Saturday, February 27, 2010


I'm the co-author with Professor Tim Pauketat in a Oxford University Press volume called "Cahokia Mounds" so I was delighted to find the following:

About 800 years ago, in a large room lit by a wood fire, fierce-looking men bedecked in bright feathers and polished copper ornaments gathered to smoke and talk. Their intricate jewelry -- fanciful objects hammered from chunks of naturally occurring raw copper -- reflected the firelight. A variety of these ancient Mississippian-era copper decorations have turned up throughout Illinois and the Southeast United States, including triangular, 8-inch long-earrings embossed at the ends with a human face, headdress ornaments depicting stylized birds, even diminutive but carefully crafted copper ovals that may have been applied to a ritualistic leather belt or cape. When they are unearthed, these antiquities are covered with a green or gray patina.

Today, traffic on Collinsville (Illinois) passes a short distance from the collection of over more than 80 mounds where, archaeologists say, this American Stone Age scene is thought to have regularly occurred.

But there is something unique about a particular excavated area beside a rather plain looking mound -- Mound 34 -- that lies about 200 yards east of the world famous and huge Monk's Mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. The carefully sifted soil at this excavation has revealed evidence of the only known copper workshop from the Mississippian-era, a culture that peaked about 1250 A.D. throughout the middle and southern portions of America. The overall Illinois state site was the location of a large, prehistoric city of perhaps 20,000 that archaeologists call Cahokia.

"It's the only one (copper workshop) that's been discovered," said James A. Brown, professor of archaeology at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Brown and his research partner John Kelly, a lecturer in archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis, have for eight years led an investigation into finding the workshop and then carefully excavating the often minute particles and bits of copper that were left behind. Brown said that the copper workshop was purely for religious purposes, to produce ornaments for those who participated in significant ceremonies that probably occurred atop the mounds. "They are all depictions of other worldly beings," he said of the symbols and figures found in copper as well as on pieces of pottery and decorated shells.

The irony is that a self-taught archaeologist, Greg Perino, who grew up in Belleville and pioneered a sometimes heavy handed excavation style that featured bulldozing, actually discovered the copper workshop and another nearby nearly 60 years ago. Perino died in 2005 at age 91. However, his mapping was rudimentary and it took years to relocate his find. The rediscovery of the copper workshop has gained national attention. The National Geographic Society is helping to fund the research.

The overall purpose of most excavations at the mounds site, according to Kelly and Brown, is to determine the true role of Cahokia in the Southeast Ceremonial Complex, the string of ancient cities and mounds that stretched from Wisconsin through Illinois and on into Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia.

And in turn, the workshop and the shell cup fragments hint that Cahokia may have been the center and not just an outlying fringe of the ancient Mississippian culture. The true role of Cahokia undoubtedly still lies buried. Unlike many other Mississippian sites that have been heavily excavated, less than 1 percent of the mounds site has been dug. While many artifacts have turned up, scientists working the site say what is left buried may greatly change current views of the civilization, and reinforce the theory that Cahokia may have been the center of it all.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at or 239-2625.


I'm sure this is on all the Egyptology blogs but I especially liked the reporting in this one so am including it -- although I usually avoid Egypt news because there are so many blogs to cover it.

It turns out Egypt's beloved boy-king wasn't so golden after all — or much of a wild and crazy guy, for that matter. But will research showing King Tut was actually a hobbled, weak teen with a cleft palate and club foot kill enthusiasm for a mummy that has fascinated the world for nearly a century?

Not likely, historians say, even though the revelations hardly fit the popular culture depiction of a robust, exotically handsome young pharaoh, or a dancing "how'd-you-get-so-funky" phenom a la Steve Martin. The comedian parodied Tut on "Saturday Night Live" during a blockbuster King Tut traveling exhibit in the late 1970s, which packed U.S. museums and spawned a mini-industry in Tut tchotchkes.

"This is one sick kid," Egyptologist Emily Teeter, assistant curator at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, said after learning of the research. It shows that, based on DNA tests and CT scans, Tut had a genetic bone disease and malaria, which combined with a severe broken leg could have been what killed him about 3,300 years ago at age 19. The results further dispel the more romantic and popular theories about what did him in, like being murdered by a sneaky palace foe.

But historians say the new evidence will likely only intensify public interest in King Tutankhamun because it brings the boy ruler down to Earth. "It makes him all the more human and all the more fascinating," said Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan.

The more realistic picture, fleshed out by testing Tut's mummy and those of his family, has its own mystique. Moreover, their tradition of incestuous marriages only worsened their maladies.

