'Viking mouse' invasion tracked


Scientists say that studying the genes of mice will reveal new information about patterns of human migration.


They say the rodents have often been fellow travellers when populations set off in search of new places to live - and the details can be recovered.


A paper published in a Royal Society journal analyses the genetic make-up of house mice from more than 100 locations across the UK.


It shows that one distinct strain most probably arrived with the Vikings.


Rodents from Orkney are among those helping the scientists. It has been shown that mice from the islands have a DNA signature similar to their Scandinavian relations.


But these house mice (Mus musculus domesticus) were also found in areas around the Atlantic coast of Europe reached by the Norse explorers, said Professor Jeremy Searle, from York University.


"If we look at the genetic patterning of the mice, we find they have patterning that very much relates to human history; and so we get a particular genetic type of mouse that is found in the region where the Norwegian Vikings operated," he told BBC News.


"What this suggests to us is that the Norwegian Vikings were taking these mice around and they were taking a particular genetic type; because there are all sorts of genetic types and the particular type that happened to be where the first Vikings picked them up is the one that got spread around."


Much of Britain has another strain with genetic similarities to a type in Germany.


It is thought this rodent probably arrived from continental Europe with Iron Age people.


The humble house mouse has its origin as a species in Asia and migrated on foot to the Middle East, becoming firmly established in the first agricultural settlements - no doubt enjoying the abundant food to be found in grain stores.


"Interestingly, [the house mice] didn't migrate into Europe at the same time as agriculture, about 8,000 years ago," Professor Earle explained.


"They only migrated in about 3,000 years ago. And the reason for this is that it wasn't until the Iron Age that we got the development of large settlements in western Europe. The house mouse needs these large settlements in order to survive and out-compete the local field mouse."


Professor Searle said future studies with mice could help document more fine-scale Viking movements such as the colonisation of different parts of Faroe, Iceland and even North America.


Professor Searle and colleagues publish their research in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.



Swedish archaeologists uncover Viking-era church

Published: 3 Oct 08 17:18 CET


The remains of a Viking-era stave church, including the skeletal remains of a woman, have been uncovered near the cemetery of the Lännäs church in Odensbacken outside Örebro in central Sweden.


“It’ a unique find,” said Bo Annuswer of the Swedish National Heritage Board (Riksantikvarieämbetet) to the Nerikes Allehanda newspaper.


“The churches that have found earlier have been really damaged. Now archaeologists uncovered for posts which mark the church, and the burial site. Such an undisturbed site is unique.”


Stave churches, common in medieval northern Europe, are constructed with timber framing and walls filled with vertical planks.


The site was excavated late in the summer following an examination of the area in preparation for the building of a new parish home.


The discovery has raised a number of questions among archaeologists who wonder about the social status of the person whose remains were discovered in the church, which archaeologists estimate is from the 11th century.


“Not just anyone was buried in the middle of a church; it hints that the person was someone very special. In modern times it was fairly common for priests to end up in a church. But commoners were kept outside the church,” said Annuswer.


Annuswer added that the discovery will serve as important source of information about churches and graves from the era.


“This is an undisturbed environment which shows how people buried bodies and what sort of objects people had with them in their graves,” he said.



Excavations shed light on Stone and Bronze Age



HA NOI — Archaeologists have made significant finds after conducting more than 400 excavations last year, said experts from the Viet Nam Institute of Archaeology at a conference on Monday in Ha Noi.


Following excavation work at the Dong Trong I and II grottoes in the northern province of Quang Ninh, archaeologists affirmed that this was the tomb of a Stone Age humans belonging to the Ha Long culture (3,000-4,000 years ago).


Meanwhile, bronze work excavated at Go Bong in the midland province of Phu Tho has shed light on the Phung Nguyen culture (about 3,500-4,000 years ago).


Last year, a major dig at the Co Loa’s Thuong Temple on the outskirts of Ha Noi revealed that it was a major centre of activity during the An Duong Vuong and Ngo Quyen dynasties. Much of the metalwork for Co Loa Citadel (built in the year 257 BC) was also made there.


