Thursday, February 28, 2013


At least 18 ancient mosaics depicting scenes from Homer's "The Odyssey" have been stolen in northern Syria, the culture minister was quoted as saying on Sunday. "These mosaics were stolen during illegal excavations" on archaeological sites in the war-torn country's northeast, Lubana Mushaweh said in an interview published on Sunday by the government daily Tishreen. "We have been informed that these mosaics are now on the Syrian-Lebanese border," she said without elaborating.

As the nearly two-year Syrian revolt has morphed into an armed insurgency, experts say fierce fighting and deteriorating security have left the country's extraordinary archaeological heritage susceptible to damage and prey to a rising number of looters.

The minister said that an Aramaic gold-plated bronze statue was stolen from the Hama museum, a raging front in the war between loyalist troops and rebels.

Mushaweh admitted that her ministry faced great difficulties in "safeguarding 10,000 historical sites scattered around Syria," cautioning against illegal excavations "which could damage some sites and buried cities." But she insisted that museums across the country were "well guarded" and "their prized possessions for all humanity have been archived and placed in very secure locations".

Among Syria's archeological treasures are six UNESCO world heritage sites: the Old Cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the ruins of Palmyra, the ancient city of Bosra, Crac des Chevaliers crusader castle, the citadel of Saladin and the ancient northern villages.

Monday, February 25, 2013


A communal dolmen grave dating back to over 5,000 years, containing 30 bodies and Neolithic artefacts, has been found in the region of Bern, Switzerland. It represents the first intact burial chamber to be found north of the Alps.

The site was originally found when a farmer decided to try and remove the glacial boulder that he had to mow around when cutting grass in his field. In October 2011, specialists from the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern began investigation of the large granite slab weighing in at 7 tons. The glacial erratic measured 3 meters long, 2 meters wide and was nearly 1 meter thick - what they did not realize at first was that it still covered a grave belonging to a Neolithic community.

According to a report in the Berner Zeitung, Roman and medieval artifacts were found directly overlying the Neolithic layers and show the dolmen was a visible feature in the landscape until at least the 13th century CE. Most of the sediments that cover the site are flood deposits from the nearby river.

The uprights of the dolmen are slightly tilted due to constant flooding from the nearby river, but despite this, the site is reasonably intact. The excavation of the burial chamber has revealed over 30 individuals as well as what must represent grave goods from the period, including flint arrowheads pendants made of animal teeth and one bead, probably of limestone. DNA testing of the occupants as well as sophisticated analysis of their teeth will be taking place over the next two years.

The Swiss Neolithic begins around the middle of the 5th millennium BCE and is coeval with both the Bandkeramik culture in Central Europe and the Vinca culture in the Balkans. During the 4th millennium - when this dolmen is constructed - the culture seemed to develop independently from the rest of Europe and this excavation may help open up further study into the connections that linked the region during this period.

A team from Swiss television's flagship science program, Einstein, has been following the archaeologists as they continue their research on the Oberbipp dolmen. The site director of the excavation, Marco Amstutz comments, "What we found here is like winning the lottery."

Edited from Past Horizons (10 February 2013)
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A new study on the populations of wild cattle and pigs in the Levant Valley by Nimrod Marom of the University of Haifa, Israel, helps reshape our present understanding on the beginning of agriculture and domestication of animals.
The 9th to 8th millennium BP site at Sha'ar Hagolan was used to study human interaction with wild pigs and cattle in a period just before the appearance of domesticated species in the Jordan Valley.

The early Neolithic village was occupied for about 8000 years during what is known as the Yarmukian Culture. The site is already famous for the remarkable assemblages of figurines, one of the structures yielding approximately 70 made of carved pebbles or fired clay. No other single site of this period has produced so many figurines in a single building. It is also one of the first sites in the area where pottery is found.

At the center of the village stood a large, well-constructed building, with a courtyard reached from the narrow winding alley which runs between the domestic structures. Several rectangular rooms with thick mud brick walls, and one circular room for storing grain, were built around the courtyard.

Results indicate that full domestication of both cattle and pigs occurred at the site during the 8th millennium BP, and were preceded by severe overhunting. Body-size in cattle and pigs was significantly smaller than that of the local wild populations during the earliest phase of settlement at the site, in the Pre Pottery Neolithic. This can be directly linked to an evolving human-animal relationship.

Edited from Plos One, Past Horizons (11 February 2013)
[2 images,1 map]

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Scientists have unearthed a jawbone from an ancient human ancestor in a cave in Serbia.

The jawbone, which may have come from an ancient Homo erectus or a primitive-looking Neanderthal precursor, is more than 397,000 years old, and possibly more than 525,000 years old. The fossil, described Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, is the oldest hominin fossil found in this region of Europe, and may change the view that Neanderthals, our closest extinct human relatives, evolved throughout Europe around that time.

"It comes from an area where we basically don't have anything that is known and well- published," said study co-author Mirjana Roksandic, a bioarchaeologist from the University of Winnipeg in Canada. "Now we have something to start constructing a picture of what's happening in this part of Europe at that time."

In 2000, Roksandic and her colleagues began excavating a cave in Balanica, Serbia, that contained ancient archaeological remains. While they were away, rogue diggers secretly dug a deeper pit within the cave, hoping to do their own excavations. Because the site had already been disturbed, the team then decided to probe deeper below the pit's bottom, Roksandic told LiveScience.

