Monday, April 28, 2008

7500-year old dental drills found in Pakistan


I was researching ancient dental health and came across this interesting article:

"Primitive dentists drilled nearly perfect holes into live but undoubtedly unhappy patients between 5500 B.C. and 7000 B.C., an article in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature reports. Researchers carbon-dated at least nine skulls with 11 drill holes found in a Pakistan graveyard.That means dentistry is at least 4,000 years older than first thought.
This was no mere tooth tinkering. The drilled teeth found in the graveyard were hard-to-reach molars. And in at least one instance, the ancient dentist managed to drill a hole in the inside back end of a tooth, boring out toward the front of the mouth.

The holes went as deep as one-seventh of an inch (3.5 millimeters).


How it was done is painful just to think about. Researchers figured that a small bow was used to drive the flint drill tips into patients’ teeth. Flint drill heads were found on site. So study lead author Roberto Macchiarelli, an anthropology professor at the University of Poitiers, France, and colleagues simulated the technique and drilled through human (but no longer attached) teeth in less than a minute."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Alexander the Great's Crown and Shield Discovered?


I think this is absolutely exciting! I have been fascinated by Alexander the Great since reading Mary Renault's trilogy, "Fire From Heaven", "The Persian Boy", and "Funeral Games". I found "The Persian Boy" by accident at an antique shop in a little eastern Oregon town and became mesmerized by the portrayal of Alexander in it. I researched the author and learned about her other works which I eagerly acquired. Later I studied the ancient biography of Alexander by Arrian and listened to an excellent Teaching Company Course, "Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age". Alexander was not without faults but was certainly a visionary and charismatic warrior. I've always wished that something of this amazing man would be found someday.

"An ancient Greek tomb thought to have held the body of Alexander the Great's father is actually that of Alexander's half brother, researchers say. This may mean that some of the artifacts found in the tomb—including a helmet, shield, and silver "crown"—originally belonged to Alexander the Great himself. Alexander's half brother is thought to have claimed these royal trappings after Alexander's death.

The tomb was one of three royal Macedonian burials excavated in 1977 by archaeologists working in the northern Greek village of Vergina.

Excavators at the time found richly appointed graves with artifacts including a unique silver headband, an iron helmet, and a ceremonial shield, along with a panoply of weapons and an object initially identified as a scepter.

"[Archaeologists] announced that the burial in the main chamber of the large rich [tomb] was that of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, who was assassinated in 336 B.C," said Eugene N. Borza, professor emeritus of ancient history at Pennsylvania State University.

But recent analyses of the tombs and the paintings, pottery, and other artifacts found there, suggest that the burials are in fact one generation more recent than had previously been thought, Borza said.

He contacted Olga Palagia, an art historian at the University of Athens, to evaluate the tombs' construction, pottery, and paintings.

Soon the duo realized the significance of the fact that Tomb II and Tomb III were built using a curved ceilings called barrel vaults.

"The earliest securely dated barrel vault in Greece dates to the late 320s [B.C.], nearly a generation after the death of Philip II," Borza told National Geographic News.

Palagia also found that paintings on the exterior frieze of the tomb reflected themes that were likely from the age of Alexander the Great, rather than that of his father.

The paintings depict a ritual hunt scene with Asian themes, suggesting influences resulting from Alexander's extensive campaigns to the east.

The six-foot (two-meter) scepter found at the burial site is another clue, Borza added.

"We have several surviving coins issued in his own lifetime showing Alexander holding what appears to be a scepter of about that height," he said.

Additionally, a number of silver vessels discovered in Tomb II and Tomb III are inscribed with their ancient weights, which use a measurement system introduced by Alexander the Great a generation after Philip II's death."

Artifact with Hellenistic influence discovered at Sassanid city


Another artifact rescued from dam construction in Iran:

"A team of archaeologists working at the ruins of a Sassanid city in southern Iran’s Fars Province has recently discovered an artifact bearing some traces of the Hellenistic artistic style.

