Ancient child deaths uncovered

Friday, 03 July 2009

Australian National University

Thursday 2 July 2009


An archaeological excavation in southern Vietnam of a site more than 3000 years old has shed new light on how the death of young children was viewed by community members and uncovered the oldest clear evidence of rice agriculture in the region.


The excavation, led by Professor Peter Bellwood and Dr Marc Oxenham from the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology, studied a site 3-4000 years old named An Son. The research team’s findings suggest that death in young children was so common that community members were unlikely to revere the death of their offspring until they had survived for more than five years.


“The burial of a new born baby without any associated grave goods and positioned within discarded kitchen material may suggest high levels of infant mortality, as well as a reduced emotional investment in very young children that may not live long anyway,” said Professor Bellwood.


“On the other hand, the burial of a 12 year old child with high quality ceramics and stone tools might mean children that survived the danger years – birth to five years old in most cases – could be revered by family or community members in death.”


The excavation has also revealed the oldest clear evidence of rice agriculture in southern Vietnam and uncovered the varied diets and agricultural practices of the pre-historic community.


“While this excavation has revealed the earliest clear evidence of rice agriculture in southern Vietnam, their diets were extremely broad,” said Dr Oxenham. “A wealth of animal bones – some probably domesticated – attest to the dietary breadth of these early Vietnamese, including species of cattle, pig, deer, freshwater crocodile, shellfish and reptile and amphibian remains.


“We also found a large number of stone adzes, many shouldered to accommodate long-since rotted wooden handles. That suggests a significant amount of forest clearance was occurring, presumably to increase the area of cultivatable land.”


The excavation team has also found a large quantity of pottery from humble cooking vessels to massive, ornately-incised and patterned ceramics.


The research team worked with students from ANU in collaboration with the Centre for Archaeological Research, Hanoi and members of the An Son village community. The work is part of a four year ARC-funded project, The Creation of Southeast Asian Peoples and Cultures, 3500BC to AD500.


Filed under:    Media Release, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Asia, Science

Contacts:        For interviews: Dr Marc Oxenham – (02) 6125 4418 For media assistance: Martyn Pearce, ANU Media Office – (02) 6125 5575 / 0416 249 245



Fortified Garrison Town Discovered in the Northeastern Delta


Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosni, announced today that a Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) archaeological mission in Ismailia Governorate has revealed the remains of a military town, dated to the 26th Dynasty (ca. 664-625 B.C.), at the site of Tell Dafna, between El-Manzala lake and the Suez canal, about 15km northeast of the city of western Qantara.


The northeast Delta held a special position in Egypt; the area acted as a major centre for trade with the east, and was also the location of an ancient military and trade route known as the Ways of  Horus, which connected Egypt with the East. The area was used as a strategic position by the Late Period kings (ca. 747-525 B.C), especially those of the 26th Dynasty, in order to defend the eastern borders of Egypt from invaders.


Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the SCA, stated that King Ramesses II of the 19th Dynasty (ca. 1279-1212 BC) chose the site of Tell Dafna to erect a fortress or fortified town at Egypt’s eastern border in order to repulse Egypt’s enemies. The newly discovered fortress shows that King Psmatik I (ca. 664-610 BC) also built fortifications here.


Dr. Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, Head of the Central Department of Lower Egyptian Antiquities and the director of the mission, said that the newly discovered fortress covers an area of about 380×625m, while the enclosure wall is about 13m in width. It is considered to be the largest fortress discovered in the eastern Delta.


The mission also discovered a large mudbrick temple, consisting of three halls. There is also a group of storage magazines at the eastern and western sides of the temple. A small mudbrick palace was also discovered at the northeast side of the temple, consisting of eight rooms.


Furthermore, the mission discovered a group of drainage networks for rain water inside the ancient structures, consisting of pottery tunnels that end with a group of pottery vessels buried vertically in the sand to a depth of about three meters.


Dr. Abdel Maksour also stated that a huge number of pottery vessels, as well as local and imported pottery lids, were found. These are representative of the large scale trading activity between Egypt, the near East and Greece at this time. A white plate inscribed with Demotic text, some red and black decorated Amphora, a group of stones used for grinding seeds, an amulet in the form of Wadjet-eye and parts of alabaster kohl pots were also among the finds. Many bronze arrow heads were also discovered, revealing the military nature of the site.


The team consists of six archeologists, an architectural draftsman, an architectural surveyor and a topographer. The work at the site will continue in 2010.



Turkey plans to restart work on controversial dam project


Turkey today announced plans to resume a controversial £1bn dam project in the face of environmental protests that it would displace thousands of people, destroy habitats and drown priceless archaeological treasures.


The environment minister, Veysel Eroglu, said work on the Ilisu hydroelectric dam on the Tigris river in south-east Turkey would restart after a six-month funding suspension ends next week.


The announcement disappointed campaigners who believed that the project had suffered a potentially fatal blow last December, after German, Swiss and Austrian institutions announced they were withholding finance because fears about the dam's environmental and social impact had not been addressed. The governments agreed that 150 World Bank conditions on the environment, heritage sites, neighbouring states and human relocation must be met.


