Monday, November 30, 2015

The Most Interesting Thing About That Ancient Spartan Palace Isn't The Palace - It's The Language

Remnants of a Mycenaean-era palace on the plain of Sparta have brought to light a number of finely-decorated artifacts, bronze swords, and wall frescoes, according to a press release from the Greek Ministry of Culture.  But the real jaw-dropper is the fact that the ancient fire that destroyed the palace preserved some of the earliest known examples of Greek writing , in a form called Linear B.

Excavations between 2009 and 2015 led by archaeologist Adamantia Vasilogamvrou have revealed a palace: a complex of buildings and rooms set up by the ruling Mycenaeans between the 17th and 16th centuries BC. These were the first people, at the end of the Bronze Age, to establish a full-scale civilization in Greece, complete with urban centers anchored by large palaces for the elite, an impressive artistic tradition, and the earliest decipherable writing in the area. This civilization is perhaps best known from the 16th century BC grave circles at Mycenae and the famous gold “mask of Agamemnon” discovered in the 19th century by Heinrich Schliemann, an amateur archaeologist who spent his life trying to show that the Trojan War was based on historical events.

The newly uncovered palace, named Ayios Vassileios, is near another ancient site that would become famous in later Classical times for its Spartan warriors.  Within the palace were found devotional objects, carved figurines, bronze swords, animal-shaped pottery, Egyptian scarabs, and extensive wall paintings, speaking to its clear position as the elite seat of an urban center with trade connections throughout the ancient world. Further, its layout is allowing archaeologists to reconstruct the political, administrative, economic, and social organization of this region.

After the initial settlement of the area in the 17th-16th centuries BC (or the Middle to Late Helladic periods), the palace was built around the 14th century BC (Late Helladic IIIA period). Flanking a central courtyard are a series of rooms, ten of which archaeologists have excavated. Later in the 14th century BC, it appears that a fire destroyed the palace.  The fire preserved raw clay tablets on which were texts engraved in Linear B. While the architecture and artifacts are certainly spectacular, the Linear B find is even more interesting.

Linear B is the name given to the earliest form of Greek that we know of, dating to many centuries before the invention of the Greek alphabet we are familiar with today. As a form of writing, Linear B is probably related to Linear A, which was used for writing down the Minoan language.  Texts in both Linear A and Linear B were initially found at Knossos on Crete by the renowned archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans at the turn of the 20th century.  Evans tried in vain to decipher them and, as the story goes, would take the tablets on tour to show off.  He so impressed a 14-year-old schoolboy named Michael Ventris with his tales of the Minoans and these scripts that Ventris determined to decipher them.

Until his death at the unfortunately early age of 34, Ventris worked on Linear B, initially thinking it may be related toEtruscan, another incompletely deciphered language from ancient Italy. When Linear B tablets were also found on the Greek mainland, Ventris got the idea to search the tablets from Crete for unique words–and he found them, in the form of place names. Building on Alice Kober‘s discovery that Linear B was a syllabary, Ventris unlocked Linear B, showing that it is an early form of Greek and that, importantly, Knossos was a part of Mycenaean Greece in its waning years.  But Linear A, although it shares some symbols with Linear B, is to this day undeciphered.

The vast majority of the six thousand or so Linear B inscriptions we have are from Knossos on Crete, also following a palatial fire that baked the clay tablets, but a good fraction of them come from the mainland sites of Pylos and Thebes. Linear B appears to have been primarily used for administrative and accounting reasons: many inscriptions relate to the centralized distribution of goods like wool and grain.

These new clay tablets from Ayois Vassileios represent a key addition to the mainland corpus of Linear B , and the Greek Ministry of Culture reports that the texts refer to supplies of goods to religious groups, men’s and women’s names, place names, and some commercial transactions related to perfume and cloth production controlled by the palace administrators. The inclusion of these new inscriptions into the sparse collection of Linear B texts that currently exist will undoubtedly help archaeologists and linguists better understand the structure of Mycenaean society.

Although archaeologists are not entirely sure what happened to cause the end of Mycenaean society, following which a “dark age” of several centuries was ushered in, new clues from palatial collapse and written texts may eventually solve the mystery.

Killingrove, Kristina. 2015. “The Most Interesting Thing About That Ancient Spartan Palace Isn't The Palace - It's The Language”. Forbes. Posted: August 26, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Unusual use of blue pigment found in ancient mummy portraits

Mostly untouched for 100 years, 15 Roman-era Egyptian mummy portraits and panel paintings were literally dusted off by scientists and art conservators from Northwestern University and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology as they set out to investigate the materials the painters used nearly 2,000 years ago.

What the researchers discovered surprised them, because it was hidden from the naked eye: the ancient artists used the pigment Egyptian blue as material for underdrawings and for modulating color -- a finding never before documented. Because blue has to be manufactured, it typically is reserved for very prominent uses, not hidden under other colors.

"This defies our expectations for how Egyptian blue would be used," said Marc Walton, research associate professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern and an expert on the color blue. "The discovery changes our understanding of how this particular pigment was used by artists in the second century A.D. I suspect we will start to find unusual uses of this colorant in a lot of different works of art, such as wall paintings and sculpture."

The best Roman-era painters tried to emulate Greek painters, who were considered the masters of the art form. Before the Greek period, Egyptian blue was used everywhere throughout the Mediterranean -- in frescoes, on temples, to depict the night sky, as decoration. But when the Greeks came along, their palette relied almost exclusively on yellow, white, black and red.

"When you look at the Tebtunis portraits we studied, that's all you see, those four colors," Walton said. "But when we started doing our analysis, all of a sudden we started to see strange occurrences of this blue pigment, which luminesces. We concluded that although the painters were trying hard not to show they were using this color, they were definitely using blue."

The study was published this month by Applied Physics A, a journal focused on materials science and processing. The research collaboration is part of the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS), for which Walton is a senior scientist.

"Our findings confirm the distinction between the visual and physical natures of artifacts -- expect the unexpected when you begin to analyze an artwork," said Jane L. Williams, a conservator at the Hearst Museum and a co-author, along with Walton, of the study. "We see how these artists manipulated a small palette of pigments, including this unusual use of Egyptian blue, to create a much broader spectrum of hues."

The researchers studied 11 mummy portraits and four panel painting fragments. The 15 paintings were excavated between December 1899 and April 1900 at the site of Tebtunis (now Umm el-Breigat) in the Fayum region of Egypt. They now are housed in the collections of the Hearst Museum at the University of California, Berkeley.

The fragile mummy portraits are extremely lifelike paintings of specific deceased individuals. Each portrait would be incorporated into the mummy wrappings and placed directly over the person's face, Williams explained.

While working on the conservation treatment of these paintings, Williams had many unanswered questions about their materials and techniques, but without a conservation science division at the Hearst Museum, she had limited means to investigate. Working with NU-ACCESS made a comprehensive technical survey of the paintings possible, Williams said.

Walton and his Northwestern team brought expertise in scientific analysis of cultural heritage materials and some of the latest technology for the non-destructive analysis of artworks to the Hearst Museum. The study quickly revealed some surprises.

The researchers uncovered the unexpected uses of Egyptian blue -- the first man-made pigment, inspired by lapis lazuli, the true blue -- using a routine battery of different analytical techniques, such as X-ray fluorescence and X-ray diffraction. Six of the 15 paintings have the unusual use of blue, the researchers found.

The skilled painters employed blue for underdrawings, to modulate clothes, the shading on clothing and in other not necessarily intuitive uses of Egyptian blue, a pigment used for millennia before these paintings were made.

"We are speculating that the blue has a shiny quality to it, that it glistens a little when the light hits the pigment in certain ways," Walton said. "The artists could be exploiting these other properties of the blue color that might not necessarily be intuitive to us at first glance."

Research on these paintings, which is ongoing, will contribute to the international collaborative study project Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research (APPEAR), initiated by the J. Paul Getty Museum. APPEAR aims to create an international digital database to compile historic, technical and scientific information on Roman Egyptian portraits.

"Our collaboration with NU-ACCESS makes it possible for the Hearst Museum to contribute to this project at the level of much larger museums, like the Getty or the British Museum, that have conservation science divisions," Williams said.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Unusual use of blue pigment found in ancient mummy portraits”. EurekAlert. Posted: August 26, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Bilingualism and the brain: How language shapes our ability to process information

In an increasingly globalised world, there are many practical benefits to speaking two languages rather than one. Even in the US, which is largely monolingual, more than 20 percent of the population is now thought to speak a second language.

Early research on bilingualism, conducted before the 1960s, however, linked bilingualism with lower IQ scores, cognitive deficiencies and even mental retardation. These studies reported that monolingual children were up to three years ahead of bilingual children in both verbal and non-verbal intelligence. From these studies, there grew a perception among the general public that bilingualism led to a 'language handicap'.

"Speaking with my own students about their childhood experiences, I found that many of them were discouraged from speaking two languages while growing up. This was based on a misperception that doing so would delay development," says Assistant Professor Yang Hwajin, a cognitive and developmental psychologist from the Singapore Management University (SMU) School of Social Sciences.

Since then, these early language studies have been widely discredited, and linguists no longer believe that bilingualism results in cognitive deficiencies. "What we have found in the last three decades is that bilingualism has substantial impact on cognitive function -- the way that we think, make decisions, perceive things, solve decisions, and so on," she notes.

In fact, multi-lingualism can confer a very beneficial form of cognitive training, says Professor Yang. "For example, I speak Korean and English. When I speak English, I have to inhibit thoughts about Korean grammar, and focus on English grammar, as the two languages do not share any grammatical structure. Speaking these two languages has trained me to inhibit distractions and focus better."

Professor Yang's research into bilingualism grew naturally from her interest in the factors that influence executive function. The brain's executive function directs the processes that allow us to solve crossword puzzles, deconstruct the latest Game of Thrones episode, or recall what we had for dinner last week. Being bilingual has been shown to improve the brain's executive function, and even delay the onset of dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

"I was interested in the factors influencing such executive control, as they can in turn shape our performance in work, school, and other parts of our life. After all, most critical cognitive functions affect our lives in various settings, regardless of age," she says.

