Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia

Using DNA extracted from a finger bone found in Denisova Cave in southern Siberia, we have sequenced the genome of an archaic hominin to about 1.9-fold coverage. This individual is from a group that shares a common origin with Neanderthals. This population was not involved in the putative gene flow from Neanderthals into Eurasians; however, the data suggest that it contributed 4–6% of its genetic material to the genomes of present-day Melanesians. We designate this hominin population ‘Denisovans’ and suggest that it may have been widespread in Asia during the Late Pleistocene epoch. A tooth found in Denisova Cave carries a mitochondrial genome highly similar to that of the finger bone. This tooth shares no derived morphological features with Neanderthals or modern humans, further indicating that Denisovans have an evolutionary history distinct from Neanderthals and modern humans.



Finger Points to New Type of Human

by Ann Gibbons on 22 December 2010, 1:00 PM


By sequencing the nuclear genome of an ancient finger bone, researchers have confirmed the discovery of a new type of human that lived in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia more than 30,000 years ago. This long-lost group of people, which researchers are calling "Denisovans" after the Denisova cave in which the bone was found, lived at roughly the same time modern humans and Neandertals were in the region, and it appears to be more closely related to Neandertals than us. Although these Denisovans went extinct, they were widespread enough in Asia to interbreed with modern humans before they disappeared, leaving behind a ghostly legacy in the genomes of Melanesians.


After archaeologists discovered the bone in 2008, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, isolated remarkably well-preserved DNA—comparable to DNA frozen in permafrost. In a study reported earlier this year in Nature, the team sequenced the finger's mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which suggested that the digit did not belong to a Neandertal or a modern human. The mtDNA, which is passed down only from the mother and represents a small fraction of the total genome, didn't provide enough data to draw firm conclusions about the identity of the finger's owner, however.


In the new study, the Max Planck team sequenced 70% of the nuclear genome, which comes from DNA on 23 pairs of chromosomes. The researchers then compared this sequence with the genomes of Neandertals and modern humans and confirmed that the girl was neither human nor Neandertal. Her DNA was more like that of Neandertals than that of modern humans, suggesting that Neandertals and Denisovans are sister groups that shared a common ancestor after they split from the ancestors of modern humans, says evolutionary geneticist and lead author Svante Pääbo. But they were not Neandertals, because their DNA diverged from that of Neandertals about 640,000 years ago and because the large molar was too primitive to belong to a Neandertal, according to team member David Reich, a population geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston.


The researchers also compared different parts of the Denisovan genome with the same segments of DNA in 53 populations of present-day humans. The data revealed that the Denisovans shared certain mutations with Melanesians from Papua New Guinea and Bougainville Island, mutations that are not found in Neandertals or other modern populations. Melanesians appear to have inherited between 4% and 6% of their DNA from these extinct Denisovans, the team reports online today in Nature.


The best scenario to fit this data is that after Neandertals and Denisovans split, the Neandertals interbred with modern humans just after they left Africa but before they spread into Europe and Asia in the past 80,000 years. Later, Denisovans living in eastern Asia encountered a group of modern humans heading east from Africa toward Melanesia and interbred with them. As a result, Melanesians now carry DNA from both encounters with Neandertals and Denisovans, which means that as much as 8% of their DNA comes from archaic populations, says Reich. The team is already trying to identify the function of those mutations.


Paleoanthropologists are also taking a new look at old fossils in Asia, trying to figure out which ones might be the Denisovans—if any. Along with the discovery in 2004 of the diminutive Homo floresiensis—a.k.a. the hobbit—that lived on the island of Flores as recently as 13,000 years ago, there are now at least three other types of humans who were alive at the same time as modern humans were taking over the world. Clearly, this means “the story [of the origins of modern humans] has undoubtedly got a lot more complicated,” says paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London.



Swedish scientists study ice man bacteria samples

Published: 22 Dec 10 13:58 CET


A team of scientists are currently examining specimens of stomach bacteria from Ötzi the Iceman, who lived about 5,300 years ago, at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute (KI).


