9,000-year-old ritual complex found in Jordan

A joint team of Jordanian-French archaeologists have discovered a Neolithic ritual complex in the Jibal al-Khashabiyeh area of Jordan’s southeastern desert. The site includes anthropomorphic stele, the remains of semi-subterranean circular dwellings, lithics indicative of a rich stone tool crafting industry, animal bones and marine fossils.

The complex was discovered near sites known as “Desert kites,” gigantic traps used by the Neolithic population for the mass hunting of wild gazelles. They consist of at least two long guiding walls that converge towards each other, narrowing down like a funnel and culminating in an enclosure at the end. The walls can be several miles long and some of them are daisy chained into massive contiguous structures. Pottery fragments found at the Jibal al-Khashabiyeh desert kites date them to around 7,000 B.C., making them the earliest known large-scale structures built by humans.

Desert kites are found throughout the Middle East from Saudi Arabia to Turkey and extending into southwest Asia. The Jibal al-Khashabiyeh ritual complex is the first archaeological evidence of a human occupation area directly connected to desert kites. The gazelle hunters, dubbed Ghassanians, employed the ritual complex as a campsite where they lived, worked and butchered their kill. They dwelled in circular huts, made razor-sharp stone knives and used them to process the gazelles captured in the desert kites. The huge quantity of gazelle bones found at the shrine confirms that they were highly effective and specialized hunters whose nutritional, economic and even religious lives revolved around gazelle trapping.

The site was found in an excellent state of preservation last October. It consists of two free-standing stele with human-like faces carved on them. The tallest of the two is about 3.7 feet high and is carved with a representation of the converging guide walls of a desert kite along with the human face. The smaller one is 2.3 feet high and finely modeled. Behind the stones was a carefully laid-out deposit of 150 marine fossils, many of them arranged vertically and placed in a specific orientation. The deposition field also includes stones of different shapes and sizes and artifacts like animal figurines, meticulously crafted flint objects and an altar stone associated with a hearth.

As if all this weren’t astonishing enough, the deposits and altar were installed inside a small-scale model of a desert kite built with stones in the middle of the campsite. This is the only Neolithic architectural model ever discovered.

The ritual nature of the deposit is compelling including an unexpected use of natural marine fossils in the symbolic and spiritual realm through the Neolithic. The altar and associated hearth suggest that some kind of sacrificial offerings must have been involved in the ritual process. The reminiscence of symbolism referring to the “Desert kites”, evidenced by the depiction on one of the steles and even more in the three dimensional architectural model at the core of the installation indicates that mass hunting using the “Desert kites” was at the root of the ritual activities involved. The sacral symbolism and ritual performance evidenced were most likely devoted to invoke the supranatural forces for successful hunts and abundance of preys to capture. In this respect, the discovered installation is not only unique due to its exceptional state of preservation, but also due to the fact that it sheds an entire new light on the symbolism, artistic expression as well as spiritual culture of these hitherto unknown Neolithic populations specialized in mass hunting of gazelles using the “Desert kites”.

Roman mosaic is largest found in London in 50 years

Archaeologists have unearthed the largest Roman mosaic discovered in London in more than 50 years. The mosaic geometric shapes, floral and knot designs in black, white and red tesserae set in a red tiled floor of a large room eight meters (26 feet) long that was likely a triclinium (a Roman dining room). A second, smaller panel is believed to have decorated a recess in the room. The main mosaic dates to the late 2nd, early 3rd century and was installed over the traces of an earlier mosaic.

The main mosaic features lotus flowers surrounded by guilloche borders. Between the lotus squares are black triangles, diamond shapes, smaller guilloche rectangles and to the side, a Solomon’s knot (a horizontal and a vertical loop enlaced with each other through the middle) inset in a black circle bracketed by a black lozenge-shaped outline. Archaeologists believe it is the work of a team of local mosaicists known as the Acanthus group who developed a characteristic style.

The second panel is more simple design. It is primarily black against white tile background with red tile accents. There are two Solomon’s knots, two flowers with four petals inside circles and small four-leafed clovers in between. This mosaic is virtually identical to one found in Trier, Germany, which suggests itinerant mosaicists traveled across the Roman Empire to decorate the homes of the wealthy even in far-flung cities like London.