Together with the US’s Illinois University, excavation work at Luy Hao-Thanh Trung revealed that the Co Loa Citadel was the site of an earlier structure, and that it had subsequently be enlarged four times.


Meanwhile, after the fifth excavation of the Ho Citadel in the central province of Phu Yen during the 5th-7th century, archaeologists from the institute and the Phu Yen Museum discovered that the Cham culture had reached a high degree of sophistication.


A downside of recent archaeological work is that it has spawned numerous fake artefacts, particularly in Hoa Lu (Ninh Binh) and Me Linh District (Ha Noi), according to Tong Trung Tin, the institute’s director.


The institute celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. In November and December, Viet Nam will host the 19th conference of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association, estimated to attract 400 archaeologists from around the world. — VNS



Stonehenge of Sevilla saved

A “magnificent decision” to save Spain’s oldest Copper age site from developers

September 30, 2008

Regional News

By Jon Clarke in Sevilla


A PREHISTORIC burial site, dubbed the Stonehenge of Sevilla, is to be saved from becoming a supermarket.


The Junta has overruled plans to build a commercial centre, an old people’s home and houses over the 4,500 year old site.


Describing the settlement as a “cathedral from prehistoric times”, the Junta has agreed to instead declare the area an Archaeological Site and build a visitors centre to promote the attraction.


Said to be the largest Copper Age settlement in Spain, the site in Castilleja de Guzman was declared a Site of Specific Cultural Interest (BIC) in 2003.


Covering an area of 1.6 hectares, archaeologists have so far unearthed five dolmens and over 22 burial chambers nearby. Each has yielded human remains, as well as jewellery and earthenware.


Now the Junta’s Culture Department has pledged 250,000 euros to help restore the main dolmen, known as Montelirio, and build an interpretation centre.


“This is a great victory,” said history professor Leonardo Garcia Sanjuan from Sevilla University. “The Montelirio dolmen was built as a prehistoric religious site and is the equivalent of a cathedral. It has architectural, cultural and symbolic importance to the area.


“In their day they had enormous importance. In them they held burial services, commemoration services and they were also visited by pilgrims.”


But, this wasn’t enough to sway developer Grupo Jale, who continued with their plans to build an old people’s home, commercial centre and homes alongside the dolmen.


They began clearing the site last year and, according to local protest groups, left the dolmens in a bad condition due to damage by heavy machinery.


President of local pressure group Association in Defence of the Aljarafe Juan Antonio Morales, described the decision as a “magnificent decision”.


He added: “In a strange sort of way it was good news that the developers moved in and helped to excavate the dolmens as now we know they are there officially to protect them.”



Mycenaean warrior used 'imported sword'

03 October, 2008 03:02:49


A Mycenaean warrior who died in western Greece over 3,000 years ago was the proud owner of a rare gold-wired sword imported from the Italian peninsula, a senior archaeologist said on Thursday.


"This is a very rare discovery, particularly because of the gold wire wrapped around the hilt," archaeologist Maria Gatsi told AFP.


"To my knowledge, no such sword has ever been found in Greece," said Gatsi, head of the regional archaeological department of Aetoloakarnania prefecture.


Tests in Austria have confirmed that the bronze used in the 12th century BCE, 94-centimetre (37-inch) sword came from the Italian peninsula, she said.


The Mycenaean remains were discovered in July 2007 near the town of Amphilochia, some 300 kilometres (186 miles) west of Athens during construction work on a new motorway, Ionia Odos.


Archeologists also discovered a second bronze sword with a bone handle, a bronze and iron dagger, a pair of greaves (armoured plates), an arrowhead, a spear point, a golden kylix or wine cup and a bronze boiler in the grave.


The finds confirm the Mycenaeans were trading with other civilisations in the Mediterranean basin.


The dagger is also considered a rare discovery because of the combination of metals used.


