Archive for October, 2021

Horses first domesticated in northern Caucasus steppes

Thursday, October 21st, 2021

The earliest domesticated horses on the archaeological record were discovered at Botai in Central Asia and date to around 3,500 B.C. They are not, however, the ancestors of any modern domesticated horse lineage. To pinpoint the unknown geographic origins of the domesticated horse, an interdisciplinary team of researchers embarked on the largest genetic study of horses to date, analyzing the skeletal remains of 273 equids from the Iberian Peninsula and other regions of Eurasia ranging in date from 50,000 years ago to 200 B.C.

The genetic information extracted from the remains was sequenced at the geneticists at the University of Toulouse III-Paul Sabatier and the University of Évry, and then compared to the genomes of modern domestic horses. The study found that the ancestor horses of all domesticated horses in existence today were first domesticated in the northern Caucasus steppes.

Thanks to the large battery of statistical analyses carried out, it has been possible to establish that between 2,200 and 2,000 BC, a drastic change took place in which the genetic profile existing in the Pontic steppes began to spread beyond its region of origin, thus replacing in a few centuries all wild horse populations from the Atlantic to Mongolia.

According to L. Orlando, “this replacement in the genetic composition of Eurasian populations is associated with significant genomic differences between this new type of horse and the horses of the populations that disappeared. On the one hand, this new type of horse from the steppes of the northern Caucasus had a more docile behaviour and, on the other hand, a more robust constitution in the vertebral skeleton”. The researchers suggest that these characteristics triggered the successful selection of these animals, at a time when horse travel was becoming widespread in Eurasia.

According to Pablo Librado (CNRS), first author of this research, “this study has also shown that the distribution of this new type of horse in Asia coincides with the appearance of light carts and the spread of Indo-Iranian languages. In contrast, the migration of Indo-European populations from the steppe zone to the heart of Europe during the third millennium BC did not use this new type of horse as a vector for its expansion. This result demonstrates the importance of also incorporating the genetic history of animals when analysing the dimension of human migrations and intercultural contacts”.

Interesting to note, there is no evidence that the movement of horses westward was connected to horse-back warfare. Rather, a decline of population in the late Neolithic made space for the pastoral horse-breeding peoples like the Yamnaya culture of the steppes.

The study also solved another horse-related mystery: the origins of the tarpan horse, aka the Eurasian wild horse, which went extinct in the first decade of the 20th century. The tarpan genome was a mixture of native European horses and wild ancestors in western Ukraine, not a feral offshoot of modern domesticated horses or a hybrid of domesticated horses and Przewalski’s horses from Mongolia, the only surviving wild horses in the world and critically endangered.

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


Diver finds 900-year-old crusader sword

Wednesday, October 20th, 2021

An amateur scuba diver has discovered a 900-year-old sword believed to have belonged to a crusader knight off the Carmel coast of northern Israel. Shlomi Katzin found the sword on a dive last Sunday. It and other artifacts had been exposed by shifts in sands after a storm.

It is encrusted in shells and marine life that attached themselves to the oxidizing iron of the sword. The three-foot blade and foot-long hilt are intact underneath the thick concretions, and archaeologists believe it was well-preserved in the steady temperature of the Mediterranean water.

“The Carmel coast contains many natural coves that provided shelter for ancient ships in a storm, and larger coves around which entire settlements and ancient port cities developed, such as Dor and Atlit,” explains Kobi Sharvit, Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Marine Archaeology Unit. “These conditions have attracted merchant ships down the ages, leaving behind rich archaeological finds. The recently recovered sword is just one such find.”

The site where the anchors and the sword were found has been monitored by the Israel Antiquities Authority since June, when it was first discovered by Boaz Langford and Rafael Bahalul. The site’s finds are very elusive, since they appear and disappear with the movement of the sands.

The sword is now in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s conservation laboratory where it will be cleaned and studied before it is put on public display. 

Here is video from Shlomi Katzin’s GoPro camera when he found the sword.


