Could our big brains come from Neanderthals?
Tue Nov 7, 6:07 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Neanderthals may have given the modern humans who replaced them a priceless gift -- a gene that helped them develop superior brains, U.S. researchers reported on Tuesday.
And the only way they could have provided that gift would have been by interbreeding, the team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Chicago said.
Their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides indirect evidence that modern Homo sapiens and so-called Neanderthals interbred at some point when they lived side by side in Europe.
"Finding evidence of mixing is not all that surprising. But our study demonstrates the possibility that interbreeding contributed advantageous variants into the human gene pool that subsequently spread," said Bruce Lahn, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher at the University of Chicago who led the study.
Scientists have been debating whether Neanderthals, who died out about 35,000 years ago, ever bred with modern Homo sapiens. Neanderthals are considered more primitive, with robust bones but a smaller intellects than modern humans.
Lahn's team found a brain gene that appears to have entered the human lineage about 1.1 million years ago, and that has a modern form, or allele, that appeared about 37,000 years ago -- right before Neanderthals became extinct.
"The gene microcephalin (MCPH1) regulates brain size during development and has experienced positive selection in the lineage leading to Homo sapiens," the researchers wrote.
Positive selection means the gene conferred some sort of advantage, so that people who had it were more likely to have descendants than people who did not. Lahn's team estimated that 70 percent of all living humans have this type D variant of the gene.
"By no means do these findings constitute definitive proof that a Neanderthal was the source of the original copy of the D allele. However, our evidence shows that it is one of the best candidates," Lahn said.
The researchers reached their conclusions by doing a statistical analysis of the DNA sequence of microcephalin, which is known to play a role in regulating brain size in humans. Mutations in the human gene cause development of a much smaller brain, a condition called microcephaly.
By tracking smaller, more regular mutations, the researchers could look at DNA'S "genetic clock" and date the original genetic variant to 37,000 years ago.
They noted that this D allele is very common in Europe, where Neanderthals lived, and more rare in Africa, where they did not. Lahn said it is not yet clear what advantage the D allele gives the human brain.
"The D alleles may not even change brain size; they may only make the brain a bit more efficient if it indeed affects brain function," Lahn said.
Now his team is looking for evidence of Neanderthal origin for other human genes.
Public release date: 9-Nov-2006
Contact: Lee Siegel
University of Utah
A buffet for early human relatives
Analysis of teeth show a seasonal diet 1.8 million years ago
University of Utah scientists improved a method of testing fossil teeth, and showed that early human relatives varied their diets with the seasons 1.8 million years ago, eating leaves and fruit when available in addition to seeds, roots, tubers and perhaps grazing animals.
"By analyzing tooth enamel, we found that they ate lots of different things, and what they ate changed during the year," says University of Utah geology doctoral student Ben Passey, a coauthor of the study in the Friday, Nov. 10 issue of the journal Science.
"We wanted to know if they had variability in their diets on the time scale of a few months to a few years," he says. "The new method showed that their diets were extremely variable. One possibility is that they were migrating seasonally between more forested habitats to more open, savanna habitats."
Study coauthor and geochemist Thure Cerling – a University of Utah distinguished professor of geology and biology – says the study of the now-extinct, ape-like species known as Paranthropus robustus is important because it "shows that the variability in human diet has been 'in the family' for a very long time. It is this variability that allows modern humans to utilize foods from all over the world."
The researchers used a laser to remove tiny samples from four 1.8-million-year-old fossilized Paranthropus teeth, then tested the samples to determine the ratios of two isotopes or forms of carbon.
Plants fall into two broad classes depending on the way in which they use photosynthesis to convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into plant matter and oxygen. Carbon isotope ratios reveal the extent to which the relatives of early humans ate so-called C3 plants, which include fruit and leaves from trees in both the forest and savanna, and C4 plants, which grow mostly on the savanna and include potato-like tubers, grasses, and seeds and roots from grasses. If the early hominids ate meat from grass-grazing animals like antelope, the C4 "signal" also shows up in their teeth.
"Hominids were taking advantage of seasonal differences in food items in a savanna environment," Cerling says. "We cannot tell if they were carnivores or scavengers, but it is possible their diet included animals. We are picking up that signal."
The new study was led by Matt Sponheimer, a former University of Utah postdoctoral fellow and now an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Other coauthors were Utah's Passey and Cerling; anthropologists Darryl de Ruiter at Texas A&M University and Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg at Ohio State University; and archeologist Julia Lee-Thorp at the University of Bradford, England.
