Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Syria has seen damage to hundreds of historically significant cultural heritage sites since the outbreak of war three years ago, according to a new report released this week by the United Nations. The study finds that 290 culturally important areas in the Middle Eastern country have sustained damage or have been totally destroyed. The U.N. said the report is based on satellite analysis that started in June, and that the city of Aleppo could be "one of the worst affected metropolitan areas nationwide." The study team also relied on a large number of reports and media from inside Syria as well as videos on YouTube to help pinpoint exact locations. "It is very difficult, if not impossible, to gather evidence and information through traditional means. Large parts of the country are inaccessible to observers, as they are controlled by terrorist groups," the report said.

Among the 18 Syrian locations examined in the report are six UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Aleppo, which is believed to be about 7,000 years old. The report was created by the U.N. body known as UNOSAT, which uses satellite technology to aid in the research of geopolitical crises. The report counts 24 cultural heritage locations as being totally destroyed, including 22 in Aleppo alone. Sites experiencing severe damage number 107, and those with moderate damage 85. Among the damaged sites are the popular Carlton Hotel, the Aleppo National Museum and the Great Umayyad Mosque, which the U.N. said was founded in 715 A.D., making it one of the oldest mosques in the world. The capital city of Damascus has seen damage of various levels to 29 cultural sites, the report said.

The cultural areas examined in the report are historically significant for archaeological, architectural and religious reasons. Damage to sites has often been a result of shelling and other forms of bombardment. The war in Syria broke out in 2011, with rebel groups fighting against the government of President Bashar Assad. The fighting has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees.

In addition to structural damage, the looting of valuable artifacts continues to be a problem throughout the country. In September, an open letter signed by scholars around the world urged the U.N. Security Council to enact a ban on the trade of Syrian antiquities following widespread reports of looting. The Times ran an opinion piece in 2013 urging people not to purchase Syrian antiquities.


They are tattered yellowing fragments of bygone civilizations, ancient manuscripts that open a remarkable window on previous millennia, including the earliest days of Christianity. But papyrus scrolls are also now increasingly hot items in the distinctly 21st Century world of the online auction trade.

A rectangular scrap measuring about 4.5 inches by 1.5 inches and featuring 15 partial lines of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad in the elegant hand of a 4th Century Egyptian scribe was just [DEC] picked up by an unidentified European buyer for £16,000 after a feverish Internet auction battle. That price was way above the posted estimated but is typical of the sums that collectors will now spend to lay their hands on these fingerprints from the past.

When a fragmentary parchment sheet from the 3rd century AD featuring portions of Paul’s epistle to the Romans was bought at Sotheby’s for £301,000 auctioneers and antiquity experts alike were stunned. But although there is no suggestion of any impropriety in these particular sales, scholars are alarmed by the burgeoning online trade as some unscrupulous sellers also cash in. They portray a free-ranging trade, particularly on the online auction giant eBay, where precious documents are carved up for sale, potentially stolen goods are trafficked and forgers can flourish.

Brice Jones, a papyrologist and lecturer in New Testament and Early Christianity at Concordia University in Montreal, has become an online scrolls sleuth, scouring auction websites for manuscripts that are often incorrectly labeled or their provenance unclear. A few pieces are straightforward forgeries. Most famously, the papyrus fragment called the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife made headlines for apparently overturning nearly two millennia of theological teaching that Jesus was unmarried, but is now widely viewed as a forgery.

Much more distressingly, some sellers are dismembering papyrus books to sell items page-by-page, a financially profitable endeavor that amounts to little more than vandalism of ancient works. One eBay papyrus seller turned out to be two sisters who ran an online beauty supplies store. They had inherited a Book of Revelation from which they cut individual pages to sell on an ad hoc basis to fund the wedding costs for one. But Mr Jones has also identified a proliferation of scrolls being sold of which the origin and ownership is unknown or unclear.

“But when private collectors acquire papyri for personal enjoyment and restrict scholarly access to them, the immediate consequence is that we lose valuable historical information that would otherwise advance our knowledge about ancient people.”

