Cave reveals 4000 years of Aboriginal art

16:01 02 July 03

 NewScientist.com news service


One of the images is of a wombat, rarely seen in other Australian cave art (Image: AFP/Australian Museum)

A cavern resplendent with Aboriginal cave art encompassing 4000 years is being hailed in Australia as the most important find in half a century. The cave was discovered by a backpacker in a remote and almost inaccessible part of Wollemi National Park in New South Wales.

Among the newly revealed images are fantastic images of half human/half animal creatures, a rare rendering of a wombat and numerous birds, lizards and marsupials. The find also includes stenciled images of arms and boomerangs.

"We are incredibly excited about what the cave has revealed to us of the long record of visitors to the area," says Paul Taçon of the Australian Museum in Sydney, who led an expedition to analyse the paintings in May.

"It is amazing to contemplate why people repeatedly travelled great distances through such a rugged landscape to leave their marks out this cave time and again," he says.

First discovered in 1995, the artwork lies in such a hard to reach location that experts were only able to carry out a full analysis recently. The precise location of the find is being kept secret to prevent it being disturbed by vandals or sightseers.

In total, there are 203 different stencils, drawings and paintings in 12 different layers. Experts believe the artwork dates from 2000 BC right up to the 19th century.


Aboriginal cave paintings date back 4,000 years

Associated Press

Wednesday July 2, 2003

The Guardian


A chance discovery by a hiker has been hailed as one of the most significant finds of Aboriginal rock art in Australia's history - a cave containing more than 200 paintings, some believed to be 4,000 years old.

The cave was found by a hiker in 1995 in a remote part of the Wollemi national park, north-west of Sydney. But the site is so inaccessible that researchers were not able to visit it until this May.

The exact location is being kept secret to stop it being damaged by vandals or sightseers.

The anthropologist and archaeologist Paul Tacon, who led the expedition, said there were 11 layers of more than 200 paintings, stencils and prints in different styles, spanning a period from around 2000 BC to the early 19th century.

The paintings feature people and godlike human-animal composites as well as birds, lizards and marsupials.

"This is the most significant discovery in the greater Sydney region in about 50 years," Mr Tacon added. "It's in pristine condition and it's like a place that time forgot."


July 2, 2003, 10:11AM



Method developed at A&M challenges claims over cave paintings


Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle Science Writer



• Scientists must delicately collect the limited quantities of carbon embedded in inorganic paints on cave walls to date them with radiocarbon methods.

• Texas A&M researchers have developed a method that injects oxygen heated to 300 degrees into a pigment sample, knocking out carbon without destroying it.

• The method allows such small samples of paint to be dated that determining the age of an ancient cave painting is now possible.


They are pictures of people, deer, llamas, crocodiles and even pumas.


There are more than 350 stone walls filled with such paintings at Pedra Furada, a prehistoric site in a remote area of Brazil. They also may be the oldest cave paintings ever found in the Americas, and their discovery could radically change scientists' understanding of how and when the first people came to this hemisphere.

The problem is, a Texas scientist says the paintings, drawn with charcoal and other pigments, are not 30,000 years old, as a team of archaeologists led by Brazilian Niede Guidon there claim, but just a few thousand years old.

At issue is the method used to date the cave paintings, still very much a young field.

Scientists have long used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of old objects. Living organisms consume a rare form of carbon during their lifetimes and by measuring the ratios of these carbons in dead material, scientists can determine when the plant or animal died.

But most cave paintings were done with inorganic pigments -- reds, browns and yellows -- that cannot be radiocarbon dated because they lack carbon. Charcoal can be accurately dated, but it yields the oldest possible date because the charred wood used for the painting could have been dead or burnt long before being applied to a wall.

To tackle this problem, scientists can measure trapped electrons in the thin layer of calcium that builds up on cave paintings over the centuries. It's a proven method for dating stalactites and stalagmites in caves. But it's problematic for dating human art because limestone in cave walls, at millions of years old, can contaminate the calcium deposits and give a much older age.

Brazilian scientists recently used this method for setting the age of several Pedra Furada paintings at between 27,000 and 44,000 years old, backing Guidon's claim of a very old site.

To add validity to the findings, however, the Guidon team sent material to Marvin Rowe, a professor of archaeological chemistry at Texas A&M University, who has developed a novel method of dating cave art called plasma extraction.

Rowe's method is unique because he can extract traces of carbon within the non-living pigments, giving scientists a potentially powerful new tool to date cave painting.

In his lab, Rowe tested 12 mostly reddish paint samples and found ages ranging from 1,230 to 3,730 years ago, hardly eyebrow-raising dates for human habitation in South America.

"I was so disappointed myself because it would really have been a fantastic result," Rowe said.

Guidon did not accept the results, Rowe said.

