Sunday, March 23, 2008


A museum to open in western France will span one-and- a-half millenniums of human image-making, from stone chisels to computers. The star of the show, at Angles-sur-L'Anglin, in the department of Vienne, will be a 60 ft-long frieze of bison, horses, cats, goats and erotic female figures, carved into the limestone of western France 15,000 years ago.

The caverns containing the frieze were discovered in 1950 but have never been opened to the public. The Roc-aux-Sorciers (witches' rock) caves are the only site of their kind in Europe: a two-dimensional, carved equivalent of the celebrated cave paintings at Lascaux in Dordogne, 120 miles farther south, that were created 1,000 years earlier.

The public will be able to visit a €2.7m (£2.1m) visitor centre where the original sculptures, and the contours of the cavern sides, have been precisely recreated to full size by computerized, laser- copying techniques. At intervals, a half-hour son-et-lumière display will be projected on to the frieze, suggesting how the carvings may have been created and how they were discovered 58 years ago.

"We want to make the frieze into a place of scientific discovery in which the visitors are doing their own discovering," said the Museum's director. "We want them to reach their own conclusions and understand that their interpretation is as good as that of anyone else."

The Roc-aux-Sorciers caves were first explored by a French archaeologist, Suzanne de Saint-Mathurin, and her British assistant, Dorothy Garrod. They found one cave in which the roof had collapsed, dislodging the sculpted animals and human figures from the cavern sides.

Fifty of these images are now on display at the stunning National Archaeology Museum at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a short commuter train ride from Paris. In another cave, thought to have been occupied in the Magdalene period, 15,000 years ago, the archaeologists found a 20-metre frieze of beautifully finished, bas-relief, wall sculptures. They include human silhouettes, horses, bison, wild cats, goats and three explicit images of the lower part of the female anatomy. The cave was never opened to the public, so as to preserve the works of pre-historic art and to allow exploration to continue.

Geneviève Pinçon, the chief archaeologist at the site, points out that the south-facing cavern was exposed to the sun for large parts of the day in pre-historic times. France had a Siberian climate 15,000 years ago. The cavern would have had a pleasant micro-climate,
ideal to live in.


An analysis of six-million-year-old bones from an early human ancestor that lived in what is now Kenya suggests that the species was the earliest known hominin to walk, a new study says.

"This provides really solid evidence that these fossils actually belong to an upright-walking early human ancestor," said study lead author Brian Richmond, a biological anthropologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Orrorin tugenensis, known by only a handful of bones, has generated controversy since its discovery in the hills of northwest Kenya in 2000. The species existed during a critical period in the human evolutionary timeline. The genetic differences between human and chimpanzee lineages point to divergence from a common ancestor that lived somewhere between five
and eight million years ago.

Scientists have hotly debated whether or not O. tugenensis was an upright-walking human ancestor or an ape, since bipedalism-or walking on two legs-is often considered a first fundamental step in human evolution.

O. tugenensis's thighbone, or femur, was different from that of modern humans and living apes but surprisingly similar to species that lived three to four million years later. "It really closely resembles the thighbone structure of early hominids like Australopithecus, the species that [the well-known female specimen] 'Lucy' belongs to," Richmond said.

Donald Johanson, director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University and Lucy's discoverer, agreed. "I had occasion to see the material about five years ago in Nairobi, and I was struck by the similarities-particularly between the femur and Lucy's
femur," said Johanson, who was unaffiliated with the research. O. tugenensis also had a walking style shared by hominins, including Lucy, until early members of our own genus Homo developed a more modern gait about two million years ago.

Richmond's research also weighs in on another long-standing debate-where exactly does O. tugenensis reside on the human family tree? The fossil's discoverers, Martin Pickford and Brigitte Senut of the Collège de France, have suggested that the species was a direct ancestor of the genus Homo, even though that genus doesn't appear in the fossil record until about two million years ago. If they are correct, hominins that lived from six million to two million years ago-including Lucy and the Australopithicines-were not ancestors of modern humans but merely a now-extinct branch of our family tree.

But Richmond's results, published in the journal Science March 21, 2008, contradict this claim. "Our analysis shows that these fossils resemble early hominin fossils more than they resemble Homo at two million years ago," he said.

Ian Tattersall, curator of the division of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, said that such a conclusion was not a surprise. "If you were going to predict what an early hominid would look like six million years ago, you'd say [it looks] much more like the
Australopithecines than like Homo," said Tattersall, who was unaffiliated with the research.

Another researcher believes that a comparison of O. tugenensis with older Miocene hominids could reveal that it's actually more like those older species-and was thus tree-dwelling. Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History noted that this
adaptation would also be expected in any of the earliest human ancestors to walk.

"The early bipeds, like Australopithecines, were bipedal when they were on
the ground ... They were adept at climbing trees as well," he said.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


House of Augustus opens to public
By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Rome

On March 17, following decades of painstaking restoration, the frescoes of the House of Augustus, in vivid shades of blue, red and ochre go on public show for the first time since they were painted in about 30BC.

One large room boasts a theatrical theme, its walls painted to resemble a stage with narrow side-doors. High on the wall a comic mask peers through a small window. Other trompe l'oeil designs include an elegant garden vista, yellow columns and even a meticulously sketched blackbird.

The Rome authorities have spent nearly 2m euros preserving the four Augustus rooms - thought to comprise a dining-room, bedroom, an expansive reception hall at ground-level and a small study on the first floor. Experts say the frescoes are among the most splendid surviving examples of Roman wall paintings, on a par with those found in the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

But if the frescoes on the walls are exquisite, their surroundings, though impressive, with vaulted ceilings, are less than palatial. The Roman historian Suetonius described how Augustus lived in a modest house on the Palatine before he assumed supreme power and built a sprawling imperial complex higher up the hill.

The art is so delicate that no more than five visitors at a time will be able to enter the rooms. Nevertheless, they are expected to attract large crowds.

Hereafter, entry to the Roman Forum will no longer be free. Instead, visitors must pay 11 euros ($16; £8) for a combined ticket that will give entry to the Forum, the Palatine Hill where the Augustus house is and the nearby Colosseum.

Officials say the proceeds will fund increased security and restoration work around Rome. "There are exciting new finds every month," said Mr Rutelli, "and we need this money to preserve these treasures for future generations".


Greek workers discovered around 1,000 graves, some filled with ancient treasures, while excavating for a subway system in the historic city of Thessaloniki, the state archaeological authority said recently.

Some of the graves, which dated from the first century B.C. to the 5th century A.D., contained jewelry, coins and various pieces of art, the Greek archaeological service said in a statement.

Thessaloniki was founded around 315 B.C. and flourished during the Roman and Byzantine eras. Today it is the Mediterranean country's second largest city.

Most of the graves — 886 — were just east of the city center in what was the eastern cemetery during Roman and Byzantine times. Those graves ranged from traces of wooden coffins left in simple holes in the ground, to marble enclosures in five-room family mausoleums. A separate group of 94 graves were found near the city's train station, in what was once part of the city's western cemetery.

More findings were expected as digging for the Thessaloniki metro continues. Digging started in 2006 and the first 13 stations are expected to be done by the end of 2012. A 10-station extension to the west and east has been announced.


Stone age bones and axes found off Norfolk coast

The weapons of the stone age Norfolk men who hunted mammoths on what is now the bed of the North Sea have turned up in Holland, spotted by an amateur archaeologist in a load of gravel. The 28 finely worked hand axes are believed to date from at least 50,000-60,000
years ago - possibly far older - and were described by archaeologist Phil Harding as "the single most important find of ice age material from below the North Sea".

The lower sea level at the time, with huge volumes of water locked up in the ice age polar ice caps, meant that the area the tools were dredged from, eight miles off Great Yarmouth and under 25 metres of seawater, was then dry land, and Britain was not yet an island.

They were found by an amateur enthusiast, Jan Meulmeester, who regularly hunts through the marine sand and gravel dredged near his home in Flushing, in the south-western Netherlands.

The North Sea is of immense value to archaeologists and is the largest area of drowned landscape in Europe. "It's vital that parts of it should be considered as a potential World Heritage site," said Professor Vince Gaffney of the University of Birmingham, a leading
authority on North Sea archaeology. Professor Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum, said: "The quality and quantity of material from the North Sea shows what a rich resource it is for helping to reconstruct missing phases of our
prehistory." Detailed archaeological research at the bottom of the North Sea would be likely to solve a host of Stone Age mysteries. It should help establish when Britain was recolonised by humans after a 100,000-year uninhabited period.

English Heritage archaeologists are now joining their counterparts in the Netherlands to study the find. What is exciting the experts this time is that the fact that the axes were dredged up with a quantity of silt means they have probably been lying buried in mud exactly where they were dropped so many millennia ago.

Sources: The Guardian, The Independent, BBC News (10 March), Wessex Archaeology (March 2008)

Monday, March 03, 2008


So often we in the West are accused of neglecting news of archaeology in the Asian world. This just came in (March 3, 2008) and I think its quite interesting that megalith builders came to India as well as Western Europe:

An ancient human burial site, estimated to be 3,000 years old, was unearthed at Drugdhamna on Nagpur-Amravati road by the department of ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology, Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj Nagpur University.

The department head, Pradeep Meshram, said that recently the department received information about the existence of some old structures on Nagpur-Amravati road. Later, a team comprising Pradeep Meshram, Kelellu Ismail, Priyadarshi Khobragade and some postgraduate students explored the site near Mhada Colony in Drugdhamna and found a megalithic stone circle.

Describing the site, Meshram reported that huge boulders were arranged in a circular manner. It is assumed that ashes or bodies were buried in the middle of the circle, where a huge standing stone was erected, thus indicating the place as human burial site.

Meshram said stones measuring between 7.5 metre and 10 metres length were used in forming the outer circle and another big stone (80 cm in height) was erected in the middle. Megalithic culture existed in India in the 8th century BCE and its presence can be felt in and around Nagpur, he said, pointing out that a similar site was also discovered, some four years ago, at Daulameti village near Ordnance Factory at Ambajhari.