Category Archives: Archaeology

Remains found in 1,000-year-old lavish burial in Finland may be of nonbinary warrior

Artistic reconstruction of the Suontaka Vesitorninmäki burial. Credit: Veronika Paschenko.

In 1968, archaeologists found an unusual medieval grave at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, southern Finland, where they found the remains of a high-status warrior, alongside a sword, brooches, and woolen clothes typical of feminine fashion of the era. The burial contents indicated that the remains belonged to a female warrior, challenging strict gender roles rooted in modern, Western mindsets. But it turns out the burial is even more unusual. More recent DNA analysis suggests that the remains belong to a nonbinary person with a rare genetic condition.

“The overall context of the grave indicates that it was a respected person whose gender identity may well have been non-binary,” researchers at the University of Turku in Finland wrote in a study published in the European Journal of Archaeology.

For decades, the grave dated at 1050-1300 A.D. has been used as a popular example of powerful women from early medieval societies, casting doubt over the notion that medieval Scandinavia was a purely macho environment. But the full story is perhaps even more intriguing.

For most archaeological finds, the gender of buried individuals has been determined based on grave goods and the development of osteology. However, this binary classification may be prone to error.

The exquisite sword buried alongside the potentially non-binary person. Credit:  The Finnish Heritage Agency.

The Finnish researchers went through the original field documentation once more and conducted a microscopic study of animal hair and fiber remains from the soil retrieved from the grave. They also sequenced ancient DNA from the skeletal remains to unequivocally determine the sex of the buried individual by looking at the chromosomes.

Females have two X chromosomes in their cells, while males have one X and one Y chromosome in their cells. However, the DNA from Suontaka doesn’t fall into either category.

According to the DNA tests, the person buried there had an extra X chromosome. This suggests that the person was anatomically male but had Klinefelter syndrome, a rare condition in which cells have XXY chromosomes.

People with Klinefelter, which affects about 1 in 660 males, have enlarged breasts, infertility, low testosterone, and a small penis.

“The individual could have been a respected member of a community because of their physical and psychological differences from the other members of that community; but it is also possible that the individual was accepted as a non-binary person because they already had a distinctive or secured position in the community for other reasons; for example, by belonging to a relatively wealthy and well-connected family,” the researchers wrote. 

As a caveat, the researchers note that the DNA sample they used was small and during the sequencing, they were only able to analyze a small number of nucleotides. To fill in the gaps, the researchers performed mathematical modeling to assess chromosomal DNA. As such, the Klinefelter syndrome diagnosis may be erroneous. Perhaps the individual was truly a warrior woman. Alternatively, the Finnish archaeologists speculate the individual may have been a male shaman, whose woman’s clothing may have been deemed socially acceptable given the Norse god Odin’s association with feminine magic.

Nevertheless, this is an exciting study showing that contemporary debates surrounding gender and identity were perhaps also prevalent during the early medieval era.

Gruesome horde of thousands of animal bones leftovers from hyenas, including those from humans, found in Saudi Arabia

The Umm Jirsan lava tube in Saudi Arabia. Credit: Richard Clark-Wilson.

Although hyenas look and hunt like canines, they’re members of the mongoose family and therefore more closely related to a cat. However, just like dogs, hyenas have an affinity for hiding bones — it’s just that they can tend to go a bit overboard. Case in point, archaeologists were left speechless after they stumbled across a lava tube cavern in northwestern Saudi Arabia that is packed with hundreds of thousands of bones gathered by striped hyenas over the course of 7,000 years.

The ultimate hoarders

The gruesome floor filled with ancient animal bones was found deep in a lava tube system — a network of caverns carved by lava flow. The site, known as Umm Jirsan, was discovered in 2007, but it was only recently that researchers ventured deep into the dark caverns.

Mathew Stewart, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, led a team of researchers who cataloged nearly 2,000 bones and teeth belonging to at least 14 different species, including cattle, horses, camels, rodents, and even humans. Hundreds of thousands of other bones that are yet to be analyzed still lie on the cavernous floor.

Radiocarbon dating of the samples suggests the animal remains range from 439 to 6,839 years ago, which can only mean these lava tubes had been used as dens for at least 6,000 years.

Images of Saudi Arabia’s Umm Jirsan “hyena cave”: A: Entrance to the western passage and surrounding area. B: Entrance to the western passage. Note the team members on the right-hand wall for scale. C: The back chamber in which the excavation was carried out. D: Plotted sampling square before surface collection and excavation. Credit: Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

The striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) is a bit smaller than spotted and brown hyenas. They have a broad head with dark eyes, a thick muzzle, and large, pointed ears, with a mane of long hair growing along the back. Their most striking feature is the legs: the front legs are much longer than the hind legs. This gives hyenas their distinctive walk, making them seem like they’re always limping uphill.

Hyenas are nocturnal or crepuscular predators that stay out of sight during the day, preferably in a natural cave or a burrow dug into the hillside. Sometimes they may take over the dens of other creatures where they transport bones to be eaten, fed to the young, or cached for later use.

It’s a well-established fact that hyena dens aren’t tidy at all, being normal to find leftover bones scattered across the floor. However, the lava tube horde stunned even the researchers who were most familiar with the hyenas.

Hyenas will eat an entire human body — except for the skull cap

Although they didn’t find hyenas at the site, the researchers are certain this was one of their dens judging from the cuts, bites, and digestion marks left on the bones. The presence of human skull fragments was also telling of hyena presence since the animals are known to scavenge through burial grounds in search of food. They normally will consume everything except for the top of the skull.

“The size and composition of the bone accumulation, as well as the presence of hyena skeletal remains and coprolites, suggest that the assemblage was primarily accumulated by striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena),” the authors wrote in a study published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Molars and mandibles belonging to wild cows, rabbits, wild goats, camels, and wolves. Credit: Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

It’s highly unlikely that the six skullcaps with gnaw marks on them found at the site belong to humans who were killed by a hyena hunting party. The mammals are mostly scavengers but when they do hunt they prefer to target hares, birds, and antelopes. However, the possibility that some hunter-gatherers were killed by hyena packs cannot be entirely ruled out.

Today, striped hyenas are a threatened species in Saudia Arabia but thousands of years ago they were common across the Arabian Peninsula. The current investigation at Umm Jirsan was undertaken as part of the Paleodeserts Project, a large-scale research initiative aimed at tracking environmental and climate change in the Arabian Desert region over the past one million years.

Of particular interest is how human and animal migration in the region waxed and waned with the changing climate. This is a challenging goal since the unforgiving desert climate in the region tends to destroy any exposed organic matter. Luckily, the Umm Jirsan lava tubes create a perfect time capsule that will give scientists material to work with for years to come. 

Humans started growing cannabis 12,000 years ago — for food, fibers, and probably to get high

A new study traced back the origin of cannabis agriculture to nearly 12,000 years ago in East Asia. During this time cannabis was likely a multipurpose crop — it was only 4,000 years ago that farmers started growing different strains for either fiber or drug production.

Cannabis landraces in Qinghai province, central China. Credit: Guangpeng Ren.

Although it’s largely understudied due to legal reasons, cannabis is one of the first plants to be domesticated by humans. Archaeological studies have found traces of cannabis in various different cultures across the centuries, but when and where exactly was cannabis domesticated was still unclear.

Many botanists believed the plant emerged in central Asia, but a new study shows that east Asia (including parts of China) is the origin of domesticated cannabis.

A research team was led by Luca Fumagalli of the University of Lausanne and involved scientists from Britain, China, India, Pakistan, Qatar, and Switzerland. The researchers compared and analyzed 110 whole genomes of different plants, ranging from wild-growing feral plants and landraces to historical cultivars and modern hybrids.

They concluded that the ancestral domestication of cannabis plants occurred some 12,000 years ago, during a period called the Neolithic, and that the plants likely had multiple uses.

“We show that cannabis sativa was first domesticated in early Neolithic times in East Asia and that all current hemp and drug cultivars diverged from an ancestral gene pool currently represented by feral plants and landraces in China,” the study reads.

“Our genomic dating suggests that early domesticated ancestors of hemp and drug types diverged from Basal cannabis [around 12,000 years ago] indicating that the species had already been domesticated by early Neolithic times”, the study adds. The results go against a popular theory regarding the plant’s origin, the researchers add.

“Contrary to a widely-accepted view, which associates cannabis with a Central Asian center of crop domestication, our results are consistent with a single domestication origin of cannabis sativa in East Asia, in line with early archaeological evidence.”

When a study can land you in jail

Cannabis grown for drugs. Image credits: Esteban Lopez.

It’s hard to study cannabis, regardless of what your reasons are. You can’t just go around picking or buying plants because the odds are that’ll get you in trouble. To make matters even more difficult, if you want to see where a domesticated plant originated from, you have to collect samples from different parts of the world — which is even more likely to get you in trouble.

So for decades, researchers looked at indirect evidence. Most cannabis strains appear to be from Central Asia, and several cultures of that region have used cannabis for thousands of years, so that seems like a likely place of origin. It’s a good guess, but not exactly true.

Cannabis grows pretty much everywhere — that’s why it’s called “weed” — and just because people in Central Asia were quick to adopt the plant doesn’t necessarily mean they were the first ones to grow it.

After crossing legal and logistic hurdles, Fumagalli was able to gather around 80 different types of cannabis plants, either cultivated by farmers or growing in the wild. They also included 30 previously sequenced genomes in the analysis.

With this, they found that the likely ancestor of modern cannabis (the initial wild plant that was domesticated) is likely extinct. However, its closest relatives survive in parts of northwestern China. This fits very well with existing archaeological evidence, which shows evidence of hemp cord markings some 12,000 years ago. In particular, it seems to fit with a 2016 study by other scientists that said that the earliest cannabis records were mostly from China and Japan.

The early domestication of cannabis in the Neolithic could be a big deal. Cannabis isn’t exactly a food crop. You can indeed use it to get oil, and the seeds can be consumed but its main use is for fibers and for intoxication. Usually, when archaeologists look at a population domesticating a crop, they naturally think of food as a priority — but this would suggest that Neolithic folk also had, uhm, other priorities. Or simply, cannabis was a multi-purpose crop.

Diversifying crops

The team also identified the genetic changes that farmers brought over the centuries through selective breeding. They found that some 4,000 years ago, farmers started to focus on either plants that would produce fibers, or on those better suited for producing drugs.

For instance, hemp strains bred for fiber production have mutations that inhibit branching, which makes them grow taller and produce more fibers. Meanwhile, strains bred for drug production, have mutations that encourage branching and reduce vertical growth. This results in shorter plants that produce more flowers. In addition, plants grown for drug productions also have mutations that boost the production of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

For millennia, hemp (the cannabis grown for fibers) has been an important crop. Clothes, ropes, and various other products used hemp fibers, but the emergence of modern metalworking and modern synthetic fibers (such as nylon) led to its downfall, and the once-popular plant became all but forgotten. Until recently.

A modern cannabis greenhouse. Image credits: Richard T.

Recently, we’ve seen a resurgence in the interest in cannabis, for sustainable fiber production as well as medicinal and recreational purposes. With more and more countries decriminalizing the possession and growth of cannabis, the plant may be making a comeback — and for researchers looking to study its origin, that’s great news.

While this study offers an unprecedented view into the evolutionary history of cannabis, it’s still a relatively small sample size. Finding wild samples is hard — and feral samples you find today aren’t really wild, they’re just grown varieties that escaped and are now feral. Furthermore, even gaining access to cultivars can be difficult.

Maybe, as society becomes more inclined to consider cannabis, researchers can gain access to more resources about it as well. By studying its genomic history, scientists can also provide valuable insights into the desired functional properties of plants, helping growers develop better varieties both for medicine and for other uses.

The study has been published in Science Advances.

Derinkuyu: the ancient underground city, once home to 20,000 people

Illustration of the underground maze-like ancient city beneath Cappadocia.

In the 1960s, a Turkish man was doing some casual home decor when he made one of the most amazing archaeological discoveries in history. When he knocked down a wall in his basement he made more room than he bargained for, stumbling across a gallery that led to an extensive 18-story-deep underground city we now know as Derinkuyu.

An almost 3,000-year-old underground city

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Derinkuyu, found in the province of Cappadocia, about four hours away from the capital Ankara, was carved bit by bit into the volcanic rock and consists of numerous subterranean settlements connected by tunnels that run for miles, similar to a man-sized ant colony. Parts of the underground network run as deep as 75 meters (250 feet).

The rock into which Derinkuyu was carved is made of layers upon layers of compact volcanic ash, known as tuff. This soft rock is porous and fragile, which explains how ancient people were able to carve the underground city extensively using simple tools like a pick and shovel.

The entire Cappadocia region of Anatolia has a rich volcanic history and sits on a plateau around 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) high. The region is littered with numerous cone-shaped tuff formations that rise from the landscape like minarets — and the region is no less impressive below ground.

The Cappadocia landscape with its tuff towers. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

According to archaeologists at the Turkish Department of Culture, the first gallery was carved at Derinkuyu during the 8th-7th century BCE by the Phrygians, an ancient Indo-European culture that founded the Anatolian kingdom (12th-7th century BCE). The Phrygians were among the foremost architects of the Iron Age and are known for engaging in complex mega construction projects. Other theories suggest that the underground city was founded by Persians or Hittites.

One of the first possible written accounts describing Derinkuyu is credited to 370 BCE, found in a text written by Xenophon of Athens who, writing in his Anabasis, mentions people in Anatolia had excavated their homes underground. He adds that these underground dwellings were large enough for a family, domestic animals, and supplies of stored food.

Derinkuyu seems to have reached its peak during the Byzantine period. By this time, it grew into an extensive multi-level complex consisting of a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers, covering an area of 445 km2 (172 miles2). It's believed that Derinkuyu's population was as large as 20,000 inhabitants.

Advanced subterranean features

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The underground city featured all the amenities available at the time to surface dwellers -- perhaps even more. The typical Derinkuyu home had living quarters consisting of bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, and often a small shrine. It had air shafts and water channels that ensured ventilation and flowing water. During the torrid summer days in Anatolia, Derinkuyu residents likely lived more comfortably than typical city dwellers of the time thanks to the constant cave-like temperature, although the lack of sunlight may have been quite a nuisance.

Water was supplied from underground shafts, such as the 55-meter-deep (180-feet) well pictured below. This primary well likely supplied residents both underground and on the surface with water. The water supply was controlled from the bottom-up, with lower floors able to cut-off supply to the upper levels, which helped to prevent invaders from poisoning the well.

A 55-meter (180-ft) shaft used a primary well at Derinkuyu. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

There were likely some downsides to life underground, but they were mitigated by the enhanced security Derinkuyu offered. Early Christians flocked to the city to escape persecution by the Romans. Then, during the Arab-Byzantine wars from 780 and 1180, Derinkuyu was a safe haven for Muslim Arabs, which significantly expanded the city.

When danger loomed, residents retreated underground, blocked the access tunnels with round stone doors, and sealed themselves in with livestock and supplies until the threat passed. As a last resort, the inhabitants could use hidden escape routes to make it out alive.

Circular stones were used to seal access to passageways. Credit: Wikimedia Comons.

The miles of tunnels running through the Derinkuyu network were carved narrow on purpose, forcing would-be invaders to crawl through the passageway one at a time. These tunnels connected hundreds of cave-like shelters, which served as shelters and public areas like churches, markets, communal meeting areas, and schools. Illumination was done with torches.

Credit: Flickr/Patrick Barry.

Derinkuyu isn't alone. Cappadocia, a region of central Turkey, is home to over 250 subterranean cities carved in tuff, as well as many cave churches. In 2013, archaeologists discovered a new Cappadocian underground city under a Byzantine-era hilltop castle in Nevşehir, the provincial capital. The site is believed to rival Derinkuyu and perhaps might even eclipse it, with early measurements indicating it is larger by about a third.

In fact, Derinkuyu was connected to another nearby underground city called Kaymakli through a 5-km-long (3-mile) tunnel, although it is now blocked after some sections of the tunnel have collapsed.

Derinkuyu is now open to the public to visit, although only 10% of the city is accessible.

Second Khufu Solar Ship ready for assembly, reveals masterful shipbuilding 4,500 years ago in Egypt

First solar boat of Khufu, assembled and on display in Egypt. Credit: Egypt Today.

In 1954, archaeologists were stunned to find a virtually intact, complete boat sealed inside a pit near the southern face of the Kheops Pyramid in Egypt. Known as the Great Boat of Khufu, this incredible relic was believed to have been employed by the pharaoh himself to make pilgrimages from the old capital of Memphis to his royal tomb at Gizeh.

The 144-foot, one of the oldest planked vessels in the world, has revolutionized our understanding of ancient Egyptian shipbuilding. Now, archaeologists have announced that they’ve completed the excavations and exhumation of all artifacts for a Second Kufu Ship, which was found in another pit close to the same great Kheops Pyramid.

The Khufu ships are known as solar boats due to one early theory that the great Egyptian pharaoh Khufu would have used them as part of his persona as the sun god Re during his daily voyages across the sky. Others believe these boats were constructed as funerary crafts for transporting Khufu’s body on the Nile to the Giza necropolis. To this day, the function of these magnificent boats remains an enigma, but archaeological efforts may shed new light on the matter.

A team of Egyptian and Japanese archaeologists has recently finished extracting and documenting the 1,700 wooden pieces retrieved from 13 layers inside the pit of the second solar boat. So far, 1,343 pieces have already been transferred to the Grand Egyptian Museum, where preparations are underway for assembling the ship and its final restoration work.

Once completed, the boat will go on display next to the First Khufu Solar Ship inside a new building designated for both ships, which is currently under construction at the museum.

Egyptian and Japanese archaeologists retrieved more than 1,700 wooden pieces from the pit where the Second Khufu Ship was discovered. Credit: Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

The restoration work made possible by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which provided a $3 million grant to Egypt to complete the final restoration works and reassemble the ship, in addition to the $2 million grant that was provided in 2013 for the excavations and extraction of the wooden pieces of the ship.

Metal pieces of the second solar boat of Pharaoh Khufu are seen at the restoration laboratory, located behind the Great Pyramid of Cheops on the Giza Plateau

Already, the second solar boat of Khufu is providing remarkable insights into the shipbuilding practices from more than 4,500 years ago. For instance, wood planks recovered from this boat showed for the first time that ancient Egyptians used metal in their ships. In 2016, archaeologists discovered circular and U-shaped metal hooks, whose most likely purpose was “to place the paddles to prevent friction of wood against wood”, said Sakuji Yoshimura, an Egyptologist from Japan.

The first solar ship of Khufu was truly massive, measuring 3.6 meters (143 ft.) long and 5.9 meters (19.5 ft.) wide.  The masterpiece was likely adorned with gold artifacts and intricate ornaments, a ship fit for a pharaoh — a god among men.

Depiction of Ra traveling to the underworld on a boat. Credit: Public Domain.

This 51,000-year-old Neanderthal bone carving may be one of the world’s oldest works of art

Inside a cave in the Harz Mountains of central Germany, paleontologists have come across a striking artifact. The 51,000-year-old toe bone belonging to a prehistoric deer was purposefully carved with lines by Neanderthals, quite possibly with a symbolic meaning. It may very well be the world’s oldest art, claim German researchers.

The engraved deer bone found at Einhornhöhle. Credit: V. Minkus.

The front side of the bone is carved with overlapping chevrons (inverted Vs) that point upwards with smaller incisions on the lower edge that might have served as a base. When the artifact was placed on its base, it didn’t tip over. “It was probably left standing upright in a corner of the cave,” said archaeologist Dirk Leder of the Lower Saxony state office for Cultural Heritage.

Alongside the carved toe bone, archaeologists discovered the shoulder blade bones of deer, which may or not have belonged to the same animal, as well as the skull of a cave bear. These remains were, interestingly enough, discovered in Einhornhöhle, also known as ‘Unicorn Cave’, due to the fossilized bones found there since the 16th century which locals believed came from fabled unicorns.

Modern excavations at Unicorn Cave showed the site was inhabited by successive generations of Neanderthals from at least 130,000 years ago until 47,000 years ago when they went extinct. Only much later, starting about 12,000 years ago, did modern humans take over the cave.

MicroCT-scan of the engraved deer artifact. Credit: NLD.

The researchers are confident that the artifact was carved by Neanderthal hands rather than humans. Although humans and Neanderthals were acquainted by the time the bone was etched 51,000 years ago, our species had yet to make its presence known at Einhornhöhle. Neanderthals were the only hominids in that part of Europe (and Einhornhöhle specifically) at the time, the researchers claim in their study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Concerning the meaning of the chevron carvings, the archaeologists can only speculate. It may represent a female figurine, a mountain landscape, or some abstract art.

What seems more certain is that the bone was carved purposefully as an ornament rather than the result of butchery. The carvings are etched deep, which means the bone was likely boiled beforehand to make it softer. The deer species, Megaloceros giganteus, from which the bone came was quite rare in the region, which would have made the artwork all the more special.

This symbolistic artifact is not singular among Neanderthal culture. Previously, researchers uncovered a pendant made from ancient eagle talons and cave paintings in Spain made by Neanderthal artists. Together, these findings show that Neanderthals’ reputation as brutes is undeserved.

But this also raises an even more exciting possibility: since both humans and Neanderthals shared creative abilities, it’s possible that they both inherited them from a common ancestor. If this is the case, we might have to look even further — much further — down in history to find where these abilities first appeared. In the process, we may learn how humans came to develop the qualities we now endow to humanity.

Leder and colleagues plan on performing more digs at Einhornhöhle in the hope they might find other engraved artifacts, perhaps stashed away in some dark corner of the cave.

Anglo-Saxons were largely a group of immigrants unified by language and culture — not genetics

A new study shows that the Anglo-Saxons were a melting pot of people of different ancestries and heritage. They were both natives and immigrants and showed a striking genetic diversity. The authors of a new study analyzing this diversity note that “the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of early Medieval Britain were strikingly similar to contemporary Britain — full of people of different ancestries sharing a common language and culture.”

House reconstructions from the West Stow Anglo-Saxon village. Image credits: Midnightblueowl.

Who were the Anglo Saxons?

In the 5th to 7th centuries, groups of Germanic peoples sailed from mainland Europe to Britain. Aided by the power gap of the falling Roman Empire, they managed to settle down with relative ease and integrate with the local population.

Historical texts describe this as an invasion, with the invaders replacing the locals, but archaeological evidence is increasingly showing that many early Anglo-Saxons were locals, coexisting with the immigrants.

In a new study, a team of researchers (Professor Dobney at the University of Sydney together with Dr. Kimberly Plomp and Professor Mark Collard at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver) used 3D shape analysis to compare the skull anatomy of 236 individuals from Early and Middle Anglo-Saxon times. They found that among Early Anglo-Saxon individuals, 25-33% were of local ancestry, while among Middle Anglo-Saxons, 50-70% were local.

This rate of change is possibly indicative of a change in the rate of migration, and it also suggests that genetically, Anglo-Saxons weren’t a homogeneous group — but rather a diverse bunch.

“Previous studies by paleoanthropologists have shown that the base of the human skull holds a shape signature that can be used to track relationships among human populations in a similar way to ancient DNA,” Dr. Plomp said. “Based on this, we collected 3D data from suitably dated skeletal collections from Britain and Denmark, and then analyzed the data to estimate the ancestry of the Anglo-Saxon individuals in the sample.”

“These findings tell us that being Anglo-Saxon was more likely a matter of language and culture, not genetics,” Professor Collard said.

The fact that the findings contradict historic texts, which suggest that hordes of European invaders replaced the existing Romano-British inhabitants is intriguing, but biological evidence is increasingly showing that Europeans who settled in Britain were more immigrants and less murdering invaders.

“The reason for the ongoing confusion is the apparent contradiction between early historical texts (written sometime after the events that imply that the newcomers were both numerous and replaced the Romano-British population) and some recent biomolecular markers directly recovered from Anglo-Saxon skeletons that appears to suggest numbers of immigrants were few,” said Professor Dobney.

“Our new data sits at the interface of this debate and implies that early Anglo-Saxon society was a mix of both newcomers and immigrants and, instead of wholesale population replacement, a process of acculturation resulted in Anglo-Saxon language and culture being adopted wholesale by the local population.”

As is the case with multiple areas in Europe, the transition was also murkied by the end of the Roman period in Britain. It’s a testament to how impactful the Roman occupation was that after it ended, it left power voids all over Europe.

“It could be [that] this new cultural package was attractive, filling a vacuum left at the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. Whatever the reason, it lit the fuse for the English nation we have today — still comprised of people of different origins who share the same language,” Professor Dobney said.

The story of how Anglo-Saxons came to be in Britain is still an open one, but for now at least, according to Professor Dobney, the results suggest that “the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of early Medieval Britain were strikingly similar to contemporary Britain–full of people of different ancestries sharing a common language and culture.”

The study has been published in PLOS ONE.

Researchers find a previously unknown type of ancient human

More than 120,000 years ago, a mysterious human spent their days hunting and making stone tools in what now Israel. They looked more like Neanderthals and likes like the modern humans who were also living in the region at the time. So who were they? New fossil evidence in Israel is now helping to crack this very intriguing mystery.

Image credit: The researchers

A new player enters the game

“This work shatters the simple picture of modern humans coming out of Africa and Neanderthals living in Europe. The picture is much more complex,” Yossi Zaidner, co-author and researcher of one of the new two papers, told The Guardian. “The idea is what we catch here are the last survivors of a population that contributed to the development of Neanderthals.”

A group of researchers may have identified a previously unknown type of ancient human that lived alongside our species thousands of years ago. They unearthed fossilized bones (a partial skull and a jaw) from an individual near the city of Ramla in Israel, which they argue represents one of the last survivors of a very ancient human group.

The bones have a distinctive combination of Neanderthal and early human features which set them apart from the Homo sapiens that lived in the region at the same time. The researchers have named this newly discovered lineage the “Nesher Ramla Homo type,” which they believe played a previously unknown important role in human history. 

The general picture of Neanderthal evolution had in the past had been linked closely with Europe, as the oldest fossils have been found there. But recent studies have raised doubt on that initial assumption, raising the possibility of a previously unknown mysterious group of extinct humans that shaped the evolution of our heavy-browed relatives.

“The discovery of a new type of Homo is of great scientific importance,” co-author Israel Hershkovitz told ABC. “It enables us to make new sense of previously found human fossils, add another piece to the puzzle of human evolution, and understand the migrations of humans in the old world. The Nesher Ramla people can tell us a fascinating tale.”

An impressive finding

The researchers created digital reconstructions of the fossils and compared them to ancient human remains from Africa, Asia, and Europe. The skull of the newly discovered hominin was thicker and flatter than that of modern humans and Neanderthals, but the jawbone and teeth were similar to both Neanderthals and other ancient fossils.

