Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

Shipwreck on Nile vindicates Greek historian’s account after 2500 years

March 24th, 2019
The hull of so-called "Ship 17," a wreck discovered in the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion.

Enlarge / The hull of so-called "Ship 17," a wreck discovered in the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion. (credit: Christoph Gerigk/Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)

Nearly 2500 years ago, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus described an unusual type of river boat he saw along the Nile while visiting Egypt. Many archaeologists doubted his account, because there wasn't any evidence it ever existed.  But Herodotus is getting some posthumous revenge. The discovery of just such a ship has vindicated his account. The details appear in a new published monograph, Ship 17: a Baris from Thonis-Heracleion, by archaeologist and shipwreck specialist Alexander Belov.

Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian, often called the "father of history" because his nine-volume work, Histories, essentially founded the field. Around 450 BCE, he traveled to Egypt and wrote about seeing construction of a type of cargo boat called a baris. The passage is a fragment, just 23 lines long, and talks of shipbuilders cutting planks and arranging them like bricks using long internal ribs called tenons—a form of construction not known before. There was a mast made of acacia, sails of papyrus, a crescent-shaped hull, and a rudder for steering that passed through a hole in the keel.  But archaeologists had never found such a boat as he described, with many concluding that the historian may have embellished his account.

Why wouldn't they believe the father of history? Well, even though Herodotus is required reading among classicists, he has a reputation for being a bit of a fabulist. Plutarch wrote an entire treatise entitled On the Malice of Herodotus, noting that one could fill several tomes with the "lies and fictions" of the Greek historian. The accounts of his travels through Egypt, Africa, and Asia Minor in particular have been dismissed as more fiction than fact. Granted, some of this might be due to errors in translation. For instance, he claimed to witness fox-sized "ants" in Persia, who spread gold dust as they dug their mounds. There is actually a Himalayan marmot that does this, and the Persian words for "mountain ant" and "marmot" are quite similar.

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Posted in ancient greece, Archaeology, Herodotus, History, science, shipwrecks | Comments (0)

Scientists think they’ve solved one mystery of Easter Island’s statues

March 21st, 2019
Moai statues in a row, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island, Chile.

Enlarge / Moai statues in a row, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island, Chile. (credit: De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images)

Chile's Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is famous for its giant monumental statues, called moai, built by early inhabitants some 800 years ago. The islanders likely chose the statues' locations based on the availability of fresh water sources, according to a recent paper in PLOS One.

Scholars have puzzled over the moai on Easter Island for decades, pondering their cultural significance, as well as how a Stone Age culture managed to carve and transport statues weighing as much as 92 tons. They were typically mounted on platforms called ahu. According to co-author Carl Lipo, an anthropologist at Binghamton University, you can have ahu (platforms) without moai (statues) and moai without ahu, usually along the roads leading to ahu; they were likely being transported and never got to their destination.

Back in 2012, Lipo and his colleague, Terry Hunt of the University of Arizona, showed that you could transport a ten-foot, five-ton moai a few hundred yards with just 18 people and three strong ropes by employing a rocking motion. Last year Lipo proposed an intriguing hypothesis for how the islanders placed red hats on top of some moai; those can weigh up to 13 tons. He suggested the inhabitants used ropes to roll the hats up a ramp.

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Posted in anthropology, Archaeology, easter island, rapa nui, science, statistics | Comments (0)

People brought food from all over Britain to feast near Stonehenge

March 20th, 2019
Prehistoric stone circle in the English countryside.

Enlarge / Feasts at nearby Durrington Walls drew attendees from all over Britain. (credit: Stefan Kühn / Wikimedia)

The remnants of prehistoric monuments still dot the modern British landscape. Around 4,500 years ago, people gathered at these sites or in nearby communities for annual winter feasts where the main delicacy on the menu was pork. Chemical analysis of the pig bones left behind after feasts at four major henge sites in southern Britain reveals a surprisingly far-flung network of Neolithic travel.

This little piggy went to Stonehenge...