Language power

Professor Yang is particularly impressed by the high extent of bilingualism in Singapore, which is a contrast to her homeland of South Korea where most of the population is monolingual. There, speaking two languages is limited mostly to those with high socioeconomic status. "Whenever I speak even to taxi drivers here, they often speak multiple languages -- English, Mandarin, and one or more Chinese dialects," she says.

Singapore, as such, has proven a fertile ground for Professor Yang to study the relationship between multi-lingualism and cognition, though she has faced challenges in collecting data.

"I study bilingual children, and sometimes even infants raised in a bilingual context. Since parents are busy people, we visit day care centres and ask for parental consent for the children to be involved in research. But parents and day care teachers are reluctant to do so, as there is still a tendency to disbelieve the potential impact of such research," she notes.

Professor Yang's work with children has already seen results, however. One study saw her examine the impact of being raised in a bilingual versus monolingual household for children of low economic status. "Children of low socioeconomic status generally have lower cognitive function than those with high socioeconomic status. This might be because both parents are out working to earn money, leaving them home alone and without intellectual stimulation," she explains.

Here, bilingualism appears to be a form of intervention to promote executive function. Professor Yang found that low socioeconomic status children who spoke two languages performed much better in behavioural tests than their monolingual counterparts. Interestingly, she uncovered similar observations in another study that involved infants, instead of children, of low socioeconomic status.

"Since infants cannot verbalise or express themselves, we define bilingual infants via the number of languages they are exposed to. For example, an infant exposed to English 60 percent of the time, and Mandarin 40 percent of the time, would be considered bilingual," she says.

"Surprisingly, we found that even bilingual infants from low socioeconomic status demonstrated greater cognitive development than monolingual infants of the same status. This implies that bilingualism could help the development of children in deprived environments."

Boosting brain power with bilingualism

Other studies have shown that bilingualism can be used in a clinical setting to help children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or patients with impaired cognitive function. Professor Yang also hopes to demonstrate its benefits to individuals who do not demonstrate cognitive impairment.

Another area that Professor Yang would like to explore is the biology behind second language acquisition. Specifically, do bilingual speakers exhibit different patterns in their brain anatomy and physiology?

"So far we have focused on behavioural data, such as job performance and aptitude. We have not yet touched on neuroscience -- the brain -- particularly in the Asian context. For example, it would be interesting to examine what changes bilingualism has made to my brain in the last 20 years, and if that can in turn be associated with my behaviour," she muses.

Science Daily. 2015. “Bilingualism and the brain: How language shapes our ability to process information”. Science Daily. Posted: August 24, 2015. Available online:

Friday, November 27, 2015

Cholera victims’ bones from 1830s found on Luas line dig

Great Cholera Epidemic of 1832 killed thousands across the country

The bones of victims of a cholera epidemic in the 1830s have been uncovered as part of preparation works for the Luas cross-city line at Broadstone, Dublin.

The remains were found last week by workers at the Broadstone Bus Éireann Garage on the north side of the city.

The new Luas line will run from St Stephen’s Green through the city centre, Phibsborough and Cabra, to Broombridge. It will link up the two existing green and red lines and take in lands at Broadstone. The Great Cholera Epidemic of 1832 killed thousands across the country and, due to overcrowded conditions, Dublin’s inhabitants were particularly vulnerable.

Pandemic outbreak

The outbreak, of pandemic proportions, also killed hundreds of thousands in the UK, France, Germany, Hungary and Egypt before moving on to the US and Canada.

While the majority of Dubliners who died during the disease outbreak were buried at Bully’s Acre – a cemetery near the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham – there was not enough space there to cope with the influx of burials. A site between Grangegorman and Broadstone was used as an overflow burial ground.

Maria Fitzgerald, principal archaeologist for Luas, said as part of the environmental impact assessment for the new Luas route, the company had identified the possibility of a burial ground being found near the area. She said records from the 1870s showed the railway yard of the Midlands Great Western Railway at Broadstone was being extended. The company got permission to acquire 3 acres of land near their existing premises and when they were digging, to build foundations for a new boundary wall, railway sidings and an engine shed, they came across the burial ground.

The remains were removed and reinterred in a nearby patch of ground, a walled area. “I think that is what we are looking at,” Ms Fitzgerald said.

She said none of the burials are laid out or intact. “It’s just all the bones placed in what we think is a trench going down the centre of the site,” she said. “There seems to be quite a few burials; we have come across quite a number of skulls.”

Disarticulated skeletons

All of the skeletons are disarticulated and all of the bones seem to have been mixed up and put in the trench. Ms Fitzgerald said the architects working on-site, James Hessian and Siobhán Ruddy, for Rubicon Heritage, are examining what area the remains are extending over and what the features of the site are. The work is being carried out under licence from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

Ms Fitzgerald said the area involved was to be used for a footpath between Grangegorman campus, the new college campus for the Dublin Institute of Technology, and the Broadstone Luas stop.

“We are looking at that and seeing whether that footpath will impact on these burials and what we can do to minimise the impact. If we can possibly preserve them where they are, we will,” she said.

She said they do not know how many people were buried there and that would only be determined if there was a decision to fully excavate the site.

“Everybody’s preference would be not to disturb them, so we will be working closely with the construction designers now to see if we can minimise the impact.”

Gartland, Fiona. 2015. “Cholera victims’ bones from 1830s found on Luas line dig”. The Irish Times. Posted: August 23, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Cultural Revival

Excavations near a Yup’ik village in Alaska are helping its people reconnect with the epic stories and practices of their ancestors

In recent years, Quinhagak, a small southwestern Alaskan village just inland from the Bering Sea, has, along with other coastal communities in the state, witnessed dramatic erosion due to climate change. The area, located at the southern end of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, has historically been prone to damaging storms and flooding, but now, melting sea ice is resulting in larger waves and has left the shoreline more vulnerable to storm surges. Land once held firm by permafrost has softened and is now easily eaten away by the tides, with the result that anything previously embedded in the permafrost is released.  

Around 2007, carved wooden objects started washing up on the beach near Quinhagak, and the source seemed to be a site several miles to the south known to have once been inhabited. The native Yup’ik people who live in the area generally believe in not disturbing their ancestors’ settlements, but they recognized that this was a special case. Artifacts of their past were in danger of being lost forever, and they believed that if these objects could be recovered, younger, culturally adrift members of the community might forge a deeper connection with their heritage. So they called in Rick Knecht, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, who has extensive experience excavating in Alaska, to examine the threatened site. “We landed there,” Knecht says, “and right away found a complete wooden doll on the beach. We followed the tide line and saw more and more evidence of wooden artifacts. A couple miles down the beach, we could see where they were coming from.” A dark midden partially concealed carved wooden shafts and half of a bentwood bowl. Knecht could tell that large chunks of earth had calved off, and big, grassy clumps could be seen on the beach with artifacts essentially pouring out of them.  

The site has been dubbed Nunalleq, which means “Old Village” in the Yup’ik language. Since 2009, Knecht has led an excavation team there for up to six weeks each summer. He now recognizes that Nunalleq was occupied on and off between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, well before the first contact between the Yup’ik people and Russian traders, which took place in the 1830s. The archaeologists have found tens of thousands of artifacts—most made of wood or other organic materials, preserved only because they had been embedded in permafrost—that are providing a rare glimpse of precontact Yup’ik life. Hundreds of wooden dolls, from simple flat sticks to three-dimensional carvings, and a number of wooden masks, some large enough for use in a masked dancing ritual and some small enough that they appear to have been designed for use as playthings with the dolls, have been found. Carvings in wood and ivory of animals important to the Yup’ik people, such as seals and birds, have also been discovered. “On average, a person might find two hundred pieces a day,” says Knecht. “There’s so much information there.” Among the most striking finds has been evidence of a period of fierce internecine conflict that may have gone on for hundreds of years.

The Yup’ik people are related to the Inuit peoples who live in territories across Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland, and share with them a common origin in Siberia and Asia. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of the Yup’ik had settled in inland areas of Alaska by 3,000 years ago and had established coastal villages by 600 years later, probably because they fished using nets, which allowed them to harvest large quantities of salmon on a predictable schedule. Seal and caribou were the other foundations of the Yup’ik diet, and food was plentiful enough that they could lead a more settled life than could the Inuit in other parts of the Arctic.  

Historical accounts and stories from Yup’ik oral tradition suggest that the traditional Yup’ik village consisted of a qasgiq, where men and older boys lived, surrounded by a number of smaller ena, which housed women and boys younger than five. The qasgiq served as a workshop, where kayaks, hunting bows, and other tools were built and repaired, and as an instructional space, where elders shared oral traditions with the young and taught them how to hunt. It was also used as a community center, where gatherings and ritual events were held. Everyone lived in the village during the winter. At other times, some would venture out to camps where the fishing or hunting was particularly good.

The site that Knecht and his team are excavating appears, based on carbon dating of organic material, to have been inhabited for some time around 1300 and then steadily from roughly 1450 through 1650. At the end of this period, the archaeologists have discovered, the site was the scene of a terrible massacre in which attackers set a qasgiq on fire with people and dogs still inside. “We found this burned floor with all this burned stuff on it, riddled with arrow points—absolutely riddled,” says Knecht. “We also found the bodies of people who were dragged out of the house, along with the long grass ropes that were used to do so. Their skeletons are burned and kind of dismembered.” Another human skeleton was found inside the house, with an arm outstretched, apparently attempting to dig out from under a sod wall. The displaced skull of a young woman was found with an arrow tip embedded in the back of it. Also discovered inside the house were the remains of a number of dogs that had perished in the fire. “We found this charred beam right across the middle of a dog,” says Knecht, “and it cooked him so fast, so intensely, that he was pretty well preserved.”  

