Tuesday, October 15, 2013


The mineral wealth and relative security of Iraqi Kurdistan has created a haven for foreign investment. Now, the region’s historical richness is making it a haven for foreign archeologists who are swarming into the region in unprecedented numbers. Sebastian Meyer reports from northern Iraq.

It’s 7 a.m. in Bakrawa, Iraqi Kurdistan. An archeological team from Germany’s Heidelberg University has been up and digging for the past hour. They are one of dozens of teams working in the region, which is experiencing an unparalleled wave of archeological excavations. The site sits on the outskirts of the city of Halabja, where Saddam Hussein gassed and killed 5,000 Kurds in 1988.

Leading the excavation is Peter Miglus, who says improved security following the removal of Saddam Hussein in the U.S.- led invasion of Iraq, has made the Kurdish region a prime location for archeologists. "This area was not investigated for a long time. There were only short periods of peace in this region and it was difficult to make research here. It’s now the only part of Iraq which is safe and where we can do something,” says Miglus.

Along with improved security, Iraqi Kurdistan is also home to one of the densest areas of Mesopotamian archeology. Jason Ur, of Harvard University, is using declassified CIA maps to survey and locate archeological sites. He says he’s found the Kurdish region of Iraq to have twice the archeological density of Syria and 10 times that of southern Iraq. The Kurdish region, he says, has incredible archeological potential.

"We’re discovering a completely unknown center of civilization. There are cities that no one has ever seen before, there are elaborate engineered canals and irrigation systems and unbelievable landscapes that we’ve known nothing about. We’re really in the absolute core of one of the world’s first great empires," says Ur.

Some 70 kilometers northeast of Halabja, a team from the University of Paris is uncovering a small city replete with defensive walls, family kitchens, and burial grounds.

(This is possibly the story we wrote up just before this one)

Monday, October 14, 2013


In the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq archaeologists have discovered an ancient city called Idu, hidden beneath a mound. Cuneiform inscriptions and works of art reveal the palaces that flourished in the city throughout its history thousands of years ago. Located in a valley on the northern bank of the lower Zab River, the city's remains are now part of a mound created by human occupation called a tell, which rises about 32 feet (10 meters) above the surrounding plain. The earliest remains date back to Neolithic times, when farming first appeared in the Middle East, and a modern-day village called Satu Qala now lies on top of the tell.

The city thrived between 3,300 and 2,900 years ago, said Cinzia Pappi, an archaeologist at the Universität Leipzig in Germany. At the start of this period, the city was under the control of the Assyrian Empire and was used to administer the surrounding territory. Later on, as the empire declined, the city gained its independence and became the center of a kingdom that lasted for about 140 years, until the Assyrians reconquered it.

The researchers were able to determine the site's ancient name when, during a survey of the area in 2008, a villager brought them an inscription with the city's ancient name engraved on it. Excavations were conducted in 2010 and 2011, and the team reported its findings in the most recent edition of the journal Anatolica.

"Very few archaeological excavations had been conducted in Iraqi Kurdistan before 2008," Pappi wrote in an email to LiveScience. Conflicts in Iraq over the past three decades have made it difficult to work there. Additionally archaeologists before that time tended to favor excavations in the south of Iraq at places like Uruk and Ur.

The effects of recent history are evident on the mound. In 1987, Saddam Hussein's forces attacked and partly burnt the modern-day village as part of a larger campaign against the Kurds, and "traces of this attack are still visible," Pappi said.

The art and cuneiform inscriptions the team uncovered provide glimpses of the ancient city's extravagant palaces. When Idu was an independent city, one of its rulers, Ba'ilanu, went so far as to boast that his palace was better than any of his predecessors'. "The palace which he built he made greater than that of his fathers," he claimed in the translated inscription.

