeri, could reach lengths of more than six feet. Named after Joschka Fisher, Hesse’s Minister of the Environment in the 80s and 90s who was instrumental in the conservation of the Messel Pit, the snake was classified as a member of the Palaeopython genus, but a new study has found it is actually an Eoconstrictor, a relative of modern boa constrictors.

A detailed analysis of the neurological pathways of Eoconstrictor fischeri revealed another surprise. The neurological pathways of the Messel snake are comparable to those of the recent large boas and pythons – snakes that possess so-called “pit organs.” These organs are located between the scales of the upper and lower jaws and allow the snakes to generate a three-dimensional heat image of their surroundings by combining visible light and infrared radiation. This enables the reptiles to more easily detect prey animals, enemies, or hiding places.

“However, in Eoconstrictor fischeri these organs were only present on the upper jaw. Moreover, to our surprise there is no evidence that this snake preferred warm-blooded prey. Until now, we could only confirm cold-blooded prey animals such as crocodiles and lizards in its stomach and intestinal contents,” adds [paleoherpetologist Dr. Krister] Smith [of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum].

The team of scientists therefore assumes that the earliest pit organs served to generally refine the snakes’ sensory perception and – other than in modern constrictor snakes – were not primarily used for hunting or defense purposes.

The study has been published in the journal Diversity and can be read in full here. If you’ve never seen a fossil of a complete snake skeleton before, you’re in for a treat. Look at this badass:

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Early Iron Age burial found in France

Monday, May 18th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered the early Iron Age burial of a richly adorned woman in the town of Saint-Vulbas, eastern France. The older woman was found on her back, arms beside the body, an intact pot to the right of her head. She wore bracelets on each wrist made of alternating glue and green glass beads and copper alloy disks. The belt around her waist, probably made of leather, was covered in hemispherical copper alloy studs and closed with a copper alloy buckle.

While the tomb had collapsed over the centuries, it was possible to reconstruct its original shape: a rectangular pit containing the body of the deceased in a wooden coffin wedged into place by five smooth stones. The coffin had long-since decomposed, but its imprint remains on the soil. Fragments of the wood preserved under the body indicate that the coffin was made of oak.

The excavation of 2.5 acres slates to become an industrial park revealed a vast Iron Age burial ground. Three circular enclosures dating to the first half 8th century B.C. are believed to have been mounds originally. A cremation burial was found in the center of one of them. Near one of the enclosures, a funerary monument was built in the late 5th century B.C. It was a roofed structure on four posts features surrounded by a square enclosure.

In the middle of the enclosure is a pit with two separate deposits of cremated remains. A box of rigid organic material, likely wood, contained a selection of bones, washed after the cremation, and copper alloy filiform bracelets. The box was lined with limestone slabs. The second deposit contains bones, fragments of copper bracelets and an iron belt clip placed inside a flexible  container, probably a basket. The adornments suggest the deceased was a woman.

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Largest Pictish settlement identified in Aberdeenshire

Friday, May 15th, 2020

A hill fort in Aberdeenshire has been revealed to be the largest Pictish settlement in Scotland. The remains of ancient dwellings on Tap O’Noth, a hill in the village of Rhynie in northeastern Scotland, were radiocarbon dated to the 5th-6th centuries A.D. and the origins of the settlement may go back further to the 3rd century.

Excavations beginning in 2011 and recent drone surveys have pinpointed about 800 huts clustered on the hilltop around what the original fortified perimeter. That was expanded to cover the entire hilltop which was ringed by the Pictish fortification.

Professor Gordon Noble, who led the research, said: “This makes it bigger than anything we know from early medieval Britain.

“What was previously thought to be the biggest fort in early medieval Scotland is Burghead, at about five and a half hectares (13 acres).

“In England, famous post-Roman sites such as Cadbury Castle and Tintagel were around seven hectares (17 acres) and five hectares (12 acres) respectively.

“The Tap O’ Noth discovery shakes the narrative of this whole time period.

“If each of the huts we identified had four or five people living in them, then that means there was a population of upwards of 4,000 people living on the hill.

“That’s verging on urban in scale and in a Pictish context we have nothing else that compares to this.”

Not for another six centuries as least would settlements get this large.

The hill fort’s importance is reflected not just in the sheer numbers of huts and therefore residents, but also in the structures and objects found at the settlement. One of the huts is significantly larger than the others, an indication that the residents may have had an established social hierarchy. Artifacts unearthed at the site also indicate it was a high-status settlement. Large fragments of a 5th to mid-6th century Roman amphora imported from the Mediterranean area are of a type found at major royal centers like Tintagel in Cornwall, but the first ever found in eastern Britain and nothernmost ever found in the world.

