Scientists are accused of distorting theory of human evolution by misdating bones

Briton says Spanish researchers are out by 200,000 years and have even got the wrong species

Robin McKie

The Observer, Sunday 10 June 2012


It is the world's biggest haul of human fossils and the most important palaeontology site in Europe: a subterranean chamber at the bottom of a 50ft shaft in the deepest recesses of the Atapuerca cavern in northern Spain. Dozens of ancient skeletons have been unearthed.


La Sima de los Huesos – the Pit of Bones – has been designated a Unesco world heritage site because of its importance to understanding evolution, and millions of euros, donated by the EU, have been spent constructing a museum of human antiquity in nearby Burgos.


But Britain's leading expert on human evolution, Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, has warned in the journal Evolutionary Anthropology that the team in charge of La Sima has got the ages of its fossils wrong by 200,000 years and has incorrectly identified the species of ancient humans found there.


Far from being a 600,000-year-old lair of a species called Homo heidelbergensis, he believes the pit is filled with Neanderthal remains that are no more than 400,000 years old. The difference in interpretation has crucial implications for understanding human evolution.


"The Atapuerca finds are hugely important," said Stringer. "There is no other site like it in terms of numbers of bones and skulls of our ancient predecessors. It is the world's biggest collection of ancient human fossils and the team there has done a magnificent job in excavating the site. However, if we cannot correctly fix the age and identity of the remains then we are in trouble. Getting that wrong even affects how we construct our own evolution."


La Sima de los Huesos was discovered by potholers exploring Atapuerca's cavern system. One brought back a few fragments of human bone. Excavations led by Juan Luis Arsuaga, of Madrid university, began in 1990 and within two years had uncovered two complete human brain cases. Ribcages, leg bones and jawbones were also dug up. Arsuaga tentatively dated the finds as being 300,000 years old.


Since then, the remains of 28 bodies have been dug up, the world's greatest single haul of ancient human fossils. During this time, Arsuaga and his team pushed back the dates of their finds to 600,000 years ago and assigned them as belonging to Homo heidelbergensis.


This dating and identification has caused increasing upset among other palaeontologists. The scientists at La Sima believe H heidelbergensis is an ancestor of Neanderthals but not of Homo sapiens. However, others, including Stringer, believe it is indeed an ancestor of our species.


"The problem is that many of the skeletons unearthed at La Sima clearly have Neanderthal features," said Stringer. "In particular, their teeth and jaws are shaped very like those of Neanderthals. But all other evidence indicated Neanderthals did not appear on the scene for another 200,000 years. Dating these bones to such an early date completely distorts our picture of our evolution."


This criticism is supported by Phillip Endicott of the Musée de l'Homme, Paris. His studies of human and Neanderthal DNA have shown the latter did not appear as a separate species until 400,000 years ago. "Yet the bones in La Sima, which bear Neanderthal features, are supposed to be 600,000 years old," he said. "This cannot be true."


Another criticism is of the method used to date the Pit of Bones. A stalagmite found just above the remains has been dated as 600,000 years old, using natural uranium isotopes, and Sima scientists argue that the fossils must be older. They say the 28 bodies were thrown into the pit as an act of reverence for the dead and that the stalagmite grew over the sediment containing the bones.


However, this interpretation is controversial. No one has found any other evidence of ceremonial behaviour in humans of that antiquity. In addition, there is a deficit of small finger and toe bones. "If complete bodies were thrown in there, you would expect to see every piece of human anatomy down there," said Stringer. "But you don't. A lot of skeletal parts seem to be missing."


Yolanda Fernández-Jalvo and Peter Andrews, of, respectively, the Natural History Museums of Madrid and London, suggest the absence of small bones is best explained by assuming the bodies came from the cave system and were washed there by flood. Fingers and toes would have been lost as skeletons were swept into the pit where the stalagmite could already have formed.


However, Arsuaga has rejected this analysis. "You can call [the fossils] early Neanderthals or give them another name, it does not matter. I prefer to give a different name." But he admitted the 600,000-year age his team had put on the Sima fossils did look too early. "We are working on that," he said.



