Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Iron Age tunic found in Norway glacier recreated

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

In 2011, archaeologists exploring the rapidly melting Lendbreen glacier in Norway’s Breheimen National Park discovered an intact woolen tunic dating to between 230 and 390 A.D. It is the oldest garment ever found in Norway, and it wasn’t new when for unknown reasons it was left on a glacier to freeze solid. There are several patches and the sleeves were sewn onto the tunic after the original manufacture. Although it could have been decades old, it was still entirely in wearable condition, and yet it was found bundled up and covered in horse manure. Archaeologists speculated that its 5’9″ wearer removed it believing himself to be hot, a common delusion caused by hypothermia, but it may also have been put to some other purpose rather than as clothing.

Its exceptional condition and the visible repairs afford researchers a unique chance to examine Iron Age wool, textile production and garment construction. To learn more about how the tunic was made, two museums — the University of Olso’s Museum of Cultural History and the Norwegian Mountain Museum in Lom — will create reproductions using traditional techniques. It’s going to be a highly detailed and complex process that enlists the labour of expert craftsmen.

First they have to source the proper wool. Ancient Norwegian sheep breeds had two kinds of wool: the long, stiff, water-resistant outer coat known as overhair, and the soft, fluffy inner layer known as underwool. The two layers were used to make different kinds of garments. The overhair was ideal for outerwear to protect from the elements, but the Lendbreen tunic was made almost entirely from underwool.

Wool from most modern sheep breeds is akin to the ancient underwool, but wild breeds still have the two layers. Researchers are therefore securing the wool of Norwegian wild sheep from a farmer at Hareid in northwestern Norway’s Sunnmøre region. Then traditional wool spinnery at Selbu Spinneri wll separate the overhair from the underwool by hand. They have no idea how long this painstaking work will take (my guess is a long damn time). Once the overhair has been plucked out, the spinners will spin some of the underwool on a hand spindle just as it would have been done in the Iron Age. (Spinning wheels were invented in the 18th century. EDIT: According to the linked release about the project, that is, but several erudite commenters below have corrected the contention. I suspect is a translation error and they were referring to mechanized spinning.) The project can’t afford to spin all the wool they need by hand, so some of it will be spun mechanically.

Because the tunic was woven in a diamond twill pattern, the Selbu Spinneri will sort the underwool into shades of grey so the darkest and lightest wool can be woven into this distinctive pattern. Once spun, the yard will be woven into the diamond twill textile on a vertical warp-weighted loom, an ancient machine that is simple, functional and slow.

Consisting of a simple upright frame with two horizontal beams, the loom is leant against a wall. The vertical warp threads hang freely from the upper beam. To keep the warp threads taut, stones or other heavy weights are hung from the bottom of bundles of warp threads. The weaving is done from the top of the loom downwards and every line of weft thread is beaten tightly in place with a sword beater.

The textiles will be woven by handweaver Lena Hammarlund from Gothenburg. Lena specializes in reconstructing prehistoric textiles.

Lena Hammarlund from Gothenburg, you are so cool.

After Ms. Hammarlund does her thing, the woven textile will be sewn into two tunics by traditional tailors from Heimen Husflid in Oslo. Once the tunics are completed, they will go on display, one at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, the other at the Lom museum. The latter is just six miles east of the Lendbreen glacier and has a large collection of artifacts recovered since the thaws began accelerating in 2006.

Marianne Vedeler, Associate Professor at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo, hopes the reconstruction won’t just give us a new understanding of the manufacture of ancient woollen clothing, but will also have an impact on Norwegian clothing design today.

“Clothes were not consumer items in the Iron Age. It was important to be able to re-use clothing, and in those days clothes lasted a long time. Today, we spend enormous resources on clothes. And modern clothes are not durable. If we can use local raw materials and create clothing of high quality, it will be good for us all. We are therefore hoping that designers will be inspired by this example of old, Norwegian design. If we can create modern textiles from a prehistoric design, we hope also to be able to give a boost to the Norwegian wool industry. Sadly, much of the wool from the old sheep breeds currently goes to waste.”

I’m picturing a Norwegian wild sheep overhair trench coat. I know I’d wear one.

