Modern man 'a wimp', says anthropologist


Wednesday, 14 October 2009


Many prehistoric Australian aboriginals could have outrun world 100 and 200 metres record holder Usain Bolt in modern conditions.


Some Tutsi men in Rwanda exceeded the current world high jump record of 2.45 meters during initiation ceremonies in which they had to jump at least their own height to progress to manhood.


Any Neanderthal woman could have beaten former bodybuilder and current California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in an arm wrestle.


These and other eye-catching claims are detailed in a book by Australian anthropologist Peter McAllister entitled "Manthropology" and provocatively sub-titled "The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male."


McAllister sets out his stall in the opening sentence of the prologue.


"If you're reading this then you - or the male you have bought it for - are the worst man in history.


"No ifs, no buts -- the worst man, period...As a class we are in fact the sorriest cohort of masculine Homo sapiens to ever walk the planet."


Delving into a wide range of source material McAllister finds evidence he believes proves that modern man is inferior to his predecessors in, among other fields, the basic Olympic athletics disciplines of running and jumping.


His conclusions about the speed of Australian aboriginals 20,000 years ago are based on a set of footprints, preserved in a fossilized claypan lake bed, of six men chasing prey.


An analysis of the footsteps of one of the men, dubbed T8, shows he reached speeds of 37 kph on a soft, muddy lake edge. Bolt, by comparison, reached a top speed of 42 kph during his then world 100 meters record of 9.69 seconds at last year's Beijing Olympics.


In an interview in the English university town of Cambridge where he was temporarily resident, McAllister said that, with modern training, spiked shoes and rubberized tracks, aboriginal hunters might have reached speeds of 45 kph.


"We can assume they are running close to their maximum if they are chasing an animal," he said.


"But if they can do that speed of 37 kph on very soft ground I suspect there is a strong chance they would have outdone Usain Bolt if they had all the advantages that he does.


"We can tell that T8 is accelerating toward the end of his tracks."


McAllister said it was probable that any number of T8's contemporaries could have run as fast.


"We have to remember too how incredibly rare these fossilizations are," he said. "What are the odds that you would get the fastest runner in Australia at that particular time in that particular place in such a way that was going to be preserved?"


Turning to the high jump, McAllister said photographs taken by a German anthropologist showed young men jumping heights of up to 2.52 meters in the early years of last century.


"It was an initiation ritual, everybody had to do it. They had to be able to jump their own height to progress to manhood," he said.


"It was something they did all the time and they lived very active lives from a very early age. They developed very phenomenal abilities in jumping. They were jumping from boyhood onwards to prove themselves."


McAllister said a Neanderthal woman had 10 percent more muscle bulk than modern European man. Trained to capacity she would have reached 90 percent of Schwarzenegger's bulk at his peak in the 1970s.


"But because of the quirk of her physiology, with a much shorter lower arm, she would slam him to the table without a problem," he said.


Manthropology abounds with other examples:





McAllister said it was difficult to equate the ancient spear with the modern javelin but added: "Given other evidence of Aboriginal man's superb athleticism you'd have to wonder whether they couldn't have taken out every modern javelin event they entered."


Why the decline?


"We are so inactive these days and have been since the industrial revolution really kicked into gear," McAllister replied. "These people were much more robust than we were.


"We don't see that because we convert to what things were like about 30 years ago. There's been such a stark improvement in times, technique has improved out of sight, times and heights have all improved vastly since then but if you go back further it's a different story.


"At the start of the industrial revolution there are statistics about how much harder people worked then.


"The human body is very plastic and it responds to stress. We have lost 40 percent of the shafts of our long bones because we have much less of a muscular load placed upon them these days.


"We are simply not exposed to the same loads or challenges that people were in the ancient past and even in the recent past so our bodies haven't developed. Even the level of training that we do, our elite athletes, doesn't come close to replicating that.


"We wouldn't want to go back to the brutality of those days but there are some things we would do well to profit from."



New discoveries at world's oldest submerged town

16 October 2009 University of Nottingham,


Archaeologists surveying the world’s oldest submerged town have found ceramics dating back to the Final Neolithic. Their discovery suggests that Pavlopetri, off the southern Laconia coast of Greece, was occupied some 5,000 years ago — at least 1,200 years earlier than originally thought.


These remarkable findings have been made public by the Greek government after the start of a five year collaborative project involving the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and The University of Nottingham.


As a Mycenaean town the site offers potential new insights into the workings of Mycenaean society. Pavlopetri has added importance as it was a maritime settlement from which the inhabitants coordinated local and long distance trade.


