Friday, July 31, 2015

How Indiana Jones Actually Changed Archaeology

Don your leather jacket and fedora, strap on a satchel, and get that bullwhip cracking: It’s time to explore the mythical intersection of Hollywood fantasy and real-world discovery.

Three decades ago, Indiana Jones’s swashbuckling brand of archaeology inspired a generation of moviegoers. Now a new exhibit at the National Geographic Museum pays homage to the actual artifacts and archaeologists that inspired Indy’s creation.

Opening Thursday, “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology”brings together movie memorabilia from LucasFilm Ltd., ancient objects from the Penn Museum, and historical materials from the National Geographic Society archives.

Some of the artifacts are real, including the world’s oldest map (a cuneiform tablet showing the city of Nippur), pieces of 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian jewelry, and iconographic clay pots that helped unlock the mystery of theNazca Lines.

Other objects—like the Sankara Stones, the Cross of Coronado, and a Chachapoyan fertility idol—were imagined for the movies. And then there are some that hover in the fact-or-fiction netherworld: the Holy Grail, for instance, and the Ark of the Covenant. (Since no actual Ark has ever been found, the one built for Raiders of the Lost Ark, on display here, has become the iconic image—a case of life imitating art.)

The point, says exhibit curator Fred Hiebert, a renowned archaeological fellow at National Geographic, is “to show how much these films have broadened the scope of archaeology and made the field more relevant—and exciting—to people everywhere.”

The Power of Four

Stroll through the immersive, interactive exhibit and you soon realize that four is the magic number.

Clips from the four Indiana Jones films—Raiders, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—flicker on the walls. At the same time, you move through four themed sections, each based on the work real archaeologists do: quest, discovery, investigation, and interpretation.

Hollywood is well represented here. Harrison Ford’s recorded voice greets visitors as they enter. Two-dimensional sketches and set designs adorn the walls. And items of clothing worn by Karen Allen, Kate Capshaw, and Sean Connery beckon inside glass cases.

But real archaeology gets equal billing. Side by side with the props, costumes, and storyboards are lessons on stratigraphy and archaeological technology such as Lidar, pre-Columbian drawings by the English illustrator Annie Hunter, and field photos of the Mayan scholar Tatiana Proskouriakoff.

George Lucas created Indiana Jones as a tribute to the action heroes of his favorite 1930s matinée serials. But he was equally inspired by real 20th-century archaeologists like Hiram Bingham (National Geographic’s first archaeological grantee), Roy Chapman Andrews, and Sir Leonard Woolley. Their exotic exploits—finding lost cities, discovering treasure, deciphering hieroglyphics—captured the public imagination.

Decades later, they inspired four films that braid pop culture and Hollywood magic with world history and archaeological science.

The Archaeology of Influence

“These films introduced so many people to archaeology,” says Hiebert. “We can document their impact statistically, based on the number of archaeology students before and after the first film. Some of the best archaeologists in the world today say Indiana Jones was what sparked their initial interest. That’s a great legacy for George Lucas—and for the relationship between popular media and science.”

John Rhys-Davies agrees.

Reached by email, the Welsh actor who played the Egyptian excavator Sallah—Indy’s burly, bearded sidekick in two of the films—writes, “I must have met at least 150 or 160 full professors, lecturers, practising archaeologists who have come up to me to say their first interest in archaeology began when they saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. That's not a bad legacy for any film!”

Life Vs. Art Of course, says Hiebert, real archaeology happens in the real world.

“Unlike Indiana Jones,” he says, “I actually have to write research proposals and reports, take field notes and photographs. The big difference [between movies and reality] is that massive parts of the archaeological job—from creating and testing a hypothesis to raising money to getting permits and tools—are glossed over by Hollywood.”

Davies is aware of those discrepancies, and best practices.

“The films represent the ‘loot and scoot’ school of archaeology,” he writes. “Not at all the way it's really done! The painstaking recording and documentation of every phase of a dig tells us as much as the object retrieved. What the films do, though, is create that sense of awe and mystery that comes when we try to uncover the past.”

Although Indiana Jones seeks “fortune and glory,” he understands that the objects of his desire belong in a museum.

“And that’s exactly the message National Geographic has,” says Hiebert. “Cultural artifacts need to stay in the place where they come from. Where they belong. I hope this exhibit will put a spotlight on cultural heritage, looting, and loss of heritage—a worldwide phenomenon going on now in Iraq and Syria and Peru and Egypt.”

He also notes a less serious offense.  

“Hollywood has a very vivid imagination when it comes to booby traps,” Hiebert says with a grin. “Indy encounters them everywhere. But I don’t think any professional archaeologist has come across a booby-trapped site yet.”

The movies do mirror reality in at least one way, Hiebert says.

“I’ve worked on five different continents, and every place I’ve worked—whether it’s underwater, in the sands of Turkmenistan, or in the jungles of Honduras—I always find dens of snakes. Always.”

Berlin, Jeremy. 2015. “How Indiana Jones Actually Changed Archaeology”. National Geographic News. Posted: May 14, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Japan's oldest basil pollen found in Nara ruins may have been 'medicine' from China

Basil pollen from the time of the legendary shaman queen Himiko has been discovered at the site that might once have been her home.

The basil, the oldest found in Japan, dates back more than 1,500 years and originated in the tropics of Southeast Asia, archaeologists announced May 13.

It was found in the Makimuku ruins which date back to the early third and fourth centuries.

"Basil of Southeast Asian origin could have been brought here as dried medicinal herbs through exchanges with the Chinese," said Masaaki Kanehara, a professor of archaeology at Nara University of Education.

The ruins, a national historic site, are believed to have once been home to the ancient kingdom of Yamataikoku that was ruled by Himiko.

The exact location of the kingdom has long been a topic of academic debate.

The find was announced in an article published by Kanehara and his wife, Masako, who is also an environmental archaeologist, in a bulletin of the Research Center for Makimukugaku.

The pollen was discovered during a dig conducted in 1991 in a ditch measuring 1.5 meters wide and 1 meter deep, located about 50 meters south of a "kofun" in the ruins. A kofun is a huge burial mound of a high-ranking figure in ancient Japan and the Makimuku Ishizuka Kofun is believed to have been built in the early or mid third century.

Realizing several years ago that the discovered pollen resembled that of the basil plant, the couple planted about 10 kinds of basil last year. After comparing different kinds of basil pollen, the two concluded that the pollen found in the ruins likely came from a strain originating in Southeast Asia.

As only a tiny amount was discovered, it is believed that basil was not cultivated in the area. In addition, the deteriorated colors of the specimen suggests that it is not pollen from a newer era that slipped into the ruins at a later date.

Basil, a herb belonging to the mint family, boasts more than 40 species that originated in India and Southeast Asia.

The strong-scented kind used in Italian cuisine was introduced into Europe from India. In China, basil became an ingredient for medicine, and was ingested in the belief it improved blood flow. In the Edo Period (1603-1867), the seeds of the plant, which become gelatinous when soaked in water, were used as eyewash in Japan.

According to the Gishiwajinden (Biography of the Wa people) chronicle in "Wei Zhi," the official history book of the Wei Dynasty, a number of Chinese missions were sent to Japan in the mid-third century via the Korean Peninsula.

Tsukaoto, Kazuto. 2015. “Japan's oldest basil pollen found in Nara ruins may have been 'medicine' from China”. The Asahi Shimbun. Posted: May 14, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Gold-Filled Tomb of Chinese 'Survivor' Mom Discovered

A Ming Dynasty tomb containing gold treasures has been discovered at a construction site in Nanjing, China. However, the real treasures may be two stone epitaphs that tell the story of the person buried there — Lady Mei, a woman who went from being a concubine to becoming a political and military strategist. 

The epitaphs, found inside the brick tomb, reveal that Lady Mei was a 21-year-old "unwashed and unkempt" woman who "called herself the survivor." Later she became the mother of a duke who ruled a province in southwest China. Lady Mei came to wield much power, providing her son with "strategies for bringing peace to the barbarian tribes and pacifying faraway lands," according to the epitaphs, which were translated from Chinese.

The treasures in her more than 500-year-old tomb include goldbracelets, a gold fragrance box and gold hairpins, all inlaid with a mix of gemstones, including sapphires, rubies and turquoise.

Archaeologists from Nanjing Municipal Museum and the Jiangning District Museum of Nanjing City excavated the tomb in 2008, and their findings were recently translated into English and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics. Lady Mei's coffin was damaged by water, but her skeletal remains were found.

From "survivor" to "dowager duchess"

Researchers say that Lady Mei was one of three wives of Mu Bin, a Duke of Qian who ruled Yunnan, a province in southwest China on the country's frontier.

Born in 1430, she probably would have been about 15 years old when she married the duke, who would've been more than 30 years older than her, researchers say.

She probably didn't enjoy the same status as his other two wives. "Lady Mei was probably a concubine whom he married after he went to guard and rule Yunnan," wrote researchers in the journal article.

But while Lady Mei was a concubine, her own family appears to have had some wealth: Her great-great grandfather "Cheng" was a general who "won every battle" and was granted a fiefdom over "1,000 households," read the epitaphs.

Lady Mei's life changed when she gave birth to the duke's son, Mu Zong, who was 10 months old when the duke died. The newly widowed Lady Mei "was only 21 years of age. She was unwashed and unkempt, and called herself the survivor," the epitaphs say.

She took charge of Mu Zong's upbringing, grooming him to be the next duke.

