Digging the dirt

Early humans may have hunted the mammoth, one of the largest animals that lived thousands of years ago

writes Mike Pitts

Thursday October 3, 2002

The Guardian


In a store in Wandsworth, south London, are 10 tonnes of 750,000-year-old Norfolk. "If you could go back 750,000 years," says palaeontologist Tony Stuart, "you'd look at the plants and animals and think you were in a familiar place. Then odd things would happen. Perhaps you'd see a macaque monkey. An elephant would wander past."

Stuart, now at University College London, was on the team that excavated a giant mammoth 10 years ago at West Runton, Norfolk. The peaty earth around the bones is still awaiting study in the Natural History Museum store, but the mammoth is the best preserved specimen of Mammuthus trogontherii in the world, a huge beast that is twice as heavy as a modern African elephant. The Norfolk animal had been scavenged: 20 hyena turds still glistened beside the chewed bones.

Archaeologists now believe humans were present in southern England not long after. Could they have hunted elephants? The question has arisen with the completion of another Norfolk dig, at Lynford, near Thetford. Here, Stuart has identified the remains of at least nine woolly mammoths, or Mammuthus primigenius, a more manageable size of roughly an African elephant. Although there are no human fossils, there are 44 pristine flint handaxes.

Lynford dates to a mere 60,000 years ago, so the tool makers would have been Neanderthals. Mark White, an archaeologist at Durham University, is convinced they were using the flints to butcher the mammoths.

The flints show that the Neanderthals were bringing to the site ready-made blanks, which they then turned into sharp knives. White thinks this means they knew there would be mammoths there.

There are two flint blanks they did not use. "One is like a thick slice of salami. The angles are all wrong: you could never make a handaxe with it. The other has a flaw in the flint," he says. "These were very skilled creatures."

Danielle Schreve, palaeontologist at Royal Holloway College, London, however, is not ready to say whether the handaxes were used to butcher the mammoths.

It could be difficult to prove either way. No cuts on the bones have been found, but experiments with modern elephants show that butchery does not always mark bones. The Lynford remains have been heavily smashed up. Stuart says this may have been done partly by hyenas. But he thinks the Neanderthals were there, too, extracting the bone marrow.

"They were working hard to get everything out of them," he says. "This would be more consistent with scavenging than hunting."

Both digs are exciting because of the wealth of information about the ancient environments. At Lynford, 150 species of insect have been identified. These indicate the presence of standing water, marsh, bare sand and grass. Dung and carcass beetles add to the picture of giant rotting mammals being scavenged by hyenas and Neanderthals.

The climate was warmer at the more ancient West Runton. Fruits, seeds and pollen indicate temperate forest, quite different from the cold open spaces at Lynford. A list of creatures found from the remains includes pike and perch, newts, frogs, beavers and an extinct otter, hamsters, bison, a small extinct rhino, wolves and an extinct giant elk.

The animal that most catches the imagination, however, is the mammoth. "We are left with the two modern ones," says Stuart, "but there were loads of different kinds of elephant."

The woolly mammoth is the best known, famous for its warm coat of long hair. No skin or hair survives at Lynford, but a few hairy mammoths have been found frozen in Siberia. Cave paintings in France and Spain confirm that European mammoths were woolly. And small-eared. Thought to be part of the African elephant's cooling system, large ears could have been death to mammoths rooting for grass under snow drifts.

It is the woolly mammoth that will walk across our television screens tonight, digitally reconstructed for the first film in a series about American wildlife 13,000 years ago - when many archaeologists believe the first humans reached America. "Just a few hundred generations ago," says series producer Miles Barton, "people met these almost mythical animals."

Which is what, in a manner of speaking, a group of archaeologists did this summer in Norfolk.


Archaeologists offered a first glimpse on Wednesday of a lost culture's holy site atop a German peak, and confirmed it as the source of the world's oldest map of the heavens.

Nebra, Germany


The exact location has been kept secret for weeks, amid fears that treasure-seekers would move in and disturb Bronze Age remains.


The site is atop the Mittelberg, a 252m hill in the Ziegelroda Forest, 180km south-west of Berlin.


Adding a spooky touch is the discovery that, seen from the Mittelberg, the sun sets every June 22 behind the Brocken, the highest mountain in northern Germany. The Brocken is in a direct line of sight on a clear day, 85km to the north-west.


The Brocken is fabled in northern European mythology as the place where witches gather for a coven every April 30.


Scientists are still scratching their heads at the full meaning of a 32cm bronze-and-gold disc found by treasure hunters on the Mittelberg in 1999. The map on its face shows the Brocken as well as 32 stars including the Pleiades.