The artifact bears images of two faces looking in the opposite direction engraved on a flat piece of ivory, the Persian service of CHN reported on Monday.

It is only the second time such an artifact has been found at an ancient site in Iran.

"The influence of Hellenistic art is clearly observed in the appearance of the eyes of the faces," team director Alireza Jafari-Zand said.

The artifact is estimated to date back to a period between 200 BC and 200 CE when local states, which were concurrent with the Parthian Empire, appeared to rule the region after the Seleucids, he explained.

A similar artifact had been identified by a foreign archaeologist at an ancient site in the Izeh region of Khuzestan Province about 70 years ago.

The 360-hectare city contains ruins of structures from the Parthian and the Sasanian dynasty eras as well as the post-Sasanian period.

The Sasanian city located behind the Salman-e Farsi Dam, and will be completely destroyed when the dam authorities complete the inundation process."

Product Branding in Ancient Mesopotamia

Apparently, advertising logos were developed much earlier than most people thought!

"David Wengrow, [archaeologist at University College London], claims that bottle stops used 5000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, the birthplace of cities and writing, were stamped with symbols that marked them out as the earliest evidence of branded goods.

Wengrow believes that they were promotional logos, along the lines of those used by Microsoft and Nike.

He said that around 8000 years ago, village-dwelling Mesopotamians started making personalised stone seals, which they pressed into the caps and stoppers used to seal food and drink.

Originally these marked commodities would have been traded directly with neighbours and travellers, reports New Scientist magazine.

But they turned into brands when urbanisation began in Mesopotamia - a little over 5000 years ago - when traders encountered more strangers and city residents increasingly had to deal with products of uncertain origin.

Wengrow said the symbols in caps and stoppers came to play an important role in telling people about the quality and origins of products such as oils and wine.

Many stoppers have been found in the ancient city of Uruk, now in southern Iraq, where some 20,000 people lived 5000 years ago.

The symbols impressed on their surfaces are the first images in human history to be mechanically mass produced, said Wengrow..."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A brief history of sheep domestication


A concise and interesting article about the history of domesticated sheep:

"The animal [sheep] originated in central Asia 10,000 years ago, valued for their wool and meat. The earliest sheep growers used their fleece as a kind of tunic, but it wasn't until 3,500 B.C. man learned how to spin wool.

Sheep and wool spread to Europe between 3,000 B.C. and 1,000 B.C., traveling mainly through ancient Greece. Over the next 1,000 years, Greeks, Romans and Persians contributed to improvements in sheep breeds. The Romans were also responsible for the spread of sheep to North Africa and Europe.

As far as sheep in England go, the Romans established a woolen manufacturer in Winchester as early as A.D. 50. This commodity is closely interwoven with the history of England. Legend has it the first sheep were brought to the island by the Phoenicians some time between 800 and 500 B.C. From these sheep came the meat-producing or "mutton" types, as contrasted with breeds raised primarily for wool.

In 1337, King Edward III-known as the "royal wool merchant"-forbade the continued exportation of wool from England because he wanted to give the industry a jolt. This it did, because by 1660, wool textile exports were two-thirds of England's foreign commerce.

Sheep were introduced to America when Columbus made his famous voyage in 1493, including sheep among his livestock he took to Cuba and Santo Domingo. In 1519, when Cortez began the expedition which could open Mexico and the western United States, he took with him the offspring of Columbus' sheep as a walking food supply.

After the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they bought 40 sheep from the Dutch on Manhattan Island. By 1664, the sheep population had grown to 100,000.

