Princely tomb raised from Terracotta Warrior mausoleum complex

A massive tomb weighing 16 tons has been raised from a deep pit in the mausoleum complex of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China whose tomb is famously garrisoned by an army of life-sized terracotta warriors 6,000 strong. The coffin was found to contain very rich funerary deposits, including weapons, armor, jade, a pair of gold and silver camels, a set of cooking utensils and 6,000 bronze coins. With such a grand burial, the deceased must have been a warrior of high rank, perhaps even one of the sons of the Qin Emperor.

Covering an area of 22 square miles, Qin Shi Huang’s tomb is the largest mausoleum in the world and much of it has yet to be excavated out of concern for exposing it to damage from seismic activity, the elements and looters. A 2010 excavation focused on the foundations of the tomb, and uncovered a massive palace with 18 courtyard-style homes around a central building. It is a quarter of the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and is considered its conceptual progenitor, albeit this one was meant for the emperor to inhabit after his death.

That excavation also unearthed nine tombs in 2011. Their large coffins were left in place in keeping with the Chinese government’s hands-off policy as regards the mausoleum and its contents. Archaeologists returned this year to recover the coffin after it was threatened by heavy rain. It was excavated and removed for further study and examination of the contents in a controlled environment.

Archaeologists are hoping to find clues about the owner of the tomb. The current hypothesis is that it may belong to Prince Gao, one of 50 children of Qin Shi Huang, whose burial in the mausoleum is recorded in the Records of the Grand Historian (also known as the Shiji), the epic history of China begun by Sima Tan, Grand Scribe of the Han dynasty, in the late 2nd century B.C. and completed by his son and successor Sima Quian around 91 B.C.

According to the Shiji, after Qin Shi Huang’s death, his youngest son Hu Hai took the throne after killing all his competitors. Prince Gao told his brother that he regretted not voluntarily following his father into the afterlife, and asked that he be killed and buried in the great mausoleum. Hu Hai was glad to oblige.

The story of Prince Gao could be entirely fictional. The Shiji is a chronicle, but like Livy’s Ab urbe condita, it treats legend and tradition as indistinguishable from fact. The biographies of emperors begins with the legendary Yellow Emperor, and while Qin Shi Huang died in 210 B.C., only about 100 years before Sima Tan began writing the Records, the Shiji makes all kinds of outlandish claims even about Qin’s comparatively recent reign. However, some of those outlandish claims have already surprised archaeologists by having more than a kernel of truth. For example, the Shiji describes the mausoleum as having “100 rivers of mercury” flowing through it. Soil testing found levels of mercury 100 times higher than normal, so maybe the 100 rivers thing was an overstatement, but it was not a complete fabrication.

“After the first emperor died, his sons all came to a bad end, so I’m still more inclined to believe that this tomb belongs to a high-ranking nobleman or army chief,” Jiang Wenxiao, the excavation leader, said.

Wenxiao added: “The tomb was so precisely built. So deep, so large in scale. Most ancient tombs have been robbed so we didn’t have much hope for the coffin chamber. But it turned out it hadn’t been robbed. We were amazed.”

The discovery has been filmed by a British-Chinese co-production which was granted unprecedented access to the mausoleum site and the active excavation. The finds will be the focus of the Mysteries of the Terracotta Warriors which debuts on Netflix on June 12th.

Possible cancer surgery found on 4,000-year-old  skull

Researchers have discovered cutmarks around cancerous lesions on a 4,000-year-old Egyptian skull that suggest ancient Egyptian doctors may have attempted a surgical remedy for malignant tumors.

We know from ancient papyri that even 4,000 years ago Egypt had advanced knowledge of anatomy and physiology, and thanks to their medical and mummification practices, their surgical know-how was also advanced compared to other ancient cultures. They did not have a full understanding of cancer as we know it. There are references to tumors and “eating lesions” with suggested treatments in the texts, and evidence of malignancy in human remains. Given Egyptian expertise, it stands to reason that they may have explored surgical solutions to excise a malignant tumor.

To explore ancient Egyptian knowledge and treatment of tumors, researchers took a closer look at two skulls in Cambridge University’s Duckworth Collection from different dynasties with different conditions. Skull E270 dates to the Late Period (664–343 B.C.) and belonged to a woman older than 50 when she died. The skull shows evidence of one primary tumor and several healed cranial fractures. Skull 236 dates to the Old Kingdom (2,687–2,345 B.C.) and belonged to a man between 30 and 35 years of age. It reveals evidence of two tumors and is one of the oldest cases of malignancy known.

Microscopic examination of Skull 236 found a large lesion with associated tissue destruction (neoplasm), plus about 30 small round lesions from metastasis. The surprise discovery were cutmarks made repeatedly around the lesions that were inflicted near the time of death (perimortem), not during mummification.

[A]lthough neoplasms were a clear medical frontier, skull 236 reveals new insights on a potential exploratory phase amongst medical practise concerning neoplastic lesions. As seen, reliable perimortem cutmarks on the bone surface have been identified in clear association with the metastatic lesions on the posterior cranial region. The position of the marks, running through two of the lesions with a clear associated start and end at both sides of the lytic lesions (stopped by the margins of the pathologies), suggest some kind of perimortem anthropic intervention given that they were generated on a bone in fresh condition. Although this might indicate medical surgical exploration or an attempt of care or treatment, our study has a clear limitation in the identification of the timing of the cutting. Although they are perimortem, they might also indicate a postmortem manipulation of the corpse. In turn, this might also indicate a postmortem exploration of the tumoural pathology.

Ritual burial of dozens of horses from Gallic Wars found

Nine pits containing skeletons of horses buried during the Gallic Wars have been discovered in Villedieu-sur-Indre, central France. Radiocarbon dating of the horse bones found the burials date to the late Gallic/early Roman period, ca. 100 B.C. – 100 A.D.

The 1.3 hectare site is being excavated by archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) before road construction. The investigation revealed evidence of buildings, ditches, pits and a path from an early medieval (5th-6th century A.D.) settlement, as well as the much older horse burial pits.

Only two of the nine pits have been fully excavated so far, the first of them containing the remains of 10 horses, the second containing the remains of only two horses. The skeletons in both pits were complete and articulated. They were carefully and deliberately placed in the pits lying on their right side with their heads pointing south. The horses in the larger pit were arranged in two rows and two layers. The smaller pit had its only two horses in a single row.

All of the horses were adult males over four years of age at time of death. They are small, about 11.8 hands (just under four feet) high at the withers. The positioning and the way the bones of different horses connect in the pit indicates they were all buried at the same time very soon after they died.

Between the two horse pits is another animal burial pit, this one containing the skeletal remains of two adult dogs of medium size. They were also placed with deliberation and care, on their left sides with their heads pointing west.

The remaining pits are being excavated now, and the bones that have emerges thus far bring the total number of horses up to 28. There will be many more added to the tally by time the excavation is complete. Archaeologists hope they will be able to unravel the cause of death. We know it was not an epidemic or the horses would not have been all adult males of the same age.

Similar clusters of horse burials from this period have been found at sites in the Gergovia plain, where the Arverni tribe had their capital and where their chieftain Vercingetorix led his cavalry against the Roman army of Julius Caesar in 52 B.C. and won. Two months later, Caesar won decisively at the Battle of Alesia, forcing Vercingetorix to surrender and ending the Gallic Wars. Villedieu-sur-Indre was also close to a battle between Romans and Gauls. Caesar didn’t record it in Gallic Wars, but Roman sling bullets have been found in the nearby oppidium, so the area was definitely in the thick of the conflict.

Archaeologists believe there is therefore a connection between the horse burials and the battles of the Gallic Wars. The burials are too consistent and tidy for the horses to have been killed in battle. The current hypothesis is that the burials were part of an unknown ritual, that the horses were sacrificed. If so, it would have been a ritual of enormous significance to require the destruction of the core of the battle-seasoned herd.

Neolithic mammoth bones found in Austrian wine cellar

A winemaker in Gobelsburg, Lower Austria, renovating his wine cellar stumbled on some large bones that have proved to be 30,000-40,000-year-old mammoth remains. This is the most significant mammoth bone finding in Austria in more than a century, and the first to be excavated with modern methods.

The winemaker, Andreas Pernerstorfer, discovered the first bone in March, and he thought it was an old piece of wood left by his grandfather. After digging it up a little more, he began to suspect it wasn’t wood. He recalled his grandfather had told Andreas years ago that he had found teeth in the cellar, and that made him suspect his new discovery was a mammoth too.

He reported his discovery to the Federal Monuments Office and they called in a team of archaeologists from the Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) to investigate the find. Since the excavation began in mid-May, they have unearthed several dense layers of mammoth bones containing the skeletal remains of at least three different mammoths. The team carefully recovered each bone, revealing multiple interlocking bones.

