Thursday, April 26, 2018


The Scotsman reports that traces of red and yellow pigments have been detected on the Antonine Wall’s distance stones with x-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy technology.

Built on a stone foundation in the second century A.D., the turf wall sat about 99 miles to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, and stretched about 37 miles from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. Louisa Campbell of Glasgow University said the bright colors on the engraved stones in the wall would have enhanced the impact of Roman propaganda on the local population.

Red was used to paint images of Roman officers’ cloaks, and drops of blood on their captives. Ochre was used to give color to skin tones in the pictures. “The local population might not have been able to read the Latin inscriptions on the stone but they would certainly have been able to understand the sculptures and the context behind them,” Campbell said. To read in-depth about Hadrian's Wall, go to "The Wall at the End of the Empire."


Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and other recent human relatives may have begun hunting large mammal species down to size - by way of extinction - at least 90,000 years earlier than previously thought, says a new study published in the journal Science.

Elephant-dwarfing wooly mammoths, elephant-sized ground sloths and various saber-toothed cats highlighted the array of massive mammals roaming Earth between 2.6 million and 12,000 years ago. Prior research suggested that such large mammals began disappearing faster than their smaller counterparts - a phenomenon known as size-biased extinction - in Australia around 35,000 years ago.

With the help of emerging data from older fossil and rock records, the new study estimated that this size-biased extinction started at least 125,000 years ago in Africa. By that point, the average African mammal was already 50 percent smaller than those on other continents, the study reported, despite the fact that larger landmasses can typically support larger mammals.

But as humans migrated out of Africa, other size-biased extinctions began occurring in regions and on timelines that coincide with known human migration patterns, the researchers found. Over time, the average body size of mammals on those other continents approached and then fell well below Africa's. Mammals that survived during the span were generally far smaller than those that went extinct. The magnitude and scale of the recent size-biased extinction surpassed any other recorded during the last 66 million years, according to the study, which was led by the University of New Mexico's Felisa Smith.

"It wasn't until human impacts started becoming a factor that large body sizes made mammals more vulnerable to extinction," said the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Kate Lyons, who authored the study with Smith and colleagues from Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego. "The anthropological record indicates that Homo sapiens are identified as a species around 200,000 years ago, so this occurred not very long after the birth of us as a species. It just seems to be something that we do.

"From a life-history standpoint, it makes some sense. If you kill a rabbit, you're going to feed your family for a night. If you can kill a large mammal, you're going to feed your village."

By contrast, the research team found little support for the idea that climate change drove size-biased extinctions during the last 66 million years. Large and small mammals seemed equally vulnerable to temperature shifts throughout that span, the authors reported.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018


How (and Where) Did Hannibal Cross the Alps? Experts Finally Have Answers

For over 2,000 years, historians have argued over the route used by the Carthaginian general Hannibal to guide his army — 30,000 soldiers, 37 elephants and 15,000 horses — over the Alps and into Italy in just 16 days, conducting a military ambush against the Romans that was unprecedented in the history of warfare.

Such an achievement required careful planning and strategizing, but with little physical evidence of the journey available today and few recorded details of the crossing, uncertainty remains about how it was accomplished.

However, in "Secrets of the Dead: Hannibal in the Alps," a new documentary airing on PBS (April 10), a team of experts takes a fresh look at Hannibal’s incredible trip across treacherous mountain terrain. Together, they re-create his long-lost route and reveal the latest discoveries about his historic accomplishment — and depict the famous elephants that played a critical part in his victory against the Romans.

In 218 B.C., when the crossing took place, the powerful nations of Carthage and Rome were at each other's throats. To defeat the Romans, Hannibal did the unthinkable — he led an army through a mountain region spanning about 80,000 square miles (over 207,000 square kilometers) — and descended on Rome from the north, where the nation least expected an attack.

For the documentary, the production team assembled archaeologists, paleontologists, animal trainers and mountaineers, re-creating Hannibal's route on foot and testing evidence and methods along the way, the filmmakers said in a statement.

