Saturday, October 31, 2015

Archaeology world excited about Gölmarmara findings

An international archaeology team working in Manisa’s Gölmarmara lake basin is excited about new findings in the area including a massive castle and Bronze Age settlement

The latest findings discovered during excavations on Kaymakçı Hill in Manisa’s Gölmarmara Lake basin have aroused excitement in the archaeological world, including one that even overshadow the famous city of Troy.

“This area is four times larger than the ancient site of Troy in Çanakkale and the largest late Bronze Age settlement that has been found in the Aegean region. When the work is done, we will take a very significant step toward promoting Manisa to the world,” said Yaşar University academic Professor Sinan Ünlüsoy, the deputy head of the Kaymakçı Archaeology Project.

Excavations conducted by an excavation team formed by 42 archaeologists from leading U.S., European and Turkish universities are continuing to shed light on the unknown about the late Bronze Age (1600-1200 B.C.).

The project is being headed by Koç University Archaeology and History of Art Department members Christopher H. Roosevelt and Christina Luke. 

A big castle, where the ancestors of the Lydians lived, was recently discovered in Gölmarmara’s Hacıevler neighborhood by the international team. The settlement, which is mentioned in the sources of the Hittite Empire, is located on a hill known as Kaymakçı. 

For the excavation work, İzmir’s Yaşar University is providing educational support for students from various Turkish universities. 

“Manisa’s Salihli district and its vicinity, which is a historical treasure, offer golden opportunities for archaeologists. While excavations have been continuing in Sardis, the capital of the Lydian Empire, other works in Kaymakçı aim to shed light on the region in the pre-Lydian era. In a doctoral thesis on the Bintepe tumulus, where the Lydian kings are buried, the head of the excavations, Roosevelt and Luke, reached the preliminary findings in 2001 and made surface surveys there in the summer months for the next 10 years,” Ünlüsoy said. 

“They, together with me, got permission for excavations as part of the Kaymakçı Archaeology Project in 2014 and started solving the secret of the castle from 3,500 years ago. The findings revealed that there were six castles in the Marmara Lake basin in 2000. They were within walking distance. The Kaymakçı castle is the largest of these castles,” the professor said.

Four times larger than Troy

The three archaeologists, Roosevelt, Luke and Ünlüsoy, said they had discovered one of the largest castles of the region.

The professors also said they believed there was city underground that is not particularly deep, adding that the site was a capital where the ancestors of the Lydians lived before money came into use. 

As part of the project, Ünlüsoy said they had made attempts to establish a “research and visitor center” that would include a depot, exhibition hall and conference hall. 

“This center will contribute to the promotion and development of the region. It will be open throughout the year. In this way, this region will be a center of attraction thanks to its rich historical heritage from the Bronze Age to the Ottoman era as well as its natural beauty,” Ünlüsoy said.

İZMİR – Doğan News Agency. 2015. “Archaeology world excited about Gölmarmara findings”. Hurriyet Daily News. Posted: Available online:

Friday, October 30, 2015

Researchers find romantic kissing is not the norm in most cultures

For generations, passionate kisses immortalized in movies, songs and the arts have served as a thermometer of romantic affection.

But current research has found that not only is romantic kissing not the norm in most cultures, some find it uncomfortable and even flat-out repulsive.

Justin Garcia, research scientist at Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, is the co-author of a new study published in the journal American Anthropologist -- "Is the Romantic-Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?" -- that looked at 168 cultures throughout the world to better understand where kissing does and doesn't occur.

Using standard cross-cultural methods, the study found that fewer than half of all cultures surveyed -- 46 percent -- engage in romantic/sexual kissing. Romantic kissing was defined as lip-to-lip contact that may or may not be prolonged.

"We hypothesized that some cultures would either not engage in romantic/sexual kissing, or find it to be a strange display of intimacy, but we were surprised to find that it was a majority of cultures that fell into this category," said Garcia, assistant professor of gender studies in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences. "This is a real reminder of how Western ethnocentrism can bias the way we think about human behavior."

Romantic kissing was most prevalent in the Middle East, where all 10 of the cultures studied engaged in it. In North America, 55 percent of cultures engaged in romantic kissing, along with 70 percent in Europe and 73 percent in Asia.

But there was no evidence of romantic kissing in Central America, and no ethnographer working with Sub-Saharan African, New Guinean or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported any evidence of romantic kissing in the populations they studied, according to the research.

The research conducted by Garcia and colleagues also found a relationship between social complexity and kissing: The more socially complex and stratified a society is, the higher the frequency of romantic kissing.

Interest in the study stemmed from renewed attention in the role of close touch and kissing in people's romantic and sexual lives, Garcia said. Recent work on the issue, he said, has made claims about the universality of erotic kissing, some even claiming 90 percent of societies engage in the act.

"However, we realized no one had used standard cross-cultural methods to assess how frequently kissing actually occurs in different societies, but by doing so, we could begin to understand why it might occur in some places and not others," he said.

It is not clear where romantic/sexual kissing evolved from, Garcia said. Some animals engage in similar behaviors; chimpanzees, for example, are known to engage in open-mouth kissing.

When it comes to humans kissing, Garcia pointed out that it does serve as a way to learn more about a partner, "whether one feels there is any 'chemistry,' or possibly to assess health via taste and smell, and in some ways to assess compatibility with each other."

"There is likely a biological underpinning to kissing, as it can often involve exchange of pheromones and saliva, and also pathogens -- which might be particularly dangerous in societies without oral hygiene, where kissing may lead to spread of respiratory or other illness," he said. "But this is only in societies that have come to see the erotic kiss as part of their larger romantic and sexual repertoires. How that shift occurs is still an open question for research."

EurekAlert. 2015. “Researchers find romantic kissing is not the norm in most cultures”. EurekAlert. Posted: August 5, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Finding the Battle of Bannockburn

Bannockburn is the most iconic battle of Scottish history and was the key battle in the Scottish Wars of Independence. Fought over two days, the 23 and 24 of June 1314, the battle was a resounding victory for Robert I’s army over a much larger force led by Edward II of England. The victory established Robert the Bruce as de facto King of Scots and ended any realistic claim of the Plantagenets to the Scottish throne, by both removing the last significant English garrison and the Bruce’s Scottish enemies from the country.

However, despite its iconic status, the precise location of the actual battlefield was unknown, with a variety of potential sites beneath and around the modern village of Bannockburn the subject of academic debate.

Between 2011 and 2014, a new search for the site of the Battle of Bannockburn took place, spurred on by the 700th anniversary and the National Trust for Scotland’s new state-of-the-art Bannockburn Battlefield Centre. Led by a team of archaeologists, historians and environmental experts drawn from the National Trust for Scotland, the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University, Stirling Council, Stirling University, the Treasure Trove Unit and GUARD Archaeology Ltd, every available resource and technique was put to the test. LIDAR, aerial photography, map regression, documentary research, geophysical prospection, walk-over surveys, metal-detecting surveys, excavation trenching and systematic test-pitting was carried out with the support of metal detectorists from the Scottish Artefact Recovery Group and Detecting Scotland and the participation of over 1,314 enthusiastic local, national and international volunteers of all ages. Supported by BBC Scotland, the work culminated in a two-part BBC 2 documentary ‘The Quest for Bannockburn’, presented by Neil Oliver and Tony Pollard, which aired in June last year.

‘There is very little on the ground to mark where the battle apparently took place‘, said Warren Bailie, who led GUARD Archaeology’s team. ‘The Bore Stone at the summit of Brock’s Brae, was according to tradition where Robert the Bruce’s standard was set during the battle, but this doesn’t actually appear in written accounts before 1723 and even then only one fragment of the original bore stone still survives at the Bannockburn Visitor Centre.‘

As with any new development in an archaeologically sensitive area, investigations were undertaken across the footprint of the new Bannockburn Battlefield Centre prior to its construction. These did not uncover any evidence from the battlefield, but rather a number of Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age fire pits, which brought home the enormity of the task, not simply trying to discern the archaeology from the intensively developed landscape of modern-day Bannockburn but discerning it from one event 700 years ago from the archaeology accumulated over many thousands of years.

Bannockburn 700 project

The launch event for the Bannockburn 700 project took place on Monument Hill exactly 700 days ahead of the 700th Anniversary of the battle. The work here established that the Roman Road, reputed to have led both the English and Scottish armies to this position, did not actually lead here. Instead it was surmised that the Roman road lay below the current main road which sweeps past this site on lower ground.

The Roman road was encountered, however, during subsequent excavations by local volunteers, led by Murray Cook  of Stirling Council, in an area just south of Randolph’s Field. This was a key feature in the landscape during the Battle of Bannockburn as it was the principal road to Stirling Castle from the south and revealed the route by which Edward II’s army approached the battle, and where Robert the Bruce’s soldiers opposed them.

Cambuskenneth Abbey is another significant landmark that was in existence at the time of the battle and features in numerous records of the period. The Abbey is one of the few places specifically mentioned in near contemporary accounts of the battle. It was here that Robert the Bruce kept his army’s baggage prior to the Battle of Bannockburn, though it is possible that this was also where supplies related to the on-going siege of Stirling Castle by the Scots were stored (it was to relieve the siege that Edward II brought his army to Bannockburn). The investigations around the ruins of the Abbey, which have been dated no earlier than the thirteenth century, involved geophysics, test-pitting and metal detecting led by GUARD Archaeologists.

A trench close to the Abbey ruins revealed an assemblage more consistent with the medieval beginnings of Cambuskenneth Abbey. But a metal-detecting survey across the fields to the south and west of the Abbey recovered, amongst over 1,000 finds, a silver Edward I/II coin that was minted in London during the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. This coin would have been in circulation at the time of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and could derive from booty taken from the defeated English army.