The evidence discovered at Nunalleq fits strikingly well with an episode in Yup’ik oral tradition that describes a time of epic intervillage battles known as the Bow and Arrow Wars. In the story, “the village was destroyed by a war party,” says Ann Fienup-Riordan, a cultural anthropologist who has studied and worked with the Yup’ik people for 40 years. “Their men were out, and there was an encounter. They were put to rout during a battle, and then the winning warriors came down, surrounded the village, burned it down, and killed everybody there, including, in one version, their dogs.” The defeated village in the story is described as being set alongside the Arolik River. The mouth of a river with this name—known for its salmon—is several miles from the excavation site today, but its course is thought to have been much closer when the site was inhabited. Arolik is derived from the Yup’ik word for “ashes,” and Knecht believes the river was named for the massacre that took place alongside it.

The Bow and Arrow Wars came to an end when the Russians arrived in the 1830s, according to Yup’ik oral tradition. The massacre documented by the Nunalleq excavation establishes that warfare was taking place around 1650, nearly 200 years before this encounter, and Fienup-Riordan believes it raged for 300 to 500 years in all. The archaeologists have found evidence that this sustained state of war was so traumatic that it led the residents of Nunalleq to alter the traditional layout of their village. “As the wars heated up,” says Knecht, “they actually took the men’s house and divided it up into apartments so everyone was living in one big building, creating a more fortified setting. It had to be really extreme warfare to actually change your architecture in response to it.”  

According to Fienup-Riordan, revenge is the reason typically given in stories for attacks during the Bow and Arrow Wars. Knecht, however, suggests that widespread resource shortages may have set the stage for strife. Just as climate change is taking a serious toll on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta today, a period of global cooling known as the Little Ice Age put the area under pressure from around 1400 through 1750, overlapping with most of the time when Nunalleq was inhabited. “We think that the Bow and Arrow Wars might be related to stresses on their subsistence menu due to the Little Ice Age, which hit pretty hard in Alaska,” says Knecht. “Some foods may have been harder to get, and the normal hunting areas may not have yielded enough meat, creating pressure to attack other areas and move into them.”  

For the Yup’ik people who live in Quinhagak today, seeing the evidence of the massacre at the Nunalleq site—along with other remains of precontact life salvaged by the excavation—has been revelatory. “We had always heard about the Bow and Arrow Wars from my late grandfather—it was a whole eye-for-an-eye type of deal,” says Warren Jones, president of the Quinhagak village corporation, Qanirtuuq Inc., which owns the land containing the dig site and helped fund the excavation for several years before it received a large grant. “But the coolest thing,” says Jones, “was actually seeing the burned structure of the building, seeing arrowheads lodged in the poles. I can see what our elders were talking about when they were telling the story. It’s almost word for word.”  

Although the Yup’ik language continues to be widely spoken in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and the Yup’ik people still hunt and gather much of their food, the passing on of oral traditions that Jones describes has grown more sporadic in recent decades. This is due in part to the fact that young people now spend their time going to school and playing video games rather than listening to their elders’ stories. But it is also the product of nearly 200 years of interactions with foreign traders, missionaries, and colonizers, all of whom had a dramatic impact on Yup’ik cultural practices.  

With the arrival of Russian traders in the 1830s, notes Fienup-Riordan, came the first in a series of smallpox and influenza epidemics that ravaged the native Yup’ik population of the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta, which had previously stood at around 15,000. This may explain why the Bow and Arrow Wars are said to have ceased with the coming of the Russians. The Russian Orthodox Church established a presence in the area and introduced the basics of Christianity, but otherwise had relatively little effect on Yup’ik life. Moravian missionaries who arrived in the southern section of the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta in 1885, after the United States had purchased Alaska, set up a mission and grammar school in Quinhagak by 1903, and had a much greater impact. Tracing their origins to Moravia, in what is now the Czech Republic, the Moravians were among the earliest Protestant groups to break off from the Roman Catholic Church. Among the Yup’ik, they focused in particular on wiping out the traditional practice of masked dancing, which they described in their writings as “heathen rites” and tantamount to “idol worship.”

The Yup’ik masked dance ritual was calledagayuyaraq, which means “way of requesting,” and was traditionally the last of a series of annual winter ceremonies. According to Fienup-Riordan, everyone from a given village, or sometimes multiple villages, would gather in the qasgiq to watch dancers perform with carved wooden masks that frequently depicted animals or part-human, part-animal beings. The dancers were believed to take on the spirits of the animals portrayed by the masks and would make the animals’ sounds as well as entreat them to offer themselves up to hunters in the coming year. Once used, the masks were typically burned, broken, or left out on the tundra to decay. Yup’ik masks were collected by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century explorers, and their vivid expression of a non-European belief system served as an inspiration to artists such as the Surrealists. Intact masks from the precontact period are extremely rare. However, the archaeologists have found a number of complete masks at the Nunalleq site, the largest of which depicts a creature that is part human and part wolf. These masks may have been undamaged because they had not yet been used in an agayuyaraq when the village was burned to the ground. They may be the oldest complete Yup’ik masks in existence.  

The Moravians were especially effective in suppressing masked dancing and other traditional Yup’ik practices because they enlisted native “helpers” to serve as the primary missionaries to the people. This had the effect of deeply embedding within Yup’ik communities the notion that their traditional religious practice was wrong and that all kinds of dancing were sinful. In addition, many community elders, who were the repositories of cultural knowledge, perished in successive waves of epidemics. Since the 1960s, there has been a revival of dancing—usually without masks—in many Yup’ik communities, particularly those in the northern part of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where Catholic missionaries took a more laissez-faire attitude toward native cultural practices. Until very recently, however, that had not been the case in Quinhagak, where the Moravian influence remained strong and there had been no traditional dancing for more than a hundred years.  

The Nunalleq excavation has helped the Yup’ik people of Quinhagak reconnect with their heritage. A number of villagers have taken part in the dig, and native artists have been on hand to sketch artifacts fresh out of the ground and to carve replicas, often within a day. Even some young people have taken up carving. At the end of each season, the archaeologists put on a show-and-tell exhibition to present their discoveries. In discussions with younger members of the community, village elders have explained the purpose of selected artifacts. “When I see the elders recognize an object, and they’re telling the children something,” says Jones, the village corporation president, “it makes my hair raise on the back of my neck. It makes me feel really good.”

In part as a result of their experience with the dig, a group of children from Quinhagak petitioned the elders for and received permission to form a traditional dance group. And so, in 2013, a group of dancers from Quinhagak performed, without masks, first at a large, area-wide dance festival in the town of Bethel, 70 miles to the north, and then during the annual artifact show-and-tell exhibition in Quinhagak. “They were welcoming the pieces back,” says Knecht. “That was the first time there had been traditional dancing in Quinhagak in more than a century. It’s all part of this revival that is growing along with the finds.”

The first dance performed by the youth of Quinhagak was, tellingly, set to a song about a major storm that had hit the area a few years earlier and washed away a portion of the dig site. In the years since Knecht and his team began digging at Nunalleq, climate change has continued to take its toll, and the sea has, thus far, swallowed up almost 50 feet of the site. Fortunately, the ground was lost after it had been excavated, but a single bad storm could wipe out the rest overnight. Erosion and storms have caused problems in Quinhagak as well, destroying an airstrip and making it impossible at times for barges carrying heating oil and groceries to make landfall—major hardships for an area inaccessible by road. Plans are underway to move the village to more secure ground. “I check the weather every day and worry about what might happen to the site and the village,” says Knecht. “It keeps me up at night.” For as long as conditions allow, though, he’ll continue to work alongside the Yup’ik people to preserve what remains of their past.

Weiss, Daniel. 2015. “Cultural Revival”. Archaeology. Posted: August 24, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Mexico finds 'main' skull rack at Aztec temple complex

Mexican archaeologists believe they have found the main trophy rack of sacrificed human skulls at Mexico City's Templo Mayor Aztec ruin site.

Racks known as "tzompantli" were where Aztecs displayed the severed heads of sacrificial victims on wooden poles pushed through the sides of the skull.

But archaeologists at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History said Thursday that this one was different. Part of the platform where the heads were displayed was made of rows of skulls mortared together roughly in a circle. All the skulls were arranged to look inward toward the center of the circle, but experts don't know what was at the center.

The find was made between February and June under the floor of a colonial-era house in downtown Mexico City.
Reference: 2015. “Mexico finds 'main' skull rack at Aztec temple complex”. Posted: August 20, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ruins in Nara likely site of largest settlement in 4th century

Researchers are excavating what could have been one of the nation's largest settlements in the fourth century.

The Archaeological Institute of Kashihara said Aug. 19 it has uncovered remains of pit houses and ditches that marked out boundaries at a site known as the Nakanishi ruins.

Researchers hope the discovery will help fill in missing blanks about the region's history.

“The site occupies a prominent area,” said Fumiaki Imao, a senior researcher at the institute, adding that the structures may have been used for rituals under the direct control of the early Yamato imperial court.

The site is adjacent to the famous Akitsu ruins, which yielded evidence of many large and unique structures dating from early fourth century during the Kofun Period.

According to the researchers, the two sites were possibly constructed in an integrated manner. If so, they would constitute one of the largest settlements known from that era.

Little is known about the workings of the Yamato imperial court during the fourth century, and researchers said they hope the excavation project will help shed light on the period.

Among the finds at the Nakanishi ruins are 26 dugout facilities that measure 3 meters by 3 meters to 6.5 meters by 6.5 meters, as well as ditches ranging in width from 30 centimeters to 1 meter that were created to mark out boundaries. From 2009, researchers realized that many structures at the Akitsu ruins were similar to those at Ise Jingu shrine, along with remains of board fences that surrounded those facilities. The area of interest stretches 150 meters east to west and 100 meters north to south, making it likely the structures were used as religious facilities.

The Nakanishi ruins are located southwest of the Akitsu site and face almost the same direction, researchers said. That suggests religious facilities and residential structures used to stand in an organized way within an area measuring more than 200 meters east-west and 400 meters north-south that straddle the two archaeological sites.

Hironobu Ishino, an archaeologist who is honorary director of the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Archaeology, noted that the southwestern part of the Nara basin used to be ruled by the powerful Katsuragi family.

“The latest discoveries could represent the family’s exclusive ritual facilities,” he said.