Ötzi was discovered by two Germans tourists in September 1991 in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch in Italy close to the Austria border.


His body is usually kept frozen, but he has been thawed recently to allow experts to examine him, among them Swedish infectious disease control professor Lars Engstrand at KI.


Engstrand hopes that the samples will reveal whether Ötzi had gastric ulcer and resistant bacteria.


"We are performing DNA extraction to map the gastric and intestinal microflora from 5,000 years ago and to try out to find if he had any signs of ulcer-causing bacteria. We will probably be finished in a couple of months, that's my gut feeling," Engstrand told The Local on Wednesday.


Engstrand and his team received faecal samples, as well as a 1 square centimetre section of Ötzi's stomach, on November 8th and will disclose their findings through scientific journals.


Engstrand is working with other scientists in Germany and Bordeaux to find any possible resistant genes that Ötzi may have possessed before the antibiotic era.


"We are quite convinced that we will find something. They have been found in soil bacteria. It will be interesting to see how these genes looked like then compared with today," explained Engstrand.


"This is a scientific study for public health, antibiotic resistance and virulence as these genes may have evolved over the years," he added.


Engstrand has never worked with such dated material, but pointed out that the material was long dead when they received it and as such, there are no viable organisms, so they are only working with DNA.


"This part of the body has not been exposed to other contaminating bacteria. He has been frozen for so many years, the DNA quality is crucial to our success," said Engstrand.


He added that the team will resume the research after Christmas and they expect to learn shortly thereafter if the DNA quality is viable for the study.


Ötzi is Europe's oldest natural human mummy. His body and belongings are displayed in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, northern Italy.


Initially, Ötzi was believed to be a modern corpse, similar to others found in the region. The crude methods used to remove him by Austrian authorities from a glacier resulted in damage to the hip of the body.


At the time of his death, Ötzi was about 1.65 metres tall, weighed about 50 kilograms and was about 45 years old. When his body was found, it weighed 38 kilograms.


Because the body was covered in ice shortly after his death, it had only partially deteriorated.

Vivian Tse (news@thelocal.se)



Possible prehistoric bead is found in Suffolk

By Mariam Ghaemi

Friday, 24 December, 2010

9:00 AM


A RARE piece of treasure which is believed to date back to pre-historic times could be the first find of its kind in Suffolk.


The British Museum said the gold personal ornament, which was found in Glemsford, near Sudbury, was an “important item”.


It is currently in the hands of the British Museum, which carried out the report into the object, but it could come home to Suffolk.


Janina Parol, assistant treasure registrar at the British Museum, said Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service and the British Museum were all interested in the ornament, which is thought to be from the Bronze Age.


In his report, Ben Roberts, curator of European Bronze Age at the British Museum, said: “The probable bead is very rare for Britain and Ireland though a necklace of similar beads from Ireland is in the British Museum.”


The ornament was classified as treasure at a treasure trove inquest in Bury St Edmunds yesterday.


Faye Minter, senior finds recording officer at Suffolk County Council, said it was discovered by Lindsey Holland, from Liverpool, who was at a metal detecting rally in cultivated land in Glemsford on September 25.


She said there had been some deliberation over its date, but the unusual object is believed to be late Bronze Age, from 1,100 to 800 BC.


The ornament, which is probably a bead, is cylindrical in shape with decoration across it.


Speaking after the inquest, Jude Plouviez, archaeological officer at Suffolk County Council, said: “I don’t think we have found anything similar in Suffolk for example. It is quite an unusual one.”


Miss Parol said if the local museums could not acquire the item, then it would remain at the British Museum.


No comment could be made on the value of the ornament as the valuation is yet to take place.


A rare silver Eadmund penny of early medieval date, which was found near Mildenhall, was also deemed to be treasure at yesterday’s inquest.


Miss Minter said it was found by metal detectorist Steve Foster on October 30 and he reported it to Suffolk County Council.


