Unlocking Stonehenge's secrets
By Emma Parkins
Stonehenge is a British wonder of the ancient world - it's also as familiar a part of our landscape as the White Cliffs of Dover.
It's such an iconic sight, we tend to forget that two fundamental questions remain - when was it built and what was it for?
For hundreds of years, these questions have intrigued and frustrated antiquarians and visitors alike.
Remarkably, in the next fortnight, we might just have the beginning of some answers.
On Monday, the first excavation to take place at Stonehenge in nearly half a century will start.
For Dr Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, this is a truly unique moment: "Very occasionally, we have the opportunity to find out something new archeologically - we are at that moment now.
"We believe that this dig has a chance of genuinely unlocking part of the mystery of Stonehenge."
The men behind this historic event are Professor Geoff Wainwright and Professor Tim Darvill.
Between them they have undertaken hundreds of excavations, but nothing so far has compared to this.
"I'd regard it as the summit of my professional career," said Professor Wainwright
"To do an excavation at Stonehenge is very special indeed."
It certainly is. So why are the professors being allowed to dig a hole in this most hallowed of spots?
Stonehenge is a breathtaking piece of engineering, created with only the most basic technology. Most visitors find themselves joining in the eternal speculation about what might have driven our ancestors to build it.
To many, it makes sense to see Stonehenge as a temple to the Sun, built by a farming population for whom light and heat were vital for survival.
Recently, Professor Mike Parker Pearson offered a dramatically different view - his work at the nearby Neolithic settlement of Durrington Walls has led him to believe that Stonehenge was a place not of life but of death - an opportunity for people to commune with the spirits of their ancestors.
Certainly, Stonehenge must have been a site of great importance for over a thousand years.
But in many ways, it's premature to wonder why it was built before we can answer the question "when?".
Perhaps surprisingly, the stone circle didn't begin with the great sarsen stones, but with the smaller Welsh bluestones - and it's the remains of the original bluestone structure that Darvill and Wainwright hope to date.
This will do much more than help us understand Stonehenge; it will shed light on a mysterious period of British pre-history.
"This excavation will give us a crucial date in the complex chronology of the monument that will allow us to relate more precisely what's happening here to what's happening in the rest of pre-historic Britain," said Dr Thurley.
"It asks important questions about Stonehenge and meets the clear aims of our research framework."
Important though dating Stonehenge is, it's not the only thing on Darvill's and Wainwright's minds. Like most students of Stonehenge, they have developed their own theory as to why it was built.
They believe that it wasn't just chance that brought the bluestones to Stonehenge first, but power - to them it's the bluestones that made Stonehenge the greatest henge of them all.
Over the last six years, the professors have concentrated their research on Carn Menyn - a lonely and atmospheric spot in Pembrokeshire's Preseli hills. It's from here that the bluestones began their 200-mile journey, 4,500 years ago.
The journey to Stonehenge was such an extraordinary feat, archaeologists still can't agree on how it was done. What seems certain is that something very powerful must have driven it.
In this part of Wales, the healing power of the bluestones is the stuff of myth and legend.
Darvill and Wainwright have discovered extraordinary similarities between the local Bedd Arthur bluestone circle, and the circle at Stonehenge.
This, combined with growing evidence of illness and injury from human remains unearthed around Stonehenge, has led the team to a fascinating new theory.
The researchers believe that the bluestones were healing stones, and that they were transported to Stonehenge because people believed they had a magical ability to cure.
Once they arrived, Stonehenge was transformed from a local henge to a centre of power and influence - a "Neolithic Lourdes" - drawing in the sick and injured from around Britain and beyond.
It remains to be seen if this theory can help unlock the secret of Stonehenge, but the professors hope this excavation will help them test it.
As a Welshman, Geoff Wainwright is glad to see his native bluestones come out from the shadow of their English sarsen neighbours.
As to the excavation, both he and Tim Darvill are keeping an open mind.
As Professor Darvill says: "I think that we really are stepping into the unknown - we don't know what we will find down there, because it's such a long time since anyone had a look."
