New hominid shares traits with Homo species

Fossil find sheds light on the transition to Homo genus from earlier hominids

Public release date: 8-Apr-2010

Contact: Natasha Pinol



American Association for the Advancement of Science


Two partial skeletons unearthed from a cave in South Africa belong to a previously unclassified species of hominid that is now shedding new light on the evolution of our own species, Homo sapiens, researchers say. The newly documented species, called Australopithecus sediba, was an upright walker that shared many physical traits with the earliest known Homo species—and its introduction into the fossil record might answer some key questions about what it means to be human.


The fossils are between 1.95 and 1.78 million years old, and in this week's issue of Science, the peer-reviewed journal published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society, two reports describe both the physical characteristics of this new Australopithecus species as well as the ancient environment in which it lived and died. The emerging picture is one of a hominid with a bone structure similar to the earliest Homo species, but who employed it more as an Australopithecus, like the famed "Lucy," would have.


These new fossils, however, represent a hominid that appeared approximately one million years later than Lucy, and their features imply that the transition from earlier hominids to the Homo genus occurred in very slow stages, with various Homo-like species emerging first.


"It is not possible to establish the precise phylogenetic position of Australopithecus sediba in relation to various species assigned to early Homo," wrote Lee Berger, a lead author of one of the Science reports. "We can conclude that… this new species shares more derived features with early Homo than any other known australopith species, and thus represents a candidate ancestor for the genus, or a sister group to a close ancestor that persisted for some time after the first appearance of Homo."


Many scientists believe that the human genus Homo evolved from Australopithecus a little more than two million years ago—but the origin has been widely debated, with other experts proposing an evolution from the Kenyanthropus genus. This new Australopithecus sediba species might eventually clear up that debate, and help to reveal our direct human ancestors.


"Before this discovery, you could pretty much fit the entire record of fossils that are candidates for the origin of the genus Homo from this time period onto a small table. But, with the discovery of Australopithecus sediba and the wealth of fossils we've recovered—and are recovering—that has changed dramatically," Berger said.


The name itself, "sediba," means "fountain" or "wellspring" in the seSotho language, spoken in South Africa, and indeed, researchers do believe that the new fossils will provide a wealth of information about our human origins.


For now, these new hominid fossils make it clear that the evolutionary transition from small-bodied, and perhaps more tree-dwelling, ancestors to larger-bodied, full-striding bipeds occurred in gradual steps.


Berger, from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, along with Paul Dirks from James Cook University in Australia began a study on the distribution of cave deposits in the Cradle of Humankind—a World Heritage Site, set aside for its physical and cultural significance—in January 2008. Months later, Berger discovered the two partial skeletons in cave deposits at Malapa, South Africa, and analyzed the remains, including most of a skull, pelvis, and ankle of the new species with colleagues from the U.S., Switzerland, and Australia.


The two Australopithecus sediba—an adult female and a juvenile male—were found close together in a portion of the cave system that had been protected from scavengers, so the fossils are very well-preserved. The researchers describe the hominid's physical traits, highlighting the unique pelvic features and small teeth that it shared with early Homo species. Based on its physique, they suggest that the new species descended from Australopithecus africanus, and that the hominid's appearance signified the dawn of more energy-efficient walking and running.


"These fossils give us an extraordinarily detailed look into a new chapter of human evolution, and provide a window into a critical period when hominids made the committed change from dependency on life in the trees to life on the ground," said Berger. "Australopithecus sediba appears to present a mosaic of features demonstrating an animal comfortable in both worlds."


In a separate report published in Science, Paul Dirks and colleagues from around the world analyze the Malapa cave system, date the fossil deposits, and describe the geological and ecological environment that Australopithecus sediba would have dwelled in long ago.


"We think the environment sediba lived in was, in many ways, similar to the environment today," Dirks said. "For example, one with predominantly grassy plains, transected by more vegetated, wooded valleys. However, the rivers flowed in different directions and the landscape was not static, but changed all the time."


The caves at Malapa are not randomly distributed, but occur along fracture zones that criss-cross the landscape. They consist of mostly quartz, chert, dolomite, and peloids—though there are also iron-oxide coated grains, ooids, shale, and feldspar in the rocks.


