Research pushes back crop development 10,000 years

19 September 2008


Researchers led by Dr Robin Allaby of the University of Warwick’s plant research arm Warwick HRI have found evidence that genetics supports the idea that the emergence of agriculture in prehistory took much longer than originally thought.


Until recently researchers say the story of the origin of agriculture was one of a relatively sudden appearance of plant cultivation in the Near East around 10,000 years ago spreading quickly into Europe and dovetailing conveniently with ideas about how quickly language and population genes spread from the Near East to Europe. Initially, genetics appeared to support this idea but now cracks are beginning to appear in the evidence underpinning that model


Now a team led by Dr Robin Allaby from the University of Warwick have developed a new mathematical model that shows how plant agriculture actually began much earlier than first thought, well before the Younger Dryas (the last “big freeze” with glacial conditions in the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere). It also shows that useful gene types could have actually taken thousands of years to become stable.


Up till now researchers believed in a rapid establishment of efficient agriculture which came about as artificial selection was easily able to dominate natural plant selection, and, crucially, as a consequence they thought most crops came from a single location and single domestication event.


However recent archaeological evidence has already begun to undermine this model pushing back the date of the first appearance of plant agriculture. The best example of this being the archaeological site Ohalo II in Syria where more than 90,000 plant fragments from 23,000 years ago show that wild cereals were being gathered over 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, and before the last glacial maximum (18,000-15,000 years ago).


The field of Archaeobotany is also producing further evidence to undermine the quick development model. The tough rachis mutant is caused by a single recessive allele (one gene on a pair or group of genes) , and this mutant is easily identifiable in the archaeological specimens as a jagged scar on the chaff of the plant noting an abscission (shedding of a body part) as opposed to the smooth abscission scar associated with the wild type brittle rachis.


Simply counting the proportion of chaff types in a sample gives a direct measure of frequency of the two different gene types in this plant. That study has shown that the tough rachis mutant appeared some 9,250 years ago and had not reached fixation over 3,000 years later even after the spread of agriculture into Europe was well underway. Studies like these have shown that the rise of the domestication syndrome was a slow process and that plant traits appeared in slow sequence, not together over a short period of time.


Genome wide surveys of crops such as einkorn and barley that in the past that have suggested a single origin from a narrow geographical range, supporting the rapid establishment view, have long been in conflict with other gene studies. The most notable conflict is in the case of barley for which there is a large body of evidence that suggests more than one common ancestor was used in its development.


These challenges to the fast model of agricultural development need a new model to explain how and why the development was so slow and demonstrate why artificial selection of just one plant type does not have the expected quick result. This computer model has now been provided by Dr Robin Allaby and his team at the University of Warwick, the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and Manchester Interdisciplinary Biocentre has outlined the new mathematical model in a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 2008 and in a summary article in the Biologist (2008 55:94-99).


Their paper entitled The genetic expectations of a protracted model for the origins of domesticated crops used computer simulations that showed that over time a cultivated population will become monophyletic (settle into one stable species) at a rate proportional to its population size as compared various gene variations in the wild populations. They found this rate of change matched closely the 3000 years it took the tough rachis mutant to become established.


Ironically, this process is actually accelerated if there is more than one

wild source population (in other words if attempts at domestication happen more than once) because any resulting hybrid between those domesticated populations then has a heightened differentiation compared with either one of the wild populations of the two parent plants.


This mathematical model also more supportive of a longer complex origin of plants through cross breeding of a number of attempts at domestication rather than a single plant type being selectively bred and from a single useful mutation that is selectively grown quickly out paces the benefits natural selection


Dr Robin Allaby says:


“This picture of protracted development of crops has major implications for the understanding of the biology of the domestication process and these strike chords with other areas of evolutionary biology.”


“This lengthy development should favour the close linkage of domestication syndrome trait

genes which may become much more important because linked genes will not be broken up

by gene flow – and this makes trait selection and retention easier. Interestingly, as

more crop genomes become mapped, the close linkage of two or more domestication

syndrome genes has been reported on several occasions.”


“This process has similarities to the evolution of ‘supergenes’ in which many genes cluster around a single locus to contribute to one overall purpose.”


“We now need to move this research area to a new level. Domestication was a complex process and can now be viewed more legitimately as the paragon of evolutionary process that Darwin originally recognized. There are many interacting factors involved that we know about operating on a wide range of levels from the gene to the farmer and climate – the challenge is to integrate them into a single story.”


Peer reviewed publication and references

PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 2008 and alos in a summary article in the Biologist (2008 55:94-99).



Lost Tribes of the Green Sahara

How a dinosaur hunter uncovered the Sahara's strangest Stone Age graveyard

By Peter Gwin

National Geographic Staff


On October 13, 2000, a small team of paleontologists led by Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago clambered out of three battered Land Rovers, filled their water bottles, and scattered on foot across the toffee-colored sands of the Ténéré desert in northern Niger. The Ténéré, on the southern flank of the Sahara, easily ranks among the most desolate landscapes on Earth. The Tuareg, turbaned nomads who for centuries have ruled this barren realm, refer to it as a "desert within a desert"—a California-size ocean of sand and rock, where a single massive dune might stretch a hundred miles, and the combination of 120-degree heat and inexorable winds can wick the water from a human body in less than a day. The harsh conditions, combined with intermittent conflict between the Tuareg and the Niger government, have kept the region largely unexplored.


