Were the First Artists Mostly Women?

Three-quarters of handprints in ancient cave art were left by women, study finds.

Handprints in ancient cave art most often belonged to women, overturning the dogma that the earliest artists were all men.

Virginia Hughes

for National Geographic

Published October 8, 2013


Women made most of the oldest-known cave art paintings, suggests a new analysis of ancient handprints. Most scholars had assumed these ancient artists were predominantly men, so the finding overturns decades of archaeological dogma.


Archaeologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University analyzed hand stencils found in eight cave sites in France and Spain. By comparing the relative lengths of certain fingers, Snow determined that three-quarters of the handprints were female.


"There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time," said Snow, whose research was supported by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. "People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why."


Archaeologists have found hundreds of hand stencils on cave walls across the world. Because many of these early paintings also showcase game animals—bison, reindeer, horses, woolly mammoths—many researchers have proposed that they were made by male hunters, perhaps to chronicle their kills or as some kind of "hunting magic" to improve success of an upcoming hunt. The new study suggests otherwise.


"In most hunter-gatherer societies, it's men that do the killing. But it's often the women who haul the meat back to camp, and women are as concerned with the productivity of the hunt as the men are," Snow said. "It wasn't just a bunch of guys out there chasing bison around."


Experts expressed a wide range of opinions about how to interpret Snow's new data, attesting to the many mysteries still surrounding this early art.


"Hand stencils are a truly ironic category of cave art because they appear to be such a clear and obvious connection between us and the people of the Paleolithic," said archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in England. "We think we understand them, yet the more you dig into them you realize how superficial our understanding is."


Snow's study began more than a decade ago when he came across the work of John Manning, a British biologist who had found that men and women differ in the relative lengths of their fingers: Women tend to have ring and index fingers of about the same length, whereas men's ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers.


One day after reading about Manning's studies, Snow pulled a 40-year-old book about cave paintings off his bookshelf. The inside front cover of the book showed a colorful hand stencil from the famous Pech Merle cave in southern France. "I looked at that thing and I thought, man, if Manning knows what he's talking about, then this is almost certainly a female hand," Snow recalled.



Hand stencils and handprints have been found in caves in Argentina, Africa, Borneo, and Australia. But the most famous examples are from the 12,000- to 40,000-year-old cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain.


For the new study, out this week in the journal American Antiquity, Snow examined hundreds of stencils in European caves, but most were too faint or smudged to use in the analysis. The study includes measurements from 32 stencils, including 16 from the cave of El Castillo in Spain, 6 from the caves of Gargas in France, and 5 from Pech Merle.


Snow ran the numbers through an algorithm that he had created based on a reference set of hands from people of European descent who lived near his university. Using several measurements—such as the length of the fingers, the length of the hand, the ratio of ring to index finger, and the ratio of index finger to little finger—the algorithm could predict whether a given handprint was male or female. Because there is a lot of overlap between men and women, however, the algorithm wasn't especially precise: It predicted the sex of Snow's modern sample with about 60 percent accuracy.


Luckily for Snow, that wasn't a problem for the analysis of the prehistoric handprints. As it turned out—much to his surprise—the hands in the caves were much more sexually dimorphic than modern hands, meaning that there was little overlap in the various hand measurements.


"They fall at the extreme ends, and even beyond the extreme ends," Snow said. "Twenty thousand years ago, men were men and women were women."


Woman, Boy, Shaman?


Snow's analysis determined that 24 of the 32 hands—75 percent—were female.

Some experts are skeptical. Several years ago, evolutionary biologist R. Dale Guthrie performed a similar analysis of Paleolithic handprints. His work—based mostly on differences in the width of the palm and the thumb—found that the vast majority of handprints came from adolescent boys.


For adults, caves would have been dangerous and uninteresting, but young boys would have explored them for adventure, said Guthrie, an emeritus professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. "They drew what was on their mind, which is mainly two things: naked women and large, frightening mammals."


Other researchers are more convinced by the new data.


"I think the article is a landmark contribution," said archaeologist Dave Whitley of ASM Affiliates, an archaeological consulting firm in Tehachapi, California. Despite these handprints being discussed for half a decade, "this is the first time anyone's synthesized a good body of evidence."


Whitley rejects Guthrie's idea that this art was made for purely practical reasons related to hunting. His view is that most of the art was made by shamans who went into trances to try to connect with the spirit world. "If you go into one of these caves alone, you start to suffer from sensory deprivation very, very quickly, in 5 to 10 minutes," Whitley said. "It can spin you into an altered state of consciousness."