"She raised the third-generation duke. She managed the family with strong discipline and diligence, and kept the internal domestic affairs in great order, and no one had any complaint," the epitaphs read.

Lady Mei "urged him to study hard mornings and evenings, and taught him loyalty and filial devotion, as well as services of duty."

When Mu Zong came of age, he and Lady Mei traveled to meet the emperor, who charged him with controlling Yunnan, the province his father had ruled. The emperor was pleased with Lady Mei and, sometime after the meeting, awarded her the title of "Dowager Duchess," according to the epitaphs.

As Mu Zong began his rule over Yunnan, he relied on his mother for advice.

"Every morning when the third-generation duke got up, after taking care of official business, he returned to pay respect to the Dowager Duchess in the main hall," the epitaphs read.

"The Dowager Duchess would always talk to the third-generation duke about her loyalty to the emperor, and kind concerns for the people under the rule of the departed former duke, and strategies for bringing peace to the barbarian tribes and pacifying faraway lands."

Lady Mei's death

Lady Mei died at age 45 in the year 1474. The epitaphs say that she passed away of illness in southern Yunnan and was brought to Nanjing for burial.

"On the day of her death, the people of Yunnan, military servicemen or civilians, old and young, all mourned and grieved for her as if their own parents had passed away," the epitaphs read.

"When the obituary reached the imperial court, the emperor sent out officials and ordered them to consecrate and prepare for the funeral and burial."

The epitaphs praise her role in nurturing the young duke and preparing him for the responsibilities of ruling Yunnan. "Using her love and her hard work, she raised and educated the child, and brought him up to be a man of ability and good moral character …" the epitaphs read.

"Why did heaven bestow all the virtues upon her, while being so ungenerous as not to give her more years to live?" the epitaphs ask. "Although the will of heaven is remote and profound, it needs to be spread among millions of people."

The team's report was initially published, in Chinese, in the journal Wenwu. The excavation crew chief was Haining Qi.

Jarus, Owen. 2015. “Gold-Filled Tomb of Chinese 'Survivor' Mom Discovered”. Live Science. Posted: May 13, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Cannibalism: A History of People Who Eat People

Any shopper walking down the aisles of a modern grocery is spoiled for choice when it comes to food options. As of 2008, the number of products carried by the average supermarket stood around 47,000, according to Consumer Reports.

There is one particular item, however, that shouldn't ever appear in anyone's shopping cart, despite its place as a historical foodstuff, particularly during desperate times: human meat. Cannibalism strikes the human conscience like few other taboo acts, eliciting a mix of dread, disdain and plain old nausea. But as seen in this slideshow, humans eating other humans has been an inseparable part of our history.

Even before modern humans walked the Earth, human ancestors practiced cannibalism.

Homo antecessor, the last common ancestor between Neanderthals and modern humans, relied on cannibalism regularly, even when other food sources were available. These humans would sometimes hold cannibal feasts, with members of rival groups on the menu.

The remains of the victims were found alongside the bones of ancient bears, mammoths, foxes and other animals.

In the early history of our species, Neanderthals and humans coexisted. They lived together. They interbred. They ate together, and even ate each other.

During periods of starvation, Neanderthals supplemented their diets with cannibalism, according to a 2006 study on eight 43,000-year-old Neanderthal skeletons. The bones bore evidence of cut and tearing, indications that these individuals were butchered. The remains were excavated from an underground cave in El Sidrón, Spain.

The earliest humans in Europe 32,000 years ago practiced ritual cannibalism, according to a study published in 2011 in the journal PLoS One. The oldest evidence of cannibalism suggests that humans ate other humans not for nutritional purposes but rather as a part of funeral rites.

The advent of siege warfare more than 5,000 years ago set off an arms race between the invaders, who sought ever more damaging weapons, and the defenders, who built taller, stronger fortifications to fend off attack. Caught in the middle stood the entire population of a city or town, sometimes for weeks, months or even years. During that time, if cut off from outside supplies, city dwellers had to resort to extreme means of survival, including cannibalism. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple and the sacking of the city, starvation and plague wore down the city residents, who resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.

The victims of a siege weren't always the ones who had to resort to cannibalism to survive. Following the Siege of Maarat in 1098, the victorious crusaders, short on supplies, turned to the dead bodies of the vanquished Muslims for their source of food.

Up until the Middle Ages, cannibalism was primarily practiced as a means to supplement nutrition. Starting around the 12th century, the practice of incorporating human remains into medical remedies was common practice.

The deceased who unwillingly donated their bodies to medical science were stolen from Egyptian tombs or abducted from Irish burial sites, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Treatments called for the use of bones, blood or fat for conditions as common as a headache.

Nevermind that consuming other humans could be detrimental to a person's health. Prion diseases spread by cannibalism can cause the brain to form sponge-like holes, condition known as "spongiform encephalopathies."

The use of "corpse medicine" started to fall out of favor in the 16th century, but remained in use until the late 18th century. In some parts of Africa, a similar but much more severe form of barbarism still occurs, with albinos in particular murdered and butchered for magical protections and remedies.

The Age of Discovery brought together civilizations that had no reference for one another, and culture clashes -- in addition to the many physical conflicts -- were inevitable.

When Jesuits encountered Iroquois, Mowak and other tribes, they noted with surprise and disgust that these Native American groups practiced cannibalism. Eating human flesh wasn't simply a gastronomic experience, as noted by the Colonial Williamsburg Journal; it was part of a ritual aimed at strengthening the tribe or humiliating an enemy.

The same held true for Central and South American tribes, such as the Aztec or the Inca, who engaged in cannibalism as part of a sacrificial religious rite.

A handful of Native American tribes weren't the only cannibals in the New World; some colonists themselves had to resort to desperate measures to stay alive.

As the first permanent English settlement in the New World, Jamestown opened the door of the New World to the British. Established in 1607, the colony endured even through the difficult period of 1609-1610, known as the "starving time," when three-quarters of the colonists perished.

The colony grew so desperate that they even resorted to eating the body of a 14-year-old girl, archaeological evidence suggests. Skull and bone fragments show patterns that "tentativeness, trial and complete lack of experience in butchering animal remains," Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., noted of the discovery.

The girl, who archaeologists named "Jane," likely arrived at Jamestown in August 1609, months before winter set in. According to the researchers, she likely wasn't the only one cannibalized by the 60 or so colonists that made it to spring.

Even before the discovery of gold at Sutter's mill set off a massive wave of migration to the West in 1849, American pioneers traveled by wagon train to the West to seek out better lives. The effort was grueling, over many hundreds of miles that included mountains and desert. As many as one in 10 migrants died, and the Oregon trail would become known as the nation's longest graveyard.

Perhaps no cautionary tale from the trail resonated with pioneers quite so much as that of the ill-fated Donner Party. The groups spent the winter of 1846-87 snowbound in the Sierra Mountains in Nevada after making the unfortunate decision to attempt a new route to California called Hastings Cutoff. Many of the colonists froze or starved to death during the nearly four months between being trapped in November and the first relief group arriving in February.

The Donner Party left Independence, Mo., in 1846 with 87 members; they arrived in California with 48 survivors.

The 20th century ushered in an agricultural revolution that would allow modern civilizations to produce more than enough food to meet global demand. Unfortunately the Green Revolution could only increase food production, not necessarily food security.

Famine in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s claimed millions of lives and forced survivors to turn to cannibalism. The Great Leap Forward in China, which caused the Great Chinese Famine, similarly took a toll in the tens of millions and led many to rely on eating the dead for survival. When famine struck North Korea in the 1990s under the regime of Kim Jong Il, tourists visiting the Hermit Kingdom reported they witnessed instances of cannibalism.

The Korowai tribe is among the last known consumers of human flesh, known as "long pig" in cannibal folklore. According to Australian journalist Paul Raffaele, who spent time with the tribe in 2006, when a tribe member dies due to mysterious circumstances, most often disease, the Korowai believe that person to have succumbed to khakhua, a witch. In order to counteract the effects of the witch magically eating the deceased from the inside out, tribal custom dictates members have to consume the flesh of the dead as a kind of revenge.

That doesn't mean all cannibalism follows a natural death. Tribesmen also kill rivals and consume them in ritualistic fashion. In 2012, authorities in Papua New Guinea charged 29 members of one tribe with the deaths of seven witch doctors. The cannibals believed that by eating the witch doctors' organs, they would be imbued with supernatural powers, according to The Telegraph.

Al-Khatib, Talal. 2015. “Cannibalism: A History of People Who Eat People”. Discovery News. Posted: May 13, 2015. Available online:

Monday, July 27, 2015

Why shaking hands is still a big deal

Researchers find the gesture creates better cooperation and trust between humans - even when it is carried out by a robot

Shaking hands before negotiations results in a better deal for both parties - even when one is represented by a robot, a study has found.

The act of shaking hands at the start of a conversation has already been shown to create better cooperation and trust between humans.

Research has now found that these benefits extend when a robot takes the place of a human - who is situated remotely - during a business meeting.

Scientists say using robots provides a powerful two-way experience that allows people to have a physical presence in a distant place unlike using Skype or video conferencing.

Developing such interaction could lead to robots conducting business meetings or allowing people with severely limited mobility to interact with the world in a unique way.

The study, by the University of Bath, used NAO, a 58-cm tall humanoid robot which was designed to be a companion around the house, in mock real-estate negotiations.

One person - assigned the role of buyer or seller - was present in the meeting with NAO while the other took part in the meeting through the robot's inbuilt head camera and microphone. Touch sensitive sensors in the robot's hand transmitted a signal when it was grasped, leading to a controller in the remote person's hand vibrate at the same time.

