November 19, 2003
Axe ages British man by 200,000 years
BY DALYA ALBERGE, ARTS CORRESPONDENT
THE oldest man-made object found in Britain has been unearthed in Norfolk, offering dramatic new evidence that the history of mankind in northwest Europe began up to 200,000 years earlier than previously thought.
A stone axe unearthed along the coast by a man walking his dog is thought to date from 700,000 years ago. Experts at the British Museum say that it could revolutionise our understanding of our ancient origins.While further research is now taking place at the Norfolk site, the axe is to be displayed next week at the British Museum, in an ambitious exhibition on British archaeology.
The spectacular helmet from the 7th-century ship burial at Sutton Hoo and Roman gold are among 2,000 unique exhibits, but J. D. Hill, the museum’s curator of prehistory in Europe, hailed the axe as “the most important object in the whole exhibition”. He said: “If it is 700,000 years old, it really does put back the history of Europe by an extra 200,000 years. There are stunning objects in the exhibition, but this apparently insignificant piece is the most important thing.”
It was found on the coast between Yarmouth and Cromer by Mike Chambers, 58, who works for the Norfolk Constabulary. He has been beachcombing as a hobby for more than ten years, and has found items as diverse as fossils and a Spitfire Merlin engine. He found the axe in the clay at low tide, some 10ft down from a 30ft cliff.
The axe — roughly the size and shape of a fist and worked into a point to be used as a blade — was still sharp. It is thought to have been a multipurpose tool for butchering a rhinoceros, a lion or another animal encountered in Britain at that time. It adds dramatically to research in East Anglia and an analysis of bones found in a Somerset quarry which, as The Times reported last year, showed that human beings had inhabited Britain for as much as 200,000 years longer than was previously thought.
Now experts are trying to date the axe by examining the strata in the cliff. Dr Hill said: “The reason it’s so crisp and sharp is that it was not rolling round on the beach or the sea. It had fallen out of the cliff face.”
The owner of the axe is thought to have been related to Boxgrove Man, of the species Homo heidelbergensis, whose remains were found at Boxgrove in West Sussex in 1993.
Jill Cook, the British Museum curator of the Old Stone Age, said: “Boxgrove humans were about the same height as us. They were quite robust, with large teeth, so their faces would have been more massive. They were more heavily set than us. They probably used skin clothing, but wouldn’t necessarily have needed to, as they were probably quite hardy.”
Mr Chambers has given the axe to the Norwich Castle Museum, which is lending it to the British Museum. The exhibition, Buried Treasure: Finding Our Past, a collaboration with museums in Cardiff, Manchester, Newcastle and Norwich, runs from November 21 until March 14, before touring the country.
It will reflect how chance archaeological discoveries have transformed our understanding of the past. Most of the finds were uncovered using metal detectors. Exhibits will include the Iron Age gold jewellery found in Winchester and the Bronze Age gold cup from Ringlemere, Kent.
Ancient farmers modified corn genes
In a study that compared the genes of corn cobs recovered in Mexico and the southwestern United States, researchers found that three key genetic variants were systematically enhanced, probably through selective cultivation, over thousands of years. The technique was not as sophisticated as the methods used for modern genetically modified crops, but experts said that the general effect was the same: genetic traits were amplified or introduced to create plants with improved traits and greater yield.
The ancestral plant of corn, teosinte, was first domesticated some 6,000 to 9,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley of southern Mexico, the researchers said. By cultivating plants with desirable characteristics, farmers caused teosinte to morph into an increasingly useful crop. The researchers said by 5,500 years ago the size of the kernels was larger. By 4,400 years ago, all of the gene variants found in modern corn were present in crops grown in Mexico. The plant and its grain were so changed by the directed cultivation that it evolved into a form that could not grow in the wild and was dependent on farmers to survive from generation to generation, the study found.
Fedoroff, a plant geneticist who was not part of the research team, said the study shows that it is unlikely the changes in corn were by chance. The early farmers, she said, "might have been more sophisticated than we think. The differences between maize (corn) and teosinte come down to just a few genes, but with big effect," said Fedoroff. She also said ancient farmers probably spotted these differences and then planted seeds from those cobs to encourage the improvements to continue.
"They might have collected the seeds and may have known that if they grew them close together then they could catch (the beneficial changes) in the next generation," she said. "It was like someone found the right combination and it was so much better that people shared it with their friends and relatives and then it got widely propagated."
Sources: MSNBC News, Associated Press (13 November 2003), The Scientist (14 November 2003)
4,000 year-old observatory found in Macedonia
Archaeologists working on the Tatikev Kamen site in north Macedonia have revealed that they believe it was an observatory as well as a ceremonial site.
Jovica Stankovski, who discovered the site a year ago, found that the site could be used to monitor the stars and the sun, and that there were holes for recording the movement of the sun and the moon. In the second millenium BCE the area was set on fire, at the same time as great migrations occurred here.
Gjore Cenev, the head of the Macedonian Planetarium, said that this discovery showed that there was a previously unrecognised civilization in the Balkans with its own culture and religious ceremonies.