Experts in pre-history can only guess at the identity of the people who made the "Nebra Disc" 3 600 years ago.


"This disc, with the oldest concrete representation of the stars in the world, was placed in a pit in the middle of a ringwall during the early Bronze Age," Harald Meller, the chied archaeologist in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, said on Wednesday.


"We still don't know if it was a princely grave or a treasure store for holy objects."


On Wednesday reporters were shown a clearing where the archaeological dig had gone down about half a metre into the soil, leaving what appeared to be loose stone walls standing. The site was once surrounded by wooden palisades and a complex of defensive ditches.


Wolfhard Schlosser, an expert in ancient astronomy at the University of the Ruhr, added, "The ringwall was built in such a way that the sun seemed to disappear every equinox behind the Brocken."


Experts believe the map and site formed an observatory, which was used to set the calendar for planting and harvesting crops.


The nearby forest contains 1 000 barrows or princely graves from the period, but little else is known about the lost people, who are not mentioned in ancient Greek or other Mediterranean sources.


Meller said two bronze swords found at the site had been made with a technique unique to Mycenaean and Anatolian swords, and had a similar shape to arms found in modern Romania and Hungary. The site is to become a tourist attraction when the dig finishes in a year or two. - Sapa-DPA



Saqqara finds laid bare

On a mound just a kilometre northwest of the Serapeum at Saqqara, a mission from the Japanese Institute of Egyptology at Waseda University has made two significant discoveries. Nevine El-Aref visits the site


The Japanese team working at Saqqara has made a major discovery -- the remains of a huge limestone stepped structure, about 4.5 metres in height and 33.5 metres in length. It has also found a deep shaft leading to two chambers containing a number of objects. These include a wooden statue of a well- endowed female which Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) describes as "a magnificent piece". She is glazed with resin, while her eyes are inlaid with bronze. Together, the new discoveries reaffirm the wealth of objects that as yet lie undetected on the Saqqara plateau.

The first discovery, a wall of an early stepped construction, reveals the structural technique used on the necropolis in early times. It is an example of the tiered, inward- sloping masonry of the earliest stone architectural forms in ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, in successive dynasties the structure was used as a stone quarry.

However Nozomu Kawai, field director of the Abusir and Saqqara project, described the remaining wall as comprising 15 rows of limestone blocks, each block approximately 30cms high. "The central trench of the structure was dug near the middle of the wall towards the south," Kawai said. "This was perpendicular to the main wall of the monument."

While layers of accumulated earth were being removed from the trench, revealing its stratigraphy, pottery was unearthed which can be dated with certainty to between the second and fourth dynasties. "It is similar to that described in the excavation report of the Step Pyramid of the Pharaoh Djoser written by Egyptologist Jean Philip Lauer," Kawai said. He added that the upper layer contained hundreds of miniature pieces of pottery of Middle Kingdom date. "It suggests some kind of offering activities at that time," he said

In addition, a T-shaped shaft was found leading to two chambers on the north and south respectively. "The north chamber was intact, with its sealing stone in place as on the day of completion," Hawass said. "It was inserted on the top of the shaft and was reminiscent of sealing stones common from the late Early Dynastic Period, before the beginning of the Old Kingdom."

However the sealing system of the south chamber, which had already been penetrated, proved to be dissimilar. It was made of rows of limestone blocks covered with gypsum and plaster. Sakuji Yoshimura, director-general of the Institute of Egyptology at Waseda University, said the chamber consisted of a long, rectangular room decorated with two niches. "One was empty while the other seems to have been decorated with an unfinished work of art," he said. "Some Middle Kingdom pottery in good condition was unearthed inside this chamber, and is similar to pottery previously found in the Middle Kingdom pyramid complex of Sesostris I at Lisht."

It was in the intact north chamber that the Japanese mission made important discoveries. When they entered the rectangular chamber, which has a doorway and a rectangular break at its north eastern end, they dug a small trench near the chamber's sealing stone and were delighted to come upon a number of small objects including an ivory statue of female figure which drew considerable attention. "The woman wears a sheath, her legs are carved together, and she wears an unusual wig similar to that worn by archaic royal female statues," Kawai said. He described the piece as proportionately well balanced. The statue was found nestled in a layer of sand beneath rock collapsed from the ceiling of the chamber. "It may have been brought to this location from somewhere else, since most of the other objects in the chamber date to a later period," Kawai said. The date of the statue has not been determined.

Other objects found in the northern chamber include fragments of a wooden statue and two faience plaques, one decorated with a depiction of Anubis and the second with geometrical drawings.