Mount Pleasant Henge is a stone circle about 70km (44 miles) southwest of Stonehenge, near the coast of the English Channel. West Kennet Palisaded Enclosures is a set of circular ditches and palisades near the famous stone circle at Avebury, about 39km (24 miles) north of Stonehenge, while Marden Henge, between Avebury and Stonehenge, is a 14-hectare site surrounded by ditches and embankments that once held its own circle of standing stones. Durrington Walls, a large settlement (which eventually built its own stone circle) just 3km (1.86 miles) northeast of Stonehenge, was closely linked with the iconic monument itself.

"Stonehenge is for the dead, Durrington Walls for the living: the place of the builders of Stonehenge and the places of Stonehenge's feasts," archaeologist Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University told Ars Technica. Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of ancient feasting at all four sites: broken ceramics, discarded stone tools, and the bones of butchered pigs. Those 4,500-year-old leftovers suggest that these sites were hubs linking a Neolithic social network that connected far-flung communities from Scotland to Wales.

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Posted in ancient england, ancient europe, ancient people did stuff, Archaeology, avesbury, biological archaeology, durrington walls, isotope analysis, isotopes, marden henge, mount pleasant henge, neolithic, nitrogen isotopes, oxygen isotopes, science, stable carbon isotopes, Stable isotope, stonehenge, strontium isotopes, sulfur isotopes, zooarchaeology | Comments (0)

Study finds people in Ireland and Scotland made “bog butter” for millennia

March 15th, 2019
Modern-day bog butter, made by Benjamin Reade of the Nordic Food Lab and sampled by participants at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in 2012. It's something of an acquired taste.

Enlarge / Modern-day bog butter, made by Benjamin Reade of the Nordic Food Lab and sampled by participants at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in 2012. It's something of an acquired taste. (credit: Navaro/Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient denizens of what is now Ireland and Scotland buried stashes of so-called "bog butter" in peat bogs, presumably to stave off spoilage. Thanks to the unique chemistry of those bogs, the stashes have survived for thousands of years. Now, scientists at University College Dublin have conducted chemical analysis and radiocarbon dating of several bog butters recovered from archaeological sites in Ireland. They found that the practice was a remarkably long-lived tradition, spanning at least 3,500 years, according to their new paper in Nature: Scientific Reports.

The researchers also uncovered the first conclusive evidence that Irish bog butters are derived from dairy fat as opposed to being meat-based. According to bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove, writing in Forbes, "Previous attempts at analyzing bog butter have come up short, because even though the butter is known to have an animal origin, techniques were unable to distinguish between adipose tissue where lipids or fats are stored and milk fats from ruminants like cows and sheep, particularly on an archaeological time-depth."

There are some 430 recorded stashes of bog butter, according to Benjamin Reade of the Nordic Food Lab, 274 of which were found in Scotland and Ireland. It's usually found wrapped in some kind of wooden container—buckets, kegs, barrels, etc.—or animal bladders. The bog butter may have been buried as a means of meat preservation, based on a 1995 study demonstrating that meat buried in peat bogs for up to two years had roughly the same levels of bacteria and pathogens as meat stored in a modern freezer. Alternatively, it may have been a kind of primitive food processing.

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Posted in Archaeology, bog butter, science | Comments (0)

There’s fresh evidence for what happened to people who survived Vesuvius

March 4th, 2019
Scene from <em>The Last Day of Pompeii</em> (circa 1830) by Karl Brullov, who visited Pompeii in 1828.

Enlarge / Scene from The Last Day of Pompeii (circa 1830) by Karl Brullov, who visited Pompeii in 1828. (credit: Karl Brulluv/Public domain)

Modern visitors to the ruins of the two main cities destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD are usually enthralled by the site of plaster casts of those who were killed, frozen in the midst of action. The catastrophic eruption wiped out several nearby towns and killed thousands of people. But some survived, and Miami University archaeologist and historian Steven Tuck thinks he knows where they ended up. He created a database of Roman names and matched them with records from other cities in Italy, describing his findings in a forthcoming paper in the journal Analecta Romana.

