Million-year-old ash hints at origins of cooking

South African cave yields earliest evidence for human use of fire.

Matt Kaplan

02 April 2012


Ash found in a South African cave hints that humans were cooking with fire one million years ago.


The discovery is the earliest evidence yet found for use of this revolutionary technology, say the researchers behind the finding. But some experts caution that more proof is needed before we conclude that humans were cooking regularly at this date.


The plant and animal ash was found thirty metres inside the Wonderwerk Cave — beyond the reach of a lightning strike.


Francesco Berna, an archaeologist at Boston University in Massachusetts, and his colleagues found ash of burnt grass, leaves, brush and bone fragments in sediments 30 metres inside the Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape province. The cave is one of the oldest known sites of human habitation, showing traces of having been lived in from almost two million years ago.


It is not possible to say for certain which species of hominin inhabited the cave one million years ago, but the team believes it was probably Homo erectus.


The bits of ash, which range from a few millimetres to a few centimetres long, are well preserved. They have jagged edges, showing that they were not burned elsewhere and blown or washed into the cave, which would have worn such edges away.


Berna and his colleagues searched the sediments for bat faeces, because large piles of rotting guano can become hot enough to ignite spontaneously. But there were no traces of such droppings.


“This left us with the conclusion that the fire had to have been created by hominins,” says Berna. The evidence is published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1.


Cooking makes food easier to chew and digest, so the first humans to adopt it could get more energy from the same amount of food and spend less time foraging. But it has proved difficult to work out when humans made this leap.


Unlike stone tools, evidence of burning, such as ash and charcoal, is easily destroyed by wind and rain. And even when such remains are found, determining whether the fire was natural or human-made is tricky.


Burned materials have been found that date back to 1 million to 1.5 million years ago, at the Swartkrans site in South Africa2, and 700,000–800,000 years ago, at a site in Israel called Gesher Benot Ya`aqov3. But both these sites are in exposed spots, where lightning could have ignited the fire.


That could not have happened in the Wonderwerk Cave. But using fire and mastering it are not the same thing, cautions Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands.


“I think it likely that humans were using fire at this site, but I don’t think that this means these hominins were regular fire users. For a claim like that to be made, we would need to see hearths and fire places, and we do not,” he says. “If we were to discover many more fire sites at this time in history and find that natural cave fires look distinctly different, that would support an early-cooking hypothesis, but we are not there yet."


The earliest unequivocal evidence for regular human cooking dates back 400,000 years4.


Paola Villa, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History in Boulder, argues that further searches are needed. “Isolated finds are not conclusive. For these arguments to stand up, the sediment layers of many different sites of the same time period need to be analysed,” she says.


Berna thinks that more evidence might be found. “The fire was only confirmed when the sediment was analysed at the microscopic level. It is possible that the reason we have not yet seen more evidence of early fire use is because we have not been using the appropriate methods,” he says.


Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2012.10372


Berna, F., et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1117620109 (2012).


Show context

Brain, C. K. & Sillent, A. Nature 336, 464–466 (1988).


Show context

Goren-Inbar, N., et al. Science 304, 725–727 (2004).


Show context

Roebroeks, W. & Villa, P. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1018116108 (2011).



DNA analysis shakes up Neandertal theories

By Gail Glover

Published on April 4, 2012


Western Europe has long been held to be the “cradle” of Neandertal evolution, and anthropologists have theorized that climactic factors or competition from modern humans were the likely causes when Neandertals started disappearing around 30,000 years ago. But new research suggests that Western European Neandertals were on the verge of extinction long before modern humans showed up.


This perspective comes from a study of ancient DNA carried out by an international research team. Rolf Quam, a Binghamton University anthropologist, was a co-author of the study led by Anders Götherström at Uppsala University and Love Dalén at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.


“The Neandertals are our closest fossil relatives and abundant evidence of their lifeways and skeletal remains has been found at many sites across Europe and western Asia,” said Quam, assistant professor of anthropology. “Until modern humans arrived on the scene, it was widely thought that Europe had been populated by a relatively stable Neandertal population for hundreds of thousands of years. Our research suggests otherwise and, in light of these new results, this long-held theory now faces scrutiny.”


