Honey of a discovery

By Bruce Bower

Web edition : Friday, August 29th, 2008


An ancient Israeli site yields the oldest known archaeological example of beekeeping


The Bible refers to ancient Israel as the “land flowing with milk and honey,” so it’s fitting that one of its towns milked honey for all it was worth. Scientists have unearthed the remains of a large-scale beekeeping operation at a nearly 3,000-year-old Israeli site, which dates to the time of biblical accounts of King David and King Solomon.


Excavations in northern Israel at a huge earthen mound called Tel Rehov revealed the Iron Age settlement. From 2005 to 2007, workers at Tel Rehov uncovered the oldest known remnants of human-made beehives, excavation director Amihai Mazar and colleagues report in the September Antiquity. No evidence of beekeeping has emerged at any other archaeological sites in the Middle East or surrounding regions.


“The discovery of an industrial apiary at Tel Rehov constitutes a unique and extraordinary discovery that revolutionizes our knowledge of this economic endeavor, particularly in ancient Israel,” says Mazar, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


Many scholars assume that ancient Israelis made honey from fruits such as figs and dates. Nowhere does the Bible mention beekeeping as a way to produce honey, according to Mazar.


The earliest known depiction of beekeeping appears on a carving from an Egyptian temple that dates to 4,500 years ago. It shows men collecting honeycombs from cylindrical containers, pouring honey into jars and possibly separating honey from beeswax. Beehives portrayed in ancient Egyptian art resemble those found at Tel Rehov, as well as hives used today by traditional Mediterranean and Middle Eastern groups, says entomologist Gene Kritsky of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati.


“Tel Rehov is so important because it contains a full apiary, demonstrating that this was a large-scale operation,” Kritsky says.


Mazar’s team has so far uncovered 25 cylindrical containers for bees in a structure that is centrally located in the ancient city at Tel Rehov. High brick walls surrounded the apiary. Beehives sat in three parallel rows, each containing at least three tiers. Each beehive measured 80 centimeters long and about 40 centimeters wide.


In the best-preserved beehives, one end contains a small hole for bees to enter and exit. A removable lid with a handle covers the other end.


Chemical analyses of two Tel Rehov beehives revealed degraded beeswax residue in the containers’ unfired clay walls. The researchers are now examining pollen remains and bee bodies found in charred honeycombs from inside the hives.


A violent fire in ancient times caused walls surrounding the hives to collapse and destroy many of the bee containers. Radiocarbon measures of burned grain from the apiary floor and nearby structures provided an age estimate for the finds.


Mazar estimates that the ancient apiary contained at least 75 and perhaps as many as 200 beehives. A clay platform of the same width as a nearby row of hives probably served as a foundation for some of the hives. The facility held more than 1 million bees and had a potential annual yield of 500 kilograms of honey and 70 kilograms of beeswax, Mazar says.


Writings and paintings from ancient Egypt suggest beehives possessed considerable value at the time. Honey was used as a sweetener, a salve for wounds and a ritual substance. Beeswax also had various uses, including being molded into casts for bronze objects.


Only a strong central authority could have established and maintained a large apiary in the center of town, Mazar notes.


The apiary apparently hosted ceremonies intended to spur honey production and ensure the operation’s success. Ritual finds near the hives include a four-horned clay altar that features carved figures of two female goddesses flanking an incised tree.



Ancient gold treasure puzzles Greek archaeologists



ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A priceless gold wreath has been unearthed in an ancient city in northern Greece, buried with human bones in a large copper vase that workers initially took for a land mine.


The University of Thessaloniki said in a statement Friday that the "astonishing" discovery was made during its excavations this week in the ruins of ancient Aigai. The city was the first capital of ancient Macedonia, where King Philip II — father of Alexander the Great — was assassinated.


Gold wreaths are rare and were buried with ancient nobles or royalty. But the find is also highly unusual as the artifacts appear to have been removed from a grave during ancient times and, for reasons that are unclear, reburied in the city's marketplace near the theater where Philip was stabbed to death.


"This happened quite soon after the original burial; it's not that a grave robber took it centuries later and hid it with the intention of coming back," excavator Chryssoula Saatsoglou-Paliadeli told The Associated Press. "It probably belonged to a high-ranking person."


The "impressively large" copper vessel contained a cylindrical golden jar with a lid, with the gold wreath of oak leaves and the bones inside.


"The young workman who saw it was astounded and shouted 'land mine!'" the university statement said.


