Monday, September 11, 2017


Analysis of a skeleton found in the Chan Hol cave near Tulum, Mexico suggests human settlement in the Americas occurred in the late Pleistocene era.

Scientists have long debated about when humans first settled in the Americas. While osteological evidence of early settlers is fragmentary, researchers have previously discovered and dated well-preserved prehistoric human skeletons in caves in Tulum in Southern Mexico.

To learn more about America's early settlers, Stinnesbeck and colleagues examined human skeletal remains found in the Chan Hol cave near Tulum. The researchers dated the skeleton by analyzing the Uranium, Carbon and Oxygen isotopes found in its bones and in the stalagmite which had grown through its pelvic bone.

The researchers' isotopic analysis dated the skeleton to approximately 13,000 years before present. This finding suggests that the Chan Hol cave was accessed during the late Pleistocene, providing one of oldest examples of a human settler in the Americas. While the researchers acknowledge that changes in climate over time may have influenced the dating of the skeleton, future research could potentially disentangle how climate impacted the Chan Hol archaeological record.

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Near Mancos, Colorado, on the site of a former auto-repair shop here, broken stone walls mark the site of a 900-year-old village that may yield new insights into an ancient desert culture. The ruins are what remains of two “great houses” — apartment buildings, essentially — that formed a northern outpost of a civilization based at Chaco Canyon, about 100 miles away in northwestern New Mexico.

Archaeologists from the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, in nearby Cortez, have just begun the first systematic excavation of this site in an effort to learn how its residents lived in the early 1100s, and how they related to the wider Chaco culture. In particular, the Northern Chaco Outliers Project aims to determine when the village was occupied, how many people lived there, and whether they did so during an extended drought of 1130-1180, which may have accelerated a northward movement of people from Chaco.

The project is the first in many years to systematically excavate any of about 250 great houses that were built in the region known as Four Corners, said John Kantner, an archaeologist at the University of North Florida. “We have so little understanding of the role of great houses and the relationship between others and Chaco Canyon itself,” said Dr. Kantner, who excavated Blue J, another Chaco-related site in New Mexico.

The project here has the potential to “fill in the gaps about the outlying great houses,” he said.


Archaeologists are likening the discovery to winning the lottery. A Roman cavalry barracks has been unearthed near Hadrian’s Wall, complete with extraordinary military and personal possessions left behind by soldiers and their families almost 2,000 years ago. A treasure trove of thousands of artifacts dating from the early second century has been excavated over the past fortnight. The find is significant not just because of its size and pristine state, but also for its contribution to the history of Hadrian’s Wall, showing the military build-up that led to its construction in AD122. The barracks pre-dates the wall: the Romans already had a huge military presence in the area, keeping the local population under control.

“The native Britons took an opportunity, when the emperor Trajan died in AD117, to rebel,” says Andrew Birley, who heads the archaeological team. “The soldiers stationed in the north before the wall was built became involved in fighting and were very vulnerable. The evidence we have from this [find] shows the incredibly rich and diverse lifestyle these people had.”

Archaeologists stumbled on the site by chance and have been taken aback by finds in a remarkable state of preservation. These include two extremely rare cavalry swords – one of them complete, still with its wooden scabbard, hilt and pommel – and two wooden toy swords. One has a gemstone in its pommel. As well as other weapons, including cavalry lances, arrowheads and ballista bolts – all left behind on the floors – there are combs, bath clogs, shoes, stylus pens, hairpins and brooches. Sections of beautifully woven cloth have also been unearthed. They may have come from garments and have yet to be tested.

There are also two wooden tablets covered in marks made in black ink. They are thought to be letters, but their contents have yet to be deciphered as they were rushed into a conservation laboratory to ensure their survival.

The barracks, that dates from AD105, was found beneath the fourth-century stone fort of Vindolanda, south of Hadrian’s Wall near Hexham, Northumberland. It is one of the site’s earliest barracks. Hadrian did not begin his 73-mile defensive barrier – to guard the north-western frontier of the province of Britain from invaders – until 122.

The artifacts survived because they were concealed beneath a concrete floor laid by the Romans about 30 years after the barracks was abandoned, shortly before 120. The concrete created oxygen-free conditions that helped preserve materials such as wood, leather and textiles, which would otherwise have rotted away. There is a huge range of stuff – their hair combs, pots, wooden spoons, bowls, weapons, bits of armor, and their cavalry bling.