BBC Timewatch will follow the progress of the Stonehenge dig over the course of the next two weeks. Catch daily text and video reports on the programme's website. A BBC Two documentary will be broadcast in the autumn and will detail the findings of the investigation
Two-Week Dig Begins at Stonehenge
Work begins today (31st March, 2008) on a major research excavation to investigate the bluestones at Stonehenge, the smaller stones that made up part of the famous prehistoric monument alongside the sarsen stones. English Heritage has agreed to facilitate this excavation following the granting of Scheduled Monument Consent by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The last time an excavation was allowed inside the stone circle was in 1964.
The excavation at Stonehenge will last for two weeks until 11 April. During this time Stonehenge will be open as normal and visitors will be able to observe up close the excavation as it happens on plasma screens inside a special marquee. For visitor information please call 0870 333 118. Daily video updates of the dig are also viewable on http://www.english-heritage.org.uk
The excavation, led by renowned Stonehenge academics Professor Tim Darvill of University of Bournemouth and Professor Geoffrey Wainwright, President of the Society of Antiquaries, aims to provide a more precise dating of the Double Bluestone Circle, the first stone structure that was built on the site. There is now no visible trace of the original setting of this Circle. What visitors see now are freestanding bluestones re-erected later. Archaeologists tried to date the Circle in the 1990s and estimated that it was first erected at around 2,550BC. But no precise dating has yet been found nor the date of its dismantling. Much of the extant materials from earlier excavations were poorly recorded and cannot be attributed with any certainty to specific features and deposits.
A trench measuring around 3.5 metres by 2.5 metres will be dug in a previously excavated area on the south-eastern quadrant of the Double Stone Circle with the hope of retrieving fragments of the original bluestone pillars.
The dig will also investigate the "Stonehenge Layer", a significant and varied layer of debris and stone chippings spreading across the whole extent of the stone circle and comprising a high proportion of bluestone fragments. This is the first time that the nature, content and structure of this layer has been properly studied, crucially to determine whether this deposit was derived mainly from the construction or destruction of the Double Bluestone Circle and of Stonehenge as a whole.
Samples obtained from this excavation will be tested using more advanced technology such as radiocarbon dating and will throw light on how long the Circle was in use for, when it was dismantled and reused in later stages of Stonehenge's construction. This will also allow the professors to compare the new bluestone sample with those that they had obtained in the last few years around the source: in the Preseli Hills in southwest Wales. This will help to illuminate the mystery as to when and how at least 80 such stones were brought to Salisbury Plain 250 km away nearly 4,500 years ago.
Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said: "The bluestones hold the key to understanding the purpose and meaning of Stonehenge. Their arrival marked a turning point in the history of Stonehenge, changing the site from being a fairly standard formative henge with timber structures and occasional use for burial, to the complex stone structure whose remains dominate the site today.
"English Heritage has a duty to encourage the best research on historic properties under our care. This is a tremendously exciting piece of research that will help us find out considerably more about the important questions concerning the bluestones and I look forward to the results of their work."
Professor Darvill said: "It is an incredibly exciting moment and a great privilege to be able to excavate inside Stonehenge. This excavation is the first opportunity in nearly half a century to bring the power of modern scientific archaeology to bear on a problem that has taxed the minds of travellers, antiquaries, and archaeologists since medieval times: just why were the bluestones so important and powerful to have warranted our ancestors to make the gargantuan journey to bring them to Salisbury Plain?"
Professor Wainwright added: "This small excavation of a bluestone is the culmination of six years' of research which Tim and I have conducted in the Preseli Hills of North Pembrokeshire and which has shed new light on the eternal question as to why Stonehenge was built. The excavation will date the arrival of the bluestones following their 250 km journey from Preseli to Salisbury Plain and contribute to our definition of the society which undertook such an ambitious project. We will be able to say not only why but when the first stone monument was built."
The need for well-defined research within World Heritage Sites is recognised through UNESCO guidance; for Stonehenge in particular it is articulated through the World Heritage Site Management Plan and in the Stonehenge Research Framework, published by English Heritage in 2005.
BBC Timewatch in association with Smithsonian Networks will fund the excavation and post excavation analysis and will also film it for broadcast on BBC 2 in the autumn.
