World’s oldest wooden structure unearthed in Zambia

The well-preserved remains of a wooden structure that is no less than 476,000 years old, pre-dating the appearance of Homo sapiens by 100,000, have been discovered at Kalambo Falls in Zambia. Two logs were found in an interlocking position, joined by an intentionally cut notch. Early hominins whittled, shaped and stacked timbers into an unidentified structure that may have been a shelter, a raised track, a fishing platform or something else entirely.

Professor Larry Barham, from the University of Liverpool’s Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, who leads the “Deep Roots of Humanity” research project said, “This find has changed how I think about our early ancestors. Forget the label ‘Stone Age,’ look at what these people were doing: they made something new, and large, from wood. They used their intelligence, imagination, and skills to create something they’d never seen before, something that had never previously existed.”

“They transformed their surroundings to make life easier, even if it was only by making a platform to sit on by the river to do their daily chores. These folks were more like us than we thought.”

The Kalambo Falls site was first excavated in the 1950s, and while wood objects — including large ones that could have been part of a structure — were found in those early digs, their age could not be determined with the technology available at the time. Archaeologists returned to the site in the early 2000s to date the remains with modern techniques, and in 2019 they found several pieces of wood that showed signs of having been intentionally modified. There were whittled digging tools, a wedge-shaped block and one much larger find: a timber 4.6 feet long with tapered ends and a deeply-carved notch into which another large log was slotted perpendicular to the first like big, pre-modern human Lincoln Logs.

The wood was preserved for half a million years in the waterlogged sediments of the Kalambo River. Radiocarbon dating relies on the half-life of carbon-14 (5,730 years), so its effectiveness is limited to archaeological or paleontological materials that are less than 60,000 years old. The wood was carbon dated just to cover all bases, and the dates were infinite (ie, more than 50,000 years old). In order to date organic remains that turned out to be more than eight times older than C-14’s limit, researchers used two different types of luminescence analyses on 16 sand samples collected from deposits containing the wood. The results dated the samples to at least 476 ± 23 thousand years ago.

No hominin remains have been discovered at Kalambo Falls to identify which ancestors of modern humans made this wood structure. A Homo heidelbergensis skull dating to 300,000 years ago has been found at another site in Zambia, so that’s one possibility.

This extraordinary find has been published in the journal Nature and can be read here.

Paper-thin Merovingian gold squares found in Norway

Norwegian archaeologists have unearthed five paper-thin stamped gold squares in Vingrom outside Lillehammer. The pieces are tiny, about the size of a fingernail, and as thin as paper or aluminum foil. They are typically stamped with figures of men and women in elegant clothes standing facing each other. They date to Norway’s Merovingian period, the era from 550 A.D. to the dawn of the Viking age in 793 A.D.

Despite the fact that the gold nuggets are so small, the motifs have a striking richness of detail. Usually the woman is dressed in a side dress, sometimes with a tow and a cape, and the man has a shorter skirt so that the feet are visible. He can also wear a cape, and both can wear jewelry, different hairstyles and hold different things like drinking cups, wands or rings in the hands or have hands to point to different gestures. They are actually so detailed and varied that they are the source of studies of the time’s costume and iconographic studies. […]

Most interpretations of gold guys mean that they have had a mythical or ritual meaning. And it is suggested that the gold nuggets with couple motifs reflect the hierogamy myth, the holy wedding between the habit god Frøy and the jotun daughter Gerd, or that they may have been used as an offering when celebrating a wedding or in fertility rituals. They can also be interpreted ideologically as representing the mythical ancestors or the descendants of chiefs and first families, and may then have served as an authentication of the ruling families’ power-political demands and ruling role.

Excavations at the site along the E6 highway began this summer in advance of road expansion. Previous small-scale excavations in the area unearthed 30 gold squares that archaeologists believe were connected to a “god’s court,” an ancient place of worship that was discovered there in 1993. The building was small — no more than 50 feet long at a time when residential homes were usually between 65 and 100 feet long. Archaeologists believe it was used purely for ritual purposes rather than feasting or habitation. Perhaps only a select elite of society were allowed inside.

There are only about 10 such temple sites in Norway where the gold squares have been found, and the 30 found here were by far the largest single collection discovered at a god’s court. The team were therefore not expecting to find any more in the new excavation. They were elated to unearth five of them in the past two weeks.

The newly-discovered gold squares are of particular significance because they were found in the precise locations of their deposition. Three of them were found where the wall of the temple once was. Two were found in postholes. For the first time, archaeologists are now able to link the gold pieces directly to the construction of the building. They were placed in the foundations before the walls were built.

It’s not known what purpose the little gold people served, but one of the hypotheses is that they were given to the temple by worshippers as a kind of price of admission. The five pieces found under the walls and postholes could not have been accessible to people seeking admission to the building, so their discovery points to the squares having been a sacrifice or a ritual of protection before construction.

The excavation is ongoing and over the fall and winter, the remains of the building will be radiocarbon dated. It should be possible to establish when the house of the gods was built and perhaps even how long it stood. The postholes indicate the building was in place for hundreds of years with the roof and supports replaced when they rotted.