“Even for us, it’s very unusual to get things like complete Roman swords, sitting on the ground in their scabbards with their handles and their pommels. We were slightly dumbfounded by that. Then, to find another complete sword in another room next door only two meters away, two wooden swords and a host of other cavalry equipment, all in beautiful condition, is just terrific. “Archaeologists would never expect to find a Roman cavalry sword in any context, because it’s like a modern-day soldier leaving his barracks and dumping his rifle on the floor … This is a very expensive thing. So why leave [it] behind?”

He recalled feeling “quite emotional” over the discovery: “You can work as an archaeologist your entire life on Roman military sites and never expect, or imagine, seeing such a rare thing, even at Vindolanda. It felt like the team winning a form of archaeological lottery, and we knew we had something very rare and special before us.”

Hidden in this soil, they went on to find, were the timber walls and floors, fences, pots and animal bones from the abandoned barracks. To their astonishment, excavating about 3.5 meters down, they uncovered eight rooms, with stables for horses, and living accommodation, with ovens and fireplaces. They believe that the base was home to more than 1,000 soldiers and probably many thousands more dependants, including slaves. The Romans had covered over this early barracks with concrete and heavy clay foundations before building another above it. At Vindolanda, garrisons would arrive, build their forts and destroy them when leaving.

Cavalry swords are very rare, even across the north-west provinces of the Roman empire, he said, partly because they are so thin. “They’re very light, a couple of feet long, designed to slash somebody as you’re riding past, with a wickedly sharp blade and a point.”
Other finds include copper alloy cavalry fitments for saddles, strap junctions and harnesses. They are in such fine condition that they still shine and are almost completely free of corrosion. The strap junctions are preserved so beautifully, he said, that they have all their alloy links – incredibly rare survivals. Much of the pottery has graffiti, from which the archaeologists hope to work out the names and stories of some of the people who lived here.

Quite why so much valuable material was left behind has yet to be discovered. One theory is that the barracks was abandoned in a hurry. Birley said: “There was strife. This is the precursor to Hadrian coming to the UK to build his wall. This is the British rebellion. So you can imagine a scenario where the guys and girls at Vindolanda are told: ‘We need to leave in a hurry, just take what you can carry.’ If it’s your sword or your child, you grab the child.”


In February 2017, Stiebel headed the first excavations atop Masada in over a decade. He and his team broke ground at some previously untouched areas of the site, including an untouched section of Herod’s fresco and mosaic-bedecked northern palace in search of its garden, a collapsed cave believed to possibly house rare scrolls, the Byzantine monastery, and open areas of the plateau once used for agriculture.

Cutting-edge archaeological techniques helped glean a more detailed picture of the past that would have been impossible during Yadin’s time. The picture emerging from these new data about Masada’s inhabitants is far more complex than previously assumed. “It’s not one monolithic group,” Stiebel explained, describing the people living at Masada before its fall as a “very vibrant community of 50 shades of gray” of Judea.

“We have the opportunity to truly see the people, and this is very rare for an archaeologist,” he said. Among them are women and children, who are too often underrepresented in the archaeological record. Through archaeology, the study of the material culture found on Masada, architecture and a restudying of Josephus, he and his team can even pick out where different groups originated from before coming to Masada. “We know people by name, we know people by profession. We can learn about the way this group of rebels lived,” he said.

Stiebel was loath to disclose too many particulars about his team’s finds until they could be published in a scientific journal. He divulged, however, that he and his team have managed to extract “tremendous amounts of data” from the newly excavated areas of the site by adopting a multidisciplinary approach. Beyond the typical archaeological methods, the co-operation with team of archaeobotanists and archaeozoologists enable them to learn about Masadans’ diet, studied pollen samples to learn what crops they raised, and scrutinized metal and ceramic fragments, testing the latter for clues in 2,000-year-old residues.

These techniques have allowed Stiebel to determine that the Jewish rebels subsisted on food they cultivated atop the mountain, and grew cattle and goats. He also determined that a century before the rebels arrived, King Herod imported fine wine that originated from a vineyard in southern Italy.

The extreme aridity atop Masada, which was largely vacant following the siege (except for 200 years of occupation by Byzantine monks), permits preservation of artifacts “beyond words.” Previous excavations have turned up delicate organic materials: wood, parchment, leather and human hair. Stiebel’s latest dig in February yielded additional potsherds bearing Hebrew inscriptions of Masada’s final Jewish residents.

These discoveries have helped shed light on the day-to-day lives of Masada’s Judean refugees, offering a glimpse at a cross-section of Jewish society during a critical period. Excavating at Masada sheds light not only on its inhabitants, but also on the people who lived in Jerusalem and Judea in the nascent years of Christianity, and the twilight of Jewish independence.