Exactly one year before the 700th Anniversary of the Battle, the Bannockburn Big Dig took place, investigating Braehead, Balquidderock Wood and Broomhill over 7 days. The findings included 133 metal artefacts, mostly iron and of eighteenth century, but from amongst the 139 test pits excavated was recovered an assemblage of medieval artefacts including white gritty ware and Scottish red ware, both types potentially contemporary to the battle, as well as considerable amounts of later medieval pottery. The evidence here, dispelled the myth that the Carse was an uninhabited bog during the middle ages. The nature of these interspersed habitable areas across an unfamiliar and otherwise boggy landscape may have been a major factor in the outcome of the battle, given the accounts that when the Scottish army surprised the English army early on the second day of the battle, the English forces were driven across the Carse towards the Forth, where flanked by the Pelstream to the north and the Bannock Burn to the south, they had nowhere to run.

Medieval spur and stirrup

A survey at Redhall Farm involved test-pitting and metal detecting of 10 ha along the eastern banks of the Bannock Burn. Among the hundreds of artefacts recovered was one spur fragment that turned out to be of medieval date. This was the first indication of medieval equestrian equipment found on any of our investigations to date. The test pits along the inner meanders of the Bannock Burn also turned up some sherds of medieval pottery, again evidence of medieval occupation of this landscape.

Another metal detector survey at Carse Fields covered an additional 10 ha area and recovered a medieval stirrup. This was now the second artefact that could be potentially attributed to medieval cavalry.

Broadley’s Farm is spread over many fields along the courses of the Pelstream and Bannock Burn. The land therefore provided opportunities to investigate wide areas on the Carse as well as the inner meanders and river banks where it was hoped that artefacts from the battle might await discovery. The metal detecting survey of 30 ha of land and excavation of 50 test pits turned up more medieval pottery, further evidence that the Carse was habitable during the medieval period.

‘In true dramatic archaeological style the battlefield kept us all waiting to the bitter end for the most treasured of artefacts‘, said Warren Bailie. With the help of GUARD Archaeology colleagues, Maureen Kilpatrick and Christine Rennie, and fifty local volunteers, a last ditch attempt to recover more evidence of the battle got under way on 15 February 2014. While lots of non-descript iron objects were discovered – a few horse shoes, recent coins, nineteenth century horse harness pendants – one of the volunteers found something a little more special, a copper alloy cross harness pendant which even then appeared significant. Analysed soon after by Dr Natasha Ferguson of the Treasure Trove Unit, traces of silver gilt and blue enamel were identified. XRF analysis later found traces of gold too. This cross pendant dated to the early fourteenth century and once adorned the horse harness of  an English nobleman’s horse. It’s location here, on the Carse, understood in the context of the other findings of the project, provides the clearest archaeological evidence found so far for the location of the Battle of Bannockburn.

The medieval material culture discovered during the Bannockburn investigations demonstrates that the Carse was settled in the medieval period when for so long many dismissed the area as an inhospitable and boggy environment during that period. The new key equestrian artefacts – the spur, stirrup and cross pendant – which may relate to the rout of the English army from the battlefield on the second day, substantiates the location of the Battle of Bannockburn on the Carse here too.

Past Horizons. 2015. “Finding the Battle of Bannockburn”. Past Horizons. Posted: August 5, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Is This How Language Evolved?

Roughly 7,000 languages are used around the world, and many thousands more have cycled in and out of existence throughout human history. Where did these languages come from, and how did our ancestors create the very first ones? One basic unanswered question is whether the first languages began as gestures, like modern-day signed languages of the deaf, or as vocalizations, like most extant human languages, which are spoken.

Unfortunately for scientists interested in these questions, languages don’t leave fossils. So instead, experimental psychologists like me try to understand how language evolved by conducting communication studies with modern human beings.

Recently, my colleagues and I ran a series of experiments to examine how effectively people are able to communicate vocally without the use of speech. Can they use vocalizations to express their thoughts, without using words – and what can their efforts tell us about how the very first languages may have arisen?

'Iconic’ clues from signed languages' recent roots

Estimates of when the first spoken languages arose are highly uncertain, spanning tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years ago or more. They are far too ancient for us to detect any evidence of an original “proto” language in what people speak today.

However, signed languages may offer a clue. These gestural languages created by the deaf typically have much more recent roots, being on the order of just tens or hundreds of years old.

In a handful of cases – for instance, when deaf children without a native signed language have come together in schools for the deaf, or in isolated rural communities with a high incidence of genetic deafness – scientists have actually had the opportunity to observe how signed languages are created anew.

What they find is that people in these circumstances first invent “iconic” gestures – that is, gestures that somehow depict or enact their meaning. For instance, think of scribbling your signature in the air to ask the server for the bill at a restaurant, or pointing and tracing a route to give someone directions. These gestures show what you are trying to express.

Iconic gestures, which can be understood even when communicators lack a common language, can then be molded into a system of signs and grammatical rules that are shared between members of a community. Over time and generations, they can develop into a fully complex and expressive language.

Can voices make the same leap?

But can this same process work with the vocalizations of speech? Can people similarly use their voice to depict their meaning and bootstrap the creation of a spoken language without gestures?

On the face of it, many scholars have argued “no.” They reason that it is much easier  to show a concept with a visible gesture than to represent it with some kind of noise. This intuition is illustrated by an example from psychologist Michael Tomasello – trying to request Parmesan in an Italian restaurant by twiddling your fingers over your pasta as if sprinkling grated cheese. But what kind of vocalization would you produce to express this?

About this challenge, the renowned linguist Charles Hockett once wrotethat:

When a representation of some four-dimensional hunk of life has to be compressed into the single dimension of speech, most iconicity is necessarily squeezed out. In one-dimensional projection, an elephant is indistinguishable from a woodshed.

Was Hockett right about the limited potential for people to create iconic vocalizations? To what extent can people create vocalizations with acoustic properties that somehow resemble their meaning in the same way they are able to create iconic gestures that do?

Creating new ‘words’ in the lab

Of course, our research participants come to the lab already knowing a spoken language – this is unavoidable. Yet, we have found that just by asking people to vocalize without speaking, we are able to learn a lot about their ability to communicate with iconic vocalizations, and also about their ability to use these vocalizations to create simple systems of vocal “words.”

For example, in our most recent study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, we asked university students to communicate with each other in a 10-round game of vocal charades. Their task was to communicate a set of various meanings – such as smooth, slow, big, up or down – to their partner with vocalizations, without using words.

We found that participants shared similar ideas of how certain properties of their voice – such as pitch, loudness, timbre and duration – translated to particular meanings. With few exceptions, each meaning was expressed with characteristic properties that distinguished it from each other meaning.

For example, vocalizations meant to convey “rough” were aperiodic and noisy

A vocalization for ‘rough.’ Marcus Perlman, CC BY17.2 KB

“Fast” was conveyed with high-pitched and loud sounds.

Would you guess this vocalization stands for ‘fast?’ Marcus Perlman, CC BY12.7 KB

And “small” with high-pitched and soft sounds.

Does it sound teeny tiny to you? Marcus Perlman, CC BY10.6 KB

The fact that people consistently made vocalizations with particular acoustic properties for each particular meaning suggests that the vocalizations were iconic, somehow depicting or resembling their meaning. (We were also able to show that the vocalizations did not resemble the acoustic properties of the actual spoken words to which they referred; participants truly were generating vocalizations that were independent from their knowledge of English words.)

So participants were able to create iconic vocalizations that in some way embodied their meanings for a range of concepts.

Putting it all together

Were participants able to take the next step and mold these vocalizations into more language-like symbols? To answer this question, we examined what happened to vocalizations and partners’ ability to understand them over the course of the game.

Over the 10 rounds, the vocalizations participants produced became more and more word-like. What began as highly variable, improvised vocalizations became shorter and more stable in form as participants repeated the interaction across rounds. At the same time, their vocalizations became more readily understandable, with partners guessing their meaning faster and with greater accuracy. Thus, it appeared that participants were using iconic vocalizations to establish an initial understanding between each other, and then with repetition, they were turning these vocalizations into more efficient symbols – not unlike words.

We then asked whether third-party listeners who had not participated in the charades game would be able to guess the meanings of the vocalizations. If so, it would bolster the argument that they were iconic and understandable without prior convention.

To test this, we played the vocalizations produced by our charades participants to listeners recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk – a web service where workers can perform online tasks for payment. We paid participants to listen to the vocalizations and guess their meanings in a multiple-choice format. These naïve listeners were able to understand the vocalizations with a level of accuracy that was much higher than chance – on average, about 36% correct compared to the expected 10% by chance – further indicating that they were iconic in some way.

A glimpse of how language could have evolved

But what do these findings say about the bigger question of how the first languages originated? Certainly great caution is warranted in generalizing to the evolution of language from experiments conducted in the laboratory with English-speaking undergraduates or online with Mechanical Turk workers.

But our experiments do show that the human potential to create iconic vocalizations is quite impressive, far exceeding many previous estimates that have influenced scientific theories of language evolution. We also demonstrate an important proof of principle that people can use iconic vocalizations as source material to develop conventional symbols – comparable to how people might create conventional signs.

Importantly, our claim is not that spoken languages must then have evolved exclusively from vocalizations. Rather, our argument is that there is considerable potential for vocalizations to support the evolution of a spoken symbol system. Of course when people are free to communicate “in the wild,” they draw spontaneously on both vocalizations and gestures of all kinds. Therefore, when facing a naturally occurring challenge to devise a communication system, people are likely to take advantage of the strengths of iconic representation in each modality.

Yet even if language has multimodal origins, our study hints at the intriguing possibility that many of the spoken words of modern languages may have long ago been uttered by our ancestors as iconic vocalizations.

Perlman, Marcus. 2015. “Is This How Language Evolved?”. Live Science. Posted: August 5, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How language gives your brain a break

Here's a quick task: Take a look at the sentences below and decide which is the most effective.

(1) "John threw out the old trash sitting in the kitchen."