As settlers moved west during the 1800s, they took with them flocks of sheep from the eastern seaboard. Most of these sheep were of English breeding, more suited to producing lamb than wool."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Madrid to host exhibit of "Sunken Treasures of Ancient Egypt"


"The Antiguo Matadero de Legazpi will open the exhibit The Sunken Treasures of Egypt through September 28. In the last twelve years, marine archaeologist Franck Goddio has discovered unique testimonials to Egyptian history dating from the 7th century BC to the 8th century AD off the coast of the modern city of Alexandria and in the Bay of Aboukir. These artefacts were lost to the sea more than one thousand years ago as the result of natural disasters. Monumental statues as well as coins, jewellery and cult objects have been located on the seabed of the Mediterranean by means of state-of-the-art technology and recovered in years of painstaking work. Names shrouded in legend such as the ancient harbour of Alexandria and parts of the royal quarters, the long-lost city of Heracleion and parts of the city of Canopus have been re-discovered.

Around 500 objects found in these spectacular underwater excavations will be on display to the general public in the Spanish premiere of this exhibition at the Matadero de Legazpi in Madrid from 16 April through 28 September 2008. The artefacts span from the days of the last pharaohs to Alexander the Great and the period of Greek rule to the Roman conquest then to the Byzantine times until the beginning of the age of Islam."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Heart Burials at Westminster Abbey

I visited Westminster Abbey about two years ago but don't remember the tourist flyer mentioning heart burials there.


"An obelisk with a strange purpose stands in Westminster Abbey - in the side chapel directly to the south of the gilt monument to Henry VII in his own chapel. It contains the heart of Esmé Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox. He died in Paris in 1660, aged 11.

A monument containing a heart is a rare thing above ground at Westminster. Many hearts in urns interred in the vaults there are recorded, though, notably monarchs' hearts. The last king to have his heart buried separately at Westminster was, I think, George II in 1760.

It is sometimes said that heart burial dates back to the Egyptians...

...Separate burial for hearts was revived between the 12th and the 18th centuries among notables. A splendid book on the subject, simply called Heart Burial (1930), by Charles Angell Bradford, deserves to be reprinted..."

From Wikipedia: In medieval Europe heart-burial was fairly common. Some of the more notable cases of this include:
Burial site of Thomas Hardy's heart
Burial site of Thomas Hardy's heart

A more modern example is that of Thomas Hardy whose ashes were interred in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey whilst his heart was buried in his beloved Wessex alongside his first wife. A recent biography of Hardy details the arguments over the decision, and addresses the long-standing rumour that the heart was stolen by a pet cat so that a pig's heart had to be used as a replacement.[1]

Saxon mass burial unearthed in Oxford


"Archaeologists now believe a dozen skeletons discovered in a mass grave in the centre of Oxford may have belonged to executed criminals from Saxon times.

A team of three archaeologists have been digging in the quadrangle of St John's College in Blackhall Road, off St Giles, for nearly two weeks since the discovery was made.

The bones of 12 or 13 bodies have gradually been uncovered after a body part was discovered 80cm below ground level by diggers excavating the plot before a new quadrangle is built.

"They look as if they were all young men in their late teens, and we are looking at Saxon times.

"We originally thought they could be Roman but now we think it could be more recent, based on the condition of the bodies, which survived very well.

"We have no idea how many we will find - they are still popping up."

The archaeologists' job has been made more difficult by the fact the bodies have been thrown on top of one another, rather than laid out neatly like a Christian burial.

"The idea that they might be battle victims is possible, but I think we will only know that if we start finding war wounds on them as they remove them. They are all males of fighting age so it makes sense."

Monday, April 07, 2008

OSL dates "Red Snake" Wall to 5th-6th century CE


When I first studied archaeology a number of years ago we spent several weeks discussing various dating methods. But at that time, optically stimulated luminescence was not among them. I found this application of the technique very interesting.

"It is longer than Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall taken together. It is over a thousand years older than the Great Wall of China as we know it today. It is of more solid construction than its ancient Chinese counterparts. It is the greatest monument of its kind between central Europe and China and it may be the longest brick, or stone, wall ever built in the ancient world. This wall is known as ‘The Great Wall of Gorgan’ or ‘the Red Snake’. An international team of archaeologists has been at work on the snakelike monument and here they report on their findings.

