By Bruce Bower Web edition : Monday, March 1st, 2010 


Long before human communication evolved into incessant tapping on computer keys, people scratched on eggshells.


Don’t laugh—researchers say a cache of ostrich eggshells engraved with geometric designs demonstrates the existence of a symbolic communication system around 60,000 years ago among African hunter-gatherers.


The unusually large sample of 270 engraved eggshell fragments, mostly excavated over the past several years at Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa, displays two standard design patterns, according to a team led by archaeologist Pierre-Jean Texier of the University of Bordeaux 1 in Talence, France. Each pattern enjoyed its own heyday between approximately 65,000 and 55,000 years ago, the investigators report in a paper to be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Researchers already knew that the Howiesons Poort culture, which engraved the eggshells, engaged in other symbolic practices, such as engraving designs into pieces of pigment, that were considered to have been crucial advances in human behavioral evolution. But the Diepkloof finds represent the first archaeological sample large enough to demonstrate that Stone Age people created design traditions, at least in their engravings, Texier says.


Evidence of intentionally produced holes in several Diepkloof eggshells indicates that ancient people made what amounted to canteens out of them, a practice that researchers have documented among modern hunter-gatherers in southern Africa.


The engraved patterns probably identified the eggshells as the property of certain groups or communities, Texier proposes.


“The Diepkloof engravings were clearly made for visual display and recognized as such by a large audience comprising members of a community, and probably members of related communities,” comments University of Bordeaux 1 archaeologist Francesco d’Errico, who was not involved in the new study.


D’Errico participated in the recent unearthing of 13 pieces of engraved pigment at South Africa’s Blombos Cave dating to between 100,000 and 75,000 years ago. Along with perforated sea shells and other personal ornaments previously excavated in Africa and the Middle East, these discoveries show that items holding symbolic meaning were made more than 60,000 years ago by both modern humans and Neandertals.


Even more exciting, according to archaeologist Curtis Marean of Arizona State University in Tempe, is the presence of drinking spouts in the South African eggshells. Water containers opened a new world of travel across arid regions for ancient people, he notes.


“The ability to carry and store water is a breakthrough technological advance, and here we have excellent evidence for it very early,” Marean says. “Wow!”


Eggshell fragments from the oldest sediment layers at Diepkloof display a hatched-band motif. These engravings consist of two long, parallel lines intersected by varying numbers of short lines. Some specimens contain one hatched band, while others display remnants of two or three. Engravers always fashioned parallel lines first and then inserted regularly spaced intersecting lines, Texier says.


Eggshells from younger soil layers at Diepkloof contain patterns consisting of deeply engraved, parallel lines that sometimes converge or intersect. One eggshell fragment from these layers exhibits a different pattern—slightly curved horizontal lines that cross a central, vertical line.


Of the many Howiesons Poort sites in southern Africa that have yielded ostrich eggshells, only Diepkloof shows evidence of stylistic engraving traditions, Texier says.



Ancient Queen's burial chamber discovered at Saqqara

By Ann Wuyts

Wednesday, 3 March 2010


A French archaeological team digging at Saqqara has discovered the burial chamber of 6th Dynasty Queen Behenu, wife of either Pepi I or Pepi II. The burial chamber was revealed while the team was cleaning the sand from Behenu's pyramid in the area of el-Shawaf in South Saqqara, west of the pyramid of King Pepi I.


The burial chamber uncovered by the French mission is badly damaged, apart from two inner walls which contain engraved Pyramid Texts. Those texts were widely used in royal tombs – carved on walls as well as sarcophagi - during the 5th and 6th Dynasties (circa 2465-2150BC).


Pyramid Texts are religious texts composed of spells primarily concerned with protecting the king's remains, reanimating his body after death, and helping him ascend to the heavens. The spells delineate all of the ways the king could travel through the afterlife, including ramps, stairs, ladders, and most importantly, flight. The spells could also be used to call on the gods for help, even threatening them if they did not comply. Unlike the Book of the Dead, these Old Kingdom texts were not illustrated.