The Pavlopetri Underwater Archaeology Project aims to establish exactly when the site was occupied, what it was used for and through a systematic study of the geomorphology of the area, how the town became submerged.


This summer the team carried out a detailed digital underwater survey and study of the structural remains, which until this year were thought to belong to the Mycenaean period — around 1600 to 1000 BC. The survey surpassed all their expectations. Their investigations revealed another 150 square metres of new buildings as well as ceramics that suggest the site was occupied throughout the Bronze Age — from at least 2800 BC to 1100 BC.


The work is being carried out by a multidisciplinary team led by Mr Elias Spondylis, Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture in Greece and Dr Jon Henderson, an underwater archaeologist from the Department of Archaeology at The University of Nottingham.


Dr Jon Henderson said: “This site is unique in that we have almost the complete town plan, the main streets and domestic buildings, courtyards, rock-cut tombs and what appear to be religious buildings, clearly visible on the seabed. Equally as a harbour settlement, the study of the archaeological material we have recovered will be extremely important in terms of revealing how maritime trade was conducted and managed in the Bronze Age.”


Possibly one of the most important discoveries has been the identification of what could be a megaron — a large rectangular great hall — from the Early Bronze Age period. They have also found over 150 metres of new buildings including what could be the first example of a pillar crypt ever discovered on the Greek mainland. Two new stone built cist graves were also discovered alongside what appears to be a Middle Bronze Age pithos burial.


Mr Spondylis said: “It is a rare find and it is significant because as a submerged site it was never re-occupied and therefore represents a frozen moment of the past.”


The Archaeological Co-ordinator Dr Chrysanthi Gallou a postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Nottingham is an expert in Aegean Prehistory and the archaeology of Laconia.


Dr Gallou said: “The new ceramic finds form a complete and exceptional corpus of pottery covering all sub-phases from the Final Neolithic period (mid 4th millennium BC) to the end of the Late Bronze Age (1100 BC). In addition, the interest from the local community in Laconia has been fantastic. The investigation at Pavlopetri offers a great opportunity for them to be actively involved in the preservation and management of the site, and subsequently for the cultural and touristic development of the wider region.”


The team was joined by Dr Nicholas Flemming, a marine geo-archaeologist from the Institute of Oceanography at the University of Southampton, who discovered the site in 1967 and returned the following year with a team from Cambridge University to carry out the first ever survey of the submerged town. Using just snorkels and tape measures they produced a detail plan of the prehistoric town which consisted of at least 15 separate buildings, courtyards, streets, two chamber tombs and at least 37 cist graves. Despite the potential international importance of Pavlopetri no further work was carried out at the site until this year.


This year, through a British School of Archaeology in Athens permit, The Pavlopetri Underwater Archaeology Project began its five year study of the site with the aim of defining the history and development of Pavlopetri.


Four more fieldwork seasons are planned before their research is published in full in 2014.


To see the expedition for yourself, watch the video podcast on YouTube — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kepaQu4uerg


And on the University's Podcast website — http://communications.nottingham.ac.uk/podcasts.html





Has the original Labyrinth been found?

Archaeologists shed new light on the inspiration for the Greek myth.

Steve Connor

Friday, 16 October 2009


A disused stone quarry on the Greek island of Crete which is riddled with an elaborate network of underground tunnels could be the original site of the ancient Labyrinth, the mythical maze that housed the half-bull, half-man Minotaur of Greek legend.


An Anglo-Greek team of scholars who undertook an expedition to the quarry this summer believes that the site, near the town of Gortyn in the south of the island, has just as much claim to be the place of the Labyrinth as the Minoan palace at Knossos 20 miles away, which has been synonymous with the Minotaur myth since its excavation a century ago.


The 600,000 people a year who visit the ruins at Knossos are told the site was almost certainly the home of the legendary King Minos, who was supposed to have constructed the Labyrinth to house the Minotaur, a fearsome creature born out of a union between the king's wife and a bull.


But the scholars behind the latest expedition to find the Labyrinth believe the cave complex near Gortyn, which was the ancient Roman capital of Crete, could be an equally plausible candidate for the site of the Labyrinth – if indeed there was any truth in the idea that the myth was based on a real place and a real king.


Nicholas Howarth, an Oxford University geographer who led the expedition, said there was a danger of Gortyn being lost from the story of the Labyrinth because of the overpowering position that Knossos had taken in the legend, a position fostered by Arthur Evans, a wealthy English archaeologist who excavated the site between 1900 and 1935.


