Sunday, February 21, 2016


In total, the surviving section of the artwork measures 8 feet across and 5 feet high. It may have decorated the reception room of a wealthy person’s home. Nearly 20 feet (6 meters) below the streets of London, archaeologists discovered this fragile Roman painting featuring deer and birds.

Excavators from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) were carefully digging for Roman artifacts at 21 Lime Street, near Leadenhall Market in central London, ahead of the construction of an office building at the site.
They say the newly uncovered fresco was discovered facedown in the soil. The painted wall was likely toppled and sealed underground around A.D. 100, when Roman builders flattened the area to make way for construction of the civic center for the city, the forum basilica.

Paintings are far more fragile than stone and metal artifacts, so not many ancient wall murals survive intact in the archaeological record. There are famous examples from Pompeii, the city that was preserved in volcanic ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. But in London, complete paintings are much more scarce, though fragments of Roman wall plaster have been found before, MOLA archaeologists said. The newfound fresco, its painted surface just a millimeter thick, may be one of the oldest artworks of its kind to survive from the time of Roman Britain, they added.

At the construction site on Lime Street, the painted plaster was lifted from the ground in 16 sections, still encased in dirt. Only after a “microexcavation” in a lab were the archaeologists able to see what the surviving section of the painting looked like: It had red panels on the sides and at the center, there were green and black vertical panels with deer reaching their necks up to nibble attrees above a set of blue-green birds and a vine woven around a candle holder.What’s left of the fresco measures about 8 feet (2.5m) across and 5 feet (1.5 m) high.

“This was a really challenging but rewarding conservation project,” Liz Goodman, an archaeological conservator for MOLA, said in a statement. “We were up against the clock working on this huge and fragile fresco but it was a joy to uncover the decorative plaster that hadn’t been seen for nearly 2,000 years.”

The researchers are still studying the painting and the archaeological records from the site to get a better idea of what life was like in this section of the city during the Roman period, but they said the painting most likely adorned the wall of a reception room of a private home where guests were entertained.


Cultural destruction has always been a part of warfare. Nazi Germany’s attempt to remodel Europe according to its own worldview was not limited to invasion and mass atrocities: hundreds and thousands of books, works of art and other cultural relics were destroyed or looted.

Today is no different. From Mali to Syria, heritage sites are being razed to the ground. Even by historical standards, though, the actions of ISIS have left many shocked: “In Iraq, they’ve gone on a rampage of destruction not seen since the Mongol’s sacking of Baghdad in 1258,” CNN reported as ISIS ran bulldozers through Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra.

The Antiquities Coalition has also put together a collection of “before and after” photos that reveal the damage inflicted across the Middle East by terrorist organizations. In Syria alone, six UNESCO World Heritage sites have been damaged and destroyed since the start of the civil war.

But when thousands of people are being killed, enslaved, raped or forced to flee, some might question whether the protection of buildings and archaeological sites is really a priority.

For Irina Bokova, head of UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural arm, it’s not the buildings themselves that matter: it’s what they represent. “The destruction of culture has become an instrument of terror, in a global strategy to undermine societies, propagate intolerance and erase memories. This cultural cleansing is a war crime that is now used as a tactic of war, to tear humanity from the history it shares,” she wrote on this blog back in January. “This is why the protection of culture must be an integral part of all humanitarian and security efforts, and cannot be delinked from the protection of human lives and the support we owe to all the victims.”


Israeli archaeologists have discovered evidence of a 7,000-year-old human settlement in northern Jerusalem in a dig conducted in the Shaft neighborhood. The dig was organized and funded by the Moriah Jerusalem Development Corporation.

Remnants discovered from what archaeologists have said is the Chalcolithic period include buildings, pottery, flint tools, and a basalt bowl. That period in early human history is known for being the first time that humans used copper tools.

“Remains from the Chalcolithic period have been found in the Negev, the coastal plain, the Galilee, and the Golan, but they have been almost completely absent in the Judean Hills and in Jerusalem,” explained Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) Prehistory Branch Chairman Dr. Omri Barzilai.

“We also recovered a few bones of sheep, goat, and possibly cattle,” said IAA Excavations Director Ronit Lupo. “These will be analyzed further in the Israel Antiquities Authority laboratories, permitting us to recreate the dietary habits of the people who lived here 7,000 years ago and enhancing our understanding of the settlement’s economy.”

Lupo added, “Besides for the pottery, the fascinating finds attest to the livelihood of the local population in prehistoric times—small sickle blades for harvesting cereal crops, chisels and polished axes for building,borers, awls, and even a bead made of carnelian (a gemstone), indicating that jewelry was either made or imported.”