Tsukamoto, Kazuto. 2015. “Ruins in Nara likely site of largest settlement in 4th century”. The Asahi Shimbun. Posted: August 20, 2015. Available online:

Monday, November 23, 2015

The ceremonial sounds that accompanied our ancestors' funerals, 15,000 years ago

They decorated graves with flowers, held ceremonial meals before their funerals, and -- as a new study from the University of Haifa now shows -- the Natufians who lived in our region 15,000 -- 11,500 years ago also created massive mortars that were used to pound food at their burial ceremonies. The pounding sound of these large mortars informed the members of the community that a ceremony was underway. "The members of the Natufian culture lived during a period of change, and their communal burial and commemorative ceremonies played an important role in enhancing the sense of affiliation and cohesion among the members of the community," explain Dr. Danny Rosenberg and Prof. Dani Nadel, from the Zinman Institute of archaeology, University of Haifa, who undertook the study.

The Natufians were among the first humans to abandon the nomadic lifestyle and settle in permanent communities, including the construction of buildings with stone foundations. It is even possible that they engaged in initial forms of cultivation. They were also among the first human cultures that established cemeteries -- defined areas in wish burial took place over generations, in contrast to the random burial seen in more ancient cultures. As research has progressed, scholars have gradually come to appreciate the importance the Natufians attached to burial in the social and ceremonial context. They were the first to pad their graves with flowers and leaves, and researchers from the University of Haifa have recently found evidence of large banquets held by the Natufians during funerals and commemorative ceremonies.

Over the years, numerous tools have been found at Natufian residential and burial sites, but relatively little attention has been paid to one of the most remarkable types of tools: large boulder mortars. Dr. Rosenberg and Prof. Nadel were fascinated by these boulders, some of which are almost a meter high and weight 100 kilograms. "These are the largest stone artifacts that were hewn during this period in the Middle East, and indeed they are much larger than most of the stone objects that were hewn here in much later periods," Dr. Rosenberg explains. "These boulders have been found at Natufian sites in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel, so that they clearly had a regional significance." Despite this, no one undertook an overall examination of the phenomenon of the boulders. "We were intrigued by the common features shown by these unusual tools, such as the raw material from which they were made, their dimensions, the hewing techniques involved, and their usage. Above all, though, we were fascinated by the settings in which the boulders were found and their association to burial ceremonies," the researchers noted.

The two researchers investigated most of the boulders of this type that have been found in the Middle East. They discovered that almost all the boulders were found in burial sites or in contexts relating to burial. Some of the objects were found buried in the ground, with only their upper edge visible. "The size and weight of the boulders shows that they were not intended to be mobile. The fact that some of them were buried suggests that they were supposed to remain in place as part of the 'furniture' of the burial site, or in the burial context itself. This point emphasizes that they were not created for everyday eating purposes, but formed an integral part of the ceremonies and occurrences in the areas in which the Natufians buried their dead."

The researchers argue that the giant boulders can be seen as part of a broader Natufian phenomenon connecting different areas through a single system of ceremonies and beliefs. Against the background of what is already known about Natufian burial customs, they concluded that the boulders also played a central role in these ceremonies, seeking to reinforce collective cohesion and identity. The food ground by the boulders played a social or ceremonial role, similar to familiar contemporary functions. The pounding on or in the boulders could be heard at a great distance, and may have served to announce the holding or the beginning of the burial ceremony, thereby informing the members of adjacent communities that an important ceremony was taking place -- much like church bells.

Science Daily. 2015. “The ceremonial sounds that accompanied our ancestors' funerals, 15,000 years ago”. Science Daily. Posted: August 20, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Archaeologists aim to unravel the mystery of the Rhynie Man

When a farmer ploughing an Aberdeenshire field in 1978 uncovered a six-foot high Pictish stone carved with a distinctive figure carrying an axe, it quickly earned the name the 'Rhynie Man', coined from the village in which it was found.

But in the decades since its discovery, little more is known about the Pictish figure, who he was or why he was created. Now a team of archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen are leading a dig which they hope will yield answers to the mystery of Aberdeenshire’s ‘oldest man’.

Believed to date from the fifth or sixth century, the Rhynie Man carries an axe upon his shoulder, has a large pointed nose and wears a headdress.

Dr Gordon Noble, a Senior Lecturer in archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, said their excavations would focus on the area around where the Rhynie Man was first found by local farmer Kevin Alston at Barflat and around the Craw Stane, another Pictish standing stone.

He said: “We did significant work at Rhynie in 2011/12 and identified that the area was a high-status and possibly even royal Pictish site.

“We found many long distance connections such as pottery from the Mediterranean, glass from France and Anglo-Saxon metal work with evidence to suggest that intricate metalwork was produced on site.

“Over the years many theories have been put forward about the Rhynie Man. However, we don’t have a huge amount of archaeology to back any of these up so we want to explore the area in which he was found in much greater detail to yield clues about how and why he was created, and what the carved imagery might mean.”

Excavations will continue throughout the week and on Saturday August 22 and 29 the archaeology team will take part in public open days showcasing previous finds at Rhynie and some of their initial thoughts on the current dig.

Dr Noble added: “From the evidence we have already, it looks like the Rhynie man stood somewhere near the entrance to the fort.

“We want to try and identify exactly where he was standing as this will give us a better idea how he fits into the high status site and what his role may have been.

“The Rhynie Man carries an axe of a form that has been linked to animal sacrifice and we hope to discover more evidence that might support the theory that he was created as part of ceremonies and rituals for high-status events, perhaps even those for early Pictish royal lineages.

“This may also help us to better understand the imagery used and why the Rhynie Man is depicted in this way. Standing at more than six-feet high the stone must have been an impressive sight to anyone coming to Rhynie some 1500 years ago.” Aberdeenshire Council Archaeologist, Bruce Mann, said: “The ongoing work is not only helping us to reveal more about this little understood period of history, but is proving to be a fantastic opportunity for people to actively learn about part of the rich history of Aberdeenshire.

“One day we will understand not only ‘who’ the Rhynie Man was, but also what part the Picts played in the early development of the village. It’s a very exciting time for the community, and I hope everyone enjoys visiting both the dig and the local area.” To help the public understand more about the Rhynie Man and Rhynie’s Pictish standing stones, the open day on Saturday August 22 will also feature stone carving with Monikie Rock Art, a Pictish pop-up café with ‘Rhynie Woman’, an artist collective that aims to raise awareness of the local landscape. On Saturday August 29, there will be a further open day to showcase what has been found in 2015 with site tours, activities on site for children and the Pictish café with Rhynie Woman will run once again.

Both days will run from 10-5pm. Visitors can park in the village and walk up to the Craw Stane field on the south of the village. Or they can park in the churchyard and walk up from there. 

University of Aberdeen News. 2015. “Archaeologists aim to unravel the mystery of the Rhynie Man”. University of Aberdeen News. Posted: August 20, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Early Britons: Have we underestimated our ancestors?

Have we underestimated the first people to resettle Britain after the last Ice Age? Evidence from a variety of sources suggests that early Britons were more sophisticated than we could have imagined.

Archaeologists once thought that the story of the early hunter-gatherer Britons was lost to the mists of time.

The hunter-gatherers left almost no trace of their nomadic existence behind.

As a result, the stone-age settlers of ancient Britain were thought of as simple folk, living a brutal hand-to-mouth existence.

But now, evidence is emerging that turns those assumptions upside down. Archaeological sites all over the UK and northern Europe are producing evidence that paints these people in a very different light.

Thanks to this cutting-edge science, we now have an increasingly clear picture of prehistory, and the adaptable, culturally rich, and sophisticated people who inhabited these islands.

A BBC Horizon documentary, to screen on Wednesday, tells the story of this quest to understand the first Britons.

Some of these Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, people lived at Blick Mead, Wiltshire - a few miles away from the future site of Stonehenge.

Here, groups seem to have managed and cleared rich forests, built structures and returned to the same place for over 3,000 years, according to a radio carbon date range that has yielded a uniquely long sequence for any Mesolithic site in Britain and Europe - 7,596-4,246 BC.

The springs at Blick Mead may have been the initial and practical reason why people lived there long before Stonehenge was built.

They have also preserved the remains of the animals they killed, tools they made and used, and possibly a structure they lived in.

The quantities of flint tools and animal bones, especially from extinct wild cattle known as aurochs, point to people living here for long periods of time and there being long-term special memories and associations with the place.

The types and variety of flint seem to reflect the movements of people who followed game with the seasons, and chose to stay in different areas according to the changing availability of plants for food and materials, and the needs for shelter.

Taken together, the flint and other stone tool evidence suggest that Blick Mead was a feasting and gathering place for thousands of years that people travelled large distances to reach. Far from it being a place nomads dropped into once in a while, time would have been spent there, ideas exchanged and new technologies discussed and adapted.

Hunter-gatherers prospered in Britain, but then, 6,000 years ago there was a dramatic and permanent change in the way our ancestors lived their lives. So dramatic in fact that it's been given a different historical name. This was the start of the new Stone Age in Britain - the Neolithic.

It was during the Neolithic that pottery emerged, the time when people built monuments like Stonehenge - but above all else, it's the point at which people became farmers.

Scientists and archaeologists have begun to uncover evidence that local hunter-gatherer ways survived the arrival of farming rather than being extinguished, as is often depicted.

And at Blick Mead, where rare evidence of hunter-gatherer life is so well preserved, finds include bones of mice, toads and fish - we can also discover more about the origins of Stonehenge.

Excavations at the site are showing that people were living in the area from the time of the first monuments to be built at Stonehenge.

We have always thought of Mesolithic people, the first Britons, as hunter-gatherers, living a nomadic life, primitive and precarious. But what has been recently revealed at Blick Mead, and elsewhere, is the existence of a much more complex, dynamic society.

The dramatic discoveries at Blick Mead are only partly important because they provide the back story to the Stonehenge story; they are also important because they reflect the growing importance of these peoples to British history generally.

And these earliest British stories are showing that the Mesolithic was a defining period in the history of these isles.

