Human evolution: Cultural roots

A South African archaeologist digs into his own past to seek connections between climate change and human development.

Jeff Tollefson

15 February 2012


Metal scrapes on hard sand as archaeologist Chris Henshilwood shaves away the top layer of sediment in Blombos Cave. After just a few moments, the tip of his trowel unearths the humerus of a pint-sized tortoise that walked the Southern Cape of South Africa many millennia ago. Next come shells from local mussels and snails amid blackened soil and bits of charred wood, all remnants of an ancient feast. It was one of many enjoyed by a distinct group of early humans who visited Blombos Cave over the course of thousands of years.


The Still Bay culture was one of the most advanced Middle Stone Age groups in Africa when it emerged some 78,000 years ago in a startlingly early flourishing of the human mind. Henshilwood's excavations at Blombos Cave have revealed distinctive tools, including carefully worked stone points that probably served as knives and spear tips, and bits of rock inscribed with apparently symbolic designs. But evidence of the technology disappears abruptly in sediment about 71,000 years old, along with all proof of human habitation in southern Africa. It would be 7,000 years before a new culture appeared, with a markedly different toolkit, including crescent-shaped blades probably used as arrowheads.


What drove the coming and going of these early cultures? At about the time the Still Bay culture disappeared, the globe — already in the middle of a glacial period — began to cool even further, causing sea levels to fall. “Humans are very adaptable,” says Henshilwood, “but I think climate must have played some role in the demise of the Still Bay.”


If there is a link, it may hold broader implications. Genetic data suggest that the entire population of modern humans contracted at around the same time, then rebounded and expanded in Africa and onto other continents.


Multiple teams are now racing to determine the part climate might have played in driving human evolution during this period. Blombos Cave, with its detailed archaeological record of the Middle Stone Age, could become a key testing ground. With Francesco d'Errico, an anthropologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Bordeaux, Henshilwood has assembled a team of archaeologists, climate modellers and palaeoclimatologists for a five-year, €2.5-million (US$3.3-million) project to look at correlations between climate and culture during the eventful span of prehistory that includes Still Bay, and the beginnings of modern human behaviour.


“These are very daunting questions indeed, but I think they are answerable,” says Henshilwood, a native of Cape Town who now works at the University of Bergen in Norway. “If we can get some good climatic data, we can at least hazard some guesses.”


Outside the cave, a cool November breeze scours the steep slope to the shore, which Henshilwood has known since he was a child. His grandfather bought this land on the Southern Cape as a fishing retreat in 1961 and Henshilwood spent his holidays searching the hills and caves for ancient artefacts.


Those experiences served him well in 1985, when, out of sheer boredom in his mid-thirties, he decided to leave the family department-store business and enrol in an archaeology course at the University of Cape Town. In 1991, as a PhD student on a scholarship at the University of Cambridge, UK, he returned to Blombos in search of the same kind of artefacts that he had found as a child. What he discovered was much more significant and far older: a series of bone tools and double-sided stone points that were clearly tied to the enigmatic Still Bay period.


“It was right over there,” he says, motioning to the back of the cave. “Nobody believed us, because nobody had found a Still Bay site for 40 years.”


The Middle Stone Age was not part of his thesis, so Henshilwood covered the site up and moved on. Only in 1997 did he secure funding for a full excavation from the US National Science Foundation. In 2002, Henshilwood published a study in Science documenting pieces of red, iron-rich rock called ochre, which were engraved with cross-hatched patterns. He argued that the 77,000-year-old etchings were examples of symbolic behaviour and represented the earliest known evidence of abstract thought. These and other findings have challenged the once-dominant idea that human culture — as exemplified by art such as carvings and jewellery — appeared in an explosive transformation during the Late Stone Age, some 40,000–50,000 years ago, in north Africa and Europe. Blombos and other sites suggest a more gradual cultural and technological development, beginning far earlier, during the Middle Stone Age throughout Africa.


On a visit to Blombos in November, the cave looks like a war bunker, complete with a generator, lights and sandbags. The team has excavated just enough earth to create a workspace for a crew of five. Hundreds of steel tabs mark strata on vertical walls of sediment. While Henshilwood works on the cave's top layer, from 72,000 years ago, his partner and co-excavator, Karen van Niekerk, sifts through the bottom strata of sediments, which are roughly 100,000 years old. Centimetres away, the same layer yielded Henshilwood's most recent blockbuster find: a toolkit of shells, grindstones and crushing stones used to process and store ochre, possibly for use as pigment or for utilitarian purposes such as tanning hides or cleaning wounds. It was further evidence that Homo sapiens had developed planning skills and sophistication far earlier than was once believed.