Stiebel plans to publish at least two papers describing the results of these digs in greater detail in the near future, and the Tel Aviv University team will be returning to Masada for another season of excavations in February 2018.

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After five months of digging under an unforgiving sun, a team of Egyptian archaeologists unearthed the tomb belonging to the goldsmith who had lived in the desert province of Luxor. The jeweler, who lived during the 18th dynasty (about 1567 B.C. to 1320 B.C.), had dedicated his work to Amon-Re, the most powerful deity at the time. Amenemhat’s tomb was found in Draa Abul-Naga, a necropolis for noblemen and rulers near the Valley of the Kings, on the left bank of the Nile River.

The discovery was a relatively modest one, but in a country that has been trying to revive its tourism industry, which has been decimated by political strife and terrorist attacks after the 2011 uprising, officials announced the find with fanfare. “This find is important for marketing,” Egypt’s antiquities minister, Khaled el-Enany, said at a news conference outside the tomb on Saturday. “This is exactly what Egypt needs.”

The tomb’s main chamber had statues of Amenemhat and his wife seated on chairs, according to Mostafa Waziri, the archaeologist who led the dig. One statue shows her wearing a long dress and wig. A smaller statue, discovered between the couple, depicts one of their sons.

The chamber also contained pottery, wooden funerary masks and ushabti figurines, which are small blue, black or white statues that ancient Egyptians placed in tombs to serve the dead in the afterlife.


The Neanderthal remains were originally found in the cave approximately 40 years ago and have been tested for age several times. They have also been the subject of much speculation, as it was thought that the remains represented the last of the Neanderthals in that part of Europe and that they existed for a short period of time in close proximity to modern humans.

Initial testing suggested the remains were approximately 28,000 to 29,000 years old. More recent tests have put them at 32,000 to 34,000 years old. Both time frames coincide with the arrival of modern humans into the area, keeping alive the theory that the two groups mixed, both physically and socially. But now, using what is being described as a more accurate technique, the group with this new effort has found that the remains are older than thought.

The new technique, called ZooMS involves radiocarbon dating hydroxyproline—an amino acid taken from collagen samples found in bone remains. The team also purified the collagen to remove contaminants. The researchers report that the new technique indicates that the remains—all four samples—were approximately 40,000 years old. This new finding puts the Neanderthal in the cave well before the arrival of modern humans, thus, there could not have been mixing of the two.

The researchers also studied other artifacts from the cave, including other animal bones, and found that the artifacts were a mixed bag, representing a timeline of thousands of years. The animal bones, they found, were from bears. This has led the team to conclude that the reason more modern artifacts were found with older artifacts is because of bears mixing them up.

The researchers conclude by claiming their study has shown that the Neanderthals at the Vindija cave did not overlap in time with modern humans, and thus were not the final holdout that many have suggested.

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Monday, September 04, 2017


A Neolithic burial mound near Stonehenge could contain human remains more than 5,000 years old, experts say. The monument lies in Pewsey Vale, halfway between Avebury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire, and was identified in aerial photographs and followed up by geophysical survey imagery.

As part of the University's final Archaeology Field School, students and staff, with the support of volunteers from the area, have investigated the site of a Neolithic long barrow burial mound in a place known as Cat's Brain - the first to be fully investigated in Wiltshire in half a century.

The monument, which predates nearby Marden Henge by over 1,000 years, is believed it could contain human remains buried there in about 3,600 BCE. The Cat's Brain long barrow, found in the middle of a farmer's field, consists of two ditches flanking what appears to be a central building. This may have been covered with a mound made of the earth dug from the ditches, but has been ploughed flat over many centuries.

Dr Jim Leary, director of the university's archaeology field school, said: "Opportunities to fully investigate long barrows are virtually unknown in recent times and this represents a fantastic chance to carefully excavate one using the very latest techniques and technology. Discovering the buried remains of what could be the ancestors of those who built Stonehenge would be the cherry on the cake of an amazing project."

Dr Leary's co-director, Amanda Clarke, said: "This incredible discovery of one of the UK's first monuments offers a rare glimpse into this important period in history. We are setting foot inside a significant building that has lain forgotten and hidden for thousands of years."

In addition to the Cat's Brain long barrow site, the University of Reading's Archaeology Field School is working at Marden henge, the largest henge in the country, built around 2,400 BC, also within the Vale of Pewsey. Little archaeological work has been carried out in the Vale, especially compared with the well-known nearby sites of Avebury and Stonehenge. The project aims to fill this gap in our knowledge and highlight the importance of the area in the Neolithic period.

