Sunday, June 24, 2007


Because I'm the author of Stonehenge, a young adult book written with Cambridge Don Caroline Malone, I'm always intereted in how many and how "crazy" the solstice event is on June 21 each year. (Stonehenge is published by Oxford University Press $24.50 and available on Amazon. com).

For 2007, the count is more than 24,000. To quote the news story: "At 4:58 am, following an all-night party on Salisbury Plain, dawn broke on the summer solstice over the 5,000-year-old stone circle, one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world ... people from druids to fans heading for a nearby music festival hailed the sun rising on the longest day of the year Thursday at the ancient Stonehenge monument."

"Revellers wearing antlers, black cloaks and oak leaves" were on hand to watch the sunrise which, according to English Heritage's spokeswoman, "was not very spectacular this year because of cloud." English Heritage, which runs the site, said numbers swelled above the 20,000 they expected because people joined the party on their way to the Glastonbury music festival, which begins Friday in a farm in nearby Somerset.

It's good to know that another Summer Solstice party took place at the complex of ancient stones in Avebury, 25 miles north of Stonehenge. If you plan a trip to the west of England don't neglect Avebury, that in many ways is more spectacular than Stonehenge. At Avebury you can still walk amongst the stones that are wonderfully shaped. Nearby antiquities include Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow.


El Moudjahid, a government newspaper, recently reported that a local tour guide found about 40 etched images near the town of Bechar, about 800 km (500 miles) southwest of the capital Algiers. Algeria is known as a treasure house of prehistoric Saharan art. These newly discovered petroglyphs date to around 8,000 year ago (Neolithic) and show cattle herds.

Prehistoric paintings are found in many parts of the Sahara, often portraying a garden-like environment of hunting and dancing in bright greens, yellows and reds as well as petroglyphs like these at a time before desertification, that happened around 4,000 years ago.

Algeria's best known drawings are in the southeast in the Tassili N'Ajjer mountains. The site of 15,000 images has been named world's finest prehistoric open-air by UNESCO.

Despite a rich Saharan inheritance, Algeria remains off the beaten track for most because of its politically unstable history and an undeveloped tourist sector.



Archaeologists at the University of Tübingen have recovered the first entirely intact woolly mammoth figurine from the Swabian Jura, a plateau in the state of Baden-Württemberg, thought to have been made by the first modern humans some 35,000 years ago. It is believed to be the oldest ivory carving ever found. "You can be sure," Tübingen archaeologist Nicholas J. Conard told SPIEGEL ONLINE, "that there has been art in Swabia for over 35,000 years."

Go to the site to see these amazing figurines up close. The mammoth is particularly charming!

In total, five mammoth-ivory figurines from the Ice Age were newly discovered at the site of the Vogelherd Cave in southwestern Germany, a site known to contain primitive artifacts since it was excavated in 1931 by the Tübingen archaeologist Gustav Reik. Over 7,000 sacks of sediment later, archaeologists were again invigorated by the discoveries.

Among the new finds are well-preserved remains of a lion figurine, fragments of a mammoth figurine and two as-yet-unidentified representations. These, the University of Tübingen Web site explains, "count among the oldest and most impressive examples of figurative artworks from the Ice Age."

The geological context of the discoveries and radiocarbon dating indicate that the figurines belong to the Aurignacian culture, which refers to an area of southern France and is associated with the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe. Multiple radiocarbon dates from sediment in the Vogelherd Cave yielded ages between 30,000 and 36,000 years ago, the University of Tübingen reports. Some methods give an even older date.

The preliminary results from the excavation will be presented in a special exhibit at the Museum of Prehistory in Blaubeuren from June 24, 2007 to January 13, 2008. In 2009, the figurines will be displayed in a major state exhibition in Stuttgart entitled "Cultures and Art of the Ice Age." Certainly worth planning a visit!

Friday, June 22, 2007

New Comet Theory for North America

A new Clovis-age impact theory -- maybe this is why its difficult to find pre-Clovis evidence?