A team from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) made the discovery near London Bridge in Southwark, at the site of a new multi-use development. Excavations began in June 2021 and until last month, only small artifacts had been recovered, including harness fittings and bone game dice. A few weeks ago, archaeologists encountered a few tesserae from a Roman mosaic, which is not unusual in a dig of this scale, but when they continued to clear around they tiles, archaeologists quickly realized this was a mosaic floor of large size, not just a few tiles left behind.

The remains of a substantial Roman building was found at the site in 1988, and later excavations revealed additional architectural elements, including a tesselated terracotta floor and fragments of painted wall plaster. The building was made of multiple rooms around an internal courtyard and a well-landscaped exterior garden. It was built ca. 72 A.D., just 25 years after the founding of Londinium, but was later modified, including the creation of the mosaic floor discovered last month.

Archaeologists thought at the time of the initial discoveries in the late 80s that the building was a mansio,  the upscale Roman version of a motel where traveling military officers and government officials would stay when visiting London. What is now London Bridge was an important Thames crossing in Roman times too, part of the road network that traversed Londinium, so the perfect location for a mansio just across the river from the city center of the capital of Roman Britian. While it’s still possible the structure was a private villa urbana, recent findings support the mansio hypothesis. Objects like phallic pendants, high-end pottery, coins and other forms of portable wealth underscore that the site saw a great deal of traffic from elite members of military and civilian society.

13th c. plank causeway found under downtown Berlin

A long stretch of a 13th century wooden plank causeway has been discovered in Berlin’s historic downtown.  So far the remains of a section of road 164 feet long and 20 feet wide have been unearthed. Tree ring analysis of wood samples taken from the Medieval road revealed the trees were felled in 1238, dating this causeway to the early founding era of Berlin.

Archaeologists from the Berlin State Monuments Office (LDA) discovered the plank road in a preventative excavation before the installation of new power and gas lines under the Stralauer Straße. Today the street is a multi-lane arterial road leading north out of the historic center of Old Berlin parallel to the river Spree. It wasn’t a broad artery at its inception in the Middle Ages, but it was essential to give travelers a safe, solid surface through the waterlogged ground around the Spree from the Mühlendamm embankment dam to the Stralauer Gate in Berlin’s first defensive city wall.

The causeway remains were found just over eight feet beneath the modern street surface. It was built from trunks of oak, pine and birch which have survived 700 years in exceptional condition thanks to the thick peat layer that covered the timbers and the anaerobic environment of the waterlogged soil. The road is structured in three layers: a top layer of logs with the bark removed laid side by side across the road in the direction of travel. Under the top layer are three parallel rows of beams going in the opposite direction — longitudinally along the embankment. The bottom layer is formed of thick trunks roughly worked. The two lower layers were packed over with sand and the uneven areas of the top layer were filled in with stones.

The excavation is ongoing and archaeologists hope to narrow down its age, original extent and the construction methods used to build it. The future fate of this rare survival is uncertain. The utility lines if installed according to plan will destroy the causeway. If the Berlin State Monuments Office plans to salvage it in some way, they have not announced it.

Earliest evidence of ear surgery found on 5,300-year-old skull

Researchers have discovered the first known evidence of ear surgery in a 5,300-year-old skull from the Dolmen of El Pendón, a megalithic tomb monument in the province of Burgos, north central Spain. The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Radiocarbon analysis has determined that the dolmen was built at the beginning of the 4th millennium B.C. It consists of a central funerary chamber with a long entrance passage. The enclosure was created with large standing stones around which a mound, now gone, was built out of stone and soil that was originally more than 80 feet in diameter.

A second phase of use in the last quarter of the 4th millennium B.C. saw the transformation of the funerary chamber into a collective burial ground and ossuary. About 100 bodies were added to the chamber over the next few centuries. Bodies were disarticulated and the remains repositioned, mixing up the skeletal remains. It was not a haphazard scattering. At least 15 different groupings of skulls and pelvises were found.

By the end of the millennium, only six of the original limestone megaliths were still standing, the entrance passage structures were gone and the former mound was just a few feet in diameter. At this point its funerary uses were over, but the site was still revered as a ceremonial and community center.

In July of 2018, archaeologists unearthed a skull from the second phase of funerary use at the Dolmen of El Pendón. It was broken and missing some parts, but the neurocranium was complete and in place, as were the nasal bone, cheek bones and lower maxilla. The skull was found lying on its right side facing the entrance of the burial chamber. Examination of the skull revealed that it belonged to a woman, likely of advanced age as she had lost all of her teeth and her thyroid cartilage was fully ossified.

