Rock analysis suggests France cave art is 'oldest'

Experts have long debated whether the sophisticated animal drawings in a famous French cave are indeed the oldest of their kind in the world, and a study out Monday suggests that yes, they are.

May 7, 2012


The smooth curves and fine details in the paintings of bears, rhinoceroses and horses in the Chauvet cave in southern France's picturesque Ardeche region are so advanced that some scholars thought they dated from 12,000 to 17,000 years ago.

That would place them as relics of the Magdalenian culture, in which human ancestors used tools of stone and bone and created increasingly advanced art as time went on.

But scientists have previously shown through radiocarbon dating evidence of rock art, charcoal and animal bones in the Chauvet cave that the drawings are older than that, likely between 30,000-32,000 years old, befuddling some who believed that early art took on more primitive forms.

Now, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a US journal, French scientists believe they have confirmation that the paintings are "the oldest and most elaborate ever discovered."

Their findings are based on an analysis -- called geomorphological and chlorine-36 dating -- of the rockslide surfaces around what is believed to be the cave's only entrance.

The research shows that an overhanging cliff began collapsing 29,000 years ago and did so repeatedly over time, definitively sealing the entrance to humans around 21,000 years ago.

That would mean the drawings had to have been done before that, bolstering the notion that they were created by people in the Aurignacian culture, which lived 28,000 to 40,000 years ago.

"Remarkably agreeing with the radiocarbon dates of the human and animal occupancy, this study confirms that the Chauvet cave paintings are the oldest and the most elaborate ever discovered, challenging our current knowledge of human cognitive evolution," said the study.

According to lead author Benjamin Sadier, the findings put an end to any debate over when the drawings may have been done based on their style.

"What our work shows, and other work that will soon be published, is that the method of dating by style is no longer valid," he told AFP in a phone interview.

"By proving that this cave was closed for good 21,500 years ago, we completely eradicate the hypothesis of a more recent painting of the cave, and we also confirm the age of the cave which was already known through radiocarbon dating," he added.

"Before we were pretty sure. And now we are sure. It's a way of gathering independent proof, meaning we can figure out the age of the cave by geological means, not archeological ones."

The cave and its remarkably well-preserved paintings were closed to human access by the rockfalls and were only recently rediscovered in 1994.

Researchers involved in the work came from France's University of Savoie, Aix Marseille University and the Centre National de Prehistoire.

More information: “Further constraints on the Chauvet cave artwork elaboration,” by Benjamin Sadier et al. PNAS (2012).

(c) 2012 AFP



Ancient language discovered on clay tablets found amid ruins of 2800 year old Middle Eastern palace



Archaeologists have discovered evidence for a previously unknown ancient language – buried in the ruins of a 2800 year old Middle Eastern palace.


The discovery is important because it may help reveal the ethnic and cultural origins of some of history’s first ‘barbarians’ – mountain tribes which had, in previous millennia, preyed on the world’s first great civilizations,  the cultures of early Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq.


Evidence of the long-lost language - probably spoken by a hitherto unknown people from the Zagros Mountains of western Iran – was found by a Cambridge University archaeologist as he deciphered an ancient clay writing tablet unearthed by an international archaeological team excavating an Assyrian imperial governors’ palace in the ancient city of Tushan, south-east Turkey.


The tablet revealed the names of  60 women – probably prisoners-of-war  or victims of an Assyrian forced population transfer programme. But when the Cambridge archaeologist – Dr. John MacGinnis - began to examine the names in detail, he realized that 45 of them bore no resemblance to any of the thousands of ancient Middle Eastern names already known to scholars.


Because ancient Middle Eastern names are normally composites, made-up, in full or abbreviated form, of ordinary words in the relevant local lexicon, the unique nature of the tablet’s 45 mystery names is seen by scholars as evidence of a previously unknown language.


The clay tablet text originally formed part of the palace’s archive – used by local  Assyrian imperial officials to record their administrative, political and economic decisions and actions.


