15 April 2014
Bronze Age chronology revised by ancient weather report
An inscription on a 3,500-year-old stone block from Egypt may be one of the world's oldest weather reports, and could provide new evidence about the chronology of events in the ancient Middle East.
The stela dates to the reign of the pharaoh Ahmose, the first pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty - the beginning of the New Kingdom, when Egypt's power reached its height. It was found in pieces in Thebes (now Luxor), where Ahmose ruled.
A new translation of a 40-line inscription on the 1.8 metre tall calcite block called the Tempest Stela describes rain, darkness and "the sky being in storm without cessation, louder than the cries of the masses."
Nadine Moeller and Robert Ritner, both of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, believe the weather described on the slab was the result of a massive volcanic eruption at Thera - the present-day island of Santorini in the Mediterranean. The translation suggests the pharaoh ruled at a time closer to the eruption than previously thought.
Importantly, the text refers to events affecting both the delta region and the area of Egypt further south along the Nile. If the stela does describe the aftermath of the Thera catastrophe, the pharaoh's reign, currently thought to be about 1550 BCE, could actually be 30 to 50 years earlier.
Oriental Institute associate professor David Schloen says the revised dating could mean other events in the ancient Near East fit together more logically, such as the fall of the power of the Canaanites and the collapse of the Babylonian Empire.
For example, the eruption and resulting tsunami would have destroyed the Hyksos' ports and significantly weakened their sea power. Disruption to trade and agriculture would have undermined the Babylonian Empire, and could explain why they were unable to fend off an invasion by the Hittites.
Other work is underway to get accurate dating around the time of Ahmose, who ruled after the period when the Hyksos seized power in Egypt. That work also has pushed back the dates of his reign closer to the explosion.
Edited from PhysOrg (2 April 2014)
Prehistoric DNA paints more complex picture of human evolution
According to Dr Mike Bunce, a researcher at Curtin University's Trace and Environmental DNA Laboratory, the ability to look deeper into fossils - past the traditional methods of simply carbon-dating fossils and determining their morphology - represents a whole new level of specificity in collecting quantifiable data that will lead to more conclusive findings about human and animal evolution.
Interestingly, these new findings about the long history of human genetics are not necessarily lining up with previously held notions of human evolution. Science writer Annie Hastwell points out several examples, such as a 400,000 year old femur that was found in the Pit of Bones in the Atapuerca caves in Northern Spain, which was recently analyzed using DNA sequencing techniques: "Rather than the Neanderthal origins scientists expected to find in the DNA, they found evidence that the most recently identified hominid, the mysterious Denisovan, previously thought to be confined to Siberia and Australasia, had at some stage interbred with the European Neanderthals."
A similar finding came from a DNA-based look into Homo Floresiensis, another early humanoid race that are sometimes referred to as "Hobbits" due to their marked small stature. Originally discovered in Indonesia, Homo Floresiensis were inexplicably able to migrate over the Wallace Line near Borneo. Subtle genetic variations in ancient remains are fracturing the more simplified, traditional view.
There are still limitations to the genetic sequencing approach to piecing together human evolution. The sequencing process often reveals results that are disembodied from the fossils themselves. Researcher Wolfgang Haak from the Australian Centre for DNA explains that the actual collection of bones is not as complete as the genetic information: "We have the full Denisovan genome but no skeleton, just a finger bone, and then in Spain we have those fossils that are Neanderthals but genetically they look like the Denisovans but we can't compare because we don't have a Denisovan fossil. Then in Flores we have a perfect Hobbit skeleton but no DNA." Because of this, work still needs to be done to reconcile DNA results with actual fossils.
DNA sequencing of ancient human remains shows how different races interbred, migrated, influenced one another, and were influenced, shaping our understanding of the immensely complex process that led to modern humanity.
Edited BioNews Texas (25 March 2014)
4,000-year-old pit houses found in Arizona
A major ancient human settlement possibly dating back 4,000 years - including pit houses, the likely remnants of an irrigation canal, and human burials - has been discovered under the site of a planned shopping center in southern Arizona (USA). The settlement is likely from the Early Agricultural Period, which predates even the Hohokam culture which existed in southern and central Arizona from 500 CE to around 1450 CE.
