Breton village offers reward to decipher mysterious stone inscription

May 12th, 2019

The village of Plougastel-Daoulas in Brittany is sending out an appeal to linguists, cryptographers, students, scholars and puzzlers of all stripes to decipher a mysterious inscription carved onto a boulder centuries ago, and they’re willing to put money on it.

The inscription begins “grocar drear diozeevbio” and more text follows — “roc ar b,” “dre ar grio se eveloh ar viriones baoavel,” “r i obbiie:brisbvilar” — none of it in any recognized language.

“This inscription is a mystery and it is for this that we are launching the appeal,” said Veronique Martin, who is spearheading the search for a code-cracker.

The rock, which is around the size of a person, is accessed via a path from the hamlet of Illien ar Gwenn just to the north of Corbeau point.

The inscription fills the entirety of one of its sides and is mainly in capital letters but there are also pictures including a sailing boat. There are two dates, 1786 and 1787.

“These dates correspond more or less to the years that various artillery batteries that protected Brest and notably Corbeau Fort which is right next to it,” she said.

The rock is bathed by the sea. The image of the sailboat is so close to the foot of the rock that the waters touch it at high tide.

The only known part of the inscription is a relatively recent addition: the date 1920, engraved by a Russian soldier garrisoned there during World War I. Just in case there might be a link between this and the rest of the inscription, linguists in Russia were contacted but to no avail. It’s not a Cyrillic language/dialect and Russian does not appear to have anything to do with it.

The Champollion Mystery of Plougastel-Daoulas, named after the French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion who translated the hieroglyphic inscription on the Rosetta Stone, runs through the end of November 2019. All submissions, analyses and research reports, will be analyzed by a jury of academics and a representative from Brittany’s archaeology department. The most plausible entry will receive a €2,000 award.

The municipality has already received more than a thousand emails. If you’d like to try your hand at solving this riddle, email veronique.martin@mairie-plougastel.fr .

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Largest 4th c. coin hoard in Britain found in Lincolnshire

May 11th, 2019

Metal detector enthusiasts discovered a hoard of Roman copper coins near the village of Rauceby in Lincolnshire in July of 2017. They had searched the area for years with only a few minor finds to show for it. This time when their detectors signaled the presence of metal, when they dug they found a massive quantity of Roman coins.

They alerted the authorities and a full excavation of the site ensued. Lincolnshire County Council archaeologist Adam Daubney and Sam Bromage from the University of Sheffield unearthed the ceramic pot that the coin hoard was buried in and  small separate hoard of 10 coins. All told, more than 3000 copper-alloy  were found. It is the largest coin hoard from the 4th century ever found in Britain.

Dr Daubney commented: “The coins were found in a ceramic pot, which was buried in the centre of a large oval pit – lined with quarried limestone. What we found during the excavation suggests to me that the hoard was not put in the ground in secret, but rather was perhaps a ceremonial or votive offering. The Rauceby hoard is giving us further evidence for so-called ‘ritual’ hoarding in Roman Britain.”

Dr Eleanor Ghey, Curator of Iron Age and Roman Coin Hoards at the British Museum, commented: “At the time of the burial of the hoard around AD 307, the Roman Empire was increasingly decentralised and Britain was once again in the spotlight following the death of the emperor Constantius in York. Roman coins had begun to be minted in London for the first time. As the largest fully recorded find of this date from Britain, it has great importance for the study of this coinage and the archaeology of Lincolnshire.”

The coins were officially declared treasure under the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act by the Lincoln Coroner’s Court on May 9th. The hoard is in the British Museum right now for assessment by the valuation committee. Once fair market value is assessed, local museums will be given first crack at acquiring the hoard by paying the assessed value in compensation to be split 50/50 by the finders and landowner. In this case the value will likely be in the tens of thousands of pounds.

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Rare sea croc fossil found in Denmark

May 10th, 2019

The white chalk cliffs of Stevns Klint on the Danish island of Zealand are geological marvels, one of the best exposed Cretaceous-Tertiary boundaries in the world, complete with a visible record of the ash cloud created when the Chicxulub meteorite crashed off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula 65 million years ago and caused the greatest mass extinction of all time. A thin grey line of clay divides the white chalk at the bottom from the line above it; it is a literal boundary line marking the end of the Cretaceous.

The cliffs are replete with fossils documenting plant and animal life before the meteorite and their recovery afterwards. Many are embedded in the cliff face and the constant erosion makes it a very productive site for fossil hunters.