Two Roman cavalry swords found in Cotswolds

Two Roman spatha swords have been discovered by a metal detectorist in the north Cotswolds. They are of a type that was in use in Britain from around 160 A.D. through the 3rd century. The swords were buried with their fitments inside their wooden scabbards. Only a few fragments of the wood have survived.

Their considerable length suggests that they are cavalry weapons– or, more accurately, weapons intended for use on horseback. It was not illegal for civilians to own such weapons and to carry them for travelling because Roman provinces were plagued with banditry.

[Professor Simon James from Leicester University] explained: “In terms of parallels, I can’t think of finds of more than one sword being deposited in any similar circumstance from Roman Britain. The closest that springs to mind was a pair of similar swords found in Canterbury—with their owners, face down in a pit within the city walls, clearly a clandestine burial, almost certainly a double murder.”

Detectorist Glenn Manning found the pair of swords and a copper alloy bowl during a metal detecting rally this March. He and the landowner agreed to donate the swords to the Corinium Museum in Cirencester so they could be exhibited close to where they were discovered. The swords are currently undergoing conservation at the museum.

Historic England is assisting the museum by arranging for the swords to go for further analysis under x-ray. Archaeological appraisal at the dig site in the north of the Cotswolds may follow to help put the swords into context, as we don’t know why they ended up buried in the Cotswolds.

Second, older Roman fridge found in Novae

This year’s excavation of the Roman legionary camp of Novae in Bulgaria has uncovered a second Roman refrigeration chamber very similar to the one discovered last year. It too is made of flat ceramic slabs inset in the ground, but this one has an extra feature: a lead water pipe running along its long side to provide additional constant cooling. It is also older, dating to the earliest phase of the camp’s occupation.

The Roman castrum (military camp) of Novae was founded in 45 A.D. as a defensive fort on the Lower Danube border of the province of Moesia Inferior. Its builders and first occupants were the soldiers of Legio VIII Augusta. Legio I Italica replaced them in 69 A.D. and settled in for the long-term, only leaving in 441 A.D. when the Huns forcibly showed them the door.

The refrigeration chamber unearthed in last year’s dig was found under a floor in the stone headquarters of Legio I Italica. This year’s discovery was made in the wood and earth barracks of Legio VIII Augusta, built in the first phase of construction of the camp. The remains of drinking cups, bowls and animal bones were also found inside the Roman fridge. The food remnants will allow researchers to recreate the last meal preserved in the cool chamber.

Archaeologists also uncovered the earliest known well in Novae and a water network of ceramic and lead pipes. From the later period of occupation, the excavation of a 4th century ceramic furnace revealed a set of intact vessels, including a wine drinking set, in a rare black surface glaze decorated with a smooth finish alternating with concentric circles. These vessels are rare finds on the Danube border, and the chronology of their production is still subject to scholarly debate. The Novae set will be radiocarbon dated to answer some of these long-standing questions.

Injecting a note of whimsy into this year’s extraordinary inventory of finds is a silver mouse. It is a pendant, its tail forming the hanging loop. It is carved in fine detail down to the hairs, and holds a round piece of food (cheese?) in its wee front paws.

Roman-era early settler burials found in Germany

A team of student and professional archaeologists have unearthed dozens of burials near
Nauheim, a town southwest of Frankfurt in the west central German state of Hesse. The grave goods indicate the deceased were immigrants with Gallic funerary customs who settled in the area in the middle of the 1st century A.D.

The burial ground was discovered in a six-week salvage operation to recover any archaeological materials at the site before they were destroyed by intensive agricultural work and soil deterioration. A Roman military camp was known to have been built in the Nauheim area, so the team expected to find Roman remains. The graves of early settlers came as a surprise.

The Hessian Ried region of the Upper Rhine Plain was very swampy and sparsely populated in the 1st century. The general area was settled by the Germanic Chatti tribe in the 1st century B.C. If there was an indigenous Celtic population there, they left no archaeological evidence to speak of. In the 1st century A.D., the Roman army spread out from the large fort at Mainz to secure the Rhineland. As they always did, the Romans built roads and navigable waterways to enable the transportation of troops and supplies. Tribes moving south from northern Germany seeking greener pastures took advantage of the new Roman infrastructure, and rural settlements developed along the routes.

Archaeologists unearthed a total of 46 graves, 44 of them cremation burials, only two of them inhumations.

There are also six rectangular ditch systems that can be viewed as the enclosure of special burials and, according to current knowledge, all belong to the founding phase of the burial ground. In addition, the foundation of a tomb that was once many meters high was found, but in southern Hesse, which was poor in stone, it was completely dismantled in the Middle Ages and stripped of its stones right down to the base of the foundation. The burial ground can be traced back to the beginning of the 3rd century. The residents of a neighboring estate have used the area as a burial place for over 150 years. In some cases there are additions such as a complete urn made of glass, which testify to a certain level of prosperity of those buried. […]

One curious form of burial in particular stood out: an early Nauheimer “in the bucket”. Burying a person in a bronze bucket and providing tools such as scissors or knives is atypical for Roman burials. This is also the first time that evidence of the grave enclosures mentioned has been found in southern Hesse, while the custom was widespread on the left of the Rhine in the east of Gaul in the late Iron Age (1st century BC) and the 1st century AD. For scientists, such unusual burials are clear signs that immigrants were buried here, bringing not only their culture but also their burial rites with them.