Odyssey island 'revealed' by Briton's holiday hunch

By Nigel Reynolds, Arts Correspondent

(Filed: 30/09/2005)


A British businessman said yesterday that he had solved one of the greatest mysteries of the ancient world.


Robert Bittlestone claims that he has found the true location of Homer's Ithaca, the island of Odysseus.


If true - and the claim has yet to be substantiated by archaeological evidence - it would be the greatest classical discovery since Heinrich Schliemann found the site of Troy in Turkey in the 1870s.


It might also establish that the wandering Odysseus was a real Greek - not just a poetic and mythical figment of Homer's imagination. It raises the tantalising possibility of finding Odysseus's palace and maybe his gold.


Mr Bittlestone, 53, a management consultant from Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey, developed the theory after a hunch came to him while on holiday in 1997.


He has since devoted his spare time to proving that a peninsula on the western side of the Ionian island of Cephalonia was once a separate island - and was Odysseus's Ithaca.


Matters are complicated by the presence a few miles to the east of Cephalonia of the island of Ithaki, long assumed to be the mythological Ithaca. But archaeological investigations there have never yielded any conclusive evidence.


Homer's two great epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, tell of the Trojan war in the 13th century BC and of Odysseus's 10 years of adventures on his journey home to Ithaca. Homer's best clue as to the whereabouts and topography of Ithaca are contained in the lines from the Odyssey:


'Around are many islands, close to each other, Doulichion and Same and wooded Zacynthos.


Ithaca itself lies low, furthest to sea Towards dusk [ie west]; the rest, apart, face dawn and sun [ie east].'


Homer, who, if he existed, composed his poems some 500 years after the Trojan wars, thus placed his Ithaca to the west of Same (modern-day Cephalonia) not to the east where modern Ithaki, which is mountainous and not low-lying, sits. Zacynthos, which still bears the same name, lies well to the south.


This conundrum has baffled Ithaca-hunters for years.


But Mr Bittlestone said yesterday that it came to him while on holiday in the area, that Cephalonia was once two islands, with the western Paliki peninsula, which is low-lying, separated from the bulk of Cephalonia by a stretch of water only a few hundred yards wide. He believes that Paliki is the fabled Ithaca while Ithaki is Homer's Doulichion.


Mr Bittlestone enlisted the support of two British academics, James Diggle, professor of Greek and Latin at Cambridge University, and John Underhill, professor of stratigraphy at the University of Edinburgh.


Both said in London yesterday that they had found plenty of evidence to support Mr Bittlestone's claims and none to contradict them.


In Odysseus Unbound, a heavyweight book to be published soon by Cambridge University Press, Prof Underhill says he has found substantial evidence that rock falls along with a rise in land levels probably caused by earthquakes, may have filled in the narrow straits between Cephalonia and Ithaca in the past 3,000 years.


Prof Diggle said that up to 70 topographical features on Paliki were very similar to how Homer had described them and the trio say that they have identified a hill that could be the site of Odysseus's palace.


Mr Bittlestone said: "What has flabbergasted me is that if you take a literal interpretation of The Odyssey you find that it fits Paliki like a glove."


In 1995, Greek archaeologists found flakes of flint and some shards of handmade pots from the right period on the hill.


The trio admitted yesterday that they cannot yet prove their case. They have founded a charity and are appealing for funds to carry out excavation work and to do more tests on the rockfalls.



Cephalonia suggested as Odysseus’ home

British amateur archaeologist claims to have located the real site of legendary Ithaca on the nearby Ionian island’s Paliki peninsula

By Michael McDonough - Associated Press


LONDON - Homer’s legendary hero Odysseus wandered for 10 years in search of his island kingdom, Ithaca. Now, a British amateur archaeologist claims to have ended the ancient quest to locate the land described in “The Odyssey.”


Although the western Greek island of Ithaca, or Ithaki, is generally accepted as the Homeric site, scholars have long been troubled by a mismatch between its location and geography and those of the Ithaca described by Ancient Greece’s greatest poet.


Robert Bittlestone, a management consultant, said yesterday that the peninsula of Paliki on the Ionian island of Cephalonia, near Ithaki, was the most likely location for Odysseus’ homeland. He said geological and historic evidence suggested Paliki used to form a separate island before earthquakes and landslides filled in a narrow sea channel dividing it from Cephalonia.


“Other theories have assumed that the landscape today is the same as in the Bronze Age, and that Homer perhaps didn’t know the landscape very well,” Bittlestone told a news conference. “But what if the mismatch was because the geography has in fact changed?”


Two eminent British academics said they backed Bittlestone’s theory. They have co-written his book, “Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer’s Ithaca.”


James Diggle, a professor of Greek and Latin at Cambridge University, said the hypothesis worked because it explained why in one passage Homer describes Ithaca as “low-lying” and “towards dusk,” i.e. lying to the west of a group of islands including Cephalonia and Zakynthos.


The Paliki peninsula is largely flat and connects to Cephalonia’s west coast, whereas Ithaki is mountainous and lies to the east. Bittlestone’s theory suggests that Ithaki corresponds to the island Homer calls Doulichion.