Neolithic kilns found in China
Source: China View (13 November 2003)
The largest group of Neolithic kilns found in China so far have been discovered in Guangdong Province. Unearthed in a hillside orchard at Hutoupu of Mianyuan Village, Guangtai Town, Puning City last year, the discovery was made public at the Fifth Chao Studies International Seminar in Jieyang on 10 November.
The first discovery of Hutoupu relics was made in 1982. Wu Xuebin, deputy director of the Bureau of Culture of Puning City, was showing stamped pottery to visitors when one of them mentioned that it was common in his village in the Puning area. Archaeologists were then sent to Hutoupu, and uncovered the kilns which had been buried for 4,000 years, showing how the people of the Chaoshan area were able to carry out specialized pottery production.
The kiln site is the oldest in Guangdong Province, and covers some 10,000 square metres. As well as the kilns themselves, stone axes, household pots and pottery jars were found, featuring at least eight different patterns.
Previously thought of as a barbarous and remote area, the richness of the find has prompted calls for a reassessment of area's history.
Source: China Daily (12 November 2003)
"Plain of Jars" to be mapped by UNESCO
The United Nations have launched a project to map the location of "secondary burial" jars in northern Laos. The jars are scattered across the north of the country, in particular on the plateau to which they gave their name. Believed to number in the thousands, so far 300 have been documented.
Some of the oldest relics in South-east Asia, the huge jars were used to store the bodies of the dead until the remains had decomposed, when they were removed and cleaned, then buried or cremated. Most of the jars sit on grassy knolls above villages and rice fields, with good views over the surrounding countryside. The jars remain largely unexplained, and archaeologists know little about the people who made them.
The ancient jars have survived 2,000 years of exposure to the elements, looters and even bombs during America's "secret war" in the 1960s. Now they must survive against the tourists. Each year, several thousand people come to see the jars in this remote part of Laos.
Sousath Phetrasy, a local tour guide who spent years clearing unexploded American ordnance from around many of the jars, persuaded the Communist government to open the area to foreigners, but even he has reservations now: "The jars are holy, but people climb on them. People want to damage them. We need to educate them and tell them how to behave."
The head of the United Nations project, UNESCO archaeologist Richard Engelhardt, believes the Plain of Jars is "probably the most important Iron Age site in Southeast Asia."
Source: The Detroit News (13 November 2003)
Human remains at Norfolk hill fort
Fragments of human skull have been unearthed during the excavation of an Iron Age hill fort at Bloodgate Hill, South Creake, in north west Norfolk (England). The site was purchased by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust in the summer of 2003 to prevent further ploughing. Acquisition was followed by a geophysical survey that revealed a defensive ditch and an internal circular enclosure. A complete section was then dug along the main ditch and bank, revealing a strong defensive feature some four metres deep. It was here that the skull fragments were found, raising the possibility that the fort had been attacked at some point.
The Trust was hoping to find artefacts that would date the site, which is believed to have been constructed some centuries before the Roman invasion. But the dig produced so few finds that they enlisted the help of Jean-luc Schwenningen, from the Research Laboratory for Archaeology at Oxford, to undertake measurement of the electronic charge in sand particles from the ditch. Because these particles pick up charge at a constant rate from the radiation in the surrounding soil, it can be determined when they were last exposed to sunlight, to within a 10% margin. This new technique has only recently been employed on sites like South Creake. Results are expected by January.
There are up to half a dozen other Iron Age forts in Norfolk and two - at Thetford Castle and at Wareham Camp - have shown defences of similar size to South Creake.
Source: EDP24 (13 November 2003)
Olmec bones found in Honduras?
Human bones found in southeastern Honduras may provide the first evidence that the ancient Olmec civilisation extended beyond the 'Mesoamerican Corridor' that reaches from Mexico to central Honduras, covering a larger area than previously thought. Olmec pottery has been discovered in the north of Honduras, within the Mesoamerican zone, dating back to 1600 BCE, but not human remains, according to Carmen Fajardo, of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History. The latest find comprises four skulls, various bones and 10 plates dating back to 1500 BCE. The bones show a deformity of the skull that was characteristic of the Olmecs, who considered it a sign of beauty. The site, Cerro de las Cuevas de las Campanas mountain, 90 miles east of the capital Tegucigalpa and close to the border with Nicaragua, is outside of the Mesoamerican corridor and the main Olmec sphere of influence.
Olmec culture is known as the mother culture of Mesoamerica. Originating in Mexico, it spread to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and parts of Honduras and provided the roots of many of the cultural and religious elements of the Aztecs, Mayans and other ancient civilisations. Southeastern Honduras was considered part of an intermediate area that included Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, which was influenced by the Andean culture. But: "It could be that there is a third cultural area we haven't identified where the Mesoamerican and intermediate meet," said Fajardo. "Our conclusions are so far preliminary. We still have to do carbon and DNA tests."
