Original offering found inside Pyramid of the Sun

December 18th, 2011

Archaeologists have discovered what they think are the original ceremonial offerings made by the builders of Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Sun before construction began around 50 A.D.

Using a 380-foot-long tunnel originally dug towards the center of the pyramid by archaeologists in the 1930s, researchers added an additional three short tunnels and dropped 59 exploratory shafts with the aim of reaching the foundational layer. The old tunnel turned out to stop just 20 feet west of the center, so the new extensions led archaeologists to the pre-construction base of the pyramid where they found the remains of three structures that pre-date the pyramid and the ceremonial offerings they were hoping to find.

The offerings found at the base of the pyramid in the Teotihuacan ruin site just north of Mexico City include a green serpentine stone mask so delicately carved and detailed that archaeologists believe it may have been a portrait.

The find also includes 11 ceremonial clay pots dedicated to a rain god similar to Tlaloc, who was still worshipped in the area 1,500 years later, according to a statement by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, or INAH.

The offerings, including bones of an eagle fed rabbits as well as feline and canine animals that haven’t yet been identified, were laid on a sort of rubble base where the temple was erected about A.D. 50.

“We know that it was deposited as part of a consecration ritual for the construction of the Pyramid of the Sun,” said INAH archaeologist Enrique Perez Cortes.

They also found seven human burials, some of them of infants, who were probably sacrificed in the same consecration ritual that claimed the animals’ lives. Obsidian artifacts were discovered in a variety of forms — projectile points, razors, anthropomorphic designs — along three large discs of pyrite. One of the pyrite discs is almost 18 inches in diameter, the largest ever found at Teotihuacan.

The exquisite serpentine mask was not the only stone mask. There were two other human figures found with shell and pyrite eyes. The greenstone mask is the most unusual, however, because of its top quality artistry and its relatively small size. It’s just over four inches square, smaller in dimension and volume than other Teotihuacan masks which have been discovered. Those masks are not carved in such detail, nor have they been found in a ritual context.

The city of Teotihuacan was founded by an unknown culture approximately 2,500 years ago. By the time the Aztecs settled in the area in the 1300s, the town had long since been abandoned. It was the Aztecs who named it Teotihuacan meaning “the place where men become gods.”


Rich Viking era graves found in Poland

December 17th, 2011

In 2007, an archaeological survey of a highway construction site near the central Polish town of Bodzia uncovered a Viking era cemetery with several dozen chamber graves dating to between 980/990 A.D. and 1030 A.D. Over the next two years, an excavation of the site revealed the remains of 14 men, 21 women and 14 children, and an extraordinarily rich collection of grave goods including weapons, jewelry, coins, amulet containers and the remnants of silk fabric, marking the cemetery as the final resting place for the élite.

Some of the artifacts are Scandinavian in origin, like silver beads with a traditionally Scandinavian granulation decoration, the weapons buried with a young man whose broken jaw and sliced face indicate he died in battle, and a few of the coins. The north-south orientation of the graves also suggests a Viking presence, since Slavic custom placed graves along an east-west axis while in the Scandinavian tradition people were buried north to south. The graves are relatively spacious, another Scandinavian style element, with wooden coffins lined in fabric and reinforced with iron fittings placed in deep burial pits. Eastern European graves at this time were more shallow and snug to the body.

A unique feature of this cemetery is the remains of wooden palisades enclosing small groups of one to three graves. “Fences of the dead” have been found before in Britain, but they’re centuries older than the Bodzia cemetery and they weren’t fastened together at the corners like the Bodzia fences. Another rarity is a bronze balancing scale possibly used to weigh precious metals. Such artifacts are rare finds in Europe in general, and the first of its kind ever found in central Poland.

Scandinavians had been trading and raiding in central and eastern Europe since the 9th century. Some of them settled in the area and became prominent citizens, often as mercenaries for kings like Mieszko I, founder of the Polish state and father of Boleslav the Brave, the first crowned King of Poland. The young warrior may in fact be connected to Boleslav. Bronze belt fittings found in his grave bear the insignia of Sviatopolk the Accursed, Boleslav’s son-in-law and ruler of the powerful Kievan Rus state east of Poland between 1015 and 1019. (He was Accursed because he killed three of his younger brothers to secure the throne. One he didn’t kill, Yaroslav, killed him and took the throne.)

The warrior cemetery of Bodzia, composed exclusively of chamber graves, is unique in early medieval Europe. It is located near the trading route of the rivers Vistula and Bug, connecting the Baltic Sea areas with the Byzantine world, and from Bodzia it is not far to the borders of Prussia. In the Kuyavia region, where Bodzia is sited, there are rich saline resources.

