Last Updated: Thursday, 11 December, 2003, 13:21 GMT 

Cave colours reveal mental leap

By Dr David Whitehouse

BBC News Online science editor


Red-stained bones dug up in a cave in Israel are prompting researchers to speculate that symbolic thought emerged much earlier than they had believed.

Symbolic thought - the ability to let one thing represent another - was a giant leap in human evolution.


It was a mental ability that allowed sophisticated language and maths.

New excavations show that a red colour made from ochre was used in burials 100,000 years ago, much earlier than other examples of colour association.


Qafzeh Cave in Israel is a remarkable site that contains many skeletons of humans who lived there about 100,000 years ago.


Archaeologists have recently discovered fragments of red ochre - a form of iron oxide that yields a pigment when heated - alongside bones in the cave. The ochre is only found alongside the bones.


"We found 71 pieces of ochre and established a clear link between the red ochre and the burial process, it seems to have been used as part of a ritual," Dr Erella Hovers of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told BBC News Online.


The association of red ochre with skeletons found in Qafzeh cave in Israel suggests that symbolic burial rituals were being performed almost 100,000 years ago. This is much older than the 50,000 years that some other scientists believe is the date for the emergence of symbolic reasoning.


The association of ochre with burial indicates that the inhabitants had made the mental leap of associating the coloured pigment with death. Such symbolic thought spurred human progress allowing the development of sophisticated language and mathematics.


"The red ochre meant something to them, exactly what we do not know, but it is not inconceivable that they painted their dead with red ochre," says Erella Hovers.


"It is an example of symbolic thought, the ochre symbolised death. The humans at this time behaved in a way that was not just functional but symbolic as well," she says.


The researchers believe that the red ochre at Qafzeh was brought to the cave from nearby sources.


In layers in the cave archaeologists have found ochre-stained tools indicating that the red pigment was probably produced in the cave, possibly as part of the burial ritual.


Somehow the ability was then lost. After the initial evidence of symbolic behaviour in Qafzeh about 100,000 years ago it disappears, only to emerge again about 13,000 years ago.


The research is published in the journal Current Anthropology.



Posted on Tue, Dec. 09, 2003

French student looks for lefties among earliest cave painters


The Dallas Morning News


Prehistoric shamans used to mark the transition from the real world to the spirit world, anthropologists think, by blowing pigments around their hands onto cave walls. These ghostly hand prints, which still dot European caves more than 10,000 years later, now serve a less ethereal purpose — telling scientists how many of those shamans were left-handed.


New research shows that the frequency of left-handed painters — 23 percent — is the same today as it was back then.


The work is a rare look at how left-handedness has persisted for millennia, says Charlotte Faurie, the French graduate student who performed the research. It suggests no evolutionary disadvantage to being a lefty, as some scientists had thought.


There’s older evidence that lefties were at work almost as soon as Homo sapiens arose: Wear marks on stone artifacts may signify the presence of southpaws 200,000 years ago. Neanderthals also had their share of lefties; some of their fossilized teeth carry telltale marks that indicate left-handed eating practices, Faurie says.


Such evidence is rare and doesn’t allow scientists to estimate the frequency of left-handedness. That’s why Faurie turned to a database, compiled by Marc Groenen of the Free University of Brussels, of prehistoric hand prints.


In caves stretching across France and Spain, Groenen identified 507 “negative hands,” in which pigment was splattered around a hand by blowing through a tube, spitting, or daubing the paint. Oddly, such negative prints are much more common than positive hand prints in which the palm was painted and pressed against a surface, Groenen says.


By taking careful measurements, Groenen often could identify the age and gender of the person who made the negative hand. In 343 cases, he could determine the handedness of the artist; somebody holding the pigment tube in his or her left hand presumably would have made the imprint of a right hand. Groenen found that 79 prints were of right negative hands, suggesting that 23 percent of the cave artists were left-handed.


Faurie thinks the European caves represent a fair sampling of the number of lefties back then. Some of the hand prints are large and some are small; others are higher or lower on the wall.


“Maybe some hands are from the same artist,” she said. “But we are sure that it is at least many artists.”


She decided to test the cave-painting numbers against the experience of students at her university, France’s University of Montpellier II.


First, she gave students an ink-blowing pen and asked them to outline one hand on a piece of paper taped to a wall. Next, she had them pick up a ball from a table and throw it at a target across the room. Finally, she asked them to identify with which hands they normally wrote.