World's 'oldest fish trap' found off coast of Sweden

5 June 2012 Last updated at 14:04


Wooden fish traps said to be some 9,000 years old have been found in the Baltic Sea off Sweden, possibly the oldest such traps in existence.


Marine archaeologists from Stockholm's Sodertorn University found finger-thick hazel rods grouped on the sea bed.


They are thought to be the remains of stationary basket traps.


"This is the world's oldest find when it comes to fishing," said Johan Ronnby, a professor in marine archaeology.


Arne Sjostrom, a fellow archaeologist who worked on the Sodertorn project, said the sticks seemed to have been used as a "sort of fence to lead the fish into a creel or they were part of the actual creel".


The remains of seven basket traps were found in a submerged ancient river valley off Sweden's southern coast at a depth of 5-12m (16.5-40ft), Mr Sjostrom said.


Many examples of similar traps had been found in other parts of the world, he added.


Only one of the baskets has been carbon-dated and is estimated to be around 9,000 years old, the Associated Press news agency reports.


The 8th Millennium BC is believed to be the period when Stone Age man developed agriculture and built what were to become the world's first cities.



Experts unearth new terracotta warriors

Xinhua – Global Times | 2012-6-11 1:10:02

By Agencies   


Archaeologists clean the newly unearthed terracotta warrior at the No.1 pit of the Museum of Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shihuang in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, on Saturday. Photo:CFP


Experts have found more terracotta warriors and wares in a new round of archaeological excavation at the Emperor Qin Shihuang's mausoleum, as well as evidence that the mausoleum was once set on fire, according to the site's management authority.


The Museum of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Emperor Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC) announced on Saturday that in the third round of excavation, archaeologists found more than 310 relics at the northern part of the No.1 pit, including 120 terracotta figurines and 12 horses.


Among the findings is a giant warrior that is 2.5 meters tall with a pair of 32-centimeter feet and a lacquered leather shield 60 centimeters long and 40 centimeters wide, twice the size of a bronze shield found in the 1980s in the No.1 pit.


New findings have shown that each terracotta figurine has its own facial expression. In another finding, the terracotta armor on the figurine of a general had been produced more intricately than those of other figurines.


Experts have found a large number of wares with well-preserved color paintings on them, and colors were also found on terracotta clothes, said Xu Weihong, an excavation team leader, the Xi'an-based Sanqin Daily reported.


"We first speculated that the colors on the relics would not be well preserved, but now we are finding lots of colorful paintings on the terracotta wares and lacquered wares," Xu said.


"Experts thought all the colors would fade, but so many colorful paintings were found," said archaeologist team leader Shen Maosheng.


Archaeologists found that the figurines in the passageways had been burned out of shape and some had even melted.  They also discovered white ashes, caused by a high-temperature fire, proving that someone had deliberately set fire to the terracotta warriors, archaeologists said.


"The figurines were broken by humans, and the fire caused different degrees of damage to the figurines at different places," said Shen.


Xiang Yu, a prominent military leader during the late Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), is believed to be the one who ordered the mausoleum to be set on fire, Shen Maosheng said, an assertion most archaeologists agree with.


The new round of excavations started June 13, 2009, with authorities arranging for protective measures and exhibitions to be held continuously in the past three years. About 1.4 million visitors have visited and observed the excavation at the site.



Greece: 2 caught with ancient gold wreath, armband


Associated Press

Photo caption: A police officer displays the wreath of gold oak leaves and acorns, and the gold arm band with carved snake heads at the ends date from roughly the 4th Century B.C. in Thessaloniki on Friday June 8, 2012. A 60-year-old retired policeman and a 41-year-old painter _ were arrested late the previous night east of the city after the artifacts were found during a routine traffic check.


THESSALONIKI, GREECE -- A retired policeman and a house painter have been arrested in northern Greece on suspicion of antiquities smuggling after an ancient gold wreath and armband were found in their car, police said Friday.


The suspects were stopped by highway police near the village of Asprovalta, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Thessaloniki late Thursday. Officers, who were working on a tip that the house painter might be trafficking in antiquities, found the 4th century B.C. artifacts in a shoebox under the passenger seat.


The wreath was a rare and valuable find, said Nikos Dimitriadis, head of the Thessaloniki police antiquities theft section.