Saatsoglou-Paliadeli, a professor of archaeology at the university, said the find probably dates to the 4th century B.C., during which Philip and Alexander reigned.


"Archaeologists must explain why such a group ... was found outside the extensive royal cemetery," the university statement said. "(They must also) work out why the bones of the unknown — but by no means insignificant — person were hidden in the city's most public and sacred area."


During the 4th century B.C., burials outside organized cemeteries were very uncommon.


In a royal cemetery at Vergina, just west of Aigai, Greek archaeologists discovered a wealth of gold and silver treasure in 1977. One of the opulent graves, which contained a large gold wreath of oak leaves, is generally accepted to have belonged to Philip II. The location of Alexander's tomb is one of the great mysteries of archaeology.


The sprawling remains of a large building with banquet halls and ornate mosaics at Aigai — some 520 kilometers (320 miles) north of Athens — has been identified as Philip's palace.


Aigai flourished in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., attracting leading Greek artists such as the poet Euripides, who wrote his last tragedies there. The Macedonian capital was moved to Pella in the 4th century B.C., and Aigai was destroyed by the Romans in 168 B.C.



3,500-year-old 'sauna' saved from destruction

Published Date: 23 August 2008

By Frank Urquhart


A Bronze Age structure thought to have been used as a sauna has been saved from destruction by the sea after a team of archaeologists moved the entire find to a safer location.

The building, which dates from between 1500BC and 1200BC, was unearthed on the Shetland island of Bressay eight years ago. It was found in the heart of the Burnt Mound at Cruester, a Bronze Age site on the coast of Bressay facing Lerwick.


But earlier this summer, because of the increased threat of coastal erosion, local historians joined archaeologists to launch a campaign to save the building and to move it somewhere safer. A third of the mound had already been lost to sea erosion.


The central structure was carefully dismantled and each stone numbered before being moved to a site a mile way next to Bressay Heritage Centre.


And today, following the completion of the unusual removal scheme, the Bronze Age building will be officially opened at its new location by Tavish Scott, the MSP for Shetland.


Douglas Coutts, the project officer with Bressay History Group, said the structure was one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made in the Northern Isles.


The building was hidden in a mound of burnt stones and is thought to have been used for feasts, baths or even saunas.


The structure comprises a series of dry-stone, walled cells, connected by two corridors. At the end of one corridor is a hearth cell, thought to have been used for heating stones, and at the other end is a tank sunk into the ground which is almost two metres long, more than a metre wide, and half a metre deep.


Mr Coutts said: "Burnt mounds don't usually consist of very much more than a hearth and a tank and a heap of burnt stones. But in Shetland, we seem to have much more complex structures with little rooms or cells leading off from a main passageway which connects the hearth and tank.


"We have approximately 300 burnt mounds on Shetland but only four or five have been excavated and, of those, the Cruester mound is the most fascinating and complex. It looks as if it has been in use for anything between 500 to 1,000 years."


He added: "We think these cells may have originally been roofed over in a beehive shape.


"One theory is that these structures may have been used for cooking meat or tanning hides.


"But it is possible they could have raised steam by heating the water and that these little cells could have been used as saunas."


Tom Dawson, a researcher at St Andrews University who also worked on the removal project, said coastal erosion was threatening thousands of archaeological sites around Scotland.


"The local group here came up with a novel idea for dealing with the problem," he said.


"It is great to have had the chance to give new life to this particular site and make it accessible to future generations, while also learning something new, not just about Cruester, but about burnt mounds in general.


"This structure is important in world terms. There are thousands of burnt mounds in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia but only a handful are known to have structures within them."


Mr Scott praised the partnership between the local history group and outside archaeological bodies.


He said: "This exhibition will be a great asset for visitors to Bressay and local people. The more we understand about the past, the better informed we are about the future."



Chariot find at settlement site

By Steven McKenzie

Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website


Archaeologists have uncovered a small - but vital - clue to the use of a chariot in Moray.


The piece for a horse harness was found during the latest dig at an Iron Age site at Birnie, near Elgin.


Dr Fraser Hunter, of the National Museums of Scotland, said it was further evidence of the high status of its inhabitants.


Excavations would have been unlikely at Birnie if not for the discovery of Roman coins 10 years ago.


Glass beads that may have been made at Culbin Sands, near Nairn, in the Highlands, a dagger and quern stones for making flour have also been found previously.


An army of archaeologists, students and volunteers have slowly been excavating two roundhouses that date back to 2,000 years ago.


Two further years of work are planned before the site is restored to farmland.