Microscope Darwin gave to his son up for auction

Tuesday, October 19th, 2021

A microscope gifted by naturalist Charles Darwin to his 14-year-old son Leonard is being sold by the family almost 200 years after Darwin acquired it. The microscope, complete with all accessories in its original 3 x 3.5″ mahogany case, is the only Darwin microscope ever offered at auction. Little wonder, as there are only six surviving microscopes known to have belonged to Charles Darwin (including this one).

It is the oldest one of the six, made by Charles Gould for the firm of instrument-maker William Cary around 1825. The Gould Improved Pocket Microscope was comparatively inexpensive and rapidly became so popular that it was endlessly copied, patents be damned. It was originally designed for observing microorganisms in water which was all the rage in the 1820s. Viewing the “animalcules” in water was literally entertainment and people paid for it. Travelling showmen used portable microscopes like this one to show off all the beasties people were shocked and fascinated to discover they’d been drinking all their lives.

Darwin was into the hobby too, so much so that initially it was actually a detriment to his studies. This very microscope is believed to have been the one he used to blow off med school.

Charles Darwin’s research career began with his investigation into the sea creatures being dredged up from Scotland’s Firth of Forth while trying to avoid his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh. Darwin’s studies of these strange ‘zoophytes’ began in 1826 and reached a successful conclusion in the spring of 1827, when he presented his first scientific paper to the University’s Plinian Society. These dates coincide with the appearance of the present microscope on the market, which was designed by Charles Gould for the firm Cary around 1825. Of the six surviving microscopes associated with Charles Darwin, four are known to have been acquired later (two in 1831, one each in 1847 and around 1848), and the other cannot be used for studying marine invertebrates. In this early research Darwin was contributing to Robert Grant’s radical reinterpretation of the animal kingdom, in which apparently simple creatures – like the ‘zoophytes’ – were understood to be at the beginning of a natural order that led up to Homo sapiens. This preoccupation with the ‘first’ creatures was picked up again by Darwin in the crucial period during and immediately following the Beagle Voyage.

By the time Charles gave Leonard the scope it was already 30 years old, but he took the same joy in it as his father had when collecting water from the Firth of Forth instead of studying medicine. Four years later, Leonard was a committed microscopist, as Charles recorded in an 1858 letter to his eldest son: “Lenny was dissecting under my microscope and he turned round very gravely & said ‘don’t you think, papa, that I shall be very glad of this all my future life.'”

The presale estimate is £250,000-350,000 ($354,000-483,000), and when the hammer falls at Christie’s on December 15th, that estimate is very likely to be exceeded.


World’s oldest ghost found on back of cuneiform tablet

Monday, October 18th, 2021

Well, the oldest known drawing of a ghost, at any rate, although who can say whether he haunts the tablet to this day. The fine line drawing incised on the back of a 3,500-year-old Babylonian tablet depicts a male ghost bound at the wrists and being led by a woman to the afterlife. It is an illustration of the cuneiform text on the obverse which explains how to get rid of a ghost who has attached himself to someone and won’t let go because he’s desperate for love.

The tablet was acquired by the British Museum in the 19th century. Half of it is missing and the cuneiform was originally mistranslated, so it was deemed comparatively unremarkable and has never been exhibited. Nobody even noticed the figures on the back because they are so faint they can only be seen under bright light when viewed from directly above it. Enter the one, the only, the living legend, Dr. Irving Finkel.

Dr Irving Finkel, curator of the Middle Eastern department at the British Museum, said the “absolutely spectacular object from antiquity” had been overlooked until now.

“It’s obviously a male ghost and he’s miserable. You can imagine a tall, thin, bearded ghost hanging about the house did get on people’s nerves. The final analysis was that what this ghost needed was a lover,” he said.

“You can’t help but imagine what happened before. ‘Oh God, Uncle Henry’s back.’ Maybe Uncle Henry’s lost three wives. Something that everybody knew was that the way to get rid of the old bugger was to marry him off. It’s not fanciful to read this into it. It’s a kind of explicit message. There’s very high-quality writing there and immaculate draughtsmanship.

“That somebody thinks they can get rid of a ghost by giving them a bedfellow is quite comic.”