Sereno, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence and one of the world's most prolific dinosaur hunters, had led his first expedition into the Ténéré five years earlier, after negotiating agreements with both the leader of a Tuareg rebel force and the Niger Ministry of Defense, allowing him safe passage to explore its fossil-rich deposits. That initial foray was followed by others, and each time his team emerged from the desert with the remains of exotic species, including Nigersaurus, a 500-toothed plant-eating dinosaur, and Sarcosuchus, an extinct crocodilian the size of a city bus. The 2000 expedition, however, was his most ambitious—three months scouring a 300-mile arc of the Ténéré, ending near Agadez, a medieval caravan town on the western lip of the desert. Already, his team members had excavated 20 tons of dinosaur bones and other prehistoric animals. But six weeks of hard labor in this brutal environment had worn them down. Most had mild cases of dysentery; several had lost so much weight they had to hitch up their trousers as they trudged over the soft sand; and everyone's nerves had been on edge since an encounter with armed bandits.


Mike Hettwer, a photographer accompanying the team, headed off by himself toward a trio of small dunes. He crested the first slope and stared in amazement. The dunes were spilling over with bones. He took a few shots with his digital camera and hurried back to the Land Rovers.


"I found some bones," Hettwer said, when the team had regrouped. "But they're not dinosaurs. They're human."


Heat, thirst, and, for the moment, dinosaurs were forgotten as the team members followed Hettwer back to the three dunes and began to gingerly survey their slopes. In just a few minutes they had counted dozens of human skeletons. Parts of skullcaps pushed up through the sand like upturned china bowls; jawbones clenched nearly full sets of teeth; a tiny hand, perhaps a child's, appeared to have floated up through the sand with all its finger bones intact. "It was as if the desert winds were pulling them from their final resting places," said Hettwer. Insinuated among the human bones was a profusion of clay potsherds, beads, and stone tools— finely worked arrowheads and axheads and well-worn grindstones. There were also hundreds of animal bones. In addition to antelope and giraffe, Sereno quickly recognized the remains of water-adapted creatures like crocodiles and hippos, then turtles, fish, and clams. "Everywhere you turned, there were bones belonging to animals that don't live in the desert," said Sereno. "I realized we were in the Green Sahara."


For much of the past 70,000 years, the Sahara has closely resembled the desert it is today. Some 12,000 years ago, however, a wobble in the Earth's axis and other factors caused Africa's seasonal monsoons to shift slightly north, bringing new rains to an area nearly the size of the contiguous United States. Lush watersheds stretched across the Sahara, from Egypt to Mauritania, drawing animal life and eventually people.


Archaeologists have inventoried the stone tools used by these early inhabitants and the patterns inscribed on their ceramics. They have also identified thousands of their rock engravings, which depict herds of ostriches, giraffes, and elephants. Some of the images suggest that along the way the people of the Green Sahara learned to domesticate cattle. But they remain veiled in mystery. Did they arrive here from the Mediterranean coast, central African jungles, or Nile Valley? Were they nomads, or did they stake out territories and build settlements? Did they trade with each other and intermarry, or did they wage war, or both? As the monsoons began to recede, how did they cope with a drying landscape? The only part of the story that then seems clear is that by some 3,500 years ago the desert had returned. The people vanished.


Seeking answers to such questions is normally the domain of anthropologists and archaeologists—not dinosaur hunters. But Sereno had become transfixed by the discovery. "There is something soul stirring about looking into the face of an ancient human skull and knowing this is my species," he said. Whenever he could steal a moment from his paleontological work, he pored through every scholarly publication he could find on the Green Saharans, tracked down the authors and badgered them with emails full of questions. Sometimes he would read all night before downing a cup of coffee and heading back to his lab. In 2003, during another dinosaur expedition in Niger, he took three days off to revisit the dunes and survey the site, counting at least 173 burials. To dig any deeper, however, would require more time, money, and expertise.


In the spring of 2005 Sereno contacted Elena Garcea, an archaeologist at the University of Cassino, in Italy, inviting her to accompany him on a return to the site. Garcea had spent three decades working digs along the Nile in Sudan and in the mountains of the Libyan Desert, and was well acquainted with the ancient peoples of the Sahara. But she had never heard of Paul Sereno. His claim to have found so many skeletons in one place seemed far-fetched, given that no other Neolithic cemetery contained more than a dozen or so. Some archaeologists would later be skeptical; one sniped that he was just a "moonlighting paleontologist." But Garcea was too intrigued to dismiss him as an interloper. She agreed to join him.


"I was impressed that he hadn't just ignored the burials and continued looking for dinosaurs," she told me.


They arrived at the site six months later. Clad in a salt-stained T-shirt and jeans, Sereno, vibrating with energy, powered up the first of the three dunes, identifying animal bones with nearly every stride—giraffe vertebra … hippo ulna … gazelle humerus. Garcea, a petite woman in unwrinkled chinos and a tennis hat, followed at a more measured pace, bending at the waist to scrutinize each item.


At the top, they surveyed a macabre scene. Around them lay dozens of human skeletons in various degrees of completeness, far more than Garcea had seen at all her other digs combined. Nonetheless, she seemed more interested in what looked to me like tiny gray chunks of gravel. "They're potsherds," she said, and held up one inscribed with a pointillistic pattern. She identified the markings as belonging to a people known to scholars as the Tenerian, a nomadic herding culture that lived during the latter part of the Green Sahara era, 6,500 to 4,500 years ago. Then she picked up another piece. She studied it for a moment, looking perplexed. Instead of little dots, this sherd was decorated with wavy lines. She picked up another like it, then another. "These are Kiffian," she said, her voice rising with excitement.


Garcea explained that the Kiffian were a fishing-based culture and lived during the earliest wet period, between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago. She held a Kiffian sherd next to a Tenerian one. "What is so amazing is that the people who made these two pots lived more than a thousand years apart."


Over the next three weeks, Sereno and Garcea—along with five American excavators, five Tuareg guides, and five soldiers from Niger's army, sent to protect the camp from bandits—made a detailed map of the site, which they dubbed Gobero, after the Tuareg name for the area. They exhumed eight burials and collected scores of artifacts from both cultures. In a dry lake bed adjacent to the dunes, they found dozens of fishhooks and harpoons carved from animal bone. Apparently the Kiffian fishermen weren't just going after small fry: Scattered near the dunes were the remains of Nile perch, a beast of a fish that can weigh nearly 300 pounds, as well as crocodile and hippo bones.