Laser Dentistry on Prehistoric Teeth
The study analyzed four fossil teeth of Paranthropus from Swartkrans, South Africa. A museum loaned them to the researchers. Passey used a laser to remove and vaporize tiny samples of enamel, which then were analyzed in a mass spectrometer to determine the ratio of rare carbon-13 to common carbon-12.
"The previous way to sample tooth enamel was to take a dental drill with a diamond-impregnated bit and basically grind away at the tooth, collect the powder and then analyze that," Passey says.
In the past decade, researchers including Cerling have used "laser ablation" to remove and analyze tooth enamel samples from the large, fossilized teeth of prehistoric horses, rhinos and elephants to determine the animals' diets.
Until now, lasers were too destructive to use on the smaller teeth of human ancestors and their relatives – even those of Paranthropus, known for relatively large teeth and a strong, heavy jaw.
Passey improved the laser technique. "What I did was fine-tune the method to handle very small samples like human-sized teeth," he says. "If you tried the previous method on a human tooth, you would blast a hole clear through the enamel, and museum curators wouldn't like that."
Passey, who is working on his Ph.D. degree, "really made terrific advances in the lab to make this [study] possible," Cerling says.
The laser was used to remove samples at various points along the length of the tooth, which is marked by tiny ridges called perikymata. They run parallel to the tooth's crown and represent tooth growth, similar to tree rings. Perikymata are produced under the gums during the animal's juvenile years, when teeth are growing.
Each laser sampling vaporized enamel that formed during several months and thus represented what Paranthropus ate during that period. By taking several samples off the length of each tooth, the researchers reconstructed a few years of each creature's diet.
When the laser is used, the vaporized enamel is confined within a cylindrical chamber a few inches long. Carbon from carbonate in tooth enamel combines with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide gas, which then is analyzed by the mass spectrometer.
Your Teeth are What You Eat
If the sample has a relatively high ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12, it means the early human relative was eating a diet rich in C4 plants most commonly found on the African savanna, such as seeds and roots from grasses, and grass-like plants called sedges, which include tubers. They also may have eaten animals that grazed on C4 plants.
If a sample has a relatively low ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12, it means Paranthropus was eating C3 plants, including the leaves and fruits of trees and shrubs, as well as forbs, which are broadleaf herbs that are not grasses. Forests contain almost entirely C3 plants. African savanna has both C3 and C4 plants.
Analyses of the Paranthropus teeth revealed that the early human relatives had diets that varied in the proportion of C3 and C4 plants both seasonally and from year to year. The year-to-year variation in Paranthropus' diet "might reflect yearly differences in rainfall-related food availability," the study's authors write. "Another possible explanation is that these individuals were migrating between more wooded habitats and more open savannas."
Cerling says the study "shows that our early human relatives were able to eat a varied diet and therefore were more adaptable in savanna environments than other primates which had a more restricted diet."
Other studies have suggested that the diets of human ancestors and relatives became more varied about 3 million years ago when Africa's climate started getting drier and more seasonal. That was shortly before the first appearance of stone tools and of Paranthropus and Homo, the genus to which modern humans (Homo sapiens) belong.
The researchers noted that Paranthropus often has been portrayed as a specialist that lacked a varied diet, and that has been used to explain why Paranthropus went extinct as Africa became drier, while tool-wielding Homo – with a highly varied diet – survived and evolved.
The new study casts doubt on that theory by showing that Paranthropus, like Homo, also consumed a variety of foods.
"Thus, other biological, social or cultural differences may be needed to explain the different fates of Homo and Paranthropus," the scientists conclude.
UNIVERSITY OF UTAH MEDIA RELEASE
Embargoed by the journal Science for release at noon MST Thursday Nov. 9, 2006
-- Thure Cerling (first name pronounced Tur-ee), distinguished professor of geology and geophysics, and biology – cellular (801) 864-2554, office (801) 581-5558, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
-- Ben Passey, doctoral student in geology – cellular (801) 870-7303, lab (801) 585-0415, email@example.com
-- Lee Siegel, science news specialist, University of Utah Public Relations – cellular (801) 244-5399
University of Utah Public Relations
201 Presidents Circle, Room 308
Salt Lake City, Utah 84112-9017
(801) 581-6773 fax: 585-3350
Iran facing problems raising ancient ship from Persian Gulf
Tehran Times Culture Desk
TEHRAN -- Iranian archaeologists plan to raise an ancient ship recently discovered in the Persian Gulf, but they lack the equipment necessary to allow divers to work at a depth of 70 meters.
