World’s Oldest Manufactured Beads Are Older Than Previously Thought

ScienceDaily (May 7, 2009)


A team of archaeologists has uncovered some of the world’s earliest shell ornaments in a limestone cave in Eastern Morocco. The researchers have found 47 examples of Nassarius marine shells, most of them perforated and including examples covered in red ochre, at the Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt.


The fingernail-size shells, already known from 82,000-year-old Aterian deposits in the cave, have now been found in even earlier layers. While the team is still awaiting exact dates for these layers, they believe this discovery makes them arguably the earliest shell ornaments in prehistory.


The shells are currently at the centre of a debate concerning the origins of modern behaviour in early humans. Many archaeologists regard the shell bead ornaments as proof that anatomically modern humans had developed a sophisticated symbolic material culture. Up until now, Blombos cave in South Africa has been leading the ‘bead race’ with 41 Nassarius shell beads that can confidently be dated to 72,000 years ago.


Aside from this latest discovery unearthing an even greater number of beads, the research team says the most striking aspect of the Taforalt discoveries is that identical shell types should appear in two such geographically distant regions. As well as Blombos, there are now at least four other Aterian sites in Morocco with Nassarius shell beads. The newest evidence, in a paper by the authors to be published in the next few weeks in the Journal of Quaternary Science Reviews, shows that the Aterian in Morocco dates back to at least 110,000 years ago.


Research team leader, Professor Nick Barton, from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘These new finds are exciting because they show that bead manufacturing probably arose independently in different cultures and confirms a long suspected pattern that humans with modern symbolic behaviour were present from a very early stage at both ends of the continent, probably as early as 110,000 years ago.’


Also leading the research team Dr Abdeljalil Bouzouggar, from the Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine in Morocco, said: ‘The archaeological and chronological contexts of the Taforalt discoveries suggest a much longer tradition of bead-making than previously suspected, making them perhaps the earliest such ornaments in the world.’


Archaeologists widely believe that humans in Europe first started fashioning purely symbolic objects about 40,000 years ago, but in Africa this latest evidence shows that humans were engaged in this activity at least 40,000 years before this.


Excavations in April 2009 also continued in the upper levels of Taforalt to investigate a large well-preserved cemetery dating to around 12,500 years ago. The project, co-ordinated by Dr Louise Humphrey, from the Natural History Museum in London, has found adult as well as infant burials at the site. The infant burials throw an interesting light on early burial traditions as many of the infants seem to be buried singly beneath distinctive blue stones with the undersides smeared with red ochre. By contrast, studies by Dr Elaine Turner of the Römisch Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz, show that the adults’ grave pits were generally marked by the horn cores of wild barbary sheep. Taforalt remains the largest necropolis of the Late Stone Age period in North Africa presently under excavation.


Professor Barton said: ‘Taking our new discovery of the shell beads at Taforalt, together with the discoveries of the decorated burials excavated by Dr Louise Humphrey, it shows that the cave must have retained its special interest for different groups of people over many thousands of years. One of its unique attractions and a focal point of interest seems to have been a freshwater spring that rises next to the cave.’


Adapted from materials provided by University of Oxford.



Ancient spear tip found


May 7, 2009


SLOVENIAN archeologists have found a wooden spear tip believed to be between 38,000 and 45,000 years old, in a river near the capital Ljubljana, newspapers reported Thursday.


'A spear tip made of wood is something absolutely new for that period,' the head of Slovenia's Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (ZVKDS), Ms Barbara Nadbath, was quoted as saying.


The tip, unique for being made of wood, was found by the institute's underwater archaeology team last September at a riverbank construction site in Sinja Gorica, in the Ljubljansko barje wetlands west of the capital.


'Due to its form, the object was compared to Szeletian stone spear tips, typical for central Europe between 50,000 and 35,000 BC,' the institute was quoted as saying.


'The dating was later confirmed by radiometric research in a laboratory at Beta Analytic in Miami and the Oxford Research Laboratory for Archaeology.'


The spear tip was made of yew, the most appropriate wood to make hunting equipment, and a resin coating was preserved on one of its sides, ZVKDS added.


'Finding the wooden spear tip provides additional information on the presence of Palaeolithic hunters in the area and answers the question about the materials used at that time for making tools,' Nadbath said.


The Ljubljansko barje area is one of Slovenia's main archaeologic sites, famous for the discovery in 2002 of a wooden wheel and axle of a two-wheel chariot dating back 5,600 years. – AFP



Egypt finds 5,000-year-old tomb near Lahun pyramid

Tue May 5, 2009 11:26am EDT

By Cynthia Johnston


LAHUN, Egypt (Reuters) - Archaeologists have found a nearly 5,000-year-old tomb near Egypt's mud brick Lahun pyramid, in a sign that the site held religious significance a millennium before previously thought, the site head said Tuesday.


The find, down crumbling steps in sand covered desert rock, debunks a prior understanding by archaeologists that the site dates back only to 12th dynasty pharaoh Senusret II who ruled 4,000 years ago, archaeologist Abdul Rahman Al-Ayedi said.


"The existence of this tomb is very significant because now we know that Senusret II, the builder of the pyramid, is not the founder of this site," Ayedi told Reuters in an interview.


"It must have had religious significance in ancient Egypt, so that's why he chose it for his pyramid," he added.


Egypt, whose economy relies heavily on tourism, has made several significant discoveries this year including a rare intact mummy found in February in a sealed sarcophagus near the world's oldest standing step pyramid at Saqqara, near Cairo.


Ayedi said second dynasty tombs had never before been found at Lahun, site of Egypt's southernmost pyramid, or elsewhere around the nearby Fayoum oasis, 60 km (35 miles) south of Cairo.


Inside the tiny tomb, too small for a person to stand, a box-like wood coffin contains what is left of the remains of a 40 to 49-year-old man who was likely a significant figure in the ancient Egyptian government of the time, Ayedi said.


The body, buried in a bent position and wrapped in linens, was not well preserved because the tomb predates the era in which ancient Egyptians mummified their dead, Ayedi added.


"This was a very early example of a coffin ... The body was buried flexed. The lid of the coffin was vaulted and the side of the coffin has a representation of the facade of a palace or a house," he said.


The find comes shortly after Ayedi's team last month announced it had unearthed a cache of mummies dating to a later period in brightly painted coffins in a necropolis at the site -- the first to be found in the shadow of the Lahun pyramid.


Ayedi said he had initially wanted to dig at little-known Lahun because he was not satisfied with the result of the first excavation there in the 19th century, saying it did not match the site's significance.


His team found the second dynasty tomb by chance this season while excavating the recently unearthed necropolis after Ayedi stumbled across a pottery shard in the sand that he recognized as dating back to an older era.


"I was just walking by and I found a (shard from a) pottery vessel like this one," Ayedi said as he held up a slender vessel inside the stone-cut tomb. "It was very characteristic."


"I was very optimistic to find something second dynasty," he added. "We started to investigate this area. Suddenly we found this stairway tomb."


Ayedi said the tomb's occupant was buried with his prized possessions, including an offering table, a headrest, two spears and a bed constructed of imported pine from Lebanon that could shed light on ancient Egyptian carpentry techniques.


Archaeologists found the main entrance to the Lahun pyramid last year, and later found storage jars and other objects inside before finding mummies in nearby tombs in recent months, Ayedi said.


Archaeologists hope to start digging soon in search of the tomb of Cleopatra and possibly her lover Mark Antony on Egypt's north coast. Cleopatra, facing possible captivity in Rome, is alleged to have killed herself by the sting of an asp in 30 BC.



'Mayan king' remains found



HONDURAN researchers believe they have uncovered the remains of one of the first kings of Central America's Mayan civilisation.


Archaeologists working at Copan - a major site for Mayan civilization culture - believe they have found bones belonging to one of 16 Mayan kings.


'We have found skeleton in a grave in the temple of Oropendola, which research suggests could be important because it may have belonged to one of the first rulers from the Mayan dynasty,' said the director the Honduran Anthropology and History Institute, Dario Euraque.


The Maya dynasties flourished better 426 and 820 AD throughout much of Central America and south eastern Mexico.


Euraque said the bones were in poor condition because 'a roof covering had collapsed on top of the remains of a 30-year-old man, but the teeth have been pretty well preserved.' -- AFP



Remains of Roman ‘shanty town’ uncovered in Bowes

May 7, 2009


ARCHAEOLOGISTS have unearthed remains of a large Roman “shanty town” in Teesdale that could shed light on the last days of the occupation of Britain.

Excavations carried out in Bowes have revealed significant evidence of an unplanned settlement, called a vicus, which grew up on the outskirts of the Roman fort.

Archaeologists discovered stone walls, foundations of wooden buildings, flooring, the remains of a huge Roman building, and large amounts of Roman pottery thought to date from the second and third centuries.

Historians believe hundreds of people would have lived at the site. However, the finds have puzzled experts because it appears that the settlement was lived in for longer than other similar sites in northern England, including Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall.

Richard Carlton, from The Archaeological Practice Ltd, said the Bowes settlement would have resembled a “shanty town”.

Mr Carlton said: “The excavations were significant as they showed that there was occupation outside the Roman fort until possibly the fourth century.

“That’s quite unusual in northern Britain as life in similar settlements seem to stop in the middle of the third century. Why that’s the case is anyone’s guess.”

