Prehistoric ‘Iceman’ gets ceremonial twist

Rather than dying alone high in the Alps, Ötzi may have been ritually buried there

By Bruce Bower Web edition : Thursday, August 26th, 2010


A prehistoric man whose naturally mummified body was discovered frozen in the Italian Alps may have been toted up the mountain by his comrades, a new study suggests.


The Iceman, also nicknamed Ötzi, lived between 5,350 and 5,100 years ago as part of a genetically distinct European population (SN Online: 10/30/08). Hikers noticed the Iceman poking out of a glacier in 1991.


Since the 2001 discovery of a stone point in the Iceman’s left shoulder, many scientists have assumed that someone shot and killed Ötzi with an arrow as he attempted to flee through a mountain pass after a disastrous fight. From this perspective, the Iceman preserves a brutal prehistoric moment in time.


But a new analysis of the distribution of Ötzi’s belongings around his body, published in the September issue of Antiquity, raises the possibility that he perished near kin living at low altitudes, who took him to the mountains for a final send-off as soon as the weather permitted.


Ötzi originally was placed on a group of stones that formed a platform about six meters, or 20 feet, uphill from the spot where hikers found him splayed in a gully, assert archaeologist Alessandro Vanzetti of the Sapienza University of Rome and his colleagues. Snow and ice that originally held the body in place partly thawed during occasional warm periods, creating a watery mix that swept the Iceman and some of his effects, including a wooden bow and copper ax, off the platform, the scientists propose.    


The body then gradually rolled downhill. Lodged against a boulder in the gully, Ötzi’s left arm twisted across his body at an odd angle, they assert.


“Many researchers have never questioned the ‘disaster’ theory of the Iceman’s death, so they haven’t searched for the original focus of scattering of the body and artifacts,” says study coauthor Luca Bondioli of the National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography in Rome.


Archaeobotanist Klaus Oeggl of the University of Innsbruck, Austria, reported in 2000 that high concentrations of a binding material used in Ötzi’s equipment appeared not just near his body but on a nearby ridge that includes the burial platform proposed by Vanzetti’s team.


Oeggl agrees that warming and freezing cycles caused the Iceman’s body to move from an initial resting place on the ridge to the gully. But no compelling evidence demonstrates that stones on the ridge were placed there to form a burial platform, he says.


Still, Oeggl says, “This new paper for the first time discusses a burial hypothesis in a substantial way.”


Ötzi probably died in the mountains alone and close to where he suffered a fatal injury, argues biological anthropologist Albert Zink, head of the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy. The Iceman’s joints and spine display no dislocations that would have resulted from a downhill slide. Intact blood clots in his arrow wound would show damage if the body had been carted up the mountain, Zink adds.


If Zink is correct, warming and freezing cycles should have randomly spread out his belongings, Bondioli counters. Instead, a mathematical analysis of the position of artifacts recovered around Ötzi reveals two main clumps of items, one at the proposed stone platform and another in the gully where his body lay.


A backpack frame rested on the platform, trapped by a protruding rock. Clumps of human and animal hair, plant fragments, splinters of arrow shafts and an ax lay nearby.


Remains of a grass mat, regarded as an overcoat by many investigators, were found near Ötzi’s body. Vanzetti’s group suspects the mat was part of a funeral shroud.


Ötzi’s belongings include an unfinished wooden bow and arrow shafts lacking points, which make sense as burial offerings because a hunter could not have used them, the researchers add.



Acoustic archaeology: The secret sounds of Stonehenge

10:31 27 August 2010 by Trevor Cox


Just after sunrise on a misty spring morning last year, my fellow acoustician at the University of Salford, Bruno Fazenda, and Rupert Till of the University of Huddersfield, UK, could be found wandering around Stonehenge popping balloons. This was not some bizarre pagan ritual. It was a serious attempt to capture the "impulse response" of the ancient southern English stone circle, and with it perhaps start to determine how Stonehenge might have sounded to our ancestors.


An impulse response characterises all the paths taken by the sound between its source – in this case a popping balloon – and a microphone positioned a few metres away. It is simply a plot of the sound pressure at the microphone in the seconds after the pop. The first, strongest peak on the plot represents the sound that travelled directly from the source to the microphone. Later, smaller peaks indicate the arrival of reflections off the stones. The recording and plot shows the impulse response Bruno and Rupert measured with a microphone positioned at the centre of Stonehenge and a popping balloon at the edge of the circle.


