Thursday, November 25, 2010


A Chinese company is eager to begin developing the world's second-biggest unexploited copper mine which lies beneath the ruins of a 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery in Afghanistan. Beijing put $3.5 billion stake in the mine, the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan by far, and the Afghan government stands to rake in a potential $1.2 billion a year in revenues from the mine, as well as the creation of much-needed jobs.

In the meantime, archaeologists are racing to salvage what they can from a major seventh century BCE religious site along the famed Silk Road connecting Asia and the Middle East. The ruins, including the monastery and domed shrines known as 'stupas,' will most likely be largely destroyed once construction of the mine begins. The Chinese government-backed China Metallurgical Group Corp., or MCC, planned to start building the mine by the end of 2011, but under an informal understanding with the Kabul government, it has granted archaeologists three years for a salvage excavation.

Archaeologists working on the site since May say that will not be enough time for full preservation. "That site is so massive that it's easily a 10-year campaign of archaeology," stated Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist brought in by the U.S. Embassy to work on sites in Afghanistan. Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist advising the Afghans, said the salvage effort is piecemeal and 'minimal'; held back by lack of funds and personnel. "This is probably one of the most important points along the Silk Road," revealed Marquis. "What we have at this site, already in excavation, should be enough to fill the (Afghan) national museum."

The monastery complex has been excavated, revealing hallways and rooms decorated with frescoes and filled with clay and stone statues of standing and reclining Buddhas. Some statues reaching as high as 10 feet. An area that was at one time a courtyard is dotted with stupas standing four or five feet high. More than 150 statues have been found to date, though many remain in place. The large ones are too heavy to be moved, and the team lacks the chemicals necessary to keep small ones from disintegrating when extracted.

MCC appears to be pushing the archaeologists to complete the excavation ahead of schedule. The Afghan archaeologist overseeing the dig said he has no idea when MCC representatives might tell him his work is over, so he tries not to think about deadlines. "We would like to work according to our principles. If we don't work according to the principles of archaeology, then we are no different from traffickers," Abdul Rauf Zakir noted.

The team hopes to lift some of the larger statues and shrines out before winter sets in this month, but they still haven't procured the crane and other equipment needed to do so. Funding from foreign governments has been promised, but has yet to materialize. Marquis said MCC has been cooperative and has been helping the archaeologists with dirt removal and asking what more needs to be done. Zakir, the Afghan archaeologist, laughs. "Yes, they are very helpful. They want to help so that we can finish quickly. They want us gone."

Edited from Associated Press (14 November 2010)

Monday, November 22, 2010


Archaeologists excavating the site in Syon Park made the discovery of more than 11,000 Roman items just half a meter below the surface. They were digging on the plot of land ahead of the construction of a new landmark hotel, which will open the outskirts of the historic Syon Park Estate in 2011.

Around 11,500 fragments of pottery, 100 coins and jewelery were uncovered by the experts from the Museum of London Archaeology, along with burial sites containing human remains and a Roman road.

Jo Lyon, a senior archaeologist at the museum, said today: 'We were extremely fortunate to discover such a comprehensive repertoire of Roman finds and features so close to the surface. They tell us a great deal about how the people of this village lived, worked and died. The archaeology at Syon Park has given us a valuable, rare insight into the daily life of an agricultural village on the outskirts of Londinium (London) that would have supplied the Roman city and provided shelter for travelers passing through. 'It helps us build a picture of the Roman landscape and shows how the busy metropolis of Londinium connected with the rest of Roman Britain.'

The excavations at the site near Brentford were conducted in 2008, but the fascinating discoveries have only now been revealed. Archaeologists said the Roman settlement had remained remarkably undisturbed for almost 2,000 years and was of local and national significance.

The site revealed a section of one of Roman Britain's most important roads, linking Londinium with the Roman town of Silchester and an ancient tributary of the Thames.

The dig revealed that the British landscape changed considerably under Roman influence with towns being established, interconnected by roads. Its strategic position on the river Thames meant that it rapidly became the most important and largest commercial town in the province. Once a Roman road was built it started to attract settlements along it, like that in West London. The Syon Park and the surrounding area was an attractive place to settle as it lay between the road and the Thames. The land was easy to cultivate and the presence of the road would have offered an additional source of income to the community from travelers seeking refreshment and lodging.