About 145 archaeological features found so far, including 37 pit houses, the canal, 14 other architectural features, 87 features outside the settlement, and 6 burials. The remains make the site one of a half-dozen or so from that time discovered in this region since 1993.
Hohokam-era remains have also been found at this site, near the ground surface. The earlier remains were found about 4 metres below ground, from a period between 2000 BCE and 200 CE. The apparent canal had a U-shaped channel containing a layer of burnt charcoal, which is common for these canals. Workers also recovered an aquatic bird bone.
While there are no certain dates, the canal could come from the period 2500 to 1500 BCE, but probably isn't older than the region's earliest canals dating to 1500 to 1000 BCE, said independent geo-archaeological consultant Gary Huckleberry, who placed this canal's construction at 1000 BCE to 1 CE.
Discovery of this and similar sites, all along the Santa Cruz River, represent an archaeological milestone for this region, said Linda Mayro, Pima County's director of conservation and sustainability. Archaeologists have only begun to understand in the last 15 years or so that communities lived along the river up to 4,000 or more years ago, she said. Particularly important is that these communities had irrigated agriculture, usually growing maize.
"There has indeed been a revolution in archaeological perceptions of the beginnings of agriculture in the Sonoran Desert," added Suzanne Fish, a curator of archaeology at the Arizona State Museum. "We still know a limited amount about the early years of farming, however."
Edited from Arizona Daily Star (23 March 2014)
13 April 2014
New insights on ancient Portuguese horse engraving
Archaeologists Professor Dr George Nash and Dr Sara Garcês from the Earth and Memory Institute (ITM) in Central Portugal have been conducting fieldwork within the lower section of the Ocreza Valley for over 4 years. The fieldwork involves the recording of rock art within an 850 m stretch of the valley, at a point where the Ocreza flows into the Tagus River.
In the recent past, both rivers have been subjected to water levels dictated by the various dams that interfere with seasonal river flow. The team directors, who organise each year a field school devoted to rock art, have since 2011 been recording six panels. One of these is an Upper Palaeolithic engraving of a horse which was initially discovered in September 2000. Since then it has been the focus for further research.
The horse is engraved on a smooth angled-surface that forms part of a schist outcrop and appears to be headless. However, a recent tracing exercise in the summer of 2013 revealed that this figure did in fact possess a head. The style of the figure is representative of other engraved Upper Palaeolithic horses found elsewhere within the western part of the Iberian Peninsula. Among them, the famous Mazouco Horse in the Freixo-de-Espada-à-Cinta Parish in North Portugal and the Upper Palaeolithic open-air rock art engravings form the Côa Valley, an UNESCO World Heritage Site; here horse represents at least 35% of all engravings from the distant period of time.
More important to this the landscape position in which the engraving is located. This and other horse engravings appear to stand close to naturally forming seasonal rapids. Although this fact is difficult to assess, the directors of the field team have timed visits to the Ocreza Valley to coincide with natural seasonal water flow. The archaeologists suggest in a forthcoming paper that there a deliberate link between engraved horses, their landscape position and the running water.
To find out more, you can join the experts at the field school and come a trace more rock art within the valley. The 2014 field school runs between the July 9th to the 16th; more info on www.institutoterramemoria.org or contact George Nash on email@example.com.
Edited from George Nash PR (8 April 2014)
12 April 2014
Vandals damage rock art in Northumberland
Vandals carved into the historic rock art at Lordenshaw in Rothbury, Northumberland (England). Police are appealing for information after the rock panel near the Simonside Hills was targeted by vandals The site, below the Simonside Hills in Northumberland National Park, has sweeping views over the town and the Coquet Valley, and attracts many visitors. But now the words 'DONZ MIK JAZ' have been carved into a rock on the main cup and ring panel.
"A lot of local people are incredibly annoyed about this, because of the sense of pride in their local heritage," said national park historic environment officer Chris Jones. The rock art is part of a complex archaeological landscape at Lordenshaws, which was designated as a scheduled ancient monument as long ago as the 1950s because of its importance. "It is precious and a special place because it is a connection between the people from that area thousands of years ago to communities today," said Mr Jones.
