New Fossils Add Link to the Chain of the Evolution of Humans
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
Published: April 13, 2006
In following the fossil tracks of human evolution, scientists have for years searched for links between Australopithecus, the kin of the famous "Lucy" skeleton, and even earlier possible ancestors. Now, they think they have found some connections in Ethiopia.
An international team of paleontologists is reporting the discovery of transitional species superimposed in sediments in the neighborhood of a single site. The findings appear today in the journal Nature.
Tim D. White, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was a team leader, and his colleagues said the 4.1-million-year-old fossils were anatomically intermediate between the earlier species Ardipithecus ramidus and the later species Australopithecus afarensis, the Lucy family. The newfound bones and teeth are the earliest remains of the most primitive Australopithecus, known as anamensis.
"This new discovery closes the gap between the fully blown australopithecines and earlier forms we call Ardipithecus," Dr. White said in a statement. "We now know where Australopithecus came from before four million years ago."
The scientists said the fossils supported the hypothesis that Australopithecus anamensis was a direct ancestor of afarensis, which lived 3 million to 3.6 million years ago. The Australopithecus genus — resembling apes in stature and brain size but unlike the great apes in that it walked on two legs — is thought to have given rise to our own genus, Homo.
Some later australopithecines survived until about 1.2 million years ago, existing in Africa as contemporaries with Homo erectus, a predecessor of modern humans.
The genus Ardipithecus, discovered by Dr. White in 1992, appears to have lived 4.4 million to 5.7 million years ago. It was even more apelike, but also walked on two legs.
The relationship between Ardipithecus and Australopithecus, scientists said, remains unclear because of the wide gap in their chronology. Still, they suggested that one probably led to the other.
Dr. White said a key to interpreting the new anamensis was where it was discovered, in the Middle Awash valley of the Afar region of Ethiopia. The area, about 140 miles northeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, has also yielded critical evidence of afarensis and the ramidus species of Ardipithecus.
"Finding these three things in time sequence in a single place, that's never happened before," he said.
In their journal article, the scientists said the evidence suggested "a relatively rapid shift from Ardipithecus to Australopithecus in this region of Africa."
The new anamensis fossils were uncovered first at Aramis and then at a place called Asa Issie. The teeth and jawbones of eight individuals were found at Asa Issie, the most recent of the discoveries last December. The fieldwork and analysis were conducted by scientists from Ethiopia, Japan, France and the United States, with support from the National Science Foundation.
Bronze Age treasure trove unearthed at Haggerston
GOLD rings dating back 3000 years to the Bronze Age were among a hoard of riches found near Haggerston Castle by a man using a metal detector.
A treasure trove inquest at Berwick Court heard how John Minns made the amazing discovery in a farmer's field while staying in the area on April 11 last year .
More than 50 individual items were unearthed by Mr Minns, of Marywell Village, by Arbroath, including six gold lock rings, six copper alloy socketed axe heads, looped axe heads, bronze rings, a dagger and a rare pear-shaped bronze ingot from a crucible.
It is thought the treasures were placed in the narrow pit for safe keeping with the intention they would be picked up at a later date, or perhaps by future generations.
"I just popped out for a little while to pass the time that evening and ended up with this," said Mr Minns.
The exact location of the find is being kept secret for fear of an invasion by prospectors, although a subsequent search of the surrounding area uncovered nothing further.
The pieces were handed over to the British Museum for a formal assessment which experts, using carbon dating techniques, discovered dated back to 800-1000BC.
It is not thought the hoard is particularly valuable in monetary terms, probably in the region of £2000.
The Haggerston find has been compared to a similar discovery at Ewart, near Wooler, which was also dated to the late Bronze Age period.
North Northumberland coroner Ian McCreath ruled the hoard should be treated as treasure and handed over permanently to the British Museum in London, although he recommended part of the collection be loaned out locally.
He said: "This find appears, quite remarkably, to be in the order of 3000 years of age — one understands the importance and rarity of it.
"They are already at the British Museum and I would expect a hoard of this significance would need to be kept at the museum but I will invite them to consider the possibility of making part of the collection available at a more local level."
It is thought the Museum of Antiquities in Newcastle is interested in displaying one of the most historically important finds there has been in this region for 150 years.
Rob Collins, finds liaison officer for the north east, said: "From an archaeological perspective it's a very interesting find because some of the artefacts are unique and have not been seen before.
"In the British context it might suggest far more extensive communications between the Borders area and further afield than had been previously thought."
Chris Green, curator at the Berwick Borough Museum, welcomed the possibility of the treasures making their way further north.
