Sea gives up Neanderthal fossil

By Paul Rincon

Science reporter, BBC News


Part of a Neanderthal man's skull has been dredged up from the North Sea, in the first confirmed find of its kind.

Scientists in Leiden, in the Netherlands, have unveiled the specimen - a fragment from the front of a skull belonging to a young adult male.

Analysis of chemical "isotopes" in the 60,000-year-old fossil suggest a carnivorous diet, matching results from other Neanderthal specimens.

The North Sea is one of the world's richest areas for mammal fossils.

But the remains of ancient humans are scarce; this is the first known specimen to have been recovered from the sea bed anywhere in the world.

For most of the last half million years, sea levels were substantially lower than they are today.

Significant areas of the North Sea were, at times, dry land. Criss-crossed by river systems, with wide valleys, lakes and floodplains, these were rich habitats for large herds of ice age mammals such as horse, reindeer, woolly rhino and mammoth.


Their fossilised remains are brought ashore in large numbers each year by fishing trawlers and other dredging operations.

According to Professor Chris Stringer, from London's Natural History Museum, some fishermen now concentrate on collecting fossils rather than their traditional catch.

"There were mammoth fossils collected off the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts 150 years ago, so we've known for some time there was material down there that was of this age, or even older," Professor Stringer, a museum research leader, told BBC News. Indeed, some of the fossil material from the North Sea dates to the Cromerian stage, between 866,000 and 478,000 years ago.

It had been "only a matter of time", he said, before a human fossil came to light.

Professor Stringer added: "The key thing for the future is getting this material in a better context.

"It would be great if we could get the technology one day to go down and search (in the sea floor) where we can obtain the dating, associated materials and other information we would get if we were excavating on land."

Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) were our close evolutionary cousins; they appear in the fossil record some 400,000 years ago.

These resourceful, physically powerful hunter-gatherers dominated a wide range spanning Britain and Iberia in the west, Israel in the south and Siberia in the east.

Our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa, and replaced the Neanderthals after entering Europe about 40,000 years ago.

The specimen was found among animal remains and stone artefacts dredged up 15km off the coast of the Netherlands in 2001.


The fragment was spotted by Luc Anthonis, a private fossil collector from Belgium, in the sieving debris of a shell-dredging operation.

Study of the specimen has been led by Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

"Even with this rather limited fragment of skull, it is possible to securely identify this as Neanderthal," Professor Hublin told BBC News.

For instance, the thick bony ridge above the eyes - known as a supraorbital torus - is typical of the species, he said.

The fragment's shape best matches the frontal bones of late Pleistocene examples of this human species, particularly the specimens known as La Chapelle-aux-Saints and La Ferrassie 1.

These examples, which were both unearthed in France, date from between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago.

The North Sea fossil also bears a lesion caused by a benign tumour - an epidermoid cyst - of a type very rare in humans today.

The research links up with the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain 2 (AHOB 2) project, which aims to set Britain's prehistory in a European context. Dutch archaeologist Wil Roebroeks, a collaborator on this study, is a member of the AHOB 2 research team.

Extreme ways

Dr Mike Richards, from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, analysed different forms, or isotopes, of the elements nitrogen and carbon in the fossilised bone. This shed light on the types of foods eaten by this young male.

The results show he was an extreme carnivore, surviving on a diet consisting largely of meat.

"High in the food chain, they must have been quite rare on the ground compared to other mammals, which explains their rarity to some degree," said Wil Roebroeks from the University of Leiden.

The results of the stable isotope analysis fit with what is known about other examples of this species, though other research suggests that in Gibraltar, on the southern coast of Iberia, some Neanderthals were exploiting marine resources, including dolphins, monk seals and mussels.

Researchers decided against carbon dating the specimen; this requires the preservation of a protein called collagen.


Professor Hublin explained that while there was some collagen left in the bone, scientists would have needed to destroy approximately half of the fossil in order to obtain enough for dating.

