Neandertals’ mammoth building project

Extinct hominids may have been first to build with bones

By Bruce Bower Web edition : Friday, December 2nd, 2011    Text Size

Neandertals are stumping for bragging rights as the first builders of mammoth-bone structures, an accomplishment usually attributed to Stone Age people.


Humanity’s extinct cousins constructed a large, ring-shaped enclosure out of 116 mammoth bones and tusks at least 44,000 years ago in West Asia, say archaeologist Laëtitia Demay of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and her colleagues. The bone edifice, which encircles a 40-square-meter area in which mammoths and other animals were butchered, cooked and eaten, served either to keep out cold winds or as a base for a wooden building, the scientists propose in a paper published online November 26 in Quaternary International.


Mammoth-bone huts previously discovered at Homo sapiens sites in West Asia date to between 27,500 and 15,000 years ago. The new discovery comes from Molodova, a Ukrainian site first excavated in the 1950s. There, Neandertals erected a mammoth-bone structure that’s unlike later mammoth-bone huts, suggesting that the two Homo species developed these practices independently, says study coauthor Stéphane Péan, also of France’s National Museum of Natural History.


Researchers have argued for decades about whether Molodova Neandertals left mammoth bones scattered about or built something out of them.


“My own inclination is to assume that some type of mammoth-bone structure, maybe a wind break, was present at Molodova,” remarks archaeologist John Hoffecker of the University of Colorado Boulder. A Czech Republic site of comparable age contains a similar circle of mammoth bones, Hoffecker says.


It’s hard to know whether Neandertals or modern humans occupied Molodova, he cautions. African Homo sapiens reached Europe by 45,000 years ago (SN Online: 11/2/11), and discoveries in the last few years indicate that those early migrants made stone tools much like those found at Molodova and traditionally attributed to Neandertals, Hoffecker says. No fossils have been unearthed at the Ukrainian site, leaving the identity of its occupants uncertain, in his view.


Demay’s team regards Molodova stone tools as typical of Neandertals that lived in Europe and West Asia before modern humans showed up.


Neandertals assembled the circular Molodova structure out of the largest and strongest parts of mammoth skeletons — mainly tusks, shoulders, ribs and hips, the scientists say. Weathering and water damage on the bones indicate that they were placed in a shallow trench.


Remains of at least 15 mammoths, all bearing stone-tool marks but few signs of chewing by nonhuman animals, were uncovered inside the bone enclosure. Excavations also produced bones of red deer, bison and other animals that contained butchery marks. Meat from these animals was cooked in 15 fire pits arrayed throughout the site.


Neandertal groups consisting of no more than around 30 individuals, Péan proposes, periodically camped at Molodova while cutting up and consuming mammoth and other prey.



Yale: Art find in Egypt 15,000 years old

John Burgeson, Staff Writer

Updated 11:36 p.m., Tuesday, November 29, 2011


NEW HAVEN -- The words "ancient Egyptian art" brings to mind the popular tomb art found in the region of the Upper Nile, created between 5000 BC and about 300 AD.


As ancient as those works are, they're almost contemporary compared to what a Yale University professor and a team of Belgian scientists found in Qurta, Egypt -- rock carvings dating back to between 15,000 and 23,000 years ago. They are the oldest Egyptian works of art known to exist and are among the oldest art found anywhere.


The findings were announced in the December issue of Antiquity, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.


These carvings are nothing like the familiar Egyptian carvings and paintings of man-beast gods, epic battles and the beauty of Nefertari. Rather, these newly discovered works offer views of animals that the Paleolithic hunters encountered -- mostly the wild predecessors of the domestic cattle of today. Other carvings, called petroglyphs, depict hippos and gazelles. Humans are found, too, among the drawings, but usually they are shown only as stick figures.


The researchers said that the carvings have more in common with the drawings found in Lascaux, the cave in France, as opposed to the art of the Egyptian dynasties. The Lascaux cave paintings have been dated to 17,300 years ago, or about the same era as this new discovery in Egypt.


"As such, they're not considered as Egyptian art, because it predates the appearance of Egyptian culture," said Yale's Colleen Manassa, assistant professor of Egyptology. She added that it even pre-dates "by a long shot" the predynastic art that was the precursor to Egyptian art.


"There's nothing specifically Egyptian about it," Manassa said, noting its similarity to the cave paintings at Lascaux. "They're both trying to represent these animals in a very natural way."


She said that even in pre-Egyptian art, animals and other objects are depicted in a symbolic fashion. "When you see a picture of a boat in Egyptian art, the boat means something," she said. "We don't think that's the case with Paleolithic art."