The most obvious route for Hannibal to have taken through the Alps is called the Col du Clapier, known in antiquity as the Way of Hercules, historian and archaeologist Eve MacDonald, a lecturer in ancient history at Cardiff University in the U.K., told Live Science.

MacDonald, who appears in the documentary, explained that the team uncovered evidence suggesting that Hannibal took a much more dangerous and extreme route — the Col de la Traversette — which was at a higher elevation and had a much steeper ascent and descent, but offered far quicker passage through the mountains, despite the extra risks. "That's key — it was the fastest route, and the least expected," MacDonald said. This also supports historical accounts by the Greek historian Polybius, who lived from around 200 B.C. to 118 B.C., and who described Hannibal choosing "the highest paths" for his army, MacDonald added.

The clues that pointed to Hannibal's path were preserved not in recovered records or military artifacts, but in soil deposits along the Col de la Traversette, in miry areas that may have been used long ago by the army's many animals as watering holes — and as a toilet. Compounds that are found in horse manure were plentiful in the sediment, suggesting that thousands of years ago, an army-size group of horses likely relieved themselves while resting, according to the filmmakers' statement.

Speculation also lingers about Hannibal's war elephants and where they came from. Hannibal's beasts were long thought to be Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), due to prevailing myths that those elephants are more trainable than African elephants (Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis), Victoria Herridge, an elephant expert for the documentary and a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum, London, told Live Science. But that simply isn't the case. In fact, on coins from Carthage depicting realistic representations of elephants, the animals closely resemble the African species in the size and shape of their ears, and in their distinctive, saddle-shaped backs, raising the possibility that the Carthaginians were importing their elephants from northern Africa, Herridge said.

If that were true, Hannibal's elephants may have represented a smaller, now-extinct subspecies of African elephant; historical accounts described northern African war elephants as fearful of the bigger Indian war elephants, while modern Asian elephants are generally smaller than their African cousins, Herridge explained.

Elephants require vast quantities of food — about 220 lbs. (100 kilograms) per day — which the army would have needed to bring along with them, as there wasn't anything for the animals to eat along the way. But the elephants would likely have handled the terrain and the distance quite well, as they frequently have to cover great distances and cross mountain passes in both Africa and in the Himalayas, Herridge said.

Ultimately, Hannibal's brazen maneuver — elephants and all — couldn't save Carthage, which Rome defeated in the Second Punic War (218 B.C. to 201 B.C.). However, as this documentary demonstrates, his ambitious journey still fuels imaginations and raises intriguing questions about achieving the seemingly impossible — for people and for elephants.

"Secrets of the Dead: Hannibal in the Alps" aired April 10 at 8 p.m. EDT on PBS and is available to stream on April 11 via and PBS apps.


Archaeological excavations at Aranbaltza site in the Basque Country coast (Northern Spain), have revealed several episodes of Neanderthal occupations with preserved wooden remains. The fieldwork is leaded by Joseba Rios-Garaizar, archaeologist from the Spanish Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH). In 2015, the excavation revealed two very well preserved wooden tools; one of them is a 15 cm long digging stick. The detailed analysis of this tool and the Luminescence dating of the sediment that bares the wooden remains indicate that the objects were deposited around 90,000 years and thus, they were made by Neanderthals.

The Micro-CT analysis and a close examination of the surface developed at CENIEH laboratories have shown that a yew trunk was cut longitudinally into two halves. One of this halves was scraped with a stone-tool, and treated with fire to harden it and to facilitate the scraping to obtain a pointed morphology. Use-wear analysis revealed that it was used for digging in search of food, flint, or simply to make holes in the ground.

The preservation of wooden tools associated to Neanderthals is very rare because wood degrades very quickly. Only in very specific environments, like the waterlogged sediments from Aranbaltza, it has been possible to find evidence of wooden technology. As it was suggested by indirect evidence, this type of technology was relevant in Neanderthal daily life.

In the Iberian Peninsula wooden tools associated to Neanderthals have been found only in the travertine from Abric Romaní (Catalonia), and in the rest of Europe only four sites (Clacton on Sea, Schöningen, Lehringen and Poggeti Vechi) have provided wooden tools associated to Neanderthals or pre-Neanderthals. Therefore, findings like the one from Aranbaltza are crucial to investigate the Neanderthal technology and use of wood.