There are other indications that Rhynie held a special position in Pictish society. In the valley at the base of the hill, archaeologists discovered glass drinking vessels from France, wine imported from the Mediterranean and extensive local production of metalwork. Eight Pictish symbol stones have also been found there, including the famous Rhynie Man, a slab six feet tall with the carved figure of a bearded man carrying a slim-handled axe over his shoulder. The stylized axe and the man’s head dress suggests he held a ceremonial role, represented a Celtic deity (the god Esus was often depicted with an axe) or perhaps a Pictish king.

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How the Arch of Janus was restored

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

The last time I was in Rome which feels like a century ago but was actually a year-and-a-half ago, I happened upon a rhino in front of a large, thick, four-sided arch. The rhino is not material to this story, really, and remains an unsolved mystery, but the arch turned out to be a little-known gem of the city: the only surviving quadrifons (four-faced) arch in Rome.

It was built in the second half of the 4th century A.D. in the Forum Boarium, the ancient city’s cattle market. It was looted for materials in the early Middle Ages and converted into a fortress by the Frangipani family. Between 1827 and 1830 it was deconverted back to what was believed to be its original configuration, only the restorers were mistaken and the original attic was destroyed, shortening the soaring arch into a bit of a cube.

Tucked behind the huge tourist attraction of the Bocca della Verità and neglected when other monuments in the Forum Boarium — the the Temple of Portunus and the Temple of Hercules Victor — were restored in the 90s and 2000s, the Arch of Janus was placed on the World Monuments Fund watch list in 2014 for its precarious condition. That spurred a multi-year study and restoration program that concluded in 2017.

The World Monuments Fund released a video about the restoration which I described as showing “tantalizing but not satisfying snippets of the restoration.” Now Italy’s Cultural Heritage Ministry has released the mega director’s cut. At 24 minutes, it is 12 times longer than the trailer and goes into gripping detail on the cleaning, restoration and structural challenges of the arch. Great extended intro with aerial footage of Rome too.

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19,000 trafficked artifacts seized in worldwide busts

Saturday, May 9th, 2020

A massive joint international law enforcement effort has resulted in the arrest of 101 suspects in the traffic of antiquities and the recovery of more than 19,000 works of art and archaeological artifacts. The investigations involved Interpol, Europol, the World Customs Organization and national police forces from 103 countries all over the world, including Spain, Colombia, Romania, Argentina, Chile, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Afghanistan and Italy.

This intricate global cooperation launched 300 individual investigations in a coordinated crackdown that focused on taking down organized crime networks that loot archaeological sites and museums and pillage  war-torn countries.

Spanish police busted three traffickers and recovered precious objects smuggled out of Colombia. The most unique among them is a gold mask made by the Tumaco people on the Pacific coast near what is now the border between Colombia and Ecuador. They thrived in the area between the 1st century B.C. and 1st century A.D. and are renowned for their goldwork, especially their 3-dimension gold figurines made of sheet gold. Tumaco figurines and finely decorated jewelry were among the confiscated objects. Another nine suspects were arrested in the Spanish operation and Roman archaeological materials  — a carved limestone lion, a architectural frieze and three columns — recovered.

While the busts were going down at Madrid’s Barajas airport and elsewhere in the country, police in Colombia worked the investigation on their end. Raids in Bogotá recovered another 242 pre-Columbian artifacts. It is the largest seizure of cultural patrimony objects in Colombia’s history.

In Argentina, the Federal Police Force seized 2,500 ancient coins by investigating one single online sale. The Latvian State Police took second place in the coin seizure stakes by confiscating 1,375 of them. Customs officers in Afghanistan intercepted and seized 971 cultural objects just before they were smuggled out of the country destined for Istanbul.

Law enforcement officers paid particular attention to the monitoring of online market places and sales sites, as the Internet is an important part of the illicit trade of cultural goods. […]

During what was called a ‘cyber patrol week’ and under the leadership of the Italian Carabinieri (Arma dei Carabinieri), police and customs experts along with Europol, INTERPOL and the WCO mapped active targets and developed intelligence packages. As a result, 8,670 cultural objects for online sale were seized. This represents 28% of the total number of artefacts recovered during this international crackdown.

“The number of arrests and objects show the scale and global reach of the illicit trade in cultural artefacts, where every country with a rich heritage is a potential target,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock. “If you then take the significant amounts of money involved and the secrecy of the transactions, this also presents opportunities for money laundering and fraud as well as financing organized crime networks,” added the INTERPOL Chief.