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Help fund Sandby ringfort excavation

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

If we ever want to find out what happened at the Sandby Borg ringfort in the 5th century A.D. that left dead bodies to rot where they fell and treasure hidden for 1,600 years, we’re going to have to contribute funds. Sandby Borg was discovered on the island of Öland off the southeastern coast of Sweden in 2010 when the presence of looting pits alerted archaeologists to the site. A scan with metal detectors found five hoards each containing highly decorated gilded silver brooches, finger rings, silver bell pendants and glass beads with millefiori designs, buried in the corners of five houses in the central block of the fort.

The next year, archaeologists from the Kalmar County Museum in Sweden returned to excavate and found human skeletons of men killed by violence. In subsequent digs, more skeletons were discovered for a total of at least 10. This summer a potentially highly significant gold solidus was found in a posthole of House 40. In September of this year, for the first time the remains of a small child aged two to five years were found, an extremely important discovery since it suggests there were families in the fort, not just adults. The child was found in the same house as a middle aged man (50-60 years old) who was found lying prone in the fireplace. He was probably struck by a weapon and fell face-down into the fireplace where he came to a gruesome end.

So far less than 3% of the fort has been excavated. Each year archaeologists have only a few short days to dig test pits and every time they’ve uncovered tantalizing evidence of the horror that befell the residents of Sandby Borg in the 5th century. They don’t have the funding to thoroughly excavate any one part of the ringfort, however, which is not only frustrating for our insatiable historical curiosity, but also potentially dangerous since it leaves precious archaeological context and material culture in danger of interference.

Enter Kickstarter. The Kalmar County Museum Department of Archaeology has started a campaign to raise 400,000 kronor ($52,000), a modest goal that will allow them to zero in on one area and produce a book about their finds.

If we reach our goal with this Kickstarter campaign, we will be able to excavate the remaining 1/3 of the house known as House 40 and produce a richly illustrated book presenting the results in English and Swedish. This is the house where at least six people are lying dead on the floor. Two of them have already been recovered, but the remaining four or more are still there. One main objective of investigating the rest of the house is to recover the skeletons. Furthermore, this particular house has proven to contain numerous potential clues to what actually happened here, and why. The Roman gold coin mentioned above is one example; some exquisite details from weaponry are another. The funding will cover both costs for personnel during fieldwork and post-excavation work and analyses, but also for the production of the book.

You have to donate at the 1,000 kronor level ($134) to get the book. If you have deeper pockets (15,000 kr, or $2,012), you can secure a VIP tour of the site personally guided by lead archaeologist Dr. Helena Victor. If you’re Oprah rich, pledge 50,000 kr ($6,700) and you get to get in the trenches and dig! God that’s such a cool reward I can’t even stand it.

The Kickstarter has been open since November 27th and has already raised 68,155 kronor just from small donors. The deadline is December 31st. A donation would make a fine present for the history nerd on your list.

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23,000-year-old limestone Venus found in France

Friday, November 28th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the Renancourt neighborhood of Amiens in northern France have unearthed a small artifact of large historical significance. It’s a limestone statuette of a female figure with exaggerated breasts and buttocks of a type known as a Paleolithic Venus. She’s 23,000 years old, an artifact of the late Gravettian culture found in France and eastern Europe, reaching all the way to western Siberia. About a hundred Gravettian Venuses have been found all over Europe, including 15 examples in southwest France, but this is the first one discovered in the north of France. The last one unearthed in an archeological context in France was found in Tursac, Dordogne, in 1959.

In July of this year, the team was excavating a deposit of eolian silt from the end of the last glacial period (40,000 to 10,000 years ago), expecting to find relatively common Paleolithic remains like flints and animal bones. On the second day of the dig, they found a pile of limestone fragments that didn’t seem like natural chips. That night, they were able to puzzle together the 20 fragments to form an almost complete female statuette about 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) tall. Only the right leg piece is missing. It was carved from a single piece of limestone and archaeologists believe it shattered from the cold.

Typical of the 244 Upper Paleolithic Venuses that have been found from different periods in Europe (the oldest being the 35,000-40,000-year-old Venus of Schelklingen which is also the oldest known human figurative art), the secondary sex characteristics are unmistakably prominent, while the head and extremities are barely present. The Venus of Renancourt has a simple rounded shape for a head and roughly engraved arms and legs.