The archaeological project at Aranbaltza started in 2013 to investigate the last Neanderthals from Western Europe, who were responsible of the Chatelperronian culture. The ongoing excavations have revealed different Neanderthal occupation events spanning from 100,000 to 44,000 years. This makes of Aranbaltza an exceptional site to investigate Neanderthal evolution and behavioral variability.

Monday, April 16, 2018


A human finger fossil found in a Saudi Arabian desert dates to between 95,000 and 86,000 years ago, researchers say. This find strengthens the view that ancient humans expanded into Asia via Arabia. A single human finger bone from at least 86,000 years ago points to Arabia as a key destination for Stone Age excursions out of Africa that allowed people to rapidly spread across Asia.

Excavations at Al Wusta, a site in Saudi Arabia’s Nefud desert, produced this diminutive discovery. It’s the oldest known Homo sapiens fossil outside of Africa and the narrow strip of the Middle East that joins Africa with Asia, based on dating of the bone itself, says a team led by archaeologists Huw Groucutt and Michael Petraglia. This new find strengthens the idea that early human dispersals out of Africa began well before the traditional estimated departure time of 60,000 years ago and extended deep into Arabia, the scientists report April 9 in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

“Although long considered to be far from the main stage of human evolution, Arabia was a stepping stone from Africa into Asia,” says Petraglia, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.

Don’t be misled by the vast deserts that dominate the Arabian Peninsula today. Geologic evidence indicates that Al Wusta lay within a well-watered, human-friendly area between around 95,000 and 86,000 years ago, the estimated age range for the human finger fossil, Groucutt and Petraglia’s team says. Dating relied on measures of the decay of a radioactive form of uranium in the human fossil and a nearby hippo tooth. Those results were combined with a measure of exposure to natural doses of radiation in the tooth. Another technique estimated the time since the finger bone and adjacent finds were buried by sediment.

The 2016 Al Wusta find is probably the middle bone from an adult’s middle finger, suspects Groucutt, of the University of Oxford. It’s unclear whether the bone came from a man or a woman, or from a right or left hand.

It’s definitely human, though. To establish the fossil’s identify, the researchers compared a 3-D image of the ancient finger bone with corresponding bones of present-day people, apes and monkeys, as well as Neandertals and other ancient hominids.

The newly discovered fossil fits into a rough timeline of Stone Age human departures from Africa. H. sapiens reached what’s now Israel as early as 194,000 years ago (SN: 2/17/18, p. 6) and East Asia by at least 80,000 years ago (SN: 11/14/15, p. 15). Humans arrived in Indonesia (SN Online: 8/9/17) and Australia (SN: 8/19/17, p. 10) shortly before 60,000 years ago.

How humans moved into Arabia is uncertain. Along with the finger, Al Wusta yielded 380 stone tools and 860 nonhuman animal fossils from the same time. Some of those animals, including hippos and gazelles, originated in Africa and no longer inhabit the Arabian Peninsula. Ancient groups of hunter-gatherers followed these grazing animals from North Africa into Arabia as climate fluctuations periodically turned deserts into grasslands with lakes and rivers, Petraglia proposes. When those landscapes dried out every 20,000 years or so, people could have returned to Africa or headed farther into Asia.

Al Wusta’s ancient human fossil — combined with comparably ancient stone tools found at other Arabian Peninsula sites (SN: 4/4/15, p. 16) — challenges the view that humans left Africa in one or a few major migrations, says paleoanthropologist María Martinόn-Torres. Instead, small groups of African H. sapiens continually traveled into Arabia and beyond starting nearly 100,000 years ago or earlier, suggests Martinόn-Torres, who directs the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain. Periods of increased rainfall may have provided “windows of opportunity” for human movements into Arabia, she adds.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


Egypt’s Administrative Prosecution court ordered on Wednesday 72 employees from the archaeological sector and a number of security officials from Monufiya governorate to be tried on charges of theft as well as turning a historical site into a parking lot, Al-Watan newspaper reported.