Edited from BBC News, PhysOrg (12 July 2017)
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Avebury is a massive monument, largely created during the 3rd millennium BCE. Its perimeter is a 420 meter diameter earthwork, within which is the world's largest known stone circle - a ring of around 100 standing stones which itself encloses two inner stone circles, each constructed around one of two huge megalithic structures known as the Cove and the Obelisk. The Obelisk was recorded in the 18th century as the largest stone at Avebury, but was later destroyed.

A square formation has been discovered within the Neolithic stone circle at Avebury, the village 130 kilometers west of London. Archaeologists believe the hidden stones, discovered using ground-penetrating radar, were one of the earliest structures at the site, and may have commemorated a Neolithic building dating to around 3500 BCE.

Previously archaeologists had speculated that the 330 meter diameter outer stone circle - the largest in Europe - preceded its enclosed features. The latest work suggests that a wooden building seeded the monument, a series of stone structures place around it over hundreds of years.

According to Mark Gillings, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester: "Our working interpretation is that the house is the first thing. It falls into ruin but they're still remembering and respecting it. They put a square around it about 3000 BC and then the circles."

Clues to the existence of a square structure, each side of which was around 30 meters in length, were first discovered by Alexander Keiller, who excavated in 1939, revealing a number of small standing stones in a line close to the former location of a 6-meter upright stone known as the Obelisk. Keiller's excavation also uncovered postholes and grooves, indicating that a building had once been there, which he supposed was medieval.

When the newly discovered square was compared with Keiller's notes it was found that the stones were centered on and aligned with the building, suggesting Neolithic origin. Similar Neolithic buildings have been discovered recently at other sites.


Edited from The Guardian (29 June 2017), Arts & Humanities Research Council [3 images] [2 images, 1 map]


A new investigation of the stone age rock art panel at Hendraburnick Quoit in Cornwall, southwest England, found nearly ten times the number of markings when viewed in moonlight or very low sunlight from the south east. The researchers also discovered that pieces of white quartz which would have reflected moonlight or firelight had been deliberately smashed up around the site.

Study leader Dr Andy Jones, of the Cornwall Archaeological Unit says: "I think the new marks show that this site was used at night and it is likely that other megalithic sites were as well. We were aware there were some cup and ring marks on the rocks but we were there on a sunny afternoon and noticed it was casting shadows on others which nobody had seen before.

When we went out to do some imaging at night, when the camera flashed we suddenly saw more and more art, which suggested that it was meant to be seen at night and in the moonlight. Then when you think about the quartz smashed around, which would have caused flashes and luminescence, suddenly you see that these images would have emerged out of the dark.

Stonehenge does have markings, and I think that many more would be found at sites across the country if people were to look at them in different light."

Hendraburnick Quoit is a large propped 'axe-shaped' stone that was set upon a low platform of slates on Hendraburnick Down, near Davidstow, around 11 kilometres east of the promontory site of Tintagel Castle. Dr Jones believes the stone was dragged up from the valley in the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, around 2,500 BCE.

Previous studies had recorded 13 cup marks, but Dr Jones and colleague Thomas Goskar found 105 engravings under low-angled light, which now makes it the most highly decorated and complex example of rock art known in southern England.

Edited from The Telegraph (7 July 2017)
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Hundreds of ancient stone tombs have been discovered in Jebel Qurma, south of Damascus, in a 'black desert' stretching across northeastern Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Many are covered by stone cairns, while others are more complex 'tower tombs'. Tomb robbers have pillaged many of the burials, but archaeologists have found clues to how human life changed in the region over the course of millennia.

Project leader Peter Akkermans, of Leiden University in the Netherlands, writes that: "While the foci of daily living and domestic activity were in secluded areas at the foot of the basaltic uplands or in the deep valleys through which wadis run, it appears that the preferential areas for the disposal of the dead were on the surrounding high plateaus and the summits of the basalt hills."

The team found evidence suggesting that between the late third millennium BCE and the early first millennium BCE, few people lived in Jebel Qurma. A cemetery that contains about 50 cairns stopped being used around 4,000 years ago, which seems to coincide with a large scale withdrawal of people from the region.

Until very recently it was believed that people did not return to Jebel Qurma until the mid or late first millennium BCE, but recent research reveals that the area was re-inhabited in the early first millennium BCE by people who did not use pottery. Another possibility is that people were living in Jebel Qurma, but their remains have yet to be found.