The new research led by Egypt's top archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, bolstered previous theories that Tut's father was likely the Pharaoh Akhenaten. It also brought a new discovery: Tut's mother was Akhenaten's sister. That would explain some of Tut's ailments, including the bone disease that runs in families and is more likely to be passed down if two first-degree relatives marry and have children.

Now experts are trying to identify the mummy that DNA pinpointed as Tut's mother, as well as another confirmed as his wife, Hawass told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday. The DNA project is also seeking a more illustrious figure, Queen Nefertiti, the wife of Akhenaten who was fabled for her beauty but whose mummy has never been identified.

Though historically Tut was a minor king, the grander image "is embedded in our psyche" and the new revelations won't change that, said James Phillips, a curator at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. Even if the research dents the myth, it won't change the most tangible part of Tut's image — all the intact relics that were found in his tomb.

"He's far more famous for what he owned and what he wore than what he actually did," Markel said.


Friday, February 26, 2010


Take a step into the past along an ancient road that provides a fresh glimpse into commercial life during the time of the Byzantines.

With the help of an ancient mosaic map, Israeli archaeologists announced they have unearthed a section of an old stone-flagged street in Jerusalem that provides important new evidence about the city's commerciallife 1,500 years ago.

The 20-foot (6-meter) section of street passes from the west into the center of Jerusalem's Old City, and stands upon a large cistern that supplied water to the city's 30,000 to 40,000 residents. Pottery, coins and bronze weights used to measure precious metals from Byzantine times also were found.

The discovery conforms to the layout of the city depicted in a famous 6th-century mosaic map discovered more than 100 years ago in a Jordanian church, said excavation director Ofer Sion. The map has long been used as a guide to understanding the shape of the city from the 4th to 6th centuries, and the direction of the street is new evidence the map is correct, he said.

Jerusalem during this time had become a Roman city named Aelia Capitolina, with Jews barred from entering after their revolt against their Roman overlords in 132 A.D. It became a major center for the emerging Christian religion.

A staunchly Christian empire based in Constantinople, now Istanbul, it valued Jerusalem as a key Christian religious center and invested heavily into the city, which became a destination for thousands of pilgrims every year.

"This street was the center during the most (commercially) successful period in the history of (ancient) Jerusalem," Sion said. "It is wonderful that (today's street) actually preserved the route of the noisy street from 1,500 years ago."

Archaeologists have already excavated another ancient street in Jerusalem from that time known as the Cardo, which ran north to south and hosted many shops along its pillared length. Sion said the newly found street included a sidewalk and row of columns.

Once restoration work is completed, within the next few weeks, the segment of street will be covered because of heavy pedestrian traffic, Sion said. It has yet to be decided if the site will be available for viewing.

The Israel Antiquities Authority undertook the project in response to a municipal plan to build an electric cable system on the site. In a land where every shovel might unearth something ancient, Israeli law requires the authority to inspect construction zones for ruins before work begins.


"We found 15 sections with a total length of 26 km of ancient wall and three beacons built in Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 24) in our county recently during the nationwide survey," said Liang Shilin, deputy director of the culture bureau and director of the Museum in Jinta county,Gansu province.

The wall was built since Warring States Period (475 - 221 BC) as a defensive way to prevent the invasion from the other states in Chinese history.

According to Liu Yulin, archaeologist in Jinta Museum and his colleagues went into the desert many times for the survey and found the wall in remote places without human habitation. "As the ancient buildings were built in the remote mountainous and desert areas, the remains of the wall were well protected without being destroyed
by human activities. They were only partly destroyed by flood and sandstorm," Liu said.

Archaeologists considered that the newly found ancient wall in Jinta county was the one of the best preserved walls built in Western Han Dynasty.

"At present, totally 1,700 km of ancient wall built in Warring States Period, Western Han and Sui dynasties in Shaanxi province had been discovered, providing scientific and detailed information for further implementation of the ancient wall protection and utilization," he added.


University of Pittsburgh researches examined 348 burial urns to learn that about a fifth of the children were prenatal at death, indicating that young Carthaginian children were cremated and interred in ceremonial urns regardless of cause of death.

The study could finally lay to rest the millennia-old conjecture that the ancient empire of Carthage regularly sacrificed its youngest citizens. An examination of the remains of Carthaginian children revealed that most infants perished prenatally or very shortly after birth and were unlikely to have lived long enough to be sacrificed, according to a Feb. 17 report in PLoS ONE.

The findings-based on the first published analysis of the skeletal remains found in Carthaginian burial urns-refute claims from as early as the 3rd century BCE of systematic infant sacrifice at Carthage that remain a subject of debate among biblical scholars and archaeologists, said lead researcher Jeffrey H. Schwartz, a professor of anthropology and history and philosophy of science in Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences and president of the World Academy of Art and Science. Schwartz and his colleagues present the more benign interpretation that very young Punic children were cremated and interred in burial urns regardless of how they died.

