'If you like, this is where Greek history starts'
DNA analysis of Bronze Age bones will answer an ancient question, reports David Adam
Thursday May 27, 2004
'I have seen the face of Agamemnon." No, not the reaction of filmgoers after seeing Brian Cox's depiction of the Greek king in Troy, but that of the celebrated 19th century archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann after digging up a striking Bronze Age gold mask from ancient Greece.
Schliemann was not known for understatement - on excavating the ruins of Troy he said he had "opened a new world" for archaeology - but on this occasion he was wrong. The shaft graves at Mycenae where he found the mask have now been dated to 1500BC, and it would stretch even the historical flexibility of a Hollywood scriptwriter to place Agamemnon there several centuries before he led the Greeks in the Trojan war. The glittering death mask, treasure and the rest of the haul recovered from the graves were not his, but whose were they? The question has long puzzled archaeologists.
"These burials are unique in the Bronze Age," says Keri Brown of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. "These people seem to have cornered the market in gold, so how did they do this, who were they and how did they have this power?"
Working with the forensic science service, Brown and her team are turning to DNA fingerprints to solve the conundrum. Using genetic material painstakingly scraped from 3,500-year-old bones and teeth recovered from the graves, the scientists hope to establish whether the dozens of privileged individuals buried at Mycenae are part of the same family, or an unrelated collection of mercenary fighters. The answer will shine light on the social structure of one of the most influential periods in human history.
"If you like, this is where Greek history starts," says John Prag, an expert in Greek archaeology at the Manchester museum.
His group has already used facial reconstruction techniques to put flesh on the ancient bones and look for family resemblances, with some success. "We got a couple of pairs that were very clearly related but there comes a point where everybody's got two eyes, two ears, a nose and a mouth and we all look alike," Prag says.
Clues from the bones have also suggested the sex of those buried at Mycenae, as well as how old they were when they died. "But you can't tell from bones who is related to who," says Brown. "Only DNA can do that."
Scientists have worked out how to analyse strands of genetic material from animals and people who lived thousands of years ago. The key is being able to extract DNA from the hard structures like teeth and bones left behind after the rest of the corpse rots away. It's a tricky process, and the results are not always reliable, but researchers have used it to recover DNA from mammoths, sequence the genes of Neanderthals and confirm the identities of the Romanov family murdered during the Russian revolution.
The DNA strands are often broken or degraded (seemingly scuppering our chances of cloning a mammoth), so to analyse the Mycenae skeletons the Manchester team and the forensic scientists are searching for new types of genetic markers that are shorter than those used in conventional DNA fingerprinting. To complicate matters, Schliemann painted them with a sticky preservative that plays havoc with the sensitive chemistry used to isolate and copy the DNA molecules.
"We're spending a lot of time perfecting the experiments on other material before we tackle the Mycenae bones themselves," Brown says. "We want to get the extraction and analysis methods spot-on." The remains are carefully guarded by the National Museum in Athens; it took two years of form-filling and delicate negotiation to get the bone splinters and few odd teeth on the plane to Manchester.
Of the 19 individuals buried in the grave Brown's team are interested in, she has bone or teeth samples from 10 of them. Preliminary work suggests a 40% success rate with the DNA technique, which mean the family secrets of just four ancient Greeks will be revealed. It's not much, but it's a start.
"I'd like to go on to look at DNA from other bodies found in other parts of Greece from the same period," says Prag. "The modern Greeks would love to know they're descended from the ancient Greeks. But since 1500BC Greece has been invaded and occupied so many times I'm not sure we're going to get the answer they want."
• Daresbury laboratory synchrotron radiation site
• Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit by David A. Traill, 1996, St Martin's Press, ISBN: 0312140428
World record for copper mines
A copper mine has struck gold by earning a place in the 50th anniversary edition of Guinness World Records.
The Great Orme Copper Mine has been named as the largest Bronze Age copper mine in the world.
Dating back up to 4,000 years, the mines have been excavated for the last 15 years.
"We've always been recognised by the academic world but are delighted to get public recognition in this way - and one which will go around the world," said director Ann Hammond.
Archaeologists are working on the site every day, which attracts students of the Bronze Age.