The ‘Red Snake’ in northern Iran, which owes its name to the red colour of its bricks, is at least 195km long. A canal, 5m deep or more, conducted water along most of the Wall. Its continuous gradient, designed to ensure regular water flow, bears witness to the skills of the land-surveyors responsible for marking out the Wall's route. Over 30 forts are lined up along this massive structure. Their combined size is about three times that of those on Hadrian's Wall. Yet these forts are small in comparison with contemporary fortifications in the hinterland, some of which are around ten times larger than the largest Wall forts. The 'Red Snake' is unmatched in so many respects and an enigma in yet more.

Who built this defensive barrier of awesome scale and sophistication, when, and for what reason? Even its length is unclear: its western terminal was flooded by the rising waters of the Caspian Sea, while to the east it runs into the unexplored mountainous landscape of the Elburz Mountains.

An Iranian team, under the direction of Jebrael Nokandeh, has been exploring this Great Wall since 1999. In 2005 it became a joint Iranian and British project. Our aim: to answer the fundamental questions of when, who, and why.

No ancient textual source refers to the Wall, no inscription, and no coin has ever been found on it. With respect to the ‘when’ question, rather than basing our dating on historical guesswork, we felt that we needed to obtain independent scientific dating.

Dating the Enigma

So when was the Wall built? Some thought it was erected under the Macedonian king Alexander, who reached the area in 330 BC, but died seven years later - indeed the Wall is also known as 'Alexander's Barrier'. Others suggested it was built as late as the 6th century AD under the great Persian king Khusrau I. (AD 531-579). Owing to his 1970s fieldwork, Muhammad Yusof Kiani, and many scholars thereafter, have favoured a 2nd or 1st century BC construction. Who was right?

Fortunately the Wall's engineers had used construction techniques eminently suitable to modern dating techniques. Running mostly through a landscape of windblown loess and, in sections, treeless steppe, there was no sufficient supply of stone or timber for construction purposes. The loess, however, was an ideal material to produce tens, if not hundreds, of millions of fired bricks. Each of them was square and of standardised size: 37cm diameter in the west of the Wall, 40cm in the east and some 8cm to 11cm thick. These huge bricks were produced on an industrial scale. Our surveys indicate that brick kilns line most of the Wall. In some areas we found kilns under 40m apart, in others almost 100m. Overall there were probably several thousand brick kilns built for the sole purpose of creating the ancient Near East's greatest linear barrier.

Could the kilns yield the evidence we needed to date the monument? If they used wood fuel they would have left charcoal, a material suitable for radiocarbon dating. Furthermore, a kiln seemed a promising candidate for a second independent technique: optically stimulated luminescence (or OSL) dating. Each time sediments are exposed to direct sun light or, in our case, heated up by fire, the luminescence clock is set back to zero. This allows for them to be OSL dated, which in turn promised to reveal when the kilns had last been used.

With these possibilities in mind, in September 2005 we ventured to the vicinity of the Wall's easternmost known point in the foothills of the Elburz Mountains, where a kiln had been located in a previous survey. Our chosen kiln seemed particularly suitable: it was just 13-20m away from the Wall, and it was on a slope without traces of settlement of any other period and so steep that it was sometimes difficult to gain a foothold when excavating it; we could thus be certain that it had been constructed specifically for burning bricks for the Wall - and it is unlikely anybody would have re-used it at a later date. Soon we established that it had virtually identical dimensions to a kiln excavated in the 1970s over 60km further west and also next to the Wall. Our kiln and the others known so far were designed for 10 stacks of bricks sideways, and 17 to 18 lengthwise. They were all replicas of a single prototype - powerful evidence that the Wall-builders were behind the standardised design.


