Remains of 1,500 people found in Osaka graveyard

Panoramic view of the graveyard from the north. Photo courtesy Osaka City Cultural Properties Association.The remains of more than 1,500 individuals from the 19th century have been discovered in a historic burial ground in Osaka. This is the greatest number of burials ever discovered in one place in the city.

The city has been conducting excavations at the site since 1991. The most recent archaeological survey focused on the eastern end of the burial ground due to a planned expansion of Osaka Station. The site was once known as Umeda Haka (Umeda Grave) and was one of seven major cemeteries in the city of Osaka. It was active from the Edo (1603-1868) to the Meiji era (1868-1912).

Archaeologists unearthed a stone wall noted on an 1890 map that forms the east boundary of the graveyard and more of the north-south wall that was first encountered in the 2016-2017 dig. To the north of the stone wall were hundreds of simple burials. The deceased were interred in shallow pits and covered with about three feet of soil. Multiple bodies were layered on top of each other. These are likely victims of an epidemic who had to be buried quickly. Lesions have been found on their extremities which might be indicative of what killed them. Syphilis is one possibility, as it was known to be widespread in urban centers during the late Edo, early Meiji period.

In the southern section of the cemetery, the team unearthed a large rectangular building with a stone foundation. The cornerstone was set in a trench that was backfilled with bone ash soil. Its purpose is unclear, but archaeologists think it may have been an ossuary. On the north and south sides of the building were a dense grouping of casket burials, including enclosed wooden caskets and circular open containers like barrels. Artifacts found inside the graves include juzudama (prayer beads, combs, clay dolls and rokusenmon (a set of six coins used to pay passage across the river to the afterlife). The team also unearthed a group of about 350 earthenware urns in a depository of bone ash from cremations.

Researchers believe this cemetery was used by the commoners who lived outside the Osaka Castle compound. The average age of death was around 30 years old, and the remains of many children have been found there. Archaeologists hope that analysis of the bones and grave goods will shed new light on the lives of the non-aristocratic people of Osaka who have been sorely neglected in historical records.

The remains and artifacts excavated are now being documented and analyzed. Results of the survey are expected to be published next year.

Indian monkeys found in Egyptian pet cemetery

Remains of monkey excavated from Berenike pet cemetery, 1st-2nd century A.D. Photo by Marta Osypińska.A unique pet cemetery was discovered in 2011 in the ancient city of Berenike on the Red Sea coast. It was found during an excavation of a garbage dump on the outskirts of Berenike’s early Roman port, but the animals weren’t just tossed in the trash. They were lovingly buried between the last quarter of the 1st and the first half of the 2nd century A.D. when the site was an undeveloped area between the bustling Roman port and the Ptolemaic-era military fort (3rd century B.C.).

As one might expect in Egypt, most of the animals found — 86 complete skeletons and additional bones from disturbed burials — were cats. Dogs came a distant second in popularity, with the remains of nine individuals found. Last but not least, there were four monkeys. Two of the cats were buried with an ostrich eggshell bead. Three other cats and one of the monkeys were buried wearing iron collars. Three of the cat burials were double burials with one adult and one juvenile feline. None of the complete skeletons showed signs of deliberate killing or of mummification. One dog, a sturdy molosser type likely imported from elsewhere in the empire, had fish and goat meat in his stomach and was carefully wrapped in a basket and covered with pottery fragments. These were beloved house pets, not cult offerings killed for religious purposes or random strays or working animals casually discarded after death.

When they were first unearthed, the monkeys were believed to be an olive baboon and three grivets, both species native to Africa, but they were juveniles when they died and conclusive identification of their species from the bones was elusive. Comparative analysis of the bones and examination with 3D scanners has now revealed that the pet monkeys were in fact imported from India.

Zooarchaeologist Dr. Marta Osypińska from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Poznań said: “This is a unique find. Until now, no one has found Indian monkeys at archaeological sites in Africa.

“Interestingly, even ancient written sources don”t mention this practice.” […]

Dr. Osypińska said: “We knew that spices, fabrics and other commodities were imported from India. It turns out that monkeys were also imported.”

In addition to rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta), the scientists also found the remains of the smaller bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata) also native to India.

Their owners must have spent a pretty penny acquiring monkeys that had to travel by ship across the Indian Ocean, but it seems like the stress of the voyage, dietary changes and the shock of the new environment took a fatal toll on the poor creatures. They were laid to rest lovingly, resting on their sides with their paws near their heads like children. One was covered with a blanket. Another had large shells near its head.

Bronze Age Britons shaved with a mini labrys

The Havering Hoard, a cache of 453 Bronze Age objects dating to between 900 and 800 B.C. discovered in east London in 2018, was supposed to go on display for the first time at the Museum of London Docklands on April 3rd. Then COVID did its thing and this exhibition, like every other one in every museum in the country, was put on ice. The thaw is nigh, however, and Havering Hoard: A Bronze Age Mystery is now scheduled to open on September 11th and run through April 18th, 2021. All 435 objects in the hoard will be on display in the exhibition.

Britain’s third largest Bronze Age hoard contains a remarkably variety of objects, including axe heads, chisels, sickles, spearheads, blades, ingots, metalworking tools and two extremely rare terret rings (cart fittings to hold a horse’s reins), the first ones ever discovered in Britain. Among these stand-out objects is a piece that didn’t make any of the stories when the discovery was announced in 2019 or during promotions for the museum exhibition earlier this year. It is a razor, and a very marked upgrade from the shell and stone blades that preceded it. It is double-headed making it look like a miniature version of a labrys, the Minoan double axe, eponym of the labyrinth built by Daedalus at the behest of King Minos for the palace of Knossos on Crete.