However, the owner of a small specialist Internet auction company, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, pushed back against these criticisms. “We are scrupulous about making sure of ownership although not everyone is so fussy and it’s true that there are some people who know nothing who are out trying to make a buck in the wild West of the Internet,” he said. “Collectors play a crucial role in preserving these items with their interest. A lot of these items would remain hidden, forgotten, fading away, unknown to the scholars, if there was not a market for them.”

An eBay spokesman, however, said that its 150 million buyers and sellers “must ensure listings comply with our clear policy on artifacts. We work with regulators, law enforcement and other parties including the Egyptian Embassy to apply this policy, and if a listing of concern is identified we will require proof that it was legally exported and remove any listing where this proof is not provided.”

As a specialist who spends his life studying such scrolls, Mr Jones also has concerns for the preservation and conservation of sensitive centuries-old documents when they are handled by traders. He cited then example of the famous papyrus codex of the Gospel of Judas, which published in 2006. It was stored by one of its owners in a safe-deposit box on Long Island for sixteen years, and then placed in a freezer by a potential buyer who thought that was the best way to preserve it. “The results of these decisions were horrifying: the codex crumbled into many hundreds of tiny pieces and what was once a virtually complete codex was now badly deteriorated and difficult to restore,” he said.

The booming trade has clearly revealed to scholars how many papyri have survived down the centuries.
“This prompts the question: just how many ancient manuscripts are sitting in the basements, match boxes, drawers, safes, or shelves of private collectors around the globe?” Mr Jones asked recently.
“It is almost certain that many ancient manuscripts or fragments thereof are just sitting in the dark closets of their collectors, decaying and crumbling to pieces. The public needs to be aware of the importance of the preservation of antiquities, because once they are gone, they are gone forever.”


New research shows that modern human skeletons evolved into their lightly built form only relatively recently—after the start of the Holocene about 12,000 years ago and even more recently in some human populations.

The work, based on high-resolution imaging of bone joints from modern humans and chimpanzees as well as from fossils of extinct human species shows that for millions of years extinct humans had high bone density until a dramatic decrease in recent modern humans. Published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the findings reveal a higher decrease in the density of lower limbs than in that of the upper limbs, suggesting that the transformation may be linked to humans' shift from a foraging lifestyle to a sedentary agricultural one.

Read more at:


Scientists have discovered the oldest recorded stone tool ever to be found in Turkey, revealing that humans passed through the gateway from Asia to Europe much earlier than previously thought, approximately 1.2 million years ago.

According to research published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, the chance find of a humanly-worked quartzite flake, in ancient deposits of the river Gediz, in western Turkey, provides a major new insight into when and how early humans dispersed out of Africa and Asia. Researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, together with an international team from the UK, Turkey and the Netherlands, used high-precision equipment to date the deposits of the ancient river meander, giving the first accurate timeframe for when humans occupied the area.

Professor Danielle Schreve, from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, said: "This discovery is critical for establishing the timing and route of early human dispersal into Europe. Our research suggests that the flake is the earliest securely-dated artefact from Turkey ever recorded and was dropped on the floodplain by an early hominin well over a million years ago."

The researchers used high-precision radioisotopic dating and palaeomagnetic measurements from lava flows, which both pre-date and post-date the meander, to establish that early humans were present in the area between approximately 1.24 million and 1.17 million years ago. Previously, the oldest hominin fossils in western Turkey were recovered in 2007 at Koçabas, but the dating of these and other stone tool finds were uncertain.

"The flake was an incredibly exciting find", Professor Schreve said. "I had been studying the sediments in the meander bend and my eye was drawn to a pinkish stone on the surface. When I turned it over for a better look, the features of a humanly-struck artifact were immediately apparent.

"By working together with geologists and dating specialists, we have been able to put a secure chronology to this find and shed new light on the behaviour of our most distant ancestors."

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


An international collaboration between Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus, the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, and Institut de Recherche sur les Archéomatériaux (IRAMAT) at Orléans, France, has resulted in a striking discovery about the trade routes between Denmark and the ancient civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia in the Bronze Age 3,400 years ago. The discovery also gives us new knowledge about the sun cult in the Nordic Bronze Age.