"Our study emphasizes that historical scientists must consider all evidence when deciphering ancient societal behavior," Schwartz said. "The idea of regular infant sacrifice in Carthage is not based on a study of the cremated remains, but on instances of human sacrifice reported by a few ancient chroniclers, inferred from ambiguous Carthaginian inscriptions, and referenced in the Old Testament. Our results show that some children were sacrificed, but they contradict the conclusion that Carthaginians were a brutal bunch who regularly sacrificed their own children."

Schwartz worked with Frank Houghton of the Veterans Research Foundation of Pittsburgh, Roberto Macchiarelli of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and Luca Bondioli of the National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography in Rome to inspect the remains of children found in Tophets, burial sites peripheral to conventional Carthaginian cemeteries for older children and adults. Tophets housed urns containing the cremated remains of young children and animals, which led to the theory that they were reserved for victims of sacrifice.

Schwartz and his colleagues conclude that the high incidence of prenatel and infant mortality are consistent with modern data on stillbirths, miscarriages, and infant death. They write that if conditions in other ancient cities held in Carthage, young and unborn children could have easily succumbed to the diseases and sanitary shortcomings found in such cities as Rome and Pompeii.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


I was intrigued when I heard this report at the recent Archaeological Institute of America Annual meeting. Since then it has been reported in the NY Times, amongst other places:

Newest comments include: "I was flabbergasted," said Boston University archaeologist and stone-tool expert Curtis Runnels. "The idea of finding tools from this very early time period on Crete was about as believable as finding an iPod in King Tut's tomb." Even so, as researchers from the Directorate of Paleoanthropology and Speleology of South Greece and four U.S. universities combed the island, evidence of this unlikely journey kept mounting.

The team lead by Providence College archaeologist Thomas Strasser found more than 30 hand axes, as well as other stone tools of similar vintage, embedded into geological deposits at nine different locations on the southwestern coast of Crete near the town of Plakias. Some artifacts had possibly eroded out from caves in the sea cliffs, becoming incorporated into ancient beach deposits. Over time, geological processes lifted these ancient beaches up and away from the shore, forming natural terraces. The team's geologists dated the youngest of the terraces associated with the hand axes to at least 45,000 years ago using radiocarbon dating, and they estimated the oldest terrace with stone tools to be at least 130,000 years ago.

Although archaeologists had found hints of early humans on Crete, these new discoveries, says Strasser, "are the first geologically datable finds. It seems likely that future research will support this initial discovery." If ancient humans were crossing the Mediterranean, Runnels said, then they certainly could have crossed other water barriers, such as the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden. "And that means that the assumptions that we have had-that the peopling of Eurasia was done by early hominins moving overland through the Near East, into India and down-will have to be revisited."

If additional work confirms that the earliest stone tools on Crete date to more than 130,000 years ago, archaeologists may want to take a closer look at these hypotheses. One solid bet is that archaeologists will be giving more thought in years to come to the question of why early humans chose to venture out on the sea in the first place.


The first explorers to brave the 7-metre perilous crawl leading to the Chauvet caves in southern France were rewarded with magnificent artwork to rival any modern composition. Stretching a full 3 metres in height, the paintings depict a troupe of majestic horses in deep colours, a pair of boisterous rhinos in the midst of a fight and a herd of prehistoric cows. When faced with such spectacular beauty, who could blame the visiting anthropologists for largely ignoring the modest semicircles, lines and zigzags also marked on the walls? Yet dismissing them has proved to be something of a mistake. The latest research has shown that, far from being doodles, the marks are in fact highly symbolic, forming a written 'code' that was familiar to all of the prehistoric tribes around France and possibly beyond.

Few researchers have given any serious thought to the relatively small and inconspicuous marks around cave paintings. Genevieve von Petzinger, then a student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia (Canada), was surprised to find that no one had brought all these records together to compare signs from different caves. And so, under the supervision of April Nowell, also at the University of Victoria, she compiled a comprehensive database of all recorded cave signs from 146 sites in France, covering 25,000 years of prehistory from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.

What emerged was startling: 26 signs, all drawn in the same style, appeared again and again at numerous sites. Admittedly, some of the symbols are pretty basic, like straight lines, circles and triangles, but the fact that many of the more complex designs also appeared in several places hinted to von Petzinger and Nowell that they were meaningful - perhaps even the seeds of written communication.