Guidon was at the research site and unavailable for comment.

But the physics professor who performed the dating for Guidon, Shigueo Watanabe of the University of São Paulo, said he stands by the older dates. In an e-mail, Watanabe said he is flying this week to Pedra Furada to obtain a new sample of the calcium found in another area to date it.

He points out that there has been little independent verification of Rowe's technique.

Human occupation at Pedra Furada 30,000 years ago, let alone 50,000, would shatter scientific theories of the peopling of the Americas.

Until the last few decades the long-held belief was that mammoth-hunting humans crossed a Bering Sea land bridge about 12,000 years ago, based upon a notable archaeological site near Clovis, N.M., which dates to 11,500 years ago.

In 1985, an anthropologist at the University of Kentucky, Tom Dillehay, reported finding human artifacts at the Monte Verde site, in central Chile, that were 12,500 years old. The finding has led scientists to believe that humans were here earlier, and possibly came by boat rather than land.

Dillehay says his own excavations at Pedra Furada support people living there 11,500 years ago, but not earlier.

"We need to keep our minds open, but cautiously so," Dillehay said.


Two 4,000-year-old tombs found in Egypt

Monday, 30-Jun-2003 1:49PM                    Story from AFP

Copyright 2003 by Agence France-Presse (via ClariNet)


CAIRO, June 30 (AFP) - Belgian archeologists excavating in south Egypt have found two 4,000-year-old tombs containing terracotta pots used in offerings as well as a gilded human face mask, the head of antiquities said Monday.

The finds in the Deir el-Bersha region of Minya governorate, 300 kilometers (180 miles) south of Cairo, date back 2,000 years before Christ, said Zahi Hawas, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

In addition to finding the two tombs containing several terracotta pots used in offerings as well as the gold-plated mask, the team found the remains of two other tombs dating back to 1550 BC, Hawas said.




Ancient tomb found in China


July 01, 2003


CHINESE archaeologists have unearthed a spectacular tomb thought to be more than 2500 years old, probably belonging to a ruler of the mysterious Ba Kingdom.


Along with more than 500 bronze objects, the skeletons of two women and a man were found, face up and pointed east. Archaeologists said they had probably been servants or vassals of a Ba king, buried with him as human sacrifices.

The site at Luo Jiaba in Xuanhan county, Sichuan province, was first discovered in 1987, and has been under excavation since 1996. The latest discoveries, made late last month, were typical of a luxury tomb, seeming to confirm the archaeologists' belief that a Ba king might lie nearby. Thirty-one tombs have been found in the area.

Chen Zujun, vice-leader of excavation from the Sichuan Archaeology Institute, told the Xinhua news agency the latest tomb unearthed was "majestic", representing the highest standard of all the Ba tombs found so far.

Most of the bronze objects were either weapons – spears, swords, blades and tomahawks, or ceremonial objects, consistent with a high status of the tomb owner, Professor Chen said.

It was "very likely" it was the tomb of a king, he said, and if this were proven, it would be the most important archaeological discovery relating to the Ba Kingdom.

The Ba kings ruled over Sichuan, Hunan and parts of southern China before mysteriously disappearing about 2000 years ago. As Ba sites are unearthed, a picture has emerged of a warlike and courageous people, but their origins, social structure and culture remain largely unknown.

The Ba artifacts at Luo Jiaba predate China's most famous archaeological discovery, the entombed warriors at Xi'an in Shanxi province, by at least 200 years.


Will Knight

Making the old new again: Syria reactivates parts of ancient water system

Environmentally friendly network was originally built during Roman times

Brooke Anderson

Special to The Daily Star


ALEPPO: “Have some water, it’s clean enough to drink,” say some women of Shalala Saghira (little falls), as they draw water from restored qanats (canals) and carry buckets of it on their heads to their small homes in the hills near Aleppo. The village, located approximately 70 kilometers southeast of Aleppo near the town of Khanasser, is the first in Syria to have its qanats, which date from Byzantine times, reactivated. This program, in partnership with the International Center for Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) and the directorate of the National Museum of Aleppo, gives the locals of Shalala Saghira the chance to use this ancient yet clean and efficient way of getting their water.

The villagers are descended from Moussa Oqleh Hariri Moussa, who moved from the Houran area of southern Syria in the late 1800s. He worked on Ottoman estates, and then bought land in Shalala Saghira, where he and his five sons restored part of the qanat system, irrigated agricultural land and raised sheep on the crops they grew. In the 1970s, many of the younger inhabitants of the village migrated to the Gulf, where they worked shearing sheep, and to Lebanon to work on construction sites. Now, however, some of the younger villagers are interested in the restoration project of the qanats, which they think might bring economic opportunities with the possibility of more productive agriculture in the village.