(2) "John threw the old trash sitting in the kitchen out."

Either sentence is grammatically acceptable, but you probably found the first one to be more natural. Why? Perhaps because of the placement of the word "out," which seems to fit better in the middle of this word sequence than the end.

In technical terms, the first sentence has a shorter "dependency length" -- a shorter total distance, in words, between the crucial elements of a sentence. Now a new study of 37 languages by three MIT researchers has shown that most languages move toward "dependency length minimization" (DLM) in practice. That means language users have a global preference for more locally grouped dependent words, whenever possible.

"People want words that are related to each other in a sentence to be close together," says Richard Futrell, a PhD student in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and a lead author of a new paper detailing the results. "There is this idea that the distance between grammatically related words in a sentence should be short, as a principle."

The paper, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests people modify language in this way because it makes things simpler for our minds -- as speakers, listeners, and readers.

"When I'm talking to you, and you're trying to understand what I'm saying, you have to parse it, and figure out which words are related to each other," Futrell observes. "If there is a large amount of time between one word and another related word, that means you have to hold one of those words in memory, and that can be hard to do."

While the existence of DLM had previously been posited and identified in a couple of languages, this is the largest study of its kind to date.

"It was pretty interesting, because people had really only looked at it in one or two languages," says Edward Gibson, a professor of cognitive science and co-author of the paper. "We though it was probably true [more widely], but that's pretty important to show. ... We're not showing perfect optimization, but [DLM] is a factor that's involved."

From head to tail

To conduct the study, the researchers used four large databases of sentences that have been parsed grammatically: one from Charles University in Prague, one from Google, one from the Universal Dependencies Consortium (a new group of computational linguists), and a Chinese-language database from the Linguistic Dependencies Consortium at the University of Pennsylvania. The sentences are taken from published texts, and thus represent everyday language use.

To quantify the effect of placing related words closer to each other, the researchers compared the dependency lengths of the sentences to a couple of baselines for dependency length in each language. One baseline randomizes the distance between each "head" word in a sentence (such as "threw," above) and the "dependent" words (such as "out"). However, since some languages, including English, have relatively strict word-order rules, the researchers also used a second baseline that accounted for the effects of those word-order relationships.

In both cases, Futrell, Gibson, and co-author Kyle Mahowald found, the DLM tendency exists, to varying degrees, among languages. Italian appears to be highly optimized for short sentences; German, which has some notoriously indirect sentence constructions, is far less optimized, according to the analysis.

And the researchers also discovered that "head-final" languages such as Japanese, Korean, and Turkish, where the head word comes last, show less length minimization than is typical. This could be because these languages have extensive case-markings, which denote the function of a word (whether a noun is the subject, the direct object, and so on). The case markings would thus compensate for the potential confusion of the larger dependency lengths.

"It's possible, in languages where it's really obvious from the case marking where the word fits into the sentence, that might mean it's less important to keep the dependencies local," Futrell says.

Futrell, Gibson, and Mahowald readily note that the study leaves larger questions open: Does the DLM tendency occur primarily to help the production of language, its reception, a more strictly cognitive function, or all of the above?

"It could be for the speaker, the listener, or both," Gibson says. "It's very difficult to separate those."

EurekAlert. 2015. “How language gives your brain a break”. EurekAlert. Posted: August 3, 2015. Available online:

Monday, October 26, 2015

These petroglyphs believed to be drawn 8,000 to 10,000 years ago in remotest Siberia

A new expedition to the Ukok plateau, some 2,500 metres high in the Altai Mountains close to the modern-day Russian border with Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, has found evidence that a set of intriguing petroglyphs are far older than previously thought. 

Stylistically, the drawings match the Paleolithic tradition, some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. If this is true, they will be the oldest in Siberia by several millennia. 

The Ukok Plateau is known for its thriving ancient societies highlighted by the elaborate burials of important people - including that of the remarkable tattooed 'Ukok princess', pictured here. But she lived far more recently on the plateau, some 2,500 years ago. 

Elsewhere in the Altai Mountains, some areas have no petroglyphs at all, while certain places are like alfresco picture galleries left by our ancestors, dating from around 5,000 years ago, also less ancient than the oldest suspected Ukok images, which include pictures of horses and probably bison. 

The site on the Ukok plateau, known as the Kalgutinsky Rudnik (Kalgutinsky Mine), where a tungsten-molybdenum deposit was found, also includes more recent petroglyphs. It was revealed for the first time by Dr Vyacheslav Molodin and Dr Dmitry Cheremisin in 1992. 

A number of problems prevent the straightforward dating of the drawings in this wild and stunning location on the Ukok plateau, yet despite these hurdles French academics who observed the petroglyphs this summer, like their Russian colleagues, believe them to be truly ancient. 

Siberian specialist Dr Lidia Zotkina said: 'We had already worked with this site, but this year was the first stage of an international joint project with our colleagues from France. 'Between 1 and 25 July, we worked  on the plateau and now can share some preliminary results.'

She stressed that dating is complex, and further work is needed, but said: 'We have converging data suggesting that the petroglyphs could be Paleolithic and thus the most ancient known in Siberia. 'When the French archaeologists first arrived on the Ukok plateau and saw the petroglyphs they said: 'If we had found them somewhere in France, we would not doubt they are Paleolithic, but here, in Siberia, we need to ascertain their age.' 

The Ukok petroglyphs are drawn onto glacier-polished rhyolite, a volcanic rock, usually on horizontal planes. Normally archeologists could obtain dates from surrounding sediments forming in clear layers, but the exceptionally windy conditions on this exposed plateau mean excavations around the  petroglyphs will not 'give a relevat stratigraphy'.

The conditions on the plateau are such that 'we cannot use here the classic archaeological methods (for dating) - and need to find new and innovative ways,' explained Dr Zotkina, from the Mirror Lab of Novosibirsk State University.

'This year we worked with geomorphologists from the laboratory EDYTEM (Savoi)- their main task was to determine when the glaciers left this site - and traceologists. According to the preliminary data, the glacier could have retreated as early as between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. So that is when ancient people could access this place and create the petroglyphs.'

By doing traceological analysis under the guidance of Dr Hugues Plisson 'we are trying to find out if the ancient masters used stone or metal implements to make the petroglyphs. Of course if we established that they used metal implements, all our hypothesis about Paleolithic dating would be disproved immediately.'

Yet the weight of evidence so far goes the other way. 

'At the moment we see the use of the stone implements. It is interesting that using a 20 times microscope we found traces of scraping the surface by stone. Obviously, the ancient people made a kind of sketch with stone and only after this engraved the petroglyph.'

Remarkably, the researchers 'found tiny traces of these sketches' or templates. To test their theory, the scientists tried using the technique they believe was deployed by ancient man. 

'The rock with the petroglyphs is exceptionally tough - it is rhyolite. Besides, the glacier polished them, forming a lacquer-like crust, and as a result it is very hard, almost impossible to engrave any image. One needs to prepare the surface, to break this crust first.

'We made an experiment and found that first we need to scratch or peck the stone to prepare the surface and only then to make the engravings. We checked the traces of our scratching with the microscope and they coincided with the ancient ones.'

But who made these ancient petroglyphs?

Dr Zotkina said: 'Some big Paleolithic sites where people must have lived were not found yet. The climate on Ukok does not help to preserve such sites, so we do not know who could make these Petroglyphs, if it is correct that they are Paleolithic. But I think that it is a matter of the time. Sooner of later Paleolithic sites will be found and we will get more information about the people who could engrave these images.'

Liesowska, Anna. 2015. “These petroglyphs believed to be drawn 8,000 to 10,000 years ago in remotest Siberia”. The Siberian Times. Posted: August 3, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Signs of 9000-year-old settlement found in Behbahan

Head of the speculation and exploration team in Mahtaj Hill in Behbahan,Khuzestan Province, says signs of a 9000-year-old settlement have been discovered in the site.

Hojjat Darabi said on Monday the results obtained from speculation and exploration operations carried out in Mahtaj Hill of Behbahan in Khuzestan Province which includes the earliest evidence on farming and animal husbandry in this region indicates the existence of a nine-thousand-year-old Pre-Pottery settlement in Behbahan.

Mahtaj Hill, located to the northwest of Behbahan,  was registered as a Pre-Pottery Neolithic site last year following the archaeological research conducted by Abbas Moghadam. All the site’s surface has been flattened and very little remains of the lower layers of the settlement, said Darabi.

“The findings mostly include stone tools such as grindstone and its handle which shows that producing and processing of vegetarian food played an important role in the livelihood of Mahtaj Hill inhabitants," said the Iranian archaeologist. 

According to Darabi, Mahtaj Hill can provide the earliest evidence regarding farming and animal husbandry on the plains near the shores of the Persian Gulf.

Mehr News Agency. 2015. “Signs of 9000-year-old settlement found in Behbahan”. Mehr News Agency. Posted: August 3, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Remnants of 5th-century building where foreigners may have met found in Nara

Large remnants of an ancient structure that may have served as a meeting place for foreigners more than 1,500 years ago have been excavated here, the town board of education announced July 30.

The remains are of an “o-kabe” (large wall) structure from the late fifth century, which was built using a construction method introduced from the Korean Peninsula, officials said.

An archaeologist said the building could have served as a meeting spot for migrants from the Korean Peninsula and China. “I believe the structure served as part of a settlement of foreigners, who settled in Japan and introduced document administration and foreign policy,” said Kanekatsu Inokuma, professor emeritus of archaeology at Kyoto Tachibana University.

While remnants of o-kabe structures have been found in many locations in Nara and Shiga prefectures, the latest find, located in the Mori Ochi Osa Remains in Takatori, is one of the largest in Japan, with each side measuring 13.5 meters. Poles 20 centimeters in diameter were built in a 50-cm-wide and 35-cm-deep ditch at 50-cm intervals, where the walls were built from the poles covered in mud and painted, the officials said.

