First Neanderthal genome completed

17:00 07 August 2008

NewScientist.com news service

Ewen Callaway


A 38,000-year old bone has yielded the world's first complete Neanderthal mitochondrial genome sequence, offering a tantalising glimpse at the genetic changes that separate humans from Neanderthals, which split some 600 millennia ago.


The mitochondrion – a structure often dubbed the cell's powerhouse – contains a mere 16,565 DNA letters that code for 13 proteins, whereas the nucleus holds more than 3 billion letters that produce more than 20,000 proteins. If DNA were to the size of a standard soccer pitch, then mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) would be equivalent to a small flowerbed.


For the time being therefore, the largely symbolic and technical breakthrough offers only limited insight into the evolution of humankind. "It's kind of opening the window a crack," says Tom Gilbert, an expert on ancient DNA at the University of Copenhagen, who was not involved in the sequencing project.


Yet the research, led by Richard Green and Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, will pave the way for the construction and analysis of the complete Neanderthal genome. A rough draft should be finished by the end of the year, Green told New Scientist.

No sex, please


This is not to say that such mtDNA sequences are of no use to scientists. Previous work on shorter stretches of Neanderthal mtDNA has dated their last common ancestor with humans to about 660,000 years ago, give or take 140,000 years.


We know also that humans and Neanderthals didn't interbreed enough to leave a mark in either genome. The new, complete sequence firms up these conclusions.


The code also offers tantalising clues to Neanderthal life and human evolution.


When Green's team compared the protein-making portion of Neanderthal mtDNA to that of other primates, they found a pattern of genetic differences suggesting that either Neanderthals were evolving rapidly or that they lived in small groups, which would reduce genetic mixing.


Green and Gilbert both favour the latter interpretation because Neanderthals lived as hunter-gatherers, a lifestyle unsuited for large groups.

Evolutionary clues


One particular gene hints at a potentially important change in human evolution.


The DNA code for COX2, a gene involved in making cellular energy, varies enough between Neanderthals and humans to change its encoded protein at four places. The differences might affect how active the protein is, though it's equally likely that the mutations are a fluke of human evolution, Green says.


Moreover, other such substantive differences between human and Neanderthal genes and proteins should point the way to what makes humans unique from other primates. "The Neanderthal can let us know where to look for things that might be important in recent human evolution," Green says.


Less glamorously, the newly minted mitochondrial genome offers important technical insights into constructing and verifying far larger ancient genomes.


DNA crumbles somewhat predictably over time, and efforts to rebuild samples that are thousands of years old can introduce errors. Based on the Neanderthal mtDNA sequence in which each letter was read 35 times on average, Green's team can now predict and correct potential errors in other ancient DNA sequences.


Gilbert notes that Green's team went to extraordinary feats to prove that the Neanderthal sequence was unsullied by the DNA of its human handlers. Such bona fides should carry over to the complete genome, he says.


“When they do get the genome we can rely on it – really, that what we're getting is Neanderthal, not human.”


Journal reference: Cell (DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2008.06.021)



Prehistoric mom and dad


Contrary to popular belief, the people who roamed north Africa in prehistoric times cared deeply for their children, recent discoveries by a team of Moroccan and British archaeologists show.


"For years these people have wrongly been thought of as individuals whose only wish was to eat, reproduce, and protect themselves from the elements and predators," said Abdeljalil Bouzouggar of Morocco's Institute of Archaeology and Heritage.


"Now we discover that 12000 years ago they granted their babies the same rights as adults."


Bouzouggar jointly led a team that excavated a cave at Taforalt in eastern Morocco earlier this year along with Nick Barton of Britain's Oxford University.


The cave was used as a burial ground by the Iberomaurusian people, who lived in the Iberian Peninsula and Mahgreb.


The cave, which in Paleolithic times was one of the biggest burial sites in Africa, had several blue stones. On lifting them, the archaeologists discovered the bones of newborns who had been covered with red ochre.


Bouzouggar said the special blue-coloured limestone rocks had come from a plain 15km away and had been specifically brought to the cave in the mountainous region.


"We can't rule out the possibility that the stones were placed as markers to indicate the graves of children," he added.


Louise Humphrey, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, said four tombs had been discovered, two of which were excavated.


"The infants were carefully buried in a seated or reclining position," she told AFP. "The stones were deliberately placed above the bodies and may have served as grave markers. The careful burial ritual suggests that the infants were a valued part of their community."


A strong sense of community


Another sign of the special care given to infants was that none of the bones had been disturbed — unlike those of the adults.


"We discovered that sometimes, to make room, they moved the bones from older graves, but never those of newborns. No grave of an infant has been disturbed," said Bouzouggar, who interpreted this as a sign of respect.


The two experts dismissed any suggestion that the children had been sacrificed.


"There is no evidence to suggest that the infants were sacrificed — no signs of violence for example," said Humphrey.


"My feeling is that they died naturally and were grieved, and buried in a way similar to that of older members of the community."


For archaeologists, the discovery contains a wealth of information that sheds new light on the lifestyle and behaviour of the prehistoric people who inhabited the region.


"The infant skeletons are exceptionally complete and well preserved and will allow us to undertake studies of infant health, growth and diet," Humphrey said.


"The adult skeletons will reveal information on illnesses and injuries, diet and activity patterns."


The researchers said the burial site indicated a strong sense of community and contained the remains of people from all kinds of classes.


One of the graves belonged to a 16-year-old from a very high social rank.


The horns of a large animal as well as personal objects and tools were arranged on both sides of his skeleton.


"We may never know how these humans hunted, how they reproduced, how they behaved with their family, but these graves are an invaluable source of information," Bouzouggar said.


"Indeed, some deaths were more honoured than others. The graves represent a whole life. From the dead, we can see the world of those who were alive at this time."



Tracking Down Abrupt Climate Changes: Rapid Natural Cooling Occurred 12,700 Years Ago


ScienceDaily (Aug. 4, 2008) — Researchers in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States have shown, for the first time, that an extremely fast climate change occurred in Western Europe. This took place long before human-made changes in the atmosphere, and is causatively associated with a sudden change in the wind systems.


The research, which appears in the journal Nature Geoscience, was conducted by geoscientists Achim Brauer, Peter Dulski and Jörg Negendank (emeritus Professor) from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Gerald Haug from the DFG-Leibniz Center for Surface Processes and Climate Studies at the University of Potsdam and the ETH in Zurich, and Daniel Sigman from Princeton University.


The proof of an extreme cooling within a short number of years 12,700 years ago was attained in sediments of the volcanic lake Meerfelder Maar in the Eifel region of Germany. The seasonally layered deposits allow to precisely determine the rate of climate change. With a novel combination of microscopic research studies and modern geochemical scanner procedures, the scientists were able to successfully reconstruct the climatic conditions even for individual seasons. In particular, the changes in the wind force and direction during the winter half-year caused the climate to topple over into a completely different mode within one year after a short instable phase of a few decades.


Up to now, it was assumed that the attenuation of the Gulf Stream alone was responsible for the strong cooling in Western Europe.


The examined lake deposits show, however, that the atmospheric circulation, probably in connection with the spreading of sea-ice, most likely played a very important role. At the same time, these new results show that the climate system is still not well understood, and that especially the mechanisms of short-term change and the time of occurrence still hold many puzzles. Micro-layered lake deposits represent particularly suitable geological archives, with which scientists want to track down climate change.


Scientists from the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam – German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) and other institutions are in search of such archives worldwide, with the hope of obtaining area-wide information on the dynamics of climate and possible regional variations in the future.


Journal reference:


   1. Brauer et al. An abrupt wind shift in western Europe at the onset of the Younger Dryas cold period. Nature Geoscience, 2008; 1 (8): 520 DOI: 10.1038/ngeo263


Adapted from materials provided by Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.



Greek archaeological site reburied

The ancient site of Akrotiri, excavated for 40 years, remains closed to tourists and archaeologists. A collapsed roof that had protected the site remains unraised.

Friday, August 01, 2008

By Stephen Brothwell


Three year after part of a protective roof collapsed killing a British tourist, the ancient Minoan site of Akrotiri on Santorini remains closed. Excavations have halted and the reconstruction of its roof is stuck in the wheels of bureaucracy. Tourism businesses on the island say they are losing money and prestige as a result.


In September 2005, part of a new 1,000m2 roof designed to cover and protect the excavations collapsed without warning, killing Richard Bennion and injuring many others. The site was immediately closed for investigation but inexplicably has remained so for the last 34 months.


"I can't say I'm pleased," Professor Christos Doumas, director of excavations at Akrotiri, told this newspaper. Doumas, in his mid-70s, has dedicated the last 40 years of his life to working at Akrotiri and is frustrated that he might not be involved in its final reconstruction and opening.


"The top of the ancient walls which were touched by the collapse of the roof were damaged," he continued. "Also, I was assured that this new structure would last three hundred years; resist 10 Richter scale earthquakes and 60 inches (130cm) of snow. But it couldn't even support its own weight."


The investigation into the cause of the collapse is still being held by the Greek courts. Faulty building methods have long been suspected, although no one is willing to confirm this.


Tourists and archaeologists have been prevented from visiting and appreciating the ancient remains as workmen haven't even commenced the task of repairing and rectifying the covering. The only progress to have been made is that the original contractors J&P AVAX have subcontracted the project to a UK-based firm.


"I am annoyed. For the last three years I haven't been able to work on the site. I have not even been given full access to the site. The contractors have told me that I can enter at my own risk but they can't guarantee the structure's stability. Obviously, it would be irresponsible for me to take other archaeologists in there," Doumas says.


The site's closure, however, is posing particular problems for those who work in tourism on Santorini. Before 2005 it was visited by upwards of 250,000 people each year and gave a boost to the island's economy outside the peak summer season.


"I feel embarrassed," admits Yigthis Papalexis, manger of Kalimera Hotel located near Akrotiri. "It is one of the most important sites in the world - closed because of poor planning. I feel bad because it's as though we cannot handle a site of such importance. It's bad for business, yes, but it is also bad for the island in many other ways."


The roof covering the archaeological site of Akrotiri on Santorini collapsed in 2005 but work has not yet started to repair the flawed structure


Akrotiri, located in the southwest of the island, is a Bronze Age Minoan settlement which boasts well preserved buildings, frescoed walls and an array of other finds. Often labelled Greece's Pompeii, the town was protected by the ash and debris of a volcanic eruption nearly 4,000 years ago and was only rediscovered in 1967.


It is unlikely the site will reopen whilst no one is prepared to accept responsibility. J&P AVAX refused to comment on the specific situation at Akrotiri but admitted that contract work for the government was difficult at the best of times. They denied responsibility for the length of the site's closure, however.


A source close to the ministry of culture speaking on condition of anonymity was equally ambiguous. "Akrotiri was once a priority," the source said, "but now the ministry is powerless in the face of bureaucracy, not only internal but also external - the EU, Central Archaeological Council and government have the power to veto and interfere. No one is happy that it is closed, but what are we to do?"


For Akrotiri it seems that the road ahead is long. The British firm now responsible for repairing and continuing the works submitted a plan to the Archaeological Council of Greece in February but is still awaiting approval. Even if such approval is given immediately, it marks only the first step in the process of getting Akrotiri reopened, something which appears unlikely to occur within the two years.


In the 12,000m2 area under the roof around 50 buildings have already been identified, yet in over 40 years only four of these have been fully excavated. "It will take generations and generations for us just to investigate the roofed area alone," Doumas said. "But the sites we have excavated have been luxurious which makes it likely that there remain other areas, outside the roofed one, that were not luxurious. In truth, we do not know."


Anti-Minoan conspiracy?


TOO MANY popular sights throughout Greece are closed to the public or in a poor state of repair, as Culture Minister Michalis Liapis conceded last month. "It has to be corrected," he told parliament, although he was less certain about how this might be achieved.


On Crete, the main building of the Archaeological Museum of Irakleio is completely shut for renovation and will be for many years to come. The Museum of Delos faces another situation common to the Greek heritage sector. It was forced to close until weeks ago because of a shortage of staff.


The problem is underscored by Professor Christos Doumas. "Greece is a very small country and has a limited budget and very many sites and monuments that are of first-class importance," he says. Perhaps, as he concludes, it is only the EU which has the financial power to provide a solution to these problems.