The first ancient qanats to be excavated in Syria were found by German archaeologists approximately 100 years ago in northern Syria at Tel Halaf along the Turkish border. Yet large-scale plans to reactivate them for practical use are relatively recent.

The idea of reactivating the qanats comes from the same need the Romans had when they initially built them – to make the most of scarce water resources in an arid region.

During Roman times, these canals connected cities such as Duro Europos, Bosra and Palmyra. The paths of the qanats (basically large tunnels) are so big that one could drive a car through them. The Romans were probably the biggest builders of qanats, though other civilizations also contributed their irrigation techniques to the region. Qanats rely on gravity to carry water and are considered environmentally sound because they do not deplete groundwater resources.

“The Romans brought great innovations to the irrigation systems of the area. Their waterways connected cities that were – for that time, very far – from one another. The Romans would clean these qanats on a regular basis, keeping them good for drinking water,” says Mohammed al-Mslem, an archaeologist based at Aleppo’s National Museum who studies ancient agriculture. “When other civilizations conquered the area after the Romans, they used the qanats and further improved upon the irrigation system. This helps us to understand ancient methods of farming and irrigation.”

Though many of the great ancient cities in the region that used these qanats eventually died, they left a legacy of efficient irrigation that is as good today as it was during ancient times.

“The qanats in Shalala Saghira are now in their original state,” says Maher Shater of the directorate of Aleppo’s National Museum, one of the main experts in charge of the restoration of these ancient waterways.

The work to reactivate the qanats themselves took Shater and his team only four months – a sign that these constructions really stand the test of time.

The idea was originally proposed by the ICARDA in 1997, and the implementation of the project began the following year. Before they begin their work of restoring the qanats, they do a study of the local population, which takes around seven months.

“The locals are very happy, and they’d like to see more qanats revived,” says an enthusiastic Shater, who, during the course of the project, lived in the village and stayed with the locals in their mud and brick beehive-shaped houses.

During the year that Shater and his Dutch and Syrian colleagues worked on the project of Shalala Saghira, they not only restored the qanats, but also taught the locals how to use the system and fetch water so that they could be self-reliant once the team left.

After the success of Shalala Saghira, they went on to reactivate the qanats of Dumeir, a small town around 45 kilometers northeast of Damascus, well known for its Roman temple. Fortunately for the people of Dumeir, there is enough water available.

“In Shalala Saghira, though the population is smaller than in Dumeir, there is less water available. This was a problem because the families competed for the water. Eventually they learned how to share,” Shater recalls.

He and his team are pleased that they are helping to raise the standard of living for Syria’s rural poor as well as reactivating an ancient, clean and efficient system of water distribution in a normally dry region. According to the 2003 report by the Oxford Business Group, “the ancient system could provide the basis for ecotourism activities.”

There are an estimated 2,000 qanats in Syria, of which 91 have been identified at 41 sites in the country, with another 30 still flowing. There are even more qanats out there in the region, though Shater and his colleagues don’t know which will be restored next or when, or even whether the project itself will ever come to an end.


June 28, 2003


Roman barge reveals a rich cargo of history



ABOUT AD180, in the reign of Marcus Aurelius or maybe Commodus, a Roman military maintenance crew was working its way along the Rhine, near the North Sea on the on the far fringe of the empire. Some misfortune befell their 82ft sailing barge, which sank with their clothes, tools and weapons on board.

Forgotten for more than 1,800 years, this little incident has just come to light in vivid detail thanks to the discovery of the barge in an extraordinary state of preservation.

In a coup of which archaeologists can only dream, the oak vessel, complete with the captain’s carved chest and military-issue leather sandals, was found buried deep on a site for a new housing estate at De Meern, near Utrecht.

The boat may be a humble barge, but no Roman vessel has ever provided such a glimpse of daily routine in the empire.

“No one has found a Roman boat anywhere in such good condition,” Tessa de Groot, 25, an archaeologist on the team that has just excavated the barge, said.

“The boat is almost complete. The only things missing are the steering oar, the mast and the deckhouse roof. It was like opening a time capsule. This sort of thing is normally only found in Pompeii or somewhere like that.”

To the untutored eye, there is a surprising familiarity about the objects found on board the flat-bottomed riverboat. The iron crowbar, shears, two-handed saw and wood-working plane look no older than the Victorian era. The sandals and shoes still have their straps and have details such as iron studs on their soles.

There is a fine-pointed writing instrument, and tiles used in the galley fireplace are stamped with markings that identify a military unit.

The barge, discovered in 1997, became a national attraction in the Netherlands this spring when thousands watched it being extracted from the clay and sand that had preserved it on a bend in the former course of the Rhine. It has been slowly transported by road and waterway in a huge steel frame this month for preservation and study at the Dutch Institute for Maritime Archaeology at Lelystad, north of Amsterdam.