Archeologists Jeanette Varberg from Moesgaard Museum and Flemming Kaul from the National Museum, and Bernard Gratuze, director of IRAMAT, analyzed the composition of some blue glass beads found on buried Bronze Age women in Denmark. The analyses revealed that the glass originated from the same glass workshops in Egypt that supplied the glass that the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun took with him to his grave in 1323 BCE.

Twenty-three glass beads from Denmark were analyzed using plasma-spectrometry. Without destroying the fragile beads, this technique makes it possible to compare the chemical composition of trace elements in the beads with reference material from Amarna in Egypt and Nippur in Mesopotamia, about 50 km south east of Baghdad in Iraq. The comparison showed that the chemical composition of the two sets of trace elements match.

The archaeologists can now also substantiate that there is a connection between the amber beads and the glass beads. It has been known for a long time that amber was exported in the Bronze Age from Nordic latitudes and southwards. Several Egyptian pharaohs had large amber chains in boxes in their burial chambers. It appears that glass and amber beads have been found together on sites from the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Germany to the Nordic latitudes.

Now the researchers are linking amber and glass together in an unexpected way. One property that both glass and amber have is that sunlight penetrates their surface. The archaeologists believe this could be proof of a link between the Egyptian sun cult and the Nordic sun cult. The old amber route to the countries in the Mediterranean thus now has a counterpart: the glass route to the North. So far, the researchers have shown that there was a trade connection to Egypt and Mesopotamia in the years 1400-1100 BCE. Finding out whether the route continued in the later Bronze Age is a future task for the Danish-French research team.

Edited from Science Nordic (8 December 2014)
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For years, archaeologists have been digging their way through prehistoric layers of Qesem Cave, near the town of Rosh Haayin 12 kilometres east of Tel Aviv (Israel). After 14 years, archaeologists have penetrated about 10 meters below what was the original ceiling. They have found thousands of recycled tools, including bone hammers and reworked flints.

Life in the region dates back at least 1.5 million years, but Professor Barkai says a dramatic change occurred 400,000 years ago, when the elephants that had served as a main food source disappeared. In the quest for survival, the cave dwellers began hunting fallow deer instead of elephants, and cooking the meat. Their ancestors probably ate their elephants raw.

The cave was occupied on and off from about 400,000 to 200,000 years ago. In a patch that once served as a hearth, layers of hardened ash date back 300,000 years. Here the earth is packed with bone fragments, including a horse's jaw with two front teeth. Though sporadic use of fire existed much earlier, Qesem Cave has been established as the site with the earliest evidence of the systematic use of fire for roasting meat on a daily, domestic basis.

On average, 80 deer were needed to make up the food provided by one elephant. The cave dwellers also gathered small fruit and nuts and collected wood for fires. The cave was organized with different areas serving as a kitchen, a workshop, and an area where children appeared to have practiced making flint tools of their own. The hearth also appears to have served as a kind of central campfire.

Professor Barkai said that evidence of some of the same behavior, technologies and methods had been found as far away as Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, and that there must have been communication between the early humans in the region.

Edited from The New York Times (1 December 2014)
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Excavations in Platamonas, Pieria, northern Greece, have unearthed an ancient settlement and burial ground that belongs in the late Bronze Age, around 1500 BCE. The discovery was made in parallel to the construction of the new national highway and was officially announced by archaeologist Sofia Koulidou, head of Pieria's Ephorate of Antiquities.

Archaeologists found 19 graves, some of them containing several objects such as Mycenaean style clay pots, bronze hoops, bone beads, bronze knives, clay flywheels, engraved stones and others. Some of the graves were very small and probably belong to children.

The remains of two arched buildings were also discovered, as suggested by the surrounding walls and the holes where the support beams used to be. The buildings were next to each other and it appears that there was a settlement next to the burial ground. The discovery of various household objects reinforces the archaeologists' assumption.

Archaeologists say that this type of rectangular, oblong, arched building belongs to the middle Bronze Age, early 2000 BCE, and are rare in the particular area. The Mycaenean style objects suggest that the settlement was part of the Thessaly-Euobea cultural circle. The first arch, along with the outbuilding, will be transferred to be highlighted in the Livithra Archaeological Park on east Mount Olympus.

Edited from Greek Reporter (13 December 2014)
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Recently research results were published by Griffith University (Australia) documenting the discovery of rock art in Sulawesi (Indonesia), dated at approximately 35,000 to 40,000 years old. At the time it was thought that rock art of this antiquity was rare, if not unique.

Now further research by Griffith University, led by Rock Art Professor Paul Tacon, has revealed that it was not unique at all and was in fact widespread across Southeast Asia. This type of rock art mainly comprises simple animal images and hand stencils. The team used various techniques to date their findings, including numerical dating and analysis & comparison of various styles.

Professor Tacon is quoted as saying "As with the early art of Europe, the oldest Southeast Asian images often incorporated, or were placed in relation to, natural features of rock surfaces. This shows a purposeful engagement with the new places early peoples arrived in for both symbolic and practical reasons. Essentially they humanized landscapes wherever they went, transforming them from wild places to cultural landscapes. This was the beginning of a process that continues to this day".

Edited from Griffith University PR (26 November 2014)
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Thrissur is currently the third largest populated city in Kerala (India) and is known as the Cultural Capital of the region. Megalithic dolmens were quite prevalent in the area, dating from between 1,000 BCE and 500 CE. These ranged in size and type from menhirs to Mushroom stones and Umbrella stones.

Despite being declared as protected monuments they have been under severe threat due to quarrying permits being granted in the forested areas where they are found. These Forest 'pattayam' (title deeds) are increasingly being used to allow widespread indiscriminate quarrying and these activities have resulted in only one of the eleven dolmens in the area remaining intact. A group called the Muniyattukunnu Protection Forum are lobbying the Kerala authorities to put a stop to what it is referring to as violations of the protected monument status of the area.

Edited from The Hindu (10 December 2014)
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Friday, December 12, 2014


ERBIL, IRAQ — The so-called Islamic State’s “cultural cleansing” of minority groups uprooted from their northern Iraq homelands has led to fears that entire cultures from the cradle of civilization are under the biggest threat in recorded history, the United Nation’s top cultural official warns.

“It can be compared to the Nazi methods, and here I think it goes all across the board,” says Irina Bokova, director general of the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “Either they conform to their views of religion or belief or they have to disappear. I don’t remember anything like that in contemporary history.”

She says Interpol and antiquities authorities are taking steps to halt a lucrative trade in the smuggled artifacts of these ancient civilizations, which the Islamic State (IS) uses to help fund its operations.

“We know there is looting of many of the monuments," she says. "We have seen some of this happening. Maybe there is also others and that is why we are very much focusing on the curb of trafficking of illegal objects from Iraq."

Some officials estimate that IS derives income from the sale of more than $200 million a year in looted antiquities. The UNESCO director general thinks it could be even more.

Bokova says UNESCO has asked the UN Security Council for new controls on the sale of antiquities, similar to those imposed after the 2003 war in Iraq when there was widespread looting of museums and ongoing looting of archaeological sites. The UN agency is working with the international law enforcement organization Interpol, national customs authorities, museums, and major auction houses to try to stop looted items from being sold.

“For the first time you have cultural cleansing,” says Saad Eskander, head of Iraq’s national archives. “For the Yazidis, religion is oral, nothing is written. By destroying their places of worship … you are killing cultural memory. It is the same with the Christians – it really is a threat beyond belief.” The Yazidis, one of Iraq’s oldest religious minorities, were driven out of their lands in the north of Iraq as IS militants killed men and enslaved women from the secretive religion.

The towns in the Nineveh plains between Mosul and the Kurdish region of northern Iraq are also home to some of the earliest Christian communities – some built around the shrines of prophets. Christian leaders say the IS takeover of Mosul marks the first time in 1,600 years that there has been no mass held in the city.

“I think it’s a tragedy,” says Bokova. “This cradle of civilization that has contributed so much to all of humanity – there have been conflicts, there have been invasions, empires disappearing – and still that cultural diversity was kept into the 21st century. To see this disappearing, I think, is a tragedy for all of us.”