For further press information please contact:
English Heritage University of Bournemouth
Renee Fok Charles Elder
Tel: 020 7973 3297 / 07801839 852 Tel: 012 0296 1032 / 07768 771 870
Society of Antiquaries BBC
Geoffrey Wainwright Sonia Cooper
0208 891 2429 020 8225 6500
Notes to editors:
The Bluestone Project : Archaeological investigations by Timothy Darvill, Professor of Archaeology at Bournemouth University, and Geoff Wainwright, President of the Society of Antiquaries, in the Preseli Hills of North Pembrokeshire have shed new light on one of the world's most famous monuments. The bluestones are what makes Stonehenge special. They are natural columns of white spotted dolerite and occur only in the Carn Menyn region of the Preseli Hills from whence they were taken 250 Km to Stonehenge. Why were these particular stones chosen and taken such a long way and at such cost in communal effort? The answer to this question lies at the heart of why Stonehenge was built.
The project has shown that the Preseli Hills were a centre for ceremonial and burial comparable to the Stonehenge area where there are many prehistoric burials. The crags in the Preseli Hills from which the stones were taken are littered with discarded columns and the springs that well up below them were regarded as medicinal until comparatively recent times. They are associated with rock art and burial cairns which show that these springs had a special significance in early prehistory and hold the key to understanding Stonehenge. Some of the burials around Stonehenge have been excavated and amongst them are a good proportion of people who had undergone operations to the skull, or had walked with a limp, or had broken bones - just the sort of thing that would have pressurised them to seek supernatural help. Darvill and Wainwright therefore conclude that Stonehenge was a source and centre for healing. Folklore accounts in the fourteenth century AD refer to a magician - Merlin - bringing stones from the west of the British Isles to Salisbury Plain, claiming that these stones possessed healing powers when used in conjunction with water.
The excavation at Stonehenge will date the arrival of the bluestones at the monument so that it will be possible to determine not only why but when the first stone monument was built.
For more information about the Bluestone Project please contact the professors directly.
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Spain dig yields ancient European
By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News
Scientists have discovered the oldest human remains in western Europe.
A jawbone and teeth discovered at the famous Atapuerca site in northern Spain have been dated between 1.1 and 1.2 million years old.
The finds provide further evidence for the great antiquity of human occupation
on the continent, the researchers write in the journal Nature.
Scientists also found stone tools and animal bones with tell-tale cut marks from butchering by humans.
It gives us confidence that Europe was not left out of the picture of the spread of early humans
Prof Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum
The discovery comprises part of a human's lower jawbone. The remains of seven teeth were found still in place; an isolated tooth, belonging to the same individual, was also unearthed.
Its small size suggests it could have belonged to a female.
The find was made in the Sierra de Atapuerca, a region of gently rolling hills near the Spanish city of Burgos which contains a complex of ancient limestone caves.
These caves have yielded abundant, well-preserved evidence of ancient occupation by humans and have been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The new remains were unearthed at the archaeological site of Sima del Elefante, which lies just a few hundred metres from two other locations which have yielded remains of early Europeans.
"It is the oldest human fossil yet found in Western Europe," said co-author Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro, director of Spain's National Research Centre on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos.
Dr Bermudez de Castro told BBC News that the latest find had anatomical features linking it to earlier hominins (modern humans, their ancestors and relatives since divergence from apes) discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia - at the gates of Europe.
The Georgian hominins lived some 1.7 million years ago and represent an early expansion of humans outside Africa.
The researchers therefore suggest that Western Europe was settled by a population of hominins coming from the east.
Once these early people had "won the West" they evolved into a distinct species - Homo antecessor, or "Pioneer Man", say the scientists.
The scientists now plan to investigate whether Pioneer Man might have been ancestral to Neanderthals and to even our own species Homo sapiens.
"In terms of European prehistory, this [find] is very significant," said Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at London's Natural History Museum.
The timing of the earliest human habitation in Europe has been controversial.
"The earliest hominins outside Africa are those from Dmanisi in Georgia. After that, we have occupations in Europe, but the ages are not very precise. They are also without hominin [remains]," said Dr Marina Mosquera, a co-author from the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain.