Dr. Philippe Collombert, who heads the mission, said that further excavation inside the burial chamber led the team to the queen's sarcophagus. He adds that although the sarcophagus is in good condition, it still stays unclear if this queen was the wife of Pepi I or Pepi II: "It is a well-preserved granite sarcophagus engraved with the queen's different titles, but says nothing about the identity of her husband".


The French mission has been working within the necropolis of Pepi I at Saqqara, where they discovered the 25 meter long pyramid of Behenu and Pyramid Text fragments, since 2007. They have located a total of seven 'queen pyramids' dating to the reigns of Pepi I and Pepi II – rulers of the 6th Dynasty - since the beginning of their project in 1989. The pyramids have been attributed to Queens Inenek, Nubunet, Meretites II, Ankhespepy III, Miha, and a yet unidentified queen.



Momentous new finds


A colossal head of Tutankhamun's grandfather in Luxor and the burial chamber of Queen Behenu of the Sixth Dynasty in Saqqara are the latest antiquities discovered in Egypt, reports Nevine El-Aref


Less than two weeks after proof was obtained of the lineage of the golden king Tutankhamun, a multi-national team of archaeologists has unearthed a colossal red granite head of Tutankhamun's grandfather Pharaoh Amenhotep III during routine excavations in the Pharaoh's mortuary temple at Kom Al-Hettan on Luxor's west bank.


When constructed, the temple covered an area of 350,000 square metres and was the largest mortuary temple in the Theban necropolis. Today it has almost totally disappeared except for those two massive stone statues known as the Colossi of Memnon, which each represent the seated Amenhotep and stand at 18 metres high. Both statues once stood at the gateway of the temple, which was constructed closer to the river than any of the other mortuary temples, and hence decayed more quickly in the soft mud. Its proximity to habitation meant its stones were plundered for local building. A granite stelae of Amenhotep III is visible in the temple of Merenptah, which is located about 100 metres to the north.


In 1998 the temple was listed by the World Monuments Watch as one of the world's 100 most endangered monuments.


The newly-discovered head, carved in red granite, portrays Amenhotep as a fine, youthful man with sculptured features. It is smoothly polished and perfectly preserved with some traces of red paint on the hood of the ureaus (cobra). "It is a masterpiece of highly artistic quality," Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), told Al-Ahram Weekly.


Hourig Sourouzian, the head of the mission, said that the king was wearing the Upper Egyptian white crown but his ceremonial beard was broken under the chin. "I believe that it may still lie under the rubble below the level where the head was discovered," Sourouzian suggested. She continued that the head belonged to a large statue representing the king standing, with hands holding the royal insignia and crossed on the chest.


In recent years the mission has gathered a large quantity of pieces of a red granite statue, which once stood in the southern part of the great court of the funerary temple of Amenhotep III. Parts of the body of the statue are currently in restoration. More than 84 colossal statues have been unearthed inside it. Among them are those of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and his wife Queen Tiye, whose mummy was identified on 17 February by Hawass and a team of scientists.


in the Saqqara necropolis, the French mission has stumbled upon the burial chamber of Queen Behenu who was most probably the wife of the Sixth-Dynasty king Pepi II, although studies have not yet confirmed if she was the wife of Pepi I or Pepi II. Hawass said the discovery was made during the cleaning of Behenu's pyramid on the western side of King Pepi I's pyramid in Al-Shawaf, south Saqqara. The burial chamber is badly destroyed except for two of the inner walls on which are engraved pyramid texts. Such pyramid texts were widely used during the fifth and sixth dynasties.


Philippe Collombert, head of the team in Saqqara, said that further excavation inside the burial chamber led them to the queen's granite sarcophagus, which is engraved with the queen's titles but tells nothing of the identity of her husband.


The French mission which has worked on Pepi I's necropolis since 2007 has previously discovered the 25-metre tall pyramid of Behenu, as well as several fragments of the pyramid text.


Pyramid texts were discovered for the first time inside the burial chamber of the last king of the Fifth Dynasty, king Unas, in his pyramid in Saqqara. They were later found in kings' and queens; pyramids belonging to the Sixth Dynasty.


The pyramid texts are religious passages containing spells that are primarily concerned with protecting the Pharaoh's remains, reanimating his body after death, and helping him ascend to the heavens -- all essential components of the afterlife. The spells delineate all the ways the Pharaoh could travel, including the use of ramps, stairs, ladders, and most importantly flying. The spells could also be used to call on the gods for help, and even threatening them if they did not comply.


From 1989 up to the present day the French mission has found seven pyramids belonging to queens in the reigns of Pepi I and Pepi II. These pyramids were those of queens Inenek, Nub- Unt, Merit-It-EsII, Ankh-Es-Pepi III, Mi-Ha and another pyramid of an unidentified queen.



Syria's Stonehenge: Neolithic stone circles, alignments and possible tombs discovered

By Owen Jarus

Monday, 1 March 2010


For Dr. Robert Mason, an archaeologist with the Royal Ontario Museum, it all began with a walk last summer. Mason conducts work at the Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi monastery, out in the Syrian Desert. Finds from the monastery, which is still in use today by monks, date mainly to the medieval period and include some beautiful frescoes.


Dr. Mason explains that he “went for a walk” into the eastern perimeter of the site - an area that hasn’t been explored by archaeologists. What he discovered is an ancient landscape of stone circles, stone alignments and what appear to be corbelled roof tombs. From stone tools found at the site, it’s likely that the features date to some point in the Middle East’s Neolithic Period – a broad stretch of time between roughly 8500 BC – 4300 BC.


It is thought that in Western Europe megalithic construction involving the use of stone only dates back as far as ca. 4500 BC. This means that the Syrian site could well be older than anything seen in Europe.


At a recent colloquium in Toronto, Canada, Mason described his shock at discovering the apparent tombs, stone circles and stone alignments: “I was standing up there thinking, oh dear me, I’ve wandered onto Salisbury Plain,”


At the southern end of the landscape there are three apparent tombs. They are about eight metres in diameter and each of them “actually has a chamber in the middle”. The roof is corbelled which suggests that beneath them is “something you would want to seal in.” Each of these corbelled structures had a stone circle beside it, which is about two meters in diameter.


Dr. Mason cautioned that the team did not have the chance to do more than survey the area, so it’s still possible that these corbelled structures could have a purpose other than burial. More work also needs to be done to get a precise date of construction.


Dr. Mason set out to look for more stone circles and chambered structures. This time he brought a monk with him, from the monastery:


“Lurking around in the hills above a Syrian military base with a digital camera in one hand and a GPS unit in the other is the sort of thing that makes you want to have a monk in your presence,” he explained.


The two of them went to a rock outcrop – a place that would have been a good source of flint in ancient times – where he found the remains of several corbelled structures. In the valley below they found another corbelled structure with a stone circle right beside it.


The monk who travelled with him sensed that this high outcrop would have been of great importance to the people who lived here. “This is a high place” he told Mason.


As Mason gazed at the landscape, from the height of the outcrop, he saw stone lines, also known as alignments, going off in different directions. Dr. Mason has a strong background in geology, and knew immediately that these could not be natural features.


“I know what rocks look like, where they belong - these rocks don’t belong in that.”


One of stone lines was “very bizarre,” snaking its way up a hill. Mason followed the line and found that it led to the “biggest complex of tombs of all.”


This particular stone structure has three chambers and was probably the burial place for “the most important person.” In the front of the tomb are the remains of a stone circle. Dr. Mason can’t confirm for sure that this was used as a tomb, until further archaeological work takes place.


The lithics the team found in the landscape are also quite unusual – they don’t seem to be made from local material. Mason explained that local flint is white or dark red, but the material they found is “very good quality brown chert.”


The Neolithic period is a time period when people in the Middle East were beginning to grow crops and adopt farming. They didn’t live in settlements larger than a village. There were no cities in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world.


Professor Edward Banning is a University of Toronto anthropology professor and Neolithic period expert, and has done extensive fieldwork in the Middle East, including Jordan. He said that we need to be careful about drawing conclusions before more fieldwork is done.


“Virtually all the burials that archaeologists have ever discovered from Neolithic sites in that part of the world come from inside settlements – in fact even below floors and houses,” he said. If the corbelled structures are confirmed as burial structures, then this site will represent something new.


“It’s possible that this landscape that Dr. Mason has identified could be an example of off-site burial practices in the Neolithic which would be very interesting.”


This would help settle a mystery that archaeologists have long faced. Banning said that while burials have been found in Neolithic settlements, “Those burials are not high enough in number to account for the number of people who must have died in those settlements. So a number of us for many years have assumed that there must have been off-site mortuary practices of some kind.”


Dr. Mason goes a step further. He says that this site “sounds like Western Europe” and he wonders if this could be an early example of the stone landscapes seen at places like Stonehenge.


Dr. Julian Siggers of the Royal Ontario Museum, another Neolithic specialist, pointed out that it has been argued that agriculture spread from the Near East to Europe. This find creates a question - could these stone landscapes have travelled with them?


“It’s such an important hypothesis if it’s right that it’s worth telling people about now,” said Mason. “We’ve found something that’s never been found in the Middle East before.”


Professor Banning is sceptical about this idea. He said that stone structures are found throughout the world, pointing to the dolmens found in East Asia. He claims that people in Western Europe could have developed the techniques independently of the people who built the landscape near the Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi monastery.


Prof. Banning also said that Mason’s site may not be entirely unique in the Near and Middle East. He said that archaeologists have detected, via satellite photos, what appear to be cairns and stone circles in other areas, including the deserts of Jordan and Israel. However, he admits that most of these things have not received a lot of archaeological investigation.


That situation is about to change. Dr. Mason plans to return to the Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi site this summer with a team of Neolithic experts. The results of their investigations may well put Britain’s Stonehenge in the shade.



Archaeological Findings: Hellenistic Coins Discovered in Northern Syria                

By H. Sabbagh            

Tuesday, 02 March 2010 15:00


A collection of Hellenistic coins dating back to the era of Alexander the Great were found near Najm Castle in the Manbej area in Aleppo governorate (northern Syria).


The coins were found by a local man as he was preparing his land for construction, uncovering a bronze box that contained around 250 coins. He promptly delivered the coins to the authorities who in turn delivered them to Aleppo Department of Archaeology and Museum.


Director of archaeological excavations at Aleppo Department of Archaeology and Museum Yousef Kanjo said the box contained two groups of silver Hellenistic coins: 137 tetra drachma (four drachmas) coins and 115 drachma coins.


One side of the tetra drachma coins depicts Alexander the Great, while the other side depicts the Greek god Zeus sitting on a throne with an eagle on his outstretched right arm. 34 of these coins bear the inscription "King Alexander" in Greek, while 81 coins bear the inscription "Alexander" and 22 coins bear "King Phillip."


The drachma coins bear the same images as the tetra drachma, with "Alexander" inscribed on 100 of them and "Philip" on 15 of them.



Research points to early horse castration

March 2, 2010


Most of the horses in the terracotta army in a Chinese emperor's tomb had no testicles, pointing to the possibility of equine castration some 2000 years ago.

Yuan Jing, an archaeologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, studied the more than 600 terracotta horses within the tomb of Qinshihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, who ruled from 221 BC to 207 BC.


He noted that all the 520 horses that pulled chariots had penises but no testicles.


However, some of the 116 cavalry horses were found to have testicles.


Yuan said his findings gave some indication of how horses may have been handled by humans.


The tomb, located on the outskits of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi province, was unearthed in 1974 by peasants digging for water.


Today, it is listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO and is a major tourist attraction.


Researchers believe the terracotta army, which includes archers and infantrymen, was to help Qinshihuang rule in the afterlife.


There is evidence of pig castration dating back 3000 years, with descriptions of the practice written on shells.


However, researchers have yet to unearth actual evidence of horse castration on ancient horse skeletons.