The ship was discovered about two months ago by Daryakav Company workers who were fishing in the Persian Gulf. Archaeologists believe it dates back to the Parthian or Sassanid eras based on the shards brought up in fishing nets and the large amphorae discovered on the ship. Amphorae were used during the Parthian and Sassanid eras.
“Raising the ship is a major operation which requires skillful human resources and equipment,” Daryakav managing director Zolfaqar Arabzadeh told the Persian service of CHN on Thursday.
Diving with ordinary equipment would be lethal at a depth of over 40 meters.
“The ship and its cargo are 70 meters underwater and diving without special equipment would result in the death of divers at such a depth. Thus we need saturation diving equipment,” he added.
Saturation diving is a method of prolonged diving, using an underwater habitat to allow divers to remain in the high-pressure environment of the ocean depths long enough for their body tissues to become saturated with the inert components of the pressurized gas mixture that they breathe: when this condition is reached, the amount of time required for decompression remains the same, whether the dive lasts a day, a week, or a month.
Iran lacks the saturation diving equipment required to study the ship’s status and its cargo.
“The equipment is very expensive, but the project is invaluable. The ship will be the most unique vessel found in the Persian Gulf’s history if it is raised. In addition, the job requires people with diving expertise, whose numbers can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” Arabzadeh noted.
Experts believe that Iranian cultural officials should regard it as a national project because the ship is further proof that the gulf is Persian.
Nov. 8, 2006 21:03 | Updated Nov. 9, 2006 1:16
4,000-year-old cemetery uncovered in Jerusalem
By JASON TAITZ
Containers for ritual offerings, weapons and jewelry are among the finds uncovered this week after builders in Jerusalem's Bayit Vagan neighborhood stumbled upon a 4,000-year-old Canaanite cemetery.
The Israel Antiquities Authority was alerted back in July when builders working on apartment buildings in the Holyland Park Project found evidence of ancient tombs. The remarkable finds were only discovered this week.
The dig's director, Yanir Milevsky, said that "the quantity of items and their particularly good state of conservation will allow us to enlarge our knowledge of farming villages during the Canaanite era."
The authority said the site covered more than 200 dunams and contains human and animal remains, as well as metal and ceramic artifacts and weapons, dating back to between 2,200 and 1,600 BCE.
The approximately 50 tombs originally date from the early Bronze Age (2200 BCE to 2000 BCE), but were apparently dug up and used again about 1700 BCE to 1600 BCE, an authority spokesman said. The main finds were from the latter period, because when they were reused, most of the original contents were cleared out.
Archeologists working on the site uncovered pottery vessels of various sizes which they said appear to be containers for spiritual offerings - mainly jars, bowls and jugs - as well as human remains. The containers' contents, which consisted of mostly perishable foods or liquids, have disappeared over time.
One of the archeologists, Zvi Greenhut, called it "a very important finding," adding that "the last such find from this period was many years ago."
He said the burial sites have entrances through a shaft and have thus been termed "shaft tombs." The shafts were quarried straight into the bedrock, and then a cave was dug out to house the tomb proper.
The archeologists said that in accordance with the common belief of the time, the offerings were given in the expectation of feeding the departed in the afterlife. Such beliefs were said to be heavily influenced by the cultural dominance of Egypt at the time, which was at the zenith of its power. Animal bones, supposedly sheep or goats, were also found. Milevski said he believed they were the remains of more offerings.
Some of the tombs contain bronze weapons, mainly daggers and axes, and in others jewelry, including Carnelian and Amethyst beads, was discovered.
Bronze and copper tools were also found, such as borers and other perforators as well as bones with drawings on them, most probably decorations, according to Milevski. In terms of the salvage possibilities, he said, "We have a lot of complete vessels, and also many shards that we can restore in the laboratories."
Twenty years ago, Milevski worked on his first-ever archeology excavation in Israel, where the Malha Mall stands today, not far from the present day cemetery excavation. The diggers at that site discovered village ruins dating to around 1700 BCE, the same period as the current excavation.
Milevski confirmed the connection between the two sites, and said: "We are more or less sure that the cemetery belongs to the village... It completes the picture. Now we better know this area."
The vessels found in the tombs will be moved to an Israel Antiquities Authority storage facility, and some may eventually enter the Israel Museum. The Holyland Park Project construction company, however, will destroy all of the cemetery, said Milevski.
