Uranium-series dating reveals Iberian paintings are Europe's oldest cave art

Public release date: 14-Jun-2012

Contact: Hannah Johnson



University of Bristol


The practice of cave art in Europe thus began up to 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, indicating the paintings were created either by the first anatomically modern humans in Europe or, perhaps, by Neanderthals.


Fifty paintings in 11 caves in Northern Spain, including the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo and Tito Bustillo, were dated by a team of UK, Spanish and Portuguese researchers led by Dr Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol, UK.


As traditional methods such as radiocarbon dating don't work where there is no organic pigment, the team dated the formation of tiny stalactites on top of the paintings using the radioactive decay of uranium. This gave a minimum age for the art. Where larger stalagmites had been painted, maximum ages were also obtained.


Hand stencils and disks made by blowing paint onto the wall in El Castillo cave were found to date back to at least 40,800 years, making them the oldest known cave art in Europe, 5-10,000 years older than previous examples from France.


A large club-shaped symbol in the famous polychrome chamber at Altamira was found to be at least 35,600 years old, indicating that painting started there 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, and that the cave was revisited and painted a number of times over a period spanning more than 20,000 years.


Dr Pike said: "Evidence for modern humans in Northern Spain dates back to 41,500 years ago, and before them were Neanderthals. Our results show that either modern humans arrived with painting already part of their cultural activity or it developed very shortly after, perhaps in response to competition with Neanderthals – or perhaps the art is Neanderthal art."


The creation of art by humans is considered an important marker for the evolution of modern cognition and symbolic behavior, and may be associated with the development of language.


Dr Pike said: "We see evidence for earlier human symbolism in the form of perforated beads, engraved egg shells and pigments in Africa 70-100,000 years ago, but it appears that the earliest cave paintings are in Europe. One argument for its development here is that competition for resources with Neanderthals provoked increased cultural innovation from the earliest groups of modern humans in order to survive. Alternatively, cave painting started before the arrival of modern humans, and was done by Neanderthals. That would be a fantastic find as it would mean the hand stencils on the walls of the caves are outlines of Neanderthals' hands, but we will need to date more examples to see if this is the case."


The findings are particularly significant because cave art has always been difficult to date accurately.


Dr Pike said: "Engravings and, in many cases, paintings lack organic pigments or binders suitable for radiocarbon dating. Where suitable material – such as charcoal pigments – does exist, only small samples can be dated to minimize damage to the art. This magnifies the effects of contamination and produces less accurate results.


"Instead, we measured uranium isotopes in the thin calcite flowstone growths that formed on the surfaces of the paintings and engravings to date the art. This technique, known as uranium-series disequilibrium, is used extensively in Earth Sciences and avoids the problems related to radiocarbon dating."


Team member and dating expert Dr Dirk Hoffmann of the National Centre for the Investigation of Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain said: "The key development was our method to date tiny tiny calcium carbonate deposits similar to stalactites. We can now date samples of just 10 milligrams – about as small as a grain of rice. This has allowed us to find samples that had formed directly on top of hundreds of paintings, whereas the larger stalactites were much less frequent."


Cave art specialist Dr Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield, UK said: "Until now our understanding of the age of cave art was sketchy at best; now we have firmly extended the earliest age of European cave art back by several thousand years, to the time of the last Neanderthals and earliest Homo sapiens. These earliest images do not represent animals, and suggest that the earliest art was non-figurative, which may have significant implications for how art evolved."


The research was funded by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Notes to editors


'U-series dating of Palaeolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain' by A. W. G. Pike, D. L. Hoffmann, M. García-Diez, P. B. Pettitt, J. Alcolea, R. De Balbín, C. González-Sainz, C. de las Heras, J. A. Lasheras, R. Montes, J. Zilhão in Science



Red dot becomes 'oldest cave art'

15 June 2012 Last updated at 01:32

By Jonathan Amos

Science correspondent, BBC News


Red dots, hand stencils and animal figures represent the oldest examples yet found of cave art in Europe.


The symbols on the walls at 11 Spanish locations, including the World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo and Tito Bustillo have long been recognised for their antiquity.


But researchers have now used refined dating techniques to get a more accurate determination of their ages.