Archaeologists win battle over Marathon

September 28, 2002



GREEK archaeologists have won a partial victory in their efforts to prevent a new Olympic rowing and sailing centre disturbing an ancient settlement on the site of the Battle of Marathon.

The Greek Government has agreed to dismantle the remains of three 4,500-year-old Neolithic homes, unearthed two months ago, and move them 50 yards. The decision was a retreat by Evangelos Venizelos, the Minister for Culture, who had played down the importance of the find.

Under pressure from the influential Central Archaeological Council, Mr Venizelos agreed to delay work on the seaside rowing and sailing centre, which is planned for the 2004 Olympic Games.

Moving the buildings will be a painstaking and risky operation, in which steel girders are inserted under the foundations to take the weight of the stones. The girders will be moved along rails, carrying the intact structure. The technique has been employed successfully in the past.

Mr Venizelos’s decision to locate the rowing and sailing centre at Schinias Beach, 25 miles northeast of Athens, had been controversial from the beginning. The beach is the site of the opening and closing stages of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, when Athenian troops beat off a larger force of Persian invaders.

Archaeologists and environmentalists had joined forces to oppose the decision, hoping to preserve both the olive tree-studded battlefield and the adjacent wetland that is home to pelicans and a rare species of pine tree. The newly found ruins were already 2,000 years old when the battle took place.

Mr Venizelos, who has continued lobbying for the return of the Elgin Marbles, says that in ancient times much of where the rowing and sailing centre is now being built was under the sea and thus nobody could have fought a battle at that spot. But Kathimerini newspaper said he had “failed to convincingly defend his main argument”.

Antonios Psilovikos, a geologist at Salonika University, claims that he has established, “without any doubt whatsoever”, that the site was was a freshwater swamp and lagoon.

According to Herodotus, the main source for the battle, many Persians perished in that swamp, chased into it by the victorious Athenian army.

The International Olympic Committee has preferred to stay out of the controversy. Denis Oswald, the IOC co-ordinator for the 2004 Athens Games, said recently that he did not believe the Neolithic homes preservation project would significantly hold up work on the rowing and sailing centre, as only a small section near the starting area would be affected.







The complex development of the city of Zippori during the third century, the period of Roman rule, is apparent from the wealth of elaborate public and private buildings and colonnaded streets excavated in previous seasons. Ancient Zippori (Sepphoris), west of Nazareth in the Galilee, is the site of several brilliantly executed mosaic floors dating back to both the Roman and Byzantine periods, including the internationally-heralded, breathtakingly beautiful ''Madonna of the Galilee,'' as it is known.

Now the first evidence of Jewish farms dating back to the third century are being uncovered. The excavations, conducted under the auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Institute of Archaeology, have revealed five rooms of a two-storey stone farmhouse complex built around a central courtyard, as well as a possible wine press, storage vessels, household and farm utensils. Most important was the discovery of a large, decorated, limestone vessel, the type used by Jewish priests in Jerusalem and the Galilee for storing ''purified'' water used.

The village of Zippori is 3 miles west of Nazareth and about 30 miles from Haifa, a little more than an hour's drive.


800-year-old Tomb Unearthed in Central-south China

Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Wednesday, October 02, 2002

A tomb of a local tribal ruler in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) has been excavated in central-south China's Hunan province with valuable findings provided for study of whereabouts about ancient minority people in the region.


A tomb of a local tribal ruler in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) has been excavated in central-south China's Hunan province with valuable findings provided for study of whereabouts about ancient minority people in the region.


The tomb, located in central-southern Hunan province's Yongshun county, which historians dubbed as the "forbidden city in the south", was believed to be a burial place of a "Tusi", or a local tribal headman or rather a minority ethnic administrator.


The tomb's axis symmetrical passage, over 100 meters long and some three meters wide, led to the 10 meter by 4 meter main hall. And stone statues of lions, horses and human figures lining up the entire passage, was covered by cobbles, all symbolizing the ranks of local ethnic rulers during that period.


Archaeologists working on the excavation site said that the tomb, estimated to be built in the early Ming dynasty, provides vital clues for the study of Tusi reign in the region.




Time travel


AN archaeological dig is revealing evidence of Exeter's first city centre railway station, opened in 1860. Central Station, then called Queen Street Station, was built by the London and South Western Railway, which ran to London Waterloo. The disused goods yard is being cleared for development but archaeologists have discovered remains of a goods shed and platform.



Unicorn facing extinction



IN HER 178-year history she has never witnessed a shot fired in anger but now one of the world’s most important warships is facing her toughest battle.


HMS Unicorn, the most complete Georgian sailing ship in existence, is leaking water in her Dundee dock.