“Organized crime has many faces. The trafficking of cultural goods is one of them: it is not a glamorous business run by flamboyant gentlemen forgers, but by international criminal networks. You cannot look at it separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons: we know that the same groups are engaged, because it generate big money. Given that this is a global phenomenon affecting every country on the planet – either as a source, transit or destination, it is crucial that Law Enforcement all work together to combat it. Europol, in its role as the European Law Enforcement Agency, supported the EU countries involved in this global crackdown by using its intelligence capabilities to identify the pan-European networks behind these thefts,” said Catherine de Bolle, Europol’s Executive Director.

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Sinkhole in front of Pantheon reveals Hadrianic pavers

Friday, May 8th, 2020

A sinkhole that opened up in the piazza in front of the Pantheon has revealed seven pavers from the second century A.D. The travertine slabs are about 30 x 35 inches wide and one foot thick and located seven feet under the current street level. They are intact, in good condition and in their original alignment, preserved from centuries of city build-up by a layer of fine pozzolana, volcanic ash that the Romans used to make their famously indestructible cement that could set under water.

Hadrian built the Pantheon we know today around 125 A.D. on the site of an earlier Pantheon that had burned down in 80 A.D. It was rebuilt by Domitian and that one burned down too in 110 A.D. Because that first temple was built by Marcus Agrippa in honor of his and Augustus’ victory at the Battle of Actium (31 B.C.), Hadrian had the distinctly unimperial modesty to inscribe the new and improved version to the originator: M[arcus] Agrippa L[ucii] f[ilius] co[n]s[ul] tertium fecit,” meaning “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this] when consul for the third time.” It’s likely construction began under Trajan (r. 98-117 A.D.). The design that features what is still to this day the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world bears the hallmarks of Trajan’s genius architect Apollodorus of Damascus and some of the bricks used in the construction are emblazoned with stamps from Trajan’s time. Hadrian finished the job. We think the current Pantheon was dedicated in 126 A.D., but we don’t know for sure because Hadrian gave all the props to Agrippa.

As part of the reconstruction of the Pantheon, the square in front of it was also raised and enlarged. The travertine pavers, some of which had been rediscovered earlier before during utilities work in the 1990s, were installed at that time. Researchers were able to extrapolate the size of the piazza at the time of its reconstruction by Hadrian. It was much larger than it is today.

The trench where the pavers were found will now be handed over to the water utility for repairs and then the  archaeological investigation will continue. Earlier this week the Soprintendenza Speciale Roma, which oversees the cultural heritage of the Eternal City, resumed restoration activities on a limited basis. Next week they will expand to additional sites.

It’s nice to see a glimmer of normalcy on the horizon. This is what the Pantheon and Piazza della Rotonda looked like 10 days ago from a drone’s eye view.

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Mummification workshop reveals new info on the business of death in Egypt

Wednesday, May 6th, 2020

Analysis of the finds made in a mummification workshop discovered in the Saqqara necropolis has shed new light on the ancient Egyptian business of death.

The mummification complex was discovered in near the 5th Dynasty Pyramid of Unas, between the pyramids of Sekhemket and Djoser. It is far newer than the Old Kingdom pyramid complexes, dating to the 26th Dynasty (ca. 664-525 B.C.). A central shaft 40 feet deep was discovered in 2018. Archaeologists had to remove 42 tons of sand and rock filling the shaft before reaching a large chamber with a high ceiling. It too was filled with sand and rocks, but scattered in the fill were thousands of pottery fragments.

Once the chamber was cleared of all debris, archaeologists realized it was not a tomb, but rather a workshop for the mummification of the dead. It had a large incense burner, drainage channels for blood and a natural ventilation system, key features for dealing with the effluvia and smells of dead bodies.

The room had a raised, table-like area and shallow channels cut into the bedrock along the base of one wall. In one corner, a barrel-sized bowl was filled with charcoal, ash, and dark sand. An older tunnel—part of a network of passages that honeycomb the rock beneath Saqqara—moved cool air through the space.

The pottery fragments have proven to be a treasury of information as well.

Over the past year, pottery experts were able to piece together the ceramic sherds, reconstructing hundreds of small bowls and jars, each one inscribed with a label.

“Every single cup or bowl has the name of the substance it held, and the days of the embalming procedure it was used,” [University of Tübingen Egyptologist Ramadan] Hussein says. “Instructions are written directly on the objects.”

These finds are hugely significant because while the Egyptians left behind a great deal of information on their burial practices in writing and in paintings on tomb walls, very few mummification workshops have been discovered. When Egyptologists began scouring the sands for ancient remains, they were only interested in big ticket finds — pharaonic treasure, ideally. Working spaces were of no interest and were either overlooked or destroyed in the attempt to get into more “valuable” tombs.