Sources: Reuters via Yahoo News (11 November 2003)
Excavation funding sought for Alabama cave
Officials from the Russell Cave National Monument in Jackson County (USA) have asked the US National Park Service for funds for a major archaeological survey of the 330 acre park. Native American stone tools, pottery and other artefacts were first discovered at Russell Cave by amateur archaeologists in the 1950s. The site was explored further by teams from the National Geographical Society and the Smithsonian Institution, helped by local coal miners. The layers revealed thousands of objects and the bones of seven humans, evidence that the cave had been inhabited from about 9,000 years ago down to the arrival of European settlers. "Back in the 1950s this was the hot spot for archaeologists in North America," says Jason Money, a local park service guide. Russell Cave was deemed so important that it was purchased by the NGS and later donated to the National Park Service. President John F. Kennedy designated Russell Cave a national monument in 1961.
The cave system is thought to extend some ten miles, 7.5 miles of which have been mapped. One of 1,527 know caves in Jackson County, it was formed by underground water action on limestone rock. Russell Cave has two large side-by-side entrances, which merge within a few hundred feet. The first, 60ft high, is the path of a creek running into the cave. The second cave mouth is where the evidence of extensive occupation has been found. The site provides running water, faces away from the winter northerlies, is cool in summer and lets in plenty of light. The surrounding forest was a tremendous resource for hunter-gathering activity. The cave would have been almost like a "prehistoric condominium," according to Harry Holstein, director of the Archaeological Resource Laboratory at Jacksonville State University. Indians may also have set up villages nearby, and a burial mound with more remains has been found on the hill above the cave.
Since the 1950s only a small portion of the rest of the cave and the surrounding area has been surveyed or excavated. "We would like to go in and re-excavate the cave with 21st century techniques," said Holstein. New research would reveal whether Indian occupation went back earlier than indicated by the first digs, and would provide archaeologists with information on diet, tool-making capability and climate for each excavated stratum. There are also places within the park that have never been surveyed for artefacts, says John Bundy, superintendent of Russell Cave and the Little River Canyon National Reserve. "We have a responsibility to the public to know where those artefacts are." Researchers want to divide the area into grids and take samples to locate the most "artefact significant" areas. This would lead to a fully-fledged dig, probably taking several years, followed by many more years of artefact analysis and care.
Park officials hope for a positive outcome to their funding request early in 2004. If funds are refused they intend to apply again in subsequent years.
Sources: The Birmingham News/al.com (11 November 2003)
Did meteor shower prompt megalith building?
The building of Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments may have been prompted by "the most massive meteor stream in the inner planetary system," according to researchers in Ireland and Australia. The Taurid meteor stream formed over the past 20,000 to 30,000 years, and every 2,500 to 3,000 years it forms a particularly impressive display when its core crosses the Earth orbit. The Taurids stream consists of the dust and celestial debris left by comet Encke, thought to be a remnant of a much larger comet. When the stream's orbit passes close to Earth, stray particles burn up in our atmosphere to create shooting stars. "There are lots of very large pieces within the stream that occasionally produce very notable fireballs," says Gary Kronk, a Missouri-based science writer.
Unlike better known meteor showers such as the Leonids, which will streak in the sky this month at around 37 miles per second, the Taurids move at the slower speed of 17 miles per second. And: "Because the Taurids are also spread out in space, the Earth takes a week or two to pass through them, unlike more tightly bunched phenomena where passage can take just a few hours," says Bill Napier, a research astronomer with Ireland's Armagh Observatory.
Duncan Steel, is an Adelaide, Australia-based researcher and expert on comets and meteors. He points out that the Taurids have split into two separate branches, which pass the Earth with a gap of a few centuries. Every 2,500 to 3,000 years or so, the core of the Taurid stream passes near Earth and produces much more intense meteor showers for a few centuries. "It is about 1,000 years before the next such epoch is due," said Steel, "And I have suggested that megalith building, for example Stonehenge, was prompted by such events in the past, when the sky started going wild, repeatedly, every year," added the researcher.
There are several other meteor showers associated with the Taurids, including daytime showers which can be picked up by radar. Steel and Napier have suggested that the daytime Beta Taurids are the source of the Tunguska object that flattened thousands of square miles of Siberian forest on June 30, 1908.
(Editor's comment: More than one reputable author has speculated that, when elaborate multiple burials were replaced by more simple individual burials in complex megalithic landscapes, it marked a shift in religiosity away from the cthonic [the earth and underground gods] to the celestial.)
Source: National Geographic (7 November 2003)
New clues to climate change occurred 5,200 years ago
The latest expeditions to ice caps in the high, tropical Peruvian Andes Mountains by Ohio State University scientists may shed light on a mysterious global climate change they believe occurred more than 5,000 years ago. The researchers hope that ice cores retrieved from tropical ice caps there, as well as ancient plants retrieved from beneath the retreating glaciers, may contain clues that could link ancient events that changed daily life in South America, Europe and Asia.
Something happened 5,200 years ago that was abrupt and very large-scale, explained Lonnie Thompson, professor of geological sciences at Ohio State and researcher with the Byrd Polar Research Center. In September, Thompson and his team returned from drilling ice cores from glaciers atop peaks in Peru. In 2002 at the Quelccaya ice cap the researchers made a surprising find: a wetland plant that had been remarkably preserved under the ice. Later testing yielded viable DNA from the plant and dated it back 5,200 years ago. "This is a soft-bodied plant. It had to be captured by a very large snowfall at the time, a snowfall and climate change that began very abruptly fast enough to capture a plant but not kill it. That is astounding. We know the first plant could not have been exposed at any time during in that 5,200-year history or it would have decayed." said Thompson.