The Yale professor on the discovery team was John Coleman Darnell, who has had a number of papers published on the early art of the Egyptian deserts.


"The rock art at Qurta reveals that the well-known cave art of the late Pleistocene in Europe was not an isolated phenomenon," Darnell said in a prepared statement. "This puts North Africa firmly in the world of the earliest surviving artistic tradition, and shows that tradition to have been geographically more widespread than heretofore imagined."


The Pleistocene refers to the geologic epoch from 11,700 to 2.6 million years ago, in which there were repeated glaciations in Europe and North America. It coincides closely with the Paleolithic era -- 10,000 to 2.6 million years ago, which refers to a period of human history in which humans used stone tools for the most part.


Darnell could not be reached for comment.


Manassa said that Paleolithic stone tools have been found in Egypt, but this is the first time that art from that era has been confirmed.


Researchers said the carvings were actually found by a Canadian team in the early 1960s, but they were not researched or dated at that point. This latest research took place in 2008, and was not announced until the article appeared in the Antiquities journal. He was with a team from the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, Belgium.


The age of the art was determined using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence, or OSL dating. It is useful in situations, such as this, in which the date of minerals, rather than organic material, must be determined, scientists say.


Reach John Burgeson at 203-330-6403 or at jburgeson@ctpost.com. Follow twitter.com/johnburgeson.



'New' ancient monuments come to light at Knowth

Excavations unearth new features from Neolithic period

by Paul Murphy Print |  Email

Friday, 2nd December, 2011 9:30am


New and exciting archaeological finds have been made at the Knowth tumulus over the last few months, according to archaeologists working on the site.

The passage tomb cemetery at Brú na Binne has produced some extraordinary discoveries over the decades ever since Professor George Eogan made his first tentative exploration in and around the site.

A number of previously unknown large-scale monuments in the field lying immediately to the south-east of the large mound have recently come to light.

A programme of detailed non-invasive topographical, electrical resistance and magnetometer surveys conducted by Joe Fenwick of the archaeology department of NUI Galway, in collaboration with Professor George Eogan, has revealed a complexity of sub-surface wall-footings, earth-filled ditches and post-pits. This research confirms that the archaeological footprint of Knowth extends over a far greater area than previously thought.

The nature, date and function of these 'hidden' monuments has yet to be fully assessed but it is likely these features represent a succession of overlapping periods of human occupation, building and rebuilding over the course of several thousand years - from the early Neolithic up to the present day.

Two features are particularly apparent in the magnetometer image, a large double-ringed oval measuring 65m across its minor axis and a sub-rectangular ditched enclosure with internal features measuring over 70m in maximum dimension.

These may represent the remains of a double-ditched enclosure of prehistoric or early medieval date, possibly a henge-like enclosure or ringfort, and a medieval or post-medieval walled enclosure, respectively.

In the absence of dating evidence and with few, if any, definitive archaeological parallels, only very tentative interpretations of these features can be provided at this early stage of investigation, the archaeologists said.

During OPW repair works to a 19th century wall, which forms a boundary along the west side of the public road, a number of significant stones that had been built into its fabric were identified. One, though undecorated, is likely to have served as kerbstone marking the base to one of Knowth's satellite tombs.

Another is an architectural fragment, possibly part of a chapel or other prominent structure at Knowth, which once formed part a grange established in the high medieval period by the Cistercian monks of Mellifont.

Perhaps the most remarkable discovery, however, is a stone which bears a finely carved spiral in the megalithic tradition on one of its surfaces - undoubtedly a structural stone from one of the nearby small passage tombs.



Bronze age man's lunch: a spoonful of nettle stew

Archaeological dig reveals hundreds of objects, from six oak-tree boats to a bowl of food

Dalya Alberge

The Observer, Sunday 4 December 2011


Six boats hollowed out of oak tree trunks are among hundreds of intact artefacts from 3,000 years ago that have been discovered in the Cambridgeshire fens, the Observer can reveal.


The scale, quality and condition of the objects, the largest bronze age collection ever found in one place in Britain, have astonished archaeologists – and barely a fraction of the site has been excavated.


Unique textile fragments, wicker baskets and wooden sword handles have survived. There are even containers of food, including a bowl with a wooden spoon still wedged into the contents, now analysed as nettle stew, which may have been a favourite dish in 1000BC. The boats – two of which bear unusual decoration – are in such good condition that the wood grain and colour can be seen clearly, as can signs of repairs by their owners.


David Gibson, head of Cambridge University's archaeological unit, said the discoveries were internationally important. "One canoe would be great. Two, exceptional. Six almost feels greedy," he said. Mark Knight, the unit's senior project officer, added: "We talk about bronze age landscapes and it always feels as if we're looking through a very narrow window, with the curtains partly drawn or slightly misted over. Now it's as though someone's opened the windows and we're seeing so much more."


The artefacts survived because they were immersed in deep layers of peat and silt. When those layers are lifted off, "the objects are so pristine", Knight said, "it's as if 3,000 years never happened. The softest, wettest deposits ensured that past activity has been cosseted."


The artefacts were submerged under an ancient watercourse along the southern edge of the Flag Fen Basin, land altered over millennia by rising sea levels. In the 17th century the Dutch showed how to drain waterlogged land, and today the site east of Peterborough is accessible. Knight said: "In our [bronze age] landscape… you could have walked along the bottom of the fenland basin and to the bottom of the North Sea hunting for deer. By the Roman period, you were perched up at Peterborough, looking out over a huge wet expanse of peat and reed swamp." At ground level, there had been no clue to the artefacts' existence because they were so deep – four metres below ground – and would not have been picked up by aerial, radar, or other exploratory surveys.


The excavation, which is likely to continue for years, has been made possible thanks to Hanson, a bricks and cement supplier. Under planning regulations, the company is obliged to fund archaeological digs, but it has been especially helpful, say the archaeologists. Crucially, and unusually, they were able to excavate down to unprecedented depths since Hanson's need for clay for bricks requires extraction at Jurassic age levels. Knight said: "So we get to see entire buried landscapes. Some of our colleagues try to find ways of getting to the bottom of the North Sea… [while] we get an early view of the same submerged space, but via the humble brick."


Along the 150-metre stretch of a bronze age river channel, they have found the best preserved example of prehistoric river life. There are weirs and fish traps in the form of big woven willow baskets, plus fragments of garments with ornamental hems made from fibrous bark and jewellery, including green and blue beads. Extensive finds of metalwork include bronze swords and spears, some apparently tossed into the river in perfect condition, possibly as votive offerings. One of the boats is 8.3 metres long. "It feels as if you could get the whole family – granny, grandad, a couple of goats and everything – in there," said Knight. The smallest boat is just over four metres long.


The finds reveal how, with the rise in water levels in the bronze age, people adapted to a wetland environment, using rivers for transport, living off pike, perch, carp and eel. How far they could travel in the log boats is unclear. Although the boats were unlikely to have been used at sea, one of the bronze age swords is of a type normally found in northern Spain.


Once removed from the fenland, the artefacts must be conserved before eventual public display. Knight said: "Often at an excavation, it takes much imagination for it to become apparent. This site doesn't need that. It's intact. It feels as if we've actually caught up the [bronze age] people. It feels like we're there."



Archeological Discovery Indicates Human Sacrifice

29.11.2011 | 00:00


Archeological research of pagan graves in the valley Þegjandadalur in Suður-Þingeyjasýsla county in northeast Iceland support the theory that ritual human sacrifice was practiced during paganism in Iceland.


An L-shaped turf wall was discovered in Þegjandadalur, which is believed to have been constructed before Icelanders converted to Christianity in 1000 AD, Morgunblaðið reports.


In a large hole in the wall fractions of a human skull were found, a jawbone of a cat and various other animal bones, including a sheep jawbone and a several cattle bones.


In a small grave up against the turf wall bones of a newborn baby in their original resting place were discovered.


The discovery was reported on in the journal of Urðarbrunnur, the science association at Laugar in the rural district Þingeyjarsveit.


The association’s chairman, Unnsteinn Ingason, described it as very interesting and strange. “What gives the imagination free rein is the combination of bones,” he said.


“Remains of bones in a hole are not peculiar as such, it could, for example, have been a garbage hole, but cannibalism was not practiced and cats have never been eaten in Iceland so these bones shouldn’t belong together in a garbage hole,” he reasoned.


Archeologist Lilja Pálsdóttir, who participated in the excavation, said it cannot be confirmed with any certainty that this is evidence of ritual human sacrifice.


“It is a known phenomenon to place sacrifices in a hole in the wall—the Romans did it when they built houses and often used the bones of newborns,” she said.


“I wouldn’t say that one can confirm anything about human sacrifices, although the combination of bones is interesting. We don’t know whether it indicates a ritual sacrifice as not much is known about sacrifices in Iceland at this time,” Lilja concluded.



Mexico acknowledges 2nd Mayan reference to 2012

MARK STEVENSON, Associated Press

Updated 04:37 a.m., Friday, November 25, 2011


MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico's archaeology institute downplays theories that the ancient Mayas predicted some sort of apocalypse would occur in 2012, but on Thursday it acknowledged that a second reference to the date exists on a carved fragment found at a southern Mexico ruin site.


Most experts had cited only one surviving reference to the date in Mayan glyphs, a stone tablet from the Tortuguero site in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco.


But the National Institute of Anthropology and History said in a statement that there is in fact another apparent reference to the date at the nearby Comalcalco ruin. The inscription is on the carved or molded face of a brick. Comalcalco is unusual among Mayan temples in that it was constructed of bricks.


Arturo Mendez, a spokesman for the institute, said the fragment of inscription had been discovered years ago and has been subject to thorough study. It is not on display and is being kept in storage at the institute.


The "Comalcalco Brick," as the second fragment is known, has been discussed by experts in some online forums. Many still doubt that it is a definite reference to Dec. 21, 2012 or Dec. 23, 2012, the dates cited by proponents of the theory as the possible end of the world.


"Some have proposed it as another reference to 2012, but I remain rather unconvinced," David Stuart, a specialist in Mayan epigraphy at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a message to The Associated Press.


Stuart said the date inscribed on the brick "'is a Calendar Round,' a combination of a day and month position that will repeat every 52 years."


The brick date does coincide with the end of the 13th Baktun; Baktuns were roughly 394-year periods and 13 was a significant, sacred number for the Mayas. The Mayan Long Count calendar begins in 3114 B.C., and the 13th Baktun ends around Dec. 21, 2012.


But the date on the brick could also correspond to similar dates in the past, Stuart said.


"There's no reason it couldn't be also a date in ancient times, describing some important historical event in the Classic period. In fact, the third glyph on the brick seems to read as the verb huli, "he/she/it arrives."


"There's no future tense marking (unlike the Tortuguero phrase), which in my mind points more to the Comalcalco date being more historical that prophetic," Stuart wrote.


Both inscriptions — the Tortuguero tablet and the Comalcalco brick — were probably carved about 1,300 years ago and both are cryptic in some ways.


The Tortuguero inscription describes something that is supposed to occur in 2012 involving Bolon Yokte, a mysterious Mayan god associated with both war and creation.


However, erosion and a crack in the stone make the end of the passage almost illegible, though some read the last eroded glyphs as perhaps saying, "He will descend from the sky."


The Comalcalco brick is also odd in that the molded or inscribed faces of the bricks were probably laid facing inward or covered with stucco, suggesting they were not meant to be seen.


The Institute of Anthropology and History has long said rumors of a world-ending or world-changing event in late December 2012 are a Westernized misinterpretation of Mayan calendars.


The institute repeated Thursday that "western messianic thought has twisted the cosmovision of ancient civilizations like the Maya."


The institute's experts say the Mayas saw time as a series of cycles that began and ended with regularity, but with nothing apocalyptic at the end of a given cycle.


Given the strength of Internet rumors about impending disaster in 2012, the institute is organizing a special round table of 60 Mayan experts next week at the archaeological site of Palenque, in southern Mexico, to "dispel some of the doubts about the end of one era and the beginning of another, in the Mayan Long Count calendar."



Chatham dig finds Tudor dockyard remains

2 December 2011 Last updated at 16:53


Archaeologists have uncovered evidence which they say confirms the site of Henry VIII's dockyard in Kent.


Evidence of Chatham's Tudor shipyard, along with medieval remains, were found during a four-day dig at the Command House pub on the banks of River Medway.


The dig, the first on the site, was filmed for a History Channel programme presented by comedian Rory McGrath.


Medway Council said it hoped the finds would support its World Heritage status bid for Chatham Historic Dockyard.


The dig uncovered evidence that proved the pub stands on the site of one of the earliest shipyards at Chatham.


A ship's hook, nails and tankards used by Tudor ship builders from the time of Henry VIII were found.


"There was a wonderful tile that they think came from the medieval Chatham Church. a clay pipe, some ironwork and what they think is a Tudor brick," said Richard Holdsworth, the dockyard's education director.


Chatham Dockyard and its defences are on the government's shortlist of potential World Heritage Sites.


The UK can propose one World Heritage Site a year and could put forward Chatham's application in 2013.


The first documentary evidence of the Royal Navy's use of the River Medway dates from 1547, the year Henry VIII died.


By the reign of Elizabeth I, Chatham was England's principal fleet base with the majority of the Queen's ships overwintering in the River Medway.


In 1613 Chatham dockyard moved to its present site and the Tudor yard was redeveloped.


"This is an area of very rich heritage," said Robin Cooper, head of regeneration at Medway Council.


"This is another piece of the jigsaw about the history of Medway, so it is fascinating."