"Twenty years go, no-one thought copper mining took place in Britain during the Bronze Age. It's a place of continual discovery, and there are still tunnels to excavate," said Mrs Hammond.
Tourists can access 250 yards of the mining tunnels, as well as learning about the Bronze Age.
The mines were first uncovered in 1987 at Great Orme's Head near Llandudno.
The record will be included in the new edition, which is published in September.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2004/05/27 11:22:38 GMT
© BBC MMIV
25 May 2004
ESTELLE MORRIS DEFERS EXPORT OF 'MYSTERY' IRON AGE COIN
A small and extremely rare silver coin bearing an as yet
un-deciphered inscription has been temporarily barred from export by
Arts Minister, Estelle Morris. Its extraordinary inscription, "ale ff
scavo", may be an example of the earliest use of text on British
coins. Believed to have been made 40 -50 years before the Romans
invaded Britain, the Iron Age coin is sharply struck with a
distinctive boar and horse design. Only five of this type of coin are
known to exist. Export deferral will provide a last chance to raise
the money to keep the coin in the United Kingdom.
The Minister's ruling follows a recommendation by the Reviewing
Committee on the Export of Works of Art that the export decision be
deferred. This reflects the coin's outstanding significance as key
evidence for studying the use of written language in Iron Age
The deferral will enable purchase offers to be made at the following
agreed fair market price:
A silver iron age coin featuring a Boar standing right "ALIIFF" below
and a Full-bodied horse prancing right " SCAVO" below, deferred at
the recommended price of £2,000 until after 25 July 2004 with the
possibility of an extension until after 25 August 2004 if there is a
serious intention to raise funds with a view to making an offer to
Anyone interested in making an offer to purchase the coin should
contact the owner's agent through:
The Secretary, The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
2-4 Cockspur Street, London SW1Y 5DH
NOTES TO EDITORS
1. Pictures of these items can be downloaded free of charge from our
site on PA Picselect. Please go to the DCMS folder situated within
the Arts section of Picselect either at www.papicselect.com or
through the PA bulletin board.
2. The coin measures 13mm and weighs 1.04g. Only five examples of
this type of coin are known. One similar unprovenanced example is in
the Finney Collection at Birmingham Museum.
3. Inscriptions on Iron Age coins are of the highest importance in
furthering our understanding of British culture and society before
the Roman invasion. They represent our best evidence for the first
use of writing in these islands, and their correct decipherment and
interpretation is often not straightforward. It requires direct
examination of the material.
4. In recent years several advances have been made in the readings of
Iron-age coin inscriptions by looking afresh at the coins themselves.
This has led to a study of the spread of Latin and the use of
different scripts within Britain before the Roman invasion, based on
the evidence of the coin legends. These are important subjects
previously untouched by archaeologists and historians.
Public Enquiries: 020 7211 6200
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
2-4 Cockspur Street
London SW1Y 5DH
Date Published: Thursday 27 May 2004
Sheep head for Danebury
Danebury Hill Fort: Soon to be home to some 80 Manx sheep.
DANEBURY Hill is soon to welcome 80 new sheep to graze the land, keeping back rank grass scrub growth which could threaten the Hill Fort and rare downland flowers.
The 85 acre site is home to an Iron Age Hill Fort dating back to 550BC and an area of Special Scientific Interest due to the rare flowers such as burnt tip orchid and frog orchid which grow there.
Hampshire County Council, which owns the site, has already cleared the trees from the ramparts of the fort, and is now importing 80 sheep from the Isle of Man to prevent further scrub encroachment to protect the archaeology and enhance the wildlife.
Distinctive in colour, with a light brown fleece and chocolate brown face and legs, the Manx Loghtan sheep are best suited for the job as they are able to negotiate the steep ramparts better than cattle and are well adapted for the forage available.
A similar breed is likely to have grazed at Danebury Hill in Iron Age times.
Danebury Hill is visited by over 100,000 people each year, and was extensively archaeologically excavated in the 1980s.
Tomorrow, 29 May, the Hill Fort will be hosting a Rampart Tramp. The free guided walk will enlighten visitors about the fort's fascinating and grisly history with guests from the Brigantia Iron Age Re-enactment Society revealing how the Iron Age residents of Danebury really lived.