Two works of art hint at the decorations adorning the palaces at the time Idu was independent. One piece of artwork, a bearded sphinx with the head of a human male and the body of a winged lion, was drawn onto a glazed brick that the researchers found in four fragments. Above and below the sphinx, a surviving inscription reads, "Palace of Ba'auri, king of the land of Idu, son of Edima, also king of the land of Idu." Another work that was created for the same ruler, and bearing the same inscription as that on the sphinx, shows a "striding horse crowned with a semicircular headstall and led by a halter by a bearded man wearing a fringed short robe," Pappi and colleague Arne Wossink wrote in the journal article.

Even during Assyrian rule, when Idu was used to administer the surrounding territory, finely decorated palaces were still built. For instance, the team discovered part of a glazed plaque whose colored decorations include a palmette, pomegranates and zigzag patterns. Only part of the inscription survives, but it reads, "Palace of Assurnasirpal, (king of the land of Assur)." Assurnasirpal refers to Assurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.), the
researchers said, adding that he, or one of his governors, must have built or rebuilt a palace at Idu after the Assyrians reconquered the city.

Another intriguing artifact, which may be from a palace, is a cylinder seal dating back about 2,600 years. When it was rolled on a piece of clay, it would have revealed a vivid mythical scene. The scene would have shown a bow-wielding man crouching down before a
griffon, as well as a morning star (a symbol of the goddess Ishtar), a lunar crescent (a symbol of the moon god) and a solar disc symbolizing the sun god. A symbol called a rhomb, which represented fertility, was also shown.

Before conducting more digs, the researchers will need approval from both the local government and the people of the village. "For wide-scale excavations to continue, at least some of these houses will have to be removed," Pappi said. "Unfortunately, until a settlement is reached between the villagers and the Kurdistan regional government, further
work is currently not possible."



Austrian scientists have found that 19 Tyrolean men alive today are related to Oetzi the Iceman, whose 5,300-year-old frozen body was found in the Alps. Their relationship was established through DNA analysis by scientists from the Institute of Legal Medicine at Innsbruck Medical University. The men have not been told about their connection to Oetzi. The DNA tests were taken from blood donors in Tyrol. A particular genetic mutation was matched, the APA news agency reports.

Walther Parson from the Institute told APA, the Austrian Press Agency, that the same mutation might be found in the nearby Swiss region of Engadine and in Italy's South Tyrol region. "We have already found Swiss and Italian partners so that we can pursue our research," he said. He was quoted as saying DNA had been analyzed from 3,700 men who had given blood donations in Tyrol. They also provided data on their ancestry. Women were not included in the study, as a different procedure would be required to match their genes.

Since Oetzi was first found by hikers with an arrow buried in his back, experts have determined that he died from his wounds. There has been extensive debate as to whether he fell where he died or was buried there by others.



Researchers studying clay balls from Mesopotamia have discovered clues to a lost code that was used for record-keeping about 200 years before writing was invented. The clay balls may represent the world's "very first data storage system," at least the first that scientists know of, said Christopher Woods, a professor at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, in a lecture at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, where he presented initial findings.

The balls, often called "envelopes" by researchers, were sealed and contain tokens in a variety of geometric shapes - the balls varying from golf ball-size to baseball-size. Only about 150 intact examples survive worldwide today. The researchers used high-resolution CT scans and 3D modeling to look inside more than 20 examples that were excavated at the site of Choga Mish, in western Iran, in the late 1960s. They were created about 5,500 years ago at a time when early cities were flourishing in Mesopotamia.

How these devices would have worked in prehistoric times, before the invention of writing, is a mystery. Researchers now face the question of how people recorded the number and type of a commodity being exchanged without the help of writing.

The CT scans revealed that some of the balls have tiny channels, 1-2 millimeters (less than one-tenth of an inch) across, crisscrossing them. Woods said he's not certain what they were used for, but speculates the balls contained fine threads that connected together on the outside. These threads could have held labels, perhaps made out of wax, which reflected the tokens within the clay balls.