Rob Young, English Heritage inspector for the North East, said: "Incidents like this are very rare. But Lordenshaws is a tremendous landscape ranging from the Neolithic to the medieval where people are given a fantastic insight into archaeology only 100 metres from a car park."
Neighbourhood Inspector Paul Truscott said: "We're working closely with Northumberland National Park and English Heritage and are carrying out inquiries to identify those responsible. The person or people who have done this might think it was nothing more than a bit of fun. However, they've spoilt an ancient monument that many people come to visit."
Anyone with information is asked to contact Northumbria Police on 101, quoting reference 487 070414, or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.
Edited from The Journal (9 April 2014)
Log boat dating back 4,500 years found in Ireland
A 4,500-year-old log boat is among 12 early Bronze Age, Iron Age and medieval craft that have been located in Lough Corrib (co. Galway and co. Mayo, Ireland), along with several Viking-style battle axes and other weapons.
The vessels were discovered by marine surveyor Capt Trevor Northage while mapping the western lake to update British admiralty charts. Investigative dives were subsequently carried out last summer by the underwater archaeology unit (UAU) of the National Monuments Service, and radiocarbon dating of samples was then conducted.
The 4,500-year-old log boat settled into the mud when it sank and was covered over time. A mixture of organic sediment and lake water assisted in the preservation process. Even the seats in the boats are preserved.
The oldest of the vessels located, the 4,500-year-old Annaghkeen log boat, had already been lying on the bed of Lough Corrib for 3,500 years when the Vikings arrived, Capt Northage has pointed out. The 12m vessel is almost identical to the Lurgan log boat found in 1902; and the Carrowneden boat found near Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, in 1996.
"The Annaghkeen boat was made from a very big tree, and it took a lot of skill and effort to make it," said UAU archaeologist Karl Brady. "The fact that all three boats were located within 30 miles of each other would suggest that they were made by the one builder, or that there was a vogue for early Bronze Age boats of this type," he said.
Capt Northage noted the Annaghkeen vessel was the same age as that estimated for the oak trackway recently revealed by storms along the north Galway shoreline. "These people were living in a very different landscape and working at the forefront of technology back then," he said.
All of the weapons have been recovered for conservation by the National Museum, including bronze spearheads and a very rare wooden spear. There are no immediate plans to raise the vessels, due to the high cost involved. "The lake water obviously has very good preservation qualities," Mr Brady said.
Edited from The Irish Times (9 April 2014), Irish Central (10 April)
Evidence of first human settlers in Scotland
An assemblage of over 5,000 flint artefacts was recovered in 2005 by Biggar Archaeology Group in fields at Howburn, near Biggar in South Lanarkshire (Scotland), and subsequent studies have dated their use to 14,000 years ago. Prior to the find, the oldest evidence of human occupation in Scotland could be dated to around 13,000 years ago at a now-destroyed cave site in Argyll.
Dating to the very earliest part of the late-glacial period, Howburn is likely to represent the first settlers in Scotland. The flint tools are strikingly close in design to similar finds in northern Germany and southern Denmark from the same period, a link which has helped experts to date them.
The new findings were revealed by Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs. The definitive findings will be published next year in a report funded by Historic Scotland.
The hunters who left behind the flint remains at Howburn came into Scotland in pursuit of game, probably herds of wild horses and reindeer, at a time when the climate improved following the previous severe glacial conditions. Glacial conditions returned again around 13,000 years ago and Scotland was once again depopulated, probably for another 1000 years, after which new groups with different types of flint tools make their appearance.
The nature of the physical connections made between the peoples in Scotland, Germany and southern Denmark is not yet understood. However the similarity in the design of the tools from the two regions offers tantalising glimpses of connections across what would have been dry land, now drowned by the North Sea.
Alan Saville, President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Senior Curator, Earliest Prehistory at the National Museums of Scotland and a specialist in the study of flaked flint and stone tools said: "These tools represent a real connection with archaeological finds in north-west Germany, southern Denmark and north-west Holland, a connection not seen elsewhere in Britain at this time. This discovery is both intriguing and revolutionises our ideas about where humans came from in this very early period. In southern Britain, early links are with northern France and Belgium. Howburn is just one chance discovery and further such discoveries will no doubt emerge."
