23 January 2021
Massive cursus monument discovered on a Scottish isle
The discovery of a cursus monument site at Tormore on the Isle of Arran (North Ayrshire), which is more than a kilometre long, is helping to reshape Neolithic history in Scotland.
Cursus monuments were often defined by long lines of timber posts, forming a long rectangle, and were amongst the most spectacular features in the Neolithic landscape. The posts may have served as a procession route, perhaps to honour the dead. Some were burned to the ground in an almighty display which is believed to have been part of the ceremonies associated with these huge monuments.
Dave Cowley, Rapid Archaeological Mapping Programme Manager at Historic Environment Scotland, who discovered the site following a laser scan of Arran, described the cursus monument as a 'cathedral of the day'.
He said: "Arran has got some cracking Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology but we are still surprised that this monument is here. It adds a whole additional dimension to what the archaeology of the Neolithic on Arran can tell us. It is like finding a whole new layer in a box of chocolates of new things. What this example at Tormore tells is there are probably actually many more on them but because they were built from timber, you are not likely to see them in the unimproved peat landscape of the west coast."
Mr Cowley detected the site after picking up two lines of mounds, which lie roughly parallel and stand 30 to 40 centimetres high, and which run for around a kilometre. He said: "When you look at the topography, it very slightly runs to the crest of a ridge. They have been very careful how they have positioned this monument. There probably was a superstructure here but we won't know for sure without excavation. It would have had impact. There is an element of design to it, a form of landscape architecture. It does seem likely that there were timber elements built into it. Whether or not it was set on fire we just don't know at the moment."
The site was discovered following an aerial laser scan of the site using Light Detection and Ranging (Lidar) technology, which uses laser pulses to measure objects. Images can then be reworked by filtering out vegetation or by changing the way it is lit which can then reveal previously unknown characteristics in the land. More than 1,000 unknown archaeological sites have been found on Arran using the technology.
Edited from The Scotsman (20 January 2021)
Bronze Age hoards full of standardized objects
In the Early Bronze Age of Europe, ancient people used bronze objects as an early form of money, even going so far as to standardize the shape and weight of their currency, according to a study by Maikel H. G. Kuijpers and Catalin N. Popa of Leiden University, Netherlands.
One key feature of money is standardization, but this can be difficult to identify in the archaeological record since ancient people had inexact forms of measurement compared with today, so the scientists assessed possible money from the Early Bronze Age of Central Europe, comparing the objects based on their perceived - if not precise - similarity.
The objects studied were made of bronze in shapes described as rings, ribs, and axe blades. The authors examined more than 5,000 such objects from more than 100 ancient hoards. They statistically compared the objects' weights using a psychology principle known as the Weber fraction, which quantifies the concept that, if objects are similar enough in mass, a human being weighing them by hand can't tell the difference.
They found that even though the objects' weights varied, around 70% of the rings were similar enough to have been indistinguishable by hand (averaging about 195 grams), as were subsets of the ribs and axe blades.
The authors suggest that this consistent similarity in shape and weight, along with the fact that these objects often occurred in hoards, are signs of their use as an early form of standardized currency. Later, in the Middle Bronze Age of Europe, more precise weighing tools appear in the archaeological record along with an increase in scrap bronze, pointing to a developed system of weighing.
The authors add: "The euros of Prehistory came in the form of bronze rings, ribs and axes. These Early Bronze Age artefacts were standardized in shape and weight and used as an early form of money."
Ancient site in Orkney under threat from coastal erosion
The pandemic has stopped the race to save archaeological remains at Knowe of Swandro on the island of Rousay, Orkney (Scotland), which are being eaten away by rising tides and storm surges. The site houses a 5,500-year-old Neolithic burial chamber, the remains of a large and unusual high-status Iron Age roundhouse, Pictish dwellings, a smithy, and a grand Norse Hall.
The coastal site has long been damaged by rising tides and coastal erosion and now archaeologists are 'keeping their fingers crossed' that it will still be there when they return to Rousay once the health emergency abates.
Dr Julie Bond and Dr Stephen Dockrill, of Bradford University, have retrieved material from Swandro for the past 10 years but with last year's excavation cancelled due to the pandemic and next summer's dig in doubt, there are now real concerns over what will be left when they return.
Dr Dockrill said: "Every year we are getting big erosion events with storm surges coming into the site and taking material away. The other thing is that the daily tide is coming in and out and every time archaeological material is going into solution. By not being there, we will have lost a lot of material on the seaward side."