"People come not just to see the controversial ruins excavated and reconstructed by Evans, but also to seek a connection to the mythical past of the Age of Heroes. It is a shame that almost all visitors to Knossos have never heard of these other possible 'sites' for the mythical Labyrinth," Mr Howarth said.


Working with experts from the Hellenic Speleological Society, the Oxford researchers found that the cave complex at Gortyn had been visited recently by archaeological thieves who were preparing to dynamite one of the inner chambers in the hope of discovering a hidden treasure room.


The caves, which are known locally as the Labyrinthos Caves, consist of about two and half miles of interlocking tunnels with widened chambers and dead-end rooms. They have been visited since medieval times by travellers looking for the Labyrinth, but since Knossos was rediscovered at the end of the 19th century they were neglected, and were even used as a Nazi ammunition dump during the Second World War.


"Going into the Labyrinthos Caves at Gortyn it's easy to feel that this is a dark and dangerous place where it is easy to get lost. Evans' hypothesis that the palace of Knossos is also the Labyrinth must be treated sceptically," Mr Howarth said.


"The fact that this idea prevails so strongly in the popular imagination seems more to do with our romantic yearning to believe in the stories of the past, coupled with the power of Evans' personality and privileged position," he said.


In addition to Knossos and Gortyn, there is a third cave complex at Skotino on the Greek mainland that could also be a contender for the site of the Labyrinth. "If we look at the archaeological facts, it is extremely difficult to say that a Labyrinth ever existed... I think that each site has its claim to the mystery of the Labyrinth, but in the end there are questions that neither archaeology nor mythology can ever completely hope to answer," Mr Howarth said.


Andrew Shapland, curator of Greek Bronze Age at the British Museum in London, said the siting of the Labyrinth was a "hoary old chestnut" that refused to go away. Gortyn has been visited by travellers looking for the Labyrinth since the 12th century.


"But I think Knossos really has a better claim because it is based on the classical tradition rather than the later tradition of travellers," Dr Shapland said. "Knossos is mentioned in Homer. If the Labyrinth is a real thing, it was the way in which a site such as Knossos was transmitted into later Greek myth."



Body Part Mummified With Egyptian Recipe

Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News

Oct. 15, 2009


Swiss researchers have succeeded in mummifying a body part using the salty recipe of the ancient Egyptians.


One of the goals of the project is to find out how much the mummification process damages the DNA.


The experiment, which has been running for more than four months, takes inspiration from a 1994 study by Ronald Wade, director of Maryland's State Anatomical Board, and Bob Brier, one of the leading experts on mummies and Egyptology.


During that study, Brier and Wade replicated for the first time Egyptian mummification using the tools and procedures of the ancient embalmers.


"We are trying to improve on that important experiment using the most up-to-date methods, such as radiological technology, magnetic resonance imaging and computer tomography. It's a unique project, the first of its kind," Swiss anatomist and paleopathologist Frank Ruhli told Discovery News.


While Brier and Wade used a complete male body, Ruhli, head of the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich, used two legs which were severed from a female donor body.


One leg was used in a control study and placed in an oven at 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) with low humidity to reproduce natural mummification as it occurred in the Egyptian desert.


The other leg was placed on an embalming pine board and covered with natron, a white, salt-like substance used by the Egyptians to dry out the corpse.


A blend of four sodium compounds, natron, was the key ingredient in the ancient Egyptian mummification process, which required the removal all internal organs except the heart through a four-inch incision on the body's left side.



After the brain was extracted through the nose, packets of natron were placed in the previously washed body cavity, and finally natron was heaped over the corpse. The salt-like substance was also applied to dry out the removed internal organs, which were then placed in jars.


Protecting bodies from decay and preserving them in a recognizable form was extremely important for the ancient Egyptians, who believed that people needed their bodies in the afterlife.


Bodies were embalmed as early as 2613 to 2494 B.C., under the pharaohs of the 4th dynasty. However,as early as 5000 B.C., bodies were preserved by burying them in the heat and dryness of the desert sand.


The most effective techniques were used between 1567 and 1200 B.C. Linen wrappings were treated with plant oils, resins and other organic substances in order to provide an antibacterial and impermeable coating against the humidity of underground tombs.


However, natron remained the most important ingredient in the mummification process.


"Our experiment demonstrated that it is indeed possible to mummify a human using natron. Actually, you would need a lot of it. There is no doubt that the natron industry was a large one in ancient Egypt," Brier told Discovery News.