13 April 2006
Acropolis labourers reveal replica of column
April 13 2006 at 03:35AM
By Nicholas Paphitis
Athens - Greek culture ministry officials on Wednesday unveiled a marble replica of a column capital to be used in the ongoing mammoth Acropolis restoration project.
The unveiling took place after more than two years of painstaking labour using 2 500-year-old techniques.
The elaborate two-ton capital, which will top a column in the monumental Propylaea gate leading to the Parthenon temple, was carved by hand by a team of two sculptors working off smashed pieces of the fifth-century original.
"We used the same methods as the ancient Greeks," said architect Haralambos Bouras, a senior official in the 30-year-old Acropolis project.
Decorated with graceful spirals and moldings, the Ionic capital will replace one of the original six in the Propylaea, which also sported a group of six capitals in the more austere Doric style.
"The Propylaea's ancient Ionic capitals are justly considered the most beautiful ever made," Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis said.
One more copy is being made, and both will be hoisted into their final positions in the summer after a two-month exhibition period, during which they will be shown on a shortened version of their original fluted columns.
Tassos Tanoulas, the architect overseeing the Propylaea works, said his sculptors used a simple system of curves and measures to replicate the ancient originals - two of only six fragments to have survived from the Ionic capitals.
"This is the first exact copy of such a complex architectural member to be ever made," Tanoulas said. "What one sees here is precisely like the original that the ancient architect Mnesicles, who designed the building, had in his hands before the final colouring was applied."
The Propylaea was built between 437-432 BC, but work was halted by the Peloponnesian War between Athens and its rival Sparta, and was never completed.
The building was used in the Middle Ages as a palace for Byzantine bishops and the Frankish dukes of Athens. It suffered severe damage in 1640, when lightning struck part of the structure the Turkish garrison was using as a powder magazine.
The current restoration project - which uses a minimum of modern copies beside salvaged and repaired ancient pieces - will be finished by early 2007, Tanoulas said, while further work may follow.
The overall Acropolis restoration - which includes work on the Parthenon and Athena Nike temples - is expected to finish in 2020 at a cost of about $80-million, according to current forecasts, after which the hilltop will be landscaped with hundreds of tons of earth. - Sapa-AP
Ancient Roman holiday villa found
The luxury residence belonged to two important senators
(ANSA) - Pomezia, April 14 - Archaeologists have discovered a 2nd-century seaside villa where two important senators of ancient Rome are believed to have passed their summers .
The remains of the luxury residence turned up recently in Torvaianica, a coastal resort south of Rome, when the local council started digging trenches for a new sewerage system .
Historians knew from written sources that the villa of Titus Flavius Claudanius and Titus Flavius Sallustius was somewhere in the area but the precise location had long been forgotten .
The two senators belonged to an imperial dynasty and, as befitted their rank, the villa was constructed on a grand scale. It covers about a hectare and includes a large area given over to relaxation, including a gymnasium, hot and cold baths and various swimming pools .
"We're uncovering a vast complex, in which we've found all sorts of vessels and ceramics which have been taken away to be catalogued," said head archaeologist Filippo Avilia .
Experts noted that the find was important enough to become a tourist attraction for the area, which is already steeped in myth and legend .
According to Latin poet Virgil, Trojan hero Aeneas landed just down the road at the ancient settlement of Lavinium after fleeing his city, which had been sacked by the Greeks. His descendants are said to have founded the city of Rome and an ancient monument to the hero can still be seen near Lavinio, the modern town on the site of Lavinium .
© Copyright ANSA. All rights reserved
Fri 21 Apr, 9:00 pm - 9:50 pm 50mins
The Mystery of the Headless Romans
The discovery of 30 decapitated Roman bodies in York sparked off an intense archaeological investigation. Who were these men, and what happened to them? Was this a burial rite? Could they be casualties of war, as Roman armies tried to eradicate the tribes of Scotland? Or is this the site of a mass execution?
To answer these questions Timewatch brings together an expert team of archaeologists, scientists and historians. This is a fantastic detective story that goes right to the heart of the Roman world. [AD]
Rare Roman burial urns unearthed
The urns point to the adoption of other burial practices in Britain
Two Roman burial urns have been found on the grounds of a retirement village being built in Tregony, Cornwall.
The 1st century AD pottery urns were found by a Cornwall County Council archaeologist in a pre-construction check at the Roseland Parc development.
Experts believe the urns were recovered from a shrine that overlooked Fal River. They are to go on show at the Truro Museum after analysis.
