Discovery of ancient site stuns experts



PREHISTORIC remains hailed by experts as one of Scotlandís most significant archaeological finds in 50 years have been unearthed in the path of a major road development.


Scores of pots, tools and ceremonial items dating back 7000 years have been unearthed where work is being carried out to create a dual-carriageway between Haddington and Dunbar.


Ancient burial sites and neolithic settlements have also been uncovered.


The discovery has stunned experts who say it is one of the biggest and most important finds in recent years.


Archaeologists have yet to analyse the many items uncovered along the 11-mile stretch but are already predicting it will tell them much about early civilisation in the Lothians region.


They say the sheer volume of material confirms the existence of thriving communities which survived on the fertile farmland of East Lothian for thousands of years.


A major conference will be held next month to discuss the results. The £500,000 dig has been funded by Historic Scotland, which says it is "surprised and delighted" at the results of the excavations, carried out by a team of archaeologists from Glasgow University.


Team leader John Atkinson said: "In a rich farming area like East Lothian we expected to find quite a lot, but we were taken aback by the sheer volume of what we discovered. It is absolutely priceless."


Twelve individual sites were uncovered by the team of 30 archaeological staff, who worked up to five months ahead of the army of bulldozers which cleared the way for extra lanes on the A1.


Among the most stunning finds was a burial cairn at Ewford, near Dunbar. A copper alloy pike, used for ceremonial occasions was also found together with funeral urns thought to be 3500 years old. Elsewhere, remains of a prehistoric burial ground were found on Pencraig Hill, overlooking Traprain Law.


But the most exciting and unexpected find was evidence of a previously unknown settlement at Phantassie, near East Linton. The remains of around a dozen buildings and linking pathways constructed entirely of rock were discovered along with hundreds of small pieces of pottery.


Mr Atkinson said they found evidence of both burial and cremation. He said it was also possible their discoveries suggested excarnation - where the bodies of the dead are left for animals to eat and their skeleton later buried - had taken place.


He said dating of the recovered items would tell whether the ancient fort on Traprain Law was built before, or after, the surrounding settlements.


The discoveries also supported the theory that a clear class system existed in prehistoric times.


"We found large ceremonial cairns which had grave goods with them, suggesting they were for people with a reasonably high status in society. In other sites, like Phantassie, you see signs of every day, subsistence life, in the Iron Age."


Mr Atkinson added: "As a group it certainly qualifies as one of the most important finds in Scotland in the last 50 years."


Dr Gavin MacGregor, who directed the Ewfort dig, added: "Itís a very important piece of work for us. Nationally important sites have been discovered and itís a great success for the all the parties concerned."


A spokeswoman for Historic Scotland said: "We are surprised and delighted by the quality of the archaeology.


"It is going to enhance our knowledge of early people in the Lothians very significantly. And that is a huge benefit to understanding of the rest of early Scotland too."


In 2000, the Scottish Executive pledged £50 million for upgrading the A1 to dual carriageway status, following years of campaigning by road-safety organisations and MPs.


The Haddington-Dunbar stretch is due to be completed next year.



By David Prudames



As any archaeologist will tell you, unearthing the past is all about close academic study, years of experience and being in possession of an extremely patient mind.

Alastair Dunn, aged nine, will tell you different. On August 4 he turned up at Castle Howard, Yorkshire for an archaeological activity session. In one move he rewrote the site's history book by 3,500 years.

Local lad Alastair discovered what Castle Howard's archaeological team have identified as a 4000-year-old Neolithic flint arrowhead, the oldest artefact discovered at the stately home to date.

Photo: built in 1699, the stunning Castle Howard was designed by John Vanburgh and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Courtesy of Castle Howard.

"What a great find for a young child to discover on their first stab at being an archaeologist," exclaimed David Fallon, Castle Howard archaeologist.

"This discovery will encourage the whole team to hunt out further exciting finds as we continue to search out more of Castle Howard's history."

Taking part in the stately home's 'Get Dirty on the Dig' activity, Alastair was washing finds and sieving soil from ongoing excavations at the site. He found a small piece of flint and showed it to a very surprised on-site archaeologist, who was able to identify it as Neolithic.

At a dig established to search for the lost medieval village of Henderskelfe, demolished to make way for Castle Howard in 1699, all previous finds have only dated as far back as 500 years.

Head of Visitor Services, Richard Kemp explained how the dig is all about encouraging the public not only to learn about archaeology, but to have a go at it.

"I've always known the value of an archaeological excavation as the ultimate visitor attraction - they change every time you go and it isn't just what you find, it's the process behind it."

Since Alastair's discovery, archaeologists have unearthed a number of Neolithic scrapers, which would have been used to skin dead animals.

Activities are running daily throughout August, so get down there. Who knows what you might find?

Castle Howard York, YO60 7DA, North Yorkshire, England

Open: Daily: February 14 - November 2 Grounds, Plant Centre and Stable Courtyard: 10.00 (last admissions 16.30) House: 11.00 (last admissions 16.00)

Roman dig site open to public

By Staff reporter

THE excavation site of a major Iron Age and Roman development outside Harpenden will open to the public this weekend.

St Albans Museums will open the site on Turnershall Farm, between Wheathampstead and Harpenden, on Sunday, August 10, and give free tours. Visitors can see the trenches and archaeology that has been exposed. A key find has been an early Roman villa.

Field archaeologist Simon West said: "Very seldom does anyone have the opportunity to excavate Iron Age and Roman landscapes. It is exciting to be able to link real people with their possessions and now to the place they lived."

Turnershall Farm is in Mackerye End off Marshalls Heath Lane. The site will be open between 10am and 5pm. Admission is free and Shopmobility scooters will be available for people with walking difficulties.

For more information visit www.stalbansmuseums.org.uk/med02.htm.



By David Prudames


5:36pm Wednesday 6th August 2003



A hoard of Viking-age silver, considered by experts to be of international importance has been unearthed on the Isle of Man by a metal detectorist.

Uncovered in March this year by detectorist Andy Whewell, the collection is comprised of 464 coins, 25 ingots and a broken armlet, all dating back to around 1020 AD.

The hoard has now been declared Treasure by the island's High Bailiff and will go on display at the Manx Museum once further research and conservation work has been carried out.

Curator of Archaeology at Manx National Heritage, Allison Fox explained just how significant the find has proved to be.

"Although the island is well-known for producing hoards of Viking silver, we have never had a find of this size and quality before," said Allison.

"The condition, range of styles of coinage, purity of silver in the ingots and the design of the broken armlet are remarkable. It is rare that such important material is discovered in such good condition and with fragments of the original container."

While at present little is known about who the hoard belonged to, the find certainly tells us something about the times during which it was buried.

"Nearly a 1000 years ago, someone carefully buried their savings in the ground for safety, fully intending to return to reclaim them. For whatever reason, they didn't make it back and this silver has lain undisturbed in the ground ever since."

The hoard shows that, located in the middle of the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man was something of a melting pot of different cultures. Among the finds are both Hiberno-Norse and Anglo-Saxon coins, well-used the silver pennies prove that at least two forms of currency were in use at the time.

As for the silver ingots, they too were of significant value and would have been used for trade, bits being cut off as and when payment was required.

One of the reasons why the find is so revealing is because it was reported to Manx National Heritage immediately and archaeologists were able to excavate the site on which it was discovered.

Under the terms of legislation regarding Treasure, the High Bailiff's decision means that the hoard is offered to Manx National Heritage.

The organisation will now establish the collection's value and its finder will receive a reward.

Manx Museum

Kingswood Grove, Douglas, IM1 3LY, Isle of Man

Open: Mon-Sat 1000-1700

Closed: 25 - 26 December and 1 Jan



07 August 2003


AN amateur metal detector enthusiast is set to become a very rich man after discovering one of the most important Viking coin collections in the world.


A total of 464 silver coins, 25 silver ingots and a broken silver armlet dating back to the 11th Century were found on farmland in Glenfaba and the collections includes coins of great historical interest internationally.


At a treasure trove inquest held in Castletown on Wednesday, Coroner Michael Moyle said the value of the coins could be 'many, many thousands of pounds' and told finder, Andy Whewell, he was going to become a very rich man.


The coins, found in March, were a mixture of Viking and Anglo-Saxon and according to Cambridge numismatist Kristin Bornholdt there were previously only 11 such Viking coin examples in the world from the period 995AD-1030AD.


She said Mr Whewell's single find included 30 new examples.


The inquest heard how Mr Whewell, 39, from Peel, had only taken up metal detecting as a hobby a few months previously when he stumbled across the find.


'I had permission from the landowner to do some metal detecting and was searching the field when I got a strong signal,' he said.


'I checked the turf and the signal got stronger so I started to dig away at the turf.


'Two or three coins were discovered, about 10 inches in depth. I checked again with the metal detector over the area and was still getting a signal so I dug a little deeper.


'With each dig of the trowel I discovered more and more coins as well as bits of lead. I also found a twisted armlet.


Andy said: 'I took the find to my friend Rob Middleton who is a lot more experienced at metal detecting than me.


'We instantly knew the find was something important so we contacted the landowner and then Manx National Heritage.'


Alison Fox, curator of archaeology at Manx National Heritage said the coins, ingots and armlet were all found with fragments of a lead case.


Ms Fox said the find was of such importance that it was shown to an expert from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, who verified the period it came from.


The coins were engraved with the heads of Viking rulers from England and Ireland, were mostly 85-100 per cent pure silver and the find in total weighed 1.3kg.


Ms Fox said the hoard would have been worth about 200 sheep in Viking times but hasn't been valued yet by an independent valuer.


Mr Moyle said: 'I'm sure it's worth more than 200 sheep these days.'


Because the UK Treasure Act does not apply in the Isle of Man any treasure found becomes the property of the Manx Government.


Mr Whewell will be offered the current value of the hoard while the government will pass the treasure to Manx National Heritage.


Ms Fox said: 'It is rare that such important material is discovered in such good condition and with fragments of the original container.


'Nearly a thousand years ago, someone carefully buried their savings in the ground for safety, fully intending to reclaim them.


'For whatever reason they didn't make it back and this silver has lain undisturbed ever since.'


'Although the Island is well-known for producing hoards of Viking silver, we have never had a find of this size and quality before.


Mr Whewell described the findings of the inquest as 'fantastic' and said he was still regularly metal detecting.


An Olympianís sanctuary rises from Dionís mud

KATHIMERINI English Edition


The marble statue of Zeus sitting on a throne was discovered on an altar of what is believed to be a sanctuary of the chief Olympian god found at Dion, an ancient Macedonian city in central Greece. The sanctuary was discovered by chance, as it was below the surface of a river that was being drained as part of anti-flooding works.

Archaeologists have discovered what they believe is a sanctuary to Zeus Hypsistos, the chief ancient Greek god, at the site of the Macedonian city of Dion near Pieria, Prof. Dimitris Pantermalis said yesterday. The finds include a marble statue of the god seated on a throne (headless and slightly smaller than life-size) and 14 marble eagles, symbols of the king of the Olympian gods. The finds date from the Hellenistic and Roman eras.

The sanctuary was discovered by chance during work to broaden the bed of the Baphyras River, which has flooded the site twice in the past few years. As the river was drained, the walls of the sanctuary appeared on the western bank, opposite a sanctuary of Isis.

ďThe inscriptions that were found there allow us to identify it with the sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos, the god of the summit of Olympus and Heaven. In the excavation area, among other things, we found 14 marble eagles of various sizes, which confirm that this was a site of worship,Ē Pantermalis told Kathimerini.

Temple to Zeus unearthed at Mount Olympus

August 01 2003 at 01:45PM

Athens - Diggers accidentally discovered a temple to Zeus at the foot of Mount Olympus in an indicating that ancient Greeks switched away from polytheism to the faith of a single God even before Christianity appeared in Greece, archaeologists said on Friday.


The sanctuary was found during works to broaden the bed of the Vaphyras river running through the Dion temple complex at the foot of Mount Olympus, northern Greece - the seat of Greek mythology's twelve Gods.


The findings include the sanctuary's foundations, 14 marble blocks with marble eagles engraved on them - Zeus's symbol - and a slightly smaller-than-life-size, headless marble statue of Zeus, said archaeologist Dimitris Pantermalis who supervises the Dion site.


The sanctuary dates to the centuries preceding Christ's birth. Insignia found on it refer to Zeus as "the highest".


"It is a special version of Zeus as a single God residing in heaven... we know that 'Zeus the Highest' played an important role in the transition to monotheism," Pantermalis said.


"The findings are dated before the birth of Christ, that's what's important," he added.


It is the first time that a sanctuary to 'Zeus the Highest' is found, Pantermalis said.


Excavations continue and more findings are expected, possibly the marble statue's head, he added.


The Vaphyras river has often flooded the Dion site in the past. - Sapa-AFP


Ancient cities discovered in Yangtze Valley

By David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent

03 August 2003


China's Yangtze River was once home to an ancient civilisation, just as the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates and the Indus rivers were, according to new archaeological research.

A series of 13 walled towns and cities have so far been discovered. Dating from around 3000BC these ancient urban centres - excavated by Chinese and Japanese archaeological teams over the past decade - appear to have had populations of up to 10,000. The largest cities had up to three miles of defensive walls. The discoveries show that exactly the same process of urbanisation and state formation was taking place in China in the same river valley environment and in roughly the same period that similar developments were occurring in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley.

Like the earliest phases of the other great riverine civilisations, the newly discovered Yangtze civilisation belonged to the neolithic period - substantially prior to the development in China of metal technology.

The culture that gave rise to these first Chinese towns had its origins in around 7000BC, when the first villages started appearing on the banks of the Yangtze. Indeed the Yangtze area was one of the first in the world to produce pottery - an amazing 13,000 years ago.

Archaeological investigations have so far revealed the sites of nine ancient towns in the Middle Yangtze Valley between Wuhan and Jiangling, and four in the Upper Yangtze near Chendu.

The excavations - carried out by the local Hubei Province Archaeological Institute and other Chinese and Japanese archaeological units - have been revealing evidence of the Yangtze Valley civilisation's culture. Stone weapons and sickles have been unearthed as well as jade statuettes of humans, birds and animals. Beautiful pottery with geometric designs is also being found. The three biggest urban sites each cover up to 2,250 acres.

The archaeological discoveries, revealed in the current issue of BBC History Magazine, show that the Yangtze Valley civilisation lasted for 500 years and collapsed as a result of climatic and environmental problems and warfare.

It is not clear who the people were who created China's first civilisation. They may have been related ethnically to Malays, Burmese or Tibetans, and were probably pushed south as peoples from further north invaded the Yangtze Valley.

According to one leading authority on Yangtze Valley archaeology, Professor Kazuo Miyamoto of Japan's Kyushu University, the discoveries are "transforming the academic world's understanding of early China".


Vajpayee rejects Ayodhya criticism

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has rejected criticism that he has changed his position on a dispute over religious land at Ayodhya.

Mr Vajpayee told parliament that the courts or negotiations between Hindus and Muslims should resolve the issue.

Last Friday he had told mourners at the funeral of a Hindu religious leader that he would fulfil the dying man's wish by building a temple on the disputed site.

He was speaking at the funeral in Ayodhya of Ramchandra Das Paramhans, who spearheaded a hardline Hindu campaign to build the temple on the site where a 16th-Century mosque once stood.

Thousands of people, mainly Muslims, died in religious violence all across India when a crowd of Hindus tore down the mosque in December, 1992.

Heated debate

In an often acrimonious debate in parliament on Monday, Mr Vajpayee said he was not under pressure from any group to push for the construction of a temple.

"If I feel I have to act under pressure, I will leave the office" of prime minister, he said.

The Ayodhya temple campaign was spearheaded by right-wing Hindu groups closely affiliated to the BJP and was partly responsible for the sudden rise in the party's fortunes in the 1990s.

The site, holy to both Hindus and Muslims, has been a constant source of religious clashes.

In recent weeks the BJP has come under pressure from right-wing Hindu nationalists to try to implement a law to ensure the temple can be built.

A new law would bypass the courts which have failed to bring about a resolution to the problem.

Controversial comments

On Friday, at the funeral of Ramchandra Das Paramhans, Mr Vajpayee appeared to suggest he was in favour of such a move.

"I'm confident all hurdles in the path of construction of the temple will be removed and the temple will be built," he said.

"Nothing is impossible," Mr Vajpayee told devotees on the banks of the Sarya river as the 92-year-old cleric was cremated.

"Everyone should try to fulfil his dream. I shall fulfil his last wish. I make this commitment in front of his funeral fire and ashes."

An archaeological dig is under way at the site to try to determine whether a Hindu temple did once exist on the site of the destroyed mosque.

Earlier this month the high court in the city of Lucknow gave archaeologists working at the site five more weeks to carry out their investigations and another two weeks to complete their report.

ASI completes Ayodhya excavation

   By: Vinay Krishna Rastogi

   August 7, 2003


Lucknow: The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has appealed to the three-judge special bench of the High Court hearing the Ayodhya case to allow its team to enter the excavated area in the Sri Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid disputed site between August 7 and August 22 even after completion of excavation.


Today was the last day of excavation. After seeking several extensions the ASI informed the court that it shall complete the excavation today.


The ASI shall submit its final report to the High Court on August 22. The report would unravel whether or not an ancient temple was demolished to build mosque by Zahir-ud-din Mohammad Babur's General Mir Baqi in 1528.


The ASI sought permission to enter the disputed site up to August 22 for finalising drawings and to check the drawings and measurements already recorded.


The application was moved today by ASI team leader Hari Manjhi through the two observers appointed by the High Court to supervise digging operation. The observers are Additional District Judges of Faizabad SC Dubey and Siddiqui.


Meanwhile, the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board through its advocate Zafaryab Jilani today urged the court to issue direction to the ASI team to protect and preserve the trenches and adjacent area.


The excavated area should be protected with tarapulin, or plastic sheets or in any other manner proposed by the authorized persons or observers, Jilani pleaded before the court.


Jilani further pleaded that the directive be issued to ASI to preserve and protect all archaeological finds and deposit the key with the Honouarble High Court.


It may be recalled that the ASI was directed to excavate the disputed area after Tojo Vikas International conducted survey without digging through Ground Penetration Radar and suggested that some ancient remains do exist  underground.


The High Court is likely to pronounce its order tomorrow on the two applications of ASI and UP Sunni central Waqf Board.


The HC has summoned Commissioner of Faizabad division and the team leader tomorrow.


Fresh lease of life for nuclear bunker

A RELIC of the Cold War is to be opened to visitors.

Work will start next month on a bomb-proof bunker behind Shelley House in Acomb Road, York.

When the project is complete owners English Heritage plans to open it for 20 days a year for groups on educational visits.

The bunker, which was intended to house up to 40 people, was built in 1961 to withstand a nuclear explosion and act as a centre for monitoring conditions after an attack.

Observers in bunkers around the county would have reported to the Acomb shelter if war had broken out.

The bunker passed to English Heritage when the Cold War came to an end and is now a scheduled monument.


Berlusconi accused of rigging approval for Venice motorway

John Hooper, Rome

Monday August 4, 2003

The Guardian


Silvio Berlusconi's government has been accused of rigging a key committee to enable a motorway to be built through a Unesco-nominated world heritage site.

The charity Save Europe's Heritage said in a statement issued from London that the Rome government had removed officials who opposed its plans for the Valdastico Sud motorway in the area west of Venice.

A decree authorising the road was signed by Mr Berlusconi in June. But a consortium of mainly Italian environmental and heritage groups is mounting a legal challenge to the measure which will have to be submitted by September.

Save Europe's Heritage said the proposed motorway would run within a few hundred metres of historic villas built in the flat land south of Vicenza, many designed by the 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio.

It said that, in some cases, the effect would be to deter prospective property buyers who would have been willing to restore them.

The regional government has argued that the motorway will, on the contrary, protect such buildings. Giancarlo Galan, the head of the regional administration and a member of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, welcomed the approval of the project, saying: "All the cars which are blocking up this area will go on to the motorway, which for lengthy stretches will run in a trench and free all the villages from suffocating traffic jams."

The Veneto - the region surrounding Venice - has long suffered from acute traffic congestion and the motorway would take vehicles off one of its most congested roads.

Save Europe's Heritage said that the scheme had been given the go-ahead despite objections from the ministry of culture in Rome and the official local bodies responsible for archaeology and heritage.

It added that "23 out of 36 members of the official environment commission were replaced after they rejected the proposals as being too damaging".

The group said that the new members of the panel approved the proposed route with only minor changes.

Marcus Binney, chairman of Save Europe's Heritage, said: "This is the most flagrant example of disregarding and discarding [environmental assessment] that we have ever come across. It is astounding."

Among the houses affected by the scheme would the celebrated Villa dal Verme near Agugliaro. According to a report published by the group - Unforgivable Assault on a World Heritage Site, by Franziska Bollerey and Axel Fohl - the house would be within 300 metres of the new road.

Mr Binney said that plans should be withdrawn pending an independent assessment.


Siberia find melts theory of ice age migration

Friday, July 25, 2003

By Allison M. Heinrichs, Los Angeles Times

An archaeological site in Siberia -- long thought to be the original jumping off point for crossing the Bering land bridge into North America -- is actually much younger than previously believed, shaking the theory that the first Americans migrated overland during the final cold snap of the last great ice age.

Using radiocarbon dating, scientists found that the Ushki site, the remains of a community of hunters clustered around Ushki Lake in northeastern Russia, appears to be only about 13,000 years old -- 4,000 years younger than originally thought.

The new date places the Ushki settlement in the same time period as the Clovis site, an ancient community found in New Mexico, making it highly unlikely that people could have traversed the thousands of miles from Siberia in such a short period.

"This was the last site out there in Siberia that could have been an ancestor for the Clovis," said Michael Waters, co-author of the research appearing today in the journal Science. "We have to think bigger now and start thinking outside the box."

History books have long touted the idea that the first Americans, hunting a herd of mammoths, crossed into North America across the Bering land bridge, a strip of land that is believed to have linked Russia to the United States between 10,000 to 18,000 years ago. The land is thought to have been exposed during a period of glaciation when arctic ices locked away much of the ocean's waters, making the sea levels close to 400 feet lower than today.

"The new age assessments may indicate that archaeologists continue to search in the wrong direction for an answer to Clovis origins," said Anthony Boldurian, a University of Pittsburgh anthropologist who subscribes to the relatively new idea that the first Americans may have used boats to skip across Atlantic ice floes from Europe, entering North America perhaps as early as 20,000 years ago.

Other archaeologists, such as Michael B. Collins from the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, believe that early humans from the Japanese archipelago followed whales and other marine food sources across the Pacific Ocean to North America.

"If you open up the possibility of water routes, even in the glacial maximum, they could skirt around the edge of the icepack in the North Pacific and come down the West Coast [of America]," he said.

With the re-dating of the Ushki site, the oldest verified site near the Bering land bridge is now the 14,000-year-old Broken Mammoth settlement in central Alaska.

The Clovis site in New Mexico has yielded the earliest unequivocal archaeological evidence that people were settled in North America 13,600 years ago.

Archaeological artifacts from the Meadowcroft rockshelter near Avella, Pa., suggest it was visited by humans as early as 16,000 years ago and was the first evidence that humans inhabited the Americas before the Clovis people.

Archaeologist also point to a variety of other locations, including the Monte Verde site in southern Chile and the Cactus Hill site in Virginia (both dating to about 12,500 years ago) -- as evidence that the land bridge theory is faulty.

University of Kansas anthropological geneticist Michael Crawford said early humans probably could not have crossed the land bridge and traveled to New Mexico in 400 years. Reaching South America by foot within 1,000 years was even less likely.

He believes that people may have entered North America across the Bering land bridge at an earlier point through multiple migrations. "Certainly the molecular genetics shows that it wasn't just a single migration," he said. Genetic research shows that "humans have been in America for at least 20,000 years."