Garcea suspected that the Tenerian had made most of the stone tools. Nearly three-fourths of them were hewed from a strange green volcanic rock that bore a glasslike sheen and yielded razor-sharp edges when fractured. The abundance of green flakes on the dunes indicated that the Tenerian spent long periods of time at Gobero making and sharpening their tools. "But it's possible they lived part of the time at the place where they quarried the green rock," said Garcea. One of the Tuareg said he had seen big boulders of it in the Aïr mountains, some hundred miles to the northwest.


At dusk the heat gave way to the cool evening air, and the camp divided into three groups. The soldiers, dressed in threadbare fatigues and combat boots with no socks, gathered around their fire, speaking Hausa, Niger's dominant language. At the Tuareg fire, the guides removed their linen chèches, which they kept neatly wound around their faces during the day. They reclined on foam mattresses, served each other strong, sugary tea, and quietly discussed Niger's restive politics in their native Tamashek. Meanwhile, the dig team cooked couscous and freeze-dried vegetables on a propane stove, eating by the light of their headlamps. Their conversations focused on the stark differences in the burials. Some appeared to be little more than a tight bundle of bones, as if the body had been bound or squeezed into a basket or a leather bag, which had long since decomposed. These compact burials belied the fact that some of these individuals were surprisingly large—as much as six feet eight inches tall, with thick bones suggesting they had been well muscled.


By contrast, other skeletons belonged to much smaller people, about five-and-a-half feet tall. They were buried on their sides in relaxed positions, as if they had fallen asleep and drifted into death. Some of their graves contained beads, arrowheads, or animal bones. But since no potsherds were found in the burials, it wasn't clear which were Kiffian and which were Tenerian. Until the age of the bones could be determined, no one could say for sure. And what had led the Tenerian to bury their dead in the exact same spot as the Kiffian had laid theirs to rest, thousands of years earlier?


"Perhaps the Tenerian found the Kiffian burials and recognized this place as sacred," Garcea offered. "It's possible they thought these bones belonged to their own ancestors."


The search for answers could not wait long. Gobero held at least 200 burials, which would take several field seasons to excavate. But the constant desert wind was eroding the site year by year, scattering the bones down the sides of the dunes. An even more dire concern was looters. Officials in Niger have identified close to a hundred Stone Age sites in the Ténéré and report that nearly all were looted before they could be excavated. Often Tuareg traveling in camel caravans find the sites and scavenge artifacts to sell to dealers in Agadez, who in turn sell them illicitly to tourists. Though the Niger government has outlawed the sale of antiquities, only Gobero and one other site remained unlooted.


Members of the dig team suspected that a few of the soldiers were picking up artifacts as they patrolled the site's perimeter. When confronted by Sereno, they denied it. One night by the Tuareg fire, I asked one of the guides whether he thought anyone might pilfer artifacts. He shrugged. "When you are hungry and your children are hungry, what can you do?" Another confided to me that over the years he had collected a small number of artifacts during his travels in the desert. He produced a leather pouch that held an array of gemlike arrowheads and a beautiful knife chipped from the strange green stone. "These are not for sale," he said. "They are for my children. It is their history. I want them to see it before it is all gone."


SERENO FLEW HOME with the most important skeletons and artifacts and immediately began planning for the next field season. In the meantime, he carefully removed one tooth from each of four skulls and sent them to a lab for radiocarbon dating. The results pegged the age of the tightly bundled burials at roughly 9,000 years old, the heart of the Kiffian era. The smaller "sleeping" skeletons turned out to be about 6,000 years old, well within the Tenerian period. At least now the scientists knew who was who.


In the fall of 2006 they returned to Gobero, accompanied by a larger dig crew and six additional scientists. Garcea hoped to excavate some 80 burials, and the team began digging. As the skeletons began to emerge from the dunes, each presented a fresh riddle, especially the Tenerian. A male skeleton had been buried with a finger in his mouth. Another had been interred inside a frame of disarticulated human bones. Among the strangest was an adult male buried with a boar tusk and a crocodile ankle bone and his head resting on a clay pot. Parts of the skeleton appeared to have been burned, hinting that an elaborate ritual had accompanied his burial.


Garcea paid close attention to these details. In lieu of a written language, such clues are critical to understanding what she described as a culture's "software"—its traditions, value system, and beliefs about the supernatural. The very act of burial contains a message, Garcea told me as she delicately brushed dirt from another Tenerian skeleton. "By infusing the land with the remains of your people, you claim it."


Unlike the Tenerian burials, the bundles of Kiffian bones came with few artifacts to shed light on their culture. But bones and teeth alone can say a lot about the daily lives of a vanished people. Their appearance can reveal an individual's sex, age, and general health, and they hold chemical signatures that, analyzed in a lab, can reveal the kinds of food a person ate and the location of the water sources he drank from.


Even at the site, Arizona State University bioarchaeologist Chris Stojanowski could begin to piece together some clues. Judging by the bones, the Kiffian appeared to be a peaceful, hardworking people. "The lack of head and forearm injuries suggests they weren't doing much fighting," he told me. "And these guys were strong." He pointed to a long, narrow ridge running along a femur. "That's the muscle attachment," he said. "This individual had huge leg muscles, which means he was eating a lot of protein and had a strenuous lifestyle—both consistent with a fishing way of life." For contrast, he showed me the femur of a Tenerian male. The ridge was barely perceptible. "This guy had a much less strenuous lifestyle," he said, "which you might expect of a herder."