A council archaeologist said it showed Romano-British burial practices.
The council's senior archaeologist Andy Jones said: "Although Roman period cremations in pots are fairly commonplace in southern England, the find is highly unusual in Cornwall."
Burials dating to this period were rare and "almost unknown", he said.
"The discovery may point to the adoption of burial practices from elsewhere in Britain by the local inhabitants or perhaps it was the grave of someone from outside the county," added Mr Jones.
The excavation was funded by the owners of the £20m development, which is set in a wooded area in the centre of Tregony.
Romans were big cheeses in Stilton
STILTON may have given its name to the famous blue cheese despite the fact it was never made in the village north of Huntingdon.
But now Stilton's claim to cheese-making fame has been given a boost by the discovery of a 2,000-year-old cheese press there.
The Roman press was found in a ditch by local potter Richard Landy. It is believed to have been used to make cheese from sheep's or goat's milk - a far cry from today (Saturday, 15 April)'s version of Stilton cheese.
Mr Landy said: "I was elated when I found the press.
I have already found extensive evidence of the Roman period from a number of sites around Stilton. I have also made pottery for the Stilton Cheese Makers' Association, so you could say it is a happy coincidence that I found the cheese press."
Philippa Walton, county archaeologist who identified the press, said: "This is a truly exceptional object found in a very apt spot. Its Third Century origin suggests Stilton's association with cheese may stretch back more than 1,800 years."
T he cheese press is one of more than 500 finds reported under the Portable Antiquities Scheme designed to encourage members of the public to report archaeological finds they make.
Stilton cheese comes from a handful of cheese-makers in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and acquired its name from the village where much of it was sold to hungry travellers.
T he village still celebrates the cheese and its annual cheese-rolling celebrations take place on Monday, May 1, this year.
12 April 2006
Media Information: James Barrett +44 (0) 1904 433938 or David Garner +44 (0) 1904 432153
Researchers trawl the origins of sea fishing in Northern Europe
For decades the study of fish bones was considered one of the most esoteric branches of archaeology, but now it is helping to reveal the massive significance of the fishing trade in the Middle Ages.
New research co-ordinated by archaeologists at the University of York will spotlight the earliest development of Europe's sea fisheries and, given the continuous expansion of sea fishing since the Middle Ages, the ultimate origin of today's fishing crisis.
The three-year project, financed by the Leverhulme Trust and also supported by HMAP, the historical branch of the Census of Marine Life, will involve researchers across Northern Europe.
It builds on earlier research by the project team which discovered that extensive sea fishing began in Europe 1,000 years ago. A major shift from freshwater to sea fishing was due to a combination of climate, population growth and religion.
Dr James Barrett, of the University of York's Department of Archaeology, who is co-ordinating the project, has pinpointed the century between 950AD and 1050AD as the critical period when this fisheries revolution took place.
By studying fish bones from archaeological sites such as York, Gent in Belgium, Ribe in Denmark, Schleswig in Germany and Gdansk in Poland, the researchers hope to establish what long-term impact this rapid switch to intensive sea fisheries had on medieval trading patterns. In York, the vast collections assembled by York Archaeological Trust will provide material for the bone study.
Dried cod was traded from the Arctic in the Middle Ages and, around 1000AD, trade routes opened up across the Viking world to allow long-range trading of bulk staple goods.
Dr Barrett said: "We are using the fish trade as a way of understanding long-term economic and social changes in Northern Europe. We want to look at how a large-scale trade in commodities developed and the way it has been influenced by so many socio-economic and environmental factors."
"We shall use both traditional zooarchaeological techniques and new biomolecular approaches. Dried cod for trade was cut up in certain ways, which can be detected by the cut marks on the bones. Moreover, we will use biomolecular tests to establish whether fish found in towns such as York originated locally from the North Sea or from distant sources such as Arctic Norway."
The biomolecular studies may also provide a direct insight into changes in marine ecosystems and help to improve understanding of the early human impact on fish stocks. The project aims to link an understanding of medieval economic development with the pressing current need to know what marine ecosystems were like before the impact of over-fishing.
The project will depend on interdisciplinary and international cooperation. Its core members, drawn from five European countries, include zooarchaeologists, biomolecular methods experts and a fisheries ecologist, supported by a team of international collaborators, whose expertise covers Northern Europe, from Estonia to Arctic Norway.