Now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bergen, van Niekerk has been working with Henshilwood since the early days at Blombos. It's a good life, she says, “and a lot of work”. On this day she finishes early and heads to Henshilwood's beach house and scientific base to help a master's student, Cornelia Albrektsen, to conduct an experiment using home-made stone and bone tools. They struggle for the better part of an hour trying to replicate the way ancient people might have opened shellfish. Then Henshilwood shows up.


“Give me one,” he says, grabbing a shell. Within minutes, Henshilwood pops open several snails and determines which tools work best. He then departs to clean up for dinner, leaving the stunned crew to finish the experiment. “It was really impressive,” Albrektsen says later. “He was getting all caveman-like.”


During a break in the excavations, Henshilwood stares out to sea and wonders aloud whether the Indian Ocean holds answers. Palaeoclimate records from marine sediment and ice cores suggest that around the time the Still Bay culture disappeared, global temperatures dropped and the polar ice sheets grew. Ocean levels fell, and the Still Bay people may have followed the sea onto the continental shelf, which would have become a productive plain.


If this idea is accurate, most of the evidence would have been submerged as the ocean returned over the past 15,000 years. Henshilwood has hiked along more than 240 kilometres of coastline in search of caves that might hold clues to the fate of the Still Bay. He hasn't found any yet, but he is beginning excavations on a site called Klipdrift Shelter, west of Blombos, that could allow him to look at the rise of Still Bay's successor: the Howiesons Poort culture, which appeared 65,000 years ago and persisted for about 5,000 years.


Taking a break from Blombos, Henshilwood visits the new site with Simon Armitage, a mineral-dating specialist at Royal Holloway University of London. Armitage uses a technique called optically stimulated luminescence to determine the last time a sample of dirt saw sunlight before being buried. The method requires Henshilwood and others to cover Armitage with a thick black tarpaulin and sit on its edge to prevent any light from fouling the measurements. While waiting, Henshilwood talks about the significance of the site, which has already yielded a human tooth and some artefacts with markings that could be engravings. He says the findings may turn out to be more fascinating than the decorated ochre pieces that made Blombos famous.


Once the site has been dated, the researchers will add it to environmental and cultural records from southern Africa and Europe. To construct a climate record, Henshilwood's team is sampling cave deposits, in search of clues to ancient rainfall and temperatures. They are also testing ocean sediment cores for pollen and traces of charcoal that hint at vegetation, rainfall and the frequency of fires.


The palaeoclimate data will allow a team at the CNRS to build a high-resolution model of climate in Europe and southern Africa, beginning with the time spanning the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort cultures. The last step is to overlay the climate and cultural data onto an ecological model to analyse the environmental space occupied by specific cultures throughout time. The team can then look for links. Was one industry, for example, always associated with a particular environment? Do similar cultures occupy similar landscapes or respond to climatic shifts in similar ways?


“We can start to test our hypotheses about the role of ecology and the environment,” says William Banks, who runs the modelling at the CNRS in Bordeaux.


Henshilwood and his colleagues have some friendly competition. Curtis Marean, an archaeologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, came to the cape shortly after Henshilwood, inspired by the genetic evidence of a population crash in the Middle Stone Age and thinking that the cape would have been a good place for humans to ride out hard times. He partnered with Henshilwood on a paper examining bone tools from Blombos in 2001 and went on to document the use of pigments and heat-treatment of stone tools 164,000 years ago at Pinnacle Point, less than 100 kilometres east of Blombos.


He is also looking to the sea for answers. Marean and a team of researchers have already produced an assessment3 of historical sea levels around Pinnacle Point, and now they have received money from the National Geographic Society in Washington DC and the US National Science Foundation to build a detailed geophysical map of the continental shelf. Marean thinks that the exposed shelf would have been a diverse shrubland ecosystem with edible roots, big game for hunting and marine resources. His goal is to reconstruct the vegetation, and then use models to analyse how people might have exploited those resources.


“We need to develop a thick empirical record and put that into a really tight timescale,” says Marean. “Once we have that, we can start debating the whys.”


Alison Brooks, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology at the George Washington University in Washington DC, says that Henshilwood and others are producing much-needed data and hypotheses, but she warns against the dangers of oversimplification. Brooks is co-authoring a forthcoming publication that aligns palaeoclimate data with archaeological data throughout Africa, and she says that each region of the continent seems to have has its own story. “There's a lot of complexity here,” she says.


Henshilwood acknowledges that comparing environmental and cultural data may not yield concrete answers. The disappearance of the Still Bay, he says, could have resulted from climatic change, migration, the arrival of new people or simply cultural evolution over the course of thousands of years.