This impulse response represents an acoustic fingerprint of the stones. Back in the lab, it can be used to create a virtual rendition of any piece of music or speech as it would sound within the stone circle. All that is needed is an "anechoic" recording of the raw music or speech – a recording made in a reflection-free environment such as the open air or, better, a specialist anechoic chamber such as we have at Salford. The anechoic recording and the impulse response can then be combined using a mathematical operation called convolution.


We've done with with a recording of drumming: here is the anechoic original, and here it is convolved with the measured impulse response of Stonehenge. The difference is easily appreciable: there is more reverberation or ringing to the drumming sound thanks to the reflections off the stones. What's more, the tonal balance of the sound is entirely different: it has become much deeper, as if the treble has been turned down.


The popping of a balloon is not the standard or best way to measure an impulse response, but more sophisticated equipment was not allowed at Stonehenge. At a full-size replica of the monument at Maryhill, Washington state, however, Bruno and Rupert were able to use powerful loudspeakers and special test signals to get more accurate results.


Maryhill also has the advantage that it is complete, whereas some of the stones of Stonehenge have fallen or disappeared over the years. That makes a noticeable difference to the drum sounds convolved with Maryhill's impulse response: the more complete stone circle makes the sound echo for longer, with the extended reverberation being most noticeable after the last drum.


Over many decades, a sophisticated understanding of how to interpret impulse responses has been built up. For example, we now know how features within the impulse response, such as the time it takes for reverberations to die away, relate to peoples' perceptions of the nature of the sound. The hope is that by applying that expertise to ancient monuments such as Stonehenge, we can better appreciate their acoustical effects on our ancestors –and perhaps begin to answer the question whether these effects were the product of accident or design.


Trevor Cox is professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford, UK, and president of the UK Institute of Acoustics




The presence of long past civilisations is being uncovered in amazing detail thanks to the exceptionally dry early summer weather and the Icelandic ash cloud. Throughout the summer, hundreds of cropmark sites from Neolithic long barrows to World War II military remains have been recorded from the air by English Heritage.


One of the most interesting discoveries was a Roman camp in Dorset – a lightly built defensive enclosure that provided basic protection for Roman soldiers while on manoeuvres in the first century AD. It is relatively rare in the south west of England with only three others known in the region (see notes to editors). Many known sites were also photographed revealing impressive new detail, including Newton Kyme, near Tadcaster, North Yorkshire. Dating back nearly 2,000 years the rectangular Roman fort is known to have an earth and timber bastion, but aerial survey this summer revealed a stronger defence built in 290 AD covering seven hectares, with stone walls up to three metres thick and a ditch 15 metres wide.  An image, taken from a Cessna light aircraft, clearly shows the massive ditches of the defences with many signs of buildings, roads and other activity within the fort.  More details about the earlier fort enclosed within the later one were also exposed.


English Heritage says that this has been a vintage year for the appearance of cropmarks in the landscape - the ghostly outline of vanished structures and settlements, some many thousands of years old, which still survive under the soil. Dave MacLeod, English Heritage Senior Investigator based in York, said: “It’s hard to remember a better year.  Cropmarks are always at their best in dry weather, but the last few summers have been a disappointment.  This year we have taken full advantage of the conditions.  We try to concentrate on areas that in an average year don’t produce much archaeology. Sorties to the West Midlands and Cumbria, together with more local areas such as the Yorkshire Wolds and Vale of York, have all been very rewarding.” Flights over the Holderness area of the East Riding have proved especially productive with around 60 new sites being found in just one day. Mainly prehistoric, they included livestock and settlement enclosures, field systems and trackways.  Aerial survey flights from airfields at Oxford and Sherburn-in-Elmet (near York) have also revealed a wealth of information. Some sites not visible since the drought year of 1976 have appeared again, well studied sites have revealed surprising new details, and many new sites have been discovered.


Damian Grady, English Heritage Senior Investigator based in Swindon, said: “This year’s summer got off to an unusual start when the Icelandic ash cloud closed down a lot of airspace to jet aircraft.  Fortunately the piston-powered Cessnas used by aerial archaeologists were not affected by the ash, so it was easier to undertake planned flights inside airspace around Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and Bristol airports.   “Promising signs started to emerge in late May when the dry conditions had started to reveal cropmarks on well drained soils, especially river gravels and chalk in the East and South East of England.  By June it became clear that the continuing dry conditions would produce good results across most of the country.  We then targeted areas that do not always produce cropmarks, such as clay soils, or have seen little reconnaissance in recent years due to recent wet summers or busy airspace. “Unfortunately July saw deterioration in the weather which reduced the amount of flying we could do and the cropmarks started to disappear just before the harvest got underway.  It will take some time to take stock of all the sites we have photographed, but we expect to discover several hundred new sites across England.”