Sediments washed down the steep slope had preserved our kiln remarkably well. Its eleven arches survived on the hillside to their full height of two metres, not counting another metre of superstructure. Two collapsed arches offered an opportunity to dig a sondage into the interior without destroying any preserved architecture. Eventually we reached a dark layer of charcoal and, immediately underneath, the kiln's fire-reddened bottom. We had achieved our goal. Dr Jean-Luc Schwenninger and Dr Morteza Fattahi, of the Universities of Oxford and Tehran, flew in to take OSL samples in October 2005. They also sampled various sections of the Wall itself and of a second shorter wall further west (the Wall of Tammishe) as well as a kiln next to it that we had also excavated. We impatiently awaited the results. The OSL and radiocarbon samples demonstrated conclusively that both walls had been built in the 5th or, possibly, 6th century AD."

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Parthian Jar Burial Found in Iran


"Iranian archeologists have found the jar burial of a Parthian girl during the first phase of excavations in Nakhl-e Ebrahim village.

The eight-year-old girl was buried 2200 years ago along with 18 objects including, agate jewelry, beads and earthenware.

Earlier, a Parthian castle was discovered in the area, which was announced to be the largest fortress found on the Persian Gulf shore.

The items from Nakhl-e Ebrahimi village, located near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran, have been displayed by Iran's Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Organization."

1000 CE Sweet Potato Remains unearthed in Cook Islands Point to Drift Voyages


"One of the enduring mysteries of world history is whether the Americas had any contact with the Old World before Columbus, apart from the brief Viking settlement in Newfoundland. Many aspects of higher civilisation in the New World, from the invention of pottery to the building of pyramids, have been ascribed to European, Asian or African voyagers, but none has stood up to scrutiny.

The one convincing piece of evidence for pre-Hispanic contact has been the humble sweet potato, which is of tropical American origin but widely cultivated across the Pacific islands. Until a few years ago it was assumed that this was the result of Spanish transmission, dating to the early colonial period, but archaeological discoveries in the Cook Islands show this to be wrong: excavations at Mangaia yielded carbonised remains of sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) dating to AD1000, five centuries before Europeans entered the Pacific Ocean.

The question then arose as to whether the diffusion of this useful crop was the result of Amerindians sailing west to Polynesia, as the late Thor Heyerdahl always claimed, or whether it came about because Polynesians exploring on “the road of the winds” beyond Easter Island came to the South American mainland, and took back with them the hardy and nutritious root crop which is today fifth in importance in developing countries.

The lack of evidence for Native American seafaring and the reputation of the Polynesians as navigators inclined most scholars to the latter thesis: but a new simulation study suggests that either the Amerindians or nature may have been responsible: Alvaro Montenegro and his colleagues in the Journal of Archaeological Science argue that computer experiments demonstrate that accidental drift voyages could have been responsible..."

Tel el-Amarna Remains Indicate Deprivation


"Studies on the remains of ordinary ancient Egyptians in a cemetery in Tell el-Amarna showed that many of them suffered from anemia, fractured bones, stunted growth and high juvenile mortality rates, according to professors Barry Kemp and Gerome Rose, who led the research.

Rose, a professor of anthropology in the University of Arkansas in the United States, said adults buried in the cemetery were probably brought there from other parts of Egypt.

"This means that we have a period of deprivation in Egypt prior to the Amarna phase," he told an audience of archaeologists and Egyptologists in Cairo on Thursday evening.

"So maybe things were not so good for the average Egyptian and maybe Akhenaten said we have to change to make things better," he said.

Kemp, director of the Amarna Project which seeks in part to increase public knowledge of Tell el-Amarna and surrounding region, said little attention has been given to the cemeteries of ordinary ancient Egyptians.

"A very large number of ordinary cemeteries have been excavated but just for the objects and very little attention has been paid for the human remain," he told Reuters.

"The idea of treating the human remains ... to study the overall health of the population is relatively new."

Paintings in the tombs of the nobles show an abundance of offerings, but the remains of ordinary people tell a different story.

Rose displayed pictures showing spinal injuries among teenagers, probably because of accidents during construction work to build the city.