Just as in the cave paintings, 23 percent of the students held the ink-blowing pens with their left hands and created right negative hands, Faurie and her adviser, Michel Raymond, report in an upcoming issue of Biology Letters.

After that, things become murkier. Only 9 percent of the students wrote with their left hands, and 8 percent threw as lefties.


The findings show how difficult it is to quantify left-handedness, Faurie says. Many people are southpaws for certain tasks but not for others.


Estimates of left-handedness range from 3 percent to 30percent of the population, depending on how and where questions are asked. Studies of tool use show that the northern Inuit people are just 3 percent lefties, while the Yanomami tribe of the Amazon are 23 percent left-handed, Faurie says. About 10percent of Americans write left-handed.


Negative hands appear in caves in other countries, including Australia, South America and Indonesia. Faurie wants to extend her study to those areas, if they have enough well-catalogued hand prints to make the findings statistically significant.






German "Stonehenge" marks oldest observatory

By Madhusree Mukerjee


A vast, shadowy circle sits in a flat wheat field near Goseck, Germany. No, it is not a pattern made by tipsy graduate students. The circle represents the remains of the world's oldest observatory, dating back 7,000 years. Coupled with an etched disk recovered last year, the observatory suggests that Neolithic and Bronze Age people measured the heavens far earlier and more accurately than scientists had imagined.


Archaeologists reported the Goseck circle's identity and age this past August. First spotted by airplane, the circle is 75 meters wide. Originally, it consisted of four concentric circles--a mound, a ditch and two wooden palisades about the height of a person--in which stood three sets of gates facing southeast, southwest and north, respectively. On the winter solstice, someone at the center of the circles would see the sun rise and set through the southern gates.

Although aerial surveys have demarcated 200-odd similar circles scattered across Europe, the Goseck structure is the oldest and best preserved of the 20 excavated thus far, and it is the first circle whose function is evident. Though called the German Stonehenge, it precedes Stonehenge by at least two millennia. The linear designs on pottery shards found within the compound suggest that the observatory was built in 4900 B.C.


Perhaps the observatory's most curious aspect is that the roughly 100-degree span between the solstice gates corresponds with an angle on a bronze disk unearthed on a hilltop 25 kilometers away, near the town of Nebra. The Nebra disk, measuring 32 centimeters in diameter, dates from 1600 B.C. and is the oldest realistic representation of the cosmos yet found. It depicts a crescent moon, a circle that was probably the full moon, a cluster of seven stars interpreted to represent the Pleiades, scattered other stars and three arcs, all picked out in gold leaf from a background rendered violet-blue--apparently by applying rotten eggs.


The two opposing arcs, which run along the rim, are 82.5 degrees long and mark the sun's positions at sunrise and sunset. The lowest points of the two arcs are 97.5 degrees apart, signifying sunrise and sunset on the winter solstice in central Germany at the time. Likewise, the uppermost points mark sunrise and sunset on the summer solstice. The sun's position at solstice has shifted slightly over the past millennia, notes Wolfhard Schlosser of the Ruhr University in Bochum, so that the angle between sunrise and sunset is now slightly farther apart than when the Nebra disk and the Goseck circle were made (by 1.6 and 2.8 degrees, respectively).




TO AN OBSERVER standing at the center of the circle, the sun rises and sets through the southern gates (above, at top) on the winter solstice; the northern gate's function is unknown.


Nearby excavations of wood-and-clay houses have turned up a variety of grains and evidence of domesticated goats, sheep, pigs and cows. Farmers reached this part of the world some 500 years before they built the solar observatory. Although these earliest Neolithic agriculturists most likely measured only the sun's movements, over millennia they came to quantify the lunar cycle and the positions of constellations. The Pleiades, which depart the northern sky in spring and reappear in the fall, still mark crop cycles for many farmers around the world. The Nebra disk may have been a ritual object or, more likely--given its precision--a calculational tool used with observations at Goseck or a similar site to determine planting and harvest times.


The third arc on the disk, believes Francois Bertemes of the University of Halle-Wittenberg, is the stuff of legend. The ancients did not understand how the sun could set in the west and end up in the east the next morning. Representations of a disk in a ship, from Bronze Age Egypt and Scandinavia, reveal an age-old belief that a ship carried the sun across the night sky. The Nebra disk is the first evidence of such a faith in central Europe. That the land-bound cultivators knew of ships is no surprise: Bertemes points out that travelers spread the latest in Bronze Age technology as well as mythology.