Notes to editors:
Core Research Group: Dr Inge Bødker Enghoff, Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Dr Anton Ervynck, Institute for the Archaeological Heritage of the Flemish Community, Belgium. Professor Anne Karin Hufthammer, Bergen Museum, University of Bergen, Norway. Dr. William Hutchinson, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Hull. Professor Michael Richards, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany and Department of Archaeology, University of Durham. Professor Callum Roberts, Environment Department, University of York. Professor Wim Van Neer, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Belgium
Research Fellows: Dr. Cluny Johnstone, University of York. Jennifer Harland, University of York
Research Collaborators: Colin Amundsen, Tromsø Museum, University of Tromsø, Norway. Sheila Hamilton-Dyer, Southampton, England. Dr. Jørgen Schou Christiansen, Norwegian College of Fishery Science, University of Tromsø, Norway. Professor Dirk Heinrich, Christian-Albrechts University, Kiel, Germany. Dr. Andrew Jones, York Archaeological Trust / Bradford University, England. Dr. Leif Jonsson, Göteborg, Sweden. Dr. Alison Locker, Menton, France. Dr. Lembi Lõugas, Institute of History, Tallinn, Estonia. Dr. Daniel Makowiecki, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Poznan, Poland. Professor Wietske Prummel, Groningen Institute of Archaeology, University of Groningen, Netherlands.
Leverhulme Trust Funding: Please note that the Leverhulme Trust grant is awarded to the University of York as an institution rather than the researchers as individuals and that the project is being undertaken by the investigators and not by the Trust.
More information on the University of York's Department of Archaeology at www.york.ac.uk/depts/arch/
Pottery points to monks' quest to create gold
Thursday April 13, 2006
A glazed pottery alchemist's cone has been unearthed at one of Britain's mediaeval abbeys whose monks have long been suspected of trying to create gold.
The delicate vessel, eight inches (25cm) long, was found by English Heritage archaeologists at Bylands Abbey in North Yorkshire, founded by the Cistercians in 1137.
A leading Cistercian monk, Richard Archebold, was described by 15th century scholar Richard of Buckfast as running up debts in pursuit of an "unattainable" goal.
The Bylands cone was a condenser designed to fit over a heated pan holding a boiling mixture.
Burial find reveals ancient lives
BBC News, Leicester
A huge amount can be learnt from skeletal remains
They are dust and dry bones. Hundreds of people, generation upon generation, reduced to neatly boxed scraps and splinters.
But a team from the University of Leicester archaeology unit has a rare opportunity to tell us about the lives these people led.
Work on the extension to a shopping centre in Leicester city centre unearthed the largest medieval parish cemetery outside London, containing more than 1,300 skeletons.
As well as the sheer scale of the site, the significance lies in its close identification with an area over a defined period of time, roughly from 1200 to 1600, effectively recording the human history of a neighbourhood.
Harriet Jacklin is an osteologist, trained to examine human bones for clues about their lives - and deaths.
We have discovered there are a high number of infants and juveniles
Harriet Jacklin, Osteologist
She said: "It's a fantastic opportunity - we have such a large number of individuals.
"It's one of the largest to be excavated in recent years and therefore full analysis will be able to tell us about the population who lived, worked and died in Leicester."
She added: "We can look at the age of the individual, the sex of the individual, we can look at their diet and lifestyle and social status and sometimes we can even see what they died of."
Age and gender can be estimated by the development and shape of the bones. While children are usually obvious from their size, the formative nature of their skeletons mean it is not possible to gauge sex.
First results from the St Peters site indicate how dark and difficult medieval life could be for children.
There appears to have been a slightly better standard of dental health among individuals buried within the church
Ms Jacklin added: "We have discovered there are a high number of infants and juveniles and this could be an indication of the quantity of diseases which while they leave little direct effect on the skeleton, would have a big effect on the child mortality rate."
Another valuable source of information is the teeth.
She said: "Many of the teeth are very worn, showing a coarse diet. There are also possible abscesses, where decay has eaten into the jawbone, which would have caused a huge amount of pain.
"There appears to have been a slightly better standard of dental health among individuals buried within the church, indicated perhaps a better standard of living and therefore higher social status."
Tony Ratnam, a University of Leicester Archaeology Service (ULAS) field officer, said: "Since it is a church site, you don't get much of the day to day items you would associate with domestic life.
"We did, however, find materials associated with the church and religious life - including what we think is the left arm from a crucifix.
Two skeletons a day
There are also tiles from the church, often decorated with the coats of arms from local nobility.
"It's interesting to think the feet of those people we dug up probably walked across these tiles on their way to pray."
Another find from the site was the lead seal from a papal bull, a document purchased from the Church in hope of absolving sins and shortening the individual's time in purgatory.