Focusing on mitochondrial DNA sequences from 13 Neandertal individuals, including a new sequence from the site of Valdegoba cave in northern Spain, the research team found some surprising results. When they started looking at the DNA, a clear pattern emerged. Neandertal individuals from Western Europe that were older than 50,000 years and individuals from sites in western Asia and the Middle East showed a high degree of genetic variation, on par with what might be expected from a species that had been abundant in an area for a long period of time. In fact, the amount of genetic variation was similar to what characterizes modern humans as a species. In contrast, Neandertal individuals from Western Europe that were younger than 50,000 years show an extremely reduced amount of genetic variation, less even than the present-day population of remote Iceland.


These results suggest that Western European Neandertals went through a demographic crisis, a population bottleneck that severely reduced their numbers, leaving Western Europe largely empty of humans for a period of time. The demographic crisis seems to coincide with a period of extreme cold in Western Europe. Subsequently, this region was repopulated by a small group of individuals from a surrounding area. The geographic origin of this source population is not clear, but it may be possible to pinpoint it further with additional study.


“The fact that Neandertals in Western Europe were nearly extinct, but then recovered long before they came into contact with modern humans came as a complete surprise to us,” said Dalén, associate professor at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. “This indicates that the Neandertals may have been more sensitive to the dramatic climate changes that took place in the last Ice Age than was previously thought.”


Quam concurs and suggests that this discovery calls for a major rethinking of the idea of cold adaptation in Neandertals.


“At the very least, this tells us that without the aid of material culture or technology, there is a limit to our biological adaptation,” Quam said. “It may very well have been the case that the European Neandertal populations were already demographically stressed when modern humans showed up on the scene.”


The results presented in the study are based entirely on degraded ancient DNA, and the analyses have therefore required advanced laboratory and computational methods. The research team includes statisticians, experts on modern DNA sequencing and paleoanthropologists from Sweden, Denmark, Spain and the United States.


“This is just the latest example of how studies of ancient DNA are providing new insights into an important and previously unknown part of Neandertal history,” Quam said. “Ancient DNA is complementary to anthropological studies focusing on the bony anatomy of the skeleton, and these kinds of results are only possible with ancient DNA studies. It’s exciting to think about what will turn up next.”





The carcass of the juvenile "Yuka" may have been cut up, eaten and then buried by ancient people.

By Jennifer Viegas

Wed Apr 4, 2012 12:01 AM ET



·         The carcass of a well-preserved, frozen, juvenile mammoth carcass has been discovered in Siberia.

·         The remains include much of the mammoth's pink flesh and blonde-red fur.

·         Humans likely butchered parts of the mammoth at least 10,000 years ago.


A juvenile mammoth, nicknamed "Yuka," was found entombed in Siberian ice near the shores of the Arctic Ocean and shows signs of being cut open by ancient people.


The remarkably well preserved frozen carcass was discovered in Siberia as part of a BBC/Discovery Channel-funded expedition and is believed to be at least 10,000 years old, if not older. If further study confirms the preliminary findings, it would be the first mammoth carcass revealing signs of human interaction in the region.


The carcass is in such good shape that much of its flesh is still intact, retaining its pink color. The blonde-red hue of Yuka's woolly coat also remains.


"This is the first relatively complete mammoth carcass -- that is, a body with soft tissues preserved -- to show evidence of human association," Daniel Fisher, curator and director of the University of Michigan's Museum of Paleontology, told Discovery News.


Fisher, who is also a professor, worked with an international team of experts to analyze Yuka. French mammoth hunter Bernard Buigues of the scientific organization "Mammuthus" saved the specimen from falling into the hands of private collectors.


Although carbon dating is still in the works, the researchers believe Yuka died at least 10,000 years ago, but may be much older. The animal was about 2 ½ years old when it died.