Archaeologists have a field day as dry weather uncovers hundreds of cropmarks telling the story of ancient Britain


Last updated at 5:09 PM on 30th August 2010


Hundreds of archaeological sites left buried for centuries were revealed this summer thanks to weeks of dry weather early in the season.

The weather conditions allowed experts to take aerial photos of 'cropmark sites'.

The marks are produced when crops growing over buried features develop at a different rate from those growing next to them.

A Roman camp near Bradford Abbas, Dorset, was revealed in June after three sides became visible in rain-parched fields of barley.

The lightly-built defensive enclosure would have provided basic protection for Roman soldiers while on manoeuvres in the first century AD and is one of only four discovered in the south west of England, English Heritage said.


'Cropmark sites' occur when when crops growing over buried features develop at a different rate from those growing next to them

The dry conditions also allowed well known sites to be photographed in greater detail.

Newton Kyme in North Yorkshire, was shown to not only be home to a Roman fort dating back 2,000 years but also a larger, stronger defence built in 290AD.

Stone walls up to three metres thick and a ditch 15 metres wide were revealed by an image taken from a Cessna light aircraft.

Dave MacLeod, an English Heritage senior investigator based in York, said: 'It's hard to remember a better year.


The stone walls of a Roman fort dating back 2,000 years can clearly be seen through crops in Newton Kyme in North Yorkshire. The images were taken by English Heritage from a Cessna light aircraft

'Cropmarks are always at their best in dry weather, but the last few summers have been a disappointment.

'This year we have taken full advantage of the conditions. We try to concentrate on areas that in an average year don't produce much archaeology.

'Sorties to the West Midlands and Cumbria, together with more local areas such as the Yorkshire Wolds and Vale of York, have all been very rewarding.'

Flights over the Holderness area of the East Riding proved particularly productive with around 60 new sites, mainly prehistoric, found in just one day including livestock and settlement enclosures.


Researchers hope to discover new sites after examining the photographs taken this summer. This image shows a 'lost' beach where the Romans landed 2,000 years ago to begin their invasion of Britain. Found two years ago, the remains of the shingle harbour were buried beneath 6ft of soil nearly two miles inland from the modern Kent coast

English Heritage said some sites which have not been visible since the drought of 1976 reappeared this summer.

Damian Grady, a Swindon-based English Heritage senior investigator, said: 'Promising signs started to emerge in late May when the dry conditions had started to reveal cropmarks on well drained soils, especially river gravels and chalk in the east and south east of England.

'By June it became clear that the continuing dry conditions would produce good results across most of the country.

'We then targeted areas that do not always produce cropmarks, such as clay soils, or have seen little reconnaissance in recent years due to recent wet summers or busy airspace.

'Unfortunately July saw deterioration in the weather which reduced the amount of flying we could do and the cropmarks started to disappear just before the harvest got under way.'

Mr Grady added: 'It will take some time to take stock of all the sites we have photographed, but we expect to discover several hundred new sites across England.'



What have the Romans ever done for us (socks and sandals excepted)?

Stars such as David Beckham may be following in the footsteps of Romans in Britain who were forced to wear their sandals with socks due to the weather

By Jonathan Brown

Thursday, 26 August 2010


They gave the world decent roads, indoor plumbing and some of the goriest spectator sports known to man, but now it appears that the Romans made a hitherto secret contribution to global civilisation by pioneering the wearing of socks with sandals.


It is a look which in recent years has become popularised – if that is the right word – by off-duty geography teachers and embarrassing dads, yet new archaeological evidence suggests that the Romans' famous Italian stylishness may have been ditched to help the colonists cope with the chilly British climate.


Excavations carried out as part of the upgrading of the A1 between Dishforth and Leeming in North Yorkshire have found that rust on the nail in a Roman shoe appeared to bear the impressions of fibres, enough to convince archaeologists that the invaders sported sock-like garments.


The discovery was made at what is believed to have been an ancient industrial estate, including a water-powered mill used to grind flour and grain, close to the site of a forgotten fort at Healam Bridge, which formed part of the Roman frontier 2,000 years ago.


It is believed that the area would have supplied the garrison with provisions before becoming a fully established settlement in its own right.


The Roman road of Dere Street follows much of the route of the modern A1. Cultural heritage team leader Blaise Vyner said the discovery of the fort was likely to tell us more about everyday Roman life in Britain.