The tokens within the balls come in 14 different shapes, including spheres, pyramids, ovoids, lenses and cones, the researchers found. Rather than representing whole words, these shapes would have conveyed numbers connected to a variety of metrological systems used in counting different types of commodities, Woods suggested. One ovoid, for instance, might mean a certain unit, say 10, which was used while counting a certain type of commodity.

The equatorial seals tend to be unique and more complex containing what appear to be mythological motifs; for instance a ball from the Louvre Museum shows human figures fighting what appear to be serpents. The polar seals, on the other hand, are repeated more often and tend to have simpler geometric motifs. Based on this evidence, Woods hypothesizes the seal in the middle represents the "buyer" or recipient; the polar seals would represent the "seller" or distributor and perhaps third parties who would have participated in the transaction or acted as witnesses. Many people would have acted as the buyers, but only a limited number of sellers or distributors would have been around to transact business with, explaining why the polar seals are repeated more often.

After a transaction of some importance was complete, one of these clay devices was created to serve as a "receipt" of sorts for the seller, as a record of what was expended. "There's a greater necessity to keep track ofthings that have been expended than things that are on hand," Woods said in the lecture.

The amount of detail the scientists gleaned from the CT scans and 3D modeling was extraordinary, Woods said during the lecture. "We can learn more about these artifacts by non-destructive testing than we could by physically opening the envelopes," he said. Woods will publish the full research results in the future and plans to put
the images and 3D models online.

The Royal Ontario Museum has a special exhibition on Mesopotamia that runs to Jan. 5, 2014. Woods' presentation is part of a lecture series that is appearing along with it.



Researchers working at an ongoing dig site in northern Greece recently announced that the final results of residue analysis from ancient ceramics showed evidence of wine dating back to 4200 B.C., according to the Greek Reporter. The excavation, located at a prehistoric settlement known as Dikili Tash, is situated 1.2 miles from the ancient city of Philippi and has been inhabited since 6500 B.C., according to the researchers' website.

The analysis was not conducted on liquid wine, though. The passing millennia have erased nearly all tangible evidence of the drink, Dimitra Malamidou, a co-director of the most recent excavation, told The Huffington Post in an email. "All [that] is left from the liquid part is the residue in the surface of the ceramic vases," she said. "Recent residue analysis on ceramics attested [to] the presence of tartaric acid, indicating fermentation."

Malamidou is part of a joint Greek-French excavation that began in 2008. The team recently wrapped up excavation of a neolithic house from around 4500 B.C. This is where they found wine traces in the form of "some thousands of carbonized grape pips together with the skins indicating grape pressing," Malamidou said.

Dikili Tash researchers believe they have found the oldest known traces of wine in Europe. Previous studies have unearthed a 6,100-year-old Armenian winery, as well as traces of a 9,000-year-old Chinese alcohol made from rice, honey and fruit.

"The find is highly significant for the European prehistory, because it is for the moment the oldest indication for vinification in Europe," Malamidou said. "The historical meaning of our discovery is important for the Aegean and the European prehistory, as it gives evidence of early developments of the agricultural and diet practices, affecting social processes."



Women made most of the oldest-known cave art paintings, suggests a new analysis of ancient handprints. Most scholars had assumed these ancient artists were predominantly men, so the finding overturns decades of archaeological dogma. Archaeologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University analyzed hand stencils found in eight cave sites in France and Spain. By comparing the relative lengths of certain fingers, Snow determined that three-quarters of the handprints were female.

Archaeologists have found hundreds of hand stencils on cave walls across the world. Because many of these early paintings also showcase game animals-bison, reindeer, horses, woolly mammoths-many researchers have proposed that they were made by male hunters, perhaps to chronicle their kills or as some kind of "hunting magic" to improve success of an upcoming hunt. The new study suggests otherwise.

"In most hunter-gatherer societies, it's men that do the killing. But it's often the women who haul the meat back to camp, and women are as concerned with the productivity of the hunt as the men are," Snow said. "It wasn't just a bunch of guys out there chasing bison around."

