Sophisticated hunters not to blame for driving mammoths to extinction

Ian Sample, science correspondent

guardian.co.uk, Thursday 19 November 2009 19.00 GMT


Woolly mammoths and other large, lumbering beasts faced extinction long before early humans perfected their skills as spearmakers, scientists say.


The prehistoric giants began their precipitous decline nearly 2,000 years before our ancestors turned stone fragments into sophisticated spearpoints at the end of the last ice age.


The animals, which included mammoths, elephant-sized mastodons and beavers the size of black bears, were probably picked off by more inept hunters who only much later developed specialised weapons when their prize catches became scarce.


"Some people thought humans arrived and decimated the populations of these animals in a few hundred years, but what we've found is not consistent with that rapid 'blitzkrieg' overkill of large animals," said Jacquelyn Gill, a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who led the research team.


Archaeological evidence shows that humans developed advanced spearheads around 13,000 years ago. The Clovis people of North America crafted speartips with deep grooves that made wounds bleed freely. With these, hunters did not have to kill their prey on the spot, but could wait for the beasts to bleed to death.


The rise of the Clovis culture was thought to coincide with the demise of the woolly mammoth and other slow-moving giants on the continent, leading many researchers to suspect the animals died at the ends of the hunters' spears.


Gill's team rules this out by putting a more accurate date on the decline and fall of woolly mammoths and more than 30 other large mammals that dominated the landscape as the ice sheets retreated from North America. Among them were giant sloths the size of SUVs.


To date the animals' slide to extinction, the scientists examined sediment cores from a lake in Indiana. The deepest sediments were laid down in the distant past, while more recent sediments were nearer the surface.


Specifically, the scientists measured levels of a fungus that is known to thrive in the excrement of giant herbivorous mammals and nowhere else. They reasoned that more fungal spores meant more dung, which in turn reflected a larger population of roaming mammals. The sediments also held ancient pollen and charcoal dust, which gave the team clues about the predominant plant life and frequency of wildfires.


Writing the US journal Science, the researchers describe how the amount of mammal dung started to fall around 14,800 years ago, long before advanced spearheads became commonplace. The animals had been almost completely wiped out a thousand years later.


"We know there were people who pre-dated the Clovis culture who were butchering mammoths in the area. What we're suggesting is the declines happened before the Clovis toolkit was adopted. These earlier people had tools, but they probably weren't as sophisticated," said Gill.


Chris Johnson, a population ecologist at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, said the shortage of mammoths and other easy targets might have forced early humans to improve their weapons. "People were still hunting them but this was more challenging, so they developed somewhat better tools for the job," he said.


Another theory, that the larger beasts were wiped out by an asteroid strike around 13,000 years ago, also looks unlikely in view of the latest study. By improving their hunting techniques, early humans seem to have played a major role in finishing off the woolly mammoths and nine other mammal species that weighed over a tonne.


The study is among the first to reveal the environmental consequences of such a catastrophic decline in species. Pollen and charcoal recovered from the sediment cores show that wildfires became far more common and that the variety of plant life changed dramatically, as the nutritious and easily digestible trees and shrubs that were eaten by the mammals grew back.


"For the first time we've got a linkage between this major ecological event, the disappearance of these large animals, and evidence of the environmental consequences," said Jack Williams, a co-author on the study.



Ancient Greek worshippers showed inclination towards the Sun

November 19, 2009

Mark Henderson, Science Editor


The Ancient Greeks deliberately built their temples to face the rising Sun, according to research that promises to shed light on their religious practices and to resolve a longstanding archaeological controversy.


An investigation into temples built by Greek colonists in Sicily has found strong evidence that they were aligned to the East.


The findings, by Alun Salt, of the University of Leicester, suggest that Ancient Greek religion may have included ritual elements inspired by astronomy, as well as illuminating the national culture of settlers who founded communities beyond the mainland. The study could settle a long-running dispute among archaeologists and classicists about temple orientation.


Although it has long been known that most of these shrines face east, some academics have questioned whether this alignment reflected a deliberate plan. Critics of astronomical theories have pointed out that some temples face north, south or west, and argue that their orientation was not important to the Greeks.