The Rampart Tramp begins at 1pm, and will meet at the top car park at Danebury.
The county council's executive member for environment, Councillor Keith Estlin, said: "Danebury Hill Fort is an important and unique part of Hampshire's history and I am delighted to see that its conservation is being managed with such traditional and environmentally sound methods."
The county council's executive member for recereation and heritage, Councillor John Waddington said: "Walks like these provide an excellent opportunity for people to learn more about Hampshire's history as well as the chance to make the most of our beautiful and varied landscape."
The Hampshire Grazing Project is a joint initiative between Hampshire County Council, The Environment Agency and English Nature that works to encourage appropriate grazing of conservation sites throughout the
Keeping up with the Empire
by Thijs Westerbeek, 24 May 2004
Hard currency: this silver Roman coin (a denarius, front and back shown) from the 2nd century AD indicates trade between the inhabitants of De Bloemert and Rome
The Roman Empire has been well documented. Over the years written history and archaeology have brought to the surface, sometimes literally unearthed, a whole society. Thus Roman architecture, religion, military strategy and legal structures hold little mystery. Compared to this depth of knowledge, many of those living outside the boundaries of the Empire are lost in time. But now an archaeological excavation in the north of the Netherlands had begun to tell the story of the Roman's neighbours.
At first glance the "De Bloemert" excavation, in the northern province of Drenthe and named after the holiday resort De Bloemert, seems an archaeological site like any other; dark colourations in the ground, people digging carefully, artefacts and broken pottery being photographed, nothing unusual. But according to Johan Nicolai, archaeologist from the University of Groningen and project leader of the excavation, this dig is very special indeed.
Two things make it exceptional. First, the location has clearly been a good place to live since prehistoric times; one of the more spectacular finds was a grave dating back to the Stone Age, 2800 BC. Also the remains of late iron-age farms have been found, dated to 200 BC. After the Roman period from 0 to 400 AD an early medieval village existed on the spot. Dr Nicolai and his colleagues are delighted to be able to trace back human habitation here over a period of almost five millennia.
But the aspect of the dig that has made the Bloemert instantly famous among archaeologists is the finds from the Roman period. They prove without a doubt that at the time this place was more than just a hamlet - it was a big village and centre for farmers and craftsmen, with an industrial area and international contacts.
What is special about this is the fact that the village stood outside the Roman Empire – 150km to the north of the border formed by the Rhine, in fact. In those days that represented many days of travel, and yet the finds from the Roman period indicate that there was a lot of contact with the Romans. To the locals these foreigners may have been intimidating - representatives of the Superpower of their time - but were also people with whom one could deal.
As the excavation continues a fairly complex society appears. There were big, permanent farms, not the semi-nomadic type of the late Iron Age. Crops were grown for more than just local consumption, they were traded, exported even - the proof of that is the Roman money that has been found on site. Also there were big workshops, which produced goods for trade. The village's set-up is very modern; farms and houses were separated from workshops, the people went to work in the morning in a special "industrial" area.
There is evidence that the inhabitants also appreciated the good things in life; beautiful pottery and weaponry has been found, imported from Gaul and Rome itself. It appears the old inhabitants of Drenthe were a far cry from the ‘barbarians' we know from Roman authors.
The search for these people will go on after the holiday resort ‘De Bloemert' has reclaimed the ground. Archaeologists and historians want to know more; exactly how intense were the contacts with the Roman empire, how peaceful or tense were the relations, are there any written records to be found, was this village an exception or are there many more to be found? As always in archaeology every answer raises many more questions.
But Dr Nicolai is a happy man. The find he'll remember most fondly is a wood-lined water-well he discovered at the dig. In this square well he found a wooden roman ladder completely intact, almost perfectly preserved after almost 1800 years in mud. "Suddenly this farmer from Roman times is almost standing beside you, he's accidentally dropped something in his well, climbs in with his ladder and then forgets the thing, history come to life."
Archaeologists trade shovels for georadar to find clues to Balkans history
SINJ, Croatia (AFP) - In search of clues they believe could cast light on 10,000 years of Balkans history, archaeologists working in a key wetland along the Cetina river in southern Croatia have modernized their approach, switching shovels for a georadar.
