Tag Archives: archeology

The bog bodies of Europe

Link here. The peat bogs preserve the bodies, providing scientists a window into the past. However, the bodies exhibit one mysterious tendency: violent death.

Since the 18th century, the peat bogs of Northern Europe have yielded hundreds of human corpses dating from as far back as 8,000 B.C. Like Tollund Man, many of these so-called bog bodies are exquisitely preserved—their skin, intestines, internal organs, nails, hair, and even the contents of their stomachs and some of their clothes left in remarkable condition. Despite their great diversity—they comprise men and women, adults and children, kings and commoners—a surprising number seem to have been violently dispatched and deliberately placed in bogs, leading some experts to conclude that the bogs served as mass graves for offed outcasts and religious sacrifices. Tollund Man, for example, had evidently been hanged.

Read it all. It is a fascinating combination of history, archeology, and forensics.

Four skeletons at Jamestown identified

Archeologists have now linked four recently discovered skeletons at the first British North American settlement at Jamestown with historic individuals among the first settlers.

Skeletal remains buried beneath a historic church in Jamestown, Virginia, belonged to four prominent settlers of North America’s first English colony. The group included a minister, two military captains and the first English knight ever buried on the continent, a research team announced on 28 July at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. “These men witnessed the first three years of the establishment of the colony,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation.

Smithsonian anthropologists teamed up with archaeologists at Jamestown Rediscovery to identify the four incomplete skeletons, which were excavated in 2013. First, the researchers narrowed down the potential candidates by analysing a handful of surviving documents from the colony’s early years. Then they used chemical tests, genealogical records, digital analysis of bones and artefacts and contextual clues to make the final identifications.

Having studied the history of Jamestown in great detail for my own masters degree, I can say that this scientific work is spectacular. I would add that I hope that the researchers, having identified these remains, will now allow them to be buried again in peace.

If you want to be amused, you can also read Science’s short article on this discovery. As is typical of that politically driven journal, the article feels compelled to insert a comment about global warming, even though it has nothing to do with this particular research and the claim — that “some scientists think Jamestown (on the Virginia coast) could be overtaken by rising sea levels by the end of this century” — has not yet been proven and is in fact a very speculative assertion.

New evidence of child-smuggling in ancient Mayan human sacrifices

Isotope testing of the teeth of the skeletons of children found in a cave in Belize has found that none had come from that region, suggesting that the children were kidnapped from other neighboring communities before they were sacrificed to the Mayan gods.

Though the data is still being crunched (the full report will be published when Lorenz presents her thesis later this year), initial analysis indicates that the children whose bones littered the Midnight Terror Cave did not come from the surrounding Upper Roaring River Valley, where the cave is located, or even from Belize. In fact, the young victims appear to have been brought to this spot from as far as 200 miles away (an enormous distance in the 9th century), before being taken deep into the earth to have their beating hearts cut from their chests to appease any number of angry gods.

The article is fascinating not only for the profound archeological discoveries it documents but also for its detailed description of the science process itself. It also is brutally honest. Even though these results cast a poor light on ancient Indian culture, something that is very political incorrect in today’s world, the author minces no words, even if he does wring his hands a bit about these conclusions.

A 132-year-old Winchester rifle found leaning on a tree in national park

Archeologists made the astonishing discovery of a 132 year old Winchester rifle leaning against a tree in Great Basin National Park in Nevada during a survey sweep.

“The 132 year-old rifle, exposed to sun, wind, snow, and rain was found leaning against a tree in the park. The cracked wood stock, weathered to grey, and the brown rusted barrel blended into the colors of the old juniper tree in a remote rocky outcrop, keeping the rifle hidden for many years,” Great Basin National Park said in a statement.

They hope with some historical research they might be able to identify who left the rifle there more than a century ago.

When did humans begin using fire?

A cave in Israel suggests that the human use of fire began around 350,000 years ago.

The researchers examined artifacts previously excavated from the site, which are mostly flint tools for cutting and scraping, and flint debris created in their manufacture. To determine when fire became a routine part of the lives of the cave dwellers, the team looked at flints from about 100 layers of sediments in the lowermost 16 meters of the cave deposits.

In layers older than roughly 350,000 years, almost none of the flints are burned. But in every layer after that, many flints show signs of exposure to fire: red or black coloration, cracking, and small round depressions where fragments known as pot lids flaked off from the stone. Wildfires are rare in caves, so the fires that burned the Tabun flints were probably controlled by ancestral humans, according to the authors. The scientists argue that the jump in the frequency of burnt flints represents the time when ancestral humans learned to control fire, either by kindling it or by keeping it burning between natural wildfires.

There are enormous uncertainties here, but the data also appears to match with what has been found in Europe. The problem however is that this date is long after humans had already migrated to colder climates, which means that they were somehow surviving for a long time in these hostile environments without fire, something that is puzzling.

Human etchings half a million years old?

The uncertainty of science: Did an ancestor of humanity etch zig-zags on a shell half a million years ago?

This story is a fascinating illustration of the difficulties of pinning down facts in the field of science. The researchers do an impeccable job of checking all possibilities, and finish by cheerfully admitting that their conclusions could be wrong. If right, however, the discovery is significant, as it tells us that 500,000 years ago an ancestor of the human race was capable of drawing an abstract design on the surface of a shell.

Who is buried in the largest tomb ever found in northern Greece?

Excitement continues to build as archeologists dig deeper into a massive tomb discovered two years ago in northern Greece.

This past weekend the excavation team, led by Greek archaeologist Katerina Peristeri, announced the discovery of two elegant caryatids—large marble columns sculpted in the shape of women with outstretched arms—that may have been intended to bar intruders from entering the tomb’s main room. “I don’t know of anything quite like them,” says Philip Freeman, a professor of classics at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

The curly-haired caryatids are just part of the tomb’s remarkable furnishings. Guarding the door as sentinels were a pair of carved stone sphinxes, mythological creatures with the body of a lion and the head of a human. And when archaeologists finally entered the antechamber, they discovered faded remnants of frescoes as well as a mosaic floor made of white marble pieces inlaid in a red background.

Archeologists believe this tomb is connected somehow to Alexander the Great and could very well be the burial site of one of his relatives or close allies. They will not know more until they actually enter the tomb.

One of John Franklin’s lost ships found?

A Canadian expedition thinks it has located one of the ships from John Franklin’s lost 1845 Arctic expedition.

The Canadian government began searching for Franklin’s ships in 2008 as part of a strategy to assert Canada’s sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, which has recently become accessible to shipping because of melting Arctic ice. Expedition sonar images from the waters of Victoria Strait, just off King William Island, clearly show the wreckage of a ship on the ocean floor.

The archeological discovery of a gladiator school in Austria has revealed many details about their daily lives.

The archeological discovery of a gladiator school in Austria has revealed many details about their daily lives.

Discovered at the site of Carnuntum outside Vienna, Austria, the gladiatorial school, or ludus gladiatorius, is the first one discovered outside the city of Rome. Now hidden beneath a pasture, the gladiator school was entirely mapped with noninvasive earth-sensing technologies. The discovery, reported Tuesday evening by the journal Antiquity, makes clear what sort of lives these famous ancient warriors led during the second century A.D. in the Roman Empire. “It was a prison; they were prisoners,” says University of Vienna archaeologist Wolfgang Neubauer, who led the study team. “They lived in cells, in a fortress with only one gate out.” The discovery shows that even outside Rome gladiators were “big business,” Neubauer says. At least 80 gladiators, likely more, lived in the large, two-story facility equipped with a practice arena in its central courtyard. The site also included heated floors for winter training, baths, infirmaries, plumbing, and a nearby graveyard. …

“They weren’t killed very often, they were too valuable,” Neubauer says. “Lots of other people were likely killed at the amphitheater, people not trained to fight. And there was lots of bloodshed. But the combat between gladiators was the point of them performing, not them killing each other.”

The article unfortunately doesn’t explain the last quote. If the gladiator battles did not end in death — as movies portray them — what then was the nature of their performances?

Scientists have found 800,000 year old footprints of a family on Britain’s eastern coast.

Scientists have found 800,000 year old footprints of a family on Britain’s eastern coast.

The prints could be as old as one million years, and are significant in that they show that humans had spread from Africa with remarkable quickness once the species took hold.

The oldest globe to show the New World may have been discovered.

The oldest globe to show the New World may have been discovered.

The globe, about the size of a grapefruit, is labeled in Latin and includes what were considered exotic territories such as Japan, Brazil and Arabia. North America is depicted as a group of scattered islands. The globe’s lone sentence, above the coast of Southeast Asia, is “Hic Sunt Dracones.”

Those words mean, of all things, “Here be dragons.” The globe is dated from 1504, only a dozen years after Columbus’s first voyage.

NASA and Jeff Bezos today confirmed that one of the Saturn 5 first stage engines recovered from the ocean floor was from the Apollo 11 launch.

NASA and Jeff Bezos today confirmed that one of the Saturn 5 first stage engines recovered from the ocean floor by Bezos’ expedition was from the Apollo 11 launch.

Tests have now shown that at least one bead from an Egyptian tomb was made from a meteorite.

Tests have now shown that at least one bead of jewelry from an Egyptian tomb was made from a meteorite.

The tube-shaped bead is one of nine found in 1911 in a cemetery at Gerzeh, around 70 kilometres south of Cairo. The cache dates from around 3,300 BC, making the beads the oldest known iron artefacts in Egypt.

An early study found that the iron in the beads had a high nickel content — a signature of iron meteorites — and led to the suggestion that it was of celestial origin2. But scholars argued in the 1980s that accidental early smelting efforts could have led to nickel-enriched iron3, while a more recent analysis of oxidised material on the surface of the beads showed low nickel content4.

To settle the argument, Diane Johnson, a meteorite scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, and her colleagues used scanning electron microscopy and computed tomography to analyze one of the beads on loan from the Manchester Museum, UK. The researchers weren’t able to cut the precious artefact open, but they found areas where the weathered material on the surface of the bead had fallen away, providing what Johnson describes as “little windows” to the preserved metal beneath.

The nickel content of this original metal was high — 30% — suggesting that it did indeed come from a meteorite. To confirm the result, the team observed a distinctive crystallographic structure called a Widmanstätten pattern. It is only found in iron meteorites, which cooled extremely slowly inside their parent asteroids as the Solar System was forming.

A close study of human bones recently uncovered from Jamestown’s early “Starving Time” have revealed evidence of cannibalism.

A close study of human bones recently uncovered from Jamestown’s early “Starving Time” have revealed evidence of cannibalism.

This really isn’t news, since we have always had firsthand accounts suggesting cannibalism during that terrible winter of 1609. It is, however, the first empirical proof of that cannibalism.

A sunstone, used by mariners to judge the position of the Sun when it is cloudy, has been found at a 16th century shipwreck.

A sunstone, used by mariners to judge the position of the Sun when it is cloudy, has been found at a 16th century shipwreck.

A previous study showed that calcite crystals reveal the patterns of polarized light around the sun and, therefore, could have been used to determine its position in the sky even on cloudy days. That led researchers to believe these crystals, which are commonly found in Iceland and other parts of Scandinavia, might have been the powerful “sunstones” referred to in Norse legends, but they had no archaeological evidence to support their hypothesis—until now.

Archeologists have now found the earliest evidence of chocolate in Utah, suggesting that trade with the tropics was going on as early as 800 AD.

Archeologists have now found the earliest evidence of chocolate in Utah, suggesting that trade with the tropics was going on as early as 800 AD.

Since there still are some uncertainties about the evidence, there are still doubts about the trade.

Is the recently discovered Imperial tomb in China too dangerous to enter?

Is the recently discovered Imperial tomb in China too dangerous to enter?

After discovering a secret palace hidden in China’s first emperor massive burial complex, Chinese technicians are nervous. Not because Qin Shi Huang’s tomb is the most important archeological discovery since Tutankhamun, but because they believe his burial place is full of deadly traps that will kill any trespassers. Not to talk about deadly quantities of mercury.

The secret courtyard-style palace tomb is a mind-numbing discovery. Situated in the heart of the Emperor’s 22-square-mile (56-square-kilometer) mortuary compound guarded by more than 6,000 (and counting) full-size statues of warriors, musicians and acrobats, the buried palace is 2,263 by 820 feet (690 by 250 meters). It includes 18 courtyard houses overlooked by one main building, where the emperor is supposed to be. The palace—which has already been partially mapped in 3D using volumetric scanners—occupied a space of 6,003,490 cubic feet (170,000 cubic meters). That’s one fourth the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing—for just one tomb.

Experts believe that the 249-foot-high (76-meter) structure covered with soil and kept dry thanks to a complex draining system, hides the body of the emperor and his courtiers. Nobody knows what’s the state of their bodies, but one of the leading archeologists believes that they are most likely destroyed by now.

Using modern technology scientists think they have a chance of decoding the oldest known undeciphered writing.

Using modern technology scientists think they have a chance of decoding the oldest known undeciphered writing.

In a room high up in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, above the Egyptian mummies and fragments of early civilisations, a big black dome is clicking away and flashing out light. This device, part sci-fi, part-DIY, is providing the most detailed and high quality images ever taken of these elusive symbols cut into clay tablets. This is Indiana Jones with software. It’s being used to help decode a writing system called proto-Elamite, used between around 3200BC and 2900BC in a region now in the south west of modern Iran.

Using Google Earth, an archeologist in North Carolina thinks she has discovered two lost pyramid sites in Egypt.

Using Google Earth, a researcher in North Carolina thinks she has discovered two lost pyramid sites in Egypt.

The researcher’s website, Google Earth Anomalies, is intriguing. It focuses on identifying strange and unexplained features that are seen in Google Earth, such as circular and linear features where none should exist. Often these are artifacts of software processing. Sometimes, as in the Egyptian case above, they are not.

Archeologists are disputing the age of a jawbone found in a cave in England.

The uncertainty of science: Archeologists are disputing the age of a jawbone found in a cave in England.

Both sides of the debate agree that there is a lot riding on the outcome. “What is at stake is the entire [prehistory] of Neandertals and early modern humans in Europe,” Pettitt says. Apart from the Kents Cavern fossil and some 43,000- to 45,000-year-old teeth from Italy whose status as modern human or Neandertal is currently also debated, the oldest undisputed human fossils in Europe are about only 40,000 years old and come from a site in Romania. If modern humans really made it all the way to northwest Europe by 41,500 years ago or even earlier, it would mean that they entered Europe much earlier than once thought and also spread across the continent very rapidly. It would also increase the overlap between modern humans and the Neandertals, who already lived in Europe, and who went extinct sometime between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago. What’s more, such an overlap could make it more likely that Neandertals, who made sophisticated ornaments and tools in their last years, copied these techniques from modern humans rather than inventing them on their own.

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