The coin, which is thought to be part of a previous hoard, dates to between 850 and 870.



Secrets of the Colosseum

A German archaeologist has finally deciphered the Roman amphitheater's amazing underground labyrinth

By Tom Mueller

Photographs by Dave Yoder

Smithsonian magazine, January 2011


The floor of the colosseum, where you might expect to see a smooth ellipse of sand, is instead a bewildering array of masonry walls shaped in concentric rings, whorls and chambers, like a huge thumbprint. The confusion is compounded as you descend a long stairway at the eastern end of the stadium and enter ruins that were hidden beneath a wooden floor during the nearly five centuries the arena was in use, beginning with its inauguration in A.D. 80. Weeds grow waist-high between flagstones; caper and fig trees sprout from dank walls, which are a patchwork of travertine slabs, tufa blocks and brickwork. The walls and the floor bear numerous slots, grooves and abrasions, obviously made with great care, but for purposes that you can only guess.


The guesswork ends when you meet Heinz-Jürgen Beste of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome, the leading authority on the hypogeum, the extraordinary, long-neglected ruins beneath the Colosseum floor. Beste has spent much of the past 14 years deciphering the hypogeum—from the Greek word for “underground”—and this past September I stood with him in the heart of the great labyrinth.


“See where a semicircular slice has been chipped out of the wall?” he said, resting a hand on the brickwork. The groove, he added, created room for the four arms of a cross-shaped, vertical winch called a capstan, which men would push as they walked in a circle. The capstan post rested in a hole that Beste indicated with his toe. “A team of workmen at the capstan could raise a cage with a bear, leopard or lion inside into position just below the level of the arena. Nothing bigger than a lion would have fit.” He pointed out a diagonal slot angling down from the top of the wall to where the cage would have hung. “A wooden ramp slid into that slot, allowing the animal to climb from the cage straight into the arena,” he said.


Just then, a workman walked above our heads, across a section of the arena floor that Colosseum officials reconstructed a decade ago to give some sense of how the stadium looked in its heyday, when gladiators fought to their death for the public’s entertainment. The footfalls were surprisingly loud. Beste glanced up, then smiled. “Can you imagine how a few elephants must have sounded?”


Today, many people can imagine this for themselves. Following a $1.4 million renovation project, the hypogeum was opened to the public this past October.


Trained as an architect specializing in historic buildings and knowledgeable about Greek and Roman archaeology, Beste might be best described as a forensic engineer. Reconstructing the complex machinery that once existed under the Colosseum floor by examining the hypogeum’s skeletal remains, he has demonstrated the system’s creativity and precision, as well as its central role in the grandiose spectacles of imperial Rome.


When Beste and a team of German and Italian archaeolgists first began exploring the hypogeum, in 1996, he was baffled by the intricacy and sheer size of its structures: “I understood why this site had never been properly analyzed before then. Its complexity was downright horrifying.”


The disarray reflected some 1,500 years of neglect and haphazard construction projects, layered one upon another. After the last gladiatorial spectacles were held in the sixth century, Romans quarried stones from the Colosseum, which slowly succumbed to earthquakes and gravity. Down through the centuries, people filled the hypogeum with dirt and rubble, planted vegetable gardens, stored hay and dumped animal dung. In the ampitheater above, the enormous vaulted passages sheltered cobblers, blacksmiths, priests, glue-makers and money-changers, not to mention a fortress of the Frangipane, 12th-century warlords. By then, local legends and pilgrim guidebooks described the crumbling ring of the ampitheater’s walls as a former temple to the sun. Necromancers went there at night to summon demons.


In the late 16th century, Pope Sixtus V, the builder of Renaissance Rome, tried to transform the Colosseum into a wool factory, with workshops on the arena floor and living quarters in the upper stories. But owing to the tremendous cost, the project was abandoned after he died in 1590.


In the years that followed, the Colosseum became a popular destination for botanists due to the variety of plant life that had taken root among the ruins. As early as 1643, naturalists began compiling detailed catalogs of the flora, listing 337 different species.