It dates from the reign of Pope Innocent VI who reigned from 1352 to 1362.
Mr Ratnam said: "This is shortly after the Black Death, which killed millions of people and may well have focussed people's thoughts on the afterlife."
The team hopes to record an average of two skeletons per person per day - with those of special interest sent for further analysis - and expects to get through the collection in roughly two years.
'MYSTERY' FIND IS MEDIEVAL
By Martin Neville
A MYSTERY object thought to be a piece of modern-day tat has turned out to be a unique medieval relic.
When the bird figurine was discovered by eight-year-old Kelsie Goldsmith and her mother, Charmain, during an archaeological fieldwalk on the Pan estate in February, it was widely scoffed at by experts as a modern-day replica.
But after further analysis at the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, its true medieval origins emerged.
John Ashall, the archaeologist leading the Pan project, had been convinced it was a fake.
"As more and more people looked at it, so my suspicions grew that it was a modern piece. I ribbed Charmain about it, saying it was a joke, but I guess she was right after all," he said.
"Everyone had a different opinion. Some said it was Nordic, others said it was Anglo-Saxon or medieval and some thought it was from B and Q.
"I thought it was a mixture of styles, which led me to believe it was modern, as the Victorians used to make copies like this.
"While the mystery of the object has been solved, it is still a bit of a mystery where it came from."
Such was John's certainty of it being a reproduction, he presented Charmain with a certificate stating: "I nearly found an old relic".
Charmain said this week: "I'm no expert but I always believed it was the genuine article."
The artefact has been identified as an almost complete alabaster figurine, probably dating from the 15th century.
A report by the British Museum on it states: "Many religious objects were made of alabaster in medieval times and it is possible that this carved bird is an effigy of the Dove as the Holy Spirit from the Trinity.
"The outline profile of the mount is coffin-shaped and the object may possibly have formed a lid for a miniature coffin, which served as a small reliquary."
The field-walking exercises, held throughout February, also unearthed two pieces of medieval pottery, as well as evidence of neolithic or early Bronze Age occupation with the discovery of a collection of tools including scrapers and blades, along with a lot of post-medieval pottery.
However, the investigation did not uncover any palaeolithic or mesolithic finds or identify the location of the medieval settlement of Le Penne, mentioned in the Domesday Book and thought to be in the Pan area.
13 April 2006
Ancient ledger that may be covered in human skin found in England
Published: Saturday, April 08, 2006
LONDON (AP) - A 300-year-old book that appears to be bound in human skin has been found in northern England, police said Saturday.
The macabre discovery was made on a central street in Leeds, and officers said the ledger may have been dumped following a burglary.
Detectives were trying to trace its owner and believe it may have been taken from a home in the area.
Much of the text is in French, and it was not uncommon around the time of the French Revolution for books to be covered in human skin.
The practice, known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, was sometimes used in the 18th and 19th centuries when accounts of murder trials were bound in the killer's skin.
In the Second World War, Nazis were accused of using the skin from Holocaust victims to bind books.
In a brief statement, West Yorkshire police said the ledger, which contained handwriting in black ink, appears to date back to the 1700s, and they appealed to anyone who may be able to help identify the owners of the item to contact authorities.
Police put two photographs of the ledger on their Web site, but officers were unable on Saturday to answer any questions about it, including the book's subject matter.
© The Canadian Press 2006
The Sunday Times March 26, 2006
A cemetery of secrets
A Roman graveyard has been dug up in York. The skeletons all belonged to tall, strong men — and most are headless. Were they gladiators killed in the arena or victims of a deranged dictator? Richard Girling reports
Like nobody else before or since, Caracalla had it coming. On April 8, AD217, four days after his 29th birthday, appropriately on his way to a Moon Temple in modern-day Turkey, this irredeemable lunatic dismounted from his horse, pulled down his breeches and surrendered to the demands of diarrhoea. It was one of his own bodyguards who stepped forward and stabbed him to death.
Even for an emperor of Rome, it took some doing to inspire that kind of loyalty. The sculptors of his portrait busts found him as difficult to idealise as historians have done since, his face fixed in a stony scowl, prematurely aged by a lifetime of hate. He is chiefly remembered now for the Baths of Caracalla, the opulent bathhouse outside Rome that so inspired the imagination of the Victorian painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. To confront the true, unique awfulness of the man, however, it is necessary to do as Caracalla himself did in AD208, and make the journey northwards to York. It was here, in August 2004, that archeologists made one of the most disturbing finds in the entire Roman world. Beneath the former garden of an 18th-century mansion in Driffield Terrace, in the exclusive Mount area just outside the city wall, they dug up a large Roman cemetery of early 3rd-century date.
This in itself was no surprise. The site bordered an important Roman road, still the main route into York from the southwest. The existence of graves in the area was well known, and – though the cemetery was evidently of considerable size and importance – it was a routine sort of a dig, ordered by City of York Council to map the site and remove archeological finds before new houses were built. It did not stay routine for long. Ordinarily, Roman cemeteries are much like any other kind. They hold a roughly equal mix of men and women, with infants, children, adolescents, young and older adults all in their natural proportion. It soon became clear that this one was very, very different. Fifty-six skeletons or part skeletons were recovered, of which only seven were adolescent or younger. The rest were all prime-of-life adult males, none older than 45. More than this: by the standards of their time, they were giants, mostly around 174cm (approximately 5ft 10in) tall, at a time when the average was 5cm less. They were powerfully built, too, with arm bones showing evidence of extreme physical exertion. And they were not locals. Isotope analysis of minerals in their tooth enamel showed that they originated from every corner of the Roman empire – a couple from Britain, several from the Mediterranean, one from the Alps, one even from Africa. How could this be explained?
Legionaries killed in battle? But then you would expect their skeletons to show the imprint of war – shattered skulls, severed limbs, defence wounds on hands and arms where they had tried to ward off sword or axe. All these were conspicuously absent. For all the evidence to the contrary, you might suppose that they had died in their beds. Except…
More than half of them had had their heads cut off. In some cases the skull had been put back more or less where it came from. But in many others it lay in the shallow grave beneath its owner’s arm, between his knees or beside his feet. One had heavy iron bands forged around his ankles and lay alongside another man with whom he had exchanged heads. A couple had been buried face down. Others were crumpled as if they had been tossed or hastily crammed into the ground. Only a small minority had been accorded the dignity of coffins.
Although headless burials were not unknown, there was no precedent for so many to be found in the same place. And neither was this the end of it. Just a few yards away, in the summer of 2005, another 24 graves were found in a garden. All contained the remains of young or middle-aged men. Fifteen of these definitely, and another three probably, had been decapitated. Nothing like this had been found anywhere in the entire, intercontinental span of the Roman empire. Who were these men? What had befallen them?
One early theory, outlined in a BBC2 Timewatch programme due to be shown later this month, was that they had been subjected to some kind of pagan burial rite. A common belief at the time was that removing a person’s head would release magical powers that would speed them into the afterlife, or perhaps would prevent them rising to haunt the living. But there was a problem. Ritual beheading happened after death, using a thin blade that would cut down through the front of the neck and slice between the vertebrae. The result was surgically neat.
But the York bodies were not like that at all. The work on and around the necks looked more like the efforts of a lumberjack than of any kind of anatomist. Even a butcher would have done a tidier job. The executioners hacked again and again until, through sheer persistence, they smashed through the bone and the head rolled free. At the York Archaeological Trust’s (YAT’s) conservation laboratory near York Minster, bone expert Katie Tucker shows me their handiwork. One man has a deep, V-shaped slice missing from his jawbone. One had a molar sliced in half as the blade carved through his face. Another has had the back of his head lifted off like a lid. Others have cuts in as many as five of the seven neck vertebrae, with blows delivered mostly from behind but at varying angles as the victims twisted away from their killers. Most seem to have been face down on the ground, presumably held there, when they were killed, and one seems to have been felled by a swipe at the knee. In one case it took 13 blows to get the head off.
Archeology is often a matter of matching familiar evidence to known facts. The stuff that comes out of the ground is exactly like lots of other stuff that’s come out of the ground before. You know what it is. You can work out how, when and why it got there. If you’re lucky it may be a new chapter, but it’s seldom a whole new book. As the man in charge of the dig, YAT’s head of fieldwork, Patrick Ottaway, points out, these burials neither conform to precedent nor easily submit to analysis. Whatever happened here was driven by something stronger than the ordinary disciplines of army life. Humanity was set aside; calculation subsumed by fear or hatred into something close to derangement. Who would have ordained such an atrocity? And why?
Caracalla was not his real name. He was born Septimius Bassianus, later changed to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, at Lyons (Roman Lugdunum) on April 4, 188, though for reasons of his own he would later lie about his age. His father was the North African-born senator and future emperor of Rome, Lucius Septimius Severus. His mother, Julia Domna, came from what is now Syria. Eleven months after the birth of Antoninus, and with consequences that would ultimately horrify her, Julia gave birth to a second son, Publius Septimius Geta.