Children ran in awe around the cart with the georadar as it circled around a village playground pulled by a small four-wheeler. Several meters (feet) beneath the concrete the radar found remains of a medieval church.
"This is the first time that we have access to such sophisticated peace of equipment. It will revolutionize how we can do this sort of work, as we can now do in days what used to take us months before," Vincent Gaffney, director of the University of Birmingham Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, told AFP.
The institute is taking part in the archaeological study of the Cetina river valley.
Three-dimensional maps showing seven meters of depth of the surveyed area, produced by radar technology, are used in planning future excavations set to begin next year.
While having other applications, such as in geotechnical surveys prior to construction, the georadar is being used in Cetina river valley for the first time by archaeologists in a large-scale research.
As part of preparations that started three years ago it was used to make a transect of the complete length of the valley of some six kilometers (3.5 miles).
"Archaeologists have conducted excavations here in the past 200 years but this is the first time that the valley is being researched systematically," said Ante Milosevic, head of the Museum of Croatian archaeological monuments.
Due to its strategic position, the Cetina river valley was for centuries a major crossroads linking western Europe with Asia, as well as a border area between the Romans and Slavic Croatian tribes, and later Ottoman and Venetian empires.
"This area has the greatest density of findings covering all periods from neolithic onward in the whole of Dalmatia," he said in a reference to Croatia's southern Adriatic region.
"It is undoubtedly archaeologically the most important area of the western Balkans and all our findings here will provide a good basis for the future surveys."
All the artefacts found so far, including dozens of bronze age swords and some 30 Greco-Illyrian helmets, were exceptionally well preserved in the waterlogged area.
Archaeologists also found timbers from the series of river-dwelling communities which, unlike in the rest of Europe, continued in Croatia until the 18th century.
"This small river in Dalmatia appears almost as important as big European rivers like the Rhine or the Thames with the remarkable set of metalwork comparable to that from those rivers," Gaffney said.
The river appears to have had a spiritual meaning for people of bronze age Cetina culture, one of the first metal using groups spreading from Croatia to Albania.
"In this environment water was very important. There are burrows around associated with Cetina culture indicating that the river was probably a source of ritual and spiritual experience," Gaffney said.
A large number of swords found appear to have been deliberately thrown into river as part of a ritual.
But archaeologists complain that the state should do more to protect the area from looters. So far, according to Milosevic, one third of the findings have been stolen from archaeological sites, ending up in private collections.
The valley could also provide archaeologists with the story of life here since neolithic times as the organic material preserved in the wetland also holds a complete environmental record for the region for up to 10,000 years.
"This valley can tell us about the whole environment of the Baklans because it is a time capsule with pollen cores, snails and beatles," Gaffney said.
"Organic material can tell us not just what people did, but which conditions they lived in, what sort of food they ate, diseases they had ..."
Road workmen find Norman causeway
Builders working on an Oxfordshire highway have uncovered 1,000-year-old ruins built by a Norman adventurer.
Workmen found part of a Norman causeway and arches under Abingdon Road and archaeologists were called in.
The road has now reopened after six weeks and it is hoped the ruins will go on show to the public.
It is believed the remains are part of the great Grandpont causeway built by Robert d'Oilly, an Oxford nobleman who fought at the Battle of Hastings.
In 1071, d'Oilly built a huge castle on the west side of Oxford, much of which was destroyed in the 17th Century.
Some however has survived to the present day, including the St George's Tower.
The next stage of improvements to the road will be in the Folly Bridge area during the school summer holidays.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2004/05/22 11:05:21 GMT
© BBC MMIV
Hair Is a Dead Giveaway, Scientists Say
Wed 26 May, 2004 14:55
By Jeremy Lovell
LONDON (Reuters) - Hair speaks volumes about an individual, revealing ethnic origin, environment, diet and even lifestyle, scientists said Wednesday.
Although like finger and toe nails the hair itself is dead, it acts like an Arctic ice core, trapping within its physical and chemical structure an accurate record of whatever has been ingested or applied to it externally.
"Your hair tells what you eat, where you live, your lifestyle and habits," said Emma Freeman from London's Natural History Museum. "Your hair is what you do."
It can tell if you smoke, drink or take drugs and, growing at 0.3 to 0.5 millimeters a day, it keeps a record for months if not years -- which is why some people taking illegal substances shave their heads.