Back in the cave, Henshilwood settles down into a familiar routine: digging carefully through the sediments and thinking about the past. He uncovers the remains of a clam that lives along sandy beaches and a mussel that prefers rocky shores, evidence that the Still Bay people had access to a varied coastline much like the one he has been exploring all his life. Just behind Henshilwood is another hole, carefully filled with sandbags. He dug that in 2007 as a test plot and found that the sediments inside Blombos date back at least 130,000 years, with artefacts dispersed throughout. “But that's for another day,” he says, glancing at the wall of dirt in front of him. “Or another year, another decade.”


Nature 482, 290–292 (16 February 2012) doi:10.1038/482290a



Archaeologists discover Jordan’s earliest buildings


Some of the earliest evidence of prehistoric architecture has been discovered in the Jordanian desert, providing archaeologists with a new perspective on how humans lived 20,000 years ago.


Archaeologists working in eastern Jordan have announced the discovery of 20,000-year-old hut structures, the earliest yet found in the Kingdom. The finding suggests that the area was once intensively occupied and that the origins of architecture in the region date back twenty millennia, before the emergence of agriculture.


The research, published 15 February, 2012 in PLoS One by a joint British, Danish, American and Jordanian team, describes huts that hunter-gatherers used as long-term residences and suggests that many behaviours that have been associated with later cultures and communities, such as a growing attachment to a location and a far-reaching social network, existed up to 10,000 years earlier.


Excavations at the site of Kharaneh IV are providing archaeologists with a new perspective on how humans lived 20,000 years ago. Although the area is starkly dry and barren today, during the last Ice Age the deserts of Jordan were in bloom, with rivers, streams, and seasonal lakes and ponds providing a rich environment for hunter-gatherers to settle in.


“What we witness at the site of Kharaneh IV in the Jordanian desert is an enormous concentration of people in one place,” explained Dr Jay Stock from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and co-author of the article.


“People lived here for considerable periods of time when these huts were built. They exchanged objects with other groups in the region and even buried their dead at the site. These activities precede the settlements associated with the emergence of agriculture, which replaced hunting and gathering later on. At Kharaneh IV we have been able to document similar behaviour a full 10,000 years before agriculture appears on the scene.”


The archaeologists, who were funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, spent three seasons excavating at the large open-air site covering two hectares. They recovered hundreds of thousands of stone tools, animal bones and other finds from Kharaneh IV, which today appears as little more than a mound 3 m high rising above the desert landscape.


Based on the size and density of the site, the researchers had long suspected that Kharaneh IV was frequented by large numbers of people for long periods of time; these latest findings now confirm their theory. “It may not look very impressive to the untrained eye, but it is one of the densest and largest Palaeolithic open-air sites in the region,” said Dr Lisa Maher, from the University of California, Berkeley, who spearheads the excavations.


“The stone tools and animal bone vastly exceed the amounts recovered from most other sites of this time period in southwest Asia.” In addition, the team also recovered rarer items, such as shell beads, bones with regularly incised lines and a fragment of limestone with geometric carved patterns.


So far, the team has fully excavated two huts; but there may be several more hidden beneath the desert’s sands. “They’re not large by any means. They measure about 2–3 m in maximum length and were dug into the ground. The walls and roof were made of brush wood, which then burnt and collapsed leaving dark coloured marks,” described Dr Tobias Richter from the University of Copenhagen and one of the project’s co-directors.


Radiocarbon dating suggests that the hut is between 19,300 and 18,600 years old. Although a team of archaeologists working at Ohalo II on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in 1989 found the region’s oldest hut structures, which date from 23,000 years ago, the team working at the Kharaneh IV site believe their discovery is no less significant, as Dr Maher explained:


“Inside the huts, we found intentionally burnt piles of gazelle horn cores, clumps of red ochre pigment and a cache of hundreds of pierced marine shells. These shell beads were brought to the site from the Mediterranean and Red Sea over 250 km away, showing that people were very well linked to regional social networks and exchanged items across considerable distances.”



Fossilized Pollen Unlocks Secrets of Ancient Royal Garden

ScienceDaily (Feb. 16, 2012


Researchers have long been fascinated by the secrets of Ramat Rahel, located on a hilltop above modern-day Jerusalem. The site of the only known palace dating back to the kingdom of Biblical Judah, digs have also revealed a luxurious ancient garden. Since excavators discovered the garden with its advanced irrigation system, they could only imagine what the original garden might have looked like in full bloom -- until now.


Using a unique technique for separating fossilized pollen from the layers of plaster found in the garden's waterways, researchers from Tel Aviv University's Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology have now been able to identify what grew in the ancient royal gardens of Ramat Rahel. And based on the garden's archaeological clues, they have been able to reconstruct the lay-out of the garden.

According to Prof. Oded Lipschits, Dr. Yuval Gadot, and Dr. Dafna Langgut, the garden featured the expected local vegetation such as common fig and grapevine, but also included a bevy of exotic plants such as citron and Persian walnut trees. The citron, which apparently emigrated from India via Persia, made its first appearance in the modern-day Middle East in Ramat Rahel's royal garden.