"They need to remove all the bedrock for the construction of the foundations," he said. "They need to go maybe 20 meters down." Asked about the tombs' inevitable destruction Milevski said: "I don't feel good about it, of course, but now at least we have the information."
Fellow archeologist Greenhut seemed less concerned about the tombs' fate. "The burial chambers and tombs are very regular," he said. "The vessels and items within them, though, are very interesting, and will be kept."
Oct. 31, 2006 17:29 | Updated Oct. 31, 2006 21:18
Ancient anchorage found at Netanya
By ETGAR LEFKOVITS
A Netanya beach lifeguard who stumbled on an iron anchor while out for a swim has led marine archeologists to uncover the first evidence of an ancient anchorage for sailing vessels in Netanya, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Tuesday.
The lifeguard, Ofer Harmoni, 37, summoned the archeologists to the scene after noticing the iron anchor near the Netanya shore during a swimming workout two weeks ago.
The authority's marine unit subsequently uncovered five large stone anchors dating back 4,000 years during an underwater survey at the site.
The anchors, which archeologists date to the late Middle Bronze Age, have a single perforation, are 0.9m high and 0.6m wide and weigh 150 kilograms each.
Two smaller stone anchors for small boats and two iron anchors which date to the Byzantine period (5th-7th centuries CE), were also removed from the seabed.
One of the smaller anchors was found in an upright position with one fluke embedded in the seabed, and the other anchor was found lying on the deck of a boat that had probably sunk there.
A small millstone that was probably used by the crew of the Byzantine boat was found nearby.
Kobi Sharvit, director of the Marine Unit of the Antiquities Authority, said that these were the first finds indicating the existence of an anchorage site for sailing vessels thousands of years ago in Netanya.
"The scattering of anchors along the seabed within such a limited area and the diversity of types and different periods demonstrates that this region was used as an anchorage for sailing vessels during antiquity," he said.
Harmoni, who has served as a lifeguard at the beach since he was 17 and has previously found antiquities there, said that he was just doing his job. "This will go down in the history books," he said.
Sicilian island yields fresh riches
The Sicilian island of Pantelleria, midway to Africa, has yielded fresh Roman treasures that have spurred local officials to call for a full-fledged open-air archaeological park across the island .
"We've unearthed amphorae and urns in a necropolis that came to light during building work. The finds on the island have now reached a critical mass that makes an archaeological park imperative," said Sicilian culture chief Lino Leanza .
"With the prehistoric village of Mursia, the San Marco acropolis, the Punic-Roman shrine at the Lake of Venus and the late Roman settlement at Scauri, we have all the potential for putting the island on the world culture map," Leanza added .
He laid particular emphasis on a collection of marble Roman heads depicting Sicilian governors and emperors .
Pantelleria was a crossroads for all the major civilisations of the ancient world and this should be reflected by making it an open-air museum, the official argued .
Any such project would have to "take into account" the thousands of migrants who reach the stepping-stone island each year on their hopeful way to points north, he added .
But the art superintendent at the western Sicilian city of Trapani, which governs the island, is confident of getting government money to fund the project .
"My superintendency fully endorses the idea of a so-called territorial park stretching across Pantelleria," said the official, Giuseppe Gini .
Burial mounds move housing
By Ellie Simmonds
The discovery of "nationally important" bronze age burial mounds on the edge of Bicester has prompted a housing developer to change its plans.
Archaeologists uncovered the two mounds buried beneath land between Bicester and Chesterton, which is earmarked for 1,585 houses.
The discovery has forced Countryside Properties to draw up new plans for the site, which it submitted to Cherwell District Council last week.
Experts dug 134 trenches between July and September and found archaeological remains in 41 of them.
As well as the burial mounds, which could be up to 5,500 years old, they found a bronze age palstave (an axe head), an iron age settlement with a possible hearth, a Roman settlement and quarries and what is believed to be a saxon ditch.
Experts from Wessex Archaeology have recommended the burial mounds, which measure 32m and 21m across, be protected by a 50m no-build buffer zone.
Council planning officer Jenny Barker said developers had redrawn their plans so the mounds would be beneath the playing field of one of the proposed primary schools. She added the secondary school and the health village had also been moved.
She said: "The problem with the masterplan is once you change one thing, you have to change other things to support that."
She said the decision on the planning application, which was submitted in May, had been delayed pending the results of the archaeological survey.
But she added the findings should not cause any further delays and said the application could be still decided at December's planning committee meeting.
She said: "These mounds have been identified as significant and, in fact, significant enough that they should not be disturbed."