Osteological examination and CT scans found that the external auditory canals of both ears had been enlarged. The edges of the cavities are smooth with no fractures or calluses. These cavities were enlarged by trepanation, the oldest surgical technique on the archaeological record. Seven cut marks on the edge of the trepanation cavity on the left ear are further evidence of surgical intervention. Given the early date of this find, metal was not involved here. The trepanation and the cuts were done with stone tools.

The inner surfaces of the cavities show evidence of the bone resorption changes often seen in mastoiditis, an infection of the mastoid bone just behind the ear, and in mastoid abscesses. An untreated middle ear infection can easily spread to the porous, honeycomb-like mastoid bone, and before the advent of antibiotics, mastoiditis from ear infections was a leading cause of death in children who are more prone to middle ear infections. The damage suffered in this skull, however, lacks the features seen in childhood ear infections. This was a recent illness.

Evidence of ear bone damage from mastoiditis or abscesses has been found before in ancient skulls, but there were no signs of any attempted surgical intervention nor of bone regrowth after recovery. This skull shows clear evidence of bone regeneration and remodeling.

The hypothesis proposed in this research is that the individual to whom the skull belonged was probably surgically intervened on both ears, with an undetermined period between both interventions. Based on the differences in bone remodelling between the two temporals, it appears that the procedure was first conducted on the right ear, due to an ear pathology sufficiently alarming to require an intervention, which this prehistoric woman survived. Subsequently, the left ear would have been intervened; however, it is not possible to determine whether both interventions were performed back-to-back or several months, or even years had passed. It is thus the earliest documented evidence of a surgery on both temporal bones, and, therefore, most likely, the first known radical mastoidectomy in the history of humankind.

Oldest mass sacrifice of children found in Peru

The mummies of six children have been discovered in the tomb of the pre-Inca nobleman found at the Cajamarquilla archaeological site east of Lima, Peru, last November. Archaeologists found the set of six funerary bundles around the entrance of the tomb, plus scattered non-mummified skeletal remains of seven adults, at least three of them women, and one more child. These burials are believed to have been sacrifices. Dating to between 1,000 and 1,200 years old, this is the oldest mass sacrifice of children ever been found in Peru.

The man discovered last year was first estimated to be about 20 years old when he died, but follow-up examinations indicate he was older, between 35 and 40 years of age. His skull shows evidence of artificial cranial deformation. He was mummified in a tight crouch position with his hands over his face, bound in cloth and tied up with intricately knotted rope. The large tomb, just short of 10 feet long, and grave goods found with the bound mummy indicated he was someone of high status in Cajamarquilla society. The discovery of sacrificial human remains confirms he must have been a member of the elite, perhaps a ruler.

The children were deliberately mummified and cocooned tightly in cotton bundles tied with ropes, albeit in a different style of binding than the nobleman’s mummy. They may have been relatives and/or servants of the man in the central burial, and were likely sacrificed to accompany him to the afterlife. Inside some of the clay pots buried in the tomb are animal offerings — remains of guinea pigs, fish and camelids — and plants, including chili seeds, purple corn and peanuts.

Cajamarquilla was an important pivot of commerce between coastal Peru and the Andean highlands before the arrival of the Incas. Only a tiny fraction of the 170-hectare ancient mud brick city has been excavated, but recent discoveries indicate it was a prosperous, multi-cultural city with a population between 10,000 and 20,000 of diverse ethnicities from different areas of Peru.

The discovery occurred a few days ago in the area outside the tomb of the Cajamarquilla mummy, where extension work is being carried out on the excavations of the research project led by the bachelor Yomira Silvia Huamán, for her undergraduate thesis in Archeology of the National University of San Marcos (UNMSM), with the collaboration of archaeologists from the San Cristóbal de Huamanga University, Ayacucho.

“This finding will enrich the investigation that began last October, because, unlike the Cajamarquilla mummy found wrapped in ropes, the conditions of these 13 people show a change in traditions, a more coastal ritual,” Yomira said, after specifying that at first glance can be identified or will ratify the hypothesis that Cajamarquilla has been a place of cultural clash between people who came from the mountains with those who came from the coast.

All of the archaeological materials have been transported to the UNMSM laboratory. Select samples will be sent to laboratories in other countries for specialized DNA, strontium isotope and radiocarbon analysis.