In the late first millennium BCE, the inhabitants began building 'tower tombs', a type both larger and more difficult to construct than the earlier cairns. Some towers are up to 5 meters in diameter and 1.5 meters high, with straight facades made of large, flattened basalt slabs weighing 300 kilos. Initially, Akkermans thought the tower tombs were built for elite members of the society, but recent fieldwork reveals the type is common in the both the local area and the desert region as a whole.

Edited from Jebel Qurma, LiveScience (13 July 2017)
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Researchers say that members of early farming communities in in the central Mediterranean preferred to paint images in rock shelters where sounds bounced off walls and into the surrounding countryside. Archaeologist Margarita Diaz-Andreu of the University of Barcelona and colleagues report that in landscapes with many potential rock art sites, "the few shelters chosen to be painted were those that have special acoustic properties."

Diaz-Andreu's team studied two rock art sites generally dated to between approximately 6,500 and 5,000 years ago. In southeastern France, at the kilometer-long cliff site of Baume Brune, only eight of the forty-three naturally formed cavities in the cliff contain paintings, which include treelike figures and horned animals. On the east coast of Italy, in the Valle d'Ividoro, at an 800-meter-long section of a gorge, only three of eleven natural shelters contain painted images.

The researchers popped balloons in front of each rock-shelter, recording the sound waves from various locations and distances. Three-dimensional slow-motion depictions of echoes revealed that at both sites, shelters with rock paintings displayed better echoing properties than undecorated shelters, and that shelters with the best echoes had the highest number of paintings.

In a separate study of paintings in northern Finland dated to between around 7,200 and 3,000 years ago, music archaeologist Riitta Rainio of the University of Helsinki and her colleagues found that echoes from steep rock cliffs bordering three lakes also attracted ancient artists. She and her colleagues recorded from boats on the lakes.

Similarly, at the Grotte de Niaux in southwestern France, archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in England observes that many roughly 14,000 to 12,000 year-old animal drawings and engravings are concentrated in a cathedral-like chamber where sounds echo loudly.

Edited from Science News (26 June 2017)
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A team of archaeologists, students, and local volunteers have for the past twelve months been investigating prehistoric mounds in fields south of Kirk Michael, a village in the north of the Isle of Man - the island in the Irish Sea famous for its annual motorcycle race. The site overlooks the sea with good views of both Scotland and Ireland.

The Isle of Man is home to over 160 round barrows - human burial sites found throughout the British Isles and in continental Europe. First appearing around 3800-3600 BCE, different kinds of round mounds were built sporadically during the Neolithic period and in large numbers during the Early Bronze Age.

The team is led by Doctors Rachel Crellin, a native of the island who now lectures in Archaeology at Leicester University, and Chris Fowler, a lecturer at Newcastle University. Finds so far include the collar of what is believed to be a burial urn of the type commonly found upside down on top of human ashes.

Among other artifacts are a number of flint tools, one of which is a scraper with beveled edges used to remove fat from animal hides.
The team has been running workshops for local schoolchildren and offering daily tours for the public. Heritage Open Days are scheduled for the autumn.
Doctor Crellin says a burial mound of this type has not been excavated on the island for some time, and hopes modern techniques will reveal specific new information about the site, and about prehistory on the island generally.

Edited from IOM Today (21 July 2017)
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During the time of one of our ancient ancestors, the Neanderthals, there also lived a long extinct hominid known as Denisovan. While very little is known about Denisovans, we do know that we share some common DNA and that they might have contributed a positive factor to our immune system. They also shared a common DNA with their Neanderthal cousins.

Until recently our total knowledge of Denisovans has been based on two teeth and a finger bone, which were all found in a cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. There has now been a exciting fourth find, that of a baby tooth, on the same site back in November, 2015. Extensive research has now been carried out on the tooth by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The tooth was found in a sedimentary layer which has been dated at between 128,000 and 227,000 years old, pre-dating previous Denisovan finds by between 50,000 and 100,000 years! To put this in perspective this time span would indicate that the Denisovans had occupied the site for a longer period than modern humans have occupied Europe.

Vivian Slon, from the Institute, is quoted as saying "Such a long span of time increases the chances that the Denisovans and the Neanderthals may have interacted and interbred". The main point of note is that all Denisovan finds so far have emanated from one site. Without further finds from other locations the researchers are unable to determine whether the finds so far represent the entire spectrum of Denisovan genetic diversity or are an isolated branch.

Edited from LiveScience (10 July 2017)
[1 image]ere Denisovans an isolated part of our lineage?