Sunday, June 25, 2006

Jewelry -- 100,000 Years Old!

Well, they were only shell necklaces but if they were made 100,000 years ago it means, according to John Noble Wilford in the New York Times, that human self-adornment, considered a manifestation of symbolic thinking, was practiced at least 25,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Before this find from the Skhul rock shelter in Israel and a single shell from Algeria (about 90,000 years old), the earliest jewelry was dated at 75,000 years ago and was found at the Blombos cave, near Cape Town, South Africa.

The international team of archaeologists, whose article recently appeared in the journal Science, point out that the Israeli and Algerian sites are so distant from the seashore that the shells were most likely brought there intentionally for beadworking. The research team, led by Marian Vanhaeren of University College London and Francesco d'Errico of the National Center for Scientific Research in Talence France concluded, "These beads support the hypothesis that a long-lasting and widespread beadworking tradition existed in Africa and the Levant well before the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe."

The hypothesis challenges the traditional view that modern Homo sapiens underwent a significant behavior change about 50,000 years ago, possibly the result of some genetic modification that afforded a greater capability for symbolic thinking and creativity in arts and crafts.

Jewelry was probably one of the earliest ways people conveyed aspects of their social and cutural identities, Dr. Vanhaeren said. Typically, modern humans do not always agree, as evidenced by the statment from Richard G. Klein, a Stanford archaeologist, who was quoted as saying the new shell evidence "seems weak to me" and the interpretation remained "debatable."

Fossils excavated in Ethiopia show that Homo sapiens were anatomically modern by 160,000 years ago. No consensus has been reached on just how early these prehistoric people began behaving like humans.

Audio Guides When Touring Sites in England

English Heritage is set to launch audio and multimedia guide tours for visitors at 38 of its historic sites, including Stonehenge. Features will range from site information, images, videos and interviews to interactive games. Currently such devices are used at 26 English Heritage sites. By 2007, 12 more sites will be added.

Stonehenge -- it must be mid-summer!

I'm the author (with Cambridge Professor Caroline Malone) of Stonehenge, one of the "Digging for the Past" series published by Oxford University Press. So I'm always interested in what happens at Stonehenge at mid-summer. Here's some of the latest:

Authorities opened up the gates on the eve of June 21, midsummer, and this year 19,000 Stonehenge fans attended. Only four arrests! Not bad. Evidently the fans were well behaved this year in contrast to some real brawls between attendees and authorities in years past.

On the serious side: Stonehenge risks being stripped of its status as a World Heritage site (run by UNESCO) because of "second-rate" government proposals to ease traffic. The options were being discussed when we wrote our book in 2002 (see pages 37-38) and ministers are still dithering. Sir William Proby, chair of the National Trust, in an open letter to Stephen Ladyman, the transport minister: "If the government is unable to commit to implementing an acceptable long-term solution for Stonehenge then it would be better to make no long-term commitment. We should not tie the hands of future generations." And further: "the threat to Stonehenge is urgent, serious and imminent." The issue is not the preservation of the stones but protection and restoration of the surrounding site, believed to hold undiscovered archaeological treasures. Sir William continued: "we cannot stand by and allow a second-rate solution to damage forever one of the world's most important landscapes."

And lastly, just the other day, from my archaeology lists came the story of "New glacier theory on Stonehenge." Essentially the story said that the famous bluestones that make up part of the Stonehenge monument were not brought to the Salisbury Plain on the difficult route from Wales as many have proposed. Open University geologists say the stones were moved to Salisbury Plain by glaciers. In other words, Stonehenge builders used what they could in the natural, relatively nearby landscape.

Frankly, this is hardly new. In our book, published 5 years ago we said: "Not every expert agrees with this scenario [transport from Wales]. One prominent scholar, Aubrey Burl, wrote as recently as 1999 that 'transportation by land and sea would have been so hazardous as to be improbable.' ... Burl has also suggested that the Bluestones were dragged from an area only 10 to 12 miles from Stonehenge."