Adjacent to the mummification workshop, in 2018 archaeologists discovered a burial shaft 100 feet deep with five chambers branching off from the bottom. It too dates to the 26th Dynasty. Inside were the remains of more than 50 mummies and skeletonized individuals, five massive sarcophagi, alabaster canopic jars, thousands of shabti figurines and a gilded silver funerary mask that was the first of its kind found in 50 years. After more than a year of excavation, a sixth chamber has now been found hidden behind a stone wall.

The sixth chamber contained four wooden coffins, one of whom belonged to a woman named Didibastett. While her coffin (and the other three) was in poor condition, a very unusual, even unique, feature caught the team’s attention: she had six canopic jars used to contain her embalmed organs. Standard mummification custom was to embalm only the lungs, liver, stomach and intestine which were then stored in four separate jars under the protection of the four sons of Horus. CT scans of the jars found that the two supernumerary ones do contain human tissue, exactly what kind is not yet known. A radiologist is examining the scans to identify which of Didibastett’s organs were embalmed against customary practice.

Perhaps she had a special contract with the folks at the mummification workshop, as the people interred in the deep shaft tomb — from the wealthy in expensive limestone sarcophagi to middle class Egyptians in wooden coffins to labourers simply wrapped in linen — were buried and their spiritual maintenance tasks performed by the embalmers. The mummification process, burial of the body and ongoing ritual upkeep of the dead were all revenue streams for the embalmers who were paid in cash or land by the surviving families. They offered a variety of packages for any budget.

Ancient Egyptian society included an entire class of priests dedicated to caring for the spirits of the dead. Their job description included maintaining tombs and praying for their departed owners. Some owned dozens of tombs, with hundreds of mummies packed into each one.

“People had to bring weekly offerings to the dead to keep them alive,” says Koen Donker van Heel, an Egyptologist at the University of Leiden who has spent years studying the legal contracts priests signed with the families of the dead. “Dead people are money. That’s basically it.”

The excavation of the Saqqara workshop and its finds will be explored in Kingdom of the Mummies, a four-part series on National Geographic starting May 12th in the US and going global next month.

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Ancient Americans ate lots of oysters in bad times

Sunday, May 3rd, 2020

During a time of hardship, Native American peoples of the Southeast sought solace in oyster feasts, a new study has found. Analysis of archaeological remains on Roberts Island, a shell mound complex off the central west coast of Florida about 50 miles north of Tampa Bay, found that people gathered there for ceremonial purposes even when resources were severely curtailed by climate change.

Built and maintained by a small group of local residents, Roberts Island and Crystal River, its larger, more glamorous ceremonial site next door, drew people of different cultural groups who traveled long distances to celebrate there. As with other ancient Native American ceremonial sites (Poverty Point for example), the Roberts Island complex was a gathering place of immense social and cultural diversity. It was built after the decline of Crystal Island around 650 A.D., and remained in regular use until around 1050, one of the last of the ancient religious sites that had once flourished all along the Eastern seaboard.

It consists of three platform mounds arranged in a rough triangle forming a central plaza between them where people would gather to watch the ceremonies taking place atop the mounds. The mounds were originally pyramidal, built from midden materials that were deposited one basket at a time. The bases of the mounds covered thousands of square feet in area and the mounds could reach more than 30 feet in height, so they must have taken a huge number of basketsfull to build.

The locals who built and maintained Roberts Island hosted thousands of visitors who descended upon it for a month or two out of the year to participate in community feasts and religious celebrations, including burials and marriages.

Researchers collected samples from mounds and middens at the two ceremonial sites, identifying the species present and calculating the weight of the meat they would have contained. They found that feasts at Roberts Island featured far fewer species. Meat from oysters and other bivalves accounted for 75% of the weight of Robert Island samples and roughly 25% of the weight from Crystal River. Meat from deer and other mammals made up 45% of the weight in Crystal River samples and less than 3% from Roberts Island.

[Lead study author C. Trevor] Duke said evidence suggests that Roberts Island residents also had to travel farther to harvest food. As sea levels fell, oyster beds may have shifted seaward, possibly explaining why the Crystal River population relocated to the island, which was small and had few resources.

“Previous research suggests that environmental change completely rearranged the distribution of reefs and the ecosystem,” Duke said. “They had to go far out to harvest these things to keep their ritual program active.”

No one knows what caused the widespread abandonment of most of the region’s ceremonial sites in A.D. 650, Duke said. But the production of Weeden Island pottery, likely associated with religious activities, ramped up as bustling sites became ghost towns.