Because different races have different hair structures, analysis can also tell ethnic origin -- although it cannot reveal sex.
Starting Saturday and running through September the museum is opening to the public an exhibition detailing the remarkable story of hair.
"This tells the incredible biology of hair and the place of hair in different cultures," Freeman said.
The average person has up to 150,000 hairs on the head and a single strand can support 100 grams in weight.
A whole head of hair could therefore in theory support the weight of two African elephants.
African hair grows more slowly and is more fragile than European hair, but Asian hair grows the fastest and has the greatest elasticity.
Asian people also are ahead when it comes to keeping their hair, with Africans and Europeans more prone to balding.
Science - Reuters
Dog DNA Shows the Hand of Man, Study Finds
Thu May 20, 2:34 PM ET
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The genetic differences that distinguish a Dachshund from a Doberman are so clear that a computer can tell breeds apart simply by looking at a dog's DNA, researchers said on Thursday.
A team scanning the genetic code of dogs for insight into human disease found a surprising 30 percent of genetic differences among dogs can be accounted for by a few hundred years of intense inbreeding -- far more than the so-called racial differences between humans.
They were able to group 85 breeds of dog into four main genetic categories -- ancient breeds such as Huskies and Pekingese, which may be the closest to their wolf ancestors; hunting dogs such as Labradors; Mastiff-like breeds that include Rottweilers; and sheepdogs, collies and other herders.
"Most breeds have been artificially created by man," said graduate student Heidi Parker at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Washington, who worked on the study published in Friday's issue of the journal Science.
"Although all are members of the same species, this selective breeding has resulted in amazing variation between breeds with respect to weight, size, head shapes, coat, ear shape, behaviors and diseases."
Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher Leonid Kruglyak said the number of tiny genetic differences within a single species is not seen in any other species.
For the past 300 years, people have intensively and systematically inbred dogs to get the traits they wanted -- tiny lapdogs such as toy poodles, guard dogs, racing greyhounds and retrievers.
This is such a short time by standards of evolution that scientists expect that each distinctive trait has arisen from a small number of genes. This will make them easier to track down, researcher Elaine Ostrander predicted.
"There are more than 400 breeds of dog, and each is an isolated breeding population," Ostrander said in a statement.
"We're now looking at narrowing down similar regions of DNA to identify single genes that contribute to particular traits," Ostrander said. "There are hundreds of diseases out there, and many of them have counterparts in humans."
Doing this within genetically similar breeds of dog should be easier than trying find genes accounting for cancer or heart disease amid a background cacophony of genes coding for traits such as fur color or leg length.
"Although there may be just as many genes for a given disease in dogs as there are in humans, being able to search for them in a single breed allows us to find the one or two genes responsible for that disease in that population much more easily," Ostrander said.
Her team sampled five unrelated dogs from each of 85 different American Kennel Club breeds.
"The dogs of a particular breed are much more similar to one another than they are to dogs of different breeds. These differences are so distinct that we could just feed a dog's genetic pattern into the database, and the computer could match it to a breed," Kruglyak said in a statement.
This was a surprise.
"It's a much more striking difference than is seen among human populations that evolved on different continents," he said.
So-called ancient breeds such as the Pharaoh Hound and the Ibizan Hound, as well as the Norwegian Elkhound, believed to be 5,000 years old, are no such thing, they also found.
"Our results indicate ... that these ... breeds have been recreated in more recent times from combinations of other breeds," the researchers wrote.
Pet's gravestone is rare find
A huge stone used to mark the grave of a pet cat has reportedly been identified as a rare 11th century carving.
Expert Professor Rosemary Cramp says the carving of St Peter is one of the most important medieval pieces found in Britain, says the Mirror.
Amateur historian Chris Brewchorne discovered the stone, thought to be part of a frieze from a Saxon church, in the garden of a house near his gallery.
The owner's late husband, a stonemason, had bought if from a job lot.
Realising it was too good to rework, he had used it to mark pet cat Winkle's grave for nine years.
Mr Brewchorne, of Dowlish Wake, Somerset, said: "You do not find top-quality 11th-century stonework like this on top of a dead cat. It is remarkable."