If you sail to the island of Sanday in the Orkney archipelago in northern Scotland, you’ll see the silhouettes of neighboring islands on the horizon. Upon arrival you’ll see white, sandy beaches that trail into rough, once-agricultural terrain, and experience its erratic weather—sun then fog then rain then clear skies all in the same day. Nestled there, on a shallow cliff, is a mound of earth and rocks: a prehistoric tomb dating to around 3500 B.C.
The tomb sits on a low-lying peninsula, where growing storms and agitated seas are eroding it away. So, in August and September 2021, a group of archaeologists made their way there, to Tresness, the site of that lone Neolithic tomb, with their sights set on excavation. The research team was anxious to study the tomb before it was lost; it contains a single chamber, presumably for someone important.
“What we discovered was an exceptionally well-preserved monument,” says Hugo Anderson-Whymark, a curator of prehistory at National Museums Scotland who co-led the research. There were no remains, but inside the monument were a couple rare finds: two polished stone balls, each about the size of a tennis ball.
The other leading archaeologist of the excavations, Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire, unearthed both of the orbs herself. With the first, she remembers pulling her trowel back and immediately noticing that something was different. “It was really exciting,” she says. “I said after the first one, ‘I’ll never find anything like that ever again in my career,’ and then I found another one. It’s very rare that you would find two such amazing objects, it was incredible.”
But these two balls aren’t exactly a unique find—they’re part of a widely distributed mystery left by the Neolithic inhabitants of the British Isles. More than 500 stone balls like them have been discovered to date. For centuries, no one paid them much attention. Farmers or builders would randomly discover them in fields, and then either keep them or donate them without another thought. It wasn’t until archaeologist Sir Daniel Wilson published illustrations of the orbs in 1851 that people began to take notice. “Suddenly you saw, from 1850 onwards, lots of them coming out the woodwork,” says Anderson-Whymark. “There were about 100 known by the early 20th century.” But because of the way that many of them were found—without archaeological context—scholars didn’t know where most came from. That’s why Cummings was so floored by what she found. Discovering not one but two, in their original location in a tomb, is incredible—only a few have ever been found in their original context. Also, most of the 20 balls that have been found in the Orkney Islands are carved and etched with patterns and designs. These, on the other hand, were polished smooth.
Newgrange is a prehistoric monument in County Meath, Ireland, located 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) west of Drogheda on the north side of the River Boyne. It is an exceptionally grand passage tomb built during the Neolithic period, around 3200 BC, making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.
The site consists of a large circular mound with an inner stone passageway and chambers. Human bones and possible grave goods or votive offerings were found in these chambers. The mound has a retaining wall at the front, made mostly of white quartz cobblestones, and it is ringed by engraved kerbstones. Many of the larger stones of Newgrange are covered in megalithic art. The mound is also ringed by a stone circle. Some of the material that makes up the monument came from as far away as the Mournes and Wicklow Mountains. There is no agreement about what the site was used for, but it is believed that it had religious significance. Its entrance is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice, when sunlight shines through a ‘roofbox’ located above the passage entrance and floods the inner chamber.
The original complex of Newgrange was built between c. 3200 and 3100 BC. According to carbon-14 dates, it is approximately five hundred years older than the current form of Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, as well as predating the Mycenaean culture of ancient Greece.
The same environmental conditions have unveiled dozens of concealed architectural apparitions in recent weeks, but when eyes were laid on this prehistoric, epic circle invisibly cradled within the Boyne Valley, the sacred truly met the profane. …
“When we saw this, we knew straight away, this had never been seen or recorded before.”
Prompted by the recent archaeological discoveries borne out of the British heatwave, Murphy â€“ who runs the website Mythical Ireland â€“ decided to fly his drone southwards of the prehistoric monument Newgrange, never actually dreaming he’d encounter an unknown site of the same ilk. Until he did.
Co-discoverer and fellow drone photographer Ken Williams at first couldn’t believe the pictures the drones were relaying, assuming the traced outline of buried prehistoric mounds was a strange artefact of drone interference, or perhaps crop circles stamped by pranksters.
“What we were looking at seemed too good to be true,” he wrote on his blog.
“We moved in closer to look at it in detail, [and] we could see for certain that this was the colouration of standing crops that had not been interfered with. What we were looking at was beneath, within the soil, not in the crops themselves.”
The circular pattern is approximately 150 metres (492 ft) in diameter, with an interior space stretching up to 120 metres (393 ft) in diameter.