Results showed that the act of shaking hands was as important when people interacted virtually through the robot as when they met face-to-face.

The remote person, who could be thousands of miles away and essentially hidden from view, did not exploit their tactical advantage in such conditions.

Researcher Dr Chris Bevan, of the University of Bath's Department of Psychology, said: "This experiment highlights just how important the symbolic ritual of shaking hands is upon the way people come to judge others as being trustworthy and willing to cooperate.

"Using a robotic avatar, we were able to demonstrate that this effect holds true even when a person cannot see the face of their counterpart."

The study focused on the impact of handshaking on levels of cooperation and trustworthiness, as well as an individual's willingness to deliberately mislead.

Mock negotiations were set up with 120 people, each involving two participants who were randomly assigned to either the role of buyer or seller, in a fake real-estate scenario.

One person was represented with NAO, allowing researchers to create a system where individuals shook hands prior to negotiations, even though they were in different locations.

The 'virtual' handshake created "connectedness" between both people as they experienced the sensation of grasping a hand or vibration through a controller during the handshake.

Professor Danae Stanton Fraser added: "The formation of interpersonal trust and cooperation are key to future success of computer supported cooperative work, yet the availability of many of the social cues we rely upon when interacting one-to-one are often restricted in these scenarios.

"These findings underline the significance of touch and the simple gesture of a handshake, and will be important as we work to further develop robot systems with valuable applications across society."

In each session of the experiment, one person performed their role through a computer using NAO, which enabled them to see and hear their business partner but not be present in the room. The person who was present and interacting with NAO could hear the other through the robot's built in speakers but could not see them.

Researchers varied the experiment with negotiations conducted either with no handshake at the beginning, or with handshakes with and without vibration to the remote person.

The robot was used to represent both buyers and sellers, in 60 mock real-estate deals worth between 38m US dollars to 66m US dollars (£24.5m - £42.6m).

The Telegraph. 2015. “Why shaking hands is still a big deal”. The Telegraph. Posted: May 11, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Children exposed to multiple languages may be better natural communicators

Young children who hear more than one language spoken at home become better communicators, a new study from University of Chicago psychologists finds. Effective communication requires the ability to take others' perspectives. Researchers discovered that children from multilingual environments are better at interpreting a speaker's meaning than children who are exposed only to their native tongue. The most novel finding is that the children do not even have to be bilingual themselves; it is the exposure to more than one language that is the key for building effective social communication skills.

Previous studies have examined the effects of being bilingual on cognitive development. This study, published online May 8 by the journal Psychological Science, is the first to demonstrate the social benefits of just being exposed to multiple languages.

"Children in multilingual environments have extensive social practice in monitoring who speaks what to whom, and observing the social patterns and allegiances that are formed based on language usage," explained Katherine Kinzler, associate professor of psychology and an expert on language and social development. "These early socio-linguistic experiences could hone children's skills at taking other people's perspectives and provide them tools for effective communication."

Study co-author Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology and an internationally known expert on communication and cognition, said this study is part of a bigger research program that attempts to explain how humans learn to communicate. "Children are really good at acquiring language. They master the vocabulary and the syntax of the language, but they need more tools to be effective communicators," said Keysar. "A lot of communication is about perspective taking, which is what our study measures."

Keysar, Kinzler and their co-authors, doctoral students in psychology Samantha Fan and Zoe Liberman, had 72 4- to 6- year- old children participate in a social communication task. The children were from one of three language backgrounds: monolinguals (children who heard and spoke only English and had little experience with other languages); exposures (children who primarily heard and spoke English, but they had some regular exposure to speakers of another language); and bilinguals (children who were exposed to two languages on a regular basis and were able to speak and understand both languages). There were 24 children in each group.

Each child who participated sat on one side of a table across from an adult and played a communication game that required moving objects in a grid. The child was able to see all of the objects, but the adult on the other side of the grid had some squares blocked and could not see all the objects. To make sure that children understood that the adult could not see everything, the child first played the game from the adult's side.

For the critical test, the adult would ask the child to move an object in the grid. For example, she would say, "I see a small car, could you move the small car?" The child could see three cars: small, medium and large. The adult, however, could only see two cars: the medium and the large ones. To correctly interpret the adult's intended meaning, the child would have to take into account that the adult could not see the smallest car, and move the one that the adult actually intended -- the medium car.

The monolingual children were not as good at understanding the adult's intended meaning in this game, as they moved the correct object only about 50 percent of the time. But mere exposure to another language improved children's ability to understand the adult's perspective and select the correct objects. The children in the exposure group selected correctly 76 percent of the time, and the bilingual group took the adult's perspective in the game correctly 77 percent of the time.

"Language is social," noted Fan. "Being exposed to multiple languages gives you a very different social experience, which could help children develop more effective communication skills."

Liberman added, "Our discovery has important policy implications, for instance it suggests previously unrealized advantages for bilingual education."

Some parents seem wary of second-language exposure for their young children, Kinzler commented. Yet, in addition to learning another language, their children might unintentionally be getting intensive training in perspective taking, which could make them better communicators in any language.

Science Daily. 2015. “Children exposed to multiple languages may be better natural communicators”. Science Daily. Posted: May 11, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, July 25, 2015

New population genetics model could explain Finn, European differences

A new population genetics model developed by researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health could explain why the genetic composition of Finnish people is so different from that of other European populations. The results of the study were published in this month's issue of Nature Genetics.

UTHealth researchers discovered a previously unknown bottleneck that likely happened between 10,000 to 20,000 years ago in the Finnish population that did not occur in other European populations. A bottleneck is a period of time when the population size decrease significantly and then recovers. Bottlenecks can be explained by major events such as migration, environmental events, disease or war. Because there are fewer people left after a bottleneck, the population's offspring have fewer genetic differences, as is the case in Finland.

"Inferring human history from population size is an important question in population genetics. There are some methods out there to determine population size, but this new model can provide a more detailed picture," said Xiaoming Liu, Ph.D., lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health.

In the past, researchers could either predefine a demographic model or try to be model-flexible when studying population genetics. The second model is better suited for exploratory analysis.

The new method is a form of model-flexible. Called the stairway plot, it models the frequency of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in whole genome sequences of hundreds of individuals. SNPs are the most common and abundant DNA sequence variations in genomes. The researchers applied this model to a sample of thousands of genomes collected through the 1000 Genome Project.

The 1000 Genomes Project, established in 2008, is an international research effort to establish the most detailed catalog of human genetic variation. The project includes genetic samples from institutes around the world.

Liu and co-author Yun-Xin Fu, Ph.D., Betty Wheless Trotter Professor in the Department of Biostatistics at UTHealth School of Public Health, examined genomes from nine populations including European, African and Asian ancestries.

Researchers also confirmed a previously found bottleneck in the African population between 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. According to Liu and other genetic researchers, this bottleneck may be associated with the origin of the modern human. Experts are still speculating about the cause of the Finnish bottleneck.

EurekAlert2015. “New population genetics model could explain Finn, European differences”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 11, 2015. Available online:

Friday, July 24, 2015

When do mothers need others?

Hillary Clinton once famously said, "It takes a village to raise a child." It turns out that's been true for centuries: New research by a University of Utah anthropologist explains how and why mothers in ancient societies formed cooperative groups to help raise their children. Karen Kramer, an associate professor of anthropology, published a study in the Journal of Human Evolutiontitled, "When Mothers Need Others: Life History Transitions Associated with the Evolution of Cooperative Breeding."

Her research examines how mothers underwent a remarkable transition from the past -- when they had one dependent offspring at a time, ended support of their young at weaning and received no help from others -- to the present, when mothers often have multiple kids who help rear other children. "We simulated an economic problem that would have arisen over the course of human evolution -- as mothers became more successful at producing children, they also had more dependents than they could care for on their own," said Kramer of her research.

"We found that early in that transition, it was a mother's older children who helped to raise her younger children and only with more modern life histories did mothers also need the cooperation of other adults. This suggests that early human families may have formed around cooperating groups of mothers and children."

Her findings are departure from earlier hypotheses by other anthropologists. Most hypotheses about who helped mothers in ancient societies point to other adults. Kramer's study, however, found that it is a mother's own children who were the most reliable as helpers.

Other key points in Kramer's study include:

  • Human motherhood has undergone a remarkable transition from a past when mothers likely nursed children until the age of 5 to 6, did not nutritionally support children after weaning, and received no help raising the children. Going back in time, it might be possible to find groups of mothers and cooperating siblings who helped to raise other children. As time progressed, mothers have relied on other adult relatives and fathers to help out.
  • Mothers make tradeoffs. Do they take care of the children they already have, do they have another one, or do they do something else with their time? These same decisions that mothers made in the past are still being made today.

"Human mothers are interesting. They're unlike mothers of many other species because they feed their children after weaning and others help them raise their children. As an anthropologist, I live and work in traditional societies where, like other researchers, I have observed many times that it takes a village to raise a child. Not only do mothers work hard to care for their young, but so do her older children, grandmothers, fathers and other relatives. But this wasn't always the case," Kramer said.

"Deep in the past, mothers likely received no help and consequently had much lower rates of fertility and lost many children. So we have to ask, why do others cooperate with mothers and help them raise their children? This is an important question because you could do many other things with your time beside help someone else raise their children."

Kramer's research methodology used a set of mathematical formulas, plugged different variables into them in order to simulate the evolution of families from the past to the present. She said there is still much to learn in the field of anthropology about how humans began to cooperate and how cooperation became more complex over time.