Turkey's government argues the dam – which is planned to generate 1,200MW of electricity – is an essential part of a £19.3bn plan to bring economic prosperity to the south-east, long blighted by armed conflict between the army and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers party (PKK).


At a press conference in Ankara, Eroglu confidently said that the necessary funds would be made available, after declaring that "important work" had been carried out to bring the dam into line with international standards. The claim was not immediately confirmed by the project's backers. The [suspension] period lasts until 6 July. A spokesperson for the Swiss economy ministry told Reuters: "Switzerland is still examining the issue and will decide, together with Germany and Austria, how to proceed."


Environmentalists have warned that the dam could destroy up to 80 towns, villages and hamlets, resulting in the forced relocation of between 50,000 and 80,000 people. Campaigners have argued that residents have not been offered adequate compensation and have accused Turkey of failing to properly consult Iraq, into which the Tigris flows, and Syria, another neighbour.


Historians have warned that the dam would submerge the ancient town of Hasankeyf, which was used as a fortress by the Romans against the Persians and later destroyed by the Mongols. It was re-built in the 11th century by the Seljuks.


Turkey, which is seeking to overcome dependence on imports of foreign gas for its energy needs, insists that valuable heritage will be protected or moved.


The Ilisu project — due for completion in 2013 — is part of a wider network of dams known as the South-eastern Anatolia Project, which the government of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pinpointed as key to transforming the region's economy and quelling Kurdish separatist violence.


First planned in the 1980s, the dam has a history of troubles. The British construction company Balfour Beatty scrapped plans for a £200m investment in 2001 under pressure from environmentalists and human rights groups.



Pope claims human remains belong to St Paul

Fiona Winward in Rome

The Guardian, Monday 29 June 2009


Human remains found beneath the Vatican have been identified as belonging to St Paul, Pope Benedict XVI said, apparently laying to rest the mystery of a tomb first discovered in the city in 2006.


Archaeologists found material and fragments of bone dating to the first or second century AD inside the tomb at the basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.


Vatican experts claim the tomb's position, underneath the epigraph Paulo Apostolo Mart (Paul the Apostle and Martyr), at the base of the main altar is proof that it belongs to the apostle.


The pope said the tomb had not been opened but that a probe inserted through a small hole had revealed traces of purple linen decorated with gold sequins, blue material and red incense grains as well as the remains. "Small fragments of bone were carbon dated by experts who knew nothing about their provenance and results showed they were from someone who lived between the first and second century," he said.


"This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that these are the mortal remains of Paul the apostle," he said, adding that the discovery "fills our souls with great emotion".


The pope made the announcement from the basilica as he celebrated the end of the Pauline year, which has marked the 2,000th anniversary of the apostle's birth. It also comes a day after Vatican archaeologists uncovered what they believe to be the oldest icon of St Paul in a Rome catacomb, dating to the late fourth century.


St Paul was a Roman Jew who converted to Christianity after he saw a light on the road to Damascus. His letters in the New Testament are considered highly influential in Christian thinking.


Tradition holds that Paul was beheaded by the Emperor Nero around AD 62-65 and buried in a vineyard over which the Emperor Constantine built a basilica in 324. St Paul Outside the Walls is the second biggest church in Rome after St Peter's.



Excavation work uncovers settlement that may have been major market center

BY STEPHEN DEERE, The Southern News Services

Friday, July 3, 2009 9:21 AM CDT



It was about an inch long — the rim from some ancient vessel, discarded long ago and buried in silt and mystery.


Now, nearly 1,000 years later, a man in a sweat-stained gray T-shirt fished it from the ground.


“You can tell that it was bowl,” said Harl, vice president of the Archaeological Center of St. Louis. “Probably a serving bowl. Even something that small you can tell.”


Harl stood at the edge of a retention pond off Olive Street Road last week. Long ago, the area was likely a substantial market center for Mississippian Indians, he explained.


But it’s uncertain how the site was connected to the Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville. Cahokia, a pre-Columbian political and religious capital, was the largest Native American city north of Mexico.


The Chesterfield site’s relatively proximity to Cahokia only adds to the intrigue, Harl said. “Nobody’s ever looked at a major market center like this in eastern Missouri,” he added, noting that virtually all of the ceremonial mounds that gave St. Louis its nickname — Mound City — were destroyed as the city was being built.


Archaeologists hope the parcel in Chesterfield — roughly the size of four football fields — will provide a clearer picture of how this network of prehistoric settlements functioned.


“The number of bowls, the highly ornate vessels that we are getting, tells us this was a major site,” Harl said.


A backhoe stripped away thin layers of dirt while half a dozen archaeologists watched. When the backhoe uncovered something intriguing, the archaeologists waved their hands in the air and began carefully sifting through the dirt.


Late last year, city crews had excavated this parcel for soil to build a retention reservoir. Work crews cut in to the ruins, exposing thousands of artifacts. Rains washed some clean, revealing pieces of decorative pottery, ear spools, arrowhead and tool fragments, and the beads that used to make up necklaces.