Fisher described what likely happened on that fateful day:


"It appears that Yuka was pursued by one or more lions or another large field, judging from deep, unhealed scratches in the hide and bite marks on the tail," Fisher said. "Yuka then apparently fell, breaking one of the lower hind legs. At this point, humans may have moved in to control the carcass, butchering much of the animal and removing parts that they would use immediately.


"They may, in fact, have reburied the rest of the carcass to keep it in reserve for possible later use. What remains now would then be 'leftovers' that were never retrieved."


He explained that the removed parts include most of the main core mass of Yuka's body, including organs, vertebrae, ribs, associated musculature, and some of the meat from upper parts of the legs. The lower parts of each leg and the trunk remain intact.


Buigues added that it appears the humans were particularly interested in the animal's fat and its large bones, which they kept close to the body of the carcass. He believes it is possible that a ritual may have taken place involving the bones.


Kevin Campbell of the University of Manitoba also studied Yuka. Campbell famously published the genetic code of mammoth hemoglobin a few years ago.


"Most permafrost-preserved mammoth specimens consist solely of bones or bone fragments that currently provide little new insight into the species' biology in life, even if DNA can be extracted and sequenced from these samples," Campbell said. "This extremely rare finding of a near complete specimen, like the discovery of the baby mammoth Lyuba in 2007, will be a boon to researchers as it will help them link observed phenotypes (morphological features that we can see) with genotype (DNA sequences)."


Such information could help reveal whether or not mammoths had all of the same hair colors that humans do. An intriguing and controversial application would be to bring a mammoth back to life via cloning.


Campbell supports pursuit of that goal, saying it "may well lead to important new discoveries in bioengineering." Buigues is also in favor and said, "I'm not against having a mammoth in my garden in future."


Tim Walker, producer and director of a forthcoming BBC/Discovery Channel show called "Woolly Mammoth" that will feature Yuka, told Discovery News that cloning a mammoth could take years or even decades.


"Then, if it did happen, wouldn't a single mammoth be lonely and sad?" he asked. "They were, after all, communal animals."



Ancient Egyptian cotton unveils secrets of domesticated crop evolution

02 April 2012 Warwick, University of


Scientists studying 1,600-year-old cotton from the banks of the Nile have found what they believe is the first evidence that punctuated evolution has occurred in a major crop group within the relatively short history of plant domestication.


The findings offer an insight into the dynamics of agriculture in the ancient world and could also help today’s domestic crops face challenges such as climate change and water scarcity.


The researchers, led by Dr Robin Allaby from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick, examined the remains of ancient cotton at Qasr Ibrim in Egypt’s Upper Nile using high throughput sequencing technologies.


This is the first time such technology has been used on ancient plants and also the first time the technique has been applied to archaeological samples in such hot countries.


The site is located about 40 km from Abu Simbel and 70 km from the modern Sudanese border on the east bank of what is now Lake Nasser.


They also studied South American samples from sites in Peru and Brazil aged between 800 and nearly 4,000 years old.


The results showed that even over the relatively short timescale of a millennia and a half, the Egyptian cotton, identified as G. herbaceum, showed evidence of significant genomic reorganisation when the ancient and the modern variety were compared.


However closely-related G.Barbadense from the sites in South America showed genomic stability between the two samples, even though these were separated by more than 2,000 miles in distance and 3,000 years in time.


This divergent picture points towards punctuated evolution - long periods of evolutionary stability interspersed by bursts of rapid change – having occurred in the cotton family.


Dr Allaby said: “We think of evolution as a very slow process, but as we analyse more genome information we can see that there’s been a huge amount of large-scale proactive change during recent history.


“Our results for the cotton from Egypt indicate that there has been the potential for more adaptive evolution going on in domesticated plant species than was appreciated up until now.


“Plants that are local to their particular area will develop genes which allow them to better tolerate the stresses they find in the environment around them.


“It’s possible that cotton at the Qasr Ibrim site has adapted in response to extreme environmental stress, such as not enough water.


“This insight into how domesticated crops evolved when faced with environmental stress is of value for modern agriculture in the face of current challenges like climate change and water scarcity.”


For archaeologists, the results also shed light on agricultural development in the ancient world.