The site, named NEG II, is located in Wadi Ein-Gev, west of the Sea of Galilee and south of the Golan Heights town of Katzrin, and is estimated to cover an area of roughly 1,200 square meters (three acres).

In a series of excavations, archaeologists found numerous artifacts pointing to a vast human settlement including burial remains, flint tools, art manifestations, faunal assemblage and stone and bone tools. While other sites from the same period have been unearthed in the area, the Institute of Archaeology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem said that NEG II was unique in that it contains cultural characteristics typical of both the Old Stone Age — known as the Paleolithic period — and the New Stone Age, known as the Neolithic period.

“Although attributes of the stone tool kit found at NEG II place the site chronologically in the Paleolithic period, other characteristics – such as its artistic tradition, size, thickness of archaeological deposits and investment in architecture – are more typical of early agricultural communities in the Neolithic period,” said chief excavator Dr. Leore Grosman. “Characterizing this important period of potential overlap in the Jordan Valley is crucial for the understanding of the socioeconomic processes that marked the shift from Paleolithic mobile societies of hunter-gatherers to Neolithic agricultural communities,” she added.

According to Grosman, NEG II was likely occupied in the midst of the cold and dry global climatic event known as the Younger Dryas, when temperatures declined sharply over most of the northern hemisphere around 12,900–11,600 years ago. Affected by climatic changes, groups in the area became increasingly mobile and potentially smaller in size, she said. NEG II, however, shows that some groups in the Jordan Valley may have become larger in size and preferred town-like settlements to a nomadic existence.

Researchers said this shift in settlement pattern could be related to climate conditions that provided the ingredients necessary for prehistoric man to take the final steps toward agriculture in the southern Levant. "It is not surprising that at a number of sites in the Jordan Valley we find a cultural entity that bridges the crossroads between Late Paleolithic foragers and Neolithic farmers,” Grosman said.


In 1997, scientists found the first scrap of Neanderthal DNA in a fossil. Since then, they have recovered genetic material, even entire genomes, from a number of Neanderthal bones, and their investigations have yielded a remarkable surprise: Today, 1 to 2 percent of the DNA in non-African people comes from Neanderthals.

That genetic legacy is the result of interbreeding roughly 50,000 years ago between Neanderthals and the common ancestors of Europeans and Asians. Recent studies suggest that Neanderthal genes even influence human health today, contributing to conditions from allergies to depression.

Now scientists have found that the genes flowed both ways. In a study published on Wednesday in Nature, a team of scientists reports that another instance of interbreeding left Neanderthals in Siberia with chunks of human DNA. This exchange, the scientists conclude, took place about 100,000 years ago. That’s a puzzling date, because a great deal of evidence indicates that the ancestors of today’s non-Africans did not expand out of Africa until 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. It’s possible, then, that these Neanderthals acquired DNA from a mysterious early migration of humans.


Early humans may have had romantic rendezvous with Neanderthals much earlier than previously thought. While scientists have long known that some ancient humans intermingled with our stocky cousins, a new study suggests that the relations could have started tens of thousands of years earlier than previously suggested.

Genomic analysis of a Siberian Neanderthal women discovered in the Altai mountains revealed bits of modern human DNA, Will Dunham reports for Reuters, which scientists traced back to hominid trists roughly 100,000 years ago.

In 2010, scientists discovered strands of Neanderthal DNA still lingering in modern Europeans and Asians—as much as one to two percent, reports Carl Zimmer for The New York Times. This genetic mark is a remnant of the ancient European and Asian ancestors who journeyed out of Africa into Neanderthal territory around 50,000 to 65,000 years ago.

But the latest study, published in the journal Nature, identifies a much older period of hominid coupling and DNA exchange, reports Colin Barras for New Scientist. Since Neanderthals never made it to Africa, it may represent an early wave of human explorers.

Read more:


Fossils of Homo floresiensis—dubbed "the hobbits" due to their tiny stature—were discovered on the island of Flores in 2003 have been controversial ever since their discovery as to whether they are an unknown branch of early humans or specimens of modern man deformed by disease.

The new study, based on an analysis of the skull bones, shows once and for all that the pint-sized people were not Homo sapiens, according to the researchers.

Until now, academic studies have pointing in one direction or another—and scientific discourse has sometimes tipped over into acrimony. One school of thought holds that so-called Flores Man descended from the larger Homo erectus and became smaller over hundreds of generations.

An adult hobbit stood a meter (three feet) tall, and weighed about 25 kilos (55 pounds). Similarly, Flores Island was also home to a miniature race of extinct, elephant-like creatures called Stegodon.