The Romans founded a fort at Bowes to protect the road across the Pennines, although only the ramparts of the fortification now survive.

Previous excavations on land near at Bowes in 1966 and 1999 revealed remains of Roman buildings, suggesting the presence of a Roman civil settlement on the south side of the village’s main road.

Last year, Newcastle firm The Archaeological Practice dug five trenches at the rear of Holme Lea farmhouse, opposite The Ancient Unicorn pub.

The company was asked to assess the impact of a proposal to build five homes at Holme Lea.

However, archaeologists were surprised to find that the site was in the centre of a Roman vicus.

“The trenches revealed evidence of considerable Roman activity.

“The excavations were the first to reveal substantial and well-preserved remains of buildings outside the fort,” Mr Carlton said.

He added: “It’s not often a small-scale excavation will reveal anything like this.”

Also found were Roman iron nails, tiles, 209 pieces of Roman pottery and 5.42kg of broken amphorae – a type of ancient vase.

A vicus was a civilian settlement that sprang up close to an official Roman site. It is likely that inhabitants would have been involved in trade and provided services to Roman soldiers, with a possible brothel sited nearby.

Examples include Housesteads, which is thought to have lasted until the year 270, with many others being abandoned much earlier.

Mr Carlton said: “It is possible that because of the turbulent nature of the frontier, officials imposed stricter rules on these types of settlements at Hadrian’s Wall and cleared them.

“The vicus at Bowes was further south, so that’s why it might have lasted longer, but no one can really explain it.”

Little is known about the final days of Roman life in Britain, but tradition holds that towards the end of the occupation, the garrison at Bowes ran amok.

Legend has it that locals retaliated by storming the fort and massacring the legionaries.

It has now been recommended that part of the Holme Lea site is protected from future development and Durham County Council is considering the planning application.



'Viking ship' discovered in Sweden's largest lake

Published: 8 May 09 18:27 CET

Online: http://www.thelocal.se/19342/20090508/


Marine archaeologists in Sweden have discovered what they believe to be the wreck of a Viking ship at the bottom the country's largest lake.


A team of 50 divers from the Swedish coastguard happened upon the 20-metre long wreck by chance on Wednesday afternoon.


"Never before has a Viking shipwreck been found in Swedish waters," marine archaeologist Roland Peterson from the Vänern Museum told The Local.


A few Viking boats have previously been discovered in Sweden, but earlier finds were made on dry land, Peterson explained.


One of the ship's ribs was discovered protruding from the bottom of the lake, while the rest of the boat was filled with a one metre-thick layer of sediment.


A wood sample from the ship, as well as iron samples from a spear and a sword found with the vessel, are to undergo expert analysis over the coming weeks.


"We can't be sure of anything until we get the dating results back, which could take around a month. But the sword did seem semi-familiar," said Peterson, referring to the weapon's apparent similarity to earlier Viking era finds.


The ship's clinker-built structure also strengthened the hypothesis that the vessel found in the Lurö archipelago, in the middle of Lake Vänern, dates from the Viking era. Vänern is Europe's third largest lake, with an area measuring 5,648 square kilometres.


The Swedish coastguard and the Vänern Museum are currently involved in a joint project to discover and examine shipwrecks lodged at the bottom the vast lake.


Six other wrecks have also been discovered within a 100 metre radius, three of which were found lying almost on top of each other.


"But it's too early to say whether these date from the same era," said Peterson.


The Viking Age marked the end of the Scandinavian Iron Age and spanned the period from the eighth to the eleventh century.


Paul O'Mahony (paul.omahony@thelocal.se/08 656 6513)



'Lost' medieval church discovered


Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a so-called "lost" medieval village church in Ceredigion.


A team from Lampeter University found the 12th Century building after carrying out a geophysical survey which located it underground in a field.


In the village of Swyddffynnon, near Aberystwyth, it is believed to be Capel y Groes, which was last recorded on officials maps in the 1840s.


Investigations are expected to continue through the summer.


The church was found by staff and students during a two-week field project last month, but details of their find have only just emerged.


The building is not visible above ground, but a geophysical survey located the church's foundations in an empty field near a farm called Ty Mawr.


Research by the Strata Florida Landscape Project, led by the university's Professor David Austin and Dr Jemma Bezant, has found that Swyddffynnon was the site of a medieval village.


Dr Bezant said the church was probably a grange chapel built by monks from nearby Strata Florida Abbey in 1165.


"We would like to thank the Countryside Council for Wales along with all the locals and landowners who have been very supportive of this project and would encourage more people to get involved during the summer," said Dr Bezant.


The field project has also revealed a number of other archaeological sites that have never before been recorded.