The 60 women (including the 45 with evidence of the previously unattested language) were almost certainly being deployed by the palace authorities for some economic purpose (potentially a female-associated craft activity like weaving). Indeed the text mentions that some of them were being allocated to specific local villages.


Typical names, borne by the women – the evidence for the lost language – include Ushimanay, Alagahnia, Irsakinna and Bisoonoomay.


Now archaeologists and linguistics experts are set to analyse the mystery names in even greater details to try to discover whether the letter-order or letter frequency shows any similarities to previously attested ancient tongues to which this mystery language could be related.


The 45 women are thought to come from somewhere in the central or northern Zagros Mountains – because that is the only area in which the Assyrians were militarily active at the relevant time where the ancient languages are still largely unknown.


It’s likely that the women were compulsorily moved from their Zagros Mountains homeland and assigned to work near Tushan sometime in the second half of the 8th century BC – probably as a result of conquests carried out in the Zagros by the Assyrian kings Tiglath Pilasser III or Sargon.


The excavation of the palace at Tushan is being carried out by a German archaeological team directed by Dr. Dirk Wicke of Mainz University as part of an archaeological investigation into the ancient Assyrian city led by Professor Timothy Matney of the University of Akron in Ohio. Full details about the discovery of the mystery names are published in the current issue of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies .



How stone age man invented the art of raving

New scientific techniques reveal how large tribal gatherings swept neolithic Britain

Robin McKie

The Observer, Sunday 13 May 2012


They were the stone-age equivalent of Glastonbury festival. People gathered in their hundreds to drink, eat and party every summer at revelries lasting several days and nights. Young men met women from nearby communities and married them. Herds of cattle were slaughtered to provide food.


These neolithic carousals even had special sites. They were held on causewayed enclosures, large hilltop earthworks built by our forebears after they brought farming to Britain from the continent 6,000 years ago.


This picture of ancient British bacchanalia has been created by researchers led by Professor Alasdair Whittle of Cardiff University and Dr Alex Bayliss of English Heritage. Using a revolutionary technique for dating ancient remains, they have built up a detailed chronology of the first farmers' arrival in Britain and have shown that agriculture spread with dramatic rapidity. In its wake, profound social changes gripped the country, culminating in the construction of causewayed enclosures where chieftains or priests held revelries to help establish their power bases.


Until recently, archaeologists had an imprecise knowledge of the timing of agriculture's arrival in Britain. "We knew the first long-barrow chambers, often used for communal burials, and the first causewayed enclosures appeared not long after the first farmers started taking over the land from existing hunter-gatherer tribes," said Bayliss. "But we thought these processes took hundreds of years. In fact, they took about a tenth of that. Armed with this precise sequence, we can understand the social and political revolution that happened with agriculture's arrival."


The technique developed by the team is known as Bayesian chronological modelling; it exploits the theorems of the 18th-century mathematician Thomas Bayes to bring new precision to radiocarbon dating of prehistoric samples. In the past, bones or pieces of wood could only be ascribed dates to within a few hundred years. "Now, in many cases, we can date bones or tools with an accuracy of only a couple of decades. That changes everything," said Whittle.


As a result of their successes, Whittle and Bayliss have won a £2m grant from the European Research Council to date neolithic sites across the continent. The aim is to show the technique's power to create precise chronologies of ancient events, as it has for stone-age Britain.


The first farmers arrived in Britain from France and appeared in Kent around 4050BC. At first, agriculture spread very slowly — by 3900BC farming had only reached the Cotswolds. Then it went through a period of explosive growth. Within 50 years it had spread across almost all of mainland Britain, reaching as far as Aberdeen. "Presumably a critical mass of farming folk had arrived in Britain while our native hunter-gatherers had seen the game was up and turned to agriculture and a sedentary way of life," said Whittle.


Once farming was established, ideas were imported from the continent in its wake. First came long barrows, distinctive earth mounds which are often found to contain human remains. They appeared around 3800BC. Then, in 3700BC, came causewayed enclosures. "The difference between the two structures is critical," said Bayliss. "An extended family could build a long barrow in a summer. It would have taken several hundred men to build a causewayed enclosure."


