Tag Archives: archaeology

Archaeologists discover stunning, ancient gold trove in Cyprus

In 2018, archaeologists at the New Swedish Cyprus Expedition struck gold — quite literally. They discovered two Bronze Age tombs, both underground chambers, in the ancient city of Hala Sultan Tekke. Hala Sultan Teke is a mosque and tekke complex in the capital of Cyprus, Larnaca, built on one of the largest Bronze Age archaeological sites. Based on these new findings, the site may be even more important than previously thought.

Some jewelry pieces found in the tombs resemble designs worn by Queen Nefertiti. Image credits: Peter Fischer, Teresa Bürge.

The excavations were made by researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden as part of the “New Swedish Expedition” which started in 2010. The team discovered burial chambers that must have belonged to a family (or families) of great wealth. Overall, the research team found 150 human remains and over 500 funeral goods, including many pieces containing gold and jewelry. The remains were placed one over the other, suggesting that the burial chamber would have been used for multiple generations. Most likely, it was the mausoleum of the city’s rulers.

“The finds indicate that these are family tombs for the ruling elite in the city,” excavation leader Peter Fischer, professor emeritus of historical studies at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, said in a statement.

“For example, we found the skeleton of a 5-year-old with a gold necklace, gold earrings and a gold tiara. This was probably a child of a powerful and wealthy family.”

A gold necklace found at the site. Image credits: Peter Fischer, Teresa Bürge.

It’s pretty obvious that for the family, the mausoleum had a significant importance. It wasn’t just a simple burial chamber, it also served a ceremonial role. Testament to this is a particular artifact uncovered inside.

“We also found a ceramic bull,” Fischer said. “The body of this hollow bull has two openings: one on the back to fill it with a liquid, likely wine, and one at the nose to drink from. Apparently, they had feasts in the chamber to honor their dead.”

As if the jewelry pieces weren’t remarkable enough, upon closer analysis, archaeologists found that they belong to different cultures. For instance, there is a blue lapis lazuli gemstone from Afghanistan, a red carnelian gemstone from India, and amber from around the Baltic Sea — valuables from the trade partners of the kingdom at the time. Another notable find is a cylinder-shaped seal made of a mineral called hematite and inscribed in cuneiform, the written language of ancient Mesopotamia. The cuneiform text mentions three names: two historical kings (father and son) from the 18th century BC, as well as Amurru, a god worshipped in the Akkadian and Sumerian kingdoms. “We are currently trying to determine why the seal ended up in Cyprus more than 1000 kilometres from where it was made,” the researchers said in a statement.

For historians, the ceramics discovered at the same are almost as important as the jewels themselves, because they offer valuable cultural information.

“The way that the ceramics changed in appearance and material over time allows us to date them and study the connections these people had with the surrounding world. What fascinates me most is the wide-ranging network of contacts they had 3,400 years ago,” Fischer explains.

A large ceramic pot featuring Grecian war chariots. Image credits: Peter Fischer, Teresa Bürge.

All of the objects from the excavation that have been processed and studied are stored in museums in Nicosia and Larnaca in Cyprus.

Now, the next step for researchers is to carry out genetic analysis on the remains discovered there and piece together as much as possible about this dynasty.

“This will reveal how the different individuals are related with each other and if there are immigrants from other cultures, which isn’t unlikely considering the vast trade networks,” says Peter Fischer.

Roman mosaic found beneath farmer’s field in the UK portrays famous Greek legend

A group of archeologists have found a Roman villa containing a mosaic that portrays scenes from Homer’s Iliad, the fight between Achilles and the Trojan hero, Hector. The mosaic dates back to the third or fourth century AD and it was first found by a farmer in Rutland, UK, who got in touch with researchers from the University of Leicester.  

Image credit: Historic England

Historic England, the public body that looks after England’s historic artifacts, described the mosaic as “one of the most remarkable and significant ever found in Britain.” It’s so striking that it has been immediately designated as a “Scheduled Monument” — the highest designation a monument can receive in the UK.

It’s not just beautiful, but also important from a historical perspective.

“It gives us fresh perspectives on the attitudes of people at the time, their links to classical literature, and it also tells us an enormous amount about the individual who commissioned this piece,” John Thomas, project manager on the excavations, said in a press statement. This is someone with a knowledge of the classics, who had money.”

A remarkable finding

The mosaic measures 11 meters by almost seven meters and forms the floor of what’s believed to be a dining or entertaining room. Mosaics were common in public and private buildings in the Roman empire, depicting famous figures. However, only a few handfuls have been found in Europe depicting the battle between Achilles and Hector, and mosaics this elaborate and intricate could only be commissioned by someone rich and knowledgeable.  

The room was part of a Roman villa building from the late Roman period, according to the archaeologists’ findings. The villa is also next to other buildings, such as aisled barns and possibly a bathhouse – all likely occupied by a wealthy individual. The site was re-used and re-purposed later on, based on breaks and fire damage in the mosaic.

“To have uncovered such a rare mosaic of this size, as well as a surrounding villa, is remarkable. Discoveries like this are so important in helping us piece together our shared history. By protecting this site we are able to continue learning from it, and look forward to future excavations,” Duncan Wilson, head of Historic England, said in a statement. 

The archaeologists also found human remains within the debris covering the mosaic. The individuals were probably buried after the building was no longer In use, and while their exact age is unknown, the researchers estimate the structure was repurposed in the late Roman or early Medieval period – a period in history not well understood. 

The villa was found within an arable field, where the remains had been disturbed by plowing and other activities — as it so often happens. Historic England will work with the landowner, Jim Irvine, for him to convert the fields to sustainable grassland and pasture use. These schemes are essential to protect historic and natural environments, they argue, while also offering some compensation for the landowners. 

The discovery of the villa and the mosaic will be features as part of the Digging for Britain TV show on BBC in early 2022. In the meantime, evidence from the site will be analyzed by a team from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) and by specialists from Historic England, including the mosaic expert David Neal. 

“A ramble through the fields with the family turned into an incredible discovery. Finding some unusual pottery amongst the wheat piqued my interest and prompted some further investigative work,” Jim Irvine, who initially discovered the remains, said in a statement. “Later, looking at satellite imagery, I sported a very clear crop mark.”

Archaeologists uncover hidden citadel in ancient Maya city

Using airborne data, a group of archaeologists discovered a previously unknown structural complex near the Maya city of Tikal, in what is now Guatemala. While the city is notable in itself, what makes the discovery even more interesting is that the complex’s structures are similar to buildings in Teotihuacan, a Mesoamerican city. 

View of the Teotihuacan Complex at Tikal. Image credit: Researchers

The ruins of Tikal have been the subject of extensive study since the 1950s, with researchers documenting details of every structure and cataloguing all excavated items. This has made Tikal one of the best understood archeological sites in the world. Nevertheless, there’s always something new to discover — as we can see in this study. 