Professor Roebroeks told BBC News: "Dutch scientists - geologists and archaeologists alike - are hoping this find will convince governmental agencies that the Netherlands needs to invest much more in that... archive of Pleistocene sediments off our coast - and off the coast of Britain."

He said this submerged repository contained "high resolution information on past climate change and its environmental consequences, points of reference for how rivers 'worked' before any human interference and now, as this find shows, remains of people who once roamed these landscapes."

Professor Hublin said the individual was living at the extreme edge of the Neanderthals' northern range, where the relatively cold environment would have challenged their capabilities to the limit. Neanderthal remains have been found at only two sites this far north.

"What we have here is a marginal population, probably with low numbers of people," Professor Hublin explained.

"It's quite fascinating to see that these people were able to cope with the environment and be so successful in an ecological niche which was not the initial niche for humans."

While these hunting grounds would at times have provided plentiful sources of meat for a top carnivore, Neanderthals living in these areas would also have been at the mercy of fluctuations in the numbers of big game animals.

Periodic dips in populations of mammals such as reindeer could have caused local extinctions of Neanderthal groups which hunted them, Dr Hublin explained.




Archaeologists find skulls on route of new road

• Remains in Dorset burial pit may be 2,000 years old

• Theories include battle with Romans or epidemic

Maev Kennedy

guardian.co.uk, Thursday 11 June 2009 15.36 BST


The skulls of scores of young men have been found in a burial pit on the route of a new road in Dorset.


So far 45 skulls, believed to be almost 2,000 years old, have been found, and more may be found as the pit is emptied. Archaeologists have called the discovery extraordinary, saying it could be evidence of a disaster, a mass execution, a battle or possibly an epidemic.


The bones recovered so far are still being examined but most appear to be of young men, and are believed to date back to the late iron age or early Roman period. They may be evidence of a fatal encounter between the invaders and the local population, buried at a site which had ritual significance for thousands of years before they died.


David Score, project manager for Oxford Archaeology, said: "There are lots of different types of burial where skeletons may be aligned along a compass axis or in a crouched position, but to find something like this is just incredible.


"We're still working on carefully recording and recovering all of the skeletons, which will be taken back to our offices in Oxford for detailed analysis, and trying to piece together the extraordinary story behind these remains."


As well as the skulls, the archaeologists found torso and leg bones buried in separate sections of the pit.


"It's very early days, but so far, after a visit to the site by our head of burial services, the skulls appear to be predominantly those of young men," Score said.


"At the moment we don't fully understand how or why the remains have come to be deposited in the pit but it seems highly likely that some kind of catastrophic event such as war, disease or execution has occurred."


The Oxford team completed the main excavation at Ridgeway Hill last year, uncovering a series of earlier burials, including cremated remains, skeletons and a man buried with a dagger under a round barrow. This year they had been monitoring the site as roadworks began, but the discovery a fortnight ago, was a complete surprise.


Construction work has stopped, the site has been fenced off and is under 24-hour security, and Dorset county council has appealed to the public to stay away and let the archaeologists get on with their work.


The pit is on the outskirts of Weymouth, where a new relief road is being built, but stands by one of the oldest roads in Europe, the Ridgeway. The site was used for ritual burials for thousands of years before the young men died: the archaeologists had already found burials from neolithic to Roman times, as well as pottery, animal bones and flint tools.



6,000-year-old tombs found next to Stonehenge

From The Times

June 10, 2009

Hannah Devlin


A prehistoric complex, including two 6,000-year-old tombs, has been discovered by archaeologists in Hampshire.


The Neolithic tombs, which until now had gone unnoticed under farmland despite being just 15 miles from Stonehenge, are some of the oldest monuments to have been found in Britain.


Archaeologists say they will hold valuable clues about how people lived at the time and what their environment was like.


The discovery is also close to Cranborne Chase, one of the most well researched prehistoric areas in Europe.


