Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Two Mayan cities found in Yucatan jungle

Monday, August 25th, 2014

Archaeologists have discovered two lost Mayan cities in the jungle of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve on the southeastern tip of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. The cities have been named Tamchén and Lagunita. Initial exploration indicates both cities were at their peak in the Late and Terminal Classic period (600-1000 AD), the early part of which saw the apogee of the dominant regional power: the kingdom of Calakmul, ruled by the mighty Snake dynasty.

Led by Ivan Sprajc of the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, for the past two months the expedition has been macheteing its way through the eastern part of the state of Campeche, a vast area that is thought to be rich in Mayan archaeology but has barely been explored because of how inaccessible it is. This team has the advantage of aerial photography and a geodesist as well as local guides.

Lagunita was actually found once before, by American Mayanist, epigrapher and explorer Eric von Euw in 1970. He drew sketches of a several monuments, most strikingly a façade depicting the open maw of a zoomorphic monster. He never published his drawings nor noted the location of the find, but his sketches are kept in Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and Maya scholar Karl Herbert Mayer made them available to Sprajc.

It was that dramatic façade that identified the site as Euw’s Lagunita. Its open mouth represents the entrance to the underworld and the creature represents a Maya fertility deity. Other structures were found: a Maya ball game court, a pyramid 65 feet high, massive palaces arranged around four plazas, three altars, 10 trails connecting the buildings and altars, and 10 stelae. There are inscriptions on the altars and stelae, and a key section of stela two has already been translated by Octavio Esparza Olguin, an epigrapher from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. For our convenience, it’s a precise date — November 29th, 711 A.D. — and a signature of the “lord of 4 k’atuns” (a k’atun is a 20-year calendar cycle). Olguin notes:

“To judge by both architectural volumes and monuments with inscriptions, Lagunita must have been the seat of a relatively powerful polity, though the nature of its relationship with the larger Chactún, lying some 10 km to the north, remains unclear.” The importance of Lagunita is further attested by the great density of residential mounds, terraces, albarradas (low dry walls) and other settlement remains in the surrounding area.

The second site, Tamchén, has much in common with its neighbor four miles to the southeast. It too has large buildings arranged around plazas, a pyramid temple, a courtyard with three temples on each side, altars and stelae. It’s significantly older, however, dating to the Late Preclassic (300 B.C. – 250 A.D.). It also has another unusual feature: more than 30 chultuns, underground wells built to collect rainwater. Chultuns are common in Maya cities, but the number at Tamchén is far greater than have been discovered anywhere else, and they are remarkably deep as well, some approaching 45 feet in depth. We can’t know if this proliferation of chultuns is unique to Tamchén or if other Maya cities in the region have similar structures until the area is more fully explored.

There are many intriguing aspects to these cities that may open a new window into Maya history.

The zoomorphic façade at Lagunita does not come as a surprise, considering that Becán, the largest site in the Río Bec zone, is only 15 km away. What has not been expected, however, is the presence of so many pyramid temples and monuments with inscriptions, which are rare in the Río Bec región. Both Tamchén and Lagunita appear to have been largely abandoned around A.D. 1000, sharing the fate of other lowland Maya polities, but a few stelae were modified some time after they had been originally erected, and Postclassic offerings were found at others. These facts obviously reflect continuities and ruptures in cultural traditions, but their significance for understanding political geography and history of the region is yet to be explained.

Particularly interesting are various elements that have not been known elsewhere in the Maya area. Two altars of Lagunita have a curious nail-head shape. The third one is rectangular and has a series of Ajaw glyphs on its sides, with coefficients evidently referring to successive k’atun (20-year period) endings; such records are common in codices, but not on stone monuments. Whereas hieroglyphic texts normally appear in an even number of columns, the inscription on Stela 2 of Lagunita has three, and the Long Count date is incomplete.