Amateur geologist Peter Bennicke has made several important finds there, most recently two teeth and two armour plates from a 66-million-year-old crocodilian. The plates, also known as osteoderms, are sheets of bone under the skin of crocodiles that are coated with horn-like material. They’re what give crocodiles that armor-like plating down their back and sides.

“The patterns in the armour plates vary among different types of crocodiles, but along with the two long and slender teeth we can confidently deduce that the crocodile is of the Thoracosaurus genus, which was the most prevalent sea crocodile of the time – just about the end of the Cretaceous period and the beginning of the Tertiary period,” said Jesper Milan, a museum curator with Geomuseum Faxe.

Thoracosaurus survived the mass extinction rather well, living long into the Danian era. They had long, slender jaws with curved teeth which worked with deadly efficiency at catching fish. Their fossils have been found far from the coastlines of their era, indicating that they were strong swimmers who hunted their prey far from land.

Jesper Milan notes that only a few loose Thoracosaurus teeth from the end of the Cretaceous have been found in Denmark before. The discovery of teeth and plates from a specimen on the other side of the boundary is of greater importance than their modest dimensions might suggest because they fill an important gap in the fossil record.

The fossils will go on display at the Geomuseum Faxe later this year.

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Prittlewell burial keeps some secrets, tells others

May 9th, 2019

In the fall of 2003, archaeologists surveying the site of future road widening project near Prittlewell, south Essex, spotted a piece of bronze sticking up out of the ground. The ensuing excavation found that the bit of bronze marked the spot of an Anglo-Saxon chamber burial of exceptional wealth and historical significance. While the skeletal remains were gone, devoured by the acidic soil that had made its way into the wooden sides of the tomb, more than 60 objects were found, among them an iron folding stool, several bronze vessels, drinking cups made of wood (some surviving) and gold, blue glass jars, a gold buckle, gold foil crosses, traces of a wood lyre, a sword and shield. The chamber was in such good condition that copper-alloy bowls were found still hanging from hooks in the walls. All of the grave’s many furnishings were in the original position they’d been placed in on the day of the burial.

The richness of the grave goods and the size of the burial chamber (13 feet square and five feet high) strongly suggested the deceased was someone of great importance, likely royalty. The placement of the gold foil crosses pointed to them having been laid on the body, perhaps the eyes, or stitched to a shroud that covered it. Archaeologists hypothesized that the deceased was an Anglo-Saxon king on the cusp of the transition from paganism to Christianity. The crosses were symbols of his new religion, but the plethora of grave goods were a nod to traditional funerary practices which furnished graves with objects of use to the deceased in the afterlife and ones symbolizing his rank.

There was some speculation about which king this might have been, and there weren’t a lot of options so the likeliest candidates were Saebert,  King of Essex (converted to Christianity in 604, died in 616), or Sigeberht II,  King of the East Saxons (converted in 653, died ca. 661).

A meticulous excavation followed by years of analysis by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) of the archaeological material from the Prittlewell burial has put the kibosh on both those possibilities. Researchers were able to get radiocarbon dates from the sparse organic remains, wood fragments attached to metal decorations on a drinking horn and wooden cup, using accelerator mass spectroscopy which only requires a miniscule sample of material and yields high-precision results. The Prittlewell burial took place 575 and 605 A.D., excluding both of the candidates believed to have been the first East Saxon kings to convert to Christianity.

The radiocarbon date range can be narrowed down a little further from stylistic analysis of the grave goods and coins which point to the burial dating to the last two decades of the 6th century. If true, it could even predate the dawn of Christianity in Essex. St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived to convert the East Saxons in 597. Not that there couldn’t have been less direct avenues to conversion before then. The Britons had been converted to Christianity during Roman rule and while they were completely walled off from the Roman Church by the Anglo-Saxon invasions, they were still there and still Christian. Also, Aethelbert, King of Kent, married a Frankish princess who was not only a Christian but the great-grandaughter of a saint. She brought a bishop with her when they married in 580 A.D. to ensure she could practice her religion and is believed to exerted a great deal of influence on the spread of Christianity in Britain long before the arrival of St. Augustine. Aethelbert’s sister married Saebert’s father.

The person’s identity will remain unknown unless some future technology makes it possible to solve the mystery. All that remains of the body are tiny fragments of tooth enamel. The type of buckles and the weapons in the grave suggest the deceased was male, and judging from the placement of the belt buckle, garter buckles and the crosses over his eyes, he was about 5’8″.

