Bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age

Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age

Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of dozens of mammoths have revealed clues about how ancient communities survived Europe's ice age.

About 70 of these structures are known to exist in Ukraine and the west Russian Plain.

The majority of the bones found at the site investigated, in the Russian Plains, are from mammoths. A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls of the 30ft by 30ft structure and scattered across its interior Credits: Alex Pryor

New analysis shows the bones at one site are more than 20,000 years old, making it the oldest such circular structure built by humans discovered in the region. The bones were likely sourced from animal graveyards, and the circle was then hidden by sediment and is now a foot below current surface level.

The majority of the bones found at the site investigated, in the Russian Plains, are from mammoths. A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls of the 30ft by 30ft structure and scattered across its interior. Small numbers of reindeer, horse, bear, wolf, red fox and arctic fox bones were also found.

bone cicles mammoths
Credits: Alex Pryor

Archaeologists from the University of Exeter have also found for the first time the remains of charred wood and other soft non-woody plant remains within the circular structure, situated just outside the modern village of Kostenki, about 500km south of Moscow. This shows people were burning wood as well as bones for fuel, and the communities who lived there had learned where to forage for edible plants during the Ice Age. The plants could also have been used for poisons, medicines, string or fabric. More than 50 small charred seeds were also found - the remains of plants growing locally or possibly food remains from cooking and eating.Dr Alexander Pryor, who led the study, said: "Kostenki 11 represents a rare example of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment. What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site? One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area on masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter - rare in this period of extreme cold.

"These finds shed new light on the purpose of these mysterious sites. Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last ice age. Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter and water."

bone cicles mammoths
Credits: Alex Pryor

The last ice age, which swept northern Europe between 75-18,000 years ago, reached its coldest and most severe stage at around 23-18,000 years ago, just as the site at Kostenki 11 was being built. Climate reconstructions indicate at the time summers were short and cool and winters were long and cold, with temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius or colder. Most communities left the region, likely because of lack of prey to hunt and plant resources they depended upon for survival. Eventually the bone circles were also abandoned as the climate continued to get colder and more inhospitable.

Previously archaeologists have assumed that the circular mammoth bone structures were used as dwellings, occupied for many months at a time. The new study suggests this may not always have been the case as the intensity of activity at Kostenki 11 appears less than would be expected from a long term base camp site.

Other finds include more than 300 tiny stone and flint chips just a few millimetres in size, debris left behind the site's inhabitants as they knapped stone nodules into sharp tools with distinctive shapes used for tasks such as butchering animals and scraping hides.

The research, conducted by academics from the University of Exeter, University of Cambridge, Kostenki State Museum Preserve, University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Southampton, is published in the journal Antiquity.

 

Press release "Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age" from the University of Exeter.


An army of Lego Classicists is ready to conquer social networks

Adults and children alike, they know LEGO; however, the enthusiasts of the classical world in particular should take advantage of social networks and not lose sight of the LEGO CLASSICIST project. The project was conceived from an idea of Liam D. Jensen, aka The Lego Classicist, an Australian archivist. An army of classicists is now conquering the web and the scholars of the ancient world as well, thanks to a perfect mix of pop art and ancient history.

As revealed by Liam himself, everything started by chance. The idea of recreating the Classics via the LEGO bricks surpassed all expectations. It has been a celebration of the ancient world and, above all, of the work of many scholars that love their job and allow us to know history and archaeology as much as possible, even if they have been working for different organisations and in different fields. Liam uses social networks in an innovative and inclusive way, and announces a new member of the LEGO Classicist family from time to time.

Liam at work, creating one of his LCs. Photo © Liam D. Jensen

In a short time, and thanks to the crowd of people being intrigued by the initiative, the project has become an international one. The power of communication also goes through gaming and the capability of breaking down barriers, which is typical of the renowned LEGO figures: they have gained such a huge popularity worldwide because they are able to create scenarios and adventures that are always fresh and diverse. Many important public figures joined the LC family, among them there is Mary Beard, whose minifigure has become viral to the point that even the BBC talked about that, and she also appeared on the prestigious German archaeology journal Antike Welt, on SALON, the newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and at the University of Cambridge. Mary Beard herself then used her minifigure during her tv show, Front Row Late.

Presently, Italy may boast three LEGO minifigures, based on important scholars: Alessandra Giovenco, an archivist from the British School at Rome, professor Massimo Osanna, archaeologist and general director at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, and professor Giacomo Pardini, an archaeologist and numismatist, professor at the University of Salerno. Therefore we asked Liam, so that he may tell us more about his project and on the subject of some of the most significant characters involved.

LEGO CLASSICIST
From left to right: Alessandra Giovenco, Massimo Osanna and Giacomo Pardini. Photo © Liam D. Jensen

When and how was the Lego Classicists Project conceived?

The first Lego figure that went on social media was on the 20thFebruary 2016, but it was not until there were over 3 figures that I came up with the name Lego Classicists and made a Facebook page for them. That was really when it was born.