Mohammed Samir, spokesman for the Administrative Prosecution, said that the people responsible for the looting are the former director of the archaeological site in Quesna city, the former archaeologist in charge of Quesna’s stone-pit, 40 archaeological inspectors in the historical hill area of Quesna quarry, and 25 security officials in the archaeological hill area of Quesna quarry.

According to Al-Watan, the prosecution received a complaint from one of the archaeologists responsible for the area of the stone-pits in Quesna who had reported the destruction of a large segment of the archaeological hill in Quesna from the west side. The charged persons reportedly stole monuments worth LE5 million, which was found in the sand at the site.

The site was allegedly used as a parking lot for heavy transport vehicles that belong to one of the factories at the area.

The prosecution began investigations into the case, and ordered the formation of a committee headed by the financial and administrative inspector in the General Court of the province of Monufiya. The commission report included violations on the archaeological property by digging ancient sands and establishing a road that passes next to the archaeological hill area.

Investigation showed that the sand contained treasures and monuments, while affirming that the site is an ancient cemetery, which hosts monuments and coffins of different sizes.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018


CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY—According to a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer, a total of some 10,000 Native American artifacts have been uncovered from two archaeological sites in Camden. Almost 1,300 artifacts were recovered at the first site, which is thought to have been a short-term camp.

Among those objects, archaeologist Ilene Grossman-Bailey found a rectangular ceramic cooking vessel and a hearth containing charcoal that has been dated to 1400 B.C. The second, slightly older site may have started as a temporary camp, but then it likely became a year-round settlement. It yielded ceramics; grinding and hammer stones thought to have been used to grind maize, legumes, and barley; and the burned bones of deer and other mammals, turtles, and wild fowl.

A tool bearing protein residue may have been used to process the meat. Many of the artifacts at this site were recovered from a 20-foot-long ditch. “We don’t really know what it is,” said Grossman-Bailey. “There really isn’t anything else like it in New Jersey, although similar features have been found near the Chesapeake and in New England.” She thinks it may have been part of a house.


he words of ancient Greek playwrights and philosophers may be nearly 2,500 years old, but they still carry great weight and wisdom. That’s the message USC President C. L. Max Nikias imparts to freshmen and sophomores enrolled in “The Culture of the Athenian Democracy.” The special course challenges students to ponder today’s vexing questions about personal responsibility, leadership and morality through the lens of the past. “I hope to spark a fire in their minds about the importance of the humanities,” Nikias said. “It doesn’t matter what your major is – these works contain very important messages about life, how you conduct yourself and how you relate to other human beings. These are very valuable lessons for any discipline and any society.”

Nikias tapped Robin Romans, associate vice provost for academic affairs, as his co-instructor. Each week, they trade off discussing the tragedies of Sophocles and the philosophical musings of Plato. Even thousands of years ago, the Greeks grappled with issues like dissent, free speech and separation of church and state. Their classical works represent not only the origins of democracy, but also timeless values. “Reading these texts broadens your capacity for empathy,” Romans said. “You begin to view things with greater historical perspective and from multiple vantage points, which prompts you to rethink your assumptions about reality.”

First- and second-year students from across the university vied for one of 40 slots in the course. Applicants had to write short essays describing their interest in the class and prior experience with classical literature. It was a little intimidating at first to take a class taught by USC’s president and a top administrator, she said, but Nikias and Romans quickly dispelled nervousness by encouraging students to share their thoughts. They embrace interruptions and prompt discussions by posing open-ended questions.

Freshman Allison Westley, who plans to study biomedical engineering and finance or entrepreneurship, echoed those sentiments. She described Nikias and Romans as approachable and open to new ideas. “They are living out the mission of the USC faculty to really engage with students and get us talking and discussing things both inside and outside of the classroom.”

One recent afternoon, students debated the themes of hubris, sacrifice and fate in the classic play Oedipus the King. As they read passages aloud, Nikias suddenly halted the class and pointed out a nuance in the original Greek phrasing. Later, he paused to read a few lines in Greek to show the natural rhythm of the text, a cadence lost in the English version. It’s one benefit of having a native speaker as an instructor.

