Friday, December 18, 2015

One of the most mysterious structures in the Middle East is easy to miss. The prehistoric stone monument went unnoticed for centuries in a bare expanse of field on the Golan Heights. After Israel captured the territory from Syria in a 1967 war, archaeologists studying an aerial survey spotted a pattern of stone circles not visible from the ground. Subsequent excavations revealed it was one of the oldest and largest structures in the region.

Known as Rujm el-Hiri in Arabic, meaning the 'stone heap of the wild cat', the complex has five concentric circles, the largest more than 500 feet (152 m) wide, and a massive burial chamber in the middle. Its Hebrew name Gilgal Refaim, or 'wheel of giants', refers to an ancient race of giants mentioned in the Bible.

The monument is up to 5,000 years old, according to most estimates, and is made of piles of thousands of smaller basalt rocks that together weigh over 40,000 tons. "It's an enigmatic site. We have bits of information, but not the whole picture," said Uri Berger, an expert on megalithic tombs with the Israel Antiquities Authority. No one knows who built it, Berger said. Some think it might have been a nomadic civilization that settled the area, but it would have required a tremendous support network that itinerants might not have had. There could be an astrological significance. On the shortest and longest days of the year the sunrise lines up with openings in the rocks, he said.

Shards of pottery and flint tools were found in various excavations to help date the site, Berger said. Scholars generally agree that construction started as early as 3,500 BCE and other parts may have been added to over the next two thousand years. The complex is in an area now used for training by Israel's military, but visitors can explore the walls and crawl into the 20-foot-long burial chamber on weekends and holidays.

Edited from Reuter, Yahoo! News (11 November 2015)
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Monday, December 14, 2015


Dr Liu Wu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his international team have announced the discovery of human teeth between 80,000 and 120,000 years old from the newly excavated Fuyan Cave in Daoxian, southern China - by far the earliest evidence of fully modern humans outside Africa.

The cave is part of a large system of several connected and stacked caves, covering an area of more than 3,000 square meters. Excavations have yielded 47 human teeth and abundant mammalian fossils. The hominin and most of the animal elements consist exclusively of teeth. The mammalian fossils are typical of Late Pleistocene in southern China - 38 species including 5 extinct large mammals. The 47 human teeth came from at least 13 individuals.

The Daoxian teeth are generally smaller than other Late Pleistocene specimens from Africa and Asia, and closer to European Late Pleistocene samples and contemporary modern humans. "Our data fill a chronological and geographical gap that is relevant for understanding when Homo sapiens first appeared in southern Asia. The Daoxian teeth also support the hypothesis that during the same period, southern China was inhabited by more derived populations than central and northern China. This evidence is important for the study of dispersal routes of modern humans", says Liu Wu.

Although fully modern humans were already present in southern China at least as early as 80,000 years ago, there is no evidence that they entered Europe before 45,000 years ago. "Our species made it to southern China tens of thousands of years before colonizing Europe perhaps because of the entrenched presence of our hardy cousins, the Neanderthals, in Europe and the harsh, cold European climate", said Martinon-Torres of University College London, co-lead author of the study.

Edited from PhysOrg (25 November 2015)
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The Cosquer Cave (near Marseille, France) was discovered in 1985 by scuba diver Henri Cosquer, but its paintings were not mentioned until 1991. Formerly several kilometers from the shore in an area of limestone hills, the cave's original entrance is now about 35 meters below sea level. From there, a gallery slopes upwards for about 110 meters, reaching a huge chamber that partly remained above the sea and where many prehistoric paintings and engravings are preserved, as well as charcoal from fires and torches, and a few flint tools. This is the only painted cave in the world with an entrance below present-day sea level where cave art has been preserved from rising sea levels following the last ice age.

Located in an area where no Palaeolithic art had ever been discovered, Cosquer's remaining riches highlight the disappearance of uncounted prehistoric caves all along the Mediterranean and other shores. Cosquer is among the few caves where more than 150 animal figures have been found. There are representations of many sea animals, and unusually numerous ibex and chamois. Known hand stencils now total 65, the third highest concentration in Europe.

Superimpositions of figures reveal two main phases in the art, the earlier one including the hand stencils and finger tracings, with most of the animal paintings and engravings belonging to the later phase. This was confirmed by radiocarbon dating, with dates mostly clustering around 19,000 BP and 27,000 BP.

In the summers of 2002 and 2003, all the drawings were measured, sketched, precisely located, and the characteristics of their surroundings recorded, correcting many earlier errors and discovering a number of additional images.