The new hotel, being built by Waldorf Astoria, is set to open on the site next year and is hoping to display some of the historic finds. The Duke of Northumberland, whose family has held residence at Syon Park for more than 400 years, said: 'Syon Park has a rich and remarkable history. The Roman findings are an incredible addition to this legacy and emphasize Syon Park’s place as a prominent landmark in ancient British history'

Read more:

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Farming in Europe did not just spread by word-of-mouth, but was introduced by migrants from the ancient Near East, a study suggests. Scientists analyzed DNA from the 8,000 year-old remains of early farmers found at an ancient graveyard in Germany.
They compared the genetic signatures to those of modern populations and found similarities with the DNA of people living in today's Turkey and Iraq.

Wolfgang Haak of the University of Adelaide in Australia led the team of international researchers from Germany, Russia and Australia.

Up until now, many scientists believed that the concept of farming was brought to Europe merely by the transfer of ideas. They thought that European hunter-gatherers living in close proximity to ancient farmers in the Near East were spreading the information about more settled ways and agriculture further north.

But the recent study challenges that hypothesis.

"We have shown that the first farmers in Europe had a much greater genetic input from the Near East and Anatolia, than from populations of Stone Age hunter-gatherers who already existed in the area," said Dr Haak.

"This helps to overturn current thinking, which accepts that the first European farming populations were constructed largely from existing populations of hunter-gatherers, who had either rapidly learned to farm or interbred with the invaders," he said.

The scientists used the most modern techniques to extract the mitochondrial DNA - genetic code that is passed down via the maternal line - from the 8,000-year-old bones of 22 people buried at a graveyard at the town of Derenburg in Saxony-Anhalt in central Germany. Past studies had already confirmed that the remains belonged to ancient European farmers from the Early Neolithic "Linear Pottery Culture".

The analysis also revealed that the hunter-gatherer population living in Europe did not die out as a result of the "invasion" of the migrants from the Near East. Instead, the two groups mingled together, which resulted in "mixed" ancestry, signs of which the team discovered at the graveyard.


The brains of Neanderthals and humans were similar at birth but developed differently in the first year of life, according to a German study.

Brains of newborn human babies and Neanderthals, who became extinct about 28,000 years ago, were about the same size and appear almost identical at first, said the research which appeared in the journal Current Biology.

But after birth and particularly during the first year of life the differences in development are stark, said lead author Phillipp Gunz of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

"There was a huge difference in the way they grew their brain compared to modern humans in the first one-and-a-half and two years," Gunz told AFP.

The human brain began much more activity in neural circuitry in the first year of life, which may have helped early Homo sapiens survive in the process of natural selection, the study said.

"The interesting thing is within modern humans, the size of the brain correlates only very weakly with any measure of intelligence," he said. "It's more the internal structure of the brain that is important." But we think that internal structures must have been different because they grew differently, so we don't think the Neanderthal saw the world as we do."

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


Silbury Hill, the neolithic chalk mound in Wiltshire (England) is Europe's largest prehistoric man-made feature. This ancient monument was believed to have taken many centuries to build, but research by English Heritage archaeologists suggests the prehistoric site was made in 15 distinct layers over 100 years. A new book has challenged some of the long held assumptions about Silbury Hill.

New and more precise dating of materials found inside the hill now suggests the monument was created not in three stages as previously suggested, but in 15 distinct phases involving some three generations between 2400 and 2300 BCE - right after nearby Stonehenge's thirty enormous sarsen stones were put in place. But new evidence is increasing telling us that Neolithic people display an almost obsessive desire to constantly change the monument.

A survey by English Heritage suggests the prehistoric mound is not in fact truly circular: on the summit it appears to be more angular than circular, while at the base it is almost octagonal in form. It is possible a spiraling ledge led up to the mound. The research has also shown that Silbury Hill was at the center of a Roman-British settlement and it could have been considered as sacred in the Roman period as when originally constructed. Later, in the medieval period, the top of the hill was flattened and a building - possibly defensive - was constructed on the summit.

In the new book 'The Story of Silbury Hill', published by English Heritage, all this emerging evidence has given rise to a radical new theory: Silbury Hill was not a single construction project and that the builders did not have any blueprint in mind. Instead, the creators were building the mound as part of a continuous storytelling ritual and the importance of the shape that we see now is of secondary importance.