"Humans are extraordinary cooperators. However, most research has focused on adults and we know very little about how cooperation develops in children," Kramer said.

"We know that the psychological mechanisms that prepare us for a life of cooperation -- such as a sense of fairness and the ability to show empathy, share food and help each other -- begin to develop in very young children. What we need to explore is what children actually do -- how they cooperate and at what price -- in societies where they still play an important economic role."

EurekAlert. 2015. “When do mothers need others?”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 8, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Revealing a dead man's story through his bones

Little is known about the Royal Naval Hospital's cemetery in Antigua, and with little but the bones themselves to go on, researchers turn to synchrotron imaging to uncover the histories of the men buried there.

The Naval Hospital served naval personnel, enslaved labourers, and the general public from 1793-1822. The region was an important outpost for the British in the West Indies, and Antigua itself was an important military site at the time. The cemetery was moved due to modern construction, making some human remains available for study.

Metals in the bones tell a story as well. For example, strontium concentrations can tell researchers a great deal about diet. One of the individuals at the site, a young man in his 20s, was found with unusually high mercury levels. We know that mercury was often used for medical purposes, but it may have been simply taken up by the bones after burial. To find out, a multi-institutional research team that included bioarchaeologists from the University of Saskatchewan and Lakehead University used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence imaging to determine the distribution and type of mercury in the bone. Because bone remodels as it grows, it provides a clear record of elements taken up during life, and the man's bone samples show clear evidence that the mercury had been ingested during his life, and he may have been poisoned with mercury. At the time, mercury had also been used to treat syphilis-induced rashes and yellow fever.

The team continues to collect more information about the site, combining the search for documentation and synchrotron-enabled bone studies for a detailed look at colonial life in the West Indies.
Reference: 2015. “Revealing a dead man's story through his bones”. Posted: May 8, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Archaeologists Believe They Have Found Lost Cloister

It is believed the remains of the much-searched-for Þykkvabær cloister may have been found. Icelandic and British archaeologists saw the remains of a very large building yesterday, using ultrasound techniques, at Álftaver in South Iceland.

The discovery came as a complete surprise, as it was not thought the remains of the cloister were in that area.

“I think we’ve just hit the jackpot, because I think we’ve discovered the remains of Þykkvabæjarklaustur. It came as a complete surprise, you can say that much. The remains are not on the site it was assumed the cloisters stood,” archaeology professor Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir told Stöð 2 television.

Þykkvabæjarklaustur, east of Mýrdalur, was a monastery of Augustine monks and its location has been lost to archaeologists until now. This week, ten Icelandic and British archaeologists have been searching for the remains with high tech instruments. The remains of an unusually big building were discovered under the ground yesterday, measuring around 40 x 45 meters.

“It is very big compared to the buildings of the time – as it is from the Middle Ages – and the footprint is around 1,500 square meters,” Steinunn says.

The cloister was in use from 1168 until 1550. Until recently it was assumed that Þykkvabæjarklaustur must have stood near the present-day Þykkvabæjarkirkja church, but searches revealed nothing; and this leads Steinunn to strongly believe yesterday’s find to be the lost cloisters. It is still possible, however, the remains are of a cow shed—but in that case it would be the cloister’s own cow shed and still therefore relevant.

Elliott, AlËx. 2015. “Archaeologists Believe They Have Found Lost Cloister”. Iceland Review. Posted: May 7, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Stone bracelet is oldest ever found in the world

Dating back 40,000 years to the Denisovan species of early humans, new pictures show beauty and craftsmanship of prehistoric jewellery.

It is intricately made with polished green stone and is thought to have adorned a very important woman or child on only special occasions. Yet this is no modern-day fashion accessory and is instead believed to be the oldest stone bracelet in the world, dating to as long ago as 40,000 years.

Unearthed in the Altai region of Siberia in 2008, after detailed analysis Russian experts now accept its remarkable age as correct. 

New pictures show this ancient piece of jewellery in its full glory with scientists concluding it was made by our prehistoric human ancestors, the Denisovans, and shows them to have been far more advanced than ever realised.

'The bracelet is stunning - in bright sunlight it reflects the sun rays, at night by the fire it casts a deep shade of green,' said Anatoly Derevyanko, Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, part of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

'It is unlikely it was used as an everyday jewellery piece. I believe this beautiful and very fragile bracelet was worn only for some exceptional moments.'

The bracelet was found inside the famous Denisova Cave, in the Altai Mountains, which is renowned for its palaeontological finds dating back to the Denisovans, who were known as homo altaiensis, an extinct species of humans genetically distinct from Neanderthals and modern humans.

Made of chlorite, the bracelet was found in the same layer as the remains of some of the prehistoric people and is thought to belong to them.

What made the discovery especially striking was that the manufacturing technology is more common to a much later period, such as the Neolithic era. Indeed, it is not clear yet how the Denisovans could have made the bracelet with such skill. Writing in the Novosibirsk magazine, Science First Hand, Dr Derevyanko said: 'There were found two fragments of the bracelet of a width of 2.7cm and a thickness of 0.9 cm. The estimated diameter of the find was 7cm. Near one of the cracks was a drilled hole with a diameter of about 0.8 cm. Studying them, scientists found out that the speed of rotation of the drill was rather high, fluctuations minimal, and that was there was applied drilling with an implement - technology that is common for more recent times.

'The ancient master was skilled in techniques previously considered not characteristic for the Palaeolithic era, such as drilling with an implement, boring tool type rasp, grinding and polishing with a leather and skins of varying degrees of tanning.'

Chlorite was not found in the vicinity of the cave and is thought to have come from a distance of at least 200km, showing how valued the material was at the time.

Dr Derevyanko said the bracelet had suffered damage, including visible scratches and bumps although it looked as if some of the scratches had been sanded down. Experts also believe that the piece of jewellery had other adornments to make it more beautiful.

'Next to the hole on the outer surface of the bracelet can be seen clearly a limited polished zone of intensive contact with some soft organic material,' said Dr Derevyanko. 'Scientists have suggested that it was a leather strap with some charm, and this charm was rather heavy. The location of the polished section made it possible to identify the 'top' and 'bottom' of the bracelet and to establish that it was worn on the right hand.'

Located next to the Anuy River, about 150 km south of Barnaul, the Denisova Cave is a popular tourist attraction, such is its paleontological importance. Over the years a number of remains have been found there, including some of extinct animals such as the woolly mammoth. In total evidence of 66 different types of mammals have been discovered inside, and 50 bird species.

The most exciting discovery was the remains of the Denisovans, a species of early humans that dated back as early as 600,000 years ago and were different to both Neanderthals and modern man.

In 2000 a tooth from a young adult was found in the cave and in 2008, when the bracelet was found, archaeologists discovered the finger bone of a juvenile Denisovan hominin, whom they dubbed the 'X woman'. Further examination of the site found other artifacts dating as far back as 125,000 years.

The institute's deputy director Mikhail Shunkov suggested that the find indicates the Denisovans - though now extinct - were more advanced than Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.

'In the same layer, where we found a Denisovan bone, were found interesting things; until then it was believed these the hallmark of the emergence of Homo sapiens,' he said. 'First of all, there were symbolic items, such as jewellery - including the stone bracelet as well as a ring, carved out of marble.'

The full details of the ring are yet to be revealed. 

'These finds were made using technological methods - boring stone, drilling with an implement, grinding - that are traditionally considered typical for a later time, and nowhere in the world they were used so early, in the Paleolithic era. At first, we connected the finds with a progressive form of modern human, and now it turned out that this was fundamentally wrong. Obviously it was  Denisovans, who left these things.'

This indicated that 'the most progressive of the triad' (Homo sapiens, Homo Neanderthals and Denisovans) were Denisovans, who according to their genetic and morphological characters were much more archaic than Neanderthals and modern human.' 

But could this modern-looking bracelet have been buried with older remains?

The experts considered this possibility but rejected it, saying they believe the layers were uncontaminated by human interference from a later period. The soil around the bracelet was also dated using oxygen isotopic analysis.

The unique bracelet is now held in the Museum of History and Culture of the Peoples of Siberia and the Far East in Novosibirsk. Irina Salnikova, head the museum, said of the bracelet: 'I love this find. The skills of its creator were perfect. Initially we thought that it was made by Neanderthals or modern humans, but it turned out that the master was Denisovan, at least in our opinion.

'All jewellery had a magical meaning for ancient people and even for us, though we do not always notice this. Bracelets and neck adornments were to protect people from evil spirits, for instance. This item, given the complicated technology and 'imported' material, obviously belonged to some high ranked person of that society.'

While bracelets have been found pre-dating this discovery, Russian experts say this is the oldest known jewellery of its kind made of stone.

Liesowska, Anna. 2015. “Stone bracelet is oldest ever found in the world”. Siberian Times. Posted: May 7, 2015. Available online:

Monday, July 20, 2015

Chinese archaeologists unearth tomb of ancient medical school head

Archaeologists have discovered an ancient tomb belonging to a high-profile doctor who lived more than 700 years ago in northwest China's Shaanxi Province.

The newly-discovered tomb, located at a village of Xi'an City, capital of the province, dates back to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), said Duan Yi, associate professor with Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology.

A gravestone inscribed with 665 words inside the tomb revealed the identity of its owner, Wu Jing.

Wu was born into the famous Ru Yi (Confucian doctor) family in Zhouzhi, now a county of Xi'an.

Confucian doctors were a special group proficient in both Confucianism and medicine, which allowed them a high status during that period.

