Archaeologists dig up 'oldest' African human sacrifice
Fri Feb 15, 3:16 PM ET
EL KADADA, Sudan (AFP) - French archaeologists in Sudan say they have uncovered the oldest proof of human sacrifice in Africa, hailing the discovery as the biggest Neolithic find on the continent for years.
The tomb of a 5,500-year-old man surrounded by three sacrificed humans, two dogs and exquisite ceramics were exhumed north of Khartoum by Neolithic expert Jacques Reinhold and his 66-year-old Austrian wife.
"This is the oldest proof of human sacrifice in Sudan, in Egypt, in Africa," Reinhold told reporters next to the remains in El Kadada village, a three-hour drive north of the Sudanese capital.
"I don't know of another example in Africa at this level... We don't have anything as strong in other excavations in other countries," said Reinhold, as villagers in traditional white robes carefully scrapped earth into buckets.
The archaeologist, who has led the excavation for several months, described the tomb as the most important Neolithic find in Africa since the 1990s.
That period -- which Reinhold calls the first global revolution -- marks the period when man evolved from hunter gatherers into farmers and producers, forever changing the structure of human society.
He says the find is nearly 1,000 years older what many consider Sudan's most spectacular discoveries of human sacrifice -- scores of bodies buried together.
Close to the Nile and highly fertile, the El Kadada area north of the modern town of Shendi would have been highly favourable for Neolithic settlers.
Reinhold and wife Ulla met in Khartoum and lived in Sudan for 25 years where he was director of the Section Francaise de la Direction des Antiquities.
The French team said that urns, materials used to grind wheat into flour, beeds and bracelets also uncovered at the site will be donated to the National Museum in Khartoum.
Rare Egyptian "Warrior" Tomb Found
Steven Stanek in Cairo, Egypt
for National Geographic News
February 15, 2008
An unusual, well-preserved burial chamber that may contain the mummy of an ancient warrior has been discovered in a necropolis in Luxor.
Inside the burial shaft—a recess crudely carved from bedrock—experts found a closed wooden coffin inscribed with the name "Iker," which translates to "excellent one" in ancient Egyptian.
Near the coffin they also found five arrows made of reeds, three of them still feathered.
A team of Spanish archaeologists made the surprise find during routine excavations in a courtyard of the tomb of Djehuty, a high-ranking official under Queen Hatshepsut whose burial site was built on top of graves dating to the Middle Kingdom, 2055 to 1650 B.C.
The coffin dates to Egypt's Middle Kingdom era, though the cemetery is better known for its use during the New Kingdom, 1550 to 1070 B.C.
Based on the coffin's inscriptions and pottery found near it, experts date the burial to the early reign of the 11th dynasty, which lasted from 2125 to 1985 B.C. Soldiers played an important role in society during that time, when Egypt was reunified after years of civil war.
Some intact burials from that period had been found in the 1920s, but the leader of the new excavation, Jose Galán of the Spanish National Research Council, said the new find could offer a fresh look into the era's burial customs.
"It's fairly uncommon to find nowadays an 11th-dynasty intact burial. This is really remarkable," Galán said.
"It gives us information about the continuous use of the necropolis and ... about a period that was not so well documented."
The discovery of burials belonging to soldiers and mercenaries, who had elevated status in the wartime society, are even rarer, according to Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.
Only "a handful" have ever been unearthed, Ikram said.
"It shows that there were a lot of warriors that had been in use," she said.
"Because of their prominence in calming things down [after the civil war], they probably were wealthier and regarded with more honor than in early periods, and that is why they had nice burials."
The wooden coffin—adorned with drawings of Iker presenting offerings to the goddess of the heavens, Hathor—was fairly well preserved, though it suffered some damage from flooding and termites, according to experts who pried it open.
Inside the coffin, the archaeologists found Iker's mummy, lying on its left side next to two bows and three staffs, which would have been used to indicate his high rank.
"Usually the important people [carried a staff] as a way to be recognized as chiefs of a tribe or family," said Galán, adding that his team had not yet analyzed the newfound artifacts.
The presence of bows and arrows means that Iker was likely a hired soldier in the service of a king, though the exact details are unclear.
"It means this person was a fighter," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.
"He was fighting in the army or something like that ... there were many fighters joining the king, and this could be one of them," said Hawass, also a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence. (National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
Spanish archaeologist Galán and his team plan to remove the mummy from the coffin to x-ray it and determine more specifics.