"It is a product of an illegal excavation from a Macedonian grave, according to archaeologists (who examined it)," he said.


Antiquities in Greece are all state property by law. But smuggling is a major problem in the country, where relics of a rich ancient past often lie just inches beneath the surface.


Looting deprives archaeologists of valuable contextual information that would emerge from a proper excavation. Without such clues, finds - however impressive - are little more than pretty artifacts with a high commercial value.


The wreath, weighing in at nearly 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds), is decorated with gold oak leaves and acorns. The gold armband is in the form of two knotted snakes studded with red semi-precious stones.


Police said the 41-year-old house painter had been trying to sell the finds for several hundred thousand euros. They said he claimed to have received them from an acquaintance in his hometown of Komotini, nearly 300 kilometers (190 miles) east of Thessaloniki.


The precise location where the wreath and armband were found was not immediately clear.


Several golden wreaths have been found in Macedonia and Thrace, with the most impressive coming from royal tombs in Vergina, west of Thessaloniki, that have been linked with the family of the 4th century B.C. warrior king Alexander the Great.


An archaeologist who saw pictures of the wreath said it was a much plainer version than those from Vergina, and would likely have been buried with a rich Macedonian.


Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2012/06/08/3648176/greece-2-caught-with-ancient-gold.html#storylink=cpy



Attempt to steal Pharaonic artifact in Aswan foiled


Wed, 06/06/2012 - 16:20


Security guards foiled an attempt to steal an antique panel depicting King Merenptah, the fourth ruler of the 19th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, in the Selsela mountain quarries 20 kilometers north of Kom Ombo, Aswan.


Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Ali announced on Wednesday that four people were seen attempting to steal the piece, and were immediately detained by security guards in the area.


The tools they used in their excavations were seized, a report of the incident was filed and the four suspects were referred to the prosecution.


The tourism and antiquities police were notified of the incident.


The minister added that security was tightened in the area and the guards were rewarded for arresting the suspects.


Abdel Hamid Maarouf, the head of Egyptian Antiquities Sector, said the work, which measures 120 centimeters by 90 centimeters, was a sculptural panel carved using the bas-relief technique.


It features King Merenptah presenting Mayet, the goddess of justice, to Amun-Ra as well as some hieroglyphic inscriptions.


Abdel Moneim Samir, director general of the Kom Ombo tourist area, said the lower part of the panel currently has some holes and scratches as a result of the attempted theft and will be restored.


Edited translation from MENA



WikiLoot aims to use crowdsourcing to track down stolen ancient artefacts

Man behind WikiLoot hopes crowdsourcing experiment will help to find some of the world's oldest and most valuable treasures

Tom Kington in Rome

guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 6 June 2012 18.39 BST


The man behind the WikiLoot idea hopes it will bring about the recovery of many more artefacts such as this 2,300-year-old Greek krater, which was returned to Italy by the J Paul Getty Museum. Photograph: Beatrice Larco/AP

Campaigns to combat archaeological tomb raiders have notched up some big successes, notably a deal under which the J Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles agreed to hand back 40 precious artefacts after it was shown they had been looted from digs in Italy.


Activists, however, call that a drop in the ocean in a business valued at as much as $10bn (£6.5bn) a year, and claim hard-pressed lawyers and police forces are struggling against unscrupulous dealers.


Which is why plans are afoot to put thousands of previously unpublished photos and documents about stolen artefacts online to create WikiLoot, a new crowdsourcing, data mining experiment to help track down some of the world's oldest treasures.


The brains behind the scheme is American Jason Felch, who co-wrote Chasing Aphrodite, an expose of the smuggling of a 2.3m statue of Aphrodite out of Italy in three pieces in a vegetable lorry. It is now safely back in Sicily.


Felch now plans to obtain and post piles of material seized from dealers during police raids and deposited for trials which have yet to be published, and let allcomers mine the data for new clues.


"It's all raw, unprocessed data. Researchers can use it, but we also hope the public can use it to find out a bit more about what is on display at their local museum," he said.


Advice is being taken from open-source experts on how to structure the site, from lawyers on legal issues and social media experts on how to involve the public.


"We will also need a few hundred thousand dollars," added Felch, who is applying for grants, talking to universities and promoting the concept this month at the annual conference in Italy of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA).


Felch's planned platform will initially deal with looting in Italy and Greece, but he is requesting material from all over the world. "South-east Asia, the near east, Afghanistan, Iraq – there is a huge flood of material coming out of these countries."


With an estimated 500,000 artefacts looted from Italy to date, one Italian investigator – Paolo Ferri, a magistrate now working at Italy's culture ministry – said any attempt to track them down was welcome.


He was cautious about aspects of the crowdsourcing concept, claiming that publishing images or descriptions of looted artefacts could push their collectors to hide them better.


"They may also work harder to camouflage the origins of their pieces or even access the archive to manipulate it," Ferri said. "Why not have a password to keep traffickers out?"


Felch, however, insisted it was time for open sourcing. "The police tend to want to keep their cards close to their chest and play them one by one, but they have had 20 years now to do that," he said.




Part of Persepolis sewage system unearthed

Source: Tehran Times



A team of Iranian archaeologists has recently discovered 20 meters of a canal of the sewage system of Persepolis in southern Iran. The team led by Ali Asadi has been commissioned to carry out excavations of the sewage system to discover how the system worked during the Achaemenid era, the Persian service of CHN reported on Tuesday.


The sewage system is located in the southwest of the Achaemenid city near the city of Shiraz.


The team dug down about five meters to reach the canal, Asadi said.


A number of stone bas-reliefs have also been discovered during the excavations, he added.


Asadi said that the sewage system branches off into many canals, which extend to the south and then turn to the east.


The archaeological excavations that have been underway since early May will continue with studies on the canal.


Persepolis was built by Darius I in the late 6th century B.C. Its ruins lie 56 kilometers northeast of Shiraz. Darius transferred the capital of the Achaemenid dynasty to Persepolis from Pasargadae, where Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, had ruled.



Coin from 32 BC oldest in Beau Street Hoard

31 May 2012 Last updated at 19:00

By Jane Onyanga-Omara

BBC News Bristol


A coin from 32 BC similar to the one pictured was the oldest identified so far


The oldest Roman coin in a hoard discovered in Bath dates back more than 200 years earlier than the others already examined.


The Beau Street Hoard of more than 20,000 silver coins was found in a stone-lined box by archaeologists working in Bath in 2007.


Work has begun at the British Museum to clean them.


Stephen Clews, manager of the Roman Baths, said a coin from 32BC was the oldest identified so far.


British Museum conservator Julia Tubman said the coins were initially estimated to number about 30,000, but having excavated the soil block they were contained in, she believes there are no more than 22,000.


Discovered about 150 yards from the Roman Baths, the hoard is described as the fifth largest ever found in the UK.


British Museum staff say it appears to be six smaller collections of coins in bags which is "very unusual".


The coins were found close to the Roman Baths

Mr Clews said the previous oldest coin found in the hoard was from about 190 AD but one has now been dated from the time of Mark Antony.


"The 32 BC coin is quite worn and must have circulated a bit before it was hoarded," he said.


He said the previous most recent coin was from 268 AD to 270 AD but one from 274 AD has now been found.


"The whole hoard must be at least five years younger than we thought," Mr Clews said.


"The make-up of the hoard may shift quite dramatically when a new bag is done.


"It's a developing live story."


Once cleaned, the Treasure Valuation Committee will value the hoard, which Mr Clews said could be by autumn next year.


The Roman Baths Museum hopes to eventually purchase the hoard and put it on public display.



Major Roman Hoard Found in Britain

By Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News

May 21, 2012



What is believed to be the fifth largest hoard of ancient Roman coins ever unearthed in Great Britain was recently announced through Roman Baths, the organization that hopes to become the conservator of the find.


The more than 30,000 silver coins were actually found in 2007. The announcement of their discovery was kept from the press until the coins were recently sent to the British Museum for restoration and examination.


Hoard discoveries are always of interest to collectors, however what makes this find different is who found it. According to Roman Baths and Pump Room Manager Stephen Clews, “The find is also unusual as it was discovered by professional archaeologists as opposed to an amateur using a metal detector.”


Having been found by professionals the coins are able to be studied in the context of their find location, then will be able to be studied as a group and as individual pieces. The problem usually encountered at the time of such a discovery is that the coins are removed by amateurs without first being studied at the site of their find. In Great Britain amateurs finding such hoards will likely turn the finds over to the proper authorities because the finder can anticipate compensation for his efforts, however in other European countries where no compensation can be expected many times the coins are sold clandestinely into the black market. Some of these countries include Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Turkey.


Many times coins found in Great Britain are declared to be treasure trove. Once the find receives this designation it may eventually be offered to the collecting public once the study has been completed. In countries where coin finds are more likely to enter the local black market or be smuggled out of that country all academic opportunities are lost. This is a primary reason why there has been so much political intrigue recently in the United States regarding the import of ancient coins from certain countries where coin finders will otherwise receive no compensation for their discovery.


This find, now known as the Beau Street Hoard, was discovered at the site of work on the Gainsborough Hotel in Bath. The coins were found about 450 feet from the ruins of the Roman baths on Beau Street. The hoard dates from about AD 270, about the time of the reign of Victorinus.


Marcus Plavvonius Victorinus was the emperor of the secessionist Gallic Empire or Gallo-Roman Empire from 268 to 270. Victorinus was declared emperor by his troops in Germany. Gaul and Britain recognized him in the West, but Spain did not. He was murdered by Attitianus, who was one of his officers, allegedly for seducing Attitianus’ wife.


Since the coins were recently declared treasure trove Roman Bath has put in a request for their formal valuation. Once this value has been established Roman Baths hopes to purchase the coins with the intension of displaying them. An appeal has been recently launched by Roman Baths to raise about £150,000 to acquire, conserve, and display the find.


According to Clews, “At the time [the coins were struck] there was a lot of unrest in the Roman Empire so there may be some explanation for why the coins were hidden away.”


The Beau Street Hoard is the largest such find ever discovered at the site of what had been a Roman town in Great Britain. The largest ancient Roman coin find in Great Britain is the 52,503-coin Frome Hoard discovered in April 2010. The Frome Hoard was discovered by Dave Crisp, an amateur using a metal detector along the edge of a field near what had been a Roman road in Somerset. The Frome Hoard consists of coins dating from AD 253 to AD 293 and is valued at £320,250. The coins were found buried in a single container. The discovery in this context suggests the coins were buried intentionally, with their original owner hoping to reclaim his hoard at some later date.


The Beau Street Hoard was found fused together. For this reason the coins will need restoration at the British Museum prior to their being studied individually and as a group. It is likely, as silver coins, that they are each of the antoninianus or double denarius denomination, although no such details have yet been released.



Remains of Shakespeare’s Curtain Theatre discovered in Shoreditch

6 June 2012


The remains of London’s second playhouse, The Curtain Theatre, could be unearthed in Shoreditch as part of a development by Plough Yard Developments in conjunction with The Estate Office Shoreditch.


The Curtain Theatre was home to William Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, before they settled at the Globe and staged several of Shakespeare’s plays including Romeo and Juliet. Despite being immortalised as “this wooden O” in Henry V, which had its premier at The Curtain Theatre, little detailed information is known about this early playhouse. Excavations are expected to provide great insight into its history.


Archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have been undertaking exploratory digs at the site of The Curtain Theatre in Hackney. They have discovered what is believed to be one of the best preserved examples of an Elizabethan theatre in the UK. The discoveries include the walls forming the gallery and the yard within the playhouse itself.


Later operated by theatre impresario James Burbage, The Curtain Theatre opened in 1577 close to London’s first playhouse “The Theatre” and was one of a number of early theatres built outside the City of London’s walls. Named after the nearby Curtain Close, it was the main venue for Shakespeare’s plays between 1597 and 1599 until the Globe was completed in Southwark. The Curtain Theatre disappears from the historic record in 1622 but it may have remained in use until the Civil War.



Remains of the inner wall of the Curtain Theatre yard uncovered in Shoreditch

The discovery of The Curtain Theatre’s remains comes as a result of the planned regeneration of the area. With the site currently largely covered by buildings, the redevelopment of the area is the only way to uncover the remains. The site’s owners, Plough Yard Developments, in conjunction with The Estate Office Shoreditch, now want to make the remains of The Curtain Theatre into the centrepiece of a new development. The proposals include keeping the remains in place and potentially opening them up to the public via the public space alongside a mix of new homes, offices, shops and restaurants for Shoreditch.


A spokesperson from Plough Yard Developments said:


“This is one of the most significant Shakespearian discoveries of recent years. Although the Curtain was known to have been in the area, its exact location was a mystery. The quality of the remains found is remarkable and we are looking forward to working with MOLA, local community and Shakespearian experts to develop plans that will give the public access to the theatre remains as part of a new development.


“Shoreditch is one of London’s most vibrant and creative districts. Once this discovery is open to the public it will add to the area’s rich heritage.”


Eddie Raymayne, who won last year’s Critics Circle Theatre Awards for Best Shakespearian Performance with his Richard II performance at the Donmar Warehouse, commented:


“The discovery of The Curtain is a thrilling prospect particularly in this year of the World Shakespeare Festival. With The Globe and The Rose having helped add such cultural vibrancy to Borough, I'm excited to see what the exploration of this exceptional site will unearth and bring to this already brilliant area of the capital.”


Chris Thomas from MOLA, who is leading the archaeological work, said:


“This is a fantastic site which gives us unique insight into early Shakespearian theatres. We are delighted that Plough Yard Developments plan to preserve the remains in place and open them up to the public as there are few similar sites across the UK.”


Proposals for the site are set to go on display on the 8 June and 9 June 2012 at the site in Shoreditch. A planning application for the redevelopment of the site, including the preserved theatre space is expected to be submitted in the summer.



Pre-Globe Shakespeare theater unearthed in London

By Philip Baillie

LONDON | Wed Jun 6, 2012 10:31am EDT



Archaeologists in London have discovered the remains of an early playhouse used by William Shakespeare's company where "Romeo and Juliet" and "Henry V" were first performed.


Pre-dating the riverside Globe, the Curtain theater, north of the river Thames in Shoreditch, was home to Shakespeare's company - the Lord Chamberlain's Men.


Remains of walls forming the gallery and the yard within the venue have been discovered by archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).


"This is a fantastic site which gives us unique insight into early Shakespearean theatres," said Chris Thomas from MOLA, who is leading the archaeological work.


The theatre was immortalized as "this wooden O" in the prologue of Henry V with the lines: "Can this cock-pit hold within this wooden O, the very caskes that did affright the Ayre at Agincourt?"


The discovery will delight historians and Shakespeare fans as excavations offer a picture of where the writer's early productions were performed, although little further detail is known about the early playhouse.


"This is an outstanding site - and a fortuitous find in the year of the worldwide celebration of Shakespeare," said Kim Stabler, Archaeology Advisor at English Heritage.


London has been celebrating its cultural heritage with a world Shakespeare festival taking place at the Globe theatre and across the UK, as part of a festival to coincide with the Olympics this summer and will last to November.


"The find is another wonderful opportunity to further our understanding of Shakespeare's theatres," said Neil Constable, Chief Executive of Shakespeare's Globe.


The Curtain Theatre opened in 1577 close to London's first playhouse "The Theatre" and was one of a number of early theatres built outside the city's walls.


The venue took its name from nearby street Curtain Close.


It was the main arena for Shakespeare's plays between 1597 and 1599 until the Globe was completed in Southwark, but it is unclear what happened to the playhouse after that when it seemed to vanish from historic records after 1622.


Some experts say it may have remained in use until the Civil War in the 1640s.


Archaeologists stumbled upon the Curtain Theatre's remains on Hewett Street after work began on a regeneration project led by local developers last October.


Soon after the remains were found on an exploratory dig, architects began drawing up plans to preserve the remains while allowing the development to go ahead.


A spokesman for Plough Yard Developments, the company leading the regeneration project with the Estate Office Shoreditch, said the excavations could become a preserved centerpiece of a new housing and shopping area.


The plans are set to go on display on June 8 and 9 at the site.


"Although the Curtain was known to have been in the area, its exact location was a mystery," the Plough Yard spokesman said.