This includes two possible prehistoric enclosures, two Bronze Age burnt mounds, house platforms, ruined buildings, trackways and quarries.


The team also investigated the site of a medieval corn mill.



EBay Has Unexpected, Chilling Effect On Looting Of Antiquities, Archaelogist Finds


ScienceDaily (May 9, 2009) — Having worked for 25 years at fragile archaeological sites in Peru, UCLA archaeologist Charles "Chip" Stanish held his breath when the online auction house eBay launched more than a decade ago.


"My greatest fear was that the Internet would democratize antiquities trafficking, which previously had been a wealthy person's vice, and lead to widespread looting," said the UCLA professor of anthropology, who directs the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.


Indeed, eBay has drastically altered the transporting and selling of illegal artifacts, Stanish writes in an article in the May/June issue of Archaeology, but not in the way he and other archaeologists had feared.


By improving access to a worldwide market, eBay has inadvertently created a vast market for copies of antiquities, diverting whole villages from looting to producing fake artifacts, Stanish writes. The proliferation of these copies also has added new risks to buying objects billed as artifacts, which in turn has worked to depress the market for these items, further reducing incentives to loot.


"For most of us, the Web has forever distorted the antiquities trafficking market in a positive way," Stanish said.


Looting, which is illegal, is widely recognized as destructive to cultural heritage because it can remove from public ownership tangible links to a people's past. In addition, looting is perceived as the enemy of scholarship because it typically is done without regard to any appropriate methods that allow scientists to date objects and to place them in a larger, more meaningful context.


One of the world's premiere authorities on Andean archaeology and supervisor, at UCLA, of the one of the world's largest collections of working archaeologists, Stanish has been tracking objects billed as antiquities on eBay for more than nine years. His conclusions also are informed by experiences with the U.S. customs service, which occasionally asks him to authenticate objects. In addition, Stanish has visited a number of workshops in Peru and Bolivia that specialize in reproductions of pottery and has interviewed these artisans. While his background is in South American archaeology, he has tracked eBay listings of antiquities from many cultures.


"Chinese, Bulgarian, Egyptian, Peruvian and Mexican workshops are now producing fakes at a frenetic pace," he writes.


When he first started tracking eBay's sales of antiquities, Stanish focused mainly on objects related to his field. At the time, the ratio of real artifacts to fakes was about 50-50, he estimates. About five years later, 95 percent were fakes. Now, he admits, he can't always tell, because the quality of the fakes has improved so much.


He estimates that about 30 percent of "antiquities" currently for sale on eBay are obvious fakes, in so much as creators mix up iconography and choose colors and shapes for visual effect rather than authenticity. Another 5 percent or so are genuine treasures. The rest fall in the ambiguous "I would have to hold it in my hand to be able to make an informed decision" category, he writes. Stanish admits himself to occasionally being duped by fakes encountered in shops in areas where both looted items and fakes are sold.


The advent of eBay has had the biggest impact on the antiquities market by reducing the incentive to unearth precious treasures in the first place, Stanish has found.


"People who used to make a few dollars selling a looted artifact to a middleman in their village can now produce their own 'almost-as-good-as-old' objects and go directly to a person in a nearby town who has an eBay account," he said. "They will receive the same amount or even more than they could have received for actual antiquities."


As a result of the rise of a ready market, many of the primary purveyors have shifted from looting sites to faking antiquities.


In addition to linking craftsmen with a market for cheap fakes, eBay has tended to have a depressing effect on prices for real looted artifacts, further discouraging locals from pillaging precious sites.


"The value of ... illicit digging decreases every time someone buys a 'genuine' Moche pot for $35, plus shipping and handling," he writes. (An authentic antiquity would sell for upwards of $15,000.)


So far, authentication techniques have struggled to keep abreast of increasingly sophisticated fakes, Stanish said. Pottery can still be authenticated reliably, although the process is costly. In addition, forgers tend to only guarantee the authenticity of their pieces as long as no form of "destructive" analysis is used. While just a tiny flake of pottery is required for thermoluminescence dating — the gold standard for pottery — the process is technically considered destructive, Stanish points out, so the test invalidates such warrantees, no matter its conclusion.


Thanks to laser technology and chemical processes for forming antique-appearing patinas, stone and metal, reproductions are "almost impossible" to authenticate using today's technology, Stanish writes. However, the prospect of authentication techniques eventually catching up with today's fakes is also having a chilling effect on the market for antiquities, by dramatically adding to the risk of illicit, high-end trafficking.


"Who wants to spend $50,000 on an object 'guaranteed' to be ancient by today's standards, when someone can come along in five years with a new technology that definitively proves it to be a fake," he asks.

Adapted from materials provided by University of California - Los Angeles.