Archaeologists estimate the structure and surrounding features of interest to be somewhere around 5,000 years old, with the henge circle capable of holding a few thousand people during ancient ritual events â€“ although the exact purpose of such get togethers is still debated.
However, since the site is on private property, it’s unclear whether any future excavations will be conducted to allow archaeologists to investigate the structure in detail.
Nonetheless, these kinds of structures are so rare and so valuable to archaeologists and historians that even finding where such a mound lies is a significant scientific event.
“In all honesty, it’s going to take some time to process this,” Murphy explains on his blog.
“Archaeologists are calling it a once-in-a-lifetime find. The last time drought conditions like this might have allowed such features to be visible was in 1976.”
Already, preliminary aerial surveys carried out in the wake of the discovery have detected additional sites of interest near the henge, which will now be mapped.
Structure 10.042-10.049 is another large two-chambered megalithic construction made from slate slabs. In the second chamber archaeologists found the body of a young male aged between 17 and 25 lying in the foetal position along with a large set of grave goods. These included an undecorated elephant tusk laid above the young manâ€™s head, a set of 23 flint blades, and numerous ivory objects. Additionally, red pigment made from cinnabar had been sprayed over the body and the objects surrounding it. The â€œremarkable crystal dagger bladeâ€, however, was not found with these grave goods, but instead in the upper level of this chamber.
The rock crystal dagger blade appeared in the upper level of Structure 10.049 of the PP4-Montelirio sector, in association with an ivory hilt and sheath, which renders it an exceptional object in Late Prehistoric Europeâ€¦ The blade is 214 mm in length, a maximum of 59 mm in width and 13 mm thick. Its morphology is not unheard of in the Iberian Peninsula, although all the samples recorded thus far were made from flint and not rock crystalâ€¦
The manufacture of the rock crystal dagger blade must have been based on an accumulation of transmitted empirical knowledge and skill taken from the production of flint dagger blades as well from know-how of rock-crystal smaller foliaceous bifacial objects, such as Ontiveros and Montelirio arrowheadsâ€¦ It was obtained from a large monocrystal at least 220 mm in length and 60 mm in width. Given that these single crystals are hexagonal, they would have a similar width along all their different axes.
The rock crystal source used in creating the crystal weaponry has not been pinpointed exactly at this stage, though analysis suggests two potential sources, â€œboth located several hundred km away from Valencinaâ€.
Given the technical skill and difficulties involved in creating the objects from crystal, rather than flint, researchers believe the motives behind their construction must have been very specific. They note that while crystal objects were found throughout the siteâ€¦
The more technically sophisticated items, however, were deposited in the larger megalithic structuresâ€¦As such, it is reasonable to assume that although the raw material was relatively available throughout the communityâ€¦only the kin groups, factions or individuals who were buried in megaliths were able to afford the added value that allowed the production of sophisticated objects such as arrow heads or dagger blades.
In this respect, however, it is important to note that, paradoxically, none of the most sophisticated artefacts studied in this paper can be ascribed to any particular individual: the rock crystal dagger from Structure 10.042-10.049 was found in the upper level of the main chamber (10.049) in which no human bones were identified; in Montelirio, neither the core nor the arrowheads can be ascribed to any on 20 individuals found in the main chamber; lastly, in the case of Ontiveros, the only available publication offers no evidence that the 16 arrow heads were associated to any particular individual.
It seems therefore reasonable to suggest that rock crystal may have had a dual significance for the Chalcolithic society of Valencina. On the one hand, it had a social significance due to the exoticism of the material and the fact that its transformation required very specific skills and probably some degree of technical specialisation. These objects would have had a â€œsurplus valueâ€ based on the exoticism and rarity of the raw material, the techno-economic investment of their manufacture (a know-how limited to very few people) and their use linked to the world of beliefs and funerary practices. They probably represent funerary paraphernalia only accessible to the elite of this time-period.
On the other hand, rock crystal must have had a symbolic significance as a raw material invested with special meanings and connotations. The literature provides examples of societies in which rock crystal and quartz as raw materials symbolise vitality, magical powers and a connection with ancestors In her analysis of European Neolithic religion, Marija Gimbutas linked the ritual and votive use of white quartz nodules to a symbol of death and regeneration often associated with funerary spaces. Quartz and rock crystal were even portrayed as rocks with great supernatural powers in European Christian tradition. In his Lapidarium, King Alfonso X the Wise of Castile (1276-1279 CE) emphasised its power to connect human beings with the spiritual world, as well as its ability to protect them from danger.
Once upon a time, 4,000 to 8,000 years after humanity invented agriculture, something very strange happened to human reproduction. Across the globe, for every 17 women who were reproducing, passing on genes that are still around todayâ€”only one man did the same.
“It wasn’t like there was a mass death of males. They were there, so what were they doing?” asks Melissa Wilson Sayres, a computational biologist at Arizona State University, and a member of a group of scientists who uncovered this moment in prehistory by analyzing modern genes.
Another member of the research team, a biological anthropologist, hypothesizes that somehow, only a few men accumulated lots of wealth and power, leaving nothing for others. These men could then pass their wealth on to their sons, perpetuating this pattern of elitist reproductive success. Then, as more thousands of years passed, the numbers of men reproducing, compared to women, rose again. “Maybe more and more people started being successful,” Wilson Sayres says. In more recent history, as a global average, about four or five women reproduced for every one man.
Newsweek reports on revolutionary new theories of the significance of a site in Kurdish Turkey that has been re-dated and re-evaluated. Previously dismissed as a medieval cemetery of little interest, the GÃ¶bekli Tepe monument stones are being re-interpreted into “an Ice-Age Rome” associated with a completely new theory of the development of human culture during the Neolithic period, which moves human spiritual aspiration (temple building) into the center of causality replacing material technology (agriculture). How very German! And how very strange. A completely unique site of spectacular interest 1500 years older than Ã‡atalhÃ¶yÃ¼k and astonishingly more sophisticated.
The GÃ¶bekli Tepe site is clearly very rapidly going to become a world-wide cultural icon and a continuing focus of interest and interpretation.
They call it potbelly hill, after the soft, round contour of this final lookout in southeastern Turkey. To the north are forested mountains. East of the hill lies the biblical plain of Harran, and to the south is the Syrian border, visible 20 miles away, pointing toward the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, the region that gave rise to human civilization. And under our feet, according to archeologist Klaus Schmidt, are the stones that mark the spotâ€”the exact spotâ€”where humans began that ascent.
Standing on the hill at dawn, overseeing a team of 40 Kurdish diggers, the German-born archeologist waves a hand over his discovery here, a revolution in the story of human origins. Schmidt has uncovered a vast and beautiful temple complex, a structure so ancient that it may be the very first thing human beings ever built. The site isn’t just old, it redefines old: the temple was built 11,500 years agoâ€”a staggering 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, and more than 6,000 years before Stonehenge first took shape. The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agricultureâ€”the first embers of civilization. In fact, Schmidt thinks the temple itself, built after the end of the last Ice Age by hunter-gatherers, became that emberâ€”the spark that launched mankind toward farming, urban life, and all that followed.
Though not as large as Stonehengeâ€”the biggest circle is 30 yards across, the tallest pillars 17 feet highâ€”the ruins are astonishing in number. Last year Schmidt found his third and fourth examples of the temples. Ground-penetrating radar indicates that another 15 to 20 such monumental ruins lie under the surface. Schmidt’s German-Turkish team has also uncovered some 50 of the huge pillars, including two found in his most recent dig season that are not just the biggest yet, but, according to carbon dating, are the oldest monumental artworks in the world.
The new discoveries are finally beginning to reshape the slow-moving consensus of archeology. GÃ¶bekli Tepe is “unbelievably big and amazing, at a ridiculously early date,” according to Ian Hodder, director of Stanford’s archeology program. Enthusing over the “huge great stones and fantastic, highly refined art” at GÃ¶bekli, Hodderâ€”who has spent decades on rival Neolithic sitesâ€”says: “Many people think that it changes everythingâ€¦It overturns the whole apple cart. All our theories were wrong.”
Schmidt’s thesis is simple and bold: it was the urge to worship that brought mankind together in the very first urban conglomerations. The need to build and maintain this temple, he says, drove the builders to seek stable food sources, like grains and animals that could be domesticated, and then to settle down to guard their new way of life. The temple begat the city.
This theory reverses a standard chronology of human origins, in which primitive man went through a “Neolithic revolution” 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. In the old model, shepherds and farmers appeared first, and then created pottery, villages, cities, specialized labor, kings, writing, art, andâ€”somewhere on the way to the airplaneâ€”organized religion. As far back as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, thinkers have argued that the social compact of cities came first, and only then the “high” religions with their great temples, a paradigm still taught in American high schools.
Religion now appears so early in civilized lifeâ€”earlier than civilized life, if Schmidt is correctâ€”that some think it may be less a product of culture than a cause of it, less a revelation than a genetic inheritance. The archeologist Jacques Cauvin once posited that “the beginning of the gods was the beginning of agriculture,” and GÃ¶bekli may prove his case.