A priority is the rescue excavation of the chambered tomb, which is likely to hold Neolithic burial remains, which sits under an unsual Iron Age roundhouse. The large roundhouse, which has now been dated to 800 to 400 BCE, is also of particular interest given it is up 700 years older than similar buildings.
The archaeologists usually welcome a large, international team of students to assist with the excavations at Swandro with a collective of multi-disciplinary experts lined up to work on the site. Dr Bond said the situation was 'frustrating' but that safety of the team and of the island took absolute priority .
To support the work at Swandro, visit www.swandro.co.uk
Edited from The Scotsman (16 January 2021)
Teeth pendants speak of the elk's prominent status in prehistory
Roughly 8,200 years ago, the island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov in Lake Onega in the Republic of Karelia, Russia, housed a large burial ground where people of varying ages were buried. Many of the graves contain an abundance of pendants made of elk incisors that were apparently attached to clothing and accessories, such as dresses, coats, cloaks, headdresses and belts. Although no clothing material has been preserved, the location of the elk teeth sheds light on the possible type of these outfits.
A study headed by archaeologist Kristiina Mannermaa, University of Helsinki, aimed to determine who the people buried in outfits decorated with elk tooth ornaments were, and what the pendants meant to them. The study analyzed the manufacturing technique of a total of more than 4,000 tooth ornaments, or the way in which the teeth had been processed for attachment or suspension. The results were surprising, as practically all of the teeth had been processed identically by making one or more small grooves at the tip of the root, which made tying the pendants easier.
"Even though there are pendants made of beaver and bear teeth in the graves, the share of elk teeth in them is overwhelming," Mannermaa says. Typically, only one or at the most a couple of different groove types were prevalent in individual graves. This indicates that the pendants found in a specific grave or cluster were the result of routine serial production of sorts carried out in a fairly short period of time.
"Interestingly, the grooves were not always made on the broadest side of the tooth, which would be the easiest option. In many graves, the grooves are on the thin side of the tooth where the unstable position of the tooth makes them harder to do. The artisan may have resorted to this method in order to tie them in a specific position," researcher Riitta Rainio notes. The tooth pendants found in graves located in the Baltic area and Scandinavia from the same period as the Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov graves are almost exclusively perforated.
To many indigenous peoples in Eurasia, decorations have been and still are an important way of describing a person's identity and origin. They are connected to intercommunity communication and the strengthening of intracommunity uniformity. And elk was the most important animal in the ideology and beliefs of the prehistorical hunter-gatherers of the Eurasian forest zone, so their limited availability made elk teeth a valuable material to ancient hunters.
The largest ornaments required the teeth of at least 8 to 18 elks. The highest number of elk teeth were found in the graves of young adult women and men, the lowest in those of children and elderly people. In other words, elk tooth ornaments were in one way or another linked to age, possibly specifically to the peak reproductive years.
Edited from PhysORG (14 January 2021)
DNA reveals Asian migration and plague
Genomic data from the remains of 40 individuals in northeastern Asia reveals the region has a complex history of migrations.
Around 8300 years ago there was a migratory event discernible both east and west of Lake Baikal, but there were also events specific for each of the two areas. Evidence for recurrent migrations and intense mobility west of the lake contrasts with thousands of years of continuity with limited mobility to the east - markedly different patterns of demographic change in one of the world's least populated regions.
The study also provides clues to the history of the Palaeo-Inuit groups who inhabited northern Greenland and Canada; it has been suspected that a cultural group in the Baikal area played a part in the early history of Palaeo-Inuits. Analyses of the 6000-year-old remains of an individual associated with the culture show an association to a roughly 4,000-year-old individual on Greenland - the first genetic evidence of a link between a Neolithic period human group in Yakutia and the later Palaeo-Inuit groups.
One individual dated to about 3800 years ago from the Lena river basin east of the lake carried DNA from Yersinia pestis - the bacteria which causes plague - as did an individual from west of the lake dated to around 4400 years ago. Judging from the genomic data, the population west of the lake seems to have decreased in size around 4400 years ago - possible evidence a prehistoric plague, and potentially supporting an origin for the plague in Europe rather than Asia.
Edited from EuekAlert! (7 January 2021)
The future for England's Rock Art website
The England Rock Art (ERA) website was originally launched in summer 2008 as a project to catalogue carvings in the Northumberland region. Since then it has been added to, principally with records from the Beckensall archive previously stored with Newcastle University.