Even more extraordinary finds were made in the soil of the grave which was lifted en bloc so it could be micro-excavated in the lab. A few scraps of wood from a decayed object thought to be a box lid revealed themselves to be the only known surviving example of early Anglo-Saxon painted woodwork. The maple wood is decorated with a yellow border in a ladder pattern and two ovals, one white, one red, filled with a cross-hatch.

There weren’t even scraps of wood left of another one-of-a-kind discovery: an Anglo-Saxon lyre. All that was left of it was a stain in the soil containing tiny bits of wood and two copper discs inlaid with garnets that had riveted the yoke of the lyre to the arm, still in their original positions. The wood of the lyre was maple with a hollow sound box and the tuning pegs were made from ash wood. Raman spectroscopy identified the garnets in the center of the metal fittings as having originated in India or Sri Lanka. There was also a copper vessel from Syria and two gold coins from Merovingian France, so clearly the young man had access to the finest, most expensive imports money could buy.

Artifacts found in the Prittlewell burial will go on display at Southend Central Museum starting Saturday, May 11th. To learn more about the burial and its unique treasures, check out the excellent dedicated website MOLA has created.

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New frescoed room found at Domus Aurea

May 8th, 2019

Archaeologists, architects and restorers working on the Domus Aurea have discovered a new room decorated with elegant frescoes. It has been dubbed the Hall of the Sphinx after one of the mythological creatures painted on the walls.

Nero’s megalomaniacally huge palace was so associated with the emperor and his worst impulses — how he used the Great Fire of 64 A.D. as an opportunity for an enormous land grab, his profligacy, his massive ego, his slothfulness — that after his suicide in 68 A.D. the Golden House was destroyed by Vespasian. Forty years after that, the emperor Trajan used the ruins as the foundation for a great public bath complex. He stripped the walls and floors of all remaining valuable materials (marble, mosaics, frescoes) and filled the vast open spaces of the rooms with rubble. Fallen walls were rebuilt in brick.

When the palace remains were rediscovered in the 15th century, nobody knew it was the Domus Aurea. They just thought they’d found caves (“grotte” in Italian), and, amazed by the delicacy and perspective of the frescoes, Renaissance artists like Raphael and Michelangelo lowered themselves in through holes in the ceiling to see the figures. The painting style inspired by the discovery of the palace became known as grotesque.

The tour of the Domus Aurea today, which I’ve done twice because I was so astonished by it the first time I went, includes a riveting virtual reality recreation of what the huge spaces of the palace looked like when the artists dropped in through an oculus to observe with wonder the ancient art on the walls. The Trajanic fill rose dozens of feet up the walls, leaving only the vaults empty. Many of those soaring spaces up to 36 feet high have been excavated since, and invaded with moisture, organic overgrowth and mineral deposits, the frescoes have lost much of the intensity that so inspired the Old Masters of the Renaissance. This find puts us in their shoes for the first time.

The hall was discovered during the installation of scaffolding to support the walls in Room 72. While up high, workers saw an aperture at the top of the north wall that was not visible from below. They looked through the hole, illuminating it with their lights, and saw a space filled with soil and rubble almost reaching its ceiling.

The room is rectangular, topped with a barrel vaulted ceiling. The ceiling and visible tops of the walls are decorated with frescoes in the grotesque style that inspired artists who had no idea they were in Nero’s ancient palace. Against the white background of the vault are panels outlined in ochre and red. The perimeter rectangle is yellow with foliate elements and curvilinear swirls at the four corners.

In center of the panels are figures painted in richly saturated lines: a man armed with a sword, quiver and shield confronting a panther, rampant centaurs, satyrs, fantastical aquatic creatures, garlands, branches covered in green, yellow and red leaves with birds perched on them. On the semi-circular lunette against the wall is an imaginary structure with columns topped by a gold patera (ceremonial dish). Beside it is a winged sphinx on a pedestal.

These types of figures and motifs are found in many other rooms of the Domus Aurea and can be identified as the output of Workshop A which was in operation between 65 and 68 A.D.  The artists from this workshop employed white backgrounds, light architectural designs and small figures to create a spacious, luminous effect even in small poorly-lit rooms. The position of the room in contrast to the overall planning of the Domus indicates that this is one of the older, less known spaces of the palace. They weren’t newly built by Nero, but rather refurbished by him. Originally they were part of a Claudian-era warehouse. Nero had them gussied up and integrated in the Domus.