The last comparable discovery in Austria was made not far from the current excavation site: 150 years ago, in an adjacent wine cellar in Gobelsburg, “a mighty bone layer as well as cultural layers with flint artifacts, decorative fossils and charcoal” were also discovered in the ÖAW release: “ During the excavation there, the affected cellars were completely cleared out, and other comparable sites in Austria and neighboring countries were mostly dug at least 100 years ago and are largely lost to modern research.

Stone artifacts and charcoal remains also came to light in the area of ​​the new excavation. Based on this, the team dated the bone remains to be between 30,000 and 40,000 years old. This could have been a place where Stone Age people once rounded up the massive animals or drove them into a trap and killed them. It is hoped that the unusual discovery situation will provide new information about how people organized and carried out the hunt for the animals back then: “We know that people hunted mammoths, but we still know little about how they did it,” [excavation leader Hannah] Parow-Souchon said.

The ÖAW team is recording the site with 3D mapping technology. They hope it will shed light on how the animals died and, if they’re right about the case of death, on how human hunters were able to take down such massive prey.

Once the bones are fully excavated, they will be transferred to the Natural History Museum (NHM) Vienna for additional study and restoration.

Iron Age human sacrifice victim found in Dorset

A woman buried in a grave in Iron Age Dorset has been identified as a likely victim of human sacrifice. There is evidence that she did hard physical labor in her short life, died from being stabbed in the neck, and her body was buried in an anomalous, highly ritualized way. This combination of elements is rare physical and circumstantial evidence that the deceased was killed as an offering.

The grave containing human and animal bones was discovered in 2010 in an excavation of an Iron Age banjo enclosure (round areas bounded by a ditch and embankment with an entrance passage that gives them a banjo-like shape) at Winterborne Kingston in Dorset. Archaeologists found multiple burial pits and traces of roundhouses in the enclosure. In pit 5013, the fully articulated skeleton of an adult was discovered over a layer of animal bones.

Analysis found the body belonged to a woman in her late 20s at time of death. Despite her young age, her vertebrae were damaged from exertion and showed signs of arthritic changes. The areas of muscle attachment indicate her muscles were well-developed from rigorous and consistent physical activity. Stable isotope analysis of her teeth found she grew up more than 20 miles from the Winterborne Kingston enclosure.

The animal bones had been deliberately placed, not just tossed in, with different species (sheep, cow, horse, dog) placed parallel to each other in an off crescent-shaped arrangement. The human body, on the other hand, received no such consideration. She was face down on top of the animal bones, head and legs towards the left side, arms bent at the elbows, hands beneath the body.

Banjo enclosures were in use from around 400 B.C. until the mid-1st century A.D. Accelerator mass spectrometry dating of the bones in pit 5013 to around 351-3 B.C., so this burial dates to the early years of the enclosure practice. It is unique compared to the other burials at Winterborne Kingston and to Iron Age cemeteries elsewhere in Dorset. Typically, bodies were buried with pottery and meat offerings and were respectfully laid to rest.

She also suffered a rib fracture caused by blunt force trauma about three weeks before her death. Healing had begun and appeared to be progressing well when she met her end. Cut marks on her cervical vertebrae indicate a fine bladed weapon had been inserted into her neck from behind, just under the base of the skull. This wound showed no signs of healing, so it was inflicted right before her death. The placement of the body suggests she was killed inside the pit, perhaps with her hands tied, and buried where she fell.

“All the significant facts we have found such as the problems with her spine, her tough working life, the major injury to her rib, the fact she could have come from elsewhere, and the way she was buried could be explained away in isolation,” [Dr. Martin Smith, Associate Professor in Forensic and Biological Anthropology at Bournemouth University,] said.

“But when you put them all together with her deposition face down on a platform of animal bone, the most plausible conclusion is that she has been the victim of a ritual killing. And of course, we found a large cut mark on her neck which could be the smoking gun,” he added.

The team highlight that as well as providing evidence of human sacrifice, being able to understand the life of the Iron Age woman has been important, both in terms of telling her individual story but also in understanding more about less-fortunate members of society in the past.

“The burials that get the most attention tend to be those of higher status, privileged people,” Dr Smith explained. “However, being able to humanise the story of this woman’s life has given us a valuable glimpse into the other side of Iron Age society. Behind every ancient burial we find is someone’s story waiting to be told.”

The findings have been published in The Antiquaries Journal and can be read here.