World's oldest string found at French Neanderthal site

13 November 2013 by Colin Barras

Magazine issue 2943.


CALL it prehistoric string theory. The earliest evidence of string has been found – apparently created by our Neanderthal cousins.


Perishable materials usually rot away, so the oldest string on record only dates back 30,000 years. But perforations in small stone and tooth artefacts from Neanderthal sites in France suggest the pieces were threaded on string and worn as pendants. "The wear patterns provide circumstantial evidence of early use of string, but the evidence is not definitive," says Bruce Hardy at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Similar circumstantial evidence has been found in perforated shells.


Now, Hardy and his colleagues have found slender, 0.7-millimetre-long plant fibres that are twisted together near some stone artefacts at a site in south-east France that was occupied by Neanderthals 90,000 years ago. Such fibres are not twisted together in nature, says the team, suggesting that the Neanderthals were responsible (Quaternary Science Reviews, doi.org/pzx).


"If they are indeed remnants of string or cordage, then they would be the earliest direct evidence of string," says Hardy. "Albeit very fragmentary evidence."


At 90,000 years old, the material purported to be string predates the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe. That means the Neanderthals occupying the French site learned to make it themselves, rather than imitating modern humans, says Hardy. In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests our extinct cousins developed a number of sophisticated behaviours – and perhaps even taught some skills to our species when the two met.


Last year, stone tools created by Neanderthals were found on Mediterranean islands, hinting that the species may have made and used boats to cross the sea – although no direct evidence of boats has been found. Hardy points out that sturdy ropes would have been necessary to build and use rafts and boats. "The ability of Neanderthals to manufacture string and cordage certainly does make the idea of Neanderthal seafaring more plausible," he says.



Man’s best friend for over 20,000 years

Tübingen palaeogeneticist helps international team show that dogs originated in Ice Age Europe

14 November 2013 Universitaet Tübingen


Where did man and dog first make friends? For a long time it seemed that domestication happened some 15,000 years ago in East Asia. But the oldest known remains of dog-like animals come from Europe and Siberia and date back around 30,000 years. Now an international team of researchers has found genetic evidence indicating that wolves were first tamed in Europe during the last major Ice Age, between 18,800 and 32,100 years ago. Those wolves are the ancestors of modern dogs.


The team of researchers was coordinated by Dr. Olaf Thalmann of the University of Turku in Finland and included Tübingen University’s Professor Johannes Krause and Professor Hans-Peter Uerpmann of the Institute of Scientific Archaeology. Krause applied his expertise to reconstruct ancient DNA, allowing a comparison of mitochondrial genomes from prehistoric dog and wolf remains with those of modern dogs and wolves from all over the world. The results are published in the current edition of Science.


The tremendous variety of dog breeds today is the work of human breeders over thousands of years. Genetically speaking, dogs and wolves are no different even today. There are some differences in skull shape – wolves have a longer snout than most dogs – but otherwise they are brothers.


This study included comprehensive genetic data from 18 prehistoric wolves and dog-like canids along with 77 modern dogs and 49 wolves, including old breeds such as the Basenji, the Dingo, and North American coyotes, as well as a number of Chinese breeds.


Among the prehistoric dog remains were two German fossils that came from the 14,700 year old double burial of a man and a woman near Bonn, and approximately 12,500 year old dog bones from a cave near Mechernich – both locations in western Germany.


The results of the analysis surprised even the researchers. “I was amazed how clearly they showed that all dogs living today go back to four genetic lineages, all of which originate in Europe,” says Olaf Thalmann. The majority of DNA from modern dogs could even be traced to only one lineage – which is closely related to that of a wolf skeleton found in a cave in northern Switzerland.


“That means dogs were our companions long before we kept goats, sheep or cattle,” says Johannes Krause. Dogs predate agriculture – and were likely an important part of Ice Age hunter-gatherer society.