A closer look confirmed their suspicions. When von Petzinger went back to some of the records of the cave walls, she noticed other, less abstract signs that appeared to represent a single part of a larger figure - like the tusks of a mammoth without an accompanying body. This feature, known as synecdoche, is common in the known pictographic languages. To von Petzinger and Nowell, it demonstrated that our ancestors were indeed considering how to represent ideas symbolically rather than realistically, eventually leading to the abstract symbols that were the basis of the original study. "It was a way of communicating information in a concise way," says Nowell. "For example, the mammoth tusks may have simply represented a mammoth, or a mammoth hunt, or something that has nothing to do with a literal interpretation of mammoths."

The real clincher came with the observation that certain signs appear repeatedly in pairs. Negative hands and dots tend to be one of the most frequent pairings, for example, especially during a warm climate period known as the Gravettian (28,000 to 22,000 years ago). One site called Les Trois-Frères in the French Pyrenees, even shows four sign types grouped together: negative hands, dots, finger fluting and thumb stencils. Grouping is typically seen in early pictographic languages - the combined symbols representing a new concept - and the researchers suspect that prehistoric Europeans had established a similar system.

Suspecting that this was just the beginning of what the symbols could tell us about prehistoric culture, von Petzinger and Nowell's next move was to track where and when they emerged. The line turned out to be the most popular, being present at 70 per cent of the sites and appearing across all time periods, from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago. The next most prolific signs were the open angle symbol and the dots, both appearing at 42 per cent of the sites throughout this period.

Yet while long winters spent in caves might have induced people to spend time painting wonder walls, there are reasons to think the symbols originated much earlier on. One of the most intriguing facts to emerge from von Petzinger's work is that more than three-quarters of the symbols were present in the very earliest sites, from over 30,000 years ago. "This incredible diversity and continuity of use suggests that the symbolic revolution may have occurred before the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe," she said.

One huge question remains, of course: what did the symbols actually mean? With no Rosetta Stone to act as a key for translation, the best we can do is guess at their purpose. Jean Clottes, former director of scientific research at the Chauvet cave, has a hunch that they were much more than everyday jottings, and could have had spiritual significance. With no key to interpret these symbols, though, we can't know whether ancient humans were giving false directions to rival tribes or simply bragging about their hunting prowess. Our ancestor's secrets remain safe - at least for now.

Source: New Scientist (17 February 2010)
[3 images]

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


A site in Luxor, Egypt will become one of the world's largest open-air museums when part of a $11 million project is complete in March, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities has anounced. The project involves the restoration of a 2.7-km (1.7-mile) alley that connects the grand temples of Luxor and Karnak on the east bank of the River Nile.

Lined with a number of statues in the shape of sphinxes -- thus the name "Avenue of Sphinxes" -- the alley was built by the 30th Dynasty king Nectanebo I (380-362 B.C.), who replaced an older path dating from the Eighteenth Dynasty (1550-1292 B.C.).

The pathway was the location of important religious ceremonies in ancient times. One of the most important was the Opet festival, whose main event was a procession with a cult statue of Amun carried from Karnak to Luxor, the site of the ancient city of Thebes.

Remains of the chapels built by Hatshepsut (1502-1482 B.C.), then reused by king Nectanebo I in the construction of sphinxes, have been found along with remains of Roman wine factories and a huge cistern for water.

During the first part of the excavation, in which about a third of the pathway has been dug up, Egyptian archaeologists have unearthed 650 sphinxes out of the original 1350, and several reliefs.

One of the reliefs features the ancient symbol of Cleopatra (51-30 B.C.). According to Dr. Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, Cleopatra likely visited the avenue during her Nile trip with Mark Anthony and implemented restoration work that was marked with her cartouche.

The fragmented sphinxes are now under restoration. Soon they will be placed on display along the avenue.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


The remains of an Iron Age settlement have been unearthed by archaeologists working along the route of a new £1.3m water pipeline in Kent (England). Evidence of a dwelling, postholes, pits, ancient hearths and pieces of pottery were found on land in Pembury. The archaeologists, who were employed by South East Water to survey the route, will now record and preserve the finds.

Tim Allen, from Kent Archaeological Projects, said: "We have found evidence of postholes, pits and ditches, probably part of an Iron Age dwelling, along with pieces of pottery that we can date to the late Iron Age. It is likely that the Iron Age remains are associated with a prehistoric roundhouse that would have been approximately eight metres in diameter, with timber supports and with walls and roof made with wattle and daub."

Paul Clifford, engineering manager at South East Water, said: "On large schemes such as this we take the extra precaution of having archaeologists working alongside our contractors to ensure that if we do find anything of historical significance, then we can halt work for further investigations. That ensures we can continue to protect and record our ancient heritage."