About 5.9 inches (15 centimeters) below the surface the team found an ancient jawbone fragment with three molars still intact. Using several dating techniques, the team determined the fragment was definitely older than 397,000 years and perhaps older than 525,000 years. The jawbone lacked several characteristic Neanderthal features, including distinctive chewing surfaces on the teeth that show up in Western Europe at that time. Instead, the fossil resembled the more primitive Homo erectus.

Back then, the cave may have been a hyena den, though the researchers can't say whether a hyena actually brought the human remains into its den.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Scientists in Ethiopia have unearthed and dated some of the oldest stone hand axes, dating to 1.75 million years ago. The tools roughly coincide with the emergence of an ancient human ancestor called Homo erectus, and fossilised Homo erectus remains were found at the same site, said study author Yonas Beyene, an archaeologist at the Association for Research and Conservation of Culture in Ethiopia.

Human ancestors used primitive tools as far back as Homo habilis, 2.6 million years ago, but those - called Oldowan tools - weren't much more than rock flakes crudely knapped to a sharp edge. Nearly a million years later, more sophisticated two-sided hand axes emerged. These Aucheulean tools could be up to 20 centimetres long. Tools of this type have recently been discovered several hundred kilometres away near Lake Turkana in Kenya, dating to 1.76 million years ago.

Beyene, Renne, and their colleagues have found more than 350 of these two-faced stone Aucheulean tools in Konso, Ethiopia, indistinguishable in age from those found in Kenya, and in different layers that span about a million years of human evolution - suggesting the symmetric hand axes were widespread in the region by that time. The techniques stayed similar until 800,000 years ago, when the edges on the tools became more refined.

Edited from LiveScience, NBC News (28 January 2013)
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A series of rock carvings that date back more than 3,500 years that were sheared off and taken from a sacred American Indian site in California's Sierra Nevada (USA) have been recovered three months after the theft was discovered. Authorities said no one has been arrested and they wouldn't provide details about the discovery, saying only that it was made after they received an anonymous tip in a letter.

Native Americans carved pictures of hunters, deer and other animals, along with geometric and other designs on hundreds of lava boulders that make up a half-mile-long volcanic escarpment in the Sierra.

It's unclear what will happen to the carvings but federal authorities will be speaking to Paiute-Shoshone tribal leaders to accommodate their wishes. "This was a terrible thing to happen from their perspective, said David Christy, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management. "We are extremely pleased to get them back." Removing or damaging petroglyphs is a felony and first-time offenders can be imprisoned for up to a year and fined as much as $20,000, authorities said.

Visitors to the area, known as Volcanic Tableland, discovered the theft and reported it to federal authorities in October. The thieves are believed to have used ladders, electric generators and power saws to remove the panels that are two feet high and wide. The site, north of Bishop, is protected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Edited from San Francisco Chronicle (1 February 2013)


The highest concentration of ancient rock art ever discovered in the Highlands has been found on hillside farmland in Ross-shire (Scotland). Bronze Age cupmarks carved into rocks up to 5,000 years ago have been found on twenty-eight separate sites on Swordale Hill outside Evanton. The remains of an enclosed henge have also been found on the hill's Druim Mor ridge, which is also the location of a chambered cairn.

The majority of the cup-marked stones, as well as the henge, have been identified and recorded by Tain man Douglas Scott who says all the evidence suggests the hill was once a 'ritual centre of some significance'. It is thought the cupmarks were ground into rocks with quartz between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago. Mr Scott has lodged his findings with the Highland Historic Environment Record, the Royal Commission of Ancient Monuments and has produced a photographic guide, Druim Mor Cupmarks, which he has sent to ARCH Highland in Dingwall.

In 1986, Mr Scott and the late Bob Gourlay, the then Highland Regional Archaeologist, went to Swordale Hill to search for rock art, recording and photographing 14 cup-marked rocks on the ridge. During the last two years, Mr Scott has returned to Swordale Hill to plot the stones he and Mr Gourlay found and has discovered another nine cupmarked rocks, bringing the total to 28. He also discovered a wide circular ditched enclosure, with a small central standing stone next to a cupmarked stone, which suggested it was the remains of a henge.

Mr Scott wants to encourage local people to get a copy of his guide from ARCH or himself to find out more about the ancient rock art there. "This is information for everybody, it belongs to us all," he said. For a copy of the guide contact Mr Scott on

Edited from Rossh-Shire Journal (1 February 2013)
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The march of so-called civiliZation has been having a devastating effect on the ancient rock art of the Amambay hills in Paraguay. For thousands of years incredible examples of rock art have laid undisturbed in caves and rock shelters, protected from the ravages of rain and sun under a thick canopy of dense jungle. But as vast areas are cleared and burned then these amazing examples are exposed and either the rocks are shattered by intense sunlight or fungal growths would appear, causing equally destructive effects.

The increasing loss of these ancient artifacts came to the attention of an American documentary maker, Frank Weaver, who is making a brave attempt to not only record as much of the art as possible, but he is also hoping that, by bringing attention to the plight of the Pai Tavytera Indians, then some of their culture may still be preserved.

Frank weaver is supported in his quest by a rock art specialist, Dr George Nash, of Bristol University (UK), who is quoted as saying "Rock-art, like any other material culture is a dwindling resource. The rock art of the Guarani Indian region of Paraguay is unique revealing an ancient and vibrant society steeped in ritual and religion. However, the plight of this potentially important resource and its guardians is currently at the mercy of short-term gain. This is yet another small but significant corner of our global village which is now under grave threat from so-called progress; deforestation, the destruction of cultural heritage and the alienation of an indigenous population; it has to stop - Now".

Edited from Past Horizons (24 January 2013)