One of the unique features of Ramat Rahel's garden is its advanced irrigation system. The scope of the garden is even more impressive, says Dr. Gadot, because there was no permanent water source at the site. Rainwater was efficiently collected and distributed throughout the garden with aesthetic water installations that included pools, underground channels, tunnels, and gutters.

These installations finally allowed researchers to uncover what they had been searching for. Early attempts to remove pollen grains from the site's soil in order to reconstruct the botanical components of the garden were unfruitful because the pollen had oxidized. But after noticing that the channels and pools themselves were coated with plaster, probably due to renovation, the researchers theorized that if the plaster had ever been renewed while the garden was in bloom, pollen could have stuck to the wet plaster, acting as a "trap," and dried within it. Luckily, this hunch proved to be correct.

While some plaster layers included only typicalnative vegetation, one of the layers, dated to the Persian period (the 5th-4th centuries B.C.E.), also included local fruit trees, ornamentals, and imported trees from far-off lands. "This is a very unique pollen assemblage," explains Dr. Langgut, a pollen expert. Among the unusual vegetation are willow and poplar, which required irrigation in order to grow in the garden; ornamentals such as myrtle and water lilies; native fruit trees including the grape vine, the common fig, and the olive; and imported citron, Persian walnut, cedar of Lebanon, and birch trees. Researchers theorize that these exotics were imported by the ruling Persian authorities from remote parts of the empire to flaunt the power of their imperial administration.

This is the first time that the exact botanical elements have been reconstructed in an ancient royal garden, say the researchers. The botanical and archaeological information they have collected will help them to re-create the garden so that visitors can soon experience the floral opulence of Ramat Rahel.


In their migrations, human beings distributed different plants and animals throughout the world, mostly for economic purposes, says Dr. Gadot. In contrast, at Ramat Rahel, royalty designed the garden with the intent of impressing visitors with wealth and worldliness.

Certainly, the decision to import various trees has had a lasting impact on the region and on Judaism as well, says Prof. Lipschits. The citron tree, for example, which made its first appearance in Israel in this garden, has worked its way into Jewish tradition. The citron, or etrog, is one of the four species of plants used at Sukkot, and the earliest appearance of these species was at the garden of Ramat Rahel



Solent's Stone Age village 'had modern high street links'

16 February 2012 Last updated at 13:00


Work on an 8,000-year-old Stone Age settlement under the surface of the Solent in Hampshire is throwing up evidence of clear parallels of the modern "high street", archaeologists say.


After 30 years of excavating the area around Bouldnor Cliff, a boatyard was uncovered last summer, which teams have been working on ever since.


Since The Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology spotted a swamped prehistoric forest in the 1980s, the Stone Age village was found by chance at the end of the last century.


Divers taking part in a routine survey spotted a lobster cleaning out its burrow on the seabed and to their surprise the animal was throwing out dozens of pieces of worked flint - which turned out to be the first sign of the village.


The discoveries, after analysing a mile-long stretch of seabed, are of "international importance" the trust says, because it sheds new light on how people lived in the Mesolithic period.


"One area they were doing boat building, nearby they were on riverbanks and sand bars collecting reeds or doing a bit of fishing or elsewhere they would be hunting game," said director Garry Momber.


"Effectively you have all these activities happening which have strong parallels with the modern high street, but they've all just been a bit consolidated."


"We have found a pit with burnt flints, and evidence they were working wood, using technology that was 2,000 years ahead of its time."


Work to get the seabed to give up its secrets though, has required the removal of sediment that has protected the settlement for thousands of years - and this removal has given the tides the opportunity to erode that evidence away.


"It is the only site of its kind in the UK," said Mr Momber, pointing out that it is currently eroding by up to 20ins (50cm) a year.


The settlement would have been flooded around the time the English channel was created, as sea levels rose in about 6,500BC.


At that time, the area near Bouldnor would have been covered with woods and freshwater lakes and rivers.


"Sea levels came up and flooded the whole lot and it was abandoned," continued Mr Momber.


"It was covered by sediment and then by salt marsh and then by the sea."


So far, archaeologists have uncovered a part of a wooden boat, flints and remains of food eaten by the Stone Age people who were based there.


Mr Momber said: "Fishermen were bringing up peat and trees in the 1980s from the sea bed, but we didn't find the archaeological remains until 1999.


"When I saw these trees lying on the sea floor, I thought there has to be evidence of humans.


"We came across the first evidence of flints excavated under the sea bed in 1999.


Mr Momber also said excavating the site was a painstakingly slow process.


"You can probably only dive for up to an hour, working with the tide, and there's maximum visibility of 1m and 3m, yet you have to explore this large area.


"We only have resources to go down there two or three times a year."