In a century, society had changed profoundly from the days when a few isolated farmsteads celebrated their clan links with communal burial grounds. "Chieftains or religious leaders had causewayed enclosures built. Hundreds of people would have been involved. Then they used them for celebrations that bound these people to a common cause," said Bayliss. "Huge festivals were held. We also know from digs at the enclosure at Hambledon Hill in Dorset that festivals there were held in August or September, to judge from the condition of the teeth of the cattle that were slaughtered there. The man who ran these celebrations would have been very powerful, it is clear.


"The crucial point is that, until we developed this precision in dating, we had no idea of the chronology of neolithic Britain and could not make sense of its of politics. Now we understand a lot more."



6,000-year-old settlement poses tsunami mystery

By Andrew Hamilton

Wednesday, May 09, 2012


Archeologists have uncovered evidence of pre-farming people living in the Burren more than 6,000 years ago — one of the oldest habitations ever unearthed in Ireland.


Radiocarbon dating of a shellfish midden on Fanore Beach in north Clare have revealed it to be at least 6,000 years old — hundreds of years older than the nearby Poulnabrone dolmen.


The midden — a cooking area where nomad hunter-gatherers boiled or roasted shellfish — contained Stone Age implements, including two axes and a number of smaller stone tools.


Excavation of the site revealed a mysterious black layer of organic material, which archeologists believe may be the results of a Stone Age tsunami which hit the Clare coast, possibly wiping out the people who used the midden.


The midden was discovered by local woman Elaine O’Malley in 2009 and a major excavation of the site is being led by Michael Lynch, field monument adviser for Co Clare.


"This is the oldest settlement in Clare," said Mr Lynch. "We have always thought hunter-gatherers existed in Clare but this is the first real evidence of that.


"These people were pre-farming. Farming would have been introduced a few generations later and these farmers built monuments like the dolmen.


"These people would have come to certain places at certain times of the year. Obviously they came here to eat shellfish, but possibly they had another place beside a river nearby for when they wanted to catch salmon and trout, and at other times they would have collected things like hazel nuts.


"We know that they were cooking and eating shellfish here, but we don’t know yet exactly what method they were using to cook it. So hopefully that is one of the things we can uncover in the weeks ahead."


The archaeologists are also hoping to establish the make-up of a mysterious substance found during the excavation.


The substance, which is two or three inches deep, disintegrates when it comes in contact with air. A large slab of the material has remained intact on an ancient settlement, indicating that a large amount of it was laid down at once, possibly as the result of a tsunami.


"We have found a mysterious layer of black organic material on the site and it is just under that level that we have found all the oldest archeology," said Mr Lynch.


"We have not been able to identify exactly what this black layer is yet but, as it happens, it is this layer which helped to protect the ancient settlement that we are currently excavating.


"If we can establish a date for this black material, it will help us to piece together more of the mystery of this site and it could tell us a bit about what happened here that brought the use of the midden to an end.


"It is possible that this is the result of a major climatic event, a massive storm or possibly a tsunami, or some other major event of that sort, which would have thrown up a large amount of debris all at one time."


Read more: http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/6000-year-old-settlement-poses-tsunami-mystery-193230.html#ixzz1unBl86c9



Bronze Age boat replica fails to float

by Graham Tutthill



The band was ready, the champagne was on hand, Time Team's Tony Robinson was there to record the historic event, and the crowds gathered to watch as a half-size replica of Dover's Bronze Age boat prepared to take to the water.


The only problem was, it started to sink.


A team of craftsmen and archaeologists had been working for several months to build the replica boat, using the same tools and the same methods as their ancestors would have used when the original boat was built more than 3,500 years earlier.


But time was against them,. They only completed the task a couple of hours before the launch was due to take place and there was no time to test it.


A team of rowers, complete with life-jackets, were waiting to go on board, but they were not needed.


As the boat was gently lowered into the water at Dover Marina, it soon became clear there was a problem.


It started listing to one side, and after a few minutes it had to be hoisted back out again. Water had got into the boat, and now, as it made its way back on to dry land, water was dripping out of it again.


But the team, though disappointed, were undeterred, and said they would continue their work.


"We are hopeful that we can think again and make the boat good," said archaeologist Peter Clark who has led the project.


"We have come an awfully long way in the past three and a half months and we think we are nearly there."


Paying tribute to all those who had worked on the boat, Mr Clark named it Ole Crumlin-Pederson after a Danish archaeologist who had worked on the project, but died before it was completed.



Glastonbury Abbey excavations reveal Saxon glass industry

May 8, 2012



 New research led by the University of Reading has revealed that finds at Glastonbury Abbey provide the earliest archaeological evidence of glass-making in Britain.


Professor Roberta Gilchrist, from the Department of Archaeology, has re-examined the records of excavations that took place at Glastonbury in the 1950s and 1960s.

Glass furnaces recorded in 1955-7 were previously thought to date from before the Norman Conquest. However, radiocarbon dating has now revealed that they date approximately to the 680s, and are likely to be associated with a major rebuilding of the abbey undertaken by King Ine of Wessex. Glass-making at York and Wearmouth is recorded in historical documents in the 670s but Glastonbury provides the earliest and most substantial archaeological evidence for glass-making in Saxon Britain.

The extensive remains of five furnaces have been identified, together with fragments of clay crucibles and glass for window glazing and drinking vessels, mainly of vivid blue-green colour. It is likely that specialist glassworkers came from Gaul (France) to work at Glastonbury. The glass will be analysed chemically to provide further information on the sourcing and processing of materials.

Professor Gilchrist said: "Glastonbury Abbey is a site of international historical importance but until now the excavations have remained unpublished. The research project reveals new evidence for the early date of the monastery at Glastonbury and charts its development over one thousand years, from the 6th century to its dissolution in the 16th century."

An exhibition at Glastonbury Abbey Museum, ‘From Fire & Earth', tells the story of the Abbey's pioneering role in medieval crafts and technology, and runs until 16 September 2012.

The full archive of excavations will be brought to publication by Professor Gilchrist, in partnership with the Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Radiocarbon dating was funded by the Somerset Archaeology & Natural History Society and the Society for Medieval Archaeology. Specialist analyses of the glass are being undertaken by Dr. Hugh Willmott (University of Sheffield) and Dr. Kate Welham (University of Bournemouth).

Provided by University of Reading



Civil War fort at Jamestown is dug up to get at 1607 site


By W. Barksdale Maynard, Published: May 7


Since the sensational 1994 discovery of James Fort, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, excavations have revealed palisade walls and numerous buildings, along with remarkable clues about the Anglo-American culture that started with the landing of colonists on Virginia’s Jamestown Island in 1607.


But because much of the original fort is buried underneath a Confederate earthwork called Fort Pocahontas, these discoveries forced a painful historical and archaeological trade-off. To reveal James Fort, nearly half of Fort Pocahontas has been removed.


In the process, invaluable traces of America’s founding have been discovered right next to remains from the Civil War. “It’s probably the only place you would have a story like that,” says Colin Campbell, president of Colonial Williamsburg, citing the conjunction of two pivotal moments in U.S. history. “I think it’s absolutely fascinating.”


To some observers, the fate of Fort Pocahontas — a series of rolling, grassy mounds shaded by old cedar trees — is a vivid demonstration of the axiom “Archaeology is always destructive.” But William Kelso, chief archaeologist at Jamestown Rediscovery, which is doing the excavation, disagrees: “If properly excavated and recorded digitally in 3-D, as we did, it is no longer valid to say we destroy sites.”


The remains of James Fort and Fort Pocahontas lie on 22.5 acres owned by Preservation Virginia, a nonprofit organization. The remaining 1,500 acres of Jamestown Island belong to the National Park Service. James Fort itself originally enclosed 1.1 acres.


The archaeologists working for Preservation Virginia have excavated Fort Pocahontas with the same care they apply to James Fort, says team member Bly Straube: “We’ve removed it with shovels and trowels, recording everything using [graphic information system software], digging in a grid system where it’s all mapped in. We’re not just arbitrarily digging things up.”


As Fort Pocahontas gets steadily cut away, valuable insights have been gained into Civil War fortifications. Last year a bombproof — an underground, timber-lined room where soldiers could hide if they were bombarded — was uncovered. It’s one of the few that professional archaeologists have ever excavated. Well-preserved log supports and even Civil War sandbags were unearthed.


Fort Pocahontas was established in 1861 as Confederate forces prepared to defend Richmond from possible naval assault during the opening months of the war. (It is not to be confused with an 1864 Union fort of the same name, farther up the James River.) Military engineers unknowingly placed Fort Pocahontas right atop the traces of James Fort, the location of which had long been forgotten. But the spot is ideal for fortifications, with commanding views of the James River.


The decision to remove much of Fort Pocahontas took into account the fact that troops never fired a shot in anger from it during the Civil War. Instead, Pocahontas was abandoned as Union forces advanced overland in May 1862. The fort did, however, play a part in the most famous naval duel of the Civil War, between the Union’s USS Monitor and the Confederates’ Merrimack (renamed CSS Virginia), the first battle ever between ironclad warships. Confederates used the fort’s cannons to test armor plates for the Virginia, blasting them with eight-inch shells from powerful Columbiad cannons.


Kelso has found fragments of such shells, along with hundreds of spikes that once affixed the plank floors of the gun emplacements. Virginia’s plates later survived a pounding from the Monitor’s guns during their fabled 1862 engagement in the nearby waters of Hampton Roads.


The construction of Fort Pocahontas — primarily by slaves — severely damaged the underground remains of the southern half of James Fort. To create the earthwork, the workers scraped off the top layers of soil at the site, often to a depth of several feet, then piled the dirt high to create a berm. This scraping annihilated, or at least scrambled, the near-surface traces of the 1607 settlement.


The slaves’ shovels were slicing into one of the most important sites in American history, where 104 pioneers planted the British flag permanently in the New World in May 1607 and quickly erected a triangular wooden fort. Led for a time by Capt. John Smith, the tiny settlement was decimated by disease and Indian attack, but it rebounded after supply ships arrived in 1610, just as the beleaguered survivors of the original company, giving up hope, had started to sail down the river for home. The marriage of settler John Rolfe to Pocahontas, daughter of the local chief, heralded a more stable period: Anglo-America was safely underway.


In 2010, Kelso discovered the 1608 church inside James Fort where Pocahontas wed Rolfe. The uppermost five feet of its foundations were missing — carted several yards away to build Fort Pocahontas.


In the process of building the Civil War fort, according to an account at that time, the slaves happened upon “curious relics” from the colonial settlement of 250 years earlier, including an iron elbow-piece, or vambrace, belonging to a 17th-century suit of armor. The vambrace was donated to the Virginia Historical Society in the late 19th century; it is now on display at Jamestown’s Archaearium, a new museum. The vambrace is much better preserved than recently excavated armor, which is all reduced to rust due to exposure to moisture over time.


For Kelso, the vambrace is proof that Jamestown should be subjected to intensive archaeology now, as he is doing, not later. “Burials and iron objects are going to be gone in the next 20 years,” he says, as deterioration of buried items inexorably advances.


Since 1994, Kelso and his co-workers have recovered 1.4 million artifacts from James Fort. To fund the work, he relies on grants and donations and some gate receipts from visitors. But, says Straube, “It’s been a struggle to keep going.” In 2010 a partnership was formed with Colonial Williamsburg, and public programming has been increased to lure more paying visitors.


The lumpy, undulating earthen walls of Fort Pocahontas have turned out to be chockablock with small artifacts highlighting everyday life in the 1600s. Among them are a paring knife found last summer and Elizabethan coins that might have jingled in Shakespeare’s pocket before a settler brought them to America. “Over the years we have screened every square inch of a huge volume of soil,” says team member David Givens. “All the best stuff was up in the Confederate fort.”


Although the building of Fort Pocahontas severely damaged the southern part of James Fort, it helped preserve the northern section. Its imposing berms of heavy soil dissuaded casual digging by amateur archaeologists or looters. “I’m absolutely amazed at how much of James Fort is left,” says Al Luckenbach, a Maryland expert on colonial excavations. “There were so many opportunities for later generations to ruin the site.”


Farming and urbanization have swept away many Civil War earthworks in the South, including three of 11 rebel forts that defended Williamsburg. As Petersburg expanded in the mid-20th century, some sizable forts from the city’s 1864-65 siege were flattened for shopping malls and houses. But the case of Fort Pocahontas is virtually unprecedented: the deliberate removal of a historic earthwork that had been preserved within a park.


Because the James Fort site is in private hands, Kelso has enjoyed considerable latitude compared with what he might have encountered on federal property, where archaeology is discouraged except in advance of necessary construction or roadwork. Kelso stresses that he has “met and exceeded” federal standards for investigating an archaeological site. Preservation Virginia’s initial decision to excavate was approved by an advisory committee of archaeologists.


James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust, a preservation organization, regards the removal of Fort Pocahontas as an acceptable trade-off. “I would think James Fort would be a heck of a lot more important” than the 1861 earthwork on top, he says.


 “The decision to dismantle the Confederate fort was taken with great care,” says Ivor Noel Hume, former director of archaeology for Colonial Williamsburg, who served on Preservation Virginia’s advisory panel. “And it was very carefully taken apart. They could have used a bulldozer. Instead, they have done as good a job as is possible to do.”


As one fort wanes, another is revealed in spectacular detail. “Destroying a Confederate fort to get to James Fort is a shame,” says Luckenbach. “But Virginia has lots of Confederate forts, but there’s only one James Fort. And it’s stunning what they’ve found there.”



Digging up the hidden relics of a forgotten war zone


11 May 2012 Last updated at 17:18

By Chris Nikkel

Researcher, Dig WW2


When military historian Dan Snow and a team of archaeologists unearthed a Second World War Spitfire from an Inishowen bog in County Donegal, it kicked off a remarkable, and often surprising, documentary journey.

We would film six Browning machine guns emerging from the muck that day, followed by a fully inflated tail wheel and the preserved leather flying helmet thrown off 70 years earlier by American pilot Bud Wolfe.

Despite everything that came out of the ground, what seemed most striking was how far the fighter plane was from, what I presumed, was the heart of the battle, in Europe.

But this was where we began unearthing a unique story: how Northern Ireland played not a small part, but a pivotal role in the war.

The fact that this role often goes unnoticed is unfortunate. But, while it's often forgotten about, it made for some extremely fruitful digging.

The Donegal Spitfire made world headlines, but it was only the beginning. With over 350 Second World War sites in Northern Ireland, there were plenty of artefacts yet to surface.

Just north of where Bud Wolfe had bailed out, we found another extraordinary wreck, this time buried in 228 feet of water. The Empire Heritage was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1944, sinking in mere minutes.

We picked up its story on the seabed, where divers filmed the carnage nearly seven decades later.

Still, it became obvious from the footage that this was an important ship, her cargo bound for the frontlines - dozens of American Sherman tanks litter the seabed around the wreck to this day, tanks that would never see a fight.

The Empire Heritage was a casualty of the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous battle in the Second World War. It was fought on our doorstep. And it was won from the ports and airfields within our borders.

The more we dug, the more Northern Ireland's important contribution surfaced.

And of course there was sacrifice and the reminders of wartime perils: a B-17 forced to ditch in Lough Foyle, soldiers that didn't make it home, or the haunting remnants of German U-boats, whose wrecks lie just off our coast.

But the most poignant reminder of all for me was on a small island in Lough Neagh.

Ram's Island still bears witness to the American soldiers that came here in the run-up to D-Day. Carved into the beech trees are the names of some of these soldiers, a memorial left by them in the days before leaving to fight.

These names, yet another reminder of the part Northern Ireland played, a part sometimes lost in history, but now, with a little digging, not forgotten.

The three-part series, Dig WW2 With Dan Snow, starts on Monday, May 14 at 9pm on BBC One Northern Ireland.

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