Also found under the floor were an apparent fire port and smoke pipe of an "ondol," a Korean method of floor heating. The site of the latest discovery is believed to have been a settlement of the Yamato no Ayauji clan, a group of immigrants from the Korean Peninsula.

The remnants of about 40 o-kabe structures have been confirmed in Takatori alone. “Nihon Shoki” (The Chronicles of Japan), compiled in 720, describes two migrant officials serving Emperor Yuryaku in the late fifth century, Musano Suguri Ao and Hinokuma no Tami no Tsukai Hakatoko. The pair went to Wu in ancient China and brought back intellectuals with them.

Such people might have intermingled in the meeting center of the foreigners' town, Inokuma said.

Tsukamoto, Kazuto. 2015. “Remnants of 5th-century building where foreigners may have met found in Nara”. The Asahi Shimbun. Posted: August 1, 2015. Available online:

Friday, October 23, 2015

Archaeologists extract clues from Kiskiack's pre-colonial past

It was the last day of the dig and rain was threatening.

Madeline Gunter and Jessica Bittner were using tablespoons to work around some rocks that were just beginning to peek through the troweled-flat, muddy-looking surface of their working unit. They weren't just random stones.

"It's a hearth feature," said Gunter, a Ph.D. student in William & Mary's Department of Anthropology. "We're making sure to collect all these little charcoal flecks that are concentrated here in the center. That's going to help us date this feature." Rain, even a very moderate shower, would wash away those little charcoal flecks, along with any microscopic evidence of foodstuffs mixed in among them. As a precaution, Gunter and Bittner work with tarps literally at their elbows, the unsettled weather adding a bit of extra urgency to the excavation.

The hearth feature was one of the top finds of the summer archaeological field school conducted by Professor of Anthropology Martin Gallivan at Kiskiack, the site of an Indian town that was once part of the chiefdom of Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas.

It's possible that John Smith or Pocahontas ate a meal cooked on the very same hearth that Gunter and Bittner were excavating, but it would be fanciful to say so. Gallivan says that the odds of both time and place are against such an occurrence. Kiskiack may have been occupied for centuries at the time that Smith and the other Jamestown colonists arrived in 1607. In addition, the site extends for hundreds of yards along a bluff overlooking the York River, on the grounds of what now is Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, and no doubt the ground underneath contains many, many hearth features of various vintages.

The archaeologists hope that laboratory examination of the hearth area will not only help to date the feature, but also yield up clues about what was eaten there at the time. The hearthstones are lumps of quartzite, brought down the York River from Virginia's mountains by long years of weathering and flooding. Some of the hearthstones look like brick fragments, but they're not.

"You see these red stones, here?" Gunter asked. "That's one of the indications that it's a hearth feature, because when these rocks are exposed to a certain temperature, they turn this red color."

Mcclain, Joseph. 2015. “Archaeologists extract clues from Kiskiack's pre-colonial past”. Posted: July 31, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Earliest Pictish fort yet discovered was situated on sea stack

An inhospitable sea stack on the Aberdeenshire coast has been confirmed as the site of the earliest Pictish Fort and pre-dates the iconic Dunnottar Castle, carbon dating has revealed. The sea stack to the south of Stonehaven, known as Dunnicaer, was excavated by archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen in April.

With the help of experienced mountaineers they scaled the rocky outcrop, which measures at most 20 by 12 metres and is surrounded by sheer drops on all side.

Despite its small size, the team led by Dr Gordon Noble, believed it would yield important archaeological finds. Their initial surveys found evidence of ramparts, floors and a hearth and now samples found in the excavation trenches have been carbon dated.

This suggests the site dates from the 3rd or 4th century – making it the oldest Pictish fort ever discovered. Dr Noble, a Senior Lecturer in archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, described the sea stack as an ‘exceptional archaeological find’ and said consistency across the samples dated meant that they could be ‘confident it was one of the earliest fortified sites occupied by Picts’.

He said: “This is the most extreme archaeology I’ve ever done. The site can only be accessed using ropes at low tide and having never climbed before, it was quite hair-raising. But the challenge of getting to the top was soon forgotten as we began to make significant discoveries.”

“We knew that the site had potential as in 1832 a group of youths from Stonehaven scaled the sea stack, prompted by a local man who had recurring dreams gold was hidden there. Unfortunately for the youths they didn’t find the gold, but they did find a number of decorated Picitsh symbol stones and as they were throwing them into the sea, noticed some were also carved. Several years later, when knowledge of Pictish stones began to circulate, a number were recovered from the sea.”

“We’ve always thought these symbol stones either strange or very early as the carvings are ‘rough and ready’ compared to other known Pictish symbol stones and this is what prompted us to excavate Dunnicaer.”

Since the 19th century few people are known to have accessed the sea stack and Dr Noble and his team, from the University’s Northen Picts group which included Oskar Sveinbjarnarson, Michael Stratigos, Claire Christie, Vanessa Rees and Robert Lenfert, needed the specialist help of Duncan Paterson of North East Mountaineering to scale it.

Once there they dug five trenches which yielded a number of exciting finds, including evidence of fortified enclosure walls and terraces and the remains of a stone hearth.

“Dunnicaer appears to have been home to a significant fort, even at this early date,” Dr Noble added. “We can see there were ramparts, particularly on the south side, constructed of timber and stone. This is consistent with the style of later Pictish forts.

“The stone is not from the local area so it must have been quite a feat to get it, and the heavy oak timbers, up to such an inaccessible site.

“It is likely that the sea stack was greater in size than it is today as the fort appears to extend over a large area. Dunnicaer was likely to have been a high status site for a structure of this scale and complexity to have been present as early as the 3rd century.”

But the results of the carbon dating also suggest that use of Dunnicaer was relatively short-lived and it is assumed the Pictish communities who inhabited it moved on to the larger site of Dunnottar Castle to the south.

Dr Noble said: “We sent a number of samples from different trenches for analysis. All the results point to the 3rd or 4th century. Not only does this tell us that this is one of the earliest early medieval fortified sites known in northeast Scotland, it also indicates that even at that time, the sea stack was probably eroding.

“It is likely that it became too small and the communities who built it moved along the coast to what is now Dunnottar Castle.”

Aberdeenshire Council archaeologist Bruce Mann said “The dates for this site are truly amazing, and hugely important for Scottish archaeology. Towards the end of the 3rd century AD evidence of how and where people were living largely disappears, leading to all sorts of speculation over what happened during the next 200 years. This discovery now starts to not only fill in that missing story, but also helps us to understand the early origins of the Picts in the north east.” Help support the project

The Northern Picts project needs your help to uncover more about this fascinating group. Projects of this nature are expensive – the fieldwork costs alone amount to thousands of pounds and funding is also required for radiocarbon dating, post-excavation analysis, equipment and consumables. Much of the money raised to date has come from generous private donations as well as small grants from charities and research funders.

If you would like to make a donation to help discover more about the Picts you can do so here:

Past Horions. 2015. “Earliest Pictish fort yet discovered was situated on sea stack”. Past Horizons. Posted: July 28, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Remains of four early colonial leaders discovered at Jamestown

Archaeologists have uncovered human remains of four of the earliest leaders of the English colony that would become America, buried for more than 400 years near the altar of what was America's first Protestant church in Jamestown, Virginia.

The four burial sites were uncovered in the earthen floor of what was Jamestown's historic Anglican church from 1608, a team of scientists and historians announced Tuesday. The site is the same church where Pocahontas famously married Englishman John Rolfe, leading to peace between the Powhatan Indians and colonists at the first permanent English settlement in America.

Beyond the human remains, archaeologists also found artifacts buried with the colonial leaders—including a mysterious Catholic container for holy relics found in the Protestant church.

The Jamestown Rediscovery archaeology team revealed its discovery at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The museum is helping to study and identify those buried in the church. The burials were first uncovered in November 2013, but the scientific team wanted to trace and identify its findings with some certainty before announcing the discovery.

Archaeologists have been studying the site since 1994 when the original James Fort—long thought to be lost and submerged in the James River—was rediscovered. The church site was mostly untouched and had not been excavated for more than a century until it was found in 2010.

The team identified the remains of the Rev. Robert Hunt, Jamestown's first Anglican minister who was known as a peacemaker between rival leaders; Capt. Gabriel Archer, a nemesis of one-time colony leader John Smith; Sir Ferdinando Wainman, likely the first knight buried in America; and Capt. William West, who died in a fight with the Powhatan Indians. The three other men likely died after brief illnesses. They were buried between 1608 and 1610. "What we have discovered here in the earliest English church in America are four of the first leaders of America," said historian James Horn who is president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. "There's nothing like it anywhere else in this country."

While the individuals buried at Jamestown were not royalty, they were considered pivotal figures in the early colony. Horn compared the find to the 2012 discovery of the lost grave of King Richard III in England.

Two years ago, the Jamestown team also found evidence of survival cannibalism in the colony.

Perhaps just as interesting as the newly discovered human remains are some of the artifacts buried with the bodies. Burial items were rare in English culture at the time, archaeologists said.

In the remnants of Archer's coffin, archaeologists found a captain's leading staff as a symbol of Archer's military status. Historical records indicate Archer helped lead some of the earliest expeditions to Jamestown. He died at the age of 34 during a six-month period known as the "starving time" when many perished due to disease, starvation and battles with Indians.

Mysteriously, a small silver box resting atop Archer's coffin turns out likely to be a Catholic reliquary containing bone fragments and a container for holy water. Archer's parents were Catholic in Protestant England, which became illegal. So the discovery raises the question of whether Archer was perhaps part of a secret Catholic cell—or even a Catholic spy on behalf of the Spanish, Horn said.

Catholic relics have been found in the Jamestown archaeological site before, but the placement of this box seems particularly symbolic, the historians said. They used CT scans to see inside the sealed box without damaging it—gaining a view that wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago.

