Archaeologists Puzzle Over Opulent Prehistoric Burial Find

The Pharaoh of Thuringia

By Matthias Schulz



When archeologists recently excavated a 3,800-year-old palace near the eastern German city of Weimar, they discovered about 100 valuable weapons buried next to a massive structure. Now they are puzzling over how an ancient chieftain buried nearby became so rich.


In 1877, when archeology was still in its infancy, art professor Friedrich Klopfleisch climbed an almost nine-meter (20-foot) mound of earth in Leubingen, a district in the eastern German state of Thuringia lying near a range of hills in eastern Germany known as the Kyffhäuser. He was there to "kettle" the hill, which entailed having workers dig a hole from the top of the burial mound into the burial chamber below.


When they finally arrived at the burial chamber, everything lay untouched: There were the remains of a man, shiny gold cloak pins, precious tools, a dagger, a pot for food or drink near the man's feet, and the skeleton of a child lying across his lap.

The "prince" of Leubingen was clearly a member of the elite. Farmers who had little to eat themselves had piled up at least 3,000 cubic meters (106,000 cubic feet) of earth to fashion the burial mound. They had also built a tent-shaped vault out of oak beams and covered it with a mound of stones, as if he had been a pharaoh.


For years, scholars have puzzled over the source of the prince's power. But Thuringia's state office of historical preservation has now come a step closer to solving the mystery. Agency archeologists used heavy machinery to excavate 25 hectares (62 acres) of ground in the mound's immediate surroundings, exposing a buried infrastructure. They discovered the remains of one of the largest buildings in prehistoric Germany, with 470 square meters (5,057 square feet) of floor space; a treasure trove of bronze objects; and a cemetery in which 44 farmers were buried in simple, unadorned graves.


With its unearthed remains of huts and palaces, of humble living next to ostentatious luxury, the Leubingen site provides an example of stark social differences. But the dig also sheds light on the moment in history when mankind lost its economic innocence.


In the Neolithic age, farming communities were still egalitarian because everyone was equally poor. But then came the Bronze Age, which saw the emergence of a privileged upper-class caste of chieftains. They lived relatively luxurious lives, were buried in even greater opulence, and adorned their wives with gold jewelry and amber necklaces.


Archeologists are particularly excited about the cache of weapons they publicly unveiled on Monday. The weapons are still packed in dirt within a ceramic pot. Tests conducted with a particle accelerator have already shown that the pot contains roughly 100 bronze hatchet blades.


This strange practice of burying valuable items is typical for the era. But the reason for doing so remains a mystery. "It's as if someone had buried 100 Mercedes sports cars," says project director Mario Küssner.


The cache was buried directly along the exterior of the recently discovered giant house. Trees as thick as telephone poles were felled to build the 44-meter-long (144-foot-long) house. The roof was covered with reeds or wood shingles and was about eight meters high. The structure apparently never contained livestock.


Some scholars have hypothesized that the building was a temple and have interpreted the hatchets as offerings to the gods of the underworld. But Küssner believes the building was the residence of the "prince," who lived there with a group of his minions and extorted duties and fees from long-distance traders.


It is known that merchants brought salt and amber through the region at the time. The trade in bronze, a new luxury material, also flourished. The technology of mixing copper with tin or arsenic to make bronze, which had been developed in the Orient, became widespread in Europe after about 2,200 B.C. For the first time, a hard material was available that could be poured into molds.


The blacksmiths stoked their furnaces with blowing irons and poured the molten metal into their crucibles. Meanwhile, miners searched for ore veins. The raw material was scarce. Caravans brought bars of unprocessed copper from as far away as the Carpathian Mountains and the Alps. Most of the tin came from Cornwall.


Blacksmiths gradually forged harder and harder weapons, better tools and more beautiful jewelry -- but only for those who could afford it. Thus, the world became divided into rich and poor.