Stephen Houston from Brown University and Thomas Garrison from the University of Texas have discovered that what was thought to be a natural hilly area near Tikal’s center was actually a neighborhood of ruined buildings intentionally designed to look like Teotihuacan, the most powerful and largest city there was in ancient Americas.

“What we had taken to be natural hills actually were shown to be modified and conformed to the shape of the citadel,” Houston said in a statement. “Regardless of who built this smaller-scale replica and why, it shows without a doubt that there was a different level of interaction between Tikal and Teotihuacan than previously believed.”

Understanding Tikal

The area where the complex was found hadn’t been explored until now as researchers believed that the hills were just part of the natural landscape. Houston and Garrison used LIDAR, a light detection and ranging technology, to build 3D models of the surface and identify structural features. This was followed then by an on-site exploration that confirmed the findings.

In the area, which is roughly 62 acres, the researchers confirmed with excavations that the buildings were built with mud plaster than limestone, a material usually used by the Maya society. In fact, the structures appeared to be scaled-down versions of the buildings from Teotihuacan’s citadel, located more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away. 

The researchers also found human remains near the replicated buildings. The bodies were surrounded by several funerary items such as animal bones and projectile points. There was also plenty of coal, suggesting the assemblage was deliberately set on fire – a death ritual that is similar to the one used with warriors at the citadel of Teotihuacan. 

It’s not the first-time evidence is found of the influence of Teotihuacan in Tikal, as contacts between the two societies were common. Maya elites lived and traded in Teotihuacan. But after centuries of peace, Teotihuacan conquered Tikal in 378 CE.  The new findings suggest a more intense contact between the two, the researchers argue.

“The architectural complex we found very much appears to have been built for people from Teotihuacan or those under their control,” Houston said. “Perhaps it was something like an embassy complex, but when we combine previous research with our latest findings, it suggests something more heavy-handed, like occupation or surveillance.”

The study was published in the journal Antiquity. 

People in the Philippines are the most Denisovan in the world

Genetic analysis has found clear traces that humans and Denisovans interbred in the past. The Philippine ethnic group known as the Ayta Magbukon has the highest level of Denisovan ancestry in the world.

The Negritos group in the Philippines comprises some 25 different ethnic groups, scattered throughout the Andaman archipelago in South-East Asia. They were once considered to be a single population, but the more researchers looked into it, the more they found that Negritos are actually very diverse.

In the new study, Maximilian Larena of Uppsala University and colleagues set out to establish the demographic history of the Philippines. Their project involved indigenous cultural communities, local universities, as well as official and non-governmental organizations from the area. With everyone working together, they were able to analyze 2.3 million genotypes from 118 ethnic groups in the Philippines — including the diverse Negrito populations.

The results were particularly intriguing for a population called the Ayta Magbukon, which still occupy vast swaths of their ancestral land and continue to coexist with the lowland population surrounding them. The Ayta Magbukon seem to possess the highest level of Denisovan ancestry in the world.

“We made this observation despite the fact that Philippine Negritos were recently admixed with East Asian-related groups—who carry little Denisovan ancestry, and which consequently diluted their levels of Denisovan ancestry,” said Larena “If we account for and masked away the East Asian-related ancestry in Philippine Negritos, their Denisovan ancestry can be up to 46 percent greater than that of Australians and Papuans.”

This finding, along with the recent discovery of a small-bodied hominin called Homo luzonensis, suggests that multiple hominin species inhabited the Philippines prior to the arrival of modern humans — and these groups likely interbred multiple times.

The Denisovans are a mysterious group of hominins identified in 2010 based on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) extracted from a juvenile female finger bone from the Siberian Denisova Cave. Although researchers haven’t found numerous traces of DNA, they’ve discovered traces of their DNA in modern populations. Apparently, this group in the Philippines has the highest percentage of Denisovan DNA in the world — at least that we’ve found so far.

“This admixture led to variable levels of Denisovan ancestry in the genomes of Philippine Negritos and Papuans,” co-author Mattias Jakobsson said. “In Island Southeast Asia, Philippine Negritos later admixed with East Asian migrants who possess little Denisovan ancestry, which subsequently diluted their archaic ancestry. Some groups, though, such as the Ayta Magbukon, minimally admixed with the more recent incoming migrants. For this reason, the Ayta Magbukon retained most of their inherited archaic tracts and were left with the highest level of Denisovan ancestry in the world.”

Researchers hope to sequence more genomes and better understand “how the inherited archaic tracts influenced our biology and how it contributed to our adaptation as a species,” Larena concludes.

Journal Reference: “Philippine Ayta possess the highest level of Denisovan ancestry in the world” 

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.

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).

The earliest coastal wall shows humans were battling sea level rise in the Neolithic era

Off the shores of northern Israel, archaeologists have discovered at least sixteen Neolithic settlements from 9,000 – 6,500 years ago. What’s special is that at the site, researchers also found evidence of what is possibly one of the first attempts to protect a human settlement against sea level rise. The wall is over 100 meters long — an indication that this ancient village truly fought against the sea.

Exposed stone-built features in shallow water at the archaeological site of Tel Hreiz. Image credits: Ehud Galili.

Man against the sea, it’s a tale as old as time. Usually when we envision this story, we see man trying to explore and conquer the sea but sometimes, the sea strikes back. Sea level rise is currently a major problem for the world’s coastal environment due to man-made climate change, but other (natural) sea level rise events have happened in the past.

The Tel Hreiz settlement in Israel is mostly underwater nowadays. But back in its heyday, it would have been a thriving and bustling area. Archaeologists excavating the underwater site have found plenty of architecture and evidence from the day, as well as human remains. But perhaps the most interesting structure on the site was a long, boulder-built wall located seaward of the settlement.

The wall was first exposed by winter storms in 2012. Archaeologists measured, photographed, and documented it before the sea covered it with sand once again. In 2015, however, another storm partially uncovered the structure again, giving researchers another chance to investigate it.

The boulder wall stretches over 100 meters (or yards) and is currently three meters below sea level and 90 meters offshore. Back during Tel Hreiz’s occupation, that would have been the “swash zone”, an area alternately covered and exposed by incoming waves.

A few examples of artefacts discovered at the site. Image credits: Galili et al / PLOS.

The seawall comprises large boulders of limestone and aeolianite, neither of which are naturally found in the area — so they would have been brought there for a purpose and used to build a wall. Why anyone would have built a wall facing the sea thousands of years ago leaves little to the imagination.

The inhabitants of Tel Hreiz would have gone through a lot of trouble to defend their village. They carried the boulders for several kilometers (the closest sites are 3.8 and 1.6 km away, respectively), planned the construction and put it all together. They bravely fought against the sea… and they lost.

At the time, the Mediterranean coast experienced sea level rises of 12-20 cm approximately every 30 years, due to post-glacial sea rise. The sea rise would have increased the frequency of destructive storms, and despite the admirable work put into the seawall, the wall proved unable to hold back the Mediterranean Sea. Still, researchers note that the structure is a testament to its builders’ creativity and capacity, and that it’s unique for its history.