Archaeologists also suggest the razor was an important part of Bronze Age male identity – as much as riding implements and weapons – and was used not only in revealing the face and sculpting beards and moustaches but also in body modification.

Well, it is a sharp blade so the razor is technically a weapon, even if it was intended solely for use in grooming. A copper alloy tweezer was found with the double-headed razor, and it’s about the same size.

I’m guessing the razor blade was mounted on an organic handle that has now rotted away because that tiny axelet would be hard to wield without one.

To maintain safe distancing, all entry tickets to the museum are time and must be booked in advance. Book your free ticket here.

Goths were as adept at fine metalwork as Romans

A recent study of jewelry and other artifacts manufactured by the Goths in what is now Poland has found metal work of such high quality that it is comparable to Roman objects from that period. Archaeologist Dr. Magdalena Natuniewicz-Sekuła from the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw studied a large group of metal objects unearthed from an ancient cemetery in the village of Weklice, northern Poland. More than 3,500 artifacts have been discovered in 600 burials of East Germanic Goth and Gepid people dating from the 1st through 4th century A.D.

Analysis of a selection of these grave goods revealed that the silver was of very high purity, exceeding modern standards for jewelry. Sterling silver ornaments today contain 92.5% silver (that’s what the 925 fineness designation means). The pieces from the Weklice examined by Natuniewicz-Sekuła are much higher in silver content, reaching 970-990. The gold objects analyzed were equally high in gold content.

Pure silver and gold are very malleable and hard to manipulate, which is why it’s necessary to add other metals to make an alloy that can take complex designs. The Weklice objects employed specialized, difficult techniques including fire gilding, granulation and filigree. Alloys of such high purity would never be used to create objects with these techniques today, not because it’s impossible but because it’s so difficult and time-consuming that it would be cost-prohibitive.

No full sets of the equipment necessary to refine the metals used have ever been found, leading archaeologists to speculate that bullion bars were brought to the area from the Roman Empire, despite a strict ban.

If bullion was unavailable to the metalsmiths, it is also possible that they refined the silver and other metals from coins and other items.

Dr Natuniewicz-Sekuła said: “We cannot rule out that the Goths knew the methods of refining and cupellation (the separation of noble metals from base ones under high temperature).

“In this way, they may have been able to ‘purify’ the silver obtained from coins, but this is only a guess.”

Coin silver was fairly low in purity, averaging around 800-850, so if that was their source they had to be very adept indeed at refining the precious metal.

Marine dino found inside stomach of other marine dino

Paleontologists have discovered the fossilized remains of one dinosaur inside the stomach of another one. The predator was an example of an ichthyosaur (Guizhouichthyosaurus), a marine reptile about 16 feet long. Its prey was a thalattosaur (Xinpusaurus xingyiensis) about 13 feet long. This is the first direct evidence of megapredation, one large animal devouring another of human size or larger. It’s also the first direct evidence of a Triassic marine reptile eating another marine reptile.

The nearly complete skeleton of the ichthyosaur was discovered in 2010 at the Ladinian (Middle Triassic) Zhuganpo Member of the Falang Formation in Xingyi, Guizhou, southwestern China, a former quarry and active paleontological site which is now part of the Xingyi National Geopark Museum. The ichthyosaur and its stomach full of thalattosaur is on display at the entrance to the museum.

Because stomach contents are rarely found in marine fossils, researchers rely on tooth and jaw shapes to learn what prehistoric species may have eaten. While prehistoric apex predators are typically thought to have large teeth with sharp cutting edges, some modern predatory species like crocodiles use blunt teeth to consume large prey items with grasping force instead of cutting. Ichthyosaurs share these blunter teeth, but with no direct evidence of large prey consumption in these prehistoric marine reptiles, scientists believed that they fed on small prey like cephalopods.

However, the discovery of the giant thalattosaur in the stomach of the ichthyosaur found by Motani, Da-Yong Jiang, a paleontologist at Peking University in China, and their team suggests that this was not the case. “Now, we can seriously consider that they were eating big animals, even when they had grasping teeth,” says Motani. “It’s been suggested before that maybe a cutting edge was not crucial, and our discovery really supports that. It’s pretty clear that this animal could process this large food item using blunt teeth.”

The articulated remains of the thalattosaur’s mid-section didn’t have time to be digested by the ichthyosaur’s stomach acids, which suggests the predator died shortly after eating his last meal. There ichthyosaur’s neck appears to have been broken. There is no conclusive evidence of whether that last meal was killed or scavenged, but partial remains of the thalattosaur’s legs, which would have rotted off first, were still attached to his trunk. His tail, which would have been the last extremity to detach from the body during decomposition, was found 75 feet away from the ichthyosaur fossil. This suggests the tail was ripped off first in an attack from a predator, and then the rest of the body eaten. But the hunted may have taken his revenge on the hunter after all.

“The prey is lighter than the predator but its resistance must have been fierce,” Motani said. “The predator probably damaged its neck to some extent while subduing the prey. Then it took the head and tail of the prey off through jerking and twisting, and swallowed the trunk using inertia and gravity.”

Motani added, “These activities may have expanded the damage of the neck to the point it was fatal. The neck vertebral columns of these ichthyosaurs are quite narrow and once they could not hold the skull in place anymore, the predator could not breathe. Soon, it died not far from the site of the predation, where the detached tail of the prey lay.”

The study has been published in the journal iScience and can be read in its entirety here.