"The fossils occur together in a near-articulated state in the sedimentary remains of a deeply eroded cave system," Dirks continued. "They were laid down by a single debris flow, indicating the timing of their deaths were closely related and occurred shortly before the debris flow carried them to their place of burial."


The researchers identified the fossils of at least 25 other species of animals, including saber-toothed cats, a wildcat, a brown hyena, a wild dog, antelopes, and a horse in the cave as well. They suggest that the Malapa caves were tens of meters deep when the Australopithecus sediba fossils were deposited—and also propose that the cave dwelling could have acted as a death trap for animals seeking water.


"One possible explanation for their entry into the cave could have been that they needed water," said Dirks. "To explain the fossil assemblage and their well-preserved state, we would speculate that perhaps at the time of their death, the area in which sediba lived experienced a severe drought… Animals may have smelled the water, ventured in too deep, fallen down hidden shafts in the pitch dark, or got lost and died."



British archaeologist: 125,000 years ago first human settlement began in Oman

Friday, 09 April 2010 12:14


A new study by a British archaeologist says that the first human settlement in Oman began about 125,000 years ago. Dr Jeffrey I Rose, Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, University of Birmingham, UK, said this during a lecture here yesterday on “Oman at the Dawn of Time: The Archaeology of Human Origin in Southern Arabia.”


Speaking to Oman local media, Dr Jeffrey said it is commonly agreed by archaeologists that originally the human expansion began from Africa, perhaps from Ethiopia or Kenya. But until recently experts believed that early human species moved from Africa to Australia. According to this study, in the journey of human expansion, the first modern humans followed the rivers into Arabia 125,000 years ago, more specifically Wadi Aybut in Dhofar, in response to improved environmental conditions.


For years, Dr Jeffrey and his seven-member team were exploring as to what was the role of Arabia in the human expansion and subsequent behavioural revolution? When and why did man first leave Africa? “At long last, after a decade of searching, we found a site in Wadi Aybut with stone tools that represent the footprints of the human expansion,” said Dr Jeffrey. Archaeological researches establish that human race has the same origin.


There is more genetic variability among 55 chimpanzees than the entire human species. “While we may be numerous, we are also homogenous,” remarked. Human genetic diversity decreases in proportion to the geographic distance from Africa. According to human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), the human family tree is comprised of 3 main ‘branches’: haplogroups M, N, and R. These branches stem from an ancestral ‘trunk’ of the tree called haplogroup L3.


Genetic evidence indicates humans branched from the L3 trunk sometime after 70,000 years ago. “We have yet to determine from where this fluorescence emanated”, said Dr Jeffrey (picture above). All modern humans are derived from an ancestral lineage rooted in Africa bearing mtDNA haplogroup L3. The first divergence from the ancestral “trunk” is mtDNA haplogroup M, found among populations in east Africa, north Africa and south Asia.


Followed shortly thereafter by a divergence of mtDNA haplogroup N, a predominantly European and western Asian branch. The earliest anatomically modern human fossils have been unearthed in east Africa around 190,000 years ago. The earliest art object has been found in South Africa dated to 77,000 BP; this discovery heralds the onset of the human behavioural revolution. This is accompanied by a suite of innovations such as bone tools, harpoons, and perforated shell beads.


By 60,000 years ago, the first human beings successfully navigated the waters of the Pacific to reach Australia and New Guinea. Two human burials were discovered at Lake Mungo in Australia, signalling more complex human behaviour. Modern humans did not expand into Europe until about 40,000–30,000 years ago. By 30,000 years ago, intricate and well-made art objects begin to show up at archaeological sites in Europe.


“We were no longer simple grassland hunters, but had developed new subsistence strategies including fishing, plant processing, primitive seafaring, along with art and some form of religious practice,” said Dr Jeffrey. What was the role of Arabia in the human expansion and subsequent behavioural revolution? When and why did we first leave Africa? His research shows that climate change would have played a critical role in determining the nature of the human expansion.


