30,000-Year-old Giant Virus Reawakened From Permafrost Ice Still Infectious

Posted by: Charles Moore  March 6, 2014


There’s a science story making the rounds this week that could easily pass as a plot for a low-budget science-fiction flick. A team of French scientists have awakened a giant virus that was encapsulated for 30,000 years in 100 feet (30 metres) of permafrost ice taken from coastal tundra in Chukotka, East Siberia. The most chilling (no pun intended) B-movieish aspect of this is that the huge (in this context meaning large enough to be seen under a microscope) ancient microbe is still infectious. Its host targets, fortunately, are amoebae, but other such reawakened viruses may not be as discriminating.

There is concern in the scientific community that resurrection of this long-dormant virus raises apprehension that other unknown pathogens entombed in frozen soil may be unleashed by climate change could pose potential risks for human health.

The discovery is described in a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) entitled “Thirty-thousand-year-old distant relative of giant icosahedral DNA viruses with a pandoravirus morphology” (10.1073/pnas.1320670111), which notes that this pandoravirus-like particle may correspond to an unexplored diversity of unconventional DNA virus families, and that “The revival of such an ancestral amoeba-infecting virus used as a safe indicator of the possible presence of pathogenic DNA viruses, suggests that the thawing of permafrost either from global warming or industrial exploitation of circumpolar regions might not be exempt from future threats to human or animal health.”

British science writer Ed Yong, who authored a report on the discovery in Nature News this week, notes in his National Geographic Society “Not Exactly Rocket Science” blog that researching the story got him into a mini-debate about the magnitude of health risk such resurrected viruses may represent.

In his Nature News report (Nature dpi:10.1038/nature.2014.14801), Yong notes that the newly thawed virus is the biggest one ever found, being at 1.5 micrometres long, comparable in size to a small bacterium. The discovery was made by a team led by evolutionary biologists Jean-Michel Claverie a Professor of Medical Genomics and Bioinformatics at the University of Mediterranée School of Medicine, Director of the Mediterranean Institute of Microbiology, and head of the Structural and Genomic Information Laboratory, a CNRS unit (UPR2589) in Marseille, and his wife Dr. Chantal Abergel of the French national research agency Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) at Aix-Marseille University

AFP reports that the research team thawed the virus and watched it replicate in a culture in a petri dish, where it infected an amoeba (a simple singsle-celled organism). The team named the huge virus Pithovirus sibericum, inspired by the Greek word ‘pithos’ for the large container used by the ancient Greeks to store wine and food. P. sibericum has 500 genes, compared with the influenza virus that has only eight.

Drs. Claverie and Abergel have been in the hunt for what they and their colleagues call “pandoraviruses” because of their amphora shape and the surprises their discovery may portend — referencing the mythical Greek Pandora who opened a box and released evil into the world. Pandoraviruses are a genus of very large viruses, with genomes much larger than those of any other known type of virus, whose size approaches (and with this latest discovery surpasses) 1 micron in a blob-like shape resembling some types of bacteria.

Another paper published in the journal Science last summer (Science 19 July 2013: Vol. 341 no. 6143 pp. 281-286 DOI: 10.1126/science.1239181) entitled “Pandoraviruses: Amoeba Viruses with Genomes Up to 2.5 Mb Reaching That of Parasitic Eukaryotes.” notes that:

“Ten years ago, the discovery of Mimivirus, a virus infecting Acanthamoeba, initiated a reappraisal of the upper limits of the viral world, both in terms of particle size (>0.7 micrometers) and genome complexity (>1000 genes), dimensions typical of parasitic bacteria. The diversity of these giant viruses (the Megaviridae) was assessed by sampling a variety of aquatic environments and their associated sediments worldwide. We report the isolation of two giant viruses, one off the coast of central Chile, the other from a freshwater pond near Melbourne (Australia), without morphological or genomic resemblance to any previously defined virus families. Their micrometer-sized ovoid particles contain DNA genomes of at least 2.5 and 1.9 megabases, respectively. These viruses are the first members of the proposed “Pandoravirus” genus, a term reflecting their lack of similarity with previously described microorganisms and the surprises expected from their future study.”

Dr. Claverie’s main research interest is the evolutionary origin and the biology of the paradoxical giant DNA viruses such as Mimivirus and the biodiversity of the marine microbial world (protists, bacteria and viruses). His laboratory’s approaches include structural, molecular, and cellular biology, high throughput genome and transcriptome sequencing, large-scale comparative genomics, and the development of relevant bioinformatic methods for sequence analysis and datamining. He also has a strong interest in the application of high throughput new generation sequencing genomic approaches in the biomedical and biotechnological fields. He is the co-author of more than 160 scientific publications in international journals and of the best-seller books “Bioinformatics for Dummies” and Bioinformatics For Dummies, 2nd Edition.

“The discovery of Pandoraviruses is an indication that our knowledge of Earth’s microbial biodiversity is still incomplete.”  Dr. Claverie, told Inside Science News Service’s Ker last year. “Huge discoveries remain to be made at the most fundamental level that may change our present conception about the origin of life and its evolution.”

Discovered in the late 19th century, viruses have long been considered inert microbes, hardly qualified as living organisms and little more than a protein package of genetic material with no metabolic capabilities and incapable of replicating on their own, obliging them to parasitically invade and occupy cells and coax their host to replicate them, because they can’t make their own proteins. However, about a decade ago, discovery in an amoeba of a virus that rivals the size of a small bacterium prompted a rethinking of how viruses originated and what they could do. University of Mediterranée microbiologist Dr. Didier Raoult, Dr. Claverie, and colleagues sequenced the genome of mimivirus, for “microbe mimicking virus,” with 1.18 million bases contained more than 900 putative genes, some closely resembling genes in non-A class of their own. “These viruses have more than 2,000 new genes coding for proteins and enzymes that do unknown things, and participate in unknown metabolic pathways,” Dr. Abergel told ISNS’s Ker. “Elucidating their biochemical and regulatory functions might be of a tremendous interest for biotech and biomedical applications.”

On her CNRS Web page, Dr. Abergel notes that the researchers are now interested in genes conserved in large DNA viruses, and that analyzing them is a great opportunity to discover new “entry” points (molecular switches) in the control of cell death (apoptosis), cell division (DNA replication), or bacterial infection (phagocytosis, cell trafficking). This in turn might lead to innovative therapeutic approaches.

In his Science News report, Ed Yong cites Curtis Suttle, a virologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, observing that: “Once again, this group has opened our eyes to the enormous diversity that exists in giant viruses.” Yong notes that two years ago, Drs. Claverie and Abergel’s team learned that scientists in Russia had resurrected an ancient plant from fruits buried in 30,000-year-old Siberian permafrost . “If it was possible to revive a plant, I wondered if it was possible to revive a virus,” comments Dr. Claverie. Using permafrost samples provided by the Russian team, the French scientists fished for giant viruses by using amoebae — the typical targets of these pathogens — as bait. The amoebae started dying, and the team found giant-virus particles inside them.

Back to the chilling part, Yong’s report notes that while giant viruses almost always target amoebae, Christelle Desnues, a virologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Marseilles, last year discovered signs that another giant virus, Marseillevirus, had infected an 11-month-old boy who had been hospitalized with inflamed lymph nodes. Dr. Desnues’s team discovered traces of Marseillevirus DNA in the boy’s blood, and the virus itself in the a node. “It is clear that giant viruses cannot be seen as stand-alone freaks of nature,” she is quoted observing. “They constitute an integral part of the virosphere with implications in diversity, evolution and even human health.”

AFP cites France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) saying in a press statement.

“[The resurrected virus discovery] has important implications for public-health risks in connection with exploiting mineral or energy resources in Arctic Circle regions that are becoming more and more accessible through global warming.

“The revival of viruses that are considered to have been eradicated, such as the smallpox virus, whose replication process is similar to that of Pithovirus, is no longer limited to science fiction.

“The risk that this scenario could happen in real life has to be viewed realistically.”

Yong reports that Drs. Claverie and Abergel are also concerned that rising global temperatures, along with mining and drilling operations in the Arctic, could thaw out and release many more ancient viruses that are still infectious and that could conceivably pose a threat to human health.

Metro News’s Mark Malloy cites Dr. Abergel saying the team are taking precautions to stop other viruses being released, noting “We are addressing this issue by sequencing the DNA that is present in those layers. This would be the best way to work out what is dangerous in there.”

BBC video:



Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)




Article created on Sunday, March 9, 2014


A study conducted into the genomes of a European Mesolithic hunter -gatherer known as La Braña 1 has been published in the journal Nature. The study involved sequencing a 7,000-year-old Mesolithic skeleton discovered at the La Braña-Arintero site in León, Spain, to retrieve a complete pre-agricultural European human genome. The results further confirm that modern Iberian populations are not genetically related to these pre-farming peoples.

The Mesolithic, a transitional period that lasted from circa 11,000 to 5,000 years ago (between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic), ends with the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry and the concurrent arrival of new genetic material from the Middle East. The arrival of the Neolithic farmers, with their carbohydrate-based and domesticated animal diet, along with food-borne pathogens and the inherent  metabolic /immunological challenges can be reflected in genetic adaptations of post- Mesolithic populations.


The individual at the centre of the study belongs to a group prior to this influx of new genetic material.

“The biggest surprise was to discover that this individual possessed African versions in the genes that are involved in European pigmentation, indicating he had dark skin, although we can not know the exact tone,” says researcher Carles Lalueza- Fox.

“Even more surprising was the discovery that he had the genetic variants that produce blue eyes in Europeans today, resulting in a unique phenotype in a genome that is otherwise clearly northern European.”


The study of the genome suggests that current populations nearest to La Braña 1 are in Northern Europe, such as Sweden and Finland. In addition, the work points out that La Braña 1 has a common ancestor with the settlers of the Upper Palaeolithic site of Mal’ta, located in Lake Baikal (Siberia), whose genome was recovered a few months ago.

Lalueza-Fox explains “These data indicates that there is genetic continuity in the populations of central and western Eurasia. In fact, these data are consistent with the archaeological remains, as in other excavations in Europe and Russia, including the site of Mal’ta, anthropomorphic figures –called Palaeolithic Venus– have been recovered and they are very similar to each other”.

La Braña-Arintero was discovered by chance in 2006 and excavated by archaeologist Julio Manuel Vidal Encinas. The cave environment, located in a cold mountainous area and 1,500 metres above sea level, contributed to the “exceptional” preservation of the DNA from two individuals found inside, who were then labelled La Braña 1 and La Braña 2.

Iñigo Olalde, lead author of the study, concludes that “the intention of the team is trying to retrieve the individual genome of the Braña 2 which is the least well preserved of the burials in the hope that they can continue to obtain information on the genetic characteristics of these early Europeans.”


Source: CSIC

More Information

Iñigo Olalde, Morten E. Allentoft, Federico Sánchez-Quinto, Gabriel Santpere, Charleston W. K. Chiang, Michael DeGiorgio, Javier Prado-Martinez, Juan Antonio Rodríguez, SimonRasmussen, Javier Quilez, Oscar Ramírez,Urko M. Marigorta, Marcos Fernández-Callejo, María Encina Prada, Julio Manuel Vidal Encinas, RasmusNielsen,Mihai G. Netea, John Novembre, Richard A. Sturm, PardisSabeti, Tomás Marqués-Bonet, Arcadi Navarro, EskeWillerslev & Carles Lalueza-Fox.Derived immune and ancestral pigmentation alleles in a 7,000-year-old Mesolithic European. Nature.DOI: 10.1038/nature12960.

Ancient Siberian’s skeleton yields links to Europe and Native Americans

Cite this article

CSIC. A Mesolithic face from Southern Europe. Past Horizons. March 09, 2014, from http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/03/2014/A Mesolithic face from Southern Europe




Ancient Egyptian Soldier's Letter Home Deciphered

By Owen Jarus, Live Science Contributor   |   March 05, 2014 10:18pm ET


A newly deciphered letter home dating back around 1,800 years reveals the pleas of a young Egyptian soldier named Aurelius Polion who was serving, probably as a volunteer, in a Roman legion in Europe.


In the letter, written mainly in Greek, Polion tells his family that he is desperate to hear from them and that he is going to request leave to make the long journey home to see them.


Addressed to his mother (a bread seller), sister and brother, part of it reads: "I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind," it reads. [In Photos: Gladiators of the Roman Empire]


"I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you ..." (Part of the letter hasn't survived.)


The back of the letter contains instructions for the carrier to deliver it to a military veteran whose name may have been Acutius Leon who could forward it to Polion's family. Although the Roman Empire had a military postal system, Polion appears not to hPin It The back of the letter contains instructions for the carrier to deliver it to a military veteran whose name may have been Acutius Leon who could forward it to Polion's family. Although the Roman Empire had a military postal system, Polion appears not to have used it, entrusting the veteran instead.

Credit: Image courtesy Bancroft Library at the University of California BerkeleyView full size image

Polion says he has written six letters to his family without response, suggesting some sort of family tensions.


"While away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger," he writes. "I shall obtain leave from the consular (commander), and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother …"


Found in an ancient Egyptian town


The letter was found outside a temple in the Egyptian town of Tebtunis more than a century ago by an archaeological expedition led by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt. They found numerous papyri in the town and did not have time to translate all of them.


Recently Grant Adamson, a doctoral candidate at Rice University, took up the task of translating the papyrus, using infrared images of it, a technology that makes part of the text more legible. His translation was published recently in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists.


Adamson isn't sure if the soldier's family responded to his pleas, or if Polion got leave to see them (it's unlikely), but it appears this letter did arrive home.


"I tend to think so. The letter was addressed to and mentions Egyptians, and it was found outside the temple of the Roman-period town of Tebtunis in the Fayyum not far from the Nile River," Adamson wrote in an email to Live Science.


Polion, who lived at a time when the Roman Empire controlled Egypt, was part of the legio II Adiutrix legion stationed in Pannonia Inferior (around modern-day Hungary)


He may have volunteered for the pay and food legions got. However, that doesn't mean Polion knew that he was going to be posted so far away from home.


"He may have volunteered and left Egypt without knowing where he would be assigned," writes Adamson in the journal article. According to the translation, Polion sent the letter to a military veteran who could forward it to his family.


The situation seen in this letter, a young man serving as a volunteer in a military unit far away from home, facing tensions with his family and seeking leave to see them sounds like something that happens in modern-day armed forces.


Although soldiers today have an easier time communicating and traveling back home (Polion would have had to travel for a month or more to reach Tebtunis from his posting in Europe), there are some themes that connect both ancient and modern soldiers, Adamson said.


"I think that some aspects of military service belong to a common experience across ancient and modern civilizations — part of our human experience in general really. Things like worry and homesickness."


The letter is now in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.


Editor's Note: This article was updated to change the term "legionnaire" to "legion," as the former is not as popularly used to refer to Roman legionaries.



Digging on the Dark Side of Vesuvius

Archaeologists are uncovering new finds on the northern slopes of the infamous volcano.

By Leah Powell   Wed, Mar 05, 2014


Since their discoveries, the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, those hapless victims of the Mt. Vesuvius eruptions of AD 79, have captured the public’s imagination and have thus commanded the attention of both the academic community and the general public. The recent exhibition at the British Museum that highlighted Pompeii and Herculaneum, coupled with the release of the major motion picture, Pompeii, have popularized the ancient cities all the more. There is, however, another story along the northern slopes of Vesuvius that tells of a people who lived and died on the "other side" of the better-known setting. Archaeologists have recently uncovered evidence of the people who lived and died on what has been termed "the dark side of Vesuvius", the northern slopes of the volcano and the adjoining ancient territories of Nola and Neapolis. It is a story that may encompass not just the well-known AD 79 eruption, but multiple past eruptions as well. Known as the Apolline Project, teams of archaeologists, other scientists, students and volunteers have been slowly piecing together what remains of the ancient settlements that survived and were dramatically affected by these cataclysms.


The fertile landscape around Mount Vesuvius has always made it an idyllic and desirable setting for human occupation. Rich in minerals, rivers, and hot springs, this fertile volcanic landscape is as inviting as it is precarious, yielding a wealth of foodstuffs such as olives, hazelnuts, shellfish, figs, and grapes, to name a few. Archaeologists have now discovered evidence of ancient ploughed fields, orchards, vineyards, and Roman centuriation grids, demonstrating that in antiquity the region was thoroughly exploited through the cultivation of a wide variety of crops, as it is today. Considering this abundance and variety of natural resources, from foodstuffs and fuel to natural building materials, the northern territories of Nola and Neapolis were well placed to become centers of mass industrial activity. Ancient literary sources testify to this; for example, Strabo described the area as “dotted all around with cities, buildings, and plantations, so thoroughly intertwined that it resembles closely a metropolis”. Wine, in particular, was a valuable export for this prosperous region, supporting trade connections as far as Britannia and India. Understanding the exact nature of the communications and exchange processes within this region both before and after AD 79 has become the principal pursuit of the Project, which seeks to understand not only the people who lived during these times, but the nature of the economic and industrial landscape as well.

But the archaeologists face a challenge not uncommon in the field. The region of Campania, which today contains the traces of this area, has been intensively settled and urbanized and as a result, only a small percentage of its vast history has been brought to light. It presents a real obstacle to archaeologists who are attempting to reconstruct an image of the ancient landscape and its settlements. Nevertheless, the accessible sites lying on the northern slope of Vesuvius have provided them with a window with long spans of occupation featuring multiple stages of post-eruption recovery and repopulation that provide clear, rich stratigraphies, allowing for the creation of extended chronologies and timelines.

The Finds at Pollena Trocchia

Key to the efforts on the northern slope has been the discovery of a Roman bath and villa site located in the town of Pollena Trocchia. Since 2005, most of the baths have been unearthed, revealing evidence to suggest that it was part of a larger villa complex now buried underneath an adjacent modern block of flats. The discovery of the volcanic material deposited by the AD 79 eruption indicated that the villa complex, or the baths at least, were built in the years after the eruption. As a result, the insight that the finds have provided in terms of both the inhabitants and their impetus to settle there has been extraordinary. The discovery of a brick stamp imprinted onto a tile lining the bath’s hypocaust, for example, shows the distinct mark of the Domitii brothers, a prosperous family from Rome who produced this stamp between AD 75 and AD 95. This connection with Rome, along with the many lavish finds, suggests that the inhabitants of this site were very affluent and settled there soon after the eruption, perhaps tempted by the fertile earth left by the volcano.

Moreover, the rich data from the site at Pollena Trocchia obtained through charcoal analysis of carbonized plant remains has revealed the exact species of vegetation and offers insight into how they were cultivated to shape the Roman landscape. For example, evidence of chestnut (a known construction timber used by the Romans) suggests that the late antique woodland on the north slope may have been partially and purposefully composed of chestnut trees. In fact, the plethora of woodland that blanketed Mount Vesuvius in Roman times was also required in vast quantities for fueling industries such as pottery-making and iron-smithing. It also played a more domestic role in cooking and in the heating of Roman baths. By identifying evidence of activities that would have incorporated wood, as well as the remains of wood itself, archaeologists and palaeobotanists alike are investigating the transportation and management of ancient forests, and whether the woodland of Vesuvius was enough to satisfy the enormous demand for timber.

The researchers have found that not all archaeological finds, however, are as easily comprehensible. A few years ago, the remains of two children were discovered buried in two small amphorae. Amphorae are large pottery vessels that were usually used for transporting wine and other foodstuffs, but they were also occasionally used for infant burials. Thus far, the tale surrounding these children, possibly twins, remains a mystery.

The occupation of this site may have ended the way it began, with a volcanic eruption. This eruption struck on November 6th, AD 472, the site itself being destroyed by lahars. The lahars were produced by the eruption, creating an atmospheric disturbance that caused severe downpours of rain, which then flowed rapidly down the mountainsides, picking up literally tons of ash and mud on their way. As devastating as this event was, the stratigraphy it left behind has been indispensable to the archaeological research.


Pollena Trocchia is not the only site that has shed light on the area. For example, the grand villa complex at Somma Vesuviana boasts a long and mysterious history, with speculation about its ownership and function. Around the time of its discovery, it was thought to have been owned by the Emperor Augustus himself. Originally a luxurious stately home, the function of the building changed after the AD 79 eruption, and there are strong indications that it might have been an industrial center for the mass production of wine. During excavations by the University of Tokyo, a plethora of Dionysiac imagery and motifs have been found throughout the structure, strongly conveying Dionysus, the Roman God of wine and merriment, as the patron diety. One beautiful, well-preserved, marble statue particularly evokes this: it features the god holding a panther cub, a very rare pose. Due to the size and discoveries made at this site, it is well known within the field of Roman archaeology. It is this scale of attention that Apolline Project researchers hope to achieve for the Pollena excavations. In addition, the Villa of Lauro, also in this region, has had its fair share of archaeological attention. Abandoned after the AD 472 eruption, these Roman baths are thought to have belonged to a larger villa complex, much like those at Pollena Trocchia. Thanks to an extraordinary fresco found in Lancellotti Castle nearby, researchers have deduced that much of this villa was removed to construct the church of San Giovanni del Palco. The Villa of Laura baths are most noted for their decoration. Also known as ‘The Blue Baths’, the walls, flooring, and stone furnishings are studded with bold blue tesserae, shells and other decorative materials. The surviving mosaics depict detailed scenes involving various birds, plant life, and deer hunting.

Combining secondary sources such as maps and literary accounts with results of the actual excavations, the Project has constructed local archaeological maps of the area around Nola and Neapolis, thus giving back to the modern day residents a sense of their history and identity. Project staff have also engaged with local landowners and enthusiasts to give the community an active role in the search for their heritage, a quest that is expected to continue for generations.


For more information on the work of the Apolline Project and how to participate, go to the website at http://www.apollineproject.org/


Interested readers may also contact the project’s director, Girolamo Ferdinando De Simone at desimonegf@gmail.com.



Bronze Age rock art uncovered in Brecon Beacons

6 March 2014 Last updated at 08:19


Experts think the stone served as a way marker for farming communities

Rare, prehistoric rock art which could be more than 4,000 years old has been discovered in the Brecon Beacons.

The Bronze Age discovery was made late last year by national park geologist Alan Bowring.

Experts claim the stone probably served as a way marker for farming communities.

Similar stones have been found in other parts of Britain but they are thought to be rare in mid Wales.

Its exact location in the Brecon Beacons is being kept a secret and news of its discovery comes after archaeologists found a similar ancient rock in the Scottish Highlands.

The Welsh stone is about 1.45m (4ft 9in) long and half a metre (1ft 8 in) wide, with 12 cup (hollow) marks of various shapes and sizes on the face.

It now lies flat on the ground buta experts say it could have once stood upright.

Mr Bowring was working on land maintained by the National Trust when he spotted the rock.

Sensing it was unusual, he sought advice from national park archaeologist Natalie Ward, who had experience of recording similar artefacts in the north of England.

"I often find myself working and walking in remote locations, and encountering hidden features in the landscape of south and mid Wales that few others will have seen," said Mr Bowring.

"But this chance discovery, made whilst looking for clues to the site's exciting geological history, appears to be significant in our understanding of human cultural history in the region."

The National Trust's own archaeological survey had already highlighted Bronze Age features in the area, giving some context to the stone's past.

Dr George Nash, archaeologist and specialist in prehistoric and contemporary art at Bristol University, confirmed Mr Bowring had discovered the first prehistoric rock engraved panel recorded in the Brecon Beacons.

Dr Nash added that based on the shape of the stone and its engravings it probably came from the early to middle Bronze Age period - 2500 BC to 1500 BC - and it probably served as a way marker.

Alan Bowring discovered the stone when he was working in the Brecon Beacons

"We might have been able to predict a discovery of this kind considering the large amount of prehistoric ritual sites in the Brecon Beacons but this is the first evidence of prehistoric rock art to be ever recorded [in the Beacons]," Dr Nash said.

"There are no other later prehistoric standing stones within this part of Wales that are cup marked, making this one rather unique."

He said the cup marks were the most common later prehistoric rock art form in Britain and Europe, but their occurrence in mid Wales was rare.


4,000-year-old Dartmoor burial find rewrites British bronze age history

Stone box contains earliest examples of wood-turning and metal-working, along with Baltic amber and what may be bear skin

Maev Kennedy

theguardian.com, Sunday 9 March 2014 11.36 GMT


Some 4,000 years ago a young woman's cremated bones – charred scraps of her shroud and the wood from her funeral pyre still clinging to them – was carefully wrapped in a fur along with her most valuable possessions, packed into a basket, and carried up to one of the highest and most exposed spots on Dartmoor, where they were buried in a small stone box covered by a mound of peat.


The discovery of her remains is rewriting the history of the bronze age moor. The bundle contained a treasury of unique objects: a tin bead and 34 tin studs, which are the earliest evidence of metal-working in the south-west; textiles, including a unique nettle fibre belt with a leather fringe; jewellery, including amber from the Baltic and shale from Whitby; and wooden ear studs, which are the earliest examples of wood turning ever found in Britain.


The site chosen for her grave was no accident. At 600 metres above sea level, White Horse hill is so remote that getting there even today is a 45-minute walk across heather and bog, after a half-hour drive up a military track from the nearest road. The closest known prehistoric habitation site is far down in the valley below, near the grave of the former poet laureate Ted Hughes.


Analysing and interpreting one of the most intriguing burials ever found in Britain is now occupying scientists across several continents. A BBC documentary, Mystery of the Moor, was first intended only for local broadcast, but as the scale of the find became clear, it will now be shown nationally on BBC2 on 9 March.


Scientists in Britain, Denmark and the Smithsonian in the US have been working on the fur. It is not dog, wolf, deer, horse or sheep, but may be a bear skin, from a species that became extinct in Britain at least 1,000 years ago.


"I am consumed with excitement about this find. I never expected to see anything like it in my lifetime," Jane Marchand, chief archaeologist at the Dartmoor National Park Authority said. "The last Dartmoor burial with grave goods was back in the days of the Victorian gentleman antiquarians. This is the first scientifically excavated burial on the moor, and the most significant ever."


It has not yet been possible definitively to identify the sex of the fragmented charred bones, though they suggest a slight individual aged between 15 and 25 years.


"I shouldn't really say her – but given the nature of the objects, and the fact that there is no dagger or other weapon of any kind, such as we know were found in other burials from the period, I personally have no doubt that this was a young woman," Marchand said. "Any one of the artefacts would make the find remarkable."


Although Dartmoor is speckled with prehistoric monuments, including standing stones, stone rows, and hundreds of circular hut sites, very few prehistoric burials of any kind have been found. What gives the White Horse hill international importance is the survival of so much organic material, which usually disintegrates without trace in the acid soil.


Apart from the basket, this burial had the belt; the ear studs – identical to those on sale in many goth shops – made from spindle wood, a hard fine-grained wood often used for knitting needles, from trees which still grow on the lower slopes of Dartmoor; and the unique arm band, plaited from cowhair and originally studded with 34 tin beads that would have shone like silver. There were even charred scraps of textile that may be the remains of a shroud, and fragments of charcoal from the funeral pyre.


Although tin – essential for making bronze – from Cornwall and Devon became famous across the ancient world, there was no previous evidence of smelting from such an early date. The necklace, which included amber from the Baltic, had a large tin bead made from part of an ingot beaten flat and then rolled. Although research continues, the archaeologists are convinced it was made locally.


The cist, a stone box, was first spotted more than a decade ago by a walker on Duchy of Cornwall land, when an end slab collapsed as the peat mound that had sheltered it for 4,000 years was gradually washed away. However, it was only excavated three years ago when archaeologists realised the site was eroding so fast any possible contents would inevitably soon be lost. It was only when they lifted the top slab that the scale of the discovery became apparent. The fur and the basket were a wet blackened sludgy mess, but through it they could see beads and other objects. "As we carefully lifted the bundle a bead fell out – and I knew immediately we had something extraordinary," Marchand said. "Previously we had eight beads from Dartmoor; now we have 200."


The contents were taken to the Wiltshire conservation laboratory, where the basket alone took a year's work to clean, freeze dry, and have its contents removed. The empty cist was reconstructed on the site. However, this winter's storms have done so much damage the archaeologists are now debating whether they will have to move the stones or leave them to inevitable disintegration.


The jewellery and other conserved artefacts will feature in an exhibition later this year at Plymouth city museum, but although work continues on her bones, it is unlikely to answer the mystery of who she was, how she died, and why at such a young age she merited a burial fit for a queen.



Mesa Verde’s ‘Mummy Lake’ Was Built to Hold Rituals, Not Water, Study Says

Blake de Pastino

Mar 06,20140


A grand, sandstone-walled pit in Mesa Verde National Park has for decades been seen as an achievement of prehistoric hydrology, part of a system of cisterns and canals used by Ancestral Puebloans to harvest rainwater on the arid plateau as much as 1,100 years ago.


Cowboys who watered their horses at the pit in the 19th century called it Mummy Lake.


In 1917, government ethnologist Jesse Walker Fewkes cemented the more official interpretation of the site, deeming it a “prehistoric reservoir.”


But a new analysis of the feature finds that, while it may catch runoff from time to time, Mummy Lake wasn’t built for holding water.


“Fewkes did suggest it was a reservoir,” said Dr. Larry Benson, lead author of the new study, in an interview. “But I think there’s always been a problem with that [interpretation].”


Instead, Benson says, the pit known as Mummy Lake was more likely designed and used as a ceremonial structure, similar to the roofless kivas and plazas found elsewhere in the Southwest.


What’s more, he adds, the trenched courses that seem to lead to and from the pit aren’t canals, but ritual pathways, much like those found faintly radiating from other ancient Puebloan sites, including Chaco Canyon.


“What we found out was, those canals weren’t canals — they were Chacoan roads,” Benson said.


“In fact, if you dumped out all of the water you could hold in Mummy Lake in one of those canals, it wouldn’t even be a trickle.”


He and his colleagues report their findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science.


Benson is a retired USGS hydrologist and adjunct curator of anthropology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, whose recent studies in Nevada helped identify North America’s oldest known petroglyphs.


While that work was ongoing, he turned to Colorado’s Mesa Verde with a group of colleagues to test the theories surrounding Mummy Lake.


The team first surveyed the lay of the land surrounding Far View Village, the settlement that includes Mummy Lake, built on a ridge some 200 years before Mesa Verde’s inhabitants began constructing its signature cliff dwellings.


Using global positioning and digital elevation models, Benson’s team mapped the natural water flow on the ridge.


They concluded that not only could rainwater not have flowed easily into Mummy Lake’s pit — which is some 27 meters across and 6.5 meters deep — there was hardly enough water to capture to begin with.


“What we found out was that the area that could drain into Mummy Lake wasn’t any larger than the area of the Mummy Lake feature,” Benson said.


“Therefore there was not much water that could be provided to Mummy Lake during a normal water year.


“If you look at how much water you could ever put into the depression, it gets no more than several inches in the wettest year in history,” he added, “and that would’ve been evaporated out by July or so. During an average year, the water doesn’t even stay there as late as June.


“So there’s never enough water to take from the reservoir to do crops, and there’s really not even enough water to provide drinking water for a group of people.”


In addition to this mapping, an analysis of sediment flow by team member Dr. Eleanor Griffin found that the canal-like pathway that seemed to lead downslope into Mummy Lake would quickly choke with mud in a typical summer storm, casting further doubt on the pit’s usefulness as a cistern.


“So, having sort of dispensed with the idea that it was a water-control feature, we also looked at so-called canals that ran from Mummy Lake downridge,” Benson said.


Drs. John Stein and Richard Friedman, both New Mexico archaeologists, found parallels between these canals and paths found around Chaco Canyon and at a similar Puebloan development in New Mexico’s Manuelito Canyon.


There, Benson explained, such paths are thought by some experts to have been built not as travel corridors but as symbolic ties, linking older, abandoned sites to newer ones still in use.


In the case of Mummy Lake, Benson said, the paths linked the settlement at Mummy Lake, which was built as early as 900 CE, to the more recent and recognizable dwellings of Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House, which date to the early 1200s.


In this way, Mummy Lake may have been an important early component of the Mesa Verde complex that Puebloans wanted to stay connected to, literally and figuratively, even after they abandoned it and moved to the cliffs.


“So we suggest that this was the model for that part of Mesa Verde: people looking back at their previous history,” Benson said.


As for the structure of Mummy Lake itself, it’s never been completely excavated, Benson pointed out, so the details of its architectural features remain somewhat mysterious.


But ceramic fragments used as fill in the site’s construction suggest that it was built in two phases — the first between about 920 and 1150, and the second between 1150 and 1300.


During this second phase, Benson said, “and a bit later, there are a lot of unroofed kivas, very large ones, in the southwestern U.S., and we think [Mummy Lake] is an example of one of those, although it starts earlier than most of these structures.”


Mesa Verde National Park’s staff archaeologist was not available to comment on the team’s findings. But if they turn out to be right, Benson said, it wouldn’t be the first time that an ancient Southwestern ceremonial site was mistaken for a water tank.


[Read about another possible case of mistaken identity in a national park: "Ruins in Arizona May Be ‘Lost’ Jesuit Mission"]


Jesse Walker Fewkes, who anointed Mummy Lake as a reservoir nearly a century ago, had arrived at the same conclusion about a similar feature at the Puebloan village of Wupatki in Arizona.


Today, Wupatki’s “reservoir” is recognized as a ceremonial ballcourt, likely an example of cultural influence from the Hohokam who lived to the south.


“It seemed like wherever Fewkes went, he saw reservoirs,” Benson said.


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Benson, L., Griffin, E., Stein, J., Friedman, R., & Andrae, S. (2014). Mummy Lake: an unroofed ceremonial structure within a large-scale ritual landscape Journal of Archaeological Science, 44, 164-179 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2014.01.021



800-year-old monk found poking out of cliff face

The thigh bones of a medieval monk have been found poking out of cliffs at Monknash in South Wales which was a former burial ground in the Middle Ages



The legs of an 800-year-old medieval monk have been discovered, poking out of a cliff face in Wales.


Although badly damaged and missing their knees, shins and feet, the thigh bones were found after the fierce recent storms caused severe coastal erosion.


They were spotted by rambler Mandy Ewington, who sent a photograph to coastal archaeologist Karl-James Langford.


Mr Langford, 39, said "I thought she must have been mistaken but I went down to see for myself and thought: "Bloody hell,this is amazing!


"You can clearly see a grave has been eroded into the sea.


"What is fascinating is you can see the two femurs being slowly revealed as the cliffs are eroded away."


The area of Monknash in South Wales was a burial ground for Cistercian monks in the Middle Ages.


The valley is named after the Welsh saint Cewydd and was home to a community of Cistercian Monks from 1129 until the dissolution of the monasteries 1535.


The bones were discovered by rambler Mandy Ewington (Wales News Service)


Mr Langford said a monastic community lived close to the area and the bones appeared to be from a man in his late 20s, in good health.


"I would say they belong to a monk from the 1200s - due to previous archaeological digs in the past, the depth of the bones in the cliff and the history of the area.


"He would likely be buried with nothing except two shroud rings which would have held his burial shroud in place at the head and feet.


"It's quite an easy picture to put together.


Mr Langford, who runs Archaeology Cymru, said the winter storms had caused huge swathes of the British coastline to collapse and precious archaeological sites were being revealed and lost to the sea.


"It's like watching archaeology going like the pages of a book and the history is being revealed with every turn of the page.


"In just a couple of weeks of storms we lost a foot of our coastline.


"If you put that into perspective - over the last 2,000 years we have lost about 1km of the coast line.


"Erosion is accelerating so fast we can do nothing about it.