This year, the researchers found a second plant near the southern tip of the ice field, some 6 kilometers south of their original plant find. Subsequent carbon dating of the second plant showed that it had been buried for the last 2,200 years, a time when other records showed another abrupt climate change.
"We know the climate was different then. Before that, the proportion of warm water flowing off the coast of Peru was much greater. And we know that the Ice Man, a preserved Neolithic hunter exposed by a retreating glacier in the European Alps, was trapped by the ice around 5,200 years ago, and that had to occur very abruptly. " said Thomson. Earlier work by the Ohio State team on ice cores taken from Tanzanias Mount Kilimanjaro ice fields showed that a catastrophic drought had devastated the tropics around 5,200 years ago, a period of time when anthropologists believe that many people abandoned a nomadic lifestyle to form cities and social structures.
Source: Ohio State University Research News (6 November 2003)
Stone carvings found in Indonesia rainforest
A remote rainforest in Sulawesi (Indonesia) is now at the centre of a study into hundreds of mysterious stone carvings that only a few people have seen. No one knows who built them or why, but the megaliths are believed to be built anywhere from 500 to 2,000 years ago.
There are over 400 carved stones scattered around the rainforest. Till now, nobody has been able to find the tools that carved them, or any clues to who could have built them. These carvings include birds that laugh like humans and primates three inches high, but the most mind-boggling of them all are the statues that locals lores say were once humans.
Local legends tell of criminals long ago turned to stone but beyond that, little is known about the megaliths of Central Sulawesi. "As part of the punishment after he was accused of rape, he was attacked and was cut on his shoulder, and that's what this scar is, which we presume is really just a crack in the rock," said Edward Pollard of The Nature Conservancy, referring to the Tokala'ea megalith.
Park officials are trying to protect them as the national park faces the threat of an encroaching population. And that remains the biggest mystery yet, as experts cannot relate them to anything else in the world. While locals say some of the megaliths were coffins for nobles or cisterns for water, there is no evidence to prove either.
Source: Channel News Asia (23 October 2003)
Iceman Oetzi finders acknowledged in court
A court in Bolzano, Italy, has recognised a German couple as the official discoverers of the Stone Age iceman known as Oetzi. Helmut and Erika Simon, from Nuremberg, first saw Oetzi in 1991 while walking in the Italian Alps close to the border with Austria.
The retired couple have spent several years in their quest for a finder's fee from the South Tyrol provincial government, who are now considering an appeal. The court award entitles the Simons to 25% of Oetzi's value. The 5,300-year old frozen mummy - the best-preserved Stone Age body in the world, invaluable for scientific research - brings in several million euros-worth of museum fees each year.
Source: BBC (4 November 2003)
Seed study may reveal early euthanasia
A paleoethnobotanist in Florida, America working on the so-called "Elderberry Woman" believes she may have found evidence of euthanasia. Lee Ann Newsom - an expert in ancient plant remains - made her discovery after analysing the last meal of the 7,300-year old woman who was found near the Kennedy Space Centre.
The remains were found in the mid-1980s at the Windover Archaeological Site - a Paleo-Indian burial ground of 169 bodies, dating back 8,000 years, and preserved in a peat bog. The preservation was such that 91 of the skulls still contained brain matter. Also found were antler and wooden tools, and sophisticated hand-woven fabrics. The cemetery is one of the largest in North America of that age.
In the mud under her lower abdominal cavity were 3.200 seeds, which were found to have come from approximately 550 elderberries, 40 grapes, a prickly pear cactus and a toxic black nightshade. Only nine of the seeds were cracked, prompting speculation they had formed a medicinal tea aimed at putting to an end to her suffering from extensive bone cancer.
Mrs Newsom said "These were hunter-gatherers, not brutish people. They cared enough about their people to bury them with respect."
Source: Tampa Bay Online (3 November 2003)
6,000 years at Chatsworth
The most comprehensive archaeological survey ever undertaken of the Duke of Devonshire's Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire (England) has just been completed, revealing new information about the people who lived in the area and worked the land over the past 6,000 years. Focussing on around 50 sq km of the central part of the estate, the survey has mapped some 3,500 archaeological and landscape features. Funded by English Heritage and conducted by a team from the Peak District National Park Authority led by Senior Archaeologist John Barnatt, the five year project has identified ancient features such as burial mounds, stone circles, and cairns marking areas of early cultivation.
Later points of interest include 800-year-old millstone quarries, evidence of coal mining dating back hundreds of years, and earthworks serving as field boundaries which trace cultivation over 1,000 years - among the best examples in the UK. Land at Chatsworth has been used for grazing since the 18th century but the ancient cultivation terraces, ridges and furrows can still be seen in the form of grass mounds.
Roger Wardle, Agent to the Duke of Devonshire and the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees, said: "We are grateful to English Heritage for funding the survey, which will enable us to continue to preserve these important features." The survey was presented to the Duchess of Devonshire at a ceremony on 31 October 2003.