Wu was appointed to a post in charge of local medical services and education, similar to today's head of a medical school, the inscription on the gravestone said.

A story was recorded in the gravestone that he once cut flesh from his own arm to feed his ailing mother to show filial piety.

"The tomb is an important discovery that will shed light on unknown aspects of medical history and social culture in the Yuan dynasty," said Duan.

The tomb is composed of a passage, a door and a burial chamber. Old iron nails, rotten wood ashes and unknown bone residue were found in the chamber, he added.

A total of 76 burial objects including pottery and jade were also discovered in the tomb.

Mengjie. Ed. 2015. “Chinese archaeologists unearth tomb of ancient medical school head”. Xinhua net. Posted: May 6, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Archaeology, temples 'caged' against time in Selinunte

Temples are 'caged' against the ravages of time by scaffolding in the 270-hectare Selinunte archaeological park near Trapani. The caves of Cusa are in the other 40 hectares.

Restoration work that began in May last year is supposed to be completed between June and July. The interventions underway were financed as part of the Po Fesr 2007/2013 program. For the restoration of the temples, overall financing of 2,271,735 euros was set aside. ''The works of the project 'Doric architecture in the Greek West: pilot restoration interventions' on Temples C and E,'' park director Giovanni Leto Barone told ANSA, ''call for interventions with innovative materials of the surfaces seen and an improvement and securing of some of the structural parts. About 90% of what was planned has been completed.'' ''For the project 'Houses for Men, Homes for Gods' an overall 2,376,000 euros have been allocated,'' Leto Barone added. ''The works, which aim to improve the use, are for the restoration of some parts of the internal walkways between the Acropolis and the Malophoros Sanctuary, and a revision of the signage. About 80% of the project has already been completed.'' ''A 'Theater for Selinunte' will be built in the site with a 600-seat capacity in the area between the temple and the Baglio Florio, where the park museum is located, with 415,000 euros in financing. About 90% is completed, and some 2,849,950 euros will go towards the completion the Baglio Florio museum of Selinunte.

The work focused on the modernization of the electrical, anti-fire and air-conditioning systems, as well as the museum organization. About 80% has been completed,'' he added.

The archaeological park is located at the mouth of a river where wild parsley (selinon) grows, which was the origin of the name of the waterway. The city was founded by Megara Hyblaea residents in Sicily in the seventh century BC near two port-canals, now sanded over, and engaged in intense maritime trade. ''It was due to this expert use of the geographical role of Selinunte,'' historians say, ''that their inhabitants, in the space of just over two centuries, achieved an economic prosperity unrivaled in the Greek world or in that of Sicily/Magna Grecia.'' A city of grandiose size was built with numerous places of worship and public works of high quality. Due to conflict between the Greeks and the Punics in the late fifth century BC, it lost its urban splendor, becoming an important Punic center of trade. Here the Greeks built four parallel temples close to each other in the southern zone for worship and other public activities. ''The position of the acropolis was extremely privileged due to its extension,'' archaeologists say,'' towards the sea, between the western and eastern coves. Its elevation over the sea was balanced and enabled easy monitoring of the two ports to it, linked by short and easy access.'' Selinunte construction materials were excavated from the Cusa caves. They were in use from the sixth century BC until the defeat of the Greeks by the Carthaginians in 409 BC.

Ansa Med. 2015. “Archaeology, temples 'caged' against time in Selinunte”. Ansa Med. Posted: May 6, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Bone analysis reveals violent history of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica

A pair of archeologists with Arizona State University has found evidence of different types of bone treatment among people that lived at the La Quemada archaeological site approximately 1,500 years ago in what is now modern Mexico. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ben Nelson and Debra Martin describe their findings after studying bones excavated from the site.

The research pair looked at bones from the site dating back to 500–900 C.E. and discovered the remains of those who had died or were killed were treated very differently depending on whether they were from their own people or were those of enemies. Bones found inside the compound, they noted showed signs of being treated with respect, whereas those outside were not only abused, but showed evidence of cannibalism.

During the time when the people were living there, the researchers note, the area was under stress, enduring upheaval due to rapid change—Teotihuacan city had collapsed and a new society was under development, one that consisted of multiple smaller scale groups living across the Northern Frontier. That inevitably led to violence, which the researchers note, can be seen in how the bodies of the vanquished were treated. The bones show marks indicative of cutting and were also splintered and sometimes burned—all signs of both abuse and cannibalism. They also found skulls with holes bored in them, which seems to suggest they were hung for still living enemies to see, a means perhaps, of warding off further attacks. Other evidence of the violence that occurred was the architecture itself, fortresses meant to keep invaders at bay.

Meanwhile, bones found inside the compound showed signs of a different kind of cut marks—shallow indentations, which generally are attributable to defleshing and desiccation, both signs of veneration of the dead. That suggests those people were loved ones, in some cases, possibly even ancestors, rather than immediate relatives.

The researchers suspect that the much of the conflict between groups in the area at the time was ethnically based, but will need to do isotopic and DNA analysis to confirm their theory.

Yirka, Bob. 2015. “Bone analysis reveals violent history of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica”. Posted: May 5, 2015. Available online:

Friday, July 17, 2015

Say what? How the brain separates our ability to talk and write

Out loud, someone says, "The man is catching a fish." The same person then takes pen to paper and writes, "The men is catches a fish."

Although the human ability to write evolved from our ability to speak, writing and talking are now such independent systems in the brain that someone who can't write a grammatically correct sentence may be able say it aloud flawlessly, discovered a team led by Johns Hopkins University cognitive scientist Brenda Rapp.

In a paper published in the journal Psychological Science, Rapp's team found it's possible to damage the speaking part of the brain but leave the writing part unaffected -- and vice versa -- even when dealing with morphemes, the tiniest meaningful components of the language system including suffixes like "er," "ing" and "ed."

"Actually seeing people say one thing and -- at the same time -- write another is startling and surprising. We don't expect that we would produce different words in speech and writing," said Rapp, a professor in the Department of Cognitive Science in the university's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "It's as though there were two quasi-independent language systems in the brain."

The team wanted to understand how the brain organizes knowledge of written language -- reading and spelling -- since that there is a genetic blueprint for spoken language but not written. More specifically, they wanted to know if written language was dependent on spoken language in literate adults. If it was, then one would expect to see similar errors in speech and writing. If it wasn't, one might see that people don't necessarily write what they say.

The team, which included Simon Fischer-Baum of Rice University and Michele Miozzo of Columbia University, both cognitive scientists, studied five stroke victims with aphasia, or difficulty communicating. Four of them had difficulties writing sentences with the proper suffixes, but had few problems speaking the same sentences. The last individual had the opposite problem -- trouble with speaking but unaffected writing.

The researchers showed the individuals pictures and asked them to describe the action. One person would say, "The boy is walking," but write, "the boy is walked." Or another would say, "Dave is eating an apple" and then write, "Dave is eats an apple."

The findings reveal that writing and speaking are supported by different parts of the brain -- and not just in terms of motor control in the hand and mouth, but in the high-level aspects of word construction.

"We found that the brain is not just a 'dumb' machine that knows about letters and their order, but that it is 'smart' and sophisticated and knows about word parts and how they fit together," Rapp said. "When you damage the brain, you might damage certain morphemes but not others in writing but not speaking, or vice versa."

This understanding of how the adult brain differentiates word parts could help educators as they teach children to read and write, Rapp said. It could lead to better therapies for those suffering aphasia.

Science Daily. 2015. “Say what? How the brain separates our ability to talk and write”. Science Daily. Posted: May 5, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Saving Mes Aynak

Mes Aynak (“little copper well” in Pashto) is a mountainous site in the Taliban-controlled Logar Province, Afghanistan, 25 miles southeast of Kabul near the Pakistan border. Mes Aynak contains the ancient remains of a 2,000-year-old Buddhist city, on top of a 5,000-year-old Bronze Age site. Massive, at nearly 500,000 sq. metres, this historic Buddhist city contains dozens of unique and never-before-seen stupas and temples, thousands of artefacts, and around 600 large Buddha statues – similar to those destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 at Bamiyan.

Rewriting the history of Buddhism

Although only 10% of the site has been excavated, the discoveries are already rewriting the history of Buddhism, Afghanistan, and us – who we are as human beings. Just imagine what is still there, waiting to be re-discovered and shared with the world.

Mes Aynak, however, sits on the second largest copper deposit in the world. More on the story

Past Horizons. 2015. “Saving Mes Aynak”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 5, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Aerial images show BLM archaeological site after controlled burn

In an experimental project, aerial photographs and a 3-D map of the Henry Smith archaeological site were taken by an unmanned aircraft system between April 28 and 30 by the Bureau of Land Management’s Hi-Line District following a controlled burn of the site.

“This was the first use of a (UAS) by the BLM to obtain imagery and data in relation to cultural resources in the Northern Plains,” said Josh Chase, Hi-Line District archaeologist, in a statement.

The use of a UAS allowed the BLM to obtain imagery and data of the entire site, including possible anthropomorphic effigies.

About 320 acres were burned April 16 to remove vegetation and provide for clearer aerial images.

“Removal of the vegetation allowed for a clear view of an Avonlea-period cultural resource complex, consisting of numerous stone effigies (both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic), stone cairns, drive lines, stone circles and potentially spiritual alignments and circles,” Chase said. “The project will allow BLM to better study, document and manage this unique location.”

Several federal, state and local agencies as well as BLM resource staff from the local field offices cooperated in the controlled burn.

