Italy: Abruzzo quake unearths prehistoric dwellings

Rome, 17 April (AKI)


Last week's powerful earthquake in the central Italian Abruzzo regional capital L'Aquila has unearthed prehistoric dwellings there, according Italian daily La Stampa. Some of the vaulted caves measure up to five metres in height, according to Italian geologist Gianluca Ferretti, quoted by the daily.


"We are exploring them," said Ferretti, who teaches geology at L'Aquila's university.


One the biggest caves is located near L'Aquila's bus terminal, in via di Collemaggio. The caves date back 15,000 years, according to geologists.


"Some of the caves were hollowed out by the first shepherds to inhabit the area, who would also use them as shelters for their animals," said Ferretti's colleague, Antonio Moretti.


But while they represent a fascinating archaeological find, the caves' emergence has worried geologists.


"It shows the fragility of the sediment on which the area is built," said Ferretti.


The magnitude 6.3 quake last Monday destroyed or seriously damaged several thousand buildings in L'Aquila and surrounding villages, killing 295 people and leaving 55,000 homeless.



Love eternal? Egyptian dig hopes to uncover Cleopatra and Mark Antony side by side

By Cher Thornhill

Last updated at 8:54 PM on 16th April 2009


The burial place of doomed lovers Cleopatra and Mark Antony has remained an enduring mystery, but new evidence suggests it could soon be laid to rest.


Archaeologists are to begin searching three new sites identified in a radar survey of a temple close to Alexandria for the tombs of the celebrated queen of Egypt and the Roman general.


Egypt's top archaeologist Zahi Hawass said the finds have raised hopes that the legendary couple will be found together in a system of tunnels beneath the temple of Tabusiris Magna.


The discovery would be even bigger than the uncovering of King Tutankhamun's tomb, which was found in 1922, according to Dr Hawass.


The excavation is hoped to unravel a number of questions that have lingered over the couple, including whether they were buried together, her reputed beauty and their suicide.


Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities said that the three sites were identified last month during a radar survey of the temple close to Alexandria.


It is located on Lake Abusir, once known as Lake Mariut, near the northern coastal city and was built during the reign of King Ptolemy II from 282 to 246 BC.


Teams from Egypt and the Dominican Republic have been excavating the temple for the last three years.


They have already discovered a number of deep shafts inside the holy site, three of which were possibly used for burials.


The leaders of the excavation believe it's possible Cleopatra and Mark Anthony could have been buried in a deep shaft similar to those already found.


The couple are widely believed to have committed suicide after their defeat in the battle of Actium in 31 BC.


Kathleen Martinez, an Egyptologist involved in the dig, said that Roman records suggested that the lovers were then buried together.


She added that the unearthing of ten mummies of nobles in the area has raised hopes that the lovers could be nearby.


But other experts are less convinced. John Baines, professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford, said it is unlikely that Mark Anthony, who was an enemy, would have a burial place that would have stood the test of time.


Hopes of finding their tomb were raised with last year's discoveries at the site of: a bronze statue of the goddess Aphrodite; the alabaster head of a Queen Cleopatra statue; a mask believed to belong to Mark Anthony; and a headless statue from the Ptolemaic era at the excavation site.


The expedition also found 22 coins bearing Cleopatra's image.


Dr Hawass said the statue and coins - which show an attractive face - debunk a recent theory that the queen was 'quite ugly'.


'The finds from Tabusiris reflect a charm... and indicate that Cleopatra was in no way unattractive,' he said in a statement.


Academics at the University of Newcastle concluded in 2007 that the fabled queen was not especially attractive based on Cleopatra's depiction on a Roman denarius coin which shows her as a sharp-nosed, thin-lipped woman with a protruding chin.


The popular image of the lovers is of Cleopatra played by Elizabeth Taylor opposite Richard Burton in the 1963 Hollywood film of the Egyptian queen. It was during filming that the co-stars became lovers.



A fishy tale of Christianity in Ancient Rome

From The Times

April 11, 2009

Norman Hammond, Archaeology correspondent


In Ancient Rome lions ate Christians, so we are told. But what did early Christians eat? A lot of fish, according to recent research on bones from the Roman catacombs.


“The eating habits of Rome’s early Christians are more complex than has traditionally been assumed,” say Leonard Rutgers and his colleagues in The Journal of Archaeological Science. Their work was based on analysis of 22 skeletons found in the Catacombs of St Callixtus on the Appian Way, an area utilised in the 3rd to 5th centuries AD (although some of the skeletons were radiocarbon-dated to the 2nd century).