He has explained the names of characters, she said, such as noting that Antigone, a figure who famously challenged authority, can be translated as “born to oppose.” During discussions of Plato’s Symposium, Nikias described three different Greek words for “love,” each with its own subtle meaning.

Nikias and Romans also encourage their students to apply lessons they learn in class to current society. They have tasked the class with identifying modern figures similar to those immortalized in the plays of Sophocles. Nikias argues that his favorite Sophoclean tragedy, Antigone, is more relevant than ever. Although Athens represented the first democracy, he notes, its society was dominated by men. “And yet Sophocles chooses his hero to be a young woman who stands up to authority, not a young man,” he said. “Antigone defies the king and stands on her moral principles.”

The instructors have prompted students to draw connections to modern times, such as the fight for women’s right to vote and the fact that the United States has never elected a female president. Westley, for one, sees the commonalities across the centuries. “So much of what we are reading about is still relevant today,” she said. “It’s so interesting to think about how these books were written so many centuries ago, but the message still pertains to modern life.”

That is an encouraging sign for Nikias, who hopes to instill the same reverence for the classics that he developed growing up in Cyprus and later studying in Greece. Although he pursued a career in electrical engineering, earning his undergraduate degree at National Technical University of Athens before finishing advanced degrees from the State University of New York at Buffalo, his passion for ancient mythology persisted. He has taught special seminars on Greco-Roman history and drama to incoming freshmen. Many of his speeches are peppered with references to mythological figures. He maintains appointments in both electrical engineering and the classics at USC.

His counterpart is also well-versed in classical thought and literature. Before assuming his current role, Romans directed USC’s prestigious Thematic Option Honors Program. Students in the program dissect the writings of Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare and other literary legends. They grapple with questions of civic virtue, social justice, ethics and identity across the ages and in contemporary society.

So when Nikias approached with an offer to join him in the classroom, Romans embraced the opportunity. For both instructors, teaching keeps them connected to the mission of the university.

“It reminds you of what this place is all about,” Romans said. “You see the institution from the standpoint of the students. You see their passion in their energy and the questions they ask.”

Added Nikias: “I can see how smart they are. It’s a direct reinforcement for me of the quality of the student body we have today. They are brilliant.”


Fifteen years after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein, ushering in a period of instability that led to the plunder of the museum while ignoring pleas to secure the building, some 7,000 looted items have been returned, but about 8,000 are still out there. And that’s only counting the items that were stolen from the museum. After the invasion, thousands of other artifacts were taken directly out of the ground at archaeological sites. In most cases, their whereabouts are unknown.

But experts have noticed an uptick in the availability of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts at online retailers since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Now, anyone with broadband and a bit of spare cash can buy one of these artifacts. It’s likely, however, that at least some of the post-2003 internet wealth of Mesopotamian treasures is actually stolen goods. Although a UNESCO convention requires proper certification for objects excavated and exported after 1970, auction websites generally don’t require sellers to make this certification available upfront to prospective buyers.

On the website Live Auctioneers, you can find a stone bull for $50, a clay cylinder seal for $150, a terracotta fragment bearing a god on a chariot for $225, and a large terracotta female idol for $400. On another auction site, Trocadero, a lion-shaped stone amulet is on offer for $250. The point is not that these particular artifacts were looted after the U.S. invasion, but that ancient Mesopotamian objects are very easy to buy online. And it’s extremely hard nowadays to know whether the provenance listed by the seller is accurate—and hence, whether the object has been legally sourced. Both these websites, in their terms of use, forbid users from posting false information, but neither responded to requests for clarifications about how this policy is enforced. Live Auctioneers’ terms prohibit law-breaking, but specify that the site has “no control over the quality, safety, or legality of the items advertised” and cannot guarantee “the truth or accuracy of the listings.” Trocadero notes that it “is not in a position to assume any duty or responsibility to veto reproductions or misrepresentations.”