Edited from Historic Scotland (9 April 2014)
Scottish standing stone returns to its age-old position
It has taken several weeks, a team of experts and two diggers, but an ancient monument in Highland Perthshire (Scotland) is standing proud once again. The Dane's Stone has been returned to its rightful place in a Moulin field following a painstaking process.
Despite standing strong for up to 6,000 years, the monolith toppled over in February after days of heavy rain. Studies of the site revealed that less than 20 inches of the huge stone, which is nearly seven-foot tall, remained underground at the time it fell. Time and agricultural work had taken its toll on the site surrounding the stone, exposing more of the base each year. In a bid to prevent this from happening again, a concrete pit has been created and about one third of the quartzite stone has been buried.
Oliver Lewis, senior heritage manager for Historic Scotland, said: "The height of the stone now is probably how high it was when it was first put up. Over the years, gradual agricultural improvements have removed the soil around it so, at the beginning of this year, around 2.1m (6.8ft) was above the ground and it was leaning. We have now set it deeper and I don't think it will fall over again in our lifetime."
Experts from Stockdale and Lyall Stonemasonry and CFA Archaeology Ltd oversaw the operation to put the monument back in position, which was paid for by Historic Scotland. The same team have carried out similar works in the past and were employed in Fife, when the Peekie standing stone at Boarhills fell over, and in Angus in 2011, when the Carlinwell stone at Airlie toppled.
After being strapped to two diggers, the Dane's Stone - which weighs 4.5 tonne - was carefully inched into place. Mr Lewis revealed several people had called Historic Scotland after it had fallen over. He added: "It must have been of some importance when it was originally put in place and it's nice that the present community cares about it so much."
Edited from The Courier (1 April 2014)
6 April 2014
'New' housing development at Stonehenge
Back in 2006 the remains of some Neolithic houses were discovered at Durrington Walls, close to Stonehenge (Wiltshire, England). The remains were dated at 2,500 BCE, which was approximately the same time that the Stonehenge sarsen stones were being erected. It is believed that the huts may have housed the construction workers or may even have acted as hotels for visitors to the sacred site.
Whilst being valuable archaeological finds in their own right, the house remains - together with information gained from similar dwelling remains found in Orkney - have provided enough information to enable reconstructions to be made. So a 60 strong team of volunteers are now nearing the completion of the erection of five dwellings adjacent to the new visitor centre. The replicas are as authentic as possible, even down to replicating the harvesting of coppiced hazel rods using flint axes.
Susan Greaney, senior properties historian at English Heritage, is quoted as saying "One of the things we're trying to do at Stonehenge is to reconnect the ancient stones with the people that lived and worked in the surrounding landscape. We hope these houses will give visitors a real insight into what life was like at the time Stonehenge was built. They are the product of archaeological evidence, educated guesswork, and a lot of hard physical work".
Edited from Times of Malta (21 March 2014)
1 April 2014
Excavation of Neolithic chambered tomb on Anglesey
A team from the Welsh Rock Art Organisation has begun excavating Ynys Môn's least-known Neolithic chambered tomb - Perthi Duon, on Anglesey, in northwest Wales - one of eighteen existing stone chambered monuments that stand within a 1.5 kilometre corridor of the Menai Straits.
In 1723 the antiquarian Henry Rowlands reported three possible upright stones beneath the large capstone, however by the time the Reverend John Skinner sketched the site in 1802 it was in a ruinous state.
The probable orientation of the entrance is east-west, with its concealed chamber at the western end. The team have so far uncovered several significant features, including areas of compacted-stone cairn that would once have formed a kidney-shaped mound surrounding the chamber.
Team director Dr George Nash says that "This discovery, along with other excavated features clearly show this monument to be a portal dolmen, one of the earliest Neolithic monument types in Wales, dating to around 3,500 BCE. More importantly, the architecture of Perthi Duon appears to be a blueprint for other portal dolmen monuments within what is termed the Irish Sea Province. We hope, by the end of this excavation to gain a better understanding of the burial and ritual practices that went on at this site, some 5,500 years ago."