An alternative theory holds that the religious piece was simply repurposed for the Anglican church as a holdover from Catholic tradition as England waffled between Catholic and Protestant rule. Historians said more research must be done. "It was a real kind of ah-ha moment for a lot of us," said William Kelso, Jamestown's director of archaeology. "It was oh, religion was a big deal here, and that's often overlooked. Everyone thinks that people came to Jamestown to find gold and go home and live happily ever after."

But the Church of England had a strong role in the creation of an English America with the Protestant church acting as a bulwark against Spain's Catholic colonies to the south, Horn said.

In West's burial plot, archaeologists found remnants of the military leader's silver-edged sash in a block of soil. The silk material was too delicate to remove from the dirt, so archaeologists removed an entire block of dirt for preservation. Archaeologists will continue searching the church site and expect to eventually find the burial of Sir Thomas West, the early governor of Virginia who led a rescue mission to save Jamestown when the colony was collapsing, Horn said. West, also known as Lord De La Warr, was the namesake of the Delaware colony. Wainman and William West were both related to the powerful baron.

Of the newly found historical figures, only Wainman and Hunt had children. Those family lines could allow for DNA comparisons after more genealogical research. Researchers first want to learn more about those related to Lord De La Warr. Artifacts from the burials will go on display within weeks at Historic Jamestowne. The site also plans to memorialize the men and will keep their bones in an accessible place for preservation and future study.

The Smithsonian created a 3D scan of the excavation site, bones and artifacts to give people a look at the discovery online. The team is more than 90 percent certain of the colonists' identities, Kelso said. Still they will work to complete more testing and potentially DNA analysis. One sample is in a DNA laboratory now at Harvard to determine whether any genetic information has been preserved.

The archaeology team said the discovery is like a riddle they must figure out over time. Records from the time period are limited.

"The things that we look at and can read from the bones are simply details that you're not going to find in the history books," said Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian. "These are men that you might not know their name. But these are men that were critical to who we are in terms of America today."

Zongker, Brett. 2015. “Remains of four early colonial leaders discovered at Jamestown”. Posted: July 28, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Pygmies show growth plasticity is key to human evolution

While the stature of pygmies is well-suited to tropical rainforests, the mechanisms underlying their growth remain poorly understood. In order to decipher these mechanisms, a team of scientists from the CNRS, IRD and UPMC studied a group of Baka pygmies in Cameroon. Their findings revealed that their growth rate differed completely from that of another pygmy cluster, despite a similar adult height, which implies that small stature appeared independently in the two clusters. This work is published on 28 July 2015 in Nature Communications.

The stature of pygmies has intrigued Westerners since their first encounter with them in 1865. This population is in fact made up of several ethnic groups, which belong to two main clusters. One is spread across Equatorial West Africa (Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic, Western DRC) while the other is found in East Africa, in Eastern DRC and Rwanda. They all live in forested regions, linked with Bantu farmers.

Although genetic factors are responsible for the small stature of pygmies, until now scientists were unable to produce reliable data on their age in order to analyze their growth patterns. Thanks to the registers of the Catholic mission in Moange-le-Bosquet, Cameroon, it was possible to study 500 members of the Baka ethnic group for eight years in order to establish the first growth curves for pygmies.

The scientists were thus able to show that although the body size at birth of the Baka was within normal limits, their growth rate then slowed significantly until the age of three years. Their growth curves subsequently paralleled global standards, with a growth spurt at adolescence and an adult size achieved on average at the same time as that seen throughout the world. However, they never made up for this initial retardation. On the other hand, pygmies in the eastern cluster were born with a smaller body size, so that their small stature resulted from growth processes different from those of the Baka.

The pygmy morphology of these populations thus results from two different mechanisms, which may be linked to an imbalance between the growth hormone and the two IGF that has allowed them to adapt to rainforest conditions, under a mechanism of convergent evolution.

These pygmy clusters thus split apart between 8,000 and 13,000 years ago, which shows that human growth can evolve within a relatively short period of time. This growth plasticity may have played a determining role in the spread of Homo sapiens outside Africa, allowing this species to adapt rapidly to new environments.

These findings also highlight the fact that further longitudinal studies (i..e. the monitoring of individuals over time) are needed to enhance the research in genetics and endocrinology that is necessary to shed light on the growth mechanisms in play amongst pygmies, as well as in the rest of the world's population, in whom they are also poorly understood. The scientists now wish to determine the endocrine processes that cause the growth deceleration observed during infancy in the Baka, by identifying the hormones and cellular structures that are responsible for this particular growth pattern, targeting the underlying genes and comparing them with those found in East African pygmies.

Science Daily. 2015. “Pygmies show growth plasticity is key to human evolution”. Science Daily. Posted: July 28, 2015. Available online:

Monday, October 19, 2015

Gruesome Find: 100 Bodies Stuffed into Ancient House

The remains of 97 human bodies have been found stuffed into a small 5,000-year-old house in a prehistoric village in northeast China, researchers report in two separate studies.

The bodies of juveniles, young adults and middle-age adults were packed together in the house — smaller than a modern-day squash court — before it burnt down. Anthropologists who studied the remains say a "prehistoric disaster," possibly an epidemic of some sort, killed these people.

The site, whose modern-day name is "Hamin Mangha," dates back to a time before writing was used in the area, when people lived in relatively small settlements, growing crops and hunting for food. The village contains the remains of pottery, grinding instruments, arrows and spearheads, providing information on their way of life.

"Hamin Mangha site is the largest and best-preserved prehistoric settlement site found to date in northeast China," a team of archaeologists wrote in a translated report published in the most recent edition of the journal Chinese Archaeology (the original report appeared in Chinese in the journal Kaogu). In one field season, between April and November 2011, the researchers found the foundations of 29 houses, most of which are simple one-room structures containing a hearth and doorway. The house with the bodies, dubbed "F40," was just 210 square feet (about 20 square meters). "On the floor, numerous human skeletons are disorderly scattered," the archaeologists wrote.

Photos taken by the archaeologists convey the prehistoric scene better than words do. "The skeletons in the northwest are relatively complete, while those in the east often [have] only skulls, with limb bones scarcely remaining," the archaeologists wrote. "But in the south, limb bones were discovered in a mess, forming two or three layers."

At some point the structure burnt down. The fire likely caused wooden beams of the roof to collapse, leaving parts of skulls and limb bones not only charred but also deformed in some way, the archaeologists wrote.  

The remains were never buried and were left behind for archaeologists to discover 5,000 years later.

What happened?

An anthropological team at Jilin University in China is studying the prehistoric remains, trying to determine what happened to these people. The team has published a second study, in Chinese, in the Jilin University Journal – Social Sciences edition, on their finds. (A brief English-language summary of their results is available on the American Association of Physical Anthropologists website.)

The Jilin team found that the people in that house died as the result of a "prehistoric disaster" that resulted in dead bodies being stuffed into the house.  

The dead came in faster than they could be buried. "The human bone accumulation in F40 was formed because ancient humans put remains into the house successively and stacked centrally," wrote team leaders Ya Wei Zhou and Hong Zhu in the study.

The team found that about half of the individuals were between 19 and 35 years of age. No remains of older adults were found.

The ages of the victims at Hamin Mangha are similar to those found in another prehistoric mass burial, which was previously unearthed in modern-day Miaozigou in northeast China, the researchers noted.

"This similarity may indicate that the cause of the Hamin Mangha site was similar to that of the Miaozigou sites. That is, they both possibly relate to an outbreak of an acute infectious disease," wrote Zhou and Zhu.

If it was a disease, it killed off people from all age groups quickly, leaving no time for survivors to properly bury the deceased. The scientists did not speculate as to what disease it may have been.

The excavation was carried out by researchers from the Inner Mongolian Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and the Research Center for Chinese Frontier Archaeology of Jilin University.

Jarus, Owen. 2015. “Gruesome Find: 100 Bodies Stuffed into Ancient House”. Live Science. Posted: July 27, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Babies' brains show that social skills linked to second language learning

Babies learn language best by interacting with people rather than passively through a video or audio recording. But it's been unclear what aspects of social interactions make them so important for learning.

New findings by researchers at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington demonstrate for the first time that an early social behavior called gaze shifting is linked to infants' ability to learn new language sounds.

Babies about 10 months old who engaged in more gaze shifting during sessions with a foreign language tutor showed a boost in a brain response that indicates language learning, according to the study, which is published in the current issue ofDevelopmental Neuropsychology.

"Our study provides evidence that infants' social skills play a role in cracking the code of the new language," said co-author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS.

"We found that the degree to which infants visually tracked the tutors and the toys they held was linked to brain measures of infant learning, showing that social behaviors give helpful information to babies in a complex natural language learning situation," Kuhl said.

Gaze shifting, when a baby makes eye contact and then looks at the same object that the other person is looking at, is one of the earliest social skills that babies show.

"These moments of shared visual attention develop as babies interact with their parents, and they change the baby's brain," said co-author Rechele Brooks, research assistant professor at I-LABS.

In an earlier report, Brooks and others showed that infant gaze shifting serves as a building block for more sophisticated language and social skills as measured in preschool children.

"Since gaze shifting is linked to a larger vocabulary in preschoolers, we suspected that eye gaze might be important earlier when babies are first learning the sounds of a new language, and we wanted to use brain measures to test this," Brooks said.

In the experiment, 9.5-month-old babies from English-speaking households attended foreign language tutoring sessions. Over four weeks, the 17 infants interacted with a tutor during 12 25-minute sessions. The tutors read books and talked and played with toys while speaking in Spanish.

At the beginning and end of the four-week period, researchers counted how often the infants shifted their eye gaze between the tutor and the toys the tutor showed the baby. 

After the tutoring sessions ended, the researchers brought the babies back to the lab to see how much Spanish the babies had learned. This was measured by their brain responses to English and Spanish sounds. The babies listened to a series of language sounds while wearing an electroencephalography (EEG) cap to measure their brain activity.