The total of animal figures is now 177, of 11 different species - 2 more species than Lascaux, and only 3 fewer than Chauvet. The 11 are horse, bison, aurochs, ibex, chamois, saiga antelope, red deer, megaloceros deer, feline, auk, and seal. There is one human with a seal's head, 65 hand stencils, 216 geometric signs, 20 unidentified animal figures, 3 composite animals, and other figures. In addition to a phallus, other male and female sexual symbols were found, including natural hollows on the walls marked with black, representing female sexual organs. Handprints of children have been observed 2+1/2 meters or more from the ground in even the deepest parts of the cave.

All accessible parts of the cave which where the sea did not reach are covered with engravings, finger flutings and drawings. No artwork survives in the 75 to 80% which is now under water, but Cosquer was once one of the most important cave art sites in Europe, comparable to Lascaux, Trois-Freres, Altamira, or Chauvet. There could originally have been 400 to 800 animal figures in the cave.

Edited from Bradshaw Foundation
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As author of Stonehenge with Caroline Malone I'm always fascinated with new discoveries about Stonehenge!

It has long been known that the bluestones that form Stonehenge's inner horseshoe came from the Preseli hills in Pembrokeshire (Wales), around 140 miles from Salisbury Plain. Now archaeologists have discovered a series of recesses in the rocky outcrops of Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-felin, to the north of those hills, that match Stonehenge's bluestones in size and shape. They have also found similar stones that the prehistoric builders extracted but left behind, and 'a loading bay' from where the huge stones could be dragged away.

Prof Mike Parker Pearson, director of the project and professor of British later prehistory at University College London, said the finds were 'amazing'. "We have dates of around 3400 BCE for Craig Rhos-y-felin and 3200 BCE for Carn Goedog, which is intriguing because the bluestones didn't get put up at Stonehenge until around 2900 BCE" he said. "It could have taken those Neolithic stone-draggers nearly 500 years to get them to Stonehenge, but that's pretty improbable in my view. It's more likely that the stones were first used in a local monument, somewhere near the quarries, that was then dismantled and dragged off to Wiltshire."

The dating evidence suggests that Stonehenge could be older than previously thought, Parker Pearson said. "But we think it's more likely that they were building their own monument [in Wales], that somewhere near the quarries there is the first Stonehenge and that what we're seeing at Stonehenge is a second-hand monument." There is also the possibility that the stones were taken to Salisbury Plain around 3200 BCE and that the giant sarsens - silicified sandstone found within 20 miles of the site - were added much later.

Speaking of the quarry in Wales, Parker Pearson said: "It's the Ikea of Neolithic monument building. The nice thing about these particular outcrops is that the rock has formed 480m years ago as pillars. So prehistoric people don't have to go in there and bash away... All they have to do is get wedges into the cracks. You wet the wedge, it swells and the stone pops off the rock."

Prof Kate Welham, of Bournemouth University, said the ruins of a dismantled monument were likely to lie between the two megalith quarries. "We've been conducting geophysical surveys, trial excavations and aerial photographic analysis throughout the area and we think we have the most likely spot. The results are very promising. We may find something big in 2016," she said.

Edited from The Guardian (7 December 2015)
[1 video, 1 image]9 December 2015


In very poor weather on Monday 7th December, four archaeologists ventured out to examine an eroding cairn on one of the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland. What appeared to be the top of a substantial cairn of stones, and a circular spread of stones nearby, led to the unexpected find of a large number of plough points, stone mattocks, stone bars, hammer-stones and stone flaked knives, as well as sections of stone walls and uprights which were clearly once part of a Bronze Age house. Immediately another was seen just a few meters away, also covered with a mass of tools.

Walking along the sand, further Bronze Age features were found.

The houses are visible as differently shaped spreads of stones - 14 structures distributed over a kilometer, emerging from beneath massive sand-dunes formed in the second millennium BCE. An entire Bronze Age landscape, comprising both house structures and working areas. Professor Jane Downes, of the University of the Highlands and Islands, who specializes in the Bronze Age was stunned by the extent of the settlement area. "This must be one of the biggest complexes of Bronze Age settlement in the Scottish isles, rivaling the spreads of hut circles in other parts of mainland Scotland", she exclaimed.

The Bronze Age is probably the least understood period in Orcadian prehistory, and the vast quantity of plough points testifies to the dominance of arable agriculture at this time. It also confirms the strange practice of depositing numerous tools in houses after they were 'decommissioned'. Similar Bronze Age houses have recently been excavated on another of the islands, however the scale of this latest discovery is unparalleled in Orkney.

Professor Colin Richards of Manchester University, another of the group of discoverers, notes that "after a long history of excavating the large late Neolithic settlements or 'villages', most recently the Ness of Brodgar and Links of Noltland, we now possess a detailed understanding of Neolithic life in Orkney, but what happens in the following Bronze Age period is a bit of a mystery".

Edited from Archaeology Orkney (8 December 2015)
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Archaeologists say they have proven for the first time that Julius Caesar set foot on what is now Dutch soil, destroying two Germanic tribes in a battle which left around 150,000 people dead. The two tribes were massacred in the fighting with the Roman emperor in 55 BC, on a battle site now at Kessel, in the southern province of Brabant. A wealth of skeletons, spearheads, swords and a helmet have been dug up at the site over the past three decades.

But now carbon dating as well as other historical and geo-chemical analysis had helped to prove they dated back to the 1st century BC, the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam said in a statement. "It is the first time that the presence of Caesar and his troops on Dutch soil has been explicitly shown," said archaeologist Nico Roymans.

The two tribes, the Tencteri and the Usipetes, had originally come from an area east of the Rhine and had asked Caesar for asylum. But Caesar refused and ordered his eight legions and calvary to destroy them, the Amsterdam university said.
The Roman emperor had written about the battle in his firsthand account of the Gallic wars, "De Bello Gallico", but the exact location had remained a mystery until now.


Taken from Syria and Iraq, some items are believed to stay within the Middle East, others travel to east Asia and Europe, and some treasures have also shown up in the U.S. Without an expert eye, the goods often pass right through security checks.

The multimillion-dollar antiquities black market in the United States is helping fund the terrorist group Islamic State, experts said on Wednesday, noting that whatever the group doesn't destroy in Syria and Iraq, it sells for a hefty profit.
Consequently, some people may not realize that they could be inadvertently helping the Sunni radical Islamist organization.

"They're benefiting not only from the sale but also from the trade itself," said Deborah Lehr, chair and co-founder of Washington-based Antiquities Coalition, which is formed by a group of worldwide experts fighting the illegal trade of antiquities by terrorist groups like ISIS.


Since the golden burial mask of King Tutankhamun was unearthed nearly a century ago, visitors from around the world have flocked to the Egyptian museum to view the famed relic. An icon of ancient Egypt, it has become one of the world's most famous works of art.

So in August 2014, when the beard attached to the 3,300-year-old mask was knocked off while being returned to its display case after workers replaced a burned out light, panic set. In a hasty attempt in the early morning hours, workers glued the beard back on with insoluble epoxy resin. That proved to be a major error.

"They did not attach it in its original position, the beard was slightly bent to the left side," Christian Eckmann, the archaeologist tasked with restoring the artifact, said in an interview in the garden of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
"They also put some glue onto the chin and beard, so it was visible. It was not adequately done, and then in January 2015 the press found out, and the whole case was a scandal somehow," Eckmann explains. He is a renowned restorer from the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum Archaeological research institute in Mainz.

It was feared irreversible damage to Egypt's prized artifact had been done, but Eckmann was called in and said it could be fixed. Now, as he and a German-Egyptian team of specialists work to repair the mask, what could have been a disaster has turned into an unparalleled opportunity to carry out an extensive study of the mask that could help unlock some of ancient Egypt's oldest mysteries.

When Howard Carter discovered the mask in 1922, the beard was already broken "The beard didn't break, it was already broken when Howard Carter found the mask," said Eckmann, taking a break from his workshop inside Cairo's Egyptian Museum. "After excavation, when they brought the mask to the museum, they never reattached the beard until 1946."


Islamic State fighters have reportedly taken over the ancient Roman city of Sabratha in western Libya, raising concerns that the jihadist group may destroy the remnants of another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Members of the radical Islamist group were said to take over the coastal city, home to about 100,000 people and the ruins of a second and third century CE Roman city, Libyan Arabic news sources has reported.

Sabratha was a Phoenician trading post, like its more famous neighbor Carthage. The UN recognized it as a World Heritage site in 1982. It features some of the best preserved remains of ancient temples and churches, mosaics and baths, but most impressive is the Roman theater, with a wonderfully preserved three-story backdrop.

The English-language Libya Herald reported, however, that it wasn’t clear whether the troops that entered the archaeological site were Islamic State or Ansar al-Sharia. It says checkpoints and 30 vehicles with blacks appeared in the city after police arrested two men, one of whom was related to a member of the Islamic State.


Why the FLAT face? Our delicate features are an 'oddity' caused by a loss of bone. Scientists examined the skulls of several Neanderthals and early humans. They found by the age of five Neanderthals had considerable bone growth. Modern humans, by comparison, tend to reabsorb a lot of bone after birth. This gives Homo sapiens far flatter and more delicate facial features.