The study showed that anemia ran at 74 percent among children and teenagers, and at 44 percent among adults, Rose said. The average height of men was 159 cm (5 feet 2 inches) and 153 cm among women.

"Adult heights are used as a proxy for overall standard of living," he said. "Short statures reflect a diet deficient in protein. ... People were not growing to their full potential."

Neanderthal "crayons" indicate communication


Francesco d'Errico, an archaeologist from the University of Bordeaux, France, has found crafted lumps of pigment – essentially crayons – left behind by Neanderthals across Europe.

He says that Neanderthals, who most likely had pale skin, used these dark pigments to mark their own as well as animal skins. And, since body art is a form of communication, this implies that the Neanderthals could speak, d'Errico says.

Working with Marie Soressi of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, d'Errico has recovered hundreds of blocks of black manganese pigment from two neighbouring sites at Pech de l'Azé in France, which were occupied by Neanderthals. These add to evidence of pigment among Neanderthal from some 39 other sites.

The pigments were not just smeared onto the body like camouflage, d'Errico says, but fashioned into drawing tools.

"The flat, elongated surfaces on the archaeological specimens are consistent, as confirmed experimentally, with producing clearly visible straight black lines, perhaps arranged to produce abstract designs," says d'Errico, who presented his work on 15 March at the Seventh Evolution of Language Conference in Barcelona, Spain.

Body painting, argues d'Errico, is a "material proxy" for symbolic communication. What's more, he says, the techniques for making the symbols, and the meaning they carry, would have to be transmitted through language.

And body painting isn't the only proxy associated with Neanderthal remains. Neanderthals adorned their bodies with ornamentation, such as necklaces made from shell beads.

The sorts of beads used by modern humans, and the ornaments they fashioned from them, vary geographically. This is often interpreted as a sign of ethnic and cultural diversity among humans, and a means of symbolically binding groups and differentiating them from others. D'Errico suggests that the same holds true for Neanderthals."

4000-year-old gold necklace found in Peru


"A necklace found near Lake Titicaca in southern Peru is the oldest known gold object made in the Americas, archaeologists say.

Radiocarbon dating puts its origin at about 4,000 years ago, when hunter-gatherers occupied the area.

The researchers say it appears to have been fashioned from gold nuggets.

The discovery suggests that the use of gold jewellery to signify status began before the appearance of more complex societies in the Andes, they report.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), they say the artefact is the earliest worked gold found not only in the Andes, but the Americas as well.

Study leader Dr Mark Aldenderfer of the department of anthropology at the University of Arizona, Tucson, said it demonstrated an emerging social role for gold beyond simple decoration.

He told BBC News: "The gold reflects a universal tendency for human beings to strive for prestige and status.

"The gold reflects that process in people living in a simple society which is in the process of becoming more complex."

Status symbol

The necklace was found alongside the jawbone of an adult skull in a burial pit next to primitive pithouses at Jiskairumoko, a hamlet that was settled from 3,300 to 1,500 BC.

The researchers believe it had been worn by an adult, probably an elderly woman.

Marks on the necklace suggest that gold nuggets had been flattened with a stone hammer and then carefully bent or hammered around a hard cylindrical object to create a tubular shape..."

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Whaling depicted on 3000-year old Ivory Carving

London, April 1: Archaeologists working in the Russian Arctic have unearthed a remarkably detailed 3,000-year-old ivory carving that depicts groups of hunters engaged in whaling, which pushes back direct evidence for whaling by about 1,000 years.

According to a report in Nature News, the ancient picture implies that northern hunters may have been killing whales 3,000 years ago and commemorating their bravery with pictures carved in ivory.

Among the picture which depicts hunters sticking harpoons into whales, the site also yielded heavy stone blades that had been broken as if by some mighty impact, and remains from a number of dead whales.

"All of this adds up to the probability that the site, called Un'en'en, holds the earliest straightforward evidence of the practice of whaling," said Daniel Odess, an archaeologist at the University of Alaska's Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska.