Bones hint at first use of fire

Human-like species living in Africa up to 1.5 million years ago may have known how to control fire, scientists say.


US and South African experts analysed burnt bones from Swartkrans, just north of Johannesburg, using the technique of electron spin resonance.


It showed the bones had been heated to high temperatures usually only achieved in hearths, possibly making it the first evidence of fire use by humans.


The results will be presented at the 2004 Paleoanthropology Society Annual Meeting in Montreal, Canada, in March.


“These bones could have been burnt in a forest fire or brush fire but that's generally a low temperature flame. These had been heated to a very high temperature.” Dr Anne Skinner, Williams College


The research is a collaboration between South African researchers Dr Bob Brain and Dr Francis Thackeray of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, and researchers at Williams College in Williamstown, US.


"These bones could have been burnt in a forest fire or brush fire but that's generally a low temperature flame. These had been heated to a very high temperature," Dr Anne Skinner, of Williams College, told BBC News Online.

Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) looks at free radicals, fragments of molecules produced by a variety of processes, such as radiation damage or fire.


Studying the light signature, or spectra, produced by these free radicals can give scientists information on the nature of the damage.


As organic material, such as bone and collagen, is broken down by heating, the particles get smaller and smaller until only the carbon is left.


"What I was doing was taking these bones and seeing whether in fact I could see electron spin resonance spectra getting progressively smaller and ending up with carbon," said Dr Skinner.


Forest or brush fires usually only reach temperatures of around 300 degrees Celsius. But hearths or campfires can reach temperatures of 600 degrees Celsius or more.


The burnt bones were first described by Dr Bob Brain and Dr Andrew Sillen of the University of Cape Town in 1988. Dr Brain found that the burnt bones from Swartkrans could be sorted into types that had been burnt at low and high temperatures.

He also found that if modern bones were heated at low temperatures for long periods of time they began to look like bones that had been heated to high temperatures in a camp fire.


However, the electron spin resonance data would seem to confirm original suggestions about the bones.


This is because the degree of carbonisation of organic material as measured with electron spin resonance is dependent only upon the amount of carbon and not on the time material has been heated for.


It is not known which hominid species made the fires at Swartkrans. There seem to have been two hominid species present at Swartkrans around two million years ago.


These were Australopithecus (or Paranthropus ) robustus and an early species of Homo , possibly Homo erectus .


The next oldest evidence for controlled use of fire may come from Zhoukoudian in China, dating to between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago.


Story from BBC NEWS:


Published: 2004/03/22 17:38:41 GMT





Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Monday, March 22, 2004

4,000 year-old city excavated in Central China


Archaeologists have confirmed that the Dashigu cultural relics of the Xia Dynasty (21 century B.C-16 century B.C.) in the suburb of Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan Province, date to a large city site of the middle and later Erlitou Culture, part of the Bronze Age from 21 century B.C. to 17 century B.C.


Covering an area of 510,000 square meters, the Dashigu city site lies near Mangshan Mountain and the Yellow River.


"The position of the ancient city is of great strategic importance, so we infer that it may be a military city or capital of a subordinate kingdom of the Xia Dynasty," said Wang Wenhua, a research member with the Zhengzhou cultural relics archaeological research institute.


From March 2002 to December 2003, Zhengzhou cultural relics archaeological research institute excavated the Dashigu city site,during which an area of 540 square meters was unearthed.


The flat rectangular city site consists of two parts: the city wall and the moat.


Most parts of the city wall were discovered nearly one meter below the earth's surface.


"Relics of the city wall were composed of several soil layers, showing that the wall had been renewed or restored many times before," said Wang.


The two moats of 2-2.8 meters deep were located parallel with each other.


Foundation remains, tombs, ash pits and ash ditches and a large amount of other remains were discovered inside the city site, mainly of the second, the third and the early fourth phase of the Erlitou Culture.


Archaeologists discovered a large number of fragments of earthen drainpipes in the ash ditches. "It shows that larger construction foundations must exist in the middle of the city site,which is to be further excavated," said Wang.


Another important discovery is a ring moat of the early Shang Dynasty (16 century B.C.-11 century B.C.), which lies between the city wall and the moats of the Xia Dynasty, and in parallel with the Xia moats.


Abundant remains of the Early Shang Dynasty were discovered inside the ring moat, "It shows that in the early Shang Dynasty, the city site remained an important residential settlement," said Wang.


"The Dashigu city site of the Xia Dynasty is the only city sitewhich can be surely defined as the Erlitou culture type discovered so far in China, filling the archaeological blanks in discoveries of city sites of the Xia Dynasty," Wang said.


"As abundant historical remains of the Xia and Shang dynasties were discovered in the city site, this discovery will be of great significance to the research on the relations between the Xia and the Shang dynasties, which is still unclear," said Wang.


Source: Xinhua



Multiplication table from 1,800 years ago found in Hunan


Archeologists claimed that they had found a multiplication table at the Gurendi cultural relics ofthe Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) in Zhangjiajie, central China's Hunan Province.


Archeologists claimed that they had found a multiplication table at the Gurendi cultural relics ofthe Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) in Zhangjiajie, central China's Hunan Province.


The table was discovered on a 22cm-long wooden strip which was broken when it was discovered and the handwriting on it is quite illegible.


"We can see that the multiplication table begins at nine times nine equals 81, in a sequence that is the inverted opposite of modern tables, which start at one times one is one," said Zhang Chunlong, a research member with Hunan Archaeological Research Institute.


This is the second time Zhang has come across traditional Chinese multiplication tables inscribed on wooden strips. The others were found on a wooden strip of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC-206BC), the oldest ever discovered in China, excavated at a site in Liye City in Hunan Province in June 2002.


An expert with China Cultural Relics Research Institute said another multiplication table similar the newly unearthed one was discovered in documents from Loulan, which was written on two pieces of paper and discovered by Swedish explorer Sven Hedin a century ago.


"Ancient Chinese were not the only people inventing multiplication tables as they have also been discovered on the clay tablets from ancient Babylon," said Liu Dun, director of the Institute of History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences.


"But as the pronunciation of Chinese words is monosyllabic, thetraditional Chinese multiplication table can be read smoothly and easily to be remembered and used," said Liu.


The excavation of the Gurendi cultural relics site began in April 1987. So far, 90 wooden strips of the Eastern Han Dynasty have been unearthed, covering a wide variety of subjects, including laws and regulations, prescriptions, official documents, letters, calendars and multiplication tables.


For further information, please contact:

Dr Michael Hoskin

Churchill College, Cambridge


(+44) (0)1223 840284


Posted By:

Royal Astronomical Society

23 March 2004

Builders of ancient tombs and temples followed Sun and stars


Two studies of ancient monuments in southwest Europe reveal the influence the Sun and stars had on their builders according to Dr Michael Hoskin, a historian of astronomy at Cambridge University.


In the Archeoastronomy session of the RAS National Astronomy Meeting at the Open University, he will argue that the orientation of about 30 Bronze Age sanctuaries on the island of Menorca with a clear view towards the southern constellation Centaurus, favours his interpretation of them as places of healing, such as Lourdes in France is today. He will also tell the meeting how his own measurements of the orientation of around 2000 Neolithic tombs in western Europe and North Africa reveal that the overwhelming majority were built to face the rising Sun.


Known as "taulas" from the Catalan word for table, the Menorcan Bronze Age sanctuaries have at their centre a rectangular stone set vertically into the bedrock, and on top of this is a second, horizontal slab, so that the two stones together have the form of a capital T. Around this central feature is a precinct wall and an entrance, and the central feature faces out through the entrance, so that the monument has a well-defined orientation.


All but one of the thirty or so taula sanctuaries face roughly towards the south and they are all located on elevated ground with a perfect view towards the south - some look out to sea, while others look down across a plain. “This cannot have happened by chance, so why was it necessary that the worshippers in the sanctuary should have a perfect view to the southern horizon?” asks Dr Hoskin.

Today there is nothing in the sky, low to the south, that is of any interest. But in 1000 BC when the taulas were built, the Menorcans could have seen the Southern Cross and the bright stars of Centaurus rising and setting towards the south. In Greek mythology, the Centaur, Chiron, taught the god of medicine. “Of course we do not know if the taula builders had a similar mythology,” says Dr Hoskin, “but it is very possible, and the link with healing would explain the extraordinary discovery in one taula sanctuary of a bronze statue from Egypt with an inscription in hieroglyphics saying ‘I am the god of medicine’. The sanctuaries could well have been places of healing, rather as Lourdes is at the present day.”

In an account of a separate investigation, Michael Hoskin will describe how he spent a dozen years visiting some 2000 Neolithic communal tombs in France, Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean islands and North Africa, recording the directions their entrances face. He discovered that they are far from random. Customs varied to some extent from one area to another but the great majority face a direction in which the Sun can be seen to be rising or climbing in the sky. Only in part of southern France were tombs built facing the setting Sun instead.

“It is remarkable that communities over so vast an area should all choose to orient their tombs towards the rising or climbing Sun,” says Dr Hoskin. “Presumably they did it because the Sun was a sign of hope and the symbol of an afterlife.”


Notes for editor

RAS National Astronomy Meeting Press Room phones (30 March - 2 April only):

+44 (0)1908 659726    +44 (0)1908 659729

+44 (0)1908 659730

Meeting Web site: http://physics.open.ac.uk/NAM/



Ancient Indians made 'rock music'

Archaeologists have rediscovered a huge rock art site in southern India where ancient people used boulders to make musical sounds in rituals.


The Kupgal Hill site includes rocks with unusual depressions that were designed to be struck with the purpose of making loud, musical ringing tones.


It was lost after its discovery in 1892, so this is the first fresh effort to describe the site in over a century.


Details of the research are outlined in the archaeological journal Antiquity.

A dyke on Kupgal Hill contains hundreds and perhaps thousands of rock art engravings, or petroglyphs, a large quantity of which date to the Neolithic, or late Stone Age (several thousand years BC).


Researchers think shamans or young males came to the site to carry out rituals and to "tap into" the power of the site. However, some of it is now at threat from quarrying activities.


The boulders which have small, groove-like impressions are called "musical stones" by locals. When struck with small granite rocks, these impressions emit deep, "gong-like notes".


These boulders may have been an important part of formalised rituals by the people who came there.


In some cultures, percussion plays a role in rituals that are intended for shamen to communicate with the supernatural world. The Antiquity work's author, Dr Nicole Boivin, of the University of Cambridge, UK, thinks this could be the purpose of the Kupgal stones.


The first report of the site was in 1892, in the Asiatic Quarterly Review. But subsequent explorers who tried to find it were unable to do so.

Dr Boivin has been documenting the site. A few pictures of the site were taken in the 19th Century, but the originals were either lost, or allowed to fade.


Many of the motifs on the rocks are of cattle, in particular the long-horned humped-back type found in southern India ( Bos indicus ).


However, some are of human-like figures, either on their own or with cattle. Some of these in chains, or holding bows and arrows.


The typically masculine nature of the engravings leads Dr Boivin to suggest that the people who made the images were men and possibly those involved in herding cattle or stealing them.


The motifs themselves were made by bruising the rocks, presumably with a stone implement.


She believes that the people who made the motifs and those who went to view them must have been physically fit and agile.


Some of the images are in locations so difficult to reach that the artist must have suspended themselves - or got others to suspend them - from an overhang to make the images.


Modern-day commercial granite quarrying has already disturbed some sections of the hill. A rock shelter with even older rock art to the north of Kupgal Hill has been partially destroyed by quarrying.


"It is clear government intervention will be required to elicit effective protection for the majority of the sites in the [area] if these are not to be erased completely over the course of future years," writes Dr Boivin in Antiquity.


Story from BBC NEWS:


Published: 2004/03/19 10:55:23 GMT






Mixed ashes of man and animal give insight into Bronze Age


March 22 2004


A BIRDWATCHER who unearthed the 4000-year-old cremated remains of a young man has given archaeologists fresh insight into the close, superstitious bonds between humans and animals in prehistoric society.


Experts have conducted a detailed analysis of the discovery of a Bronze Age burial urn which contained the remains of a male aged between 25 and 40, found within a boulder shelter at Glennan, Kilmartin, in Argyll.


After his demise, the man had been ritually burned alongside a goat or sheep. Their remains were deliberately mixed, giving evidence of a perceived bond between farmers and their animals which may have been thought to transcend death itself.


Dr Gavin MacGregor, of Glasgow University archaeological research division (Guard), explained the significance of the vessel and its contents.


He said: "Although the sample is small, the evidence suggests that, depending on the burial rite, some species of animals were considered more appropriate than others for inclusion. Pigs are associated with inhumation (burial) and goat or sheep are associated with cremation burials.


"The choice of a domesticated animal to accompany the mortuary rites may reflect the perceived inter-relationship between the cultural landscape of people and their livestock.


Dr MacGregor said the upland location of the Glennan find was also interesting.

"It indicates that, while many of the more visible ceremonial and funerary sites of the second millennium BC may focus on the floor of the glen, other parts of the landscape were also significant for such activities," he said.


Analysis of the deposits found below the peak of Beinn Bhan, also revealed that the man had suffered from slight spinal joint disease and mild iron deficiency anaemia, though neither seems likely to have affected his general health.

He was cremated soon after death, together with a young sheep or goat, and their remains taken from the pyre and co-mingled before burial in the urn. An unburnt flint knife was also recovered.


Patrick Ashmore, principal inspector of ancient monuments at Historic Scotland, said the Glennan urn burial raised fascinating questions.


He speculated that the man was not buried in the burial cairns in nearby Kilmartin Valley because these were reserved for special people, or because he may have been an outsider.


He added: "But the most intriguing possibility is that the cairns were only part of a much wider sacred landscape, and that this spot on the far slope of Beinn Bhan from Glennan was selected as a special place."


The burial was discovered during the exploration of a boulder shelter at Glennan. A local birdwatcher had begun to clear the area for use as a hide when burnt bones were noticed amongst debris from the interior of the site.


Radiocarbon dating, organised by the National Museum of Scotland, dated the remains at 2030-1910 BC.



Delving into past of Roman village sites


ARCHAEOLOGISTS who have unearthed six former Roman villa estates in the west of the county will unveil their latest findings at the end of the month.


More than 100 volunteers, consisting of historians, archaeologists and villagers have conducted a detailed analysis of the landscape around Bugbrooke, Flore, Harpole, Nether Heyford and Weedon in the last three years.


Although nine Roman settlements were found in total, they have successfully identified six Roman villas dating from the third and fourth centuries.


The Community Landscape Archaeology Project, called Local People, Local Past, has been funded by a £15,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery fund through the Countryside Agency and £6,000 from parish collections.


The project has been spearheaded by Stephen Young, an archaeologist who helped excavate several Roman sites in the Nether Heyford area during the past 10 years.


He was involved in the excavation of a Roman Villa at Horestone Brook and helped dig up finds that had been buried for more than 2,000 years in a hillside at Whitehall Farm, in Nether Heyford, in 2002.


Mr Young, a senior lecturer in archaeology at University College Northampton, said: "We have been field walking and have used magnetic equipment to analyse materials, but there has not yet been any excavation.


"We have been able to find out a lot about the landscape and the character of the buildings.


"The project has enabled us to develop a totally new perspective of the Roman landscape of our local area.

"The most exciting thing is evidence of continuity of settlement from the Iron Age to the Anglo-Saxon era across the area."


The findings will be presented in greater detail and future projects will be revealed at a public meeting on Monday, March 29 at Nether Heyford Village Hall, starting at 7.45pm.


22 March 2004



Move to restore city's 'lost castle'

Work is getting under way to restore a "lost castle" in Northern Ireland.


Excited archaeologists in Newry have been given a grant to bring Bagenal Castle back to its former glory.


The 12th Century building was hidden under a former bakery in the County Down city.


The former Cistercian Abbey was converted into a castle in the 16th Century during the Plantation.


The Heritage Lottery Fund has given a £1.5m grant towards the £2.3m project, which will also see the refurbishment of an adjoining 19th Century warehouse - set to become the new home of the city's museum.


Project manager, architect Kevin Baird, said: "This is a wonderful story of finding something which the people of Newry thought they had lost hundreds of years ago," he said.



Nicholas Bagenal was sent to Ireland in 1547

He was appointed Marshall of the King's Army in Ireland

The Cistercian daughter house of Mellifont was founded on the site of the castle in 1157

The land was confiscated by the Crown and Nicholas Bagenal became the new tenant in 1548

The stair tower was removed, using gunpowder, in the late 1700s

The castle was not indicated on any OS map suggesting it was largely forgotten by the 1830s

Until 1996 it was buried under McCann's Bakery


Preliminary archaeological investigations in 2000 revealed a vaulted cellar

Newry council plans to relocate the city's museum to the site on Abbey Way

"The museum curator and the state archaeologist were invited in by the McCann Bakery owners when they were closing down in 1996 to look at some stone carvings on their walls.

"They came into this labyrinth of an industrial site - lean-to, upon lean-to, upon lean-to, which had built up over the years.


"Right in the heart were these stone carvings. They looked at the walls they were fixed to and they started to get excited about the walls rather than the carvings.

"They discovered they were very thick and then they went to old drawings in the Public Records Office in London and they found these walls matched the drawings of Bagenal Castle from 1568."


'Beyond the Pale'

He said Newry and Mourne Council took on the project as soon as the discovery was made and then approached the Heritage Lottery Fund.


“It is a very important part of Irish history and for Newry to have it back is wonderful” Sir Richard Needham


"There is a very fine 19th Century warehouse attached to it and the museum is going to move into that and then they are going to strip back some of the layers of history so that people can see the castle - or really fortified tower house - in its true glory."


The castle was the ancestral home of former Northern Ireland Office minister Sir Richard Needham.


"The McCanns were actually tenants of the Needhams and one of the stipulations of the tenancy was that every October they had to bring a cake to Mourne Park to give to the Needhams and then get a rebate on their rent," said Sir Richard.


"The original Bagenal was a terrible rogue - he killed some fellow in a brawl in Staffordshire in 1539, fled to Ireland and joined up with Con O'Neill.


"He then became Marshall of the King's Army in Ireland.


"He was responsible for 'beyond the Pale' - that was one of his phrases. But his great-grandson ran out of male heirs and that's how [Bagenal Castle] came to the Needhams."


Sir Richard said the Bagenal history was the start of the plantations in Ireland in the Elizabethan era.


"It is a very important part of Irish history and for Newry to have it back is wonderful."


Director of district development Gerard McGivern said it would be one of the council's biggest projects.

"This will help establish the city as a premier tourist destination in Northern Ireland. It will complement Newry's recent commercial success," he said.

Story from BBC NEWS:


Published: 2004/03/24 12:07:37 GMT





Well-preserved remains may reveal secrets of ancient environment

Alexandra Wood

20 March 2004


A thousand years ago it split asunder and could no longer be used to work the marshy waterways of East Yorkshire.


But rather than let it go to waste forever, workers built part of the medieval logboat into the side of the trackway over the soft ground – and there it remained until a few days ago.


Archaeologists discovered the stern of a boat, made out of a single hollowed oak trunk, while construction work was being carried out at Welham Bridge on the A614, between Holme upon Spalding Moor and Howden.


An Iron Age logboat – now a star attraction at the Hull and East Riding Museum – was only found a couple of miles away and archaeologists were keeping a close eye on work near the River Foulness.


A digger bought the remains of the medieval boat to light, wedged up against an ancient trackway apparently laid down over the muddy ground leading to the river bank.


These days the River Foulness valley is a flat agricultural plain, but in the Middle Ages it would have been a marshy area of small rivers and streams, where water transport was vital. Two men would have worked the boat, punting it along.


The head of fieldwork at the York Archeological Trust which led the excavation, Dr Patrick Ottaway, said it was a rare find.


"What we think is the boat split at some point down the grain which renders it unusable, and they wedged it to support the trackway," he said.


He added: "It is an exciting find because it is so rare to find this sort of thing preserved in the ground. The waterlogged deposits that might preserve them are very rare. It is beautifully made, the stern is beautifully shaped and the workmanship is so even and smooth. It's lovely."


The stern piece measures around five metres (16ft) and looks similar to the Iron Age logboat, which dates back to 300BC.


But details of the pegs that held it together suggest the Welham Bridge boat was Anglo-Saxon or medieval.


Samples of the trackway and the boat fragments have now been taken to the trust's conservation laboratory where they are being preserved and studied by experts.


The peat will also be studied to help identify pollen and plant remains to allow a recreation of the natural environment on the river bank when the trackway was in use.


Before removing the trackway, it was scanned using the latest laser technology by members of the Hull Immersive Virtual Environments team at Hull University, to enable a 3D virtual reconstruction to be produced.


Dr Ottaway said it had been an excellent example of good co-operation between East Riding Council, contractors Mowlem and archaeologists.


In 1963 enthusiast Ted Wright discovered a 4,000-year-old plank boat on the banks of the Humber near North Ferriby.


Two months after his death in 2001 it was finally confirmed as being the oldest of its type ever found in Western Europe.




Mysteries of bog butter uncovered

Wax found in Celtic bogs is the remains of ancient meat and milk.

17 March 2004



Chemical detectives have traced deposits of fat in Scottish peat bogs to foodstuffs buried by people hundreds of years ago. The 'bog butter' is the remains of both dairy products and meat encased in the peat, say Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol and colleagues.


Those who live in the countryside of Ireland and Scotland and dig up chunks of peat for fuel have long been familiar with bog butter. While gathering the compressed plant matter, which can be burned in fires, diggers occasionally slice into a white substance with the appearance and texture of paraffin wax.


This is thought to be the remains of food once buried in the bog to preserve it. Waterlogged peat is cool and contains very little oxygen, so it can be used as a primitive kind of fridge.


The question is what type of food was buried in the peat. Local lore sometimes says that the waxy stuff is literally the remains of butter. For example, the seventeenth-century English writer Samuel Butler remarked in one of his famous poems that butter in Ireland "was seven years buried in a bog".


But there could be an alternative source for the waxy material: dead animals. In the eighteenth century, French chemists discovered that human corpses often contain adipocere, a substance also known as 'grave-wax'. So bog butter could be the remains of carcasses rather than dairy products.


To find out, Evershed and his colleagues took a close look at the fatty acids in bog butter. The chains of hydrocarbons in these molecules differ between those derived from dairy and those from meat. The chains in dairy products tend to be shorter than those in animal fat. And there are also differences in the relative amounts of normal and 'heavy' carbon they contain. Most of the carbon in organic material is carbon-12, but about one percent consists of the heavier isotope carbon-13. The exact amount of carbon-13 depends in part on whether the fat came from meat or dairy products.


The team verified some of these differences by analysing artificial bog butters, which were made in the 1970s from mutton fat and butter mixed with soil and water. They then looked at nine samples of bog butter provided by the National Museum of Scotland, some of which are 2000 years old. Six of the bog butter samples come from dairy products, and three are from animal fat, they report in The Analyst1. So ancient Scots clearly used the peat to store both types of food, they say.


But there remains some mystery: researchers still do not know for sure if the food was buried solely to preserve it. Perhaps chemical reactions in the soil helped to transform the foods to more palatable products in a kind of primitive food processing, says Evershed. He plans to bury some modern fatty foods in peat to find out if anything interesting happens to them.



1.         Berstan, R. et al. The Analyst, 129, 270 - 275, doi:10.1039/b313436a (2004).|Article|



Museum puts 'sinful' science on show

Press Association

Wednesday March 24, 2004

The Guardian


A bizarrely shaped 1930s vibrator designed to "cure" women of their sexuality was part of an array of unusual technology unveiled for a museum event.

The "sinful things" on show at London's Science Museum lift the lid on old-fashioned attitudes and medical practices.


They also include a "violet ray" kit designed to cure a range of ailments from acne to impotence and a self-administering enema syringe.


These objects from the museum's archive form the centrepiece of a discussion and quiz show to be held at the museum's Dana Centre tonight.


The event, Sinful Things, is designed to examine science, technology and medicine in a broad cultural and social context.


It reveals how the vibrator was first invented by male doctors to combat what they perceived as "hysteria" in women.


The electric device superseded the previous practice of doctors giving genital massage to female patients. Domestic versions were soon being marketed in women's magazines such as Good Housekeeping, masquerading as muscle relaxant therapy.


Curator David Rooney said: "It looks more like a hairdryer. At the time, this was state of the art."


The 1940s violet ray, used to combat baldness and haemorrhoids as well as acne and impotence, was a high-voltage apparatus emitting ultraviolet light and heat. It involved glass electrodes being inserted into a wand before being applied to the body part in question.