2,500-Year-Old Greek Ship Raised off Sicilian Coast

Maria Cristina Valsecchi in Rome

for National Geographic News

August 11, 2008


An ancient Greek ship recently raised off the coast of southern Sicily, Italy, is the biggest and best maintained vessel of its kind ever found, archaeologists say.


At a length of nearly 70 feet (21 meters) and a width of 21 feet (6.5 meters), the 2,500-year-old craft is the largest recovered ship built in a manner first depicted in Homer's Iliad, which is believed to date back several centuries earlier.


The ship's outer shell was built first, and the inner framework was added later. The wooden planks of the hull were sewn together with ropes, with pitch and resin used as sealant to keep out water.


Carlo Beltrame, professor of marine archaeology at the Università Ca' Foscari in Venice, said the boat, found near the town of Gela, is among the most important finds in the Mediterranean Sea.


"Greek sewn boats have been found in Italy, France, Spain, and Turkey. Gela's wreck is the most recent and the best preserved," Beltrame said.


The Italian Coast Guard helped archaeologists pull the wreck to the surface last month.


A floating crane lifted the main segment, a 36-foot (11-meter) chunk, and dragged it to land. The remains were then plunged into a tank of fresh water to remove the salt from the wood.


"The vessel was a mercantile sailer, probably used to sail short stretches along the coast, docking frequently to load and unload," said Rosalba Panvini, head of the Cultural Heritage Department of Sicily, who directed the raising operations.


Recovered artifacts—including cups, two-handled jars called amphoras, oil lamps, pottery, and fragments of straw baskets—reveal details of the ship's journey before it sank, Panvini said.


"The vessel stopped in Athens, then in the Peloponnese Peninsula," Panvini said. "It sailed up the western coast of Greece, crossed the Otranto Channel, coasted along Italy, and pointed to Sicily."


The ship was headed for Gela, then a Greek colony. About a half mile (800 meters) off the coast, a storm probably tilted the ship. The ballast broke the hull, and the vessel went down, where it lay on the muddy seabed for 25 centuries.


In 1988 two scuba divers discovered the remains and informed the Sicilian Cultural Heritage Department.


It took 20 years to recover the whole vessel, which will now be sent to Portsmouth, U.K., to be restored before it returns to Gela. Officials hope to display the restored ship in a planned new sea museum.


Beltrame, of the Università Ca' Foscari, said the ship—"part of a family of archaic Greek vessels"—is something of a missing link in the evolution of naval engineering.


"It shows a mix of sewing and mortise-and-tenon joints—a different technique that later prevailed in shipbuilding," Beltrame said, referring to joints in which a protrusion in one piece of wood inserts into a cavity in another.


Roberto Petriaggi of the Italian Central Institute for Restoration said Greeks were not the only people in the region to build ships using the sewing method.


"Technical knowledge spread easily around the Mediterranean Basin," he said. "We have finds proving that Egyptians and Phoenician-Punic people used that method, too."



Bulgarian archaeologists discover ancient chariot

By VESELIN TOSHKOV, Associated Press Writer Thu Aug 7, 12:24 PM ET


SOFIA, Bulgaria - Archaeologists have unearthed a 1,900-year-old well-preserved chariot at an ancient Thracian tomb in southeastern Bulgaria, the head of the excavation said Thursday.


Daniela Agre said her team found the four-wheel chariot during excavations near the village of Borisovo, around 180 miles east of the capital, Sofia.


"This is the first time that we have found a completely preserved chariot in Bulgaria," said Agre, a senior archaeologist at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.


She said previous excavations had only unearthed single parts of chariots — often because ancients sites had been looted.


At the funerary mound, the team also discovered table pottery, glass vessels and other gifts for the funeral of a wealthy Thracian aristocrat.


In a separate pit, they unearthed skeletons of two riding horses apparently sacrificed during the funeral of the nobleman, along with well preserved bronze and leather objects, some believed to horse harnesses.


The Culture Ministry confirmed the find and announced $3,900 in financial assistance for Agre's excavation.


Agre said an additional amount of $7,800 will be allocated by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences for an initial restoration and conservation of the chariot and the other Thracian finds.