The Spanish researchers used three different techniques to date the new fossils: palaeomagnetism, cosmogenic nuclide dating and biostratigraphy.
The researchers said the new find represented the earliest reliably dated evidence of human occupation in Europe.
"What we have are the European descendents of the first migration out of Africa," said Dr Mosquera.
Professor Stringer said that until more material was discovered from Atapuerca, he was cautious about assigning the new specimen to the species Homo antecessor.
But he added: "However the specimen is classified, when combined with the emerging archaeological evidence, it suggests that southern Europe began to be colonised from western Asia not long after humans had emerged from Africa - something which many of us would have doubted even five years ago."
"It gives us confidence that Europe was not left out of the picture of the spread of early humans. Early humans got to Java and China by 1.5 million years ago and certainly some of the animal remains found at those Asian sites are found in Western Europe too."
He explained that the people at Sima del Elefante had made primitive stone tools and would have had relatively small brains. The outside of the jawbone had some primitive anatomical features, but the inside displayed some more advanced characteristics, he added.
This suggested they may have been evolving towards humans which are known from much later in time, such as Homo heidelbergensis.
"First European" Confirmed to Be 1.2 Million Years Old
for National Geographic News
March 26, 2008
An analysis of an ancient jaw containing teeth has confirmed that humans reached Western Europe well over a million years ago, far earlier than previously thought.
The prehistoric fossil was excavated last June at Atapuerca in northern Spain, along with a previously reported tooth and stone tools used for butchering meat.
At the time, scientists announced that they had dated the separate tooth to 1.2 million years ago but that more research was needed before the find could be reported in a scientific journal.
The new study of the jaw confirms that the "first Europeans" arrived well over a million years ago, reports the archaeological team—led by Eudald Carbonell of the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain—in the latest issue of the journal Nature.
The jaw's owner has been labeled a Homo antecessor—a species first named in 1997 based on other human fossils found at Atapuerca. The sex isn't known, but the new human was likely aged between 30 and 40 at the time of death.
"Since we now know those  fossils date to 900,000 [years ago], the time difference is not great, and, provisionally at least, I think it's logical to assign the mandible to Homo antecessor," said dig co-director José Maria Bermúdez de Castro of the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain.
The new findings suggest that H. antecessor was most probably unique to Europe, the researchers say.
The lower jawbone was discovered inside a 60-foot-long (18-meter-long) cave known as Sima del Elefante. The region was originally exposed by a railway cutting through a limestone area rich in early hominin, or human, and animal remains.
The complex of fossils allowed scientists to use a variety of methods to confirm the age of the fossils, including magnetic analysis, radioactive dating, and geologic studies of the clustered bones and artifacts—a necessity because the dating of human fossils remains a controversial area of research.
For example, 32 stone flints also excavated from the cave date to the same age as the fossils, according to Bermúdez de Castro said.
The flints include simple tools that were likely used by the early humans to hack up mammal carcasses and get at bone marrow, as evidenced by cut marks found on nearby limb bones belonging to unidentified herbivores.
"They used the stone tools to take meat off animals, cut the muscles, and break their bones," Bermúdez de Castro said. "The bones show the marks of these implements."
Remains of other close-by animals—including rhinoceroses, deer, bison, lynx, wolves, and bears—were also used to help date the fossils, the study said.
An abundance of small, insect-eating species suggests the climate then was generally warm and humid, the study added.
The research opens an interesting new chapter in the story of European colonization, the study authors say.
The earliest known human fossils found outside of Africa are from Dmanisi in the modern-day Republic of Georgia. Identified as either Homo erectus or Homo ergaster, the remains date to around 1.8 million years ago.
"The Republic of Georgia is at the gates of Europe," Bermúdez de Castro said. "It's the crossroads between Africa and Eurasia from a geographical point of view."
But H. erectus fossils estimated to be 1.6 million years old have been located as far away as Java in Indonesia, he noted.
Because of that, "we think that in Europe we are going to find more hominin fossils probably older than those of Sima del Elefante," Bermúdez de Castro said.
The Spanish-led team adds that the new fossil human likely marks the beginnings of a native European species represented by the younger finds at Atapuerca.
"We see that these fossils are different from other populations in Asia or in Africa," Bermúdez de Castro said.