In its report, Countryside Properties said: "The intention is to impose a 50m buffer around these two sites to ensure no infrastructure works take place that would damage these remains of national importance.
"It is recommended that provisions are implemented to ensure that archaeology has a primary consideration in future engineering and management plans for these proposals."
In their report, experts from Wessex Archaeology said: "All of the archaeological evidence uncovered to date indicates the utilisation of this site for several thousand years."
Countryside Properties spokesman Steve Price said: "There are quite a lot of changes. A lot of the amendments are to overcome or answer some of the concerns about the proposal from the public - the result of feedback from various consultations."
8:52am Friday 10th November 2006
Ancients’ holy site revealed
By Rosalind Miles
An archaeologist surveying Northmoor has accidentally discovered a sacred landscape' created in the Bronze Age.
Robin Brunner-Ellis was amazed when he stumbled upon a pattern of features in the landscape made by ancient people to communicate with their gods.
He is now hoping to launch a sacred landscape heritage trail to enable people and walkers to discover how and why the landscape was formed.
He said: "From near the Rose Revived pub across the meadows and across the river up to Cumnor Hill there are a series of ditches people in the Bronze Age dug as a form of ritual to communicate with the gods.
"These ditches were laid out to capture burial mounds in which their own ancestors had buried their dead 1,000 years before the ditch builders.
"The ditches connect those ancestral remains with natural elements in the landscape in such a way that they could draw down the sacred power of the rising full moon that occurred only once every 18 years. The rivers were equally important for prehistoric people as living forces running through their landscape.
"So the ditches are aligned with the River Windrush where it meets the Thames at Newbridge, cuts across a long loop of the Thames before crossing it and heading over Hurst and Cumnor Hills. It ends up at the point where the River Cherwell meets the Thames on Christchurch Meadows."
He also found stone preaching crosses from Medieval times.
On October 6, Mr Brunner-Ellis visited the site with his eight-year-old son Tom to see the Autumn equinox moon at its fullest and its closest to Earth in 18 years.
He said: "What we saw was amazing. It took my breath away. The huge pale disk of the harvest moon rose between Hurst Hill and Cumnor Hill on the eastern horizon exactly in line with the orientation of the Northmoor linear ditches.
"And at precisely the same moment as the moons appearance, the autumn sun disappeared over the western horizon exactly over the point where the Windrush and Thames rivers meet at the opposite end of the Northmoor linear ditches.
"It was astonishing. We got an extraordinary insight into the ingenuity of people we imagine were quite primitive."
Zetica, a Witney based research company, is to carry out a geophysical survey of the whole parish and Mr Brunner-Ellis hopes the astronomy department at Oxford University will also get involved in the research.
He also hopes a leaflet about the heritage trail will be produced. For information see www.goodmarketing.org.uk/ sacredlandscapes
9:22am Thursday 9th November 2006
An ancient Berwick starting to emerge...
ARCHAEOLOGICAL evidence which could lead back as far as the Elizabethan period is beginning to emerge from a Berwick site currently under excavation.
Archaeologists believe they have found the foundation walls of three separate buildings on the recently demolished Beehive site on Walkergate.
They are still waiting for samples to be dated but are confident the wall nearest the road was built in the mid to late medieval period, possibly in the 16th century.
A second extant wall further in is thought to date from the 17th or 18th century, with the footing of the former Tweeddale Press buildings dating from the early 20th century nearby.
Chris Burgess, Northumberland county archaeologist, said: "It's very interesting to see the progression of the site through three phases of building which seems to show how the street has become wider over the years.
"Basically, we are probably seeing a progression from early to late from the front of the site to the back through a series of different buildings gradually moving away from Walkergate, probably as it got wider."
The team from Tyne and Wear Museums always thought the site would throw up some interesting archaeology given Berwick's history.
Terry Frain, assistant keeper of archaeology for Tyne and Wear Museums, said: "It's common knowledge there is quite a lot of archaeology stratified within the walls of Berwick so we knew for a fact there would be some good finds.
"Unlike most towns and cities which tend to spread out as they develop, the confines of a place like Berwick because of its town walls meant sites such as this were levelled and re-developed on top several times."
The land has been reworked so many times that archaeologists believe soil samples could even date as far back as the 1300's.
The team have been working on the site for five weeks and have until mid-December to complete their work before filling in to enable construction work to start on the £3.3 million creation of 30 business start-up units.
Mr Burgess said: "I hope they will continue to find good, exciting archaeology but I can't give any hard and fast advice about what they are going to find over the next few weeks.