“There are no known or similar built structures at any of the other submerged villages in the region, making the Tel Hreiz site a unique example of this visible evidence for human response to sea-level rise in the Neolithic,” the authors write.

The finding also carries a cautionary tale for our modern society. In 2019, global mean sea level was 3.4 inches (87.6 millimeters) above 1880 levels — it’s not as much as what the people of Tel Hreiz had to deal with, but it’s comparable. Much of this rise (about a third) happened in the past three decades, when climate change truly started to kick in.

Nearly 40% of the world’s population lives on the coast, and as long as temperatures keep rising, sea levels will continue to rise as well, putting billions of people at risk.

The study “A submerged 7000-year-old village and seawall demonstrate earliest known coastal defence against sea-level rise” was published in PLOS ONE.

Puppy paws on the walls: ancient house featured unusual decorations

Archaeologists excavating the ancient city of Sardis found a 1,500 year-old-house in fantastic shape. Not only is the house excellently preserved, but its tiles were decorated with puppy prints and chicken decorations.

The archaeologists discovered a dog paw print on one of the house’s terracotta floor tiles. Image credit: Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College.

It’s not as well-known as the likes of Athens or Rome, but in its heyday, the ancient city of Sardis would have rivalled them. During the Iron Age, Sardis was the capital of the ancient Lydian Empire in today’s Turkey. The city flourished for centuries, from the time of Alexander the Great and well into the Roman period, leaving behind numerous structures and artefacts that researchers have been excavating for decades.

Among these treasures, archaeologists also found a house which appeared to belong to military people — or at least, associated somehow with the military. The association is given away by five longswords found in the house — quite a lot, when you consider that only three other swords had ever been discovered at Sardis. The swords are Roman “spathae,” a type of longsword. In addition, the team also uncovered buckles and a lead seal, said Vanessa Rousseau, an adjunct professor of art history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, during the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies.

As remarkable as they may be, something else is the star of the show: a group of floor and wall paintings and designs… of sorts. The tiles preserve paw prints of puppies, and even one hoof print of a goat. It’s not clear if this was an intentional design or not, but probably not: most likely, the animals walked on the tiles as they were drying up before being placed into the oven. The walls also feature paintings on plaster, mimicking curtains or drapes. Perhaps the most unusual find is a set of tiles with bird drawings. The marks are definitely intentional, and would have also been done prior to the tiles being fired.

The bird drawing. Image credit: Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College.

The house was in use for some 200 years, before an earthquake destroyed it sometime in the seventh century.

Like many cities of this region, Sardis fell into decline in the sixth and early seventh centuries AD, and much of the city was abandoned (especially the lower part). However, the acropolis was described by the Greek historian Polybius as the “strongest place in the world”, and it remained an important stronghold throughout the Byzantine period.

A part of Sardis. Image credit: Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College.

The people of Sardis invented the world’s first coins, and throughout much of Antiquity, they were renowned among Greek kings for their wealth. They had thriving treaties with the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece.

Norway’s stave churches are much older than thought

Stave churches were once common throughout northern and north-western Europe. Now, with a few exceptions, these medieval wood constructions are only found in Norway.

Surviving stave churches mostly date from 1150-1350 — or so we thought. According to a new analysis, though, they may be a bit older than previously believed.

Normally, the age of wooden churches is measured from the analysis of individual logs. Cores are taken from logs and dated by tree rings, which are compared to already dated technology. This technique, which is called dendrochronology, is invasive, however, and not recommendable in some of the very old churches. It also has some limitations in terms of accuracy — which is why researchers are now trying out a new approach.

It’s called photodendrometry, and instead of taking cores from logs, involves photographing

“We now know the age of some stave churches almost to the year,” says Terje Thun. He is an associate professor at the NTNU University Museum in Trondheim and is one of the country’s foremost experts in dendrochronology, or tree ring dating.

Photodendrometry basically involves taking detailed and high-resolution photographs of the wall boards in various churches and then, in the lab, seeing if the tree rings are visible and can be identified. This greatly reduces the need for cores and, researchers say, might also provide more accurate results.

“In this way, researchers were able to examine all parts of the stave churches without any invasive techniques,” Thun said.

Using a method called photodendrometry, researchers can reduce the number of core samples they need to take for dating wooden buildings. They can now get enough information from photographs, which yields more data and more precise information. Pictured: Thomas Bartholin (at left) and Jan Michael Stornes. Photo: Leif Anker

Thun has spent much of his career gathering wood samples from stave churches, attempting to understand when and how these structures were raised in Norway. Norway also had a comprehensive church preservation that greatly accelerated the research. Although the program ended in 2016, it helped fill many voids in our knowledge of stave churches.

The Urnes stave church, thought to be the oldest one still in existence, was estimated to have been built using timber from 1069 and 1070, with a slightly younger part dated to 1129-1130. It’s very likely that the year in which the trees were cut down is also the year in which construction began.

This is significantly older than reserchers were expecting, Thun says.

“Research has been done on the stave churches in the past, too, but not as systematically as under the stave church program. Over the years, dating estimates were based on construction technique and style and spanned almost a hundred years.”

“Now we’re sure of the age, and several of our stave churches are older than first thought,” Thun says.

Photo from Urnes Stave Church, taken while photographing tree rings in the church choir. Photo: Jan Michael Stornes

But it’s not just the year in which the churches was constructed — this approach can also reveal much about the climate at the time when the church was built. The reason why researchers are able to correlate tree rings and tie them to a specific year is because different environmental conditions (such as precipitations) affect the width of the tree ring. Essentially, every year in an area has a unique ‘signature’ in tree rings.

Thun’s colleague, researcher Helene Løvstrand Svarva, is looking at what can be inferred about the local weather and climate at the time when the churches were built.

“Dendroclimatology is a major field of study, and here in Northern Europe we can use the trees’ response to summer temperatures to find out more about climate variations over time,” she says.

For instance, she says, many stave churches were built during a period called the Medieval Climate Anomaly, when temperatures were higher than the periods before and after it.

“Long chronologies allow us to see variations over time that can give us a picture of how temperatures have changed. It’s especially interesting to find out how today’s climate can be seen in light of the climate almost a thousand years ago,” she says.

The researchers also found a strong need for reconditioning programs, as many of the studied stave churches appeared to have structura and construction issues.

Archaeologists in Turkey have discovered a major, previously unknown kingdom

“We had no idea about this kingdom. In a flash, we had profound new information on the Iron Age Middle East,” said Prof. James Osborne of the Oriental Institute, an archaeologist who specializes in examining Iron Age cities. Osborne and colleagues have discovered what looks like a major political center in ancient Turkey from about 2700 years ago — and we knew nothing about it.

The half-submerged stone with inscriptions dating to the 8th century BC. Image credits: James Osborne.

It started in 2019, when a local farmer told the group that a nearby canal had a strange stone with some unknown writing on it. At that time, researchers were exploring a giant, ancient mound site in central Turkey called Türkmen-Karahöyük and went to investigate what the farmer had pointed out. They knew the area was riddled with archaeological finds, but they were shocked by what they found.

“We could see it still sticking out of the water, so we jumped right down into the canal – up to our waists wading around,” said archaeologist James Osborne from the University of Chicago in early 2020.

“Right away it was clear it was ancient, and we recognised the script it was written in: Luwian, the language used in the Bronze and Iron ages in the area.”

Osborne wasn’t an expert in Luwian, but he was fortunate enough to work just down the hall from two experts who translated it as being written by a king called Hartapu.

The upper mound of Türkmen-Karahöyük from the northwest. Photograph courtesy of KRASP.

The ancient stone block turned out to be a military boast. It noted that the local rulers had defeated the kingdom of Phrygia led by king Midas. Phrygia had been led by several kings named Midas, but dating suggests that it could be the legendary king Midas, who was said to be cursed by the gods to turn everything he touched into gold.

Phrygia was a local powerhouse and defeating it would have been quite the feat, so whoever wrote the plaque must have also represented a strong kingdom — but researchers had no idea about it before.

“We had no idea about this kingdom,” Osborne said. “In a flash, we had profound new information on the Iron Age Middle East.”

This fits in quite well with other recent findings. A few miles to the south, researchers had also found a block writing of King Hartapu, but no one knew who he was or what he ruled — until now.

Luwian inscriptions from a nearby dig. Image credits: Oriental Institute.

Researchers have their work cut out for them. Judging by the size of the Türkmen-Karahöyük mound, there’s plenty more left to be discovered — and who knows what they’ll find?

“Inside this mound are going to be palaces, monuments, houses,” Osborne said. “This stele was a marvellous, incredibly lucky find – but it’s just the beginning.”

The mound from above (Google Earth / via OI).

Archaeologists uncover ancient street shop in Pompeii

Pompeii, the ancient Roman city buried by a volcanic eruption in the year 79 AD, continues to impress and dazzle archaeologists. Recently, they’ve uncovered a frescoed hot food stand that would have been the Roman equivalent of a street food shop, complete with advertisements and actual remains of food.

The fast-food eatery is the first intact structure of its type to be excavated, said Pompeii Archaeological Park’s longtime chief, Massimo Osanna. It’s called a thermopolium, and it’s essentially a hot-food-and-drink stand, covered by attractive frescoes that would appeal to Roman passersby.

The thermopolium is basically a multi-sided counter, with wide holes inserted into the top where the vessels for hot food would be stored (not unlike some modern hot food or soup stands). Aside from the stand itself, remains of the food itself have also been found. Traces of pork, snails, beef, and fish have been uncovered, something which Valeria Amoretti, a site anthropologist, calls a “testimony to the great variety of animal products” that Romans used.

“Our preliminary analyses shows that the figures drawn on the front of the counter, represent, at least in part, the food and drink that were sold there,” said Amoretti for Reuters.

“We know what they were eating that day,” said Osanna, referring to the day of Pompeii’s destruction in 79 A.D. The food remains indicated “what’s popular with the common folk,” Osanna told Rai state TV, noting that street-food places weren’t frequented by the Roman elite.

A segment of the structure was first discovered in 2019, and since then, archaeologists kept digging until they dug up the entire structure.

The stand features several remarkable frescoes, including images of two upside-down mallards and a rooster, likely an advertisement for the menu. Another fresco depicted a dog on a leash, perhaps reminding walkers to keep their pets on a leash. The painting also features vulgar graffiti, which Romans seem to have been quite fond of.

Nine amphorae were also uncovered, with analysis hopefully revealing their content.

There were also a few surprises about the dig, such as the complete skeleton of a dog — a small dog, about 20-25 cm (8-10 inches) tall at shoulder level. Remains such as this are very rare in Ancient times, and the find suggests that Romans were already mindful of selective breeding for dogs. A bronze ladle, presumably used by the shop owners, was also uncovered.

Pompeii was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, near present-day Naples in Italy. It was sealed by the ash and lava, remaining almost like a time capsule offering a peek into the life of the Romans. The eruption covered the city, hiding it up until the 16th century. By the 1700s, clandestine digs started on site with people looking for valuables and in 1750, archaeological digs also started. So far, about two thirds of the entire city has been uncovered.

Scientists find a fatal case of constipation in 1,000-year-old mummy with grasshopper diet

Credit: Karl Reinhard / Scott Schrage.

A native American who lived in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of Texas between 1,000 and 1,400 years ago had one of the worst cases of constipation in the annals of medicine. Due to an infection, the man’s colon swelled to six times its normal size, which made it impossible to digest normal food properly.

Ultimately, the man died of this horrific disease, known as ‘megacolon’. Centuries later, his remains, mummified by the arid conditions, were found in a rock shelter close to the junction between the Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers in South Texas.

But this story also has a positive side to it. Upon analyzing the mummy, scientists have found that during the last two to three months of his life, the man ate a diet of grasshoppers whose legs had been removed. Since his condition must have made it almost impossible to walk and procure food for himself, it’s likely that the man was fed by somebody else, perhaps family or other members of his community. It’s one of the earliest bits of evidence of hospice care.

“They were taking off the legs,” said Karl Reinhard, professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “So they were giving him mostly the fluid-rich body — the squishable part of the grasshopper. In addition to being high in protein, it was pretty high in moisture. So it would have been easier for him to eat in the early stages of his megacolon experience.”

The Skiles mummy from Texas, named after Guy Skiles, the person who first discovered it in 1937, had been stored in various private and public museums. More recently, in 2003, Reinhard and colleagues published a study in which they reported that the mummy contained 1,2 kilograms (2.6 pounds) of feces in its huge colon, along with a large quantity of unprocessed food. This led the researchers to conclude that the unfortunate man was infected with the parasite-borne Chagas disease and suffered from severe malnourishment due to the fact that his body was unable to process food.

In their new study, Reinhard’s team revisited the Skiles mummy, this time using scanning electron microscopy, which offered new clues about the man’s diet during his twilight days.

The researchers examined phytoliths, tiny plant tissue structures that remain intact even after the rest of the plant decays and which are so robust they normally survive the rough, bumpy ride through the human intestinal tract. But in the case of this mummy, the researchers were astonished by the phytoliths found inside it.

“The phytoliths were split open, crushed. And that means there was incredible pressure that was exerted on a microscopic level in this guy’s intestinal system, which highlights even more the pathology that was exhibited here,” Reinhard said. “I think this is unique in the annals of pathology — this level of intestinal blockage and the pressure that’s associated with it.”

This most recent analysis of the Skiles mummy will appear in a forthcoming chapter of “The Handbook of Mummy Studies,” which also includes best practices for preparing and analyzing the contents of mummified intestines.

In the same handbook, Reinhard also described two other mummies who also received special care during their last days. One of the mummies belongs to a 5 to 6-year-old child who was buried between 500 and 1,000 years ago in Arizona’s Ventana Cave by the Hohokam people. The third mummy, of an even younger child, was buried roughly 750 years ago in southern Utah.

Archaeologists in Turkey uncover wicked 2,400-year-old Dionysus mask

Dionysus isn’t exactly the most powerful or well-known god of the Greek Pantheon. But as the god of wine, fertility, and ecstasy, he was bound to have his followers.

Now, archaeologists working in Turkey have uncovered an excellently-preserved terracotta mask depicting Dionysus dating from 2,400 years ago. The researchers believe the mask was used in wine-making rituals.

According to legend, a Dionysus mask would free the wearer from his inner desires, passions, and regrets.

Dionysus (called Bacchus in Roman mythology) is also the god of festivities, orchards, and theater. Image credits: Kaan Iren.

The ancient city of Daskyleion must have been a very interesting place. Located in the western part of Turkey, it was first settled by the Phrygians before 750 BC, and it is mentioned as a prosperous city in the times of the Trojan War. Some 200 years later, it was conquered by Cyrus the Great who went on to form the first Persian Empire. Daskyleion changed rulers between the Persians, Spartans, and the army of Alexander the Great — but culturally, the Hellenistic influence was obvious.

The ruins of Daskyleion were discovered in 1952 and since 1988, archaeologists have been digging continuously at the site, without getting even close to finishing. In 2005, archaeologists found a thrilling palace and since then, the artifacts have kept flowing. In more recent years, the dig has mostly focused on the acropolis — the religious citadel built on a large hill. That’s where the mask of Dionysus was also found, says Kaan Iren, an archaeologist at Mugla Sitki Kocman University.

“Excavations at Daskyleion are 32 years old, and this is the first time that we [have] unearthed a mask which is nearly intact,” the archaeologist says.

“This is possibly a votive mask,” Iren tells the Anadolu Agency; a votive mask would be donned when making a sacrifice or during a ritual. “More information will become available over time with more research.”

Image credits: Image credits: Kaan Iren.

Dionysus is mostly known today as a god of wine, but he was also a deity of agriculture and vegetation, with connections to grape-harvest and orchards. Wine, as well as the vine from which it was made, was seen not only as a symbol of the god — but a symbolic incarnation of the god himself (something which may sound a bit familiar). Performance art and drama was also important to Dionysus, and the Dionysian festivals would have featured an abundance of both. It is believed, in fact, that Greek theater started out from Dionysian festivals, where actors would draw support from the god to embody their roles and transform into the characters. Dionysus also fostered a “cult of the souls”, and the maenads who served him were said to make blood offerings.

Far from being the simple drunkard he is sometimes portrayed as, Dionysus was a complex and mysterious god, and his cult has spread far and wide in the Ancient world.

The location of Daskyleion. Wikipedia.

The terracotta mask is one of the many intriguing artifacts uncovered at Daskyleion. Just earlier this year, Iren and colleagues discovered a 2,700-year-old kitchen cellar, which they are now analyzing to understand more about the ancient city’s cuisine.

Daskyleion would have been a very multicultural city, at the crossroad of several cultures. Archaeologists believe these different cultures lived together in peace, as suggested by the different types of artifacts uncovered every year.

“Daskyleion was a multicultural city,” Iren said. “Mysians, Phrygians, Lydians, and Persians were living peacefully together in this city. Earliest finds go back to the 3rd Millenium BCE.”

“The peak time of the city was when it became a satrapal (administrative) center of the Persian Empire in 546 BCE,” Iren continued. “After the arrival of the Macedonians under the leadership of Alexander the Great (334 BCE), the city started to be ‘Hellenized.’”

Drone thermal camera reveals ancestral Wichita site in Kansas

Findings like this are pretty rare, but a new surveying method could reveal many similar ancestral American structures.

Left: Drone-acquired orthoimage of the site showing major features discussed in the paper. Right: Thermal images mosaic showing archaeological features. Image credits: by Jesse Casana, Elise Jakoby Laugier, and Austin Chad Hill.

Temperature can tell you many things. It can tell you if someone has a fever or not, if the food is cooking properly — or if there may be archaeological structures under the soil. Physical properties have been used by archaeologists for a number of years, but drone-based thermal surveys are a relatively new (and very useful) addition in the modern archaeologists’ arsenal.

The basic phenomenon is fairly straightforward. Things get cold in the day and hot in the night, but different things heat and cool differently. A ditch or an archaeological structure might behave very differently compared to the surrounding soil. If you have a drone’s birds’ eye thermal view, you can survey a great area with relative ease and see buried features that aren’t visible on the surface.

This is exactly what happened in Wichita, Kansas. Using this technique, a team of researchers have found what they believe to be a part of Etzanoa, a famous Wichita ancestral city. Etzanoa may have housed 20,000 Wichita people, flourishing until the 1700s.

“Our findings demonstrate that undiscovered monumental earthworks may still exist in the Great Plains. You just need a different archeological approach to recognize them,” explained lead author, Jesse J. Casana, a professor and chair of the department of anthropology at Dartmouth. “Our results are promising in suggesting that there may be many other impressive archaeological features that have not yet been documented if we look hard enough,” he added.

There were no visible marks on the surface, but researchers suspected something could be there based on other findings in the area. Specifically, the 18-hectare drone survey revealed a circular shaped ditch measuring 50 meters wide and approximately 2 meters thick that has been infilled. Casana believes this to be the remains of a so-called council circle, similar to several others found in the area. The site suggests a sprawling yet unitary Wichita city.

However, it’s not entirely clear what council circles were used for. Some archaeologists speculated they were ceremonial or political in nature, reserved for important tribal discussions. However, they might have also been built for astronomical or even defense purposes, Casana adds.

He and his colleagues now plan to scan the surrounding area and look for other similar buried structures.

“While we may never know what the council circles were used for or their significance, new archaeological methods allow us to see that people made these earthworks.”

Journal Reference: Jesse Casana et al, A Council Circle at Etzanoa? Multi-sensor Drone Survey at an Ancestral Wichita Settlement in Southeastern Kansas, American Antiquity (2020). DOI: 10.1017/aaq.2020.49

Archaeologists track down the earliest use of maize in the Mesoamerican area

Maize is perhaps the most important crop ever domesticated by people. Enter any shop today and you’re almost guaranteed to find a myriad of products, from sweets and tacos to cereal and of course, canned corn.

According to new research, we owe this corny abundance to the Mesoamerican settlers who started eating and domesticating corn about 6,700 years ago.

Maize, an ancient food source, was first cultivated in the Maya lowlands. Credit: UNM

Much of the popularity of maize is owed to its high carbohydrate and protein value. Maize is high in valuable nutrients and cherished globally today — but it wasn’t always this dominant. Nine thousand years ago, maize was still a humble plant with few connections to mankind.

To unravel corn’s remarkable journey, Archaeologist Keith Prufer and colleagues from half a dozen universities looked at the bones and teeth of 52 skeletons in the Mesoamerican region.

The study wasn’t specifically looking for corn. The team involved a large number of researchers from different fields including biology, geology, and of course, archaeology. Originally, the researchers wanted to get a holistic view of how these early settlers changed and adapted to a completely new lifestyle.

They carried chemical and radiocarbon measurements on the skeletons, looking for any clues about what these people ate and how they lived.

The oldest remains date from between 9,600 and 8,600 years ago, while the newer ones are about 1,000 years old. When it came to diets, there was a visible transition between the older and the newer skeletons. While the older ones foraged on wild plants, palms, fruits, and nuts and hunted for meat, the newer generations showed a strong transition to farming, the researchers show.

“One of the key issues for understanding these changes from an evolutionary perspective is to know what the change from hunting and gathers pathways to the development of agriculture looked like, and the pace and tempo of innovative new subsistence strategies. Food production and agriculture were among most important cultural innovations in human history,” says Prufer.

Ancient maize cob from Barton Creek Cave. Credit: Jaime Awe

Farming maize paved the way for the Maya civilization

Farming is quite possibly the most impactful change in human history. We take it for granted today, but it completely changed our lifestyle and set our species on a course for what we see on the planet today. It was farming that allowed our ancestors to settle in one place and start building larger settlements. But it wasn’t a straightforward change. The diet of early farmers was far less varied and healthy than that of hunter-gatherers, and it took millennia before mankind could truly reap the benefits of farming.

“Farming allowed us to live in larger groups, in the same location, and to develop permanent villages around food production. These changes ultimately led in the Maya area to the development of the Classic Period city states of the Maya between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago. However, until this study, we did not know when early Mesoamericans first became farmers, or how quickly they accepted the new cultigen maize as a stable of their diet. Certainly, they were very successful in their previous foraging, hunting, and horticultural pursuits before farming, so it is of considerable interest to understand the timing and underlying processes,” Prufer added.

By 4,700 years ago, Mesoamericans started consuming maize. The isotopic signature of two young nursing infants shows that their mothers were already consuming substantial amounts of maize, and consumption steadily increased over the following millennia, as people transitioned more and more to a static lifestyle.

Some 700 years later, a full transition to farming had occurred, judging by the amount of maize people were apparently consuming.

“We can directly observe in isotopes of bone how maize became a staple grain in the early populations we are studying. We know that people had been experimenting with the wild ancestor of maize, teosintle, and with the earliest early maize for thousands of years, but it does not appear to have been a staple grain until about 4000 BP. After that, people never stopped eating corn, leading it to become perhaps the most important food crop in the Americas, and then in the world,” Prufer adds, noting that the first use of corn may have been in the form of liquor.

Excavations were directed by UNM Professor Keith Prufer along with an international team of archaeologists, biologists, ecologists and geologists. Credit: UNM

The teosintle that Prufer mentions is the original maize — a wild grass growing in the lower plains of the Balsas River Valley in Central Mexico. Archaeologists have found evidence that maize was cultivated in the Maya lowlands some 6,500 years ago, but there was no evidence that maize was a staple at the time.

This is why archaeologists often resort to such varied studies: on one hand, you look at people’s environments and see what changes they made to the land, and on the other hand, you look at the humans themselves and see how they changed.

In a way, the life of a modern archaeologist is a lot like that of a forensic investigator — it’s no longer about finding the pyramids and ruins, it’s about understanding how people’s lives evolved through time.

It’s rarely easy. In this case, archaeologists had to work in conditions that many would consider unbearable.

“We did five years of fieldwork in two very remote rock shelter sites in the Bladen Nature Reserve in the Maya Mountains of Belize, a vast wilderness area that is a two-day walk from the nearest road. To work in this area we had to camp with no electricity, running water, or even cell service for a month at a time each year,” Prufer adds.

The study has been published in Science Advances.

Largest and oldest Maya monument forces archaeologists to rethink how the civilization evolved

From ground level, you wouldn’t realize what you’re standing on. But laser data gathered by archaeologists reveals a stunningly large monument.

The monument measures nearly 4,600 feet in length (1,400 meters), is up to 50 feet (15 meters) high, and includes nine wide causeways.

Lidar data revealing the monument, along with the location of excavations. Credits: Inomata et al / Nature.

The Mexican state of Tabasco, close to the border with Guatemala, is known for its cuisine, culture, and archaeology. Much of that is owed to the Maya and Olmec civilizations that inhabited the area centuries ago.

But archaeologists had no idea that such a huge monument was hiding beneath the surface. The fact that it was so huge only worked to hide it even better.

Oftentimes, buried or half-buried archaeological features aren’t visible to the naked eye, but they can easily reveal their secrets to lidar — or light detection and ranging — technology. Laser beams are sent from a plane or drone, penetrating the forest canopy and revealing the surface features on the ground in three-dimensional form. It is exactly this approach that revealed the sprawling Mayan monument.

3D image of the site of Aguada Fenix based on LIDAR. Credits: Inomata et al / Nature.

University of Arizona professors in the School of Anthropology Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan noticed something was off when they looked at lidar data from the Mexican government, but couldn’t really assess what they were dealing with. So they went and carried a more detailed lidar survey.

“Using low-resolution lidar collected by the Mexican government, we noticed this huge platform. Then we did high-resolution lidar and confirmed the presence of a big building,” Inomata said. “This area is developed—it’s not the jungle; people live there—but this site was not known because it is so flat and huge. It just looks like a natural landscape. But with lidar, it pops up as a very well-planned shape.”

The immense Mayan platform is a remarkable find in itself, but it also has significance for the overall history of the Maya civilization. It was thought that the early Mayans only lived in small villages up until about 350 BC, but this new monument might force us to rethink that timeline.

The team excavated the site and radiocarbon-dated 69 samples of charcoal to determine that it was constructed sometime between 1,000 to 800 BC, which makes this not only the largest Mayan monument ever found — but also the oldest.

The monument is also similar to those produced by the older Olmec civilization center of San Lorenzo to the west in the Mexican state of Veracruz. This seems to add more weight to the idea that the two civilizations are somehow related, researchers say.

“There has always been debate over whether Olmec civilization led to the development of the Maya civilization or if the Maya developed independently,” Inomata said. “So, our study focuses on a key area between the two.”

Seriously, how could you have guessed such a huge monument is hidden here? Image credits: Takeshi Inomata.

Large ancient structures aren’t necessarily just for pharaohs

It’s not fully clear why the role of the monument was. The period in which this was built marked a gap in power — after the decline of the Olmec San Lorenzo complex, and before the rise of another one. It was a period when different cultural ideas were exchanged in the area, and the monument seems to feature multiple cultural influences. This, along with its sheer size, suggests that it was meant to be used by many people. It is very likely ceremonial in purpose, but the researchers stop short of speculating.

It’s also noteworthy that the monument appeared in a period when there was less inequality in Mayan society. These large-scale monuments typically appear in stratified ancient societies, such as that of the Egyptians, for instance. This changes the assumption that it’s only that type of society that can produce monuments, spurring archaeologists to rethink the construction process.

“It’s not just hierarchical social organization with the elite that makes monuments like this possible,” Inomata said. “This kind of understanding gives us important implications about human capability, and the potential of human groups. You may not necessarily need a well-organized government to carry out these kinds of huge projects. People can work together to achieve amazing results.”

“During later periods, there were powerful rulers and administrative systems in which the people were ordered to do the work. But this site is much earlier, and we don’t see the evidence of the presence of powerful elites. We think that it’s more the result of communal work,” he said.

Examples from archaeological digs. Image credits: Inomata et al.

For the first time in over a century, Norway will explore a new Viking ship burial site

Norwegian archaeologists are racing to save a buried Viking ship they have identified using state of the art technology.

The buried boat was discovered using a ground-penetrating radar. Image credits: Erich Nau / NIKU.

The Vikings were not exactly a subtle bunch. Whether it was pillaging the British Isles, building ships, or burying their leaders, Vikings like to do things with style and grandeur. Scandinavian archaeologists have discovered several ship burial sites — where a wooden ship is used as a tomb and typically covered in soil, creating a burial mount — but no new such site has been uncovered in Norway since 1904.

Three well-preserved Viking ships were excavated in Norway in 1868, 1880 and 1904, respectively, reports the Local Norway. This would be the first site excavated with modern archaeological standards, and it’s a really impressive site at that.

The first time the 65-foot-long (20-meter) ship was discovered was in 2018, by archaeologists at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU). The ship was likely buried over 1,000 years ago, and given its size, it probably serves as the final resting place of a prominent king or queen — and it’s one of the largest Viking ship graves ever found.

So hopefully you’ll excuse us if we get a bit excited about the discovery of the tomb of a Viking king — a discovery which by the way, was done thanks to physics.

Old meets new

The outline of the ship can be clearly seen in this tomograph-like data.

When archaeologists look for stuff nowadays, they don’t just start digging randomly. Typically, they have an inkling that a site might be interesting (or in some cases, a very strong indication), but even so, they usually deploy physical surveying methods to “see” what lies underground.

For this study, researchers used a method called “ground penetrating radar” — or GPR, as they call it in the business. GPR involves sending a radar pulse into the ground which is then reflected back to the surface, highlighting materials with different physical parameters. Thus, the ship itself (and the disturbed soil around it) stands out against the background, and the method is completely non-invasive.

But the ship wasn’t the only thing they found.

The site where the measurements were carried out had several other notable features, the archaeologists noted.

“The ship burial does not exist in isolation, but forms part of a cemetery which is clearly designed to display power and influence,” says NIKU archaeologist Lars Gustavsen in a statement.

Norway has now designated 15.6 million Norwegian krone (roughly $1.5 million USD) toward the dig, which is set to be carried out this summer. The authorities are also in a race against time, as the more time the ship is buried, the more decayed it is likely to be.

Here is a presentation video detailing the method and the archaeological findings:

Archaeologists confirm location of elusive Spanish fort in Florida

Fort San Antón de Carlos was built in 1566 in the capital of the Calusa, the most powerful Native American tribe in the region. Now, archaeologists know for sure where it was located: Mound Key, Florida.

Spanish historical records named Florida’s Mound Key, the capital of the Calusa kingdom, as the site of Fort San Antón de Carlos, home of one of the earliest North American Jesuit missions. Archaeologists have now uncovered evidence of the fort on one of the island’s shell mounds. Credit: Victor Thompson

Being a modern archaeologist is a lot like working in forensics — you spend your time looking for evidence regarding people’s lives. Finding clues is one thing, but actually proving something — is another.

For instance, archaeologists and historians have long suspected that the fort, named for the Catholic patron saint of lost things, was located on Mound Key. But they were never really able to prove it, until now.

They started searching for concrete evidence in the area since 2013, in what was once Calusa territory.

“Before our work, the only information we had was from Spanish documents, which suggested that the Calusa capital was on Mound Key and that Fort San Antón de Carlos was there, too,” said William Marquardt, curator emeritus of South Florida archaeology and ethnography at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“Archaeologists and historians had visited the site and collected pottery from the surface, but until we found physical evidence of the Calusa king’s house and the fort, we could not be absolutely certain.”

The Calusa were a Native American people of Florida’s southwest coast. They developed from archaic peoples of the Everglades region and built one of the most politically complex groups of fisher-gatherer-hunters in the world.

They were able to resist colonization for nearly 200 years, Marquardt said.

They are also considered to be the first “shell collectors,” using shells as tools, utensils, and jewelry. They would discard the fragments in enormous mounds once they were finished, and also developed massive structures to act as fish corrals to help feed their growing population. Fort San Antón de Carlos was actually built on one of these shell mounds — the only known one of this type.

The Spanish Jesuit mission living on Mount Key did not have a good relationship with the Calusa, and researchers aren’t even sure how the mission was able to survive, given that shipments from other colonies would have been scarce and infrequent.

The Spanish developed a brief alliance with the Calusa in 1569, but it quickly deteriorated, and the fort was abandoned.

“Despite being the most powerful society in South Florida, the Calusa were inexorably drawn into the broader world economic system by the Spaniards,” Marquardt said. “However, by staying true to their values and way of life, the Calusa showed a resiliency unmatched by most other Native societies in the Southeastern United States.”

Researchers from the University of Florida, the University of Georgia (UGA), and students from UGA’s archaeological field school used remote sensing and ground-penetrating radar to find the most likely hotspots for archaeological evidence, as well as to understand the overall structure of the fort (including what lies beneath the ground). Then, they carried out archaeological digs, uncovering the walls of the fort and several artifacts, including ceramic shards and beads.

The team not only confirmed the location of the fort, but also found the earliest-known North American example of “tabby” architecture — a type of concrete made from shells.

“Tabby” is made by burning shells to create lime, which is then mixed with sand, ash, water, and more broken shells. It’s a rough and primitive form of concrete, but it was successfully used at Mount Key as mortar, to stabilize posts in the walls. Tabby remained a trademark for some English colonies in the Americas, particularly in the Southern plantations — but this is the first evidence of such a structure on the continent.

“Seeing the straight walls of the fort emerge, just inches below the surface, was quite exciting to us,” Marquardt said. “Not only was this a confirmation of the location of the fort, but it shows the promise of Mound Key to shed light on a time in Florida’s—and America’s—history that is very poorly known.”