Prehistoric cybermen? Sardinia's lost warriors rise from the dust


An elite force of  prehistoric warriors – carved from solid rock in the western Mediterranean 2700 years ago –

is rising from oblivion.


Archaeologists and conservation experts on the Italian island of Sardinia have succeeded in re-assembling literally thousands of fragments of smashed sculpture to recreate a small yet unique army of life-size stone warriors which were originally destroyed by enemy action in the middle of the first millennium BC.


It’s the only group of sculpted life-sized warriors ever found in Europe. Though consisting of a much smaller number of figures than China’s famous Terracotta Army, the Sardinia example is 500 years older and is made of stone rather than pottery.


After an eight year conservation and reconstruction program, 25 of the original 33 sculpted stone warriors – archers, shield-holding ‘boxers’ and probable swordsmen – have now been substantially re-assembled.


The warriors were originally sculpted and placed on guard over the graves of elite Iron Age Sardinians, buried in the 8 century BC. The stone guardians are thought to have represented the dead individuals or to have acted as their eternal body-guards and retainers.


However, within a few centuries, the Carthaginians (from what is now Tunisia) invaded Sardinia – and archaeologists suspect that it was they who smashed the stone warriors (and stone models of native fortress shrines) into five thousand fragments. It’s likely that the small sculpted army - and the graves they were guarding - were seen by the invaders as important symbols of indigenous power and status.


The site was abandoned and forgotten. Carthaginian control of Sardinia gave way to Roman, then Vandal, then Byzantine, Pisan, Aragonese, Spanish, Austrian, Savoyard and finally Italian rule.


The thousands of  fragments were rediscovered only in the 1970s – and were excavated in the early 1980s by Italian archaeologist Carlo Troncheti. Two of the statues were then re-assembled – but the vast majority of the material was put into a local museum store where it stayed until 2004 when re-assembly work on the fragments was re-started by conservators in Sassari, northern Sardinia.


Sardinia’s newly recreated ‘stone army’ is set to focus attention on one of the world’s least known yet most impressive ancient civilizations – the so-called Nuragic culture which dominated the island from the 16 century BC to the late 6 century BC. Its Bronze Age heyday was in the mid second millennium BC - roughly from the 16 to the 13 century BC, when it constructed some of the most impressive architectural monuments ever produced in prehistory.


Even today, the remains of 7000 Nuragic fortresses (the oldest castles in Europe) still dominate the landscape of Sardinia. Several dozen have stood the test of time exceptionally well – and give an extraordinary impression of what Sardinian Bronze Age military architecture looked like.


The re-assembled stone army is expected to go on display from this summer at southern Sardinia’s Cagliari Museum, 70 miles south-east of the find site, Monte Prama in central Sardinia.


Many of the stone warriors are armed with bows or protected by shields – and wear protective carved stone armour over their chests and horned stone helmet over their heads. Some of the fighters – those believed to portray boxers – carry shields in their left hands, held aloft over their heads. These ‘boxers’ may well have represented or embodied shield-bearers serving the high-ranking members of the Sardinian Iron Age interred in the adjacent graves.


There were also a series of at least ten model Nuragic castles of different designs – some single-towered and others sporting more elaborate ‘multi-tower’ fortifications.


It’s likely that the models represent the actual monumental buildings (Bronze Age fortresses transformed into Iron Age ‘ancestral’ shrines) associated with each buried individual’s immediate family.


The ruling elite of this part of Sardinia may well have been a relatively tightly knit group of closely related individuals. For scientific work carried out on the skeletal material at a laboratory in Florence, suggests that most of the dead individuals were from just two generations of a single extended family.



Archaeologists Uncovering Legendary Lost City of Poseidon

Mon, Feb 13, 2012


Researchers are excavating the site of ancient Helike, recovering artifacts and structures long sunk into oblivion by a 4th century earthquake.


A team of scholars and students will return to explore and investigate the site now thought to be the remains of the lost city of Helike, the legendary city that was for centuries the stuff of ancient writers and a tantalizing mystery for explorers and scientists for over 2,000 years.


Led by Dr. Dora Katsonopoulou, Director of the Helike Society, researchers have uncovered a wealth of artifacts and structural remains dating from the Bronze Age through the Roman and Byzantine periods at sites near the southwest shore of the Gulf of Corinth in northern Peloponnesos. In 2000 and 2001, the research team located in this area what is now thought to be the remains of ancient Helike, on the coastal plain between the Selinous and Kerynites Rivers. Excavation of trenches revealed the architectural remains of Classical period buildings located at a depth of 3 m, likely destroyed by an earthquake and subsequently buried under the deposits of a shallow inland lagoon. "Thus the city did not sink into the depths of the Corinthian Gulf, as previously believed", reported the researchers, "but was submerged by an inland lagoon, which later silted over". The excavations also uncovered a rich array of artifacts.