Jim Leary, English Heritage archaeologist and co-author of the book, explains: "Most interpretations of Silbury Hill have, up to now, concentrated on its monumental size and its final shape. But new evidence is increasing telling us that our Neolithic ancestors display an almost obsessive desire to constantly change the monument - to rearrange, tweak and adjust it. It's as if the final form of the Hill did not matter - it was the construction process that was important. It seems as if the hill developed organically and the strangest thing is that this hasn't always been a hill. The first phases of it were a bank and ditch enclosure, much like a henge monument."

Further, analyses of the material composition of the mound have revealed that chalk, stones, gravel and antler picks were consistently used in an ordered fashion and combined in different ways to yield discrete patterns, textures and colors. "The most intriguing discovery is the repeated occurrence of antler picks, gravel, chalk and stones in different kinds of layering, in ways that suggest that these materials and their different combinations had symbolic meanings," Jim Leary says.

Silbury Hill has now been restored to as near its original condition as possible. All the known voids inside the prehistoric mound, and the crater on the summit, have now been re-filled. The hill is deemed a Site of Special Scientific Interest for chalk land vegetation and the public are no longer allowed to walk on to it.

Edited from BBC News, Heritage Key (26 October 2010), Swindon Advertiser (27 October 2010), BBC News (30 October 2010)


Archaeologists have unearthed evidence that shows ancient people from 5,000 years ago painted the insides of their Stone Age homes to brighten the place up. As well as decorating the stone walls, they also painted designs like chevrons and zig-zags on their interiors. They used red, yellow and orange pigments from ground-up minerals and bound it with animal fat and eggs to make their paint, the new research has found.

Until now experts believed that it was the Romans who were the first to introduce paint to decorate houses to Britain 3,000 years later. Archaeologists made the discovery at the site of a Stone Age settlement on the island of Orkney (Scotland). A neolithic village consisting of 15 small dwellings was first discovered at Brodgar on Orkney in the 1980s. Then last year archaeologists dug up a number of nearby temples that the inhabitants would have worshiped in. Several stones used to form the buildings have now been found to have been painted and decorated by the locals in about 3,000 BCE. It is thought this was actually done to enhance important buildings and may have been found in entrance ways or areas of the building which had particular significance.

Nick Card, of the Orkney Research Center for Archaeology, said: "We have found seven stones in this ritual center. Some of them were covered in paint and others appear to have had designs such as chevrons and zig zags painted on. When you think of the Neolithic period you think of a gray, monochrome world. But we have suspected that color was a part of their world. Paint pots have been found at various other sites before but we assumed this was for personal adornment. But we now know they used it to paint their walls. Earthy colors were used like oranges, yellows and reddy-browns pigments probably derived from various minerals that had been crushed up and mixed with a binding agent such as animal fat or eggs to create this primitive paint.

These are the first finds of their kind. A first for the UK if not for northern Europe. It is not yet known if all the walls were painted or if this was reserved for special parts of the building."

The paint will now be analyzed but it is thought it may have been made from hematite mixed with animal fat and perhaps milk or egg. The painted stones are about 3ft wide and 3ins thick.

Edited from Daily Mail, New Kerala (30 October 2010)
[2 images]

Monday, November 08, 2010


Researchers from Tel Aviv University and Germany's Heidelberg University uncovered the royal garden at the site of Ramat Rachel, a kibbutz (communal farm) in Israel, and are leading the first full-scale excavation of this type of archaeological site in Israel.

"We have uncovered a very rare find," archaeologist Oded Lipschits of Tel
Aviv University said.

The garden was a massive and lush green space royals would use to relax. Such pleasure spots were once the ultimate symbol of power, according to the researchers.

In fact, the garden would have been the most prominent feature of Ramat Rachel, visible from the west, north and south, said researcher Boaz Gross, a graduate student in archeology at Tel Aviv University.

One of the main features of the Ramat Rachel gardens is its intricate irrigation system, the likes of which have never been seen before outside of Mesopotamia (home of the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon). The irrigation system includes open channels and closed tunnels for water to travel though, as well as stone-carved gutters and the framework for elaborate waterfalls.

When the garden was built, being able to control water - especially in the desert - was a great show of political strength.

Based on their analysis, the researchers think Ramat Rachel was built by the Judeans, but commissioned by foreign powers. The archaeologists hope to study the site more to unravel its story, and shed new light on the complicated political maneuverings between the various empires that ruled in Israel. The site was in use from the 7th to the 4th centuries B.C., a period that saw many wars and exchanges of power, with the garden evolving under each civilization.