Finkel was the first to decipher it correctly and recognize it as a ghost magic text complete with visual aid on the reverse. The instructions explain how to “seizes hold of a person and pursues him and cannot be loosed.” Spoiler: dress a woman in red, equip her with a bed and he’ll fall right into the trap.

The ritual involves making figurines of a man and a woman: “You dress the man in an everyday shift and equip him with travel provisions. You wrap the woman in four red garments and clothe her in a purple cloth. You give her a golden brooch. You equip her fully with bed, chair, mat and towel; you give her a comb and a flask.

“At sunrise towards the sun you make the ritual arrangements and set up two carnelian vessels of beer. You set in place a special vessel and set up a juniper censer with juniper. You draw the curtain like that of the diviner. You [put] the figurines together with their equipment and place them in position… and say as follows, Shamash [god of the sun and judge of the underworld by night].”

The text ends with a warning: “Do not look behind you!”

As you may or may not recall, Finkel shared his gleeful appreciation of Babylonian ghost lore in a wonderful video I posted four years ago. (No word on whether he received all the chameleon bristles, frog claws and left wings of grasshoppers he needed to raise the dead according to the recipe on that tablet.) That enthusiastic embrace of ancient ghost-related ritual, not to mention Finkel’s vast intellect and witty writing style, are sure to be on full display in his forthcoming book on ancient Mesopotamian belief in ghosts. The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies is set for publication on November 11th but not yet available for pre-order anywhere (and yes, I checked). You can get your Finkel fix earlier than that at a British Museum webinar discussing the history of Assyrian ghostology on October 28th, the perfect amouse-bouche for a Halloween candy binge.


Roman lead figurine is warrior, not slave

Sunday, October 17th, 2021

New research into a 1st century A.D. Roman lead figurine found in Wall, Staffordshire, almost 100 years ago has found that it does not represent an enslaved African as archaeologists originally thought, but rather a warrior. The tell-tale clue had been overlooked: a small socket in his right hand that would originally have held a weapon, probably a bronze spear.

Now part of the parish of Wall in Staffordshire, the Roman site of Letocetum was founded as a temporary military marching camp in the late 40s A.D., the early ears of the Roman conquest of Britain. The first timber fort was built around 55 A.D. during the campaign of governor Aulus Didius Gallus against the rebel Brigantes king Venutius.

(Juicy sidenote: His rebellion was really against his ex-wife Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes and ally of Rome, who had scandalously divorced him to marry his lowly armour-bearer Vellocatus. She wasn’t Venutius’ consort; she had inherited the crown in her own right, so when she dumped him she remained queen. He went to war to wrest leadership of the Brigantes out her hands and that meant fighting Rome too when they came to her defense. He had no particular beef with them.)

A hilltop fort was built around 58 A.D. to garrison Legio XIV Gemina. They moved on within a couple of years, but the fort only grew in importance because it occupied a central position at the junction of the Roman military road network, linking Watling Street (which ran northwest from the Kentish coast to Wroxeter, Shropshire) and Ryknield Street (which ran south to north from Gloucester to York). It was reconstructed several times. In the late 1st century, a large public bathhouse and a mansio, a sort of private inn that lodged imperial officials traveling the roads, were built. The Roman remains visible above-ground at the site today are parts of the baths and mansio.

The figurine is believed to have been discovered in the 1920s at a 1st and 2nd century burial ground on Watling Street, which is today on the west side of Wall but was outside the town walls of Letocetum. The find was not made in a formal excavation and was not recorded at the time, but archaeologists believe it was a grave good interred with cinerary remains. The bottom half of it is partially melted, something that could have happened when the ashes from the funeral pyre were scattered in the grave over the goods.

Just over two inches high, the figurine wears armlets on his upper arms and a necklace of beads. It was the seemingly pained expression on his face that spurred the original interpretation of the figure as slave bent over in suffering. While distorted from the heat, the legs appear to be crossed as if he were sitting on the ground. In the 1990s, with many more examples of Roman artworks depicting African figures known, the figurine was reassessed and his cross-legged posture reinterpreted as a seated wrestler as seen in many comparable examples discovered in Continental Europe.

The spear socket was spotted only this year when the figurine was photographed in great detail.