"We think that when populations come to an extreme part of a continent, or to an island, a process of speciation usually occurs," he added. "This is very normal in the animal world."
The Atapuerca researchers in 1997 had suggested Homo antecessor as a possible ancestor of modern humans. But the age of the new fossil find makes this theory less likely, Bermúdez de Castro admitted.
"Homo antecessor may be very, very old in Europe, and modern humans came from Africa," he said, making the previous theory "difficult to support."
More likely, Homo antecessor gave rise to Neandertals (often spelled Neanderthals) in Europe, he said, adding, "it's a good hypothesis to test in the future."
Fred Spoor, professor of evolutionary anatomy at University College London, said the new fossil, assuming its dating is accurate, marks "undoubtedly a very important and exciting find."
While stone tools had suggested a human presence in Spain around a million years ago, convincing fossil evidence had previously been lacking, Spoor commented.
He also described the jaw as "remarkably modern looking" compared with similar or younger hominin fossils known from Africa.
"If we would find this kind of mandible in Africa, we would be a bit surprised," Spoor said.
He added that the idea that the Atapuerca hominins represent a distinct European species is entirely plausible, given that the region would have been a far-flung human outpost.
"Spain is about the furthest point you could go to the west," Spoor said. "It's a bit of a cul-de-sac, so in that sense you would get speciation where something wanders off on its own."
Neanderthals wore make-up and liked to chat
09:24 27 March 2008
NewScientist.com news service
Could Neanderthals speak? The answer may depend on whether they used make-up.
Francesco d'Errico, an archaeologist from the University of Bordeaux, France, has found crafted lumps of pigment – essentially crayons – left behind by Neanderthals across Europe.
He says that Neanderthals, who most likely had pale skin, used these dark pigments to mark their own as well as animal skins. And, since body art is a form of communication, this implies that the Neanderthals could speak, d'Errico says.
Working with Marie Soressi of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, d'Errico has recovered hundreds of blocks of black manganese pigment from two neighbouring sites at Pech de l'Azé in France, which were occupied by Neanderthals. These add to evidence of pigment among Neanderthal from some 39 other sites.
The pigments were not just smeared onto the body like camouflage, d'Errico says, but fashioned into drawing tools.
"The flat, elongated surfaces on the archaeological specimens are consistent, as confirmed experimentally, with producing clearly visible straight black lines, perhaps arranged to produce abstract designs," says d'Errico, who presented his work on 15 March at the Seventh Evolution of Language Conference in Barcelona, Spain.
Body painting, argues d'Errico, is a "material proxy" for symbolic communication. What's more, he says, the techniques for making the symbols, and the meaning they carry, would have to be transmitted through language.
And body painting isn't the only proxy associated with Neanderthal remains. Neanderthals adorned their bodies with ornamentation, such as necklaces made from shell beads.
The sorts of beads used by modern humans, and the ornaments they fashioned from them, vary geographically. This is often interpreted as a sign of ethnic and cultural diversity among humans, and a means of symbolically binding groups and differentiating them from others. D'Errico suggests that the same holds true for Neanderthals.
Other researchers agree, and point to a double standard of some researchers in interpreting the archaeological record, including evidence of burials, care of the infirm and social cooperation.
"Some archaeologists are happy to associate these same features with language if they occur with modern humans, but are not willing to associate them with language among the Neanderthals," says anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St Louis, US.
"The double standard doesn't work - if they reflect language in one, they must reflect in it both."
However, even if Neanderthals had language capabilities, that does not mean they spoke in the same way as humans.
"The archaeological record does not show that they ever attained the cultural level of the humans who could talk as we do," says Phillip Lieberman, a linguist at Brown University, Rhode Island, US.
"Neanderthals possessed language, but their linguistic and cognitive ability was inferior to the humans who replaced them," he says.
Skeletons found at Olympic site
Four skeletons thought to date back to the Iron Age have been unearthed on the site of the London 2012 Olympic Park.
The remains, believed to be up to 3,000 years old, were discovered in graves close to where the aquatics centre will be built in Stratford, east London.
They have been removed and will form part of a year-long project to give locals an insight into the area's past.
Archaeologists from the Museum of London have now completed digs at sites of the five main Olympic venues.
Experts searching the area have previously uncovered a Roman coin, Roman river walls, World War II gun emplacements and a complete 19th Century boat used for hunting wild fowl on the lower River Lea.
The four skeletons were discovered in separate graves in a cemetery within an Iron Age settlement.
Initial analysis suggests there are both male and female burials.
Other remains show that these early Londoners lived in thatched circular huts on the edge of the river valley, surrounded by lakes, rivers and marshes.
The first Londoners lived by and fished in what is now the River Lea and parts of their cooking pots have also been discovered.
The aquatics centre will be situated beside the river which is currently being widened, by eight metres (8.7 yards), as part of a programme to restore the ancient waterways of the Lower Lea Valley.
More than 140 trenches have been dug and archaeological work has been carried out on the sites of the Olympic stadium, aquatics centre, VeloPark, Olympic village and the international media centre.
The Discover project, being launched on Thursday, will use school visits, a community dig and roadshows to give local people a chance to learn more about the area's history.
Remains of rare Roman roundhouse found during sewer works
By Chris Gee
One of the most important archaeological finds for decades has been uncovered during a sewer improvement project in Poulton.
The remains of a Roman roundhouse, thought to date back to the second century, have been discovered on grazing land close to the town.
The find was made by workers from United Utilities who were involved in preliminary excavations at the start of a £10 million sewer improvement scheme for the area.
As is common when a major excavation starts, an archaeologist was present in case any important finds were made. Within a couple of hours of work beginning on the land off Garstang Road East, Poulton, it was obvious a significant discovery had been made.
"As the topsoil was stripped away, we realised we were looking at something very exciting and rare," said Alison Plummer, from the Lancaster office of Oxford Archaeology, archaeological consultants for United Utilities.
A team of 10 archaeologists is now working at the football pitch-sized site, painstakingly uncovering and documenting what remains of the Romano-British roundhouse which is around 10m in diameter.
A small amount of black burnished ware pottery, thought to date from around the second century, has been found which has helped the experts to date the roundhouse.
The remains of the house, which would have been a dwelling house, include an outside drainage gulley, holes for the timber support posts which would have been used, some cobbles and a storage pit.
The archaeological team believe they have also discovered signs of a further roundhouse a few metres away, indicating this could have been the site of an early settlement.
"Finds like this are very rare in Lancashire, and especially rare in this area," said Alison. "There are only two other Roman roundhouses that we know of in the county, one outside Lancaster and one near Lathom.
Andy Pennick, an environmental planner for United Utilities who is involved in the sewer improvement scheme, said: "Having archaeologists along during excavation is all in a working day for us and it's not often anything very unusual crops us. But this is something different and we're all pretty excited about the discoveries."
Archaeologists will be on site for the next two weeks documenting every detail of their finds and taking photographs which will eventually form the basis of an information archive.
Archaeologists and United Utilities are holding an open day at the site between 11am and 3pm on Thursday, March 27 for members of the public to see the discoveries.
They have appealed to people to keep away at other times in case the site is disturbed.
Viking treasure found on Silloth beach
By Sarah Newstead
Last updated 11:28, Thursday, 27 March 2008
TREASURE has been unearthed on a Silloth beach by a man out with a metal detector.
Carlisle Coroners’ Court heard that a silver Viking jug handle discovered at Beckfoot could be over 2,000 years old.
The court heard the handle, dating back from between the first and fourth centuries by the British Museum, is made mainly from silver and is in the form of a stylised snake’s head.
North and West Cumbria Coroner, John Taylor, ruled yesterday that as the handle is silver and is over 300 years old, it is treasure and can be claimed by a museum.
Amateur archaeologist, Graham Ryan, 63, of Beckfoot, discovered the handle whilst out with his metal detector.
He told the News & Star he was not surprised to find Viking artefacts on the beach: “There’s a Roman Fort at Beckfoot. It has a cemetery and with the soil erosion I have found cremation urns too. We’ve had some lovely finds.”
Mr Ryan belongs to the Senhouse Museum Archaeology Society based in Maryport which has encouraged his hobby.