John Underhill, an Edinburgh University professor of stratigraphy, or the science of studying the layers of rocks in the Earth’s crust, provided geological evidence supporting Bittlestone’s theory, up to a point. Underhill said it was certain earthquake activity had caused Paliki to rise some 6 meters (19 feet) out of the sea. However, further research was needed, Underhill said. He wanted to test sediments in a dried-up lake on the landfill area. If they were older than 3,000 years, that would suggest the area was not underwater in the Homeric period, thus disproving Bittlestone’s hypothesis.


“Further work is needed, but from the geological fieldwork to date, nothing refutes this theory so far,” Underhill told the news conference.


Traces of small Mycenaean settlements have been located on Ithaki, but nothing big that could be associated with the palatial structure one would expect as the seat of a Mycenaean king such as Odysseus. However, a cave on Ithaki yielded a votive offering with the inscription “My vow to Odysseus.” This indicates the Homeric king was the object of a local hero cult.


Bittlestone said he was cooperating on the project with Greece’s Ministry of Culture and the Athens-based Institute of Geology and Mineral Exploration, and said further geological work on Paliki was planned for 2006-07.


AP writer Nicholas Paphitis contributed to this story from Athens.



Lost island home of Odysseus found after 3,000 years

By Dalya Alberge, Arts Correspondent


FOR almost 3,000 years, its location has been a mystery, but classical scholars around the world are now convinced that a British businessman and amateur archaeologist with a passion for Homer has found the island of Ithaca, home of the Greek hero Odysseus and the site of his palace.

Many thought that the island existed only in the imagination of the Greek poet Homer and in his epic, the Odyssey. Certainly his description of it did not match the Ionian island now called Ithaca, but, after following a detective trail of literary, geological and archaeological clues, scholars led by Robert Bittlestone, a management consultant, have identified Paliki, an area of Cephalonia, as the site.


Classicists have been overwhelmed by the compelling evidence.


James Diggle, Professor of Greek and Latin at Cambridge University and co-author of a book on the discovery, said that almost all of the 26 locations that Homer described in detail can be identified today in northern Paliki and its neighbourhood.


The topography of Homer’s island fits the area “like a glove”, he said.


Paliki was once a separate island. Since Homer’s day, earthquakes triggering massive landslides had filled in a narrow sea channel that separated it from the island of Same, modern Cephalonia, the setting for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.


Professor Diggle said: “Some 3,200 years after the events that are described in the Odyssey, ancient Ithaca has at last been discovered, a discovery which will revolutionise our understanding of the ancient world and is of profound importance to our understanding of the origins of western civilisation.”


Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey are the oldest books in Western literature. They describe the Trojan War and the return of Odysseus, who devised the wooden horse that helped to end it, to his palace on Ithaca. Homer’s accounts of events around 1,200BC inspired the philosophers Plato, Aristotle and Socrates and shaped the intellectual and cultural development of Greece.


Troy was also thought to be fictional until the 1870s, when Heinrich Schliemann conducted excavations in northwestern Turkey that led to the discovery of the ancient city and, buried beneath it, the gold of Troy.


Scholars and archaeologists had been baffled by Homer’s description of Ithaca: “Around are many islands, close to each other,/Doulichion and Same and wooded Zacynthos./Ithaca itself lies low, furthest to sea/Towards dusk [ie West]; the rest, apart, face dawn and sun [ie East].”


Today’s Ithaca lies to the east of the other islands, not to the west, and it is not low-lying but mountainous. Scholars therefore came to the uneasy conclusion that Ithaca must have come from the poet’s imagination.


However, after field trips to western Greece and computer analysis of literary, geological and archaeological data, the use of the most advanced satellite imagery and 3D global visualisation techniques developed by NASA, Mr Bittlestone found up to 70 clues leading to Caphalonia.


The research has convinced leading academics worldwide, including John Underhill, Professor of Stratigraphy at Edinburgh University, who has now co-written a book with Professor Diggle and Mr Bittlestone.


Their research will be published by Cambridge University Press on October 6 in Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer’s Ithaca.



Statues of Goddesses Unearthed in Crete

By NICHOLAS PAPHITIS, Associated Press Writer

Fri Sep 30, 2:53 PM ET


ATHENS, Greece - The life-sized marble statues of two ancient Greek goddesses have emerged during excavations of a 5,000-year-old town on the island of Crete, archaeologists said Friday.


The works, representing the goddesses Athena and Hera, date to between the second and fourth centuries, during the period of Roman rule in Greece, and originally decorated the Roman theater in the town of Gortyn, archaeologist Anna Micheli from the Italian School of Archaeology told The Associated Press.


"They are in very good condition," she said, adding that the statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom, was complete, while Hera, long-suffering wife of Zeus, the philandering king of gods, was headless.


"But we hope to find the head in the surrounding area," Micheli said.


Standing six feet high with their bases, the works were discovered Tuesday by a team of Italian and Greek archaeologists excavating the ruined theater of Gortyn, about 27 miles south of Iraklion in central Crete.


Micheli said the goddesses were toppled from their plinths by a powerful earthquake around A.D. 367 that destroyed the theater and much of the town.


The statues fell off the stage, and were found just in front of their original position, she said.


"This is one of the rare cases when such works are discovered in the building where they initially stood," she added.


Hopes are high that other parts of the theater's sculptural decoration will emerge during future excavations.


"Digging has stopped due to the finds, but we suspect there may be more statues in the area," she said.


