Sunday, August 30, 2009


Racing against time to save prehistoric Orkney site

The site at the Links of Noltland on the island of Westray on the northern fringes of the Orkney islands (Scotland) is emerging as one of the UK's most important prehistoric digs: over the last 30 years archaeologists have uncovered a complex of neolithic and bronze age houses, field systems, rich middens and possibly ceremonial buildings dating to 3,500 BCE.

Noltland has revealed glimpses of this slowly evolving society: they kept red deer,
primitive rough-haired sheep, pigs and cattle; harvested shellfish; planted wheat nourished with domestic waste and animal dung; used whalebone for rafters, tools and clothing pins; made beads; and embellished their tools with carvings and lumps of the ochre-coloured hematite imported from nearby Hoy.

Over the last 30 years, the north Atlantic wind has remorselessly swept away thousands of tons of sand at Noltland, excavating dunes and finally exposing several thousand years of early human civilization. But the wind now threatens to destroy the site, that sits just tens of meters from the surf. The gales are becoming more intense. It is a crisis increasingly common for coastline archaeological sites around Britain.

Since the early 1980s, the land surface at Noltland has dropped by up to 10m (33ft), exposing what now appears to be a significant neolithic township. There are at least five neolithic houses and six later bronze age buildings on Noltland, and evidence of several others are emerging from under the sand.

The dig is being led by Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson, a wife and husband team hired by the site's owners, the government agency Historic Scotland. They have worked on Noltland for 10 years and have watched, with mounting anxiety, as the wind has stripped the site.

"It's pretty disastrous," says Moore. "It's just all going; I don't think there's anything we can do to stop it either. This is why we're here. Everything is being stripped away - it's being exposed and washed out."

The islands were inhabited, like much of western Scotland's coastline and all its island groups, because Britain's sheltered coastal waters acted as prehistory's motorways: inland were steep mountains, unfordable rivers, thick forests and wolves. In a world without roads and railways, the Hebridean islands, the Orkney archipelago and Shetlands offered accessible and abundant sources of shelter and food.

The steadily eroding sand allows glimpses ... If Historic Scotland can find the
funds, they could be reopened for public exhibition. "This is a live site," Moore adds, "the real thing, and it's eroding in front of us. It's a rescue situation. If you're lucky enough to come up here and see it, it's a very rare opportunity. It's so short-lived and it's not going to survive."

Saturday, August 29, 2009


SIDON: Valuable archaeological ruins recently uncovered in Sidon proved to be the missing link in the city's historic legacy. This week, the British Museum delegation uncovered 13 burial sites, temples and personal items dating to the Canaanite period in the coastal city's Freres archeological site. "We uncovered the biggest number of ruins this year and this helped complete the cycle of historic periods discovered in the site," said head of the British Museum delegation Dr. Claude Doumit Serhal.

The delegation consists of a team of 90 Lebanese and foreign professionals and has been excavating the coastal city's site for eleven years in collaboration with General Directorate of Antiquities.

"What is remarkable about this week's discovery is that it reveals the religious rituals and lifestyle during the Canaanite period" said Serhal. "The site, unlike any other in Lebanon, showed the clear succession of historic periods in Sidon."

This week's discoveries included a 48-meter-long temple filled with bronze pieces, knives and rings as well as pottery and stone statues used by ancient people to repel evil spirits. The site also contained temples dating back to 3000 BC and 1000 BC along with nine rooms and cereal stocks. The discoveries show the temple to be from the Canaanite period between 1800 BC and 1500 BC.

Around 108 burial sites from 1900 BC and 1500 BC were also discovered. They contained several types of burnt cereals and animal corps and revealed the religious and funerary rituals of that period.

The delegation also found the missing piece of a vase decorated with the pharaoh's Lotus flower. The piece is believed to be a gift to Sidon's king from the Pharaoh Queen Tausert who succeeded Ramses II. "This is but another proof of the succession of civilizations," said Serhal.

"The uncovered archaeological pieces will be displayed in the city's museum" said Serhal who described this year's discoveries as "astonishing." "This site will become a cultural and tourist reference in the city of Sidon" she added. The cornerstone for Sidon's first archaeological museum was placed on June 27 and will be open to the public in 2012.

The city of Sidon has witnessed the succession of numerous civilizations and
the city's archaeological discoveries have revealed ruins pertaining to the
Canaanite, the Persian and the Ottoman periods.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


A large number of prehistoric archaeological sites in the Valencia
Region (Spain) do not have adequate protection and are open to acts of
vandalism and stealing, a report warned. The caves dating back to the
Palaeolithic period and in some cases to the Iron Age located in La
Safor district have no protection at all. These include the Parpalló
de Gandia, Cova del Barranc Blanc de Rótova, Penya Roja de Rótova,
Cova de Llop de Gandia, Lea Mallaetes de Barx and the Montgó de Dénia.
In the Valencia District of Spain, artwork found on the walls of the caves dates back to between 10,000 to 30,000 BCE.