The Roman catacombs together hold an estimated half million tombs, and that of St Callixtus is one of the largest complexes of interlinking underground caverns. The Liberian region of this catacomb “consists of an intricate network of galleries, into the side walls of which simple shelf graves (loculi) have been cut in sheer endless piles, with up to eight graves per pile”, Rutgers’ team says. There were also a series of monumental burial chambers (cubicula), each holding up to 50 graves, hollowed into the volcanic soil.


Half of the sample were taken from loculi, half from cubicula burials. Bone preservation was poor, making sexing and ageing difficult, although one person was definitely very old, between 82 and 85 at death, while another was a breast-fed baby of around 2.


Collagen, the organic portion of bone, was taken mostly from toe bones, in a few cases from fingers or limb bones.It was analysed for its carbon and nitrogen stable-isotope content: these elements are good indicators of diet. Most samples had more or less the same isotopic levels, “confirming that the people buried in the Liberian region of the catacomb formed a single population and suggesting that, by and large, these people had access to the same kind of food resources,” the team reports. Comparing the catacomb results with those from other sites in Italy and in the western Mediterranean, the higher nitrogen and lower carbon figures indicate the consumption of freshwater fish. The contribution of such fish to the diet of the early Christians in Rome ranges from 18 to 43 per cent, averaging at around 30 per cent.


Although this is surprisingly high, fish were still a supplement to an otherwise terrestrial diet, likely to have included sheep, goat and cow meat as well as cereals, fruit and vegetables.


A child’s skeleton yielded the highest nitrogen figure, of 13.5, compared with 10.5 to 11.5 for most of the adults. This suggests that the infant was still being breast-fed at the age of 2, fitting in with archaeological evidence from other sources, which suggests weaning between 2 and 4 years of age in Roma times.


“While distancing themselves from Jewish food taboos and generally avoiding meat derived from pagan sacrifices, the early Christians are normally hypothesised to have eaten the same food as their non-Christian Roman contemporaries,” the team says. “Within the larger context of what is currently known about Roman dietary habits, the inclusion of freshwater fish therefore comes as unexpected and raises questions about the social origins of Christianity as well.”


“When Romans ate fish at all, they are normally believed to have consumed sea fish. Freshwater fish has not been considered as an essential ingredient in the classical Roman diet.” In AD301, the Emperor Diocletian’s Edict on Prices tried to fix the cost of freshwater fish at around a half to a third of its marine equivalent, so that even the poor could eat it. Roman fish probably came from the Tiber, and would have been a free or cheap source of protein.


On this basis, Rutgers and his colleagues conclude “that at least the small selection of early Christians analysed were all simple folk, suggesting that the inclusion of freshwater fish is indicative of a relative lack of wealth rather than of religiously motivated ascetic behaviour”.


They point out that fish are also important in early Christian iconography, and that “the religious and the secular were probably intertwined”.


The Journal of Archaeological Science 36: 1127-1134



Robot brings China's past into the present

www.chinaview.cn 2009-04-08 18:51:02


HARBIN, April 8 (Xinhua) -- A robot specially designed for underground exploration is opening up a lost world of historic treasures for Chinese archaeologists.


Scientists are planning its second excursion next week when it will go into an ancient tomb in Xi'an, China's ancient capital in the northwestern Shaanxi Province.


The robot completed a successful trial probe in July last year, when it revealed hidden fresco paintings in a narrow shaft inside a 1,300-year old tomb in Xi'an.


The cylinder-shaped robot, 27 centimeters long and 9 centimeters in diameter, is the first robot ever used by Chinese archaeologists to explore ancient tombs, said Tie Fude, a researcher at the National Museum of China, the Principle Investigator (PI) of this project.


It was the culmination of a two-year project jointly run by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, the National Museum, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the Harbin Institute of Technology Shenzhen Graduate School, said Tie.


"The project runs the gamut from tomb excavation, culture relics preservation, to intelligent control," said Li Zexiang from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the co-PI of this project.


Equipped with infrared lights and a digital camera, the robot could "see" clearly underground, and with help of a sensor, it could identify gases in the environment, and send back data, including temperature and humidity readings, said the project's chief designer of intelligent control systems, Dr. Zhu Xiaorui, of the Harbin Institute of Technology Shenzhen Graduate School.


"Archaeologists can then plan excavations beforehand on this data," said Li.


He said the challenge was not the robotics technology, but its adaptation to archeology.


"We only need to input the approximate size of the tomb entrance, the gradient, and the categories of the gases there, so the robot can work," said Zhu.