Full bibliographic information

O. Thalmann, B. Shapiro, P. Cui, V. J. Schuenemann, S. K. Sawyer, D. L. Greenfield, M. B. Germonpré, M. V. Sablin, F. López-Giráldez, X. Domingo-Roura, H. Napierala, H-P. Uerpmann, D. M. Loponte, A. A. Acosta, L. Giemsch, R. W. Schmitz, B. Worthington, J. E. Buikstra, A. Druzhkova, A. S. Graphodatsky, N. D. Ovodov, N. Wahlberg, A. H. Freedman, R. M. Schweizer, K.-P. Koepfli, J. A. Leonard, M. Meyer, J. Krause, S. Pääbo, R. Green, R. K. Wayne: Complete Mitochondrial Genomes of Ancient Canids Suggest a European Origin of Domestic Dogs. Science, 15. November 2013.



Where did dogs first appear? DNA points to Europe

Posted: Nov 14, 2013 7:25 PM GST

Updated: Nov 14, 2013 8:06 PM GST



AP Science Writer



For years, scientists have been dogged by this evolution question: Just where did man's best friend first appear?


The earliest known doglike fossils come from Europe. But DNA studies have implicated east Asia and the Middle East. Now a large DNA study is lining up with the fossils, suggesting dogs originated in Europe some 19,000 to 32,000 years ago.


Experts praised the new work but said it won't end the debate.


Scientists generally agree that dogs emerged from wolves to become the first domesticated animal. Their wolf ancestors began to associate with people, maybe drawn by food in garbage dumps and carcasses left by human hunters. In the process they became tamer, and scientists believe people found them useful for things like hunting and guard duty. Over a very long time in this human environment, wolves gradually turned into the first dogs.


The latest attempt to figure out where this happened was published online Thursday by the journal Science.


Researchers gathered DNA from fossils of 18 ancient wolflike and doglike creatures that lived up to 36,000 years ago in Argentina, Belgium, Germany, Russia, Switzerland and the United States. They compared the genetic material to modern samples from 49 wolves from North America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, 77 dogs of a wide variety of breeds including cocker spaniel, basenji and golden retriever, and four coyotes.


The DNA of modern dogs showed similarities to the genetic material from the ancient European specimens and modern-day European wolves, the researchers reported.


The first dogs evolved by associating with hunter-gatherers rather than farmers, since dogs evidently appeared before agriculture did, they said.


"There are now, based on genetic evidence, three alternative hypotheses for the origin of dogs," said Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, a study author.


He said his results suggest a better case for Europe than for east Asia or the Middle East. He also said the kind of wolf that gave rise to dogs is now extinct.


Olaf Thalmann of the University of Turku in Finland, another author, said the work doesn't mean that Europe is the only place where dogs emerged.


"We conclude that Europe played a major role in the domestication process," he said in an email.


The work makes a strong argument for an origin in Europe, although it might not be the only place, said Greger Larson of Durham University in England, who did not participate in the research. "I think it's a real step in the right direction."



Bronze Age graves discovered near Monreith

14 November 2013


An archaeological investigation on a Machars farm has uncovered three rare Bronze Age cists or burial chambers, one with the remains of a young child in it.


The investigation began after a stone cist burial was accidentally damaged by a plough at Blairbuy Farm in April 2012. shortly afterwards a team from GUARD Archaeology was sent to investigate through Historic Scotland.


Post-excavation analysis on a skeleton found in one of the cists confirmed the remains of a juvenile between nine and 12 years old buried there. The child had suffered malnutrition and a radiocarbon date obtained from the left ulna (elbow bone) placed the child’s death around 4000 years ago, in the early Bronze Age (2027-1886 BC).


The team uncovered two other empty cists that had never been used for burial suggesting they were constructed in anticipation of use, rather than as and when required.


The archaeologists said: ”The signs of malnutrition on the remains discovered may indicate a wider problem for the community at that time, perhaps a food shortage or the onset of disease and this is a possible explanation why other graves were prepared. But the fact that two cists were not used suggests the group or individuals may have move away from the area.


“This is rare evidence of the possible movement of groups and the loss or abandonment of ritual sites in an otherwise settled landscape during the Bronze Age period.