By the early 19th century, the hypogeum’s floor lay buried under some 40 feet of earth, and all memory of its function—or even its existence—had been obliterated. In 1813 and 1874, archaeological excavations attempting to reach it were stymied by flooding groundwater. Finally, under Benito Mussolini’s glorification of Classical Rome in the 1930s, workers cleared the hypogeum of earth for good.


Beste and his colleagues spent four years using measuring tapes, plumb lines, spirit levels and generous quantities of paper and pencils to produce technical drawings of the entire hypogeum. “Today we’d probably use a laser scanner for this work, but if we did, we’d miss the fuller understanding that old-fashioned draftsmanship with pencil and paper gives you,” Beste says. “When you do this slow, stubborn drawing, you’re so focused that what you see goes deep into the brain. Gradually, as you work, the image of how things were takes shape in your subconscious.”


Unraveling the site’s tangled history, Beste identified four major building phases and numerous modifications over nearly 400 years of continuous use. Colosseum architects made some changes to allow new methods of stagecraft. Other changes were accidental; a fire sparked by lightning in A.D. 217 gutted the stadium and sent huge blocks of travertine plunging into the hypogeum. Beste also began to decipher the odd marks and incisions in the masonry, having had a solid grounding in Roman mechanical engineering from excavations in southern Italy, where he learned about catapults and other Roman war machines. He also studied the cranes that the Romans used to move large objects, such as 18-foot-tall marble blocks.


By applying his knowledge to eyewitness accounts of the Colosseum’s games, Beste was able to engage in some deductive reverse engineering. Paired vertical channels that he found in certain walls, for example, seemed likely to be tracks for guiding cages or other compartments between the hypogeum and the arena. He’d been working at the site for about a year before he realized that the distinctive semicircular slices in the walls near the vertical channels were likely made to leave space for the revolving bars of large capstans that powered the lifting and lowering of cages and platforms. Then other archaeological elements fell into place, such as the holes in the floor, some with smooth bronze collars, for the capstan shafts, and the diagonal indentations for ramps. There were also square mortises that had held horizontal beams, which supported both the capstans and the flooring between the upper and lower stories of the hypogeum.


To test his ideas, Beste built three scale models. “We made them with the same materials that children use in kindergarten—toothpicks, cardboard, paste, tracing paper,” he says. “But our measurements were precise, and the models helped us to understand how these lifts actually worked.” Sure enough, all the pieces meshed into a compact, powerful elevator system, capable of quickly delivering wild beasts, scenery and equipment into the arena. At the peak of its operation, he concluded, the hypogeum contained 60 capstans, each two stories tall and turned by four men per level. Forty of these capstans lifted animal cages throughout the arena, while the remaining 20 were used to raise scenery sitting on hinged platforms measuring 12 by 15 feet.


Beste also identified 28 smaller platforms (roughly 3 by 3 feet) around the outer rim of the arena—also used for scenery—that were operated through a system of cables, ramps, hoists and counterweights. He even discovered traces of runoff canals that he believes were used to drain the Colosseum after it was flooded from a nearby aqueduct, in order to stage naumachiae, or mock sea battles. The Romans re-enacted these naval engagements with scaled-down warships maneuvering in water three to five feet deep. To create this artificial lake, Colosseum stagehands first removed the arena floor and its underlying wood supports—vertical posts and horizontal beams that left imprints still visible in the retaining wall around the arena floor. (The soggy spectacles ended in the late first century A.D., when the Romans replaced the wood supports with masonry walls, making flood- ing the arena impossible.)


Beste says the hypogeum itself had a lot in common with a huge sailing ship. The underground staging area had “countless ropes, pulleys and other wood and metal mechanisms housed in very limited space, all requiring endless training and drilling to run smoothly during a show. Like a ship, too, everything could be disassembled and stored neatly away when it was not being used.” All that ingenuity served a single purpose: to delight spectators and ensure the success of shows that both celebrated and embodied the grandeur of Rome.


