Europe’s oldest stone hand axes emerge in Spain

Findings suggest that tool advance occurred by 900,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought.

By Bruce Bower


Europe’s Stone Age has taken an edgy turn. A new analysis finds that human ancestors living in what is now Spain fashioned double-edged stone cutting tools as early as 900,000 years ago, almost twice as long ago as previous estimates for this technological achievement in Europe.


If confirmed, the new dates support the idea that the manufacture and use of teardrop-shaped stone implements, known as hand axes, spread rapidly from Africa into Europe and Asia beginning roughly 1 million years ago, say geologist Gary Scott and paleontologist Luis Gibert, both of the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California.


Evidence of ancient reversals of Earth’s magnetic field in soil at two archaeological sites indicates that hand axes date to 900,000 years ago in one location and to 760,000 years ago in the other, Scott and Gibert report in the Sept. 3 Nature. Until now, most researchers thought that hand axes unearthed at these sites were made between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago.


Other European hand ax sites date to no more than 500,000 years ago. In contrast, hand axes date to roughly 1.7 million years ago in eastern Africa. And age estimates of 1.2 million years and 800,000 years for hand axes from two Israeli sites indicate that this tool-making style spread out of Africa long before the origin of Homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago. Excavations in southern China have also yielded 800,000-year-old hand axes (SN: 3/4/00, p. 148). Fossils from ancient human ancestors have not been found with the Israeli and Chinese artifacts.


Earlier analyses of magnetic reversals in soil at other sites in southern Spain indicate that single-edged stone tools appeared there around 1.3 million years ago, Gibert says (SN: 1/4/97, p. 12). Population movements back and forth between Africa and Europe must have occurred at that time, possibly via vessels across the Strait of Gibraltar, he hypothesizes.


“Then at 900,000 years ago, we now have the oldest evidence of hand axes in Europe, which represents a second migration from Africa that brought a new stone-tool culture,” Gibert says.


Scott and Gibert’s “surprisingly old ages” for the Spanish hand axes bring the chronology of ancient Europe’s settlement in line with that of Asia, remarks archaeologist Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands. Europe contains relatively few stone-tool sites from around 1 million years ago, making it difficult to reconstruct the timing of ancient population pulses into the continent, Roebroeks says.


Although new estimated ages for soil layers at the Spanish sites appear credible, the suggestion that hand axes there are by far the oldest in Europe “is extremely daring, to put it mildly,” comments archaeologist Robin Dennell of the University of Sheffield in England. In his view, the precise depth of the hand axes when they were unearthed several decades ago remains unclear. It’s possible that these finds actually came from soil layers that Scott and Gibert place at no more than 600,000 years old, Dennell says.


Scott and Gibert first identified the geological position of specific magnetic reversals in sediment at an ancient lakeshore near the Spanish sites. Dates for these reversals have already been established in previous studies. The researchers compared these magnetic shifts to those at the hand ax sites to date the tools.


These data provide minimum ages for the Spanish finds. “Older ages are possible but would be odd,” Gibert says.



Cavern dig uncovers 15,000-year-old weapon

Wednesday, September 02, 2009, 09:07


ARCHEOLOGISTS digging at Kents Cavern have found a 15,000-year-old weapon carved from a reindeer antler.


The rare sagaie, or javelin point, was crafted by a stone age inhabitant of the caves and is the only complete example of its kind found in the UK.


It is being hailed by the tourist attraction as major find and a signal that further exciting artifacts could lie just below the surface.


Dr Paul Pettitt, director of the archaeological dig, said: "This sagaie, made of antler, most probably reindeer, functioned as a spear or javelin point.


"This form of weapon was common on the continent around the time of the late Paleolithic, the Magdalenian, and used by hunter-gatherers about 14,000 to 15,000 years ago.


"These are rare, only a handful of fragmentary samples are known from Britain. This is the only complete sagaie I know of from the UK."


The find was made on the first day of an archeological dig aiming to find evidence of Neanderthal or early human occupation at the caves.


The caves are the oldest known dwellings in the UK but there has not been a major dig at the site for more than 80 years.


Nick Powe, owner of the attraction, said: "This is a very exciting find and we are anticipating more.