Edited from University of Bristol (21 March 2014)
Earliest complete example of human cancer found
In 2013 the skeleton of an adult male was found in a tomb at the Amara West site in northern Sudan. Dated to 1200 BCE, he is estimated to have been between 25 and 35 years old when he died. He was buried extended on his back within a painted wooden coffin, and provided with a glazed faience amulet.
The skeleton showed cancer metastasized on the collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones. It is the oldest convincing complete example of metastatic cancer in the archaeological record. Researchers say that an underlying schistosomiasis infection seems a plausible explanation, as the disease had plagued inhabitants of Egypt and Nubia since at least 1500 BCE, and is now recognised as a cause of bladder cancer and breast cancer in men.
The discovery will help to explore underlying causes of cancer in ancient populations, and provide insights into the evolution of cancer in the past.
Even though cancer is one of the world's leading causes of death today, it remains almost absent from the archaeological record compared to other pathological conditions, giving rise to the conclusion that the disease is mainly a product of modern living and increased longevity. These findings suggest that cancer is not only a modern disease but was already present in the Nile Valley in ancient times.
Co-author Dr Neal Spencer from the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, said: "From footprints left on wet mud floors, to the healed fractures of many ancient inhabitants, Amara West offers a unique insight into what it was like to live there - and die - in Egyptian-ruled Upper Nubia 3200 years ago."
The tomb where the skeleton was found appears to have been used for high-status individuals from the town, but not the ruling elite - based on the tomb's architecture and aspects of funerary ritual, which blend Pharaonic elements (burial goods, painted coffins) with Nubian culture (a low mound to mark the tomb).
The well preserved pottery recovered from the tomb provides a date within the 20th Dynasty (1187-1064 BCE), a period when Egypt ruled Upper Nubia, endured conflicts with Libya, and pharaohs such as Ramses III were being buried in the Valley of the Kings.
Edited from Popular Archaeology (17 March 2014), BioNews Texas (19 March 2014)
European hunter-gatherers had blue eyes and dark skin
A study conducted by Carles Lalueza-Fox, a researcher at the Spanish National Research Council's Institute of Evolutionary Biology, says that the individual known as La Braa 1, whose 7,000 year old remains were recovered at the La Braa-Arintero site in Valdelugueros (Castile and Léon, Spain), had blue eyes and dark skin.
In 2012, a team of scientists led by Dr Lalueza-Fox recovered part of the genome of two individuals - the first of European hunter-gatherers from the Mesolithic Period. The two are not directly connected to current populations of the Iberian Peninsula, but were closer to current populations of northern Europe, such as Sweden and Finland, and La Braa 1 has a common ancestor with the settlers of the Upper Paleolithic site of Malta, located in Lake Baikal (Siberia).
The Mesolithic period ended with the spread of agriculture and livestock farming from the Middle-East. The arrival of the Neolithic period, with carbohydrate-based diets and new pathogens transmitted by domesticated animals, resulted in metabolic and immunological challenges that were reflected in genetic adaptations such as the ability to digest lactose, which the La Braa individual did not have.
Dr Lalueza-Fox notes the biggest surprise was that this individual possessed African versions in the genes that determine the light pigmentation of the current Europeans, indicating he had dark skin.
A researcher who works at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, adds: "Even more surprising was to find that he possessed the genetic variations that produce blue eyes in current Europeans, resulting in a unique phenotype in a genome that is otherwise clearly northern European."
Dr Lalueza-Fox concludes that "there is genetic continuity in the populations of central and western Eurasia. In fact, these data are consistent with the archeological remains, as in other excavations in Europe and Russia, including the site of Malta, anthropomorphic figures called Palaeolithic Venus have been recovered and they are very similar to each other."
Edited from BioNews Texas (11 March 2014)
31 March 2014
Unveiling the secrets of Dutch 'Celtic fields'
Archaeological excavations have finally answered questions regarding the age and development of prehistoric fields enclosed by earthen ridges, known in the Netherlands as 'Celtic fields'.