Also during the prescribed fire, the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory placed temperature sensors within mock cultural sites, which consisted of bone and stone remains. These instruments allow the BLM to determine the grass-fueled fire’s maximum temperature and understand its interaction with cultural resources, Chase explained.

French, Brett. 2015. “Aerial images show BLM archaeological site after controlled burn”. Billings Gazette. Posted: May 5, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

As the river rises: Cahokia's emergence and decline linked to Mississippi River flooding

As with rivers, civilizations across the world rise and fall. Sometimes, the rise and fall of rivers has something to do with it.

At Cahokia, the largest prehistoric settlement in the Americas north of Mexico, new evidence suggests that major flood events in the Mississippi River valley are tied to the cultural center's emergence and ultimately, to its decline.

Publishing today [5/4/15] in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a research team led by UW-Madison geographers Samuel Munoz and Jack Williams provides this evidence, hidden beneath two lakes in the Mississippi floodplain.

Sediment cores from these lakes, dating back nearly 2,000 years, provide evidence of at least eight major flood events in the central Mississippi River valley that could help explain the enigmatic rise and fall of Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis.

While the region saw frequent flood events before A.D. 600 and after A.D. 1200, Cahokia rose to prominence during a relatively arid and flood-free period and flourished in the years before a major flood in 1200, the study reveals. Cahokia, in the midst of political instability and population decline at this time, was completely abandoned by the year 1400.

While drought has traditionally been implicated as one of several factors leading to the decline of many early agricultural societies in North America and around the world, the findings of this study present new ideas and avenues for archaeologists and anthropologists to explore.

"We are not arguing against the role of drought in Cahokia's decline but this presents another piece of information," says Samuel Munoz, a Ph.D. candidate in geography and the study's lead author.

"It also provides new information about the flood history of the Mississippi River, which may be useful to agencies and townships interested in reducing the exposure of current landowners and townships to flood risk," says Williams, a professor of geography and director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Center for Climatic Research.

However, Munoz never intended to make these findings. In fact, "it was kind of an accident," he says.

Originally, Munoz was looking for the signals of prehistoric land use on ancient forests. He chose to study Cahokia because it was such a large site and is famous for its large earthen mounds. At one point, tens of thousands of people lived in and around Cahokia. If there was anywhere that ancient peoples would have altered the landscapes of the past, it was in the area around Cahokia.

The team went to Horseshoe Lake, near the six-square-mile city's center, and collected cores of lake mud -- all the stuff that settles to the bottom -- to look for pollen and other fossils that document environmental change. Lakes are "sediment traps" that can capture and record past environmental changes, much like the rings of a tree.

"We had these really strange layers in the core that didn't have any pollen and they had a really odd texture," Munoz says. "In fact, one of the students working with us called it 'lake butter.'"

They asked around, talked to colleagues, and checked the published literature. The late Jim Knox, who spent his 43-year career as a geography professor at UW-Madison, suggested to Munoz that he think about flooding, which can disrupt the normal deposition of material on lake bottoms and leave a distinct signature.

The team used radiocarbon dating of plant remains and charcoal within the core to create a timeline extending back nearly two millennia. In so doing, they established a record of eight major flood events at Horseshoe Lake during this time, including the fingerprint left by a known major flood in 1844.

To validate the findings, the team also collected sediments from Grassy Lake, roughly 120 miles downstream from Cahokia, and found the same flood signatures (Grassy Lake is younger than Horseshoe Lake, so its sediments captured only the five most recent flood events).

The new findings show that floods were common in the region between A.D. 300 and 600. Meanwhile, the earliest evidence of more agricultural settlement appears along the higher elevation slopes at the edge of the central Mississippi River floodplain around the year 400. But by 600, when flooding diminished and the climate became more arid, archaeological evidence shows that people had moved down into the floodplain, began to increase in population, and farmed more intensively.

"Rarely do you get such fortuitous opportunities where you have these nice sedimentary records next to an archaeological site that's so well studied," says Munoz.

Early on in the study, Munoz and Williams enlisted the help of Sissel Schroeder, a UW-Madison professor of anthropology whose doctoral studies focused on the Cahokia area. Schroeder accompanied the Geography Department scientists out in the field and helped provide historical and archaeological context.

She explains that while there has been little archaeological evidence to suggest flooding at Cahokia, it can't be ruled out. It's possible, she says, that researchers have simply missed the signals.

For example, archaeologists know that around the year 900, people in the area began to cultivate maize and their population exploded, shown by the number and size of buildings and structures that sprang up in the region. Archaeologists often think of Cahokia as a chiefdom, with a hierarchy of smaller settlements that spread out from the city, much like the small county seats that surround the major government centers we're familiar with today, Schroeder explains.

But around 1200, coinciding with a major flood fingerprint in Munoz's sediments, the population began to decline along with other shifts in the archaeological record.

"We see some important changes in the archaeology of the site at this time, including a wooden wall that is built around the central precinct of Cahokia," says Schroeder. "There are shifts in craft production, house size and shape, and other signals in material production that indicate political, social and economic changes that may be associated with social unrest."

Cahokia appears to have fractured and its people began to migrate to other parts of North America. By 1400, after the arid conditions that suppressed large floods and favored Cahokia's rise had passed, it was deserted.

While many factors likely contributed to Cahokia's decline -- from extreme events like droughts or floods, to the inherent instability archaeologists and anthropologists have documented in other chiefdom societies -- a major flooding event could have been the proverbial last straw.

"It would have had a particularly destabilizing effect after hundreds of years without large floods," Schroeder says.

In order to deposit sediments into Horseshoe and Grassy Lakes, the Mississippi River would have had to rise 10 meters (about 33 feet) above its base elevation at St. Louis, according to models run in the study. This substantial flood would have inundated the region's crops, impacted essential food stores, and created agricultural shortfalls.

Food and other essential resources would have been currency in a civilization like Cahokia and could have been leveraged for political gains following a flood of the scale documented in the study.

"We hope archaeologists can start integrating these flood records into their ideas of what happened at Cahokia and check for evidence of flooding," says Munoz, who plans to continue studying flood records in lakes around the country once he graduates this year.

The study also provides new information about the river's behavior in the central Mississippi Valley, Williams says. Relatively little is currently known about its prehistoric flood cycle but the study suggests that major floods like those in 1844 or 1993 happened every century or two prior to European settlement and intervention, with the exception of the unusually arid years that facilitated Cahokia's growth.

"We have managed the river so much to prevent floods from happening, we don't have a good baseline for how the river behaves without human modification," he says. "This may help us understand not only how it once behaved, but how it may behave in the future."

EurekAlert2015. “As the river rises: Cahokia's emergence and decline linked to Mississippi River flooding”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 4, 2015. Available online:

Monday, July 13, 2015

How "Operation Mummy’s Curse" is Helping Fight Terrorism

How "Operation Mummy’s Curse" is Helping Fight Terrorism

After six years, an Egyptian sarcophagus is finally making it’s way home after federal agents found it stashed in a Brooklyn garage.

The coffin, which was inscribed with the name “Shesepamutayesher,” is just one of several artifacts recovered in a 2009 raid that are now being returned to their rightful owners, writes Kathleen Caulderwood for the International Business Times. In recent years, federal investigators have seized $2.5 million in stolen antiquities as part of an investigation called Operation Mummy’s Curse.

The global trade in stolen artifacts isn’t fueled by an Indiana Jones like quest for adventure: in addition to plundering the cultural heritage of countries in strife, the money made by selling ancient treasures on the black market sometimes helps to fund groups like the Islamic State.

“During a time of war people take advantage of the lack of security,” art and cultural heritage lawyer Leila Amineddoleh tells Caulderwood. “The problem is that there’s a market for these objects. If there wasn’t a market there wouldn’t be sale or demand.”

It’s unclear exactly how much money smugglers make from selling looted objects, but according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement selling illicit relics is the third most profitable wing of the black market, after drugs and weapons. When civil war broke out in Syria in 2013, investigators noticed a sharp rise in antiquities imported from the war-torn country — about $11 million, or a 134 percent rise from the year before. But despite some successes, Operation Mummy’s Curse is an uphill battle.

Even when a smuggler is caught red-handed like antiques dealer Mousa “Morris” Khouli was with a mummy in his garage, sentences tend to be relatively light, writes Caulderwood. Khouli and his accomplices could have gotten up to 20 years in prison each. But none of them served time. While Khouli received the harshest sentence of the bunch, he left the courtroom with only one year of probation, six months of house arrest and 200 hours of community service.

But since the Islamic State group began publicizing its habit of demolishing and looting historical sites for sale on the black market, politicians have begun to take the issue more seriously. Last month, several members of Congress introduced the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, which would direct the president to restrict importing archaeological items from Syria.

For now, though, there’s no need to fret about Shesepamutayesher’s Curse: her sarcophagus was finally returned to Egyptian authorities during a recent ceremony, sparing Brooklyn from this particular mummy’s revenge.

Lewis, Danny. 2015. “How "Operation Mummy’s Curse" is Helping Fight Terrorism”. Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: April 28, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Heritage destruction in conflict zones provides archaeological opportunities

Researchers say it is possible to obtain a great deal of original and important information from sites that have suffered badly through conflict

  • Archaeologists from American University of Beirut and University of Leicester describe value of researching conflict-ravaged sites
  • They are investigating Graeco-Roman temple in Lebanon
  • They say sites previously considered too badly damaged by conflict warrant systematic archaeological investigation

An international archaeological team is investigating an historic site devastated by conflict in Lebanon.