With the addition of a spear we can now see that the figurine stood upright, holding out his weapon, rather than sitting with legs folded as previously suggested. The image of an African man shown with his spear appeared in art in the Classical period as well as more recently, and is often called the African Warrior. The figurine from Wall is now reinterpreted as a representation of that persona.

As to how the figurine came to be at Letocetum, it is very unlikely that this piece was made in Britain, though once they had been introduced, metal figurines were made here. The Wall figurine is sufficiently unusual to indicate that it was made on the Continent, but it may have come from somewhere much closer to the Mediterranean than Gaul.

During the Roman invasion of Britain huge numbers of people travelled here, originating from many different parts of the Empire. While we do not have a clear provenance for the figurine, the evidence that it was used as a grave good at Wall suggests one possible history – that an individual acquired this unusual piece of art on the Continent, travelled thousands of miles with it, and was buried with it in a foreign land.


7th c. B.C. shipwreck illuminates trade in early Magna Grecia

Saturday, October 16th, 2021

The uniquely well-preserved cargo of an ancient shipwreck found in the Strait of Otranto sheds new light on the early history of the Greek colonization of southern Italy. The wreck was discovered in 2019 at a depth of 780 meters (just shy of a half mile) on the Adriatic seabed off the coast of the Salento area in southern Apuglia. To investigate that deep under water, marine archaeologists from the National Superintendence for Underwater Cultural Heritage employed a submersible Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) armed with the latest technologies used in underwater exploration by the oil and gas industries. It was able to uncover part of the wreck and recover 22 ceramic vessels from Corinth dating to the first half of the 7th century B.C.

Archaeological material documenting the early stages of Mediterranean trade in the Greek and Illyrian colonies of southern Italy are rare finds in underwater contexts, and since so much commerce then like now took place throughout the Mediterranean basin, the discovery an intact load of cargo is a uniquely rich source of data for researchers. The objects are now in the National Superintendence’s restoration laboratory in Taranto.

The 22 vessels consist of three amphorae of Corinthian A type, 10 Corinthian skyphoi, four Corinthian hydrias, three trilobite oinochoai and one coarse ceramic jug of a very common Corinthian type. One of the large amphorae, which was partially broken, still contained a remarkable curving stack of nested skyphoi. There are at least 25 of them, plus fragments from other cups. More may be revealed when the thick deposits of marine sediment are removed from the pithos.

That sediment has archaeological value as well. Researchers will analyze organic and plant residues that may have been trapped in the sediment for evidence of what the vessels transported. One of the Corinthian A amphorae has already been found to contain numerous olive pits.  Based on remote documentation of the site, there are still about 200 artifacts scattered on the seabed. The Culture Ministry plans to systematically recover them all.

This video has some cool footage of the robotic arm of the ROV recovering fragile ceramics from the wreck site.


Archaeologists return to Bronze Age tumulus

Friday, October 15th, 2021

Armed with modern technology, archaeologists have returned to a Bronze Age tumulus in Brittany, northwestern France, that was already excavated once in the 19th century and was largely destroyed by occupying German forces during World War II.

The Cruguel tumulus is on a hill in the town of Guidel where the Laïta river flows into the Atlantic Ocean. When it was first explored by renown Breton archaeologist Louis Le Pontois in the 1880s, it was still 85 feet in diameter and 18 feet high. It was topped with menhirs capped by a large block of granite. The central tomb was excavated and three bronze daggers and 14 flint arrowheads were recovered from the grave. The German occupiers destroyed it, leveling the mound and building on top of it.

This year, archaeologists returned to the tumulus in the hope that modern technology and archaeological practices might bring to light previously undiscovered information about the mound, maybe even unrecorded menhirs on its periphery. Those latter hopes proved vain, but the team did unearth vertical stone slabs that originally formed the perimeter of the mound. They also discovered two pits containing sherds of pottery decorated with incised lines and a funerary stone coffer from the period the tumulus was constructed.

The excavation also provided a better understanding of the architecture of the funerary monument, made up of successive contributions of soil between which layers of clay are inserted, intended to stabilize and solidify the elevation. These clays were taken nearby, as evidenced by the large extraction pits discovered about twenty meters to the east of the monument. A small stone structure, the function of which has not yet been determined, has also been unearthed at the base of the tumulus.