Conquerors of the Minoan civilisation, the Mycenaeans flourished between the 17th century BCE and the 12th century BCE, occupying much of the Greek mainland and establishing colonies in Asia Minor and on Cyprus.



Iron Age jawbone

Published Date: 26 September 2008

By Susy Macaulay

A CREMATION pit containing a human jaw bone mixed with animal bones is one of a treasure trove of finds currently coming to light in an archaeological dig in the Isles.


Other finds include a perfectly preserved hearth, with a clay foundation scratched with a cross, and a plethora of worked bone, shell and pottery artefacts.


The Iron Age site at Sloc Sabhaid on the tidal island of Baleshare, North Uist comprises a settlement of wheelhouses, round structures divided by internal radial walls forming rooms within the building.


A huge storm in 2005 tore away more than 150m of Baleshare's fragile coastline to reveal the 2,000 year old settlement, which appears to extend some distance under neighbouring croft land.


In a race against time, Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion (SCAPE) has been working to excavate and record the site before it is lost for ever to the sea.


Part of the settlement was dug out and recorded last year, shortly before a high August tide ripped away a further 3m of coastline and the excavated area with it.


This year, professional archaeologists, funded by Historic Scotland, have been joined on a three week dig by volunteers from the local archaeology group, Access Archaeology.



Earliest reference describes Christ as 'magician'


A bowl, dating to between the late 2nd century B.C. and the early 1st century A.D., is engraved with what may be the world's first known reference to Christ. The engraving reads, "DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS," which has been interpreted to mean either, "by Christ the magician" or, "the magician by Christ."


A team of scientists led by renowned French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio recently announced that they have found a bowl, dating to between the late 2nd century B.C. and the early 1st century A.D., that is engraved with what they believe could be the world's first known reference to Christ.


If the word "Christ" refers to the Biblical Jesus Christ, as is speculated, then the discovery may provide evidence that Christianity and paganism at times intertwined in the ancient world.


The full engraving on the bowl reads, "DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS," which has been interpreted by the excavation team to mean either, "by Christ the magician" or, "the magician by Christ."


"It could very well be a reference to Jesus Christ, in that he was once the primary exponent of white magic," Goddio, co-founder of the Oxford Center of Maritime Archaeology, said.


He and his colleagues found the object during an excavation of the underwater ruins of Alexandria's ancient great harbour. The Egyptian site also includes the now submerged island of Antirhodos, where Cleopatra's palace may have been located.


Both Goddio and Egyptologist David Fabre, a member of the European Institute of Submarine Archaeology, think a "magus" could have practiced fortune telling rituals using the bowl. The Book of Matthew refers to "wisemen," or Magi, believed to have been prevalent in the ancient world.


According to Fabre, the bowl is also very similar to one depicted in two early Egyptian earthenware statuettes that are thought to show a soothsaying ritual.


"It has been known in Mesopotamia probably since the 3rd millennium B.C.," Fabre said. "The soothsayer interprets the forms taken by the oil poured into a cup of water in an interpretation guided by manuals."


He added that the individual, or "medium," then goes into a hallucinatory trance when studying the oil in the cup.


"They therefore see the divinities, or supernatural beings appear that they call to answer their questions with regard to the future," he said.


The magus might then have used the engraving on the bowl to legitimize his supernatural powers by invoking the name of Christ, the scientists theorize.


Goddio said, "It is very probable that in Alexandria they were aware of the existence of Jesus" and of his associated legendary miracles, such as transforming water into wine, multiplying loaves of bread, conducting miraculous health cures, and the story of the resurrection itself.


While not discounting the Jesus Christ interpretation, other researchers have offered different possible interpretations for the engraving, which was made on the thin-walled ceramic bowl after it was fired, since slip was removed during the process.


Bert Smith, a professor of classical archaeology and art at Oxford University, suggests the engraving might be a dedication, or present, made by a certain "Chrestos" belonging to a possible religious association called Ogoistais.


Klaus Hallof, director of the Institute of Greek inscriptions at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy, added that if Smith's interpretation proves valid, the word "Ogoistais" could then be connected to known religious groups that worshipped early Greek and Egyptian gods and goddesses, such as Hermes, Athena and Isis.


Hallof additionally pointed out that historians working at around, or just after, the time of the bowl, such as Strabon and Pausanias, refer to the god "Osogo" or "Ogoa," so a variation of this might be what's on the bowl. It is even possible that the bowl refers to both Jesus Christ and Osogo.


Fabre concluded, "It should be remembered that in Alexandria, paganism, Judaism and Christianity never evolved in isolation. All of these forms of religion (evolved) magical practices that seduced both the humble members of the population and the most well-off classes."


"It was in Alexandria where new religious constructions were made to propose solutions to the problem of man, of God's world," he added. "Cults of Isis, mysteries of Mithra, and early Christianity bear witness to this."


The bowl is currently on public display in the exhibit "Egypt's Sunken Treasures" at the Matadero Cultural Center in Madrid, Spain, until November 15.


© 2008 Discovery Channel



Archaeologists Unveil Majestic Roman Ruins That Rival Riches of Pompeii


Published: September 30, 2008


OSTIA ANTICA, Italy —The ruins of Ostia, an ancient Roman port, have never captured the public imagination in the same way as those of Pompeii, perhaps because Ostia met with a less cataclysmic fate.


Yet past archaeological digs here have yielded evidence of majestic public halls and even multi-storey apartment buildings that challenge Pompeii’s primacy. Now officials hope that the decade-long restoration of four dwellings lavishly decorated with frescoes will focus new attention on this once-bustling port about 15 miles west of Rome.


Last week the second-century insulae, or housing complexes, were presented to the public through the European Heritage Days program, in which each member country of the Council of Europe promotes new cultural assets and sites that have mainly been closed to the public.


“Over all, this is the most important ensemble of second- and third-century frescoes in the world,” Angelo Pellegrino, the director of excavations at the site, now called Ostia Antica, said in an interview.


At its peak in the second century, Ostia sat at the mouth of the Tiber and served as the main shipping point for goods traveling to and from Rome. (Over the centuries deposited sediment has caused the ancient town to recede several miles inland.) Prosperous Ostians liked to embellish their homes, and traces of art have emerged on crumbling walls around the site. But the frescoes in the insulae are among the best preserved, officials say.


Ethereal floating figures dance against a red backdrop in the House of Lucceia Primitiva. (A graffito with that woman’s name was recently uncovered in the dwelling.) The nine Muses hold court in a house that bears their names; a small, erotic panel decorates what experts say was probably a bedroom in the House of the Painted Vaults.


“They’re exceptional indicators of the emerging merchant class and the economic and political well-being of the city in the second century,” said Flora Panariti, an archaeologist who participated in the restoration.


Stella Falzone, an expert in mural painting at Sapienza University in Rome, described the dwellings and their decorations as “a reliable mirror of Rome” during that period, especially precious for archaeologists and art historians because so little from that era survives in Rome.


Popular colours of the time, red and yellow, dominate the House of the Yellow Walls, for example. “It’s no coincidence that these are the colours of the Roma soccer team,” Ms. Panariti said.


Unlike Rome, which cannibalized much of its heritage over the centuries, or Pompeii, which was buried in volcanic ash in A.D. 79 and was not systematically excavated until the 18th century, Ostia remained mostly untouched until the early 20th century.


The multi-storey dwellings were first excavated in the 1960s, but work stopped when the archaeologist leading the dig left for another job. They remained largely unknown to the public and to many scholars until archaeological administrators at Ostia Antica resolved to recover them.


The buildings, in the western part of the ancient city, were built around A.D. 128 in a housing boom during Emperor Hadrian’s reign. With demand for accommodations growing, new multilevel homes resolved issues of space and expansion. Although only the ground floors remain, evidence that buildings stood taller than one story has emerged from the rubble.


If it weren’t for Ostia Antica and its multi-storey houses and apartments, “it would be difficult for people to imagine how people lived in that era,” said Norbert Zimmermann, president of an international association for ancient mural painting.


Like Pompeii, Ostia Antica faces problems common to many of the sprawling archaeological sites in Italy. Money is scarce, the site is understaffed, and surveillance is spotty. But the biggest challenge here is high humidity resulting from the high groundwater level.


“We try to dig as little as possible nowadays, because we can barely deal with caring for what’s emerged,” said Mr. Pellegrino, the excavations director. It took nine years to restore the four buildings, he noted, in an effort that was possible only because of a private donation of about $150,000.


In the House of the Painted Vaults Ms. Panariti pointed to a delicately painted human form high on a wall. “These figures are disappearing again even though they were only restored two years ago,” she said sadly.


Humidity has forced conservators to detach many frescoes from walls and transfer them onto panels before returning them to their original locations. “It’s necessary, but it causes immense sorrow whenever we have to do that,” Mr. Pellegrino said.


Only a limited number of visitors will be allowed to tour the four dwellings, and reservations are required. (Officials have not worked out the details.)


Ostia Antica has not given up all its secrets. On Friday, in a different section of the ancient city, students were cleaning colourful frescoes in the House of Jupiter and Ganymede, named for the chief Roman god and the Trojan prince he anointed as cup bearer.


“We’re constantly restoring the site,” Mr. Pellegrino said, “as long as we can afford to.”



Unexpected Roman ruin turns history on its head

Maev Kennedy


Thursday October 02 2008 15:34 BST


The best view of a newly discovered archaeological site in Kent is from the trains thundering past a few feet away. Passengers heading towards the Ramsgate ferry ports glance incuriously out at what was a jungle of brambles and nettles a few weeks ago, not realising that they are seeing almost 2,000 years of history rewritten.


The recently uncovered structure at Richborough is a small medieval dock, neatly constructed by joining up double-decker-bus-sized lumps of Roman walls which tumbled and slid down from the ramparts of the fort further up the slope. It is built on the shingled Roman shore, one of the key sites in the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD, and can be securely dated to the 14th century, since the construction technique is identical to the medieval town walls of nearby Sandwich.


The problem with the discovery is that according to the conventional history of the site, Richborough had been completely filled with silt 800 years years earlier, the once magnificent Roman fort and large town left abandoned and desolate.


The little dock, still filling with water seeping from under the railway line, proves that at the height of medieval Sandwich's power and wealth as a port - the town is now as landlocked as the fort - boats were still mooring at Richborough.


"This really leaves us with a lot of questions," English Heritage archaeologist Tony Wilmott said, scratching his head, "I'm going to have to go away and spend the winter thinking hard."


Richborough Roman fort now stands among farm fields and scrap metal yards, in the shadow of power station cooling towers, on a windy ridge two miles from the sea. Its sea channel and dock gave shelter from the shifting sands and silty water off Ramsgate, infamous among sailors throughout history. Thousands of shipwrecks still lie buried in the mud.


The fort was once one of the most imposing Roman sites in Britain, and despite being used as a convenient builder's suppliers for cut stone for centuries, its towering broken walls and huge earth banks are still commanding.


Finds from the new excavation include fragments of white marble from the huge triumphal arch built to mark the conquest of Britain. Most of this was later stripped and ground down to make limestone mortar for an Anglo Saxon shoreline fort; nothing remains of the arch except the foundations.


The amphitheatre and town still lie buried under green fields and, as the coastal edge of the site eroded, massive sections of the outer wall collapsed and tumbled down the slope. Some landed upside down, chalk foundations in the air, still held together by the strength of the Roman cement.


"It must have been absolutely terrifying when it happened, like an avalanche - I imagine some poor bugger down by the shore looking up and saying, 'what's that noise?' …" Wilmott said.


What Wilmott was actually searching for was the Roman dock and the grand landing stage and steps which were believed to have led up to the triumphal arch: he has found the Roman beach for the first time, but the dock may still lie under the jumble of fallen walls and the railway line itself.