Using Optically Stimulated Luminescence, a technique that dates the last exposure to light or heat sources of quartz minerals, archaeologist Stijn Arnoldussen from the University of Groningen determined that banks around the later prehistoric field plots were constructed more than 3100 years ago, and remained in use for hundreds of years.
Arnoldussen's research indicates the banks were constructed of sods taken from wet heathlands or stream valleys, brought to the settlements, mixed with dung and domestic refuse, and taken back to the field plots as manure. Uprooting field weeds and discarding them at the field's edges gradually came to form banks between fields.
Arnoldussen says the fields are one of the most extensive and still visible types of archaeology in the Dutch landscape. The field complex investigated by the Groningen Institute of Archaeology at Lunteren measured at least 210 hectares in prehistory.
The banks were constructed around 1100 BCE, but were still increasing in height 700 years later, representing an agricultural landscape of unprecedented stability and durability. Palaeobotanical analyses showed that barley, wheat and flax were cultivated.
"We now know the age of several banks in two Dutch Celtic fields, yet the precise ways in which the Celtic field agriculture was executed (crop rotation, fallow period, and interspersed occupation) and whether Celtic fields in other parts of the Low Countries are similar, remains unclear", says Arnoldussen. This summer he will excavate another Celtic field, this time within the coversand landscapes of the Southern Netherlands.
Edited from Past Horizons (23 March 2014)
Recent research on prehistoric buildings near Liverpool
Eighteen months ago, archaeologists found traces of two substantial buildings measuring between 4m and 6m across on a low sandy promontory in the valley of the River Alt, at Lunt, near Liverpool (Merseyside, England). Burnt timbers from one of them gave a date of about 5800 BCE.
Ron Cowell, Curator of Prehistoric Archaeology at the Museum of Liverpool, and his team have been working to catalogue the site. Cowell remarks: "What is surprising about the buildings at Lunt is that they use small sand ridges and banks in the landscape as part of the structure, which then extend outwards in curves of post-holes and stake holes. This makes them appear much more architecturally sophisticated than the more usually found Mesolithic sites which are mostly interpreted as small, ephemeral, temporary camp sites."
Both buildings seem to have had multiple phases of use, and it is possible the site was occupied for quite some time on a repeated, semi-permanent basis. Coarse stone tools and finer worked flint have been recovered from inside the structures, as well as large amounts of chert.
According to Cowell, "the nearest source for chert would have been at least 30 miles (50 kilometres) away in North Wales or even further away if it came from Derbyshire."
The site appears to have been flooded by about 5000 BCE. After laying at the bottom of a shallow lake for several hundred years, it was inundated by the sea.
Edited from Crosby Herald (20 March 2014)
Ancient pollen reveals how humans shaped forests
A new study of pollen samples from tropical forests in southeast Asia suggests humans have shaped these landscapes for thousands of years, finding signs of imported seeds, plants cultivated for food, and land clearance as early as 11,000 years ago - around the end of the last Ice Age.
Researchers led by palaeo-ecologist Chris Hunt, of Queen's University, Belfast, analysed existing data and examined samples from Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Thailand and Vietnam.
Pollen offers an important key for unlocking the history of human activity. It can survive for thousands of years in the right conditions, and paint a picture of vegetation over time.
In the Kelabit Highlands of Borneo, for example, pollen samples dated to about 6,500 years ago contain abundant evidence of fire. Scientists know that specific weeds and trees that flourish in charred ground would typically emerge in the wake of naturally occurring or accidental blazes, but what Hunt's team found instead was evidence of fruit trees. "This indicates that the people who inhabited the land intentionally cleared it of forest vegetation and planted sources of food in its place. It has long been believed that the rainforests of the Far East were virgin wildernesses, where human impact has been minimal," Hunt says.
This kind of research could also present powerful information for people who live in these forests today. According to Hunt, "Laws in several countries in Southeast Asia do not recognise the rights of indigenous forest dwellers on the grounds that they are nomads who leave no permanent mark on the landscape." The long history of forest management traced by this study, he says, offers these groups "a new argument in their case against eviction."
Edited from Smithsonia.com (5 March 2014)