Jon Humble, Regional Inspector of Ancient Monuments with English Heritage, says: "The landscape is our most precious historical document - its archaeological sites and monuments are the only evidence we have for the majority of human history. The survey enables us to link the past with present and future needs - and it will enhance the enjoyment of the wider landscape for the many visitors to Chatsworth."
Sources: The Peak District National Park Authority, via The Megalithic Portal (9 November 2003)
A Study in Scarlet: Israel cave symbols
The discovery of 71 pieces of red ochre in the oldest section of a burial cave in Israel has prompted researchers to suggest that the symbolic thinking that marked the beginning of modern-day human thought arose deep in the Stone Age. The received wisdom has been that the assignment of symbolic meaning to specific items and colours emerged no earlier than 50,000 years ago. But the association of red ochre with skeletons found in the oldest section of the Qafzeh Cave has been taken to indicate that symbolic burial rites were being performed more than 90,000 years ago.
The controversial theory that modern thought did not emerge with the appearance of Upper Paleolithic cultures has been put forward by Erella Hovers of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who directed the Qafzeh project. She argues that in the Middle East and Eurasia "many symbolic behaviours that are considered modern existed for a time [before the Upper Paleolithic] and then disappeared, to be reinvented time and again". The 'continual reinvention' proposal stems from the fact that similar ochre use does not appear again in the Qafzeh Cave until 12,700 years ago.
Red ochre is a form of iron oxide which yields a pigment when heated. The precise meaning of the use of ochre is unknown, but it was widely used in primitive societies and even today the colour red is used in non-industrial cultures as a symbol of fertility or vitality. The ochre at Qafzeh was brought to the cave from nearby sources. Large hearths and ochre-stained tools in the same sediment levels that contain the oldest human remains show that the ochre was worked on-site. Hovers and her co-workers say that the pigment was used with the shells of inedible molluscs found in the cave, possibly in symbolic activities related to burying the dead.
Prehistoric symbolic expressions most commonly occurred in large populations that stayed for extended periods in resource-rich locations, says Hovers. But in the small nomadic groups typical of Stone Age Middle East symbolic behaviour would have surfaced for special activities at special sites, such as interment of the dead at Qafzeh Cave.
A report published in the August-October Current Anthropology has had a mixed reception. Sally McBrearty of the University of Connecticut believes that Qafzeh adds to the evidence of the great antiquity of the colour red as a symbolic category, pointing out that engraved ochre dates to 77,000 years ago in South Africa. On the other hand, Richard G. Klein of Stanford University holds that ochre use was merely a step towards advanced symbolic culture, which he places at around 50,000 years ago.
(Editor's note: On the other hand!! One of Britains most eminent archaeologists has recently argued that the modern mind emerged, not 50,000 years ago, not 90,000 years ago, but 10,000 years ago with the spread of agri-pastoralism. See Archaeo News, 21 October 2003.)
Source: Science News (1 November 2003)
Stone Age to Bronze Age on ancient Crete
One of the Aegean's oldest known metal-smelting workshops has been identified at Chrysokamino, on the Gulf of Mirambelou, north eastern Crete (Greece). Pottery sherds date the workshop as far back as 5,000 years ago, to the Neolithic era. The workshop and its furnace are sited to exploit the prevailing winds. Isotope analysis has shown that copper ore smelted at Chrysokamino before 3000 BCE came from Lavrio in Attica or, possibly, the island of Kythnos in the northern Cyclades. The end product was improved by the addition of arsenic - or it possibly occurred in the ore - which produced harmful vapours that gave a further reason for the remote windy location. In the Late Bronze Age, from around 1500 BCE, arsenic was replaced by tin as an additive to the molten copper, yielding high quality bronze. Gold, silver and lead were also smelted on the site.
The excavation of the site was begun in the late 1990s by American archaeologist Professor Philip Betancourt, director of the Institute of Aegean Prehistory [INSTAP], in collaboration with leading Bronze Age metallurgist Dr. James Muhly, past director of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. Improved scientific techniques have been fully embraced to help the research work: metallurgist Iannis Bassiakos, of the Athens-based Demokritos research institute, analysed the range of metals found on the site. Betancourt and Muhly are now preparing findings for publication.
Chrysokamino is one of a number of Cretan sites being investigated by INSTAP. Dovetailing neatly with the Chrysokamino project is the twelve-year excavation of Pseira, the offshore island that dominates the view from the smithy. Pseira's protected south-facing harbour was a port of call on the northern coast trade route for 2,000 years, until late Minoan days when Greek-speaking Mycenaens took control of Crete. Betancourt has shown that the ancient mariners imported goods to Pseira from the Cyclades, Cyprus and Syria. Another port under long-term investigation is Bronze Age Kommos, the thriving sea outlet of Phaistos, second in importance only to Knossos in the Minoan world.