One motif - a faint red dot - is said to be more than 40,000 years old.


"In Cantabria, [in] El Castillo, we find hand stencils that are formed by blowing paint against the hands pressed against the wall of a cave," explained Dr Alistair Pike from Bristol University, UK, and the lead author on a scholarly paper published in the journal Science.


"We find one of these to date older than 37,300 years on 'The Panel of Hands', and very nearby there is a red disc made by a very similar technique that dates to older than 40,800 years.


"This now currently is Europe's oldest dated art by at least 4,000 years," he told reporters. It is arguably also the oldest reliably dated cave art anywhere in the world.


The team arrived at the ages by examining the calcium carbonate (calcite) crusts that had formed on top of the paintings.


This material builds up in the exact same way that stalagmites and stalactites form in a cave.


In the process, the calcite incorporates small numbers of naturally occurring radioactive uranium atoms. These atoms decay into thorium at a very precise rate through the ages, and the ratio of the two different elements in any sample can therefore be used as a kind of clock to time the moment when the calcite crust first formed.


Uranium-thorium dating has been around for decades, but the technique has now been so refined that only a tiny sample is required to get a good result.


This enabled the team to take very thin films of deposits from just above the paint pigments; and because the films were on top, the dates they gave were minimum ages - that is, the paintings had to be at least as old as the calcite deposits, and very probably quite a bit older.

The oldest dates coincide with the first known immigration into Europe of modern humans (Homo sapiens). Before about 41,000 years ago, it is their evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), who dominate the continent.


Dr Pike's and colleagues' work therefore raises some intriguing questions about who might have authored the markings.


If anatomically modern humans were responsible then it means they engaged in the activity almost immediately on their arrival in Europe.


If Neanderthals were the artisans, it adds another layer to our understanding of their capabilities and sophistication.


The great antiquity of the paintings leads co-author Joao Zilhao, a research professor at ICREA, University of Barcelona, to think the Neanderthals produced the motifs. Finding even older paintings than the red dot at El Castillo might confirm that "gut feeling", he said.


"There is a strong chance that these results imply Neanderthal authorship," Prof Zilhao explained.


"But I will not say we have proven it because we haven't, and it cannot be proven at this time.


"What we have to do now is go back, sample more and find out whether we can indeed get dates older than 42, 43, 44,000.


"There is already a sampling programme going on. We have samples from more sites in Spain, from sites in Portugal and from other caves in Western Europe and so eventually we will be able to sort it out."


Tracing the origins of abstract throught and behaviours, and the rate at which they developed, are critical to understanding the human story.


The use of symbolism - the ability to let one thing represent another in the mind - is one of those traits that set our animal species apart from all others.


It is what underpins artistic endeavour and also the use of language.



Builders excavating site for housing estate in Wales discover foundations of a meeting house 'older than the Egyptian pyramids'

Foundations of meeting house at least 50ft long found in Monmouth

Discovery was made as builders worked on a new housing estate


PUBLISHED: 12:21, 14 June 2012 | UPDATED: 15:54, 14 June 2012


A large prehistoric building older than Egypt’s pyramids has been discovered in Wales.

The foundations of a meeting house which was at least 50ft long were uncovered as builders worked on a new housing estate in Monmouth.

Archaeologists are mystified by the 'unique' find and say that nothing like it has ever been found in Britain.


Unique find: The foundations of a meeting house which could be 6,500 years old were uncovered as builders worked on a new housing estate in Monmouth, south Wales

After studying the foundations, made up of 3ft-wide tree trunks, experts believe the building was a long house constructed on the edge of a long-lost lake which has silted up over time.

Monmouth Archaeology has dated the find to at least the Bronze Age - but it could be early Neolithic about 6,500 years ago.

The pyramids in Egypt were built about 4,500 years ago.


Archaeologist Steve Clarke said: 'We’re not really sure what it is. It’s a mystery, but it’s the foundation for something. We haven’t seen anything like it.

'We think it’s a long house which would have been home to a family, and perhaps used for gatherings and meetings.'

He added: 'We think it could be from the Bronze Age but some of the experts we’ve brought in to see it think it could be early Neolithic.

'If that’s the case it could easily pre-date the pyramids.'


Expert believe the building was a long house constructed on the edge of a long-lost lake which has silted up

The building’s foundations were made from entire tree trunks, measuring about a metre wide. The wooden foundations were at least 50ft long.

Mr Clarke said most of the known long houses were built on posts about a 1ft wide, but trees had been used for the base of the Monmouth structure.

The find is on the Parc Glyndwr development in Monmouth, where about 80 houses are to be built.

Monmouth Archaeology was employed by the housing developers to study the site.

Archaeologists have ordered radio-carbon tests of the foundations and the results are expected later this month.


Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2159185/Prehistoric-building-older-Egyptian-pyramids-discovered-Wales-puzzling-archaeologists.html#ixzz1xqiaOfT5



Back together after break of 4,000 years

Saturday, June 16, 2012 Nottingham Post


A 4,000-YEAR-OLD beaker found in fragments during the dualling of the A46 has been put back together.


The Bronze Age item is expected to go on show next year in a Notts museum alongside other artefacts which have been dug up.


It was discovered in dozens of pieces in an ancient grave close to the road at Stragglethorpe when the area was being investigated by archaeologists ahead of the of the road-building scheme.


It was handed to pottery specialists at Cotswold Wessex Archaeology, who have pieced the delicate beaker together again.


Andy Crockett, project director at Cotswold Wessex Archaeology, said: "Newark Museums have provisionally indicated their willingness to accept the archive of finds and paper records from the archaeological excavations undertaken in advance of the construction of the new A46 dual carriageway.


"We would hope this might include display of some items, including the beaker, though this will probably require permanent professional reconstruction for that purpose. The transfer will be undertaken upon completion of all reports, which is scheduled for 2013."


The 15cm-tall clay patterned beaker, dated to between 2130BC and 1970 BC, was found in a grave next to a Bronze Age burial barrow just south of the new A46 junction at Stragglethorpe.


Some experts believe beakers were used to drink alcohol from.


The vessel was buried with five adults and two children, who were all found in crouched positions.


The beaker was one of 100,000 ancient artefacts found alongside the 28km stretch of new road between Widmerpool and Farndon.


The dual carriageway was officially opened yesterday.


Other major finds during the £400 million upgrade have included remains of small late Iron Age settlements at Owthorpe and Saxondale, Roman and Anglo-Saxon field systems at Saxondale and further evidence of Roman occupation, including 17 infant burials just outside the Roman town of Margidunum, near East Bridgford, which suggests there may have been a brothel there.


The babies were buried close together in fields to the east of the A46.


Ursilla Spence, Notts County Council's chief archaeologist, said: "Finding 17 baby burials together is quite unusual. Perhaps they are evidence of a road-side brothel or some kind of ritual activity."


All the artefacts were taken to the Wiltshire head office of Cotswold Wessex Archaeology, the private consultancy which won the contract to assess the archaeology.


A public report on the finds is expected to be published next year, after which artefacts will be returned to Notts for display in museums.


Among the other finds was evidence of three Iron Age round houses at Owthorpe. Another small Iron Age settlement was found at High Thorpe, just to the south of Saxondale.



'Vampire' skeleton going on display in Bulgaria

Published June 14, 2012

Associated Press


June 14, 2012: A skeleton dating back to the Middle Ages and recently unearthed in the black sea town of Sozopol, and displayed at National History Museum in Sofia. On Saturday, one of those 700-year-old skeletons will be put on display at the National History Museum in Sofia, and its director, Bozhidar Dimitrov, says he expects there to be a big turnout. (AP Photo/Valentina Petrova)


SOFIA, Bulgaria –  Ever since archaeologists announced last week that they have found two ancient skeletons in Bulgaria with iron rods thrust through their chests, the media have been reporting how Bulgarians once did that to prevent the dead from emerging from the grave as vampires.

On Saturday, one of those 700-year-old skeletons will be put on display at the National History Museum in Sofia, and its director, Bozhidar Dimitrov, says he expects there to be a big turnout.

'These two skeletons stabbed with rods illustrate a practice common up until the first decade of the 20th century.'

- National history museum chief Bozhidar Dimitrov

Dimitrov said Thursday that some people who were believed to have led evil lives were treated that way when they were buried in parts of Bulgaria as recently as the beginning of the last century.

The media have reported that because vampire tales remain popular in Balkan countries such as Bulgaria some people in the Black Sea resort of Sozopol, where the skeletons were found in a graveyard, are having trouble sleeping at night.

According to Dimitrov, over 100 corpses stabbed to prevent them from becoming vampires have been discovered across Bulgaria over the years.

"I do not know why an ordinary discovery like that [has] became so popular. Perhaps because of the mysteriousness of the word "vampire," he said.



Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2012/06/14/vampire-skeleton-going-on-display-in-bulgaria/#ixzz1y5EKP0cP



Bristol's College Green archaeological survey begins

18 June 2012 Last updated at 16:28


The geophysical survey could reveal more about Bristol's patron saint, St Jordan


Archaeologists have begun a survey at College Green to learn more about the history of Bristol Cathedral and life in the city.


Probes will scan the entire Green over two days to build up a map of the underground graves and buildings.


Archaeologist Mark Horton said: "College Green is one of the most historic bits of Bristol, there's layers of history here."


College Green is owned by the church, but managed by Bristol City Council.


Bristol Cathedral is working with archaeologists at the University of Bristol on the project.


Dean of Bristol Cathedral, The Very Reverend David Hoyle, said: "What we're really hope to find is the sixth Saxon chapel - inside the Cathedral there is a stunning Saxon carving, a figure of Christ rescuing people from hell.


"We know there was a Saxon community here and it would be wonderful to find some evidence of that."


It is believed this chapel may also contain the relics of the patron saint of Bristol, St Jordan.


"There is an enormous debate going on about this person called Jordan," added Mr Hoyle.


"We know that St Augustine of Canterbury came here, we know he had companions with him, we think Jordan was one of them.


"We think he stayed behind and we think the chapel could be his burial place."


Depending on the weather, a follow-up survey may take place next week.



Scots team scan Mount Rushmore presidential heads

18 June 2012 Last updated at 12:08


Mount Rushmore is among the international heritage sites to be scanned by the Scottish 10 project


Scottish experts have produced the first fly-through 3D animations of Mount Rushmore - America's iconic monument of four former presidents.


The recording allows digital visitors to sweep up the granite cliff in South Dakota and across the sculpted faces.


It also shows the valley behind the heads, known as The Hall of Records, which is inaccessible to the public.


The work was carried out by the Scottish 10 project, led by Historic Scotland and Glasgow School of Art.


The joint venture aims to digitally document all five of Scotland's world heritage sites and five international sites.


So far, the team has scanned St Kilda, New Lanark and Neolithic Orkney in Scotland, Mount Rushmore in America and the Queen's Stepwell - or Rani Ki Vav - in India.


'Global audience'

Work is set to get underway soon on the Eastern Qing Tombs in China.


Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop said: "I am delighted to see Scottish expertise helping to interpret, manage and conserve this wonderful site.


"The Scottish 10 has recorded some of the world's most important and iconic heritage sites, and this new project at Mount Rushmore joins remarkable work already completed at locations including St Kilda, Rani Ki Vav Stepwell in India, and Neolithic Orkney.


"Historic Scotland through its partnership with Glasgow School of Art is taking Scottish digital expertise to a global audience, enhancing our country's reputation for innovation, creativity and scientific progress."


The project scanning Mount Rushmore was completed with American partner CyArk and the US National Park Service.



Paul Sussman

Paul Sussman, who has died aged 45, was the author and archaeologist behind a series of bestselling thrillers acclaimed as “the intelligent reader’s answer to The Da Vinci Code”.

6:03PM BST 14 Jun 2012


For two months a year, Sussman worked extensively as a field archaeologist, particularly in Egypt. He started there after being invited, in 1998, to join a team digging in the Valley of the Kings on the Amarna Royal Tombs Project, the first expedition to dig new ground in the Valley of the Kings since the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922.

Though initially the team’s diarist, and despite holding no formal ­archaeological qualification, he found himself supervising the re-excavation of Tomb KV56. Discovered in 1908 by the English archaeologist Edward Ayrton, KV56, a burial chamber on a small scale, had yielded one of the most spectacular arrays of jewellery found in the valley, hence its nickname: the Gold Tomb.

Sussman discovered the only item of pharaonic jewellery to have been found in the Valley since Tutankhamen’s tomb was first discovered by Howard Carter. This was a small plaque, or rectangle of beaten gold, stamped with the cartouche of the pharaoh Seti II. Ayrton had found 13 identical plaques, part of a chain that would have hung around the pharaoh’s neck, and this was one he had missed.

But it was the humdrum objects Sussman and his team unearthed that he prized most: a collection of copper chisel heads; an ostracon — a small flake of limestone — b­earing a cartoon of a man masturbating; a pair of beer-jar stoppers; the leftovers of someone’s fish supper.

“These are the remains not of living gods,” Sussman wrote, “but of the men who dug and decorated the tombs — people who went to work, sniggered at rude jokes, had a beer and a takeaway at the end of the day. People pretty much like you or me. That’s why I love archaeology: because it doesn’t just show us how different things were, but also how similar.”

Sussman’s archaeological knowledge informed his bestselling books. These included The Last Secret of the Temple (2005), “a big, fat, satisfying archaeological puzzle story” as one critic noted, in which Sussman interwove intricate plotting and solid characterisation. This particularly emerged in the relationship between the Egyptian police inspector, Yusuf Khalifa, and a hard-nosed Israeli detective Arieh Ben-Roi, whose mutual loathing turns to friendship as they are forced to co-operate in investigating the death of a tourist.

Paul Nicholas Sussman was born on July 11 1966 and brought up in Northwood. His father was the sales manager for a textile company and his mother was an actress who retrained as a psychotherapist.

His obsession with archaeology dated from July 1972, when an aunt took him, aged six, to the Tutankhamen exhibition at the British Museum. Mesmerised by the treasures on display, he carried out extensive excavations in his back garden in the hope of discovering something similar, and became a dedicated “mudlark”, digging along the banks of the Thames.

After Merchant Taylors’, he went up to Cambridge where he represented St John’s College at boxing, won a blue, and played with a thrash-metal band called Meathead and the Turbohammers before graduating with a History degree. Drifting through numerous jobs, he worked as a gravedigger in France, sold cigars in Harrods, almost joined MI6, and toured Europe acting as Aunt Sponge in a “ground-breakingly execrable production of James and the Giant Peach”.

Returning to London, Sussman worked in the advertising department of the Big Issue, the magazine and charity founded to help homeless people. But he was soon pestering the magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief, John Bird, for work as a writer. “The Big Issue was floundering during its first year,” Bird recalled, “and it was only when people like Paul came along in 1992 that we got a reputation for good journalism.”

As well as working as feature writer and film editor, Sussman earned a cult following with his weekly “In The News” column (some of which were collected in 1996 in his first book, Death by Spaghetti… Bizarre, Baffling and Bonkers True Stories from In The News).

When Big Issue colleagues pointed out Sussman’s physical resemblance to Dodi Fayed, then escorting Diana, Princess of Wales, he was photographed for a feature in which he posed in character around London. By a freak of mistiming, the resulting story appeared on the day after the couple’s death in a car crash in Paris. Colleagues spent the day frantically sticking apologies into every copy of the magazine.

His work at the Big Issue led to a successful career as a freelance journalist, writing for The Guardian, The Independent, the Evening Standard, the Daily Express and The Daily Telegraph. For a time he was on the staff of the American cable television network CNN.

Sussman’s debut novel, The Lost Army of Cambyses (2002), was praised for its plot (“as complex as a hall of mirrors and almost as gripping as a death threat”). His second, The Last Secret of the Temple, was followed by The Hidden Oasis (2009). He had recently completed Labyrinth of Osiris, fourth in a Yusuf Khalifa series that has now been translated into 33 languages and sold two million copies.

Paul Sussman, who died of a ruptured aneurysm, is survived by his wife, Alicky, a documentary maker, their two sons and his parents. A baby daughter predeceased him.

Paul Sussman, born July 11 1966, died May 31 2012