The Thracians were an ancient people that inhabited the lands of present day Bulgaria and parts of modern Greece, Turkey, Macedonia and Romania between 4,000 B.C. and the 6th century, when they were assimilated by the invading Slavs.


Some 10,000 Thracian mounds — some of them covering monumental stone tombs — are scattered across Bulgaria.



Ancient rock carvings discovered


More than 100 new examples of prehistoric art have been discovered carved into boulders and open bedrock throughout Northumberland and Durham.


The 5,000-year-old Neolithic carvings of circles, rings and hollowed cups, were uncovered by volunteers.


One of the most interesting discoveries was an elaborately carved panel on Barningham Moor, near Barnard Castle in County Durham.


English Heritage now wants to extend the project to Cumbria.


Kate Wilson, inspector of ancient monuments at English Heritage, said: "We know virtually nothing about this art. That's the exciting part of this discovery.


"What we need to do now is to discover how this art relates to other prehistoric features in the landscape.


"We are talking about very simple and abstract art, using circles, lines and triangles. Mostly the designs are pecked into stone in the shape of simple cups and rings."


Archaeologists have discovered thousands of examples of prehistoric rock carvings in the area in recent years.


Many feature on a website backed by Newcastle University, which includes about 6,000 images.


Ms Wilson added: "We are sure there remains a lot that is still undiscovered in Cumbria."



Ancient stone chamber unearthed in garden

Published Date: 15 August 2008

By Staff reporter


An ancient underground chamber which could date back 2,000 years has been unearthed near Clonmany in Inishowen.


Discovered by Clonmany man Sean Devlin, the previously unrecorded structure appears to be an underground tunnel or souterrain.


Mr Devlin revealed yesterday that he first discovered the underground chamber several years ago while landscaping his front garden, but didn’t make much of a fuss about his amazing find at the time. The historic significance of the tunnel only became apparent recently after Mr Devlin showed it to amateur archaeologist friends.


“I knew it was an exciting find and I did show it to some people but never to any real experts,” Mr Devlin, owner of Devlin’s Fireplaces in Bridgend, told the ‘Journal’. “I had been doing my lawn and dug it out accidentally with a digger. It was a big round circle with a tiny dark tunnel leading off it which seems to go quite far.”


Souterrains are underground man-made drystone built structures roofed with large lintels, comprising of one or more chambers linked by tunnels called creepways. Their entrance is concealed at ground level. They are usually found in locations near to ringforts, cashels and early ecclesiastical sites. Interestingly, Clonmany means ‘the meadow of the monks’.


Mr Devlin says he may try to improve the underground chamber: “My children couldn’t believe it when we found it - it was great. And the tunnel seems structurally safe and dry so eventually I might do it up and maybe try and put some kind of lights in there to make going in there a bit easier.”


Derry man and long time amateur archaeologist Eddie Harkin, who visited and examined this fascinating structure with colleagues Tommy Gallagher and Brian MacNeachtain, confirmed that it has at least three chambers with a creepway linking each one.


In one chamber Mr Harkin says there is a quantity of bones - which may or may not be human - deposited in niches along one side of the souterrain wall. He also found part of a quern stone as well as a quantity of shells.


According to Mr Harkin, archaeologists believe that sounterrains were used as places of refuge, as many of them have defensive features such as low set lintels built into their roofs. They may have also been used for storing food. Indeed, it is possible that this souterrain continues and may be connected to the sixth century monastic site across the road.


A member of his local heritage group, Mr Devlin says he is delighted to have discovered this ancient monument in his garden and he hopes to learn more about it when an archaeologist from Dublin examines it some time soon.



Ancient palace found in dig on hill

Archaeologists uncover Aberdeenshire’s hidden history on slopes of Bennachie

By Alistair Beaton

Published: 02/08/2008


Archaeologists have uncovered ancient traces, from tiny bead ornaments to massive walls, of a forgotten prince’s palace on the slopes of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire.


Only yards from a busy car park used by walkers visiting the landmark hill, a 15-strong team rediscovered remains of Maiden Castle just below the surface of a wooded hillside mound.


A stone’s throw from the Rowantree car park, near Pitcaple, and also close to one of the most important Pictish carved monuments in the country, the two-week dig confirmed the importance of the 2,000-year-old fort area.