“That’s kind of counterintuitive,” he said. “This religious movement comes on really strong right as this abandonment is happening. It almost seems like people were trying to do something, create some kind of intervention to stop whatever was happening.”

Man, this makes me miss my local $1 oyster happy hour even more than I did before. The study has been published in the journal Southeastern Archaeology.

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Bronze Age chieftain burial found under skate park

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

The remains of a Bronze Age chieftain interred with unprecedented animal offerings and a second man buried in a seated position have been unearthed in Lechlade-on-Thames, Gloucestershire, southwestern England. The burials were discovered in 2017 during an archaeological survey in advance of construction of a skate park. Radiocarbon analysis of the bones dates both men to around 2200 B.C.

The chieftain was identified as an important, wealthy leader by the unusually prolific animal remains found in his grave. The skulls and hooves from four different cattle were discovered. Head and hoof cattle burials have been found before — it was a Bronze Age funerary practice seen across Europe — but all of the ones unearthed in the UK before this were single cattle burials with one skull and one hoof from one animal.

Artifacts buried with the chieftain include a copper dagger with a whale bone pommel, a stone wrist guard, an amber bead and a strike-a-light kit composed of a flint and iron pyrite. These grave goods are characteristic of Beaker culture burials. The one thing he was not buried with was the actual Beaker pot after which the culture was named. Archaeologists think this noticeable absence indicates the deceased performed a specialized function in his community, one not connected with the symbolism of the Beaker pot.

The chieftain grave was found in the center of a circular ditch. The terrain is flat now, but at the time of the burial it was a barrow with soil mounded inside the ring ditch. This design is also typical of Beaker cultural burials. Within the circular enclosure next to the central grave were the remains of an older man. He was 50-60 years old when he died.

“He was buried in an unusual ‘seated’ position — his legs were present extending downwards towards the base of his grave pit,” [Foundations Archaeology archaeologist Andy] Hood said. “We haven’t found a direct parallel elsewhere in Bronze Age Britain.”

Most people buried in Bronze Age Britain were arranged in a crouched position on their sides, as the chieftain was. So the older man’s proximity to the chieftain, as well as the man’s lack of a Beaker “package” and strange burial position, may remain a mystery for the ages.

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Roman sewn boat unearthed in Croatia

Friday, May 1st, 2020

Archaeologists have unearthed a Roman wooden boat on the waterfront of Poreč, a town on the Adriatic coast of Croatia. Beautifully preserved deep in the waterlogged soil, the boat retains rare features, including the “stitches” used to sew the ship together, a technique characteristic of ancient boatwrighting in the northern Adriatic area. Discovered in March at the site of an ancient Roman pier that had been rebuilt in the 1st century, the boat is 16.4 feet long today (it was longer originally) and 5.4 feet wide. It was equipped with a single sail and was likely a small private fishing boat.

“It is a Roman sewn ship from the 1st century AD. The technique of sewing the ship is known from earlier periods, from the time of Histra. One of the oldest boats of this type was found at the site of Zambratija near Umag. This specimen from Poreč is one of three boats found on land that are not part of an underwater archaeological survey,” Bartolić Sirotić, an archaeologist from the Regional Museum of Poreč, told Jutarnji list before adding.

“This finding is significant because it is well preserved and has many elements that are very rarely seen. These are primarily the formwork, ribs, and keel. In years, it will be possible to make a preliminary reconstruction of the vessel.” […]

“We are now conducting research. Every stitch that is made is recorded. The sewing technique is such that we have ropes that are tied with rope and sewn through holes that insert wooden nails called spots. And after that, the ribs, which are connected with this plate by the big wooden nails, are put on,” Bartolić Sirotić adds.

The town was built on a tiny peninsula jutting out of the west side of the large Istrian peninsula. Its harbour is naturally protected by the island of Saint Nicholas, making it an ideal location for military defense and for maritime trade. It began as a castrum, a Roman military fort, built in the 2nd century B.C., becoming an official city under Augustus in the 1st century B.C.

The excavation at the intersection of the city waterfront with Cardo Maximus Street is a salvage operation in advance of redevelopment. Once the excavation and in situ investigation is complete, the ship remains will be removed for conservation and the site flooded to create a revitalized, pedestrian-friendly waterfront. The wood will be gradually desalinated in a water bath at the National Museum of Poreč until it is stabilized. Experts will study the structure of the wood as they desalinate and clean it. The water will then be removed, either by replacement with PEG or freeze-drying. The conserved ship will then go on public display at the Poreč Museum.

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