“This work also shows that we cannot assume that the construction of the cists we discovered is necessarily contemporary with the burial of the bodies contained therein.”


The full results of this research, ARO6: Preparing for death: excavations at Blairbuy, Dumfries and Galloway in 2012, is available online at www.archaeologyreportsonline.com



Archaeologists lift lid on Roman coffin find

By IH Wednesday 13 November 2013 Updated: 13/11 17:27


ARCHAEOLOGISTS are preparing to study in detail the contents of a coffin believed to contain a Romano-British child.


The lid of the 1,600 year-old coffin was lifted this week after its recent discovery by metal-detectorist Chris Wright in a field in Witherley close to the Warwickshire/Leicestershire border.


Archaeologists and scientists were in Warwick on Monday for the opening.


To the untrained eye looked like it was full of mud that had worked its way in through cracks in the lead-lined coffin down the centuries.


But experts are convinced the coffin and its contents will provide them with a lot of information and over the next few days will painstakingly remove the clay and silt to reveal the remains of its occupant.


A jet bracelet has already been found and it is likely other items of body adornment will be revealed.


Stuart Palmer from Archaeology Warwickshire said: “This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to use cutting edge scientific techniques to investigate Roman period burial customs and mortuary practices, alongside a snap-shot of the local environment at the time of the burial.


“The sediments in the coffin could retain chemical traces of organic materials not available to conventional archaeology. We hope it will shed invaluable light on the Roman Mancetter hinterland.


"Burials have the potential to reveal signatures of body decay; pre-burial treatment and mortuary practice; clothing and perishable artefacts; diet; cause of death; disease and even drug-use.


“This ground-breaking study will use a variety of tools to reveal hidden secrets and help us to understand the past cultural practices and environmental conditions at the time the child lived, some 1,600 years ago."


- Experts are now inviting votes for potential names for the child.


The shortlist is Oriens (rise - as the sun); Loquor (tell - declare); Aperio (reveal); Addo (inspire); Accendo (illuminate); and Parvulus (infant).


Vote above or tweet your favourite to @OsintheDeer. The council will announce the winning name on November 25.



Deformed Skull From Dark Ages Unearthed In France

LiveScience  |  By Tia Ghose

Posted: 11/17/2013 12:12 pm EST


The skeleton of an ancient aristocratic woman whose head was warped into a deformed, pointy shape has been unearthed in a necropolis in France.


The necropolis, found in the Alsace region of France, contains 38 tombs that span more than 4,000 years, from the Stone Age to the Dark Ages.


The Obernai region where the remains were found contains a river and rich, fertile soil, which has attracted people for thousands of years, Philippe Lefranc, an archaeologist who excavated the Stone Age burials, wrote in an email.


Archaeologists first found the tombs in 2011 while doing a preliminary excavation of the area prior to the start of a big industrial building project. This year, Lefranc and his colleagues went back to do a more in-depth excavation.


They found that the tombs were well preserved by the limestone rock in which they were buried. One of the burials contained 20 tombs of men, women and children. [See Images of the Tombs & Deformed Skull]


"The corpses are lying on their backs, with outstretched legs and heads turned westwards," Lefranc said.


The tombs, which date to between 4900 B.C. and 4750 B.C., also contained a few stone vases and tools, along with ornaments such as mother-of-pearl elbow bracelets and collars. The small group may have been a family from a Neolithic farming and animal-herding culture that lived in long houses and buried their dead in cemeteries, Lefranc said.


Eastern transplants


In the second burial, which was in a separate area, they found 18 tombs from either the late Roman period or the early Dark Ages, about 1,650 years ago. One of the tombs held a woman, likely an aristocrat, who had a deformed, flattened forehead.


"The deformation of the skull with the help of bandages (narrow strips of cloth) and small boards is a practice coming from central Asia," Lefranc said in an email. "It was popularized by the Huns and adopted by many German people."


In those times, the deformed, alienlike skull was a privilege reserved for the aristocracy after death.


"In France, Germany and eastern Europe, these deformed skulls appear in tombs rich in objects," Lefranc said.


The wealthy lady's tomb also contained gold pins, belts known as chatelaines, pearls, a comb made of a stag antler, and a bronze mirror that likely came from the Caucasus region of central Asia, he said.


The team speculates that the 1,650-year-old graves held mercenary soldiers from the East and their families, who were employed by the Roman Army during the waning days of the Roman empire.



Viking-age 'gold men' unearthed in Sweden

Published: 15 Nov 2013 14:53 GMT+01:00

Updated: 15 Nov 2013 14:53 GMT+01:00


Swedish archaeologists have revealed a secret hoard of ancient trinkets including gold figures and Viking coins, with experts hoping the find will reveal more information about the Iron Age in Sweden.


"The initial find was a real surprise," archaeologist Mikael Henriksson told The Local. "But it sunk in after a while."


The initial find Henriksson refers to is his own discovery of a bronze Celtic mask back in 2004, on a hill in a valley in Västra Vång in Blekinge. After eight years, a whole team was dispatched to the area to conduct a thorough excavation with geo-radars where the team found what Henriksson called a site "of great importance" dating back to the Iron Age, between the birth of Christ and the early Middle Ages.


The team uncovered a number of trinkets there over a period of two years, including gold foil heads of men and women that were likely used to decorate large cauldrons.


Since then, the team kept the finds secret from the public to avoid plundering, and retrieved a total of 29 of the anthropomorphic gold foils (known as guldgubbar in Swedish) - the third biggest find of its kind in Swedish history. The team also found five bronze-cast heads, fragments of a vessel, as well as other bronze objects, Roman glass, gold spirals and Viking-age coins.


As to whether the artefacts were left on purpose or abandoned, Henriksson cannot say, but added that it was turbulent times when the objects were used.


"There were masses of people moving around Europe, it was right after the fall of the west Roman empire and it was every tribe for itself. It affected all of Europe. But what we can say is that the vessels we found were used for ritual drinking and feasting, and were even sacrificial. The area may have been buried or it may have been deserted and left for good. Or it could have been a ritual burial site - we're still not really sure."


But the finds are of great importance, he added, stating that comparing the trove with other similar finds in southern Scandinavia may shed more light on the Iron Age in Sweden.


"This is a unique opportunity to establish a cooperation of a kind that hasn't been possible before," Henriksson told The Local.


The artefacts will be on display in the Blekinge Museum in summer, with images of the finds to be uploaded to the website soon.


Oliver Gee



Slaves as burial gifts in Viking Age Norway? Evidence from stable isotope and ancient DNA analyses

Journal of Archaeological Science

Volume 41, January 2014, Pages 533–540

Elise Naumanna, Corresponding author contact information, E-mail the corresponding author, Maja Krzewińskab, c, Anders Götherströmd, Gunilla Erikssond

a Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway

b Department of Biosciences, University of Oslo, Norway

c Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, Norway

d Archaeological Research Laboratory, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University, Sweden



·         Diet variation corresponds with diverging treatment of the dead at Flakstad.

·         Intact Individuals in double graves had a diet consistent of more terrestrial food.

·         aDNA indicates that biological relations between Flakstad individuals are unlikely.

·         Decapitated individuals and common people had a similar diet.

·         Authors suggest decapitated people buried in double graves may have been slaves.



Ten Viking Age individuals from the northern Norwegian site at Flakstad were analysed for δ13C, δ15N and ancient mitochondrial DNA fragments. The material derives from both single and multiple burials with individuals treated in different ways. The genetic analyses show that the individuals buried together were unlikely to be maternally related, and stable isotope analyses suggest different strata of society. It is, therefore, suggested that slaves may have been offered as grave gifts at Flakstad. A comparison with the remaining population from single graves shows that the presumed slaves had a diet similar to that of the common population, whereas the high status individuals in multiple graves had a diet different from both slaves and the common population. The results provide an insight into the subsistence of different social groups in a Viking Age society, exposing unexpected patterns of living conditions and food distribution.



Ancient DNA; Stable isotopes; Vikings; Slaves; Norway

1. Introduction

The Viking Age (A.D. 800–1030) was characterized by striking heterogeneity in burial customs, with regard to burial form, grave artefacts and treatment of the body. Among these, instances where two or more individuals were buried together stand out as a unique possibility to study social relations in the past. Graves with two or more individuals occur quite frequently throughout the Viking Age and all over the Viking World. The choice to bury persons together is hardly coincidental, but rather a deliberate action based on specific relationships between individuals. These relationships could be egalitarian, reflecting family members or persons otherwise closely connected. Alternatively the choice could involve human sacrifice or in other ways persons of different social rank, where one or more persons are intended to accompany the “main” burial. In Norway, few skeletons from inhumation burials remain due to poor preservation conditions, and thus indications of social relations, based on body treatment and artefact distribution, are often absent.


On the northern Norwegian Island of Flakstad a Late Iron Age (A.D. 550–1030) burial ground was located and partly excavated in the period 1980–1983. Human remains from ten individuals in three single burials, two double and one triple burial, were dated to the Viking Age (The Schreiner Collection Database, 23 2013 and Sandmo, 1985a). Although much of the contextual information has been lost due to farming activity, the burials showed unusual features. In each of the double/triple burials one individual was buried intact, while only post-cranial bones were found from the remaining individuals. The burial form at Flakstad may indicate graves containing master and slave, as crania from four individuals were absent from the graves. This interpretation is supported by a number of double burials found within Norse societies indicating slaves buried with their masters (Andersen, 1960, Hemmendorff, 1984, Holck, 1997, Holmquist Olausson, 1990, Ramskou, 1965 and Skre, 1998; Zachrisson, 2003). The presumed presence of slaves is based on a number of factors such as maltreatment of the body, decapitation, binding of hands and feet and uneven distribution of grave gifts. At Flakstad the four accompanying individuals were seemingly decapitated, and thus the burials immediately appear to fit this pattern. However, as knowledge of the burial context from Flakstad is limited, the material calls for further investigation to study the social relations represented. Through application of stable isotope and ancient DNA (aDNA) analyses the presented investigation aims at identifying dietary and genetic patterns that may highlight social relations reflected in differential treatment of the dead.


2. Material and methods

The burial site of Flakstad is situated on Flakstad Island, part of the Lofoten archipelago in northwestern Norway in Nordland County (Fig. 1). The burial site is situated close to a settlement area, which exhibits traces of contemporary agrarian activity. Parts of the burial site at Flakstad vicarage were excavated in the period 1980–1983 (Sandmo, 1985a and Sandmo, 1985b). The ten individuals presented in this paper were all dated to the Viking Age based on burial artefacts. Graves 5858, 5860 and 5861 are single burials, and were excavated and documented by archaeologists. Burial artefacts consisted of weapons, comb, beads, garment accessories and animal bones, representing different levels of social wealth (Sandmo, 1985b). Graves 5863 and 5865 were registered as double burials (The Schreiner Collection Database, 2013). In grave 5864 a third individual was identified, but the remains are so fragmented that absence of the skull may be due to a general problem of preservation.


Full-size image (68 K)

Fig. 1.

Flakstad, situated in Nordland County.

Figure options

The skeletons in double/triple graves were buried in shallow graves close to the surface, and were partly disturbed by agricultural activity before archaeologists arrived. The disturbance was mainly due to the ongoing activity at the site, but earlier disturbance cannot be ruled out. Thus, the interpretation of multiple burials was questioned (Sandmo, 1985b). Information on burial context is, therefore, poor and fragmented, and few burial artefacts were recovered from the double graves; two knifes, a horse bit, a bead of amber, animal bones, parts of a whetstone and iron fragments. Unfortunately no information on artefact distribution within these burials exists. The skeletons were found in clusters, with an interval of approximately 30 m between each cluster. Each double/triple grave contained only one skull, but postcranial remains from two or three individuals. It seems unlikely that the missing skulls would be lost by coincidence in all four cases. In the osteological report no signs of decapitation were mentioned (Holck, 1983), although lack of evidence cannot serve as a strong argument. It should be noted that the heads might also have been removed post mortem. To ensure that cranial and post-cranial material matched in the double/triple graves, samples from both long bones and mandible were taken in addition to teeth.


2.1. Stable isotopes

Food consumption is reflected in the isotopic composition of human tissue. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios are expressed as isotope values, δ13C and δ15N, and reported relative to the standard PDB limestone for carbon and AIR atmospheric N2 for nitrogen. Carbon isotopes fractionate differently depending on the photosynthetic pathway, but also differ between marine and terrestrial environments (Chisholm et al., 1982). Since only the C3 pathway is relevant in an Arctic context, δ13C is here analysed to distinguish between terrestrial and marine food sources. Nitrogen isotopes fractionate for each step in the food chain (Minagawa and Wada, 1984), and the δ15N value therefore indicates trophic level. The δ13C and δ15N values in bone and dentine collagen mainly reflect the protein intake (Ambrose and Norr, 1993). Isotopic values in teeth reflect the period of tooth formation, and thus the childhood and adolescent years of the individual. Bone tissue, by contrast, remodels throughout life and therefore provides an average isotopic value reflecting the last 5–20 years, depending on various conditions, such as type of bone and age of the individual (Hedges et al., 2007 and Sealy et al., 1995). Due to this variation, we have analysed both tooth dentine and bone to assess whether there has been continuity or changes in diet during the lifetime of an individual. Where possible, the cervix of the second molar, reflecting childhood (c. 7.5–10 years of age), was sampled for comparability.


Because of different ecological conditions such as salinity, temperature, distance from land and variations over time, isotopic values must always be considered in relation to the local fauna (Jones et al., 2012). In northern Europe it is often assumed that δ13C ratios range from approximately −22‰ for a purely land based nutrition to −12‰ for an exclusively marine diet (Chisholm et al., 1982). However, δ13C values from North Atlantic cod collagen emphasize the complexity of δ13C values in arctic Norway, as they range from −13‰ to −17‰ for migratory cod (Barrett et al., 2008). Rather than an absolute end-value for a purely marine protein intake, we therefore operate with a predicted δ13C range for humans consuming an exclusively marine diet in the northern regions of Norway. Available data documenting the δ13C offset between cod collagen (reference data) and muscle (consumed diet) is limited, though studies performed on modern gadid fish from Scotland showed on average a depletion of 4‰ in muscle tissue compared to collagen (Barrett et al., 2000a and Barrett et al., 2000b). Considering a trophic increase of 5‰ in δ13C values from diet to collagen in humans (Ambrose et al., 1997), we have taken into account a +1‰ trophic-level effect for δ13C in the estimation of marine consumption.


The δ15N value increases by 3–5‰ for each trophic level in the food chain, and thus provides a distinction between herbivores and carnivores and between terrestrial and marine organisms, since the food chains are longer in marine environments (Bocherens and Drucker, 2003 and Minagawa and Wada, 1984). The δ15N values of predatory marine mammals represent the highest levels in animals as they are at the top of the food chain. The values may thus range from 6 to 8‰ for a purely vegetarian diet to around 20‰ for a diet based exclusively on seal, as reflected in the analysis of a Greenland Inuit population (Schoeninger et al., 1983). δ15N values in a consumer's collagen reflect consumed diet plus trophic level, allowing direct interpretation of δ15N-results without offset correction (Ambrose et al., 1997).


Available fauna recovered from the Flakstad graves included specimens of cattle, sheep/goat, horse, dog and whale. All samples for stable isotopes were drilled with a dentist drill after removal of the surface to avoid contamination. Bone and dentine collagen was extracted according to Brown et al. (1988), which includes an ultrafiltration step to remove contaminants and degraded products of molecular sizes <30 kDa. The extracted collagen was freeze-dried and the carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios determined using a Carlo Erba NC2500 analyser connected via a split interface to reduce the gas volume to a Finnigan MAT Delta + mass spectrometer, at the Stable Isotope Laboratory (SIL), Department of Geological Sciences, Stockholm University. The precision was ±0.15‰ or better.


2.2. Ancient DNA

The ancient DNA analyses of the Flakstad human remains targeted mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). The molecule has multiple copies in human cells and is inherited from mother to child. The properties allow for tracing ancient human migrations and genetic affiliation through the maternal lineage (see Bandelt et al., 2006 for full overview). In order to investigate putative origin and possible maternal relationships among individuals from Flakstad, we have analysed bone samples from all 10 individuals presented here.


General guidelines for work with ancient DNA were followed at all times (Pääbo, 1989 and Richards et al., 1995). Apart from an additional UV-radiation step, bone powder samples were prepared following Hagelberg and Clegg (1991). Between 20 and 50 mg of bone powder underwent DNA extraction with Qiagen DNeasy Blood & Tissue Kit (Qiagen) according to a modified manufacturer protocol. MtDNA was amplified between positions 16,050–16,392 in five overlapping fragments as described in Malmström et al. (2009). Obtained DNA amplicons were sequenced twice on a 454 GS FLX platform (Roche, Life Sciences) and synthetic clones underwent statistical analysis in order to identify authentic aDNA sequences for each of the individuals (Helgason et al., 2009, Helgason et al., 2007 and Malmström et al., 2012). The analyses were performed using PhyloNet v 1.0.0. software (Helgason personal communication, see Malmström et al., 2012).


Haplotype diversity was calculated according to Nei (HD) (Nei, 1987), while within population gene diversity, as well as minimum and maximum match probabilities were estimated as in Brinkmann et al. (1999). In short, the measure was calculated in order to assess the probability of obtaining different haplotypes while sampling two individuals from the same population (dwmin); the maximum (mwmax) and minimum (mwmin) probabilities of obtaining within population match.




4. Discussion and conclusions

The poor contextual information available at Flakstad was supplemented by the bioarchaeological analyses, strengthening both interpretation of multiple burials and differential treatment of individuals in multiple burials as intentional and not just an effect of taphonomic processes. Stable isotope analyses were used to argue that crania and postcranial bones were correctly matched, an inference that rendered possible further investigation of diet diversity. The probable decapitation and removal of heads indicated the presence of people from different social strata – something which is further emphasized by differences in stable isotope signatures of individuals buried intact compared to those lacking crania.


With the exception of burial no 5864, ancient DNA results support this interpretation, suggesting maternal relations between individuals buried together to be unlikely. The low haplotype diversity and relatively high probability of finding matching haplotypes in the sample from Flakstad (Table 1) cannot exclude possible maternal kinship between three individuals sharing the rCRS sequence. However, the shared haplotype is the most common European lineage and minimum match probabilities in Flakstad resembled values observed in larger, closely related ancient and modern populations. Therefore, we suggest that the rCRS carriers from Flakstad were probably not maternally related, and that the seemingly high prevalence of the rCRS haplotype reflects a sampling effect in the small sample. In one case where two rCRS carriers were buried together (5864), isotopic values revealed significantly different diets for the two individuals suggesting different social standing. Social inequality implies that these individuals did not have close family relations, or at least did not share meals. Ancient DNA results presented here can only reflect direct matrilineal kinship and cannot be used to exclude other numerous kinship relations between individuals. However, in light of isotope data suggesting significantly different dietary life histories in individuals buried together, it seems unlikely the individuals were closely related.


The Flakstad burials offer an unusual insight into the way of living in a hierarchical society. It is worth noting that isotopic values of headless individuals do not differ from the values of those buried in single burials. In a society where most of the daily activities were dedicated to the acquirement and preparation of food, where food shortage and harsh winters are assumed to have been a constant threat (Sigurdsson, 2008), it would seem likely that a different diet should be detectable in people of low social standing compared to the common population. However, isotopic data in this study show quite the contrary. Despite indications that the headless people in multiple graves might represent low-status members of the population, their diet was equivalent to those buried in single burials. The persons in single burials were all buried in a seemingly respectful way and accompanied by grave gifts, and are interpreted as representatives of the free population. They all had a diet combining marine and terrestrial sources, and a significant part of their diet consisted of marine foodstuffs – as did that of the headless individuals. It is of course possible that there might have been other dietary differences between social groups, through preparation and possibly the amount of protein, rather than different food sources. The complete individuals from multiple burials, however, stand out as a distinct group and may be perceived as persons of a special social status, emphasized by their distinctly different diet already evident during childhood. The lack of high status artifacts in multiple burials – although uncertain due to agricultural disturbance – could indicate that the complete individuals were not necessarily wealthy, but special in another sense. An alternative explanation might be previous disturbance, not just as a result of agriculture, but also the possible plunder and removal of precious objects. Either way, the individuals buried intact seem to have belonged to separate social strata, treated differently than others in death as well as in life. Due to the poor contextual information from the site these observations could not have been made without information hidden in the human remains.


To conclude, the multidisciplinary approach to the skeletal remains from Flakstad has revealed some intriguing patterns. Results from stable isotope analyses show that individuals in multiple burials most likely were intentionally placed in the same burial, given the pattern in which the only person buried intact in each burial, had distinct isotope values. Thus, persons sharing a grave had distinctly different diets during their lifetime and were unlikely to share maternal kinship. A reasonable explanation for these observations could be that persons buried headless may have been slaves accompanying their masters in the grave. This interpretation corresponds well with other double burials from the Norse World with similar features, where decapitated and sometimes headless people were deposited as grave gifts. The resemblance in diet between headless persons and individuals buried in single burials was unexpected and calls for further investigation in the future. The present study indicates that also other double burials should be investigated using a bioarchaeological approach. This material offers an exceptional opportunity to study the subpopulation groups of the Norse, and their way of living in a divided and hierarchical world.



Mystery Shipwreck Is Uncovered By Fierce Storm At Bamburgh Castle

By Philippa Goymer Location: Northumberland


A mystery shipwreck has been uncovered in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle after fierce storms shifted the sands which had buried it for hundreds of years.




The wreck is only visible for around a few hours a day either side of low water and first appeared in June of this year.


Since then a team of archaeologists has been studying its timber to try and find out more about the stricken vessel.


And now they believe they have made a breakthrough after tests revealed the wood used to build the ship was felled in around 1768.


The survey also established that the timber originates from the East of England - making the ship British.


Jessica Berry, CEO of Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST), who have been carrying out research on the wreck, said: "When we first heard the wreck had emerged from the sands, we were up there the next day.


"We sat on the beach waiting for the tide to go out. At that point we did not know precisely what it was."As it appeared in front of us, it was the most incredible sight."


MAST conducted a report on the wreck before funding was secured to undertake further tests.


Jessica added: "It has been very exciting to discover that the ship is earlier than we first thought."


The wreck, which was first uncovered by storms last winter, lies on Bamburgh beach, Northumberland, in the shadow of the castle which dates back to the sixth century.

It is thought that the ship could have sailed along the east coast while Dr John Sharp - recognised as being the world's first coastguard - lived in the castle.


Dr Sharp was so concerned for sailors in the treacherous waters around Bamburgh that in 1781 he set up what is recognised as the first coastguard system in the world.


Determined to make safe the perilous seas at Bamburgh, Dr Sharp created a pioneering coastguard system which made use of Bamburgh's commanding position above the coastline.


He turned the castle into a coastguard station, and set up a watch system and beach patrols.


Massive iron chains were kept at the ready to haul floundering ships to safety.


Later, in 1786, Dr Sharp launched the first ever lifeboat at Bamburgh.


The first coastguard at Bamburgh not only warned ships of the coastline; it also provided refuge at the castle for shipwrecked sailors, stored their cargo and buried the dead.


Survey work to establish the age and origins of the wreck, which lies in the intertidal zone to the south of Bamburgh Castle, was undertaken by MAST, with local archaeologists and volunteers.


It was done with the help of a grant from the Northumberland Coat AONB Partnership's Sustainable Development Fund.