Dr Salt’s research, however, indicates that the predominant east-west alignment is almost impossible to explain by chance, and probably followed a religious convention founded on astronomy. Temples laid out in accordance with astronomical phenomena could have highlighted the role of gods and goddesses as arbiters of nature, or helped priests to interpret celestial omens. They could also have helped in observations needed to calibrate the religious calendar.


In the study, published in the journal Public Library of Science One, Dr Salt found that 40 of 41 temples that he analysed in Sicily were oriented towards the eastern horizon. A statistical analysis all but eliminated the possibility that this was due to chance. The sole exception was the Temple of Hekate, which he suggests may have been built to honour a Moon goddess.


Dr Salt also examined data for Greece, collected by Gregory Retallack, of the University of Oregon. Though there were more exceptions, he again found a highly significant bias towards east-facing layouts.


He said the idea that orientation was not important may have gathered support because of an ignorance of statistics among classicists. “It shows the value of an interdisciplinary approach,” he said.


“There are quite a few temples in Greece which don’t face sunrise, so a few archaeologists have published that there’s nothing significant about the nuumber that do face East. The problem is that no one has ever said what a significant number would be.


“I have quantified this as simply as possible, and it looks clear that something important is going on. There is a very clear preference for solar orientations.”


Dr Salt said that while the reasons for this preferred layout have still to be established, he suspects that astronomical factors played a significant part. “It may have had something to do with the priest looking into the sky for omens,” he said. “There is also evidence that astronomy was important to the relgious calendar, and there was probably a a practical purpose too. A temple that faces the sunrise would be well-lit at dawn, so the priest would not be working in the shadows.”


In Greece itself, the less consistent orientation of temples could reflect local geographical circumstances, or the way temples were often built on top of older shrines that were laid out according to a different cosmological and religious system.


In Sicily, Greek colonists far from the mainland would have been building their temples from scratch. They may also have been keen to conform very tightly to correct Greek architectural practice as a political statement of their Hellenic nationality.


“If you live in Greece, you don’t need to prove your Greek identity and religion,” Dr Salt said. “If you’re living overseas, you might feel more insecure about your Greekness, and feel the need to do things by the book.”


Many dedications of statues and treasuries at important shrines such as Delphi and Olympia come from Greek communities outside Greece that were keen to advertise their national identity, and strict interpretation of relgious architecture could be part of the same phenomenon, he said.


Efrosyni Boutsikas, of the University of Kent, disputed Dr Salt’s conclusions. She said that her own analysis of 107 temples in Greece showed that only 58 per cent faced east.


“Greek religion is much too localised and dependent on local factors for us to be making culturally meaningful arguments about general orientation patterns. There is no general orientation pattern that all Greek temples follow.”


She added that Greek religion was not uniform and had many local manifestations. “Just saying that Greek temples are oriented towards the Sun is not enough,” she said. “We need to say why this would have been important to the Greek cults and what this importance would have been. Any Greek archaeologist or classicists familiar with Greek religion will be able to tell you that there was no such thing as one Greek religion.”



Hadrian’s Academy unearthed?

By Luna Moltedo

Nov. 19 


As is known, Rome never stops surprising us, and the treasures that are still covered by layers and layers of earth, streets and pavements are hardly imaginable.


The most recent and rather important discovery is the white marble flight of steps found during excavations undertaken in the course of archaeological surveys for Line C of the underground railroad in Piazza Venezia.


After the discovery of the building that perhaps supported Nero’s rotating dining room on the Palatine, excavations for Line C of Rome’s subway brought to light a building that, according to the first hypotheses made by archaeologists, is thought to be Hadrian’s Academy, built in 133 A.D. to host poets, rectors, philosophers, men of letters, scientists and magistrates.


Hadrian, or Publius Aelius Hadrianus, ruled from 117-138 AD. He was an avid philosopher who was commonly referred to as one of the “five good emperors.” Hadrian’s Wall, in Northern England was built after a great war in what was then called Britannia.


It was an unexpected find as there is no trace of this building even in the Forma Urbis Romae, the map of ancient Rome engraved on marble slabs in the days of Septimius Severus (2nd Century A.D.). One of the sources used by archaeologists is the archaeological map created in the early 20th Century by the scholar Guglielmo Gatti. On this map Gatti in fact rediscovered a late-ancient domus and a little further south a number of monumental structures, which were really therefore the beginnings of the now hypothesised Athenaeum.