Gortyn, the Roman capital of Crete, was first inhabited around 3000 B.C., and was a flourishing Minoan town between 1600-1100 B.C. It prospered during classical and Roman times, and was destroyed by an Arab invasion in A.D. 824.


Greek mythology has it that the town witnessed one of Zeus' many affairs, with the princess Europa whom the god, disguised as a bull, abducted from Lebanon. Europe was named after Europa, who conceived her first son with Zeus under a plane tree in Gortyn.


The Italian School of Archaeology has been digging at the site since the early 20th century, in cooperation with Greek state archaeologists. So far, excavations have revealed fortifications, temples, baths, a stadium and an early church of St. Titus, who preached Christianity in Gortyn.



Burying History: Scientists say Syunik region sites are being destroyed, instead of preserved 

By Gayane Abrahamyan

ArmeniaNow reporter


A joint Armenian-American-British archeological expedition has found another example of the destruction of ancient Armenian monuments. This time, though, it is neither in Georgia nor in Azerbaijan (where monuments and churches have been destroyed), but in the Syunik marz of Armenia.


Scientists fear that sites such as this one in Syunik are being lost to negligence or disregard


In the village of Shaghat, 22 kilometers from the town of Sisian, the archeologists from the Institute for Archeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia, University of Michigan and the Sheffield University in England discovered a rich archeological material while at a test excavation in 2004. The detailed examination of the finding was planned for 2005.


But when the expedition returned to the village it found the 1 hectare territory totally ruined by bulldozers.


“The smallest piece of clay or stone of archeological interest is very important to us, so can you imagine what it means turning a hectare of territory upside down,” says archeologist, Professor Susan Alcock, regretfully pointing out to the pieces of decorated vase of Bronze Age that has narrowly escaped the bulldozer.


Numerous monuments with cultural layers typical of different ages were found during the excavations on a territory of approximately 5 square kilometers in Shaghat and neighboring Balak.


“We are especially interested in the discovered settlements of Middle Bronze Age,” says senior scientist Mkrtych Zardaryan from the Institute for Archeology and Ethnography of the NAS. “There are many tombs that have been preserved from those times, but this is the only settlement until now discovered in the Middle East,”


But rather than a fertile ground from which scientists might embellish history of the region, the site is being turned into a cemetery.


Shaghat village head Hovik Mkhitaryan turned the tractors loose on the property to clear it for a graveyard, because the land in shifting in the village’s old one. (Some charge, too, that the sudden interest in creating a new cemetery comes suspiciously close to election time, when the village head might need to curry favor among voters.)


“I addressed the government for allotting land under the new cemetery. I have not done anything illegal. Moreover, I have suffered damages myself, who should pay for the fuel for my car?” says Mkhitaryan.


According to Mkhitaryan he has proper permission by the government of RA. But the map, reduced several times on the submitted document, does not show the ruined territory at all.


According to Hrahat Hakobjanyan, representative of the Syunik regional Service for Preservation of Historical Monuments, the Shaghat case happened due to a lack of proper mapping of monuments.


Karen Tunyan, head of the Sisian regional branch of State Cadastre said new maps have been received only two weeks ago including “territories under state protection” highlighted with green.


“But the lack of indication on the map also has no justification, for the head of the village is responsible for being aware of each stone in his community; besides the head of the village himself used to dig here and there with a spade in his hand in search of treasures, like all the rest of the village. That is to say, they knew clearly there were old settlements in the territory,” says Hakobjanyan.


Syunik has long been known as a region rich in ancient historical remains, including a citadels settlement from the time of fifth-century Prince Andovk Syuni.


“The northern slope and the foot of Shaghat are constantly destroyed by the residents; time after time people decide to find the treasures of Prince Andovk Syuni. People must understand that these old settlements and the castle are more precious than the imaginary treasures,” says Mkrtych Zardaryan.


According to him the Shaghat case is one among hundreds.


An Armenian-French archeological expedition making excavations in the Inner Godedzor ancient settlement in the village of Angeghakot 13 kilometers from Sisian also has problems since part of the ancient settlement territory is a stone mining area.


“We learnt about the ancient settlement in 2003 when the cultural layers were destroyed during mining. Fortunately, our expedition was working in the neighborhood. The test excavations showed that we deal with an interesting settlement of late Copper and Stone Age,” says senior scientist of the Institute for Archeology and Ethnography of the RA NAS Pavel Avetisyan.


Archeologists from the Maison de l'Orient at Lyon University and the Institute for Archeology and Ethnography of the RA NAS found ceramics belonging to the Obeyid culture of the 5th millennium here.


According to Avetisyan the close ties between historic Armenia and Mesopotamia and Syria are proved for the first time by material facts, although it has been mentioned in historical documents for many times.


The upper layer of the ancient settlement has disclosed for the first a settlement of late Eneolithic era that has served as grounds for the creation and the development of Kura-Arax culture in these territories.


“The Kura-Arax culture is a huge cultural phenomenon of early Bronze Age of 4-3 millennia BC typical to northern and sout Caucasus. Until today its origins and hotbed of formation were not found,” says Avetisyan.


Archeologists are concerned that these and other important archeology sites are being carelessly destroyed.


“We have appealed to all proper bodies, the case is in the marz prosecutor's office, but the stone mine works day and night,” says Avetisyan. “This is a state crime before everybody’s eyes."