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Wealth of pottery found in Corinth tomb

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

An ancient tomb in Corinth has been found with an impressive collection of pottery. The tomb dates to between 800 and 760 B.C., very early in the city’s history. There’s evidence of settlement in Corinth as early as 6,500 B.C., but there appears to have been a significant loss of population from 2,500 B.C. until the Dorians settled there in 900 B.C. When the tomb was built, Corinth was ruled by a king from a Dorian kinship clan called the Bacchiadae. They began to build Corinth from a sparsely populated backwater into an influential center of trade, a process that continued after the kings were overthrown in 747 B.C. and replaced with a ruling council of aristocrats (still from the Bacchiad clan) who elected a new king yearly. By 730, Corinth would have several colonies and a population of 5,000.

The person buried in the tomb was certainly someone of note. A large limestone sarcophagus 5.8 feet long, 2.8 feet wide and 2.1 feet high was found inside the burial pit. Only a few fragments of bone remained inside, so we don’t know any physical details about the deceased. He or she was buried with several handsome pottery vessels around the sarcophagus, and another 13 were found almost intact inside a niche covered by a limestone slab.

The vessels were decorated with a variety of designs, including wavy, zigzagging lines and meandering patterns that look like a maze. This style of pottery was popular at the time, and archaeologists often refer to this as Greece’s “Geometric” period.

It’s the pottery style that dates the tomb. The geometric designs — zigzags, crosses, concentric circles around the neck, shoulders and body, crosshatched rectangles that look like block letters I doodled in my notebooks in junior high but aren’t letters, dots — decorate vessels of all shapes and sizes. This is the pottery that spread far and wide around the Mediterranean in the decades after the tomb was built when Corinth grew into a capital of trade as its position near the Isthmus of Corinth connecting the Peloponnese to mainland Greece made it a window to western colonies like Corfu and Syracuse.

We’re very fortunate any of the fragile treasures in this tomb survived at all.

Several centuries later, in Roman times, the tomb would almost be destroyed after a wall was built beside it. When archaeologists excavated that wall, they found a limestone column that may have originally served as a grave marker for the tomb.

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Roman coin found in Sandby fort posthole

Monday, August 18th, 2014

Archaeologists have found a Roman gold coin in a posthole from one of the homes in Sandby ringfort. The coin is a solidus from the reign of Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III in a design struck towards the latter part of his rule, 440-455 A.D. This is a find of great importance for Sandby, because it’s evidence that might help explain what happened there.

Sandby is a ringfort on Öland, an island off the southeastern coast of Sweden, that was built and destroyed during the turbulent Scandinavian Migration Period (400 – 550 A.D.). It was first discovered in 2010 when two looting pits appeared, alerting archaeologists to the pressing need to survey the area before depredations ruined the context. Come summer, the spot was surveyed with metal detectors and four caches of glass millefiori beads, small silver bells meant to be worn as part of a necklace of a bracelet, finger rings, gilt bronze and silver buckles of very high quality were found. Other artifacts were found scattered around the site.

The next year excavations began. They revealed that an event of deathly violence had struck the fort in the 5th century. Its defensive high walls were overrun, the homes inside destroyed, its inhabitants killed and left to rot where they fell. Five bodies were found inside just one dwelling, all of them bearing marks of sharp force trauma. Only 2% of the site has been excavated, and the remains of about 10 people have already been found. So the residents were killed, their homes, warehouses and barns levelled, but the authors of this destruction left the expensive jewelry and gold behind. A raid for lucre wouldn’t have overlooked shallowly buried hoards and wouldn’t have killed everyone before they could reveal their hiding places.

Leaving the bodies in the open to decay was a deliberate choice, perhaps a warning to others, and it was an effective one since nobody occupied the fort again. That’s what makes this find so exceptional: a moment of destruction has been frozen in time for archaeologists to study like forensic units study a crime scene.

