Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

A medieval woman’s work left blue pigment on her teeth

January 9th, 2019

Archaeologists recently unearthed the skeleton of a woman they say was probably a skilled artist who helped produce the richly illustrated religious texts of medieval Europe. The woman lived sometime between 997 and 1162 CE, according to radiocarbon dating of her teeth, at a small women’s monastery called Dalheim in Lichtenau, Germany. And she died with tiny flecks of expensive lapis lazuli pigment still caught in her teeth, probably from licking the tip of her paintbrush to make a finer point.

There’s something in your teeth

During the Middle Ages, the vivid blue pigment called ultramarine was made with powdered, purified lazurite crystals, which come from the rare stone lapis lazuli. Because it’s only mined in northeast Afghanistan, the mineral had to travel thousands of miles by land and sea through far-flung trade networks to reach Europe. It was fabulously expensive, ranking alongside silver and gold, and it would have been used to paint illustrations in only the most lavish, ornate, and expensive illuminated manuscripts. That means that only the most skilled, experienced painters would have access to it. Obviously, this unnamed medieval woman must have been exceptionally good at her work.

She died somewhere between the ages of 45 and 60, and her bones suggest a life of very little physical work or disease, which is exactly what you’d expect from a woman who spent her days painting at an isolated monastery. Anthropologist Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and her colleagues took samples of her fossilized dental plaque, or calculus, in 2014 to check for microscopic remains of plants, which would offer clues about the medieval woman’s diet. But when they dissolved the sample to extract the plant bits, the process also released hundreds of tiny blue particles.

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Posted in anthropology, Archaeology, biological archaeology, cemeteries, dental calculus, forensic archaeology, illuminated manuscripts, medieval Europe, medieval history, middle ages, monasteries, science, skeleton, Women | Comments (0)

Archaeologists discover first known temple to “flayed god” Xipe Totec

January 7th, 2019
Photo of carved stone skull.

Enlarge / This skinned skull, carved from volcanic stone, once covered the burial pit for the skins of human sacrifices to Xipe Totec. (credit: Melitón Tapia, INAH)

Xipe Totec is a god of agricultural renewal. Worshipped with human sacrifice, his priests wore the victims’ skins as ceremonial attire. Statues and carvings of Xipe Totec have turned up at archaeological sites scattered all over Mexico and Central America, but archaeologists with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) say they’ve found the first known temple dedicated to the god. Preliminary dating suggests the temple saw use from 1000 to 1260 CE, which suggests that it was built before the rise of Aztec culture.

A team led by archaeologist Noemí Castillo Tejero excavated the basement of a pyramid at a temple complex in Puebla state in south-central Mexico, where previous seasons’ excavations had found damaged sculptures of Xipe Totec on a pair of altars out front. Inside, they found two sacrificial altars, a small ceramic statue of the god, and two massive carved skulls that they say also represented the skinned face of the Flayed God.

While this is the first temple to Xipe Totec that archaeologists have studied, documents from the Aztec period describe the annual spring ritual of Tlacaxipehualiztli, or “to wear the skin of the flaying.” In these ceremonies, priests sacrificed captive slaves to Xipe Totec, then carefully skinned their bodies and wore the skins to carry out 20 days of rituals.

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Posted in ancient south america, Archaeology, aztec culture, central america, Flayed God, human sacrifice, Mesoamerica, Pre-Columbian civilizations, science, Xipe Totec | Comments (0)

The skulls of ancient pearl divers come with abnormal ear canal bone growths

December 28th, 2018
This temporal bone from a male skull unearthed at the site of a pre-Columbian village near the Gulf of Panama has bony bumps characteristic of surfer's ear.

Enlarge / This temporal bone from a male skull unearthed at the site of a pre-Columbian village near the Gulf of Panama has bony bumps characteristic of surfer's ear. (credit: Smith-Guzman and Cooke)

Surfers, divers, and others who spend time in cold water sometimes suffer from a condition called "surfer’s ear," in which a small bony bump forms in the temporal bone, blocking part of the ear canal. Archaeologists recently found the same bony growths in the skulls of people who lived in pre-Columbian Panama up to 2,400 years ago. They suspect the skulls are the remains of expert pearl divers who spent their lives freediving for valuable items on the ocean floor.

Beneath the surface

The skulls were part of a large collection examined by archaeologists Nicole Smith-Guzman and Richard Cooke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. They found the telltale bumps on the temporal bones of eight skulls with intact ear canals—seven men and one woman. Among the skulls that still had intact ear canals on both sides, 12.2 percent of the men and 3.3 percent of the women had surfer’s ear on at least one side. Most had mild or moderate cases, but one man had enough growth to block more than two-thirds of his ear canal, which may have been enough to cause noticeable hearing loss.

The relatively low frequency of the growths suggests a select group of mostly men who, for some reason, regularly ended up with cold water in their ear canals.

