Serbian site may have hosted first copper makers

Finds intensify debate over Old World origins of metal production

By Bruce Bower

Friday, June 25th, 2010


An archaeological site in southeastern Europe has shown its metal. This ancient settlement contains the oldest securely dated evidence of copper making, from 7,000 years ago, and suggests that copper smelting may been invented in separate parts of Asia and Europe at that time rather than spreading from a single source.


The find extends the known record of copper smelting by about 500 years, an archaeological team headed by Miljana Radivojević and Thilo Rehren of University College London reports in an upcoming Journal of Archaeological Science. The pair were joined by Serbian researchers, led by Dušan Šljivar of the National Museum Belgrade, and German scientists directed by Ernst Pernicka of the University of Tübingen.


Chemical and microscopic analyses of previously unearthed material from Serbia’s Belovode site have identified pieces of copper slag, the residue of an intense heating process used to separate copper from other ore elements. The raw material came from nearby copper-ore deposits in Serbia or Bulgaria, they add.


“Our finds provide the earliest secure dates for copper smelting and indicate the existence of different, possibly independent centers of invention of metallurgy,” Rehren says. Metallurgy is the process of extracting metals from ore in order to create useful objects.


Large numbers of copper artifacts have been found at southeastern European sites dating to more than 6,000 years ago, Rehren notes.


His proposal challenges a longstanding view that copper smelting spread to Europe after originating in or near the Fertile Crescent region of what’s now southern Iran. Archaeologists have dated copper smelting in the Middle East to about 6,500 years ago.


Although Belovode now stands as the world’s oldest known copper-smelting site, that status probably won’t last, remarks archaeologist Benjamin Roberts of the British Museum in London. “It’s likely we’ll see copper-smelting evidence at least contemporary with Belovode from the Fertile Crescent once research programs are in place at well-excavated sites,” he predicts.


Copper smelting may have originated in what’s now Turkey, comments archaeologist Christopher Thornton of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. By 10,000 years ago, people living there were making beads and other ornaments from copper ore and heating the ore at low temperatures to make it more pliable, he says. Scattered evidence of early smelting in that region has yet to be thoroughly studied.


Roberts and Thornton agree that copper making was probably invented in one spot, either in Turkey or the Middle East.


Rehren’s group is now examining possible copper slag from sites in Turkey and Iran that date to 7,000 years ago or more.


Radiocarbon dates for animal bones excavated at Belovode indicate that the site was occupied from 7,350 to 6,650 years ago. Jewelry and other Belovode finds come from southeastern Europe’s ancient Vinča culture, known for having used copper vessels and other metal items.


Chemical analyses of metallic-looking bits from Belovode identified five pieces of copper slag. Large amounts of iron, manganese, zinc and cobalt in this material likely derived from smelted copper ores, Rehren’s team says. Differences in the concentration of elements across samples indicate that each was produced in a separate smelting event. Slag pieces were laced with ash from wood that presumably had been burned to create smelting temperatures of about 1,100° Celsius.


Microscopic studies of slag pieces revealed glassy areas and crystallized metal oxides that had formed during a process of heating the material until it liquefied, followed by cooling.


A drop of once-molten metal found in a Belovode house contains pure copper, the researchers add.


Lead-isotope ratios of the Belovode slag and the copper drop link them to ore deposits in Serbia and Bulgaria.


No smelting chambers, such as elongated ceramic cylinders recovered at later Copper Age sites in southwestern Asia, have been found at Belovode. Vinca residents may have dug pits for copper smelting, the scientists speculate.



Council worker stumbles across 3,000-year-old carving

Published Date: 26 June 2010

By Richard Marsden


PREHISTORIC art 3,000 years old was discovered by chance in woodland by a council worker while carrying out routine maintenance work.


John Gilpin, a woodlands officer in the Parks and Countryside department, stumbled upon the find in Ecclesall Woods.


He discovered a boulder with a series of markings, lines and cuts - which, after being examined by experts, has been declared a significant archaeological find.


Jim McNeil, of South Yorkshire Archaeological Service, said: "I was called in and recorded the discovery, taking photographs.


"I have taken advice from a specialist who considers this to be an important piece of prehistoric rock art. This is the second example of such rock art from Ecclesall Woods, although other examples are known from the Peak District and further north in the Pennines."


Despite having been examined by experts, the meaning of the carvings is unclear.