The solidus may be a key witness. About 360 solidi have been found on Öland, but they were stumbled upon, mainly during the plowing of fields, not excavated. This is the first solidus to have been unearthed in its original archaeological context: one of the homes where human remains were discovered. These coins were used by the Roman Empire to pay its mercenaries. One of the theories about what happened at Sandby is that it was home to returning soldiers rather than farmers grouped together for self-defense like the other ringforts on the island. Seen as a threat by their neighbors, they were raided, killed and left as a cautionary tale to any other mercenaries who might consider banding together and using their military skills to interfere with the pre-existing communities.

Another theory is that it was the violent resolution of a feud.

“We think it may have been the reason for the massacre at the Sandby Borg fort. And this is the only coin that wasn’t taken,” [lead archaeologist Helena Victor] explained.

“We found it on the edge of a posthole in the house. So maybe the robbers came to take the treasure there, and maybe they ripped the bag and one coin fell down into the posthole in the floor, and there it remained.” [...]

“I think that the money was a good excuse to end a feud. So there was probably a feud, this was a very strong statement, not just a normal robbery- an excruciatingly evil statement to kill these people and just leave them,” Victor explained.

“It was truly shameful. So to make a real statement you forbid them to burn the bodies. There are still memories 1,500 years later of these events, it’s a dangerous place. Parents tell their children that they can’t play there because it’s a dangerous place. They don’t remember the history but they remember it’s dangerous.”

It looks to me like the coin was pierced which suggests that it was worn as jewelry at some point. Instead of being in bag, it could have been on a string around someone’s neck and fell into the posthole when it was unceremoniously separated from that neck by force.

After conservation and further study, the coin will go on display in the Glimpses from Sandby borg exhibition at the Kalmar County Museum in southeast Sweden. The mini-exhibition opened last month after visitors clamored for news about the fort and its treasures. Mostly the exhibition uses images and text to tell the story, presenting some of the theories about the fate of Sandby, but there are a few artifacts on display — 30 glass beads, an iron spearhead almost two feet long. The coin will be joining them this fall.

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Skeletons found in ancient Gallic grain silo

Sunday, August 17th, 2014

The skeletal remains of eight people have been unearthed in an ancient grain silo in Marsal, a town in the northeastern French region of Lorraine. The skeletons date to around 500 B.C. and were unceremoniously tossed into the silo so archaeologists found the bodies stacked on top of each other in random positions. Two of them were of children.

The discovery is unusual, the first of its kind in Lorraine, and may be connected with Marsal’s history as a major center for the production of salt. From the 7th to the 1st century B.C., there were extensive salt works in the area processing water from the salt springs of the upper valley of the Seille river. So far archaeologists have unearthed more than six miles of salt production complexes and at least a dozen individual workshops.

This was production on an industrial scale. Workshops created clay grids on which little coarse ceramic molds not unlike Dixie cups in shape and size would be placed. The cups were filled with high salinity brine and wood-fueled fires lit underneath the grid. The water would boil away leaving only crystalized salt in the vessels. The molds were then broken apart, leaving a cone of salt of a conveniently standard size and a pile of broken clay. Excavations in the Marsal area have discovered trash piles of the clay discards from this process up to 40 feet high.

Salt’s value as a seasoning agent, and most importantly, as one of the only consistent, reliable and portable means of food preservation, made it so valuable it could be used as currency. The cones of salt left after the vessels were broken away could be traded for goods and services, just like money. That’s why their being regular in size and weight was so significant a production element, akin to the precious metal content of a coin.

Most relevantly to the skeletons in the silo, archaeologists have found an Iron Age necropolis used by the salt workers in the community, so dumping the bodies of these poor wretches in the silo was a deliberate choice. The grave goods in the necropolis burials include a range of objects of diverse value, the highest of which are expensive imports underscoring just how active and far-ranging the commercial activity of the site was, and that there was a distinctly hierarchical society in place there.

The remains found in the grain silo are all in good condition thanks to the watery and salty soil. Archaeologists hope testing can determine if these people worked in the salt workshops, if they were raised in the area, if they were related to each other, what they ate, what may have claimed their lives. Lead archaeologist Lawrence Olivier, who has been excavating Marsal and environs for a decade, believes they must have been people of low status, possibly slaves, perhaps victims of a massacre or an epidemic.