 “It’s one of the most famous prehistoric landscapes, a Mecca for prehistorians, and you would have thought the archaeological world would have gone over it with a fine tooth comb,” Dr Helen Wickstead, the Kingston University archaeologist leading the project, said.


From examining similar sites, archaeologists know that complex burial rituals were common at the time. Typically bodies would be left in the open air until the flesh had decayed, leaving only a skeleton. Then bones were put in special arrangements in the tombs.


“The tombs were like bone homes for important people in the community,” Dr Wickstead said.


The tombs were discovered by Damian Grady, an English Heritage photographer, who flew over the area in a light aircraft taking aerial photographs of the land, looking for marks or features on the landscape suggestive of ancient monuments. One photograph showed two long mounds.


After discussions with colleagues, Mr Grady was left in little doubt that the mounds were the site of ancient tombs. He contacted Dr Wickstead inviting her to investigate.


After carrying out a survey of the land using electromagnetic detectors and ultrasound, Dr Wickstead created a map of what lay beneath the fields. She was able to identify the two tombs with troughs on each side, known as long barrows, typical of Neolithic burial sites.


Her team was also found artefacts, including fragments of pottery, flint and stone tools, close to the surface.


So far Dr Wickstead’s team have only used non-invasive techniques to figure out what lies inside the tombs, which are located on the land of a local female farmer.


Because the original surface of the land has been preserved beneath the mound, scientists will be able to examine it for traces of pollen and identify which plants and trees were common at the time.


Whether they are excavated will depend on local feeling, she says.


“We’re treading very carefully on the excavation issue,” Dr Wickstead said.


“We want to be sure that it’s what people living in Damerham village want. It’s their heritage.”


The Kingston University team are due to publish preliminary findings of their research in the journal Hampshire Studies.



New test reveals Parthenon's hidden colour

19:00 15 June 2009 by Jo Marchant


Images of the Parthenon as a stark, white structure set against an azure sky will have to change. Researchers have found the first evidence of coloured paints covering its elaborate sculptures.


The temple, which tops the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, dates from the 5th century BC. Its carved statues and friezes show scenes from Greek mythology and are some of the most impressive sculptures to survive from ancient Greece.


Pigments are known to have adorned other Greek statues and temples, but despite 200 years of searching, archaeologists had found no trace of them on the Parthenon's sculptures.


So Giovanni Verri, a researcher at the British Museum in London, developed an imaging technique that is ultra-sensitive to traces of an ancient pigment called Egyptian blue.


Verri shines red light onto the marble, and any traces of paint that remain absorb the red light and emit infrared light. Viewed through an infrared camera, any parts of the marble that were once blue appear to glow.


Egyptian blue has shown up on the belt of Iris, Poseidon's messenger goddess (see image), and as a wave pattern along the back of Helios, god of the sun, who is shown rising out of the sea at dawn. It also appears as stripes on the woven mantle draped over another goddess, Dione.



China's Terracotta Army to show true colors in new dig

Mon Jun 15, 2009 9:26am BST  Email | Print | Share | Single Page [-] Text [+]

XIAN, China (Reuters Life!)


Chinese archaeologists have restarted excavation work at the burial site of the famous Terracotta Army after 20 years, armed with technology that would preserve the original colors of the 2,000-year-old sculptures.


The team will work in Pit 1, the largest pit on the site near the northern city of Xian. State news agency Xinhua said the pit had already yielded more than 1,000 terracotta figures, but is believed to have held around 6,000.


Officials gave permission for digging to restart after two decades thanks to technological advances that ensure the still-buried warriors keep their original colors once they are exposed to the air.


"There is color here, in the pupil and on this part of the cheek and on the forehead you can see the color of the hair," said one archaeologist working on site as he demonstrated the faint colors on the face of a recently uncovered warrior.


State television footage showed archaeologists painstakingly chipping earth away from the bodies of soldiers and horses. Hardly any of the figures were intact because the tunnels holding the army had collapsed.