In a space of only nine square meters, archaeologists recovered an abundance of Paleolithic remains along with the Venus, including flint projectile points used for hunting and large blades used as tools like knives and scrapers. Numerous animal bones attest to horse meat having been on the menu regularly. Chalk jewelry — rounds pierced with a hole — discovered at the site is very unusual and may be unique to this deposit. The remains indicate this was a hunter’s camp which radiocarbon dating found to be 23,000 years old, the last phase of the Gravettian period.

It’s not just the Venuses that are rare discoveries in the north of France; evidence of Upper Paleolithic Cro-Magnon presence is rare because at that time there were still glaciers reaching all the way down to the modern-day Netherlands. This discovery suggests there was a window of warmer temperatures that allowed the Cro-Magnon hunters to travel north over impressively long distances. The Gravettian areas in the southwest of France are 125-185 miles away. That’s a lot of ground to cover on foot during an ice age.

The Venus of Renancourt will be studied thoroughly for the next few months before going on display at Museum of Picardie in Amiens.

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Flint axe with wood handle found at Lolland dig

Thursday, November 27th, 2014


The tally of marvels unearthed at the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel construction site on the Danish island of Lolland seems to get longer every weeks. We can now add a flint axe with an intact wooden handle to the flint dagger with the intact bark handle and the 5,000-year-old human footprints around the hazel stick gillnets. The axe is about 5,500 years old, around the same age as the footprints and 2,500 years older than the dagger.

Only eight complete Stone Age axes with the full wooden handle preserved have been found in Denmark before now. All of those were discovered in peat bogs. This is the first example discovered on the site of a former fjord lagoon. Jammed into the dense clay of the seabed, the axe was covered in layers of sand and soil that kept oxygen away and waterlogged the organic material, keeping it moist and intact.

Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologists discovered the axe stuck vertically 30 centimeters (just under a foot) below the sea floor east of the harbour town of Rødbyhavn. It was not the only artifact found jammed into what was then the seashore in a vertical position. There were numerous wooden candlesticks, two oars, two bows, eight spears and 14 axe shafts. There were also deposits of ceramic objects and animals. In one grouping they found 60 jaws from different animals and two axes made from red deer antlers with fragments of the wooden hilts in the shaft holes. This was the only complete axe with both head and hilt in perfect condition.

Axes were important tools for Stone Age people, but particularly so around the time when agriculture was introduced to the region. In order to begin planting things, people had to clear the virgin forests that covered the country. The establishment of stationary agricultural communities engendered new social hierarchies and religious rituals. Wetlands were a consistent locus for cultic practices, and burials and sacrificial offerings testify to how important these liminal grounds between water and land were to the people who lived near them.

The proliferation of vertical objects excavated at Rødbyhavn are a prime example of a coastal area being used for offerings. These objects, all of them with significant practical uses and value, were planted into the clay as part of a ritual sacrifice. Their deliberate placement and the lack of any utilitarian purpose to the Stone Age people burying their stuff and animal bones in the shallows identifies them as religious deposits.

Excavations will continue until next summer when construction on the tunnel begins and these precious sites will be bulldozed away. Archaeologists hope what they find in the upcoming months will lend them greater understanding of Stone Age religious practices.

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Hoard of Roman silver found in The Hague

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the future site of the Rotterdamsebaan access road in The Hague announced on Friday that they’ve unearthed a Roman-era pot containing a hoard of coins and jewelry. The contents of the pot were discovered fused together in a large lump of metal. Conservators were able to separate the individual parts of the mass and discovered 107 silver coins, six silver bracelets, a large silver plated fibula (cloak brooch) and some glass beads that were probably on a chain that has now disintegrated. The silver bracelets look the same, but there are small differences between them that indicate they are three matched pairs.

Restorer Johan van der Helm did such a fine job detangling the rusted lump and cleaning the coins that in the end all 107 coins were readable. They are all silver denarii, a very valuable collection at a time when brass coins were far more common in circulation. The oldest coin dates to the reign of the emperor Nero (54-68 A.D.), the youngest to the reign of Marcus Aurelius about a century later (161-180 A.D.). One extremely rare coin was struck under the reign of Emperor Otho who only ruled three months, from January 15th to April 16th 69 A.D., the second in the turbulent Year of the Four Emperors which came to a close with the ascent of Vespasian.