"However, I am hoping they will be able provide a much clearer picture of the story of that site, perhaps by finding artefacts which can be used to date the walls more accurately."
Once the excavations have finished, the team will have a watching brief over the initial construction work to check for fresh archaeological information.
A webcam will be mounted on the Tweeddale Press building over the next couple of weeks to enable the public to see what is happening. A dedicated website is being set up for it, with the address to be announced soon.
09 November 2006
'Time team' uncovers Civil War clues
By Jonathan Walton
Archaeologists armed with hi-tech gear may have uncovered remains from a legendary English Civil War encampment.
Experts say it could be the first hard evidence of the Fairfax Entrenchment, a military base high above Bingley headed by a top-ranking Roundhead general.
Using technology seen by millions on television's Time Team programme, geophysicists led by Dr John Gater turned up a tantalising subterranean view of a field at the St Ives estate near Harden which may have held part of the encampment Dr Gater, a regular on the Channel 4 show, carried out the painstaking electronic survey on behalf of a group which is aiming to plant a new wood on the site.
The Friends of St Ives want to create a woodland containing British native trees, but they were keen to find out if there was anything of archaeological important around the site before setting out.
Dr Gater said the survey had revealed a mysterious curved ditch which he said could be evidence of the encampment.
"It looks like a large ditch that's got interruptions and it's just possible that's the Fairfax Entrenchment," he said.
"It's known to exist at this point then its course is lost, so it looks as though we may have found it.
"I must be honest, when we came here I wasn't expecting to get anything.
Dr Gater and Emma Wood discuss some of the findings
"It really does suggest we need to do a much bigger survey and they will have to be careful just where they plant the trees."
Dr Angela Edmond, of the University of Bradford's archaeology department, has been working with the Friends on the site.
"It's local legend, hearsay, that there was a camp of soldiers on Harden Moor and we know during the Civil War there were an awful lot of skirmishes that took place that weren't actually recorded," she said.
"Legend has it there was a camp on Harden Moor and General Fairfax stayed in Harden village.
"We also understand, again through hearsay, that there were a number of burials near the camp."
Pam Laking, chairman of the Friends of St Ives, said the plan to invite public donations for each new tree would still go ahead, but would be restructured in light of the find.
"This area of land has been set aside for a Friends Wood," she said.
"We cannot plant on top of this trench until we know what it is.
"We'll have to go back to the drawing board.
"We're waiting for the full results from John Gater, then we'll get together with the Council and decide what we're going to do. It's quite exciting."
5:08pm Tuesday 7th November 2006
St George losses
The early history of one of London’s most important churches has been destroyed unexamined, and its medieval parishioners dug up and taken away in plastic sacks, a senior archaeologist has complained.
Bruce Watson of the Museum of London says: “The Church of England operates with impunity, largely outside both planning and ancient monuments legislation, despite the numerous important historic buildings within its care.”
St George’s, Southwark, may have been of Saxon origin, Mr Watson says, but the chance to find out has been squandered. By 1122 Southwark’s parish church was already dedicated to St George, whose popularity in England was much increased by returning Crusaders.
The present Grade I listed church dates from 1733-36, and the current problems arise from enlargement of its crypt to provide more space for community work, he notes in Rescue News. Since it stands in Southwark’s archaeological priority zone, the importance of the site was already known. Roman roads entering London from the south converged here on a small area of dry land at the end of London Bridge.
Nevertheless, only a small area of the church crypt was excavated this summer down through the unexpectedly rich Roman levels, which included brick-earth walled buildings, one with a floor of reused roof tiles; elsewhere the Roman deposits, possibly from the earliest part of Londinium south of the river, were removed by mechanical excavators without the archaeologists being allowed to excavate them by hand as originally intended.
Even more disturbing, Mr Watson says, is that “medieval burials were torn from their graves by mini-digger. Past parishioners who had committed their bodies and souls to the care of St George’s now had their bones collected in plastic sacks for reburial at Nunhead Cemetery.”
“The attitude of the parish towards their archaeological heritage is best described as ‘negative’,” Mr Watson says in Rescue News. “The attitude of the parish is particularly sad, as in 1776 the medieval records of this church were all dumped: archaeological investigation would have been a chance to fill in large gaps in our knowledge.
“It could be argued that the parish was using Heritage Lottery Fund monies to wilfully destroy their own and our church’s heritage,” Mr Watson argues. “Today St George’s church needs its patron saint to fight for its heritage: its present custodians have failed it.”
Rescue News 100: 1-2.