They have demonstrated it is possible to obtain original and important information from heritage sites that have been devastated by conflict.

Working at the Graeco-Roman temple and village site of Hosn Niha, high in the central Biqa' Valley of Lebanon, the team led by Dr Paul Newson (Department of History and Archaeology, American University of Beirut) and Dr Ruth Young (School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester) have described the value of exploring conflict damaged sites in the leading archaeological journal Antiquity:

Dr Newson said: "Shocking recent footage showing apparent damage to world heritage and archaeological sites at Hatra and Nimrud in Iraq include scenes of the bulldozing of irreplaceable buildings. Aerial photographs of living ancient cities such as Homs and Aleppo in Syria taken before the war have been compared to images from the last few months, and the extent of damage to houses, mosques, and heritage structures is brutal and widespread.

"Of course the human cost in any conflict is the first and highest priority; however, archaeology and heritage are extremely vulnerable to attack and damage during conflict and conflict continues to inflict damage on numerous sites, both large and small, around the world today."

Dr Young added: "Rather than simply ignoring sites that have been badly damaged by conflict, we have taken on the challenge of investigating a site previously considered too badly damaged by conflict to warrant systematic archaeological investigation.

"Our research at the Graeco-Roman temple and village site of Hosn Niha in Lebanon has shown that with the right methods and questions, it is possible to obtain a great deal of original and important information from sites that have suffered badly through conflict.

"Using a range of up-to-date surface survey methods we were able to answer some important questions about the site. The first of these was an accurate assessment of site damage, what had been done and where, and the effects of various actions, be it bulldozing or clandestine looting of the site. Through this exercise, we learned that bulldozing and other damage actions had effectively erased the heart of the settlement, but significantly sized sections of settlement beyond remained quite well preserved. From recording and collecting surface finds from across the settlement area as a whole we were able to begin to understand both the morphology and development history of the settlement."

The authors suggest the settlement was firmly established by the 1st century CE with a dense core area and more dispersed courtyard dwellings on the periphery. By the early Islamic period the settlement appears less robust and permanent occupation may have ended for a time. Surprisingly, they also recovered some evidence for an early medieval re-occupation of the site, perhaps a fortified farmhouse. They acknowledge the initial results are preliminary and that more research and analysis of the results is on-going.

Hosn Niha, along with many other sites in Lebanon was severely damaged as a consequence of decades of civil war and the associated unruliness and accelerated looting that went with this.

The authors state: "Sites that have been badly damaged by various causes may be disregarded by professionals who consider that their archaeological or heritage potential has been too badly affected to warrant any investigation. Instead, as demonstrated by the Hosn Niha project, the opposite should become automatic: archaeologists should view conflict-damaged sites as opportunities to gain information and explore sites and regions with new agendas.

"Conflict is impacting the lives of many millions of people, and the archaeology and heritage of many nations. All conflict-damaged archaeology and heritage can play a vital role as resources to help re-build damaged communities and offer hope of employment and reintegration to those impacted by war. Being able to offer ways of thinking of how to deal with damaged sites, gain as much information from them, and consider them a valuable resource rather than an inevitable casualty of war is critical to moving forward, and regaining control over land and identity."

EurekAlert. 2015. “Heritage destruction in conflict zones provides archaeological opportunities”. EurekAlert. . Posted: May 1,2015Available online:

Saturday, July 11, 2015

ICYMI, English language is changing faster than ever, says expert

Parents’ fomo is justified as they are left behind by terms like fleek, bae and other neologisms their children are using online

The English language is evolving at a faster rate now than at any other time in history because of social media and instant messaging, a language expert has said.

John Sutherland, professor of English from University College London, who led a study into common social media and “text speak” terms, found most parents were baffled by the language used by their children.

According to the study, commissioned by Samsung for a phone launch, there was a “seismic generational gap” between the older and younger generations when it came to how modern informal language was used.

Modern terms such as “fleek” and “bae” were found to be the most commonly confused by parents, with 10% of the 2,000 surveyed being able to identify the true meaning of “bae” – a term of affection; while 86% of parents who took part in the survey said they felt teenagers spoke an entirely different language on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

“Fleek” – which means looking good – came top of the list of terms parents did not understand, with 43% selecting it as a term they did not know.

This was ahead of fomo (fear of missing out) and bae (thought to have come from “before anyone else”, or to represent a shortened version of “babe”) – which 40% of parents said they didn’t know.

Popular social media acronyms ICYMI (in case you missed it), TBT (throwback Thursday) and NSFW (not safe for work) also made the list of terms parents failed to understand.

Sutherland said: “The limitation of characters on old handsets were a key factor in the rise of acronyms in text messaging such as TXT, GR8 and M8.

“However technological evolution has meant that these words are now effectively extinct from the text speak language and are seen as antique text speak.”

The rise of emojis could be the next phase in language and communication, and that the increasing use of icons had an historical link, Sutherland said.

“The use of audio and visual messaging has become more commonplace with the soaring popularity of social media and instant messaging apps such as Instagram, Vine and Snapchat,” he said.

“In fact we are moving to a more pictographic form of communication with the increasing popularity of emoticon.

“This harks back to a caveman form of communication where a single picture can convey a full range of messages and emotions.

“In the future less words and letters will be used in messaging as pictures and icons take over the text speak language.”

Both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android mobile platforms now have emoji keyboards built into their software as standard.

The Guardian. 2015. “ICYMI, English language is changing faster than ever, says expert”. The Guardian. Posted: May 1, 2015. Available online:

Friday, July 10, 2015

Mysterious Nazca Line Geoglyphs Formed Ancient Pilgrimage Route

The Nazca Lines, a series of fantastical geoglyphs etched into the desert in Peru, may have been used by two separate groups of people to make pilgrimage to an ancient temple, new research suggests.

But the purpose of the desert etchings may have changed over time.

The earliest Nazca Lines were created so pilgrims could view the markings along a ritual processional route, the researchers said. But later people may have smashed ceramic pots on the ground where the lines intersected as part of an ancient religious rite, according to a study presented here on April 16 at the 80th annual meeting of the Society for American Archeology.

What's more, the Nazca Lines may have been created by at least two different groups of people who lived in different regions of the desert plateau, researchers said.

Mysterious carvings

In one of the driest places on Earth, locked between the Andes Mountains and the coast, more than a thousand geoglyphs dot the landscape. People from an ancient civilization created the shapes between 200 B.C. and A.D. 600, by removing the reddish rocks on the surface of the desert, revealing the white-hued earth beneath.

The strange shapes in the desert include animals such as camelids, dogs and monkeys, as well as fanciful supernatural beings, scenes of decapitation and trophy heads, and geometric designs such as trapezoids, lines and triangles. Though the mysterious shapes gained widespread attention in the 1920s, when plane passengers saw them from above, people who lived there likely saw them even earlier while walking the hilltops in the Nazca plateau.

Archaeologists have long puzzled over the purpose of the Nazca Lines. Some researchers have argued the Nazca lines form a labyrinth. Others have said the lines and figures matched up with the constellations in the sky or with subterranean water routes. And still others have said the Nazca Lines were part of an ancient pilgrimage route.

Two cultures?

In recent years, researchers at Yamagata University in Japan have uncovered 100 geoglpyhs, as well as shards of broken ceramics at the intersection points of some of the lines.

To understand exactly how all of these images fit together, Masato Sakai of Yamagata University and his colleagues analyzed the location, style and method of construction for some of these newfound geoglpyhs. Sakai found that about four different styles of geoglyphs tended to be clustered together along different routes leading to a vast pre-Incan temple complex in Peru known as Cahuachi. Archaeological evidence, such as several temples and pyramids, as well as a trove of severed heads, suggests that Cahuachi was once a religious center where pilgrims brought offerings.

In addition to showing different content, the geoglyphs were also constructed differently from each other, made by removing rocks from the interior of the images in some cases and the border in others, Sakai said. For instance, images of animals such as condors and camelids were found along a route that started from the Ingenio River, which the team roughly categorized as type A and type B, respectively.

"The geoglyphs of type A and B are located not only in the area adjacent to the Ingenio Valley but along the pathway to Cahuachi. Therefore it seems reasonable to assume that type A and B geoglyphs were drawn by the group from the Ingenio Valley," Sakai told Live Science.

Meanwhile, a separate style of images, such as the supernatural beings and the trophy heads, were concentrated in the Nazca Valley and its route to Cahuachi, likely made by a distinct group of people who lived in that region. A third group of geoglyphs, likely made by both groups, was found in the Nazca Plateau between the two cultures.

Changing uses

The purpose of the geoglyphs may have also changed over time from what archaeologists call the final Formative period, which spanned until A.D. 200, to the early Nazca period, which ended in A.D. 450. The smashed ceramics dated to the later period.

"Our research revealed that the Formative geoglyphs were placed to be seen from the ritual pathways, while those of the early Nazca period were used as the loci of ritual activities such as intentional destructions of ceramic vessels," Sakai said.

And the ancient desert inhabitants continued making the lines beyond that time, Sakai said.

"Even after the collapse of the Cahuachi temple, trapezoids and straight lines continued to be made and used," Sakai said.

Ghose, Tia. 2015. “Mysterious Nazca Line Geoglyphs Formed Ancient Pilgrimage Route”. Live Science. Posted: May 1, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Why have we got it in for the glottal stop?