France’s National Institute for Preventative Archaeology (INRAP) has a comprehensive and fascinating website dedicated to Gallic salt production. If you don’t read French, browse it using an online translator because it’s downright illuminating. Here’s the section on the Bronze and Iron Age production that covers the period of the skeletons. Check the dropdowns for tons more information and pictures.

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Mummification in Egypt began 1,500 years earlier

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

Archaeologists have long believed that artificial mummification in Egypt began during the Old Kingdom, around 2,500 B.C. Mummies have been found from the Late Neolithic and Predynastic periods (ca. 4500 – 3100 B.C.), but they were thought to have been naturally mummified in the arid heat of the desert. Evidence for the use of embalming agents was found on one examples from the late Old Kingdom (ca. 2,200 B.C.), only becoming frequent in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2,000-1,600 BC).

Now the results of an 11-year study are upending the conventional wisdom with chemical analysis of preservative resins found in prehistoric funerary wrappings. Researchers from the Universities of York, Macquarie and Oxford have identified complex embalming agents in linen fragments from some of the earliest tombs in Egypt found in the Neolithic cemeteries at Badari and Mostagedda in Upper Egypt.

Egyptologist Dr. Jana Jones of Sydney’s Macquarie University started the ball rolling in 2002 when she examined 51 wrapping samples excavated from Badari and Mostagedda in the 1930s and preserved in the collection of the Bolton Museum. Viewing them under a microscope revealed the presence of “toffee-like” substance likely to be resin. Researchers from Oxford University radiocarbon dated the samples to confirm they were indeed prehistoric as the archaeological evidence had indicated.

The resinous substances had to be confirmed chemically, however, because the microscopic analysis couldn’t conclusively identify them. That’s where University of York archaeological chemist Dr. Stephen Buckley came in.

Corresponding author on the article, Dr Buckley, used a combination of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and sequential thermal desorption/pyrolysis to identify a pine resin, an aromatic plant extract, a plant gum/sugar, a natural petroleum source, and a plant oil/animal fat in the funerary wrappings.

Predating the earliest scientific evidence by more than a millennium, these embalming agents constitute complex, processed recipes of the same natural products, in similar proportions, as those employed at the zenith of Pharaonic mummification some 3,000 years later.

Dr Buckley, who designed the experimental research and conducted the chemical analyses, said: “The antibacterial properties of some of these ingredients and the localised soft-tissue preservation that they would have afforded lead us to conclude that these represent the very beginnings of experimentation that would evolve into the mummification practice of the Pharaonic period.”

Dr Buckley added: “Having previously led research on embalming agents employed in mummification during Egypt’s Pharaonic period it was notable that the relative abundances of the constituents are typical of those used in mummification throughout much of ancient Egypt’s 3000 year Pharaonic history. Moreover, these resinous recipes applied to the prehistoric linen wrapped bodies contained antibacterial agents, used in the same proportions employed by the Egyptian embalmers when their skill was at its peak, some 2500-3000 years later.”

This revolutionary discovery underscores the importance of historic specimen collections in museums. They may seem like dust-magnet clutter, but as technology advances they can be an invaluable resource. First the cholera genome was mapped from 19th century specimens in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, now the history of Egyptian mummification has been rolled back 1,500 years.

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Entrance to “extremely important” Amphipolis tomb found

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Excitement is mounting in Greece over the excavation of a vast tomb atop Kasta hill in the ancient Central Macedonian city of Amphipolis. The Kasta Tumulus was first excavated in 2012, revealing a circular tomb almost 10 feet high (eroded from an estimated original height of 80 feet), 525 feet in diameter and 1,640 feet in circumference, making it significantly larger than the Great Tumulus at Vergina (43 feet high, 360 feet in diameter) that houses the tombs of Philip II of Macedon and other members of the royal family. In fact, it’s the largest tomb ever discovered in Greece.