At the center, where the emperor and the poets wrote verses, is a granite floor with ochre coloured listels. These are the same kinds of floors used for the libraries Hadrian had built to the sides of Trajan’s Column fifty meters further along.


Now, the hypothesis that the Athenaeum may be in that never previously excavated corner of Piazza Venezia is extremely fascinating for history, archeology and architecture buffs.



Quest to find out what the Romans dropped down the drain

November 14, 2009

Simon de Bruxelles


Britain’s oldest bath overflow is to be given its first thorough inspection nearly 2,000 years after it was built.


For two millennia the Great Drain has carried the mineral-rich waters of Britain’s only hot spring from the Roman Bath in Bath to the nearby River Avon. The drain runs for nearly half a mile under the city but although parts of it are large enough for a man to walk through, it has never been fully explored.


Archaeologists will have their first opportunity to get inside the previously inaccessible sections of the Great Drain this month when engineers open it up for repairs.


A stretch of drain built long after the Romans is causing the difficulties. The extension was added when marshes were reclaimed from the Avon beyond the old city wall. It started to back up 18 months ago, causing a flooding risk in the city.


The Roman structure has easily outlasted the work of more modern engineers. A final section dating from the Sixties collapsed two years ago and had to be rebuilt.


Miles Barnes, of Bath council, said: “The Roman engineers really knew what they were doing. Most of the drain is in absolutely tip-top condition and still doing the job it was designed for.”


When the Romans transformed the hot springs, which were sacred to the native Celts, into a religious and cultural centre, they built the Great Drain to prevent flooding in central Bath. It carries away the overflow after the hot water, which emerges from the springs at a million litres a day, has filled the baths.


When the site of the Roman Baths was originally excavated in the late 19th century, finds made in the Great Drain included 33 carved cameo gemstones and a mysterious tin mask.


Mr Barnes said: “Gems were as rare and precious then as they are now. We don’t know whether they were put in the sacred spring as an offering or just dropped by accident.


“Although the drain is pretty clear there are sections where it bends or narrows where sediment will have built up that has not been disturbed for 2,000 years, so who knows what else we will find.”


Before the engineers are allowed in, the drain will be explored by teams of potholers to ensure that it is safe.


When it was built the drain was only just below the level of the Roman streets. The original engineers installed square inspection hatches to allow it to be swept clean of sediment. After centuries of building in the city, the Great Drain is today at least 4m below ground level.


Archaeologist hope to discover what else the Romans dropped down the plughole before the project is completed next month.



Cerne Abbas Giant: is he older than we thought?

November 17, 2009


Standing proudly on a hillside in West Dorset, the chalk outline of the Cerne Abbas Giant has perplexed visitors for centuries.


To the frustration of archaeologists there is no written record of the anatomically detailed chalk figure before the late 17th century, but clues that the giant was created earlier than that have emerged in the form of suggestive earthworks built nearby.


Rob Wilson-North, historic environment manager for the Exmoor National Park Authority, believes that the giant may date from the late 16th or early 17th century after he discovered a pair of man-made earth mounds and a long gulley protruding from them.


In a letter to Current Archaeology magazine Mr Wilson-North explained that he was left in no doubt about the meaning of the earthworks, which lie in an abandoned garden a few hundred metres from the giant.


“An element of the garden is a pair of round water parterres with a straight watercarrying feature emerging from between them. The similarity on plan of these garden features with the giant’s best-known attributes is quite extraordinary,” he wrote.


He told The Times that when he drew the outline of his find, he became convinced that the garden designer was paying homage to the giant. “When you look at the plan it’s incontrovertible,” he said. “Coming off one end of the canal is a big cascade. I’d hesitate to say that water was running out of it, but it could have been. It makes you ask, how would you explain it to ladies who would wander around?”


The gardens were built when the Abbey of Cernes was transformed into a country mansion in the mid-16th century after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. One resident who may have been responsible for the gardens was Denzil Holles, a characterful MP who fought for the Parliamentarians but was a Royalist at heart and who occupied the house from 1642-66.


The Rev John Hutchins, a local historian writing in 1774, claimed that he was told that the giant was “a modern thing” cut by Lord Holles.