Stojanowski's assessment that the Tenerian were herders fits the prevailing view among scholars of life in the Sahara 6,000 years ago, when drier conditions favored herding over hunting. But if the Tenerian were herders, Sereno pointed out, where were the herds? Among the hundreds of animal bones that had turned up at the site, none belonged to goats or sheep, and only three came from a cow species. "It's not unusual for a herding culture not to slaughter their cattle, particularly in a cemetery," Garcea responded, noting that even modern pastoralists, such as Niger's Wodaabe, are loath to butcher even one animal in their herd. Perhaps, Sereno reasoned, the Tenerian at Gobero were a transitional group that had not fully adopted herding and still relied heavily on hunting and fishing.


The twilight of the Green Sahara around 4,500 years ago might have been the perfect time to be hunting at Gobero, said Carlo Giraudi, the team's geologist. As water sources dried up throughout the region, animals would have been drawn to pocket wetlands, making them easier to kill. Four middens found on the dunes and dated to around that time included hundreds of animal remains, as well as fish bones and clamshells—not usually part of a herder's diet. "The Green Sahara's climate was rapidly changing," said Giraudi, "but just before the lake dried up, the people at Gobero would have thought they were living in a golden period."


Then they were gone, leaving only bones and a few artifacts to bear witness. On my last day at Gobero, Sereno and his colleagues began excavating a particularly poignant burial containing three skeletons. Several members of the dig team interrupted their own work to watch. Soon a few of the Tuareg abandoned their late afternoon tea and wandered over, and a couple of soldiers joined the group. Evening breezes began to sweep away the desert's intense heat. As the sand was carefully brushed away, a petite Tenerian woman came into clear relief, lying on her side. Facing her were the skeletons of two children. Their molars suggested they were five and eight years old when they died. Each child reached tiny arms toward the woman. Her fragile arm bones reached back to them. Between the skeletons lay a cluster of disarticulated finger bones, implying the deceased had been laid to rest holding hands.


Was this a mother and her children? Had a grieving father posed his family in this gesture of love before covering them with sand? The questions rippled around the graveside in English, French, Tamashek, and Hausa. The skeletons exhibited no clear signs of trauma, though four arrowheads turned up near the bones, perhaps part of a burial ritual. But if their deaths weren't violent, how did they all die at the same time? If it was a disease or a plague, who would have been left to bury the bodies in such an elaborate fashion? Maybe, someone suggested, they drowned in the lake.


Back in Arizona, Stojanowski continues to analyze the Gobero bones for clues to the Green Saharans' health and diet. Other scientists are trying to derive DNA from the teeth, which could reveal the genetic origins of the Kiffian and Tenerian—and possibly link them to descendants living today. Sereno and Garcea estimate a hundred burials remain to be excavated. But as the harsh Ténéré winds continue to erode the dunes, time is running out. "Every archaeological site has a life cycle," Garcea said. "It begins when people begin to use the place, followed by disuse, then nature takes over, and finally it is gone. Gobero is at the end of its life."


In February of 2007, as the team was making plans to return to Niger, hostilities broke out again between some of Niger's Tuareg groups and the government. By December, Human Rights Watch had reported scores of soldiers and civilians had been killed or injured in clashes and by land mines. The government declared emergency rule in the region, prohibiting foreigners from traveling to the Ténéré. Sereno and Garcea were forced to cancel the 2007 and 2008 dig seasons. Meanwhile, the wind blows across Gobero, and the desert continues to consume the last remnants of the Green Sahara.



Defences at Troy reveal larger town

From The Times

September 19, 2008

Normand Hammond, Archaeology Correspondent


Ancient Troy was much bigger than previously thought, and may have housed as many as 10,000 people, new excavations have revealed. The lower town, in which most of the population would have lived, may have been as large as 40 hectares (100 acres), according to Professor Ernst Pernicka. The new data include two large storage pithoi found near the city’s boundary ditch. The pots, which may have been as much as 2 metres high, were kept in or near homes, suggesting that houses in the lower town stretched to its limits, another indication that Troy’s lower town was fully inhabited and the city was bigger than revealed in previous expeditions, Professor Pernicka told reporters at the opening of a new exhibition on Troy. “They were used for storing water, oil or maybe grain.”


Troy has been a controversial site ever since Heinrich Schliemann and Frank Calvert pinpointed it at Hissarlik, near the Turkish city of Canakkale, more than a century ago. The reality of the Trojan War has been equally contentious, although Homer’s account fits the topography around Hissarlik remarkably well, and it seems likely that the Iliad does indeed reflect a conflict around 1180BC, towards the end of the Aegean Bronze Age.


For a long time Homer was doubted, because his description of Achilles chasing Hector around the walls did not fit well with the small site that can be seen at Hissarlik today. Excavations by the late Manfred Korfmann showed that this Troy was just the citadel and that a much larger lower town lay south of it enclosed by a rock-cut ditch (The Times, February 25, 2002).


Professor Pernicka’s continuation of Korfmann’s work has confirmed the substantial nature of this defensive work, which was probably backed by a now-vanished rampart. He has traced it for 1.4 kilometres, and showed it to be 4 metres wide and 2 metres deep.


The length of the defences may be as much as 2.5 kilometres. “This year we established that the trench continues around the town. We’ve found a southern gate, a southeastern gate, traces of a southwestern gate and I expect to find an eastern gate. So we have evidence of town planning,” he said, noting that the new evidence refutedKorfmann’s critics, who claimed that the trench was for drainage and did not indicate any substantial defences.



Discovery of Bronze-Age `Refrigerators' Expands Homer's Troy

Interview by Catherine Hickley, Berlin

Sept. 17 (Bloomberg)


The remains of two outsized earthenware pots, a ditch and evidence of a gate dating back more than 3,000 years are changing scholars' perceptions about the city of Troy at the time Homer's ``Iliad'' was set.