"We know a lot about Roman forts, which have been extensively studied, but to excavate an industrial area with a mill is really exciting. We hope it can tell us more about how such military outposts catered for their needs, as self-sufficiency would have been important," he said.


The invaders first landed in Britain in 55BC and again the following year, led by Julius Caesar, the general who had been fighting the Gauls in France.


However, his attempts were thwarted, and it fell to the Emperor Claudius in 43AD to finally deliver on the Romans' long-held ambition of pacifying the problematic Iron Age tribes of Britannia. He ordered 40,000 troops to cross the Channel, bringing much of the country under central control for the first time. The Romans remained in Britain for the best part of the next four centuries.


During this period many of the Romans, who were often from the sunny parts of modern day France and Italy, struggled to cope with the harsh realities of the British climate, especially those billeted in the North.


Letters have been recovered from a garrison at Hadrian's Wall have revealed officers and their men begging family back home to send them extra subuclae (vests) and abollae (heavy cloaks).


Another soldier urged his loved ones to send him "Paria udonum ab Sattua solearum duo et subligariorum duo" which translates as "socks, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants".


The latest evidence corroborates the socks and sandal theory which first emerged when a Roman copper razor handle was recovered from the Tees near Darlington. It was in the shape of a foot adorned with an open-toed sandal and woollen sock.


Ironically, the much-maligned look has been making something of a comeback on the international catwalks this summer, with designers from Burberry to Dior all producing variations on the theme.


So perhaps the Romans were right all along.



24 August 410: the date it all went wrong for Rome?

By David Willey

BBC News, Rome


The first sack of Rome in 800 years helped hasten the end of the empire


Tuesday marks the 1,600th anniversary of one of the turning points of European history - the first sack of Imperial Rome by an army of Visigoths, northern European barbarian tribesmen, led by a general called Alaric.


It was the first time in 800 years that Rome had been successfully invaded. The event had reverberations around the Mediterranean.


Jerome, an early Christian Church Father, in a letter to a friend from Bethlehem - where he happened to be living - wrote that he burst into tears upon hearing the news.


"My voice sticks in my throat, and, as I dictate, sobs choke me. The city which had taken the whole world was itself taken," he said.


Although Alaric was a Christian ransacking a Christian city, there was an ominous feeling that the world structure built by pagan Rome was disintegrating.


The Roman Empire survived for a few more decades, and later other armies sacked the city again, but this was the date which marked the beginning of the end of Rome's grandeur.


Centuries later, the city which had at the height of its power boasted a population of more than a million people, was reduced to a lawless, ruined village of no more than 30,000 residents.


Pagans claimed that Christians had destroyed the greatest human achievement ever contrived.


And Christians themselves, who had boasted that they had saved whatever was good in ancient civilisation, lifting it to new heights, suffered a crisis of confidence.


Although the now-Christian Roman Empire was divided between an Emperor of the West, ruling with his court from the city of Ravenna in Northern Italy and a rival Emperor of the East, ruling from Constantinople, there was a feeling that there had been a breakdown at the centre of things, in fabled Rome.


Historians and archaeologists from Germany, Switzerland, Britain and the United States specialising in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire have decided to meet in Rome in October and November to pool their latest research about this first Sack of Rome.


One of the organisers of the conference is Philipp Von Rummel of the German Archaeological Centre in Rome.


I asked him if 24 August 410 might be considered the 9/11 of the ancient world.


"Probably even more so," he replied. "I don't know if people will still be talking about 9/11 in 2,000 years time, but the events of that August day still influence our contemporary view of history."


Who exactly were the Visigoths, the barbarians from the North who marched unopposed into Rome?


Mr Von Rummel says the latest research reveals a very different picture from that held as recently as 50 years ago.


"Today we know the group consisted of different people, it was mainly an army with a successful leader. People joined this group inside the Roman Empire. They sacked a lot of towns but they acted in different ways, they also were a sometime partner of the Romans," he said.


"The moment the Roman emperor did not pay any more they changed sides and sacked the town just to tell the emperor: 'You should pay us'."


I went to look for evidence at the northern walls of Rome, still almost intact for long stretches after nearly two millennia.


There is a gap marking the site of the former Salarian Gate just across the road from a modern department store. Alaric's army took the Via Salaria - the so-called salt road - linking the city to the Adriatic Sea.


When the city gates were opened by slaves, Alaric's ragtag army rushed inside to loot and pillage. The sack lasted for only three days, after which Alaric withdrew and marched south to set sail for North Africa, an important and wealthy Roman province.