Snow's study began more than a decade ago when he came across the work of John Manning, a British biologist who had found that men and women differ in the relative lengths of their fingers: Women tend to have ring and index fingers of about the same length, whereas men's ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers. One day after reading about Manning's studies, Snow pulled a 40-year-old book about cave paintings off his bookshelf. The inside front cover of the book showed a colorful hand stencil from the famous Pech Merle cave in southern France. "I looked at that thing and I thought, man, if Manning knows what he's talking about, then this is almost certainly a female hand,"
Snow recalled.

For the new study, out this week in the journal American Antiquity, Snow examined hundreds of stencils in European caves, but most were too faint orsmudged to use in the analysis. The study includes measurements from 32 stencils, including 16 from the cave of El Castillo in Spain, 6 from the caves of Gargas in France, and 5 from Pech Merle.

Snow ran the numbers through an algorithm that he had created based on a reference set of hands from people of European descent who lived near his university. Using several measurements-such as the length of the fingers, the length of the hand, the ratio of ring to index finger, and the ratio of index finger to little finger-the algorithm could predict whether a given handprint was male or female. Because there is a lot of overlap between men and women, however, the algorithm wasn't especially precise: It predicted
the sex of Snow's modern sample with about 60 percent accuracy. Snow's analysis determined that 24 of the 32 hands-75 percent-were female.

Some experts are skeptical. Several years ago, evolutionary biologist R. Dale Guthrie performed a similar analysis of Paleolithic handprints. His work-based mostly on differences in the width of the palm and the thumb-found that the vast majority of handprints came from adolescent boys.

"I think the article is a landmark contribution," said archaeologist Dave Whitley of ASM Affiliates, an archaeological consulting firm in Tehachapi, California. Despite these handprints being discussed for half a decade, "this is the first time anyone's synthesized a good body of evidence." Whitley rejects Guthrie's idea that this art was made for purely practical reasons related to hunting. His view is that most of the art was made by shamans who went into trances to try to connect with the spirit world. "If you go into one of these caves alone, you start to suffer from sensory deprivation very, very quickly, in 5 to 10 minutes," Whitley said. "It can spin you into an altered state of consciousness." The new study doesn't discount the shaman theory, Whitley added, because in some hunter-gatherer societies shamans are female or even transgendered.



Ancient rivers, their remains now lying beneath the Sahara desert, once formed green corridors at the surface which our ancestors followed on their great trek out of Africa. A climate model has given us an image of what the landscape would have looked like around 100,000 years ago, suggesting that early humans went west out of sub-Saharan Africa and followed a vast and fertile river system to the Mediterranean.

For decades, there has been speculation that three now-dry North African rivers once served as green pathways for our early ancestors. The waterways would have supported lush flora and fauna to supply early humans with food as they trekked across the continent to the Mediterranean and on to Eurasia. "But no one has been able to work out how much water was in these rivers, when and where exactly they flowed, and how far they reached across the desert," says hydrologist Tom Coulthard of the University of Hull, UK.

Coulthard and his colleagues modeled the climate of the last interglacial period to see how the monsoon rains would have run down the trans-Saharan mountains' north face and flowed across the landscape. Even after accounting for ground absorption and evaporation, the model indicated that there was enough water to have carved green corridors through the desert.

The most promising of the three reconstructed rivers, says Coulthard's colleague Michael Rogerson, is the Irharhar, which flowed 800 kilometers due north to humid regions along the Algeria-Tunisia border. Intriguingly, it is the westernmost of the three systems, yet we know that humans eventually walked east out of Africa. Rogerson suggests that
after reaching the end of the Irharhar, early humans may have taken advantage of marine resources and walked eastward along the North African coast, traversing the Nile delta before migrating into the Middle East.

"As they walked down the river, early humans would have had resources they could use immediately at the Irharhar's far end," he says. Any humans who followed the other two rivers would have been left stranded in inhospitable surroundings. "The other two rivers deliver you to the central parts of Libya, which we think were quite arid then."