"We don't know about the origin of Iker," Galán said. "We don't even know if he was Egyptian, Nubian, or Libyan."
Replica of ancient boat will float again
THE OLDEST cross-Channel ferry in the world will set sail again in 2010, giving archaeologists a glimpse into the lives of Bronze Age seafarers.
Based on the 3,550-year-old vessel discovered beneath Dover town centre 16 years ago, the replica boat, lashed together from planks of wood, waterproofed with beeswax and moss, will carry up to ten men to France.
It is being built by the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, and researchers hope the voyage will help them glean invaluable information about how our ancestors conquered the sea.
The venture will also help archaeologists understand how people in Dover lived more than three millennia ago.
Peter Clark, from the Canterbury Archaeology Trust, who is masterminding the project, said: “The boat was made and used by people living three and a half thousand years ago.
“It was to better understand these people, their society and the world they lived in that was as much a focus of the analysis team’s work as the study of the vessel itself.”
The ancient vessel was discovered by accident in 1992 when Keith Parfitt, from the trust, noticed an unusual piece of wood in the trench dug as part of road works in Dover.
It became clear that this was a small part of a much larger boat which had been preserved under the busy port town for thousands of years.
It was hailed by Dr FH Panton, chairman of the Dover Bronze Age Boat Trust, as “one of the most important post-war archaeological finds in Britain”.
The remains of the vessel – buried six metres below ground level – were incomplete, yet the team hope building a reconstruction will help show how the
original looked and how it was propelled.
The boat is almost 10 metres long and two and a half metres wide, made by lashing oak timbers together with cords of yew wood. Moss and beeswax were then stuffed between the joints to make them watertight.
Archaeologists studying the find suspect the ancient boat could have been used to trade across the Channel. Only an experiment can show whether this was possible.
The replica will sail from Folkestone to Wissant in France in 2010, crewed by volunteers from the British Dragon Boat Association.
After arriving in France, it is to become part of a travelling exhibition about the Golden Age of Europe 3,500 years ago.
The venture, overseen by the Dover Bronze Age Boat Trust, will cost about £900,000 including the exhibition. The trust is applying for funding from the European Union, but private donations are also welcomed.
Rock carving found after recent storm sheds further light on bronze age art
A rock carving dating back to the bronze age has been uncovered by forestry workers clearing trees which fell during the recent storms.
The mysterious rock art had been hidden by a huge tree in Forestry Commission Scotland's Achnabreac Forest, in West Argyll, until it was blown down around three weeks ago.
The carving - believed to be around 5000 years old - is of a dice-like pattern.
It sits above the mouth of Kilmartin Glen and directly overlooks the rock art at Cairnbaan. Its proximity to these other rock art sites, its visual relationship with both sites and the similar complexity of design suggests that all three sites may be connected, say the commission.
It believes the new site may hold the key to unravelling the mystery which surrounds the rock art in Argyll.
Andy Buntin, of the Forestry Commission, said: "We discovered the new rock art during a routine inspection.
"West Argyll is renowned for its archaeological importance, with 46 scheduled ancient monuments, and the site is one of the three largest ring-marked sites in Britain.
"The importance of the site and the reasons for the carvings remain a topic of speculation and despite public and academic interest, the meanings of the symbols remains mysterious."
Mr Buntin said the carvings date back to the late neolithic and early bronze age.
"Initially the carvings were found on boulders and outcrops of rock overlooking major routes, hunting grounds, water-holes and hunting spots," he said.
"This suggests a link with herding or hunting wild animals, although the presence on hillsides may indicate that they mark out boundaries between farmland and wild ground - perhaps an association with territorial ownership.
"Later on, many boulders were incorporated into burials and cairns where they separate boundaries between sacred areas."
Lasers conserve Pictish treasures
High-tech laser technology has been used to record and conserve one of the finest collections of Pictish carved stones in Scotland.
The St Vigeans Stones from Arbroath are being cleaned by a specialist team of Historic Scotland experts in Edinburgh.
Earlier efforts at conservation, dating back to the 1960s, carried out using the best techniques of the time have now reached the end of their life.
The project removes the earlier repairs and uses more modern treatments.
The project is part of works to upgrade St Vigeans Museum of Pictish Carved Stones in Arbroath.
It is hoped the stones will be returned by the end of this year with the new-look museum reopening in time for Easter 2009.