Michigan University professor John Cherry who has worked in Greece, Turkey, Italy and other countries, says it is too bad that the Armenians show such disregard for the riches of their own past.


“As far as I know, they try to develop the tourism industry here and such monuments are the best means to do that. Syunik is almost not studied and is very rich in historical monuments,” Cherry says. “If it continues this way many ancient settlements may be destroyed without being studied.”



Posted on Wed, Sep. 28, 2005

Iron Age woman's skeleton found in Denmark

Associated Press


COPENHAGEN, Denmark - Danish archeologists said Wednesday they found the well-preserved skeletal remains of an Iron Age woman while excavating an ancient grave site in a suburb of Copenhagen.


The woman, who was between 20 and 40 when she died, probably lived around the year A.D. 400, said Tom Giersing of the Kroppedal Museum in Taastrup.


"What we find interesting is her bones are well-preserved and she had jewelry - glass pearls and a metal chain - which could indicate that she was wealthy," said Giersing, who headed the excavation.


Denmark's best known Iron Age findings are the well-preserved bog bodies of the so-called Tollund man and Grauballe man, named after the two villages where they found. The Iron Age in Denmark lasted from about 500 B.C. to 750 A.D.




Burial site unearthed



Archaeologists conducting an inspection of a construction site in the town of Taastrup, near Copenhagen, have found the well-preserved grave of an Iron Age woman. They estimate that the woman was buried around the year 400.


The woman is believed to have been between 20 and 40 years old, and was buried with glass beads and jewellery.


In addition to the quality of the skeleton, Giersing said that the location of the grave was also promising.


‘The skeleton is well-preserved, and it is an exciting discovery, because it lies near the remains of the farm where she lived,’ he said.


Archaeologists credited the skeleton’s good condition to the chalk-rich soil in the area. They also said that it came to lie deep under the surface, allowing it to remain undisturbed by ploughing.


In addition to the woman’s grave, archaeologists are currently also excavating a burial mound near by. There is evidence that the area was used for burials for over several thousand years, stretching back to the late Stone Age.


Now that the archaeologists have conducted their initial studies of the grave, Kroppedal Museum, which is responsible for archaeological finds in Copenhagen County, will register it in detail, then remove it to the museum for an in-depth study.





The excavation at Saveock, Cornwall has just started its fifth season and is situated on the south-facing slope of a sheltered river valley. Its main phases range from a Mesolithic platform to an18th century votive spring. It was into the Mesolithic platform, subsequently covered by marsh rushes, that the feather-lined pits were cut.


   During the third season of the Saveock excavation in 2003, 8 of these pits were discovered. The excavators were following the Mesolithic clay platform when they encountered rectangular cuts back filled with lumps of the clay platform and soil and by the fourth season,  20 more of these pits had been excavated making a total of 28 in all.


   The orientation of these sub-rectangular pits was almost evenly divided between North /South aligned thirteen in all and North /West aligned eleven pits. Pic 1 The exception to this rule being four pits three of which were much larger excavated at the end of the 2004 season.  These pits appeared to be roughly square and it was noticed when excavating that a considerable amount of iron pan had formed on the edges, indicating that these pits were possibly  cut considerably earlier.


The pits varied in size but the majority measured between 42-47cm long, 30-33cm wide and 17-20cm deep.


There does seem be some patterns in the placement of the pits in that they are grouped in rows of three, but there are exceptions to this rule.


 When Pit 1 was excavated in 2003 the excavator   assumed it was a large post hole. However, as it was excavated small amounts of feathers and tiny quartz pebbles were found, but nothing else to indicate the former contents. It was only after Pit 2 was excavated that the importance of the feathers and pebbles was appreciated. As the excavation progressed it became apparent that most  of the pits had had their contents removed in antiquity leaving only a few feathers on the edge to bear witness to its previous contents.  


    Much conjecture was banded about by the Saveock team as to why the pits might have been emptied. Of the 28 pits excavated only 6 had their contents undisturbed, 8 contained fragments of feathers, swan down and small pebbles as a testament to their former contents and a further 14 of the pits had been emptied completely.


Pit 2


   Pit 2 was lined with  swan feathers. These feathers were not randomly arranged. The swan had been skinned with its feathers on and the pit had been lined with this skin  side inward.


 At the base of the pit contained in a ball of black organic matter ( as yet to be analysed) was a handful of quartz, slate and flint pebbles no more than 3mm diameter.


  Some  pebbles were found in the majority of the pits indicating they might have some special significance. The presence of flint nodules confirms that the pebbles were imported specifically for the pits as they do not come from the local geology. Since writing this paper last year, we think we have found where the stones came from. Over 10 miles away there is a beach called Swan Pool and a lake that was formed inland next to it in the ice age.  Samples of the stones from the beach and the lake side are almost identical to the stones deposited in the pits. There are however slightly different stones on the beach than at the lake edge. On the lake there is the addition of angular black stones that are not present in the beach stones. The stones from the pits either have the black angular stones in them or not indicating that possibly some were from the beach and some were from the lake. Whether this has any significance as far as the North /South or East/ West alignment of the pits has yet to be ascertained.


Pit 3


    Pit 3 contained the feathers of a brown bird, as yet unidentified although there have been suggestions it might have been a female wild duck. This pit contained small fragments of badly decomposed bird bones and several small claws apparently from different species of birds. This pit however had two wings of this brown bird deposited, rather than breast feathers. Which is thought to have a different ritual significance apparently in folklore, breast feathers for fertility and wing feathers for death. As in Pit 2 there was  the ball  black organic matter including the mixed pebbles.