Archaeological evidence is more concentrated to the west, says Rogerson, tallying with the idea that most humans would have followed the Irharhar. Classic stone tools like spearheads have been found in the surrounding area,raising the possibility that early humans settled along the river's banks.

Journal reference: PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0074834


Sunday, October 06, 2013


New findings from an archaeological excavation led this winter by Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University's Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures prove that copper mines in Israel thought to have been built by the ancient Egyptians in the 13th century BCE actually originated three centuries later, during the reign of the legendary King Solomon.

Based on the radiocarbon dating of material unearthed at a new site in Timna Valley in Israel's Aravah Desert, the findings overturn the archaeological consensus of the last several decades. Scholarly work and materials found in the area suggest the mines were operated by the Edomites, a semi-nomadic tribal confederation that according to the Bible warred constantly with Israel.

Now a national park, Timna Valley was an ancient copper production district with thousands of mines and dozens of smelting sites. In February 2013, Dr. Ben-Yosef and a team of researchers and students excavated a previously untouched site in the valley, known as the Slaves' Hill. The area is a massive smelting camp containing the remains of hundreds of furnaces and layers of copper slag, the waste created during the smelting process.

In addition to the furnaces, the researchers unearthed an impressive collection of clothing, fabrics, and ropes made using advanced weaving technology; foods, like dates, grapes, and pistachios; ceramics; and various types of metallurgical installations. The world-renowned Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at the University of Oxford in England dated 11 of the items to the 10th century BCE, when according to the Bible King Solomon
ruled the Kingdom of Israel.

The findings from the Slaves' Hill confirm those of a 2009 dig Ben-Yosef helped to conduct at "Site 30," another of the largest ancient smelting camps in Timna Valley. Then a graduate student of Prof. Thomas E. Levy at the University of California, San Diego, he helped demonstrate that the copper mines in the valley dated from the 11th to 9th centuries BCE - the era of Kings David and Solomon - and were probably Edomite in origin. The findings were reported in the journal The American Schools of Oriental Research in 2012, but the publication did little to shake the notion that the mines were Egyptian, based primarily on the discovery of an Egyptian Temple in the center of the valley in 1969.

The Slaves' Hill dig also demonstrates that the society in Timna Valley was surprisingly complex. The smelting technology was relatively advanced and the layout of the camp reflects a high level of social organization. Impressive cooperation would have been required for thousands of people to operate the mines in the middle of the desert.

Although the society likely possessed a degree of political and military power, archaeologists would probably never have found evidence of its existence if it were not for the mining operation. Ben-Yosef says this calls into question archaeology's traditional assumption that advanced societies usually leave behind architectural ruins. He also says that the findings at the Slaves' Hill undermine criticisms of the Bible's historicity based on a lack of archaeological evidence. It's entirely possible that David and Solomon existed and even that they exerted some control over the mines in the Timna Valley at times, he says.

Dr. Ben-Yosef is leading another dig at the Slaves' Hill in the winter and
is looking for volunteers.



Like in a TV crime drama, DNA evidence proved crucial to solving the mystery of an ancient cold case from a very cold time. A recent genetic analysis provided evidence that seems to acquit humans of causing the woolly mammoth's extinction. Instead, it seems the climate may have committed mammoth murder.

The DNA analysis suggested that mammoths nearly died out 120,000 years ago during a warm period, long before human hunters would have been a serious threat. The prehistoric pachyderms bounced back, only to decline again approximately 20,000 years ago.

Oddly, 20,000 years ago was actually the height of the last ice age. The authors of the study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggested that the environment may have become too cold and disrupted the grassland habitat the mammoths depended upon. Then, when the climate warmed again, the animals' preferred ecosystem was taken over by tundra and forest.