"We think it was probably used to kill an animal as the tip of it is broken off.


"It is basically a sharpened reindeer antler and to find it on the first day is amazing.


"Many Torbay residents know Kents Cavern as a tourist attraction, but I don't think many realise just how important an archaeological site the caves are, not just in Britain but in Europe, and it is the oldest Scheduled Ancient Monument in Britain, with evidence of human occupation dating back half a million years — and as such it's the oldest recognisable human dwelling in the entire country."


Archaeologists also hope to learn more about the origins of Kents Cavern's use as a human shelter, and establish firm dates for the first occupation of the cave by Neanderthals and early members of our own species.


The dig will continue until September 10, and can be viewed as part of the cavern tour.



Dogs First Tamed in China -- To Be Food?

John Roach

for National Geographic News

September 4, 2009


Wolves were domesticated no more than 16,300 years ago in southern China, a new genetic analysis suggests—and it's possible the canines were tamed to be livestock, not pets, the study author speculates.


"In this region, even today, eating dog is a big cultural thing," noted study co-author Peter Savolainen, a biologist at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.


"And you can also see in the historical records as far back as you can go that eating dogs has been very common" in East Asia.


"Therefore, you have to think of the possibility that this was one of the reasons for domesticating dogs."


The new work, published Wednesday in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, bolsters the long-held theory that dogs first became "man's best friend" in East Asia.


That notion came under fire last month, based on a DNA analysis of so-called village dogs in Africa.


The highest level of genetic diversity in modern dogs should exist in the region where the animals first came under human control.


But the August study found that African village dogs have a similar amount of genetic diversity as those in East Asia, calling into question the origins of dog domestication.


For the new work, Savolainen and colleagues analyzed the entire mitochondrial genome—DNA passed down only from the mother—of 169 dogs, as well as portions of the genomes from 1,543 dogs from across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.


These dogs all share at least 80 percent of their DNA, the team found. The animals' genetic diversity increased the farther east the scientists looked.


The greatest diversity was found in a region south of the Yangtze River in China.


According to Savolainen, the data make it "totally clear" that genetic variation in East Asian dogs is much higher than anywhere else in the world.


The analysis also suggests that wolves were domesticated from several hundred individuals sometime between 5,400 and 16,300 years ago.


This is around the time Asian hunter-gatherers were adopting a more settled agrarian lifestyle, which is part of what makes Savolainen think the canines might have been kept as food.


Adam Boyko, a biologist at Cornell University in New York and co-author of the August study, agrees that the new work shows greater genetic diversity in East Asia than Africa.


But Boyko said he would like to see more genetic evidence before he calls the finding proof of domestication.


"But clearly, it is a very interesting result," he said. "There is a ton of data backing it up, [and] they put forth a really interesting hypothesis for dog domestication."



Unearthing bronze-age Dartmoor

A dig in Devon reveals how life was lived 3,500 years ago: from cookery to DIY


The nearest proper road is a couple of miles away. The toilet is an energetic yomp down a steep slope and through the conifers. When it rains – and here on Dartmoor it really does pelt down – the only shelter is project supervisor Simon Hughes's old VW Golf. "It's started to smell like a dead dog," he says with a big grin.


Despite the tough conditions, Hughes and his team are relishing working on the Bellever roundhouse. "It's a great project for us," he says. "It's a chance to really try to find out what was going on here 3,500 years ago."


There are lots of roundhouses on Dartmoor (5,000 stone ones and more wooden ones that have rotted away without leaving any trace), but most were studied a century or more ago. They used to dig one a day then, rather than taking weeks over it as they do now.


So when two years ago a great storm felled a plantation of conifers at Bellever, disturbing the roundhouse's granite structure, archaeologists argued that they ought to have another look. It is an exciting project: only the second roundhouse to be excavated in the area in the last 20 years and a chance to learn more about the people who, at a time when the climate was much more clement than it is now, were able to live and work here.


By the time the bronze-age people arrived on Dartmoor, the slopes had been cleared of trees so that crops could be grown and animals – cattle and sheep – grazed. Blocks of land may have been controlled by groupings of people or tribes. Some of the roundhouses have porches, protection against the weather, others seem to have been divided into rooms. Roofs built from timber may have been covered in turf, heather, gorse or thatch.