Her timbers are swollen and misshapen; repeated doses of chemicals are being applied to stave off the encroaching rot.


Unless £4.4m can be raised in the next five years experts say she will have to be dismantled, or even carefully sunk, to save her from destruction.


Launched in Chatham in 1824 as a 46-gun frigate for the Royal Navy, HMS Unicorn was designed to have a lifespan of 30 years but was later pressed into service as a training vessel, only finally being decommissioned in Dundee in 1968.


A surprising 96% of the Unicorn’s timbers are still original, making it the finest example of Georgian shipbuilding in the world. Its closest rival has a mere 20% of its original woodwork.


The world’s most famous Georgian warship, HMS Victory, has had most of her timber replaced since the Battle of Trafalgar, with the keel and the lower gun deck the main areas that remain.


HMS Unicorn is fighting for lottery funding against the Royal Research Ship Discovery, the vessel used by Captain Scott for his expedition to Antarctica, which is berthed further up the Tay.


Although Discovery is more famous, experts claim the Unicorn is the more important from a historical point of view.


Dr Derek Sinclair, of Abertay University’s Scottish Institute of Wood Technology, has worked on most of Britain’s great wooden sailing ships.


He warned that HMS Unicorn is in danger of becoming a "death trap". "Unless action is taken within the next five years and unless the ship is dry-docked within the next 10 years, it will be effectively gone.


"Because the vessel is unique and is the only intact survivor of the period of transition from wood and canvas to steam and iron, we would be looking at dismantling sections of it for conservation and display in a museum and that would be a tragic waste.


"Another alternative would be to sink the ship and preserve it in water although this is unlikely with the Unicorn and the danger is that the ship would never be likely to be raised again. Either solution would be a tragedy and an absolute waste.


"Other vessels in Britain, which have nothing like the scientific significance of the Unicorn, have received Heritage Lottery funding. And the Discovery is just an old Dundee whaler and not in the same league as the Unicorn in terms of its historical importance."


However, the Discovery attracted 72,000 visitors last year compared with the 8,000 who came to see the Unicorn and the more venerable vessel is firmly in the shadow of its glamorous neighbour.


The Discovery benefits from its romantic association with Captain Robert Falcon Scott and is fully rigged unlike its ugly sister. But the Discovery is leaking too and requires £1.6m of conservation work, much of it to come, it is hoped, from the same Heritage Lottery Fund.


Undaunted, the supporters of the Unicorn Preservation Society, which has cared for the Unicorn for the past 35 years and whose past patrons included the late Queen Mother, are launching a major appeal to raise £4.4m to build a covered dry dock to house and preserve the ship.


They are anxious that Unicorn should avoid the fate of the 140 year-old Carrick, the world’s oldest clipper which was a well-known landmark on the Clyde in Glasgow before languishing on an Ayrshire slipway for years. Despite a campaign to save her, she is still languishing in Irvine after the Scottish maritime museum failed to raise the £5.5m needed to renovate her.


Roderick Stewart is heading the Unicorn Preservation Society’s ‘Operation Unicorn’ fund-raising initiative and is adamant that if sufficient money is not raised to put the plans into practice the Unicorn will also be lost to Scotland forever.


He said: "We have a bid in with the Heritage Lottery Fund at the moment and if it doesn’t come through then we will have to think seriously about the ship’s future. They are coming to see us next month and so far we have been encouraged by their response, but if that comes off it will only be a percentage of the cash and we also need local people and businesses to back the project.


"Visitor figures are not good enough, which is annoying because when people come down here they really love it, in fact, many of them say it is better than the Discovery, but people have to wake up to the fact that the ship will not be here if they don’t come and visit."


THE Unicorn is not the only one of Scotland’s maritime treasures in danger of rotting away. Concerns have been raised about the world’s oldest clipper ship, the Carrick - City of Adelaide (above), which is in a dry-dock in Irvine, and Leith-based SS Explorer, the last steam trawler of its kind to be built in Scotland.


The Carrick faces being destroyed because no money is available to restore her. Campaigners have been frustrated in their attempts to get lottery cash because of bureaucracy and disputes over responsibility for maritime heritage.


Volunteers have been working to save the SS Explorer, and are trying to raise £100,000 to restore the vessel.


Team begins excavating 1884 steamboat wreck

By Tina Hesman

Of the Post-Dispatch

09/26/2002 10:45 PM


Archaeology students are unloading secrets from the largest steamboat to ply the Missouri River.