"With the robot, we can get some basic data and thus give out a more tailor-made digging plan," said Tie.


However, more tests were needed, said Tie.


A Chinese archaeologist, Dr. Dong Qi, the vice director of the National Museum of China, said this technique would be a significant contribution to the field of archaeology exploration in China. Chinese archaeologists already use robots widely in underwater explorations.



Three Neanderthal Sub-groups Confirmed

ScienceDaily (Apr. 15, 2009)


The Neanderthals inhabited a vast geographical area extending from Europe to western Asia and the Middle East 30,000 to 100,000 years ago. Now, a group of researchers are questioning whether or not the Neanderthals constituted a homogenous group or separate sub-groups (between which slight differences could be observed).


Paleoanthropological studies based on morphological skeletal evidence have offered some support for the existence of three different sub-groups: one in Western Europe, one in southern Europe and another in the Levant.


Researchers Virginie Fabre, Silvana Condemi and Anna Degioanni from the CNRS Laboratory of Anthropology (UMR 6578) at the University of Marseille, France, have given further consideration to the question of diversity of Neanderthals by studying the genetic structure of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and by analyzing the genetic variability, modeling different scenarios. The study was possible thanks to the publication, since 1997, of 15 mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences (the mtDNa is maternally transmitted) that originated from 12 Neanderthals.


The new study confirms the presence of three separate sub-groups and suggests the existence of a fourth group in western Asia. According to the authors, the size of the Neanderthal population was not constant over time and a certain amount of migration occurred among the sub-groups. The variability among the Neanderthal population is interpreted to be an indirect consequence of the particular climatic conditions on their territorial extension during the entire middle Pleistocene time period.


Degioanni and colleagues obtained this result by using a new methodology derived from different biocomputational models based on data from genetics, demography and paleoanthropology. The adequacy of each model was measured by comparing the simulated results obtained using BayesianSSC software with those predicted based on nucleotide sequences.


The researchers hope that one day this methodology might be applied to questions concerning Neanderthal cultural diversity (for example the lithic industry) and to the availability of natural resources in the territory. This could provide new insights into the history and extinction of the Neanderthals.


Journal reference:


Fabre et al. Genetic Evidence of Geographical Groups among Neanderthals. PLoS ONE, 2009; 4 (4): e5151 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005151



Scotland's most ancient home found – at 14,000 years old

Published Date: 10 April 2009

By Jenny Haworth

Environment Correspondent


AMATEUR archaeologists have uncovered evidence of Scotland's oldest human settlement, dating back 14,000 years.


The team dug up tools that have been shown to date from the end of the last Ice Age.


It is the first time there has been proof that humans lived in Scotland during the upper paleolithic period.


This was a time when nomadic humans hunted giant elk and reindeer using bows and arrows, and when mammoth and rhino also roamed the land.


Flint arrowheads were discovered in a field by the Biggar Archeology Group. The tools had been made in a way that identified them as belonging to about 12,000 BC.


At that time, the North Sea was an expanse of land, around which the nomadic humans roamed. Similar tools have been found in Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, but never before in Scotland.


Dr Alan Saville, a senior curator at the National Museum of Scotland, who helped identify the objects, said he was "very excited" when he saw them. "This is the breakthrough," he said. "Now we are able to say for absolute certain that we had human settlement at that time in Scotland."


He added: "Of course, it must be remembered that most of the North Sea was dry land at 12,000 BC, probably supporting a human population that would have links both east and west.


"But to have found our first British site of this period right in the middle of southern Scotland is remarkable."


Previously, the earliest evidence of human habitation in Scotland was thought to be at Cramond near Edinburgh, which had been radiocarbon dated to around 8,400 BC.


Next month, the archaeologists will return to the spot at Howburn Farm, near Elsrickle, to carry out a larger excavation and see what else they can find.


Tam Ward, project leader from Biggar Museums, said he was "gobsmacked" when he found out how old the tools were.


The team led by Mr Ward, an electrician who has been an amateur archaeologist for 30 years, spotted the site when they noticed a large number of artefacts on the surface of the ploughed field.


This was in 2005, and at first it was assumed the items belonged to the neolithic period, dating to about 3,000 BC, making them far less extraordinary.


It was not until now that they have been officially identified as belonging to a far earlier age by Dr Saville and his colleagues, after they caught sight of a few particularly unusual tools in the collection.


A technique used to fashion the blades known as "en eperon" made it clear they belonged to the upper paleolithic period.


Aileen Campbell, south of Scotland MSP, said the find was "just incredible".