The discoveries this year show that Troy's lower town was much bigger in the late Bronze Age than previously thought, according to Ernst Pernicka, the University of Tubingen professor leading excavations on the site in northwestern Turkey.


His team has uncovered a trench 1.4 kilometers long, 4 meters wide and 2 meters deep. The full length of the trench, which probably encircled the city and served a defensive purpose, may be as much as 2.5 kilometers, Pernicka said in an interview in his office in Mannheim, Germany. Troy may have been as big as 40 hectares, with a population as high as 10,000, he estimates.


``Troy was not the center of the world, but it was a regional hub,'' Pernicka said. ``This year, we established that the trench continues around the town. We've found a southern gate, a southeastern gate, traces of a southwestern gate and I expect to find an eastern gate. So we have evidence of town planning.''


The discovery of the trench around the lower town vindicates Pernicka's predecessor, Manfred Korfmann, who faced accusations from a fellow German scholar that he was misleading the public in his interpretation of the ditch, which might have been for drainage. After Korfmann died in 2005, Pernicka took over his work and aims to publish the results of 20 years of digging and research.


``I think we have proven that the trench was not for drainage,'' Pernicka said.


Excavating Troy is a challenge because the city was destroyed and rebuilt 10 times. Archaeologists have to sift through layers of Byzantine, Roman and Greek building to get to Troy VI and VIIa, the era in which the action in Homer's Trojan war epic is most likely to have been set, between 1500 and 1180 B.C.


Parts of two ceramic ``pithoi,'' or pitchers, were found in the trench near the edge of the town. The pots, which could be as much as 2 meters tall, were kept in or near homes, suggesting that houses in the lower town stretched to the trench, another indication that Troy's lower town was fully inhabited and the city was bigger than revealed in previous expeditions, Pernicka said.


``You can call them Bronze-Age refrigerators,'' he said. ``They were used for storing water, oil or maybe grain.''


Troy's wealth -- first discovered by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who excavated a hoard of gold from the site in the 19th century -- probably came from agriculture and horse breeding, Pernicka said. Hittite texts call the city Wilusa and describe it as a vassal state to the Hittite empire.


Pernicka sees no reason to question that the site in the western Anatolia region of Turkey is the setting for the ``Iliad,'' as a small minority of scholars still do. Homer described the topography, identifying rivers and islands that are visible today. Yet though there is evidence of conflicts, no archaeologist can prove that the Trojan War took place, he said.


``The Iliad speaks of a 10-year war,'' Pernicka said. ``That could be a metaphor. It could be that events that took place over decades were squeezed together. In Troy VIIa, in the 13th century B.C., there must have been an increased threat because at least three gates in the citadel were closed. The surrounding region was also much less populated than in the previous era.''


What archaeology has shown is that Troy's golden era ended in 1180. Where preceding Trojans had used potters' wheels for about 1,000 years, ceramics found on the site show the technology was lost with the arrival of a new people, probably from the Balkans, who reverted to hand-made pots. The newcomers also built their houses in a completely different style.


``Many other towns in the eastern Mediterranean declined at this time,'' Pernicka said. ``It could have been a kind of world war at the end of the Bronze Age.''


Funding for Pernicka's excavations runs out next year. One of the main projects for the future is a museum in Troy that will double as a research center. The Turkish government has promised funds for an architecture competition, and Pernicka hopes to find sponsors to help finance the museum.


Of the 500,000 visitors to Troy each year, about 80 percent are tourists, he said.


``They don't come just to see traces of walls,'' he said. ``In Troy, you have to imagine a lot, and you can only do that if you have read the `Iliad.' We can't expect, say, Chinese or Japanese tourists to have done that. It is important because it is the roots of Western culture, and that is something you can show much better in a museum.''


The findings of the latest Troy excavations form part of an exhibition at Mannheim's Reiss-Engelhorn-Museum, called ``Homer: The Myth of Troy in Poetry and Art,'' which runs through Jan. 18, 2009.


To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin

Last Updated: September 16, 2008 22:00 EDT



The Ptolemies through plexi-glass

The committee to establish Egypt's proposed underwater museum will have its first meeting next month in Alexandria, Nevine El-Aref reports


The history of a city caught in a time-warp when it was submerged by the sea while it was part of a unique civilisation that once held sway over much of the ancient world will, in the near future, be accessible and visible to all visitors to Alexandria. The International Scientific Advisory Committee is meeting in October to discuss plans for Egypt's first offshore underwater museum.


On the seabed of Alexandria's Eastern Harbour lie the royal quarters of the Ptolemaic dynasty complete with temples, palaces and streets. Queen Cleopatra's Palace and Antirhodos Island, now near the centre of the harbour between Qait Bay fortress to the north, Silsila on the east and Mahattat Al-Raml to the south, were in the same position.


These magnificent monuments were hidden beneath the waves after sinking in antiquity until 1996, when a joint mission by the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), with sponsorship from the Hilti Foundation of Liechtenstein, began scientific and archaeological studies in the Eastern Harbour.


Initial discoveries included the remains of the submerged royal quarter, among which were columns, statues, granite blocks, a sphinx, pavements and ceramics. The mission also identified the island of Antirhodos, the site of one of Cleopatra's palaces, the peninsula where Mark Antony's palace stood, the Timonium, was located, the Poseidon sanctuary and the royal harbour of Cape Lochias.