"Tuck's combination of history and archaeology has produced strong evidence that it is possible to trace Vesuvian refugees," bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove wrote at Forbes about this new work. "He finds that many refugees settled on the north side of the Bay of Naples, and that families tended to move together and then to marry within their refugee community."

The vast majority of people in Pompeii and Herculaneum—the cities hardest hit—perished from asphyxiation, choking on the thick clouds of noxious gas and ash. But at least some of the Vesuvian victims probably died instantaneously from the intense heat of fast-moving lava flows, with temperatures high enough to boil brains and explode skulls. Less is known about the fortunate survivors.

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Posted in Archaeology, science, Vesuvias | Comments (0)

Searching for the ships Cortés burned before destroying the Aztecs

February 28th, 2019
Searching for the ships Cortés burned before destroying the Aztecs

Enlarge (credit: INAH)

Underwater archaeologists are searching the waters off Playa Villa Rica, about 75 kilometers (46.6 miles) north of Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf coast, for what’s left of conquistador Hernán Cortés’ long-abandoned fleet.

Scouring the seafloor

In 1519, at the very last moment, the Spanish governor of Cuba revoked the charter of an expedition to Mexico after a fierce argument with its leader. But the defiant Cortés set sail with 11 ships and 300 men anyway, and by July, he had worked his way along the Yucatan coast to Veracruz. There, eager to march inland to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, Cortés destroyed 10 of his 11 ships, cutting off his men’s only hope of retreat and leaving them with no option but to head inland.

The expedition ultimately destroyed the Aztec Empire and began the long and often brutal process of colonizing Mexico. Almost no one gave the ships a second thought.

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Posted in Archaeology, colonization, conquistadors, nautical archaeology, science, underwater archaeology | Comments (0)

A 2,000-year-old tattoo needle still has ink on the tip

February 28th, 2019
Tattoo Artifact
Andrew Gillreath-Brown

Enlarge / Tattoo Artifact Andrew Gillreath-Brown (credit: Bub Hubner/WSU)

It’s a simple object about the size of a modern pen: two parallel cactus spines, stained black at the tips and lashed with split yucca leaves to an 89mm (3.5-inch) handle of skunkbrush sumac. But its simplicity hides its significance. Sometime around the start of the Common Era, an Ancestral Pueblo person living in what is now southeastern Utah got a tattoo in black ink. 2,000 years later, archaeologists unearthed the needle, and about 40 years after that, Andrew Gillreath-Brown found it in a box in museum storage, with the ink still staining the tips of the cactus-spine needles.

Gillreath-Brown studied the black pigment under a scanning electron microscope to get a better look at its crystalline structure, and he analyzed its chemical composition with x-ray fluorescence. It turned out to be high in carbon, which is still true of many body paints and tattoo inks in use today. At 2,000 years old, the tool is the oldest tattooing implement ever discovered in western North America, and it’s a clue to a part of prehistoric North American culture that archaeologists still know very little about.

Tattoos have played an important role in many cultures around the world, but anthropologists don’t understand as much as they'd like about the origins of the art form. That's in part because so little evidence remains, and what little we can see is sometimes just as enigmatic as a stranger’s tattoos can be today.

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Posted in ancient north america, ancient people did stuff, anthropology, Archaeology, pueblo peoples, science, tattoos | Comments (0)

The city of Angkor died a slow death

February 27th, 2019
Angkor Wat today, as viewed across a pond next to the 12th-century Hindu temple to Vishnu built under the rule of Suryavarman II.

Angkor Wat today, as viewed across a pond next to the 12th-century Hindu temple to Vishnu built under the rule of Suryavarman II. (credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

In the early Middle Ages, nearly one out of every thousand people in the world lived in Angkor, the sprawling capital of the Khmer Empire in present-day Cambodia. But by the 1500s, Angkor had been mostly abandoned—its temples, citadels, and complex irrigation network left to overgrowth and ruin. Recent studies have blamed a period of unstable climate in which heavy floods followed lengthy droughts, which broke down the infrastructure that moved water around the massive city.