Betancourt's latest project began in 2002 at a huge Minoan burial cave high on the Lassithi Plateau in the Dikti Mountains (site of the Diktaean Cave, birthplace of Zeus and a long time Minoan cult centre). Close to the village of Agios Charalambos, the cave features a massive Minoan reburial of hundreds of human remains from the Early and Middle Bronze Age (3rd and 2nd millennia BCE). Bone analysis will provide information on diet, lifestyle and life spans. The remains were interred with jewellery, figurines, pottery, stone vases and other artefacts in good condition. The evidence suggests that Lassithi supported a flourishing society in remote antiquity. The number of domestic animal bones unearthed points to a stock-raising economy. Betancourt's collaborator at Lassithi was Costis Davaras, who had also worked on Pseira. Further expertise was provided by Helene Stravopodi, of the culture ministry speleological service, when it became apparent that conditions in the cave were hazardous.
Betancourt has this year been awarded the Archaeological Institute of America's most prestigious accolade, its annual gold medal. Of Minoan archaeology, Betancourt says: "We've only scratched the surface. We really know so little." He believes that archaeology overall is a growing field, benefiting from modern technology and rising popular interest.
Source: Athens News (31 October 2003)
Ancient Scots link to Stonehenge
November 17 2003
ANCIENT Scots may have enjoyed sophisticated economic, social and cultural links with the builders of one of the world's most mysterious ancient monuments, according to new research.
Experts have revealed a previously unknown link between the elite of ancient Scots society and Stonehenge, dispelling the myth that Scotland's Bronze Age tribes were uncultivated barbarians.
Research into the discovery of a series of enigmatic axe carvings at the Wiltshire site and one in Argyll has hinted that the country's ancient magnates were proto-capitalists who ruled a powerful monopolistic dynasty.
Dr Alison Sheridan, assistant keeper of archaeology at the National Museums of Scotland, said there was also evidence that the people around Stonehenge must have been in contact with Scotland.
She said: "These people were very sophisticated with wide-ranging links. It is nonsense to say these people were barbarians. They were very savvy.
"In both areas, they had a good grasp of getting power by monopolising the flow of valuable resources. The axehead carvings represent symbols of power. They were like a way of saying Kilroy was here or in this case, King Kilroy was here."
The links between Stonehenge and a site in Kilmartin valley, Argyll, were discovered after a team of computer experts from Glasgow used laser scanning on the stones at the Wiltshire site, erected about 2300 BC, for the first time, and discovered carvings of two bronze axeheads, thought to date from around 1800 BC.
Archaeologists have found connections with carvings on other monuments from this time which are associated with burials, such as the seven axes found on a stone burial cist in Argyll.
Dr Sheridan said the prehistoric symbols could indicate that sites in Scotland and Stonehenge were commemorative places to mark the death of prestigious members of society.
She said: "This burial (in the Kilmartin valley) was very special as it was bigger and fancier than most Bronze Age burials. The monument's grandness, and the axehead carvings seen on only two other cists, both around Kilmartin, underline the importance of the person buried there.
"The Kilmartin valley is at a crucial position with regard to the importation of Irish metal and finished metal objects. It is likely the people buried there were entre-preneurs who controlled the flow of these resources to the rest of Scotland.
"The elite around Stonehenge would have controlled the flow of tin to Europe. These axe carvings at both sites were symbols of power and prestige."
The side of the Nether Largie North cist – as the Kilmartin site is known – is covered with carvings of images of axe-heads superimposed on earlier cup shaped marks.
These cup carvings were on a stretch of living rock, probably for ceremonies relating to the "otherworld". Then, around 2200-2000 BC, the cist builders cut a rectangular slab from this sacred rock to use in the cist, and added the axehead designs.
Little is known about the people who constructed Stonehenge and Nether Largie North cist as they existed some 2000 years before writing came to Britain. However, those buried at both sites would have been from the upper echelons of society, the equivalent of the aristocracy, and were indigenous British people.
Dr Sheridan said: "We can tell a lot from their bodies. They were about the same height as us and just as intelligent, if not more so. It is a myth that people in the past were always smaller."
Dr Caroline Sleith, director of Archaeoptics, a Glasgow-based 3D laser-scanning bureau operating in the archaeology and heritage sector, carried out the work at Stonehenge. She was hopeful that the carvings could lead to further investigations across Scotland.
"There are a lot of sites in Scotland that are just as mysterious as Stonehenge. There are dozens of stone circles across Scotland, such as Callanish on Lewis.
"They are overlooked. We would love to do a similar laser scanning project there. We have the expertise and if the funding was forthcoming, we would be delighted to do it."
Carvings of axes and a dagger were first found at Stonehenge 50 years ago, but they have never been fully surveyed or studied.
The team scanned some of these known carvings and by comparing visually their results with a photograph taken in 1953 they suspect the carvings may have eroded since they were first found, possibly because of people touching them.
The first recognised and best-known carvings at Stonehenge, a dagger and 14 axes, were found by Richard Atkinson in 1953, on the inner face of Sarsen number 53.
Anglo-Saxon spin halted to credit Welsh
Nov 18 2003
Rhodri Clark, The Western Mail
CENTURIES of banishing the Welsh to the margins of British history are coming to an end, according to an American academic.
Professor Chris Snyder, of Marymount University, Virginia, says modern science is forcing historians and students to accept that the real Britons - the predecessors of the English - had a bigger impact on the history of the British Isles than was traditionally assumed.