In October last year, the Dartmoor National Park Authority commissioned a small excavation here by a professional firm of consultants, AC Archaeology. Just under a quarter of the house, which has a diameter of 8m, was dug but many interesting and well-preserved features, including a mysterious nearby cairn and well-preserved paved flooring made up of granite slabs, were found.


More than 30 fragments of bronze-age pottery were recovered. Another intriguing find was a piece of worked timber, which may have formed part of the original structure.


"It blew us away," says Andy Crabb, an archaeologist who works for the national park and for English Heritage. "Dartmoor is very wet, very acidic, so bone, ceramics, organic material gets eaten away, but here we found a whole sequence of occupation and abandonment." In other words, evidence that people had lived there, moved on, been replaced by others. Clearly the site warranted further exploration.


Financing such a project is key. It was decided that volunteers would be used to clear the vegetation, topsoil and peat. AC Archaeology won the contract for the next stage, funded by the national park and other bodies at a cost of £7,500.


July's nasty weather has made it a tough dig. Which is why Hughes's car is so smelly. It's his call when rain stops play and he admits that they tend to keep going until the point where the roundhouse is flooded and the site could get damaged. He jokes that the state of his and his co-workers' joints is secondary.


The team, usually three or four strong, remains cheerful. "We're like a little archaeological family," says Kerry Dean, 24. "The banter is good and we bring cakes up sometimes to share and keep us going."


Hughes produces a chunky piece of pottery from an old ice-cream tub. At first it looks like the kind of thing you might come across in the garden while you're harvesting the potatoes. But, like just about everything here, it gives an intriguing glimpse into bronze-age life.


Its thickness shows it must have been part of a large bowl, and was almost certainly used for cooking. Analysis of the fragment has revealed that it is made of gabbroic clay from the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall – 100 miles away.


"We took it and showed it to a local potter," says Crabb. "She was amazed at the quality of it. Remember they wouldn't have had wheels. They were throwing these very large and heavy pots by hand."


These sort of details have brought the site to life for local people. Around 600 traipsed up the rough track to the spot for an open day and, almost every day, hikers stop to look and wonder at what life was like here 3,500 years ago.


This summer's dig has raised many more questions about how this roundhouse was used. The pottery (there are up to 69 pieces now) has been found only in one half of the structure – the half that would have enjoyed more of the sunlight. One theory is that the people spent the day in this half and slept in the other. Frustratingly, they have found no evidence of a cooking area. It may be that a smaller roundhouse nearby was the kitchen.


As they have probed further down, gone back further in time, they have found that the roundhouse was used over a period of roughly 200 years. The post holes suggest that the living space was re-ordered – ancient DIY.


The cairn remains a mystery. It seems to have been built on top of "tumble" from the wall, indicating that it was built after the roundhouse was abandoned. In Ireland, evidence of cremation or burial has been found under such structures, but not here. Clearly it was important – but the reason remains unknown.


Soon Hughes and his team will pack up their tools and head off to another site in his smelly car. The conifers will start growing again. "They're like triffids," says Crabb. The information they have collected will be stored away and the Bellever roundhouse and its mysteries will be left alone again.



Rare ancient jewels found

Aug 29, 2009


ATHENS - ARCHAEOLOGISTS on the Greek island of Crete have unearthed the 2,900-year-old tomb of three women buried with jewels of surprisingly advanced skill, culture officials said on Friday.


The tomb in the ancient town of Eleutherna, near the modern city of Rethymno in northern Crete, held gold necklaces and medallions decorated with lion heads and the forms of ancient gods, excavation supervisor Nikos Stambolidis said.


'The jewels are of a style that appeared in the Hellenistic Era (many centuries later),' said Stambolidis, director of the Cycladic Museum in Athens.


'We had no knowledge that this level of craft existed earlier,' he told AFP.


The elaborate nature of the tomb indicates that its three occupants, two of whom were adolescents, were likely priestesses or princesses.


A number of offerings including scarabs, amber seals and earthenware were also found in the burial chamber which was two metres high.