At first glance, the frescoes appeared to be in good condition, but a more in depth examination found the decoration was obfuscated by layers of salts, carbonation and film of biological organisms. There has also been significant pigment loss and lifting of the plaster from the preparatory layers on the wall. Some sections were almost completely detached from the wall and in imminent danger of collapse.

Conservation was a challenge because of the complex microclimatic conditions of the Domus Aurea, the limited height of the space, the difficulty in accessing it and the almost complete lack of air circulation. Restorers had to wear harnesses and were constantly monitored by support staff in Room 72. They put an air replacement system in place, but even with that the team decided not to use solvents or biocidal products that could be dangerous in such an enclosed space and that could alter the heat and moisture balance of the environment.

Conservators triaged the frescoes and focused on the areas in most urgent need of stabilization. They repaired what they could using materials like grout that have good adhesive power with little fluidity to prevent any infiltration of the interior wall.

There are no plans to excavate the room. After almost 2000 years, that fill Trajan crammed in there is structural.

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Cracks in Viking Gokstad ship cause alarm

May 7th, 2019

The largest preserved Viking ship in Norway, the Gokstad ship at Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, is cracking. Two large cracks have appeared and museum conservators are sounding the alarm that the ship needs a comprehensive change to its support infrastructure before disaster strikes.

“When 1,000-year-old ship planks begin to weaken, the situation is extremely serious,” said Håkon Glørstad, director of the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History that’s responsible for the Viking ships. “Wood that’s so old doesn’t have the same flexibility as modern wood and can totally collapse, quickly and without warning.”

Glørstad told newspaper Aftenposten on Monday that in its current location, “we can’t develop the overall support systems needed to secure the ship’s entire hull.” He said the current base is no longer adequate and the space around the ship too confined.

The bow and the stern are the most unstable parts of the ship. The rest of the hull is braced by a wood base and 12 additional supports. The bow didn’t get its own supports until last year when three were installed to help contain the shifts in movement that cause cracking. Last month supports were added to the stern.

The new supports have sensor technology that allow them to pull double-duty: keeping the ship as stable as possible and measuring its movements. The data revealed that the Gokstad ship is experiencing significant vertical and horizontal movements, enough to move the ship millimeters in both directions. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s huge in conservation terms and significantly above the limit of what a ship built in the 820s and buried for a thousand years can withstand.

Extra supports are only an emergency measure for the short-term. The Norwegian government has allocated funds to construct a new state-of-the-art building a hundred yards from the current one, but the grant hasn’t come through yet and construction can’t begin until it has. The most optimistic projection of when the new facility will be complete is 2025.

The Gokstad ship was unearthed in 1880 in Sandefjord, Vestfold, southeastern Norway. The mound where it was found was on a farm, and the sons of the owner began digging it out of the frozen ground looking for a royal treasure that was rumored to be buried there. Archaeologists were able to take over the job and unearthed the 9th century clinker-built ship, the remains of an adult man with cutting wounds indicating death in battle and highly significant grave goods although any gold, silver or weapons buried with him had been looted centuries earlier. It has been on display at the museum since 1932.

The other two Viking ships in the museum, the elaborately decorated Oseberg ship (discovered in 1903) and the Tune warship (the first Viking ship ever excavated, discovered in 1867), are more stable at the moment, but Oseberg’s enormous complement of wood artifacts have dangerously softened because of the alum treatment they received in 1904. Experts have been working non-stop since 2014 on saving them. The long-term condition, even survival, of the ships and their contents require that issues be addressed as they arise, not years in the future.

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Stone game board unearthed at Vindolanda

May 6th, 2019

A stone gameboard has been unearthed at the Roman fort of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. A volunteer discovered the 3rd century board in the floor of a building behind the bath house. It seems the stone slab with an incised grid was recycled for use a flooring in the structure.

It is thought that the board would have been in use in the bath house and then utilised elsewhere after it was broken.

“You can almost picture the losing Roman tipping the board up in frustration, causing it to break,” said a Vindolanda spokesperson.

A total of five good examples of gaming boards have been found at Vindolanda over the years, and all date from the third and fourth centuries.

The board was probably used to play ludus latrunculorum, a checkers-like game in which two players move pieces across the board. When a player’s piece is trapped between two of his opponents’ pieces, it is captured and removed from the board. The player who captures all of his opponent’s pieces wins the game. Stone and glass game pieces have also been found in past excavations at Vindolanda.

In other Vindolanda news (there is never not news from Vindolanda), the complete set of four hipposandals found last year have been conserved and put on display at the Roman Army Museum. The Vindolanda Charitable Trust’s blog has a brief and fascinating explanation of how the iron sandals may have been used. They weren’t worn by horses the way horseshoes are worn today, that much is certain. Check it out.

Also, a collection of ox crania found at Vindolanda that show evidence of having been used as target practice have been 3D imaged and uploaded to Sketchfab.  Examination of the trauma and comparisons with arrowheads found at Vindolanda confirmed that the holes were indeed caused by repeated arrow shots, so many that the right anterior of the bovine skull was separated from the cranium by the sheer number of projectiles. There were some holes from a lancehead too, likely caused by a spear being used to stake up the cranium for use in target practice.

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Old Kingdom cemetery found in Giza

May 5th, 2019

A tomb complex dating to the Old Kingdom has been discovered on the southeast Giza Plateau near the Great Pyramids. The oldest is a carved limestone tomb with hieroglyphic inscriptions on the walls. It’s a family tomb dating to around 2500 B.C.

The tomb belongs to two persons: the first named Behnui-Ka, whose name [h]as not [been] found before in Giza plateau. He had seven titles among them the Priest, the Judge, the purifier of pharoahs Khafre, Userkaf and Niuserre; the priest of goddess Maat, and the elder juridical in the court.

The second owner named Nwi had five titles among which [are] the chief of the great state, the overseer of the new settlements, and the purifier of King Khafre.

Many artefacts were discovered in the tomb; among the most significant is a fine limestone statue of the tomb’s owner, his wife and son.

The cemetery is adjacent to the one the pyramid builders were buried in, and Behnui-Ka’s pharaonic service connect him to the construction of Giza’s famous monuments. Khafre was a 4th Dynasty pharaoh, the son of King Khufu builder of the Great Pyramid. Khafre was no slouch in that department either, having  built the second largest of the three Pyramids of Giza. The Great Sphinx was built under his reign as well, and may have been intended to guard Khafre’s pyramid. Its face bears some similarity to extant busts of the pharaoh, so it was likely also symbol of royal power.

Userkaf was the first pharaoh of the 5th Dynasty, Nyuserre Ini was the sixth. That makes Behnui-Ka a very long-lived and successful official, a sort of Old Kingdom Talleyrand.

The cemetery features a number of limestone chambers and shafts and was extensively reused during the Late Period. Starting in the early 7th century B.C., beautifully painted wooden sarcophagi were placed in the ancient space along with statues of animals and people and other funerary offerings.

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19th c. infant remains found in Roman fort

May 4th, 2019

The skeletal remains of an infant unearthed at a Roman fort in Guernsey have been found to date to the early 19th century. Archaeologists were excavating the gatehouse, cutting into the top of it and confirming that later overbuilding had destroyed much of the original Roman floor, when they unearthed the skull of a infant in a shallow grave.

Once the police had visited the site and given permission, the grave was carefully excavated by archaeologist Jenny Cataroche, who specialises in the study of human bones.

Ms Cataroche said that, while it was not possible to determine whether it was a boy or a girl, the bones were consistent with a gestational age of 38 to 40 weeks, meaning it was a baby carried to full term.

‘There were no grave goods or clothing remnants found with the skeleton so it is most likely the baby was wrapped in a blanket or shawl, of which nothing remains,’ she said. ‘It was placed on its right side with knees drawn up to the chest and hands near the face.

‘The unusual location of the burial – not in a churchyard – suggests that the baby was unbaptised, perhaps stillborn. We are probably looking at death linked to complications of pregnancy or birth which, sadly, would have been much more common in the past.’

They knew the infant didn’t date to the Roman period because the grave was in the part of the gatehouse that had been reconstructed in 1793 so it had to been buried after that. Samples of the bone were sent to a specialist laboratory in Florida for radiocarbon dating. The date returned was 1820, minus or plus 30 years, during a time when the fort, known as the Nunnery, was a British military barracks and hospital.

The fort was built on the island of Alderney overlooking Longis Bay, the island’s only natural harbour in the 4th century A.D. Alderney is only eight miles from the tip of the Cherbourg Peninsula of Normandy and France is clearly visible from the island. The Channel Islands were on a busy trade route between northwestern Gaul and southern Britain and Longis Bay was well-placed for a Roman naval outpost to keep an eye on that route. The harbour was large enough to allow at least a couple of warships to be based there for a quick response to any pirates.