The discovery of Bodzia’s cemetery is the most recent and most spectacular example of a growing number of funerary sites found in Polish lands, dated to the period between the end of the tenth and the middle of the eleventh century and connected to the presence of migrants, mostly from Scandinavia. There is a certain regularity in the evidence. While in the pre-state period grave goods indicate a ‘domestic’ status for the deceased, many graves from the early Piast period, dated to the late tenth to mid-eleventh century, are distinguished by the frequent occurrence of weapons. Penetration of Scandinavians on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea was associated at that time with both the merchants’ commercial objectives and their military purposes

The artifacts found are an eloquent testament to that synthesis: Scandinavian weapons for fighting, bronze balancing scale for trading, glass beads from Byzantium, silk from even further east, coins from Germany, England and Scandinavia.


Early sound recordings heard for first time

December 16th, 2011

Scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California together with digital conversion experts at the Library of Congress and curators of the work and industry division of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History have succeeded in playing some of the earliest experimental sound recordings by Alexander Graham Bell. Bell, his cousin Chicester Bell and their colleague Charles Sumner Tainter created a business called Volta Laboratory Associates dedicated to research and development of sound recording technology. Between 1881 and 1885, they studied and experimented with a number of recording technologies at their lab in Washington, D.C., recording sound on metal, rubber, glass and beeswax, among other media.

It was a heady time for inventors, with the likes of Bell, Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner all competing to unlock the key to playable sound recordings. To ensure they had evidence to support any contested patent application, the inventors stored recordings and research notes with the Smithsonian. The National Museum of American History thus has been the proud owner of 400 of the earliest audio recordings ever made since the late 19th century. None of them were playable, however, so it was a collection of 400 silent audio recordings.

When Carlene Stephens, the curator in charge of the collection, read an article (which I blogged about at the time, oh yeah) about how the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory had found a way to read the sound off an 1860 recording that was basically squiggles on paper, visions of 400 previously untastable sugar plums danced in her head. She set up a collaborative pilot program that would attempt to read six of Bell’s recordings use the new technology.

Advances in computer technology made it possible to play back the recordings, said Carl Haber, a senior scientist at the Berkeley Lab. He noted that 10 years ago specialists would have struggled with computer speeds and storage issues. The digital images that now can be processed into sound within minutes would have taken days to process a decade ago.

Many of the recordings are fragile, and until recently it had not been possible to listen to them without damaging the discs or cylinders.

So far, the sounds of six discs have been successfully recovered through the process, which creates a high-resolution digital map of the disc or cylinder. The map is processed to remove scratches and skips, and software reproduces the audio content to create a standard digital sound file.

For more technical details, pictures of the discs and most importantly, all six converted recordings, see the program’s website here. They’re very short audio tests, basically, like the first few verses of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, random trills and countdowns. My favorite by far is the second “Mary Had a Little Lamb” recording which is interrupted by an “Oh no!” at the end. It’s the first recorded mistake! (That we’ve heard, anyway.)

We don’t know who the speakers are right now. They could be either Bell cousin, Tainter or someone else entirely. Researchers are hoping as they convert more and more of the Volta recordings they’ll be able to identify the voices. The pilot was funded by a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Sciences. The Smithsonian is working to secure more funding so they can make their whole audio archive speak for the first time.


Threesome + extra head on Roman knife handle

December 15th, 2011

This is not a new find but it’s new to me and it’s too awesome not post about. In 2008, metal detectorist David Barker found a bronze Roman knife handle buried under a farmer’s field in Syston, Lincolnshire. It wasn’t a big money find, but what made it stand out was its erotic design. There’s a male on the right engaging in coitus with a woman facing him, her legs around his waist. A second male figure is behind her, his back to hers. In his arms he’s holding a decapitated head, clasping it to his chest.

Erotic knife handles have been found before in Britain, but they’re rare. None of them also include a severed head, which makes this particular artifact unique, as far as we know.

Barker reported his find to the Portable Antiques Scheme and then sold it for just under £1,000 (ca $1,500) in December of that year to Lincoln museum The Collection which put it on display in its Roman gallery.

Collections officer at The Collection, Antony Lee, believes it is the cheekiest relic ever to be unearthed in Lincolnshire.