But Alaric never made it. His ships were destroyed in a storm and he died shortly afterwards.


Many Romans fled to North Africa for safety. There, in Hippo, an important coastal town in what is now Algeria, the local bishop, Saint Augustine, was inspired to write one of his seminal works, The City of God.


Augustine, just like Jerome, felt he had lost his bearings with news of the collapse of Rome. Once Rome had gone, what sense was to be made of the world?



Archeologists Find Gateway to the Viking Empire

By Matthias Schulz

Ben Behnke


For a century, archeologists have been looking for a gate through a wall built by the Vikings in northern Europe. This summer, it was found. Researchers now believe the extensive barrier was built to protect an important trading route.


Their attacks out of nowhere in rapid longboats have led many to call Vikings the inventors of the Blitzkrieg. "Like wild hornets," reads an ancient description, the Vikings would plunder monasteries and entire cities from Ireland to Spain. The fact that the Vikings, who have since found their place as droll comic book characters, were also avid masons is slightly less well known.


The proof can be seen in northern Germany, not far from the North Sea-Baltic Canal. There, one can marvel at a giant, 30-kilometer (19-mile) wall which runs through the entire state of Schleswig-Holstein. The massive construction, called the Danevirke -- "work of the Danes" -- is considered the largest earthwork in northern Europe.


Archeologists have now taken a closer look at part of the construction -- a three-meter-thick (10 feet) wall from the 8th century near Hedeby (known as Haithabu in German). It is constructed entirely out of stones collected from the surrounding region. Some of them are only as big as a fist, while others weigh as much as 100 kilograms (220 pounds). "The Vikings collected millions of rocks," says archeologist Astrid Tummuscheit, who works for the state archeology office of Schleswig-Holstein.


At a press conference Friday, Tummuscheit's team announced a further find -- one that they are calling a "sensation." The researchers have discovered the only gate leading through the Danevirke, a five-meter (16 feet) wide portal. According to old writings, "horsemen and carts" used to stream through the gate, called "Wiglesdor." Next to it was a customs station and an inn that included a bordello.


For a century, archeologists have been dreaming of finding this gate between Denmark and Charlemagne's empire. Experts knew its approximate location, but archeologists were not allowed to dig: an old roadhouse was in the way. "Café Truberg put the brakes on everything," says Claus von Carnap-Bornheim, head of the Schleswig Holstein archeology office.


Things only began moving forward when the café went broke and could be purchased in 2008 with help from the AP Møller-Fonds, a fund belonging to Arnold Maersk, the 97-year-old Danish owner of the world's biggest container shipping fleet. The energy company E.on Hanse, the E.on subsidiary responsible for northern Germany, paid for the building to be demolished and the archeologists could move in. The new find is certain to attract significant attention above Germany's northern border as well -- the Danevirke is seen as a national treasure in Denmark. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark has visited the site, as has Prince Frederik.


New calculations as to the age of the construction indicate, however, that the earliest parts of the wall might have been built by the Frisians and not by the Danes. Archeologists now think the foundation stone might have been laid as early as the 7th century.


The Frisians, who lived on the west coast of what is now Denmark and on a number of islands in the North Sea, were fighting for supremacy in the region with three other peoples: the Danes, the Slavs and the Saxons (see graphic). "It was the Kosovo of the early middle ages," says Carnap-Bornheim. In the end, however, it was the Danes who emerged victorious. According to contemporary records, King Göttrik of Denmark ordered in 808 that the border of his empire with that of the Saxons be fortified.


But why make such an effort? To what end did the Vikings pile up millions of tons of rocks on their border? Comparative structures like border fortifications built by the Romans or the Great Wall of China were built to protect them from marauding hordes. But in the case of the Danevirke, the builders themselves were the ones known for their pillaging ways. In the 8th century, Denmark had neither cobblestone roads nor houses made of stone. The pagan king was guarded by fanatic warriors wearing animal costumes -- so-called "berserkers."


Only their long boats were state-of-the-art -- fast and light but easily navigable. They allowed the Danes to develop a formidable network of trading routes. They plied Russian rivers all the way to Byzantium and sailed the North Atlantic to far-away Iceland, Greenland and even the northern reaches of North America.


But there was an Achilles heel in this far-flung trading empire, and that was at Hedeby. In order for goods from the east to be shipped to the west, they had to cross the narrow strip of land at the base of present-day Denmark. Traders would sail inland on the Schlei Inlet, but when they got to Hedeby, their wares were offloaded and carted overland to the Treene River, 18 kilometers away. Only there could the goods be reloaded onto boats and sailed into the North Sea.