But it turns out Angkor’s waterworks may have been vulnerable to these changes because there was no one left to maintain and repair them. A new study suggests that Khmer rulers, religious officials, and city administrators had been steadily flowing out of Angkor to other cities for at least a century before the end.

A long road to ruin

University of Sydney environmental historian Dan Penny and his colleagues took sediment cores from a moat near the south gate of Angkor Thom, the citadel at the administrative and political heart of the city and the Khmer Empire. Year after year, windblown sediment and runoff from the city’s drainage system settled to the bottom of the moat, storing pollen from local crops, particles of charcoal from burning, and sediment from cleared land. It makes a good measure of activity in the city: the more Angkor’s administrators cleared land, built new structures, and otherwise disturbed the landscape, the more sediment washed and blew into the moat.

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Posted in angkor, Archaeology, cambodia, science, urban infrastructure | Comments (0)

These quarries supplied the stones that built Stonehenge

February 20th, 2019
These quarries supplied the stones that built Stonehenge

Enlarge (credit: Parker Pearson et al. 2019)

Excavations at two ancient quarry sites in western Wales suggest how ancient people probably quarried some of the stones now standing at Stonehenge.

The 42 stones in question are some of the smaller parts at Stonehenge, relatively speaking: they still weigh two to four tons each. They're called the bluestones, and they came all the way from western Wales. Chemical analysis has even matched some of them to two particular quarries on the northern slopes of the Preseli Hills.

One, an outcrop called Carn Goedog, seems to have supplied most of the bluish-gray, white-speckled dolerite at Stonehenge. And another outcrop in the valley below, Craig Rhos-y-felin, supplied most of the rhyolite. University College London archaeologist Michael Parker Pearson and his colleagues have spent the last eight years excavating the ancient quarry sites, and that work has revealed some new information about the origins of Stonehenge.

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Posted in ancient britain, ancient england, ancient europe, ancient people did stuff, Archaeology, megaliths, science, stonehenge | Comments (0)

Shipwreck reveals ancient market for knock-off consumer goods

February 11th, 2019
Photo of portable x-ray fluorescence detector

Enlarge / Archaeologists use a portable X-ray fluorescence detector to analyze 900-year-old artifacts. (credit: Xu et al. 2019)

Sometime in the late 12th century CE, a merchant ship laden with trade goods sank off the coast of Java. The 100,000 ceramic vessels, 200 tons of iron, and smaller amounts of ivory, resin, and tin ingots offer a narrow window onto a much broader world of global trade and political change. The merchant vessel that sank in the Java Sea was the pointy tip of a very long spear, and a new study sheds some light on the trade networks and manufacturing industry hidden behind its cargo—all thanks to a little help from a cool X-ray gun.

Sailing ancient trade routes

There was a network of trade routes that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean and South China Sea by the late 12th century, linking Song Dynasty China to far-flung ports in Japan and Southeast Asia to the east, Indonesia to the south, and the Middle East and eastern Africa to the west. Merchant ships carried crops, raw materials like metals and resin, and manufactured goods like ceramics along these routes. Today, ceramics are a common sight in shipwrecks in these waters, partly because the material outlasts most other things on the seafloor, and partly because of the sheer volumes that could be packed into the holds of merchant ships from around 800 CE to 1300 CE.

Archaeologists have found Chinese ceramics at sites stretching from Japan to the east coast of Africa. And excavations in Southeast China have unearthed several kiln complexes, each with hundreds of dragon kilns—long tunnels dug into hillsides, which could fire up to 30,000 ceramic pieces at a time—clustered into a few square kilometers. All that production was aimed at exporting ceramic bowls, boxes, and other containers to overseas markets. “Most ceramics from this region are seldom recovered from domestic settings in China and are almost exclusively found along the maritime trading routes,” Field Museum archaeologist Lisa Niziolek, a co-author on the study, told Ars Technica.

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Posted in ancient china, Archaeology, Java sea wreck, maritime archaeology, nautical archaeology, science | Comments (0)