Alderney’s strategic importance would be recognized after the Romans left by authorities and pirates alike. On the headland just above the Nunnery are the remains of Essex Castle, built by Henry VIII in 1546 over the remains of what is believed to have been a 9th century promontory fort. Queen Mary stopped construction and the castle was converted into the residence of the Governors of Alderney.

Without intact fortifications, the island became a base for pirates, with only the local militia of no more than 200 men defending it. The British interest in Alderney as a military outpost revived with the French Revolution. Soldiers were sent and artillery were sent there in the late 18th century and gun batteries and barracks built.  By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there were 20 batteries, almost 100 cannon, 600 regular soldiers almost 400 militia men.

The Nunnery was built up into a defensive fort in the 1840s. France expanded Cherbourg harbour in 1842, and in response Britain embarked on a program of breakwater and harbour construction and heavy fortification in the Channel Islands. The project was abandoned in the 1860s, but a new enemy, Nazi Germany, was glad to take advantage of the forts, when it occupied Channels in 1940. Alderney was almost entirely evacuated when the Germans arrived. They used the Nunnery as a site for anti-aircraft batteries, anti-tank walls, bunkers. After the war it was used by the British military, and then as private holiday homes.

Island lore had it that the Nunnery had once been a Roman fort, but nobody really knew what the buildings were and when they were built. It got its colloquial name because of this confusion; people called it the Nunnery because it sort of looked like a medieval monastery. Excavations in 2009 and 2010 found the first architectural evidence that the Nunnery was a Roman fort.

Dr Jason Monaghan, Guernsey Museums director, said: “In 2009 we proved there was a Roman building inside the Nunnery and began to suspect this was a tower as all the northern English forts have a tower in the middle.

“In 2010 we went back specifically looking to prove there was a tower there – and ‘wow’ is there a tower.

“The walls are 2.8m (9ft) thick, we don’t know how high it was, but it would have been a very big structure – it’s as thick as Hadrian’s Wall.”

The tower was found to be about 18 sq m. (58 sq ft).

He said the team dug down to prove the outside walls were also Roman before doing the same for the gateway.

So much of the fort walls were found that the Alderley Nunnery turns out to be best-preserved Roman small fort in Britain.

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Footprint found in Chile is oldest in Americas

May 3rd, 2019

A human footprint discovered at the archaeological site of Pilauco in Patagonia, southern Chile, has been dated to 15,600 before the present, making it the oldest ever found in the Americas. The print was first discovered in 2010 by a student at the Universidad Austral of Chile in an excavation grid that also contained megafauna bones, wood and plant remains and lithic tools. Researchers then spent nearly a decade dating the fossil and confirming that it was left by a person.

It wasn’t immediately clear from the print in situ that it was human. The dimensions were similar to other mammals like ground sloths, and there wasn’t a highly specific outline capturing human morphology from heel to toes. Paleontologists made a silicone cast of the print, X-rayed it, photographed it from different angles and documented the trace characteristics they observed. A mesh model was created and analyzed with 3D software.

The team painstakingly recreated possible scenarios for the formation of the footprint. The performed nine experiments with three different water contents and three human trackmakers with the same foot size but different heights and weights. Researchers built a box seven and a half feet long to hold sediment excavated from the layer near the footprint. As soon as the water was added, trackmakers stepped in the box. The prints they left were photographed with scale, the depths of each print at the big toe, heel and arch were measured and how much of the surface was flattened.

Comparisons of the experiment data and observed trace characteristics confirmed the footprint was indeed human. The print itself could not be directly dated, but radiocarbon testing of plant material and wood near the impression resulted in an estimated date of 15,600 years ago.

[Geologist Mario] Pino said the footprint appears to be that of a barefoot man weighing about 70 kilograms (155 pounds) and of the species Hominipes modernus, a relative of Homo sapiens.

The area in Chile has proven rich in fossils, including evidence of an ancestor of today’s elephants and American horses, as well as of more recent human presence.

An earlier footprint found at a site south of Osorno was found to be about 1,000 years more recent.

The section of sediment with the footprint was removed en bloc and placed in a glass box for long-term preservation at the Pleistocene Museum in the Parque Chuyaca, Osorno, Chile.

I have an unabashed love for footprint fossils, because footprints in the sand (or mud, or a swamp) are classic examples of the impermanence of life, and yet, when conditions are just right, instead of disappearing in seconds they turn to rock and are found thousands, even millions of years later. I’m always keen to relay a good fossilized footprint story, but this is the first time I recall encountering the scientific name for them: paleoichnites. Into the Scrabble lockbox it goes.

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