Almost as soon as digging began, speculation exploded in the media about who might be buried in such a monumental tomb. Could it be Roxana of Bactria, last wife of Alexander the Great, and their son Alexander IV Aegus? According to historian Diodorus Siculus (The Library of History, Book 19, Chapter 52 and 105), they were imprisoned and killed in Amphipolis by Cassander, distant relative of Alexander the Great and Regent of Macedon, in around 310 B.C. Siculus says Cassander had his minion kill them and conceal the bodies. The largest tumulus in Greece doesn’t seem like an ideal spot to conceal anything. Outside of the fever dreams of the press, therefore, there is zero historical evidence that mother and son were interred in Amphipolis and zero archaeological evidence attesting to who was interred in the tumulus.

With Greece’s economy in deep recession, there was no budget to continue excavations or even to secure the site, now exposed to the world in injudiciously excessive terms as a tomb of great historical interest. Archaeologists found Philip II buried in a 24-pound gold casket. Even the most distant possibility that someone in the Macedon royal family or adjacent thereto could be buried in the Kasta Tumulus would surely prove an irresistible lure to looters.

Somehow the money was scraped up to continue excavations and by Spring of 2013, much of the perimeter of the tomb had been unearthed. The foundation of the perimeter wall was built of large limestone blocks clad in marble from the island of Thasos, the same kind of marble used to make a sculpture known as the Lion of Amphipolis. The lion and blocks of marble were found in the Strymon river in the early 1910s. Greek soldiers dragged the blocks out of the river and used some of them to build a base for the lion a few kilometers away from the Kasta Tumulus. The loose blocks and columns that weren’t used in the reconstruction are still there, grouped together next to the lion monument.

Many of the marble pieces from the tomb were missing, so Michaelis Lefantzis, the archaeological team’s architect, went looking among the lion’s marbles for blocks that may have come from the tomb. He found that 400 blocks from around the lion and 30 from the base were the same in shape, size and elaboration as the ones in the wall encircling the tumulus. It seems the Romans stripped them in the 2nd century A.D. and used them to stabilize the banks of the river. Archaeologists believe the lion was once perched on the top of the tomb before it was tossed in the Strymon.

The discovery underscored what an impressive monumental structure the tumulus was in antiquity. Now archaeologists are on the verge of getting inside and maybe discovering who was so important as to garner such a fancy final resting place.

So far, workers have unveiled a flight of 13 steps that lead to a broad path, flanked by masonry walls, which end in a built-up arch covering two headless, wingless sphinxes — mythical creatures that blend human, bird and lion characteristics.

Archaeologists believe the entrance will be unearthed by the end of the month. They haven’t found any evidence of tomb raider activity, no tunneling, no break-ins, so they expect to find an intact tomb. Anticipation is so high the Prime Minister of Greece, Antonis Samaras, visited the site Tuesday, calling the tumulus “clearly extremely important.”

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Chianti well preserves 15 centuries of history

Friday, August 8th, 2014

An Etruscan well in Cetamura del Chianti, an archaeological site on the property of the Badia a Coltibuono wine-making estate in Tuscany, has proven a cornucopia of historical artifacts from 300 B.C. through the end of the Middle Ages. The well — which technically is a cistern rather than a well since it isn’t spring-fed but rather a rain catchment shaft — was dug more than 105 feet deep into the sandstone bedrock of the Cetamura hilltop. Over the centuries, a vast number of artifacts made from bronze, silver, lead and iron, plus ceramics, glass, bricks, tiles, wood, 70 bronze and silver coins, jacks-like game pieces (astragali), animal bones, antlers and grape seeds were thrown into the well, probably as votive offerings in antiquity and as simple discards in later eras.