Were they “pushed” due to deteriorating conditions in Africa, or pulled due to ameliorating conditions in Arabia? Arabia is dominated almost exclusively by two weather regimes: Westerlies and the Indian Ocean Monsoon System. In order to reconstruct ancient climatic conditions, Dr Jeffrey compiled a database of environmental proxy signals from 350,000 years ago to present. A sum probability curve of cumulative proxy signals shows three wet-phases around 125,000 BP, 50,000 BP, and 10,000 kya BP.


If there was a large population expansion from east Africa into Arabia, “we can test this hypothesis by looking at archaeological evidence along the routes of dispersal, particularly the coastal migration model. “We began the season excavating a massive cave in the verdant Wadi Darbat situated on the coastal plain, above a waterfall and perennial river system. But thre were no artefacts. “For the entire month of February, we recorded null site after null site along the coastal plain and in the mountains of Dhofar.


“We were a bit more successful locating prehistoric sites on the Nejd Plateau”. High density stone tool scatters spread across large areas attest to the extent of prehistoric human occupation in Oman. In some cases, these stone tool scatters stretch across tens of kms, as far as the eye can see on March 22, with one week left to go in the season, Dr Jeffrey and his team decided to check an unexplored area in Wadi Aybut, near the village of Mudayy.


At long last, after a decade of searching, they found a site in Wadi Aybut with stone tools that represent the footprint of the human expansion. The artefacts demonstrate a specific method of making stone tools first discovered in Africa in the 1960’s called “Nubian Complex.” Over 130 Nubian cores were collected from a relatively small area encompassing approximately 400 square metres. Dates of the Nubian Complex range between 125,000 and 75,000 years ago.


At this time, early humans adapted to the Saharo-Arabian phytogeographic zone expanded their range in response to the improved climatic conditions. The conclusion is that the first modern humans followed the rivers into Arabia 125,000 years ago in response to improved environmental conditions. The process of aridification and lower sea levels leaves some hunter-gatherer groups stranded in environmental refugia around Arabia during subsequent environmental downturns.



The oldest sanctuary in Arabia is discovered

(Wam) 12 April 2010 UMM AL QUWAIN


The French archaeological mission to the UAE and the museum of the Umm Al Quwain Emirate have recently discovered the oldest sanctuary in Arabia, as well as the oldest known ceremonial site dedicated to a very particular marine mammal, the dugong. These results have just been published in the international review Antiquity.


The Arabian Peninsula has provided very little data on the beliefs and ancient ritual practices. On the Oman Peninsula, there is no known sanctuary from the Bronze Age and it is not until the Iron Age that religious practices begin to appear. Located near the Strait of Hormuz, the Akab sanctuary today provides us with the first evidence of the rituals practised by the prehistoric coastal societies of the Gulf.


Akab, a fishermen’s village between 4700 and 4100 BC. The island of Akab is located 50km north of Dubai in the large lagoon of Umm Al Quwain.


During the fifth millennium, more than 6500 years ago, Akab was a fishermen’s camp with circular habitations. Fishing was practised with nets and lines using hooks made from the shell of the pearl oyster.


Although all the resources of the lagoon and the neighbouring mangrove appear to have been exploited, the fishermen of Akab also fished tuna, which necessitated expeditions in boats in the open sea.


The dugong, a Sirenia (marine mammal) that lives along the coast of the Indian Ocean and in the western Pacific Ocean, is well attested today in the Arabian Gulf. In adulthood, it measures up to four metres in length and can weigh as much as 400kg. Now protected by the UAE, its flesh, oil and hide were long exploited.


Test excavations were made in “dugong mound” of Akab in the 1990’s and it was interpreted as a sea cow butchering site. The excavation was resumed between 2006 and 2009 by a new team of prehistorians and faunal experts of the French mission. This work has shown that this is not an unorganised accumulation of bones, but an intentionally structured one whose construction was accomplished in stages.


A carbon dating realised directly on a dugong bone attributes it to the second half of the fourth millennium (3500-3200 BC). This complex construction consists of an ovoid platform extending to nearly 10 square metres.  It contains the remains of at least 40 dugongs.


Juveniles are well represented in the mound. We also observe that no animal was deposited whole in the structure, or even a large part of an animal.