For the 1994 experiment, some 273 kilograms (601 pounds) of natron were used. Ruhli has used some 60 kg (132 pounds) just for the leg. Surprisingly, natron dehydration in the Swiss lab took longer than the 30 to 40 days reported by Greek historian Herodotus and other ancient writers.


"After three months, magnetic resonance imaging showed that the leg still has pockets of humidity," Ruhli said.


However, the leg already appeared like that of an ancient mummy, suggesting that not only time, but also natron cause a mummy to look the way it does.


"The leg is stiff, especially the feet area rather than the thigh area," Ruhli said.


As for the control leg, it failed to dehydrate and started to decompose after a week.


Unlike his U.S. colleagues, Ruhli does not plan to follow the natron dehydration with linen wrapping.


"Wrapping does not improve mummification, but preservation, which is not an issue for our experiment. Rather we possibly may re-soak the leg in water to see how much original morphology can be regained," Ruhli said.


Brier, who at the moment is working on a similar project with his mummies, found Ruhli's experiment very interesting.


"It is a very important project. Using the latest technologies for moment-by-moment analysis certainly adds to our knowledge on the ancient mummification process," Brier said.



Experts find rare Crusader-era murals in Syria

By ALBERT AJI and BASSEM MROUE (AP) – 3 days ago


DAMASCUS, Syria — Archaeologists have discovered two Crusader-era murals depicting heaven and hell in a medieval church on Syria's coast — a rare find that could reveal new information about the Christian knights who battled Muslims for control of the Holy Land hundreds of years ago.


Experts are now renovating the 12th century paintings, which were discovered last year by a joint Syrian-Hungarian team excavating an old Crusader fortress on a hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean in the eastern city of Tartous.


The murals, which measure about 8 feet (2.5 meters) high and 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) wide, were hanging on either side of the altar of a 12th century chapel inside the al-Marqab Citadel and had accumulated thick layers of dust and dirt, archaeologists said.


The panel depicting hell shows people being tortured inside a wheel covered with knives and others being hanged and burnt, said Marwan Hassan, head of the Department of Antiquities in Tartous. The one portraying heaven includes saints surrounded by light colors.


Hassan said the Crusader murals were important because they were the first ones found in the Middle East depicting heaven and hell.


Authorities have restricted access to the paintings while archaeologists finish their excavation


"Crusaders did not stay in one place for a long time, and so it very rare to find such paintings left behind by them," Michel Makdisi, head of excavations at Syria's Directorate General of Antiquities, told The Associated Press.


Bassam Jamous, the country's director-general of ruins and museums, told the state-run Al-Thawra newspaper last week that the paintings could provide information about the traditions and beliefs of the Crusaders.


Pope Urban II ordered the First Crusade in 1095 to establish Christian control of the Holy Land. European Crusaders soon took Jerusalem, but they lost it in 1187 to the famed Muslim leader Saladin.


The al-Marqab Citadel in Tartous, located some 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of the Syrian capital of Damascus, is believed to be the place where Richard the Lionheart, the former king of England, landed at the beginning of the Third Crusade, which was prompted by Saladin's capture of Jerusalem.


Syria, once a regional trade center, is home to several imposing Crusader fortresses, including the famed Krak des Chevaliers — Castle of the Knights — that Lawrence of Arabia called the best in the world.


Associated Press Writers Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam reported from Beirut.



Ancient Artisans' Footprints Discovered Beneath Lod Mosaic

by Hana Levi Julian

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The ancient footprints of the artisans who built a stunning 1,700-year-old mosaic floor in Lod were discovered recently, when conservators from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) were in the process of detaching the huge work of art from the ground.


As the conservation experts worked on the plaster bedding to be done before detaching the mosaic, they were surprised to notice there were ancient foot and sandal prints beneath it. Clearly, the builders that had worked on the floor sometimes wore their sandals, and sometimes worked in their bare feet.


"It's exciting. This is the first time I have ever encountered personal evidence such as this under a mosaic," said Jacques Neguer, head of the IAA Art Conservation Branch, who referred to it as "a real archaeological gem that is extraordinarily well-preserved."  When removing a section of mosaic, it is customary to clean its bedding, and that way study the material from which it is made, and the construction stages, Neguer explained. "We look for drawings and sketches that the artists made in the plaster and marked where each of the tesserae will be placed."