The Cetamura settlement has been excavated since 1973, unearthing Etruscan remains including an acropolis and extensive artisan quarters, a Roman villa and baths and a medieval fort. The well is in Zone 1, the acropolis area on the top of the hill, and a team of archaeologists and students led by Florida State University Etruscan expert Nancy de Grummond have been excavating it since 2011. So far the team has unearthed 14 Roman and Etruscan bronze vessels, an impressive number of very rare Etruscan wood pieces and almost 500 grape seeds.

The bronze vessels, of different shapes and sizes and with varying decorations, were used to extract water from the well, which has been excavated to a depth of more than 105 feet.

“One of the Etruscan vessels, actually a wine bucket, is finely tooled and decorated with figurines of the marine monster Skylla,” de Grummond said. “Another was adorned with a bronze finial of the head of a feline with the mane of a lion and the spots of a leopard and, for handle attachments, had African heads, probably sphinxes.”

The grape seeds, found in at least three different levels of the well — including the Etruscan and Roman levels — are of tremendous scientific interest, according to de Grummond.

The seeds date to the third and second centuries B.C. (Etruscan) and to the late first century B.C., early first century A.D. (Roman). The waterlogged environment preserved them exceptionally well which will give researchers the rare opportunity to do DNA testing as well as radiocarbon dating. This has the potential to illuminate the viticultural history of one of the famous wine growing regions of the world, a history that is very little known. Genetic and morphometric analyses of the seeds will categorize the different grape varieties and, if all goes well, will determine if any of these ancient Chianti grapes are related to the ones used to make Chianti wines today. The Roman seeds discovered in the 2012 and 2013 dig seasons have already been sorted into three different types.

Interestingly, the grape seeds weren’t just thrown in to the well in handfuls. The team found most of them inside the bronze vessels, evidence that they may have been ritual offerings rather than garbage. The wood from the early Etruscan level also appears to have played a ritual role.

“Many of the pieces of wood were worked, and already several objects have been identified, such as parts of buckets, a spatula or spoon, a spool and a rounded object that might be a knob or child’s top,” [de Grummond] said. “The sheer amount of Etruscan waterlogged wood — with some recognizable artifacts — could transform views about such perishable items.”

To follow the news from the Cetamura del Chianti well excavation, keep an eye on their Facebook page.

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Plough turns up rare Pictish symbol stone

Thursday, August 7th, 2014



In May of last year, a farmer ploughing a field in Dandaleith, near Craigellachie in northeastern Scotland, encountered an intriguing obstacle. The landowner reported to the authorities that he had “broken his plough on a rather large stone with some sort of carving on one side,” but he was underestimating it. The solid pink granite stone actually has carvings on two sides, which makes it rare, and those sides are adjacent, which may make it unique.

Experts found that the boulder, which is nearly five and a half feet long and weighs almost 1,500 pounds, is a Class I Pictish Symbol Stone, meaning it’s an unshaped stone incised with symbols but no cross. This is the earliest type of symbol stone, and the Dandaleith Stone may date to as early as 500 A.D. The symbols on one face are an eagle with a crescent and V-rod underneath it. On the adjacent face there’s a mirror case symbol (a circle atop a rectangle) with a notch rectangle and Z-rod symbol underneath.

The symbols have been typed and categorized from the 350 or so stones that have been found, but experts still don’t know what they mean or how the stones were used. One theory is that the symbols represent a kind of heraldry for important families. The stones could have been grave markers (although archaeological evidence of burials associated with Pictish Symbol Stones is sparse) or perhaps boundary markers. For more information about the Picts and the symbol carvings, see Historic Scotland’s dedicated website.

Dr David Clarke, former Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Scotland, said: “The presence of two sets of symbols on a single stone is itself a very unusual feature relative to the corpus of symbol-bearing stones, but the presence of two sets of symbols on adjacent faces may be unique. The corresponding orientation of the sets of symbols is also a very unusual feature.”

The stone was declared a Treasure Trove following its discovery, and was reported to Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service (ACAS), who act as the regional archaeology service for Moray Council. Claire Herbert, regional archaeologist at ACAS, said: “Members of the public regularly contact the Archaeology Service about artefacts they have found, but the reporting of the Dandaleith Stone was something truly unexpected, a real rarity. I would like to thank the ploughman and landowner for reporting their find to us, and for their continued help and cooperation.

“To our knowledge, this is a truly unique find which has the potential to alter our understanding of Pictish Symbol Stones. We are privileged to be involved in the continued protection of such a wonderful object.”

As per the Treasure Trove law, once an object is declared treasure, the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel (SAFAP) determines which of the interested museums will be allocated the artifact and what sum it will pay the finder as an ex gratia payment. The amount of the payment is determined by how much it would cost to purchase an equivalent object on the antiquities market. In March of this year, the SAFAP allocated the Dandaleith Stone to the Elgin Museum which is just 15 miles north of Dandaleith.

While the museum raises the funds for the payment, display and transportation of this large and heavy piece of granite, the stone is being conserved and documented at Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation in Edinburgh.

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Mystery of skeleton in Penn Museum basement solved

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

A skeleton kept in an old wooden box in the basement of Philadelphia’s Penn Museum has regained his history, and what an illustrious one it is. Curator of the museum’s Physical Anthropology Section Dr. Janet Monge knew the skeleton was there, one of 2,000 complete skeletons in the collection, but it had no catalog card or any other identifying marks. It might have remained a mystery skeleton forever had it not been for one of my favorite things: an ambitious digitization project.

In 2012, the Penn Museum and the British Museum embarked on a collaborative mission to digitize all the artifacts, photographs, archives, maps, notes and other documents from Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations of Ur, now in southern Iraq, from 1922 and 1934. The 12 years of excavations were joint expeditions of the British Museum and the Penn Museum. As was common archaeological practice at the time, half of what they unearthed remained in country, while the other half was split evenly between the two institutions. Funded with a $1.28 million grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, Ur of the Chaldees: A Virtual Vision of Woolley’s Excavations will digitally reunite all the products of these seminal digs and make high resolution images of every pot fragment, cuneiform tablet, archaeological layer map, bull-headed lyre, etc. available for free in an online database.

Dr. William Hafford, Penn Museum’s Ur Digitization Project Manager, encountered in the course of his work some division lists recording which items were sent to Philadelphia and which to London. It was the list for the 1929-1930 dig season (a fateful season during which Katharine Woolley invited Agatha Christie to visit the dig where she met her future husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan) that caught his eye.

It said that the Penn Museum would receive, among other items, one tray of “mud of the flood” and two “skeletons.” Further research into the Museum’s object record database indicated that one of those skeletons, 31-17-404, deemed “pre-flood” and found in a stretched position, was recorded as “Not Accounted For” as of 1990.

Exploring the extensive records Woolley kept, Hafford was able to find additional information and images of the missing skeleton, including Woolley himself painstakingly removing an Ubaid skeleton intact, covering it in wax, bolstering it on a piece of wood, and lifting it out using a burlap sling. When he queried Dr. Monge about it, she had no record of such a skeleton in her basement storage—but noted that there was a “mystery” skeleton in a box.

When the box was opened later that day, it was clear that this was the same skeleton in Woolley’s field records, preserved and now reunited with its history.

The fact that he’s garnered the nickname “Noah” is a hint of that history. The skeleton is 6,500 years old, 2,000 years older than the remains found in the more glamorous Royal Cemetery of Ur. Woolley found it in Pit F, a trench he dug 50 feet deep under the surface of the archaeological site of Ur. When he reached 40 feet down, he countered a thick layer of water-lain silt that became known as the “flood layer.” This was the find that provided evidence of a great flood, not the world-destroying flood that would thousands of years later be described in the Biblical story of Noah, but a major local disaster that submerged Ur when it was an island surrounded by marshes. People regrouped after the flood, rebuilding Ur and burying their dead, but the story of the flood became legend and was incorporated in literature like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Woolley kept digging underneath the flood layer and found 48 graves from the Ubaid period (5,500 B.C. to 4,000 B.C.). The Penn skeleton had been buried with ten pottery vessels at his feet in a grave dug into the silt, which indicates he had survived the flood.