“It is so, so easy to fake the provenance,” said Oya Topçuoğlu, a lecturer at Northwestern University who specializes in Mesopotamian archeology. “You can say, ‘My grandfather bought this when he visited the Middle East in 1928 and it’s been sitting in our attic since then.’ Or ‘This belongs to the collection of a Swiss gentleman who bought it in the ’50s.’ No one can prove otherwise, and no one will be any the wiser.”

In her recent study of Live Auctioneers, Topçuoğlu discovered that the majority of the items listed on the site are being sold out of London, which has long been a hub for trade in Mesopotamian artifacts. But, she explained, it’s very hard to prove that any given item was looted from the National Museum of Iraq, partly because many of the items stolen from the museum’s storage facility hadn’t yet been inventoried and numbered. “None of the things I’ve seen on Live Auctioneers—and I’ve looked at approximately 2,000 seals that were offered over the last 10 years—have museum numbers on them,” she said. “But the other thing is, you’re really limited to what the seller puts up on the website as a photograph. You don’t have the option to turn it around and look at it from every imaginable angle.”

Iraqi archeologist Abdulameer Al-Hamdani noted that, whereas you might find artifacts selling for $400 online, the properly documented artifacts he encounters tend to sell for closer to $400,000. It’s not that the cheaper ones are counterfeits; alarmingly, they tend to be real. “These Iraqi antiquities are very cheap because people want to get rid of them,” he said. “Maybe because they don’t have documentation for them.”


It is a constant concern for government agencies to develop protection plans and international agreements to secure these sites. This seems elusive in the chaos and political division in Libya. "Libya's contribution to international agreements is an important way to protect archaeological sites from the threat of theft. Therefore, these agreements must receive attention," Mohammed Faraj, head of Libya's Antiquities Authority, told Xinhua. "An important agreement was signed recently with the United States, which prohibits the import and export of a collection of antiquities listed and circulated by Washington on all its channels to prevent their smuggling," Faraj added. Faraj also said that the agreement, if circulated to the countries of the world, would help protect Libyan monuments in a time of great security vacuum "because a large number of looted artifacts are being sold in public auctions in France, Spain, Britain and even in Israel."

"The issue of stolen artifacts is not new. There are international gangs still active in this field, because they choose the right time to display these pieces. Important Libyan artifacts have been smuggled illegally," he said, when asked about the smuggling activities in Libya.

According to a report by the International Council of Museums published last January, the Libyan historic cities under threat are Ghadames, Sabratha, Labda, Sousse and the Acacus Mountains.

The Libyan cities that have suffered the highest amount of artifacts robberies over the past few years were Sousse, Shahhat, Sabratha, Sirte, Bani Walid, Nafusa Mounain, Tocra and Tolmeita. The ancient city of Sabratha in western Libya, which is classified as a historic world heritage, was damaged by armed clashes in September 2017 between government forces and armed groups involved of human trafficking.

Armed conflicts affect all the Libyan cities in light of the proliferation of weapons. Sabratha was, unfortunately, subjected to several conflicts. The archaeological city was the victim of those clashes. "The theater was hit several times with shrapnel, missiles and bullets. Some of the city's walls were also hit," Mohamed Abo-Ajela, Sabratha's monument control official, told Xinhua.

The Authority has a plan to repair the damage. The head of the Authority visited the city following the recent conflict and pledged with the representative of Libya to UNESCO to repair the damage once the necessary financial allocations have been made.General Mohammad Emsallem, head of Sabratha's tourist police, said that the recent clashes near the historic city forced all parties to adopt a security plan to enhance the level of protection in the city.

Sabratha has witnessed violent clashes in September 2017 between the anti-IS operation chamber of the UN-backed government and and armed groups accused of involvement in human trafficking. The three-week fighting ended the chamber's forces taking over the city, after 35 people were killed and 200 were injured on both sides, according to medical sources.

The Roman ruins and the famous theater in Sabratha are one of the five Libyan sites included in the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1982. During the clashes, UNESCO expressed concern about the military action's effect on Sabratha's monuments and called for protection of archaeological sites in compliance with the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. "I call upon decision-makers in Libya to pay attention and develop such world-class archaeological sites, because they are an invaluable world treasure," he said.