He said: “This has to be one of the county’s rudest finds. We have had some amazing finds in the past, but nothing quite this overt. The Romans certainly seemed to have no trouble expressing themselves. Other erotic knife handles have been found all over Britain, but ours is the only one with a decapitated head. It created quite a stir among staff and we’re expecting it to continue to draw lots of interest from the public.”

Mr Lee believes the knife dates from the 4th century and that it was fashioned for a specific and delicate task.

He said “We don’t yet know the full significance of the decapitated head, but we think it may not be as dark as it seems. For the Romans, decapitation was regarded with some reverence and respect.”

There are a lot of unanswered questions about this piece, on top of the mysterious role of the decapitated head in the ménage à trois. It might not even be a knife handle, for example, but the grip of some other tool.

Lincolnshire finds liaison officer Adam Daubney, to whom Barker first reported his discovery, thinks that it might be a symbolic design not meant to be read as a literal threesome with severed head. The imagery could have some religious significance for 4th century Britons, or it could be something as simple as a scene from the theater.


Viking silver hoard reveals previously unknown king

December 14th, 2011

Proving yet again that Britain is basically one giant buried treasure disguised by a thin layer of loam, another metal detector-wielding hobbyist has discovered a Viking hoard of 201 pieces of silver, including ingots, coins and arm rings, in a well-preserved lead container. It’s the fourth largest Viking hoard ever found.

Darren Webster found the hoard in September near the village of Silverdale in North Lancashire. When the metal detector his wife had given him for Christmas went off, he dug down 18 inches to find what turned out to be a lead pot. At first he thought it was just a sheet of lead, but when he picked it up silver fell out and he saw that the lead had been folded into a container. He reported the find to the authorities and the recovered hoard went to the British Museum for expert analysis.

Yesterday the British Museum unveiled the hoard to the press in anticipation of the coroner’s inquest to determine its treasure status next week. The final tally is 27 coins, 10 arm rings from various Viking periods, two rings (for fingers), 14 ingots, six brooch fragments, a wire braid and 141 pieces of hacksilver (chopped up bits of silver from arm rings and ingots that were used as bullion currency). The coins date the hoard to around 900 A.D. They are a mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Frankish and Islamic coins, including coins of Alfred the Great, first self-described King of the Anglo-Saxons, his nephew Alwaldus, the Viking king of East Anglia Guthrum (who was defeated in battle by Alfred, converted to Christianity, took the baptismal name Athelstan with Alfred as his godfather) and one mysterious Viking ruler previously unknown to us.

The mystery coin is inscribed “AIRDECONUT” on one side, and has the words DNS (for Dominus) and REX in the shape of the cross on the other. Experts believe “Airdeconut” is an Anglo-Saxon attempt to spell the Viking name Harthacnut, and the Dominus Rex indicate that Airdeconut was a Christian ruler. The style of the coin is similar to coins from the Viking kings of Northumbria around 900 A.D., but unlike those kings, Airdeconut/Harthacnut hasn’t appeared on the historical record before now.

Another featured player in the hoard is one of the arm rings. Arm rings were given to Viking warriors by their leaders both as rewards and as symbols of allegiance. This one is elaborately carved in a style that synthesizes Irish, Anglo-Saxon and Frankish decorative elements. Researching these unique features might help elucidate their origin and fill in the blanks in our knowledge of Viking trade networks and economy.

The Silverdale hoard has pieces in common with one of the famous Viking hoards ever discovered, the Cuerdale hoard, which was found just 60 miles away in 1840. It was a far larger find — 8,600 pieces of silver — but includes several of the same coin combinations. The coins dated the Cuerdale hoard to around 905-10 AD, which supports the dating of the Silverdale hoard’s burial to around that time or a little earlier.

At this time Anglo-Saxon forces were fighting the Vikings, who had settled in the area, converted to Christianity and become farmers and traders in the generations since the Norsemen first invaded, for control of the north of England. The hoard was probably buried by a Viking settler/warrior to keep it safe from pillaging while he was off fighting.

Once the inquest determines that the hoard is treasure according to the Treasure Act (and it’s a given that it will because of the silver and its age), the experts will assess its market value. Institutions can then secure the hoard by paying the finder and the property owner the assessed value. The Museum of Lancaster is hoping they’ll be able to raise the funds and secure the hoard for display.


Glastonbury Grace Cup returns to the abbey

December 13th, 2011

The Glastonbury Grace Cup, a 16th century oak tankard intricately carved with images of the 12 Apostles, the crucifixion of Christ, birds, beasts and flowers, is going on display at Glastonbury Abbey, its reputed ancestral home, for the first time since 1886.