In the case of La Penya Roja, which was discovered in the 80s, items found there date the cave to between 25,000 to 50,000 BCE and the suspicions are that they were inhabited at least 500,000 years ago. Conservationists are calling for urgent
action from the government to protect these sites.

All appear to have been forgotten by the authorities in favor of more modern causes such as baroque churches, 19th century buildings and monuments that are less then 100years old. These sites do not have fences around them and lack any form of security says the head of archaeological service in Valencia. José Aparicio. Sr Aparicio also
claims that the cave dwellings do not have as much as a fence around them. He added that these sites are very valuable because they contain material that shows just how our prehistoric ancestors lived.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I collaborated with Professor Pauketat on Cahokia Mounds for Oxford University Press "Digging for the Past" Series so I'm delighted to report on a new book by the Professor that is making waves.

According to just published Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi by University of Illinois archaeologist and professor of anthropology Tim Pauketat, the mound builders were not always the idyllic, corn-growing, pottery-making, fishing-hunting gentle villagers depicted in various dioramas at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville (Illinois, USA).

Pauketat said these long-vanished people practiced human sacrifice of women and men on a mass scale and weren't always careful to bury only the dead.

Based on years of study of artifacts including many from the extensive excavation of the site's Mound 72 during 1967-71, Pauketat's book is getting national attention.

Ancient Cahokia, which reached its peak about 1150 CE. with a population of 20,000, was a religious center of farmers and hunters that probably influenced much of what archaeologists call the Southeast Ceremonial Complex, a string of similar but smaller sites found from Illinois to northern Florida. About 80 of the original 120
mounds survive, including Monks Mound at the Cahokia site, the largest prehistoric earthen structure north of Mexico.

In this society, often referred to as the Mississippian Culture, women played much more of a role than convenient sacrificial victims, Pauketat said. And even in this death ritual, women were respected, unlike some of the men whose remains were found with heads lopped off.

Ancient Cahokia's big draw, according to the book, was religion. And in the practice of various religious rites, evidence has been found that women were the rivals of this society's male religious leaders.

Pauketat said the evidence is in the form of curious female figurines carved from a type of clay found just south of St. Louis known as flint clay. The reddish substance dries rock hard. Just last month, a small, 4-inch high female figure was found at a state-run archaeological dig in East St. Louis. Pauketat said only 23 other such figurines are known, including the largest, about 16 inches high.

The elevated status of women in religion in Cahokian society is illustrated, Pauketat said, by the decorations on the figurines that include a highly prized serpent figure, and of depictions of staple foods like corn and squash. "Clearly, a lot of the artwork of female gods and female figureheads show that women were probably highly elevated at Cahokia."


Evidence that early modern humans living on the coast of the far southern tip of Africa 72,000 years ago employed pyrotechnology - the controlled use of fire - to increase the quality and efficiency of their stone tool manufacturing process, is being reported in latest issue of the journal Science.

An international team of researchers deduce that "this technology required a novel association between fire, its heat, and a structural change in stone with consequent
flaking benefits."

"Our illumination of the heat treatment process shows that these early modern humans commanded fire in a nuanced and sophisticated manner," says lead author Kyle Brown, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cape Town, and field and lab director in Mossel Bay, South Africa, for ASU's Institute of Human Origins. "We show that early modern humans at 72,000 years ago, and perhaps as early as 164,000 years ago in coastal South Africa, were using carefully controlled hearths in a complex process to heat stone and change its properties, the process known as heat treatment," explains Brown.

"Heat treatment technology begins with a genius moment - someone discovers that heating stone makes it easier to flake," says Curtis Marean, project director and a co-author on the paper. Marean is a paleoanthropologist with the Institute of Human Origins and a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at
Arizona State University's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "This knowledge is then passed on, and in a way unique to humans, the technology is slowly ratcheted up in complexity as the control of the heating process, cooling and flaking grows in sophistication," Marean says.

According to Marean, the silcrete bifaces are re-usable tools with many potential functions: effective hunting weapons, excellent knives and items of value for exchange. "Our discovery shows that these early modern humans had this complex cognition," Brown says. "There is no consensus as to when modern human behavior appears, but by 70,000 years ago there is good evidence for symbolic behavior,"
Marean added.

"Prior to our work, heat treatment was widely regarded as first occurring in Europe at about 25,000 years ago," Marean says. "We push this back at least 45,000 years, and, perhaps, 139,000 years, and place it on the southern tip of Africa at Pinnacle Point."


Experts have unearthed a Neolithic 'cathedral' - a massive building of a kind never before seen in Britain - which has left them in awe of its scale and workmanship. At 25m long and 20m wide, it stands between two of Orkney's most famous Neolithic landmarks, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness.

Even in an area as archaeologically rich as Orkney (Scotland), it is being hailed as the find of a lifetime.

Nick Card, from the Orkney Research Center for Archaeology, who is leading the dig, said the building was effectively a cathedral for the north of Scotland. He said: "It's spectacular..."

The shape and size of the building are clearly visible, with the walls still standing to a height of more than three feet. Far taller when built, they are 16 feet thick and surround a cross-shaped inner sanctum where the 40-strong excavation team have found examples of art and furniture created from stone. The building was surrounded by a paved outer passage. The archaeologists believe this could have formed a labyrinth that would have led people through darkness to the chamber
at the heart of the building.

The team has also discovered that a standing stone split by a hole shaped like an hourglass was incorporated into the structure, something never seen before in buildings from the period. It was buried under a large natural mound at the tip of the Brodgar peninsula, a huge archaeological site where last year the team unearthed a four-metre-wide wall made of massive stone boulders. Other buildings, over 50ft long and 30ft wide, have also been discovered.

Dr Colin Richards, a leading expert on the period, said the building would have stood at the heart of Neolithic Orkney. "A structure of this nature would have been renowned right across the north of Scotland - and is unprecedented anywhere in Britain."

The dig, which has been operating since 2003, involves archaeologists from Orkney College and from Aberdeen, Glasgow and Cardiff universities. Volunteers have also traveled from the United States, Italy, Sweden and Ireland to take part.

Sources: The Scotsman, Times Online, The Herald (14 August 2009)

Saturday, August 08, 2009


A site that is widely regarded as an ancient American Indian burial ground at the Bolsa Chica Mesa (Southern California, USA) has received national historic designation, exciting preservationists who say the move grants the area slightly more protection against future development.

Federal officials last month determined the 'cogged stone' site at Bolsa Chica as eligible for listing with the National Register of Historic Places. The area was named after the hundreds of carved stone disks - cogged stones - found on the site. The disks were possibly used for sacred rituals.

The designation is just the latest chapter in a decades-long battle among preservationists, tribal members and developers. In 2008,tensions reignited after an announcement about the unearthing of 174 ancient American Indian remains, half of them found over an 18-month period on a site slated to become a community with more than 300 homes.

The land was once shared by the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians and the Gabrieleno-Tongva. The discovery of hundreds of mysterious cogged stones and human bone fragments that are up to 8,500 years old confirmed the decades-long rumors that the Brightwater Hearthside Homes site was an ancient burial ground of international importance,Native American officials have said.

The site would have ultimately been listed with the National Register of Historic Places. However, the land owners opposed the official listing, said National Register of Historic Places historian Paul Lusignan.

The new historic designation changes some things for the cogged stone site, which is largely in the process of being developed. It deems the site a significant resource and therefore does not allow the city to skip an environmental impact report for development, said Susan Stratton, an archeologist who supervises a team at the
California Office of Historic Preservation.

Patricia Martz, a professor of anthropology and archeology at Cal State Los Angeles who spent about a decade preparing the application for the national designation, said she plans to meet with city planners soon about a re-evaluation. However, Jennifer Villasenor, the city's Planning Department manager, said the city can
move forward without the environmental review at this stage in the annexation process and still be in compliance with state standards laid out in the California Environmental Quality Act. However, Stratton said the National Register bears a lot more weight, especially in the realm of public opinion. "It's hard to see whether
it will grant more protection than 1983," she said. "It doesn't mean you'll be able to keep if from being destroyed, but in terms of how it's going to play out there in the public? Who knows."

Source: OC Register (6 August 2009)

Sunday, August 02, 2009


An excellent, if somewhat inconclusive article, appears in the August, 2009, Scientific American by Kate Wong. She quotes many of the experts on the Neandertal problem and here are a few of their conclusions:

1)Subtle difference in culture and biology may explain why Neandertals lost out. "Worsening and highly unstable climatic conditions would have made competition among human groups all the more fierce," says Katerina Harvati at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig Germany.

2)Chris Stringer, of London's Natural History Museum, proposes that the moderns' somewhat wider range of cultural adaptations provided a slightly superior buffer against hard times. For example, needles enabled modern humans to have tailored clothing and tents, all the better for keeping the cold at bay. Neandertals left no such signs of sewing.

3) Steven L. Kuhn and Mary C. Stiner at the University of Arizona have suggested that the varied diet of early modern Europeans would have favored a division of labor in which men hunted the larger game and women collected and prepared nuts, seeds and berries. In contrast, the Neandertal focus on large game probably meant that their women and children joined in the hunt, helping to drive animals toward the waiting men. Thus modern human populations expanded at the expense of the Neandertals (Current Anthropology 2006)

4) Paleoanthropologist Leslie Aiello of the Wenner-Gren Foundation in NYC has said that Neandertals required significantly more calories to survive than the rival moderns did. "They were the SUVs of the hominid world." Modern humans might have out-competed Neandertals simply by being more fuel-efficient, using less energy for basic functions, ensuring the survival of their young.

5) Research led by Rachel Caspari of Central Michigan University has shown that around 30,000 years ago, the number of modern humans who lived to be old enough to be grandparents began to skyrocket. Thus they had more reproductive years and more time to acquire specialized knowledge (eg. where to find drinking water in time of drought) and pass it on to the next generation. Stringer added that among the shorter-lived Neandertals knowledge was more likely to disappear.

6) Lastly, the precise factors of why individual populations of Neandertals declined must have varied from group to group.