Toxic Gas First Used in Syria 1,700 Years Ago



 If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has really carried out a chemical attack, it wouldn’t be the first time poisonous gas brought death in the Middle East country.


Indeed, right in Syria archaeologists have found some of the oldest evidence of chemical warfare.


According to University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James, who published his findings back in 2009, poison gas was used in Syria more than 1,700 years ago when a Roman fort at Dura-Europos became the site of a violent siege by the powerful Sasanian Persian empire.


No historical record exists of the battle, which occurred around 256 A.D., but archaeological remains, unearthed by major excavations in 1920-1937 by teams from France and Yale University, and after 1986 by French-Syrian teams, helped James piece together the action.


Trying to enter the city, the Sasanians dug tunnels underneath its walls. Intending to hold their ground at all costs, Roman defenders responded with counter-mines.


In the 1930s, archaeologists unearthed dramatic evidence of the fight. In one of the tunnels, a pile of bodies, still completely fitted with their weapons and armour, testified to the horrors of the battle.


At the time, the researchers believed the trapped Roman soldiers had died after the tunnel collapsed. But according to James, residue of pitch (a resinous substance) and yellow sulfur crystals found in a jar lying near the bodies indicated a much more gruesome reality.


Indeed, the Sasanians placed fire pits strategically throughout the tunnel, and when the Romans broke through, they gassed them by adding sulfur crystals and bitumen to the fire.


 “Defining what constitutes a chemical weapon in antiquity is complex, but this is certainly one of the earliest archaeological finds of the addition of chemical accelerants to a fire to produce toxic fumes,” Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University, told Discovery News.


Mayor described the skirmish in the tunnel and the presence of burnt residue as an early example of archaeological evidence for a chemical incendiary in her 2003 book “Greek Fire, Poison, Arrows and Scorpion Bombs.”


According to the scholar, a possible contender for the earliest archaeological evidence for a chemical weapon is a charred, manmade fire ball from the archaeological battle site at Gandhara, Pakistan.


“The burning missile had been hurled at Alexander’s besieging army in 327 BC. Chemical analysis revealed the ball’s composition included sulfur, barite, and pitch,” Mayor said.


The ball was certainly ignited in a fire, but whether this was deliberate or accidental is impossible to establish.


Long before World War I, when 39 different toxic agents — ranging from simple tear gas to mustard gas — were extensively used, it was a mixture of sulfur and pitch that gassed enemies.


Greek historian and Athenian general Thucydides described how, during the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans created a sulfur and pitch (in this case pine resin) fire at the siege of Plateia, Greece, in 429 BC.


The Boeotians, Sparta’s allies, used a similar chemical flame-thrower in 424 BC at Delium, combining burning coal, sulfur and pitch.


Aeneas Tacticus (360 B.C.), one of the earliest Greek writers on the art of war, suggested combining pitch and sulfur to defend against sieges.


“These are the earliest recorded uses of a chemically enhanced incendiary to create a poison gas,” Mayor said.


“The combustion of sulfur creates toxic sulfur dioxide gas. The fumes are lethal if inhaled in large quantities,” she added.



Archaeology: 7000-year-old defensive wall emerges near Bulgaria’s Shoumen

Written by The Sofia Globe staff on September 9, 2013 in Bulgaria


The dry spell blanketing Bulgaria for the past two months has resulted in an unexpected archaeological discovery, with the remains of a 7000-year-old defensive wall emerging from the waters of the Ticha accumulation lake near the town of Shoumen in northeastern Bulgaria.


The wall is more than five meters tall, made of rocks that are being held together by clay. The wall has an arrowslit and appears to be better built than other fortifications dating back to the same period in this part of Europe, historian Stefan Chohadjiev from Veliko Turnovo University told Bulgarian National Television.


On the southern approach of the hill, the fortification is at its strongest, with three parallel lines of defence built to repel attackers. The inhabitants of the stronghold appear to have been a frequent target of attacks, this being the most likely reason why its defences have been built up, instead of featuring only the more traditional moat, according to Chohadjiev.


Remains of a village that had been inhabited for several centuries can be found inside the wall – most likely, it was the stronghold of the local warlords who ruled the surrounding vale, Chohadjiev said. The items found on the site, including luxury items (marble and jade jewellery) and military equipment, appear to confirm such a hypothesis, he said.


The wall had been rebuilt at least once, after parts of it collapsed inward, likely as a result of an earthquake, destroying several nearby homes.



Bone dates 'earliest northerner', say archaeologists in Liverpool

6 September 2013 Last updated at 17:11


Archaeologists have dated bones found in the 1990s as the earliest known human remains from northern Britain.


Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Nottingham analysed a leg bone found in Cumbria and found it to be more than 10,000 years old.


The bone and other fragments were excavated from Kents Bank Cavern on the edge of Morecambe Bay and are stored at The Dock Museum in Barrow.


The results have been published in the Journal of Quaternary Science.


Archaeologist Ian Smith, from Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), said: "Previous cave burials of humans from around this date have been in southern England, with later dates further north."


The study also dated the bones of an elk - a large deer species no longer found in Britain - and a horse to the end of the last Ice Age, between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago.


The study's co-author Dr Hannah O'Regan said: "Caves can preserve bones which would have decayed elsewhere, and once the material is excavated museums keep them for future study.


"Without these, we wouldn't have known about our earliest northerner."


Collections manager Sabine Skae, from The Dock Museum, added: "This collection tells an important story of the changing environment and early human activity in Cumbria."



Stonehenge was built on solstice axis, dig confirms

English Heritage excavations show site has nothing to do with sun worshipping, and find evidence circle was once complete

Dalya Alberge

The Guardian, Sunday 8 September 2013 16.46 BST


English Heritage says it has discovered a "missing piece in the jigsaw" in our understanding of Stonehenge, England's greatest prehistoric site. Excavations along the ancient processional route to the monument have confirmed the theory that it was built along an ice age landform that happened to be on the solstice axis.


The Avenue was an earthwork route that extended 1.5 miles from the north-eastern entrance to Wiltshire's standing stones to the River Avon at West Amesbury. Following the closure of the A344 road, which cut across the route, archaeologists have been able to excavate there for the first time.


Just below the tarmac, they have found naturally occurring fissures that once lay between ridges against which prehistoric builders dug ditches to create the Avenue. The ridges were created by Ice Age meltwater that happen to point directly at the mid-winter sunset in one direction and the mid-summer sunrise in the other.


Professor Mike Parker Pearson, a leading expert on Stonehenge, said: "It's hugely significant because it tells us a lot about why Stonehenge was located where it is and why they [prehistoric people] were so interested in the solstices. It's not to do with worshipping the sun, some kind of calendar or astronomical observatory; it's about how this place was special to prehistoric people.


"This natural landform happens to be on the solstice axis, which brings heaven and earth into one. So the reason that Stonehenge is all about the solstices, we think, is because they actually saw this in the land."


The findings back theories that emerged in 2008 following exploration of a narrow trench across the Avenue. Parker Pearson said: "This is the confirmation. It's being able to see the big picture."


Dr Heather Sebire, English Heritage's Stonehenge curator, said: "The part of the Avenue that was cut through by the road has obviously been destroyed forever, but we were hopeful that archaeology below the road would survive. And here we have it: the missing piece in the jigsaw. It is very exciting to find a piece of physical evidence that officially makes the connection which we were hoping for."


The excavation was conducted by Wessex Archaeology for English Heritage.


The A344 will be grassed over next year as part of English Heritage's £27m transformation of the World Heritage Site, which receives more than 1m visitors annually. There will be a new visitor centre, 1.5 miles away out of sight, to allow Stonehenge to reconnect with the surrounding landscape.


Sebire, who likens the Avenue to The Mall leading to Buckingham Palace, said that the latest findings should prompt vigorous academic debate.


The excavations have also uncovered three holes where missing stones would have stood on the outer sarsen circle, evidence, it is believed, that the circle was indeed once complete. Surprisingly, even the most sophisticated surveys failed to spot them. Two members of staff noticed dry areas of grass, or parchmarks.


Susan Greaney, an English Heritage historian, said: "The discovery … has certainly strengthened the case for it being a full circle."


Asked why no one noticed them until now, Parker Pearson said: "The problem is we've not had a decent dry summer in many years. Stonehenge is always regularly watered, and the only reason these have shown up is because – for some reason this year – their hose was too short … So we're very lucky."



Exclusive: Slaughtered bodies stripped of their flesh - a gruesome glimpse of Iron-Age massacre at UK’s largest hill fort

Hundreds if not thousands stripped of their flesh and chopped up, say archaeologists



Excavations in Somerset have revealed a gruesome glimpse of Iron-Age Britain. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of a massacre involving hundreds, if not thousands of people, with some of the slaughtered bodies being stripped of their flesh or chopped up.


Human remains unearthed from an ancient site near Yeovil have cut marks, often in multiple rows, and occurring at the ends of important joints. “It is as if they were trying to separate pieces of the body”, according to Dr Marcus Brittain, the Cambridge archaeologist and head of a major excavation of Britain’s largest Iron-Age hill fort, Ham Hill.


Defleshing signs have been found on other Iron-Age human remains, but the scale of the evidence at this site is particularly dramatic, he said.


Ham Hill is so vast – the size of 123 football pitches surrounded by Iron-Age ramparts – that only a small part has so far been excavated. It is clear from the remains discovered that there are “hundreds, if not thousands of bodies” buried in the site, Dr Brittain told The Independent. “It’s unusual to find this number of bodies on any site, let alone from the Iron Age.”


They are thought to date from the 1st or 2nd century AD, although the site had been occupied for thousands of years. Hill forts generally date from the first millennium BC to the Roman Conquest and are rarely excavated because they are protected ancient monuments.


However, the Ham Hill site contains one of the most important stone materials in southern England, used in the conservation of historic buildings in the region. So, special permission was granted to extend the Ham Hill stone quarry on condition that it funded an important archaeological investigation by the universities of Cambridge and Cardiff.


Its picturesque setting in “green and pleasant lands” jars with the number of human remains found, Dr Brittain said. “It could not be more different to the hill fort’s modern serenity of picnics and dog-walkers.”


The massacre remains unexplained, but it occurred around the start of the Roman invasion. Evidence of Roman military equipment – large ballista bolts – has been found among the bodies. The bolts are heavy and sharp, like arrowheads – “but a hell of a lot bigger,” Dr Brittain said. “They would have been fired by catapult.” One theory is that the Romans executed people in policing and keeping order between indigenous tribes, but it’s unlikely that they did the defleshing because the gruesome practice is rarely associated with them.


Defleshing was linked to Iron Age Britons who often put polished skulls in doorways.


Christopher Evans, director of the Cambridge Archaeology Unit, said that the excavations raised more questions than answers. Further inside the hill fort’s interior, evidence of domestic life from earlier phases of its occupation was found, at a time when people lived in wood and daub houses.


Apart from Iron-Age and Roman pottery, the finds include ritualistic burials – arrangements of human skulls as well as bodies tossed into a pit, left exposed and gnawed by animals. Many of the bodies are predominantly women. “It is weird, there is no doubt,” Dr Brittain said.



New Microplasma Device Could Potentially Revolutionize Archaeology

September 7, 2013


A team of researchers, including experts from Uppsala University in Sweden have developed a miniature device that they claim could revolutionize the way in which archaeologists date objects they discover in the field.


The instrument in question is being described as a high-tech microplasma source that is capable of exciting matter in a controlled, efficient way. While the device, which is detailed in a paper appearing in the Journal of Applied Physics, could be used in a wide range of applications in harsh environments, the authors claim that it could drastically change the study of artifacts.


The device – which researchers from the university’s Ångström Space Technology Centre (ÅSTC) describe as “a microplasma source based on a stripline split-ring resonator is presented and evaluated in a basic optogalvanic spectrometer” – offers several advantages, including electromagnetic compatibility, an integrated fluidic system, and Langmuir probes for plasma diagnostics.


Scientists at ÅSTC report that they often have to work with several different types of microtechnology or nanotechnology for use in space and other harsh environments. Those devices include scientific instruments, imaging, communication hardware, vehicles and spacecraft, propulsion devices, and thermal management.


“Putting miniaturized hardware into orbit or thousands of meters underground is always technically easier and less expensive, but using fundamentally different technology for demanding applications is often met with skepticism,” said ÅSTC director Greger Thornell. “So we need to also compete in terms of performance and reliability.”


Size limitation is “always a huge challenge,” he and his colleagues noted. However, they also said that they are used to working with microrocketry and localized phenomenon in miniature devices like sensors and actuators. Those kinds of phenomena can involve extremely high temperature and/or pressure, as well as intense plasma.


“In this case, the localization, or rather concentration, means that the device itself becomes handy and power-efficient, and also that it consumes small sample amounts, which widens the range of applications far beyond the requirement of simply lightweight or portable instruments,” Thornell said.


Archaeology is being investigated as a possible primary application of their newly-developed device in order to help determine the distribution of carbon isotopes in organic samples. As senior researcher Anders Persson of Linköping University explained, that information is critical for archaeologists, but obtaining the data can also be a difficult and time-consuming process.


“Their plasma source may be used to develop an instrument for field archaeologists, which would allow them to perform measurements while out in the field; this in turn may revolutionize archaeology by diversifying the amount of information available during the decision-making process of an excavation,” the American Institute of Physics (AIP) said in a statement. They also emphasized that the research was “still an early study to evaluate the use of this type of plasma source in an optogalvanic spectroscopy setup.”



Richard III had roundworm infection, scientists claim

Press Association

theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 September 2013 01.07 BST


Richard III suffered from a roundworm infection, according to research carried out on his skeleton.


The body of the king, who ruled England from 1483-85, was discovered last year by archaeologists at the University of Leicester, and scientists have since been undertaking careful analysis of the remains.


A team of researchers led by Dr Piers Mitchell, of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University, used a powerful microscope to examine soil samples taken from the skeleton's pelvis and skull, as well as from the soil surrounding the grave.


It revealed multiple roundworm eggs in the soil sample taken from the pelvis, where the intestines would have been situated. However, there was no sign of eggs in soil from the skull, and very few in the soil that surrounded the grave, suggesting the eggs in the pelvis area resulted from a roundworm infection, rather than external contamination by the later dumping of human waste in the area.


Roundworms infect humans when people ingest their eggs via contaminated food, water, or soil. Once eaten, the eggs hatch into larvae, which migrate through the tissues of the body to the lungs where they mature. They then crawl up the airways to the throat to be swallowed back into the intestines, where they can grow into adults around a foot long. Roundworm infection is thought to be one of the commonest health conditions in the world, affecting up to a quarter of all people globally, though it is rare in the UK today.


It is spread by the faecal contamination of food by dirty hands, or use of faeces as a crop fertiliser.


Dr Mitchell said: "Our results show that Richard was infected with roundworms in his intestines, although no other species of intestinal parasite were present in the samples we studied. We would expect nobles of this period to have eaten meats such as beef, pork and fish regularly, but there was no evidence for the eggs of the beef, pork or fish tapeworm. This may suggest that his food was cooked thoroughly, which would have prevented the transmission of these parasites."


Dr Jo Appleby, lecturer in human bioarchaeology at the University of Leicester, said: "Despite Richard's noble background, it appears that his lifestyle did not completely protect him from intestinal parasite infection, which would have been very common at the time."


Richard, who was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field near Leicester, is one of England's best known medieval kings because of his portrayal as a villain in Shakespeare's play Richard III.


His body was buried in Greyfriars Church in Leicester. His remains were excavated from under a council car park, the former site of the church, last September.


The Dig for Richard III was led by the University of Leicester, working with Leicester City Council and in association with the Richard III Society.


The research is published in The Lancet.



First world war model battlefield to be dug up

Archaeologists will begin charting site in Staffordshire, the only example of its kind left in Britain

Press Association

The Guardian, Sunday 1 September 2013 23.46 BST


A dig to uncover a scale model of one of the first world war's bloodiest battlefields – created by soldiers in tribute to their dead comrades – is about to start.


Archaeologists will begin charting the site, the only example of its kind left in Britain, which was planned in painstaking detail by troops returned from the battle of Messines, fought in June 1917 on the western front.


Experts said the terrain model was built not only as a training aid for soldiers at Brocton Camp, Staffordshire, but also in recognition of the horrific toll the battle fought around Messines ridge took on the brigade.


The ridge formed an anchor in the German front lines but the week of infantry attack, aerial bombardment and heavy shelling resulted in an Allied victory, with four Victoria crosses awarded to empire soldiers.


The human cost of the battle ran to 50,000 men killed, wounded or missing on both sides.


The battle was fought in the buildup to the larger and even bloodier Passchendaele offensive, which began in July of that year.


Staffordshire county council, in a project funded by Natural England, is to make a record of the model for future generations before re-covering the site, on Cannock Chase, in October.


The model was built by German prisoners of war, supervised by New Zealanders, and then rendered in concrete.


It includes small-scale reconstructions of Messines village's buildings, including its church, together with trench positions, railway lines, roads, and accurate contours of the surrounding terrain.