"To know there is hard evidence that human beings had settled in the Biggar area some 14,000 years ago is quite inspiring, and helps put modern life into a bit of perspective," she said.



Wood you believe it? Stonehenge find at Tara

By Louise Hogan

Saturday April 11 2009


SCIENTISTS have unearthed what appears to be a mammoth wooden version of the famous Stonehenge monument at the Hill of Tara.


In a revealing new RTE documentary, many theories and insights into the country's prehistoric past and 150,000 ancient monuments are unveiled and explained.


For the first time, people will be able to view a computer-generated recreation of what archaeologists believe was a major wooden structure -- a version of Britain's Stonehenge -- at the ancient seat of the Irish high kings in the Hill of Tara in Co Meath.


Archaeologist Joe Fenwick revealed a LiDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging) laser beam had been used to scan the ground surface to create a three-dimensional map, which revealed more than 30 monuments around Tara.


Using another technique -- described as taking an X-ray through the hillside -- archaeologists discovered the huge monument, a ditch stretching six metres wide and three metres deep in the bedrock.


The ditch, circling the Mound of the Hostages passage tomb, separated the outside world from the ceremonial centre of Tara.


It was believed the ancient architects had also surrounded the ditch with a massive wooden structure on each side -- a version of Stonehenge -- on a large scale. Its sheer size meant a whole forest would have had to be cleared to build it.


"In scale, it is comparable, for example, to Croke Park's pitch. The Hill of Tara had enormous ritual significance over the course of 5,000-6,000 years, so it's not surprising that you get monuments of the scale of the ditch pit circle," said Mr Fenwick, from the Department of Archaeology, NUI Galway.


Cutting-edge technology is helping to provide a new insight into the lives of our ancestors, according to the documentary makers behind 'Secrets of the Stones'.


It shows Ireland's first civilisation began 7,000 years ago, they withstood major climatic changes and voyaged throughout Europe, returning with new religions and mementos.


An RTE spokesman said the broadcaster, along with the Department of Education, would be sending two free copies of the book accompanying the series to all second-level schools in the country.


The first part of the 'Secrets of the Stones' will be shown on RTE One at 6.30pm on Easter Monday.



3,000 year-old bracelet found in Tyrone field

Thursday, 16 April 2009


A County Tyrone family could be in line for a reward after finding a rare Bronze Age gold bracelet on their land.


Farmer Gary Sproule accidentally unearthed the precious artefact while ploughing over a field at Castlegore near Castlederg last April. The intricate item is believed to date from almost 1,000 years before the birth of Christ.


An inquest was held yesterday in Belfast at which the item, which would have belonged to an important warrior or priest, was officially classified as treasure.


Under the law, a ‘treasure trove’ inquest must be held by the coroner to determine the significance of such finds. The finder of the item, as well as the landowner, are often then entitled to a discretionary reward.


Speaking after the inquest, Mr Sproule said he was pleased that the bracelet had been dealt with through official channels.


“I can’t believe something like this has been in the ground all this time,” he said. “Three generations of my family have lived here. It’s hard to believe the last time this land was ploughed was when my ancestors were using smaller ploughs or even horses.


“When I saw it I knew it had to be something special. It looked extremely old but it was in amazing condition. I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been damaged, as it’s about 3,000 years old. It’s amazing to think that there were Bronze Age settlers right here on my doorstep.”


His wife Valerie said the family had been “blessed” to find such a rare object. “It’s not every day you can say you found a piece of Bronze Age history in your back field,” she said. “It’s important for Irish history that we uncover these treasures and I’m just delighted it was found after all this time.”


Expert witness Richard Warner, a former archaeologist at the Ulster Museum, said that although a detailed analysis of the bracelet had not been carried out, similar objects have been found to contain 80% gold and 15% silver.


“It would have been owned by a wealthy person, possibly a priest, a high ranking warrior or tribal chieftain,” he said.


Mr Sherrard described the bracelet as a “remarkable find” and urged anyone else finding such items to ensure that they are reported to the authorities.


According to the National Museum of Ireland, a similar piece dating between 900-700BC was found around 300 years ago in Killymoon, Co Tyrone, although unlike the find at Killymoon, which was a plain design, this recent discovery is highly decorative.


The Coroner also ruled yesterday that a separate find of a gold Bronze Age purse or ‘bulla’ should be considered a treasure.


The item, which is around the size of a 50 pence piece and dates from 950 to 800 BC, was discovered by Bangor man Glen McCamley, using a metal detector on land belonging to farmer John Kennedy at Inch in Downpatrick.