Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold near the Griffin Warrior

Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold

The family tombs are near the 2015 site of the 'Griffin Warrior,' a military leader buried with armor, weapons and jewelry.

A gold ring depicts bulls and barley, the first known representation of domesticated animals and agriculture in ancient Greece. Credits: UC Classics

Archaeologists with the University of Cincinnati have discovered two Bronze Age tombs containing a trove of engraved jewelry and artifacts that promise to unlock secrets about life in ancient Greece.

The UC archaeologists announced the discovery Tuesday in Greece.

Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, archaeologists in UC's classics department, found the two beehive-shaped tombs in Pylos, Greece, last year while investigating the area around the grave of an individual they have called the "Griffin Warrior," a Greek man whose final resting place they discovered nearby in 2015.

Like the Griffin Warrior's tomb, the princely tombs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea also contained a wealth of cultural artifacts and delicate jewelry that could help historians fill in gaps in our knowledge of early Greek civilization.

UC's team spent more than 18 months excavating and documenting the find. The tombs were littered with flakes of gold leaf that once papered the walls.

"Like with the Griffin Warrior grave, by the end of the first week we knew we had something that was really important," said Stocker, who supervised the excavation.

"It soon became clear to us that lightning had struck again," said Davis, head of UC's classics department.

Bronze Age Tombs Griffin Warrior Pylos
UC archaeologists discovered two large family tombs at Pylos, Greece, strewn with flakes of gold that once lined their walls. The excavation took more than 18 months. Credits: UC Classics

The Griffin Warrior is named for the mythological creature -- part eagle, part lion -- engraved on an ivory plaque in his tomb, which also contained armor, weaponry and gold jewelry. Among the priceless objects of art was an agate sealstone depicting mortal combat with such fine detail that Archaeology magazine hailed it as a "Bronze Age masterpiece."

Artifacts found in the princely tombs tell similar stories about life along the Mediterranean 3,500 years ago, Davis said. A gold ring depicted two bulls flanked by sheaves of grain, identified as barley by a paleobotanist who consulted on the project.

"It's an interesting scene of animal husbandry -- cattle mixed with grain production. It's the foundation of agriculture," Davis said. "As far as we know, it's the only representation of grain in the art of Crete or Minoan civilization."

UC archaeologists found a sealstone made from semiprecious carnelian in the family tombs at Pylos, Greece. The sealstone was engraved with two lionlike mythological figures called genii carrying serving vessels and incense burners facing each other over an altar and below a 16-pointed star. The other image is a putty cast of the sealstone. Credits: UC Classics

Like the grave of the Griffin Warrior, the two family tombs contained artwork emblazoned with mythological creatures. An agate sealstone featured two lion-like creatures called genii standing upright on clawed feet. They carry a serving vase and an incense burner, a tribute for the altar before them featuring a sprouting sapling between horns of consecration, Stocker said.

Above the genii is a 16-pointed star. The same 16-pointed star also appears on a bronze and gold artifact in the grave, she said.

"It's rare. There aren't many 16-pointed stars in Mycenaean iconography. The fact that we have two objects with 16 points in two different media (agate and gold) is noteworthy," Stocker said.

The genius motif appears elsewhere in the East during this period, she said.

"One problem is we don't have any writing from the Minoan or Mycenaean time that talks of their religion or explains the importance of their symbols," Stocker said.

UC's team also found a gold pendant featuring the likeness of the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

"Its discovery is particularly interesting in light of the role she played in Egypt as protectress of the dead," Davis said.

The identity of the Griffin Warrior is a matter for speculation. Stocker said the combination of armor, weapons and jewelry found in his tomb strongly indicate he had military and religious authority, likely as the king known in later Mycenaean times as a wanax.

Likewise, the princely tombs paint a picture of accumulated wealth and status, she said. They contained amber from the Baltic, amethyst from Egypt, imported carnelian and lots of gold. The tombs sit on a scenic vista overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on the spot where the Palace of Nestor would later rise and fall to ruins.

"I think these are probably people who were very sophisticated for their time," she said. "They have come out of a place in history where there were few luxury items and imported goods. And all of a sudden at the time of the first tholos tombs, luxury items appear in Greece.

"You have this explosion of wealth. People are vying for power," she said. "It's the formative years that will give rise to the Classic Age of Greece."

The antiquities provide evidence that coastal Pylos was once an important destination for commerce and trade.

"If you look at a map, Pylos is a remote area now. You have to cross mountains to get here. Until recently, it hasn't even been on the tourist path," Stocker said. "But if you're coming by sea, the location makes more sense. It's on the way to Italy. What we're learning is that it's a much more central and important place on the Bronze Age trade route."

The princely tombs sit close to the palace of Nestor, a ruler mentioned in Homer's famous works "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." The palace was discovered in 1939 by the late UC Classics professor Carl Blegen. Blegen had wanted to excavate in the 1950s in the field where Davis and Stocker found the new tombs but could not get permission from the property owner to expand his investigation. The tombs would have to wait years for another UC team to make the startling discovery hidden beneath its grape vines.

Excavating the site was particularly arduous. With the excavation season looming, delays in procuring the site forced researchers to postpone plans to study the site first with ground-penetrating radar. Instead, Stocker and Davis relied on their experience and intuition to focus on one disturbed area.

"There were noticeable concentrations of rocks on the surface once we got rid of the vegetation," she said.

Those turned out to be the exposed covers of deep tombs, one plunging nearly 15 feet. The tombs were protected from the elements and potential thieves by an estimated 40,000 stones the size of watermelons.

The boulders had sat undisturbed for millennia where they had fallen when the domes of the tombs collapsed. And now 3,500 years later, UC's team had to remove each stone individually.

"It was like going back to the Mycenaean Period. They had placed them by hand in the walls of the tombs and we were taking them out by hand," Stocker said. "It was a lot of work."

At every step of the excavation, the researchers used photogrammetry and digital mapping to document the location and orientation of objects in the tomb. This is especially valuable because of the great number of artifacts that were recovered, Davis said.

"We can see all levels as we excavated them and relate them one to the other in three dimensions," he said. UC's team will continue working at Pylos for at least the next two years while they and other researchers around the world unravel mysteries contained in the artifacts.

"It has been 50 years since any substantial tombs of this sort have been found at any Bronze Age palatial site. That makes this extraordinary," Davis said.

 

Press release from the University of Cincinnati, by Michael Miller.


New evidence suggests volcanoes caused biggest mass extinction ever

New evidence suggests volcanoes caused biggest mass extinction ever

Mercury found in ancient rock around the world supports theory that eruptions caused 'Great Dying' 252 million years ago.

Permian-Triassic extinction event mass extinction the Great Dying
A volcanic eruption spells doom for a predatory gorgonopsid during the Permian Period. Credit: Margaret Weiner/UC Creative Services

Researchers say mercury buried in ancient rock provides the strongest evidence yet that volcanoes caused the biggest mass extinction in the history of the Earth.

The extinction 252 million years ago was so dramatic and widespread that scientists call it "the Great Dying." The catastrophe killed off more than 95 percent of life on Earth over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.

Paleontologists with the University of Cincinnati and the China University of Geosciences said they found a spike in mercury in the geologic record at nearly a dozen sites around the world, which provides persuasive evidence that volcanic eruptions were to blame for this global cataclysm.

The study was published this month in the journal Nature Communications.

The eruptions ignited vast deposits of coal, releasing mercury vapor high into the atmosphere. Eventually, it rained down into the marine sediment around the planet, creating an elemental signature of a catastrophe that would herald the age of dinosaurs.

"Volcanic activities, including emissions of volcanic gases and combustion of organic matter, released abundant mercury to the surface of the Earth," said lead author Jun Shen, an associate professor at the China University of Geosciences.

The mass extinction occurred at what scientists call the Permian-Triassic Boundary. The mass extinction killed off much of the terrestrial and marine life before the rise of dinosaurs. Some were prehistoric monsters in their own right, such as the ferocious gorgonopsids that looked like a cross between a sabre-toothed tiger and a Komodo dragon.

The eruptions occurred in a volcanic system called the Siberian Traps in what is now central Russia. Many of the eruptions occurred not in cone-shaped volcanoes but through gaping fissures in the ground. The eruptions were frequent and long-lasting and their fury spanned a period of hundreds of thousands of years.

University of Cincinnati geology professor Thomas Algeo said a spike in mercury found in 252-million-year-old rock at a dozen locations around the world is evidence that volcanic eruptions caused a mass extinction that wiped out most of life on Earth during the Permian Period. Credit: Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

"Typically, when you have large, explosive volcanic eruptions, a lot of mercury is released into the atmosphere," said Thomas Algeo, a professor of geology in UC's McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.

"Mercury is a relatively new indicator for researchers. It has become a hot topic for investigating volcanic influences on major events in Earth's history," Algeo said.

Researchers use the sharp fossilized teeth of lamprey-like creatures called conodonts to date the rock in which the mercury was deposited. Like most other creatures on the planet, conodonts were decimated by the catastrophe.

The eruptions propelled as much as 3 million cubic kilometers of ash high into the air over this extended period. To put that in perspective, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington sent just 1 cubic kilometer of ash into the atmosphere, even though ash fell on car windshields as far away as Oklahoma.

In fact, Algeo said, the Siberian Traps eruptions spewed so much material in the air, particularly greenhouse gases, that it warmed the planet by an average of about 10 degrees centigrade.

The warming climate likely would have been one of the biggest culprits in the mass extinction, he said. But acid rain would have spoiled many bodies of water and raised the acidity of the global oceans. And the warmer water would have had more dead zones from a lack of dissolved oxygen.

"We're often left scratching our heads about what exactly was most harmful. Creatures adapted to colder environments would have been out of luck," Algeo said. "So my guess is temperature change would be the No. 1 killer. Effects would exacerbated by acidification and other toxins in the environment."

Stretching over an extended period, eruption after eruption prevented the Earth's food chain from recovering.

"It's not necessarily the intensity but the duration that matters," Algeo said. "The longer this went on, the more pressure was placed on the environment."

Likewise, the Earth was slow to recover from the disaster because the ongoing disturbances continued to wipe out biodiversity, he said.

Earth has witnessed five known mass extinctions over its 4.5 billion years.

Scientists used another elemental signature -- iridium -- to pin down the likely cause of the global mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. They believe an enormous meteor struck what is now Mexico.

The resulting plume of superheated earth blown into the atmosphere rained down material containing iridium that is found in the geologic record around the world.

Shen said the mercury signature provides convincing evidence that the Siberian Traps eruptions were responsible for the catastrophe. Now researchers are trying to pin down the extent of the eruptions and which environmental effects in particular were most responsible for the mass die-off, particularly for land animals and plants.

Shen said the Permian extinction could shed light on how global warming today might lead to the next mass extinction. If global warming, indeed, was responsible for the Permian die-off, what does warming portend for humans and wildlife today?

"The release of carbon into the atmosphere by human beings is similar to the situation in the Late Permian, where abundant carbon was released by the Siberian eruptions," Shen said.

Algeo said it is cause for concern.

"A majority of biologists believe we're at the cusp of another mass extinction -- the sixth big one. I share that view, too," Algeo said. "What we should learn is this will be serious business that will harm human interests so we should work to minimize the damage."

People living in marginal environments such as arid deserts will suffer first. This will lead to more climate refugees around the world.

"We're likely to see more famine and mass migration in the hardest hit places. It's a global issue and one we should recognize and proactively deal with. It's much easier to address these problems before they reach a crisis."

A volcano erupts in a driving rain. Credit: Margaret Weiner/UC Creative Services

Press release from the University of Cincinnati


UC researchers find ancient Maya farms in Mexican wetlands

UC researchers find ancient Maya farms in Mexican wetlands

University of Cincinnati archaeologists say these farms likely produced cotton and other goods to support Yucatan trade routes

University of Cincinnati student Jeff Brewer stands above UC geography professor Nicholas Dunning at an archaeological site in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Credit: Nicholas Dunning/UC

Archaeologists with the University of Cincinnati used the latest technology to find evidence suggesting ancient Maya people grew surplus crops to support an active trade with neighbors up and down the Yucatan Peninsula.

They will present their findings at the annual American Association of Geographers conference in Washington, D.C.

The Mayan civilization stretched across portions of Mesoamerica, a region spanning Mexico and Central America. The oldest evidence of Maya civilization dates back to 1800 B.C., but most cities flourished between 250 and 900 A.D. By the time Spanish ships arrived in the 1500s, some of the biggest cities were deserted. Researchers at UC are trying to piece together the life history of the Maya before the Spanish conquest.

Nicholas Dunning, a professor of geography in UC's McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, was part of a research team that found evidence of cultivation along irregular-shaped fields in Mexico that followed the paths of canals and natural water channels at a place called Laguna de Terminos on the Gulf of Mexico. The archaeologists expect to find evidence of habitation when they begin excavations.

The extensive croplands suggest the ancient Maya could grow surplus crops, especially the cotton responsible for the renowned textiles that were traded throughout Mesoamerica.

"It was a much more complex market economy than the Maya are often given credit for," Dunning said.

University of Cincinnati geography professor Nicholas Dunning, left, and assistant professor Christopher Carr have been studying ancient Maya sites in Mexico. Credit: Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Local workers brought the Laguna de Terminos site to the attention of researchers about seven years ago.

"A forester working in the area said there seemed to be a network of ancient fields," Dunning said. "I looked on Google Earth and was like, 'Whoa!' It was an area in the Maya Lowlands that I'd never paid any attention to. And obviously not a lot of other people had, either, from the perspective of looking at ancient agriculture."

Satellite images revealed a patchwork quilt of blocks along drainage ditches that suggested they were built. Archaeologist also studied imagery NASA created of the region using a tool called Light Detection and Ranging, or LIDAR, that can depict the contours of the ground beneath the leafy canopy of trees and vegetation. Their review confirmed Dunning's suspicions: the area was covered in ancient farm fields.

"It appears they developed fairly simply from modifications of existing drainage along the eastern edge of the wetlands," Dunning said. "They probably deepened and straightened some channels or connected them in places, but then further expanded the fields with more sophisticated hydro-engineering."

LIDAR gives scientists a never-before-seen picture of the Earth's surface even after centuries of unchecked jungle growth conceals the remains of ancient structures. Researchers look for telltale signs of human activity: squares and rectangles indicating old foundations and circular pits from man-made reservoirs and quarries where the chert used in stone tools was mined. On the LIDAR maps, any hidden structures pop out, including ancient roads and former villages.

"That's the magic of LIDAR," UC assistant research professor Christopher Carr said.??Carr spent a career practicing engineering before returning to UC to study and eventually teach in the geography department. He approaches questions about the ancient Maya from an engineer's perspective.

Carr pointed to a map of Yaxnohcah, Mexico, showing a small reservoir the ancient Maya apparently dug in a wetland far from cultivated fields or known settlements.

"What were my ancient counterparts thinking when they built that water reservoir? What did they want to accomplish?" he asked.

Carr also used the LIDAR imagery in the project to follow an ancient Maya road that perhaps hasn't been traveled in more than 1,000 years. The road is perfectly visible on the LIDAR map but is virtually impossible to discern when you are standing right on it, Carr said.

"There's vegetation everywhere. But when you've been doing this for a while, you notice little things," Carr said. "I'll have a LIDAR image on my smartphone that shows me where I am, but I don't see anything but rainforest. You just walk back and forth until you can feel something underfoot and follow it."

Identifying possible roads is important for another interest of the UC researchers: ancient Maya marketplaces. Dunning and Carr are working at Yaxnohcah with researchers such as Kathryn Reese-Taylor from the University of Calgary and Armando Anaya Hernandez from Universidad Autónoma de Campeche to unlock the mysteries of the ancient Maya economy. Additionally, they and graduate student Thomas Ruhl have been analyzing NASA's LIDAR imagery across the Yucatan Peninsula to identify more ancient marketplaces.

Unlike pyramids or even many homes, marketplaces had no foundations or permanent structures, researchers said. They were built on low platforms or cleared areas, perhaps like a seasonal fair or flea market. But they were an important part of life in Maya culture.

Maya farms
UC assistant professor Christopher Carr examines an ancient quarry in Yaxnohcah, Mexico. Credit: Nicholas Dunning/UC

Dunning said the presence of roads between Maya cities would lend credence to the value the ancient Maya placed on trade with their neighbors. He thinks some of the larger squares identified on the LIDAR maps represent these open markets.

"In some areas, they have this very distinct physical signature," Dunning said. "So far, we've identified several possible marketplaces. We don't know for sure that they're marketplaces, but they have an architectural layout that is suggestive of one."

Soil analysis at other locations identified evidence of ancient butcher shops and stone masons. Dunning solicited the help of UC's botanists who are conducting analyses that might shed light on his marketplace hypothesis. But the LIDAR maps themselves are instructive.

"I look at spatial patterns. If you look at these big structures and small pyramids, you can tell they're important structures," Carr said. "And then you have this 'lightweight' thing next to it. That's what a marketplace looks like to me."

Dunning said the ancient Maya likely sold perishable goods such as maize and a starchy tuber called manioc. And they traded "mantas," or bolts of the ornate and richly patterned textiles made from the cotton they grew. These were prized by the Spaniards who arrived in the 1600s.

"We don't have direct evidence of what the textiles look like in this area. But if you look at ancient paintings and sculptures, people were wearing very elaborate garments," Dunning said.

Dunning first explored the historic sites of the Yucatan Peninsula at age 14 when he and his older brother drove down to Mexico from Illinois.

"We took a train to the Yucatan and used public transportation to get around to the sites," Dunning said.

He applied to the University of Chicago partly because it offered a Mayan language class. Dunning returned to Mexico while in college to conduct his first field research. He's been back many times since.

"My interest in archaeology is in human-environment interactions, including agriculture," Dunning said.

Dunning is learning more about how ancient Maya people shaped their world to overcome challenges and take advantage of natural opportunities. Dunning's work also took him to a place called Acalan near the Gulf of Mexico.

"Roughly translated, Acalan means 'place of canoes' because it's very watery," Dunning said. "And getting around by water is far easier than any other means in that area."

Then as now the region is covered in thick tropical rainforest. Researchers have to be wary of cheeky monkeys that will throw fruit or worse from the treetops. Carr said one encounter left him sore for days.

"There was this aggressive spider monkey. He'd seen me a couple days earlier. And he's back shaking the trees," Carr said. "And all of a sudden, I'm lying flat on the ground. A branch hit me in the shoulder and knocked me to the ground."

Visiting archaeologists at Yaxnohcah stay at a former Army outpost that was converted into a staffed research station.

"Living conditions are actually luxurious by camping standards. You're in the field all day and you're dirty and tired. But you can take a shower. And when you're finished, someone has cooked you a meal," Carr said.

At Laguna de Terminos, UC researchers are working to collect clues about the ancient Maya before they are lost to development. Many of the wetlands are being drained or plowed up for grazing pasture.

Dunning said ironically these low-yield pastures provide far less economic value to today's farmers than the seeming bounty of crops the ancient Maya derived from them more than 1,000 years ago. Their study warns the land-use practices are causing environmental damage to some of these valuable wetlands.

"It's a shame because the grazing isn't particularly good. The economic production from that land use is minuscule compared to what was produced by the Maya," Dunning said.

 

Press release from University of Cincinnati