Fresh research into the 38 stones suggests St Vigeans was once home to an important royal monastery.
It has also cast fresh light on the religious beliefs of the Picts, to fill gaps in understanding of their culture and ideas.
Stephen Gordon, Historic Scotland senior conservator, said: "The improvements to the museum gave us an excellent opportunity to bring the stones to Edinburgh, where we have the specialist staff and equipment to undertake some thorough conservation treatment and prepare new mounts.
"This has included using special laser techniques that are superb for removing dirt, or other unwanted materials, without affecting the stones themselves.
"Earlier efforts at conservation, dating back to the 1960s, have now reached the end of their life.
"This project gives us the opportunity to remove these earlier repairs and use more modern and appropriate treatments and mounting methods."
The collection includes the Drosten Stone, a cross slab with ornate cross and fantastic beasts, plus a rare Latin and Pictish inscription which might have commemorated King Uoret who died around 842 AD.
The stones date from the decades before 843 AD when the Pictish kingdom was united with Gaelic Dalriada under a single monarch, leading to the birth of Scotland.
Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland senior archaeologist, said: "The stones are among the last and very finest expressions of Pictish art, which makes them tremendously important.
"These large stone crosses would originally have been set up as monuments, boundary markers and gravestones on the church hill at St Vigeans.
"We have known for some time that the area was an important royal centre, but the latest thinking is that the high quality carvings, with scriptural images, indicate that there was not just a church but an important monastery under royal patronage at St Vigeans.
"It may also have been a significant pilgrimage centre, perhaps due to the presence of relics of the Irish St Fechin, from who the village took its name."
Church's pre-historic past unearthed
Feb 14 2008 By Tony Henderson
Work on a town’s church has revealed that the site may have been used for ritual and worship for thousands of years.
Major refurbishment work on the Grade I-listed St Michael and All Angels church in Houghton-le-Spring, Tyne and Wear, began last month and has involved digging up the floor to install a new heating system.
The church, dating back to Norman times, is the oldest building in the town.
A carved stone above a tiny doorway, featuring a carving of mysterious intertwined animals known as the Houghton Beasts, may be from before the Norman Conquest.
But investigation by archaeologists as the refurbishment has continued has revealed whinstone boulders under the church, which are thought to have been part of an early prehistoric burial cairn or ritual site. A line of similar boulders has been found under the churchyard wall.
Archaeologist Peter Ryder, of Riding Mill in Northumberland, said: “It looks like a prehistoric site. We can’t think of any other reason why these very large boulders should be inside the church.”
Under the central tower of the church, which was restored in about 1350, the work has uncovered huge Roman stones thought to have come from a Roman temple.
“These are massive and spectacular foundations for the tower, using huge stones which must have come from a major Roman building,” said Peter.
A Roman stone coffin lid has been in the churchyard for many years.
It is believed it was often the practice that important pagan ritual or worship sites were taken over by subsequent religions.
“We have found far more than we ever expected when the work began,” said Peter, who is working alongside Newcastle University’s Archaeological Practice.
Also uncovered has been a maze of mainly 18th Century burial vaults, some brick and some stone, under the church. A number had their tops and bodies removed when Newcastle architect John Dobson carried out remodelling in 1858 – during which, the current work has shown, he re-used medieval timbers from the roof.
Pits of bones from this work have been found and the remains will be reburied.
Several intact vaults have been found in the current work and Peter said: “We have found evidence for at least several dozen vaults.”
There are also signs of a major fire around the time the church was rebuilt in 1330s-40s, probably after a Scottish raid. There is a documentary account of a man having been killed by Scots raiders while hiding in the church belfry.
Another find has been footings of a wall from a late Saxon or early Norman nave. The Rev Derek Newton, associate priest at the church, said the finds would be part of a Houghton heritage centre which will be created in the church as part of the £1m refurbishment project.
“Although the finds have delayed the work slightly, this has been a great adventure and everybody has enjoyed what has been revealed,” he said.
To help raise funds for the heritage centre, people are being invited to make a donation as they contribute items, photographs or writings to a time capsule which will be sealed beneath the new floor.
Contact Mr Newton on (0191) 584-9169.
The church is considering holding an open day for people to view the finds a week on Saturday.
Viking women had sexy style
Published: 11 Feb 08 17:54 CET
Women who lived in the major Viking settlement called Birka in the 9th and 10th centuries dressed in a much more provocative manner than previously believed.