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Posted in ancient people did stuff, ancient south america, Archaeology, biological archaeology, divers, diving, forensic archaeology, freediving, panama, Pre-Columbian civilizations, science, skeleton, South America, South American archaeology | Comments (0)

Satellites watch over the graves of ancient steppe nomads

December 26th, 2018
Satellite photo of two burial mounds

Enlarge / This Google Earth image shows two large Scythian burial mounds, each over 20 meters (65.6 feet) wide. (credit: Caspari et al. 2018)

Around 900 BCE, a group of nomads from Siberia called Scythians began spreading across the central Asian steppe, their mounted archers sweeping across huge swaths of territory. Today the steppe from the Black Sea to northern China is dotted with thousands of their tombs—deep grave pits, covered with mounds of stone or soil. Centuries of looters have ransacked the burial mounds for the ornate gold art and jewelry, as well as the finely crafted weapons and horse gear buried with the Scythian dead. Satellite imagery sheds light on the extent of the destruction, and it may eventually help protect the ancient graves from modern looters.

University of Sydney archaeologist Gino Caspari and his colleagues searched for Scythian burial mounds, or kurgans, in high-resolution satellite images of a 110 square kilometer (68.4 square mile) area of the Xinjiang province in northwestern China. They mapped their findings and noted how many of the burial mounds looked like they’d been disturbed by looters. When looters dig up the contents of the grave pit, the center of the mound usually collapses. Observers who know what they’re looking for can spot that from above; imagine looking at a sheet of bubble wrap to see which ones have been popped.  Although the satellite images weren’t as precise as a detailed ground survey, they offered a pretty accurate estimate of the general situation on the ground—and the news wasn’t good.

Nearly three-quarters of the burial mounds in northern Xinjiang have been looted. That came as a grim surprise for Caspari and his colleagues. “We assumed that, due to the remoteness and the heavy presence of security forces in the region, we would find a higher proportion of intact tombs,” he said in a statement.

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Posted in ancient china, Archaeology, looting, nomads, science, scythians, steppes | Comments (0)

Archaeologists reconstruct pre-Columbian temple with 3D-printed blocks

December 17th, 2018
Archaeologists reconstruct pre-Columbian temple with 3D-printed blocks

Enlarge (credit: Brattarb via Wikimedia Commons)

The unfinished temple in a southern valley of the Lake Titicaca Basin in modern-day Bolivia has been a mystery for at least 500 years. Now known as the Pumapunku—"Door of the Jaguar" in the Quechua language—the complex stone structure is part of a sprawling complex of pyramids, plazas, and platforms built by a pre-Columbian culture we now call the Tiwanaku. Construction began around 500 CE and proceeded off and on, in phases, over the next few centuries until the Tiwanaku left the site around 900 or 1000 CE.

When the Inca Empire rose around 1200 CE, they claimed the sprawling ceremonial complex as the site of the world's creation, although they didn't finish the Tiwanaku's temple.

Old school and high tech

Spanish visitors in the 1500s and 1600s describe “a wondrous, though unfinished, building” with walls of H-shaped andesite pieces and massive gateways and windows carved from single blocks. These were set on remarkably smooth sandstone slabs, some of which weighed over 80 tons. But after centuries of looting, the stones of the Pumapunku are so scattered that not one lies in its original place. The Tiwanaku left behind no written documents or plans to help modern researchers understand what their buildings looked like or what purpose they served.

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Posted in 3d printers, 3D printing, ancient south america, Archaeology, inca, Pre-Columbian civilizations, science, South America, South American archaeology, Tiwanaku | Comments (0)

Medieval skeleton’s boots reveal harsh realities of life on the Thames

December 6th, 2018

The skeleton had lain buried for about 500 years in the muddy silt of Chamber’s Wharf, a site located at a bend in the river just downstream from the Tower of London. Debris in the river tends to accumulate in bends like this one, so there’s no way to be sure exactly where the man fell in. But he ended up face-down in the mud at Chamber’s Wharf, with one arm stretched over his head and the other twisted to the side. The tide-washed sediment would have covered him quickly, the team says, holding his body in place and helping preserve the thigh-high leather boots he was wearing when he died.

The boots are a tangible, deeply personal link to how the unknown man lived, and they offer some hints at how he probably died. They’re comparable to the tall wading boots currently worn by fishermen, sewage workers, water utility crews, and many other industrial workers wear today: thigh-high boots with sturdy reinforced double soles, stuffed with a material that might be moss to keep the wearer’s feet warm or make the boots fit more snugly.

Based on their design, the boots date to the late 1400s or early 1500s, and they’re not the sort of item the man would have taken to his grave on purpose. Leather was a valuable commodity at the time, and almost no one in the working class would have buried such an expensive pair of boots—not when they, or their material, could be reused. Like his awkward final resting position, the man’s boots suggest an untimely, unexpected death.

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Posted in ancient people did stuff, Archaeology, biological archaeology, forensic archaeology, medieval england, medieval history, science, thames river | Comments (0)

Archaeologists map centuries of history beneath world’s oldest cathedral

November 30th, 2018
Digital reconstruction of the original basilica.