He added: “I think from being a boy, I always thought I’d find treasure.”
Senhouse Roman Museum have expressed an interest in adding Mr Ryan’s find to its collection. The handle will now be valued to determine its worth and any reward Mr Ryan can claim for finding it.
Barbary lions were part of medieval Tower of London zoo
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 25/03/2008
Two medieval skulls found in the Tower of London belonged to a kind of lion that boasted a giant dark mane, according to a genetic study that sheds new light on one of the world's oldest zoos.
Infamous as a place of torture and executions, and home to the Crown Jewels, the Tower was also home to lions, which were charismatic symbols of monarchy.
Now researchers have used DNA evidence to analyse two members of the royal menagerie, the oldest being late 13th to late 14th century (1280-1385) and 'youngest' 15th century (1420-1480), the only medieval big cat remains found in England.
They conclude that they were male Barbary lions, a species that hails from north Africa, where no natural lion population remains today.
Lion manes can vary from light blond to black and can be up to a foot long. But the Barbary, a subspecies extinct in the wild, had a magnificently regal mane, their equivalent of the Peacock's tail that they used to turn on lionesses.
They were members of the royal "zoo", which survived for more than 600 years after being founded by King John (1199 to 1216) and the lions are a sign that the UK enjoyed good relations with foreign monarchs, who presented exotic animals as gifts.
The new study in the journal Contributions in Zoology provides important information on some of the earliest lions seen in northern Europe since European lions became extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, some 14,000 to 11,000 years ago.
Remains from the moat, excavated in the 1930s, were analysed by the Natural History Museum and the University of Oxford, focusing on a type of genetic material that is passed from lioness to cub, called mitochondrial DNA.
The DNA in the skulls revealed the lions shared unique genes with the north African Barbary lion. Richard Sabin, Curator of Mammals at the museum says, "Our results are the first genetic evidence to clearly confirm that lions found during excavations at the Tower of London originated in north Africa.
"Although we have one of the best mammal collections in the world here at the Natural History Museum, few physical remains survive of the Royal Menagerie.
"Direct animal trade between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa was not developed until the eighteenth century, so our results provide new insights into the patterns of historic animal trafficking.'
Oxford researcher Nobuyuki Yamaguchi adds, 'Western north Africa was the nearest region to Europe to sustain lion populations until the early twentieth century, making it an obvious and practical source for mediaeval merchants. Apart from a tiny population in northwest India, lions had been practically exterminated outside sub-Saharan Africa by the turn of the twentieth century.'
Both the lions were males, as they have longer skulls and larger canine teeth than females, and three to four years old. The skulls are now part of the Natural History Museum's vast collections.
The Royal Menagerie was established in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by King John, in Woodstock near Oxford and later relocated to the Tower of London.
Among the first residents were three leopards sent to Henry III by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1235. The earliest written record of an English lion occurs in 1240. It refers to the upkeep of "the King's lion." Radiocarbon dating of the skulls of the two lions and a leopard in earlier work supported historic documents.
Though few physical traces of the menagerie remain, experts have previously pointed to written records of a semi-circular structure built by King Edward I in 1277 in an area that later became known as the Lion Tower. Excavations in 1999 revealed that one lion cage measured just 6.5 feet by 10 feet.
"The last known Barbary Lion in the wild was shot in 1942 on the northern side of the Tizi-n-Tichka pass in the Atlas Mountains, near the road between Marrakech and Ouarzazat, two of major tourists destinations in Morocco today," says Dr Yamaguchi.
"The Barbary lion was believed to be extinct in captivity as well. However, possible Barbary lion descendants that can be traced back to the Royal Lion Collection of the King of Morocco, have been located in zoos and circus populations within the last three decades. "
Although a recent study carried out at Oxford suggests that those "Moroccan King's lions" are unlikely to be pure Barbary lions on the maternal side, a firm conclusion needs to wait for further advances in DNA techniques for revealing their paternal lines.
"Someday, once again, we may see a big dark maned lion in the snow-capped Atlas backdrop, and listen to their roars filling the valleys with echoes, as was once described by 19th Century travellers," adds Dr Yamaguchi.