HORIZON - First Britons is on BBC Two at 20:00 on Wednesday 19 August.

Jacques, David. 2015. “Early Britons: Have we underestimated our ancestors?”. BBC News. Posted: August 19, 2015. Available online:

Friday, November 20, 2015

ISIS Beheads Elderly Ex-Antiquities Chief in Syria's Palmyra

The Islamic State group beheaded the 82-year-old retired chief archaeologist of Palmyra after he refused to leave the ancient city, Syria’s antiquities chief said.

A UNESCO World Heritage site famed for well-preserved Greco-Roman ruins, Palmyra was seized from government forces in May, fueling fears the IS jihadists might destroy its priceless heritage as it had done in other parts of Syria and Iraq.

Syrian antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told AFP he had urged Khaled al-Assaad to leave Palmyra, but he had refused. Fears for Syria's Palmyra As ISIS Seizes Historic City

“He told us: ‘I am from Palmyra and I will stay here even if they kill me.’”

Abdulkarim said Assaad was murdered execution-style on Tuesday afternoon in Palmyra, in central Homs province.

“Daesh has executed one of Syria’s most important antiquities experts,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Photos purporting to show Assaad’s body tied to a post in Palmyra were circulated online by IS supporters.

The killing is one of hundreds that have been carried out by IS in and around Palmyra since they took the city. The United States, France and UNESCO voiced outrage over Assaad’s death.

“He was the head of antiquities in Palmyra for 50 years and had been retired for 13 years,” Abdulkarim said.

He hailed Assaad as a leading expert on the ancient history of the city, which grew from a caravan oasis first mentioned in the second millennium BC.

“He spoke and read Palmyrene, and we would turn to him when we received stolen statues from the police and he would determine if they were real or fake.”

- ‘They’ll never silence history’ -

Abdulkarim said Assaad’s body had been hung in the city’s ancient ruins after being beheaded.

But the photo circulating online showed a body on a median strip of a main road, tied to what appeared to be a lamp post.

A sign attached to the body identified it as that of Assaad.

It accused him of being an apostate and a regime loyalist for representing Syria in conferences abroad with “infidels”, as well as being director of Palmyra’s “idols”.

It also claimed he had been in contact with regime officials.

Abdulkarim said Assaad had been detained by IS last month along with his son Walid, the current antiquities director for Palmyra, who was later released.

He said the jihadists were looking for “stores of gold” in the city.

“I deny wholeheartedly that these stores exist,” Abdulkarim said.

“The whole family is truly remarkable. (Assaad’s) other son Mohammed and his son-in-law Khalil actively participated in the rescue of 400 antiquities as the town was being taken over by the jihadists,” he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, also reported the death, saying Assaad had been killed in a “public square in Palmyra in front of dozens of people”.

UNESCO’S director general, Irina Bokova, said she was “both saddened and outraged to learn of the brutal murder,” adding that “they killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra”.

“His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history.”

The killing also prompted condemnation from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who said Assaad had worked with numerous French archaeological missions over the years.

“This barbaric murder joins a long list of crimes committed over the past four years in Syria,” he said in a statement, calling for those responsible to be brought to justice.

In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby decried the “brutal, gruesome murder”.

IS captured Palmyra on May 21, prompting international concern about the fate of the city’s antiquities.

The IS group’s harsh vision of Islam considers statues and grave markers to be idolatrous, and the group has destroyed antiquities and heritage sites in other territory under its control in Syria and Iraq.

“These attempts to erase Syria’s rich history will ultimately fail,” Kirby said in Washington.

So far, Palmyra’s most famous sites have been left intact, though there are reports IS has mined them, and the group reportedly destroyed a famous statue of a lion outside the city’s museum in June.

Most of the pieces in the museum were evacuated by antiquities staff before IS arrived, though the group has blown up several historic Muslim graves.

IS has also executed hundreds of people in the city and surrounding area, many of them government employees.

The group also infamously used child members to shoot dead 25 Syrian government soldiers in Palmyra’s ancient amphitheatre.

Discovery News. 2015. “ISIS Beheads Elderly Ex-Antiquities Chief in Syria's Palmyra”. Discovery News. Posted: August 20, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Skeletons Of Jewish Victims Of Inquisition Discovered In Ancient Portuguese Trash Heap

Archaeologists undertaking routine excavations in Évora, Portugal, in advance of construction did not expect to find the remains of a dozen victims of the Inquisition. But both the bodies and the documentary evidence they found revealed that the men and women, likely convicted of practicing Judaism, were unceremoniously dumped outside the Inquisition Court along with regular garbage.

Writing in the latest issue of the  Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, archaeologists Bruno Magalhães, Teresa Matos Fernandes, and Ana Luísa Santos of the University of Coimbra detail the historical background of the Inquisition Court and its records, along with the archaeological findings of the skeletons themselves, which included 12 complete adults and a thousand bones from another 16 people.

Based on the structural plans of the Portuguese Inquisition architect Matheus de Couto, the archaeologists knew the bodies were found in the cleaning yard or trash dump of the jail associated with the Inquisition Court at Évora. These plans helped them narrow the date of use of the yard to between 1568-1634. Historical records also showed that at least 87 people died in the prison during that time and that many of them were dumped into the cleaning yard.

Magalhães and colleagues found the dozen complete skeletons – three male and nine female – in a wide variety of orientations and positions. More importantly, “the sediment surrounding the skeletons is indistinguishable from the household waste layer where they were placed, suggesting that the bodies were deposited directly in the dump,” the authors write.

The Portuguese version of the Inquisition is not as well known as the Spanish, but it was similar in method and reasoning. While the Roman Catholic Church and Papacy tried to fight heresy across Europe and the Middle East starting in the 12th century, Portugal did not establish an Inquisition until 1536, after yielding to pressure from neighboring Spain.

A court to try heretics under the Inquisition was set up at Évora, followed by later courts in Lisbon, Coimbra, and Porto, in order to ensure the population had purity of Catholic faith and discipline in religious beliefs and behaviors. Some of the main transgressions the Portuguese Inquisition judged people on included practicing Judaism, Protestantism, Islam, or witchcraft; bigamy; sodomy; and other blasphemies. They used techniques like strappado (suspension by the arms) and potro (the rack) to extract confessions.

While Magalhães and colleagues do not report any evidence of torture on the bones of the 12 women and men from the jail cleaning yard, they note that terrible living conditions in Inquisition jails “often led to the prisoner’s death, as shown in several individual records of the Évora Inquisition.” But what was done with the bodies of heretics when they died in jail?

During the Inquisition, convicted heretics were denied proper funerals. According to Catholic tradition, burials involved placement face-up with the head to the west.  Some of the bodies that Magalhães and colleagues found were face-up but others were face-down and some were lying on their side. Heads pointed in all directions. While face-down burials have been found in cases of suspected witchcraft and side-lying burials are consistent with some Islamic traditions, the researchers found that all of the people were tossed into the dump rather than being placed there with a purposeful orientation.

“ These are individuals who were left to rot in the religious court dump . In this way, the individuals from the Jail Cleaning Yard were not buried but discarded,” the authors suggest. “The purpose for the improper treatment of the deceased was not only punishing their body but mostly to weaken and destroy their soul, due to their perceived religious deviations.”

This research is the first to attempt to correlate skeletal remains and historical records of specific Inquisition prisoners. The jail dump could not be completely excavated, though, so the archaeologists cannot say for sure which skeletons matched which records, or whom the extraneous bones were from. But the dozens of people shown in the Évora Inquisition Court jail records were mostly accused of secretly practicing Judaism.  It is likely that these 12 women and men came to an ignominious end for the simple reason that they were not Catholic.

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “Skeletons Of Jewish Victims Of Inquisition Discovered In Ancient Portuguese Trash Heap”. Forbes. Posted: August 18, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Maori People of New Zealand

Perhaps best known as full face-tattoo-bearing warrior natives of New Zealand, the Māori are central to the country’s culture and identity.


Discovery News. 2015. “The Maori People of New Zealand”. Discovery News. Posted: August 18, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Archaeologists chance upon crouched skeletons of prehistoric trio in Dorset grave

First Dorset burials from period of early iron usage in Britain found by archaeologists in Long Bredy

Archaeologists carrying out a watching brief on routine drainage and sewage works at an 18th century Dorset cottage have been forced to halt digging after the crouched skeletons of three young people from the Bronze or Iron Age were discovered in a trench.

Radiocarbon dating suggests the bodies were buried between 800 and 600 BC at Long Bredy, a village between Dorchester and Bridport where the National Trust has been carrying out maintenance. Deep layers of soil in the region mean archaeologists often only discover archaeology by accident.

“There are no previous burials from that time in Dorset so it is a very significant find from a period with little evidence for the disposal of the dead,” says Martin Papworth, an archaeologist for the trust.

“It is important window into the past, the first clues of the people who lived in Dorset at that time. 

“The archaeology of this field is now significant – although before the trench was put in there was nothing to show us that it had any archaeology at all.

“We removed some bone fragments for testing but the remainder of the three bodies we saw have remained in situ."

The trio are all thought to have been between 18 and 25 years old.

“The remains are of three teenage or young adults, probably crouched, all from around the period when the first iron was being used in this country. No other burials in Dorset have been identified from this time.

“In wider historical terms, this period is marked by the foundation of Rome and the ascendancy of the Ancient Greek city states.

“The Assyrian Empire was the super power conquering the kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. In this country, the politics, religion and lifestyle of the population are poorly understood.

“In the landscape there are few monuments from 2,800 years ago. It is long after the round burial mounds but before the great Dorset hillforts were being constructed.

“Somewhere buried nearby there should be evidence for the enclosed settlement of roundhouses where these young people once lived.”

Miller, Ben. 2015. “Archaeologists chance upon crouched skeletons of prehistoric trio in Dorset grave”. Culture 24. Posted: August 18, 2015. Available online:

Monday, November 16, 2015

Whistled Turkish challenges notions about language and the brain

Generally speaking, language processing is a job for the brain's left hemisphere. That's true whether that language is spoken, written, or signed. But researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on August 17 have discovered an exception to this rule in a most remarkable form: whistled Turkish.

"We are unbelievably lucky that such a language indeed exists," says Onur Güntürkün of Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany. "It is a true experiment of nature."

Whistled Turkish is exactly what it sounds like: Turkish that has been adapted into a series of whistles. This method of communicating was popular in the old days, before the advent of telephones, in small villages in Turkey as a means for long-distance communication. In comparison to spoken Turkish, whistled Turkish carries much farther. While whistled-Turkish speakers use "normal" Turkish at close range, they switch to the whistled form when at a distance of, say, 50 to 90 meters away.

"If you look at the topography, it is clear how handy whistled communication is," Güntürkün says. "You can't articulate as loud as you can whistle, so whistled language can be heard kilometers away across steep canyons and high mountains."

Whistled Turkish isn't a distinct language from Turkish, Güntürkün explains. It is Turkish converted into a different form, much as the text you are now reading is English converted into written form. Güntürkün, who is Turkish, says that he still found the language surprisingly difficult to understand.

"As a native Turkish-speaking person, I was struck that I did not understand a single word when these guys started whistling," he says. "Not one word! After about a week, I started recognizing a few words, but only if I knew the context."

Whistled Turkish is clearly fascinating in its own right, but Güntürkün and his colleagues also realized that it presented a perfect opportunity to test the notion that language is predominantly a left-brained activity, no matter the physical structure that it takes. That's because auditory processing of features, including frequency, pitch, and melody--the stuff that whistles are made of--is a job for the right brain.

The researchers examined the brain asymmetry in processing spoken versus whistled Turkish by presenting whistled-Turkish speakers with speech sounds delivered to their left or right ears through headphones. The participants then reported what they'd heard. While individuals more often perceived spoken syllables when presented to the right ear, they heard whistled sounds equally well on both sides.

"We could show that whistled Turkish creates a balanced contribution of the hemispheres," Güntürkün says. "The left hemisphere is involved since whistled Turkish is a language, but the right hemisphere is equally involved since for this strange language all auditory specializations of this hemisphere are needed."

That's important, the researchers say, because it means that the left-hemispheric dominance in language does depend on the physical structure the language takes. They now plan to conduct EEG studies to look even more closely at the underlying brain processes in whistled-Turkish speakers.

Science Daily. 2015. “Whistled Turkish challenges notions about language and the brain”. Science Daily. Posted: August 17, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, November 15, 2015

First Scandinavian farmers were far more advanced than we thought

The first farmers in Denmark and Sweden knew how to rear cattle – suggesting they knew much more about farming than previously thought, shows new research.

Farming started in Denmark and southern Sweden about 6,000 years ago, and now researchers have discovered that these early farmers were far more advanced than they have previously been given credit for.

According to a new study, settlers from more developed regions of Central Europe moved to Denmark and Sweden, where they introduced advanced farming practices.

They brought knowledge and agricultural experience with them, which they shared with the local hunter-gatherers over the next 300 years, transforming them into a well-developed agrarian society.

In the new study, researchers from England studied cow teeth dated to 3,950 BC from southern Sweden.

The teeth show that the early farmers had mastered the cumbersome task of calving at different times of the year, so that milk was available all year round.

"It’s very interesting that the farmers of the period were able to manipulate the calving seasons, so all the calves did not come in the spring. This is very hard to do, and would not have taken place if the farmers had not intended to do it,” says Kurt Gron, a researcher from the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, UK, and lead-author on the study.

“This means that the earliest farmers were highly skilled from the beginning of the Neolithic period, which suggests immigrants were instrumental in bringing pastoral agriculture to the region," he says.

Danish scientist: Completely new insights

Lasse Sørensen, a postdoc at the National Museum of Denmark, studies the transition of early Scandinavian society from hunter-gatherers to a culture dominated by farming.

He was not involved in the new study, but he describes it as exciting work that is part of a larger discussion of the importance of agriculture for the first farmers.

Until now, most researchers believed that early farming was primitive because the farmers held on to many of their hunter-gatherer traditions.

"We know that the first farmers had cows, but we do not know anything about how they managed them, and how much they still had to rely on their ancient hunter-gatherer traditions to hunt and fish,” says Sørensen.

“This study points to a very advanced agriculture, and it gives us a whole new understanding of everyday life in a very interesting transition period in Scandinavian history," he says.

Studied isotopes in teeth

In the new study, researchers analysed the oxygen isotopes in the teeth of prehistoric cattle from Almhov, in south Sweden.

The isotopes are incorporated into teeth when the young cattle drink water and the chemical signal is then preserved.

Since the isotopes in their drinking water vary over the course of a year, analysing the isotopes in the cows’ teeth can tell the researchers which season the cow was born in.

“This comparison allowed us to conclude that cattle were manipulated by farmers to give birth in multiple seasons,” says Gron.

They could make yogurt and cheese

Calving in different seasons meant that farmers had access to milk all year round.

According to Sørensen, this means that quite early in the Neolithic period farmers already had the techniques to make milk into yogurt or cheese. Otherwise, why would they produce milk all year round?

They must also have been able to plan and collect food for the cattle to last the winter -- a time when the young calves were especially vulnerable.

All these things required buildings, tools, and skills that Danish hunter-gatherers were not able to either invent themselves or learn from others in such a short period.

"It is a giant leap from hunter-gathering to farming, and it is so advanced that one cannot imagine that hunter-gatherers could have learned the necessary skills from newcomers or by themselves for that matter,” says Sørensen.

“It takes many generations to master these techniques so these farmers must have been outsiders. Their presence has spread over the centuries and become integrated with the local populations of hunter-gatherers, who would have had to spend a lot of time learning about the agricultural techniques and the farming lifestyle," he says.

Exactly how old are the teeth?

Søren Andersen is an archaeologist and senior scientist at Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus, Denmark, and studies early farming societies.

Andersen does not agree that the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers happened so suddenly. He suggests it developed gradually -- and contrary to the new study -- was not introduced by a sudden influx of large groups of immigrants from the south.

He does not believe that the scientists behind the new research have proven adequately that the teeth are actually from 3950 BC, and not, for example, 200 years later.

If the teeth are 200 years younger, then this puts them in a period in which all researchers agree that the agricultural revolution was well established in southern Scandinavia. In which case, it would not be so strange for people to manipulate calving times.

Critic not convinced by the new research

"Before the results can be credible, there must be no doubt that the teeth come from the time that the researchers say they do. I believe, however, this has not been proven,” says Andersen.

“In addition, researchers come up with evidence from several settlements to say that it was a widespread phenomenon. I remain sceptical until I see evidence that migrants brought agriculture to southern Scandinavia," says Andersen.

Andersen suggests that the agricultural settlements are located in exactly the same places as the hunter-gatherer settlements once lay. According to him, it is illogical that the new migrants should settle in the exact same places where people already lived.

Andersen maintains that the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to a farming society happened more gradually.

Sjøgren, Kristian. 2015. “First Scandinavian farmers were far more advanced than we thought”. ScienceNordic. Posted: August 17, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Massacres, torture and mutilation: Extreme violence in neolithic conflicts

Violent conflicts in Neolithic Europe were held more brutally than has been known so far. This emerges from a recent anthropological analysis of the roughly 7000-year-old mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten by researcher of the Universities of Basel and Mainz. The findings, published in the journal PNAS, show that victims were murdered and deliberately mutilated.

It was during the time when Europeans first began to farm. To what degree conflicts and wars featured in the early Neolithic (5600 to 4900 B.C.), and especially in the so-called Linear Pottery culture (in German, Linearbandkeramik, LBK), is a disputed theme in research. It is particularly unclear whether social tensions were responsible for the termination of this era. So far two mass graves from this period were known to stem from armed conflicts (Talheim, Germany, and Asparn/Schletz, Austria).

Researcher from the Universities of Basel and Mainz now report new findings after analyzing the human remains of the mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten (Germany), a massacre site discovered in 2006. Their results show that the prehistoric attackers used unprecedented violence against their victims. The researchers examined and analyzed the bones and skeletons of at least 26, mainly male, adults and children - most of them exhibiting severe injuries.

Torture and mutilation

Besides various types of (bone) injuries caused by arrows, they also found many cases of massive damage to the head, face and teeth, some inflicted on the victims shorty before or after their death. In addition, the attackers systematically broke their victims' legs, pointing to torture and deliberate mutilation. Only few female remains were found, which further indicates that women were not actively involved in the fighting and that they were possibly abducted by the attackers.

The authors of the study thus presume that such massacres were not isolated occurrences but represented frequent features of the early Central European Neolithic period. The fact that the Neolithic massacre sites examined so far are all located in some distance to each other further underlines this conclusion. The researchers thus suggest that the goal of this massive and systematic violence may have been the annihilation of entire communities. The research team was led by Prof. Kurt W. Alt, former Head of the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Mainz and guest lecturer at the University of Basel since 2014.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Massacres, torture and mutilation: Extreme violence in neolithic conflicts”. EurekAlert. Posted: August 18, 2015. Available online:

Friday, November 13, 2015

Was Sardinia home to the mythical civilisation of Atlantis?

A comet plunging into the sea could have triggered a tidal wave that devastated bronze age settlements on the island, say scientists

Homer talks of Poseidon lashing out, Plato refers to a massive marine disaster. What happened on Sardinia in the second millennium BC? What dramatic event swept away the Tyrrhenian civilisation and the “tower builders” cited by Strabo and the poet Hesiod in antiquity? Was it an earthquake or a tidal wave? A comet? Was it punishment meted out by Zeus, as Plato suggests in Critias, acting pitilessly to improve the behaviour of these people who had been spoiled by living in a land where it was always spring? Certainly they occupied a beautiful, fertile island, endowed with all sorts of metal, both hard and malleable, such as zinc, lead and silver.

Writer and journalist Sergio Frau, one of the founders of Italian daily La Repubblica, has been investigating the subject for more than 10 years, drawing on the texts of the ancients. A dozen or so Italian scientists joined him when he visited Sardinia in early June. They included historian Mario Lombardo; archaeologist Maria Teresa Giannotta; Claudio Giardino, a specialist in ancient metallurgy; cartographer Andrea Cantile; archivist Massimo Faraglia; and Stefano Tinti, a geophysicist and expert on tidal waves.

The aim was to air hypotheses just before an exhibition entitled Big Wave: The Mythical Island of Sardinia opened at the museum in Sardara. Le Monde followed them through the fragrant brush, heavy with the smell of myrtle, artemisia, rock rose and rosemary, seeking out the shade of twisted old olive trees and cork oaks, climbing to hilltop where the remains of ancient megalithic edifices found in Sardinia lie hidden.

Sardinia might be Plato’s island of Atlas, or in other words Atlantis, which the Greek philosopher placed beyond the pillars of Hercules, the strait between Sicily and Tunisia. Herodotus and Aristotle shared this view, which contradicts the idea that the term refers to the strait of Gibraltar, as was commonly supposed from the third century BC onwards. Frau, too, holds this conviction. Seen from the air the southern end of the island resembles “a marine Pompeii submerged by mud”, he says. Digging into this mud turns up ceramics, cups, pots, oil lamps, sharpening stones, metal implements, knives, chisels, needles and arrow tips, all mixed up, as if the people had been forced to drop everything and run. These remarkable archaeological finds attracted very little attention until the mid-20th century. For good reason, though. For about 3,000 years the island seemed to be under a curse, a prey to malaria until 1946-50 when the Rockefeller Foundation experimented with the use of DDT for eradicating the mosquitoes that carried the disease. We now know that thousands of nuraghi – megalithic fortresses with a central tower – are scattered all over the island. They date from the middle of the bronze age, between the 16th and 12th century BC. In Medio Campidano province, in the south, they have vanished under piles of earth covered in vegetation. Only the ones on high ground, over 500 metres, have been spared. In the past 20 years the number of registered structures has risen from 9,000 to 20,000.

There are 20 structures of this kind on the basalt plateau of Giara, the core of a volcano that now rises to about 600 metres above sea level, extending over 42 sq km. It is home to small wild horses with long manes. The towers seem to stand guard over the plain below. “In the mid-bronze age the plateau was used for winter pasture,” says Francesco Casu, a local guide. “Each tower belonged to a clan which owned the surrounding fields.” In the lowlands the nuraghi resemble pyramid-shaped hillocks. The most complex example is Su Nuraxi, at Barumini. Archaeologist Giovanni Lilliu uncovered this massive building in 1950. Some time before his death, aged 98, in 2012, he explained to Frau how he had been intrigued by a cavity everyone called the well, set on a small hump of earth and pebbles. But no one had the faintest inkling such a treasure was hidden inside.

The Barumini site, which was added to the Unesco world heritage list in 1997, is a spectacular achievement. To reach the central fortress we pass through a labyrinth of circular walls, corresponding to the houses of a later hamlet. The most striking feature is the way the huge basalt blocks forming the central tower fit together. The tower is conical, with a floor of polished pebbles, and covered by a Mycenaean-style dome. It dates from the 16th century BC – according to the fossilised olive branches found inside. Four turrets, dating from the 12th century BC, surround the main tower. They are connected by underground passages, testimony to the skill of its architects. A storage cavity keeps food at a constant temperature of 12C all year round.

Were these towers built as defence against some enemy, to house local lords, or indeed for signalling?

Some historians suggest that messages passed from one nuraghe to the next may have served to broadcast news of the fall of Troy. If you can see one, you can generally spot four or five others. But as there is nothing in writing, their original function remains a mystery. All we know is that when they were reused, during the iron age (circa 10th century BC), it was for worshipping the moon. Further research has focused on Su Mulinu, near Villanovafranca, 50km north of Cagliari, as part of the Great Tyrrhenian Itinerary, a Franco-Italian heritage trail. A dig has uncovered a large bastion, on a clover-leaf plan, dating from 1400BC. It bears the visible scars of a fire, which occurred in about 1000. A limestone altar, itself shaped like a nuraghe, stands in the ninth-century-BC sanctuary. It is decorated with a crescent moon, a symbol of the mother goddess. From the sludge that covered the structure the archaeologists extracted gold, silver, amber and rock crystal jewellery, as well as hundreds of terracotta oil lamps thought to be offerings to the light of the sun, celebrated at the summer solstice until the second century. These finds are on view in a nearby museum.

The question remains as to what fearful catastrophe, circa 1175BC, plunged Sardinia into a “dark age”. Some islanders took refuge on high ground, others fled to Etruria (now central Italy). In his Life of Romulus, written in the second century, Plutarch maintains that the Etruscans had colonised Sardinia.

Along the coast of Italy Etruscan burial grounds have yielded up countless bronze figurines, Sardinian ex-votos featuring soldiers, with horned helmets and round shields, and models of nuraghi. If a tidal wave did occur, it might explain the large Campidano plain, which cuts across the southern part of the island from Cagliari to the Phoenician port of Tharros, on the west coast. In the Old Testament Ezekiel writes: “What city is like Tyrus, like the destroyed in the midst of the sea? […] In the time when thou shalt be broken by the seas in the depths of the waters […] All the inhabitants of the isles shall be astonished at thee …”

Frau quotes an inscription in the mortuary temple of Ramesses III (1184-1153BC) at Medinet Habu, Upper Egypt. It tells of how foreigners from the north saw the earthquake. Then the waters engulfed their land, the sea god Nun having stirred and sent a huge wave to swallow up towns and villages. The foreigners were probably Sardinian mercenaries employed by the pharaoh. So was this just a mythical event or a real disaster? The issue attracted a large number of local people in June, who crammed into the chapel of Santa Anastasia in Sardara, even spilling over into the street outside, to listen to the scientists. The conference was illustrated by plenty of photographs. After listening open-mouthed for two hours solid the audience broke into a storm of applause worthy of the first night of an opera.

Professor Tinti explained that until the 1980s no one was aware that tidal waves had occurred in the Mediterranean. But since 2004 scientists have identified 350 events of this type over a 2,500-year period. “The earthquake in Algeria in 2003, which killed 2,000 people, triggered a shockwave that reached the Balearics and Sardinia an hour later,” he said. “So what would have been required in our case?” he then asked. “We’re talking about a huge volume of water, some 500 metres high [the elevation up to which the nuraghi were affected]. Only a comet could do that, if the impact occurred very close to the coast and in a very specific direction,” he asserted. An event of this sort may have occurred near Cagliari, with the resulting wave devastating the plain of Campidano.

“One of the merits of the research carried out by Sergio Frau is to have shown that the nuraghe civilisation was one of the focal points of the ancient world, in terms of both geography and outlook,” says Azzedine Beschaouch, former head of the Unesco world heritage centre. “Now we need to give scientific, historical, cultural, political and emotional substance to a still mysterious past.”

“A falling comet strikes the sea at a speed of 20km a second,” Tinti adds. “It takes less than a second for the wave to propagate, with a four or fivefold increase in size.” He is convinced that his theory is right. It remains to be seen whether evidence of its impact can be found underwater, perhaps even fragments of the projectile.

To this day the people of Sardinia are wary of the coast. As the Sardinian singer Clara Murtas puts it: “The sea, we do not name it, we shun it.”

Evin, Florence. 2015. “Was Sardinia home to the mythical civilisation of Atlantis?”. The Guardian. Posted: August 15, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, November 12, 2015

As dig continues, Islamic service honors freed slave in Georgetown

A few feet away from the open pit of an archaeological dig in Georgetown, an imam from Senegal led a small group in an Islamic prayer service for the unusual man whose life may be reflected in the artifacts found there.

About 50 people gathered to honor the memory of Yarrow Mamout , a freed African slave who built a log house on the Dent Place property when Georgetown was still a suburban woodland.

Ebrahim Rasool , a former South African ambassador who is now a scholar at Georgetown University, said the site should be considered a shrine to honor the millions of Africans who endured slavery and to inspire others to carry on the fight for human rights.

“So what we are doing today is a most important claiming of memory: That our identity will not be shaken . . . that we have survived slavery,” Rasool said. “And we owe Yarrow Mamout that debt — to finish the process that he started and keep the dignity he established when he bought this property as a freed slave.”

Members of the group, cupping their hands in prayer, joined Papa Mboup, an imam with the Zawiya of the Greater Washington area, in reciting the al-Fatiha, an opening prayer taken from the first chapter of the Koran.

Yarrow, a member of the Fulani tribe, was brought to America aboard the slave ship Elijah in June 1752. He could read and write Arabic and English, and he became a prominent figure in Georgetown after receiving his freedom. Well-known artist Charles Willson Peale painted Yarrow’s portrait. So did James Alexander Simpson, whose portrait of Yarrow hangs in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Public Library.

“He was educated, which is very unusual for an ex-slave . . . probably better educated than 95 percent of the white Americans,” said James H. Johnston, a Bethesda lawyer who researched Yarrow. “He was very bright. He was very poetic in his way of speaking.”

Johnston, who documented Yarrow’s life in his book “From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family,”said the archaeological dig has the potential to illuminate the lives of all African slaves. It’s also probable that Yarrow’s remains are buried on the property, which he acquired in 1800, four years after he was freed. He built a log house on the plot, which was likely replaced after the Civil War by a wood-frame house that was destroyed in 2013 by a falling tree.

The city-led archaeological dig began June 16. Mia Carey, the site manager for the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, said workers have unearthed objects spanning several centuries, including pieces of ceramics, glass, marbles, two toy soldiers, an 1860 medicine bottle and the remains of a dog, its nylon collar still intact. Different occupants and activities at the site — including the building of a swimming pool — complicate efforts to untangle the archaeological record. “It’s kind of typical of urban sites, in that it’s got a lot of ‘noise,’ ” said Charles LeeDecker, a retired archaeologist who is volunteering to help with the dig. “It’s a puzzle.”