When the area around Lake Mälaren was Christianized about a century later, women’s dress style became more modest, according to archaeologist Annika Larsson.
Previously, it was thought that Viking ladies wore a long garment held up by braces, made of square pieces of wool whose front and back sides were contained with a belt. The characteristic decorative circular buckles, a common find at many Viking-era grave sites, were believed to have been worn at the collarbone.
“The excavations which were done way back in the 1800s showed that this is not correct, and that the buckles instead were placed centrally over each breast. The traditional interpretation is that the buckles fell down to the waist after the body decomposed, but that is a prudish reconstruction,” says archaeologist Larsson.
Her theory is based partly upon a recent discovery in the Russian town of Pskov, Novgorod, which is located on the trade routes which took the Vikings eastward. Substantial finds in Russia of Viking women’s wear have provided a better understanding than could previously be gleaned from the small bits of fabric discovered at Birka, a major Viking island settlement some 30 kilometers West of Stockholm.
“The (Russian) discovery is totally inconsistent with the way the Viking women are usually depicted. For example, that part of the garment which was assumed to be the front is too broad. I don’t think it was a front, but was instead worn behind like a train,” explains the researcher.
Larsson’s theory that the well-dressed Viking woman’s garment was open at the front and had a train is supported by a gilded bronze figure discovered in the county of Uppsala. She feels that some aspects of the heathen fashion were too much for Christian missionaries.
”One might imagine that the Christian church had some misgivings about a style of dress which emphasized the breast and in addition revealed the front of the linen blouse underneath. It is also possible that this outfit was associated with pagan rituals and was therefore forbidden,” Larsson speculates.
The exhibit showing the new view about clothing in the age of the Vikings opened at Uppsala University’s Gustavium Museum on Friday, and will continue until September 24th.
David Bartal (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Abbey body identified as gay lover of Edward II
By Laura Clout
Last Updated: 3:49pm GMT 18/02/2008
A mutilated body found in an abbey graveyard has been identified as that of a notorious medieval villain rumoured to have been the gay lover of Edward II.
The remains, which bear the hallmarks of having been hanged, drawn and quartered, are thought to be those of Sir Hugh Despenser the Younger, who was executed as a traitor in 1326.
Sir Hugh had been favourite of Edward II - who was widely believed to have been homosexual - but was brutally executed before a mob after the king was ousted from the throne.
The decapitated remains, buried at Hulton Abbey, Staffs, have intrigued experts since they were uncovered during the 1970s and now Mary Lewis, an anthropologist, says she has uncovered compelling evidence of their true identity.
The manner of execution, carbon-dating of the bones, and the absence of several parts of the body all point towards Sir Hugh being the victim, she said.
"If the remains are those of Sir Hugh Despenser the Younger, then this is the first time such an execution victim has been identified," she added.
Sir Hugh insinuated himself into the king's favour by backing him in his battles with the barons. Through a series of ruthless deals, he consolidated a huge fortune, winning himself a legion of enemies in the process, including Edward's wife, Queen Isabella.
His downfall came when the queen and her ally, Roger Mortimer, deposed the king in 1326.
Sir Hugh was judged a traitor and a thief. He was hanged and, still conscious, castrated, disembowelled and then quartered before his head was displayed on London Bridge.
Miss Lewis, a biological anthropologist at the University of Reading, found that the Staffordshire skeleton had been beheaded and chopped into several pieces with a sharp blade, suggesting a ritual killing.
There was also evidence of a stab wound to the stomach.
She said: "This form of public execution was high theatre that aimed to demonstrate the power of government to the masses. High treason dictated that the perpetrator should suffer more than one death."
Radiocarbon analysis dated the remains to between 1050 and 1385 and subsequent tests suggested that the male was over 34 years old. Sir Hugh was 40 when he was killed.
"Dating of the Hulton Abbey skeleton indicates that he died no later that 1385, when this brutal and very public form of execution was handed out only to the most notorious political prisoners. This suggests that the skeleton at Hulton Abbey was a well-known political figure," Miss Lewis added.
Sir Hugh's wife asked for his bones to be buried on his family's Gloucestershire estate but only the head, a thigh bone and a few vertebrae were returned to her. These are the bones that are missing from the Hulton Abbey skeleton.
In addition, the abbey formed part of the estate of Sir Hugh's brother-in-law, Hugh Audley, and it is thought the family may have chosen to bury what remained of their disgraced relative there.