The black, waterlogged hulk, now sawn in two sections for chemical treament, looks out of place, like a visitor from another world, as it sits on its cradle by the seashore. Yards away, visitors crowd into a shopping centre designed to look like a fairytale village.

When the barge went down to the south, this was the land of the Barbarians. After Julius Caesar halted his northward march here in about 50BC, the legions kept out the tribesmen from a line of fortresses and watchtowers along the Rhine.

With its rough, clinker-planked hull and simple interior, the barge looks rudimentary, but it has only just begun telling a rich story, its new custodians say.

They have yet to date the wood, by carbon isotope and inspection of the timber age-rings, but they are sure that it was a military vessel built for cargo. Its timber was from Germany or France and its carvings, traces of paint and other details show that it was meant to last.

The Romans usually built their barges for one-way trips downstream, dismantling them for the wood or scuttling them to build fortifications. The experts are not sure how this unmanoeuverable boat managed to sail upstream. They know nothing yet of the number or race of the crew but guess that they were only two or three men. There are no human remains, so they may have escaped the sinking.

The hold was empty when the barge went down, but the wood and metal-working tools suggest that the vessel carried a team that supplied and maintained the garrisons and the watchtowers along the Rhine frontier.

For the historians, the decorated furniture, cooking pots and dishes seem to suggest a life not far removed from that on the present-day barges that ply the western Continent. “This shows that they lived on the ship. They really made it a nice place to live,” Ms De Groot, an expert on the Roman era, said. Her eyes lit up as she mentioned that she had discovered one of the pairs of sandals in the spectacular dig.

“It has been a great boost for archaeology,” she said. “I would like to think we will, but I don’t think we will find anything like this again. We have really had a good look at life in Roman times.”




            Archaeologists from NISA, the Dutch Institute for Maritime Archaeology, have been excavating a beautifully preserved Roman barge this Spring. The site is near the city of Utrecht, where in a housing project called Leidsche Rijn the building of more than 35,000 houses is going ahead. Over the last six years, archaeologists have been given ample opportunity to work ahead of construction. And with spectacular results: they were for instance able to have a look at several sections of a Roman road, each custom-built to suit the particular ground it ran across. The road once carried traffic across the limes, the northern border of the Roman Empire. Set on the southern bank of the river Rhine, this border was controlled by castella and watchtowers erected at regular intervals along the ancient road. In Leidsche Rijn, the castellum at 'Hoge Woerd' has been located and will be preserved as an archaeological monument. Excavations in recent years have also revealed the remains – amongst the best preserved in northwestern Europe – of a number of timber- and stonebuilt watchtowers.


One of the most exciting finds, however, is the Roman barge. The vessel lies on the bottom of what was once the Heldammer Stroom, an offshoot of the river Rhine. Although the original riverbed silted up centuries ago, the barge stayed waterlogged for nearly 2,000 years, preserving the wooden ship and its fascinating contents in an excellent state.


Whereas the Roman barges that were excavated in previous decades all seem to have been deliberately sunk to fortify riverbanks, the suggestion is that the one at Leidsche Rijn went down 'with all hands': excavations have thusfar shown the captain's cabin to have been fully furnished. His bed, his chest, his chair and even his hanging cupboard – its contents retrieved – have all come to light.


The excavation took place from April, 2003 to June 12, 2003. This website offers you a unique chance to witness the process through two webcams located at the site. The weekly updates on the scientific work and the finds are in Dutch only, but the photographs will give anyone else a good impression of the discoveries.


Update, June 21

On Thursday the Roman barge has been lifted with a huge crane from the riverbed and has been transported over water to the Dutch Institute for Martime Archaeology in Lelystad. There it will remain in a tank filled with polyethylglycol (PEG) for up to two years. After its conservation the barge will return to Utrecht where it will probably be displayed to the public in a new museum.


Update, June 27

On Wednesday archaeologists discovered a second Roman barge just 150 metres east from the site where the first ship has been excavated. The second barge is much larger than the first one. It measures almost 5 metres in width and an estimated 35 metres in length. It seems the barge has been deliberately sunk to fortify the riverbank. Earlier a wooden construction and large boulders of basalt had been unearthed at the bottom of a Roman road which followed the course of the Heldammerstroom. Probably this was not enough to stop the water from undermining the road. The ship lies with one side against the wooden sheetpiling. Some basalt boulders have rolled into the wreck. There are no signs of any cargo left in the ship. The construction of the ship looks similar to one of the larger Roman barges discovered in the late 1980s near the village of Zwammerdam. The archaelogists decided after a preliminary examination to cover the ship with plastic, clay and earth until they have worked out a plan and secured enough funds to fully excavate the barge.