The website in its current form is being shut down on January 15th 2021. The site has a core interest group, and efforts are under way to ensure the database is archived, maintained, and publicly accessible. In this case, and because the resource was already held by the Archaeology Data Service (ADS), the data are secure and will be made publicly accessible as soon as possible. The data will be better curated, and access broadened. Raw data will be built upon to develop the archive into an ADS Special Collection which replicates the database and map-based experiences. The work is being done as a staff training exercise, so timescale for completion is less certain but an advanced interface could be ready in 2021.
Edited from Archaeology Data Service (6 January 2021)
New hypothesis for origin of Amazonian Dark Earths
Amazonian Dark Earths (ADEs) are unusually fertile soils characterised by elevated concentrations of charcoal. Discovered decades ago in central Brazil, ADEs are regarded as a Pan-Amazonian phenomenon. Frequent occurrences of pre-Columbian artefacts at ADE sites led to their classification as soils of human origin, though it remains unclear how areas of high fertility became established in one of the most nutrient-impoverished environments on Earth.
New data from a well-studied site in the Brazilian Amazon reveal levels of phosphorus and calcium - two of the least abundant macronutrients in the region - which are orders of magnitude higher in ADE profiles than in the surrounding soil, beginning several thousands of years before the earliest evidence of soil management for plant cultivation in the region.
Amazonian landscapes are dominated by soils characterised by high acidity and low nutrient concentrations. Native plant species display adaptations which allow the soils to maintain some of the most productive ecosystems on Earth while limiting food production even under intensive management.
The Amazon basin has a complex history of occupation and land use. Prior to European contact, indigenous peoples relied on more than 80 different plant species. Three main phases of human occupation are thought to have occurred: a pre-cultivation period more than 6000 years ago, an early-cultivation period 6000 to 2500 years ago, and a late-cultivation period 2500 to 500 years ago - a chronology supported by genomic, linguistic, and archaeological evidence.
Recent findings indicate domestication of native plant species dates back more than 10,000 years in western Amazonia. Complex societies relying on soil management for agriculture occur less than 4000 years ago. Some of the earliest evidence of settlements comes from the Peruvian Andes, where records of deforestation and soil erosion exist for much of the past 6900 years. For most of the Amazon basin the earliest evidence of intensive cultivation falls between 3380 and 700 years ago. ADEs are rare near Andean settlements; the vast majority are thousands of kilometres away in the central and eastern Brazilian Amazon, where evidence of management is more recent - 2500 to 500 years ago.
The latest research focused on a typical well-studied ADE site, thought to have originated from a large settlement less than 2000 years ago. Artefacts are found in charcoal-rich soil layers where vestiges of human faeces are also present. The current view attributes those layers to biomass burning, but experiments show this inadequate to replicate basic characteristics of indigenous ADEs. At the study site, the enrichment of micro-charcoal and mineral elements began around 7630 years ago, before the earliest evidence of soil management that characterizes the late-cultivation period. To achieve the observed levels of enrichment, large human populations would have had to actively manage soils continuously for thousands of years prior to the currently accepted chronology of settlement. The study found direct and indirect evidence that natural processes were responsible, suggesting indigenous peoples used their knowledge to settle areas of exceptionally high fertility before the onset of intensive land use in central Amazonia.
Ice Age wolf domestication
Ancient northern Eurasian hunter-gatherers may have had a role in the early domestication of wolves 14,000 to 29,000 years ago.
During winter, when the meat of game hunted by both species was lean, prey animals would have provided more protein than humans could safely consume. Although humans may have relied on an animal-based diet during winters when plant-based foods were limited, they were probably not adapted to an entirely protein-based diet and may have favored meat rich in fat and grease. Wolves can survive on a solely protein-based diet for months, and humans may have fed excess lean meat to pet wolves during winter months, facilitating their use as hunting aids and guards, eventually leading to full domestication.
Based on estimates of how much energy would have been left over from the meat of species that were also typical wolf prey species, such as horses, moose, and deer, study authors Maria Lahtinen of the Finnish Food Authority in Helsinki and colleagues hypothesise that if wolves and humans had hunted the same animals during harsh winters, humans would have killed wolves to reduce competition rather than domesticate them. With the exception of Mustelids such as weasels, the authors found that all prey species would have supplied more protein than humans could consume, resulting in excess that could be fed to wolves, reducing the competition for prey.
That idea is largely based on inferences from previous research on how ancient hunter-gatherers survived in arctic environments, and new calculations suggesting that Ice Age groups could not have eaten all of the lean meat that was hunted.