Pit 8


Pit 8 was disturbed by a drainage channel which was cut to help keep the water from the Mesolithic platform area, but still contained white feathers, black organic matter and quartz pebbles.


Pit 9


Pit 9, the first of the seemingly square pits to be excavated turned out to be actually a perfectly round cut and revealed the most fascinating contents of all.


As well as the swan feather lining, the remains of two whole birds were found on opposite sides as yet unidentified. In between these birds, a collection of small membranes were excavated. It soon became obvious that these were the remains of eggs. They ranged from bantam sized eggs to the size of duck eggs, several  contained  fully formed chicks in them. The roundness of the cut seemingly indicates the egg deposits. Hopefully when we open up the area next to the pits we might find another round pit also with egg deposits.


      It must be emphasized that the contents of these pits were preserved by the constant spring line that welled up into them from the peat bank below. Over 48 egg membranes were excavated from Pit 9. The significance of the different sizes of egg depositions could indicate they were perhaps the offerings of a whole community rather than from a single person or family unit.


Pit 10


Pit 10 the next square pit had organic plant matter on the top, perhaps the remnants of a covering or mat of some sort. The feather lining was intact but the central contents had been removed.


Pit 11


Pit 11 was also feather-lined but contained a large bone, 25cm long, 6cm wide and 4cm deep. Pictures of it have been sent to a bone expert for identification. The placing of the bone so close to the edge of the pit, indicates that it must have been de-fleshed before burial. Next to the bone were the possible remains of another whole bird.


Pit 12


Pit 12 the  small square pit next to Pit 11 seemed to contain only small amounts of feathers but included in the fill were 2 large stones. These had not been found in any of the other pits. One of them was a large quartz stone. On the latter it was possible to see the impression of some type of textile, possibly fine linen net. It was suggested that it could have contained some type of food substance that had decomposed leaving just the fabric impression.


Pit 16 The last of the square pits was empty of its contents apart from a few  feathers from the lining on one side.


A radiocarbon date has been acquired from the swan feathers in Pit 2 showing a date of approximately 1640 AD.


    This was a time of great turmoil in England. Cornwall was royalist and catholic and Oliver Cromwell’s model army had reached this part of the county during the English civil war. Pagan practices were tolerated during the royalist reign but were punishable by death by Cromwell’s Puritan armies.


Added to this severe penalties were imposed on people found catching or killing swans. There was a case in local archives of a man being sentenced to 6 months imprisonment for just walking beside a river with a hooked stick.


     In another area of the site very close to the pits, a stone-lined tank has been excavated. A clear later cut was made into this feature and ceramics in the fill indicate that it was last used in the 17th century. This makes this feature at least contemporary with one of the feather-lined pits. As we are self funded and radio carbon dating is expensive we will hopefully when we have the funds to be able to send dating material from all the pits as they could be deposited in one generation or perhaps possibly many generations.


    When this pool feature was excavated and the contents were wet-sieved, 78 different strips of textile were found  also brass-pins, large quantities of leather pieces, human hair, finger nail pairings, various seeds and heather sticks. Set into the edge of this pool  a piece of iron cauldron was excavated.


The evidence found suggests that this feature had been used as some type of votive spring.  This indicates that the area surrounding the spring could possibly  have been used as a special or sacred place for many generations.


 Although extensive research has been carried out, it has not been possible to find comparisons to  the  feather-lined pit’s in the archaeology or their depositions and subsequent emptying. There may be some clues however, from local customs and superstitions.


The local witchcraft museum has in its collections, 2 small bottles.  These bottles contained white feathers and were found buried next to a river approximately 8 miles from Saveock.  The bottles have been dated to the 18th century. The exact purpose for these bottles has been lost over time, but it is commonly thought that they were part of a charm or spell.


Sacrificing of cockerels was common in Scotland and Cornwall as offerings to pagan gods.


One remedy used for curing epilepsy was to take nail parings from the afflicted person and wrap them in hemp, then tie the parcel under the wing of a cockerel. The bird would then be buried alive.


In some parts of Europe, eggs were planted by the farmers in their fields to protect their crops from thunder and hail. This custom was sometimes used to ensure good harvests too. Also food sacrifices were regularly made in pagan Ireland to the gods of the earth and the goddess Dana. The goddess Dana is also known as Brigit or Bride, the swan was thought to be the symbol of Brigit. So too is the custom of offering eggs to placate her in times of harvest. Brigit is often associated with wells, springs and healing waters. In the highlands of Scotland,  women who thought that they may have displeased Brigit would take steps to appease the goddess. One of these steps would be burying a cockerel or pullet alive at the junction of three streams. The Saveock site is situated next to a river in an area known in the past as three waters.


All this together seems to indicate the pits having some sort of ritual purpose possibly associated with the goddess Brigit or Bride.


   One of the most interesting questions apart from the reason for deposition, is why were the contents being removed? What was the significance of this act? And why were several of these pits not emptied?


It is probable that a clear answer will never be found but hopefully this  year’s excavation will unearth more clues and take us a step closer to solving the mystery.


We would be grateful if anyone who knows of pits or depositions of this kind elsewhere would share the information with us.


Marie Jefferis




An abstract from an e-mail sent by Ann Kelly our pollen analysis expert on her various conclusions about the pollen in the sample we took from under the eggs in the feather pit last season. 


Well, the pollen count was low, as I’d expected, and doesn’t tell an clear, unambiguous story, so what we really have to remember is that there may have been pollen in the soil before the pit was dug, ie old stuff from when the soil was building at that point.  Having said that, the majority of pollen I’ve found is mostly grass with a little plantain, potentilla, dandelion and nettle.  I also found one bracken spore and all of these are to be found during the late, summer months.  I’m inclined to favour the latter part of summer because there were quite a number of Erica type pollen grains as well and the heathers flower in late summer but I have to caution you by saying that there were also hazel pollen grains as well and only slightly fewer hazel than heather and of course the hazel flowers much earlier in the spring.  So, unless the hazel persisted in the environment over the summer (quite possible because it produces loads of pollen), you can see why the story isn’t quite as clear-cut as I would have liked.  I favoured the late summer, into autumn, because I wondered if it might be associated with harvest festival time which would tie in with the pollen (I think), but, if the eggs went into the pit shortly after laying, that would place the internment in late spring and that would tie in with the hazel pollen, and the heather pollen could be the contaminant from the soil formation time rather than the hazel being the contaminant.


I’m afraid it’s an inexact science especially when you consider that the pit may have been open for only a number of minutes, how long does it take for pollen to fall in from the sky?? So there’s a very great possibility that all the pollen might have been in the soil previously from the time that the bottom of the pit was the ground surface and exposed again when the pit was dug. I would have been much happier if there had been perhaps only one or two types of pollen, which would have tied it down a little more firmly.


I wish I could be more certain, but what might be a better indicator would be some macrofossils such as leaves, twigs or seeds that could have fallen into the pit at the time the eggs went in so I will have a look at the remaining sample for evidence of these.



Embargo: For Immediate Release Contact: Gemma Crisp

020 7273 1459


Culture Minister David Lammy puts one month export bar on Viking Treasure

Friday 23 September 2005


Culture Minister David Lammy has placed a temporary export bar on seven pieces of hack silver - six off-cuts of silver ingots and a fragment of a stamped arm-ring.  This will provide a last chance to raise the money to keep it in the United Kingdom. 


The Minister's ruling follows a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, run by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. The Committee recommended that the export decision be deferred. This reflects the hack silver's outstanding significance for the study of the development of the economy and society in the Viking age, when its use as a form of currency was widespread.


The pieces of hack silver were acquired from Northern Ireland and may form part of the hoard dredged up from the River Blackwater at Shanmullagh, County Armagh, Northern Ireland in the 1990s. This hoard is unparalleled in the United Kingdom and of exceptional importance in its combination of Irish-Viking and native ecclesiastical metalwork.  Many of the hoards discovered contain hack-silver; small pieces of silver hacked (cut) from coins and jewellery. Hack silver was used as payment for merchandise. The Vikings often weighed the silver for payment so when a little more silver was needed to complete the deal, it was simply hacked from something else made of silver- a coin or a piece of jewellery. This suggests the silver was more valuable than the value of the coin or jewellery itself.


The decision on the export licence application for six off-cuts of silver ingots and a fragment of a stamped arm-ring will be deferred for a period ending on 22 October 2005 inclusive. This period may be extended until 22 November 2005 inclusive if a serious intention to raise funds with a view to making an offer to purchase these items at the recommended price of £1000.00 (excluding VAT) is expressed.


Anyone interested in making an offer to purchase the hack silver should contact the owner's agent through:


The Secretary

The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art

Museums, Libraries and Archives Council

83 Victoria Street




Notes to Editors:


1. From April 2005, responsibility for administering the work of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art was passed by DCMS to the Museums, Libraries And Archives Council (MLA). Media enquiries on the operation and casework arising from RCEWA and from the Acceptance in Lieu and Government Indemnity Schemes and the export licence system should go to Emma Poole/ Gemma Crisp on 020 7273 1459, email emma.poole@mla.gov.uk and gemma.crisp@mla.gov.uk


2. Pictures of these items can be downloaded free of charge from the MLA site on Pixmedia. The following link will take you directly to the image. http://www.pixmedia.co.uk/25/folder/618


3. Hack-silver is the name given to small pieces of silver hacked (cut) from coins and jewellery. Hack silver was used as payment for merchandise. The Vikings often weighed the silver for payment so when a little more silver was needed to complete the deal, it was simply hacked from something else made of silver- a coin or a piece of jewellery. This suggests the silver was more valuable than the value of the coin or jewellery itself.


4. These pieces of hack silver, not much larger than a finger nail or postage stamp, are cut in the same characteristic way as finds dredged up from the Blackwater River at Shanmullagh, Co. Armagh since the 1990s, much of which is housed in the Ulster Museum.


5. Only four silver hoards have been recorded as discovered in Northern Ireland and some of the contents discovered were melted down in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Very little is known about Viking Age Northern Ireland. The Shanmullagh hoard shows that a great diversity of items were in circulation in that part of the country.



Press Release No.:23/09/05


For further information, please contact:

Montserrat Capellas

European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF)


+33 476 88 26 63

Posted By:

European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) 


27 September 2005

Preserving The Mary Rose: A 460 Years Old Wrecked Ship 


An international team of researchers has analysed the sulphur and iron composition in the wooden timbers of the Mary Rose, an English warship wrecked in 1545, which was salvaged two decades ago. The team used synchrotron X-rays from the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (USA) and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (France) in order to determine the chemical state of the surprisingly large quantities of sulphur and iron found in the ship. These new results provide insight to the state of this historic vessel and should aid preservation efforts. They are published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.


The Mary Rose served as English King Henry VIII's principal warship for 35 years until she went down outside of Portsmouth in 1545. In 1982 the hull was recovered from the sea and is currently undergoing a conservation process. The first author of the publication, Magnus Sandström, and his colleagues showed recently that the accumulation of sulphur within shipwrecks preserved in seawater is common by studying the Swedish warship Vasa, which remained on the seabed for 333 years. Their research concluded that reduced sulphur compounds could pose conservation problems. Over time, sulphur can convert to sulphuric acid, which slowly degrades the wood until the hull's stability is lost.


The authors examined the Mary Rose to determine the potential threat and found about 2 tons of sulphur in different compounds rather uniformly distributed within the 280-ton hull. To determine the sulphur species present in the wood, researchers first carried out experiments at SSRL. The team needed to obtain complimentary information in order to know the precise location of sulphur species at the micron scale and they came to the ESRF. By studying thin wood slices perpendicularly cut to the cell walls at x-ray microscopy beamline ID21, they found high concentrations of organo-sulphur compounds in the lignin-rich areas between the cells, which may have helped preserve the ship while it was submerged in the seawater. This helped to understand how accessible and reactive the different sulphur compounds found are to acid-producing oxidation.


Plenty of iron and pyrite is also present in the Mary Rose, which is a concern, since in the moist wood iron ions can catalyse the conversion of sulphur to sulphuric acid in the presence of oxygen. The authors suggest that chemical treatments to remove or stabilize the remaining iron and sulphur compounds, and reducing humidity and oxygen access, are requirements for long-term preservation.


At the Mary Rose Trust they are already investigating new treatments to prevent new acid formation. For slowing down the organo-sulphur oxidation reaction and prevent new acid formation, wood samples from the Mary Rose are being treated with antioxidants in combination with low and high grade polyethylene glycol (PEG). Another approach to slow down acid formation in PEG treated conserved archaeological wood is to maintain it in a stable climate. It is hoped that keeping a constant low humidity of 50-55% without variations of humidity and temperature will stop changes in sulphur speciation. To maintain a stable microclimate within the wood structure a surface coating offers a possible solution, although the effectiveness of this approach has yet to be tested.


“This ongoing research is considered to be an important step forward in devising improvements to the current Mary Rose hull treatment programme”, explains Mark Jones, curator of the Mary Rose.


Notes for editor

In the website there is a pdf document with background information on the research and the Mary Rose.

There are also images.



Reference URL




Physics, Chemistry, History



The hull of the Mary Rose. Courtesy of the Mary Rose Trust. JPG 100.10k 


Peer reviewed publication and references

Magnus Sandström, Farideh Jalilehvand, Emiliana Damian, Yvonne Fors, Ulrik Gelius, Mark Jones and Murielle Salomé. Sulphur accumulation in the timbers of King Henry VIII's warship Mary Rose: a pathway in the sulphur cycle of conservation concern, PNAS, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA published 26 September 2005, 10.1073/pnas.0504490102. 




AN archeological dig in Alcester has unearthed what are thought to be the remains of a Roman fort.


For many years archeologists and historians have thought that a Roman fort existed under part of modern Alcester. But it had not been possible to prove this theory until this week.


Since July, a team from Archaeological Investigations Ltd of Hereford has been digging in Bleachfield Street on the site of a proposed housing development. The excavation, funded by the developer, Laing Homes Limited Midlands, has been very productive.


Through a combination of shovel and resistivity survey, two (or possibly three) parallel, deep ditches have been located at the southern end of the site. These are likely to form part of the defences of a Roman fort and would have surrounded a rampart topped with a wooden palisade.



Mysterious origins of the cattle clones



THERE is a farm in Morayshire that is home to a remarkable breed of livestock. The few remaining members of this endangered animal live in a protected area away from other breeds. These rare animals, with a history that dates back thousands of years, have only been inbred to protect their singularity.


Many things are known of this breed, but their complete story remains elusive. Where did the wild, white cattle originate and how did they reach Britain?


The cattle that graze near Elgin today originated in Northumbria, England, where 56 head remain. It was in the 1970s, when only about 40 cattle existed - that the trust overseeing the estate called Chillingham decided to start a reserve herd. Three yearlings - a bull and two heifers. were moved to the north of Scotland to protect the breed against dangers such as mad-cow disease. Fourteen head now live in Morayshire.


What makes these 70 remaining cattle additionally special is that they are nearly all white, except for a touch of red at the tip of the ears and the muzzle, they remain wild and are a genetic match to each other. Their lineage can be traced to the Bronze Age, and the animals carry a special significance in pre-Roman pagan ceremonies.


The start of the second herd is a homecoming of sorts, as this breed would have roamed the flood plains around Scotland's ancient Caledonian forest. Like the forest itself, almost all of the ancient herds have disappeared. Hunting, loss of habitat and domestication have played a large part in their dwindling numbers. The cattle in Elgin and Chillingham are all that remain of the wild herds.