Legend has it that the tankard belonged to the abbots of Glastonbury, the last of whom, Abbot Richard Whiting, was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1539 during the Dissolution of Monasteries. Whiting had been a supporter of King Henry VIII, even signing the 1534 Act of Supremacy that made the king the head of the Church of England, but when Henry’s men showed up to loot Glastonbury Abbey and confiscate its lands, Whiting tried to stop them so they executed him as a traitor on the spot.

Grace Cup was smuggled out of the abbey and given for safekeeping to a Catholic branch of the Arundell family of Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, according to Arundell family lore. A hundred years later the tankard had another brush with the pointy end of British history, this time narrowly avoiding destruction when Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces set siege to Wardour Castle in 1643 during the English Civil War. It was Lady Blanche Arundell, left alone at the castle with only 25 men-at-arms while her husband was off fighting with King Charles, who fended off the attackers for nine days and was able to hide the cup before she finally surrendered.

We can’t know for sure that the tankard came from Glastonbury Abbey. The decoration on the cup suggests that it may have been carved in Germany or elsewhere central Europe. One theory is that the cup was brought to Wardour by Thomas Arundell, 1st Baron Arundell of Wardour, returned from fighting for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II against the Ottoman Turks in 1595. Sir Thomas, nicknamed “the Valiant” for his bravery in taking down the Turkish standard and replacing it with the Imperial one during a battle in Gran, Hungary, could have picked it up during his travels.

However, Sir Thomas was in a shipwreck on his way home from the war and lost everything. He made it to shore with only the clothes on his back, so if the tankard was picked up by an Arundell on the continent rather than saved from the violence of the Dissolution, it probably wasn’t Sir Thomas after fighting the Turks.

Also, this kind of tankard is called a Grace Cup because it was traditionally shared around a table after a prayer of thanksgiving, aka saying grace. On the inside of the cup there are vertical rows of pegs that apportion an equal amount of beverage to each drinker. Add that to its religious decoration and it makes the abbey provenance plausible even setting aside the Arundell family stories.

The cup was tracked down and put on display in Glastonbury in 1886 to celebrate the founding of the Glastonbury Antiquarian Society. Now, to celebrate the society’s 125th birthday, Lord Talbot of Malahide, Arundell descendent and current owner of the cup, is loaning the Grace Cup to the abbey again. The exhibition opens December 14th and runs until January 31th.


US returns looted Moche gold monkey to Peru

December 12th, 2011

Moche gold monkey's head pendant, ca. 300 A.D.The New Mexico History Museum returned a gold pendant shaped like a monkey’s head from the pre-Columbian Moche culture (ca. 100-800 A.D.) to Peruvian embassy officials in a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Thursday. The monkey is 1.75 inches high by 2.25 inches wide, with turquoise and shell eyes, a turquoise tongue, a lapis lazuli nose and a ball inside that makes the head rattle when you shake it. It’s a superb example of Moche workmanship, probably worn on a necklace by royalty or other august personages.

So superb, in fact, that Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva, who along with his wife Susana Meneses discovered the spectacular Moche Lord of Sipán tomb in 1987, thought it looked a little too familiar when he saw it on display at the Art of Ancient America exhibit in the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe in 1998. The Sipán tomb, which Alva had discovered intact, was looted shortly after its discovery by brothers Juan, Samuel, Emilio, and Ernil Bernal. They dragged dozens of sacks full of gold from the tomb to their house, buried the loot in their backyard and then sold it all off to eager collectors who, as usual, asked no questions.

The monkey was purchased by collector John Bourne in the late 80s along with a number of other Moche artifacts for $120,000. He donated it to the New Mexico History Museum in 1995. He also loaned two Moche ear spools and a gold rattle for the 1998 exhibit, although he retained ownership of those items. Bourne denied that the monkey’s head (or the other pieces) came from Sipán. He claimed instead that it came from La Mina, another Moche archaeological site in north Peru which was looted in 1988. This is no rebuttal to the charge that Bourne bought stolen goods, of course, since even if it did come from La Mina its theft and export were just as illegal as they would have been had the artifact come from the more famous Sipán site. As a legal maneuver, however, it was damned effective because establishing which site an artifact was stolen from is a basic requirement of making the case in a court of law.