The National Trust, which owns the field where the giant is carved, suggests that the figure could be Roman or Celtic in origin, but observes that it may be a 17th-century joke at the expense of Oliver Cromwell, whom Holles held in contempt.


Mr Wilson-North does not believe that Holles necessarily created the giant, but the water feature in his garden suggests that he was aware of it.


The giant himself has never been brighter. His outline has been refreshed every 25 years since he was covered up during the Second World War, when it was feared that the Luftwaffe would use him for navigation.



Finders of huge Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon hoard to net £3m

From The Sunday Times

November 22, 2009

Richard Brooks, Arts Editor


AN unemployed metal detection enthusiast and a Staffordshire farmer are set to become millionaires following the discovery of a hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure which experts are likely to value at about £3m this week.


The gold and silver artefacts, which are already shedding new light on the Dark Ages, are collectively worth almost double the amount of the most expensive ancient treasure previously found in Britain.


Terry Herbert, 55, who lives alone in a council maisonette on disability benefits, stumbled across the hoard in July while searching a nondescript field owned by Fred Johnson near the M6 toll road between Lichfield and Tamworth. Herbert bought his first metal detector at a car boot sale for £2.50.


The two men, who had a minor falling out amid the publicity surrounding the record find, are now each expected to be paid a tax-free windfall of about £1.5m.


This weekend it emerged that the Staffordshire hoard is even bigger than archeologists had initially indicated, with 1,800 individual items being unearthed at the 40ft x 30ft site — 300 more than previously stated.


They include 84 sword caps, 71 hilt collars, helmets and parts of at least four crucifixes, with a folded gold cross singled out as one of the most valuable items in the hoard. Together, the artefacts contain more than 5kg (11lb) of gold — three times the amount found in 1939 at the Sutton Hoo burial site in Suffolk — and 2.5kg of silver.


The Staffordshire find easily surpasses the Hoxne collection of 15,000 Roman artefacts discovered by another metal detection enthusiast in Suffolk in 1992. It was worth £1.7m, the most valuable discovery until now.


This Wednesday the government’s treasure valuation committee will meet to consider the advice of a panel of independent experts. They include specialists from Christie’s and Bonhams auction houses, along with Charles Ede, the antiquities firm, and Peter Spencer, a leading metal detector. It is understood they all believe the Staffordshire hoard, dating from the 7th or 8th centuries, to be worth about £3m.


However, a final settlement may still take some time as Birmingham city museum and the Potteries museum in Stoke-on-Trent, which intend to display the Staffordshire hoard jointly, need to raise the money to buy the artefacts and pay Herbert and Johnson in accordance with the Treasure Act 1996.


The Department for Culture, Media and Sport will act as a final arbiter.


While £3m is a considerable sum for regional museums to raise, the exceptional nature of the artefacts means the money will almost certainly be found with the help of public funds, including lottery cash.


Johnson, 65, who may have brought the Anglo-Saxon hoard closer to the surface while ploughing his field, has said he will invest his windfall to fund his retirement. Herbert, a former worker at a coffin factory, has suggested he will buy a bungalow from his share of the proceeds.


No more metal detecting or excavation work has been carried out since the discovery in summer and the site has been cordoned off by police. The rest of Johnson’s grass field has now been given over to horses.


“It is quite possible that other finds from the same period might be in the vicinity,” said Roger Bland, head of portable antiquities and treasure at the British Museum, who has co-written a new book about the Staffordshire hoard.


He points out that there was a small Anglo-Saxon find in 2004 about a mile away from the latest site. Further excavation will almost certainly begin in the spring.


Leslie Webster, former keeper of the British Museum’s department of prehistory, believes the hoard is the “metalwork equivalent of a new Lindisfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells”.


The historical significance of the treasure — dating from between 675 and 725 — is considerable. It has led some experts to question whether Christianity may have been practised in the region earlier than previously thought.


Although some of the artefacts may amount to booty acquired from military campaigns, the location and reason for their burial remains a mystery.


Nicholas Brooks, emeritus professor of medieval history at the University of Birmingham, believes the hoard could represent a “royal treasury”.


He points out that AngloSaxon nobles paid a “heriot”, or tax, in the form of weapons or bullion to their king when they died. In return, the king would honour the vassal’s wishes about the disposal of his property.