Image credit: The researchers

The bones were found in a sinkhole that was filled by the time the excavation was done. But in the past, the hole is believed to have contained water and attracted animals, which in turn brought humans who hunted the beasts. The researchers also found stone flakes and points, which date to between 120,000 and 140,000 years old, according to a second paper the researchers published.

“The hominin fossils from Nesher Ramla now suggest that a different population, with anatomical features more archaic than those of both humans and Neanderthals, lived in this region at broadly the same time,” paleoanthropologist Marta Mirazon wrote in a commentary piece. “The interpretation of the Nesher Ramla fossils and stone tools will meet with different reactions among paleoanthropologists.”

The analysis has left the scientists wondering whether other early human bones found in the region could be members of the same group. There’s a debate over the identity of human fossils previously found in the Qesem, Zuttiyehand, and Tabun caves in Israel.

The two papers were published here and here in the journal Science.

The mystery of an abandoned village in England that can still be seen from the sky

Walk along the Lincolnshire countryside in eastern England, and you may come across a rather peculiar field. Look at it closely and you may get a feel that the site was inhabited once. Take a bird’s eye perspective — and you’ll be certain of it.

Image credits: English Heritage.

It is, indeed, the site of a village — ‘Gamelstorp’, as it is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086. Domesday Book, “The Great Survey” ordered by King William the Conquerer when he took over England, recorded much of England and parts of Wales — offering us a window into what the country was like a thousand years ago.

Back in those days, the Lord of Gamelstorp was someone called Ivo Taillebois, a powerful Norman nobleman, sheriff, and sidekick to William the Conqueror. Taillebois was granted land in Lincolnshire for his services, as well as in several neighboring areas. But he set his base in Lincolnshire.

After that, though, not much is known. Land at Gainsthorpe was granted to the small priory of Newstead-on-Ancholme (a few miles northeast of the village) in 1343. Then, at some point in the late 14th and 15th centuries, the village was ruled by the Duchy of Cornwall, suggesting that at least some part of the village survived, even though it had likely shrunken in size. By 1616, the village was definitely deserted. A survey for the Duchy of Cornwall noted ‘neither tofte, tenement or cottage standing’.

The village as seen on Google Maps. Image is color amplified.

A den of thieves

Gamelstorp was long deserted when, in the 17th century, an antiquarian by the name of Abraham de la Pryme (1671–1704) passed through it. In two separate and somewhat contradictory descriptions from 1697, de la Pryme notes that there are about 200 ruined buildings in three abandoned streets.

De la Pryme mentions a local “tradition” of Tudor robbers to use the village as a base. As the story goes, these thieves were driven out by the inhabitants of other villages, leading to the complete abandonment of the villages. But de la Pryme himself doesn’t seem to believe this story.

“Tradition says that that town was, in times of yore, exceeding infamous for robberys, and that nobody inhabited there but thieves [..]But I fancy that the town has been eaten up with time, poverty, and pasturage.”

It’s not really clear why or when the village was abandoned. It could be due to the Black Plague, which killed 20-60% of the English population during the 14th century, or it could have a more benign explanation: wool farming. Wool became a very profitable business during the 13th and 14th centuries and several arable villages turned to sheep farming.

Gainsthorpe today

Traces of houses, roads, barns, even a church are still visible to the careful eye. The deserted village is still preserved in earthworks such as raised ridges and sunken hollows, centuries later. Three or four roads are still visible as hollow ways, with the layouts of at least 25 buildings and 15 other enclosures visible, surrounded by earthen banks.

The site from ground level. Image credits: Historic England.

It’s very likely that other parts of the village (such as the chapel it must have once had) survive somewhere south and west of the village. Historic England, a public body of the British Government, describes it thusly:

“The village, comprising a small group of houses, gardens, yards, streets, paddocks, often with a green, a manor and a church, and with a community devoted primarily to agriculture, was a significant component of the rural landscape in most areas of medieval England, much as it is today.”

“The monument comprises part of Gainsthorpe medieval rural settlement and includes some of the remains of the deserted village site, two paddocks, and the site of the manor with a fishpond and two dovecotes.”

“The properties are divided by a system of sunken trackways and are broadly similar in that they each consist of a large enclosure sub-divided by internal walls, with one or more of the smaller yards containing a complex of buildings. In many cases, gateways and doorways are clearly visible. In some cases, two or more properties appear to have been combined into a single larger complex, probably as a result of piecemeal desertion.”

The medieval rural settlement of Gainsthorpe has not been excavated, and neither have geophysical surveys been carried out at the site — and so its origins are unclear. There were at least 19 fields surrounding the village, occupying 108 acres (44 hectares), and the village also had a chapel, a windmill, and a bridge — so there’s a lot still left to be discovered about the abandoned settlement.

Hopefully, at some point, research can clarify the origins and history of the village. In the meantime, it remains one of England’s most mysterious villages.

Scientists recreate torches and other Stone Age cave lighting

Examples of replicated paleolithic torche. Notice combustion marks left on the cave walls (B) and fallen remains from the torch on the cave floor (C). Credit: PLOS ONE.

For early hunter-gatherer groups fortunate enough to live close to caves, these natural underground dwellings offered perfect shelter that could be defended against predators and rivals and that were shielded from inclement weather. Humans in the Paleolithic (also known as the Old Stone Age, spanning from around 30,000 BCE until 10,000 BCE) would spend a lot of time in these caves, cooking food, fashioning tools, and spending the night before heading out to restock supplies the next day.

When dusk came, however, these people were not left completely in the dark. Charcoal and murals etched on the walls of deep galleries where there was never sunlight suggest that some hunter-gatherers employed lighting systems to illuminate their cave dwellings.

Now, in a new study, researchers in Spain have recreated three common Stone Age lighting systems — torches, grease lamps, and fireplaces — in order to get a better understanding of what it must have been like living and working in these environments.

“The artificial lighting was a crucial physical resource for expanding complex social and economic behavior in Paleolithic groups, especially for the development of the first palaeo-speleological explorations and for the origin of art in caves,” noted Mariángeles Medina-Alcaide from the University of Cantabria, Spain, and colleagues, in a new study published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

Based on archaeological evidence found across several Paleolithic caves in Southwest Europe, the team manufactured five replicated torches made from ivy, juniper, oak, birch, and pine resins; two stone lamps that burn animal fat, namely bone marrow from cows and deer; and a small fireplace out of oak and juniper wood.

Each lighting system had particular qualities and drawbacks, which prompted cave dwellers to use them across different contexts. For instance, the wooden torches assembled from multiple sticks had a light intensity almost five times greater than a double-wicked grease lamp. The torches lasted for an average of 41 minutes (the shortest-lived torch burned for 21 minutes while the longest-burning torch stayed blazed for 61 minutes), making them ideal for exploring caves. The light emanating from the torches projected light in all directions up to almost six meters, making them great for wider spaces.

However, the torches required close supervision as they extinguished easily. The handler had to constantly wag the torch back and forth to increase oxygen flow and ensure the torch stayed lit. But their main disadvantage was the amount of smoke they generated, which could cause trouble in tighter galleries of a cave.

Grease lamps are ideal for lighting small spaces over a long period. The light intensity they generate is very similar to that of a candle, projecting light up to three meters. Multiple such lamps could light a larger room. However, the lamps weren’t well suited to transiting due to their dazzling effect and poor floor illumination. They burned for well over an hour though.

Set of photographs of stone lamp experiment. Credit: PLOS ONE.

Finally, the researchers also made a fireplace. This static system is perhaps the easiest and most readily available lighting system there is. The fireplace burned very smokily inside the cave and was extinguished after just 30 minutes. Air currents in the cave would make fireplace illumination unsuitable inside a cave network.

This investigation is important from many standpoints and may serve to shed light on many behavioral aspects of Paleolithic people. Because there were no written records left, scientists can only speculate on how ancient people lived based upon fragmentary evidence, like following a trail of breadcrumbs.

For instance, some stone age cave paintings have been etched hundreds of meters deep inside caves. They likely used some sort of combination of torches and lamps, and this lighting must have influenced the artistic process by altering color perception. As luminosity decreases, the human retina loses sensitivity to short wavelengths (green, blue, and purple), and then to long wavelengths (yellow, orange, and red).

Thus, red is best seen in low light conditions. The perception of colors also depends on the color temperature of the light; under incandescent or warm light (between 1000 and 2000 K), such as firelight, a yellow hue is emitted, and colors tend to appear more vivid.

“In any case, our experiments on Paleolithic lighting point to planning in the human use of caves in this period and the importance of lighting studies to unravel the activities carried out by our ancestors in the deep areas of caves,” wrote the authors. 

Freed of 1,000 years of grime, this Anglo-Saxon cross looks stunning

Image credits: National Museum Scotland.

“My senses exploded, I went into shock, endorphins flooded my system and away I went stumbling towards my colleagues waving it in the air,” recalled amateur treasure hunter Derek McLennan upon finding the treasure. He had been given permission to explore the area and was hoping for a nice find, but this surpassed even his wildest expectations. He and two friends had discovered a hoard of more than 100 gold and silver objects — one of the biggest troves of Viking-era artifacts ever found in the United Kingdom. It was called the Galloway Hoard.

It was truly a spectacular find, but after around 1,000 years spent buried, the artifacts weren’t in the best of shape. So when National Museums Scotland acquired the Galloway Hoard, they started work on cleaning and restoring the items.

Among the objects within the hoard is an early Christian cross thought to date from the 9th or 10th century. Image credits: National Museum Scotland.

The cross was cleaned with a porcupine quill — a tool that’s “sharp enough to remove the dirt yet soft enough not to damage the metalwork,” according to a statement from the museum. Cleaning the decorations took a lot of delicate work, but it was worth it, as the gold leaf and alloy decorations revealed a remarkable picture.

Each of the cross’ four arms bears an intricate engraving of one of the four Gospel writers in the Cristian New Testament: Saint Matthew as a human, Saint Mark as a lion, Saint Luke as a calf and Saint John as an eagle.

The silver spiral chain wrapped around the cross is also remarkably intricate. It’s made from wire less than a millimeter in diameter and wrapped around animal gut.

“The pectoral cross, with its subtle decoration of evangelist symbols and foliage, glittering gold and black inlays, and its delicately coiled chain, is an outstanding example of the Anglo-Saxon goldsmith’s art,” says Leslie Webster, former curator of Britain, prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, in the statement.

“Anglo-Saxon crosses of this kind are exceptionally rare, and only one other—much less elaborate—is known from the ninth century,” she continues. “The discovery of this pendant cross, in such a remarkable context, is of major importance for the study of early medieval goldsmiths’ work, and for our understanding of Viking and Anglo-Saxon interactions in this turbulent period.”

Researchers suspect the cross was stolen during a Viking raid.

A song of gods and dragons: What’s behind the animals carved in Norway’s stave churches

Norway’s stave churches are a sight to behold. Built on staves (large wooden posts) and with a distinctive roof, they’re now almost unique in the world. But these churches are more than a tourist attraction: they tell a tale of a time when the country switched from Norse beliefs to Christianity.

Heddal Stave Church (Creative Commons).

It seems somewhat surprising, given their traditional way of life, that Vikings embraced Christianity so thoroughly. But around a thousand years ago, the shift was already taking hold.

The oldest stave churches still standing today (that we know of, at least) are dated to the 1100s, but earlier churches are also known. Catholics preferred stone for their churches, and Vikings also built some wooden churches — but stave churches were the norm. They didn’t use any nails, just wood, and the inside was often decorated with dragons or other mythical animals.

It’s a weird thing to decorate your church with. Most churches have biblical events or scenes carved or painted, but mythical animals are not a common sight. Typically, these animals have been interpreted as pagan remnants, a sign that even though locals switched to Christianity, they maintained some of their previous beliefs.

The inside of a stave church. Creative Commons.

When Norway obtained independence in the 19th century, following the “four hundred year night” rule under Denmark, Norwegians sought to rediscover their national cultural heritage — and found it in stave churches. They were unique, historians at the time said, and the animals carved inside them are also unique.

But they may have only been half right, says post-doctoral fellow Margrete Syrstad Andås at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), who is spearheading a research project on stave churches.

“Stave churches were once the main focus of Norwegian historical art research because nationalism was important,” says Andås.

“But times have changed. Nationalism as a theme has become more problematic, and at the same time we’ve started questioning how Norwegian these buildings really are. Part of my project involves shedding new light on the stave churches.”

Which begs the question: just how uniquely Norwegian are stave churches, and are the decorations truly pagan?

Urnes Stave Church. Creative Commons.

Most research on stave churches was only published in Norwegian or other Scandinavian languages — rarely in German — which made it inaccessible to other researchers, and essentially perpetuated early findings about the churches. Andås wants to help contradict some of the false ideas about churches and make real science more available to the world. Some of her work focused on the Urnes stave church, depicted above.

“With The Urnes Project I want to show that the stave churches reflect a common European cultural heritage. The aim of the project is to ensure that stave churches are brought into the European conversation about the medieval art in architecture,” she says.

The first part of the study involves dating the church and its elements. Researchers know that Urnes was built in the 1130s, but wooden churches (and many large timber buildings) often incorporated wood from earlier structures. This wood can be dated using a method called dendrochronology, based on the trees’ growth rings.

When there’s a dry year, or a particular rainy one, this information is conserved in tree rings. Over the years, researchers have built catalogs of what these years “look like” in the tree rings, and whenever they find timber with visible rings, they can backtrack it and see when the tree was cut.

Surveys show that the chieftain of Urnes started cutting trees for the church in the winter of 1131-1132. However, the church reused a portal from the previous church, dated to 1070. The oldest dated logs in Urnes went as far back as 765 — the oldest Norwegian church material found with this method.

But the portal is particularly intriguing.

Carvings from the church portal, traditionally interpreted as the mythical Norse beast  Níðhöggr eating the roots of Yggdrasil. “The intertwined snakes and dragons represent the end of the world according to the Norse legend of Ragnarök.”

“Several of the serpents entwining and attacking the big lion on the portal are transformed into lilies,” says Andås.

This was regarded as a classic Norse motif, but Andås believes that this interpretation isn’t really correct. Another researcher in the project, Natalie le Luel, points to the importance of one overlooked detail: the animals are in a hybrid state, becoming transformed from serpents into lilies. In this, le Luel sees a different motif: the lily was a symbol of salvation at the time, and thus the evil powers – the forces of chaos – appear to be in the process of themselves being overcome by good. The dragon, another symbol represented at Urnes, is not necessarily as Norse as once thought, the researchers also point out.

“The dragon is often portrayed in modern times as representing the pre-Christian Nordic era, but this is completely wrong,” notes Andås.

The dragon is one of the central motifs on the capitals inside the Urnes stave church and is one the UNESCO World Heritage list. Photo: Birger Lindstad

Urnes stave church bears similarities to churches in other parts. With its ancient Viking-age art and animal ornamentation, it still bears resemblance to what was going on in other places.

Urnes researcher Griffin Murray has studied the Urnes style outside Scandinavia, especially Irish churches. The Urnes style represented a form of expression that stretched from the Baltic Sea in the east of Scandinavia to Ireland.

The dragon itself is completely missing in pre-Christian times in Scandinavian art (where wingless serpents predominate). In this context, the dragon was interpreted by the research team to represent evil in a Christian context. Other animals are also believed to represent Christian motifs and serve as an allegory, though in a rather unconventional way.

“The animal is a stylized lion, a central motif in the heraldry of the late Viking age. The lion as a symbol of the ruler can also symbolize Christ, who is struggling against the evil forces,” says Syrstad Andås.

All in all, the new interpretation points to the Urnes church art as a magnificent collection of Christian, rather than pagan craftsmanship — with the main theme of the struggle between good and evil. Sure, it was a rather unusual type of Christian art, but Christian nonetheless.

“Inside the church, continentally oriented and highly educated craftsmen carved a series of nearly fifty decorated capitals, with lions in acrobatic poses, dragons, hunting scenes, men pulling their beards and men fighting with lions,” says Syrstad Andås.

Since Norwegian stave churches were not regarded with much interest in science until now, it’s quite possible that we’ll be learning much more about these churches in the years to come. Almost a thousand years after they were built, these churches are getting new life.

Ancient Maya ruins digitized by laser aerial survey

Archaeology in the 21st century looks radically different than what you might expect. While archaeologists still get their boots wet and perform fieldwork, trowels and picks in hand, their modern toolkit also includes artificial intelligence algorithms that reveal new hidden statistical patterns in ancient samples or state-of-the-art lasers that shoot billions of beams per minute from an aircraft onto the ground. It’s this latter combination of lasers, known as LIDAR, and AI that allowed researchers to uncover hidden ancient Maya ruins that had been obstructed by vegetation and the wear of the passing centuries.

3D image of Labna, an ancient Maya structure in the Puuc region. Credit: Proyecto Arqueológico Regional de Bolonchén.

Thanks to LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology, archaeologists don’t have to wander endlessly through the jungle in search of artifacts and hidden ruins. By strapping LiDAR to a low-flying aircraft, it’s possible to survey thousands of square kilometers of terrain at a time.

LiDAR or 3D laser scanning was developed in the early 1960s for submarine detection from an aircraft. It works by generating a laser pulse train that can travel through the gaps of dense vegetation. By calculating the time it takes for the laser pulse to reflect back to its source, researchers can determine the elevation of the ground. This way, archaeologists can identify human-made features on the ground, such as walls, roads, and buildings.

Archeologists have put LIDAR to good use while surveying Mayan sites before. In 2018, LIDAR revealed more than 60,000 hidden Maya structures at the site of Tikal in Guatemala. In 2020, the laser-based tech led to the discovery of the largest and oldest Maya monument, found in the Mexican state of Tabasco.

Now, LIDAR has been deployed to the northern Yucatán Peninsula, at an area of limestone hills and valleys known as the Puuc region, in present-day Mexico. Appropriately, Puuc is the Maya word for “hill”.

It was at Puuc that one of the greatest Mayan cities, Uxmal, evolved, reaching its apogee between AD 600 and 900. William Ringle, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Davidson College in North Carolina, has spent over 20 years doing groundwork in the Puuc region, which is home to four large acropolises that had been documented since the 1940s. But thanks to a few LIDAR aerial surveys in 2017, Ringle’s team discovered more about the Maya site than in the past two decades.

Ruins of a two-story Maya palace. Credit: Proyecto Arqueológico Regional de Bolonchén.
Another Maya ruin from Puuc. Credit: Proyecto Arqueológico Regional de Bolonchén.
A ruined structure that used to divide the Plaza Icim from the Plaza Yaxche in the Puuc region. Credit: Proyecto Arqueológico Regional de Bolonchén.

Writing in a study published this week in the journal PLOS One, Ringle and colleagues described how they identified over 1,200 ovens, about 8,000 platforms for dwellings, artificial reservoirs, terraces for farming, and a rock quarry for construction materials.

3D overview of Labna palace at Puuc. Credit: Proyecto Arqueológico Regional de Bolonchén.
A ruin east of Kiuic built by the Maya in Puuc. Credit: Proyecto Arqueológico Regional de Bolonchén.

According to the researchers, a large number of circular ovens were likely used to heat sandstone in order to extract lime, an essential material used for mortar and to help soften maize. Before the LIDAR survey, archaeologists identified around 40 ovens. “Now, with lidar, we have a sample of over 1,230,” Ringle told Live Science.” They’re all over the place. And that indicates that it was a pretty big industry in the Puuc.” 

The area was also home to a burgeoning stoneworking industry. Most of the buildings identified by the researchers were masonry houses, suggesting that Puuc was highly prosperous. These included civic buildings known as early Puuc civic complexes, which involved several buildings with a plaza that were connected via elevated causeways.

LIDAR of houses at the Maya sites of Acambalam (B) and Kiuic (C). Credit: Ringle et al, PLOS ONE.
LIDAR of Middle Preclassic civic instructures. Credit: Ringle et. al, PLOS ONE.

The civic and religious structures erected had a distinctive style: stone facades embellished with mosaics and friezes and the prolific depiction of Chac, the Mayan rain god. 

One by one, after about AD 900, the Puuc cities were abandoned and swallowed up by the forest until they were“discovered” by later explorers and archaeologists.

Huge stash of abused Iron Age weapons discovered in a German hill fort

Researchers have just uncovered one of the largest stashes of Iron Age weapons ever discovered in Germany. Around 100 different artifacts have been recovered from the site.

Image credits LWL-Archäologie für Westfalen / Hermann Menne.

The advent of the Iron Age was an important stepping stone in our technological history. It was marked, quite unsurprisingly, by the introduction of iron as a material for tools and weapons. Iron-carbon alloys (what we refer to as ‘iron’) generally have similar properties to properly processed bronze (the metal it replaced), but iron has the huge advantages of being more abundant and simpler to produce, while having the downsides of requiring higher temperatures and more complex ore processing techniques.

At first, the use of it was quite limited, but as the know-how of smelting iron spread, so did its use. In Germany, the (early) Iron Age spanned between 800 to 45 BC, followed by the late Iron Age up until 1 BC, when the area became a Roman province. It was probably during the fighting for this transition that the stash was deposited at the site.

Stashed for a rainy day

The site is close to the German city of Schmallenberg, on the top of mount Wilzenberg. A press release by the Westfalen-Lippe Landscape Association, which made the discovery, explains that around 100 Celtic Iron Age artifacts were unearthed here.

This isn’t the first time the Wilzenberg site attracts academic interest. Work has been ongoing here ever since the 1950s. Prior digs have revealed a series of features suggesting that the site served as a hill fort back in the day, most notably ramparts. But there were some artifacts recovered over this time, as well.

Hillforts were relatively small fortifications made of local materials — from stone or wood to clay or soil — that were meant to discourage foreign incursions, or slow them down enough for a response to be mustered; hence, the ramparts. And, according to the findings, the Wilzenberg site also served as a weapon stash, most likely for locals or the soldiers manning the fort.

What prompted the discovery was the association’s use of metal detector devices to search for iron artifacts hidden beneath the structure’s former floor. Around 100 spears, swords, lance tips, belt hooks, and iron harness elements were discovered. Although dating them directly with sufficient accuracy proved impossible, the team explains that context cues would place the artifacts somewhere between the years 300 and 1 BC.

What was really peculiar about the finding is the condition the weapons here were uncovered in. Most of the swords here were severely damaged or deformed, being bent into halves or thirds, for example. Both the spears and lance tips were blunted. The team explains that the sheer scale of the damage seen here suggests this was an intentional, sustained effort. It was most likely carried out following a battle, as the victorious army wanted to prevent these weapons from being used again.

It’s also important to note that the weapons and artifacts were found piled up, not spread around, which indicates that they were carried to and deposited on the site. This suggests that the battle was fought elsewhere, and the weapons were then recovered, transported to Wilzenberg, damaged, and deposited here.

It’s very likely that the battle occurred around the city of Wilzenberg, and that the winners took these items as their trophy.

The original press release (in German) is available here.

AI reveals new details about Dead Sea Scrolls scribes

Part of Dead Sea Scroll number 28a (1Q28a) from Qumran Cave 1, currently housed at the Jordan Museum, Amman. Credit: Osama Shukir.

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament, as well as previously unknown ancient Jewish texts. These invaluable documents, some of which date as early as the 4th century BCE, provide a unique vantage point of the Bible’s ancient scribal culture ‘in action’. But who was behind these monumental religious artifacts?

With the exception of a handful of named scribes in a few documentary texts, the vast majority of scribes are anonymous. This is particularly true for the more than a thousand scrolls retrieved at the caves near Qumran in the Judaean Desert, near the Dead Sea, which represent the largest trove of Dead Sea Scrolls.

Now, researchers at the University of Groningen used sophisticated neural networks and their expertise in the humanities to reveal new insights about these anonymous scribes. According to their new study published today in the journal PLOS ONE, although the handwriting may seem identical to the untrained eye, at least one of the Dead Sea Scrolls was written by multiple scribes who mirrored each other’s writing styles. Previously, some scholars suggested that some manuscripts should be attributed to a single scribe based on similar handwriting.

The team led by Mladen Popović, professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, focused on the famous Great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran Cave 1. This is a lengthy text, which contains the letter aleph, or “a”, at least five thousand times.

“The human eye is amazing and presumably takes these levels into account too. This allows experts to “see” the hands of different authors, but that decision is often not reached by a transparent process,” Popović says. “Furthermore, it is virtually impossible for these experts to process the large amounts of data the scrolls provide.”

This is why Popović and colleagues turned to computer algorithms that are well suited to analyzing large datasets, including comparing subtle differences in the characters, such as their curvature (textural analysis).

Two 12×12 Kohonen maps (blue colourmaps) of full character aleph and bet from the Dead Sea Scroll collection. Each of the characters in the Kohonen maps is formed from multiple instances of similar characters (shown with a zoomed box with red lines). These maps are useful for chronological style development analysis. Credit: Maruf A. Dhali, University of Groningen.

The researchers, which included experts in artificial intelligence, developed an artificial neural network that can be trained using deep learning. This neural network was able to separate the 54 columns of text in the Great Isaiah Scroll into two distinct groups that were not distributed randomly through the text but were clustered.

Upon a closer look, which involved using various control methods to rule out noise in the data, the researchers concluded that the text was written by a second scribe who showed more variation in his writing than the first, “although their writing is very similar,” the researchers wrote.

An illustration of how heatmaps of normalized average character shapes are generated for individual letters (in this example: aleph). Credit: Maruf A. Dhali, University of Groningen.

This analysis is a perfect example of a modern interpretation of historical writing systems and manuscripts, a field of research known as paleography. In the future, the same method could be used to analyze other Qumran texts, revealing microlevel details about individual scribes and how they worked on their precious manuscripts.

The researchers will never be able to produce the identities of these scribes, but it’s amazing that seventy years after they were first discovered, the Dead Sea Scrolls are still revealing their secrets.

“This is very exciting because this opens a new window on the ancient world that can reveal much more intricate connections between the scribes that produced the scrolls. In this study, we found evidence for a very similar writing style shared by the two Great Isaiah Scroll scribes, which suggests a common training or origin. Our next step is to investigate other scrolls, where we may find different origins or training for the scribes,” Popović said.

Prehistoric tool found in puffin island rabbit hole

With no visitors allowed, the wardens of the small island of Skokholm have been wandering the island freely. In their walks, they uncovered a prehistoric stone age tool that dates back 9,000 years — in a rabbit hole, of all places. The tool would have been used for preparing seal hides or cracking shellfish.

But the discoveries didn’t even end there: the very next day, a 3,750-year-old burial urn was found, kicked out of the same rabbit hole.

The prehistoric tool is thought to date from 9,000 years ago. Image credits: wardens Richard Brown and Giselle Eagle.

Busy bunnies

The picturesque island of Skokholm, off the coast of Wales, UK, is best known for its bird colonies. Battered by storms, the high cliffs and the isolated nature of the island make it a haven for seabirds. There are no predators on Skokholm, and during late spring, the island hosts thousands of seabirds (including Atlantic puffins) that come to lay their eggs. The island has been functioning as a bird observatory for almost a hundred years.

At just one mile long and about half a mile at its widest point, Skokholm bears a Norse name meaning “wooded island”. It doesn’t have any trees now, but presumably, when the Vikings settled there in the 10th or 11th century, it did.

But the island’s history goes down way further, as it was likely inhabited for several thousand years.

The nearby Skomer Island, similar but somewhat larger, is known for its well-preserved prehistoric archaeology sites. But with visitors temporarily banned from the islands due to the pandemic, wardens have found evidence that Skokholm also has a rich history.

The view from Skokholm Island. Image credits: Bob Jones.

Richard Brown and Giselle Eagle, seabird experts who serve as wardens of the otherwise uninhabited island, took advantage of the tourist-less days granted by the pandemic and explored the island in greater detail. At one point, they came across an unusual tool laid beside a rabbit burrow.

The rabbit burrow itself was pretty ancient, likely being inhabited by different groups for thousands of years. At some point, one of the rabbit residents got annoyed by the tool or simply kicked it out unwittingly, where Brown and Eagle found it.

Image credits: Richard Brown and Giselle Eagle / WTSWW.

The two took retrieved the tool, took photos of it, and sent them to archaeological experts. Andrew David, an expert in prehistoric tools, quickly identified it as a 6,000- to 9,000-year-old Mesolithic tool.

‘The photos were clearly of a late Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) ‘beveled pebble’, a tool thought to have been used in tasks like the preparation of seal hides for making skin-clad watercraft, or for processing foods such as shellfish, among hunter-gatherer communities some 6000-9000 years ago.’

‘Although these types of tools are well known on coastal sites on mainland Pembrokeshire and Cornwall, as well as into Scotland and northern France, this is the first example from Skokholm and the first firm evidence for Late Mesolithic occupation on the island’.

Rabbits, puffins, and humans

The decorated fragment of a 3,750-year-old Early Bronze Age vase urn is the first Bronze Age pottery from the area. Image credits: Richard Brown and Giselle Eagle.

But the discoveries didn’t stop there. The very next day, the two wardens picked up a second pebble tool from the same burrow, and noticed large pieces of pottery being kicked out. In their burrow redecoration, the bunnies had revealed signs of ancient human occupation.

This time it was Jody Deacon, Curator of Prehistoric Archaeology at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales who recognized their significance. A fragment likely belonged to an Early Bronze Age Vase Urn, usually associated with cremation burials. Dating to around 3750 years ago, this type of burial urn was quite common at the time in west Wales, Deacon explains.

Aerial view of Skokholm Island. Image credits: Crown Cherish Project 2018.

Archaeologists Toby Driver, who carried out archaeological surveys on the nearby islands of Skomer, Grassholm, and Ramsey, comments:

‘We know from past aerial surveys and airborne laser scanning by the Royal Commission that Skokholm has the remains of some prehistoric fields and settlements, though none has ever been excavated.’

‘Now Skokholm is producing some amazing prehistoric finds. It seems we may have an Early Bronze burial mound built over a Middle Stone Age hunter gatherer site, disturbed by rabbits. It’s a sheltered spot, where the island’s cottage now stands, and has clearly been settled for millennia.’

‘Thanks to the sharp eyes of the wardens we have the first confirmed Mesolithic tools and first Bronze Age pottery from Skokholm. To date, we have nothing similar from the larger islands of Skomer or Ramsey.’

Like many islands, Skokholm served as a rabbit farm for over 200 years, starting in 1324. It was an ideal place to grow rabbits, as there were no predators to worry about, and medieval Norman farmers took full advantage of this. At some point after the island lost all its trees, it was also used as a grazing spot for nearby shepherds.

Nowadays, tourists zoom along the islands in organized trips, to see the countless puffins and other sea birds that flock to the islands. The birds seem to be rejoicing the pandemic year, with some estimates noting that the puffin population has grown to the highest level since the 1940s.

As pandemic restrictions will be lifted, both archaeologists and tourists will be looking at Skokholm more closely — the former to look for signs of ancient occupation, the latter to enjoy the views and bird colonies. The more adventurous can even spend several nights on Skokholm, essentially living off the grid for a few days.

A puffin on the island of Skomer. Image credits: gklyne.

Radars reveal Viking burial mounds and hundreds of mysteries in Norway

The ground was frozen and the field was covered with a fine layer of snow – ideal conditions for this type of archaeological research. Credit: Arne Anderson Stamnes, NTNU University Museum.

It’s not too often that archaeological research involves driving a four-wheeler across a frozen field, but in November 2019, that’s exactly what Arne Anderson Stamnes found himself doing. Stamnes is an archaeologist at NTNU University Museum, and he was using a ground-penetrating radar to survey the area.

Nowadays, archaeologists prefer to not dig randomly and carry out surveys such as this one to “see” the subsurface and learn where the interesting objectives are — and in the field Stamnes was looking, there was plenty of interesting stuff.

“Our findings included traces of 15 burial mounds, and one of them appears to contain a boat grave. Both the size and design of the burial mounds are typical of the period 650 to 950 CE—that is, what we call the Merovingian Period and Viking Age,” says Stamnes.

“A lot of the mounds are big. The largest burial mound has an inner dimension of 32 meters and must have been a towering presence in the landscape,” he adds.

Profiles (top) and a map (bottom) of the burial mounds. Note the circular features betraying the structure. Credit: NTNU University Museum

It was an excellent set of findings, partially aided by the environmental conditions. Ground-penetrating radar sends electromagnetic waves into the subsurface, from which they are reflected back to a receiver. Since archaeological objects have different electromagnetic properties than the surrounding soil, these waves are reflected differently, betraying the position of the objective. It’s a bit like an X-Ray of the underground. The four-wheeler Stamnes was driving towed such a radar that swept the area. The presence of snow also made the conditions excellent for this type of survey.

“The results are astonishingly good and they whet your appetite for more,” says Nordland county archaeologist Martinus A. Hauglid.

The burial mound that Stamnes mentions is one of the largest in the region, and must have belonged to an important chief. But archaeologists were even more intrigued by something else: an ever-so-small mysterious structure. Or rather, many of them.

Ditches, ditches everywhere

The survey revealed no fewer than 1257 pits of various sizes. Which begs the question: what exactly are they?

It’s hard to say for sure, also because they’re probably not one thing, but rather multiple things — from cooking pits to post holes to garbage pits. But what they do confirm is that this was a very active area.

“I’ve asked a few of my colleagues, but so far haven’t found anything similar to this find in other excavations. So it’s difficult to conclude what it might be,” Stamnes says.

“The shape and the fact that most of the ditches have a clear orientation with the short end towards the sea—probably also the dominant wind direction—make it likely that this was a type of house foundation,” he said.

This also seems to fit with the theory that the site was an old Viking power center. We already know that a powerful family lived in the area (based on the burial mounds), and there was a lot of activity (as evidenced by the pits), but more evidence is needed before any clear conclusions can be drawn.

“What we can say is that these pits are another sign that this area has been packed with human activity,” says Stamnes.

The site also showcased another interesting aspect: Eight of the burial mounds are circular in shape, while seven are oblong. Oblong burial mounds are associated with female burial, so there seems to be a pretty good gender balance in the area.

“Five of the round grave monuments have a diameter greater than 17.5 meters, where the largest measures about 32 meters. The long mounds are between 17.7 and 29 meters long,” Stamnes says.

“Building such large tombs is resource-intensive, so it’s plausible that the people buried here had great power and influence, both locally and regionally,” he says.

Hauglid is also thrilled, as is Ingrid Nøren, the manager for the New City—New Airport project in Bodø municipality.

“Bodøgård was the seat of the sheriff—and later the county governor—in the Nordland region from the beginning of the 17th century, while Bodin church nearby is a stone church from the Middle Ages. The burial ground that has now been discovered testifies that a political-religious power center has existed here since the Late Iron Age,” says Hauglid.

“A new city quarter has given us the chance to explore an area we’ve long been curious about. We can even see from aerial photos that there’s something under the ground. The findings from the investigation have yielded a long-awaited and exciting mystery,” concludes Nøren.

The findings are discussed in an online report (in Norwegian).

Ancient 2,500-year-old mural depicts exchange of salt as a commodity

At the ancient Maya site of Calakmul in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, archaeologists have found a striking 2,500-year-old mural depicting an exchange of salt between a vendor and a buyer. It is the earliest record of salt as a commodity.

The mural was found at Calakmul, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Credit: Rogelio Valencia, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul.

Salt has always been an important resource across the ancient world. As far back as 6050 BC, salt has occupied a central role for countless civilizations from China to Egypt.  It served as currency at various times and places, and it has been the cause of bitter warfare.

In addition to its very practical role, salt has also played a vital part in religious rituals in many cultures, symbolizing purity. It is one of the most effective and most widely used of all food preservatives, which is why salt — also referred to as “white gold” — has always had crucial importance economically.

Although we now see salt as a cheap food ingredient, its rich history still touches our daily lives in more ways than we realize. The word “salary”, for instance, is derived from the word “sal”, the Latin word for salt. That’s because in ancient times, salt was so valuable that soldiers in the Roman army were sometimes paid with salt instead of hard currency. This monthly allowance was called “salarium”.

It’s no wonder to learn that salt occupied a central economic role among the ancient Maya as well. Archaeologists headed by Heather McKillop from Louisiana State University recently documented an ancient mural from Calakmul in which a salt vendor is shown handing out a salt cake wrapped in leaves to another person. The latter is holding a large spoon over a basket.

The salt was transported by canoe up the river. Credit: Heather McKillop, LSU.

Since 2004, Mckillop has uncovered a wealth of archaeological evidence related to ancient Maya salt trade networks. These include the remnants of ‘salt kitchens’ — buildings made of pole and thatch that had been submerged and preserved in the saltwater lagoons of the mangrove forests in Belize. 

The Maya would use these spots to extract salt by boiling brine in pots over fires. So far, the researchers have mapped 70 sites that comprise an extensive network of rooms and buildings known as the Paynes Creek Salt Works.

This must have been an industrial-scale operation, as the archaeologists have identified 4,042 submerged architectural wooden posts, a canoe, an oar, a high-quality jadeite tool, stone tools used to salt fish and meat, and hundreds of pieces of pottery.

Fragment of pottery that was used thousands of years ago to boil brine and extract salt. Credit: Heather McKillop, LSU.

Alongside this recently described mural, this evidence suggests that salt cakes were transported in canoes along the coast and up rivers in southern Belize, the researchers wrote in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

“I think the ancient Maya who worked here were producer-vendors and they would take the salt by canoe up the river. They were making large quantities of salt, much more than they needed for their immediate families. This was their living,” said McKillop in a statement.

Two of McKillop’s students even replicated some of the ancient Maya pottery using a 3d printer based on scans taken in Belize of some of the hundreds of pieces of pottery investigated at the site. This confirmed that the ceramic jars in which the Maya boiled the brine were standardized in volume.

“Produced as homogeneous units, salt may have been used as money in exchanges,” McKillop said.

Scientists continue unlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest computer

Scientists may have finally cracked the mystery behind the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2.000-year-old device used by the ancient Greeks to calculate astronomical positions. The “world’s oldest computer” has puzzled scientists for over a century, but a digital replica with a working gear system may shed new light on it.

Computer model of how the Antikythera mechanism may have worked. Image credits: UCL

The Antikythera Mechanism was found in a shipwreck off the coast of Crete in 1901 — one of the very first wrecks to be archaeologically investigated. Way ahead of its time, this complex mechanism of revolving bronze gears and a display is simply mind-boggling: it’s an analog computer dating from Ancient Greece.

The mechanism was used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for the astrological calendar as well as the ancient Olympic Games but many questions still loom about it. Though obscured by corrosion after it was lost for thousands of years at the bottom of the sea, the Antikythera Mechanism still has visible gears with triangular teeth and a ring divided into degrees. It featured a handle on the side for winding the mechanism forward and backward – very similar to how a clock works but showing the position of planets instead of hours, minutes and seconds. Only a third of the device survived the shipwreck, leaving many open questions on how it worked and what it looked like.

Researchers believe they’ve solved the back of the mechanism in earlier studies, but the complex gearing system at the front remained a mystery. Now, scientists at University College London (UCL) believe they have finally cracked the puzzle.

“The Sun, Moon, and planets are displayed in an impressive tour de force of ancient Greek brilliance,” the paper’s lead author, Professor Tony Freeth, told the BBC. “Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself.”

A part of the Antikythera mechanism.

Freeth and his team from UCL used 3D computer modeling to recreate the entire front panel, hoping to build a full-scale replica of the Antikythera using modern materials in the future. The digital result shows a center dome representing Earth – surrounded by the moon, the sun, Zodiac constellations, and rings for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

To create the model, the researchers relied on previous studies on the device, including that of Michael Wright, the former curator of the Science Museum of London who had constructed a working replica. They used inscriptions found on the mechanism and a mathematical model on how the planets moved that was first created by the philosopher Parmenides.

The model recreated by the researchers includes the gears and rotating dials, so to show how the planets, the sun, and the moon move across the Zodiac — the ancient map of the stars — on the front face and the phases of the moon and eclipses on the back. It replicates the ancient Greek assumption that all heaves revolved around the Earth.

Now that it has been made, the team at UCL wants to make physical versions of the front panel, starting by using modern techniques to check that the device works and then using the same techniques that would have been used by the ancient Greeks. This would help to get a better understanding of how the Greeks were able to build such a device, something that can’t be answered yet.

“If they had the tech to make the Antikythera mechanism, why did they not extend this tech to devising other machines, such as clocks?,” Adam Wojcik, a co-author of the paper, told The Guardian. “There’s also a lot of debate about who it was for and who built it. A lot of people say it was Archimedes. He lived around the same time it was constructed.”

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Ancient woman may have ruled Bronze Age society in modern-day Spain

Silver diadem that adorned the skull of a woman in a 4,000-year-old grave. Credit: Autonomous University of Barcelona.

In the time of the Bronze Age — a period that stretches from 2200 BCE to 800 BCE when humans learned how to cast bronze — society was already rife with inequality. Hierarchies not only applied to social classes, but also to genders, with anthropologists generally agreeing that Bronze Age societies were patriarchal. But at least in the Iberian Peninsula, women — not men –may have reigned.

Inside a tomb uncovered in 2014, at a site known as La Almoloya in Spain, researchers have found the remains of a richly adorned woman. There are no written accounts or records that can identify her, but the evidence suggests she was a high-ranking member of her society and may have even been its ruler.

The tomb was found below a palace-like structure perched on a rocky hilltop. The structure was built by the El Argar culture, which represents the first true state to appear in the Iberian Peninsula.

La Almoloya site is found atop a rocky hill. Credit: Autonomous University of Barcelona.

From their foothold on the Murcia coast, established about 2200 BCE, the Argarians expanded rapidly along the west coast as far as the present-day border between Granada and Málaga provinces, northeast as far as Alicante and inland to cover the copper and silver deposits in the eastern end of the Sierra Morena. By 1700 BCE, the Argat state covered a land area of over 33,000 square kilometers.

Argarians employed technologies, pottery production, metalworking. They were also known for their intramural burial practices, that is, burials that took place within a building, normally the dwelling. Another burial custom was the placement of grave offerings, including a limited set of metal weapons, tools, and ornaments, as well as highly standardized and finely burnished clay vessels.

Both the building and burial objects can indicate the status of the people who were buried. And based on the artifacts found at Grave 38 — a princely tomb in the La Almoloya site containing the remains of two individuals, a male and female — this burial looks like it was meant for royalty.

Grave 38 was dug right beneath a relatively large room that lacked any artifacts you’d typically expect to find in a household, such as tools, pottery, or various cooking utensils. Instead, the room only contained some stone benches alongside its walls, which suggests it may have served as a place of governance.

The man was aged between 35 and 40 while the woman was between 25 and 30. Researchers don’t know how the pair died, but there were no signs of physical trauma so perhaps they may not have died violently. Genetic analysis showed that the two weren’t related but they formed a couple judging from the DNA of their daughter who died in infancy and was buried nearby.

The man and woman buried together at La Almoloya. Credit: Autonomous University of Barcelona.

The man wore a copper bracelet and golden earlobe plugs — that’s pretty high status for the time. However, he looked like a serf in comparison with the woman, dubbed the “Princess of La Almoloya,” who wore several silver bracelets and rings, a beaded necklace, and a silver diadem adorning her skull.

The lavish jewelry suggests that it was, in fact, the woman who was of much higher status than the man. Perhaps she was the ruler of her society, which would challenge the idea that state power in the Bronze Age was exclusively in the hands of males.

Since there are no written records left from these times, researchers can only speculate. Maybe she was the wife of the king, or maybe he was the husband of the queen.

But it may very well be the latter, judging from other indirect evidence. In the journal Antiquity, archaeologists at the Autonomous University of Barcelona wrote that the graves of some Argar women were reopened generations later, a practice that likely conferred a great honor.

Earlier research also showed that elite Argarian women ate more meat than other women, suggesting that they may have had real political power. Other burials of high-status El Argar women also indicate great wealth, but men were never buried with such riches.

What’s more, the scientists compared the diadem found at La Almoloya with four others found at different tombs from the El Argar society, and found they were all very similar and very valuable.

So, there seems to be a pattern here suggesting that elite women in Argar culture were valued higher than men, or at least they were wealthier and, perhaps, by extension more powerful.

“In the Argaric society, women of the dominant classes were buried with diadems, while the men were buried with a sword and dagger. The funerary goods buried with these men were of lesser quantity and quality,” the researchers wrote in their study. “As swords represent the most effective instrument for reinforcing political decisions, El Argar dominant men might have played an executive role, even though the ideological legitimation as well as, perhaps, the government, had lain in some women’s hands.”