The archaeologists especially had the good surprise to rediscover the central tomb, fortunately preserved under the German remains. Quadrangular in shape, it measured 4 m long by 2.50 m wide and was hollowed out to nearly 1 m deep. The excavation has shown that the arrangement of blocks that constituted the top had been largely disrupted by the exploration of the XIXth century and the collapse that followed. A perforated block and a cup block (round shapes pitted in the stone) were nevertheless extracted from the filling: their function, perhaps symbolic or aesthetic, still raises questions.

The rest of the study will enrich our knowledge of the first societies of the Bronze Age, where tombs dedicated to a single deceased supplant collective tombs and betray a growing hierarchy.


Iron Age salt miners ate blue cheese and beer

Thursday, October 14th, 2021

Fungi found in ancient feces recovered from the Hallstatt salt mines in Austria are the earliest evidence of people eating blue cheese and drinking beer in Iron Age Europe.

The salt mountains of Hallstatt in the Eastern Alps have been mined since at least the 14th century B.C. and mining has been continuous ever since. Excavations have unearthed multiple layers dense with evidence of mining activity during the early Iron Age (800-400 B.C.). Objects include wooden tools, fur, hide, wool and textile fragments, ropes and beautifully preserved human feces. These paleofeces, rapidly desiccated in the dry, perpetually cool and salty air of the underground mines, can be radiocarbon dated and analyzed to discover what people ate, what parasites they had, details about the microflora and fauna of their digestive system.

This study looked at three samples of paleofeces from the Bronze Age and Iron Age layers of the Hallstatt mine, and one sample from the 18th century. Even though the samples had been excavated as far as back as 1983, researchers were able to retrieve DNA and proteins that were almost entirely undamaged thanks to the rapid desiccation of the paleofeces in the salt mine environment.

Analyses found that all four samples came from four individual males. Researchers tested for 15 of the most abundant species found in the guts of modern-day populations. They found 13 of them, 11 of them more prevalent in non-Westernized populations. Microscopic analysis of the dietary components found that the Bronze Age sample was heavy on cereals — barley, spelt, emmer, millet. The Iron Age samples were also cereal-rich, with beans, opium poppy seeds, crab apples, cranberries rounding out the diet. Molecular analysis of DNA and protein biomolecules confirmed the presence of the cereals, seeds and fruit varieties and also revealed the presence of walnuts. The plants were supplemented by beef and pork.

It was one of the Iron Age samples that contained the biggest surprise: a high abundance of DNA and proteins from Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae fungi. The research team confirmed these were not contaminants but are indeed of ancient origin, and were used in deliberate fermentation to produce a non-Roquefort blue cheese and beer. Had the fermentation been spontaneous, there would have been yeast species present in the paleofeces that are not there. Wooden cradles have also been unearthed in the mines that are believed to have been used as cheese strainers.

“The Hallstatt miners seem to have intentionally applied food fermentation technologies with microorganisms which are still nowadays used in the food industry,” [the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies’ Frank] Maixner says.

The findings offer the first evidence that people were already producing blue cheese in Iron Age Europe nearly 2,700 years ago, he adds.

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


Update: Yorkshire Museum acquires Ryedale Ritual Bronzes

Wednesday, October 13th, 2021

The nationally important hoard of votive bronzes including a bust of Emperor Marcus Aurelius that fell through the loophole in the Treasure Act and were sold at auction earlier this year have been acquired by the Yorkshire Museum. Discovered in 2020 by two metal detectorists near the village of Ampleforth, North Yorkshire, the collection of bronzes includes an equestrian statuette of a local iteration of the god Mars, a knife handle shaped like the forequarters of a horse, a large plumb bob and a finely-modeled bust of Marcus Aurelius six inches high. They date to the late 2nd century.