The town of Eleutherna is believed to have reached its peak in the Geometric Era around 3,000 years ago. Excavation in the last 25 years has so far yielded over 500 items of clay, metal and ivory including sculptures, tools and weapons.


One of the most prized sculptures of the Louvre Museum in Paris, a limestone female statue called the Lady of Auxerre, is believed to have come from Eleutherna. – AFP



Ancient burial site discovered in northern Greece



ATHENS, Greece — Archaeologists said Friday they have unearthed a lavish burial site at the seat of the ancient Macedonian kings in northern Greece, heightening a 2,300-year-old mystery of murder and political intrigue.


The find in the ruins of Aigai came a few meters (yards) from last year's remarkable discovery of what could be the bones of Alexander the Great's murdered teenage son, according to one expert.


Archaeologists are puzzled because both sets of remains were buried under very unusual circumstances: Although cemeteries existed near the site, the bones were taken from an unknown first resting place and re-interred, against all ancient convention, in the heart of the city.


Excavator Chrysoula Saatsoglou-Paliadeli said in an interview that the bones found this week were inside one of two large silver vessels unearthed in the ancient city's marketplace, close to the theater where Alexander's father, King Philip II, was murdered in 336 B.C.


She said they arguably belonged to a Macedonian royal and were buried at the end of the 4th century B.C.


But it is too early to speculate on the dead person's identity, pending tests to determine the bones' sex and age, said Saatsoglou-Paliadeli, a professor of classical archaeology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.


She said one of the silver vessels is "very, very similar" to another found decades ago at a nearby royal tumulus, where one grave has been identified as belonging to Philip II.


Alexander was one of the most successful generals of all times. In a series of battles against the Persian Empire, he conquered much of the known world, reaching as far as India.


After his death in 323 B.C., at the age of 32, Alexander's empire broke up in a series of wars by his successors that saw the murder of his mother, half brother, wife and both sons.


Archaeologist Stella Drougou said the new find is "very important, as it follows up on last year's."


"It makes things very complex," she said. "Even small details in the ancient texts can help us solve this riddle. We (now) have more information, but we lack a name."


Drougou told The Associated Press that the fact the funerary urns were not placed in a proper grave "either indicates some form of punishment, or an illegal act."


"Either way, it was an exceptional event, and we know the history of the Macedonian kings is full of acts of revenge and violent succession."


Drougou, who was not involved in the discovery, is also a professor of classical archaeology at the Aristotle University.


Saatsoglou-Paliadeli believes the teenager's bones found in 2008 may have belonged to Heracles, Alexander's illegitimate son who was murdered during the wars of succession around 309 B.C. and buried in secret. The remains had been placed in a gold jar, with an elaborate golden wreath.


"This is just a hypothesis, based on archaeological data, as there is no inscription to prove it," she said.


At a cemetery in nearby Vergina, Greek archaeologists discovered a wealth of gold and silver treasure in 1977. One opulent grave, which contained a large gold wreath of oak leaves, is generally accepted to have belonged to Philip II. The location of Alexander's tomb is one of the great mysteries of archaeology.


The sprawling remains of a large building with banquet halls and ornate mosaics at Aigai — some 190 miles (300 kilometers) north of Athens — has been identified as Philip's palace.


The city flourished in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., attracting leading Greek artists such as the poet Euripides. The Macedonian capital was moved to Pella in the 4th century B.C., and Aigai was destroyed by the Romans in 168 B.C.


Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.



Terracotta Army Museum denies major discovery

Chinese media reports that 100 new terracotta warriors have been found

By Chris Gill

Published online 1 Sep 09 (News)


Beijing. The director of the Terracotta Army Museum (officially titled the Xi’An Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum) and other officials at the institution denied local media reports that a major discovery of 100 new terracotta warriors has been made.


China’s state news agency Xinhua, and the AFP, reported that archaeologists have found 100 figures in the “number three” excavation pit at the museum’s site in Shaanxi Province, where work started one month ago.


Director of the museum, Chao Wei, told The Art Newspaper that “it is impossible, the pit is only 200 sq. m, if you were here and saw the site you would see it was not possible to have 100 figures in the pit. Potentially there are maybe ten figures, but work has only just begun”.