Did a comet hit the Great Lakes region (North America) and fragment human populations 12,900 years ago? A 26-member team of researchers is proposing a startling new theory: that an extraterrestrial impact, possibly a comet, set off a 1,000-year-long cold spell and wiped out or fragmented the prehistoric Clovis culture and a variety of animal
genera across North America almost 13,000 years ago. Driving the theory is a carbon-rich layer of soil that has been found, but not definitively explained, at some 50 Clovis-age sites in North America that date to the onset of a cooling period known as the Younger Dryas Event.
The British journal Nature addressed the theory in a news-section story in its May 18 issue. The researchers propose that a known reversal in the world's ocean currents and associated rapid global cooling, which some scientists blame for the extinction of multiple species of animals and the end of the Clovis Period, was itself the result of a bigger event.
While generally accepted theory says glacial melting from the North American interior caused the shift in currents, the new proposal points to a large extraterrestrial object exploding above or even into the Laurentide Ice Sheet north of the Great Lakes. "Highest concentrations of extraterrestrial impact materials occur in the Great Lakes area and spread out from there," Professor James Kennett, from the University of California in Santa Barbara (UCSB), said. "It would have had major effects on humans.
Immediate effects would have been in the North and East, producing shockwaves, heat, flooding, wildfires, and a reduction and fragmentation of the human population." The blast, from a comet or asteroid, caused a major bout of climatic cooling which may also have affected human cultures emerging in Europe and Asia.
Missing in the new theory is a crater marking an impact, but researchers argue that a strike above or into the
Laurentide ice sheet could have absorbed it. Another possibility is that it exploded in the air. Kennett said that 35 animal genera went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, with at least 15 clearly being wiped out close to 12,900 years ago.
"All the elephants, including the mastodon and the mammoth, all the ground sloths, including the giant ground sloth - which, when standing on its hind legs, would have been as big as a mammoth," Kennett said. "All the horses went out, all the North American camels went out. There would have been major ecological shifts, driving Clovis survivors into isolated groups in search of food and warmth. There is evidence that pockets of Clovis people survived in refugia, especially in the western United States."
Kennett says additional work is necessary to test the data further." Jeff Severinghaus, a palaeoclimatologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, told Nature magazine: "Their impact theory shouldn't be dismissed; it deserves further investigation."

Monday, June 18, 2007

Ever been to the Getty in Malibu, CA?

I love going to the Getty Villa when I'm in California. I'm a native Los Angelino so I do go often. However, one thing that bugs me when touring these fabulous galleries is that the labels do not show any provenience. Where are these gorgeous objects from? Southern Italy? Greece? The Cyclades -- which island? So the latest story -- that follows, condensed -- is quite fascinating but not too surprising:

Getty Museum's Brand Faces Impasse in Italian Artifacts Dispute

By Stephen West

June 14 (Bloomberg) -- Michael Brand, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, has a problem that won't go away: a dispute with the Italian government over ancient artworks in the museum's collection. Once-promising negotiations have completely broken down.

In the 18 months that Brand has led the museum, he's strengthened its acquisition policy, hired several key staff members and helped organize new shows. He also helped repair the museum's reputation and that of the parent Getty Trust, the world's richest art institution with a $5.6 billion endowment. Brand struck an agreement with the Greek government over disputed antiquities, returning four objects this year, and was making progress in talks with Italy's Ministry of Culture over 52 disputed works.

``Everything was going along fine -- which isn't to say it was easy, but we knew what we agreed on and what we had yet to reach agreement on,'' Brand recalled in an interview. ``And then last November they placed a new condition on the table, that without the Getty Bronze there would be no agreement at all.''

The Getty Bronze, or ``Statue of a Victorious Youth,'' is a life-size Greek sculpture of a muscular nude athlete made between 300 B.C. and 100 B.C. that the museum acquired in 1977 for $3.95 million. It's a highlight of the collection, displayed in a special room of its own at the Getty Villa in Malibu.The museum's position is that the statue was made in Greece, looted by the Romans about 2,000 years ago and lost at sea. It was then discovered in 1964, in international waters of the Aegean Sea, by Italian fishermen who brought it ashore and quickly sold the heavily encrusted work to a local art dealer. After it was sold a second time the next year, the sculpture was shipped out of the country and eventually ended up with a Munich art dealer who sold the piece to the Getty.

In 1965, Italian authorities charged the first dealer and three others with theft and illegal sale of state property, claiming the work was part of Italy's cultural heritage. A court in Perugia ruled the next year that the prosecution didn't prove its case, especially that the statue was found in Italian waters and thus was state property. The decision was upheld on appeal.

``We acquired the object after those two cases,'' Brand said. ``At the time, the Italian Ministry of Culture made no claim on the object and made no claim on it after we acquired it.'' More investigations by the Italians in the 1970s and '80s failed to come up with clear proof that the statue was state property.

``It's fair to say that the status of that object has entered the realm of domestic politics, for whatever reasons,'' Brand said. ``Which, of course, makes it harder for us, because that's nothing we can deal with.''

The Italian position is that the Getty has completely missed the point: Museums shouldn't buy and display smuggled art. The bronze should be considered illicitly trafficked because none of the people who bought and sold it ever declared the statue's export from Italy, as required by law, Minister of Culture Francesco Rutelli said.

After the U.S. and Italy signed a cultural treaty in 2001 that required the U.S. to return artifacts illegally exported after that year, the Italian government targeted antiquities in several U.S. collections, including the Getty, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

``The good news is that we've had confirmation from Minister Rutelli's office that, for the moment, it should be business as usual,'' Brand said. ``They ask for loans from us, we ask for loans from them. It remains to be seen whether the loans actually take place. We are hoping they will; we've been told they will go ahead. Our foundation is still working on projects in Italy. The Getty Conservation Institute is still planning projects with Italian colleagues.''

``We remain absolutely ready to talk anytime if there's something constructive to talk about. There are other objects that we haven't reached agreement on yet, and we're perfectly happy to talk about them.''

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


The New York Times (by John Noble Wilford) ran a story on June 12 about Romulus and Remus. Those are the orphan twins who, in legend, were suckled by a she-wolf in a cave on the banks of the Tiber. Romulus grew up to found Rome in 753 B. C.

Historians have long since dismissed the story as a charming legend.Yet the legend has been invigorated by recent archaeological finds.

This year, Italian archaeologists reported discovering the long-lost cave under the Palatine Hill that ancient Romans held sacred as the place where the twins were nursed. The grown brothers fought over leadership of the new city, the story goes, and Romulus killed Remus and became the first king. The cave was no surprise to Andrea Carandini, a historian and an archaeologist at the University of Rome, who has said, “The tale of the birth of Rome is part myth and part historical truth.” He had already found remains of an ancient wall and ditch and also ruins of a palace that he said was built in the eighth century B.C.

Dr. Carandini has a long interview in the July-August issue of the magazine Archaeology. Based on his work, Dr. Carandini said of Rome’s founding, “everything was born” after 750 B.C. “There was no gradual expansion of an old core, but the sudden evolution of a city that was great and remains great.”

The magazine noted that Dr. Carandini’s support of the legend “has earned him the admiration of the Roman public but the disapproval of many of his colleagues.”A lecture that Dr. Carandini gave last fall in Rome attracted 5,000 people, an Italian newspaper reported. But other archaeologists, while praising his excavations, were skeptical of his interpretations.

For a novel approach, check out Stephen Saylor's new book Roma, in which he brings to life Romulus and Remus and other famous characters of Rome's history. It's a great way to learn and understand the underpinnings of Rome.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Italy’s prehistoric iceman “Ötzi” died from a shoulder wound inflicted by an arrow, according to research into his perfectly preserved 5,000-year-old body. Ötzi was found in the Italian Alps in 1991 wearing clothing made from leather and grasses and carrying a copper axe, a bow and arrows.

Though Ötzi’s body underwent several scientific tests to study life in the prehistoric age, it had so far been unclear whether he died from an arrow wound, a bad fall or severe freezing while climbing the high mountains. Using modern X-ray technology, however, an Italian-Swiss research team said recently that it had proved the cause of death as a lesion on an artery close to the shoulder, caused by an arrowhead that remains in the iceman’s back.

Previously, researchers suggested he was killed by a rival hunter after putting up a fight, and concluded that his final meals consisted of venison and ibex meat. But we'll probably never know exactly what happened.

The latest results on the research appeared online in the Journal of Archaeological Science and will be published in the National Geographic next month (July).

Sunday, June 10, 2007


For 1,500 years, this skeleton of a wealthy Roman man was buried beneath Trafalgar Square.

Now its discovery is forcing archaeologists to rewrite the history of London.

Until the bones were found, along with jewels and other valuables, it was thought that the Romans had abandoned Londinium around AD400 and the city was virtually desolate until the Saxons arrived in the seventh century.


But the Roman skeleton has been dated to AD410 and it was found surrounded by the graves of rich Saxons.


One had been buried with a pot that has been dated to AD500.

The finds - made during the £36 million redevelopment of St Martin-in-the-Fields church -prove the Romans remained in the city longer than previously thought and the Saxons arrived sooner. Francis Grew, senior curator at the Museum of London, said: "For the first time we have the beginnings of a link between the Roman city and the Saxon London of the 600s.
"Before, we always believed London collapsed into ruins quite quickly after AD400. "What I find really quite moving is this Roman symbolises the end of the ancient world and was around just about long enough to see the beginnings of what would become modern London.


Treasures: a gold and glass pendant (above) and a glass bowl

Other graves found on the site date from AD600 and appear to be Christian, raising the possibility that St Martin-in-the-Fields was a sacred site for longer than had been thought.

The skeleton, pot and treasures will be on display at the museum from Thursday until 8 August.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


You might have noticed in the NY Times today (June 4) the article about the Afghan treasures coming to the U.S. next year. Several experts felt the Afghans are not getting enough for their sharing. These are the amazing Bactrian antiquities that were hidden from the Taliban for many years by courageous museum officials in the bank vault beneath th Presidential Palace. Two hundred of them were recently on exhibit in Paris at the Guimet Museum.

If you'd like a preview, Current World Archaeology #22 has a beautiful article with many photographs of the treasure. "The artifacts demonsrtate how far Hellenism penetrated into Central Asia, and the lasting influence of the cutlure in this region, according to the exhibition. Lasting influence is an understatement: early in the 20th century, the King of Greece visited Punjab province of what was British India. A tribal dancing display was organized. He soon recognized the steps of a harvest festival dance from his own Northern Greece." -- from the article p. 22.

It's worth subscribing to this magazine just to see these treasures!

Monday, June 04, 2007


What possesses people to ruin age-old petroglyphs in the Southwest? Its hard to imagine.

As many as 35 shots were fired at ancient petroglyphs on rock panels near Fillmore (Utah, USA), and federal officials say the damage is irreparable. The petroglyph vandalism was discovered by a group of contractors taking inventory of archaeological sites in the area. The rock art is believed to be thousands of years old and had been untouched until May 2007, the BLM said.
The area is popular, BLM archaeologist Misti Haines said. "These are things the Boy Scouts like to come out and visit. We have some very passionate volunteer groups, they come out to our area almost every year. They help us record these sites," she said. However, the BLM will take steps to make the damage less apparent. A professional rock art conservator will be 'inpainting' the damaged panels.
The BLM is offering a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the vandals. Anyone with information is asked to call 1-800-722-3998 or 435-743-3100.