This find doubles the number of Roman coins discovered in The Hague, which in the 2nd century was sparsely populated countryside in Rome’s Germania Inferior province. The area that is now The Hague was just south of the estuary of the Rhine, the empire’s western frontier, so there were fortifications here and there but the regional capital was the nearby town of Forum Hadriani, modern day Voorburg, which was the northernmost Roman city in continental Europe. It was abandoned in the wake of Saxon raids in around 270 A.D.

Earlier this fall, the Rotterdamsebaan excavations uncovered the remains of two Roman houses and several wells close to where the coins were unearthed. It seems to have been a small farming community. Since the hoard was buried all at once rather than deposited over time as savings, it was either an offering to the gods or the earthly goods of an area resident seeking to protect them from marauders.

The hoard is now on display at the Historical Museum of The Hague.

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Norfolk museum acquires Bronze Age dirk used as doorstop

Monday, November 24th, 2014

When a farmer turned up a hunk of bent bronze while ploughing a field in East Rudham, Norfolk, 12 years ago, he had no idea he’d found an archaeological treasure. He used the four-pound object as a doorstop for years and was considering throwing it out when a friend suggested he have it checked out by an archaeologist first. In 2013, the object was reviewed by Andrew Rogerson, Senior Historic Environment Officer of Norfolk’s Identification and Recording Service which is in charge of county’s Portable Antiquities Scheme. He identified it as an extremely rare and important ceremonial dirk from the Middle Bronze Age, around 1,500 B.C.

The landowner agreed to sell it to the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery for £40,970 ($64,272). Thanks to a £38,970 grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and a £2,000 donation from the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, the Norwich Castle Museum is now the proud owner of a 3,500-year-old bronze ceremonial dirk.


Images of Rudham Dirk courtesy of the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

Its large size, deliberately blunt edges and the lack of rivet holes where a handle would be attached are what mark it as having no practical use. Dirks meant for actual stabbing are sharp, pointed and can be wielded easily with one hand. This piece was designed for a ritual purpose, which is why it was found folded. Bending a metal object as a symbolic act of destruction before burial was a common practice in the Bronze Age and later.

Early Bronze Age metal work was done on a small scale for local usage, much like flint knapping or the production of pottery. The Middle Bronze Age saw the development of more specialized metallurgy. Metalworking became the province of increasingly skilled artisans who would have needed workshops and apprentices and imported raw materials to create more elaborate objects. The ceremonial dirks were prestige pieces, the work of the best artisans money could buy. Owning such a heavy, large metal object intended for no practical use was a symbol of power both temporal and, given their ritual purpose, spiritual.

Bronze is composed of 90% copper and 10% tin, and it’s that 10% that was hard to come by in quantities sufficient to make a giant four-pound unusable dagger. In Bronze Age Europe, sources of tin were few and far between. There were in tin mines in the Ore Mountains on the border between Germany and the Czech Republic, on the northwest coast of the Iberian Peninsula, in Brittany in France and in Devon and Cornwall in England. The tin for the Rudham Dirk could have come from the English mines, but the artifact could have been fabricated on the continent.

Only five other ceremonial dirks of this type have been found. Two were discovered in France — the Plougrescant Dirk (1,500–1,300 B.C.), now at the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and the Beaune Dirk (1,500–1,350 B.C.), now at the British Museum — two in the Netherlands — the co-type find the Ommerschans Dirk (1,500 – 1,100 B.C.) which at last tally was in Bavaria, still in the possession of the family who owned the estate where it was discovered, and the Jutphaas Dirk (1,800-1,500 B.C.), now in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden — and one in Oxborough, Norfolk (1,450-1,300 B.C.), which is also in the British Museum.

Their dimensions and details are so similar that all dirks likely came from the same workshop, perhaps even the same hand. They are virtually identical in form, decoration and cross-section. The Beaune and Ommerschans examples are the same length (68 centimeters or just short of 27 inches) as the Rudham Dirk. The Oxborough Dirk is slightly longer at 70 centimeters, while the Jutphaas Dirk is 20 centimeters shorter. If one shop is responsible for all of them, it had an impressive reach through ancient trade networks.

The Norwich Castle Museum’s acquisition of the Rudham Dirk is momentous not just because of the artifact’s immense rarity and archaeological significance. It’s also a homecoming that was denied them the first time a ceremonial dirk was unearthed in the county. The Oxborough Dirk was found in 1988. It was thrust into the peat vertically and erosion had exposed the hilt leaving the finder to literally stumble over it.

The artifact was exhibited at the Norwich Castle Museum in 1989 and the British Museum in 1990 before the owner decided to sell it at a Christie’s auction on July 6th, 1994. It was purchased by high society antiques dealer and notorious loot fencer Robin Symes for £51,000 ($79,076), five times the pre-sale estimate. An export block stopped it from leaving the country and gave the British Museum the time to fundraise so they could buy the dirk from Symes for the price he paid. Thanks to a £20,000 Art Fund grant, the museum was able to acquire the Oxborough Dirk later that year.

So it was saved for the nation, but not so much for Norfolk. The dirk visited its home county three times, twice in exhibits at the Norwich Castle Museum, last winter at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. This time around, Norfolk’s principal museum gets to keep the rare Middle Bronze Age ceremonial dirk in the county where it was discovered, the only county in the world where two of them have been found.

Dr Tim Pestell, Senior Curator of Archaeology at Norwich Castle said: “We are delighted to have secured such an important and rare find as this, which provides us with insights into the beliefs and contacts of people at the dawn of metalworking. Through its display we hope to bring residents and visitors to Norfolk closer to the remarkable archaeology of our region and stories of our ancient past.”

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Zealand ring fortress dates to 10th century

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

The remains of a Viking ring fortress discovered on the Vallø Estate on the Danish island of Zealand have been radiocarbon dated and the results confirm the tested area was built in the 10th century. Two samples of charred wood from the northern gate of the structure were tested and produced identical dates: between 895 and 1017 A.D. The samples were taken from the outermost tree rings of the logs and tested at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of Aarhus University in collaboration with Accium BioSciences’ laboratories in Seattle.

The archaeologists from the Danish Castle Centre and Aarhus University who made the find were convinced they had uncovered the first Trelleborg-type fortress in more than 60 years. Only seven of these ringforts built by King Harald Bluetooth in around 980 A.D. probably as part of a defensive network against the Germans have been found in Denmark and southern Sweden. The discovery of a new one was big news, therefore, but since only excavated small sections of the gates and ramparts had actually been unearthed, some archaeologists felt they were jumping the gun in labeling the find a Viking ring fortress.

The excavation wasn’t all they had to go on. The team had done extensive research on the site, performing a detailed laser survey followed by a geomagnetic survey that revealed a structure 475 feet in diameter underneath a mound barely visible to the naked eye. Like the other Trelleborg fortresses, this structure too appeared to be perfectly circular with four gates at the cardinal points of the compass. Armed with the survey data, the team excavated two areas likely to be gates. At the north gate, the team found the large burned oak timbers that were radiocarbon dated.

The oak logs aren’t done testifying to their age. Carbon-14 dating by its nature can’t be narrowed down any further, but tree rings can dated to the individual year. Dendrochronological analysis may give us a precise date. If it’s 980 A.D. or thereabouts, that will be powerful evidence that it’s one of Harald Bluetooth’s Trelleborg fortresses.

The sheer amount of effort required to build this fort, dubbed Borgring, suggests it was meant to convey power. Archaeologists found there was a basin of fresh or brackish water next to one of the walls, an inlet between Køge Bay and the ring fortress. The builders must have had to dig out hundreds of tons of clay from the subsoil into the inlet in order to support the fort. If they had built it a little further inland, none of that extra work would have been necessary. According to Nanna Holm, curator of the Danish Castle Centre, the location was chosen deliberately to signal the power of its owner.

The excavation has also shown that the construction of the fortress is closely related to other Viking fortresses such as Fyrkat near Hobro, Aggersborg near the Limfjord and Trelleborg near Slagelse. These fortresses were undoubtedly built during the reign of Harald Bluetooth, and still more evidence suggests that Borgring, as the fortress has been named, might have belonged to the same building programme.

“There are a lot of similar details in these structures. And it’s been wonderful to see the same things coming to light at Borgring. In addition to the structure of the rampart and the gates, we have also found traces of a street with wood paving running along the inside of the rampart – just like in Fyrkat, Aggersborg and Trelleborg. The most striking thing, however, is the measurements of the fortress. The rampart of Borgring is 10.6 metres wide. That is exactly the same width as the rampart of Fyrkat. So it’s hard to avoid the sense that the same master builder was responsible,” says [Aarhus University medieval archaeology professor Søren] Sindbæk.

Here’s a 3D reconstruction of Borgring based on the excavation with some hypothetical extrapolation:

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5000-year-old human footprints found in Denmark

Monday, November 17th, 2014

The excavations of future construction sites for the Fehmarn Belt Link tunnel continue to strike archaeological gold. Last month it was a 3,000-year-old flint dagger with an intact bark handle. Now Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologists reveal they’ve discovered two sets of Stone Age human footprints left around an extensive system of fixed gillnets, sticks of hazel mounted on stakes to form continuous weirs that trapped fish when the tide came in, on the Danish island of Lolland.

The Stone Age footprints are estimated to date back as far as 5,000 BC to 2,000 BC, to the time when water levels in the Baltic Sea were rising due to melting glaciers in northern Europe, and prehistoric people were able to use the inlets as bountiful fishing grounds. The individuals that made the footprints constructed elaborate fishing fences to catch their prey, and researchers say that the large wooden fences which interconnected to create a single continuous trap, were likely the cause of the footprints.

“What seems to have happened was that at some point they were moving out to the [fish fence], perhaps to recover it before a storm” project manager for the Museum Lolland-Falster, Lars Ewald Jensen says. “At one of the posts, the footprints were found on each side, where someone had been trying to remove it from the sea bottom.”

At least two people were involved in this rescue operation, leaving two sets of footprints of different sizes. They walked onto the wet seabed to pull up what they could of the gillnets and left deep impressions when their feet sank into the ground. Sand and mud then flowed into their prints. Thousands of years later, those prints were still clearly visible to archaeologists, both at the original depth and in dents on the surface.

Up until land reclamation efforts in the late 19th century, the coastal area where the footprints were found was dotted with fjords and streams and subject to regular flooding from the sea. A major Baltic flood in 1872 claimed 80 lives on Lolland. As a result, a vast dyke was built along nearly 40 miles of the island’s south coast. The dyke dried out the fjords. The gillnets bear witness to the constant battle against the incursions of sea water. The wattle had to be repeatedly repaired over the lifetime of the gillnets due in part to flood damage. Museum Lolland-Falster archaeologist Terje Stafseth notes in the museum press release (pdf):

“The investigations have shown that the Stone Age population repeatedly repaired, and actually moved parts of the capture system in order to ensure that it always worked and that it was placed optimally in relation to the coast and currents. We are able to follow the footprints and sense the importance of the capture system, which would have been important for the coastal population to retain a livelihood and therefore worth maintaining.”

These are the second-oldest human footprints found outside of Africa, with the oldest being the 800,000-year-old ones discovered on the rapidly-eroding foreshore of a beach in Happisburgh, Norfolk, in May of 2013. Most Stone Age remains recovered in Denmark are midden piles, broken tools or pottery. Archaeologists have found animal footprints from the period, but these are the first Stone Age human footprints ever found in Denmark.

Footprints and fishing trips weren’t the only discoveries on this ancient beach. Archaeologists also discovered several animal skulls from domestic and wild animals that appear to have been placed there deliberately as part of a ritual offering by farmers who inhabited the area in around 4,000 B.C. Fragments of skulls from assorted animals were placed on the coastal sea floor and then surrounded by crania of cattle and sheep. Axe shafts were placed around the skull sacrifice area which turned out to be quite large at 70 square meters (83 square yards).

The excavation is ongoing but the clock is ticking. This site along with so many others is likely to be destroyed when construction of the tunnel begins in a few months. The footprints and gillnets will be covered by an above-ground facility. All that will be left of the footprints that survived thousands of years will be flat molds taken by the archaeologists.

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Unique remains of Ice Age infants found in Alaska

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

The skeletons of two Ice Age infants discovered at the Upward Sun River archaeological site in central Alaska are the earliest human remains ever found in northern North America. The presence of grave goods is also unprecedented for an infant burial of this era. The remains date to about 11,500 years ago. By analyzing tooth eruption sequences (the stages of the teeth growing out of the jaw), archaeologists were able to determine that one of them is a very young infant, between six and 12 weeks old, while the other was a neonate above 30 gestational weeks, so it was either stillborn or born too premature to live.

These are the youngest individuals from the late Pleistocene to receive a formal burial found anywhere in North America. The only discovery that comes close is the child buried at the Late Clovis Anzick site in Montana around 13,000 years ago, and he was two years old at time of death. It’s rare to find burials of very young infants from highly mobile foraging societies because they didn’t stay in one place for long so there’s no central location like a cemetery and the odds are slim of encountering individual burials even of larger humans. The Upper Sun River site was a residential campsite, not a dedicated burial ground, and yet, three individuals were found buried there within the same feature: the two inhumed infants with grave goods, and a cremated three-year-old with no grave goods. That’s another thing that is unique about this discovery.

Archaeologists found evidence of six different occupations of the site separated by hundreds or thousands of years. All but one of them were short-term camps occupied for no more than a few days while people hunted small game (squirrels, hares, ptarmigan) and fished the plentiful summer salmon in the nearby Tanana River. They’d take their harvest back to the base camp and cook it on hearths. The third occupation is the only one that had a longer-term presence. In addition to 10 cooking hearths, the third occupation features the remains of a dwelling and the burials.

Because of the undisturbed faunal and lithic material excavated from the context of the burials, it seems the two infants were buried at the same time. The cremated remains were buried later (they were found first, in 2010; the infant remains were found last year about 16 inches beneath the cremation) but all three were either buried during the same summer or in subsequent summers. Radiocarbon dating confirms that the lower and upper finds are contemporaneous. Given the consistency of the faunal remains in the ground fill and in the hearth that tops the burial pit, the third occupation base camp was populated by the same people. They could have been the one band or maybe even one family. Archaeologists are optimistic that they’ll be able to retrieve testable samples of nuclear, mitochrondrial and Y-chromosome DNA from the remains which should tell us whether they had a familial relationship.

Since the double infant burial and the toddler cremation were done by the same people around the same time, there is no obvious reason for the differential treatment of the burials. It wasn’t a seasonal accommodation — frozen ground in the winter forcing cremations — because all three burials happened in the summer. There may have been a situational distinction — who was present for the burials, say — or perhaps a religious or cultural one.

The grave goods and funerary customs in the double infant burial are extensive. Archaeologists unearthed four antler rods, foreshafts to which projectile points would have been hafted, decorated along the whole length with geometric abstract incisions. This too is unprecedented. There are some scratchings or possible ownership marks on other paleo-Indian foreshafts, but these are the first ones found with the whole length decorated. Two stone projectiles, dart or spear points, were found placed at the end of two of the rods, exactly where they would have been attached with animal sinew that has now deteriorated. That makes these the earliest hafted shafts discovered in North America, and the first concrete evidence that the foreshafts were topped with stone points.

The entire pit and its contents were covered with ochre, a common element in pre-historic burials most likely due to the association of red with blood and therefore life. The bottom of the pit was lined with ochre, all of the grave goods were coated in it and all of the bones. The articulation of the infant skeletons — knees drawn to the chest, arms folded — suggest they were wrapped in that position before burial. Over time the wrappings disintegrated and the ochre in the pit then covered the bones.

[University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Ben] Potter and his colleagues note that the human remains and associated burial offerings, as well as inferences about the time of year the children died and were buried, could lead to new thinking about how early societies were structured, the stresses they faced as they tried to survive, how they treated the youngest members of their society, and how they viewed death and the importance of rituals associated with it.

“Taken collectively, these burials and cremation reflect complex behaviors related to death among the early inhabitants of North America,” Potter said.