Liu, the museum’s vice director, told us: “We are not allowed to discuss this too much with outside sources—I think there has been a discovery, but there is no way there are so many figures.”


Commenting on news that the admission price for the Terracotta Army Museum may be reduced next year, Chao said: “I don’t think it’s likely. We are the highest level state museum, so not under the authority of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.” Chao said that tickets are currently RMB90 ($15). He also said that the museum saw three million visitors last year, and he believes numbers are higher this year.


Chao also confirmed that his museum is cooperating with a German government institution on the preservation of colours on excavated figures. “But there are only very little traces of colour sometimes found,” he said.



Swedish archaeologists uncover 7th century ship

Published: 27 Aug 09 09:25 CET

Online: http://www.thelocal.se/21716/20090827/


Swedish archaeologists have announced the find of a 7th century burial ship, the oldest of its kind to be discovered in Scandinavia.


The ship, thought to be from the Vendel era (550-793) of Swedish prehistory, was found in Sunnerby on the island of Kållandsö in Lake Vänern in central Sweden and, according to Lake Vänern Museum, is the only known ship burial to be uncovered in Sweden.


Archaeologists from Lake Vänern Museum and Gothenburg University are busy excavating the find which includes equipment, gifts and animal sacrifices.


"In Sunnerby, the number of boat rivets found so far indicate that there is a ship hidden in the Kungshögen mound, that is to say a vessel of more than 10 metres and possibly up to 20 metres in length," the museum writes in a statement.


The ship is a burial vessel and the museum reports that only people in the highest echelons of society were afforded such a grand farewell. The museum compares the find to the important Sutton Hoo ship burial find in south east England, though archaeologists believe the Swedish find is unlikely to yield as many significant artifacts as the Suffolk ship.


The ship would have been loaded with the deceased, animal sacrifices, equipment and gifts and the whole vessel set alight in a huge funeral pyre.


Annelie Nitenberg and Anna Nyqvist Thorsson, archaeologists at Lake Vänern Museum, hope that the Kungshögen find will help to shed light on Vendel era cultural life by Sweden's largest lake.


Previously, Vendel era society had been understood to be focused in Uppland and the Mälardalen regions of central Sweden rather than further south on the shores of Vänern, Europe's third largest lake with an area measuring 5,648 square kilometres.


The excavation of the Kungshögen find will now continue until October. After a break for the winter the work will resume in 2010.


Peter Vinthagen Simpson (news@thelocal.se/+46 8 656 6518)



Shackles found in River Thames hold ghoulish tale

Wed Aug 26, 2009 1:24pm EDT

By Stefano Ambrogi

LONDON (Reuters Life!)


An iron ball and chain found on the banks of London's River Thames is causing a stir amongst archaeologists who say the 300 year-old artifact used to restrain convicts on ships may have a gruesome story to tell.


The leg irons, believed to date from the 17th or 18th century, were pulled from the mud with the lock fastened, suggesting a convict could have drowned while trying to escape.


The prospect conjures up a tantalizing tale reminiscent of the work of 19th century Victorian author Charles Dickens, said Museum of London archaeologist Kate Sumnall who examined the find.


"Whether a real-life 'Magwitch' freed himself from the 'great iron on his leg', or perished in shackles, or whether this ball was simply discarded, we can never know," she said.


Abel Magwitch is a character in "Great Expectations" -- a violent convict who escapes from a prison-ship.


"Nothing like this has ever come across my desk before," Sumnall said, adding that to find a complete set of irons was very rare.


She said the fact that the device is made of high quality iron made it very valuable at the time suggesting that it was unlikely to have been discarded.


"And we also know from the lock design that it was not a slave ball and chain," she said.


The padlock is skillfully made with the screw-thread carved after the padlock had been cast. English padlocks of this time were not made in this way suggesting it was made somewhere in continental Europe, possibly Germany.


The long spike on the padlock would have pointed toward the other leg when it was fitted around the ankle, Sumnall said.


The device, which weighs 8 kgs (17.64 lb), has been preserved by the thick black mud of the Thames whose anaerobic properties protect metal, ceramic and even leather finds exceptionally well.


The fetters were found by "mudlarks" Steve Brooker and Rick Jones on the Thames foreshore close to a wharf in Rotherhithe in southeast London.


Mudlarks, history enthusiasts some of whom have been likened to amateur archaeologists, have special permits to search and dig the foreshore from the Port of London Authority.


Digging on the north side of the Thames between Westminster in central London and Wapping in the east of the city is strictly prohibited because it is so rich in archaeological deposits.


There are only 51 "official" mudlarks who have achieved this recognized status -- through the Society of Thames Mudlarks -- by recording their finds through institutions like the Museum of London.



Groovy artifacts from 1960s Marin County commune sorted

By Susan Ferriss


Published: Wednesday, Sep. 2, 2009 - 12:00 am | Page 1A

Last Modified: Wednesday, Sep. 2, 2009 - 12:31 pm


NOVATO – The '60s aren't dead. They're in an archaeological site north of San Francisco.


An old commune where the Grateful Dead and other bands used to romp is being excavated and items catalogued by state park archaeologists at Olompali State Historic Park.


Among the artifacts: the classic hippie beads, a marijuana "roach clip," fragments of tie-dyed clothes, and a reel-to-reel tape a Marin County studio technician has promised to try to restore.


They are the stuff of memories for Noelle Olompali-Barton, who was 16 when she and her showbiz mom plunged into California's new counterculture, retreating to this once-private ranch north of San Francisco to establish one of the first hippie communes.


The teenager baked bread to give away in Golden Gate Park. She sat with the Grateful Dead under an oak tree for a famous 1969 album photo.


For two intense, often drug-laced years, the commune nourished utopian dreams – and some bad trips, too, she said.


But never in her wildest hallucinations did the teen imagine that more than 40 years later, she would assist an archaeologist in identifying macrame headbands, old records and other commune artifacts retrieved from the abandoned ruins of her former home.


"You know you're old when you're pictured in Archaeology magazine," chuckled Olompali-Barton, now 58, who was profiled in that journal in July along with California state parks archaeologist E. Breck Parkman.


Sitting under oaks outside the park's visitor center, Parkman laughed along with Olompali-Barton, who has been using the ranch's name as her own since she lived here.


The state of California bought Olompali in 1977, and opened a park on its 700 acres of oak-studded rolling hills.


Parkman knows some might scoff at his project to catalog and display the artifacts of an era many alive remember well – or not so well if they were especially indulgent.


But the commune, he said, is as much a part of Olompali as the rest of its history, stretching back thousands of years.


"I see the commune as part of the Cold War," he said. "If we hadn't had the Cold War, we wouldn't have had Vietnam, and if we hadn't had Vietnam, we wouldn't have had the commune. It was one of the reactions to the war."


The years the commune existed, late 1967 to 1969, were some of the most tumultuous and divisive in modern American history, Parkman said.


Prominent figures of the '60s visited the site – the Grateful Dead rented the ranch the year before the commune moved in – and hippie culture went on to have an indelible impact, for better or worse, on global culture, he said.


The commune members lived, Parkman also noted, in a historic 1911 stucco mansion that was built on and attached to an 1828 adobe of a Miwok Indian chief.


The adobe, now fully visible, is the oldest standing structure in the state north of San Francisco and a national registered historical site.


Olompali is also historically rich, Parkman said, because native Miwok Indians developed major settlements here. The park's name is Miwok, and it means "southern village" or "southern people."


After the commune members were gone, Parkman said, the land was controlled by a Jesuit order. Archaeologists excavating here in 1976 unearthed a startling find at a Miwok site: an Elizabethan silver sixpence minted in England in 1567 that could have arrived by way of Sir Francis Drake.


The commune members were generally aware of some of the ranch's heritage, including the Miwok, Olompali-Barton said. Their ethos was "get back to the land," and live simply with nature.


But acid rock was their soundtrack. And in 1969, while many in the commune were working at a rock concert light show in San Francisco, an electrical fire broke out at the mansion and gutted it.


The fire was part of a downward spiral Olompali-Barton blames on a decision to open the commune up to more than a closely knit circle of families.


"There were the freeloaders who came," she said, "who sat in the living room playing music and not helping at all."