The researchers' calculations assume that, like some arctic hunter-gatherers today, ancient humans acquired 45 percent of their calories from animal protein. Humans can't eat a completely carnivorous diet because our livers can derive only part of our energy needs from protein. Ice Age hunter-gatherers probably focused on extracting fatty marrow and grease from the bones of prey to meet energy needs, leaving plenty of lean meat available as wolf food. Competition between humans and wolves for prey would have declined as generations of pet wolves gradually evolved into dogs.
Remains of Iron Age village discovered in Essex
The remains of an Iron Age village has been found at Tye Green, about 70 kilometres northeast of London. Fieldwork suggests the site was important in the late Iron Age and early Roman periods.
The site has a large defensive enclosure dug in the late 1st century BCE, with 17 roundhouses and 17 semi-circular shapes which could have been windbreaks. Smaller semi-circular structures are also associated with hearths. The depth of the roundhouse gullies suggests the buildings were up to 15 metres in diameter. Archaeologists say the enclosure had an avenue-like entrance aligned with the central roundhouse. Other structures are similar to medieval granary stores.
Among other finds was an area with large amounts of animal bone and oyster shell, and votive offerings with a possible link to the Cult of Mercury, Roman god of communication and commerce. Artefacts discovered include more than 100 brooches ranging from the 1st century BCE to 3rd century CE, 10 Iron Age coins, Roman coins, hairpins, beads, finger rings, and a copper alloy cockerel figurine.
The settlement was expanded but some time during the later 1st century CE a number of the larger roundhouses burned and the main enclosure was cleared. Oxford Archaeology researchers say this could be evidence for reprisals following the Boudiccan uprising, or simply the settlement devolving into nearby villas and smaller farmsteads.
Edited from Dunmow Broadcast (2 January 2021)
Neolithic axe discovered in southern India
A Neolithic axe has been discovered around 175 kilometres south of Hyderabad. Dr E Sivanagireddy, archaeologist and CEO, Cultural Centre of Vijayawada and Amaravati, found the tool while on a survey of archaeological remains in and around Somasila village, on the left bank of the Krishna river. The celt measures about 100 by 50 by 25 millimetres, with very sharp ground and polished edges.
The tool has a patina of lime and ash, indicating it was dumped in a pit after use. Based on evidence from a nearby village in which a Neolithic habitation was excavated in the early 1980s, Dr Sivanagireddy dates the tool to between 4,000 BCE and 2,000 BCE, when domestication of animals, intensification of agriculture, and settlements began in the region. Neolithic tools such as discoids, pestles, and grinding stones were recovered two decades ago from the same village.
Earliest evidence for stone grinding tool
Stone gaming pieces have been found in the Tabun Caves at Mount Carmel National Park about 75 kilometres north of Tel Aviv. They are made from rocks using simple tools. The site has intermittently been home to people from 500,000 to 40,000 years ago and declared by UNESCO as having "universal value" showing stages of human evolution.
The discovery shows that 350,000 years ago, our ancestors played games using rocks that were heated and used as different pieces - much like today where different shaped pieces of a game hold different values.
Until 2017 it was thought that Homo sapiens were only 160,000 years old. The discovery in Tabun helps to confirm a discovery in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, which suggested that our species is probably closer to 350,000 years old.
The research conducted by the University of Haifa also proves that 350,000 years ago our ancestors used fire as part of their everyday life - itself an important discovery.
Dr Ron Shimelmitz, of Haifa University's Archaeology Department, says that until now it was thought that Homo sapiens used techniques to make game pieces similar to modern humans only 150,000 years ago; "The period of time 200,000 to 400,000 years ago is a period of important technological innovations and significant changes," Shimelmitz adds.
Edited from The Jerusalem Post (27 December 2020)
Scientists solve 5,000-year-old murder
A fractured skull was found during an excavation at the archaeological site of Cova Foradada in northeastern Spain in 1999. The man was killed 5,000 years ago, but the cause of his death has only now been established.
Miguel Angel Moreno-Ibanez, main researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Palaeo-ecology and Social Evolution (IPHES), says the skull came from a Neolithic collective burial in the cave with around 18 individual remains. The man - said to have been in his 50s - died at a time when our ancestors were forming into small communities and increasingly warring among themselves. Researchers have identified a dramatic increase in the number of killings in this period, based on injuries people suffered.
The man received a blow to the right parietal area of the skull (above and behind the right ear) which shows no evidence of having healed. Experts believe a heavy object was the cause of death. "It was like a small-sized hoe, very common in the Neolithic period that was used as a weapon."