It is fair to say that the Roman military and political classes were not unaccustomed to the sight of blood. Spilling it was no big deal – in context, it was no more than the ultimate step in a recognised process of hard bargaining. Young Antoninus took to killing as naturally as others might have taken to poetry or music. By the time he made his fatal comfort stop in 217, he would bear direct responsibility for upwards of 20,000 deaths. He started young. At 14 he was pressed into marriage with a girl called Plautilla, daughter of a powerful friend of his father’s. “But,” says Professor Anthony Birley, a biographer of Septimius Severus and expert on the Romans in Britain, “he hated her. Not only did he refuse to sleep with her but he wouldn’t even eat with her, and he particularly hated his father in law.” His remedy, aged 16, was to frame the man on a false charge of plotting against the emperor and to have him killed by guards. The unwanted bride was then banished. If one were to plead mitigation on the young man’s behalf, one might point to the influence of his father, Septimius Severus, whose idea of statesmanship was to fight anyone who opposed him. He executed 29 political opponents in the senate and replaced the old praetorian guard with a new 10,000-strong elite unit recruited largely from the Balkans and the Danube. In 208, aged 60, he decided it was time to visit the north of his empire and kill the resistance of Caledonian tribesmen north of the Forth and Clyde.
Prominent among the imperial retinue were his sons Antoninus, then aged 20, and Geta, 19. No two brothers have ever hated each other more than these two. As the contemporary Roman historian Cassius Dio put it: “The sons of Severus… went to all lengths in their conduct. They outraged women and abused boys, they embezzled money and made gladiators and charioteers their boon companions, emulating each other in the similarity of their deeds, but full of strife in their rivalries; for if the one attached himself to a certain faction, the other would be sure to choose the opposite side…”
Always, up ahead, lay the ultimate point of collision – their father’s death and the inheritance of an empire. By the time they reached York, the gap between ambition and destiny was narrowing fast. Severus was in poor health, gout-ridden and unable to walk. To his sons nevertheless he continued to offer the same malevolent example. Enraged by the hit-and-run tactics of an enemy that would not engage his army, he resolved to make Scotland unliveable, destroying its crops and slaughtering without mercy. Cassius Dio records him quoting Homer: “Let no one escape sheer destruction, No one our hands, not even the babe in the womb of the mother…”
Unsubtle though he might have been, Severus well understood the basics of human nature. He knew where the raw enmity between his sons was leading, and tried to bring peace by making them co-emperors with himself. Yoking them in power, however, served only to sharpen their rivalry. It was at about this time that the elder son, Antoninus, became known by the nickname that would stay with him throughout history – Caracalla. It derived from the local style of hooded tunic – a bit like a duffel coat – that he wore while in Britain and later made fashionable in Rome. He also began to exhibit the behaviour that would forge his reputation as a monster. It began with a failure – failure, that is, to assassinate his own father, against whom he drew his sword while they were riding to negotiate the Caledonians’ surrender. Alerted by his guards, Severus faced the young man down.
For the younger son, Geta, however, there was to be no such escape. Severus’s last words before he died in 211 were to his sons: “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers and scorn all other men.” Caracalla evidently took to heart the second and third of these injunctions but stopped his ears to the first. The flames from Severus’s pyre had barely died down before both heirs were heading back to Rome. For some time Caracalla had been lying about his age, advancing his birth date by two years to exaggerate the superiority of his birthright over Geta’s. But he was not going to rely on primogeniture alone. Within a year, Geta was dead. There was no subterfuge; no plot or alibi. Offering neither excuse nor apology, Caracalla chased his brother through the palace and stabbed him in the arms of their mother. The new emperor also put to death his estranged wife, Plautilla, and her brother, and continued as he had begun – purging the high command of everyone who had ever told him “no”.
In the Timewatch programme, Anthony Birley argues that the bloodshed began even before Caracalla left York, and that the cemetery at Driffield Terrace was the resting place of his victims. Among the first to go was his father’s chamberlain, Castor, who had made the mistake of barring him from the imperial chamber. His childhood tutor Euhodus – formerly his accomplice in framing his father-in-law – was killed for the crime of promoting harmony between the brothers. Even Severus’s doctors were murdered, for having denied Caracalla’s request to shorten the old man’s life. Also unwanted on the journey home, Birley suggests, were other courtiers and officers who had favoured Geta.
This would explain various things – the choice of an important burial place on high ground next to a main road; the method of execution (beheading was the privilege of Roman citizens, while lesser breeds were crucified, burned or thrown to animals); and the hasty disposal of the bodies. The executions would have been in public and, says Miranda Green, an expert on Celtic Britain, would have been “extremely theatrical”.
“The idea would have been a kind of performance, where maybe the entire community was there to see it happen. It would have been very bloody, but you mustn’t just think about things being highly visual. Sound and smell would have been very important as well.” One’s imagination here begins to do peculiar things to the stomach, especially when Green suggests that spectators would have made a day out of it with a picnic. A number of things still need explaining, however – most obviously the male exclusivity of the cemetery, the narrow age range and physical size of its denizens. There is also the awkward fact that many of the burials overlie each other, thus making it unlikely that the deaths all occurred in the same incident.
I try a theory of my own. Where in the Roman empire, outside the battlefield, might you find unusually large, physically fit young men being killed in batches? Is it possible that they were victims not of the executioner but of each other, as gladiators? Surprisingly, Birley does not dismiss the idea out of hand – funeral games, he says, might well have been staged after the old emperor’s death and, as Patrick Ottaway acknowledges, there must have been an amphitheatre somewhere in the city, though nobody knows where. In the end, however, Birley rejects it on the same grounds that Ottaway and Katie Tucker rejected the idea of deaths in battle – the absence of fresh bone fractures.
“All our sources, so far as I know them, ive the impression that gladiators were killed by the sword or in some cases trident of their opponents, or being gored by wild beasts, and the impression is that there was horrific wounding and lots of blood. So it seems to me very unlikely that they would have just soft flesh wounds. Besides, I can't think of any cases of gladiators being given the coup de grâce with the axe, let alone a few dozen of them.” Nevertheless, it is a subject that gives insight into the character of the new emperor. “For what it’s worth, Cassius Dio says that Caracalla killed large numbers of the elite at Rome after disposing of his brother Geta, then ‘veering from murder to sport, he showed the same thirst for blood in this field too. It was nothing, of course, that elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers etc were killed in the arena, but he took pleasure in seeing the blood of as many gladiators as possible. He forced one, Bato, to fight three men in succession on the same day, then, when Bato was killed by the last one, he honoured him with a brilliant funeral’.”
Miranda Green’s theory is that the executions might have been punishment for a military unit found guilty of cowardice, when “every 10th man is killed in front of their fellows”. It offers, too, an alternative explanation for the beheadings. “Their bodies might well have been treated in a humiliating way so that they wouldn’t actually enter the spirit world.”
Timewatch continues to favour Birley’s picture of an irascible and possibly unbalanced young dictator slaying his father’s favourites. Given that nothing is known of these people’s ages, and that their privileged diets would have made them tall, there is no reason why they should not have conformed to the physical pattern of the Driffield skeletons. Nevertheless, Birley proposes an alternative theory of his own. Given that pottery dating is accurate only to within ten years or so, it is entirely conceivable that the deaths occurred at a slightly later date – not in February 211, as everyone has assumed, but some time during 213 or 214. The Roman governor of Britain then was Gaius Julius Marcus, a self-proclaimed loyalist who advertised his devotion to Caracalla in numerous inscriptions along Hadrian’s Wall. Tellingly, however, he seems to have been worried that he and his men were suspected of having favoured Geta in 211, and his fears may have been justified. “This mass protestation of loyalty didn’t work,” says Birley, “since Julius Marcus’s name was systematically deleted from the inscriptions. But in some cases it is still legible, and they forgot to delete his name from a milestone. Clearly he copped it.”
In this scenario, the bodies in York are those of Julius Marcus and members of his bodyguard or singulares, an elite troop. “Roman history,” says Birley, “is full of examples of men who had fallen foul of an emperor being disposed of, usually by a centurion sent for the purpose. Equally, Julius Marcus’s successor could have turned up with a secret commission to kill him off.”
From a distance of nearly 1800 years, the truth lies tantalisingly half in and half out of our grasp. Some things are certain – the reality of these men’s horrible deaths; their age and stature; the chaos of their burials; the mix of nationalities. Some things are highly probable – that they were victims of execution; that they belonged to an elite group of some kind; that the group itself was military. Other things are educated guesses – that they were killed for disloyalty or cowardice; that they were loyalists of Geta. All are consistent in their depiction of nihilistic cruelty in the service of a man whose own murder was his only experience of justice.
Timewatch: the Mystery of the Headless Romans will be broadcast on BBC2 at 9pm on April 21.