Moreover, certain anatomical parts, such as the ribs, vertebrae or limbs, are under-represented, which is evidence of intentional selection.


The deposition of portions of freshly killed animals is verified by the presence of limbs in anatomical connexion. Today, the bones present the stigmata of a long exposition to sun and wind.


The quantity of archaeological remains within the ritual structure is exceptionally high, with 1,862 objects found within 10 square metres.


As most of them are ornamental elements, they have no relation with the dismemberment or butchering of the dugong. Though beads made from shell are present, the most frequent are the tubular beads with an angled distal double perforation, of a type very rare in the Gulf. These ornamental elements were found in association with tools (oyster shell fishhooks, bone awls, shell knives, flint flakes) and pebbles.


Finally, the remains of gazelle, sheep and goat, sometimes partly articulated, were incorporated in the structure.


The ensemble contributes to the spectacular and ritualised display of a large marine mammal, and we can only be astonished by the fact that at Akab the dugong skulls are directed fully eastward, as are the deceased in certain Neolithic necropolises, such as Jebel al-Buhais 18 (Sharjah Emirate, UAE).


This display is also reminiscent of that of the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) in the necropolis of Ra’s al-Hamra 5 (Sultanate of Oman), which is contemporary with the Akab monument.


The Akab monument is unique in the Middle-East has no parallel in the Neolithic in other parts of the world. The only comparable constructions are those on the Australian coasts of the Torres Strait in the ceremonial sites known as kod sites, but the dates of these sites are much more recent (fourteenth-twentieth century AD). The analogy is so strong between the Akab monument and the Australian dugong constructions that we believe the link with fishing rites is highly probable.



UMD professor returns with evidence of a lost city

By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune


Ancient Greek cities like Plataiai aren’t home to rock-star ruins or a Wonder of the World.


But Ron Marchese, who concluded his study this year of the underground city northwest of Athens, says part of the archeological site’s significance is that it was a community of everyday people.


“There are always great sites that capture your imagination, but most people lived in communities like this,” said the University of Minnesota Duluth professor of ancient history and archeology. “We have resurrected an entire community that no one knew existed.”


Marchese, along with professors from Cambridge University and the University of Vienna, have been “X-raying” the 200-acre city 4 to 6 feet underground for 12 years. It dates back as far as 300 B.C., and the team recently completed its entire grid.


The group used an instrument that sends an electric current into the ground and walked across yards of plotted land to get numeric readings that are converted into visual images.


Marchese likens the technology to “peeling back the earth with Superman eyes.”


The Greek government allowed one three-year permit that gave them 10 weeks of actual digging, so the new technology — involving electrical resistivity and a magnetometer survey — was used for the vast majority of the project. Of the 45 or so other sites that used the same method, the work done at Plataiai is considered the best, Marchese said.


“We really established a new level of technological expertise,” he said, with “beautiful background readings” improved by the wet ground of the rainy season. “This is not fiction. Everything is there.”


The work done at Plataiai vividly demonstrates the potential of geophysical survey, said Elizabeth Baughan, assistant professor of classics and archeology at the University of Richmond in Virginia, where Marchese has lectured on the topic.


“The results are, visually, some of the most impressive I have seen, with various building types clearly identifiable,” Baughan said, noting that excavation is still needed to answer important questions about chronology of the grid-plan and functions of the buildings.


Marchese and his crew have found a temple for Dionysius, the god of wine, city blocks and avenues, bathhouses, tavernas, a gymnasium, a large urban villa probably owned by a wealthy family, the third-largest marketplace in the ancient world, a baptistery and possibly a stadium and other monuments.


The site’s buildings and artifacts date from several ages ranging from 300 B.C. to 400 A.D. Items including a goblet labeled with the owner’s name, coins and perfume bottles have been found through the initial limited excavation and as villagers have plowed the land.


“Based upon literary sources, this site is only important for the battle” — the 479 B.C. Battle of Plataiai between combined Greek forces and Persia, Marchese said. “But it was a very important site in geopolitics for about two centuries.”