The third gate at Goseck remains mysterious, however: it points north, but not quite. It may have nothing to do with astronomy, for the compound was more than a solar station. In addition to pottery shards and arrowheads within, excavators found the decapitated skulls of oxen, apparently displayed on poles, and parts of two human skeletons. The human bones were cleaned of flesh before being buried. Similar skeletons--several with cut marks or with arrowheads in their necks--have turned up in other circles, but archaeologists cannot agree on whether they attest to human sacrifices or to uncommonly gory funeral rites. Nevertheless, such ceremonies anoint the site as a temple, Bertemes notes--and show that science was inextricably entangled with superstition since Neolithic times.



Experts study Viking find

By Susan Nowak


A GILDED 10th Century Viking sword hilt thought to be of national importance is due to be taken to the British Museum on Thursday, December 11, by Verulamium Museum's first finds liaison officer.


Archaeologist Julian Watters' new job, covering all of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, is to identify finds brought in by members of the public and date them to go on a national website of historical treasures under the new Portable Antiquities scheme funded by the Heritage Lottery.


Among the first handed in is an artistically worked sword hilt discovered in north Hertfordshire.


Mr Watters had planned to take it to the experts last week, but Verulamium Museum is carrying out urgent conservation work on it first.


"It's been knocked around by the the plough for more than 1,000 years and still it has survived in this condition," he said.


"To actually find something made by a Viking is fairly rare. The British Museum's Viking department are keen to look at it so it's probably of national importance."

Part of Mr Watters' new role is to persuade people to bring in finds they make, often using metal detectors. He says people fear artefacts they dig up will be confiscated by the state, and that's not the case.


He said: "They are always given back to the people who've brought them in. Obviously a lot of the finds are junk items but if something is of historic value then a museum might offer to buy it, though the finder is not obliged to sell."

In the six weeks since he started his job he has also been brought a decorative Roman manicure set in bronze and green enamel, around 1,800 years old, and a Roman "thistle" brooch of bronze with gilding used to fasten a toga.


He's also got temporary custody of a 17th Century cannonball found near Hitchin and a prehistoric flint axe that is probably 5,000 years old, which he says is "basically the original axe, used for chopping trees."


Mr Watters is holding an open day at Verulamium Museum on January 24 when he hopes the public will bring in interesting finds and he's giving a "hands on history" talk there two days later to explain the scheme.


If you come across anything interesting you would like him to identify you can contact him on 01727 751826 or e-mail j.watters@stalbans.gov.uk.

10:05am Tuesday 9th December 2003



Viking queen may be exhumed for clues to killing

Sun 7 December, 2003 05:17

By Alister Doyle

OSLO (Reuters) - The grave of a mysterious Viking queen may hold the key to a 1,200 year-old case of suspected ritual killing, and scientists are planning to unearth her bones to find out.


She is one of two women whose fate has been a riddle ever since their bones were found in 1904 in a 22 metre (72 feet) longboat buried at Oseberg in south Norway, its oaken form preserved miraculously, with even its menacing, curling prow intact.


No one even knows the name of the queen, but the Oseberg boat stirred one of the archaeological sensations of the 20th century two decades before the discovery of the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings.


Scientists now hope to exhume the women, reburied in the mound in 1947 and largely forgotten, reckoning that modern genetic tests could give clues to resolve whether one was the victim of a ritual sacrifice.


Archaeologists almost a century ago concluded that the body of a woman in her 50s was the queen and the second woman, probably in her 20s, was a slave or lady-in-waiting killed to accompany her mistress to an afterlife in Valhalla.

But DNA tests of genetic material might acquit the Vikings of sacrifice in 834 AD if they show the two were relatives.


"You never know if there's enough DNA left in old bones for analysis, but it would be fascinating to try," said Professor Arne Emil Christensen, the head of Oslo's Viking Ship Museum where the Oseberg boat is on display.


"A DNA test would only tell us if the women were related," Christensen told Reuters. "They might be mother and daughter. If that's the case it's more reasonable to believe that they simply died of the same disease.


"That would be new information, with implications for Viking burials," he said. Ritual sacrifice was sometimes practised in Viking times.