Küssner estimates that the "prince" and his guards kept watch over a "radius of 80 kilometers" and profited exorbitantly as a result. He believes that chieftain's gang of extortionists provided the hatchet blades in the valuable cache as a sign of their loyalty.

Another item found in his tomb, a small anvil, suggests that the man had something to do with metallurgy. It is possible that he was a blacksmith himself. But, either way, it is clear that he controlled others through the use of force.


In the end, a child followed him into the grave as a bloody sacrifice. The child was only about 10.



1,400-year-old St Paul fresco discovered in ancient Roman catacomb

By Nick Pisa in Rome 1:39PM BST 29 Jun 2011


The fresco was found during restoration work at the Catacombs of San Gennaro (Saint Januarius) in the southern port city of Naples by experts from the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Art.

The announcement was made on the feast day of St Peter and Paul which is traditionally a bank holiday in Rome and details of the discovery were disclosed in the Vatican's official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.

A photograph released by the Vatican shows the apostle, famous for his conversion to Christianity from Judaism, with a long neck, a slightly pink complexion, thinning hair, a beard and big eyes that give his face a "spiritual air."

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who is Pope Benedict's Culture Minister, wrote in L'Osservatore Romano:"The image of St Paul has an intense expression, philosophical and its discovery enriches our imager of one of the principal apostles."

The figure is dressed in white and beige robes and with the letter 'I' on the hem, which may stand for 'Iesus' (Latin for Jesus) and it shows him approaching a dead person.


Details on the right hand side of the fresco have crumbled away but nevertheless it still remains a striking image which Cardinal Ravasi described as "sensational."

Father Antonio Loffredo, director of the catacombs in Naples, said: "We hope that many locals and tourists will come and look at this fresco which has been wonderfully restored."

Last year another fresco of St Paul was found in another Catacomb in Rome and that was dated to the 4th century AD and is believed to be the oldest image of him in existence.

St Paul was a Roman Jew, born in Tarsus in modern-day Turkey, who started out persecuting Christians but later became one of the greatest influences in the Church.

He did not know Jesus in life but converted to Christianity after seeing a shining light on the road to Damascus and spent much of his life travelling and preaching.

He was executed for his beliefs around AD65 and is thought to have been beheaded, rather than crucified, because he was a Roman citizen.



Rows of prehistoric wooden posts found in Suffolk

30 June 2011


The mystery surrounding the discovery of prehistoric wooden posts on the marshes in Waveney (Suffolk, England) has deepened following the discovery of a third site. Three rows of Iron Age wooden posts were discovered on Beccles marshes in 2006, prompting experts to undertake a number of archaeological digs to try to unravel their significance. A similar site was found in nearby Barsham the following year. A team from the University of Birmingham has now descended on a third site by the river at Geldeston after similar posts were unearthed as flood defence work was carried out last summer.

     Dr Ben Gearey, a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Birmingham, said the sites are 'pretty rare' and are all likely to be linked, with Barsham and Geldeston appearing to be aligned with each other across the river. Talking about the Geldeston site, he added: "We seem to have a line of posts, possibly a triple line of big oak posts. We do not have a date yet, but the posts have tool marks on them typical of iron tools, so it is looking like probably being Iron Age. It is certainly late prehistoric." Dr Gearey said the Beccles site is late Iron Age, and has been dated very precisely to 75 BCE through dendrochronology.

     Six students and four members of staff are taking part to the dig and so far they have discovered about 13 oak posts of different shapes and sizes preserved in the peat. Dr Gearey said there are various ideas about the significance of the posts. "The sites all focus on the river," he said. "In prehistoric times you could not have walked down to the river like we do now, so there is the element of maybe demarcating a route way to the river. Another idea is that on the river itself it is quite hard to see where you are in this landscape if you are in a boat. These sites might have been quite monumental. Some posts could have protruded three or four meters above the ground, which would have been visible certainly from the river in a canoe or boat. There is also the aspect of marking territory."