Soon after, Stan Dampier was walking through the area with a friend in search of arrowheads. Instead, they stumbled across scattered pottery shards.


“The pottery looked to me to be a little special,” he said. “I knew it was more than just a camp-out place.”


Dampier contacted Larry Kinsella, a volunteer he knew at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois. Kinsella listened to Dampier’s description of the pottery. It was of a genre called Ramey, known for its swirling patterns, fashioned during the height of Mississippian culture.


“It sounded like it was a big site,” Kinsella said.


Harl was more skeptical when he took Dampier’s call. He often receives tips about large sites that never pan out. Nevertheless, he drove to the site about an hour after he spoke with Dampier.


Harl quickly discovered a treasure trove of relics — copper ear spools, the remnants of homes, cooking and storage pits. “We were finding artifacts galore,” Harl said.


They also found leftover deer bones.


“That tells us there was a lot of ceremonial feasting,” Harl said.


All told, they discovered roughly 5,000 artifacts just in the initial search, although some were just tiny shards.


For the next few months, Harl and other employees of the Archaeological Research Center surveyed the land and worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to get the $150,000 in government money to conduct a dig. (The corps owns the site.)


The effort at the site — since named after Dampier — began in earnest June 24. The hope is that it will help paint a more complete picture of what’s been called Mississippian culture, a people who thrived from about 1050 to 1400 A.D. and then mysteriously disappeared. No one is quite sure why. But theories abound. A minor ice age. Major crop failure. Political infighting. Economic competition. Flooding.


For decades, experts have been trying to piece together a more complete picture of their existence. What kind of language did they speak? Did they write? Where did they go? What tribes did they spawn?


Last Wednesday, excavation uncovered the remnants of a stockade wall — one more sign that the site was inhabited by a large community, Harl said. They also had found copper ear spools that probably came from the Great Lakes region. Among the Mississippians, wearing copper was a display of wealth.


“It’s no different today than people wearing Italian suits,” Harl said.


At the dig, an old tool looked just like rock except for its smoothed-over edges. The outline of a cooking pit appears as a ring of slightly darker dirt.


Harl’s team had uncovered what they believed were the remains of a house. It was just a black patch of earth. The Mississippians built their homes with logs, vines, prairie grass and mud. The decaying remains left a dark square in the dirt, too well-defined to be a natural phenomenon.


The search can be tedious.


Robin Machiran, one of the center’s investigators, pointed to black flecks in the ground, probably leftover charcoal. She began shoveling away handfuls of dirt and paused after a few minutes.


“It’s not looking great,” she said. “I’m not seeing any artifacts.”


Before long, she could see the outline of roots. It appeared to be a tree stump a farmer had burned. False alarm. The dig continued.


Harl predicted months of hard work and analysis lie ahead. The team planned on taking buckets of dirt and running them through a device similar to a washing machine.


“That filters out tiny seeds and fish scales and all kinds of fragile things you can’t even see,” he said.


Then they would know a little more about the Mississippian diet.


Just one small part of a large mystery.



Experts hold summit to unravel mystery of rebel Roman fortress in Norfolk

By Ben Miller

Published: 02 July 2009


A buried Roman province (Don't you mean a provincial town? - ed.) which caused sensation when RAF pictures of the site appeared on the front page of The Times in 1929, Caistor was adjudged to have been a densely-occupied urban area, abandoned by the Emperor of the struggling empire in 5AD. (Surely not! - ed.)


New research, though, suggests such theories could be flimsily inaccurate. Using a Caesium Vapour magnetometer – a virtual grid survey device which resembles a cross between a calculator and an iPod – an expert team discovered a theatre, traces of Queen Boudicca's rebel Iceni tribe and strong signs of activity in the area through the Iron Age and up to 900AD.


"The town was probably founded by the Romans after Boudicca was defeated, which raises some interesting questions about the settlement which preceded it," explains Will Bowden, a Professor in Roman Archaeology at the University who led the showcase seminar on the findings.


"Was it Boudicca's tribal capital, levelled by the Romans for the construction of a new town as a graphic illustration of power after the revolt? Or was it the settlement of a faction that stayed loyal to Rome and was rewarded with the status of regional capital?"


Like us, Bowden admits he probably won't ever known. "But it's fun to speculate," he adds. "We really need to dig to date some of our pre-Roman features, so I'm fundraising now."


The site was eventually taken over by Medieval Norwich, reverting to green fields in a "unique time capsule", according to analysts. Among the survey results are outlines of a large semi-circular building next to the town's temples, a trademark imprint of a Roman theatre.


"The key thing about the new survey is it does seem to show that beneath the Roman town lies a very extensive prehistoric settlement," says Bowden. "This is pretty interesting as one of the mysteries about Caistor has always been why the Romans founded a town there when the site of modern Norwich has rather more going for it."


The five-hour series of presentations, labelled The Knowledge Exchange Showcase, united Norfolk museums, archaeologists and councils with academics, highlighting their latest breakthroughs.


"The University can bring some really exciting cutting edge technologies to the project, while the partners have extraordinary resources in terms of archaeology and detailed knowledge," says Bowden. "It's a winning combination for all concerned, really."