A contemporary account by an Arab traveller of the burial of a Viking chieftain in Sweden, for instance, includes an execution of a female slave. And in one Danish Viking grave, an old man lying next to a younger man had been decapitated.


The Oseberg grave could be reopened next year if Oslo University, which oversees Norway's longboats, gives permission.


Nothing is known of the Oseberg queen apart from the spectacular grave, which contained equipment ranging from carved wooden sledges to buckets made of yew wood that were probably plundered in a raid on Ireland or Britain.


Down the centuries, grave robbers may have taken gold and valuables from the ship, which had space for 30-50 warriors.


Christensen said the elder Oseberg woman was probably queen because the grave contained two pairs of shoes that would fit her feet, which were swollen by arthritis. A slave would hardly get a change of footwear for the afterlife.

Christensen said a forensic test of carbon 13 isotopes could also be used to indicate if the women had a fish-rich diet.


He said that Viking rulers might have favoured meat -- like elk -- over commonplace fish. So if only one of the women had a meat-rich diet, she was most likely the queen.


The Viking longboats were the most feared craft of the time. Their design let Norse warriors land, pillage and plunder and sail off knowing that no other vessels could catch up.


The Oseberg ship, built from oak hewn in about 820, is the most spectacular of three big Viking-era ships found in burial mounds in Norway, preserved by the air-tight seal of the blue clay found in the area.


More than 250 Viking-era ship burial mounds have been found from Russia to Iceland. The Oseberg boat was dragged out of the sea and buried.


Norway is planning to examine another burial site in the south of the country, but Christensen said another find like Oseberg was highly unlikely.


"The best chance of finding Viking ships now would be in old harbours rather than in graves. But then of course you'd find a wreck instead of a well-furnished ship," he said.


Norway gas project turns up historic sunken ship

OSLO, Dec. 9 — A sunken 18th-century ship laden with artefacts has been found off Norway's coast during a gas pipeline project, archaeologists said on Tuesday.


       The ship's bell, bearing the date 1745, had been raised as well as an empty French wine bottle, presumably from 1760 to 1780, but five canon, parts of the ship's rigging, almost a thousand other bottles and ceramics were seen on the deck.


       ''This is a relatively well preserved and big shipwreck from the second half of the 18th century with thousands of artefacts,'' marine archaeologist Marek Jasinski told Reuters.


       ''There's no sunken treasure so far,'' Jasinski said.


       Archives are being checked in Norway, Germany, Russia and Britain to try to identify the ship.


Copyright 2003 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters.



Exhumation of 'Harold' refused


A group of historians have lost their battle to exhume a body from a medieval church to find out if it is the remains of King Harold.


A church court has refused permission for the contents of the tomb, at the Holy Trinity Church in Bosham, West Sussex, to be examined.


The historians, led by retired paper merchant John Pollock, wanted to see if DNA tests on the headless legless body in the coffin could confirm it was the Saxon king.


King Harold was reputedly killed by an arrow being shot through his eye and was then thought to have been buried at Waltham Abbey in Essex.


It was hoped permission from the church court to exhume the Bosham body, so a sample could be taken for testing, could prove otherwise.


But on Wednesday, the Chancellor of Chichester Diocese, the Worshipful Mark Hill, refused the request in a written judgement following a Consistory Court hearing on 24 November.


The court heard three people claiming to be direct descendents all had different DNA and tests on the body would be pointless without a direct comparison.

Mr Hill said there were "complex scientific, historic and archaeological issues" surrounding the request.


But he said burial of the body should be seen as entrusting the person to God for resurrection.


Exhumation should only be carried out on "special and exceptional grounds" or for a "good reason."


The tomb in Bosham, where the king is believed to have grown up, was discovered by workmen in 1954, when it was last opened.


The discovery sparked fresh debate over Harold's burial site, with historians claiming evidence from the Bayeux Tapestry suggested he was laid to rest in the church, where he is thought to have worshipped in his early years.



Bid to open 'King Harold's' grave ruled out


Archaeologists will not be allowed to open the grave in Bosham Church believed to belong to King Harold after a ruling by the chancellor of the Chichester diocese.


Mark Hill has taken just a week and a half to come to his judgement after hearing evidence in a consistory court in the village church last month.


In considering what he described as 'complex scientific, historic and archaeological issues,' Mr Hill dismissed the petition put forward by Bosham Parochial Church Council.