How many classicists does it include? Are there various or unique types or scholarly specialisations being included?

There are now over 90 in the LC family and I mostly choose scholars directly in the classical discipline but I also like to push outside of these to other ancient world disciplines (such as Egyptian) and I include anyone whom I feel brings support to the study of history, such as Conservators, Librarians and Archivists.

Who was your first character?

Technically the first figure who was made almost by chance is Dr. Tom Hillard, who is a Roman historian and an old friend of the family. But the one who - for the first time - made me start creating them on purpose was Michael Turner, who was the curator and master-mind of the three famous Lego ancient world models that include Lego Pompeii and Lego Colosseum, so I consider Michael to be the first official figure, as he is the real inspiration for the Lego Classicists family.

Starting from Australia, you conquered the world of classicists. Would you have expected such a great interest?

I had absolutely no idea that it would reach the world like this as it really started as just gifts to my friends, but I am so pleased to be inspiring the whole world of Classics in this fun new way.

LEGO CLASSICIST

Italy is being represented by three characters. Could you please tell us about them?

Massimo Osanna and his LC alter ego

Prof. Massimo Osanna’s figure was a request by the Nicholson Museum, Sydney University, when they asked me to make a personal gift for Prof. Osanna and a second one to be placed into the Lego Pompeii model that is still in the Museum today. It was delivered to Prof. Osanna in person at Pompeii by two academics from the University of Sydney.

Alessandra Giovenco is the Archivist at the British School at Rome and I had the very great pleasure of meeting her in my role as an archivist when I delivered a collection to the BSR in 2016.  Our daily conversations together inspired me to bring her into the LC family and I asked the Director of the British School at Rome to give it to her in person on my behalf.

Giacomo Pardini and his LC

Professor Giacomo Pardini had tagged me into a photo with a Lego figure of himself made by his nephew with the words “Almost a Lego Classicist”. Since then we have had an ongoing communication related to Lego and Classics so I felt it was very important to have him join the family properly (although I still think his nephew’s figure is better than mine). I sent his figure to him by mail at the University of Salerno and he received it a few days ago.

All three have responded in the same way that cannot be expressed in words but it is in the looks on their faces that you can see in the photos they send me with their figures. They have all been delighted. Of course, the Romans played a huge role in the development of much of modern culture, so it’s only fitting that there should be many Italian members of the Lego Classicists family in the future.

What is the message that you are trying to convey with your project?

I hope that Lego Classicists gives everyone an excuse to celebrate the ancient world and its study. It aims to help to join the community of international classicists together, to further highlight their work and to make classics and the ancient world more accessible to a wider audience. The real message - I hope - is the idea of serious play and bringing playful yet dignified new perspectives to the study of classical history.

The first Lego Classicist for 2020 is professor Giacomo Pardini from the University of Salerno. Could you please tell us if any other Italian classicist is going to join this great family?

I am in communication with one Italian classicist now whom I hope will join the Lego Classicists family soon and I have another one or two more in mind which will be revealed later.

What is the International Lego Classicism Day and how can we be involved?

LEGO CLASSICIST

 International Lego Classicism Day is a social media event I have been running since 2017 on the 20th of February, which is the Anniversary of Lego Classicists, and I like to use this date as a way to encourage everyone to celebrate, engage, and play with ancient history through Lego bricks.


5,200-year-old grains in the eastern Altai Mountains redate trans-Eurasian crop exchange

5,200-year-old grains in the eastern Altai Mountains redate trans-Eurasian crop exchange

Agricultural crops dispersed across Eurasia more than five millennia ago, causing significant cultural change in human populations across the ancient world. New discoveries in the Altai Mountains illustrate that this process occurred earlier than believed

trans-Eurasian crop exchange
Dr. Xinying Zhou and his team from the IVPP in Beijing excavated the Tangtian Cave site during the summer of 2016. Credits: Xinying Zhou

Most people are familiar with the historical Silk Road, but fewer people realize that the exchange of items, ideas, technology, and human genes through the mountain valleys of Central Asia started almost three millennia before organized trade networks formed. These pre-Silk Road exchange routes played an important role in shaping human cultural developments across Europe and Asia, and facilitated the dispersal of technologies such as horse breeding and metal smelting into East Asia. One of the most impactful effects of this process of ancient cultural dispersal was the westward spread of northeast Asian crops and the eastward spread of southwest Asian crops. However, until the past few years, a lack of archaeobotanical studies in Central Asia left a dearth of data relating to when and how this process occurred.

This new study, led by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, provides details of recently recovered ancient grains from the far northern regions of Inner Asia. Radiocarbon dating shows that the grains include the oldest examples of wheat and barley ever recovered this far north in Asia, pushing back the dates for early farming in the region by at least a millenium. These are also the earliest domesticated plants reported from the northern half of Central Asia, the core of the ancient exchange corridor. This study pulls together sedimentary pollen and ancient wood charcoal data with archaeobotanical remains from the Tiangtian archaeological site in the Chinese Altai Mountains to reveal how humans cultivated crops at such northern latitudes. This study illustrates how adaptable ancient crop plants were to new ecological constraints and how human cultural practices allowed people to survive in unpredictable environments.

The Northern Dispersal of Cereal Grains

The ancient relatives of wheat and barley plants evolved to grow in the warm and dry climate of the eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia. However, this study illustrates that ancient peoples were cultivating these grasses over five and a half thousand kilometers to the northeast of where they originally evolved to grow. In this study, Dr. Xinying Zhou and his colleagues integrate paleoenvironmental proxies to determine how extreme the ecology was around the archaeological cave site of Tangtian more than five millennia ago, at the time of its occupation. The site is located high in the Altai Mountains on a cold, dry landscape today; however, the study shows that the ecological setting around the site was slightly warmer and more humid at the time when people lived in and around this cave.

The slightly warmer regional conditions were likely the result of shifting air masses bringing warmer, wetter air from the south. In addition to early farmers using a specific regional climate pocket to grow crops in North Asia, analysis showed that the crops they grew evolved to survive in such northern regions. The results of this study provide scholars with evidence for when certain evolutionary changes in these grasses occurred, including changes in the programed reliance of day length, which signals to the plant when to flower, and a greater resistance to cold climates.

trans-Eurasian crop exchange
Charred seeds from Tontian Cave site. Credits: Xinying Zhou

The Trans-Eurasian Exchange and Crop Dispersal

The ancient dispersal of crops across Inner Asia has received a lot of attention from biologists and archaeologists in recent years; as Dr. Spengler, one of the study's lead authors, discusses in his recent book Fruit from the Sands, these ancient exchange routes shaped the course of human history. The mingling of crops originating from opposite ends of Asia resulted in the crop-rotation cycles that fueled demographic growth and led to imperial formation. East Asian millets would become one of the most important crops in ancient Europe and wheat would become one of the most important crops in East Asia by the Han Dynasty. While the long tradition of rice cultivation in East Asia made rice a staple of the Asian kitchen, Chinese cuisine would be unrecognizable without wheat-based food items like steamed buns, dumplings, and noodles. The discovery that these plants dispersed across Eurasia earlier than previously understood will have lasting impacts on the study of cultivation and labor practices in ancient Eurasia, as well as the history cultural contact and shifts in culinary systems throughout time.

These new discoveries provide reason to question these views, and seem to suggest that mixed small-scale human populations made major contributions to world history through migration and cultural and technological exchange. "This study not only presents the earliest dates for domesticated grains in far North Asia," says Professor Xiaoqiang Li, director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, "it represents the earliest beginning of a trans-Eurasian exchange that would eventually develop into the great Silk Road".

Dr. Xinying Zhou, who headed the study and directs a research team at the IVPP in Beijing, emphasizes that "this discovery is a testament to human ingenuity and the amazing coevolutionary bond between people and the plants that they maintain in their cultivated fields."

photo of the stone men (????? Chimulchek Culture) in the steppe area of Altai Mountains. These figures are characteristic of the peoples who live in the area around the time of occupation at Tongtian. These specific examples are located at the Chimulchek site (ca. 4000 years old) and not far from Tongtian Cave. Ceramic sherds from the cave suggest that the occupants in the cave shared similar cultural traits to other people in the region. Credits: Jianjun Yu

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Title: 5200-year-old cereal grains from the eastern Altai Mountains predate the trans-Eurasian crop exchange
Authors: Xinying Zhou, Jianjun Yu, Robert Nicolas Spengler, Hui Shen, Keliang Zhao, Junyi Ge, Yige Bao, Junchi Liu, Qingjiang Yang, Guanhan Chen, Peter Weiming Jia, and Xiaoqiang Li
Publication: Nature Plants
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-019-0581-y

 

The press release about the trans-Eurasian crop exchange is from Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / DE


Neandertals underwater clam shells

Neandertals went underwater to collect clam shells and pumice for their tools

Neandertals went underwater for their tools

Neandertals collected clam shells and pumice from coastal waters to use as tools

Neandertals underwater clam shells
General morphology of retouched shell tools, Figs C-L are from the Pigorini Museum. Credit: Villa et al., 2020 CC-BY

Neandertals collected clam shells and volcanic rock from the beach and coastal waters of Italy during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study published January 15, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Paola Villa of the University of Colorado and colleagues.

Neandertals are known to have used tools, but the extent to which they were able to exploit coastal resources has been questioned. In this study, Villa and colleagues explored artifacts from the Neandertal archaeological cave site of Grotta dei Moscerini in Italy, one of two Neandertal sites in the country with an abundance of hand-modified clam shells, dating back to around 100,000 years ago.

The authors examined 171 modified shells, most of which had be retouched to be used as scrapers. All of these shells belonged to the Mediterranean smooth clam species Callista chione. Based on the state of preservation of the shells, including shell damage and encrustation on the shells by marine organisms, the authors inferred that nearly a quarter of the shells had been collected underwater from the sea floor, as live animals, as opposed to being washed up on the beach. In the same cave sediments, the authors also found abundant pumice stones likely used as abrading tools, which apparently drifted via sea currents from erupting volcanoes in the Gulf of Naples (70km south) onto the Moscerini beach, where they were collected by Neandertals.

These findings join a growing list of evidence that Neandertals in Western Europe were in the practice of wading or diving into coastal waters to collect resources long before Homo sapiens brought these habits to the region. The authors also note that shell tools were abundant in sediment layers that had few stone tools, suggesting Neandertals might have turned to making shell tools during times where more typical stone materials were scarce (though it's also possible that clam shells were used because they have a thin and sharp cutting edge, which can be maintained through re-sharpening, unlike flint tools).

The authors add: "The cave opens on a beach. It has a large assemblage of 171 tools made on shells collected on the beach or gathered directly from the sea floor as live animals by skin diving Neandertals. Skin diving for shells or fresh water fishing in low waters was a common activity of Neandertals, according to data from other sites and from an anatomical study published by E. Trinkaus. Neandertals also collected pumices erupted from volcanoes in the gulf of Naples and transported by sea to the beach."

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Citation: Villa P, Soriano S, Pollarolo L, Smriglio C, Gaeta M, D'Orazio M, et al. (2020) Neandertals on the beach: Use of marine resources at Grotta dei Moscerini (Latium, Italy). PLoS ONE 15(1): e0226690. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0226690

Funding: National Science Foundation Grant 1118143, BCS Archaeology, to PV (PI) and SS (co-PI). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

 

Press release from the Public Library of Science

Beach-combing Neanderthals dove for shells

Did Neanderthals wear swimsuits? Probably not. But a new study suggests that some of these ancient humans might have spent a lot of time at the beach. They may even have dived into the cool waters of the Mediterranean Sea to gather clam shells.

The findings come from Grotta dei Moscerini, a picturesque cave that sits just 10 feet above a beach in what is today the Latium region of central Italy.

In 1949, archaeologists working at the site dug up some unusual artifacts: dozens of seashells that Neanderthals had picked up, then shaped into sharp tools roughly 90,000 years ago.

Now, a team led by Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Boulder has uncovered new secrets from those decades-old discoveries. In research published today (editor's note: January 15) in the journal PLOS ONE, she and her colleagues report that the Neanderthals didn't just collect shells that were lying out on the beach. They may have actually held their breath and went diving for the perfect shells to meet their needs.

Villa, an adjoint curator in the CU Museum of Natural History, said the results show that Neanderthals may have had a much closer connection to the sea than many scientists thought.

"The fact they were exploiting marine resources was something that was known," Villa said. "But until recently, no one really paid much attention to it."

Cave discoveries

When archaeologists first found shell tools in Grotta dei Moscerini, it came as a surprise. While Neanderthals are well-known for crafting spear tips out of stone, few examples exist of them turning shells into tools.

But the find wasn't a fluke. The 1949 excavation of the cave unearthed 171 such tools, all valves from shell belonging to a local species of mollusk called the smooth clam (Callista chione). Villa explained that the ancient humans used stone hammers to chip away at these shells, forming cutting edges that would have stayed thin and sharp for a long time.

"No matter how many times you retouch a clam shell, its cutting edge will remain very thin and sharp," she said.

But did the Neanderthals, like many beachgoers today, simply collect these shells while taking a stroll along the sand?

To find out, Villa and her colleagues took a closer look at those tools. In the process, they found something they weren't expecting. Nearly three-quarters of the Moscerini shell tools had opaque and slightly abraded exteriors, as if they had been sanded down over time. That's what you'd expect to see, Villa said, on shells that had washed up on a sandy beach.

The rest of the shells had a shiny, smooth exterior.

Those shells, which also tended to be a little bit bigger, had to have been plucked directly from the seafloor as live animals.

"It's quite possible that the Neanderthals were collecting shells as far down as 2 to 4 meters," Villa said. "Of course, they did not have scuba equipment."

Researchers also turned up a large number of pumice stones from the cave that Neanderthals had collected and may have used as abrading tools. The stones, Villa and her colleagues determined, washed onto the Moscerini beach from volcanic eruptions that occurred more than 40 miles to the south.

Going for a dip

She's not alone in painting a picture of beach-loving Neanderthals.

In an earlier study, for example, a team led by anthropologist Erik Trinkaus identified bony growths on the ears of a few Neanderthal skeletons. These features, called "swimmer's ear," can be found in people who practice aquatic sports today.

For Villa, the findings are yet more proof that Neanderthals were just as flexible and creative as their human relatives when it came to eking out a living--a strong contrast to their representation in popular culture as a crude cavemen who lived by hunting or scavenging mammoths.

"People are beginning to understand that Neanderthals didn't just hunt large mammals," Villa said. "They also did things like freshwater fishing and even skin diving."

Other coauthors on the new study included researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the University of Geneva, Roma Tre University, Sapienza University of Rome and the University of Pisa.

Press release from the University of Colorado at Boulder

 

 

 

 

 


Rök runestone

The Vikings erected the Rök runestone out of fear of a climate catastrophe

The Vikings erected a runestone out of fear of a climate catastrophe

Rök runestone
The Rök runes. Credit: Helge Andersson

Several passages on the Rök stone - the world's most famous Viking Age runic monument - suggest that the inscription is about battles and for over a hundred years, researchers have been trying to connect the inscription with heroic deeds in war. Now, thanks to an interdisciplinary research project, a new interpretation of the inscription is being presented. The study shows that the inscription deals with an entirely different kind of battle: the conflict between light and darkness, warmth and cold, life and death.

The Rök runestone, erected in Östergötland around 800 CE, is the world's most famous runestone from the Viking Age, but has also proven to be one of the most difficult to interpret. This new interpretation is based on a collaboration between researchers from several disciplines and universities.

"The key to unlocking the inscription was the interdisciplinary approach. Without these collaborations between textual analysis, archaeology, history of religions and runology, it would have been impossible to solve the riddles of the Rök runestone," says Per Holmberg, professor in Swedish at the University of Gothenburg, who led the study.

A previous climate catastrophe

The study is based on new archaeological research describing how badly Scandinavia suffered from a previous climate catastrophe with lower average temperatures, crop failures, hunger and mass extinctions. Bo Gräslund, professor in Archaeology at Uppsala University, points to several reasons why people may have feared a new catastrophe of this kind:

"Before the Rök runestone was erected, a number of events occurred which must have seemed extremely ominous: a powerful solar storm coloured the sky in dramatic shades of red, crop yields suffered from an extremely cold summer, and later a solar eclipse occurred just after sunrise. Even one of these events would have been enough to raise fears of another Fimbulwinter," says Bo Gräslund.

Nine riddles

According to the researchers' new interpretation now being published, the inscription consists of nine riddles. The answer to five of these riddles is "the Sun". One is a riddle asking who was dead but now lives again. The remaining four riddles are about Odin and his warriors.

Olof Sundqvist, professor in History of Religions at Stockholm University, explains the connection:

"The powerful elite of the Viking Age saw themselves as guarantors for good harvests. They were the leaders of the cult that held together the fragile balance between light and darkness. And finally at Ragnarök, they would fight alongside Odin in the final battle for the light."

Parallels with other Old Norse texts

According to the researchers, several points in the inscription have clear parallels with other Old Norse texts that no one has previously noted.

"For me, it's been almost like discovering a new literary source from the Viking Age. Sweden's answer to the Icelandic Poetic Edda!" says Henrik Williams, professor in Scandinavian Languages with a specialty in Runology at Uppsala University.

 

The Rök runestone. Credit: Helge Andersson

Links to article and other media

The Rök runestone and the end of the world (Futhark: International Journal of Runic Studies): https://doi.org/10.33063/diva-401040

English translation of the inscription, with the answer to the nine riddles with textual parallels on Old Norse or Anglo-Saxon poetry (CC-BY: Henrik Williams, Per Holmberg, Bo Gräslund, Olof Sundqvist)
(Choose English): https://hum.gu.se/aktuellt/Nyheter/fulltext//svensk-oversattning-av-rokstenens-text.cid1668443

Audio recording of Henrik Williams reading the inscription (CC-BY: Henrik Williams): https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:R%C3%B6k_runestone_interpretation_2020.opus

Press release from the University of Gothenburg.


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.


Neo-Assyrian Empire fall

What felled the great Assyrian Empire? A Yale professor weighs in

The Neo-Assyrian Empire, centered in northern Iraq and extending from Iran to Egypt -- the largest empire of its time -- collapsed after more than two centuries of dominance at the fall of its capital, Nineveh, in 612 B.C.E.

Despite a plethora of cuneiform textual documentation and archaeological excavations and field surveys, archaeologists and historians have been unable to explain the abruptness and finality of the historic empire's collapse.

Numerous theories about the collapse have been put forward since the city and its destruction levels were first excavated by archaeologists 180 years ago. But the mystery of how two small armies -- the Babylonians in the south and the Medes in the east -- were able to converge on Nineveh and completely destroy what was then the largest city in the world, without any reoccupation, has remained unsolved.

A team of researchers -- led by Ashish Sinha, California State University, Dominguez Hills, and using archival and archaeological data contributed by Harvey Weiss, professor of Near Eastern archaeology and environmental studies at Yale -- was able for the first time to determine the underlying cause for the collapse. By examining new precipitation records of the area, the team discovered an abrupt 60-year megadrought that so weakened the Assyrian state that Nineveh was overrun in three months and abandoned forever. The research was published in Science Advances on Nov. 13.

Assyria was an agrarian society dependent on seasonal precipitation for cereal agriculture. To its south, the Babylonians relied on irrigation agriculture, so their resources, government, and society were not affected by the drought, explains Weiss.

The team analyzed stalagmites -- a type of speleothem that grows up from a cave floor and is formed by the deposit of minerals from water -- retrieved from Kuna Ba cave in northeast Iraq. The speleothems can provide a history of climate through the oxygen and uranium isotope ratios of infiltrating water that are preserved in its layers. Oxygen in rainwater comes in two main varieties: heavy and light. The ratio of heavy to light types of oxygen isotopes are extremely sensitive to variations in precipitation and temperature. Over time, uranium trapped in speleothems turns into thorium, allowing scientists to date the speleothem deposits.

Weiss and the research team synchronized these findings with archaeological and cuneiform records and were able to document the first paleoclimate data for the megadrought that affected the Assyrian heartland at the time of the empire's collapse, when its less drought-affected neighbors invaded. The team's research also revealed that this megadrought followed a high-rainfall period that facilitated the Assyrian empire's earlier growth and expansion.

"Now we have a historical and environmental dynamic between north and south and between rain-fed agriculture and irrigation-fed agriculture through which we can understand the historical process of how the Babylonians were able to defeat the Assyrians," said Weiss, adding that the total collapse of Assyria is still described by historians as the "mother of all catastrophes."

Through the archaeology and history of the region, Weiss was able to piece together how the megadrought data were synchronous with Assyria's cessation of long-distance military campaigns and the construction of irrigation canals that were similar to its southern neighbors but restricted in their agricultural extent. Other texts noted that the Assyrians were worrying about their alliances with distant places, while also fearing internal intrigue, notes Weiss.

"This fits into a historical pattern that is not only structured through time and space, but a time and space that is filled with environmental change," says Weiss. "These societies experienced climatic changes that were of such magnitude they could not simply adapt to them," he adds.

With these new speleothem records, says Weiss, paleoclimatologists and archaeologists are now able to identify environmental changes in the global historical record that were unknown and inaccessible even 25 years ago. "History is no longer two-dimensional; the historical stage is now three-dimensional," said Weiss.

Neo-Assyrian Empire fall
Deportees after the Assyrian siege of Lachish, Judea (701 B.C.E.). Detail from bas-relief removed from Sennacherib's 'Palace Without Rival,' Nineveh, Iraq, and now in The British Museum. Photo credits: The British Museum

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Weiss' previous research defined the 2200 B.C.E. global megadrought that generated societal collapse from the Mediterranean to China.

In addition to Weiss, researchers from California State University-Dominguez Hills, Xi'an Jiaotong University, University of Minnesota, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Ankara, and University of Southern California contributed to the study.

The press release for the study Role of climate in the rise and fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire comes from the Yale University.

The study Role of climate in the rise and fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, by Ashish Sinha, Gayatri KathayatHarvey WeissHanying Li, Hai ChengJustin ReuterAdam W. Schneider, Max Berkelhammer, Selim F. Adalı, Lowell D. Stott and R. Lawrence Edwards, was published in Science Advances on Nov. 13rd.

 


A Stone Age boat building site has been discovered underwater

A Stone Age boat building site has been discovered underwater

This is an oblique view of site from the north showing eroding edge of the peat platform. Credit: Maritime Archaeological Trust

The Maritime Archaeological Trust has discovered a new 8,000 year old structure next to what is believed to be the oldest boat building site in the world on the Isle of Wight.

Director of the Maritime Archaeological Trust, Garry Momber, said "This new discovery is particularly important as the wooden platform is part of a site that doubles the amount of worked wood found in the UK from a period that lasted 5,500 years."

The site lies east of Yarmouth, and the new platform is the most intact, wooden Middle Stone Age structure ever found in the UK. The site is now 11 meters below sea level and during the period there was human activity on the site, it was dry land with lush vegetation. Importantly, it was at a time before the North Sea was fully formed and the Isle of Wight was still connected to mainland Europe.

The site was first discovered in 2005 and contains an arrangement of trimmed timbers that could be platforms, walkways or collapsed structures. However, these were difficult to interpret until the Maritime Archaeological Trust used state of the art photogrammetry techniques to record the remains. During the late spring the new structure was spotted eroding from within the drowned forest. The first task was to create a 3D digital model of the landscape so it could be experienced by non-divers. It was then excavated by the Maritime Archaeological Trust during the summer and has revealed a cohesive platform consisting of split timbers, several layers thick, resting on horizontally laid round-wood foundations.

Garry continued "The site contains a wealth of evidence for technological skills that were not thought to have been developed for a further couple of thousand years, such as advanced wood working. This site shows the value of marine archaeology for understanding the development of civilisation.

Yet, being underwater, there are no regulations that can protect it. Therefore, it is down to our charity, with the help of our donors, to save it before it is lost forever."

The Maritime Archaeological Trust is working with the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) to record and study, reconstruct and display the collection of timbers. Many of the wooden artefacts are being stored in the British Ocean Sediment Core Research facility (BOSCORF), operated by the National Oceanography Centre.

Stone Age boat
This is the structure following reconstruction. Credit: Maritime Archaeological Trust

As with sediment cores, ancient wood will degrade more quickly if it is not kept in a dark, wet and cold setting. While being kept cold, dark and wet, the aim is to remove salt from within wood cells of the timber, allowing it to be analysed and recorded. This is important because archaeological information, such as cut marks or engravings, are most often found on the surface of the wood and are lost quickly when timber degrades. Once the timbers have been recorded and have desalinated, the wood can be conserved for display.

Dr Suzanne Maclachlan, the curator at BOSCORF, said "It has been really exciting for us to assist the Trust's work with such unique and historically important artefacts. This is a great example of how the BOSCORF repository is able to support the delivery of a wide range of marine science."

When diving on the submerged landscape Dan Snow, the history broadcaster and host of History Hit, one of the world's biggest history podcasts, commented that he was both awestruck by the incredible remains and shocked by the rate of erosion.

This material, coupled with advanced wood working skills and finely crafted tools suggests a European, Neolithic (New Stone Age) influence. The problem is that it is all being lost. As the Solent evolves, sections of the ancient land surface are being eroded by up to half a metre per year and the archaeological evidence is disappearing.

Research in 2019 was funded by the Scorpion Trust, the Butley Research Group, the Edward Fort Foundation and the Maritime Archaeology Trust. Work was conducted with the help of volunteers and many individuals who gave their time and often money, to ensure the material was recovered successfully.

Stone Age boat
This is historian Dan Snow inspecting the site. Credit: Maritime Archaeological Trust

Press release from National Oceanography Centre


Kemune palace Mittani Mitanni Empire

Archaeologists uncover palace of the Mittani Empire in the Duhok province of the Kurdistan Region/ Iraq

Archaeologists uncover palace of the Mittani Empire in the Duhok province of the Kurdistan Region/ Iraq

German-Kurdish research team came upon a surprising discovery as ruins emerge from the waters of the Tigris River

Kemune palace Mittani Mitanni Empire
Aerial view of Kemune Palace from the west. Copyright University of Tübingen, eScience Center, and Kurdistan Archaeology Organization

German and Kurdish archaeologists have uncovered a Bronze Age palace on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. As the international research team reports, the site of Kemune can be dated to the time of the Mittani Empire, which dominated large parts of northern Mesopotamia and Syria from the 15th to the 14th century BCE. The Mittani Empire is one of the least researched kingdoms of the Ancient Near East. The archaeologists now hope to obtain new information about the politics, economy, and history of the empire by studying cuneiform tablets discovered in the palace.

Last autumn, receding waters in the Mosul Dam reservoir unexpectedly brought to light remains of an ancient city. Archaeologists launched a spontaneous rescue excavation of the ruins exposed by the ebbing waters. It was headed by Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim (Duhok) and Dr. Ivana Puljiz (Tübingen), as a joint project between the University of Tübingen and the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization (KAO) in cooperation with the Duhok Directorate of Antiquities. Kurdish archaeologist Hasan Ahmed Qasim explains its significance: "The find is one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the region in recent decades and illustrates the success of the Kurdish-German cooperation." The project was largely financed by the KAO and its sponsor, Kurdisch businessman Hersh Isa Swar.

As Ivana Puljiz of the Tübingen Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) reports, the site shows a carefully designed building with massive interior mud-brick walls up to two meters thick. She says some walls are more than two meters high and some of the rooms have plastered walls. "We have also found remains of wall paintings in bright shades of red and blue," Puljiz says. "In the second millennium BCE, murals were probably a typical feature of palaces in the Ancient Near East, but we rarely find them preserved. So discovering wall paintings in Kemune is an archaeological sensation.”

The palace ruins are preserved to a height of some seven meters. Two phases of usage are clearly visible, Puljiz says, indicating that the building was in use for a very long time. Inside the palace, the team identified several rooms and partially excavated eight of them. In some areas, they found large fired bricks which were used as floor slabs. Ten Mittani cuneiform clay tablets were discovered and are currently being translated and studied by the philologist Dr. Betina Faist (University of Heidelberg). One of the tablets indicates that Kemune was most probably the ancient city of Zakhiku, which is mentioned in one Ancient Near Eastern source as early as the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1800 BC). This indicates the city must have existed for at least 400 years. Future text finds will hopefully show whether this identification is correct.

In ancient times, the palace stood on an elevated terrace above the valley, only 20 meters from what was then the eastern bank of the Tigris River. In the Mittani period, a monumental terrace wall of mud-bricks was built against the palace’s western front to stabilize the sloping terrain. Overlooking the Tigris Valley, the palace must have been an impressive sight.

Archaeological surveys carried out by the Collaborative Research Center “ResourceCultures” (SFB 1070) under the direction of Dr. Paola Sconzo (University of Tübingen) in the vicinity of the palace indicate that a larger city adjoined it to the north. "We discovered the site of Kemune already in 2010 when the dam had low water levels; even at that time we found a Mittani cuneiform tablet and saw remains of wall paintings in red and blue,” says Hasan Ahmed Qasim, “But we couldn’t excavate here until now.” The area was flooded following the construction of the Mosul Dam in the mid-1980s. But a lack of rain and water released to ease dry conditions in southern Iraq meant that the water level dropped so far in the summer and autumn of last year that archaeologists could excavate the site for the first time.

"The Mittani Empire is one of the least researched empires of the Ancient Near East," explains Puljiz. “Information on palaces of the Mittani Period is so far only available from Tell Brak in Syria and from the cities of Nuzi and Alalakh, both located on the periphery of the empire. Even the capital of the Mittani Empire has not been identified beyond doubt.” The discovery of a Mittani palace in Kemune is therefore of great importance for archaeology.

The Mittani Empire

The Mittani Empire covered an area reaching from the eastern Mediterranean coast to the east of present-day northern Iraq from the 15th century to the middle of the 14th century BCE. Its heart was in what is now northeastern Syria, where its capital Washukanni was probably located. Akkadian cuneiform texts from the site of Tell el-Amarna in present-day Egypt show that the Mittani kings interacted as equals with the Egyptian pharaohs and the kings of Hatti and Babylonia. For example, it is known that the Mittani king Tushratta gave his daughter’s hand in marriage to Pharaoh Amenophis III. Mittani lost its political significance around 1350 BCE. Its territories came under the control of the neighboring empires of the Hittites and Assyrians. The Mittani culture is known for its typical painted ceramics. The vessels are characterized by carefully-executed light painting on a dark background. Their conspicuous appearance enables archaeologists to date the sites where fragments of such vessels are found to the time of the Mittani Empire.

 

Press release from the University of Tübingen


Levänluhta

Breakthrough in the discovery of DNA in ancient bones buried in water

Breakthrough in the discovery of DNA in ancient bones buried in water

During the Iron Age around 300 AD something extraordinary was initiated in Levänluhta area in Isokyrö, SW Finland. The deceased were buried in a lake, and this habit was continued for at least 400 years. When trenches were dug in the local fields in mid-1800's skulls and other human bones were surfacing. These bones had been preserved almost intact in the anoxic, ferrous water. Archaeologists, historians and locals have been wondering about these finds for over 150 years now.

In 2010, a multidisciplinary research group at the University of Helsinki decided to re-investigate the mystery of Levänluhta. The site, thought to be e.g. a sacrificial spring, is exceptional even in global scale and has yielded altogether c. 75 kg human bone material. The research group, led by docent Anna Wessman, had an ambitious aim: to find who the deceased buried in Levänluhta were, and why they were exceptionally buried under water so far from dwelling sites. Now, after several years of scientific work, the group reports their results in the most recent issue of Nature. The results are part of a more extensive international study shedding light on the colonization and population history of Siberia with DNA data from ancient - up to 31 000 years old - human bones.

"In our part, we wanted especially to find out the origins of the Iron Age remains found from Levänluhta," says the group leader Anna Wessman.

New results with DNA sequencing technology

This was investigated using cutting edge ancient DNA sequencing technology, which Department of Forensic Medicine is interested in due to the forensic casework performed at the department. Professor Antti Sajantila explains that the early phases of this project were demanding.

"Unability to repeat even our own results was utterly frustrating," Sajantila tells about the first experiments in the laboratory.

The methods were developing rapidly during the international co-operation, and ultimately the first Finnish results were shown to be accurate. Yet, it was surprising that the genomes of three Levänluhta individuals clearly resembled those of the modern Sámi people.

"We understood this quite early, but it took long to confirm these findings," tells docent Jukka Palo.

Locals or by-passers?

The results were suggesting that the Isokyrö region was inhabited by Sámi people in ancient times - according to carbon datings the bones belonged to individuals that had died 500 - 700 AD. This would be a concrete proof of Sámi in southern Finland in the past. But were the people locals, recent immigrants or haphazard by-passers? To find out, other techniques than DNA were needed. The solution lied in the enamel of teeth.

Curator Laura Arppe from the Finnish Museum of Natural History tells that strontium isotopes found in the enamel strongly suggest that the individuals grew up in the Levänluhta region.

The current genomes of the people in Finland carry both eastern Uralic and western Scandinavian components, and the genome of one the Levänluhta individuals examined had clear ties to present day Scandinavians. As a whole the replacement of the Sámi people in southern and central Finland reflects the replacement processes in Siberia, clarified in the present article. This has probably been a common feature in the Northern latitudes.

"The Levänluhta project demands further studies, not only to broaden the DNA data but also to understand the water burials as a phenomenon. The question "Why?" still lies unanswered," ponders the bone specialist, docent Kristiina Mannermaa.

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The project was funded primarily by the Emil Aaltonen Foundation and the participating researchers represented various disciplines and departments at the University of Helsinki. As authors of the current Nature publication were: Anna Wessman, Kristiina Mannermaa and Tarja Sundell (archaeology), Antti Sajantila, Jukka Palo and Mikko Putkonen (forensic medicine), and Laura Arppe (geosciences).

Levänluhta
Levänluhta Spring in Isokyrö, SW Finland. Credit: Anna Wessman 2019

Press release from the University of Helsinki