According to the researchers, the first phase of the garden can be dated back to the 7th century B.C., when Judah became a vassal kingdom of the Assyrian empire.

The researchers are using a combination of excavation methods to study the garden site. For example, botanical and agricultural analysis will reveal which plants and animals lived in the garden, while geological inspection should show where the soil originated. The scientists are also studying the plaster inside water trenches to try to find hidden pollen remains.

"Proper excavation will provide an essential tool to future researchers,"
Gross said. "We are carefully deciphering what we have in front of us. There
are no parallels to it."

The researchers' findings will be reported in an upcoming issue of the
journal Near Eastern Archaeology.


A new study shows that Tutankhamun, Egypt's famous "boy-king" who died around the age of 18, suffered a "massive crushing tearing injury to his chest" that likely would have killed him.

X-rays and CT scans have previously shown that the pharaoh's heart, chest
wall, the front part of his sternum and adjacent ribs, are missing. In
Ancient Egypt the heart was like the brain and removing it was something
that was not done. "The heart, considered the seat of reason, emotion, memory and personality, was the only major organ intentionally left in the body," writes Dr. Robert Ritner in the book Ancient Egypt.

The new research was done by Dr. Benson Harer, a medical doctor with an Egyptology background, who was given access to nearly 1700 CT scan images of Tut that were taken by a team of Egyptian scientists in 2005. Dr. Zahi Hawass, head of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, gave permission for the work.

It has been suggested that tomb robbers, operating sometime between 1925 and 1968, may have stolen the heart and chest bones. The new research shows that while robbers stole some of Tut's jewelery they didn't take the body parts. Instead they were lost due to a massive chest injury Tut sustained while he was still alive.

This isn't the only medical problem Tut had. In 2005 a team of researchers reported that he had a broken leg and earlier this year an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that Tut suffered from malaria, something that may have contributed to his death.

Harer's work was published in the journal Bulletin of the Egyptian Museum. It was also presented last spring at a conference organized by the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE). This Thursday Harer was in Canada, giving his findings at the University of Toronto.

Harer's research indicates that while Tut's jewelery was certainly stolen, the chest bones were already long gone.

The CT scans show, in high-resolution, the edge of what is left of Tut's rib bones. Dr. Harer said that "the ribs are very neatly cut" and could not have been chopped off by modern day thieves. "The ribs were cut by embalmers and not by robbers."

More proof that Tut suffered a major chest injury is found in the technique that Tut's embalmers used to take out his intestines, liver and stomach. In Ancient Egypt those organs were removed after death and put into canopic jars (video: King Tut's canopic shrine and jars introduced).

Harer said that the embalmers used a "transverse incision" which was cut
into Tut and went from his umbilicus (his navel), towards the spine. They
"took out the organs below the diaphragm," he said. However "they did not go
through the diaphragm to extract the lungs - the chest was gaping open, they
could just lift them out directly." Harer says he has never seen another royal mummy cut into this way. "Tut is the only upscale mummy I know that had a transverse incision."

There's more evidence that Tut's chest, including the skin, had been gouged away while he was still alive. When the first autopsy on Tut was done in 1925, it revealed that he had been stuffed like a turkey, filled with what Howard Carter called a "mass of linen and resin, now of rock-like hardness."

One possibility that Dr. Harer ruled out is that of a chariot accident. "If he fell from a speeding chariot going at top speed you would have what we call a tumbling injury - he'd go head over heels. He would break his neck. His back. His arms, legs. It wouldn't gouge a chunk out of his chest."

Instead, at his Toronto lecture, Harer brought up another, more exotic
possibility - that Tut was killed by a hippo.

It's not as far out an idea as it sounds, hippos are aggressive, quick and territorial animals, and there is an artifact in Tut's tomb which appears to show him hunting one of them.

It would also explain why there is no account of Tut's death since being
killed by a hippo would be a pretty embarrassing way for a pharaoh to die.

"Hippos kill more people than any other animal, they are the most lethal
animal in Africa (if not) the world," said Harer. "The victim suffers
massive tearing injury and can actually be cut in half." Medical reports
indicate that "even though they are running away from the hippo they
typically suffer a frontal wound."

In Tut's case, if the hippo charged, his entourage may not have been able to
get to him in time. "If he did have a club foot (as a recent medical report
suggests) it would make him the slowest person getting out of the way - the
easiest person for the hippo to get."

Tut may not have even been hunting a hippo. "It may have been that he was
fowling in the marsh, just got in the wrong area, and the hippo attacked

Still, it's tempting to imagine Tut trying to hunt a hippo. Despite his club
foot and malaria, it's enticing to believe that the teenage pharaoh decided
to hunt one of the most dangerous animals in the world. If his goal was to
increase his fame then he succeeded far beyond expectations, in death
becoming the most famous Egyptian ruler who ever lived.


Ever since I wrote Cahokia Mounds with University of Illinois archaeologist Tim Pauketat, I keep track of new information about the St. Louis area so this news is particularly interesting:

Although, the ancient city of Cahokia is quite well known, there was also a village that several thousand American Indians occupied at the same time in the vicinity of East St. Louis that is not too far from Cahokia.

People lived under similar conditions in both places, growing crops, building mounds and using rivers for transportation. So archaeologists wonder why everyone left East St. Louis about A.D. 1200.

It could have been related to a widespread fire that occurred about A.D. 1175. Or maybe residents moved to the safety of Cahokia with its 15,000 to 20,000 people and protective palisade after being threatened by unfriendly forces.

"Cahokia kept on going until about 1400 A.D.," said Joseph Galloy, coordinator of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey's American Bottom Field Station in Wood River. "We're not sure what happened, but there was some event, something that caused people to abandon East St. Louis."

This is just one piece of a puzzle archaeologists are assembling as they excavate about 75 acres in East St. Louis, including the old St. Louis National Stockyards Co. property. They've found broken pottery, arrowheads and other artifacts, some of which are on display at Belleville's Labor and Industry Museum as part of a new exhibit called "Your Modern Archaeologist."

The Illinois State Archaeological Survey is affiliated with University of Illinois. It's under contract with the Illinois Department of Transportation to gather information and artifacts from land that will be disturbed by the rerouting of Interstate 70 and construction of a new Mississippi River bridge. "It's (not) a research-based form of archaeology where you can pick and choose where you'd like to dig," Durst said. "We really have to check out every single thing along that corridor."

Galloy is focusing on the excavation's prehistoric aspect, specifically Mississippian culture, which lasted from about 800 to 1500 A.D. His crew has found evidence of several hundred structures such as homes and hearths. Durst is looking at the excavation's historic aspect, trying to learn more about people who lived in the neighborhood and worked at the stockyards in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"We really know very little about their way of life," he said. "There was a mix of people from throughout the United States, as well as first- and second-generation European immigrants and Southern African Americans who migrated to the area for jobs."

Durst's crew has found medicine bottles, broken dishes, ceramic marbles and other items in cisterns, cellars and privies. Many will be on display as part of the "Your Modern Archaeologist" exhibit. "It's mostly domestic debris, what people would have used in the kitchen," Durst said. "(Without municipal garbage pickup), these things get abandoned, and the area becomes a giant trash pit."


Archaeologists revealed they have found a piece of a stone ax dated as 35,500 years old on sacred Aboriginal land in Australia, the oldest object of its type ever found.

The shard of stone, found in Australia's lush and remote far northern reaches in May, has marks that prove it comes from a ground-edge stone ax, Monash University's Bruno David said on Friday.

"We could see with the angled light that the rock itself has all these marks on it from people having rubbed it in order to create the ground-edge ax. The person who was using the ax was grinding it against a sandstone surface in order to make it a smoother surface," continued David.

David said the previous oldest ground-edge axes were 20,000 to 30,000 years old, and the conventional belief was that the tool first emerged in Europe when populations grew and forests flourished at the end of the last Ice Age.

David said the discovery is evidence that Aboriginal Jawoyn people from Arnhem Land could have been the first to grind axes to sharpen their edges. "It means that you're creating a tool that is far more efficient than what you had before, and that you also have to create a tool not just through a simple series of actions of hitting against it," he said.

"It's a very remote location, it's quite a spectacular site that is covered in rock art," David said, adding that the cave where the stone was found was well protected from the elements.

Jawoyn Aboriginal people, who had invited the archaeologists to their land to examine the site, said the find was a meaningful connection to their ancestors.