Beyond the thin wooden floor that separated the dark, stifling hypogeum from the airy stadium above, the crowd of 50,000 Roman citizens sat according to their place in the social hierarchy, ranging from slaves and women in the upper bleachers to senators and vestal virgins—priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth—around the arena floor. A place of honor was reserved for the editor, the person who organized and paid for the games. Often the editor was the emperor himself, who sat in the imperial box at the center of the long northern curve of the stadium, where his every reaction was scrutinized by the audience.


The official spectacle, known as the munus iustum atque legitimum (“a proper and legitimate gladiator show”), began, like many public events in Classical Rome, with a splendid morning procession, the pompa. It was led by the editor’s standard-bearers and typically featured trumpeters, performers, fighters, priests, nobles and carriages bearing effigies of the gods. (Disappointingly, gladiators appear not to have addressed the emperor with the legendary phrase, “We who are about to die salute you,” which is mentioned in conjunction with only one spectacle—a naval battle held on a lake east of Rome in A.D. 52—and was probably a bit of inspired improvisation rather than a standard address.)


The first major phase of the games was the venatio, or wild beast hunt, which occupied most of the morning: creatures from across the empire appeared in the arena, sometimes as part of a bloodless parade, more often to be slaughtered. They might be pitted against each other in savage fights or dispatched by venatores (highly trained hunters) wearing light body armor and carrying long spears. Literary and epigraphic accounts of these spectacles dwell on the exotic menagerie involved, including African herbivores such as elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses and giraffes, bears and elk from the northern forests, as well as strange creatures like onagers, ostriches and cranes. Most popular of all were the leopards, lions and tigers—the dentatae (toothed ones) or bestiae africanae (African beasts)—whose leaping abilities necessitated that spectators be shielded by barriers, some apparently fitted with ivory rollers to prevent agitated cats from climbing. The number of animals displayed and butchered in an upscale venatio is astonishing: during the series of games held to inaugurate the Colosseum, in A.D. 80, the emperor Titus offered up 9,000 animals. Less than 30 years later, during the games in which the emperor Trajan celebrated his conquest of the Dacians (the ancestors of the Romanians), some 11,000 animals were slaughtered.


The hypogeum played a vital role in these staged hunts, allowing animals and hunters to enter the arena in countless ways. Eyewitnesses describe how animals appeared suddenly from below, as if by magic, sometimes apparently launched high into the air. “The hypogeum allowed the organizers of the games to create surprises and build suspense,” Beste says. “A hunter in the arena wouldn’t know where the next lion would appear, or whether two or three lions might emerge instead of just one.” This uncertainty could be exploited for comic effect. Emperor Gallienus punished a merchant who had swindled the empress, selling her glass jewels instead of authentic ones, by setting him in the arena to face a ferocious lion. When the cage opened, however, a chicken walked out, to the delight of the crowd. Gallienus then told the herald to proclaim: “He practiced deceit and then had it practiced on him.” The emperor let the jeweler go home.


During the intermezzos between hunts, spectators were treated to a range of sensory delights. Handsome stewards passed through the crowd carrying trays of cakes, pastries, dates and other sweetmeats, and generous cups of wine. Snacks also fell from the sky as abundantly as hail, one observer noted, along with wooden balls containing tokens for prizes—food, money or even the title to an apartment—which sometimes set off violent scuffles among spectators struggling to grab them. On hot days, the audience might enjoy sparsiones (“sprinklings”), mist scented with balsam or saffron, or the shade of the vela, an enormous cloth awning drawn over the Colosseum roof by sailors from the Roman naval headquarters at Misenum, near Naples.


No such relief was provided for those working in the hypogeum. “It was as hot as a boiler room in the summer, humid and cold in winter, and filled all year round with strong smells, from the smoke, the sweating workmen packed in the narrow corridors, the reek of the wild animals,” says Beste. “The noise was overwhelming—creaking machinery, people shouting and animals growling, the signals made by organs, horns or drums to coordinate the complex series of tasks people had to carry out, and, of course, the din of the fighting going on just overhead, with the roaring crowd.”


At the ludi meridiani, or midday games, criminals, barbarians, prisoners of war and other unfortunates, called damnati, or “condemned,” were executed. (Despite numerous accounts of saints’ lives written in the Renaissance and later, there is no reliable evidence that Christians were killed in the Colosseum for their faith.) Some damnati were released in the arena to be slaughtered by fierce animals such as lions, and some were forced to fight one another with swords. Others were dispatched in what a modern scholar has called “fatal charades,” executions staged to resemble scenes from mythology. The Roman poet Martial, who attended the inaugural games, describes a criminal dressed as Orpheus playing a lyre amid wild animals; a bear ripped him apart. Another suffered the fate of Hercules, who burned to death before becoming a god.


Here, too, the hypogeum’s powerful lifts, hidden ramps and other mechanisms were critical to the illusion-making. “Rocks have crept along,” Martial wrote, “and, marvelous sight! A wood, such as the grove of the Hesperides [nymphs who guarded the mythical golden apples] is believed to have been, has run.”


Following the executions came the main event: the gladiators. While attendants prepared the ritual whips, fire and rods to punish poor or unwilling fighters, the combatants warmed up until the editor gave the signal for the actual battle to begin. Some gladiators belonged to specific classes, each with its own equipment, fighting style and traditional opponents. For example, the retiarius (or “net man”) with his heavy net, trident and dagger often fought against a secutor (“follower”) wielding a sword and wearing a helmet with a face mask that left only his eyes exposed.


Contestants adhered to rules enforced by a referee; if a warrior conceded defeat, typically by raising his left index finger, his fate was decided by the editor, with the vociferous help of the crowd, who shouted “Missus!” (“Dismissal!”) at those who had fought bravely, and “Iugula, verbera, ure!” (“Slit his throat, beat, burn!”) at those they thought deserved death. Gladiators who received a literal thumbs down were expected to take a finishing blow from their opponents unflinchingly. The winning gladiator collected prizes that might include a palm of victory, cash and a crown for special valor. Because the emperor himself was often the host of the games, everything had to run smoothly. The Roman historian and biographer Suetonius wrote that if technicians botched a spectacle, the emperor Claudius might send them into the arena: “[He] would for trivial and hasty reasons match others, even of the carpenters, the assistants and men of that class, if any automatic device or pageant, or anything else of the kind, had not worked well.” Or, as Beste puts it, “The emperor threw this big party, and wanted the catering to go smoothly. If it did not, the caterers sometimes had to pay the price.”


To spectators, the stadium was a microcosm of the empire, and its games a re-enactment of their foundation myths. The killed wild animals symbolized how Rome had conquered wild, far-flung lands and subjugated Nature itself. The executions dramatized the remorseless force of justice that annihilated enemies of the state. The gladiator embodied the cardinal Roman quality of virtus, or manliness, whether as victor or as vanquished awaiting the deathblow with Stoic dignity. “We know that it was horrible,” says Mary Beard, a classical historian at Cambridge University, “but at the same time people were watching myth re-enacted in a way that was vivid, in your face and terribly affecting. This was theater, cinema, illusion and reality, all bound into one.”


Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Secrets-of-the-Colosseum.html#ixzz19Et4IpIM




Did the Scots visit Iceland? New research reveals island inhabited 70 years before Vikings thought to have arrived

It is now thirty years since clerics, who live on the island [Thule] from the first of February to the first of August, told me that not only at the summer solstice, but in the days round about it, the sun setting in the evening hides itself as though behind a small hill in such a way that there was no darkness in that very small space of time... – Dicuil, an Irish monk, writing in AD 825, translation by J.J. Tierney.

New archaeological discoveries show that Iceland was inhabited around AD 800 – nearly 70 years before the traditional dating of its Viking settlement.

One possibility is that these early inhabitants may have been related to Irish monastic communities found throughout the Scottish islands at that time, and described in Viking-Age and medieval texts.

“Questions surrounding Iceland’s first settlement in the early medieval period have been of longstanding interest for scholars,” said Professor Kristján Ahronson of Prifysgol Bangor University in Wales and Visiting Professor at the University of Toronto. He led the team that made the discoveries.

As an example of the longstanding interest in this topic, Ahronson pointed to the University of Toronto’s Sir Daniel Wilson, who argued in 1851 that “when Norseman first visited Iceland in the latter half of the 9th century, it was uninhabited, but they discovered traces of the former presence of Irish monks.”

Kverkarhellir cave

One discovery was made at Kverkarhellir cave, on the land of Seljaland farm in southern Iceland. The cave is 7.5 metres long, and dug out of soft rock. Nearly 200 of these artificial caves have been found on the island. “Tool marks on the cave walls vividly illustrate the artificial nature of these sites,” said Professor Ahronson.

What makes Kverkarhellir special is the preservation of layers of sediments outside the cave mouth, specifically those from nearby volcanoes. Iceland has experienced many volcanic eruptions in its time. When an eruption takes place, a layer of ashy material known as “tephra” is deposited on the surface.

Ahronson said that these tephra layers are a “powerful dating tool,” which can be used to study past land surfaces and any artefacts found in these sediments. With this in mind the team went to work, digging just outside the entrance of the cave. As expected they encountered these tephra layers, including one from an eruption that happened around AD 871.

But when they dug deeper, unearthing older layers of sediments, they found something else. Ahronson said that they discovered “waste material from an episode of construction” – evidence of early activity at this cave. This discovery identifies Kverkarhellir cave as “older than any other site currently known in Iceland.”

To determine how early this presence was, the team measured the amount of wind-blown sediment that lies between the tephra and the waste material.

“Using the generally accepted but rough estimates for sediment accumulation in the area, (we have) a date of around AD 800,” said Ahronson, “though very local factors (affecting sediment accumulation) pose a challenge to precise dating.”

Animal tracks discovered dating to AD 871

To learn more about southern Iceland’s past environment, Ahronson’s team analyzed the form of tephra layers, looking at how they fell onto the ground.

If there are trees or a thick understory of vegetation, the ashy material will not land in some places, leading to gaps or features in the tephra layer. Also if an animal walks over tephra their footprints may be preserved.

The team plotted these irregularities out in 3D. This is a new technique involving excavation and mapping, initially tested over a small area - three by two meters in size.

Nevertheless the team achieved clear results – including the fascinating discovery of possible animal tracks.

“Unexpected linear depression features were found in the tephra layer,” said Ahronson. “The size, shape and distribution, hold out the possibility that these were created by medium-sized herbivores, such as sheep or small- and medium- sized cows.”

The tracks date back to around AD 871, many decades after the new evidence for people at Kverkarhellir cave, but just about when the large-scale settlement of Iceland by Vikings is generally thought to have begun.

The only larger mammals native to the island before humans arrived were arctic fox – which these tracks do not belong to.

A grassland environment in AD 871

There’s more.

The team discovered that these animals would have been walking over open grassland. When they analyzed the form of the tephra layer they found that, aside from the footprints, it was continuous and well-defined without “holes” or irregular gaps. In other words, there was little vegetation obstructing the volcanic material as it fell upon the ground.

 “Interpretation of this data suggests an open grassland environment without tree cover,” Ahronson said.

He said that there could be two reasons for this – some sort of natural process that kept this area free of trees. Or, it could be that humans were responsible for deforestation in the area. “Woodland clearance would probably have occurred several decades before AD 870 in order to produce such an open and well defined tephra layer.”

Curiously it looks as if the area was reforested sometime later. When the team analyzed tephra from an eruption around AD 920, they found that it contained “a number of medium-sized irregularly shaped gaps,” Ahronson said. “These were interpreted to be the result of a lush understory of vegetation.” A sign, perhaps, that Vikings and their animals had abandoned this area, or that its woodland was being managed.

Crosses in caves

A second cave site at Seljaland, close to Kverkarhellir, contains possible evidence of early occupation.

It’s known as the Seljalandshellar cave group and contains 19 large and 4 mid-sized carvings on its walls - representing the Christian symbol of the cross. The team has been recording this art, and creating detailed illustrations of it.

 Ahronson emphasized that it is difficult to firmly date these carvings; however, he notes that their style is similar to early medieval crosses seen in western Scotland.

“Typological analysis of many key characteristics of this material – leaves us to note fundamental parallels, specifically with the early medieval sculpture from the west highlands and islands,” he said. “In western Scotland, we would generally see most of this comparable material as predating the Viking Age,” in other words AD 800 or earlier.

He added that “none of the sculpture from Seljaland, intriguingly, has any parallels we can identify with Scandinavian traditions at that time.”



Learning from leftovers: a history drawn from turkey bones

22 December 2010 Leicester, University of


A PhD student at the University of Leicester will have a very different view of Christmas dinner from most people, because Brooklynne Fothergill is researching the history of turkey domestication by examining old turkey bones.


Brooklynne’s PhD is in palaeopathology, the study of disease in ancient remains. By studying the health of turkeys from different countries and different historical periods, she is able to draw conclusions about the people who farmed, cooked and ate them.


 “As unimportant as animal bones may seem compared to beautiful ceramics or metal, they have the potential to reveal aspects of human life in the past that no other form of material can show us,” says Brooklynne, a Canadian-Irish student who has come to Leicester to study in the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History.


“Animal bones can be useful indicators of human diet. The presence of animals from far away tells us about long-distance trade. We can look into farming methods as well as attempting to work out how they were perceived by people in the past and what they may have symbolised.”


Turkeys originated in north and central America where they were domesticated by the Aztecs. Spanish explorers brought the birds to Europe in the 1500s and English colonists took them back in the 1600s. Domesticated turkeys were crossbred with wild American turkeys to create the various breeds in use today.


To the early American people, turkeys were enormously important says Brooklynne:


“Turkey feathers were used for prayer sticks, blankets and clothing.  They were associated with water and may have been used for sacrifices. There are even records of turkeys within human burials. There is a legend about the turkey having the feathers burned off of its head when it attempted to raise the sun. I also very much enjoy that an aspect of Tezcatlipoca, one of the main Aztec gods, was Chalchiuhtotolin, who appeared as a turkey.”


Brooklynne’s project was featured in the University’s Festival of Postgraduate Research earlier this year. For more about turkeys and Brooklynne’s research, see:





Remains of 1600 fort discovered

Sunday December 26 2010

Remains of a 410-year-old fort have been discovered on the banks of the River Foyle.


The bastion fortification was built by Sir Henry Docwra in 1600 at Dunnalong, near Strabane in Co Tyrone, as part of his efforts to gain control over the Irish chieftains.


University of Ulster researchers used aerial laser technology to reveal the Plantation-era settlement, which even included a brewhouse to provide beer to the settlement downstream at Derry.


UU researcher Rory McNeary said: "This was a substantial fortification in its day comprising a five-sided enclosure with four bastions, all the buildings associated with a sizeable garrison, the re-fortified and ditched strong-house formerly belonging to the O'Neills."


He said there was a market-place as well as brew-house. The researchers have to analyse the remaining earthwork, which is still buried deep beneath the ground.


The team used airborne Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data obtained from the Rivers Agency as part of the research for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. The UU is testing its potential use for archaeological mapping in coastal and freshwater areas.


Mr McNeary added: "This is a real coup and the technology will allow archaeologists to pinpoint future geophysical surveys and excavations."


Sir Henry was sent by Lord Mountjoy to occupy and fortify the town with a large force of men. His main task was to keep in check the Ulster chieftains and try to get them to cooperate with the Crown. He landed virtually unopposed at Culmore on 16 May and, after fortifying the existing castle there, marched to Derry several days later.


Eventually the area became part of the estate of the Earl of Abercorn.