The Chillingham cattle survived in large part to the protection of a parkland estate that was built around 1270. It was popular in medieval times to create fenced off parkland. Roaming wild, the cattle were hunted for sport by the nobility. It is highly likely that Robert the Bruce and James IV would have hunted this breed in similar estates in Scotland.


Before mediaeval times there are Roman accounts of the wild cattle. It is unlikely the Romans introduced the cattle to the British Isles. If they had planned a lengthy occupation, they would certainly have taken their own cattle with them - probably from occupied Gaul (western Europe).


When Agricola invaded Scotland in 79AD he had his son-in-law Tacitus record his campaign. Tacitus, acknowledging the cattle were in Scotland, writes: "Hardly are there any cornfields to drown, although it may happen now and then that herd of cattle, of the old Caledonian breed, are caught in the rising waters and swept off in the flood."


Still, the cattle's true origins may never be uncovered. Perhaps they were related to the Auroch, the large oxen that became extinct in Britain during the Bronze Age. Depicted in cave paintings and worshipped in some cultures, they would have been fearsome creatures and twice the size of the cattle alive today.


"Ten and a half thousand years ago people came back after the Ice ages and they lived by hunting, but 5,000 years ago the first farmers came in. There were 1,500 years when you had Aurochs, but you also had farming and it's perfectly possibly, that they (the white cattle) mated with the Aurochs," says Stephen Hall, professor of Animal Science at the University of Lincoln, Lincolnshire. "This is a long time ago and therefore difficult to prove," he adds.


"We don't know for sure," Hall says. "There's some genetic work on that going on at the moment. We're being totally speculative here."


Chillingham Wild Cattle Association


Meanwhile, a team consisting of Hall and other researchers uncovered some remarkable results on blood tests carried out in a lab in Roslin, Midlothian. Taking a sample of genes scattered across the chromosome, the professor found the animals to be clones.


"They were all the same genetically - one to the other, and you won’t get that in a herd of cattle normally," he admits.


The ancient Scots would have used the wild cattle in sacrificial offerings, and like many cultures the white bull was respected. John Storer, in his book The Wild White Cattle of Great Britain, writes: "The white bull was the sacred victim in one of the greatest religious ceremonies practised here before the Roman conquest. Pliny (the Roman elder) tells us 'that when that rare event occurred, the finding of the sacred mistletoe growing on the oak, the great festival began by bringing up to the tree which bore it two bulls of a white colour, which have never been bound (domesticated).'"


But how on earth did the cattle get in Britain in the first place? One of the more outlandish theories was proposed by Comyns Beaumont in a 1940s book. Quoting Scottish historian Hector Boece, Beaumont reckons that these herds match a description by Herodotis of the mountain region of Paeonia in Thrace (ancient Greece). He was then able to deduce, amazingly, that the animals are the same as found near the River Nessus, which he says is Loch Ness, and that Mygdonia, a part of the original Macedonia, was between Aviemore, Kingussie and the Ness. The conclusion to all this is that Britain is really Atlantis. Could the cattle have crossed from Continental Europe?


The research, and the mystery, of the white cattle will no doubt continue.




Prehistoric skeletons found in cave near Oujda, eastern Morocco 

By Susan Searight-Martinet | Morocco TIMES  9/27/2005 | 2:22 pm


A team of Moroccan archaeologists working in the well-known Grotte des Pigeons cave at Tafoghalt, near Oujda, have recently brought to light human remains dating to around 11,000/12,000 BC, MAP news agency announced Monday.


This cave was first excavated in 1950 and indicated an occupation starting about 21,000 years ago by a population physically different from Morocco's earlier inhabitants.


Luckily for the archaeologists, these people buried their dead in the cave. More than 200 individuals have been revealed during the long-standing excavations, including nearly 100 children.


New research, taken up in 2003, has pushed back the dates of the early occupation of the cave to more than 100,000 years. But the fresh discovery adds an unusual dimension to the burials: one of the skeletons had been buried with the horns of a Barbary sheep. This animal was very plentiful in the mountainous regions surrounding the cave and was certainly hunted by these early populations. The fact that its horns were buried with a skeleton will allow a better understanding of the funeral rites practices by these early Moroccans. Stone and bone tools were also found beside the buried bodies.


An earlier study had shown that these people cared for their handicapped: after a serious accident, resulting in the total loss of one arm and the almost total loss of another, one woman nevertheless managed to live to an advanced age. This showed that these cave dwellers did not throw out a useless mouth but even looked after an impotent woman for many years.


The discovery is part of a research programme directed by the National Institute for Archaeological Sciences and Heritage (INSAP) in cooperation with Oxford University. The new series of excavations started on Sept.5 and will continue until the end of the month.


The new research in this cave is part of a vast programme of prospection and recording of archaeological sites in the lower Moulouya valley. For instance, a series of sites, which are much younger than the skeleton-holding cave, have been discovered containing stone tools, pottery and ostrich eggshells. The ostrich eggshells have been dated to around 5,500 BC by the Laboratory of Technical and Scientific Analyses of the Royal Gendarmerie in Temara, using the radiocarbon method.


MAP news agency added that investigations will continue in Ghafas, another Oujda cave, with a view to producing a precise chronology of the prehistoric human groups living in eastern Morocco several thousands of years ago.