Speakers of British English always seem to be on the lookout for the glottal stop: that abrupt silence that can replace the “t” in words like “right” or “taught” or between the syllables in an exclamation like “uh-oh!”. This week, it was Ed Miliband who found himself hauled in front of the language police. Speaking to Russell Brand in a video, we can hear him pull out all the, erm, stops. He says “Gotta deal with that” and “Gotta do it”, his glottis snapping shut after the verb like a Tory voter’s door in his face. The reaction was scathing: as one Twitter user put it: “taking glottal stop lessons from @rustyrockets? Down wiv da kids, eh Ed?”

There’s a reason this humble consonant gets so much attention. And it is a consonant, not just a “nothing”. As a means of obstructing the airflow in the vocal tract, it fits the criteria perfectly – and it’s used in languages from Arabic to Thai. The phonetic notation used by linguists to represent it is a gnomicly questioning “ʔ”.

So why does it have such a bad reputation? Criticism of it dates back decades, and is often targeted at speakers who “should know better”. Even Princess Diana succumbed, although she is reported to have defended herself by saying “There’s a loʔ of iʔ abouʔ”.

In British society, which is particularly good at picking up on minute indicators of class and status, the glottal stop has what linguists call “social salience”. Because it’s a phonetic variant – not a sound that changes meaning like “p” or “h” in “pot” and “hot”, but a difference around the edges – it can be made to perform a non-linguistic function. That is to say, whether you use it or not doesn’t affect your ability to be understood. But it does impart social information.

What do his stops tell us about the Labour leader then? The crucial thing to remember about variants like this is that their social meaning is context dependent. When William Labovinvestigated accents in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, back in the 1960s (his thesis shaped the entire discipline of sociolinguistics: not bad for a master’s student), he found that sounds associated with diehard islanders were stigmatised in certain contexts but seemed to have prestige in others. On the one hand, they were thought of as old-fashioned and backward, and some people did their best to avoid them. On the other, they represented a fightback against the gentrification of the island by tourists, embodying a kind of authenticity.

The glottal stop (more specifically, the glottalisation of “t”) is a feature traditionally associated with male, working-class speakers. But even as far back as 1982, linguist John Wells noticed it being picked up by young speakers of “prestige” British English – otherwise known as received pronunciation. It’s difficult to say exactly why that happened, but Labov’s idea of “covert prestige” makes intuitive sense. Some sounds, even though they’re generally regarded as markers of an “inferior” dialect, are nevertheless used to signal group membership, solidarity or cool. In other words, being down wiv da kids.

The politically charged question, however, is whether Miliband was deliberately changing his accent in order to get in with Brand, a working-class lad from Essex, or appeal to his fans. It’s unlikely. Labov thought that changes motivated by covert prestige were usually made “below the horizon of conscious awareness”. That’s in contrast to the changes we might adopt when shifting to a more formal register – deliberately trying to sound posher during a job interview, or on the phone to a stranger. Elsewhere in the academic forest, social psychologists have identified what they call “communication accommodation”, where the accents of partners in a conversation tend to converge when they’re attempting to build alliances, and diverge where they want to distinguish themselves from each other.

The basic insight of sociolinguistics was that social relationships affect the way we speak. The dynamics of human interaction – hierarchy, solidarity, disdain or admiration – can turn a high vowel into a low one, replace one consonant with another, and make would-be prime ministers sound like comedians. It’s quite possible that the glottalisation of “t” will soon become a standard feature of British English. An initially socially driven change will become so widespread that language learners (that’s to say children) perceive it as neutral: just the way we say things. Then the prejudice against it – ultimately rooted in a stigmatisation of male, working-class speech – will dissipate. As an added bonus, we’ll finally stop hand-wringing each time an upper-middle class person with power uses it.

Shariatmadari, David. 2015. “Why have we got it in for the glottal stop?”. The Guardian. Posted: April 30, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Teeth tell story about people buried at Harappa

Much of what modern researchers have gleaned about our common ancestors, particularly those from Egypt and Mesopotamia, comes from well-studied tombs and burial sites.

Discovering the narrative of peoples from the Greater Indus Valley — which comprises much of modern-day Pakistan and northwest India — is more challenging. The text of the Indus Valley Civilisation remains undeciphered, and known and excavated burial sites are rare. Recently, researchers have illuminated the lives of some individuals buried more than 4,000 years ago in those grave sites by providing a comparison of the dental enamel and chemical analyses of the water, fauna and rocks, using isotope ratios of lead and strontium.

The study is published in PLOS ONE (Open Access). In its heyday, Harappa held a population of 50,000, although the number of individuals represented by skeletal remains across the entire culture area totals in the hundreds.

Migrated to Harappa

When tooth enamel forms, it incorporates elements from the local environment  such as food, water and dust. When the researchers looked at remains from the ancient city of Harappa, located in what is known today as the Punjab Province of Pakistan, individuals’ early molars told a very different story than their later ones, meaning they hadn’t been born in the city where they were found.

The University of Florida research team was led by Benjamin Valentine, biological anthropologist John Krigbaum, and geological sciences professor George Kamenov, an isotope geologist.

“The idea of isotope analysis to determine the origin of individual migrants has been around for decades. But what people haven’t been doing is looking at the different tooth types, essentially, snapshots of residents during different times of individuals’ lives,” said Valentine. “We didn’t invent the method, but we threw the kitchen sink at it.” The researchers discovered that the people in the Harappa must have migrated there from the hinterlands. Said Krigbaum, “Previous work had thought the burial sites represented local, middle-class people. There was no notion that outsiders were welcomed and integrated by locals within the city. It’s not clear why certain young hinterland people were sent to the city.”

Past Horizons. 2015. “Teeth tell story about people buried at Harappa”. Past Horizons. Posted: A[pril 30, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Prehistoric man with shield found after dig

An archeological dig in Pocklington has unearthed a prehistoric man buried with a shield.

The skeleton was found in one of the square barrows at the recently discovered Iron Age burial ground on Burnby Lane, which is where developer David Wilson Homes is planning to build 77 new houses.

MAP Archaeological Practice, the company which is carrying out the excavation work, says it has also discovered a man “of an impressive stature.”

The site has so far yielded more than 38 square barrows and in excess of 82 burials.

Paula Ware, of MAP Archaeological Practice, said: “Naturally we’re still investigating our findings, so at present we aren’t able to share much more detail - however we’re looking forward to learning more and understanding what these new discoveries mean for the local area.

“To present Burnby Lane has unveiled some excellent prehistoric artefacts, that are really unique.

“We are continuing to investigate the site and will work hand in hand with David Wilson Homes to preserve these historical discoveries so that they can be used to shed some light on the history of the area for generations to come.”

Several of the square barrows contain personal possessions, including jewellery, and a sword has also been discovered.

So far the findings have been associated with the Arras culture of the middle to late Iron Age in Eastern Yorkshire.

The finds are now being conserved and stabilised for display purposes in the future.

Miss Ware explained: “The information from the conservation in particular will provide a detailed insight into the lives and environment of the Arras culture in the area of Pocklington.

“These discoveries are truly fantastic for the local area, and are the largest archaeological works to have ever taken place in Pocklington.”

It is not yet known how long archeologists will be at the site for, but it is predicted that the archaeological dig will last throughout the summer.

MAP Archaeological Practice is urging the public to stay clear of the site.

Peter Morris, development director at David Wilson Homes, said: “These discoveries are truly fantastic for the Pocklington area and we are delighted to be working hand in hand with Paula and her team of archaeologists on a project that will most definitely benefit the community for years to come.

“We are particularly excited by the artefacts discovered - not least the jewellery and the sword – and will continue to work hard to ensure the findings are preserved so that they can help us to achieve a greater historical understanding of the Pocklington area.”

The burial ground is now recognised as being of international importance.

The Iron Age in Britain lasted from 800 BC until the time of the Roman conquest, which started in AD 43.

Pocklington Post. 2015. “Prehistoric man with shield found after dig”. Pocklington Post. Posted: April 30, 2015. Available online:

Monday, July 6, 2015

800-year-old rune stick unearthed during excavation of Danish city

A rune stick from the Middle Ages has been found in the centre of Odense. An unique find, say scientists.

The little stick found underneath the streets of Odense, Denmark’s third largest city, is only 8.5 centimetres in length -- but it isn’t just any old stick. The so-called rune stick was made in the early 13th century, said Odense City Museums in a press release.

Archaeologists have been digging for a long time at the excavation beneath I. Vilhelm Werners Square in Odense and they were actually just about to stop when they found three pieces of wood which fitted together to make up the rune stick.

It isn’t easy to decipher what the runes say and the stick itself is extremely fragile, explained rune expert and senior researcher Lisbeth Imer from the National Museum of Denmark in the press release.

”The stick itself had the consistency of cold butter before it was conserved, and some little devil of a root has gouged its way along the inscription on one side, which is a bit upsetting,” said Imer.

All the same, the researchers have been able to make out the words “good health” and “Tomme his servant”. According to the archaeologists the latter refers to the round stick’s owner as a servant of God. The words are in Latin.

The stick was found among merchants’ and fishermen’s stalls

The rune stick, which may have been worn as an amulet or talisman, was found among ancient stalls, at a place reminiscent of an old market street.

The researchers believe the place is the one referred to as ’Sildeboderne’ (literally “the herring stalls”) by historical texts. It was not until medieval times that trade was moved to what was later called the Fish Market.

The rune stick testifies to the use of runes in the Middle Ages, and along with similar sticks found in the Norwegian coastal city of Bergen, they give us the impression that the runes were commonly used in the Middle Ages.

Thykier, Michael. 2015. “800-year-old rune stick unearthed during excavation of Danish city”. Science Nordic. Posted: April 30, 2015. Available online: