Science friction: Study questions how long ago ancient ancestors learned to use fire

By The Associated Press, Monday, March 14, 3:07 PM



A new study is raising questions about when ancient human ancestors in Europe learned to control fire, one of the most important steps on the long path to civilization.


A review of 141 archaeological sites across Europe shows habitual use of fire beginning between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago, according to a paper in Tuesday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Most archeologists agree that the use of fire is tied to colonization outside Africa, especially in Europe where temperatures fall below freezing, wrote Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands and Paola Villa of the University of Colorado.


Yet, while there is evidence of early humans living in Europe as much as a million years ago, the researchers found no clear traces of regular use of fire before about 400,000 years ago.


After that, Neanderthals and modern humans living in Europe regularly used fire for warmth, cooking and light, they found.


 “The pattern emerging is a clear as well as a surprising one,” they said, considering these ancient people were living in the cold European climate.


Their results raise the question of how early humans survived cold climates without fire. The researchers suggest a highly active lifestyle and a high-protein diet may have helped them adapt to the cold, adding that the consumption of raw meat and seafood by hunter-gatherers is well documented.


Before that period, there is a single site in Israel with earlier evidence of regular fire use, the researchers noted, and there are sites in Africa indicating sporadic fire use.


Not so sure of the late date for controlling fire is Harvard archaeologist Richard W. Wrangham, author of the book “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,” who argues that learning to cook food — perhaps as much as two million years ago — improved nutrition enough for a burst of evolution promoting development of a bigger brain and, eventually, leading to modern humans.


Wrangham suggested that the lack of earlier evidence of fire could merely mean that, over time, the burned bones or ashes had been destroyed or dispersed.


But Villa, in a telephone interview, said that there is evidence of burned bones in a South African cave from a million years ago, “so burned bones do preserve.”


“This paper represents very clearly the archaeological conclusions to what Wil Roebroeks has elegantly called a case of ‘science friction’ resulting from the clash between archaeological and biological evidence,” Wrangham wrote in an e-mail.


“So either way we have a lovely puzzle,” he said.


Online: http://www.pnas.org


Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



Prehistoric haul found by amateurs in Cornwall

20 March 2011


One of the largest collections of prehistoric artefacts ever found in Cornwall (England) has been uncovered by Graham Hill and Dave Edwards: two amateur archaeologists from Penzance. The two discovered 4,500 pieces in ploughed fields in the parish of Paul - among them flint arrowheads, greenstone axes and pottery dating back to 3000 BCE.

     English Heritage has announced it will fund the recording of the prehistoric finds, which have been discovered since 2004. With some of the artefacts believed to be as ancient as 5,000 years old, the news that they will be officially catalogued is set to cause a stir among ancient history buffs. "I am very fortunate that in my lifetime the collection is being assessed and properly catalogued," said Mr Hill. "I found the first piece of prehistoric pottery in 2005 and I was obviously pleased. For me what is important is the recording of the objects; once the objects is removed from the field, then the information is lost."

     Cornwall Council's Historic Environment Projects team has been commissioned by English Heritage to record the Clodgy Moor project, named after the area which yielded many of the finds. They will work with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and the Cornwall Archaeological Society (CAS). In a statement, the team confirmed it was one of the largest collections from the county.

     Archaeologists from the council will work with the CAS to find volunteers to be trained by Anna Lawson-Jones, an historic environment projects lithics specialist, and Anna Tyacke, the Portable Antiquities Scheme finds liaison officer. "The project will enable members of the community to have the opportunity to directly engage with archaeological artefacts and develop hands-on skills, which will include artefact identification, labelling and data-processing," said senior archaeologist Dr Andy Jones.

     Dr Jonathan Last, head of research policy at English Heritage, said the project would provide a great chance to boost its knowledge of the past. "This exciting partnership project will improve our understanding of the 'lithic scatter' evidence from Cornwall - an area where most archaeological sites have been levelled by ploughing," he said. "It will also contribute to our understanding of 'sites without structures' and our ability to protect them."


Edited from This is Cornwall (17 March 2011)



Excavations at Banks Chambered Tomb, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

Friday, March 11, 2011

By Dan Lee (ORCA)


A team of archaeologists from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) recently undertook a rescue excavation on a newly discovered Neolithic chambered tomb at Banks, on the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney. The tomb is located on the southern tip of the island overlooking the Pentland Firth, approximately 1.8 kilometres from the Tomb of the Eagles at Isbister. Whilst this new monument sits well within the rich archaeological heritage of the islands, the very fact that new examples are still being discovered underlines the remarkable prominence of this type of Neolithic burial monument.


The site is important as it offers a rare opportunity to investigate the life history of a tomb, from construction to decommissioning, using modern archaeological techniques. Antiquarian investigations usually beat modern-day archaeologists to these sites in Orkney so their apparent absence at Banks was promising. This new exciting discovery once again puts the Neolithic spotlight on the islands.


It is a surprise to many that any large mound in Orkney is not suspected to represent some form of prehistoric monument, but this was the case at Banks. The former elongated mound situated to the south of the farmhouse is clearly visible on old aerial photographs. However, it was unusually shaped, being long and ridge-like (c. 80 metres long and about 2 metres high), and was never thought to contain any structural archaeology. The tomb was only discovered recently during development works around a nearby farmhouse. The large slabs that started to emerge in the top of the mound soon raised suspicions and initial explorations revealed a revetment wall to the north and the presence of internal chambers. The body of the mound had unfortunately been destroyed but the structural heart of the monument had survived. The cells were flooded with water and the eastern cell clearly contained a human skull, and so a rescue excavation was organised, funded by Orkney Islands Council and Historic Scotland.


The mound was originally elongated, and the builders appear to have utilised a natural feature evidenced by a sharp rise in the bedrock below. This feature may have formed a significant place in the Neolithic landscape perhaps already imbued with stories and meaning. The use of natural places for monumental architecture and other activities is well attested, although evidence for this practice is less well-known in Orkney. Perhaps the most famous example is the Dwarfie Stane in Hoy, the only rock-cut tomb in the UK, where the cells were carved inside a glacial boulder.


The Banks tomb is unusual in that it is partly subterranean. The central chamber, cells and entrance passage were constructed within a quarry. Rather than just stripping the area prior to construction, the Neolithic builders commenced with the task of quarrying. The central chamber (c. 4 metres long and 0.75 metres wide) is aligned east to west with an entranceway leading off to the north, with two larger cells at either end, a single cell to the north and two cells to the south. The sides of the cells are formed from a series of piers extending out from the bedrock face that forms the rear walls. The southwest cell, opposite the entrance passage, has an upper shelf similar to those above the end stalls in the Tomb of the Eagles. The west cell has unfortunately been severely disturbed.


The cells are capped with large water-worn slabs that rest on the upper level of the bedrock with the sides are supported by the stone built piers and walls. The walls are constructed from various quarried stones, apparently from different sources that do not appear to derive from the construction quarry itself. The rounded slabs and blocks, often used as corner stones, and the water-worn capstones probably came from the nearby beach to the west. The use of water-worn material seems to go beyond simple practical requirements. Although the excavations are not complete, it seems that water-worn material was used at key stages in the life of the tomb: in construction and closing off. It is interesting that Chris Fowler and Vicky Cummings have suggested an association between water, death and change in the Neolithic. In this manner water may have been referenced in certain places of transformation.


The main burial deposits were not reached during the excavation but a glimpse of the closing-off process was afforded by investigation of the entrance passage, central chamber, and north and east cells. The cells and chamber were filled with placed slabs to a level c. 0.6 metres below the roof. There was then a pause in the closing process, evidenced by the presence of otter sprait above the slabs, perhaps for a final closing ceremony or act. This closing ceremony consisted of the placement of predominantly skull fragments, but also pelvis and femur, within the north and east cells. The initial assessment of the assemblage has indicated that the bones are in good condition with a minimum number of seven individuals from the cells. These bones were certainly curated outside the tomb while the slabs were put in, but where and for how long remains a puzzle. It is tempting to suggest that the whole skull placed just inside the entrance of the east cell was the final closing act. As an archaeologist this discovery was certainly an emotional experience: to be literally faced with that moment in time, staring back at you.


The central chamber and cell doors were then sealed with silty clay material and stony clay was used to block the entrance. A smooth water-worn stone was placed just inside in the entrance passage before it was finally sealed off. Water quickly filled the tomb to around the level of the bone assemblage. Remarkably, the tomb lay undisturbed until the recent development at Banks.


The monument could be classified as a Maes Howe type chambered tomb. These, according to Davidson and Henshall, typically have a narrow entrance passage which leads to a central chamber with side cells constructed into the walls. This contrasts with the tripartite and stalled cairns of the Orkney-Cromarty Group that have a broad and often long central chamber that is subdivided into compartments with upright slabs that protrude into the chamber. The more varied Bookan type, some with squared internal cells, complicates matters further. Interestingly, most of the Bookan type tombs are semi- or completely subterranean. In a recent review of Orcadian chambered tombs, Nick Card suggests that while such classifications can be a useful tool, the wide variety of monuments demonstrates that sites should be assessed on their own basis before attempting to construct typological and/or evolutionary models. Clearly, the Neolithic community at Banks were drawing on a broad architectural and spiritual repertoire that was brought into focus at certain places and reworked over time.


It is not possible to comment on the use of the Banks tomb at this stage as the main burial deposits, if they exist, were not reached. The nearest comparison is the Tomb of the Eagles where hundreds of individuals were communally buried. Here, John Hedges noted that the bones were arranged in distinct piles in the central chamber and cells as if they had been frequently moved or sorted. Some archaeologists, such as John Barrett, have argued that it was the construction of tombs and the subsequent manipulation of the remains of the dead by a select few that created social relations and power structures in the Neolithic. Perhaps the burial deposits at Banks will help us add to these interesting debates.


The research potential for further work is high. The opportunity to investigate the backfill and closing off sequence of an undisturbed Neolithic tomb is very rare. Indeed, the waterlogged conditions within the tomb, which appear to have remained stable until recently, provide the potential for rich organic remains to survive and good preservation conditions for the human bone assemblage. ORCA aims to return to the tomb this year to continue the excavation. Investigations at Banks chambered tomb offer a rare opportunity to get a step closer to understanding Neolithic funerary practice in Orkney at an internationally important site.


The involvement of 360 Production in the project from the outset, who are filming the new Digging for Britain series, also offered us the opportunity to try to present the site in a different way to the public. It was decided to film a daily site diary and post this on Youtube the following day. Whilst the initial intention was to promote the site for the upcoming series, it provides an interesting insight into the process of archaeology with the decisions and experience of working onsite, even the numerous gales! We hope this innovative contribution to the presentation and accessibility of archaeology will provide a new challenge to archaeological fieldwork practice.



Brighton school children build replica Neolithic house

Children have built a Neolithic-style chalk house in the grounds of a Brighton primary school.


Youngsters from ten schools took part in the project, with the chalk house due to be officially opened in a ceremony next Thursday (24 March).


It has been built in the grounds of Moulsecoomb Primary School in The Highway, Brighton, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.


The house has been built in the same way as it would have been built nearly 5,000 years ago.


Pupils had help from specialists from the East Sussex Archaeology and Museums Partnership during the nine-month project.


They also took part in a Time Team style archaeological dig in the school grounds, unearthing



A group of youngsters from Moulsecoomb went on a fact-finding visit to Stonehenge to learn more.


The project gave pupils hands-on experience of



Children helped construct the wattle walls.


They bent hazel strips around a frame before crushing chalk into a powder, adding water to make a sticky chalk paste, and pushing it into the wattle framework.


The Neolithic period was the first during which farming took place in Britain.


To learn more about this period, pupils planted and harvested stone-age crops, processed them and used the flour to make bread.


Moulsecoomb head Charles Davies said: “It’s been an amazing project – real get-your-hands-dirty stuff.


“It’s been great fun, and the children have learnt so much.


“It’s also been wonderful having the wider community involved.”


Tristan Bareham, chief executive officer of Sussex Past, said that the Neolithic house was one of the most exciting archaeological projects in Britain.


He said: “The excavated building was exceptionally well preserved and this has allowed us to create a building which has not been seen in this country for almost 5,000 years.


“This project has created not only a wonderful long-term resource for the school but has answered a number of important questions about buildings at this key time in our history.”


Brighton and Hove City Council cabinet member for children and young people, Councillor Vanessa Brown, said: “Seeing local children right at the centre of what experts have described as one of the most exciting archaeological projects in Britain has been really inspiring.”



The Roman Ninth Legion's mysterious loss

16 March 2011 Last updated at 10:07


The disappearance of Rome's Ninth Legion has long baffled historians, but could a brutal ambush have been the event that forged the England-Scotland border, asks archaeologist Dr Miles Russell, of Bournemouth University.


One of the most enduring legends of Roman Britain concerns the disappearance of the Ninth Legion.


The theory that 5,000 of Rome's finest soldiers were lost in the swirling mists of Caledonia, as they marched north to put down a rebellion, forms the basis of a new film, The Eagle, but how much of it is true?


It is easy to understand the appeal of stories surrounding the loss of the Roman Ninth Legion - a disadvantaged band of British warriors inflicting a humiliating defeat upon a well-trained, heavily-armoured professional army.


It's the ultimate triumph of the underdog - an unlikely tale of victory against the odds. Recently, however, the story has seeped further into the national consciousness of both England and Scotland.


Rome's Lost Legion is on the History Channel on Thursday 17 March at 2200 GMT

The Eagle is in UK cinemas from 25 March

For the English, the massacre of the Ninth is an inspiring tale of home-grown "Davids" successfully taking on a relentless European "Goliath". For the Scots, given the debate on devolved government and national identity, not to say the cultural impact of Braveheart, the tale has gained extra currency - freedom-loving highlanders resisting monolithic, London-based imperialists.


The legend of the Ninth gained form thanks to acclaimed novelist Rosemary Sutcliff, whose masterpiece, The Eagle of the Ninth, became an instant bestseller when published in 1954.


Since then, generations of children and adults have been entranced by the story of a young Roman officer, Marcus Aquila, travelling north of Hadrian's Wall in order to uncover the truth about his father, lost with the Ninth, and the whereabouts of the Legion's battle standard, the bronze eagle.


The historians have dissented, theorising that the Ninth did not disappear in Britain at all, arguing both book and film are wrong. Their theory has been far more mundane - the legion was, in fact, a victim of strategic transfer, swapping the cold expanse of northern England, for arid wastes in the Middle East. Here, sometime before AD 160, they were wiped out in a war against the Persians.


But, contrary to this view, there is not one shred of evidence that the Ninth were ever taken out of Britain. It's just a guess which, over time, has taken on a sheen of cast iron certainty. Three stamped tiles bearing the unit number of the Ninth found at Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, have been used to support the idea of transfer from Britain.


But these all seem to date to the 80s AD, when detachments of the Ninth were indeed on the Rhine fighting Germanic tribes. They do not prove that the Ninth left Britain for good.


In fact, the last certain piece of evidence relating to the existence of the Legion from anywhere in the Roman Empire comes from York where an inscription, dating to AD 108, credits the Ninth with rebuilding the fortress in stone. Some time between then and the mid-2nd Century, when a record of all Legions was compiled, the unit had ceased to exist.


But what happened to the Ninth?


Theories on the Ninth


The early years of the 2nd Century were deeply traumatic for Britannia. The Roman writer Fronto observed that, in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117 - 138), large numbers of Roman soldiers were killed by the British.


The number and full extent of these losses remain unknown, but they were evidently significant. The anonymously authored Augustan History, compiled in the 3rd Century, provides further detail, noting that when Hadrian became emperor, "the Britons could not be kept under Roman control".


The British problem was of deep concern to Roman central government. Thanks to a tombstone recovered from Ferentinum in Italy, we know that emergency reinforcements of over 3,000 men were rushed to the island on "the British Expedition", early in Hadrian's reign. The emperor himself visited the island in AD 122, in order to "correct many faults", bringing with him a new legion, the Sixth.


The fact that they took up residence in the legionary fortress of York suggests that the "great losses" of personnel, alluded to by Fronto, had occurred within the ranks of the Ninth.


Archaeological evidence of the legion's fate is scarce

It would seem that Sutcliff was right after all.


It was the Ninth, the most exposed and northerly of all legions in Britain, that had borne the brunt of the uprising, ending their days fighting insurgents in the turmoil of early 2nd Century Britain.


The loss of such an elite military unit had an unexpected twist which reverberates to the present day. When the emperor Hadrian visited Britain at the head of a major troop surge, he realised that there was only one way to ensure stability in the island - he needed to build a wall.


Hadrian's Wall was designed to keep invaders out of Roman territory as well as ensuring that potential insurgents within the province had no hope of receiving support from their allies to the north. From this point, cultures on either side of the great divide developed at different rates and in very different ways.


The ultimate legacy of the Ninth was the creation of a permanent border, forever dividing Britain. The origins of what were to become the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland may be traced to the loss of this unluckiest of Roman legions.


Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology at Bournemouth University.



Early Roman Site found in Gloucestershire

Cotswold Archaeology have unearthed the remains of the earliest known Roman settlement in the Five Valleys including more than a dozen human burials near Stroud in Gloucestershire, south-west England.


The excavations revealed evidence of some of the earliest Roman activity currently known in the area dating back to the mid to late 1st century AD – not long after the Roman invasion in AD43.  There is also some evidence of much earlier activity from the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age and Late Iron Age periods, including a tree throw containing at least four individual Beakers (2600 BC-1800 BC).


The main discovery – on land being developed by Barratt Homes – consisted of a large rectangular enclosure which contained a stone-built crop dryer and over 300 pits and postholes.  The enclosure was approached by a well used sunken track-way leading from Doverow Hill to the north-west.  Four of the pits were heavily scorched, and with iron slag also found on the site, may indicate small scale iron working taking place.   At least one small roundhouse lay just outside of the enclosure.


According to the archaeological team, the most exciting find was the thirteen human burials, all found within the early Roman enclosure.  The preservation of the human remains varied, with some suffering damage from medieval or later ploughing. Particularly notable was a grave that contained the skeletons of two individuals, closely flexed together.


The majority of the inhumations appear to have been laid directly into the graves – probably wrapped in simple shrouds.  However, the presence of a number of iron nails around the exterior of two graves suggests that these particular bodies at least, were likely to have been buried within coffins.


The recovery of hobnails around the feet of three of the individuals indicates they were buried wearing footwear, a practice which became popular in English rural settlements during the late 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.


One burial also contained a coin – found close to the mouth of the skeleton- and was dated to AD 324-30. The custom of placing a coin in the mouth of  the deceased as the fare for the ferryman Charon was relatively commonplace by the 4th century AD.


Cliff Bateman, project manager at Cotswold Archaeology said “We previously knew of Roman settlements at Standish, Frocester and Eastington as well as the famous mosaic at Woodchester, so the current find continues to show just how densely populated the local area was during the Roman period”.


Although the on-site works have been completed,  further study of the records, artefacts and the burials has just begun and may take a year or so to complete.  The finds will be donated to the Museum in the Park, Stroud. The burials, under current legislation will be reburied locally.




12TH MARCH 2011


New isotope analysis and forensic facial reconstruction undertaken by a team led by English Heritage has shed new light on the doomed 1845 British voyage of Arctic exploration led by Sir John Franklin, in which all 129 people on board perished.


Analysis of the only surviving complete skeleton has offered new clues as to why the expedition was lost, a mystery that has sparked debate ever since. Some have suggested that scurvy or tuberculosis may have been causes of debilitation and death on the expedition, but no evidence of these diseases was found on the bones, and DNA tests proved negative for tuberculosis. Work is still ongoing on samples from the remains to analyse for lead to see if lead poisoning from the expedition's canned food or from their water supply was a factor.


The study has also revealed that the identity of the skeleton is unlikely to be Henry LeVesconte, a Lieutenant aboard one of the ships, a conclusion that has been widely accepted since the skeleton was first examined in 1872 by Thomas Henry Huxley, one of the foremost biologists of the age.


The remains thought to be Le Vesconte's, and those of one other sailor, were the only ones ever to be returned to Britain. The lieutenant's bones were buried beneath the Franklin Expedition monument at the old Royal Naval College in Greenwich and have come to represent all of Franklin's crew lost in Canada. Renovations in 2009 of the memorial meant that the remains had to be exhumed and temporarily moved. This gave an opportunity for English Heritage to study the remains and to evaluate the twin questions of the identity of this particular skeleton and the reasons for loss of the expedition.


Henry LeVesconte grew up in Devon. However, analysis of stable isotopes from the teeth of the skeleton shows that it is unlikely that this individual grew up there, but more likely that he spent his childhood in NE England or eastern Scotland. 


Moreover, 14 of the 24 officers on the expedition had their portraits taken by the newly devised Daguerreotype photographic process prior to embarkation.  A forensic facial reconstruction was undertaken using the skull of the skeleton, and it seemed to match quite closely the appearance of Harry Goodsir, an assistant surgeon and naturalist on the voyage. 


Dr Simon Mays, skeletal biologist at English Heritage, said:” The study of human remains and in turn our understanding of the past has benefited immensely from the advance of science and technology. The disappearance of Franklin’s heroic crew became a cause celebre in Victorian England, and the reasons for its loss continue to be debated. Our study offers some important clues to take the debate further.


 “The identity of the skeleton is difficult to ascertain but the new evidence seems to show that it is unlikely to have been Henry LeVesconte. The facial resemblance to Harry Goodsir is striking, and the isotope evidence is consistent with it being him, but the identification is not 100% certain because some officers on the voyage were not photographed.  However, tissue samples from the remains were retained so attempts at a DNA match with a living direct descendant of Goodsir can be made should anyone come forward.”


In May 1845, an expedition of two ships, commanded by Sir John Franklin and sponsored by the Royal Navy, set out from England to try and discover the Northwest Passage trade route to Asia. In the past, a few scattered bones from the end of the expedition have been located in arctic Canada, but in general even a tentative personal identification for these remains has proved impossible. 


The expedition's disappearance caused a sensation in Britain, prompting huge rescue efforts that helped map much of the vast and remote polar archipelago of the Canadian Arctic.


The study was undertaken at the request of the Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Naval College and with the consent of a LeVesconte relative at English Heritage’s laboratories in Portsmouth and at the Universities of Bradford and Surrey between 2009 and 2011. The remains have been reburied under the memorial.




Image comparing the daguerreotype of Goodsir and the facial reconstruction is available. The daguerreotype is copyright of the National Maritime Museum.


For further press information or interviews with Dr Simon Mays please contact Renee Fok, English Heritage Communications on 020 7973 3297 or at renee.fok@english-heritage.org.uk




English Heritage is the UK’s Government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment for England. Our applied research provides the vital evidence that allows English Heritage to protect England's historic environment and to provide expert advice to others. It also helps us to set standards and to pioneer new approaches to conservation.



No scurvy? Archaeologists analyze skeleton of Franklin expedition crew member

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


On May 19, 1845 Sir John Franklin, an experienced arctic explorer, set out on what would be his last voyage of discovery.

Leaving from Greenhithe, England, he commanded two ships, the Erebus and the Terror. His mission was to pass through and chart the Northwest Passage, the waterway which runs through arctic Canada, connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific.

The unforgiving environment of the passage, strewn with ice packs and small islands, would doom his expedition, killing Franklin and every single member of his crew.

A message found in a cairn near Victory Point on King William Island says that his ships were frozen in ice for nearly a year and a half. Trapped in the arctic the crew began to die with Franklin himself passing away on June 11, 1847. At that point Captain Francis Crozier took over the expedition. He decided to try to save his remaining men by marching south across the ice and arctic tundra.

“Crozier must have been very desperate indeed to have made this decision,” writes William James Mills in his book Exploring Polar Frontiers.

Needless to say the plan failed with none of the crew surviving. Rescue expeditions and scientific surveys would find human remains on or near King William Island.

In the past, analysis of these remains has suggested that the crew members suffered from lead poisoning, a potentially deadly condition that may have caused them to engage in irrational behaviour. The crew could have gotten it through the tin cans that their food were stored in, they might also have gotten it from the water system on board.

It has also been suggested that the crew suffered from scurvy and tuberculosis, conditions that may have doomed many crew members who had been stuck in the ice for nearly 18 months. Cut marks on some of the bodies indicate that the men may have resorted to cannibalism.

New research

New research on the skeleton of a Franklin Expedition crew member, now buried under the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, sheds light on this fateful expedition.

In a paper set to be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a team of researchers led by Simon Mays, of English Heritage, show that this man did not suffer from scurvy or tuberculosis, two diseases that have been linked to the death of expedition members. They are also conducting tests for lead poisoning, results of which will be published in a future paper.

The skeleton was found in a shallow grave in 1869 by Charles Francis Hall, an American adventurer searching for remains of the expedition. He sent them back to England, being reinterred at the Naval College and identified as the remains of Henry Le Vesconte, a lieutenant on the expedition who was a native of Devon.

“That the body was accorded formal burial suggests that the death occurred before the final throes of the expedition when the dead seem to have been left unburied and, in some cases, cannibalised,” writes the team in their paper.

In 2009 renovations in the Painted Hall at the college meant that the skeleton had to be dug back up. This gave researchers a chance to re-examine it using modern scientific techniques.

They were able to use isotope tests to determine if the remains are that of Le Vesconte, something which they concluded is unlikely. 

“The oxygen and strontium isotopic composition of dental enamel reflects the locale in which a person lived when the enamel was forming during childhood,” wrote May’s team in their paper. “The combination of strontium and oxygen isotopes still leave a large number of places to choose from and include major cities such as London, York and Edinburgh (however) it does preclude the western seaboard, most of southwest England,” the area where Devon is located.

The team cannot say for sure whom this skeleton belongs to. One possibility is that it may be the remains of HDS Goodsir, an assistant surgeon on the expedition. When the team reconstructed the face of the skeleton, by using its skull, the result was quite similar to his. The isotope analysis was also a match.

“HDS Goodsir was born and raised in Anstruther, Fife, eastern Scotland, a location which would provide strontium and oxygen isotopic ratios consistent with those found in dental enamel of our skeleton,” write the research team.

However it’s possible that other crew members could also be a match. The team cautioned that portraits of many of the expedition crew members do not exist and we cannot be certain that the skeleton is in fact that of the long-dead assistant surgeon. Ultimately we may never know who lies buried beneath the chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul at Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

Posted by Owen Jarus at 5:19 PM