This week, a field school for budding underwater archaeologists began excavating the wreck of a large stern-wheeler, believed to be the steamboat Montana. The Montana was the largest ever to travel the waters of the Missouri River, the archaeologists say. It now rests on the riverbank in Bridgeton, just south of the Highway 370 Discovery Bridge.


The boat's remains are revealing surprises about the state of technology during the last days of glory for river steamboats and may serve as a blueprint for rethinking the history of paddle wheel boats.


"We will literally be rewriting the book on how these steamers were constructed from this one project," said Bradley Rodgers, an archaeologist from East Carolina State University. Rodgers co-directs the field school with Annalies Corbin, a maritime archaeologist who studies steamboat transportation in the West.


Corbin and Rodgers brought a group of seven students to document the shipwreck on behalf of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources State Historic Preservation Office. The exercise is the state's first scientific exploration of a shipwreck.


The steamboat is an irreplaceable state resource, said archaeologist Steve J. Dasovitch of SCI Engineering Inc., a St. Charles-based company hired to monitor the wreckage for the state. Once the students finish excavating and mapping the wreck, they will fill the site back in with Missouri River mud, preserving it for the state.


The wreckage offers some glimpses of the day when every cargo company hoping to sell its goods to settlers in the West sent wares via paddle-wheelers through St. Louis, he said.


"St. Louis serving as a gateway to the West isn't just a figure of speech," Dasovitch said. "The Missouri River was the major highway for westward expansion. It outshines all the major trails."


And the steamboat Montana was the last shining example of the river vessels that carried people and freight west before the railroads became the primary mode of transportation, said Corbin. The boat was built in 1879 as part of a trio for Coulson and Co., a Yankton, S.D., freight company. The Montana and its sisters, the Wyoming and the Dakota, represented the pinnacle of steamboat technology for the day, Corbin said.


The boat measured 250 feet from stem to stern - 280 feet with its giant paddle wheel - dwarfing most of the 120-foot to 140-foot boats on the river, she said. The Montana's three decks, pilot house and smoke stacks would have given her a height of more than 50 feet, Corbin said. She was as wide as she was tall.


But her stature may have been the Montana's downfall. In June 1884, the steamboat tried to pass under a railroad bridge spanning the Missouri River between St. Charles and Bridgeton. The boat went out of control and steamed bow-first into the bridge, took on water and ran aground on the St. Louis County side of the river. The boat's bow broke under the weight of the water and the hogging chains that kept the Montana's spine in line could not support the weight of the ship and up to 600 tons of cargo. The Montana split in half, her starboard side sagging into the swollen river.


She was not the only victim. "This bridge took out five to eight steamboats all by itself," Dasovitch said.


Now the once-mighty steam vessel is a collection of weathered timbers and rusted fixtures rising from the sucking black clay of the Missouri's shallow bank. Her severed deck beams jut from the muddy water - vertebrae of the Montana's split spine.


Treasure seekers still loot the wreck for anything of value, despite the fact that the boat's cargo, engines and boilers were salvaged at the time of the accident - leaving nothing of significance for collectors or treasure hunters, Dasovitch said.


"People are always looking for that last gold coin," he said.


Looters have done major damage to the site, cutting off pieces of timber and digging trenches inside the wreck, Dasovitch said.


But the Montana still holds perhaps her greatest treasure - the secret of her construction. The Coulson company's documents were lost in the early part of the 20th century and most shipbuilders of the day didn't keep written accounts of their designs, Corbin said. The only record of the Montana's design is the boat itself.


On Wednesday, the crew, led by graduate student Chris Valvano, dug into the thick mud behind the boat, expecting to see the flat-bottom hull of a barge. Instead, an elegant arch curved downward through the sediment. The hollowed-out curve is a design element with a rather ungraceful name - a skeg. The archaeologists had never seen such an elaborate design on a wooden vessel, Rodgers said.


Skegs didn't become common for at least 20 years after the Montana was built, he said. The design accompanied the advent of metal hulls and propellers - the skeg provided sort of an alcove for the propellers, he said. Most design experts didn't think such a design was even possible with a wooden vessel, Rodgers said. The sharp angles could cause the wood to break, he said.


But the Montana's builders spared no expense in her construction - the boat cost $54,000 in 1879, equivalent to more than $900,000 today - fortifying the fragile timber with iron fasteners, Rodgers said.


The archaeologists may have only discovered the structural secret because half of the wreck is above water, Corbin said. Divers feeling their way through murky water almost certainly would not have been able to move the thick mud away from the rudder sheltering the skeg, she said.


"It's stunning all the way around," she said.


Reporter Tina Hesman

E-mail: thesman@post-dispatch.com

Phone: 314-340-8325