However, Mr Hill has not yet ruled out the prospect of an archaeological investigation of the grave.


For the full story see the Chichester Observer on December 11.

11 December 2003


ECCLESIASTICAL LAW — Faculty — Disinterment — Putative grave of King Harold — Whether cogent and compelling case made out for archaeological investigation and exhumation for destructive bone testing — Whether faculty to be granted


In re Holy Trinity, Bosham


Chichester Const Ct: Hill Ch: 10 Dec 2003

Petitioners seeking a faculty for the exhumation of human remains for the purpose of research had to prove a cogent and compelling case, such as national, historic or other importance or value of the research, in order to displace the doctrinal principle that human remains were not to be disturbed.

Mark Hill Ch so held, sitting in the Chichester Consistory Court, dismissing the petition dated 26 June 2003 of Canon Thomas Inman, the incumbent, Jennifer Margaret Fidler and Elizabeth Mary Ladbrooke, church wardens of Holy Trinity, Bosham, for an archaeological investigation of two grave sites in the nave of the church to be followed by a complete restitution of the area. The purpose of the petition was to discover whether King Harold had been buried there. The petitioners sought: (1) permission to carry out a detailed archaeological investigation of the site; (2) permission to open up the putative grave of King Harold for visual examination; and (3) authorisation for the removal of a sample of bone for destructive (DNA) testing.

HILL CH said that in cases where the purpose of the petition for exhumation was for research the court should consider whether a cogent and compelling case had been proved for the legitimacy of the research which displaced the doctrinal principal that human remains were not to be disturbed. In reaching its decision the court should consider that (1) as a matter of Christian doctrine, burial in consecrated land was final and permanent; (2) this general norm created a presumption against exhumation; (3) exhumation in that context comprised any disturbance of human remains which had been interred; (4) departure from such presumption could only be justified if special circumstances could be shown for making an exception to the norm; (5) an applicant might be able to demonstrate a matter of great national, historic or other importance concerning human remains; (6) an applicant might also be able to demonstrate the value of some particular research or scientific experimentation; (7) only if the combined effect of evidence under (5) and (6) proved a cogent and compelling case for the legitimacy of the proposed research would special circumstances be made out such as to justify a departure from the presumption against exhumation. Although there might well have been a legitimate national historic interest in identifying the final resting place of the only English monarch since Edward the Confessor of whom this was unknown, it was however a matter of conjecture whether any human remains would be found in the coffin; such remains as might be found were highly unlikely to be those of Harold since the vast preponderance of academic opinion pointed to him having been buried at Waltham Abbey; the prospect of recovering Y-chromosome material to carry out DNA testing from such bone as might be found was as little as 10%-30%; there was currently no evidence of putative descendants of Harold sharing a recent common male-line ancestor through Y-chromosome evidence; that the prospect of obtaining such evidence remained speculative; thus any DNA testing was futile and the margin of error in carbon dating testing could, at best, only produce an inconclusive result. The prospect, therefore, of obtaining meaningful results was so remote that the presumption against disturbance was not displaced and a faculty for the exhumation of the remains was refused. Nor was there sufficient evidence for granting the lesser exhumation, that of opening the coffin for visual examination. Finally the petition for a general archaeological investigation was stood over for consideration since it was dependent on a forthcoming petition in respect of another area in the nave.



Italian engineers save Afghan Buddhas


Kabul - Italian engineers have completed work to prevent the collapse of the cliff niches which house the remaining fragments of Afghanistan's ancient Bamiyan Buddhas which were destroyed by the Taliban, a United Nations spokesperson said Thursday.


The engineers spent the past 55 days dangling from ropes to pump cement into cracks to stabilise the immense sandstone cliffs which until spring 2001 housed the immense Buddha statues, Manoel de Almeida e Silva told reporters.


"This was undertaken by an Italian engineering firm, Rodio, in an effort to save the Buddhas' niches from collapsing, something that was deemed imminent over the coming winter months," de Almeida e Silva said.


"The work involved engineers abseiling down the rock faces to the Buddhas' niches to help stabilise the crumbling rock.


"They then bored holes and pumped 14 tons of cement in to the gaping fissures which had been left behind when the statues were blown up by the Taliban in early 2001," he said.


"There are still small cracks to be filled at a later stage but the immediate danger of the niches collapsing over the winter has been removed."