Yarrow’s story conjures a time when Georgetown was more diverse. When Yarrow was walking Georgetown’s streets, about one-third of the population was black, the community’s population made up of slaves, freed blacks and whites. Today, the area is 80 percent white, according to city data for the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

Yarrow’s life is unusually well documented, compared with many of the 9.6 million Africans brought to America as slaves, Johnston said. Yarrow was a body servant to Samuel Beall, a Maryland planter. Upon Beall’s death, Yarrow became the property of Beall’s son Brooke on a 2,000-acre holding near Potomac known as Beallmont.

His owner promised to grant him his freedom after Yarrow fired the bricks for his master’s new home, Johnston said. His owner died before the task was completed, but his owner’s wife granted him his freedom anyway.

Yarrow was a jack-of-all-trades and, according to his obituary, the best brickmaker in Georgetown, commanding twice the fee as white brickmakers. He also produced charcoal, wove baskets and worked the docks. He was an investor, too, having bought shares of the Columbia Bank of Georgetown.

An obituary in the Gettysburg Compiler written by Peale said that Yarrow, who died in 1823,, was buried in a corner of the garden where he prayed, facing east toward Mecca, according to Islamic practice.

Johnston said he believes that Peale painted Yarrow’s portrait not only because Yarrow was well known and perhaps a leader of the African American community, but also because he was a living rebuke to the practice of slavery.

“Peale believed that — a sort of revolutionary thought at the time — that black people and white people were equal. I mean, he did own slaves, so he was not a great liberal. . . . [But] when he came across Yarrow, who was a businessman, who was an entrepreneur — Yarrow proved it,” Johnston said. “It’s like the Rembrandt painting of Dutch burghers. Only, Peale was painting a Georgetown burgher . . . who just happens to be black.”

Kunkle, Fredrick. 2015. “As dig continues, Islamic service honors freed slave in Georgetown”. The Washington Post. Posted: August 14, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Fresh discoveries of ancient man's bone in Altai Mountains cave

Finds dating back 50,000 years could be missing link in understanding man's origins.

Fragments of an early human skull and rib were found in Pleistocene era layers in Strashnaya Cave, it was announced today by Professor Andrey Krivoshapkin, head of Archeology and Ethnography at Novosibirsk State University. These are expected to be 'no younger than 50,000 years' old, he said. 

Another find, dating to at least 35,000 years ago, was a tiny fragment of finger bone - a nail phalange.

'We struck really lucky this year,' he said. 'During works at Pleistocene levels of Strashnaya Cave we found new anthropological material. In levels dating to 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, we found a fragment of a human nail phalanx.

'Further down (in older layers) there was a fragment of a human skull and, even further, a fragment of a rib which we believe is human.'

He stated: 'Both the skull and the rib should be no younger than 50,000 years old.'

The discoveries have led to palpable excitement among scientists in Siberia. 

The academic said that 'in an ideal world we would like to have the nail phalange to belong to a modern man, carrying genes of both Neanderthal and Denisovan man, and the older find (the skull) belonging to Neanderthal Man, and the oldest fragment - the rib - to be from Denisovan man.'

However, he cautioned: 'Right now, however these are just my fantasies.  As we know, analysis results might turn out to be completely unexpected. But whatever the results, they will help us understand the interaction of modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans in the Altai territory.'

It is the first discovery of man's remains at the cave for more than a quarter of a century. In 1989, archeologists found human teeth dating to the Upper Paleolithic period, around 20,000 years ago. The skull fragment was found alongside 'labour tools' which match previously discovered implements confirmed as belong to Neanderthals, he said.

The cave stands on the left bank of the River Inya, some 2.5 km north of Tigiryok village in Altai region. Earlier excavations here found variety of Stone Age tools along with Bronze, Iron and Middle Ages pottery. 

The cave is around 125 kilometres west of the more famous Denisova Cave which changed our understanding of the origins of man.

Denisova was home through many millennia to both Neanderthals and our modern human ancestors. It was here that, in 2008, a tiny finger bone fragment of so-called 'X woman' was discovered,  a young female who lived around 41,000 years ago, analysis of which indicated that she was genetically distinct from both Neanderthals and modern humans.

This previously unknown hominin species or subspecies - long extinct - was christened the Denisovans after the name of this cave. One conclusion from analysis of ancient bone fragments is that our own species, Homo sapiens, occasionally had assignations with both Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Scientists working at Denisova Cave are also currently believed to be working in collaboration with experts at Oxford University in the UK on a significant new find of ancient bone 

The Siberian Times. 2015. “Fresh discoveries of ancient man's bone in Altai Mountains cave”. The Siberian Times. Posted: August 14, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Incised stone sun discs found during Danish island excavations

Evidence of the beliefs and rituals of the inhabitants of the Danish island of Bornholm (Baltic Sea) over 5,500 years ago, have been discovered by Warsaw University archaeologists during excavations in Vasagard.

The research project is the result of several years of collaboration between the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw and Bornholms Museum. This year also included students from the University of Copenhagen.

Sun worship

The study site – Vasagard, is a puzzling one, but is thought to be a temple for Sun worship. During this season of excavations, archaeologists have discovered several ditches, in which, in their opinion, bodies of the deceased were placed to be decomposed. Then the bones were transferred to proper burial chambers. “In the ditches we find large amounts of pottery, animal bones and damaged stone sun discs. The function of the latter has not been fully explained yet” said Janusz Janowski, head of the Polish expedition.

Sun discs are small pebbles or stones which were shaped, and images of sun rays carved on one side. Similar finds have already been discovered in nearby Rispebjerg, which served as a sun temple. Those discovered by the Polish-Danish team were mostly burnt and often deliberately broken, possibly in connection with performed rituals.

Laser scanning

“In addition to the excavations, we document the monuments with 3D laser scanning technology – this includes sun discs and tombs found at the site: box and passage tomb from different periods. These finds indicate that human activity at the site continued for hundreds of years” – said Marta Bura, head of the 3D Scanners Lab at IA UW.

Past Horizons. 2015. “Incised stone sun discs found during Danish island excavations”. Past Horizons. Posted: August 13, 2015. Available online:

Monday, November 9, 2015

Chinese cave 'graffiti' tells a 500-year story of climate change and impact on society

An international team of researchers, including scientists from the University of Cambridge, has discovered unique 'graffiti' on the walls of a cave in central China, which describes the effects drought had on the local population over the past 500 years.

The information contained in the inscriptions, combined with detailed chemical analysis of stalagmites in the cave, together paint an intriguing picture of how societies are affected by droughts over time: the first time that it has been possible to conduct an in situ comparison of historical and geological records from the same cave. The results, published in the journalScientific Reports, also point to potentially greatly reduced rainfall in the region in the near future, underlying the importance of implementing strategies to deal with a world where droughts are more common.

The inscriptions were found on the walls of Dayu Cave in the Qinling Mountains of central China, and describe the impacts of seven drought events between 1520 and 1920. The climate in the area around the cave is dominated by the summer monsoon, in which about 70% of the year's rain falls during a few months, so when the monsoon is late or early, too short or too long, it has a major impact on the region's ecosystem.

"In addition to the obvious impact of droughts, they have also been linked to the downfall of cultures - when people don't have enough water, hardship is inevitable and conflict arises," said Dr Sebastian Breitenbach of Cambridge's Department of Earth Sciences, one of the paper's co-authors. "In the past decade, records found in caves and lakes have shown a possible link between climate change and the demise of several Chinese dynasties during the last 1800 years, such as the Tang, Yuan and Ming Dynasties."

According to the inscriptions in Dayu Cave, residents would come to the cave both to get water and to pray for rain in times of drought. An inscription from 1891 reads, "On May 24th, 17th year of the Emperor Guangxu period, Qing Dynasty, the local mayor, Huaizong Zhu led more than 200 people into the cave to get water. A fortune-teller named Zhenrong Ran prayed for rain during the ceremony."

Another inscription from 1528 reads, "Drought occurred in the 7th year of the Emperor Jiajing period, Ming Dynasty. Gui Jiang and Sishan Jiang came to Da'an town to acknowledge the Dragon Lake inside in Dayu Cave." v While the inscriptions are business-like in tone, the droughts of the 1890s led to severe starvation and triggered local social instability, which eventually resulted in a fierce conflict between government and civilians in 1900. The drought in 1528 also led to widespread starvation, and there were even reports of cannibalism.

"There are examples of things like human remains, tools and pottery being found in caves, but it's exceptional to find something like these dated inscriptions," said Dr Liangcheng Tan of the Institute of Earth Environment at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Xi'an, and the paper's lead author. "Combined with the evidence found in the physical formations in the cave, the inscriptions were a crucial way for us to confirm the link between climate and the geochemical record in the cave, and the effect that drought has on a landscape."

The researchers removed sections of cave formations, or speleothems, and analysed the stable isotopes and trace elements contained within. They found that concentrations of certain elements were strongly correlated to periods of drought, which could then be verified by cross-referencing the chemical profile of the cave with the writing on the walls.

When cut open, speleothems such as stalagmites frequently reveal a series of layers that record their annual growth, just like tree rings. Using mass spectrometry, the researchers analysed and dated the ratios of the stable isotopes of oxygen, carbon, as well as concentrations of uranium and other elements. Changes in climate, moisture levels and surrounding vegetation all affect these elements, since the water seeping into the cave is related to the water on the surface. The researchers found that higher oxygen and carbon isotope ratios, in particular, corresponded with lower rainfall levels, and vice versa.

The researchers then used their results to construct a model of future precipitation in the region, starting in 1982. Their model correlated with a drought that occurred in the 1990s and suggests another drought in the late 2030s. The observed droughts also correspond with the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. Due to the likelihood that climate change caused by humans will make ENSO events more severe, the region may be in for more serious droughts in the future.

"Since the Qinling Mountains are the main recharge area of two larger water transfer projects, and the habitat for many endangered species, including the iconic giant panda, it is imperative to explore how the region can adapt to declining rain levels or drought," said Breitenbach. "Things in the world are different from when these cave inscriptions are written, but we're still vulnerable to these events - especially in the developing world."

EurekAlert. 2015. “Chinese cave 'graffiti' tells a 500-year story of climate change and impact on society”. EurekAlert. Posted: August 13, 2015. Available online: