Friday, July 31, 2009

Rural Egyptian Life Revealed in Ancient Oasis

Ruins of an upper-class house in Amheida.

Archaeologists are exploring another face of ancient Egypt ~ a city named Amheida, marooned on an oasis deep in Egypt’s western desert. 
The latest in a chain of discoveries in a site dating back at least 5,000 years, are roof-covered streets, providing a glimpse into ancient rural life under the Egyptian sun. 

At Amheida, archaeologists led by Roger Bagnall at New York University have sifted through the remains of a settlement far removed from the thoroughfares of the Nile Valley. The site is in the Dakhleh Oasis, 500 miles from Cairo and 185 miles from Luxor, a religious and political hub of ancient Egypt. 

The archaeological work has yielded a treasure trove of art and writing. Through this rural lens, archaeologists are shifting their notions of education in ancient Egypt during the Greek and Roman empires. And they have noticed deep connections between powerful central governments and the outposts in the oases. 

People settled in the area at least 5,000 years ago during the Neolithic period, as agriculture began. At that time, the climate was wetter and residents were surrounded not by a savanna. Bagnall suspects that Egypt's first farmers may have worked in the oasis before agriculture arrived in the Nile Valley.

“They may well have contributed something to the development of Egypt before the time of the pharaohs,” Bagnall said.

Click here for the complete LiveScience article.

Mysterious God Depicted on Stone Altar

The stone relic depicts a god-like figure on the back of a bull, holding an ax and thunderbolt.

A massive altar dedicated to an unknown deity has been unearthed in northern England. At nearly two tons, the four-foot high, ornately carved stone relic was unearthed at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, built by order of the Emperor Hadrian between 122-30 A.D.

"What should have been part of the rampart mound near to the north gate of the fort has turned out to be an amazing religious shrine," said archaeologist Andrew Birley.

A jar and a shallow dish are depicted on one side of the altar. The other side shows a god-like figure standing on the back of a bull, with a thunderbolt in one hand and a battle ax in the other. According to Discovery News:

Romans called this god Juppiter Dolichenus, but it was originally an ancient weather god, known to the Semitic peoples of the Middle East as Hadad and to the Hittites as Teshab. It was in its war-like representation that the Anatolian god Juppiter of Doliche became a favorite deity among Roman soldiers.

Indeed, an inscription indicates that the altar was dedicated to the Dolichenus god by "Sulpicius Pudens, prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls."

According to Birley, Sulpicius Pudens was the commanding officer of the Roman regiment based at Vindolanda in the Third century and he may have dedicated the expensive stone to the god in thanks for fulfilling a vow. This was a normal practice, as partial inscriptions from badly damaged Dolichenus shrines, all found in England, testify.

"The Vindolanda shrine is unique as it is situated within the walls of the fort, something which has yet to be encountered elsewhere. This casts new light on ritual spaces inside Roman forts," Birley said.

Click here for the complete Discovery News article.

Human Population Surge Preceded Agriculture

New genetic evidence shows that human populations in sub-Sahara Africa began to expand in size 40,000 years ago, well before the development of agriculture. This supports the hypothesis that population growth played a significant role in the evolution of human cultures in the Late Pleistocene.

There has been long-standing disagreement in archaeological circles whether humans increased in number as a result of innovative technologies formulated by hunter-gatherer groups in the Late Pleistocene, or with the advent of agriculture in the Neolithic.

Researchers recently surveyed the genetic material of about 200 individuals from seven human populations and used a computational approach to simulate the evolution of genetic lineages. They found that both hunter-gathers and food-producing groups best fit models with approximately ten-fold population growth beginning well before the origin of agriculture.

Click here for the complete ScienceDaily article.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Chacoan "Elites" Ruled Over Chimney Rock

Chacoan ruins at Chimney Rock.

New findings from the Chimney Rock archaeological site in southern Colorado suggest that elite members of the Chaco culture dined on elk and deer, catered to them by commoners living in the valley below.

Colorado University Professor Steve Lekson, who is directing the excavation, said the royalty at Chimney Rock ~ an "outlier" of the Chaco Canyon culture centered in northern New Mexico that ruled the Southwest from about A.D. 850 to 1150 ~ were likely tended to through a complex social, economic and political network.

"While our analysis has only begun, there might have been two different groups at Chimney Rock ~ those that built it, and the elites that inhabited it," said Lekson.

Chimney Rock is one of scores of Chaco outliers in the Southwest and perhaps its most dramatic, seated at 7,600 feet above the San Juan Basin. The site is marked by a pair of twin rock spires, and harbors a Chacoan-like "Great House" and great kiva that some archaeologists believe were built as part of a lunar observatory.

Click here for the complete University of Colorado article.

Beheaded Vikings Buried in English Pit

The burial pit with the remains of 51 warriors, presumably Vikings.

Archaeologists are pondering the discovery of 51 beheaded warriors in a burial pit in southern England, dating back at least 1,000 years. The slain men’s heads were found stacked neatly on one side of the pit.

The dead are thought to have been war captives, possibly Vikings, whose heads were hacked off with swords or axes, according to excavation leader David Score of Oxford Archaeology, an archaeological-services company.

Many of the skeletons have deep cut marks to the skull and jaw as well as the neck. "The majority seem to have taken multiple blows," Score said.

Unusually, no trace of clothing has been found, indicating the men were buried naked. Even if their weapons and valuables had been taken "we should have found bone buttons and things like that, but to date we've got absolutely nothing," Score said.

"They look like a healthy, robust, very strong, very masculine group of young males," he added. "It's your classic sort of warrior."

Click here for the complete National Geographic article.

Add a Century to Antikythera's Age

This 1-minute new animation by Italian astronomer Mogi Vicentini brilliantly demonstrates the inner workings of the Antikythera.

The ancient Greek Antikythera mechanism ~ often considered the world’s earliest known computer ~ now appears to be even older than previously thought. According to Jo Marchant, author of Decoding the Heavens, writing in New Scientist magazine:

This mysterious box of tricks was a portable clockwork computer, dating from the first or second century BC. Operated by turning a handle on the side, it modelled the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets through the sky, sported a local calendar, star calendar and Moon-phase display, and could even predict eclipses and track the timing of the Olympic games.

I gave a talk on the device at London's Royal Institution last night. One new clue I mentioned to the origin of the mechanism comes from the Olympiad dial ~ there are six sets of games named on the dial, five of which have been deciphered so far. Four of them, including the Olympics, were major games known across the Greek world. But the fifth, Naa, was much smaller, and would only have been of local interest.

The Naa games were held in Dodona in northwestern Greece, so Alexander Jones of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York has suggested that the mechanism must have been made by or for someone from that area.

Intriguingly, this could mean the device is even older than thought. The inscriptions have been dated to around 100 BC, but according to Jones the device may have been made at latest in the early second century BC, because after that the Romans devastated or took over the Greek colonies in the region, so it's unlikely that people would still have been using the Greek calendar there.

Click here for the complete New Scientist article.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Zapotec Used Thighbones as Status Symbols

Carving of a Zapotec ruler holding a human femur.

Centuries-old stone carvings in southern Mexico indicate that Zapotec men brandished human thighbones as status symbols.

"The thought was that the femurs are those of the ancestors of the rulers, serving like staffs of office or symbols of legitimacy," archaeologist Gary Feinman of the Field Museum in Chicago recently told National Geographic.

Flourishing from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 1000 in the Valley of Oaxaca, the Zapotec were contemporaries of the ancient Maya and Aztec. Prior excavations had revealed a Zapotec tomb where nine femurs were missing. But the skeletons were a bit of a jumble, so it wasn't clear whether the bones had been taken or had simply gone missing.

"I believe removal of the femur from a male was one way the ancient Zapotec asserted dynastic continuity," said archaeologist Joyce Marcus at the University of Michigan, who did not participate in this study.

Click here for the complete National Geographic article.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Pre-Incan Graves Found Beneath Shantytown

A pre-Incan mummy and eight other skeletons have been unearthed in the middle of Lima, Peru, archeologists said yesterday.

Urban squatters had lived in a shantytown above the Huaca Huantille ruins for years, unaware they contained an ancient burial site, Reuters reported.

Archeologist Roberto Quispe working on the excavation said the bones were from the Ychsma civilization dating from between 1000 and 1400 AD.

The burial site was found after city officials kicked out 50 homeless families that had built a shantytown on the ruins, and later started excavations. Hundreds of archeological sites are scattered across Lima, and in some cases Catholic churches or mansions were built on top of Inca ruins after Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru.

Graveyard of Roman Shipwrecks Discovered

Some of the many jugs found in one of the Roman shipwrecks.

Archaeologists using sonar technology to scan the seabed have discovered five pristine ancient Roman shipwrecks near the Italian island of Ventotene.

The ships ~ dating from the first century BC to the fifth century AD ~ are 100 meters underwater and are amongst the deepest wrecks discovered in the Mediterranean .

"The ships appear to have been heading for safe anchorage, but they never made it," said Timmy Gambin, head of archaeology for the Aurora Trust. "So in a relatively small area we have five wrecks...a graveyard of ships."

The vessels were transporting wine from Italy, prized fish sauce from Spain and north Africa, and a mysterious cargo of metal ingots from Italy, possibly to be used in the construction of statues or weaponry.

Images of the wrecks show their crustacean-clad cargoes spilling onto the seafloor, after marine worms ate away the wooden hull of the vessels.

Click here for the complete Reuters article.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pompeii Actors' Masks Rediscovered

Fifteen mysterious life-size masks, reminiscent of ancient Roman drama, have been rediscovered in Pompeii after being forgotten for more than two centuries.

Made of plaster, they were unearthed in 1749 in Pompeii during the excavations promoted by King Charles of Bourbon, then were deposited in the Royal Palace of Portici on the Bay of Naples.

"They ended up being totally forgotten, and indeed we do not have much information about them,” Mariarosaria Borriello, the scholar who rediscovered the masks, told Discovery News. “We do not even know where they were unearthed in Pompeii.”

Some of the masks have their mouth shut, a clear indication that they were used as models for a craftsman who then produced lighter masks for actors to wear.

Click here for the complete Discovery News article.
Photo above shows one of the rediscovered masks, likely a model for theatrical masks used by actors of the day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Actual Silla Dynasty Cavalry Armor is Found

Evidence of Silla Dynasty cavalry armor previously existed only in murals such as his one. Photo below shows some of the armor found in an ancient tomb.

Cavalry and the armor to protect them during Korea’s Silla Dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD) had only been seen in paintings until the recent discovery of warrior and horse armor in the ancient tombs of the Jjoksaem District, the largest concentration of ancient Silla Dynasty tombs in Korea.

Officials say the discovery of the armor carries a similar significance for Korea as the discovery of the ancient terra-cotta army figures holds for China.

“This is the first time in East Asia that such complete sets of the armor of the heavily armed cavalrymen have been found,” Lee Geon-mu, the chief of the Cultural Heritage Administration, said. “It’s also the first evidence of the existence of the Silla cavalrymen.”

Scale armor is made of hundreds of small, intricately connected metal pieces. Compared to ordinary metal armor, scale armor makes it a lot easier for warriors to move, significantly enhancing the mobility of the entire army.

“Scale armor is known to have been used in other countries like China, but in Korea it only existed in rock paintings that we haven’t seen in person,” Lee said.

Murals from the era show that scale armor was used during the Three Kingdoms period, but without any hard evidence, Korean archaeologists have only been able to guess at what the armor might have looked like.

Click here for the complete JoongAng Daily article.

More Evidence of North American Cataclysm

A University of Oregon-led research team has discovered the strongest evidence yet for a controversial cosmic event occurring 12,900 years ago that tore through North America and extinguished many species.

In a paper appearing online ahead of regular publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of Oregon archaeologist Douglas J. Kennett and colleagues from nine institutions and three private research companies report the presence of shock-synthesized hexagonal diamonds in 12,900-year-old sediments on the Northern Channel Islands off the southern California coast.

These tiny diamonds and diamond clusters were buried deeply below four meters of sediment. They date to the end of Clovis -- a Paleoindian culture long thought to be North America's first human inhabitants. The nano-sized diamonds were pulled from Arlington Canyon on the island of Santa Rosa that had once been joined with three other Northern Channel Islands in a landmass known as Santarosae.

"The type of diamond we have found ~ lonsdaleite ~ is a shock-synthesized mineral defined by its hexagonal crystalline structure. It forms under very high temperatures and pressures consistent with a cosmic impact," Kennett said. "These diamonds have only been found thus far in meteorites and impact craters on Earth and appear to be the strongest indicator yet of a significant cosmic impact [during Clovis]."

"This site, this layer with hexagonal diamonds, is also associated with other types of diamonds and with dramatic environmental changes and wildfires," said James P. Kennett, paleoceanographer and professor emeritus in the Department of Earth Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"There was a major event 12,900 years ago," he said. "It is hard to explain this assemblage of materials without a cosmic impact event and associated extensive wildfires. This hypothesis fits with the abrupt cooling of the atmosphere as shown in the record of ocean drilling of the Santa Barbara Channel. The cooling resulted when dust from the high-pressure, high-temperature, multiple impacts was lofted into the atmosphere, causing a dramatic drop in solar radiation."

Click here for the University of Oregon article.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Old Vinland Map Deemed Authentic

The earliest map to show part of America before Columbus landed here is genuine, according to a Danish expert.

The 15th century Vinland Map has been controversial since it came to light in the 1950s. Some scholars figured it was a hoax meant to prove that Vikings were the first Europeans to land in North America ~ a claim later confirmed by a 1960 archaeological find. But doubts about the map lingered even after carbon dating established the age of an object.

"All the tests that we have done over the past five years ~ on the materials and other aspects ~ do not show any signs of forgery," Rene Larsen, rector of the School of Conservation under the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, told Reuters this past Friday.

The map shows both Greenland and a western Atlantic island "Vinilanda Insula," the Vinland of the Icelandic sagas, now linked by scholars to Newfoundland where Norsemen under Leif Eriksson settled around 1000 AD.

Larsen said his team carried out studies of the ink, writing, wormholes and parchment of the map, which is housed at Yale University in the United States.

Wormholes, caused by wood beetles, were consistent with wormholes in the books with which the map was bound.

Larsen said claims the ink was too recent because it contained a substance called anatase titanium dioxide could be rejected because medieval maps have been found with the same substance, which probably came from sand used to dry wet ink.

American scholars have carbon dated the map to about 1440, about 50 years before Columbus "discovered" the New World in 1492. Scholars believe it was produced for a 1440 church council at Basel, Switzerland.

The Vinland Map is not a "Viking map" and does not alter the historical understanding of who first sailed to North America. But if it is genuine, it shows that the New World was known not only to Norsemen but also to other Europeans at least half a century before Columbus's voyage.

Click here for the complete Reuters article.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pueblo May Be Linked to Lunar Standstill

Remains of the Great House Pueblo at Chimney Rock.

Archaeologists are uncovering evidence that may explain the significance of the nearly thousand-year-old Great House Pueblo high atop Colorado’s Chimney Rock Archaeological Area in the San Juan National Forest.

"It's a chance to have a new look at this site, because archaeology has really advanced in the last few decades," San Juan National Forest Archaeologist Julie Coleman tells the Durango (Colorado) Herald.

The site has possible ties to the major lunar standstill, an astronomical phenomenon marking the end of the moon's northern migration cycle. Every 18.6 years from the vantage point of the Great House, the moon rises within a narrow window of sky framed by the rock spires that give Chimney Rock its name.

The most recent lunar standstill took place from 2004 to 2008, and the next opportunity will not occur until about 2022.

"Based on research from the 1970s, we do think it was constructed in time for the major lunar standstill in 1076, and we think it was rebuilt in time for the next lunar standstill in the 1090s," Coleman said.

Click here for the Durango Herald article.

Maize Was Focus of Early Andean Agriculture

Remains of Wari structures on the slopes of the Andes.

New research indicates that prehistoric communities in Peru’s Andes Mountains 2,800 years ago regularly ate maize, otherwise known as corn. Growing it on the rugged slopes stimulated ancient population growth in the Andes and allowed a complex society ~ the Wari ~ to develop, according to bioarchaeologist Brian Finucane in the August Current Anthropology.

Wari society included a central government and other elements of modern states. It lasted from around 1,300 to 950 years ago and predated other Andes civilizations, including the Inca. According to the current issue of US News & World Report:

Scientists disagree about when and how civilizations formed in the Andes. One theory holds that complex societies, which perhaps fell short of states with centralized bureaucracies, first appeared at least 3,600 years ago in fishing villages along Peru’s coast and then spread inland.

Based on remains of various wild and domesticated plants found at inland sites, other researchers suspect that agriculture had an especially big impact on the establishment of highland societies, beginning roughly 2,500 years ago. Questions also remain about whether prehistoric Andean civilizations depended primarily on maize or on a suite of crops including potatoes and beans.

“These new findings indicate that intensive maize agriculture was the economic foundation for the development of the Wari state,” says Finucane, who analyzed the chemical composition of bones from 103 individuals excavated by other researchers at six prehistoric sites in Peru’s Ayacucho Valley, one of several Andean regions where early civilizations arose.

His data demonstrates that highland residents relied on maize shortly before the rise of the Wari state. A warmer, wetter climate during the Wari period and the spread of terraced cultivation areas may also have spurred maize farming, he suggests.

Click here for the US News & World Report article.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Ancient Village Unearthed in Bulgaria

Discoveries in Bulgaria include a massive stone fortification.

Bulgarian archaeologists have discovered a 7,000-year-old settlement close to the northeast city of Shumen, which dates back to the Stone-Copper Age. So far, they’ve uncovered more than 300 finds, most made of marble.

"These items are extremely rare,” says Stefan Chohadzhiev, an archaeology professor at Veliko Tarnovo University. “They were worn by very specific people. These are decorations that were not available to the masses. There are also others made of clay or bone."

The most valuable discovery, however, is a stone-wall fortification that protected the village from the west.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Huge Manmade Cavern Found in Jordan Valley

Archaeologists explore the one-acre former Christian hideout.

A 2,000-year-old underground chamber recently discovered in the Jordan Valley is being called the largest human-made cave in Israel. The one-acre space likely began as a quarry but later may have served as a monastery, hideout for persecuted Christians, or Roman army base, experts say.

Archaeologists found the cave in March. As they were about to enter, two Bedouins appeared and warned that hyenas and wolves inhabited the cave. But team leader Adam Zertal told National Geographic that once underground "our eyes opened to see something unimaginable."

The archaeologists peered into a huge hall lined with 22 thick pillars—giving the "impression of a palace," added Zertal, of the University of Haifa in Israel. "We didn't have much light ~ it was complete darkness ~ but even with the torches, we saw how glorious it looks."

Etched into those columns were 31 Christian crosses, Roman letters, a Zodiac sign, and what looks like the Roman army's pennant ~ all of which surprised the researchers.

"It surely was not just a quarry," Zertal said.

Around the first century B.C. and the first century A.D., when the chamber's creation likely began, the Roman-appointed King Herod the Great, who ruled the region from 37 to 4 B.C., had returned from Rome with plans to develop the Jordan Valley.

Click here for the National Geographic article.
Click here for several more photos of the cave.