But some archaeologists argue that due to the nomadic characteristics of America's first settlers, the seemingly difficult feat of traversing the American continents in 1,000 years is not impossible.

Radiocarbon dating may confirm that many other early American sites are actually pre-Clovis settlements. This possibility, combined with the fact that earlier Siberian sites have not been found, has left archaeologists and anthropologists "scratching their heads," Waters said.


(Post-Gazette Science Editor Byron Spice contributed to this report.)


Scientists uncover rare tomb

By Hugh Dellios

Chicago Tribune

Posted August 2 2003

EL PALMILLO, Mexico ē The team of archeologists waited anxiously as Linda Nicholas lowered her digital camera into the dark space behind the ancient stone door.


From their diggings, the crew from Chicago's Field Museum knew they had just uncovered a 1,500-year-old tomb from Oaxaca Valley's Zapotec civilization. But their suspense at what they would see inside the untouched vault was tempered by concerns that they would find more than jade and pots. One of their fears was that looters would come to their remote hilltop dig.


"The locals were always joking, `Oh, the treasure of Pancho Villa!'" said Gary Feinman, the team leader and chairman of the Field Museum's anthropology department. "I did not want to see gold."


In five summers atop this cactus-covered hill with the magnificent view, Feinman, Nicholas and their colleagues have been digging for a whole different kind of booty. They are after small clues to human history in the patios and walls they have uncovered in a terraced city that thrived more than a millennium before the Spanish conquest.


El Palmillo was home to a primitive, pre-wheel community that practiced ritual bloodletting, used stone tools that still litter the hillside and had a beauty ideal that included the flattening of heads with boards and drilling stone plugs into front teeth.


Ultimately, the rare tomb the team excavated in May would yield a single jade bead, two dozen unique pots and three badly decayed human skeletons. One of them was in a sitting position but had fallen over; another collection of bones had been painted red and placed in a wall niche.


Yet, equally important to Feinman and his team was what they discovered on the surrounding terraces. There they found an intricately designed residential community of symmetric retaining walls and 1,400 multi-room houses built from carefully cut stone around plastered patios, each with a fabulous valley view.


On the walls and roofs, Feinman believes the residents cultivated an array of cacti that provided them with food and textiles that allowed them to prosper in an area too dry to grow corn or much else. Their primary staple was probably agave cactus, which the Spaniards later began distilling into mezcal, a liquor.


Having boxed up and documented its finds for the season, the Field Museum team again is analyzing its data, looking for hints to the mysterious demise of the Zapotecs, a civilization that reached its zenith at Monte Alban near present-day Oaxaca 1,300 years ago.


"I didn't expect to find patios that were plastered. The people who lived here were amazing craftsmen," Feinman said. Feinman and Nicholas and the rest of their team have become part of the landscape around El Palmillo. On the trails going up, goat herders greet them in Spanish, although the region's main dialect is still Zapotec.


In the shadows of mountains that disappear in the clouds, other pieces of the ancient culture survive. The local village is now in the valley, but peasants still mark their property lines with rows of tall cacti.


Lining the highway is one small mezcal dealer after another. Business depends on the trickle of tourists coming up the road, and that is why many residents are eager to see whether the archeologists can make the area more interesting to outsiders and help keep the local young people from departing for the United States.


Here, it's pure mezcal," said Pablo Hernandez Jimenez, 74, a farmer who has guarded the Field Museum's dig site for the last five years along with his grandson, Giovanni, 10.


"People here say, `How nice that they have come,' that something nice will be done for our town," he said. "It will mean more tourists."


They stumbled upon the tomb beneath a patio this year after noticing patchwork in the paving of one terrace. Then they discovered a staircase, and then the heavy stone door slightly ajar but not removed since the family closed it 15 centuries ago.


Feinman said they considered not excavating the tomb, and consulted with local Mexican officials in charge of ruins preservation over how to proceed. In the end, they decided that word would spread too fast and that they should be the first ones inside.

Hugh Dellios writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Co. newspaper.