“The outline of the Pictish fort is now clearly defined by the circle of ancient trees here,” said Edinburgh-based archaeologist Murray Cook.


“They give the place a magical atmosphere, and it has been a very worthwhile few weeks’ work.”


Excavations at the site, which is surrounded by an ancient ditch, and across neighbouring forest land, have also confirmed settlement in the area from 7,000BC right up to mediaeval times.


They have revealed a rare Iron Age cobbled road, a stone pendant, and a 1,000-year-old sparkling glass bead.


Special permission has to be obtained to work on the castle site.


Its national significance has been safeguarded by the site being scheduled as an ancient monument.


Now shrouded in trees, the hillside fort stands on a rocky outcrop.


It would have provided early inhabitants with a panoramic view of the Garioch, the neighbouring ancient hilltop forts on Mither Tap and Dunnydeer, and the Glens of Foudland, gateway to the Highlands.


A few hundreds yards away stands the Maiden Stone, erected by the Picts in the 8th century as an important religious site.


“The fort here was a very high-status residence, probably home to an ancient prince or king,” said Mr Cook.


“This was home to the elite. There are only three or four sites like this in Aberdeenshire.


The north-east is an area where you merely need to scratch the surface to come on archaeology and none are known outside Aberdeenshire.”


A large selection of pottery was also collected by the student and volunteer team at Bennachie.


The lost palace has now disappeared again as the team filled in their excavations to preserve the site.


Mr Cook also led a brief dig last week at Dunnydeer where there is an ancient stone circle.


The existing 13th-century castle ruin on the Insch hill stands on the site of a prehistoric fort, and samples of charcoal from the burning of the original rampart were collected for carbon dating.



Bronze age remains 'may be tribal chieftain'

By Richard Savill

Last Updated: 5:01pm BST 15/08/2008


A 3,500-year-old bronze-age skeleton, found beside a beach, could be a tribal chieftain, archaeologists believe.


The discovery of the middle-aged man's remains and burial casket, or cisk, was made by an amateur archaeologist, Trevor Renals, as walked on Constantine Island, North Cornwall.


It was regarded as unusual because cremation rather than burial was popular in the bronze-age period and skeletons are not normally found in such a well preserved state.


A spokesman for the National Trust, which owns the land, said: "As soon as we found out we had to make arrangements for it to be excavated because of the danger of it going into the sea.


"We knew that storms were coming and we had to get it removed."


It is believed the man was from the middle bronze age, between 1380 and 1100BC, and he may have been an important member of his community.


The spokesman added: "We don't know how tall he would have been because the long bones were fragmented.


"Little is known about him but he may have been of importance to the small community that he would have come from as it appears that special care was taken over his burial.



"We don't know his social status. He could well be somebody important, or at the very least, someone who was well respected and cared for."


Mr Renals said: "I was walking along the coast, which is a particularly rich area for remains. I was actually looking for flint and there was one area that was particularly eroded from pedestrian access.


"While searching one particular area I found a front tooth and another piece of bone and I looked to see where it had come from.


"I could see from the bit of flint sticking out of the ground that it was actually a stone-lined cisk."


The discovery was made last October but it has taken nearly a year for the remains to removed, and carbon dated.


Mr Renals, 42, an ecologist, said: "The cisk was on quite a popular path and people had been sitting on it and walking over it and had not realised they were inches away from an ancient skeleton."


Mr Renals, from Wadebridge in Cornwall, said the man was buried in a crouching position.



Female remains found at Roman dig


Archaeologists believe remains found in a 1,800-year-old Roman stone sarcophagus uncovered at a dig in Newcastle are female.


The coffin was one of two found at the site of a former chapel and thought to have been used to bury members of a powerful family from a fort.


The lid was painstakingly lifted on Friday and the coffin found to be full of water and sludge, as expected.


But teeth, bone fragments and a hairpin were also found by the team.


The other sarcophagus has been opened and contained the headless remains of a child.


The head was placed elsewhere in the coffin, which was an unusual but not unknown practice in Roman times. Some experts believe this was done to ensure the dead did not return to haunt the living.