The skull also has two antemortem fractures that were healed - in the occipital (rear) and the right side, both from years before the man's death - and a post-mortem fracture in the lower occipital area.
7 January 2021
2,000 pieces of plastic found at Iron Age site in Wales
Castell Henllys is the site of an Iron Age village in the Welsh Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. It was once home to a wealthy family that included a community of up to 100 people who worked together to produce food and materials 2,000 years ago. The site includes four reconstructed roundhouses, which are circular structures with conical roofs made of wood and straw. Archaeologists and researchers rebuilt these structures using the same materials villagers would have used during the Iron Age.
After standing for nearly 30 years each and being visited by countless tourists and about 6,000 school children per year, the sites of the roundhouses provided a unique opportunity for researchers. What began as an experiment to understand how building materials decay and degrade over time turned into something else when the researchers uncovered a wealth of plastic - 2,000 plastic items to be exact.
Although the historic site is well maintained and cleaned, small plastic remnants of activity by visitors - children routinely eating lunches in one of the structures - were able to hide beneath benches in dark corners of the roundhouses. Among the plastic fragments were utensils, bottle caps, straws, straw wrappers, plastic bags, plastic food wrap, candy wrappers and even apple stickers.
"The amount of plastic litter was a surprise," said Professor Harold Mytum, lead researcher and professor of archaeology at the University of Liverpool. "The plastic creates an archaeological signature of our time (the Anthropocene), but one which is environmentally damaging," Mytum said.
The team said the discoveries would help uncover how and where plastic waste accumulates, to reduce the amount incorporated in the ground. They are also working with Pembrokeshire Coast National Park to help educate the public and raise awareness over environmental concerns that might be raised by something so simple as a school packed lunch. But Mytum also said he hoped the Plastic Age did not last millennia, like the Iron Age. "With many initiatives now pushing to switch from disposable plastic and plasticised items, this may be a narrow, but archaeologically distinctive chronological horizon," he added.
Prehistoric ivory items from Siberia
The skill of ivory softening was used more than 12,000 years ago to make tools - or decorations - that still puzzle modern science. A dozen solid elongated ivory bars crafted from softened ivory, and several figurines made from spongy parts of large mammoth bones, and resembling various animals were found at the Afontova Gora-2 archeological site by river Yenisey in Krasnoyarsk (Russia).
The finds were made in early 2000, but were re-examined recently by Dr Evgeny Artemyev who said that the figurines can be either Ice Age toys made by people who populated this area of the modern-day Siberia, or a form of primeval art. "When you look at them at different angles, they resemble different types of animals. It is possible that this is the new form of Palaeolithic art," the archeologist said.
The two prehistoric figurines appear similar to a bear and a mammoth, says Dr Artemyev, who has worked at the site since the 1990s. Looked at from another angle, one of the figurines may be a sleeping human.
"The mammoth tusk was softened to the extent that it resembled modern-day playdough. We don't know yet how ancient people achieved that", Dr Artemyev said. "On the items we can see traces of stone implements and the flows of the substance before it stiffened. This means that the tusk was softened significantly, the consistency was viscous."
While the scientists can't yet fathom why these shapes were made, the 'playdough' crafting technique helps them realise that these ancient people had much greater skills than they have imagined.
Edited from Siberian Times (2 January 2021)
Ancient stone tower conserved in Scotland
The ruins of Ousdale Burn Broch, north of Helmsdale in Caithness (Scotland), had fallen into further disrepair over the past 130 years. A wall near the entrance to the broch had collapsed and a tree was growing inside the structure. Conservation work was delayed by the Covid pandemic and by a caravan being dumped by fly-tippers at the site.
Brochs date back to 2,000 years ago and were built to heights of more than 12m (40ft). It is thought they were used as dwellings, perhaps for local chieftains. Caithness is home to about 200 brochs.
Ousdale broch was once been described as one of the best preserved brochs in Caithness. Excavations caused damage in 1891 and parts of the site collapsed and suffered structural damage in 2013 and 2015. Damage has been repaired and engineers have installed protection to prevent further deterioration of the broch.
Archaeological charity, Caithness Broch Project, secured £180,000 of funding for the work and it is hoped that the site will become a tourist attraction. Chairman Robin Herrick said: "I think it will become a big attraction not just for visiting tourists but for regular users of the A9 from Inverness to Caithness who will have passed by many times without realising what a special place it is."
Edited from BBC News (8 December 2020)