Enlarge / Digital reconstruction of the original basilica. (credit: Lateran Project, Newcastle University)

The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran doesn’t quite look its age. The basilica, where the Pope presides in his role as Archbishop of Rome, was already ancient when it was rebuilt in the 1650s. Its walls still hold some of the original material used to build the cathedral under Emperor Constantine in 312 CE. And beneath the modern church lies the original Roman foundation. Excavations since the 1700s have opened up a network of dark, cramped spaces called scavi beneath the four-hectare site of the cathedral.

Centuries of Roman history lie buried in the darkness in layers stretching down to 8.5 meters (27.89 feet) below the modern floor of the cathedral, and the subterranean archaeological sites are like a honeycomb through the city’s Caelian Hill. Now, using a combination of laser scanning and ground-penetrating radar, archeologists have made a complete map of the site.

Basilica, now in 3D

Much of what’s in the scavi has been excavated and studied before, but Lateran Project co-director Ian Haynes and his colleagues say their work is the first detailed survey of the entire underground complex of ruins. They started mapping the exposed sites in the scavi with laser scans in 2012. That work, now completed, allows them to create a digital map of everything that’s currently visible thanks to the old excavations.

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Posted in ancient rome, Archaeology, cathedral, Catholic Church, ground penetrating radar, laser mapping, roman catholic church, roman empire, Rome, science | Comments (0)

Cats, beetles, other mummified animals found—along with a sealed door

November 12th, 2018
Photo of cat statue.

Enlarge (credit: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)

Archaeologists discovered dozens of mummified cats in seven previously undisturbed tombs in a 4,500-year-old pyramid complex near Saqqara, south of Cairo. The cats were found along with a collection of mummified scarab beetles, gilded wood cat statues, painted animal sarcophagi, and other artifacts.

Sacred to Bastet

Today, dozens of intact mummies of any species are a relatively rare find for archaeologists, but mummifying cats and other animals was a common practice in Egypt for thousands of years. The Saqqara cats, like millions of others throughout Egyptian history, would have been bred and raised for eventual mass sacrifice to the protective goddess Bastet, who often appears in Egyptian art as a woman with the head of a lioness or, after about 1000 BCE, a domestic cat.

Most of those once-common mummies were lost to rampant looting across the centuries, which peaked between the 1700s and early 1900s. Europeans looted hundreds of thousands of animal mummies, including baboons, cats, crocodiles, and ibises, most of which were destroyed to make fertilizer.

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Posted in ancient egypt, Archaeology, cat domestication, Cats, egyptology, mummies, science | Comments (0)

The world’s oldest figurative drawing depicts a wounded animal

November 9th, 2018
The world’s oldest figurative drawing depicts a wounded animal

Enlarge (credit: Aubert et al. 2018)

New radiometric dating identifies the oldest known figurative drawing—not a stenciled outline of a hand or an abstract design, but an actual attempt to depict a real object in an image. As far as we know, a cave wall in Indonesian Borneo was the site for the first time a person drew something, rather than just making abstract marks. The drawing is at least 40,000 years old, based on uranium-series dating of a thin layer of rock deposited on top of the drawing since its creation.

It’s a large animal of some sort, outlined and colored in with reddish-orange pigment, but after 40,000 years, parts of the image are missing. Griffith University archaeologist Maxime Aubert and his colleagues say it appears to be a large hoofed mammal with a spear shaft sticking out of its flank.

Other figurative drawings, as old as 35,000 years, have turned up on the nearby island of Sulawesi, alongside hand stencils dating back to 40,000 years ago. And in Europe, people started representing animals in art around the same time, such as on figurines carved in mammoth ivory from Germany. That means the tradition of representing the world around us in art is ancient around the world, from an island in southeast Asia to western Eurasia.

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Posted in ancient art, ancient asia, ancient people did stuff, Archaeology, art, borneo, cave art, cave paintings, human migration, science | Comments (0)

Neanderthal teeth reveal lead exposure and difficult winters

October 31st, 2018
Neanderthal teeth reveal lead exposure and difficult winters


A new study of oxygen isotope ratios and heavy metals in the tooth enamel of Neanderthals who lived and died 250,000 years ago in southeast France suggests that they endured colder winters and more pronounced differences between seasons than the region’s modern residents. The two Neanderthals in the study also experienced lead exposure during their early years, making them the earliest known instances of this exposure.

Enduring harsh winters

Tooth enamel forms in thin layers, and those layers record the chemical traces of a person’s early life—from climate to nutrition to chemical exposures—a little like tree rings on a much smaller scale. Archaeologist Tanya Smith of Griffith University and her colleagues examined microscopic samples of tooth enamel from two Neanderthal children from the Payre site in southeastern France. The teeth were radiocarbon dated to around 250,000 years ago, and the set of samples recorded about three years of life.

One important clue to past environments is oxygen, which comes from the water a person drank or the plants they ate. The ratio of the oxygen-18 isotope to oxygen-16 depends on temperature, precipitation, and evaporation. Generally, higher ratios of oxygen-18 indicate warmer, drier conditions with more evaporation.

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Posted in Archaeology, biological archaeology, isotope analysis, Neanderthals, paleoanthropology, paleoclimate, science, teeth | Comments (0)