"That's the million dollar question," Mr McNeil said.


The previous discovery of prehistoric rock art in Ecclesall Woods was in 1983. The only other example nearby is at Gardom's Edge, north of Baslow in the Peak District.


Mary Bagley, director of parks and countryside at Sheffield Council, said: "This just goes to show what things we have in our parks, woodlands and countryside that we didn't know were there - and to think we were a City of Culture all those years ago."


The find is one of a number of new archaeological discoveries made around South Yorkshire.


Rare Iron Age pottery has been recovered, plus evidence of ditches and historic agricultural practices, after excavations at the site of planned new wind turbines off Hangman Stone Road, Marr, Doncaster.


Elsewhere in the borough, grey and red pottery, dating back to between the second and fourth centuries AD, was recovered from the site of the planned Huggin Lakes holiday complex, Holme Wood Lane, Armthorpe.


The archaeology service said the large volume of items indicated the remains were from a former settlement.


"One ditch even contained the remains of a hearth, which had been pushed into it," an official said.


The remains are being preserved on site pending a further report on their importance - while the holiday development awaits planning permission.


And excavations on Roman Ridge, the earthwork remains of a Roman road between Scawsby and Adwick, Doncaster, have also been fruitful.


Archaeologists said: "One trench was excavated through the road deposits to provide information on the construction techniques. It showed that, far from being a classic of Roman road, it consisted mostly of the up-cast from flanking ditches capped by a thin layer of limestone."


Further searches are planned for sites including a section of the Firth Rixson site at Templeborough, earmarked as part of the site for the proposed biomass power station in the Don Valley.


The land is next to the site of Templeborough Roman Fort - where remains are believed to lie underground.


Excavations to look for medieval remains are also planned at a rectory in Union Street, Harthill, Rotherham, which is set to be demolished and replaced with new houses.


The village dates back to the Middle Ages and is recorded in the Doomsday Book.



Baby deaths link to Roman 'brothel' in Buckinghamshire

Page last updated at 05:00 GMT, Friday, 25 June 2010 06:00 UK


Archaeologists investigating a mass burial of 97 infants at a Roman villa in the Thames Valley believe it may have been a brothel.


Tests on the site at Hambleden in Buckinghamshire suggest all died at 40 weeks gestation, very soon after birth.


Archaeologists suspect local inhabitants may have been systematically killing unwanted babies.


Archaeologist Dr Jill Eyers said: "The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it's got to be a brothel."


With little or no effective contraception, unwanted pregnancies could have been common at Roman brothels, explained Dr Eyers, who works for Chiltern Archaeology.


And infanticide may not have been as shocking in Roman times as it is today.


Archaeological records suggest infants were not considered to be "full" human beings until about the age of two, said Dr Eyers.


Children any younger than that age were not buried in cemeteries. As a result, infant burials tended to be at domestic sites in the Roman era.


Even so, say experts, the number at the Yewden villa at Hambleden is extraordinary.


Skeletal biologist Dr Mays is investigating the remains of 97 infants found at the site

"There is no other site that would yield anything like the 97 infant burials," said Dr Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at English Heritage's Centre for Archaeology, who has been investigating the finds.


The ages of the babies were estimated by measuring the length of the bones. The researchers found these were all of similar size.


Dr Mays believes that this points to systematic infanticide at birth rather than death from natural causes, which would have struck infants at different ages.


The Hambleden site, close to the River Thames, was excavated 100 years ago and identified as a high status Roman villa.


The dig was on a massive scale but is now buried under a wheat field.


But meticulous records were left by a naturalist and archaeologist called Alfred Heneage Cocks.


More than 300 boxes full of artefacts, pottery and bones were recently re-discovered at Buckinghamshire County Museum along with Cocks' original report published in 1921, and a small photo archive.


The records give precise locations for the infant bodies, which were hidden under walls or buried under courtyards close to each other.


Cocks' original report paid little attention to these remains, which are now being tested for the first time by English Heritage.


The team plans to carry out DNA tests on the skeletons in a bid to establish their sex and possible relationship to each other.


They are also trying to uncover any other information which might suggest a motive for the practice.


The Hambleden investigation features in a new BBC TV archaeology series, Digging for Britain presented by Dr Alice Roberts, to be broadcast on BBC Two in July and August.



Archaeologists uncover Harald Bluetooth’s royal palace

THURSDAY, 24 JUNE 2010 11:56


In what they describe as a ‘sensational’ discovery, archaeologists from Århus find the remains of 10th century king’s royal residence


After speculating for centuries about its location, the royal residence of Harald Bluetooth has finally been discovered close to the ancient Jelling complex with its famous runic stones in southern Jutland.


The remains of the ancient wooden buildings were uncovered in the north-eastern corner of the Jelling complex which consists of royal burial mounds, standing stones in the form of a ship and runic stones.


Harald ruled Denmark between 940 and 985 AD and is reputed to have conquered Norway and converted the country to Christianity. The Bluetooth interface developed by Ericsson for wireless connections – with a logo consisting of the runic letters H and B – is named after him.


Mads Dengsø Jessen, the archaeologist from Århus University who led the dig said four buildings from Harald’s time had been discovered at the site. The buildings are characteristic of those built at round fortresses known as Trelleborg.


‘This tells us that we have uncovered a large complex, and the strict geometrical construction is a typical example of Harald’s work,’ Jessen said.


Archaeologists have yet to identify the remains of Harald’s royal hall, but Jessen believes they can be found under the existing Jelling Church, where the remains of a large wooden building were discovered on a previous dig.


Archaeologists had speculated that the wooden building was a church but because of its location in relation to the newly uncovered longhouses, Dengsø Jessen thinks that it is almost certainly Harald Bluetooth’s royal hall.


Jelling is revered as the cradle of the Danish kingdom, and the larger of the two runic stones which is often described as the baptismal certificate of the Danish nation directly refers to Harald Bluetooth and his conversion of the country to Christianity.


The second Jelling stone includes the first written reference to Denmark in the country.



Ancient voyager's tomb found in E China

11:59, June 26, 2010     


A recently excavated tomb in Nanjing has been confirmed to be the grave of Zheng He, a eunuch from the early Ming Dynasty who led historic voyages to Southeast Asia and eastern Africa. The tomb was discovered accidentally on June 18th by workers at a construction site near Zutang Mountain that also holds the tombs of many other Ming Dynasty eunuchs, the Yangtse Evening News reported.


The tomb was 8.5 meters long and 4 meters wide and was built with blue bricks, which archaeologists said were only used in structures belonging to dignitaries during the time of Zheng He.


But experts believed his remains were not placed in the tomb because of the long distance between Nanjing and India, where he died during a visit in 1433.


Born in 1371, Zheng He was an excellent navigator and diplomat in the Ming Dynasty. He led the royal fleet to southwest Asia and east Africa on seven occasions from 1405 to 1433, nearly a century before Christopher Columbus discovered the American continent in 1492.



'Strange bones' in Colchester Egyptian Mummy

By Sean Williams

Friday, 25 June 2010


The skull of an ancient Egyptian mummy in Colchester is packed with 'strange bones', a CT-scan has revealed. The scan on 2,500-year-old Lady Ta-Hathor yesterday also revealed an odd bundle between her thighs, thought to be the remains of her organs.


Full results from the scan, made ahead of Ta-Hathor's display at Ipswich Museum's new Egyptian Gallery, are expected only after an assessment by a team in Manchester. Yet it immediately showed she was healthy with no bone defects, and had died of natural causes aged in her mid-twenties - not far off the era's life expectancy of 30. Ta-Hathor's heart had been placed back in her body, a vital step on her journey to the afterlife.


Yet the mysterious bones inside Ta-Hathor's skull will be of most interest to experts including Caroline McDonald, curator of archaeology at Colchester and Ipswich Museums. "It appears as if the skull cavity has been packed with linen," says McDonald. "There are some strange bone fragments in the skull that we can’t currently account for and we hope experts will be able to reveal this particular secret."


"There does appear to be a bundle of some description between (Ta-Hathor's) thighs which may be a parcel containing her other organs such as the lungs and intestines," adds McDonald. "In early Egyptian history these were placed in separate containers known as canopic jars but later they were simply wrapped and placed back in the body. Again, analysis will confirm this for us."


Ta-Hathor's brain was also removed during mummification. All organs would be removed in the process apart from the heart, which would be weighed against the 'feather of truth' according to to the Book of the Dead, ancient Egypt's most important funerary text. If the heart weighed less than the feather, the deceased could continue their journey. If not they would be eaten by a fearsome crocodile-headed god named Ammut.