Here is some b-roll of the excavation with great close-ups of the ochre-coated antler rods and a projectile point in situ:

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Human remains found in Amphipolis tomb

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Excavation of the third chamber of the Kasta Tumulus in Amphipolis has revealed a limestone cyst grave containing human remains 1.6 meters (5’2″) beneath the surviving floor stones. The grave is 3.23 meters (10’7″) long, 1.56 meters (5’1″) wide and one meter (3’3″) high, but uprights discovered when the cyst was excavated indicate the walls were original at least 1.8 meters (5’10″) high. Two of the limestone slabs that once covered the grave are missing, and bones were found both inside and outside the grave, evidence the tomb was interfered with by looters in antiquity.

When the soil filling the grave was removed, archaeologists found a little ledge going around the bottom inside perimeter. A wooden coffin was originally placed on that ledge. It has long since rotted away, but iron and copper nails from the coffin were found scattered, as were ivory and glass decorations that once adorned it.

The bones have been removed and will be studied in the lab. The hope is that they will be able to tell us something about the identity of the tomb’s owner. It’s going to be a tall order. Even determining sex from disarticulated bone pieces is a challenge that could well be insurmountable.

The always excellent Dorothy King of PhDiva posits that if the remains prove to be male, a likely candidate for the occupant of this tomb is Hephaestion, Alexander’s the Great’s closest friend from childhood who was worshipped as a divine hero after his premature death from a fever in 324 B.C. Alexander was devastated by the loss of Hephaestion, likening their relationship to that of Achilles and Patroclos of Trojan War fame and explicitly modeling his mourning after Achilles’.

Plutarch describes Alexander’s reaction to Hephaestion’s death in Parallel Lives:

Alexander’s grief at this loss knew no bounds. He immediately ordered that the manes and tails of all horses and mules should be shorn in token of mourning, and took away the battlements of the cities round about; he also crucified the wretched physician, and put a stop to the sound of flutes and every kind of music in the camp for a long time, until an oracular response from Ammon came bidding him honour Hephaestion as a hero and sacrifice to him. Moreover, making war a solace for his grief, he went forth to hunt and track down men, as it were, and overwhelmed the nation of the Cossaeans, slaughtering them all from the youth upwards. This was called an offering to the shade of Hephaestion. Upon a tomb and obsequies for his friend, and upon their embellishments, he purposed to spend ten thousand talents, and wished that the ingenuity and novelty of the construction should surpass the expense. He therefore longed for Stasicratesa above all other artists, because in his innovations there was always promise of great magnificence, boldness, and ostentation. This man, indeed, had said to him at a former interview that of all mountains the Thracian Athos could most readily be given the form and shape of a man; if, therefore, Alexander should so order, he would make out of Mount Athos a most enduring and most conspicuous statue of the king, which in its left hand should hold a city of ten thousand inhabitants, and with its right should pour forth a river running with generous current into the sea. This project, it is true, Alexander had declined; but now he was busy devising and contriving with his artists projects far more strange and expensive than this.

So according to Plutarch Alexander had decided against turning all of Mount Athos into a sort of pre-dynamite one-man Mount Rushmore monument to himself, but he planned to make an even more elaborate tomb for his beloved companion, one worthy of a divine hero. Perhaps Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. kept the crazier of the grandiose plans from taking hold or perhaps the ancient sources were exaggerating, as they so often did, but it’s in keeping with Hephaestion’s importance to Alexander and the posthumous honors he received that the largest tomb ever found in Greece would have been built for him.

According to the Greek Culture Ministry, the Kasta Tumulus has to have a public religious purpose like the tomb of a divine hero. The tomb used the greatest amount of marble ever assembled in Macedonia, and the variety and precision of decorative and architectural techniques — the sphinxes, painted architraves, pebble mosaics in the entryway, the Persephone tile mosaic, the caryatids, the lion that was once on top of the tomb — make it a uniquely complex project. Its size and scope was so massive no individual could have mustered the resources to construct it. The archaeological team plans to examine the 430 or so marble elements from the tomb that the Romans stripped from the tomb in the 2nd century A.D. and used to shore up the banks of the river Strymon. Perhaps pieces from inside the tomb, fragments of the grave, for example, might be recovered that will lend additional insight.

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