Thanks to Woolley’s conscientious method of excavation and preservation — coating the skeleton and the soil around it in wax then covering it in plaster of Paris to keep it safe during the journey — Noah will be a great boon to research on this early period of Ur. Modern technology may be able to reveal much about his life, diet, health, perhaps cause of death, maybe even some DNA given the good condition of his teeth. Not much is known about the Ubaid period, so this research could fill in a great many blanks. And let’s not forget the silt. Archaeologists are learning amazing things from context soil nowadays.

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Four schoolboys find 4,300-year-old gold ornament

Monday, August 4th, 2014

A group of boys seven to ten years old from Alston Primary School in Cumbria discovered a rare gold ornament from the Copper Age on an archaeological dig in Kirkhaugh, Northumberland. The ornament is a thin oval sheet of gold 1.3 inches long rolled into a semi-cylinder with two rows of repoussé dots along the outer perimeter and two parallel lines in the center crossing the width of the piece. On the rolled edge between the two lines is a long, thin tab also bordered in repoussé dots.

It’s not certain how they were meant to be worn. Called tress rings, they may have been hair tresses, worn wrapped around a braid or lock of hair. They’ve also been labeled “basket earrings” (because they look like the kind of curved edge basket ladies in period movies use to collect flowers from a garden) and may have been worn with the tab inserted into a piercing and then wrapped around the outside of the semi-cylinder. They would have hugged the outside of the ear like modern ear cuffs do.

Aidan Bell (10), Luca Alderson (8), his brother Sebastian Alderson (10) and Joseph Bell (7) learned about the area’s Copper Age history in school and through a brilliant program called Dreaming the Land that draws on local archaeology and folklore and involves the children through art work and performance. That inspired them to participate in a community dig organized by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’s Altogether Archaeology project (which also organized Dreaming the Land), and next thing you know, they struck gold.

Seven-year-old Joseph Bell, one of the four boys to make the discovery, said: “We were digging carefully in the ground and I saw something shiny, it was gold. Me and Luca started dancing with joy. It was very exciting.” His friend, eight-year-old Luca Alderson, added: “When I first saw it I felt happy but I thought it was plastic. When I found out it was gold, I was very happy.”

As well he should be. Not only is it gold, but at around 4,300 years old, it’s one of the earliest metal objects ever discovered in the UK and one of only 10 similar pieces known. One of those other nine was also unearthed at Kirkhaugh in 1935. It was found in a burial mound along with a decorated ceramic drinking vessel known as a beaker, the type artifact for and the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age Beaker Culture of western Europe, and a “cushion stone,” a flat-faced stone used as an anvil for crafting gold and copper.

The recently discovered piece was also found in a burial mound, this time accompanied by three flint arrowheads and a jet button. In a beautiful fluke of history, brothers Sebastian and Luca Alderson are the great-great-grandsons of Joseph William Alderson who worked on the 1935 dig. The newfound ornament and the 1935 one have the same decoration and dimensions. Archaeologists believe they are a matched pair and because of the cushion stone found in 1935, probably the work of professional metalworkers exploring the area for its mineable resources, the first in a long line of people who would seek to exploit the area’s richness in precious ores.

[Altogether Archaeology leader Paul] Frodsham said: “When the metal worker arrived in the area I’m sure he’ll have been seen as someone very exotic and special because the chances are that no-one here will have ever seen a metal object until he showed up. We can only assume he was buried here, alone, because he was a long way from home and died unexpectedly.”

Prof. Fitzparick Andrew added: “I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the grave it is on the edge of the Alston ore field. I think the man buried at Kirkhaugh was part of a small group that was prospecting for copper over 4,000 years ago.”

The ornament and other artifacts will be studied by experts, after which the gold piece will hopefully be reunited with its 1935 brother currently on display at the Great North Museum in Newcastle.

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