The results showed that the more gaze shifting the babies participated in during their tutoring sessions, the greater their brain responses were to the Spanish language sounds.

"Our findings show that young babies' social engagement contributes to their own language learning -- they're not just passive listeners of language," Brooks said. "They're paying attention, and showing parents they're ready to learn when they're looking back and forth. That's when the most learning happens."

The study builds on earlier work by Kuhl's team, which found that babies from English-speaking households could learn Mandarin from live tutors, but not from video or audio recordings of Mandarin and from other work at I-LABS establishing the importance of infant eye gaze for language learning.

The researchers hope their findings help parents, caregivers and early childhood educators develop strategies for teaching young children.

"Babies learn best from people," Brooks said. "During playtime your child is learning so much from you. Spending time with your child matters. Keeping them engaged -- that's what helps them learn language."

Science Daily. 2015. “Babies' brains show that social skills linked to second language learning”. Science Daily. Posted: July 27, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Mum's the word: Maternal language has strong effect on children's social skills

Psychologists at the University of York have revealed new evidence showing how specific language used by parents to talk to their babies can help their child to understand the thoughts of others when they get older.

Studying the effects of maternal mind-mindedness (the ability to 'tune in' to their young child's thoughts and feelings), lead author Dr Elizabeth Kirk observed 40 mothers and their babies when they were 10, 12, 16, and 20 months old.

Keeping a record of parental language while a mother and her child played for 10 minutes, psychologists logged every time the mother made 'mind related comments' - inferences about their child's thought processes through their behaviour (for example, if an infant had difficulty with opening a door on a toy car, they could be labelled as 'frustrated').

Revisiting 15 mother-child pairs when children reached 5 - 6 years old, the child's Theory of Mind (ToM) or socio-cognitive ability was assessed. Using the 'strange stories' method, the level at which the child was able relate to others and understand another person's thoughts was recorded.

The strange stories method involves reading a fictional vignette to the child which poses one of 12 social scenarios (contrary emotions, lies, white lies, persuasion, pretend, joke, forget, misunderstanding, double-bluff, figure of speech, appearance versus reality or sarcasm). Children are then asked a comprehension question followed by a test to prove whether they have understood the mental manipulation covered in the story.

Results showed a strong, positive correlation between mind-related comments at 10, 12 and 20 months old and a child's score on the strange stories task. Therefore, children's ability to understand the thoughts of other people when they were aged 5 was related to how mind-minded their mothers were when they were babies.

Dr Kirk, Lecturer in York's Department of Psychology, said: "These findings show how a mother's ability to tune-in to her baby's thoughts and feelings early on helps her child to learn to empathise with the mental lives of other people. This has important consequences for the child's social development, equipping children to understand what other people might be thinking or feeling.

"These results are significant as they demonstrate the critical role of conversational interaction between mothers and their children in infancy. This also supports previous research led by psychologist Professor Liz Meins, who leads mind-mindedness research at York."

EurekAlert. 2015. “Mum's the word: Maternal language has strong effect on children's social skills”. EurekAlert. Posted: July 27, 2015. Available online:

Friday, October 16, 2015

Peru Plans to Contact Isolated Amazon Tribe

The Peruvian government plans to make its first contact with the Mashco Piro, an isolated tribe that live in the Amazon rainforest.

Reaching out to "uncontacted" tribes is controversial, particularly because isolated tribes lack immunity to common diseases, which can quickly turn deadly. But officials say they need to contact the Mashco Piro because the group has recently been emerging from the forest, and have had contact with villagers, tourists and missionaries.

In September 2014, for example, the advocacy group Survival International reported that Adventist missionaries had left food and clothes for the tribe near the border of Manu National Park. Gestures like this have spread diseases to uncontacted people in the past, causing epidemics.

Tour companies also advertise "human safaris," promising glimpses of Mashco Piro tribespeople along riverbanks.

As a result of these largely unplanned, uncontrolled contacts, some anthropologists argue for deliberate contact with isolated peoples. (Most uncontacted tribes do have limited interactions with their neighbors and are aware of the outside world, but choose to maintain an isolated and nomadic lifestyle in the forest.)

"Unless protection efforts against external threats and accidental encounters are drastically increased, the chances that these tribes will survive are slim," anthropologists Robert Walker of the University of Missouri and Kim Hill of Arizona State University wrote in an editorial in the journal Science in June.

Controlled contact — with medical treatment available for inevitable disease transmission — is safer, Hill and Walker argued.

"A well-designed contact can be quite safe, compared to the disastrous outcomes from accidental contacts," they wrote. "But safe contact requires a qualified team of cultural translators and health care professionals that is committed to staying on site for more than a year."

Organizations such as Survival International strongly oppose contact, arguing instead for strict protections of native land. Given activities such as illegal logging and drug trafficking, however, those protections can be hard to enforce.

The Mashco Piro have been making their own forms of contact,according to Reuters. Members of the tribe attacked a settlement of the Machiguenga tribe in May 2015, killing one man. Another clash in 2011 between locals and the tribe reportedly left one dead and a park ranger injured. Two groups of uncontacted Peruvians approached Brazilian authorities in July and August 2014, saying they had been attacked by non-Indians, possibly drug runners or illegal loggers.

Peruvian policy usually calls for leaving isolated tribes alone, but these incidents have led to an exception. The goal of the planned contact is to find out why the Mashco Piro have been emerging from the forest more frequently, in hopes of preventing more clashes.

"In 2014, there were 70 sightings of Mashco Piro on the beaches of the river," Patricia Balbuena, the deputy minister of multiculturalism in Peru,told the newspaper El Comercio. In 2015, she said, there have already been five raids on local communities by the group.

Pappas, Stephanie. 2015. “Peru Plans to Contact Isolated Amazon Tribe”. Live Science. Posted: July 24, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Very rare" Tudor pane found in chute from toilets to moat at Henry VIII palace

Archaeologists have discovered a “very rare” triangular artefact from the Tudor period in Enfield, emerging on the former grounds of a palace loved by Henry VIII and stayed at by Queen Margaret of Scotland.

In the culmination of their Festival of Archaeology investigations at Forty Hall Estate, repeatedly used by Henry VIII for hunting in its former guise as Elsyng Palace, Enfield Archaeology Society unearthed a complete window pane, removing the ancient object from the ground to cheers from onlookers.

“This was found in a guarderobe chute - basically the chute from the toilets into the moat - at Henry VIII’s Elsyng Palace in the grounds of the hall on the final day, last Sunday, of the annual excavations,” says Dr Martin Dearne, the Society’s Director of Excavations. “We were tracing the outline of the palace, once home to the future Edward VI and ‘Bloody’ Mary as children, and in the process found this chute full of demolition material from 1657 when the palace was demolished.

“Quite deep within it was a dump of window glass and lead cames – the channelling that ran round each pane.

“Those are not all that unusual, but there was also the complete triangular pane with its leads still intact – and that really is very rare.”

The work was supported by the borough of Enfield and carried out alongside Enfield Museum Service.

Miller, Ben. 2015. “"Very rare" Tudor pane found in chute from toilets to moat at Henry VIII palace”. Culture 24. Posted: July 24, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

1,500-Year-Old Quran Manuscript Could Be Oldest Known Copy

A 1,500-year-old parchment could be one of the oldest known copies of the Quran, possibly dating back to a time that overlapped with the life of the Prophet Muhammad, according to researchers who recently dated the manuscript fragments.

The text underwent radiocarbon dating, which measured the age of the find's organic materials. Researchers at the University of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom, found that the leaves of parchment date back to A.D. 568 and A.D. 645.

"The radiocarbon dating has delivered an exciting result, which contributes significantly to our understanding of the earliest written copies of the Quran," Susan Worrall, director of special collections at the University of Birmingham, said in a statement. 

The Prophet Muhammad is thought to have lived between A.D. 570 and A.D. 632, and according to Muslim tradition, he received the revelations that make up the Quran between A.D. 610 and A.D. 632. The divine message was not written at that time, though. "Instead, the revelations were preserved in the 'memories of men,'" said David Thomas and Nadir Dinshaw, both religious professors at the University of Birmingham.

The radiocarbon dates from the parchment indicate that the animal that provided the parchment lived during or right after the lifetime of Muhammad. "This means that the parts of the Quran that are written on the parchment can, with a degree of confidence, be dated to less than two decades after Muhammad's death," Thomas and Dinshaw said.

The parchment likely came from the skin of a calf, goat or sheep, the researchers said. The skin would have been first cleaned of any hair or flesh and then stretched on a wooden frame. As the skin is stretched, the parchment maker scrapes the surface with a curved knife, wets the skin and dries it in rotation several times to bring the parchment to an ideal thickness and tightness.

Researchers dated the parchmentby measuring the radioactive decay of carbon-14, a common way to determine the age of ancient papers and parchments. Carbon isotopes, or carbon atoms of varying weight, float around in relatively constant proportions in Earth's atmosphere, and all living things have the same ratio of stable carbon to radioactive carbon-14. When an organism dies, the radioactive carbon decays at predictable rates over time, which means researchers can examine the remaining levels of carbon-14 to make age estimates.

Ancient text

The Quran manuscript covers two parchment leaves and contains parts of the suras (chapters) 18 through 20, written with ink in an early form of Arabic script called Hijazi. The manuscript had been improperly bound with leaves of a similar Quran manuscript that dated to the late 7th century. That text was kept in the University of Birmingham's Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts, held in the Cadbury Research Library.

Although most of the divine revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad were committed to memory, parts were written down on parchment, stone, palm leaves and the shoulder blades of camels, the researchers said. "Caliph Abu Bakr, the first leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad, ordered the collection of all Quranic material in the form of a book," Thomas and Dinshaw said.