For the duration of this short overland trek, the valuable goods -- including gold from Byzantium, bear pelts from Novgorod and even statues of Buddha from India -- were open to attack from the mainland. In order to protect this important trade artery, archeologists now believe, a bulwark of earth, stone and bricks was constructed. The Danevirke, in other words, was little more than a protective shield for commerce.


In the coming weeks, archeologists hope to excavate the newly discovered gate right down to the old street level. They are hoping to find old paving stones, hinges or postholes -- the remains, perhaps, of the erstwhile gate into the land of the Vikings.



Mayan pool in the rainforest

Bonn archaeologists find huge artificial lake with a ceramic-lined floor

Public release date: 26-Aug-2010

Contact: Dr. Iken Paap



University of Bonn


Since 2009, researchers from Bonn and Mexico have been systematically uncovering and mapping the old walls of Uxul, a Mayan city. "In the process, we also came across two, about 100 m square water reservoirs," explained Iken Paap, who directs the project with Professor Dr. Nikolai Grube and the Mexican archaeologist Antonio Benavides Castillo.


Such monster pools, which are also known from other Mayan cities, are called "aguadas." Similar to present-day water towers, they served to store drinking water. But the people of Uxul seem to have thought of a particularly smart way to seal their aguada. "We conducted a trial dig in the center of one of the water reservoirs," explains Nicolaus Seefeld, a young scholar. "We found that the bottom, which is at a depth of two meters, was covered with ceramic shards – probably from plates – practically without any gaps. But we don't know yet whether it's like this throughout the entire aguada."


If so, that would be a minor sensation – merely due to the quantity of ceramics required. The aguadas in Uxul were each as large as ten Olympic-size pools. Maybe there used to be even more artificial lakes. After all, the precious commodity had to be enough to last a population of at least 2,000 through the 3-month dry season.


The Mayan term "uxul," by the way, means "at the end" in English. Karl Ruppert and John H. Denison from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who discovered the city, had named it that in 1934 – exhausted and sick after a long expedition through the jungles of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula. The city's original name remains unknown to this day.


If Uxul was "at the end of the world" in the 1930's, not much has changed today. "You can only get to the ruins via 120 km of jungle paths clear across the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, far from modern roads and settlements," explains Dr. Iken Paap. These are difficult conditions for the archaeologists and the German-Mexican excavation team. This year, they spent three months in the forest to explore the Mayan city.


What is becoming more and more obvious as the excavations progress is the fact that Uxul was nowhere near "at the end" or isolated in the jungle during its heyday in the Classical period (250 to 900 A.D.): Uxul was located in a densely populated area between the big Mayan cities of El Mirador to the south and Calakmul to the northeast. It had trade connections as far as present-day southern Guatemala and the Central Mexican Plateau.


Uxul was settled for several epochs of the Mayan culture. So much was concluded by the Bonn scholars after analyzing the dig and its settlement layers. "This year, we were able to excavate a sequence of layers that was over three meters deep, ranging probably from the late Pre- to the End- or Post-Classical periods," explains Iken Paap.


Inscriptions report that, around 630 A.D., Uxul was annexed under the rule of Calakmul, which was at a distance of about 26 kilometers. To what extent was life in the city and the surrounding area affected and influenced by such changes in power? Did Uxul have its own trade connections that continued to exist during Calakmul's rule? Did the population experience the crises of the elites directly in their own daily lives? Or were these disputes between the ruling powers, which have been given more importance due to being recorded on steles and altars than they were accorded by contemporary strata of the population?


"This Spring for the first time we found tombs that had not been destroyed by grave robbers in their search for ceramics and jade jewelry," said Professor Dr. Nikolai Grube. "We are hoping that this and new studies on the drinking water system and history of vegetation will provide us with new insights into the living situation of the population of this Mayan city."



The Lost City

A discovery in the desert could rewrite the history of ancient Egypt.

September/October 2010

by Heather Pringle


For much of the twentieth century, Egyptologists shied away from explorations in the vast sand sea known as the Western Desert. An expanse of desolation the size of Texas, the desert seemed too harsh, too implacable, too unforgiving a place for an ancient civilization nurtured on the abundance of the Nile. In spring, a hot, stifling wind known as the Khamsin roars across the Western Desert, sweeping up walls of suffocating sand and dust; in summer, daytime heat sometimes pushes the mercury into the 130 degree–Fahrenheit range. The animals, what few there are, tend to be unfriendly. Scorpions lurk under the rocks, cobras bask in the early morning sun. Vipers lie buried under the sand.


When Egyptologists finally began investigating the Western Desert, they gravitated first to the oases. But in 1992, a young American graduate student, John Coleman Darnell, and his wife and fellow graduate student, Deborah, decided to take a very different tack. The couple began trekking ancient desert roads and caravan tracks along what they called "the final frontier of Egyptology." Today, John Darnell, an Egyptologist in Yale's Near Eastern Languages and Civilization department, and his team have succeeded in doing what most Egyptologists merely dream of: discovering a lost pharaonic city of administrative buildings, military housing, small industries, and artisan workshops. Says Darnell, of a find that promises to rewrite a major chapter in ancient Egyptian history, "We were really shocked."


Umm Mawagir, as the city is now known, flourished in the Western Desert from 1650 to 1550 BCE, nearly a millennium after the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. This was a dark, tumultuous period of Egyptian history. Entire villages lay abandoned in the Nile River Delta, victims, perhaps of an ancient epidemic. Taking advantage of the turmoil, Bedouin groups from Syria and Palestine edged westward under the leadership of wealthy merchants, gaining control of the delta. Meanwhile, far to the south, Sudan's powerful Kerma kingdom expanded into southern Egypt. In the wake of these incursions, Egypt's pharaohs presided over a diminished realm whose capital lay at Thebes, in present-day Luxor.


For decades, Egyptologists thought the foreigners roamed the Western Desert at will, controlling the lucrative caravan trade. But the discovery of Umm Mawagir, in concert with finds from the more westerly Dakhla Oasis, says Darnell, reveals clearly how the Theban dynasty succeeded in extending its power and military might more than 100 miles into the hostile desert, building an entire city, and controlling a vital crossroads of trade routes. Umm Mawagir, says Darnell, is a testament to "the incredible organizational abilities of the Egyptians."


The discovery is stirring major interest in Egyptology circles. "I think this is a very important find," says Monash University Egyptologist Colin Hope in Melbourne, Australia. "It's from a period that we don't know much about, and he's got this large economic center in the desert." Dirk Huyge, curator of the Egyptian Collection at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, says, "The mass of new data that springs from the Yale surveys has produced information beyond the expectation of any scholar working in Egypt."


Relaxing in a Yale office decorated with traditional African weapons, prints, and paintings of the Nile Valley—and a small statue of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose eighteenth-century expedition to Egypt marked the beginning of scientific Egyptology—John Darnell has just returned from the field and is awaiting the publication of his first paper on Umm Mawagir in an international conference volume. The discovery, he explains, is the result of years of dogged sleuthing along one of the most important routes in the Western Desert, the 110-mile-long


Darnell first became interested in looking at desert roads in 1988, while studying ancient Egyptian texts in Luxor. His office window at the time looked out across the Nile, and he was struck by the sight of desert tracks crossing both the east and west banks. "We knew that the ancient Egyptians went into the desert," he recalls. "But we didn't know precisely how they got there. And I began wondering if there was any way to date those tracks."


Curious, he and Deborah decided to hike a route running above the Valley of the Kings, on the west bank of the Nile—one of the most intensively studied regions in all Egypt. Below, they could hear the rumblings of tour buses and the voices of excited tourists. "We didn't think we'd find anything new," says Darnell. "We assumed we'd just find some pottery remains. But within the first three minutes, we came across a fragmentary stela [a carved stone slab] and mountains of ceramic materials."


Realizing that they had stumbled onto a new field of Egyptological research—desert road archaeology—the Darnells began hiking the tracks leading out from Luxor. Packing as much water as possible on their treks, the two Egyptologists walked the roads that crisscross nearly 17,000 square miles of desert. They recorded the ancient sites that lay beside the roads and patiently examined and tallied pottery shards littering the ground. The distinctive ceramic styles of different eras allowed them to date both roads and sites, and the two researchers were astounded by the antiquity of some of the finds. In a place known as Wadi el-Hol, or "Gulch of Terror" in Arabic, the Darnells discovered two 3,800-year-old inscriptions featuring the world's earliest known phonetic alphabet.


The growing mountain of data revealed just how much traffic once flowed along the Girga Road, which stretched 110 miles westward from Thebes in the Nile Valley to remote Kharga Oasis in the Western Desert. "This was a major route in antiquity," says John Darnell. And it possessed an impressive infrastructure to keep traffic moving. Along the road, the Darnells discovered a series of official outposts that had served as food and water depots for travelers. These depots dated to Egypt's Middle Kingdom, a period extending between 2125 and 1650 BCE. Yet the earliest Kharga Oasis settlements then known to scholars had been built more than 1,000 years after the end of the Middle Kingdom.


Who had created this elaborate desert infrastructure, and why? While mulling over these questions, Darnell recalled an inscription left by an unidentified Middle Kingdom pharaoh, most likely Monthuhotep II. In the text, the pharaoh proudly described his decision to incorporate the Western Desert oases into his Nile Valley realm. Most Egyptologists had flatly dismissed the statement, believing, says Deborah Darnell, that "pharaonic Egyptians had not the technological ability or knowledge to exploit the water resources in Kharga Oasis." But the string of Middle Kingdom outposts lying along the Girga Road suggested otherwise.


To the Darnells, all the new evidence pointed to the existence of a large Middle Kingdom city at the terminus of the Girga Road, in Kharga Oasis. No such urban center had ever come to light. But in 2000, while visiting the ruins of a temple in Kharga Oasis that dated to a much later period, Deborah spied a small fragment of a pharaonic-era amphora, protruding from a thick scatter of other pottery. "Few people know what pharaonic oasis pottery looks like," she notes—possibly the reason no one had ever before noticed it at the site. Strongly suspecting they were closing in on the lost city, the team began carefully surveying the immediate region.


In 2005, the team found a dense litter of ceramic molds for baking bread—vestiges of a large industrial bakery—about half a mile north of the temple. And this summer, John Darnell and his colleagues located the expansive ruins of a major undisturbed city, including the foundation of a significant mud-brick administrative building. Darnell, who leads the excavations there, named the desert metropolis Umm Mawagir—an Arabic phrase meaning, memorably, "Mother of Bread Molds."


"Baking was done on a rather massive scale at Umm Mawagir," says Darnell. To understand why, he and his team dug up part of the bakery, exposing an area roughly the size of a small bedroom. As they brushed away a matrix of ash and sand, the excavators discovered further dense layers of broken ceramic molds—nearly half a ton of pottery in an area just four meters by four meters square, a quantity that astonished Darnell. Some molds were large and circular in shape, suitable for single loaves; most were double "cupcake" molds, similar in style to the baking tins modern Egyptians use for making certain sweetened breads. In addition, the team found two large baking ovens, a stone mortar for husking grain, and an assortment of stones for grinding flour.


The sheer scale of the operation, says Darnell, suggests that Umm Mawagir was producing a huge surplus of bread, enough to feed an army of soldiers. The team found other signs that the ancient desert city once served as a major military garrison. Scattered across the site were the broken cooking pots of Nubian desert soldiers known as the Medjoy, troops highly valued by the Egyptian pharaohs. Some of these pots were made of Nubian clays, indicating that they had been made far to the south and carried all the way to Umm Mawagir. Others, however, were fashioned from local clays from Kharga Oasis itself, suggesting that the Nubian troops brought their pottery-making wives with them.


"We can imagine a group of Medjoy soldiers being hired by the Egyptians—there's no evidence of slaves here—and stationed in Kharga," says Egyptologist Colleen Manassa '01, '04PhD, an associate professor in Yale's Near Eastern Languages and Civilization department, who recently excavated a cemetery of Medjoy soldiers near Luxor. Finding the cooking pots of the Medjoy troops at Umm Mawagir, she adds, increases "the probability that a strategic military center was involved there."


To date, the team has excavated less than half of one percent of the sprawling 218-acre site. While the strong desert winds have scoured down the city's ancient mud-brick walls, preservation at the site is excellent, with many walls more than three feet high. Early indications, says Darnell, show that the ancient city was home to a wide range of ancient Egyptian inhabitants, from important officials to artisans who produced small clay figurines and glimmering white ostrich-shell beads.


While long years of patient excavation and research remain at Umm Mawagir, Darnell believes that the desert city will ultimately shed crucial light on a shadowy time in Egyptian history. For years, scholars have wondered how an impoverished and much diminished royal dynasty at Thebes in the late Middle Kingdom eventually managed to repel Egypt's foreign invaders and rise to grandeur once again in the New Kingdom—the age of Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, and Ramses the Great. The finds at Umm Mawagir now hint strongly at an answer. "The Theban dynasty," suggests Darnell, "may have used its military and economic control of the Western Desert to win the war against the invaders."


For Darnell, however, the real wonder is the administrative genius that went into creating a city in the desert more than 3,600 years ago. "People always marvel at the great monuments of the Nile Valley and the incredible architectural feats they see there. But I think they should realize how much more work went into developing Kharga Oasis in one of the harshest, driest deserts on Earth."