Easter Island statue 'vandalized'
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) -- A Finnish tourist was detained after allegedly stealing a piece of volcanic rock from one of the massive Moai statues on Easter Island.
Chilean Investigative Police released this photo showing the damage to the right earlobe.
Marko Kulju, 26, faces seven years in prison and a fine of $19,100 if convicted of stealing pieces of the right earlobe from a Moai, one of numerous statues carved out of volcanic rock between 400 and 1,000 years ago to represent deceased ancestors.
A native Rapanui woman told authorities she witnessed the theft Sunday at Anakena beach and saw Kulju fleeing from the scene with a piece of the statue in his hand.
Police later identified him by the tattoos the woman saw on his body.
Kulju used his hands to tear off the earlobe, which fell to the ground and broke into pieces measuring 8 to 12 inches each, Easter Island Police Chief Cristian Gonzalez told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Kulju ran away with at least one of the pieces from the 13-foot tall Moai, he said.
"Fortunately, this type of thing does not happen every day, but it does happen, and it is almost impossible to control because on Easter Island there are sites of great archaeological value everywhere and the park guards cannot prevent all such incidents," Easter Island government official Liliana Castro told the AP.
Authorities are inspecting the statue to see if it can be repaired, Castro said. Damaging Moais is punishable under a law protecting national monuments.
While some of the island's 400 Moais are more than 70 feet tall, most have an average height of 20 feet and weigh about 20 metric tons.
The statues gaze out on the south Pacific more than 2,300 miles west of Chile, which annexed Easter Island in the 19th century.
The Moais were nominated, but not chosen, as one of the new seven wonders of the world, selected by average citizens in a global poll conducted by a nonprofit organization last year.
Among the monuments edging them out of the competition were India's Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and Rome's Colosseum.
About 3,800 people, the majority of them ethnic Rapanui, live on 70 square-mile Easter Island.
12th century temple on verge of ruination
Rabiul Hasan, Chapainawabganj
The ancient Shiva Temple at Bholahat Upazila in Chapai-nawabganj stands on the verge of ruination after years and years of neglect.
Locals allege that the temple, built during the Sen era of 1156-1206 AD, is gradually falling apart down due to sheer negligence by local authorities.
The say authorities have never taken any steps to preserve this ancient structure that has huge archaeological and historical value.
The Shiva temple is 19ft 10 inches in height, 19ft in length and has a width of 13ft. It has outer walls of brick structure covered with terracotta artworks depicting mythological tales and religious events.
Today it almost resembles a thatch hut, with a tree growing through it. Part of its roof has collapsed.
Cow dung cakes cover the lower half of the temple's walls on the outside.
Deep cracks have developed on the walls of the 12th century structure while weeds have covered most of its body. Most of the terracotta tiles that once decorated the body of the temple have eroded. Others have been lost over the years.
Thieves have stolen bricks, terracotta tiles and other valuable things from the temple situated only 200 yards away from Bholahat police station.
Some locals blame the local authorities for never having taken any steps to preserve this ancient structure.
Others make good use of the temple's abandoned stage.
Local use the Shiva temples walls to dry these cakes for fuel. Some others have encroached the land on which the temple stands.
They have built mud huts on the land of the archaeological site. One attaching house shares the temple wall, clearing putting pressure on the structure of the 12th century building.
Dr. Majharul Islam Toru, a local historian and associate professor at the Chapainawabganj Govt. College, affirms that the temple was built during the Sen era of 1156-1206 AD.
Devotees of Shiva built the temple to worship him.
He claims that this Shiva Temple of Bholahat is one of the most beautiful Hindu temples in the northern part of the country.
Local miscreants are taking advantage of the lack of vigilance by the local police or upazila administration over this archaeological site, he added.
Some locals complain that the aesthetic value of the temple, not to mention its religious significance, has been seriously damaged by the use of its walls to dry cow dung cakes.
They urge the government to take immediate steps for the preservation of the 12th century temple.
Badrul Alam, field officer of the Archaeology Department of Rajshahi Division, has said that the preservation for the ancient Shiva Temple is not listed as a job for the department.
However if the locals raise a strong demand for its preservation, the archaeology department may be able to take steps to consider their demand, he said.