Most remarkable is the striking bust of Antonine emperor Marcus Aurelius. This would have sat atop a sceptre or priestly staff, a focal point for religious ceremonies. Being the face of the emperor, it is a potent symbol of the Imperial Cult, the empire-wide worship of emperors as divine. Such direct evidence of the imperial cult is exceedingly rare, especially in rural settings like this. In terms of its execution and style the bust is absolutely unique, exceedingly rare and of great national significance in its own right.

The three objects found alongside the bust help to add context to the burial of this spectacular object. The beautifully detailed horse and rider figure, a localised depiction of the god Mars, is of a type that has never been found this far north. The knife handle in the form of a horse, may symbolically represent a sacrificial animal in this context. The plumb bob is a large and fine example of a functional object used in Roman engineering projects. Its inclusion within the hoard is unparalleled in Roman Britain and hints at the focus of this enigmatic ritual being the blessing of an act of landscape engineering.

When the assemblage was sold to an unknown buyer for £185,000 ($260,000) in May 2021, I expressed a forlorn hope that the buyer would turn out to be a museum or a generous donor thereto. It was neither. The buyer was antiquities dealer David Aaron, but a generous donor did materialize to save the day. Richard Beleson of San Francisco, a great friend of the Yorkshire Museum who supported them in their acquisition of the Wold Newton Roman coin hoard in 2017, went to the bat for them again. With additional contributions from the Art Fund and other private donors, the museum was able to secure this exceptional treasure that is so uniquely significant to the history of Yorkshire.

The hoard was discovered in the Ampleforth area of Ryedale district, North Yorkshire, England. Before the discovery of this hoard, the presence of the Romans in this area was little known. This find therefore rewrites the history of our region. The situation of this discovery, with detailed and reliable provenance information, makes the hoard even more significant.

The hoard is on display this week at the Frieze Masters in London. It will then make a permanent move to York where it will be exhibited in the Yorkshire Museum’s Roman collection when the museum reopens in 2022.


2,700-year-old luxury toilet found in Jerusalem

Tuesday, October 12th, 2021

Archaeologists have discovered a rare luxury private toilet in the ruins of a 2,700-year-old royal building from the Kingdom of Judah in Jerusalem. The smooth carved limestone rectangle with a purposeful hole in the center was unearthed in an excavation of the Armon Hanatziv Promenade, formerly the residence of the British governors of Palestine, before construction of a new tourist complex.

Only a handful of toilet remains from the First Temple Period have been found in Israel, and most of them have just the toilet seats surviving. This find is exceptional because the seat was discovered inside the original cubicle, an ancient water closet for the most privileged of individuals in an era when permanent toilet facilities (as opposed to commodes or going in a secluded spot outdoors) were communal. Under the hole of the toilet seat was a tank to hold waste. Animals bones and pottery were found inside the tank. Many of the vessels were bowls, so while they may have been discarded as refuse, the preponderance of the bowl form suggests they were used as containers in the bathroom. Deodorant oils to counter the fumes from the septic tank, perhaps?

Archaeologists believe the palace overlooked the Temple Mount was built after the failed Assyrian siege of Jerusalem (701 B.C.) during the reign of King Hezekiah. Two other large-scale royal constructions from around this period have been discovered in Jerusalem, perhaps part of a royal program of reconstruction in the city. The remains of villas and public buildings outside the ancient walls that had stood up to Sennacherib attests to the growth of the city after the Assyrian retreat.

The building and its refined toilet had a short lifespan, alas, destroyed in 586 B.C. when Jerusalem was successfully besieged  by the Neo-Babylonian Empire under King Nebuchadnezzar II. The last king, along with most of the societal elite, were deported to Babylonia. Nebuchadnezzar installed a puppet as nominal king, but the destruction of the Temple, the city and its ruling class meant the demise of the Kingdom of Judah.

Last year excavations unearthed dozens of architectural elements including large column capitals and matching mini-capitals that once topped the palace’s balcony balustrade. The design of the capitals, known as Proto-Aeolian and seen on ancient coins from the period, is characteristic of Kingdom of Judah architecture.

The bones, pottery and night soil recovered from the septic tank will be analyzed to shed new light on First Temple Period diets, parasites and diseases. Residues inside the bowls may answer the question of whether they were used to deodorize or for some other purpose.





October 2021


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