Many hope that the new dig will also reveal a rare high-ranking officer amongst the archers, infantry and charioteers, Xinhua said. So far only 10 "generals" have been uncovered and none has been found in Pit 1.


Dating from around 210 BC, the Terracotta Army was crafted during the reign of the Qin Emperor who ordered the life-size figures to be buried in tombs around his own in Shaanxi province's Lintong county, near Xian.


The army was created to help the emperor rule in the afterlife. Chinese records state that the site was discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well.



Two tonnes of ancient coins found in history-laden Chinese province

www.chinaview.cn  2009-06-10 15:49:24

XI'AN, June 10 (Xinhua)


More than two tonnes of ancient coins dating back to as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907) have been unearthed on a playground of a primary school in Shaanxi Province, northwest China.


Zhao Aiguo, director of the cultural relics protection and tourism bureau in Liquan County, Shaanxi, told Xinhua Wednesday that the coins were found when workers were excavating the grounds Tuesday for construction of another building.


They reported their discovery to the bureau and soon more than 70 archaeologists, officials and police were sent to the site.


It took more than five hours to dig the ancient coins out of a vault made of grey bricks.


Zhao said they were in circulation for more than 750 years during the Tang, Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) Dynasties.


The vault measures 1.5 meters in width and length and one meter in height. It is believed to have been built during the Yuan Dynasty.


The coins have been sent to a local museum and archaeologists were counting them. Because there were so many, it might take a week to know the exact number and categories, Zhao said.


The site of the discovery was part of a temple built by an ancient emperor in memory of his mother between 180 BC and 157 BC. Zhao cited archaeologists as saying that the coins might be donations from believers who visited the temple.


In 2006, archaeologists in the same province discovered an ancient tomb, possibly of a coin collector, dating back more than 600 years. It contained more than 150 coins of 20 kinds from the Tang, Song and Jin (1115-1234) Dynasties, spanning about 600 years.



Dig unearths Roman road at Tesco


Archaeologists working on the road near the Tesco site in Newtown


One of the longest sections of Roman road ever found in Wales is being unearthed at the site of a new Tesco.

The highway was carved out of the Powys countryside in Newtown 2,000 years ago, and is thought to have linked two forts.

Archaeologists are excavating three separate sections of the road, and they expect to uncover a total of 300 metres.

The work will not delay the development of the supermarket.

Archaeologists from the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust are working on the site of the town's old Smithfield market, which is being redeveloped as a Tesco store.

Evidence a Roman highway existed was found in December 2006, but archaeologists have only been able to properly excavate it over the last 10 days.

Site director Ian Grant said the road would have been used for troop movements between a legionary fort at Forden, near Welshpool and Caersws, a few miles from Newtown.

Mr Grant said: "This sort of find is extremely rare, especially in Wales.

"We have excavated between 70 and 80m so far and the road is six metres wide.

"We haven't found any Roman artefacts, but the next step is to looks for settlements."

Archaeologists expect to be on site for a minimum of eight weeks.

Mr Grant said the road would eventually be covered by the new store.



All roads lead to Rome


We don’t often have the opportunity to excavate a Roman road, so it’s quite a coincidence that two long stretches of road are currently being examined at the same time, and even more of a coincidence that it is in fact the same road.


Termed RR64 in the authoritative volume on Roman roads, a road was constructed running westwards from Wroxeter near Shrewsbury, past Westbury in Shropshire to Forden near Montgomery and then on to Caersws and perhaps beyond. When the Roman army pushed westwards into Wales in the 70s AD, they constructed permanent forts at strategic locations to control the local population. To allow the rapid movement of troops and supplies between the forts, well-made stone-surfaced roads were constructed between the permanent forts.


A 180m length of RR64 is currently being excavated by SLR Consulting Ltd in advance of quarrying at Bayston Hill south of Shrewsbury, where they have found three successive Roman surfaces to the road (or agger) which there is around one metre high.