Neguer said this is also what happened with the Lod mosaic. "Beneath a piece on which vine leaves are depicted, we discovered that the mosaic's builders incised lines that indicate where the tesserae should be set, and afterwards, while cleaning the layer, we found the imprints of the feet and sandals, sizes 34, 37, 42 and 44." At least one imprint of a sole resembled a modern sandal, he added. Based on the concentration of foot and sandal prints, "it seems that the group of builders tamped the mortar in place with their feet."


The mosaic is one of the largest and most magnificent ever seen in Israel, but although it was discovered in 1996, it was covered over again when no resources could be found for its conservation. Thirteen years later, the IAA received a contribution from the Leon Levy Foundation specifically earmarked for the preservation and development of the Lod site. The mosaic was re-excavated, exhibited to the public, and then conservators began the delicate process of removing it from the area for treatment in the IAA conservation laboratories in Jerusalem.


Measuring approximately 180 square meters, the mosaic is composed of colorful carpets that depict in exquisite detail mammals, birds, fish, floral species and sailing and merchant vessels that were in use at the time. It is believed that the mosaic floor was part of a villa that belonged to a wealthy man who lived during the Roman period.


The site, which is located in the eastern section of Lod, next to the entrance at Ginnaton Junction, is intended to become a springboard for tourism to the city. It is situated between HeHalutz and Struma Streets, which lead to the open air market and to the city's center.


"It is fascinating to discover a 1,700 year old personal mark of people who are actually like us, who worked right here on the same mosaic," Neguer remarked. "We feel the continuity of generations here."



Statue fragment shown to be Nero


Experts say they have proved a statue fragment found in West Sussex depicts the Roman emperor Nero as a young man.


Scientists from Bournemouth University have spent the day at Fishbourne Roman Palace using a 3D laser scanner to make a full head image from the fragment.


The confirmation that the head is that of the young Nero makes it only the third piece of its kind in the world.


The others are in the Museo Nazionale d'Antichita in Parma and the Musee du Louvre in Paris.


"For us, it is incredibly significant," said Dr Rob Symmonds, curator of Fishbourne Roman Palace.


"We have always known Fishbourne is an internationally important site.


"This reminds us that any one of the 100,000 objects found at this site could throw up an amazing surprise at any moment."


The fragment was found in the mid-1960s but was thought to depict the child of someone who lived at the palace.


Most portraits of Nero were destroyed after he killed himself, having been declared an enemy of the state.


Dr Miles Russell, from Bournemouth University, said: "It is a very well executed piece, it is extremely lifelike and made out of Italian marble which had been imported here.


"It is a very expensive artefact, which has been smashed into pieces before being buried in foundation rubble."


The digital image produced by the scanner was compared with the known depictions of Nero in Parma and Paris.


Dr Russell said he was 100% confident they matched.


"He has that very distinctive hair over his ears and very distinctive almond eyes," he said.



Bronze Age burial site unearthed at former rugby club


Last updated: 15/10/2009 09:00:00


A Bronze Age burial site has been unearthed by archaeologists excavating the former home of a Suffolk rugby club.


The two fields which served as the home of Sudbury Rugby Club in nearby Great Cornard are the source of great excitement for a team of archaeologists working at the site.


Since moving into the site off The Mead in July teams from Suffolk County Council's Archaeological Service have discovered a haul of artefacts dating back to around 3,000 BC.


The dig has gone ahead as part of a future redevelopment of the site by Persimmon Homes which has paid for the excavation as part of its agreement to build hundreds of new homes in Great Cornard.


One field has been fully excavated and work on the second one is underway and proving fruitful with struck flint, used for making tools, Saxon pottery and even knife blades among the finds.


Jo Caruth, senior project officer for the dig, said: “It is very exciting we are able to dig these two adjacent ring ditches and we are hoping it will tell us a bit more about Bronze Age burial rites.


“It also helps enhance the picture of the landscape in that area of Great Cornard.”


The fertile south-facing valleys, such as those of the River Stour, are known to be a rich area for such sites and their locations become apparent through crop circles visible in aerial photographs. Trenches are then dug evenly around the circle typically uncovering 30% of it to give a good representation of what is beneath the site.


Mo Muldowney, archaeological project officer at the Great Cornard dig, said the site was found to be associated with pre-historic burial practices and further analysis will determine whether they have human remains.


“It is a funerary landscape which basically means it is where they built their monument to bury people,” she said. “The second ring ditch is slightly smaller and there appears to be the remains of some mound material.”


A team of 12 archaeologists is involved in hand digging the site due to the sensitivity of the operation and estimate there is another 5-6 weeks work left on the second field.