In 1997 the mission continued its underwater excavations and discovered the reefs at the entrance of the Magnus Portus. They also found the ancient coastline with its ruins revealing the inner palace, temples and administrative buildings. Evidence was also discovered suggesting that ships were docking in Antirhodos even before Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great. Archeologists have previously assumed that the whole of the Ptolemaic city of Alexandria, built by Alexander and developed through to the Byzantine era, particularly the fourth century when Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Roman empire, lay beneath the modern city. Excavations at Kom Al-Dikka and other areas in central Alexandria have thrown up only isolated historical cameos, but these latest discoveries will, one hopes, enable historians and archeologists to trace a continuity from before the settlement of the ancient city, through its growth, development and decline. Further excavations in the harbour uncovered a 2,000 year-old shipwreck, statues, columns, platforms, docks and ruins dating from the time of Cleopatra.


The mission then turned to underwater excavations at Abu Qir Bay, where they found the sunken fleet of Napoleon Bonaparte along with the submerged cities of Heracleion and Canopus. These two cities figure prominently in ancient history and Greek legend, but their discovery cast fresh light on urban areas of the Mediterranean that predated Alexandria.


The discoveries included the ruins of the great temple of Heracleion, dedicated to Amun and Heracles- Khonsu. There were also giant statues of gods, kings and their consorts; as well as stelae, domestic implements, pottery, jewellery, and even the ruins of the wall of the inundated city, not to mention no fewer than the wrecks of nine wooden ships.


These excavations revealed important parts of a lost world, not only the ancient city of Heracleion and the eastern reaches of Canopus but a sunken part of the Great Port of Alexandria and the city's legendary royal quarter. The finds shed new light on the history of those cities and on the history of Egypt as a whole over a period of almost 1,500 years, from the last Pharaonic dynasties in the Canopic region to the rise of the Ptolemies after the death of Alexander the Great, followed by Roman control, the advent of Christianity in Byzantine late antiquity and, finally, the dawn of the Islamic era.


Famed for its temples, especially those of the god-king Osiris, Canopus was the site where the goddess Isis was believed to have found the 14th and final part of Osiris's savaged body. According to Egyptian mythology, Osiris was murdered by his jealous brother Seth, who scattered the dismembered parts of his body all over Egypt. Isis, so legend has it, assembled the scattered pieces and placed them in a vase which was kept at Canopus. Osiris, who also summoned the annual floods, is often represented in the shape of a "canonic" vase with a stopper in the shape of a crowned head.


Following all these discoveries, all that was required was an underwater museum to make these monuments accessible to the public. However, setting up an offshore, submarine archaeological site anywhere is not an easy task, let alone in a city with the water pollution problems of Alexandria. Yet the remarkable discoveries made by underwater archaeologists over the last decade justify further serious efforts for what would be an invaluable cultural exercise.


The site and form gives cause for conjecture. Should it be in Alexandria's Eastern Harbour, the Sisila area or Abu Qir Bay? What will it look like? Should it resemble the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney or the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology at the spectacular Uluburun Wreck in Turkey, or the Musée de Marine in Paris? All these display a collection of sunken ship wrecks, flora and fauna.


These questions and more were raised at an international workshop held in 2006 to discuss the feasibility of constructing such a museum. On the table were a projected ground plan, an architectural design and a programme to study the environmental conditions of the Mediterranean Sea at Alexandria and its state of marine pollution, the socio-economic problems related to the success of the underwater archaeological museum project, and its urban impacts. The workshop was held under the umbrella of UNESCO and the Ministry of Culture at the Alexandria Art Creativity Centre, where a multidisciplinary team of 28 international and Egyptian experts were gathered.


During the workshop Culture Minister Farouk Hosni revealed that the aim of the workshop was not only to study the possibility of building the world's first ever underwater archaeological museum in Alexandria, but is also to set up international principles as a model or a pilot project for any country which wanted its own submarine museum. Singapore, China and Greece are on top of the list.


Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, described the initiative as a "beautiful dream" for Alexandria. He told the assembled experts that he had decided four years before to stop removing all ancient objects from the seabed with the exception of coins, jewellery and small artefacts that were vulnerable to looting.


"Hence, it is about time to think about an underwater museum to make such magnificent monuments accessible and visible to all," he said.


François Rivier, UNESCO's assistant director, reviewed UNESCO's efforts to protect and preserve the Alexandria monuments, especially the underwater sites. He also referred to previous attempts to establish an underwater museum between 1994 and 2001, the year UNESCO issued its convention on the protection of the underwater cultural heritage.


Rivier outlined the problems surrounding the establishment of a museum. Among the most serious issues was the sewage output into the sea, which obscured underwater visibility and led to a disturbing increase in pollution. Beyali Hosni El-Beyali, a consultant for the water and drainage company, said however that the Alexandria governorate had already closed the three main sewerage tunnels with outlets in the archaeological area. The closure was permanent, and they were only opened upon the governor's direct orders when it was considered necessary to let out rain water on stormy days. "For the last three years the tunnels have not been opened at all," El-Beyali pointed out.


El-Beyali told Al-Ahram Weekly that a new project aimed at upgrading Alexandria's sewage system was now under comprehensive study in order to find a way of separating the rain water drainage system from the city's waste water system, which would be diverted to a sewage station in the desert near king Maryut. "The on- land treated waste water will be used for cultivating woodland areas southwest of Alexandria," he said, adding that this project was scheduled to be implemented in three phases in cooperation with international experts and the International Monetary Fund.


Hosni explained that the projected museum would be one of the world's modern wonders. It would be on three floors, the first one an onshore building exhibiting the previously submerged objects from all over Alexandria -- not only the Eastern Harbour -- as well as any further items that might be discovered in the future and could not be left in situ. The second would contain important items from the sea that might be installed in their original environment and exhibited in aquariums. The third level would be an underwater plexi-glass tunnel providing a unique window on the sunken capital of the Ptolemies.


"This level would stretch only a few kilometres along the seabed, or round one area of the sunken city, in an attempt to provide us with a first experience by which we could judge the success of the technology and, if there are any disadvantages, avoid repeating them in further extensions," Hosni said.