Also nearby, researchers uncovered evidence of an extensive and remarkably well-preserved Early Helladic coastal settlement (ca. 2600-2300 BC). This site is about 1 kilometer from the present shore, with remains at a depth of 3 to 5 meters below the surface. Finds included the foundations of a corridor house and other buildings that lined cobbled streets, along with abundant pottery. Luxury items found at the site, which included small gold and silver ornaments, have given clues about the apparent wealth of this earlier period city. Additionally, sediments covering the Early Bronze Age city contained marine and lagoon microfauna, indicating that the ancient city was submerged in seawater for a period of time. A wall of one building was clearly offset in a way that strongly suggests the result of seismic activity, indicating that this early settlement may have also been destroyed and submerged by an earthquake, about 2,000 years before the famous earthquake that destroyed classical Helike in 373/372 B.C. 

It was this massive 4th century earthquake that struck the southwest shore of the Gulf of Corinth and destroyed the Classical city of Helike, purportedly submerging it into the sea. According to the literature, Helike, which became the principal city of Achaea, was founded in the Mycenaean period by Ion, the leader of the Ionian race. Helike subsequently became the capital of the Twelve Cities of ancient Achaea. The city area was anciently considered the location of the sanctuary of Poseidon, god of the sea and earthquakes. It was widely discussed in literature by many ancient Greek and Roman writers and visitors such as Strabo, Pausanias, Diodoris, Aelian and Ovid, and has been suggested by some scholars to be the inspiration for the story of Atlantis. But, like Atlantis, the actual whereabouts and evidence of Helike's remains have eluded scholars and explorers for 2,000 years. 

It was not until 1988 that efforts began to bear fruit, when Greek archaeologist Dora Katsonopoulou launched the Helike Project to locate the site of the lost city. In 1994 a magnetometer survey was carried out in collaboration with the University of Patras in the delta region near the Corinthian Gulf coast where Helike was suspected to be located, revealing the outlines of a buried building. Excavations followed, unearthing a large Roman building with standing walls. But the Classical remains of the city of Helike itself were rediscovered in 2001, buried under vestiges of an ancient lagoon. Since then, excavations have been conducted in the Helike delta area every summer. These excavations have uncovered significant archeological finds dating from the time of Helike's founding to the time of its revival during Hellenistic and Roman times.


Individuals interested in participating in the excavations may find out more by going to the project website at http://www.helikeproject.gr/.



Animal Mummies Discovered at Ancient Egyptian Site

Owen Jarus, LiveScience ContributorDate: 14 February 2012 Time: 08:52 AM ET


A wealth of new discoveries, from animal mummies linked to the jackal god and human remains to an enigmatic statue, are revealing the secrets of an ancient holy place in Egypt once known as the "Terrace of the Great God."


The mysterious wooden statue may be a representation of Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh who ruled the land 3,500 years ago, the researchers say. She was typically portrayed as a man in statues, but this one, giving a nod to femininity, had a petite waist.


The discoveries were made during one field season this past summer by a team led by Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner, director of the excavation and a professor at the University of Toronto. The findings offer insight into Abydos, a site that was considered a holy place, Pouls Wegner said at a recent meeting of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities in Toronto, Canada.


In fact, the earliest kings of Egypt, those who ruled nearly 5,000 years ago, chose to be buried at Abydos. Ancient Egyptians believed that the god of the underworld, Osiris, was buried there as well and there was a tomb at the site that they deemed to be his. According to legend, the god's brother, Set, killed Osiris and his wife Isis, then gathered his remains and brought him back to life. Their son, Horus, is said to have fought Set in battle.


A temple dedicated to Osiris was also constructed at Abydos and every year, in a great procession, the Egyptians would carry an image of Osiris from the temple to his tomb, where it was kept overnight with rituals being performed.


The procession ended with the image of Osiris returning to the temple to great fanfare. "There's a really neat reference on some of the Middle Kingdom (4,000 to 3,600 years ago) material to hearing the sound of jubilation," Pouls Wegner told LiveScience in an interview.


This procession was so popular that Egyptians, both royal and private individuals, built chapels lining the route so that they could take part in the event for eternity.


It had been hypothesized that these chapels gradually encroached on the route, despite a death penalty in place for doing so. According to this theory the more recent chapels would be nearest the route while earlier ones would be farther back.


The team's discovery of an early offering chapel dating back more than 3,600 years, located close to the processional route, suggests this wasn't the case.


"It's rare that you can actually disprove or prove your research question in the course of one short season of fieldwork, but that's exactly what happened," Pouls Wegner said at the meeting.


The chapel itself had a place for libations and an emplacement for a stone stele that is no longer there. "It [the chapel] must have been for someone of some importance," Pouls Wegner said, adding that it appears to have been a "focal point" for offerings over several centuries.


In the same season the team investigated a "monumental" building with three chambers at the back, on the western side, and a transverse corridor in front on the eastern side.


While the thickness of the walls — 6 feet (2 meters) thick — suggests the building could have been used as a storage area, its design indicates a religious purpose. "It looks much more like a temple plan," Pouls Wegner said.


Scant inscriptions found at the site refer to Seti I, a pharaoh of Egypt who ruled more than 3,200 years ago, suggesting it was built for the pharaoh. The temple's bricks are also identical to those found in a nearby temple known to have been started by Seti.


Packed tightly into one of the chambers, the team discovered a cache of at least 83 animal mummies, which dates back more than 2,000 years. Most of the animals are dogs, although they also found two cats as well as sheep and goats.


The team believes that the animals were each sacrificed and are from an as-yet-undiscovered tomb in the area that likely dates to a later period than the monumental building.


"I think there's another tomb there, another third intermediate period (3,000 to 2,600 years ago), tomb, a very large one," said Pouls Wegner. This tomb would likely have been re-used at a later date.


"In some subsequent period, when that tomb was robbed, disturbed, the animals were simply, you know, taken out with a pitchfork and became disarticulated and dissociated from their original linen wrapping," Pouls Wegner told the Toronto audience. [10 Weird Ways We Deal With the Dead]


The presence of so many dogs is likely related to Wepwawet, a jackal god whose procession immediately precedes Osiris' at Abydos. He "overthrows and subdues all potential enemies," writes David O'Connor, a professor at New York University, in his book "Abydos: Egypt's First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris" (Thames and Hudson, 2009).


Pouls Wegner explained that people visiting the temple were probably able to get a sacrificed dog to offer the god. "I think this is just another form of votive activity really, in addition to putting out a spoken prayer or commemorating prayer on a stele, that one could sacrifice an animal that was associated with him in some way."


One of the dogs appears to have suffered a fracture on its long bone that had subsequently healed up, suggesting someone nursed the dog back to health before sacrificing it.


The researchers aren't sure why the Egyptians would bother doing this instead of killing the canine right away. It could be that the temple didn't have a buyer or perhaps the dog belonged to someone and was rounded up by temple workers.


"It could be that the dog had some sort of owner who took care of him at one point in his life," Pouls Wegner said.


In a chamber next to the animal mummies, the team uncovered a wooden statue encrusted with mud and termite droppings. An Egyptian wood conservation expert restored the statue to reveal a 25-inch (65 cm)-tall figure wearing a Nemes headdress, the mark of a pharaoh. "There are very few royal wooden statues left," Pouls Wegner said.


The statue's proportions matched up with those of statues dating from the 18th dynasty of Egypt's history, from about 3,550 to 3,300 years ago. That is, with one big exception — the waist is significantly thinner.


This brought up an intriguing question — could this statue be a representation of Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh who ruled Egypt about 3,500 years ago? No wooden statues of her are known to exist, so Pouls Wegner examined large stone statues of her.


"Even though she was portrayed as a man in her [statues], oftentimes they did give a nod to her female physique by making her waist narrower," she said. In addition the contours of her cheeks and chin are sometimes depicted as being a little more delicate. Could it be her? "I think it's possible," Pouls Wegner said.


The researchers think the statue was likely carried in the Osiris procession, although they can’t rule out that it was from a tomb or temple.


Nobles abound at the terrace site, as the team also found two tombs, one of which is located beside a chapel constructed by Thutmose III, a pharaoh who ruled Egypt about 3,400 years ago. The team left the vaulted tomb unexcavated for now.


The second tomb, dating to the same time period, was found in the monumental building. Human remains, linen and wood fragments were found nearby. Inside this tomb, the team found faience shabti figurines. In ancient Egypt, these figures were buried with the individual so that they could do their work for them in the afterlife. Archaeologists found that the person originally buried there, a priest whose full name included the name of the goddess Isis, had 58 worker shabtis still in the tomb, along with six overseer figures meant to supervise them.


Another group of shabtis, these made of clay, found in the tomb date back around 2,600 years ago. These figures held clear fingerprints of children, suggesting children in Egypt crafted together shabtis to do the work of the deceased in the afterlife. "One could do fingerprint analysis with them, they’re very crisp and very clear," Pouls Wegner said.


The team will continue their exploration of the site, which is a difficult area for researchers to examine to say the least. "For the archaeologist this zone is a dismaying wasteland, which seems to offer almost overwhelming challenges to interpretation and excavation," writes O'Connor, adding that 19th-century antiquity seekers had dug up the site, leaving some of the earliest archaeological remains on top of the more recent material.



'Unique' 11th Century coin discovered near Gloucester

16 February 2012


A "unique" medieval coin from the reign of William the Conqueror has been discovered in a field near Gloucester.


The hammered silver coin was found by metal detectorist Maureen Jones just north of the city in November.


Experts from the Portable Antiquities Scheme said the find "filled in the hole" in the dates the Gloucester mint was known to have been operating.


The coin, which dates from 1077-1080, features the name of the moneyer Silacwine and where it was minted.


The Portable Antiquities Scheme said that until the coin was discovered, there were no known examples of William I coins minted in Gloucester between 1077-1080.


"The discovery of this coin therefore proves that the mint was in operation throughout the whole reign of William I," it said.


Ms Jones, who found the coin, is a member of Taynton Metal Detecting Club.


"I went out with two other ladies to an open field and that's where I found it," she said.


"I know it's a silver hammered coin but I didn't recognise the king.


"It's quite amazing."


Kurt Adams, finds liaison officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, said the penny coin would have been "quite valuable" at the time that it is thought to been lost by its owner more than 900 years ago.


It is due to be returned to Ms Jones shortly.



Big Find Made at Aztec Temple in Mexico

Published February 14, 2012



A total of 23 pre-Columbian stone plaques dating back approximately 550 years, with carvings illustrating such Aztec myths as the birth of the god of war Huitzilopochtli, were discovered by archaeologists in front of the Great Temple of Tinochtitlan in downtown Mexico City, the National Anthropology and History Institute, or INAH, said.

Bas-relief sculptures on slabs of tezontle (volcanic rock) relate the mythological origins of the ancient Mexica culture through representations of serpents, captives, ornaments, warriors and other figures, the INAH said in a statement.

The pre-Columbian remains are of great archaeological value because this is the first time such pieces have been found within the sacred grounds of Tenochtitlan and can be read "as an iconographic document narrating certain myths of that ancient civilization," archaeologist Raul Barrera said.

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The Great Temple was the most important center of the Mexicas' religious life, built in what is today the great square of the Mexican capital known as the Zocalo.

The stone carvings focus on the myths of Huitzilopochtli's birth and the beginning of the Holy War. They were placed facing what was the center of Huitzilopochtli worship, which means that, like the flooring of pink andesite and slabs of basalt, they date back to the fourth stage of the Great Temple's construction (1440-1469), Barrera said.

According to the myth of Huitzilopochtli's birth, the goddess of the earth and fertility, Coatlicue, was impregnated by a feather that entered her womb as she was sweeping. But the pregnancy angered her children, so the 400 warriors from southern Mexico and the goddess Coyolxauhqui decided to go up Coatepec mountain where Coatlicue lived and kill her, Barrera said.

The legend about the beginning of the Holy War among the Mexicas says that during the journey the southern warriors made from Aztlan to Texcoco Lake in the Valley of Mexico, where they founded the city, star warriors from the north, called Mimixcoas in Nahuatl, descended from the heavens.

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"Both myths include the concept of a star war, in which the god of war and the sun Huitzilopochtli defeats the 400 warriors from the south and Coyolxauhqui, a clash that left in its wake the stars and the moon," Barrera said.

Archaeologist Lorena Vazquez Vallin, for her part, said that another of the images carved on the stone slabs is a dart with smoke along its sides, in front of which an obsidian arrowhead was found.

Another shows a star warrior carrying his chimalli (shield) in one hand and in the other a weapon for shooting darts, the same that Huitzilopochtli used to conquer Coyolxauhqui.

One stone slab is sculpted with a figure of a captive on his knees and his hands tied behind his back. A tear falls from his eye and he might be speaking, Vazquez Vallin said.

On another of the pre-Columbian pieces is the profile of a man wearing a feather headdress with an earflap. He has been decapitated.



Snow damages Colosseum

2012-02-14 18:00



Heavy snow has caused extensive damage to the mediaeval walled town of Urbino and further deteriorated the Colosseum in Rome, already badly in need of repair, Italian newspapers reported on Tuesday.


Partial collapses have been reported at the convents of San Francesco and San Bernardino in Urbino and the roof of the Church of the Capuchins outside the town centre has completely caved in, La Repubblica reported.


There is also water damage in the town's 12th-century Duomo cathedral.


The roof at the Church of the Holy Cross in the nearby town of Urbania also collapsed and a collection of paintings, drapes and ancient globes has had to be removed from the town's Ducal Palace due to fears of a collapse.


Thirteenth-century church doors in the town of Cagli have also been damaged.


In Rome, fragments have fallen from the Colosseum which remains closed to tourists. The famous Roman amphitheatre, which is at the centre of a busy road junction, is blackened by pollution and has been losing pieces for years.


A long-delayed restoration of the 2 000-year-old monument is set to start next month, with funding from Italian billionaire Diego Della Valle