The one-two climatic punch may have been the ultimate reason for the furry elephant's demise, but humans may have helped them along. Archeological evidence, such as cave paintings and ivory carvings, suggest that humans hunted ice age elephants and used them as a source of raw materials.

However, a single mammoth would have provided tons of meat, enough to feed hundreds of humans for weeks, according to the Pennsylvania State University's Mammoth Genome Project. Since human populations were so low at the time, it seems unlikely that scattered bands of hunters would have been enough to extinguish the ice age elephants in Europe and Asia without help from a changing climate.

In the Western Hemisphere, humans were munching on mastodons, a relative of the woolly mammoth. At the Manis mastodon site in Washington state, a butchered mastodon was found with the tip of a spear embedded in its rib. The point, made from another mastodon's bone, would have needed to be at least 27-32 cm (10.6-12.6 in.) long to penetrate the skin and flesh of the ancient beast, according to a study in Science. The site dated to 13,800 years ago.

The last population of woolly mammoths died out nearly 4,000 years ago on isolated Wrangel Island in the Arctic, although they had disappeared from the mainland long before. Considering the importance of the ancient, hairy elephants to humans as artistic inspiration and food, the extinction of the mammoth and mastodon may have seriously disturbed our ancestors' societies and lifestyles.



An international team of archaeologists led by experts from the University of York has uncovered evidence of human activity in the high slopes of the French Alps dating back over 8000 years. The 14-year study in the Parc National des Écrins in the southern Alps is one of the most detailed archaeological investigations carried out at high altitudes. It reveals a story of human occupation and activity in one of the world’s most challenging environments from the Mesolithic to the Post-Medieval period.

The work included the excavation of a series of stone animal enclosures and human dwellings considered some of most complex high altitude Bronze Age structures found anywhere in the Alps. The research, published in Quaternary International, was led by Dr Kevin Walsh, landscape archaeologist at the University of York in partnership with Florence Mocci of the Center Camille Julian, CNRS, Aix-en-Provence.

Dr Walsh explained: “High altitude landscapes of 2000 meters and above are considered remote and marginal. Many researchers had assumed that early societies showed little interest in these areas. This research shows that people, as well as climate, did have a role in shaping the Alpine landscape from as early as the Mesolithic period. “It has radically altered our understanding of activity in the sub-alpine and alpine zones. It is also of profound relevance for the broader understanding of human-environment interactions in ecologically sensitive environments.”

Excavations carried out by the team showed human activity shaped the Alpine landscape through the Bronze, Iron, Roman and Medieval ages as people progressed from hunting to more managed agricultural systems including the movement of livestock to seasonal alpine pastures, known as transhumant-pastoralism.

“The most interesting period is the Chalcolithic/Bronze Age when human activity, particularly to support pastoralism, really begins to dominate the landscape,” said Dr Walsh. “The Bronze Age buildings we studied revealed the clear development of seasonal pastoralism that appears to have been sustained over many centuries with new enclosures added and evidence of tree clearing to create new grazing land.

The study also uncovered evidence of Stone Age hunting camps in often inhospitable conditions in the upper reaches of the Alpine tree line at 2000 meters and above. Other finds included a Neolithic flint arrow head at 2475 meters, thought to be the highest altitude arrowhead discovered in the Alps.

The study was carried out by a team of British and French archaeologists and palaeoecologists. They surveyed over 300 sites across a number of valleys as well as studying pollen from cores taken from peat areas and lakes and carbonized wood remains
Initial fieldwork for the project started in 1998 followed by a series of further fieldwork expeditions into some of the most remote and spectacular landscapes in the national park.

“The result of this work is that only now do we have a clear understanding of how these remote, beautiful areas were exploited by people over the millennia,” said Dr Walsh.


Syria is a treasure house of history. Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra and almost 10,000 other archaeological sites there hold the remains of thousands of years of culture. Greeks, Romans, Persians, Christians and Muslims lived and fought in what is now Syria. As the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, explained at a recent UNESCO meeting, "Few countries are as rich culturally, have had such a glorious past, are so important for what we are, all of us, for all the things that make, have made, human civilization."

Coins, jewelry, sculpture and other objects from Syria's archaeological sites can be stunningly beautiful and are eagerly sought by collectors. Recognizing the damage done by amateur diggers who supplied this trade in the past, Syria's domestic law has forbidden unauthorized excavation and export of antiquities since 1963. That essentially means there was no legal trade in recently excavated treasures even before the fighting began. But the chaos of the Syrian civil war gives looters and buyers unprecedented opportunities.

All six of Syria's World Heritage sites are now pockmarked with pits dug by looters in search of salable antiquities. Hundreds of other ancient cities and graveyards also look as cratered as the surface of the moon in aerial photographs taken by archaeologists who are powerless to stop the looting. Since the fighting began in 2011, investigators have found hundreds of Syrian antiquities for sale on the black market in Lebanon and Turkey, the first step in a chain of transactions that, in many cases, will lead to sales in the United States and Europe. On The State Department has released an "emergency red list" earmarking categories of at-risk Syrian objects.

You don't need to travel to a secret warehouse in Beirut to get Syrian antiquities. You can simply go online, where $119 will get you a coin minted in 150 BC for the Seleucid kings in Apamea, once a flourishing city and now a heavily looted archaeological site north of Homs, in the Syrian countryside. The website I saw informed the buyer that the coin shows an "earthen green patina with some minor deposits" — such coloring and encrustations mean that this coin was recently unearthed from centuries underground and is tantamount to an admission that it came from an illegal excavation.

The looting of a big chunk of heritage can take place like this, coin by coin, object by object. Antiquities are particularly vulnerable during conflict, as authorities withdraw and chaos consumes a nation. Looting is tempting to those on all sides of a conflict, from combatants who need to fund their fight to noncombatants whose usual means of support has been disturbed by war. Although it is easy to feel sympathy for the looters seeking money to survive, whatever the motivation, looting's quick and crude excavations destroy far more of value than it uncovers.

There is a simple solution: Do not buy antiquities. The United States is a major market for these objects, with some buyers who know better and many who don't. Americans can create a market for smuggled antiquities and drive looting, or they can defeat it. There was a major decrease in elephant poaching after Americans decided that the beauty of ivory was no excuse for the destruction that brought it to market. We stopped buying ivory buttons, figurines and other trinkets that seemed individually seemed too small to make a difference — but they did. We need to have the same attitude when we see a tempting ancient coin, statuette or piece of jewelry.

It is best simply not to buy antiquities, particularly from Syria or anywhere else where conflict and heritage are colliding: Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of South America and Egypt, where in August an entire museum was ransacked, with rioters stealing the antiquities and burning the mummies.

As the international community wrestles with what action it must take to end the death and destruction in Syria, every one of us can help simply by not acting — that is, by not buying Syrian antiquities, beautiful as they are. For the sake of Syria's heritage, and the world's, remember: No market means no looting.

author: Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime at the City University of New York. From an editorial in the L.A. Times


A type of site never before described by archaeologists is shedding new light on the prehistory of the American Southwest and may change conventional thinking about the ancient migrations that shaped the region. The sites, discovered in the southern mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, are remote Apache encampments with some often “disguised” features that have eluded archaeologists for centuries. And their discovery is surprising not only for their seclusion but also for their age, because some sites appear to date back hundreds of years before Apaches were thought to have migrated to the region.

The sites are called platform cave caches, where small, uniquely constructed platforms were built in rockshelters to secretly hold a stash of goods for later use, Dr. Jeri Seymour (Research associate with New Mexico's Jornada Research Institutue and the University of Colorado Museum0 writes in the Journal of Field Archaeology, where she describes the finds. The structures were sometimes “disguised” by rocks and other features in the caves, and typically included a ring of stones layered with ersatz shelves made from local desert plants, like ocotillo or yucca, and secured on the top with grasses, branches and stones.

The Apache practice of caching goods in caves — like pottery, basketry, food and, in later years, weapons and ammunition — has turned up in accounts from 19th century Native Americans and settlers, but no evidence of the custom had ever been found before.
Seymour notes that such secret stashes were necessities for itinerant people like the ancestral Apache, whose livelihoods often came from raiding other bands or foraging in places that were frequently under the control of other groups. This may explain why the newfound caches were discovered only in remote mountain spots, and in areas far outside the boundaries of other, more sedentary farming groups, like the Mogollon, Mimbres or Hohokam.

But, the author notes, the sites do fall within the historic range of particular Apache bands, including the Mescalero of southern New Mexico, and the Chiricahua in Arizona, who offered one of the last and longest resistances to European-American control. The most convincing evidence of the sites’ origin, however, is the fact that many include uniquely Apache artifacts, such as pottery and rock art.

One of the best-preserved platform caches Seymour found, in Arizona’s Peloncillo Mountains, features fragments of a ceremonial headdress, a ritual staff or “wand,” and four pictographs that depict Apache “mountain spirit masks” drawn in charcoal.

The new platform caches add to previous research Seymour has conducted in Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains, where another Apache camp — this one without a cache — was dated to the 14th and 15th centuries. So while experts have long surmised from historic accounts that Apaches migrated to the Southwest after the 1680s, she concludes, “such interpretations are not sustainable when considered in the context of this new archaeological evidence.”

The new dates “open a host of new possibilities regarding the end of prehistory,” Seymour writes, suggesting that the years leading up to European contact may have been marked by interactions — either peaceful or not — between the itinerant Apaches and more sedentary groups, and that those relationships may have been long-standing by the time the Spanish appeared. Taken together, she says, the new data provided by the platform caches “provide a basis for reevaluating long-held views about the end of prehistory and the arrival of ancestral Apachean groups in the heart of the American Southwest.”


A melting patch of ancient snow in the mountains of Norway has revealed a bow and arrows likely used by hunters to kill reindeer as long ago as 5,400 years. The discovery highlights the worrying effects of climate change, said study author Martin Callanan, an archaeologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

"It's actually a little bit unnerving that they're so old and that they're coming out right now," Callanan told LiveScience. "It tells us that there's something changing."


Archaeologists working with London's Crossrail project have uncovered 20 skulls believed to be from the Roman period. It is likely the bones were washed from a nearby burial site along one of London's "lost" rivers - the Walbrook. In the last year archaeologists in London have also found about 10,000 Roman items at a nearby site. Near-intact pottery artifacts were also found which probably traveled along the same route as the skulls. Other bone fragments would not have been washed as easily down the river.

Paved over in the 15th Century, the Walbrook river divided the western and eastern parts of the city, its moist muddy walls providing exceptionally good conditions for artifacts to be preserved. The discoveries were found about 3m below ground and underneath the the Bedlam cemetery, a burial ground where hundreds of skeletons have been unearthed. Though they have yet to be forensically dated, Nicholas Elsden from the Museum of London Archaeology said they were likely to be from the 3rd to 4th Centuries AD, as that was when Romans buried their citizens as opposed to cremating them. "It's relatively unusual to find so many concentrated [in one area] when you're not in a graveyard. We're 100 yards outside the Roman city walls." Roman finds Roman pottery helped identify the period the skulls were from Roman law required burial outside the city, explained Mr Elsden, which meant there were burial sites circled around the town. He added that chemical markers on the teeth could reveal where these people came from and what sorts of food they ate.

Archaeologists believe that the Crossrail Project will lead to further discoveries hidden beneath the streets of London and say it could transform our understanding of Roman London. Other recent findings include several bodies believed to date from the time of the Black Death and wood thought to be evidence of a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age transport route through London. Crossrail currently operates over 40 worksites and archaeological investigations are carried out at each site ahead of main construction works to build the central stations.