The same Roman road passes beneath Newtown in Powys, and the construction of a new Tesco’s supermarket on the site of the former Smithfield, just south of the main road to Welshpool has offered CPAT the opportunity to examine more than 70m of the road with every possibility that more of it will be uncovered in the near future. At the moment we have recognised two road levels, indicating that here the road was re-surfaced at least once and perhaps reduced in width. As yet we have not located any evidence of roadside settlement or other activity, but the excavation is still in its early days.


Access to the site is very difficult because of the demolition and building work going on, but we are hoping to arrange an open day, or perhaps more likely an open evening at some point over the next few weeks. Keep an eye on this website for an announcement on the date and time.


Bob Silvester, June 2009



Students unearth Saxon nunnery

Page last updated at 21:04 GMT, Friday, 12 June 2009 22:04 UK


Archaeologists from the University of Bristol on their annual dig

Archaeologists believe they could have found the first-ever excavated Saxon nunnery, on a dig in Gloucestershire.

The annual dig, by the University of Bristol, has unearthed remains of a Saxon building in the grounds of the Edward Jenner Museum, Berkeley.

The Berkeley Project to find Saxon Berkeley and the missing nunnery has been going for five years.

This year the Saxon church has been found at the foot of the museum garden next to the church tower.

Dr Stuart Prior, of the University of Bristol, said, "If the church was associated with the buildings and they do turn out to be part of the Anglo-Saxon nunnery it will be the first time that a nunnery of this date (7th - 9th Century) has ever been excavated.

"All the evidence to date including the Anglo-Saxon records support this hypothesis! Which is very exciting."

This year's dig began on 19 May and will finish in a weeks time.



Mysterious Inscribed Slate Discovered at Jamestown

Paula Neely

for National Geographic News

June 8, 2009


Archaeologists in Jamestown, Virginia, have discovered a rare inscribed slate tablet dating back some 400 years, to the early days of America's first permanent English settlement.


Both sides of the slate are covered with words, numbers, and etchings of people, plants, and birds that its owner likely encountered in the New World in the early 1600s.



The tablet was found a few feet down in what may be the first well at James Fort, dug in early 1609 by Capt. John Smith, Jamestown's best known leader, said Bill Kelso, director of archaeology at the site.


If the well is confirmed as Smith's, it could help offer important insights into Jamestown's difficult early years.


Records indicate that by 1611, the water in Smith's well had become foul and the well was then used as a trash pit. Archaeologists discovered the slate among other objects thrown into the well by the colonists.


Slate tablets were sometimes used in 17th-century England instead of paper, which was expensive and not reusable.


According to Bly Straube, Historic Jamestowne's curator, people drew games and wrote on broken roofing tiles, which could be washed off and used over and over again. "Inscribed slates from this time period are rarely found in England, so little is known about them," she said.


Archaeologists and other scientists are still trying to decipher the slate, the first with extensive inscriptions to be found at any 17th-century colonial American site.


The scratched and worn 5-by-8-inch (13-by-20-centimeter) tablet is inscribed with the words "A MINON OF THE FINEST SORTE." Above the words are the letters and numbers "EL NEV FSH HTLBMS 508," interspersed with symbols that have yet to be interpreted.


"We don't know what it means yet," Kelso said.


But there are some clues.


According to Straube, "minon" is a 17th-century variation of the word "minion" and has numerous meanings, including "servant," "follower," "comrade," "companion," "favorite," or someone dependent on a patron's favor. A minion is also a type of cannon—and archaeologists have found shot at the James Fort site that's the right size for a minion.


Drawings on the slate depict several different flower blossoms and birds that may include an eagle, a songbird, and an owl.


"The crude drawings of birds and flora offer dramatic evidence of how captivated the English were by the natural wonders of the alien New World," excavation director Kelso said. There's also a sketch of an Englishman smoking a pipe and a man, whose right hand seems to be missing, wearing a ruffled collar.