The Peruvian government officially requested that the artifact be repatriated since it had been looted from the Sipán archaeological site and exported against Peruvian law. Alva went directly to the FBI, which opened an investigation in September of 1998. Citing the National Stolen Property Act, the FBI seized the monkey, ear spools and rattle, but since experts disagreed on whether they had been stolen from Sipán (as Alva and Peru alleged) or from La Mina (as Bourne claimed), in 2000 the U.S. Attorney General’s office in Albuquerque declined to prosecute. The pieces went back to the museum where they remained on display until 2008 and then the loaned objects were returned to Bourne.

That’s where things stood until this Spring. In May of this year, Peru wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder asking the Department of Justice to look into the situation. In October, the Board of Regents of the Museum of New Mexico voted to return the monkey head to Peru.

Pet peeve time. U.S. Attorney Charles M. Oberly III made the following statement about the return of the gold monkey:

“This repatriation is the result of the joint efforts of this office, the FBI Art Crime Team, the Department of Justice Office of International Affairs, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office and the Museum of New Mexico. I commend all parties for their efforts in producing this positive outcome. In particular, I commend the Museum of New Mexico for its selfless and noble action in returning this invaluable artifact to Peru. Artifacts like this Moche monkey head represent the history not only of the source country, in this case Peru, but the history of all mankind. We hope that this repatriation will help repair at least some of the damage caused by the looting of Moche sites.”

What is with the legal authorities kissing the ass of museums and collectors who finally return the stolen goods they refused to cough up for decades? The Museum of New Mexico was not selfless and noble in returning this invaluable artifact they KNEW was stolen all along.


Janitor finds forgotten coin hoard in German library

December 11th, 2011

Tanja Höls was doing her janitorial duties in the fourth-floor archive of the State Library of Passau in Bavaria when curiosity drove her to look inside a wooden box she had seen many times but never opened. Within she discovered tray upon tray of coins. There were 172 coins in total, most of them silver, some bronze or brass, ranging in date from Roman antiquity up through the Napoleonic era. Nobody in the library had any idea they were there.

According to Markus Wennerhold, head of the library, the collection likely came into the library’s possession after the 1803 secularization of Germany. The victorious French armies of Napoleon brought constitutional governments based on Revolutionary humanist principles to what was then the highly fragmented and decentralized Holy Roman Empire. Holy Roman Emperors had been handing out vast estates and titles to religious authorities for centuries by then. Even though the Protestant Reformation had stripped some of that temporal power from ecclesiastical rulers, it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the governments of German states systematically secularized religious properties and possessions.

One of those religious properties was the Passau library. It was originally founded in 1612 as the library of the Jesuit College. When Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuit order in 1773, the library passed into the hands of the Passau bishopric and was renamed the Episcopal Academic Library. When secularization hit Bavaria in 1803, the library became state property. Its collection was enormously inflated by the secularization of its neighbors’ holdings. Franciscan, Capuchin, Augustinian, Benedictine, Premonstratensian and Cistercian monasteries in Passau and environs had to give their entire libraries to the new public one.

The coins – silver, bronze and brass – were worth millions, [Wennerhold] said. “We looked for similar ones online, and found that some which were the same but in much worse condition had been sold for considerable sums. Then there were coins that we have that are not recorded elsewhere.”

He said the coins had simply been forgotten about. “No-one currently working at the museum knew they were there,” he said.

“They were hidden in 1803 during the secularisation in Germany, when all books and coins were taken from the monasteries and cloisters and put in state hands. The most valuable things were supposed to be taken to Munich, according to the archives, but someone here in Passau decided to keep some of them here and hid some treasures – including these coins.”

They might also have been hidden in the library by their owner rather than having been confiscated. A noble tax evader, perhaps, who wanted to stash them somewhere the government wouldn’t look.

Keep your eye on the library website because next week they have promised to post pictures of each individual coin. They won’t go on display right away, but next year is the library’s 400th anniversary so the coins will be part of a special celebratory exhibit.

As for Mr. Höls, she’s getting promoted to the curatorial department and Wennerhold et al are planning an appropriate reward of a pecuniary nature as well.


African Queen to be restored to former seedy glory

December 10th, 2011

The African Queen, the 28-foot steamship made famous by the eponymous 1951 movie The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, will soon be restored to the grungy-but-determined riverboat that made it a star. The boat has been rusting in dry dock next to the Key Largo Holiday Inn since 2002 when its late owner, Jim Hendricks, lawyer and the owner of the Key Large Holiday Inn, passed away.