He says generations of historians, including the Venerable Bede in 731AD, have put an Anglo-Saxon spin on their interpretations of the past, belittling, maligning or ignoring the contribution of the Welsh and other pre-Saxon peoples.
But more recent research - especially by archaeologists - is providing firm evidence that the invasion by Angles and Saxons was much slower and smaller than Bede and others have claimed.
Now, says Prof Snyder, historians are having to accept that the Welsh, Cornish and other Britons had a lasting influence after the Anglo-Saxons arrived.
With DNA tests and other technology being deployed increasingly in archaeology, the traditional view of British history will become increasingly untenable, Prof Snyder predicted yesterday.
"The problem with the Welsh and other Britons is that they were Christian and had simple graves.
"The pagan Anglo-Saxon graves tend to yield a lot more information because they have more burial goods," said Prof Snyder, who has some Scottish and Irish ancestry.
"A lot of burials in England have been interpreted as Anglo-Saxon but now more archaeologists are prepared to look at these as graves of British-speaking people from British communities under Anglo- Saxon rule.
"We are trying to establish how we can label a burial in England as British or Anglo- Saxon. In the absence of supportive goods, that makes it necessary to use DNA samples or measurement of bones. This will help us settle the question of how much the British underlies the Anglo-Saxon."
It may seem ironic that it takes American academics to set the British record straight, but they have the advantage of not being seen to be on either the British or the English side of the fence.
Prof Snyder said, "In America we're teaching the undergraduate students about British history.
"We have to think about how we tie all this together. Because we've had our own struggles we include more minority histories.
"We can't make British history English history. We have to look at all the regions of the British Isles."
While traditional histories of Britain - including a recent BBC series and book - have retold the stories of kings and queens, modern historians are increasingly focused on social history.
"Medieval history is about local government," said Prof Snyder, who hails from Morganstown, West Virginia, which was established by two Welshmen.
"It's the regions, the counties and the dukes, more than the kings, that run the show. It's only from the modern perspective that we see strong nation states emerging."
When historians undertook big projects for clients such as the BBC, they tended to rely on old scholarship and traditional views instead of taking the time to read recent research on the Britons, he said.
Prof Snyder added that Bede's own loyalties had led him to play down the Britons' influence in his seminal account.
"Most historiography has followed Bede's lead. In looking back to this period everyone assumes that he got it right, but he had a very Northumbria-centric point of view."
In his latest book, The Britons (Blackwell Publishing), Prof Snyder questions the view of historians from Bede onwards that the British were overwhelmed by massive Germanic immigration and a series of bloody wars.
He says many historians are now subscribing to the theory that a small number of warrior elites imposed their culture on the Britons in what is now England.
The Welsh, however, refused for centuries to accept new trends from continental Europe, even defying the Pope with their own calendar.
Oven chips threat to relics
One of Britain's most important archaeological finds is under threat - from North Yorkshire potato farmers.
Scientists have discovered a vast area of buried buildings and villages spanning 6,000 years, under fields at West Heslerton, near Malton in North Yorkshire.
But the land is used by farmers who are being urged to start digging it up to plant potatoes for the nearby McCain chips factory.
"This is the archaeological equivalent of finding the Domesday Book, then having it burned before your eyes before having a chance to open it," said English Heritage chief archaeologist David Miles.
"The graves, burial mounds and houses have been left untouched by mechanised farming which has wrecked so much of the rest of our archaeology."
In a bid to halt the site's destruction, talks have been set up between English Heritage and the Department for the Environment.
Senior archaeologists and local farmers have also begun discussions.
Project leader Dominic Powlesland said: "This is a vast untapped resource.
"We have to ensure that its most important parts are saved so that we can excavate and study them carefully.
"It would be tragic if this place was wrecked for a few potatoes."
Golden hoard and silver too at British Museum
Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent
Saturday November 15, 2003
Among the heaps of gold and silver in an exhibition opening next week at the British Museum, there is a dirty old lump hammer.
It was the hammer, dropped in a muddy Suffolk field, for which Eric Lawes was hunting with a metal detector when he found the Hoxne Hoard, the largest treasure of Roman gold and silver found on British soil.
It is a star exhibit in the first exhibition at the museum devoted to British archaeology in more than 20 years, which is provoking fierce debate.
The Hoxne Hoard was any child's idea of real treasure: jewellery, goblets and bowls, fistfuls of coins, packed into a chest. The rotten chest has been replaced with perspex, and curator Richard Hobbs has recreated the original packing, the silver bowls and spoons stacked as if into a picnic hamper.
Mr Lawes behaved immaculately, contacting his local archaeological unit at once, but the whole subject of metal detecting remains a red rag to many archaeologists. The exhibition itself covers scandals including that of Snettisham in Norfolk, where a hoard is believed to have been smuggled out of the country for sale in the US.
Percival Turnbull, a consultant archaeologist, thinks the exhibition will be "a great feast" but adds: "Archaeology is not about piles of glorious, contextless objects. Archaeology seeks to return to all of us an understanding of our common past."
Guy de la Bedoyere, a leading historian of Roman Britain, says his profession has to learn to live with metal detecting. "There are problems in how treasure is dealt with, but the reality is that it is going to be found, but very rarely by archaeologists. If we took the treasure out of the Romano-British galleries at the British Museum, there would be a lot of empty cases."