Whoever controlled the site controlled access to the passes that led to Athenian territory, so Plataiai suffered much destruction, Marchese said. During the classical period of Greek history, the city was destroyed by Persians and assaulted by Thebans and Spartans. It was rebuilt after Thebes was destroyed by Alexander the Great.


“This was going to be the new capital of central Greece,” Marchese said of the wealthy city.


No one has lived on the land since the 1700s, when the community moved up the hill to be more secure.


The work done to “excavate” the city is important because archeologists aren’t only concerned with finding temples and public architecture, said Marchese, whose team’s work will be published in upcoming books and journals. “We want to deal with urban schemes; the life of the common individual,” he said. The technology used to see what’s underground is appreciated by villagers, who generally don’t like archeologists. Important discoveries can lead to loss of land, Marchese said.


But the artifacts and images “transform our way of thinking about our ancestors and what they accomplished,” he said. “You never know what’s going to be released from Earth’s grip.”



Hannibal’s real Alpine trunk road to Rome is revealed

From The Times

February 17, 2010

Norman Hammond, Archaeology Correspondent


 “A hundred elephants Hannibal had when Hannibal crossed the Alps” is a piece of childish doggerel that sticks in the mind, along with “Hannibal crossed the alps, with his horsemen and his spearmen and his elephants”. What Hannibal, the Carthaginian leader, did in 218BC is well known: “I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome,” he had vowed at the start of the campaign. With Rome poised to attack Carthage across the strait from Sicily, he decided the best way to tackle the Romans was head on.


His army of more than 30,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 37 battle elephants from Morocco marched through the autumn from Spain, which he had taken. When they reached the Alps some of Hannibal’s soldiers died of exposure in the bitter cold, while others fell to their death; only about half of them reached northern Italy.


Argument still rages over where the Alpine crossing took place. While there is general agreement that Hannibal moved up the Rhône from Avignon almost to Valence, from there onwards every valley and pass has had a case made for it being the route across the mountains into the plain of the Po near Turin. In 1959 an elephant called Jumbo was taken over the Col du Clapier by the British Alpine Hannibal Expedition to prove the route’s feasibility. This adventure was immortalised in John Hoyte’s book, Trunk Road for Hannibal. In 1988 the cricketer Ian Botham did the same thing, but with three elephants, in aid of leukaemia charities.


From the Col du Mont Cenis in the north to the Col Agnel 35 miles (60km) almost due south of it three approach routes have been argued for. In the most recent study, Dr William Mahaney, a geomorphologist, and his colleagues have looked at the evidence from Classical sources.


“As documented by Polybius and Livy in the ancient literature, Hannibal’s army was blocked by a two-tier rockfall on the lee side of the Alps, a rubble sheet of considerable volume,” they note in the journal Archaeometry. “The only such two-tier landform lies below the Col de la Traversette, 2,600 metres above sea level, a rubble sheet with sufficient volume to block the Carthaginian army.


“The character of the rockfall can best be seen from the sides or below, where a thin cover mass lies atop a much larger and more substantial rubble mass,” they say. “The trail cuts across a steep bedrock slope laced with a two-tier combination of rockfall and slide, just as Polybius described more than 2,150 years ago.” The trail has been shored up with ballast one to two metres thick, and Dr Mahaney’s team believes that artefact evidence may survive: “The three-day struggle to forge a path through the rockfall must surely have resulted in the abandonment or loss of implements used by Hannibal’s troops to prepare a path with sufficient ballast to support the passage of the baggage train, horses and elephants.”


Hannibal is said by Livy to have ordered timber to be cut and laced around the blocking rocks and then set alight. When a high temperature was reached, sour wine was thrown on to the hot rocks, splitting and spalling many of the large stones and allowing Hannibal’s engineers to remove them.


Dr Mahaney’s studies, in a book, Hannibal’s Odyssey, suggest that the tree line would have been higher in ancient times, so that timber would have been available; the area today is treeless. So far, however, there is no evidence of fire-shattered rock on the Col de la Traversette, although otherwise it fits the ancient descriptions. The site is the only area where rockfall and rockslides blocked part of an existing road, and where they can be plausibly dated to the right period. In most respects, “this location meets the criteria outlined by Livy and Polybius,” the team concludes.