An open day allowing the public to tour the dig will be held on 7 September.


Dr Hunter said the metal piece for a horse harness was among this summer's finds.


He said: "It comes from a chariot and it shows something of the contacts these people had and their aspirations, I suppose.


"The chariot was the flashy run around of the period."


The horse-drawn transport and equipment may have come from the south of Scotland, or north England.


Another new find was a Roman coin linked to two hordes of silver coins found in the 1990s, which sparked the original excavations.


An aerial photograph had shown there were roundhouses at Birnie, but Dr Hunter said without the coin finds digs were unlikely to have taken place.


He believes the money was brought by Roman emissaries, who travelled up the north east coast by ships.


Birnie, which is south of the Moray Firth and set in rolling arable farmland, was beyond the frontier of the Roman Empire.


Dr Hunter said: "The coins were essentially bribes, or gifts, to keep the locals from causing trouble."


The team have been painstakingly picking through the remains of one of the roundhouses, which was badly damaged in a fire.


The blaze has "fossilised" oak timber beams and seeds, but the process of excavation has been described as being like "digging through a bonfire".


Previously, a fire investigation officer with Grampian Fire and Rescue Service and a Grampian Police scenes of crime officer helped to determine that the fire was started deliberately.


The pair were able to point to a fire being started at the base of the inside wall.


What is not known is whether this was while the house was still in use, or at the end of its life.



Monks' network of medieval canals discovered in aerial photos

An extensive network of medieval canals which were used by monks in punts have been discovered in the Lincolnshire fens, researchers revealed.

Last Updated: 5:06PM BST 29 Aug 2008


Around 56 miles of waterways, which are now blocked by silt and hidden in the fen landscape, were found using aerial photographs, the Royal Geographical Society's annual conference was told.


It is thought the canals, which would have been 20ft to 40ft wide, were built by the monasteries in the area after 9th century raids by Vikings who destroyed many monastic sites.


Civil engineer and archaeologist Martin Redding said the schemes were unlikely to have been created for drainage alone because of the huge costs involved.


Instead they would have been used first to ferry locally-quarried stone to rebuild the monastic sites, which belonged to orders including the Benedictines and Cistercians.


They would then have been used to carry the rich resources of the fens to market in "fen lighters", which are shallow, flat-bottomed boats.


The cargo could have included cranberries, as research on a now extinct acidic peat bog in the Lincolnshire Fens has confirmed it would have been an ideal area for growing the fruit.


Mr Redding, a member of the Witham Valley Archaeology Research Committee, said it is likely each monastery had its own network of canals connecting parts of its estate including its farms.


Mr Redding said the canals showed "breathtaking engineering projects" were being undertaken in the fens 800 to 1,000 years ago.


He added the canals would have lasted until around the 14th century when rising sea levels would have made their operation increasingly difficult, while the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century probably finally ended the system.



Ancient ships found under Oslo mud

The Associated Press

Published: August 29, 2008


OSLO, Norway: The largest collection of antique shipwrecks ever found in Norway has been discovered under mud at the building site for a new highway tunnel in Oslo, the project's lead archaeologist said Friday.


Jostein Gundersen said at least nine wooden boats, the largest being 17 meters (56 feet) long, were found well preserved nearly 400 years after they sank at Bjoervika, an Oslo inlet near the new national opera house.


"For us, this is a sensation," he told The Associated Press. "There has never been a find of so many boats and in such good condition at one site in Norway."


The wrecks were remarkably well preserved because they had been covered in mud and fresh water, where river waters run into the sea, he said.


"We have a fantastic opportunity to learn more about old shipbuilding techniques and the old harbors," said Gundersen of the Norwegian Maritime Museum in Oslo.


He said the wrecks are believed to have sunk sometime after a massive fire swept the wooden buildings of old Oslo in 1624. After that disaster, Danish-Norwegian King Kristian IV ordered the city center moved before reconstruction started.


The discovered boats were moored at the old port, which became a remote area after the city was moved. He said the boats may have been 30 or 40 years old when they sank.


"There is nothing to indicate that the ships were deliberately scuttled," said Gundersen. "They could have sunk one by one, because of sloppy mooring or poor maintenance, or maybe sank in a storm."


He said the wreckage will be charted and removed as quickly as possible, so construction of the undersea tunnel can continue. It will then take years, he said, to examine all the ship's remnants back at the museum.


Gundersen said the find will help fill gaps in knowledge between Norwegian Viking ships of roughly 1,000 years ago and more modern vessels.


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