The co-curator, JD Hill, insists the exhibition sets the finds in their archaeological context, and questions whether the gold and silver is more valuable than the buttons, cap badges and lead toys also included.
However another archaeologist believes the very splendour of the exhibition leaves the museum with questions to answer.
Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology, said: "People will see this show, and ask, 'Why can't I see more of these things in the permanent displays?' The representation of ancient Britain in Britain's premier museum is dismal."
Buried Treasure: Finding Our Past. British Museum, November 21 to March 14. £7, £3 concessions, children 11 and under free.
Ancient toothbrush unearthed in Germany
Wednesday, November 19, 2003 Posted: 2:10 PM EST (1910 GMT)
BERLIN, Germany (AP) -- German archaeologists have unearthed what could be Europe's oldest toothbrush, officials said Tuesday.
The brush, dug up at the site of a former hospital in the western city of Minden, is at least 250 years old, said the Landscape Association of Westfalen-Lippe, which oversees the excavation.
While the bristles have rotted away, the brush's 4 inch (10 centimeter) handle of animal bone is carved at the other end into a tiny spoon believed to be used for cleaning out the owner's ears.
The toothbrush is almost identical to one found earlier this year near Quedlinburg, about 100 miles (170 kilometers) farther east.
Experts dated that brush at around 1750, making it the oldest found in Europe at the time, and suggest the latest find may have come from the same workshop.
Toothbrushes first became widely used in the 18th century, as tooth-rotting sugar became a fixture in the diet of wealthier Europeans.
Science & Society 11/24/03
Barbarians get sophisticated
By Andrew Curry
BERLIN--For something so small, the "sky disk" has made quite an impact here. Not even a foot across, the 5-pound bronze disk is embossed in gold leaf with intricate images of the sun, moon, and 32 stars. In the plate's center is a representation of the star cluster Pleiades, which appears in the sky around the autumnal equinox and signaled the arrival of harvest season.
What's most amazing is its age. More than 3,500 years old, the sky disk may well be the most important Bronze Age find in decades. Treasure hunters found it first in 2000 near the eastern German town of Nebra; police in Switzerland had to use an elaborate sting operation to get it safely into the hands of archaeologists. Its recovery was front-page news, and the find inspired headlines like "Culture of the Star Wizards" from the weekly Der Spiegel. "It's an absolutely key find--this is the first accurate picture of the cosmos in human history," says Harald Meller, head of the Halle Institute for Archaeological Research, where the object is being studied. "It's astonishing to people that this was found in Central Europe and not Egypt or Mesopotamia."
Nebra's sky disk isn't the only artifact that has people here buzzing. When Berlin's Museum for Pre- and Early History reopens fully next spring, its centerpiece will be an elaborately decorated gold "hat," 29 inches tall and made out of over a pound of thinly beaten gold. Museum director Wilfried Menghin says that the object, dating from around 1000 B.C. and acquired recently from a private collection, was worn by Bronze Age astronomer-priests and that the decorations are actually an extremely complex solar-lunar conversion calendar. Many scholars are skeptical: The artifact is almost unique, they say, and it's impossible to prove the theory conclusively. What's more, while experts suspect it's from the Nuremberg area, no one really knows its origins. But if true, the achievement would beat the Greek discovery of a similar mathematical system by more than five centuries.
Such debates are part of a mini-renaissance in how Central Europe's early cultures are viewed. For centuries, archaeologists and the public have focused on the people of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia as the only ancient societies worth studying--a perception the ancient Greeks and Romans, who considered anything outside their culture contemptible, reinforced in their written histories.
But the sky disk and the gold "hat" are contributing to a dramatic rethinking of the Bronze Age, which lasted from about 2500 B.C. to 1000 B.C. Scholars say these discoveries show that far from being barbarians, Bronze Age Europeans had a sophisticated grasp of mathematics and astronomy. "We're developing a new paradigm in European archaeology now," says Berlin archaeologist Klaus Goldmann. "European civilization goes further back than most of us ever believed."
More important, people are starting to talk about the period again. The Nazi obsession with proving the superiority of early "Germans" made acknowledging the achievements of prehistoric Central Europeans taboo after the end of World War II. Hitler and his henchmen encouraged the abuse of archaeological evidence to claim a glorious prehistoric past--and justify invading their neighbors.
When the war ended, "there was almost an allergic reaction to the way archaeology had been manipulated between 1933 and 1945," says University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee archaeologist Bettina Arnold. She likens postwar research in the region to "stamp collecting": exhaustive cataloging and description that steered well clear of any politically sensitive interpretations.
In the past decade, German archaeology itself has undergone a sea change. The former East Germany is now open to aerial photography and surveying, which were banned under the Communist regime. Dozens of earth mounds and structures like the one in which the sky disk was found have been discovered, promising to keep archaeologists busy for years to come. And a younger generation of scholars, more willing to risk controversial analyses, has emerged. Says Menghin, whose theory on the gold "hat" may be the riskiest yet: "We have to go forward again to show Middle Europe wasn't as barbaric as people think."