Mercian kings from this period, such as Wulfhere and Aethelred, are likely to have had a supply of weapons which they could give to young warriors joining their service. “This hoard could represent such a stock of weapons,” said Brooks.


“There’s no comparable find of such gold or silver objects in either England or in Europe,” said Bland. “All previous notable discoveries have been grave burials like Sutton Hoo.”



Taliban suffocates Pakistan's Buddhist heritage

Archaeologists say that the Taliban are destroying Pakistan's ancient Gandhara heritage and rich Buddhist legacy as pilgrimage and foreign research dries up in the country's north-west.

By Sajjad Tarakzai, in Taxila

Published: 12:14PM GMT 23 Nov 2009


"Militants are the enemies of culture," said Abdul Nasir Khan, curator of Taxila Museum, one of the best archaeological collections in Pakistan.


"It is very clear that if the situation carries on like this, it will destroy our culture and will destroy our cultural heritage," he said.


Taxila, a small town around 20 kilometres (13 miles) south of Islamabad, is one of Pakistan's foremost archaeological attractions given its history as a centre of Buddhist learning from the fifth century BC to the second century.


Violence is on the rise in Pakistan as Taliban bombers and gunmen strike with increasing frequency and intensity in the cities of North West Frontier Province and around the capital Islamabad.


"Even in Taxila we don't feel safe. The local administration has warned us about a possible attack on this museum. We have taken some extra security precautions but they aren't sufficient and we lack funds," said Khan.


"For weeks we don't get even a single foreign visitor. If visitors don't come, if sites are not preserved and protected, if research stops, what do you think will be the future of archaeology?" he said.


In March 2001, Taliban militants in neighbouring Afghanistan blew up two 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddha statues in defiance of international appeals.


The Islamist militia has since spread into Pakistan. Their opposition to music, art, dance, girls' education and "idolatry" makes archaeologists fear that Pakistani Buddhist relics are in the eye of the storm.


Italian archaeologists were active in Pakistan's north-west Swat valley from 1956 until they reluctantly discontinued work in 2007 after Taliban fighters led by radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah rose up demanding sharia law.


"It is not planned to carry on any research activity," said Luca Olivieri, co-director the Italian archaeological mission in Pakistan.


After 17 years as curator in Swat, Khan took no risks. With the Taliban killing and bombing their way through the valley, the museum closed in 2008 and he evacuated the most priceless antiquities.


That September, the Taliban twice tried to blow up seventh century Buddhist relics - damaging a rock engraved with images of Buddha that for centuries had been a pilgrimage site.


This year, the rebels marched to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad, precipitating a major military operation in the north-west district and followed up with a current offensive in south Waziristan.


"This is the worst time for archaeology. Militancy has affected it very badly. There were 15 to 20 foreign missions working in this field, now this research has completely stopped," Khan said.


He says the army has requisitioned the museum building in Swat's main town of Mingora. Despite the summer offensive, which appears to have flushed out Taliban havens in Swat for now, he doubts life will soon return to normal.


"I don't see any chance in the near future of re-opening the Swat museum. The situation is still not suitable.


"The museum building was badly damaged in a bomb blast. The display cases are broken and the building needs complete renovation," he said.


"There is still fear in people's minds but I hope that the army will succeed in bringing back normalcy," he added.


The situation is not much better further south.


Peshawar, the troubled capital of north-west Pakistan known for its Buddhist heritage and archaeology, used to attract thousands of tourists but security fears and bomb attacks make it a no-go area for foreigners.


Its museum is open, but one gate has been sealed and cement barricades outside the second allow only pedestrians to enter.


"For a year and a half, foreign tourists have completely stopped visiting this part of Pakistan," Qazi Ijaz, an official at Peshawar museum, said.


"The nucleus of the Gandhara civilization in Swat is closed and that was their main interest," he said.


"The tourist companies have closed. Foreign visitors have stopped coming and museums with monuments and other archaeological sites look deserted," he added.


There are about 10 museums in north-west Pakistan, including one under construction to protect Kalash culture in the Chitral valley, where a Greek volunteer was kidnapped in September and reportedly smuggled to Afghanistan.


The fair skin and light eyes of the Kalash inspire academic speculation that they descend from an ancient Middle Eastern population or soldiers of Alexander the Great's army, which conquered the area in the fourth century BC.