Members of the ousted Taliban regime blew up the statues amid international outrage in spring 2001 before they were ousted by US-led forces later that year. Measuring 53 and 38 metres high, the immense statues carved into the cliffs had dominated the Bamiyan valley for 1 500 years.


The Taliban's action was part of a wider orgy of destruction against statues and other cultural relics which the hardline regime regarded as un-Islamic.


Swiss researchers last month said they wanted to rebuild one of the two ancient Buddhas but Unesco denounced the plan, saying the real priority was to mend the terrible damage inflicted on the cliffs of Bamiyan, 120 kilometres west of Kabul.


Unesco said it was more urgent to preserve the fragments of the originals that were destroyed rather than think of rebuilding them at an estimated cost of 30 million dollars.


The Japanese government has donated $1,5-million for rehabilitation of the Buddhas' site in a project implemented by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). The emergency work on the cliffs cost $400 000.


The main statue, which was more than 1 500 years old, was smashed into about 4 000 fragments.


From early next year, the remaining fragments of both statues will be extracted from the cliff and assembled on the ground where they can be analysed with the help of a laser scanner.


Archaeologists also risk losing certain fragments to traffickers who hope to sell them on the black market.


Some pieces have already turned up in Geneva, the Swiss media reported.


A team of French archaeologists earlier this year said they had found evidence which could cast light on the whereabouts of the legendary third "reclining Buddha" mentioned by ancient travellers to the region.



Clue found to uncover mystery of gunpowder invention


Chinese archaeologists have found a large ancient saltpetre manufacturing base which they believe was used to manufacture gunpowder over 1,000 years ago.

Chinese archaeologists have found a large ancient saltpetre manufacturing base which they believe was used to manufacture gunpowder over 1,000 years ago.


A team of archaeologists discovered last month a network of caves at the Laojun Mountain in southwestern China's Sichuan Province.


Xu Xiangdong, leader of the expedition and former president of the Beijing Ancient Building Museum, said the caves were used to manufacture saltpeter, one of the major ingredients of gunpowder.


In two caves, the remains of workshops and storage pits were discovered, while in another cave the team found four work spaces, each covering hundreds of square meters, along with several saltpetre pits, and scattered fragments of chinaware.


Based on the finds, scientists estimated the ancient miners could have extracted one kg of saltpetre from 100 kg of earth and the kitchens could have fed 100 workers.


The finds proved that the Laojun Mountain was the largest base for saltpetre production, said the experts.


They speculated that the saltpetre, named "Chinese Snow" by foreigners, was probably transported from here to Europe and west Asia via the road twisting between Sichuan and Gansu provinces.


Experts agreed that the large number of halls in towns and cities around the area were used to trade saltpetre in ancient times.


Gunpowder is one of the four great inventions in ancient China along with paper, printing and the compass.


According to historic records, ancient Chinese found that the mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and carbon was explosive, which led to the invention of gunpowder sometime before the Tang Dynasty (618-907).


However, even today, the history of gunpowder manufacturing still rests on fragments in the historic record.


The manufacture of saltpetre has remained a mystery to Chinese scientists, said Xu Xiangdong.


"We are so excited to find important material proofs regarding the invention of gunpowder," said Luo Zhewen, head of the expert team under the State Bureau of Cultural Relics.


If the Laojun Mountain proves to be the birthplace of gunpowder and the largest exploitation base for saltpetre in history, it will be one of the most significant archaeological discoveries both in China and the world, Xu Xiangdong said.



Mystery Javanese coins found in Thames mud

Wed 10 December, 2003 16:49


LONDON (Reuters) - A bundle of 17th century coins from Java, Indonesia, has been found buried in mud on the banks of the River Thames.


The 90 copper alloy coins are pierced with hexagonal holes and inscribed in Arabic with the words "Pangeran Ratou ing Bantan" (Lord King at Bantam)," according to experts at the London museum where they will be displayed.


Bantam, also spelled Bantan, was an important trading post in the East Indies in an age when the British and Dutch were competing for monopoly of the valuable spice trade.


These are the first Javanese coins ever found in Britain, the museum said in a statement.


"How they got to London remains a mystery," it added. "Even in the 17th century they would have had no value in London.


"One possibility is that a merchant dropped them overboard from an East Indiaman (ship) moored in the Thames when he found they were worthless.


"Another is that they were being imported as curios for one of the many collectors keen to acquire interesting objects from the farthest corners of the earth."