His son, also named Jim Hendricks, has leased the boat for 10 years to charter boat captain, business owner and passionate restorer of classic boats Capt. Lance Holmquist. Holmquist and his wife Suzanne plan to spend tens of thousands of dollars restoring the African Queen. Once she’s in running order — the restoration is expected to take at least two months — the Holmquists will offer inland water tours on the African Queen. No word on whether any of the itineraries include getting stuck in the reeds and make some poor drunken Bogey impersonator tow the boat by hand through leech-infested shallows. (For the record, I would take that tour. I would take the hell out of that tour.)

The African Queen was born the S/L Livingstone in Britain in 1912. Built by the Abdela & Mitchell shipyards in Brimscombe, Gloucestershire, the open-hulled steamship was sent to Africa overland and used by the British East Africa Railway Company to transport cargo and passengers over the Ruki River and Lake Albert in the Belgian Congo (now the DR Congo) and Uganda. It was idling in Uganda when director John Huston and producer Sam Spiegel discovered it while scouting locations for the movie in 1950.

They secured the vessel, renamed it the African Queen and pressed it into service for the shoot. The challenges it and the cast and crew had to endure during filming were numerous. The film was shot in Technicolor which required large specialized cameras, unwieldy at the best of times and particularly difficult to haul through malaria and dysentery-infected water in the sweltering jungle heat. Everyone but Bogey and Huston got sick. Bogey attributed his indomitable good health to having eaten only canned baked beans and asparagus and drunk only whiskey.

The movie was a huge success, the top money-maker of the year, and it earned Humphrey Bogart an Oscar, his only one, for Best Actor in a Leading Role. After the boat became a superstar, it went through various changes of ownership and condition. In 1982, Jim Hendricks found himself with $65,000 left over from a bank loan he had secured to build an addition to the Key Largo Holiday Inn. The bank told him to do something sensible with it. He bought the African Queen.

Hendricks kept it in good condition, piloting it himself on the inland waterways of the Florida Keys. In 1992, it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. After Hendricks’ death, his son was unable to keep it running but always hoped he’d have the opportunity to restore it as a tribute to his father. The Holmquists will make that dream a reality.


Earliest human mattresses found in South Africa

December 9th, 2011

A team of archaeologists has discovered 40,000 years worth of mattresses stacked in South Africa’s Sibudu cave, 25 miles north of Durban. Our Stone Age ancestors made bedding from leaves, seeds and stems of local rushes and grasses on the floor of the cave starting approximately 77,000 years ago. For the next 44,000 years, nomadic Homo sapiens hunted and gathered in the area using Sibudu as their crash pad, compacting the plant material to create sleeping mats.

Researchers found at least 15 1-centimeter thick layers of plant matter embedded within a chunk of sediment 10 feet thick. They suspected the layers were human bedding, but since the oldest sleeping mats discovered up until now were only between 20,000 and 30,000 years old, archaeologists had to study the material under the microscope to see what exactly it was composed of and whether people brought the plants to the site intentionally.

Reporting online today in Science, Wadley and her colleagues describe the results of two sophisticated archaeological techniques: analysis of phytoliths, tiny fossil plant remains, which allows identification of plant species; and micromorphology, the high-resolution examination of archaeological remains.

The team found that the swaths, which dated from 77,000 to 58,000 years ago, were made from sedges, rushes, and grasses, plants that grow down by the Tongati River but are not found in the dry rock shelter. Thus the people at Sibudu must have gathered them deliberately and brought them to the cave. Under the microscope, blocks of the plant material showed signs of compression and repeated trampling. In the earliest layer, 77,000 years old, the team found the leaves of Cryptocarya woodii, also known as Cape laurel, or the “bastard camphor tree,” an aromatic plant whose leaves are used in traditional medicines even today. The leaves contain several chemical compounds that can kill insects, and the team suggests that early humans chose them to protect against malaria-carrying mosquitoes and other pests.

The layers also showed evidence of regular burning, starting 73,000 years ago. Archaeologists believe people burned the bedding to eliminate pests that had infested the plants, and/or to reduce the accumulated height of old, decayed mats so they could start again clean. This is the first example known of humans using fire for dwelling maintenance.

The inhabitants of the cave would not have lived there permanently, despite having made it so nice and cozy. They probably used the space for weeks at a time until the area was hunted out and the organic material started rotting or attracting vermin. Archaeologists found fragments of stone chips and burnt bone amidst the plant matter, so in addition to use the mats for sleeping, their creators also used them as a work surface for making tools and food.

Around 58,000 years ago, the bedding layers become more frequent, suggesting that the population in Sibudu was growing during this period. Archaeologists estimate that Homo sapiens migrated from Africa 50,000 years ago, perhaps in the wake of that very population boom.





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