"I would like visitors to be able to view this marvellous discovery in situ," Hawass said. "It would be the first underwater museum of its kind in the world and I'm sure we can meet the challenge."



How the barbarians drove Romans to build Venice

From The Times

September 17, 2008

Richard Owen in Rome


The hidden ruins of an ancient lagoon city that was the ancestor of Venice have been unearthed by scientists using satellite imaging. The outlines are clearly visible about three feet below the earth in what is now open countryside.


Venice was a powerful maritime power during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It seemed, however, an unlikely spot to choose for a leading world power, stretching across 118 small islands in the marshy saltwater Venetian lagoon.


Historians agree that the explanation is that Venice was founded on the islands by refugees from Roman cities such as Ravenna, Padua and Aquileia as they fled from invasions, first by Attila the Hun in the 5th century and then, a century later, by the Lombards, as the final remnants of the Roman Empire crumbled.


However, Paolo Mozzi, a researcher at the University of Padua geography department, said high-definition satellite photographs had revealed the ruins of an extensive town much closer to present day Venice at Altino – known in Roman times as Altinum – a little more than seven miles north of the city, close to Marco Polo airport.


“The hypothesis is that as Altinum also succumbed to the Barbarian invasions, the inhabitants fled farther down to the lagoon to build Venice on the islands, using some of the stones from their city,” he said. At its height, he said, Altinum had been an important trading and seafaring centre on the Adriatic, before it was overrun by Attila in the mid-5th century.


The newly identified ruins include streets, palaces, temples, squares and theatres, as well as a large amphitheatre and canals, showing that Altinum was a wealthy and thriving city. By the 10th century, however, it had been abandoned. “The city in which Venice had its origins finally has a face,” said the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.


Mr Mozzi said that Altinum probably had about 20,000 inhabitants. A plan to excavate the ruins is being drawn up at the universities of Padua and Venice, in collaboration with the Veneto region superintendent of archaeology.


The folk memory of Altinum is preserved in the names of several Venetian islands which are derived from districts of the abandoned Roman town: Torcello (from Torricellum), Murano (Ammurianum) and Burano (Porta Boreana). In the 9th-century the ducal seat of Venice was moved to Rialto island, which is still the city centre, where the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica of St Mark were erected. In 828 the relics of St Mark were taken to Venice from Alexandria and placed in the new basilica. They were later venerated as a symbol of the new Venice as it developed into a mighty naval and commercial power in the Middle Ages.



Ancestor city of Venice unearthed

Ruins of an ancient lagoon city that was the ancestor city of Venice have been found by scientists.

By Chris Irvine

Last Updated: 12:29PM BST 17 Sep 2008


Using satellite imaging, the outlines of the ruins can be clearly seen about three feet below the earth in what is now open countryside.


The discovery of the extensive town was found at Altino, known in Roman times as Altinum, more than seven miles north of Venice, and close to Marco Polo airport.


The ruins include streets, palaces, temples, squares and theatres, as well as a large amphitheatre and canals, showing Altinum was once a wealthy and thriving city.


Venice was a strong maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, stretching across 118 small islands in the marshy saltwater Venetian lagoon.


Historians agree that refugees fled to the islands from Roman cities such as Ravena, Padua and Aquileia after the Hun and Lombard invasions in the 5th and 6th century.


Paolo Mozzi, a researcher at the University of Padua geography department, said: "The hypothesis is that as Altinum also succumbed to the Barbarian invasions, the inhabitants fled farther down to the lagoon to build Venice on the islands, using some of the stones."


He added at its height, Altinum had been an important trading and seafaring centre on the Adriatic, before it was overrun by Attila in the mid-5th century.


A plan to excavate the ruins is now being drawn up at the universities of Padua and Venice, in collaboration with the Veneto region superintendent of archaeology.


The memory of Altinum is preserved in the names of several Venetian islands derived from districts of the abandoned Roman town - Torcello (from Torricellum) and Burano (Porta Boreana).



Roman skeleton may give TB clues


A newly-discovered Roman skeleton could be one of the earliest British victims of tuberculosis, experts believe.


Archaeologists hope the discovery will reveal clues about how the deadly disease spread across Britain.


The man's remains - which date from the fourth century AD - were found on a construction site at York University.


The first known case of TB in Britain is from the Iron Age - but finding cases from Roman times is still rare, especially in the north.


Most finds have been confined to the southern half of England.


If the new case is confirmed as TB it could provide scientists with a valuable tool to trace the movement of the disease as it is relatively rare for specimens to be discovered in the UK that date from any earlier than the 12th century.


Archaeologist Cath Neal, from the University of York said: "This was a remarkable find and detailed study of this skeleton will provide us with important clues about the emergence of tuberculosis in late-Roman Britain, but also information about what life was like in York more than 1,500 years ago.


"A burial such as this, close to living quarters, is unusual for this period when most burials were in formal cemeteries.


"It is possible that the man was buried here because the tuberculosis infection was so rare at the time, and people were reluctant to transport the body any distance."


The remains were discovered during archaeological investigations on the site of the university's £500m expansion at Heslington East.


He was interred in a shallow scoop in a flexed position, on his left side.


Tests showed he was between 26- and 35-years-old and suffered from iron deficiency anaemia during childhood.


The man was shorter than average for Roman males at 5ft 4in.


The skeleton was found close to the perimeter of the remains of a late-Roman masonry building discovered on the site, close to the route of an old Roman road between York and Barton-on-Humber.


Detailed analysis of the skeleton by Malin Holst, of York Osteoarchaeology Ltd, revealed that a likely cause of death was tuberculosis which affected the man's spine and pelvis.


She said that it is possible that he contracted the disease as a child from infected meat or milk from cattle, but equally the infection could have been inhaled into the lungs.


The disease then lay dormant until adulthood when the secondary phase of the disease took its toll.