Archaeometry 52: 156-172.



Further clues to a Roman mystery


By: Loren Plottel


UBC archaeologists have made several important new discoveries since unearthing in 2008 a tomb at Kaukana, an ancient Roman and Byzantine village on the south coast of Sicily.

Professor Roger Wilson, Head of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies at UBC, returned to the site in 2009 to direct his students in the successful excavation of a house in this settlement, where a substantial tomb was discovered unexpectedly inside one room. Normally burials are found at this period in the village cemetery on the outskirts, or else around the village church, so the location of the tomb is a puzzle. Inside they had found two skeletons – one of a woman aged about 25, and the other that of a young child.


DNA testing in 2009/10 has now confirmed that the woman and child belong to the same family, and the child has been identified, also through her DNA, as a little girl, about four years old: they were clearly mother and daughter. From the way in which her bones were arranged, it is clear the child was placed in the tomb sometime after the mother had been buried. But the discoveries have now got even more interesting. The mother is now known to have been approximately 30 weeks pregnant (some bones of her foetus survived), and periodic feasting occurred at her graveside: not only were dining plates, amphorae for wine and oil, and cooking pots found alongside the tomb, but also ovens where the food they ate was cooked. Preliminary analysis of carbonized seeds shows that one meal consisted of wheat, barley, millet, peas, eggs and lentils. There was even a bench provided for the diners, and a low table. One of the amphorae had brought wine all the way from Egypt, and a clay lamp of about 550 CE, imported from Tunisia, is thought to show the earliest depiction of a backgammon board ever found. It is known that this game (a descendant of earlier Roman games) was being played by Roman emperors in the fifth century CE. Clearly the woman, whose tomb had a hole in the lid to take libations of wine, was a much-loved person, given the attention paid to her burial and the evidence of ritual feasting in her honour. The team now also knows, from the discovery of an inscription in 2009, that she was definitely a Christian, since a tomb slab was inscribed ‘holy, holy, holy’, an allusion to part of the early Christian liturgy.


But why was she so honoured, and why here inside a home within the settlement, and not at the cemetery or church? One discovery of 2009 was that she possessed a tiny hole in her skull, a natural defect which she had had from birth, with the result that the lining of the brain, the meninges, would have protruded from it. The condition, known as meningocoele, would have given her constant headaches and a tendency to suffer from periodic seizures. Perhaps her miraculous powers of recovery on such occasions, apparently coming back from the ‘dead’, meant that she was seen by some as a holy woman, possibly one possessing special mystical powers. Perhaps she was rejected by her local church as being too scary, given her disabilities – one revered by some but feared by others. Or did she belong to a different, non-catholic Christian sect? The cause of her death is unknown, but it might have been due to complications which arose during her pregnancy. Even if questions surrounding this discovery abound, one thing is certain. The woman remained as remarkable in death as she was once in life.


Professor Wilson and his team, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, will return to Kaukana this summer in an attempt to solve some of the riddles and make other discoveries in the house where the tomb was found. Meanwhile lab work in the new facilities of UBC’s Laboratory of Archaeology at the Museum of Anthropology will continue to find out more about the woman and her condition. Late Roman and early Byzantine life in Italy holds a fascination not only for Italians but for historians, archaeologists and scientists worldwide.


 “Archaeology is about the painstaking recording of objects and structures, yes,” said Wilson, “but above all it is about people. At Kaukana we have been fortunate to recover part of the particularly poignant life-story of one young woman, and of her little daughter, who lived and died some 1400 years ago”.



Rosslyn Chapel was haven for bees


An ancient chapel has revealed a new mystery with the discovery of a 600-year-old hive built into the stones.

Builders renovating Rosslyn Chapel, which was made famous in The Da Vinci Code, found the "unprecedented" hive while dismantling a rooftop pinnacle.

The bees entered the hive through a hole in a carved flower crafted by the chapel's master stone masons.

The 15th Century Midlothian building is undergoing a £13m conservation and site improvement project.

The discovery was made when two pinnacles, which had been made unstable by nesting jackdaws, had to be taken down stone by stone and rebuilt.

Malcolm Mitchell, of Page Park Architects, said: "It was a big hollow about the size of a gas cylinder and the hive had obviously been abandoned."

'Teasing' masons

It is believed that the bees left the hive when a canopy was put over the chapel during renovation works. Another pinnacle had a similar hollow, but no access hole.

"Master masons built these in, whether it was under direction or not. What you find at Rosslyn is there are so many irregularities and nuances in the stone work and it's as if the stone masons are teasing us from the past," Mr Mitchell said.

"These hives were never intended to be a source of honey. They were there purely to protect the bees from our inclement weather."


It is hoped the bees will return to the hive once renovations are complete

"There doesn't seem to be any precedent.

"Bee hives in the past were normally portable. Often they were made of wicker baskets or ceramics, but the intention was that you would have access to them.

"At Rosslyn they are there purely for the bees."

He said there appeared to be a coating to protect the sandstone from the insects, which can damage masonry.

The hive has been sent to local beekeepers in an attempt to identify the type of insect that made them.

It is hoped the bees will return once the renovation works are complete.

Several unusual findings have been made during the project, including two skeletons.



'Synagogue' find under Northampton kebab shop


Archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be the remains of a medieval synagogue underneath a kebab shop in Northamptonshire.

"Substantial" masonry walls, thought to be many hundreds of years old, were detected using ground-penetrating radar in Sheep Street, Northampton.

The National Anglo Jewish Heritage Trail (JTrails) said a structure, possibly a staircase, was also found.

The masonry walls are directly under the cellar walls of Kebabish take-away.




Nine recently discovered stone monuments in England predate Stonehenge but share similar construction and alignment with the famous megaliths.

By Jennifer Viegas | Fri Apr 9, 2010 05:13 AM ET




Nine megaliths in a remote part of Dartmoor, England, share features in common with Stonehenge, and may shed light on the meaning behind these prehistoric stone monuments, according to a report in the latest issue of British Archaeology.


The Dartmoor megaliths, which were recently carbon-dated to around 3500 B.C., could predate Stonehenge, but both sites feature large standing stones that are aligned to mark the rising of the midsummer sun and the setting of the midwinter sun. Yet another Dartmoor stone monument, called Drizzlecombe, shares the same orientation.


The ancient Brits were not necessarily sun worshippers, however.


Archaeologist Mike Pitts, editor of the journal, told Discovery News that "huge quantities of barbecued juvenile pig bones" were found near Stonehenge, indicating that the animals were born in the spring and killed not far from the site "for pork feasting" in midwinter.


"The general feeling is that the sun was symbolizing or marking the occasion, rather than being the ritual focus itself, so it probably was not sun worship," added Pitts, who is author of the book "Hengeworld" and is one of the leading experts on British megaliths.


This feasting was not just a meaningless pork party, and might have been more akin to a post-funeral wake today.


Pitts believes the "solstice alignment phenomenon perhaps has something to do with death."


As he explains the setting sun and shorter days of winter would have represented the passage into the darkness of the underworld, and the reverse as the days start to lengthen again.


"At Stonehenge," he continued, "the dark navy-colored bluestones may themselves represent ancestors or spirits from the underworld, while the big orangey-pink (before weathering) sarsens could reflect summer and light."


The Dartmoor megaliths, described in a separate study in the current issue of the journal Antiquity, are now lying flat, since the stones in a row fell, or were individually pushed, over. The toppling was fortuitous for historians, however, since peat above and the below the stones permitted the carbon dating, which is extremely rare for such monuments.


Tom Greeves, who discovered the Dartmoor stones at a site called Cut Hill and is co-author of the Antiquity paper, said it is "remarkable that a previously unrecorded stone row with very large stones has been noted for the first time on one of Dartmoor's highest and remotest hills."


He added that to reach their location "requires a walk of about two hours from whatever direction."


A ditched barrow (a mound of earth or stones) exists very close to the Cut Hill stones, providing further evidence that burials and possible death-related rituals might have taken place there.


At least 81 stone monuments have now been discovered nearby, with Cut Hill's being among the largest at over 705 feet in length. Both Greeves and Pitts said it's possible some of the monuments served different functions, such as marking land use zones. The barrows, shared alignment, and other finds, however, indicate several standing stone monuments held ritualistic meaning.


Pitts likened their construction to the building of cathedrals and pyramids, and to the carving of the giant heads on Easter Island.


All, he said, are involved in the "defining of ritual spaces, giving ceremony and power distinctive physical presences, engaging large numbers by employing them in the construction processes, ceremonializing places beyond the mere moment of the rituals."



Introducing the May/June issue of British Archaeology, available from Friday 9 April



Six years ago Tom Greeves found a major prehistoric monument on Cut Hill, one of the highest (600m OD) and remotest parts of Dartmoor. Survey that still continues has now revealed a total of nine large megaliths exposed by peat cutting, or still buried. The row, one of the largest amongst some 80 known on the moor, is the first ever to have been dated. It had been built by 3000BC, much older than anyone had expected. Even more remarkable is that the row’s dead straight, north-east/south-west alignment is identical to that of Stonehenge (which started in 3000BC) – indicating the rising midsummer sun and setting midwinter sun



While the West Midlands celebrates the public generosity that has allowed Birmingham and Stoke museums to buy the Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon hoard, British Archaeology reveals that Staffordshire county council, without the knowledge of most hoard “partners”, registered a bid to trademark the hoard name



Sebastian Payne, chief scientist at English Heritage, reflects on key surveys about ancient human remains that were launched on April 6. These are thought to be the first of their kind anywhere in the world to canvas a wide public opinion on what happens to human remains excavated by archaeologists. Contrary to many recent claims made in the media by Pagan groups, there is very strong public support for keeping such remains for scientific study, and using them in museum displays. The surveys were prompted by a Pagan request to “rebury” the skeleton of a prehistoric child exhibited in Avebury museum



A seven-month excavation with up to 60 staff has ended on the Carlisle northern development route (CNDR) that will link the M6 to the A595 in Cumbria. Hundreds of tonnes of soil from a mesolithic camp (8500–4000BC), possibly for exploiting the salmon-rich estuary, was sieved using a Dutch system in which water was pumped through wheelbarrows whose bottoms had been replaced with wire mesh: over 200,000 flint artefacts were recovered. Early farming artefacts (3800–3370BC) include two “tridents”, long wooden forks only seen before in 19th century finds, from a bog in Armagh and a lake in Cumbria. There was also a flint arrowhead with hafting mastic still attached



Work on major excavations on the Isle of Man appears to have stalled, as the UK government has removed what it sees as subsidies to the Crown dependency, where the top rate of income tax is 20%. The island has no equivalent to the UK planning system that ensures excavation funding, but discoveries of international significance were made in 2008 and 2009 thanks to goodwill between the Manx government, archaeologists and the developer. Understanding of important mesolithic and bronze age houses lies “in limbo”, according to one source, until money is found to pay for post-excavation analysis



“Up with my tent there!” says Shakespeare’s Richard III on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth. But where exactly was that? After 525 years archaeology has located the battlefield that ended the War of the Roses. Glenn Foard details the discovery of the site, which has now yielded 30 lead munitions – more than from all other 15th–16th century battlefields in Europe put together



Unique medieval structures have been found in the intertidal mud of the Severn estuary, by the region’s few remaining traditional fishermen. The baskets and stakes are reminders of a 1,000-year-old history of fixed-trap fishing that has all but disappeared from the British coastline



Early in 2009 British Archaeology reported how commercial archaeology had been hit hard by the building industry decline. The UK economy emerged from recession this January, but the government has to make huge savings. The university budget for England alone is to be cut by £573m. What will become of archaeology teaching and research? We asked the questions



There is still much to say about Britain’s white fill figures, cut from the turf to reveal the chalk beneath. Most controversial are the mysterious Gogmagog “giants”, which Tom Lethbridge claimed to have found near a hillfort in Cambridgeshire in the 1950s. Did they really exist?



Who was buried in the great ship at Sutton Hoo? The answer is usually given as Rædwald. But 17 years ago, a radically different interpretation was proposed. Helen Geake sees how the evidence stacks up now