The Durham University team was hired by a development company which aims to build a modern office block on the city centre site once its archaeological riches have been preserved for future generations.


Other discoveries at the site, on Forth Street, include cremation urns, a cobbled Roman road, a Roman well and the foundations of Roman shops and workers' homes.


It is believed the fort would have been linked to Hadrian's Wall.


Richard Annis, from Durham University, said the jet gemstone hairpin found in the coffin measured about 3.5ins (8.9cm) in length.


He added: "The bone preservation was very bad.


"It was possible to make out the way this person was laying, but by great good fortune we found this rather fine jet hairpin by the neck.


"So we can say that it was a wealthy lady who was buried with this and has lay in the dark from perhaps the 4th Century.


"These sarcophagi would have been a prominent feature of the landscape, as they were carefully placed to be viewed, being close to the road and, at the time, raised above the ground.


"They would certainly have had to belong to a wealthy family of a high status in the community, perhaps at fort commander level or at senior level in the Roman army."


The sarcophagi, about 70cm (2.2ft) wide and 180cm (5.9ft) long, have walls around 10cm (3.9ins) thick and weigh up to half a tonne each.


They are both carved out of a single piece of sandstone. Each lid was fixed in place with iron pegs sealed with molten lead.


After analysis by the Durham University team, all of the finds from the site will eventually go to the new Great North Museum in Newcastle, where the sarcophagi will be preserved for the public to see.



Experts find theatre where Shakespeare plays first staged

Wed Aug 6, 1:41 PM ET


LONDON (AFP) - The remains of a London theatre where William Shakespeare's early plays including "Romeo And Juliet" were first performed have been discovered by archaeologists, a museum said Wednesday.


Shakespeare appeared at The Theatre in Shoreditch, east London, as an actor with a troupe called The Lord Chamberlain's Men, which also performed his efforts as a playwright there.


"Richard III", "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Merchant Of Venice" are among the other plays likely to have premiered at the theatre, according to the Museum of London, whose team made the discovery.


After a tenancy dispute in 1599, the owners of The Theatre dismantled it during the night and its timbers were used to construct the Globe Theatre by the River Thames which became the home of Shakespeare's plays.


But now Museum of London archaeologists have rediscovered the original footings or groundwork of the polygonal Shoreditch venue -- ironically on a site being prepared for the construction of a new theatre.


"It's a theatre that's been known about for a long time but no remains have ever been found," museum spokesman Tim Morley told AFP.


"This is the theatre that the company of players that Shakespeare was part of first performed in and when he started writing, the company would have performed his plays."


It is planned that the remains will be kept in place as the new theatre is built.


Jeff Kelly, chairman of the Tower Theatre Company, which is constructing the new venue, added: "The discovery that we shall be building a 21st century playhouse where Shakespeare played and where some of Shakespeare's plays must first have been performed is a huge inspiration."


Archaeologists will now start trying to find out more detail about how the venue looked and hope it will help them to increase their knowledge of London theatres during the reign of queen Elizabeth I.



World's Oldest Joke Traced Back to 1900 BC

July 31, 2008


LONDON (Reuters) - The world's oldest recorded joke has been traced back to 1900 BC and suggests toilet humor was as popular with the ancients as it is today.


It is a saying of the Sumerians, who lived in what is now southern Iraq and goes: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."


It heads the world's oldest top 10 joke list published by the University of Wolverhampton Thursday.


A 1600 BC gag about a pharaoh, said to be King Snofru, comes second -- "How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish."


The oldest British joke dates back to the 10th Century and reveals the bawdy face of the Anglo-Saxons -- "What hangs at a man's thigh and wants to poke the hole that it's often poked before? Answer: A key."


"Jokes have varied over the years, with some taking the question and answer format while others are witty proverbs or riddles," said the report's writer Dr Paul McDonald, senior lecturer at the university.


"What they all share however, is a willingness to deal with taboos and a degree of rebellion. Modern puns, Essex girl jokes and toilet humor can all be traced back to the very earliest jokes identified in this research."


The study was commissioned by television channel Dave. The top 10 oldest jokes can be viewed at www.dave-tv.co.uk.


(Reporting by John Joseph; Editing by Steve Addison)