But other researchers argue that H. floresiensis was in fact a modern human whose tiny size and small brain—no bigger than a grapefruit—was caused by a genetic disorder. One suspect was dwarf cretinism, sometimes brought on by a lack of iodine. Another potential culprit was microcephaly, which shrivels not just the brain and its boney envelope.

Weighing in with a new approach, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, a pair of scientists in France used high-tech tools to re-examine the layers of the "hobbit" skull.

Read more at:


Excavations at site 80 kilometers northwest of London revealed a complex, multi-period archaeological landscape with significant remains dating to the Neolithic, Iron Age, Roman, and Saxon periods. The most unexpected discovery was a causewayed enclosure - one of only 80 or so such monuments known in the country.

Causewayed enclosures are of great significance in the Neolithic period, and represent the earliest known enclosure of open space. They vary greatly in form, but are characterized by their perimeter earthworks - ditches and banks constructed in short lengths, separated by undisturbed ground. The enclosures do not appear to have been permanently occupied, and were probably places where dispersed groups periodically gathered for a range of activities.

The newly discovered site has three roughly concentric ditches enclosing an area of high ground overlooking the valley of the River Thames. A small Neolithic henge monument was later constructed within the causewayed enclosure. A second, smaller ring-ditch close to the henge may also be of later Neolithic date.

During the Bronze Age, the site saw no activity which left a mark in the archaeological record, however it is possible the site continued to play an important role in the lives of local communities.

Not until the early Iron Age was a settlement built on the site - mostly on lower ground, away from the causewayed enclosure. The remains of a substantial enclosure, roundhouses, clusters of pits, and a number of granaries date to this period.

During the Roman occupation, a number of trackways were built leading to the higher ground occupied by the causewayed enclosure. A series of enclosures were constructed off the trackways and these were adapted and modified throughout the Roman period. Within the enclosures, at least six corn-drying ovens and a number of circular ovens and hearths were built. It is likely the site was then an important centre for processing agricultural produce from the surrounding area.

Following the end of the Roman period, the site was once again settled. The town of Thame is known to have been founded in the Saxon period, and it is likely the site was part of this settlement. The remains of eleven sunken-featured buildings were found, dating to the 6th to 7th century CE. Characteristic of the Saxon period, these were roughly rectangular pits dug into the ground, with a post at either end supporting a simple roof. It is thought they were workshops. Many contained objects associated with weaving, such as loom weights, bone pins and spindle whorls.

Edited from Cotswold Archaeology (October 2015)
[11 images]


Teeth from a cave in Hunan Province, southeastern China, show that Homo sapiens reached there around 100,000 years ago, a time when most current researchers thought our species had not moved far beyond Africa. Recent
excavations of an extensive cave system in Daoxian County discovered 47 human teeth, as well as the remains of hyenas, extinct giant pandas, and dozens of other animal species, but no stone tools; it is likely that humans never lived in the cave.

Maria Martinon-Torres, a palaeo-anthropologist at University College London who co-led the study, says the overall shape of the teeth is barely distinguishable from those of both ancient and present-day humans. The team dated various calcite deposits in the cave, and used the assortment of animal remains to deduce that the human teeth were probably between 80,000 and 120,000 years old.

Those ages challenge the conventional wisdom that Homo sapiens from Africa began colonizing the world only around 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. Older traces of modern humans have been seen outside Africa, such as the roughly 100,000-year-old remains from caves in Israel, but many had argued those remains are from an unsuccessful migration.

Without DNA from the teeth, it is impossible to determine the relationship between the Daoxian people and other humans, including present-day Asians, but Jean-Jacques Hublin, a palaeo-anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, thinks that later waves of humans replaced them. Other genetic evidence suggests that present-day East Asians descend from humans who interbred with Neanderthals in western Asia some 55,000 to 60,000 years ago.

It is not clear why modern humans would have reached East Asia so long before they reached Europe, where the earliest remains are about 45,000 years old. Martinon-Torres suggests that humans could not gain a foothold in Europe until Neanderthals there were teetering on extinction. The frigid climate of Ice Age Europe may have been another barrier.

Hublin says that although the Daoxian teeth may be older than 80,000 years, several of the teeth have visible cavities, a feature uncommon in human teeth older than 50,000 years. "It could be that early modern humans had a peculiar diet in tropical Asia," he says. "But I am pretty sure that this observation will raise some eyebrows." Martinon-Torres says her team plans to look more closely at the cavities and the diet of the Daoxian humans by examining patterns of tooth wear.

Edited from Nature (14 October 2015)
[2 images, 1 map, podcast link]