Ms Holst said: "There were signs of muscular trauma and strong muscle attachments indicating that the individual undertook repeated physical activity while he was in good health.


"There was some intensive wear and chipping on his front teeth which may have been the result of repeated or habitual activity.


"There was evidence for infection of the bone in both lower limbs but this appeared to be healing at death."



Viking Age Triggered by Shortage of Wives?

Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

Sept. 17, 2008


During the Viking Age from the late eighth to the mid-eleventh centuries, Scandinavians tore across Europe attacking, robbing and terrorizing locals. According to a new study, the young warriors were driven to seek their fortunes to better their chances of finding wives.


The odd twist to the story, said researcher James Barrett, is that it was the selective killing of female newborns that led to a shortage of Scandinavian women in the first place, resulting later in intense competition over eligible women.


"Selective female infanticide was recorded as part of pagan Scandinavian practice in later medieval sources, such as the Icelandic sagas," Barrett, who is deputy director of Cambridge University's McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, told Discovery News.


Although it's believed many cultures throughout world history have practiced female infanticide, said Barrett, he admits that "it is difficult to identify in the archaeological record," so the claim "must remain a hypothesis."


To strengthen the argument, however, Barrett has reviewed and dismissed several other proposed causes for the Viking Age.


Improved seafaring technologies are often cited as the trigger, but he points out that an earlier migration from Scandinavia to Britain took place in the fifth and sixth centuries.


"Thus the development of the Viking ship cannot have been a cause of movements of this kind," he said. "Ships capable of carrying warriors over long distances are a necessary pre-requisite for the Viking Age, but clearly they did not cause it."


What's more, he points out, the sailing time from Norway to Ireland is quite short -- perhaps a week using vessels of the time -- so the Vikings were probably capable of raiding Ireland well before the official start of their reign of terror.


Barrett also dismisses other proposed causes of the Viking Age, such as climate change, overpopulation in Scandinavia, economic woes and more.


An intriguing archaeological clue is that much of the bounty plundered from Britain -- particularly from monasteries -- wound up later in the graves of Viking wives. The items included precious metals, fine cloth, jewelry and other handicrafts.


Barrett's analysis of Nordic historical records found that Scandinavian men often served as warriors, frequently forming "military brotherhoods," until they were able to marry and establish their own households, which were key to prestige and power.


According to Barrett, honor and religious fatalism -- the idea that the time and manner of death is predestined -- also fueled the Vikings, helping explain why men were willing to risk death in violent battles and risky seafaring. The Viking religion held that "the cosmos began in the frozen emptiness...and will end in fire with the last battle," said Barrett.


Despite the infanticide, he still believes the Vikings "highly valued" women. Aside from lavishing bridal prospects with plundered goods, they held solemn burials at sea for women. In fact, one of the most important known Viking Age burials, involved numerous goods and two female skeletons encased in a ship called the Oseberg.


Soren Sindbaek, assistant professor of medieval and Renaissance archaeology at Denmark's University of Aarhus, told Discovery News that the new paper "is very right in pointing out the inadequacy" of former explanations for the Viking Age.


"We need indeed to seek for an individual, social motivation behind the fact that a large number of young men chose to set out on extremely risky voyages in hopes of acquiring wealth and esteem in foreign lands," Sindbaek said.


"Barrett points to the wish of disadvantaged young men to acquire resources necessary to set up a family as crucial," he added. "This is the 'marriage imperative,' which I think Barrett succeeds in substantiating within the limitations of the evidence."


Barrett suggested additional studies on the Vikings since would help "to understand how small-scale societies -- and issues of a very human scale -- can have a large impact on world history, positive and/or negative."


The study is published in the current issue of Antiquity.



Ike helps uncover mystery vessel on Ala. coast

Fri Sep 19, 2:18 PM ET


FORT MORGAN, Ala. - When the waves from Hurricane Ike receded, they left behind a mystery — a ragged shipwreck that archeologists say could be a two-masted Civil War schooner that ran aground in 1862 or another ship from some 70 years later.


The wreck, about six miles from Fort Morgan, had already been partially uncovered when Hurricane Camille cleared away sand in 1969.


Researchers at the time identified it as the Monticello, a battleship that partially burned when it crashed trying to get past the U.S. Navy and into Mobile Bay during the Civil War.


After examining photos of the wreck post-Ike, Museum of Mobile marine archaeologist Shea McLean agreed it is likely the Monticello, which ran aground in 1862 after sailing from Havana, according to Navy records.


"Based on what we know of ships lost in that area and what I've seen, the Monticello is by far the most likely candidate," McLean said. "You can never be 100 percent certain unless you find the bell with 'Monticello' on it, but this definitely fits."


Other clues indicate it could be an early 20th century schooner that ran aground on the Alabama coast in 1933.


The wrecked ship is 136.9 feet long and 25 feet wide, according to Mike Bailey, site curator at Fort Morgan, who examined it this week. The Monticello was listed in shipping records as 136 feet long, McLean told the Press-Register of Mobile.


But Bailey said a 2000 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined the remains were the schooner Rachel, built at Moss Point, Miss., in 1919 and wrecked near Fort Morgan in 1933.


He said the wreckage appears to have components, such as steel cables, that would point to the Rachel rather than an 1860s schooner.


Glenn Forest, another archaeologist who examined the wreck, said a full identification would require an excavation.


"It's a valuable artifact," he said. "They need to get this thing inside before it falls apart or another storm comes along and sends it through those houses there like a bowling ball."


Meanwhile, curious beach-goers have been drawn to the remains of the wooden hull filled with rusted iron fittings. Fort Morgan was used as Union forces attacked in 1864 during the Battle of Mobile Bay.


"It's interesting, I can tell you that," said Terri Williams. "I've lived down here most of my life and I've never seen anything like this, and it's been right here."