Journal Reference: Victor D. Thompson et al, Discovering San Antón de Carlos: The Sixteenth-Century Spanish Buildings and Fortifications of Mound Key, Capital of the Calusa, Historical Archaeology (2020). DOI: 10.1007/s41636-020-00236-6

This well might be the oldest wood structure in the world

Image credits: Archaeological Centre Olomouc.

The year is 5256 BC. We’re in the Early Neolithic, in a place not exactly close to any settlement. What do you want to do if you want to drink some water but there’s no river nearby? Well, you start digging a well, of course. Start chopping down some trees and build a wooden frame.

That’s probably how the thought process went for ancient humans in what is today the Czech Republic. The well was found during construction works for a motorway in the Bohemia region. It’s the third Early Neolithic well discovered in the country in the past four years.

It’s not clear how common wooden wells were at the time. Currently, just 40 or so Neolithic water wells are known in Europe, says Michal Rybnicek, one of the authors of a new study describing the find.

The well measures 80 by 80 cm (31.5 x 31.5 inches) and 140 cm (55 inches) in height. The well lining is excellently preserved.

“A chest-like well lining was formed by four oak corner posts, each with two longitudinal grooves, set at 90 degrees to each other, in which oak planks were inserted horizontally in seven layers,” the archaeologists write in the study.

“The diameter of the posts ranged from 15.5 to 22 cm (6-8.7 inches) and they had 33 to 80 tree rings.”

A few pieces of pottery were also discovered, but other than the wooden structure itself, not much was recovered from the site. But the wood was in excellent shape, allowing for precise dating.

Samples of the analyzed wood. Credits: Rybníček et al / J. Archaeol. Sci (2020)

Researchers used dendrochronological methods to date tree rings to the exact year they were formed. They concluded that the well was built between 5256 and 5255, but interestingly, two of the corner posts were built from trees which felled a few years earlier. The first post came from a tree felled 3-4 years earlier, and the other one 9 years earlier. It’s not entirely clear why there was such a big gap in construction, but is probably owed to practicality more than anything else.

For the production of the well lining, the builders employed 200-year-old oaks with a diameter of at least 60 cm. Cutting down and transporting trees of such a size and weight was no easy feat. If such a tree had been felled nearby and not used entirely, it would make sense to re-use it instead of chopping down a new tree. Meanwhile, other elements of the well did not require such thick trees and could be built from younger trees which are easier to cut down.

No settlement has been discovered in the area, suggesting that this well probably lied on a road or route that Neolithic people would sometimes take.

The newly-discovered well is not the oldest known well in the world. Two wells in Israel date from 6500 BC, and two other wells in Cyprus go back even further, to 7500 BC — they weren’t even built with wood, they were forged directly into rocks.

However, this may be the oldest wood object in the world — it’s certainly the oldest dendrochronologically dated archaeological wood construction. Carbon dating, sometimes used for objects of this age, can have significant inaccuracies.

The most intriguing part about this find, however, is not just its age, but also its design. Until recently this construction design (with grooved corner posts and inserted planks) was only known from the Bronze Age, Roman times and the Middle Ages. The fact that it was also present in the Neolithic, thousands of years earlier, indicates that available technology (tools made from stone, bones, or wood) was advanced enough for sophisticated carpentry.

A Neolithic well built with similar technology had been previously discovered in the Czech Republic, but this one is older and features a unique design, researchers conclude.

The study has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

A new “ghost lineage” of humans found in Africa

Over 1,000 ceramic sherds, nearly 500,000 pieces of lithic (stone) materials, and 18 skeletons have been uncovered by archaeologists at a shelter called Shum Laka, northwest Cameroon.

The rock shelter itself is approximately 50 meters wide at its greatest point and up to 20 meters deep. New skeletons uncovered at the site could force us to reconsider our early lineage and include some “ghost” ancestors.

A 1994 photograph of the excavations that yielded the skeletons at Shum Laka.

Understanding early human evolution means going back to Africa and studying ancient populations. However, that’s not an easy thing to do. We don’t know exactly where these populations lived, and finding fossils has proven to be a daunting task.

There’s another problem: even when fossils do survive, central Africa, where many of the ancient lineages lived, is too hot and humid for DNA to survive. This means that any fossils containing viable DNA are an extremely rare find — and this is exactly why this study is so important.

A rock shelter uncovered in the grasslands of Cameroon was found to contain the bones of four children buried thousands of years ago, and these bones contain enough DNA for analysis. It’s the first time DNA this old has ever been found in the area, and it holds a lot of surprises.

For starters, the area in which it was found is intriguing. The shelter, called Shum Laka, lies where West Africa meets Southern Africa. This area was inhabited by a population called the Bantu people. The Bantu made several agricultural and metallurgical developments that allowed them to spread across the continent, leaving their genetic, linguistic, and technological mark on several other populations.

Map of the major Bantu languages (shown in purple), with the non-Bantu Southern Bantoid languages, indicated in violet (northwestern corner). The approximate position of Shum Laka is highlighted in the zoom-in cassette. Image credits: Sumu / Wikipedia.

However, the children did not belong to the Bantu group, DNA analysis revealed. Instead, the children belonged to other hunter-gatherer groups called the Baka and the Aka — groups historically known as “pygmies” (though that term is considered derogatory today).

The Baka and the Aka live hundreds of kilometers away, in the rainforests of central Africa. It was surprising to see them there, inside Bantu territory, especially as these two groups are not even closely related.

But things got even more surprising.

The DNA analysis showed that all the children were related to each other, with the degree ranging from distant cousin to something similar to a half-brother. All of them, additionally, had some DNA coming from an ancient source in West Africa — including a “long lost ghost population of modern humans that we didn’t know about before,” says population geneticist David Reich of Harvard University, leader of the study.

The finding is important in multiple ways. For starters, it suggests that the theory that Bantu people originated in this area of Central Africa and radiated across the continent is not true. It might also be possible that the Bantu also shared the shelter with these groups and they are simply not represented in the burials — but if this were the case, there would probably be some interbreeding between the groups, and this was not observed.

Secondly, the analysis suggests that there are at least four major human lineages, which date to between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. This was never shown before, and indicates a “ghost lineage” — an ancient group for which we have no physical evidence.

The data from these genomes, combined with some additional modern samples from West Africa, suggest that an unknown group contributed to hunter-gatherers from both East and West Africa. But it doesn’t appear to have persisted to the present as a distinct population.

All of this goes to show just how crazily complex mankind’s early evolution was. There were multiple groups isolated from each other for long periods of time which then started spreading and intermingling, but we don’t know who came from where. We also have “ghost lineages” in our past, and we need to find physical evidence to better understand who these people were.

It’s all a massively intricate story, and for all the missing puzzle pieces, it’s remarkable that researchers have cobbled together so much with so little information. It will take a long time to uncover all the puzzle pieces, but it’s well worth it. After all, it’s our story.

The study has been published in Nature.