The new study doesn't discount the shaman theory, Whitley added, because in some hunter-gatherer societies shamans are female or even transgendered.


The new work raises many more questions than it answers. Why would women be the primary artists? Were they creating only the handprints, or the rest of the art as well? Would the hand analysis hold up if the artists weren't human, but Neanderthal?


The question Snow gets most often, though, is why these ancient artists, whoever they were, left handprints at all.


"I have no idea, but a pretty good hypothesis is that this is somebody saying, 'This is mine, I did this,'" he said.



Neandertals ate stomach goop, and you can too



Could I interest you in eating the partially digested stomach contents of a porcupine?


No? Maybe a spot of reindeer stomach, then. Still no? Well, that’s curious.


(The Roman dish rigatoni con la Pajata includes a sausage of calf intestine containing chyme, or partially digested stomach contents.)


The Western aversion to these dishes is odd, because people around the world have long partaken of — even delighted in — the delicacy known to medical science as chyme. That’s what becomes of food after it’s chewed, swallowed and mushed around in the stomach for a while with a healthy dose of hydrochloric acid. And, researchers now suggest, Neandertals were no exception. Eating chyme may even explain the presence of some puzzling plant matter found in Neandertal’s tartar-crusted teeth.


Neandertals didn’t have great dental care, and in the last few years anthropologists have begun to take advantage of monstrous tartar buildup on fossilized teeth to figure out what the hominids ate. Various chemical signatures, starch grains and even tiny plant fossils called phytoliths get preserved in the tartar, also known as calculus.


Just what Neandertals ate has been more of a puzzle than paleo dieters might have you believe. Isotope analyses of fossilized bones and teeth suggest Neandertals ate very high on the food chain, with high-protein diets akin to those of wolves or hyenas. But wear marks on their teeth suggest the Neandertal diet consisted of more animals in colder high-latitude areas, and more of a mix of plants and animals in warmer areas. Tartar analyses support the idea that Neandertals ate their veggies, and have also suggested the presence of plants considered inedible, or at least unpalatable and non-nutritious. These include some plants like yarrow and chamomile with medicinal value, so one team suggested Neandertals self-medicated.


But now anthropologists Laura Buck and Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum suggest in Quaternary Science Reviews that instead, Neandertals may have picked up some of these plants by eating the stomach contents of their prey. That would explain the presence of plants with no obvious nutritional value to hominids.


They would hardly be unique. Consider explorer Fridtjof Nansen's 1893 description of Inuit eating reindeer chyme, as quoted by Buck and Stringer:


"It has undergone a sort of stewing in the process of semi-digestion, while the gastric juice provides a somewhat sharp and aromatic sauce. Many will no doubt make a wry face at the thought of this dish, but they really need not do so. I have tasted it, and found it not uneatable, though somewhat sour, like fermented milk."


The sourness would come from stomach acid; the pH of human chyme is around 2, similar to lemon juice. In other words, perfectly edible.


Only in today's warped food scene could people refuse to eat anything but boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The Inuit traditionally ate reindeer chyme because it was a source of plant matter, a rare commodity in their environment. Eating nothing but protein can be toxic, so letting the reindeer do the hard work of finding all the most tender mosses and lichens is pretty smart. The KhoeSan eat porcupine stomach because of the animals’ diet of medicinal plants.


Chyme has not died out as a culinary treat. A more palatable presentation for the Western palate is found in rigatoni con la Pajata (or con la Pagliata), a classic dish still found in Rome. To prepare it, the upper section of the small intestine of an unweaned, milk-fed calf is cooked with the chyme still inside. The enzyme mix rennet, used in cheese-making, is naturally found in the stomach and turns the chyme into a rich creamy sauce. With some rigatoni and tomato sauce, apparently it’s quite delicious.


My husband’s first response when I described the dish was, “Hmmm. I’d try that.” Now that’s the spirit.



World's only surviving Bronze Age metropolis in Pakistan faces ruin

Archeologists say that 5,000 year-old city of Mohenjodaro, the world's oldest planned urban landscape, is being rapidly corroded by salt and could disappear within 20 years

Dean Nelson By Dean Nelson, Mohenjodaro, Sindh 8:00AM BST 13 Oct 2013


When archaeologists first uncovered the 5,000-year-old ruins of Mohenjodaro, they made one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century: the world’s only surviving Bronze Age metropolis.

That was in colonial India in 1924. Today, the most important site of the Indus civilisation lies in Pakistan.

Now the once lost city is in danger of disappearing again as its clay wall houses, grid system roads, great granaries, baths and drainage systems crumble to dust, a victim of government neglect, public indifference and tourists’ fears of terrorism.

Archaeologists have told The Sunday Telegraph that the world’s oldest planned urban landscape is being corroded by salt and could disappear within 20 years without an urgent rescue plan.

Last week, international experts and Pakistani officials met in Karachi to draw up a plan to save the site, stabilise its funding and promote awareness of a wonder of the ancient world. They now plan to undertake an intensive conservation programme, a survey to establish how much of the ancient city is still underground and a plan to rebury those sections of the recovered ruins most under threat.


Mohenjodaro was a major centre of the pre-Hindu Indus civilisation, which dates back to 3000 BC. Its estimated 40,000 inhabitants were contemporaries of Bronze Age civilisations in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Yellow River settlements of China. But while their archaeological legacies were mostly of wealthy rulers and “God-Kings”, Mohenjodaro has yielded evidence of a society that valued good roads, clean water and a system of law.

Excavation teams led by Sir John Marshall, the director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, and his successors, scraped away thousands of years of mud to uncover an almost perfectly planned city, and evidence of how its inhabitants lived.

Separate drains for rainwater and sewage, covered with limestone slabs to repel insects, ran on a gentle gradient, demonstrating the accomplishment of its engineers. Its masons built wells for drinking water and bathrooms in every home while polishing the tiles of its grand ritual bath to a highly burnished waterproof glaze.

The pool was only partly roofed so the uncovered water could be purified by sunlight. It had a clear class structure with “well-to-do” neighbourhoods of large houses with courtyards and guest rooms opening on to wide boulevards for bullock carts. Its citadel was home to a pillared assembly hall for debates and consultation.

A granary, where wheat and barley were stored on raised plinths to protect them from floods, revealed its good governance — provision was made to feed the city in lean times. Excavators found a water cooler area in the citadel — a square platform dented by the impressions from giant earthenware pots — where its officials could gather and gossip.

There are also clay litter bins on its narrow residential lanes. More than 40,000 artefacts recovered from the excavations have made a collage of the lives of Mohenjodarans. They include a celebrated bronze statue of a semi-naked dancing girl, perfectly shaped clay urns, platters, ovens that highlight a culinary culture and stone weights and measures that indicate a sense of fairness. A set of carved seals hints at a revenue collection system, while hand-carved figures such as chess pieces and clay toy animals reveal the city’s more playful side.

But Irshad Ali Rid, Mohenjodaro’s curator, shared the concerns of Unesco – the United Nations cultural body, Pakistani archeologists and Sindh government officials that all could once again be lost without urgent action.

The ruins, he said, are besieged by the area’s hostile elements. Summer temperatures of 124F (51C), winter frosts, torrential monsoon rains and humid air all combine to leave the sun-dried clay bricks with a dusting of salt crystals that dries them out and sucks them to dust.

The site is in effect an island surrounded by flooded rice paddies and the Indus river on which a tiny band of labourers is locked in a losing battle to spray the walls and roads with a protective layer of “sweet”, salt-free mud, and re-point the crumbling mud mortar that holds the bricks together.

Preservation work has been going on since the first major excavations in 1924 and intensified after it was made a World Heritage Site in 1980, but the effort has flagged as scarce government funds have been diverted by earthquakes and floods, officials said.

They need 350 labourers, as well as masons, supervisors and technical staff, but on the day The Sunday Telegraph visited there were just 16 men wheeling barrows of mud to shore up the walls.

Jawad Aziz, a Unesco heritage expert, said the need for action is vital. “I’ve visited the site and seen the bricks,” he said. “They will be crumbling down, so it’s very urgent.”

Dr Asma Ibrahim, a leading Pakistani archaeologist, said she was pessimistic. “There is no department with expertise, no decisions taken for the last two years,” she said. “The way things are going, it will survive maybe only another 20 years.”



Archaeological stunner: Not Herod's Tomb after all?

While attention is focused on a blockbuster exhibition purporting to display the tomb of Herod the Great, two archaeologists claim there's no way the egomaniac king was interred there.

By Nir Hasson | Oct. 11, 2013 | 9:13 AM


In May 2007, at a dramatic press conference, archaeologist Ehud Netzer revealed that King Herod’s tomb had been discovered on the slopes of Herodium. Now two archaeologists argue that what was found there can't be Herod's last resting place.


The mountain site lying southeast of Jerusalem includes an ancient fortress, palaces and a town. Netzer had uncovered remnants of a grand structure with a cone-shaped roof and the shattered remains of three elaborate sarcophagi ‏(stone coffins‏). One of these, meticulously chiseled out of red stone, was thought to have once contained the body of the great king of Judea.


The story of the tomb’s discovery − which was one of the greatest events in Israeli archaeology for decades − took a tragic turn with the death of Netzer. The leading expert on Herod, who had devoted much of his career to finding the tomb on Herodium, fell to his death in an accident in 2010 not far from that site.


In the past eight months, the tomb has been the crowning glory of what has been called the country’s largest archaeology exhibition ever, at the Israel Museum, focusing on the figure of Herod and his burial. In the course of preparing the exhibition, the top part of the mausoleum and the sarcophagi were reconstructed. Meanwhile, plans were drawn up to reconstruct the tomb itself at Herodium, which is in the West Bank, using lightweight materials, so as to restore it to its full height of 25 meters. That plan, however, has since been shelved due to pressure from archaeologists and preservationists who opposed it.


Now, two archaeologists, Prof. Joseph Patrich and Benjamin Arubas, both from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, are raising serious questions about the identification of the structure as the burial site of the king. They contend that there is no possibility that the mausoleum Netzer and his students uncovered could actually be the royal tomb in which Herod was interred after his death, in 4 B.C.E.


The structure is not in keeping with Herod’s other construction projects or his personality, they say.


“I feel like the boy in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’” says Patrich. “It's so obvious that it is surprising people can’t see it.”


The pair presented their main reservations yesterday at the seventh annual “Innovations in Archaeology in Jerusalem and the Surrounding Area” conference, organized by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University.


Not our egomaniac


First off, Patrich and Arubas cited the relatively modest dimensions of the mausoleum. Reconstructed inside the Israel Museum’s exhibition hall, it looks big and impressive, but in relation to Herodium as a whole and to the other structures built there − and certainly in relation to what we know of the way Herod saw himself − it's rather modest, they say.


The mausoleum is also modest compared to other graves of royal figures in antiquity that were have been unearthed in the area, with whom Herod was surely familiar. Patrich and Arubas mention, for example, the burial structures in which leading Hasmonean figures were interred in the second century B.C.E., in Modi’in. These soared to greater heights than the tomb at Herodium, even though Herod considered himself to be the greatest ruler of all − at least in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.


Herod was also presumably acquainted with the graves of the greatest rulers of the ancient world, Caesar Augustus in Rome and Alexander the Great in Alexandria. Both are gigantic monuments beside which Herod’s Tomb, as discovered on Herodium, pales in comparison.


“In every aspect of Herod’s building projects, there is an evident desire to make himself known worldwide, to the point of megalomania,” Patrich and Arubas write in the paper delivered at the conference. “Is it conceivable that Herod, after erecting such monumental construction projects and achieving glory in Rome and the East, planned a relatively simple grave and tombstone for himself?”


Added Patrich, in an interview with Haaretz this week, “A person should ask himself, is this how he would have imagined Herod’s tomb?”


Another reservation the archaeologists raise concerns the location on the slopes of Herodium, which lacks suitable access for a royal burial site, and is overshadowed by other, larger structures on the hill. Historian  Flavius Josephus describes Herod’s royal funeral procession as featuring thousands of soldiers, civilians and slaves walking behind the coffin. The plaza across from the mausoleum can't house a crowd of that size. “Barely 20 people can stand there,” Patrich observes.


He also points out that the excavations reveal that after construction on the tomb was finished, a water cistern that had been used for irrigating the garden around the burial site was destroyed to make way for erection of a staircase that was to lead up to the palace on the hilltop. Is it likely, the two colleagues ask, that this great builder, who built the Temple Mount and the port at Caesarea, would get sloppy when it came to the tomb he designated for himself?


Borne on a gold bed


The sarcophagus of red stone that was found does not impress Patrich too much, either: “It’s not up to Herod’s standards. He is a man who was borne to his burial on a gold bed. Would they inter him in such a simple sarcophagus? I would expect to see a gold sarcophagus that fits inside another sarcophagus of imported marble. It's Herod!”


In contrast to other arguments in the realm of Israeli archaeology, the one that’s heating up around Herod’s tomb is not getting personal. Patrich emphasizes that Netzer was his teacher, and that he arrived at the conclusion that Netzer had made a mistake based on what he had learned from him.


“Ehud taught us the fundamentals of Herodian architecture.... The things we are saying, we say out of respect for Ehud, because at stake are all the teachings he bequeathed to us,” Patrich says.


So whose tomb was it? Patrich and Arubas suggest that the tomb Netzer found served as a burial site for other members of Herod’s family.


Maybe. So where is the royal tomb? To this, the two still have no answer. They suggest that it may have been in the palace atop Herodium and was destroyed along with it.


They also point out an anomaly in the lower palace excavated on the site which, in contrast to most such structures of that period, does not have a bathhouse. Perhaps, they say, this palace was used as Herod’s mausoleum. Behind it is a site that looks as if a huge cavernous man-made structure collapsed there. Maybe the much-sought-after tomb can be found inside it, in the heart of this mound?


Herod was Jewishly modest, says opposing view


The rebuttal to Patrich and Arubas’ claims was delivered at yesterday’s conference, as well as in an interview with Haaretz, by Roi Porat, the archaeologist who replaced Netzer as head of the Herodium dig. Porat explains that Herod is a more complex figure than first impression may suggest. Alongside the Roman extravagance and luxury he indulged in and represented, there were also simple local elements reflected in each of the monuments he built.


“Look, for example, at Herod’s coins. They are the simplest coins possible; his face is not on the coin even though he ruled for 40 years,” Porat says.


An article Porat co-wrote with colleagues Yaakov Kalman and Rachel Chachy nevertheless makes a point of describing the grandeur of Herod’s tomb, in terms of the type of stone used, the architecture and ornamentation. Furthermore, Porat explains that Herodium is a man-made hill that was created out of 400,000 cubic meters of soil on top of which was situated a palace.


“This whole big mass has one place that was not covered in earth, and that is the site of the tomb,” Porat says. He claims that Herod conceived of the entire tel as an enormous and unique burial mound, symbolizing the idea that life at its top would go on even after the king was buried.


Herod thus situated the tomb, according to Porat, at the highest point on the hill, that was outside the inhabited part of the Herodium compound − perhaps in accordance with the strictures of Jewish religious law. At the foot of the mount on which the grave site is located, Porat, Kalman and Chachy point out the existence of a large plaza, which offers a view of the burial place and could have contained the entourage Josephus describes.


“We would not be flabbergasted to find another grave” belonging to the king, Porat says, “and will have to eat our hats. But we believe we have a decent picture of what is going on there and it is convincing. We have sufficient data. He [Patrich] deals with what is not, and we with what is,” he adds.


On Wednesday, as Patrich was finishing up preparing his lecture for the conference, he received the program for the Israel Exploration Society’s archaeological conference next month, where one session will deal with the arguments over Herod’s tomb. The words “Herod’s tomb” appear in quotation marks in the program. “I’m glad that we succeeded in introducing the quotation marks,” Patrich says.


And barring dramatic discoveries on Herodium, it looks like the quotation marks are here to stay.



Clues to Lost Prehistoric Code Discovered in Mesopotamia

By Owen Jarus, LiveScience Contributor

October 10, 2013 07:44am ET


Researchers studying clay balls from Mesopotamia have discovered clues to a lost code that was used for record-keeping about 200 years before writing was invented.


The clay balls may represent the world's "very first data storage system," at least the first that scientists know of, said Christopher Woods, a professor at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, in a lecture at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, where he presented initial findings.


The balls, often called "envelopes" by researchers, were sealed and contain tokens in a variety of geometric shapes — the balls varying from golf ball-size to baseball-size. Only about 150 intact examples survive worldwide today.


The researchers used high-resolution CT scans and 3D modeling to look inside more than 20 examples that were excavated at the site of Choga Mish, in western Iran, in the late 1960s. They were created about 5,500 years ago at a time when early cities were flourishing in Mesopotamia.


Researchers have long believed these clay balls were used to record economic transactions. That interpretation is based on an analysis of a 3,300-year-old clay ball found at a site in Mesopotamia named Nuzi that had 49 pebbles and a cuneiform text containing a contract commanding a shepherd to care for 49 sheep and goats.


How these devices would have worked in prehistoric times, before the invention of writing, is a mystery. Researchers now face the question of how people recorded the number and type of a commodity being exchanged without the help of writing.


The CT scans revealed that some of the balls have tiny channels, 1-2 millimeters (less than one-tenth of an inch) across, crisscrossing them. Woods said he's not certain what they were used for, but speculates the balls contained fine threads that connected together on the outside. These threads could have held labels, perhaps made out of wax, which reflected the tokens within the clay balls.


The tokens within the balls come in 14 different shapes, including spheres, pyramids, ovoids, lenses and cones, the researchers found. Rather than representing whole words, these shapes would have conveyed numbers connected to a variety of metrological systems used in counting different types of commodities, Woods suggested. One ovoid, for instance, might mean a certain unit, say 10, which was used while counting a certain type of commodity.


The researchers, however, were perplexed when their CT scans found one clay ball containing tokens made of a low-density material, likely bitumen, a petroleum substance. "When we make a three-dimensional model of the cavity you get this very strange amoeba like-looking shape," Woods said during the lecture.


The tokens, in this instance, had air bubbles around them, suggesting they were wrapped in cloth before being put in the ball, the cloth disintegrating over time. In addition, it appears that a liquid, likely liquid bitumen, was poured over the tokens after they were inserted into the balls. What someone was trying to communicate by creating such tokens is unknown.


"That's a mystery," Woods told LiveScience in an interview. "I don't really have a good answer for that," he said, adding that the bitumen tokens may represent a divergent accounting practice, or, perhaps even, that the transaction recorded involved bitumen.


In ancient Mesopotamia bitumen was used as an adhesive and to waterproof things like baskets, boats and the foundations of buildings, Woods said. [In Photos: Treasures from Mesopotamia]


All of the clay balls contain, on the outside, one "equatorial" seal (running through the middle) and quite often two "polar" seals, running above and below.


The equatorial seals tend to be unique and more complex containing what appear to be mythological motifs; for instance a ball from the Louvre Museum shows human figures fighting what appear to be serpents. The polar seals, on the other hand, are repeated more often and tend to have simpler geometric motifs.


Based on this evidence, Woods hypothesizes the seal in the middle represents the "buyer" or recipient; the polar seals would represent the "seller" or distributor and perhaps third parties who would have participated in the transaction or acted as witnesses.


Many people would have acted as the buyers, but only a limited number of sellers or distributors would have been around to transact business with, explaining why the polar seals are repeated more often.


After a transaction of some importance was complete, one of these clay devices was created to serve as a "receipt" of sorts for the seller, as a record of what was expended. "There's a greater necessity to keep track of things that have been expended than things that are on hand," Woods said in the lecture.


Deciphering what transaction each clay ball represented is a trickier problem. Woods suspects the tokens represent numbers and metrical units.  It's possible that, through the different token shapes, people in prehistoric times communicated numbers and units in a way similar to how the first scribes did 200 years later when writing was invented.  If that's the case, Woods and other scientists may be able, in time, to crack the code by uncovering how token types cluster and vary.


"If they are, then there is at least some hope of deciphering the envelopes and with it uncovering the earliest evidence for complex numerical literacy," Woods said.


The amount of detail the scientists gleaned from the CT scans and 3D modeling was extraordinary, Woods said during the lecture. "We can learn more about these artifacts by non-destructive testing than we could by physically opening the envelopes," he said.


Woods will publish the full research results in the future and plans to put the images and 3D models online.


To peer inside the balls Woods worked with Jeffrey Diehm, who arranged for them to be CT scanned on a state-of-the-art industrial scanner (which is better suited for this work than a medical version), and Jim Topich, who had the CT images converted into detailed, dissectible, 3D models. Diehm was with North Star Imaging in Minnesota at the time the scans were done in 2011 (he is now the managing director of Avonix Imaging) and Topich is director of engineering and design at Kinetic Vision in Cincinnati.


The Royal Ontario Museum has a special exhibition on Mesopotamia that runs to Jan. 5, 2014. Woods' presentation is part of a lecture series that is appearing along with it.



Iron Age camp unearthed at Potgate Quarry, Ripon

12 October 2013 Last updated at 11:36


Archaeologists have unearthed an Iron Age enclosure while excavating land at the edge of a working quarry.


It is thought the encampment discovered at Potgate Quarry, near Ripon, was home to several families from as early as 130BC before being abandoned.


Dig leader Steve Timms said the site was later brought back into use in the early Roman period as a paddock.


Artefacts including a stone bead, quern stones used for milling and Roman pottery have been discovered.


Mr Timms said: "Within the next 12 to 18 months it will end up being quarried away so in some ways it's a bit of a rescue excavation.


"These sort of sites are quite common in Yorkshire but few have been excavated near Ripon; the Iron Age is not well understood in this area.


"It's been a really good dig because we have found something interesting and we have been able to work with local community."


The excavation was carried out at the request Lightwater Quarries, which owns the site.


An open day is taking place at the quarry between 10:00 and 16:00 BST.



York Archaeology Trust's public archaeology uncovers lost medieval church in York

By Sarah Jackson | 11 October 2013


An inclusive public archaeology project has discovered the remains of a lost medieval church in York.


The church of St John the Baptist, commonly known as St John-in-the-Marsh, was built during the early 12th century but was dissolved during the Reformation of the mid-16th century.


Until this summer the only clues to its existence were a handful of vague documentary and map references and part of a wall found 11 years ago by York Archaeological Trust.


These two tantalising clues were enough to make finding the lost church of St John’s a top priority for the Trust's Archaeology Live! summer 2013 training programme.


“The first detailed maps of York don’t start until the middle of the 17th century," says Peter Connelly, the Trust's Director of Archaeology.


"Ever since then there has quite literally been a mark in the landscape which says ‘St John’s Church is here’ but nobody has been able to say that’s exactly where it is.”


That is until now. A team of professionals, student trainees and archaeology enthusiasts uncovered fragments of three of the church’s walls during the 12-week excavation over the summer.


Since 2006, Archaeology Live! has worked closely with Hungate (York) Regeneration Ltd, the firm currently redeveloping the area. They have allowed the team to excavate a large area of Hungate as part of the development process, even providing walkways to grant the public access to the site.


It is the largest area of York to be excavated for more than 200 years – three times larger, in fact, than the Coppergate excavation, now the site of JORVIK Viking Centre.


The parish of St John’s was one of the poorest in the city, which was why it was eventually dissolved. But this doesn’t mean that the discovery is insignificant.


“A lot of archaeology does tend to gravitate towards the big, the famous, the rich, the important, leaving the smaller, the poorer untouched and uncared for," admits Connelly.


It’s these poorer, smaller traces of the past that are more easily rubbed out – or, more accurately, recycled. It’s likely that most of the good stones used to build the church would have been reused in nearby later buildings.


The discovery of the foundations of the church will now enable archaeologists to develop a better understanding of York’s archaeology and discover how much of the church actually survives.


Archaeology Live! resumes this month to discover more about the church – in particular the eastern side. A later wall was laid over the foundations, which archaeologists will carefully dismantle in order to learn more about the eastern end of the church.


For the past 12 years, Archaeology Live! has been teaching members of the public archaeological field techniques and excavation skills whilst actually working in the field alongside professionals.


“It’s a brilliant way for people who might be going to study archaeology at university or are currently studying, or thinking about changing career - or have watched many, many episodes of Time Team - to have a go at it,” says Connelly.


Past participants have ranged in age from 16 to over 80 years old, hailing from every continent in the world except for Antarctica. Most are British.


Peter believes that the huge global interest in Archaeology Live! is down to two factors.


“York is very attractive to the archaeologist and anybody who is interested in the history and archaeology of Britain,” he explains. “Outside of London it really has the best urban stratigraphy.


“Archaeology Live! as a training course has got a good reputation. People come because of that reputation. I think that, put with York, is always going to be a winning combination.”


Unlike class-based training schemes, Archaeology Live! offers members of the public the opportunity to make real archaeological discoveries themselves.


“That’s the great thing about the project,” adds Connelly. “When you start to get something like [the discovery of the church], it’s not suddenly the professional archaeologists who come along and say ‘Right, you lot just move to one side, we’ll do it’.


“It’s all part of the process. So the trainees get to make discoveries along with the placements and the professional archaeologists; they work together as a team.”


Although Archaeology Live! will return next year at a new site in York, this October will be the last chance to excavate in Hungate.


There will be a free open day held at the Hungate site between 10am-3pm on Saturday October 19 (as part of an archaeological training weekend), allowing the public to see the church close-up. The next week-long Archaeology Live! course at the site begins on October 21.