The final written version, considered the authoritative account, was completed under the direction of Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, the third leader of the Muslim community, in about A.D. 650, and was distributed to the main cities under Muslim rule.

"Muslims believe that the Quran they read today is the same text that was standardized under Uthman, and regard it as the exact record of the revelations that were delivered to Muhammad," Thomas and Dinshaw said.

"This is indeed an exciting discovery," said Muhammad Isa Waley, lead curator for Persian and Turkish manuscripts at the British Library. "The Muslim community was not wealthy enough to stockpile animal skins for decades, and to produce a complete Mushaf, or copy, of the Holy Qur'an required a great many of them," he added.

"This — along with the sheer beauty of the content and the surprisingly clear Hijazi script — is news to rejoice Muslim hearts," Waley said.

Goldbaum, Elizabeth. 2015. “1,500-Year-Old Quran Manuscript Could Be Oldest Known Copy”. Live Science. Posted: Jully 22, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Six Weirdest Ancient Roman Ideas About The Human Body

Given our 21st century understanding of medicine, in which scientists can grow or 3D print new organs, the ancient Romans may seem fantastically clueless about human anatomy and disease. But until Anders Vesalius revolutionized the study of anatomy in the 16th century, Western medicine was dominated by the thoughts of Greek physicians like Hippocrates and Galen, whose work was amplified by Roman historians such as Pliny the Elder.

Pliny notoriously perished in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, but not before he completed a 37-book (ten-volume) encyclopedia of ancient knowledge known as Historia Naturalis, or Natural History.  Book VII of Pliny’s history focuses on anthropology and human physiology.  Many of the bits of knowledge he collected, though, are… less than accurate.  Following are some of the weirdest things that Pliny (and, by extension, many people over the next millennium) believed about the human body.

Height.  Human stature is known to vary significantly, with thecurrent tallest man in the world coming in at 8’3″ and the shortest at 19″. Pliny’s report of the shortest man in Rome could be right, but his claims about the tallest Romans stretch the truth:

In the reign of the deified Augustus, there was a couple called Pusio and Secundilla who were half a [Roman] foot taller [approx. 9'10" tall] and their bodies were preserved as curiosities in the Sallustian gardens. In the reign of the same emperor, the smallest man was a dwarf called Conopas, who was two [Roman] feet and a palm [approx. 26" tall] in height. — Pliny, Natural History, 7.75 [trans. M. Beagon]

Handedness. Anthropological studies show that about 10% of the human population is left-handed, although the exact reason for lateralization, or handedness, is not entirely clear.  Pliny seems to have noticed this, but gets confused:

It has also been observed that the right side of the body is the stronger, but sometimes both sides are equally strong and in some people the left hand predominates, although this is never the case with women. — Pliny, Natural History, 7.77 [trans. M. Beagon]

Birth. Without a clear understanding of sperm and eggs, not to mention an inability to see the developing fetus through ultrasound like we can, Pliny has some odd thoughts about pregnancy and childbirth. Still, we can see aspects of this in old wives’ tales that persist today:

Girls are born more quickly than boys, just as they grow old more quickly. Boys move often in the womb and are generally carried on the right side, while girls are carried on the left. — Pliny, Natural History, 7.37 [trans. M. Beagon]

Death. I’m not sure how many dead bodies Pliny saw floating in rivers, but apparently enough that he felt he could comment that:

Male corpses float on their backs but female corpses float on their faces as though nature were preserving their modesty even in death. — Pliny, Natural History, 7.77 [trans. M. Beagon]

Disease. The Romans mostly subscribed to a miasma-type theory about disease: bad humors, bad air, and other sorts of things were blamed for sicknesses before the modern understanding of germ theory took hold in the 19th century. Worse than that, though, were the cures for disease, which often included lead (Pb):

The same substance [lead] is also employed in preparations for the eyes, cases of prolapse of those organs more particularly; also for filling up the cavities left by ulcers, and for removing growths and fissures of the anus, as well as hemorrhoidal and wart-like tumors. — Pliny, Natural History, 34.50 [trans. J. Bostock]

Women’s Health. The Romans’ understanding of gynecology was spectacularly poor. So your final quote is one of my all-time favorites; Pliny here talks about ’that time of the month’.  Forget such cliches as “being on the rag” when you can use “blunting the edge of steel” instead:

It would indeed be a difficult matter to find anything which is productive of more marvelous effects than the menstrual discharge. On the approach of a woman in this state, must will become sour, seeds which are touched by her become sterile, grafts wither away, garden plants are parched up, and the fruit will fall from the tree beneath which she sits. Her very look, even, will dim the brightness of mirrors, blunt the edge of steel, and take away the polish from ivory. A swarm of bees, if looked upon by her, will die immediately; brass and iron will instantly become rusty, and emit an offensive odor; while dogs which may have tasted of the matter so discharged are seized with madness, and their bite is venomous and incurable. — Pliny, Natural History, 7.13 [trans. J. Bostock]

While the ancient Romans knew quite a lot about the human body, their understanding of disease and of internal anatomy were limited. For more interesting quotes and commentary on this, I recommend Audrey Cruse’s book Roman Medicine, which deals with archaeological evidence like surgeon’s tools and anatomical votives and some bioarchaeological studies in addition to surveying the historical record.

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “The Six Weirdest Ancient Roman Ideas About The Human Body”. Forbes. Posted: July 22, 2015. Available online:

Monday, October 12, 2015

Genetic studies link indigenous peoples in the Amazon and Australasia

Native Americans living in the Amazon bear an unexpected genetic connection to indigenous people in Australasia, suggesting a previously unknown wave of migration to the Americas thousands of years ago, a new study has found.

"It's incredibly surprising," said David Reich, Harvard Medical School professor of genetics and senior author of the study. "There's a strong working model in archaeology and genetics, of which I have been a proponent, that most Native Americans today extend from a single pulse of expansion south of the ice sheets—and that's wrong. We missed something very important in the original data."

Previous research had shown that Native Americans from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America can trace their ancestry to a single "founding population" called the First Americans, who came across the Bering land bridge about 15,000 years ago. In 2012, Reich and colleagues enriched this history by showing that certain indigenous groups in northern Canada inherited DNA from at least two subsequent waves of migration.

The new study, published July 21 in Nature, indicates that there's more to the story.

Pontus Skoglund, first author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher in the Reich lab, was studying genetic data gathered as part of the 2012 study when he noticed a strange similarity between one or two Native American groups in Brazil and indigenous groups in Australia, New Guinea and the Andaman Islands.

"That was an unexpected and somewhat confusing result," said Reich, who is also an associate member of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator. "We spent a really long time trying to make this result go away and it just got stronger."

Skoglund and colleagues from HMS, the Broad and several universities in Brazil analyzed publicly available genetic information from 21 Native American populations from Central and South America. They also collected and analyzed DNA from nine additional populations in Brazil to make sure the link they saw hadn't been an artifact of how the first set of genomes had been collected. The team then compared those genomes to the genomes of people from about 200 non-American populations.

The link persisted. The Tupí-speaking Suruí and Karitiana and the Ge-speaking Xavante of the Amazon had a genetic ancestor more closely related to indigenous Australasians than to any other present-day population. This ancestor doesn't appear to have left measurable traces in other Native American groups in South, Central or North America.

The genetic markers from this ancestor don't match any population known to have contributed ancestry to Native Americans, and the geographic pattern can't be explained by post-Columbian European, African or Polynesian mixture with Native Americans, the authors said. They believe the ancestry is much older—perhaps as old as the First Americans.

In the ensuing millennia, the ancestral group has disappeared.

"We've done a lot of sampling in East Asia and nobody looks like this," said Skoglund. "It's an unknown group that doesn't exist anymore."

The team named the mysterious ancestor Population Y, after the Tupí word for ancestor, "Ypykuéra." Reich, Skoglund and colleagues propose that Population Y and First Americans came down from the ice sheets to become the two founding populations of the Americas.

"We don't know the order, the time separation or the geographical patterns," said Skoglund. Researchers do know that the DNA of First Americans looked similar to that of Native Americans today. Population Y is more of a mystery.

"About 2 percent of the ancestry of Amazonians today comes from this Australasian lineage that's not present in the same way elsewhere in the Americas," said Reich.

However, that doesn't establish how much of their ancestry comes from Population Y. If Population Y were 100 percent Australasian, that would indeed mean they contributed 2 percent of the DNA of today's Amazonians. But if Population Y mixed with other groups such as the First Americans before they reached the Americas, the amount of DNA they contributed to today's Amazonians could be much higher—up to 85 percent.

To answer that question, researchers would need to sample DNA from the remains of a person who belonged to Population Y. Such DNA hasn't been obtained yet. One place to look might be in the skeletons of early Native Americans whose skulls some researchers say have Australasian features. The majority of these skeletons were found in Brazil. Reich and Skoglund think that some of the most interesting open questions about Native American population history are about the relationships among groups after the initial migrations.

"We have a broad view of the deep origins of Native American ancestry, but within that diversity we know very little about the history of how those populations relate to each other," said Reich.

Dutchen, Stephanie. 2015. “Genetic studies link indigenous peoples in the Amazon and Australasia”. Posted: July 21, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, October 11, 2015

One Migration from Siberia Peopled the Americas: Study

Native American ancestors reached the New World in a single, initial migration from Siberia at most 23,000 years ago, only later differentiating into today’s distinct groups, DNA research revealed Tuesday.

Most scientists agree the Americas were peopled by forefathers who crossed the Bering land and ice bridge which connected modern-day Russia and Alaska in Earth’s last glacial period.

And it is known through archaeological finds that humans were already present in the Americas 15,000 years ago.

But there was a long list of outstanding questions.

When did the migration take place? In one or several waves? And how long did these early pioneers spend in Beringia — the then-raised land area between Asia and America?

On Tuesday, analysis of Native American and Siberian DNA, present-day and ancient, sought to fill in some of the blanks with two studies carried simultaneously in the journals Science and Nature.

The first, led by the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen and published in Science, found there was only one initial migration, no more than 23,000 years ago.

This ancestral pool split into two main branches about 13,000 years ago, coinciding with glacier melt and the opening of routes into the North American interior, researchers found.

These became the groups which anthropologists refer to as Amerindians (American Indians) and Athabascans (a native Alaskan people).

Previous research had suggested that Amerindian and Athabascan ancestors had crossed the strait independently.

“Our study presents the most comprehensive picture of the genetic prehistory of the Americas to date,” said Maanasa Raghavan, one of the study’s lead authors.

“We show that all Native Americans, including the major sub-groups of Amerindians and Athabascans, descend from the same migration wave into the Americas.”

This was distinct from later waves which gave rise to the Paleo-Eskimo and Inuit populations, she added.

Given that the earliest evidence for the presence of humans in the Americas dates to 15,000 years ago, the first ancestors may have remained in Beringia for about 8,000 years before their final push into the New World, the team said.

This is much shorter than the tens of thousands of years of isolation theorized by some earlier research.

But diversification into the distinct tribes we know today, happened only after arrival in the Americas, not before.

The second study showed that, surprisingly, some Amazonians descend from forefathers more closely related to the indigenous peoples of Australia, New Guinea and the Andaman Islands than present-day fellow Native Americans.

“Present-day groups in South America have a small but distinct genetic link to Australasians,” co-author Pontus Skoglund of the Harvard Medical School told AFP of the research published in Nature.

This may explain a long-standing riddle: why, if Native Americans came from Eurasia, do some early American skeletons share traits with present-day Australasians?

But how and when this forefather came to the Americas remains “an open question,” said the study.

Discovery News. 2015. “One Migration from Siberia Peopled the Americas: Study”. Discovery News. Posted: July 21, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Biblical Text from 500 A.D. Deciphered from Charred Scroll

Virtual unwrapping software has revealed verses from the Book of Leviticus in a charred parchment scroll, making it the oldest biblical text after the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Monday.

Found 45 years ago inside the Holy Ark of the synagogue at Ein Gedi, on the western shore of the Dead Sea, the 2.7-inch scroll was dated by C14 analysis to about 500 AD.

“This is the first time in any archaeological excavation that a Torah scroll was found in a synagogue, particularly inside a Holy Ark,” the IAA said in a statement.

Nine Unopened Dead Sea Scrolls Found

A Jewish village in the Byzantine period during the 4th-7th century AD, Ein Gedi boasted a synagogue with an exquisite mosaic floor and a Holy Ark. The settlement was completely burned in antiquity and none of its inhabitants ever returned to the site.

“We have no information regarding the cause of the fire, but speculation about the destruction ranges from Bedouin raiders from the region east of the Dead Sea to conflicts with the Byzantine government,” Sefi Porath, who headed the excavation with the late Dan Barag back in 1970, said. In the burned synagogue, Porath and Barag unearthed a bronze seven-branched candelabrum (called menorah), the community’s money box containing some 3,500 coins, glass, ceramic oil lamps, vessels that contained perfume, and charred scroll fragments.

“The scroll was a puzzle for us for 45 years,” Porath said.

Jewish Prayer Book Predates Oldest Torah Scroll

To decipher the 1,500-year-old charred remains, the IAA, working with Merkel Technologies Company, Ltd. Israel, first scanned it with a micro-computed tomography machine.

The results of the CT scans were sent to Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky, author of a digital-imaging software capable of virtually unrolling the scroll.

Indeed, Seales’s software produced a flattened readable text from the micro-computed tomography, discerning the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus.

Burned Vesuvius Scrolls Read for First Time

“The page actually comes from a layer buried deep within the many wraps of the scroll body, and is possible to view it only through the remarkable results of our software,” Seales said.

Pnina Shor, curator and director of IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, admitted there was little hope to make the scroll readable.

“We were certain it was just a shot in the dark but decided to try and scan the burnt scroll anyway,” Shor said.

“Now, not only can we bequeath the Dead Sea Scrolls to future generations, but also a part of the Bible from a Holy Ark of a 1,500-year old synagogue,” she added.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2015. “Biblical Text from 500 A.D. Deciphered from Charred Scroll”. Discovery News. Posted: July 20, 2015. Available online:

Friday, October 9, 2015

Celts: art and identity

Celts: art and identity opens at the British Museum on 24 September and will draw on the latest research from Britain, Ireland and Western Europe. The exhibition will tell the story of the different peoples who have used or been given the name ‘Celts’ through the stunning art objects that they made, including intricately decorated jewellery, highly stylised objects of religious devotion, and the decorative arts of the late 19th century which were inspired by the past. The exhibition will then open at the National Museum Scotland in March 2016. As part of the National Programme activity around the Celts exhibition, the British Museum and National Museums Scotland will showcase two rare Iron Age mirrors as a Spotlight tour to partner museums across the UK.

Today the word ‘Celtic’ is associated with the distinctive cultures, languages, music and traditions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man. Yet the name Celts was first recorded thousands of years earlier, around 500 BC, when the ancient Greeks used it to refer to peoples living across a broad swathe of Europe north of the Alps. The Greeks saw these outsiders as barbarians, far removed from the civilised world of the Mediterranean. They left no written records of their own, but today archaeology is revealing new insights into how they lived. Modern research suggests that these were disparate groups rather than a single people, linked by their unique stylised art. This set them apart from the classical world, but their technological accomplishments stand on a par with the finest achievements of Greek and Roman artists.

A stunning example in the exhibition, from National Museums Scotland, is a hoard of gold torcs found at Blair Drummond in Stirling in 2009 by a metal detectorist on his very first outing. Excavations showed they had been buried inside a timber building, probably a shrine, in an isolated, wet location. These four torcs made between 300–100 BC show widespread connections across Iron Age Europe. Two are made from spiralling gold ribbons, a style characteristic of Scotland and Ireland. Another is a style found in south-western France although analysis of the Blair Drummond gold suggests it was made locally based on French styles. The final torc is a mixture of Iron Age details with embellishments on the terminals typical of Mediterranean workshops. It shows technological skill, a familiarity with exotic styles, and connections to a craftworker or workshop with the expertise to make such an object. The Blair Drummond find brings together the local and the highly exotic in one hoard.

Although Britain and Ireland were never explicitly referred to as Celtic by the Greeks and Romans, some 2,000 years ago these islands were part of a world of related art, values, languages and beliefs which stretched from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. During the Roman period and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, communities in Ireland and northern and western Britain developed distinct identities. The art and objects which they made expressed first their difference to the Romans, but later the new realities of living in a conquered land or on the edges of the Roman world. These communities were among the first in Britain to become Christian, and missionaries from the north and west helped to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. The exhibition will include iron hand-bells used to call the faithful to prayer, elaborately illustrated gospel books telling the story of Jesus’s life, and beautifully carved stone crosses that stood as beacons of belief in the landscape. An exceptionally rare gilded bronze processional cross from Tully Lough, Ireland (AD 700-800), will be displayed in Britain for the first time. Used during ceremonies and as a mobile symbol of Christianity, the design of this hand-held cross may have inspired some stone crosses, but metal examples rarely survive. Its decorative plates show the wider artistic connections of its makers: three-legged swirls and crescent shapes owe much to earlier Celtic traditions; other geometric motifs echo Roman designs, while interlace designs were popular across Europe and probably inspired by Anglo-Saxon art.

The name Celts had fallen out of use after the Roman period, but it was rediscovered during the Renaissance. From the sixteenth century it became increasingly used as shorthand for the pre-Roman peoples of Western Europe. In the early 1700s, the languages of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man were given the name ‘Celtic’, based on the name used by the Greeks and Romans 2000 years before. In the context of a continually shifting political and religious landscape, ‘Celtic’ acquired a new significance as the peoples of these Atlantic regions sought to affirm their difference and independence from their French and English neighbours, drawing on long histories of distinctive local identities. First used by the ancient Greeks as a way to label outsiders, the word ‘Celtic’ was now proudly embraced to express a sense of shared ancestry and heritage.

Over the following centuries, the Celtic revival movement led to the creation of a re-imagined, romanticised Celtic past, expressed in art and literature such as the painting ‘The Druids: Bringing in the Mistletoe’ by George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel, 1890. Druids emerge from a grove of oaks where they have been ceremonially gathering mistletoe in this romantic Victorian reimagining of a scene described by Roman author Pliny the Elder. In an attempt to evoke an authentic Scottish past, the artists incorporated things that they thought of as Celtic: spiral motifs, the brilliant colours of illuminated manuscripts and a snake design inspired by Pictish stones. The painters claimed the faces were based on ancient ‘druid’ skulls. But the features of the central druid were really inspired by photographs of Native Americans.

Today, the word Celtic continues to have a powerful resonance. It calls to mind the ever shifting relationships between the different nations that make up Britain and Ireland, and their diaspora communities around the world. The idea of the Celts also confronts us with the long history of interaction between Britain and the rest of Europe.

Spotlight tour: Reflecting on the Celts

From Autumn 2015 to Autumn 2016, as part of the National Programme activity around the Celts exhibition, the British Museum and National Museums Scotland will profile two Iron Age mirrors, one discovered in England and one in Scotland, as a Spotlight tour to partner museums across the UK.

Metal mirrors with a polished reflective surface on one side and swirling designs on the reverse were first made around 100 BC. They are rare objects, and were only made in Britain. Two thousand years ago, these mirrors might have held a special kind of power in a world where reflections could otherwise only be glimpsed in water.

The two mirrors tell very different stories, revealing both similarities and local differences. The Spotlight Tour explores the relationships between communities across Britain 2,000 years ago, in a world that was being rocked by a new upheaval: the Roman conquest of southern Britain.

Past Horizons. 2015. “Celts: art and identity”. Past Horizons. Posted: July 20, 2015. Available online: