Category Archive 'Archaeology'
14 May 2021

Cerne Abbas Giant, New Yorker Essay

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Rebecca Mead serves up the traditional expansive New Yorker essay on the Cerne Abbas Giant in response to recent dating efforts making the news.

The Cerne Giant is so imposing that he is best viewed from the opposite crest of the valley, or from the air. He is a hundred and eighty feet tall, about as high as a twenty-story apartment building. Held aloft in his right hand is a large, knobby club; his left arm stretches across the slope. Drawn in an outline formed by trenches packed with chalk, he has primitive but expressive facial features, with a line for a mouth and circles for eyes. His raised eyebrows were perhaps intended to indicate ferocity, but they might equally be taken for a look of confusion. His torso is well defined, with lines for ribs and circles for nipples; a line across his waist has been understood to represent a belt. Most well defined of all is his penis, which is erect, and measures twenty-six feet in length. Were the giant not protectively fenced off, a visitor could comfortably lie down within the member and take in the idyllic vista beyond.

RTWT

Outline version (outside paywall).

12 May 2021

Scientists Date Cerne Abbas Giant

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Interesting news from the National Trust:

Generations have speculated about the age and meaning of the club-brandishing giant hewn into a Dorset hillside. Was he a depiction of the legendary demi-god Hercules, an ancient fertility symbol, or even the soldier and statesman Oliver Cromwell? Another theory holds that the figure was carved around the body of a giant who was slain by local people after he terrorised the countryside.

Now, after state-of-the art sediment analysis jointly funded by the National Trust, the University of Gloucestershire, Allen Environmental Archaeology and the Pratt Bequest, National Trust archaeologists have concluded the giant was probably first constructed in the late Saxon period.

Independent geoarchaeologist Mike Allen, whose research is helping the Trust understand more about the landscape in which the giant was created, said the result was surprising.

‘This is not what was expected. Many archaeologists and historians thought he was prehistoric or post-medieval, but not medieval. Everyone was wrong, and that makes these results even more exciting.’

Phillip Toms, Professor in Physical Geography at the University of Gloucestershire, studied the samples using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL), which shows when individual grains of sand in the sediment were last exposed to sunlight. Material taken from the deepest layer (1m) yielded a date range of 700-1100AD which suggests the giant was first made by late Saxons.

National Trust senior archaeologist Martin Papworth said: “The archaeology on the hillside was surprisingly deep – people have been re-chalking the giant over a long period of time. The deepest sample from his elbows and feet tells us he could not have been made before 700AD, ruling out theories that he is of prehistoric or Roman origin.

‘This probable Saxon date places him in a dramatic part of Cerne history. Nearby Cerne Abbey was founded in 987AD and some sources think the abbey was set up to convert the locals from the worship of an early Anglo Saxon god known as ‘Heil’ or ‘Helith’. The early part of our date range does invite the question, was the giant originally a depiction of that god?’

But other samples – taken with permission from Historic England and the Secretary of State – gave later dates of up to 1560, which presented Martin and his team with a conundrum, because the earliest documented record of the giant is a church warden’s account of repairing him in 1694.

‘The science suggests he could be medieval, but intriguingly, surviving documents from Cerne Abbey don’t mention the giant. In the 16th century it’s as if the giant’s not there, and John Norden’s survey of 1617 makes no mention of him. And why would a rich and famous abbey – just a few yards away – commission, or sanction, a naked man carved in chalk on the hillside?’

Martin’s working theory is that the giant may have been a medieval creation but then – for reasons we may never know – was neglected for several hundred years, before being rediscovered.

‘I wonder whether he was created very early on, perhaps in the late Saxon period, but then became grassed over and was forgotten. But at some stage, in low sunlight, people saw that figure on the hill and decided to re-cut him again. That would explain why he doesn’t appear in the abbey records or in Tudor surveys.’

RTWT

20 Apr 2021

1300 Hundred Year Old Cookies

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British Museum photo.

Atlas Obscura:

If cookies go a few weeks without getting eaten, they turn weirdly soft or dissolve into fine dust. If cookies go 1,300 years without getting eaten, they get carefully preserved in a case at the British Museum.

In the winter of 1915, the British-Hungarian archeologist Marc Aurel Stein opened a tomb in Xinjiang. Known as the Astana cemetery, these gravesites were where residents of the nearby oasis city of Gaochang buried their dead, roughly between the 3rd and 9th centuries. As the membrane between Central Asia and China, and the path to the Middle East, Xinjiang has been fought over for centuries (a fight that continues today, as China uses an iron fist to control it as an autonomous province). Gaochang, meanwhile, lies in ruins. But the Astana cemetery, with more than a thousand tombs preserved in the dry heat of the Turpan Basin, tells the story of the once-prosperous ancient city.

The Astana cemetery shows how Gaochang was once a prominent stop on the Silk Road, especially for Sogdians, a people from Eastern Iran who often traveled across Eurasia as merchants. Opening the tombs, Stein found heaps of evidence pointing to Gaochang’s role as a place of “trade exchange between West Asia and China.” Though the vast majority of the dead at Astana were Han Chinese, Stein saw corpses with Byzantine coins in their mouths and Persian textiles included as grave goods.

But inside one tomb, Stein found neither of these things. Grave robbers had emptied it of everything, “except [for] a large number of remarkably preserved fancy pastry scattered over the platform meant to accommodate the coffin with the dead,” he recalled later. Stein was taken aback by the beauty of the cookies and their wide variety of shapes—flat wafers with elaborate designs, delicate, lace-like cookies, and “flower-shaped tartlets … with neatly made petal borders, some retaining traces of jam or some similar substance placed in the [center].” In the arid earth of the cemetery, the sweets managed to survive to modern day.

Today, the pastries are owned by the British Museum, as part of what Stein described as his “haul” of artifacts sent back to the United Kingdom. During his expeditions, Stein also helped himself to priceless cultural objects, such as the first-known printed book. Stein’s plundering of the Diamond Sutra caused vociferous protests in China. In 1961, the National Library of China released a statement saying that Stein’s book theft was enough to cause “people to gnash their teeth in bitter hatred.” The cookies, in comparison, are regarded more as curiosities. A 1925 article in The Times of Mumbai, describing an exhibition of Aurel Stein’s finds in New Delhi, noted how “the most remarkable of all the objects are the actual pastries deposited with the dead as food objects,” with the author writing that they closely resembled “the ‘fancies’ of a modern confectioner’s shop window.”

RTWT

30 Jan 2021

Metal Detectorist Finds Piece of Henry VIII’s Crown

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Daily Mail:

A metal detectorist has found the centrepiece jewel of Henry VIII’s lost crown buried under a tree 400 years after it went missing.

Kevin Duckett, 49, made the startling discovery while walking through a field near Market Harborough in Northamptonshire.

Mr Duckett said he first thought the jewel was some crumpled tin foil from the wrapping of a Mr Kipling cake.

He told The Sun: ‘It was lodged in the side of a hole just a few inches down. I carefully removed it and knew by its colour and weight that it was solid gold.’

Historians have feared the jewel was lost forever when Oliver Cromwell ordered the crown to be melted down and sold as coins after he abolished the monarchy in 1649 and beheaded Charles I.

The 344 precious stones encrusted on the crown, valued by the then Parliament at £1,100, were sold individually.

Mr Duckett, who lives in Fleckney, Leicestershire, took the lump of gold, which also appeared to have an enamel figure on it, home and cleaned it.

He became convinced that the figure was Henry VI after he saw SH inscribed on the base.

The figurine featured five fleur-de-lys – a stylised lily linked to royalty – originally had three figures of Christ, one of St George and one of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

But Henry VIII removed the figures of Christ and replaced them with three saint kings of England – St Edmund, Edward the Confessor and Henry VI.

And the crown was used at the coronation of Henry’s son Charles I.

When he fled from Oliver Cromwell after the Battle of Naseby in 1645 they travelled past the spot where Mr Duckett found the jewel.

Experts believe it may have fallen from the crown in Charles’s haste or that he decided to bury it.

If the British Museum verify the jewel’s authenticity Mr Duckett will be forced to sell it to them at a price set by an independent board.

RTWT

27 Dec 2020

Pompeian Fast Food Shop Discovered

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Reuters:

Archaeologists in Pompeii, the city buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 AD, have made the extraordinary find of a frescoed hot food and drinks shop that served up the ancient equivalent of street food to Roman passersby.

Known as a termopolium, Latin for hot drinks counter, the shop was discovered in the archaeological park’s Regio V site, which is not yet open the public, and unveiled on Saturday.

Traces of nearly 2,000-year-old food were found in some of the deep terra cotta jars containing hot food which the shop keeper lowered into a counter with circular holes.

The front of the counter was decorated with brightly coloured frescoes, some depicting animals that were part of the ingredients in the food sold, such as a chicken and two ducks hanging upside down.

“This is an extraordinary find. It’s the first time we are excavating an entire termopolium,” said Massimo Ossana, director of the Pompeii archaeological park.

Archaeologists also found a decorated bronze drinking bowl known as a patera, ceramic jars used for cooking stews and soups, wine flasks and amphora.

RTWT

09 Dec 2020

Interesting Archaeological Discoveries This Year

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Melting Ice Reveals a Viking Mountain Pass

Gizmodo slideshows the most intriguing archaeological discoveries of 2020. They missed the Amazonian rock paintings that proved that today’s rain forest jungle used to be savannah. And, I was much amused to read the comment on the slide above:

Mittens, shoes, horse snowshoes, bits of sleds, and the remains of a dog still attached to its collar were among the many items found in a former mountain pass in central Norway. Located on Lomseggen Ridge, the pass was used for over 1,000 years, with traffic peaking around 1000 CE during the Viking Age. A melting glacier—the result of climate change—made this and similar archaeological discoveries possible. Also, climate change still sucks.

If that pass was previously exposed a thousand years ago, and used for a thousand years, long before the Industrial Revolution and the Internal Combustion Engine, doesn’t that fact suggest that the climate can change without human responsibility and without any culpability?

Doesn’t that prove that very major changes of climate, on a scale like nothing we have remotely experienced, happen perfectly normally as part of the order of Nature?

A change of climate, like any change, must inevitably feature certain downsides, but if you lived in Central Norway, do you really think warmer, milder weather and freshly open, more convenient mountain passes useable for travel and trade would necessarily suck? That perspective strikes me as conformist, unthinking, and naive.

21 Oct 2020

Sundial or Witches Mark?

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The Bucks Herald:

Archaeologists working in Stoke Mandeville to prepare for HS2 [a High-Speed Railway] have begun the excavation of the remains of the medieval church of St Mary.

They have also discovered some unusual stone carvings, medieval graffiti and other markings.

Two stones with a central drilled hole from which a series of lines radiate in a circle have been uncovered at the site of St Mary’s.

Historians consider these markings to be ‘witches’ marks, created to ward off evil spirits by entrapping them in an endless line or maze.

There are several well-known examples of these across Britain both in churches as well as houses and sometimes even on furniture. However, they can also be interpreted as early sun dials, used by the church to divide up the day into morning prayer, midday prayer and evening prayer.

These ‘scratch dials’ as they are known, are usually found close to the southern door of the church as it is a position better suited for a sun dial.

At St Mary’s, one example of the markings was found low down in the west buttress close to ground level which has led archaeologists to question its purpose.

The position of the stone would have meant that it wouldn’t have served a purpose as a sun dial. This has left the possibility that it was there to ward off evil spirits or could have been a stone from a sun dial re-used as part of the church building. …

Archaeologists from Fusion JV working on behalf of HS2 Ltd at the site were also given the rare opportunity to excavate and carefully deconstruct the remains of the medieval church – something that has not been done in Britain since the 1970s.

The old church was built to serve the manor house and was located some way from the village centre. It was replaced in 1866 by a new church built closer to the village.

Though it was known that the church had been demolished, the method and extent of demolition had not been recorded and it was therefore a surprise to the archaeologists to discover, that beneath the rubble the church survived to a height of almost 5ft with floors intact.

Detailed research into the structure of the church has allowed archaeologists to piece together a history of the development of St Mary’s.

The church started off as a chapel built in about 1070, shortly after the Norman Conquest and may have been at first the private chapel belonging to the lord of the manor at that time. The church was soon extended, and an aisle added in the 1340s.

Archaeologists These new additions seem to mark a transition from a chapel used for private prayer to a church that was used by the local villagers.

Work to dismantle and excavate the church will continue into next year and archaeologists are looking forward to answering many more questions concerning the church and its architecture including discovering whether there may be a Saxon church lying beneath its floor.

RTWT

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What is being excavated is a heap of rubble, all that remains of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in the deserted village of the former Stoke Mandeville. The abandoned 11th or 12th Century Church was condemned and demolished in 1966.

15 May 2020

Norway to Excavate First Viking Ship Burial Mound in 100 Years

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Very cool news from the History blog:

In October 2018, a geophysical survey of a field in Halden, southeastern Norway, revealed the presence of Viking ship burial. The landowner had applied for a soil drainage permit and because the field is adjacent to the monumental Jell Mound, archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) inspected the site first. Using a four-wheeler with a georadar mounted to the front of it. The high-resolution ground-penetrating radar picked up the clear outline of a ship 20 meters (65 feet) long.

The ship was found just 50 cm (1.6 feet) under the surface. It was once covered by a burial mound like its neighbor, but centuries of agricultural work ploughed it away. Subsequent investigation of the area found the outlines of at least 11 other burial mounds around the ship, all of them long-since ploughed out as well. The georadar also discovered the remains of five longhouses.

In order to get some idea of the ship’s age, condition and how much of it is left, in September of 2019, NIKU archaeologists dug a test pit was dug to obtain a sample of the wood of the keel. The keel was of a different type to ones from other Viking ship burials known in Norway. It is thinner and smaller than usual. The two-week investigation and analysis of the sample found that the ship does indeed date to the early Viking era. The wood was felled between the late 7th century and the start of the 9th century. Later dendrochronological analysis narrowed down the date to the period between 603 and 724 A.D.

In more distressing news, the analysis of the sample revealed that the wooden remains were under severe attack from fungus. The use of fertilizer on the farmland above the ship encourages the fungal growth and not only is the keel plagued by soft rot, the remains even at the deepest point where preservation conditions are the best possible are under acute distress.

Norway’s government has responded to the archaeological emergency by allocating 15.6m kroner (about $1.5 million) to excavate the Gjellestad Viking Ship and get it out of the ground before it rots to nothingness. While other Viking ship burials have been excavated in recent years, the last Viking ship burial mound to be excavated was the Oseberg ship in 1904-1905. If the Norwegian parliament approves the budget, excavation of the Gjellestad Ship is slated to begin in June.

RTWT

HT: Bird Dog.

31 Mar 2020

Orichalcum, Lost Ancient Metal May Have Been Found in Shipwreck Off Sicily

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Archaeology World:

Orichalcum, the lost metal of Atlantis, may have been found on a shipwreck off Sicily

A group of naval archeologists has uncovered two hundred ingots spread over the sandy seafloor near a 2,600-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Sicily. The ingots were made from orichalcum, a rare cast metal that ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote was from the legendary city of Atlantis.

A total of 39 ingots (metal set into rectangular blocks) were, according to Inquisitr, discovered near a shipwreck. BBC reported that another same metal cache was found. 47 more ingots were found, with a total of 86 metal pieces found to date.

The wreck was discovered in 1988, floating about 300 meters (1,000 ft) off the coast of Gela in Sicily in shallow waters. At the time of the shipwreck Gela was a rich city and had many factories that produced fine objects. Scientists believe that the pieces of orichalcum were destined for those laboratories when the ship sank.

Sebastiano Tusa, Sicily’s superintendent of the Sea Office, told Discovery News that the precious ingots were probably being brought to Sicily from Greece or Asia Minor.

Tusa said that the discovery of orichalcum ingots, long considered a mysterious metal, is significant as “nothing similar has ever been found.” He added, “We knew orichalcum from ancient texts and a few ornamental objects.”

According to a Daily Telegraph report, the ingots have been analyzed and found to be made of about 75-80 percent copper, 14-20 percent zinc and a scattering of nickel, lead, and iron.

The name orichalucum derives from the Greek word oreikhalkos, meaning literally “mountain copper” or “copper mountain”. According to Plato’s 5th century BC Critias dialogue, orichalucum was considered second only to gold in value, and was found and mined in many parts of the legendary Atlantis in ancient times

Plato wrote that the three outer walls of the Temple to Poseidon and Cleito on Atlantis were clad respectively with brass, tin, and the third, which encompassed the whole citadel, “flashed with the red light of orichalcum”.

The interior walls, pillars, and floors of the temple were completely covered in orichalcum, and the roof was variegated with gold, silver, and orichalcum. In the center of the temple stood a pillar of orichalcum, on which the laws of Poseidon and records of the first son princes of Poseidon were inscribed.

For centuries, experts have hotly debated the metal’s composition and origin.

According to the ancient Greeks, orichalcum was invented by Cadmus, a Greek-Phoenician mythological character. Cadmus was the founder and first king of Thebes, the acropolis of which was originally named Cadmeia in his honor.

Orichalcum has variously been held to be a gold-copper alloy, a copper-tin, or copper-zinc brass, or a metal no longer known. However, in Vergil’s Aeneid, it was mentioned that the breastplate of Turnus was “stiff with gold and white orachalc” and it has been theorized that it is an alloy of gold and silver, though it is not known for certain what orichalcum was.

RTWT

HT: Karen L. Myers.

02 Mar 2020

Tidal Archaeology Off the Coast of Jersey

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Seymour Tower: the researchers get to live there.

Atlas Obscura:

When the water laps up on the granite rocks and sandy embankments off the coast of Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, ancient artifacts get wet. It isn’t a disaster. It’s been happening for thousands of years, in fact, in a daily rhythm—the water rushing in rivulets that turn into torrents along the beachy landscape, sweeping across the miles of exposed seabed and rising above it.

This May, alongside the gulls and crustaceans that skitter about, archaeologists will scamper away from the rising sea as their fieldwork is submerged. They’ll retreat.

With its pockmarked and inundated topography, the intertidal reef known as the Violet Bank is awash with history. Yet despite its name, the bank is a changing gradient of blues, grays, greens, and browns—a cryptic mix of rocky earth and transient sea. Now a preferred spot for low-water fishing—or pêche à pied‚ where locals chat in Jèrriais and probe the ebb tide for shellfish—the evanescent landscape remains treacherous, catching unsuspecting visitors with its rapid tidal shifts.

When an archaeological team from University College London visits the deceptive, disappearing bank in May, they’ll hardly be unsuspecting. They’ll know the tidal drill well, as they try to learn more about the origins of lithic (stone) artifacts and mammoth remains that have emerged from the crevices and ravines that are revealed by the surf with each tide.

RTWT

06 Feb 2020

Oldest Known Wooden Structure

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Science Alert:

The old well doesn’t look like much – a wooden crate-like object, dilapidated, crumbling a little. But according to new research, it’s really special. A tree-ring dating technique has revealed that the oak wood used to make it was cut around 7,275 years ago.

This makes it the oldest known wooden structure in the world that’s been confirmed using this method, scientists say.

“According to our findings, based particularly on dendrochronological data, we can say that the tree trunks for the wood used were felled in the years 5255 and 5256 BCE,” explained archaeologist Jaroslav PeÅ¡ka of the Archaeological Centre Olomouc in the Czech Republic in a press statement last year.

“The rings on the trunks enable us to give a precise estimate, give [or] take one year, as to when the trees were felled.”

The well was unearthed and discovered near the town of Ostrov in 2018 during construction on the D35 motorway in the Czech Republic. Ceramic fragments found inside the well dated the site to the early Neolithic, but no evidence of any settlement structures were found nearby, suggesting the well serviced several settlements at a bit of a distance away.

It was filled with dirt, so an archaeological team carefully excavated and extracted it. It consisted of four oak poles, one at each corner, with flat planks between them. The well was roughly square, measuring 80 by 80 centimetres (2.62 feet). It stood 140 centimetres tall (4.6 feet), with a shaft that extended below ground level and into the groundwater.

Even in waterlogged conditions, the state of preservation of the wood was exceptional, showing marks from the polished stone tools used to shape each piece.

“The construction of this well is unique,” PeÅ¡ka said.

“It bears marks of construction techniques used in the Bronze and Iron ages and even the Roman Age. We had no idea that the first farmers, who only had tools made of stone, bones, horns, or wood, were able to process the surface of felled trunks with such precision.”

And that amazing state of preservation also allowed for dendrochronological (based on tree rings) and radiocarbon dating, based on radioactive isotopes of carbon.

According to these techniques, the trees that supplied wood to the flat planks on the sides of the well were felled around 7,275 years ago. That’s probably when the well was constructed. But two of the poles told a different story.

Both were felled earlier – one around 7,278 or 7,279 years ago; and the other around nine years before that. This, the researchers concluded, meant that the two posts must have been used previously, and repurposed into posts for the well.

One of the side planks also had a different age. It was quite a bit younger, felled between 7,261 and 7,244 years ago. This is likely because of a repair to the well at some point.

RTWT

18 Dec 2019

Ancient Genome Found in Lump of Birch Pitch

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Wired reports the results of an interesting study of ancient human DNA.

Nearly 6,000 years ago, in a seaside marshland in what is now southern Denmark, a woman with blue eyes and dark hair and skin popped a piece of chewing gum in her mouth. Not spearmint gum, mind you, but a decidedly less palatable chunk of black-brown pitch, boiled down from the bark of the birch tree. An indispensable tool in her time, birch pitch would solidify as it cooled, so the woman and her comrades would have had to chew it before using it as a sort of superglue for, say, making tools. Our ancient subject may have even chewed it for its antiseptic properties, perhaps to ease the pain of an infected tooth.

Eventually she spit out the gum, and six millennia later, scientists found it and ran the blob through a battery of genetic tests. They not only found the chewer’s full genome and determined her sex and likely skin and hair and eye color, they also revealed her oral microbiome—the bacteria and viruses that pack the human mouth—as well as finding the DNA of hazelnut and duck she may have recently consumed. All told, from a chunk of birch pitch less than an inch long, the researchers have painted a remarkably detailed portrait of the biology and behavior of an ancient human.

When that birch pitch hit the ground 5,700 years ago, the European continent was playing host to a full-tilt transformation of its human residents. Agriculture was spreading north from the Middle East, and humans were literally and figuratively planting roots—if you’re looking after crops, you’re staying put and building up infrastructure to support your efforts, not following around herds of wild game.

But several converging lines of evidence indicate that this gum-chewing woman actually was a hunter-gatherer, thousands of years after the invention of agriculture. For one, previous analyses have allowed scientists to associate certain genes with either agricultural or hunter-gatherer lifestyles. They did this by matching DNA samples with archaeological evidence for those people—farming tools versus hunting tools, for instance.

The genetics of this ancient woman point to the hunter-gatherer way of life, matched with contemporaneous archeological evidence from the area. “You find lots of fish traps and eel-catching prongs and spears,” says University of Copenhagen geneticist Hannes Schroeder, coauthor on a new paper in Nature Communications describing the findings. Evidence of a more settled lifestyle at the site only came later in history.

RTWT

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