There has long been uncertainty as to whether ancient Egyptians had imported domesticated cotton from the Indian subcontinent, as had happened with other crops, or whether they were growing a native African variety which had been domesticated locally.


The study’s findings that the Qasr Ibrim seeds were of the G. herbaceum variety, native to Africa, rather than G.arboreum, which is native to the Indian subcontinent, represents the first molecular-based identification of archaeobotanical cotton to a species level.


Dr Allaby said the findings confirm there was an indigenous domestication of cotton in Africa which was separate from the domestication of cotton in India.


“The presence of cotton textiles on Egyptian and Nubian sites has been well documented but there has always been uncertainty among archaeologists as to the origin of these.


“It’s not possible to identify some cotton varieties just by looking at them, so we were asked to delve into the DNA.


“We identified the African variety – G. herbaceum, which suggest that domesticated cotton was not a cultural import – it was a technology that had grown up independently.”


The study Archaeogenomic evidence of punctuated genome evolution


in Gossypium, which was funded by NERC, is published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.




Full bibliographic information

Robin Allaby et al, The study Archaeogenomic evidence of punctuated genome evolution in Gossypium, which was funded by NERC, is published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, The DOI for this paper is 10.1093/molbev/mss070



Amid debt crisis, archaeology Greece's Achilles heel

By Isabel Malsang (AFP)



Faced with massive public debt, Greece is finding that its fabled antiquity heritage is proving a growing burden -- with licensed digs postponed, illegal ones proliferating, museum staff trimmed and valuable pieces stolen.

"Greece's historic remains have become our curse," whispered an archaeologist at a recent media event organised to protest spending cuts imposed on the country for the past two years as a condition for European Union and International Monetary Fund loans.


With Greece moving into a fifth year of recession, licensed archaeology digs are finding it ever harder to obtain public funds while antiquity smuggling is on the rise, archaeologists warned at the meeting.

"There are an increasing number of illegal digs near archaeological sites," said Despina Koutsoumba, head of the association of Greek archaeologists.

"Some of them are excavated by semi-professionals who work for art trafficking networks. Others are done by treasure hunters," she told AFP.

Last month, Greek police arrested 44 people and recovered thousands of ancient coins and numerous Byzantine icons after smashing a large antiquity smuggling ring in northern Greece.

In October, another gang was arrested in possession of Macedonian golden grave offerings from the 6th century BC which were valued at some 11.3 million euros ($14.8 million).

Some senior archaeologists have argued that given the lack of funds for archaeological research, it would be wiser to rebury valuable discoveries to better protect them.

"Let us leave our antiquities in the soil, to be found by archaeologists in 10,000 AD, when Greeks and their politicians will perhaps show more respect to their history," Michalis Tiverios, a professor of archaeology at Thessaloniki's Aristotelio University, told Ta Nea daily in early March.

For now, the penury seems to have spared the work of foreign archaeology schools which have helped bring to light some of the country's most important sites from the late 19th century onwards.

But even here, creative accounting is sometimes called for.

"The Greek state is obliged to provide a certain share of financing for each excavation," said a foreign school representative, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"But as there's no more money available, we put in our budget calculations the use of state facilities such as storage areas or lots," he said.

Greek archaeologists said last month that funding for the country's archaeological service fell by 35 percent to 12 million euros ($15.7 million) last year, and will be further reduced this year.

One out of 10 culture ministry employees has been dismissed, and 3,500 temporary staff brought in to allow museums, sites and excavations to operate.

Greece's financial difficulties and staff shortages did not take long to attract unwanted attention.

In January, a unique Picasso and two other artworks were stolen from the Athens National Gallery during a staff strike.

A month later, two armed men stole over 70 objects from a museum in ancient Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games.

Out of 106 archaeological and Byzantine museums, 250 organised archaeological sites and another 19,000 known locations of importance, only a handful have been spared the ravages of the Greek debt crisis, archaeologists say.

Alongside the Acropolis in Athens, Greece's top site where EU-financed restoration has continued for decades, these include the Minoan palace complex of Knossos on Crete, the sanctuaries of Delphi, Olympia and Vergina, the necropolis of ancient Macedonian kings.

But elsewhere, resources are badly-stretched to non-existent.

The national archaeological museum in Athens and the museum of Byzantine art in Thessaloniki routinely shut down entire halls because of shortage of guards.

In Corinth, where the American School of Classical Studies has maintained an excavation for more than a century, the site closes at 3:00 pm because of staff shortages.

And on the Dodecanese islands in the Aegean Sea, where important finds dating to the Neolithic period have been found, some museums will stay closed until May when the heavy tourist season gets underway.

"If they're not open to the public, they're storehouses, not museums," said Koutsoumba, the archaeologist association chief.

Copyright © 2012 AFP. All rights reserved.



Skomer Island's 'hidden' prehistoric buildings found by archaeologists


A team of archaeologists have found "hidden" remains of prehistoric buildings and fields on Skomer Island, off the Pembrokeshire coast.


Using new technology, they "X-rayed" fields and found buried ditches and structures not visible on the ground.


Dr Toby Driver from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales said they may date back 5,000 years.


He added they are among the best preserved anywhere in the UK.


Skomer Island is a national nature reserve and famed for its bird life and puffins.


It also has remains of prehistoric houses and much of the island has been designated an Ancient Monument.


But nobody had carried out any archaeological studies of the island since the 1980s.


Last April airborne laser scanning was completed of the island, which provided a model of the surface of landscape, including its houses and fields.


“We now know that the centre of the island has been occupied in the Iron Age and possibly before the Romans ”

Dr Toby Driver, Royal Commission


However, because the centre of Skomer was farmed until the 1950s, anything of interest on the surface was ploughed away.


So archaeologists from the Royal Commission and Sheffield University went to the island last week to carry out a geophysical survey, which uses technology to measure through the earth, creating an "X-ray" picture of what is under the ground.


It was the first time the technique had been used on the island and Dr Driver, who was part of the team, said it gave greater insight into what life on the island was like in the past.


"People had looked at this about 20 years ago and concluded it wasn't a very complicated landscape," he said.


"[They thought] people maybe lived there for 100 years and then moved back to the mainland.


"Work over the last three to four years by the Royal Commission has begun to demonstrate that actually we think people were there for a few thousand years rather than a few hundred years.


"From before the Roman times maybe back four of five thousand years before now.



The island is famed for its bird life and has thousands of breeding pairs of puffins

"So it's a very busy landscape and we have been trying to investigate this further."


He added: "We now know that the centre of the island has been occupied in the Iron Age and possibly before the Romans and that means pretty much the whole island would have been a very busy place for two to three thousand years.


"We're very lucky on Skomer, it's a gem for Wales. It hasn't been ploughed around the edges - it hasn't been ploughed since the Romans left Wales, so that's about 2,000 years old.


"It's very, very well preserved. This is a place on Wales where we can study prehistoric fields, Iron Age life, a Celtic way of life , in a way that in other parts of Wales has been lost."


The team now hopes to do more work on the island in the future.



York Minster tantalises archaeologists with hints of Saxon church

What happened after the Romans left and the Vikings of Jorvik arrived? Two post holes and a jumble of bones may hold a clue

Maev Kennedy

The Guardian, Thursday 5 April 2012


When the great west doors of York Minster swing open on Thursday and the Queen makes her way along the nave of the packed church for the ancient service of distributing Maundy Money, she will also be walking towards a small pit from which human bones have been pouring by the barrow load, the remains of some of the earliest Christians to worship on the site.


Tantalising finds include 30 skulls and a jumble of bones used to backfill a trench by the medieval builders of the present cathedral, and a man whose stone-lined and lidded grave was chopped off by Walter de Gray's 13th-century walls, leaving only his shins and feet in place.


Potentially the most significant finds are two nondescript round holes, with groundwater bubbling up through the mud. They are post holes that could date from the time of the earliest Christian church on the site, after the Roman empire disintegrated in the 5th century and before raiding Vikings arrived in the 8th century and the Normans in the 11th century.


Remains of Eboracum, the Roman fortress and town, jut through the fabric of today's city, and the Viking remains of Jorvik including foundations of timber houses, wharves and shops, found in the 1970s during construction of a shopping centre, have become a visitor attraction. But little is known of the period in between.


The annals record that in 627AD King Edwin of Northumbria and his family were baptised by St Paulinus in a small wooden church, the first minster, but although several sites have been suggested, and burials and grave markers from the period discovered, no trace of the structure has ever been found.


Ian Milsted, of York Archaeological Trust, who is leading the excavation, downplays the significance of the post holes: the timber rotted away centuries ago, and they have found no dateable evidence, not a shard of Anglo-Saxon pottery. But his colleague Jim Williams cannot restrain his excitement: the pits are evidence for very large posts, far too big and using too valuable timber to hold up the roof of a pigsty or a hen house, just outside the walls of the Roman basilica. "I think they've got to be evidence for a significant structure – and from a period when any evidence is incredibly rare and precious."


The excavation is tiny – a square cut through a 1960s concrete floor in the crypt, just large enough to hold a lift shaft on which construction work starts in a few weeks. They have uncovered reused Roman stone and the foundations of Archbishop Thomas's Romanesque cathedral begun within 20 years of the Norman conquest in 1066, and of De Gray's cathedral. Their small site has produced so much evidence – bones are visibly sticking out of the walls of their trench – from an enigmatic period in the city's history that work has been extended for at least a week.


The bones, already ancient when the medieval builders found them, were jumbled but not destroyed, carefully kept on consecrated ground. They must also come from pre-Norman conquest burials, and could possibly be Anglo Saxons rather than Vikings. Post-excavation work on the bones, and on soil samples, should reveal more of their origins.


The last archaeology in this part of the minster was in the 1960s when cracking suggested the central tower, which collapsed in a storm in 1407, might topple again. Work was carried out to shore up the foundations, destroying a wealth of evidence.


"We are looking at a very small area, but we have the luxury of working systematically and recording everything," Milsted said. "But we're working very much in the shadow of the earlier excavation, when all the digging out was done by labourers, and the recording was done by one archaeologist drawing frantically by torchlight during the tea breaks."


The work is part of the York Minister Revealed project, which includes restoring the 15th-century stained glass east window, and creating new displays on the history of the site.


Keith Jones, the Dean of York, said: "The jumble of different levels makes a complex jigsaw puzzle for the archaeologists. It reinforces how York Minister has been at the centre of human life in the City for so long."



There's no bones about THIS history

Josh Barrie


Skeletons uncovered in Oxford city centre could have been the remains of Viking pillagers rather than settlers killed in a famous massacre.


Experts now believe the group of 37 men whose remains were found off St Giles’ four years ago could have been mercenaries raiding Oxford.


Previously they thought they were Danish settlers killed by English townsmen in the well-documented Brice’s Day Massacre.


The remains of men, aged between 16 and 25, were found at St John’s College in 2008 by Thames Valley Archaeological Services. It was thought at the time they were victims of King Ethelred the Unready, who ordered the killing of all Danish settlers in 1002.



Now, after chemical analysis and testing on the bones and teeth, staff from Oxford University’s School of Archaeology have put forward an alternative theory.


Professor Mark Pollard, director of research laboratory in the School of Archaeology, believes the skeletons might actually be those of Viking marauders who were caught and killed in retaliation, rather than Danish settlers living in the area.


He said: “When the bones were first found by Thames Valley Archaeology, they assumed they were from the massacre because they are from the right date and there was the historical link.


 “There was evidence of burning on the bones, so it is a possibility. But the research we have done suggests that they were Viking raiders. It seems these were raiders who had come from all over the place. I think it was a collection of ‘freelance warriors’ – a bunch of bad lads basically, but it’s not conclusive.”


But Tom Hassell, former director of Oxford Archaeology, last night suggested another twist to the tale.


He said: “After the Brice’s Day Massacre, Oxford was attacked in revenge.


“The Danish army sacked Oxford in 1009 and the town succumbed to King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark fully in 1013. These men could have been part of those attacks, and maybe suggest Oxford put up a good fight.”


The original analysis, led by Cari Falys of Thames Valley Archaeological Services, showed the men were ‘attacked from both sides’ and appeared to be the victims of a slaughter rather than participants.This supports the claim that they were victims of Brice’s Day Massacre.


She said: “Usually when people have been involved in hand-to-hand combat you get evidence of this on the bones.


“You get cuts on the forearms as they defended themselves, but we have minimal evidence on the skeletons.”


Professor Pollard said his new information indicated diets rich in seafood and large robust frames, suggesting the men were not citizens, as those killed in the massacre would have been, but recent arrivals to England.



How fishermen are bringing lost secrets of UK waters to land

As trawlers dredge up more wrecks from our seas, a pilot scheme is set to record their finds

Robin McKie Science Editor

The Observer, Sunday 1 April 2012


Trawlerman Dennis Hunt was crossing Colwyn Bay in his boat in 1995 when its nets snagged on the seabed. Unable to free them, Hunt contacted diver Keith Hurley, who swam 60ft down to the sea floor – and found that the nets were caught on a rusting submarine's conning tower.


Hunt and Hurley had found the Resurgam, one of Britain's first submarines, which sank in 1880. It was a key historical discovery but certainly not a first for fishermen.


Every day hundreds of items, ranging from Spitfire engines to ancient stone tools, are dragged up by fishing vessels while wreck sites are revealed after nets become snagged on sunken craft.


As fishing intensifies, more discoveries are being made this way, a process that threatens to run out of control. As a result, English Heritage will launch a pilot scheme this month that aims to keep in order the avalanche of historical finds now produced by our fishermen.


"There are about 46,000 recorded shipwrecks, crashed aircraft and sites of archaeological finds in English waters that we know of," said archaeologist Simon Davidson. "However, these recorded sites only make up about 10% of the total down there, we estimate."


In addition, it is reckoned that, in the second world war alone, 13,000 aircraft were lost in UK waters, including the plane that carried the American swing band leader Glenn Miller on a flight that disappeared, presumed lost in action, on 15 December 1944. "This collection of lost ships and aircraft represents an enormous historical resource," said Davidson. "Certainly, given its size, it is not surprising so many items get dredged up by fishermen."


The pilot scheme will be in Sussex. About 400 fishing boats sail from its nine ports and every day about half of these craft dredge up a historical item. Leaflets about the scheme, which will be administered with the help of Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, will provide fishermen with the details of those to contact after a find is made and provide information about salvage rights. The scheme, if successful, will be spread throughout the country.


The project's importance was stressed by marine archaeologist Alison James. "Britain has 61 protected historic shipwrecks and a significant number were found by fishermen. Some were the result of net snags, but others – like the wreck of the 16th- or 17th-century Dunwich Bank off the Suffolk coast – occurred when a length of timber was dredged up in a net. It is important that we continue to work closely with fishermen."


Other finds have included the Admiral Gardner, which sank off Dover harbour in 1809 and which was found by routine investigations into a net snag, and the wreck of the Irish paddle steamer Irishman, which sank en route to Portree in 1862 and was found by scallop divers.


At the same time, hoards of stone implements have been dredged up from Dogger Bank and other shallow parts of the North Sea, demonstrating that our stone age ancestors hunted mammoths and other creatures on land that was later inundated by the melting ice caps.


Fishermen make a significant contribution to our understanding of Britain's past. An example is provided by oyster fisherman Michael White, who has assembled nearly 300 artefacts including prehistoric flint tools while dredging in the Solent. The collection, which ranges from stone age axe heads to metal tools from the bronze age, has been described by Channel 4's Time Team archaeologist Phil Harding as extraordinary.


"All of these have helped us reconstruct how the landscape was used before the English Channel flooded it 10,000 years ago," says Harding. "If it hadn't been for Michael collecting all this material and telling us about it, we may never have encountered it – and our knowledge of the prehistoric Solent would be all the poorer."