Although the age of the tablet is not yet known, archaeological evidence—including turtle and oyster shells, Indian pots, trade beads, mirror glass, early pipes, medicinal jars, and military items—indicates that it was deposited in the well during the early years of James Fort, which was established in 1607.


If it's Smith's well, archaeologists believe the tablet could date to 1611, when the well was probably filled in, or earlier.


Another recent discovery from the same well is a brass baby's toy that's a combination whistle and teething stick.


Straube, the Jamestown curator, said the teething-stick portion is made from coral. In the 17th century, coral was considered good for babies' gums and a magical substance that kept away evil. She said it may have belonged to one of the women who arrived with children in 1609.


It's impossible to know yet who the slate's owner—or owners—may have been.


Straube said an image that looks like a palmetto tree, normally found from South Carolina to the Caribbean (map), suggests that the drawings may have been made during the voyage from England to Jamestown through the West Indies, once a common route to the New World.


Or, she said, the slate could have been used by a colonist who was among about 140 castaways from the Sea Venture shipwreck in 1609. They were stranded in Bermuda for ten months and arrived at Jamestown in the spring of 1610.


Drawings of three rampant lions, used in the English coat of arms during the 1603-25 reign of King James I, have also been discovered on the slate and could mean that the slate's owner was someone involved with government.


Archaeologist Kelso suggests the slate may have belonged to William Strachey, who served as secretary of the colony. He was among the shipwrecked colonists in Bermuda and arrived in Jamestown in 1610.


Straube, the curator, also said the tablet may have been used by someone living in Jamestown who died in the winter of 1609-10, known to colonists as the Starving Time, when the fort was under siege. Only about 60 of 200 people survived.


Near the slate archaeologists have found butchered bones and teeth from horses, as well as dog bones, that may date back to the infamous winter, when colonists resorted to eating their horses and dogs to survive.


It's also possible that the tablet was used by more than one person. "There seems to be a difference in the style of handwriting," Straube noted.


The images on the tablet are difficult to see, because they are the same dark gray color as the slate and they overlap. The colonists would have written on the tablet with a small, rectangular pencil made of slate with a sharp point. This would have made a white mark—and fortunately for archaeologists today, it also left a scratch.


"You can wipe off the mark, but you can't completely erase the groove," Kelso, the archaeologist, said. "That's why we have layer upon layer of drawings. In a way it's archaeology. If one groove cuts across another groove, you could tell which one was the most recent."


He hopes eventually to sort out the sequence of the images with the help of NASA, where scientists at the Langley Research Center are using a high-precision, three-dimensional imaging system similar to a CT scanner to help isolate the layers and provide a detailed analysis of the tablet.


Is It John Smith's Well?


Determining whether this is in fact Smith's well will be key to understanding Jamestown's most difficult early years.


According to colonists' accounts, water in Smith's well became brackish within a year after it had been dug. Some experts think foul water, including some poisoned by salt water, may have been a major cause of death during the Starving Time, in addition to starvation and disease unrelated to the water, civil unrest, and battles with Indians.


Located near the James River, next to the first storehouse in the middle of the fort, the well was discovered last year, and archaeologists began excavating it earlier this year. They believe it was dug before a well dating to 1611, which is located farther away from the river.


Kelso said the colonists, having learned a difficult lesson from Smith's well, would have dug their second well as far from the river as possible, to try to avoid contamination by the brackish river water.


Archaeologists have dug down 5 feet (1.5 meters) so far, and the pit has narrowed into a more well-like, circular shape, which may reach 9 to 15 feet (2.7 to 4.5 meters) into the ground.


Kelso said they won't know for sure if it's Smith's well until they get to the bottom and date the objects there.


Finding the well, he said, "will give us a chance to really look at the health issue and figure out what spoiled the water." Some clues to the mysteries contained in the 400-year-old slate might emerge then too.