     It is not known whether the posts might have supported some kind of structure, but Dr Gearey said that at present it is not thought they did.


Edited from EDP24 (29 June 2011)



Ryedale Windy Pits skeletons were 'sacrificial'

27 June 2011 Last updated at 16:08


A new investigation has revealed that human skeletons discovered in caves on the North York Moors were likely to have been the victims of ritual sacrifice 2,000 years ago.


A forensic examination of their bones, for the BBC's History Cold Case series, has revealed evidence that at least one of them had been scalped.


Human remains were first discovered in the series of caves, known as the Ryedale Windy Pits, in the 19th Century and further excavations took place in the 1950s.


While it has always been clear the bones had experienced some kind of trauma it has taken a new forensic investigation to reveal more about how these people might have met their deaths.


Evidence suggests the caves were used by people from the late Neolithic period, about 4,500 years ago, until the late Romano-British period in the fourth and fifth centuries AD.


Historians have long believed that people during this period participated in human sacrifice.


The BBC's History Cold Case programme features a team from the Centre of Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee.


Their investigation focused in particular on a tangle of 2,000 year-old bones, possibly those of a family, found in Slip Gill Windy Pit in the 1950s.


It was a trauma in the jaw bone of one of the skulls which could have only been made with a sharp instrument and led to the first conclusion that the victims did not die naturally.


Professor Sue Black said: "The archaeologists tells us that there's a distinct possibility that there's a ritualistic element to the way in which these individuals have landed up in these caves."


To confirm that theory the team looked at bones found in neighbouring pits.


Those too showed signs of blunt force trauma, confirming inter-personal violence as well as a shin bone which had markings that were consistent with the removal of flesh from bone.


Further examination of one of the skulls from Slip Gill showed similar markings, parallel cut marks, leading to the conclusion that at least one of the victims was probably scalped.


The cutting marks on the skull are the final piece of evidence that at least one of the Slip Gill skeletons was almost certainly ritually killed.


Professor Black concludes: "We've added a dimension to this that we never anticipated we were going to and in fact it's a first for me.


"I have never been involved in something with this sort of a ritual. At the end of the day the bones have the evidence and the evidence speaks for itself."


History Cold Case: The Skeletons of Windy Pits will be on BBC Two at 2100 BST on Thursday 30 June 2011 and afterwards in the UK on BBC iPlayer.



Major Find At Site on Hadrians Wall



Another exciting find has been made at the Maryport archaeological dig led by Professor Ian Haynes of Newcastle University with leading field archaeologist Tony Wilmott.


Jane Laskey, curator of the Senhouse Roman Museum next to the site at Camp Farm made the discovery on Wednesday 29 June.  It is a large piece of another altar stone – the site is internationally famous for the cache of 17 altar stones found there in 1870 and now on display in the museum – 22cm high and 12 cm wide, found 75cm below the ground surface in a Roman ditch.


Mrs Laskey, who has been the curator at the museum since 2002 said: “Emma, one of the Newcastle University student volunteers and I were excavating the fill of the ditch when we discovered some stone in the bottom.


“Dave, the site supervisor, asked us to remove it. The last stone was a fragment from the top of an altar. I recognised the shape instantly. Emma screamed and the whole site team rushed over to see.


“This is a very exciting find for me because of my close connection with the collection, but it is an achievement for the whole team.


“I have already been through the museum collection to find a similar altar fragment, but this looks like evidence for another completely different altar existing at Maryport.”


The first find was made just days into the dig at the beginning of June, and is a smaller altar fragment, also from a different altar not already in the collection at the museum.


Ian Haynes said: “This new fragment has part of the capital of an altar with pulvini – that is part of the top of the altar and a section of one of the scroll like features that runs along its edge.


“My thoughts on the ditch at the moment are that it could have been dug to enclose a sacred space but further evidence is needed. The ditch edges were clearly maintained originally, we can see some attempt to reinforce them made in certain areas which was to prevent the sandy edges crumbling.


“However, because of the position and material surrounding the altar fragment when it was found it looks as if it was discarded in the ditch, which was then allowed to fill up. Fragments of Roman pottery found in the ditch are all Antonine or later, suggesting it was filling up or was filled up in the late second or early third centuries AD.”


Maryport – with a Roman fort and large civilian settlement – was a key part of the frontier coastal defences extending from Hadrian’s Wall and is now part of the 150 mile Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site.


Senhouse Museum Trust has commissioned the excavation and provided funding of £50,000 towards the total cost of the fieldwork. The team will excavate through to 20 July.


Professor David Breeze of the Senhouse Museum Trust said: “The Senhouse Museum Trust is delighted that we are learning more about the find-spot of the altars.


“The two fragments of altars show that not all was removed in 1870 and new discoveries will help our interpretation of the altars and sculpture in the museum to visitors.”



Hoard of Viking silver coins unearthed in Furness

1 July 2011 Last updated at 08:33



A metal detectorist uncovered a Viking hoard of silver coins and artefacts in the Cumbrian countryside.


The collection, which has been provisionally valued at tens of thousands of pounds, was found in an undisclosed site in Furness.


It is being examined by experts at the British Museum and is expected to be declared as treasure.


Experts at Barrow's Dock Museum hope to acquire the hoard and said it was an exciting find for the area.


It consists of 92 silver coins and artefacts including ingots and a silver bracelet. Among the coins is a pair of Arabic dirhams.


Experts believe it is significant evidence of material culture of the 9th and 10th Century Vikings in the peninsula.


Dock Museum curator Sabine Skae said: "This is a very exciting find for Furness.


"It has national significance because hoards from this period are rare and also nothing has been found in such quantity in this area before.


"While it is difficult, at this stage, to place a precise value on the find, it is likely to be worth tens of thousands of pounds."


The British Museum academics will give their verdict on the coins to the coroner who is expected to confirm it as treasure.


If it is, it will be valued by an independent committee and the Dock Museum hopes to acquire it.


British Museum Viking expert Dr Gareth Williams said: "On the basis of the information and photographs that I have seen so far, this is a fascinating hoard.


"By the mid-950s, most of England had become integrated into a single kingdom, with a regulated coinage, but this part of the north-west was not integrated into the English kingdom until much later, and the hoard reflects that."



Dorset burial pit Viking had filed teeth

4 July 2011 Last updated at 17:54


Archaeologists have discovered one of the victims of a suspected mass Viking burial pit found in Dorset had grooves filed into his two front teeth.


Experts believe a collection of bones and decapitated heads, unearthed during the creation of the Weymouth Relief Road, belong to young Viking warriors.


During analysis, a pair of front teeth was found to have distinct incisions.


Archaeologists think it may have been designed to frighten opponents or show status as a great fighter.


Oxford Archaeology project manager David Score said: "It's difficult to say how painful the process of filing teeth may have been, but it wouldn't have been a pleasant experience.


"The incisions have been very carefully made and it is most likely that they were filed by a skilled craftsman.


"The purpose behind filed teeth remains unclear but, as we know these men were warriors, it may have been to frighten opponents in battle or to show their status as a great fighter."


The burial pit, found in 2009, contained 51 skulls and 54 bodies.


Many of the executed men suffered multiple wounds inflicted by a sharp blade, including one skeleton with six cut marks to the back of the neck.


Dorset County Council senior archaeologist Steve Wallis said radiocarbondating showed they come from about AD970 to 1025.


Mr Wallis said those dates fell within the period of Viking raids on the Anglo Saxons in the UK, and isotope analysis of teeth found in a severed jaw suggests they were from the Nordic countries.


He said: "It's great that the burial pit on Ridgeway is still surprising us and teaching us more about who these men may have been and what they may have been like.


"It is very rare that this kind of deliberate dental modification is found in European remains, although it is often found in cultures from around the world, so that it was found in an excavation in Dorset is fantastic."