Artefacts uncovered are currently being quantified and dated back at their offices in Bury St Edmunds ahead of further analysis. Unless treasure is found they will go into storage and may end up at a local museum.



Knot found in hoard jewels


Archaeologists have discovered a Staffordshire Knot symbol among the treasures of the Staffordshire Hoard, making the county sign 500 years older than previously thought.


The discovery comes as it emerged a National Lottery bid is being put together to keep the Hoard in the region.


Images of the knot were found on a gold artefact, not previously displayed, that was dug up from a field near Brownhills this summer.


The symbol was believed to originate from the 11th century, but the gold artefact dates back to at least the sixth century.


The discovery will add more weight to calls to keep the Staffordshire Hoard in the region – and it emerged today that a National Lottery bid may centre on plans to create an exhibition at Shugborough or the County Buildings in Stafford.


Staffordshire County Council is putting together the bid to keep the Hoard, which would become a world-class tourist attraction. Council leader Councillor Philip Atkins said: “The Staffordshire knot found on one of the items was 500 years older than the oldest known use of the county symbol.”


The council has just chosen to use the knot in its logo in a re-branding exercise. The knot may have originated as a heraldic device for the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia.


The find of more than 1,500 gold and silver objects by metal detectorist Terry Herbert from Burntwood was the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found and is expected to be valued at more than £1 million. It is now at the British Museum to be valued.


A temporary display of some objects from the hoard is due to open in the British Museum on November 3 following the recent exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.



Ancient cult of the Viking kings

Tuesday, 13 October 2009 12:53 CF Culture


Could a large mud building unearthed in Lejre have been a cult place or beer hall of the ancient Viking kings?


The hall, 48 metres long and seven metres across, overlooks the site of a Viking palace unearthed in 1986 in what is an historic area of Denmark.


‘We are sure we have found a royal building of some sort,’ said Tom Christensen, curator of Roskilde Museum at the time. ‘The odd thing about the site is that it is littered with bits and pieces of exquisite golden jewellery, glass and bronze broaches, high quality artifacts, such as drinking glasses and ceramics, which all seem to have been deliberately smashed in some ritual.’

‘There is also a huge pile of cooking stones from primitive ovens. This was obviously a place frequented by the upper classes of the Iron Age. Maybe it was some sort of beer hall or a sacred site where cult or religious activities were carried out. The building’s post holes are over a metre deep, so it must have been an impressive construction,’ said Christensen.


A large part of the rolling countryside around the hamlet of Lejre, near the cathedral town of Roskilde, an area which abounds in ancient burial mounds and Viking stone tombs, has been designated as an archaeological site.


Here, archaeologists have been excavating since 1986 in the hope of finding the ancient seat of Denmark’s first Viking kings. The sagas say that Leje was the chief city of Denmark’s first Viking royal family – the Skjold, or in English ‘Scylding’ dynasty – dating back to around AD 400-500. Nordic myths tell us that King Skjold, which means ‘shield’ in Danish, was so named because he made his first mysterious appearance asleep in a boat, lying on his shield.


The Scylding dynasty lasted at least a century, through Skjold’s successors Halfdan, Roar, Helge and Rolf Krake. The oldest known reference to the dynasty’s heroic and bloody exploits is in the eighth century Anglo-Saxon epic poem ‘Beowulf’, often called the first major work of English literature.


Set in the period of the Germanic migrations in the fourth to seventh centuries, the poem places the Scylding King Hrothgar’s Hall, Hereot, at Lejre, while Saxo Grammaticus, a 13th century chronicler who compiled a history of both legendary and historical Danish kings, also identified Lejre as an ancient royal seat.


Many modern Beowulf scholars identify Hereot with Lejre and, with the discovery of the hall, Danish archaeologists believed they had finally found the site. ‘The date of the cult place fits perfectly with the era of the Scyldings,’ Christensen said.


In 1986 archaeologists discovered a major upturned boat-shaped Viking longhouse, but only the foundations of the huge hall and outhouses remained as the original construction had been of wood. The 50-metre-long, 10-metre-high longhouse was twice the size of any similar hall discovered in Denmark, leading archaeologists to believe they had stumbled on a royal palace from the time of the sagas.


The dimensions of the hall were calculated from 200 posthole marks on the ground from the huge oak beams that supported the walls and roof. There were signs on the site of earlier constructions, dams, windmills and other buildings including a bronze foundry, workshops and outlining fencing, underlining the importance of the Lejre settlement.


A museum now occupies a plot of land near the site. The English web address for the Lejre Museum is www.english.lejre-centre.dk