Divers recovered giant head of Hercules from Antikythera shipwreck in Greece

A diver with the Return to Antikythera project carefully excavates an artifact.

Enlarge / A diver with the Return to Antikythera project carefully excavates an artifact. (credit: Nikos Giannoulakis/Return to Antikythera)

The so-called Antikythera mechanism, recovered from the wreckage of an ancient cargo ship off the coast of Antikythera Island in Greece, might be the world’s oldest analog computer. The mystery surrounding its purpose and origin continues to fascinate scientists and enthusiasts alike to this day. But it’s not the only treasure salvaged from that Antikythera wreck. An ongoing underwater archaeological project most recently recovered a large marble head of a bearded male figure believed to be part of a statue of Hercules. Divers also recovered a marble plinth with the lower legs of another statue, two human teeth, and several pieces of the cargo ship’s equipment.

As we’ve previously reported, in 1900, a Greek sponge diver named Elias Stadiatis discovered the wreck, which was apparently surrounded by rotting corpses on the sea floor. The captain, Dimitrios Kondos, didn’t believe Elias at first and thought the nitrogen in his breathing mix had affected the diver’s senses. So Kondos dove down to the site himself, emerging with an arm from a bronze statue. 

Kondos and his crew had recovered all kinds of artifacts from the shipwreck by mid-1901, including 36 marble sculptures (representing Hercules, Ulysses, Diomedes, Hermes, and Apollo, among others); a bronze statue dubbed “The Philosopher” (circa 340 BCE); a bronze lyre; pieces of glasswork; and three marble horse statues. Along with the Antikythera mechanism, these precious artifacts are now housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

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#antikythera-mechanism, #antikythera-wreck, #archaeology, #forensic-archaeology, #gaming-culture, #history, #salvage, #science, #shipwrecks

Ancient DNA points to where the Black Death began

Ancient DNA points to where the Black Death began

Enlarge (credit: Spyrou et al. 2022)

In 1338 and 1339, people were dying in droves in the villages around Lake Issyk-Kul in what’s now northern Kyrgyzstan. Many of the tombstones from those years blame the deaths on a generic “pestilence.” According to a recent study of ancient bacterial DNA from the victims’ teeth, the pestilence that swept through the Kyrgyz villages was Yersinia pestis—the same pathogen that would cause the devastating Black Death in Europe just a few years later.

Ground zero for the Black Death?

In just five years, bubonic plague killed at least 75 million people in the Middle East, northern Africa, and Europe. Known as the Black Death, the cataclysm of 1346-1352 is still the most deadly pandemic in human history. But the Black Death was only the first devastating wave of what historians call the second plague pandemic: a centuries-long period in which waves of Y. pestis periodically burned through communities or whole regions. When English diarist Samuel Pepys wrote about the Great Plague of London in 1666, he was describing a later wave of the same pandemic that began in the mid-1300s with the Black Death. Centuries of life with the reality of the plague actually shaped the genetic diversity of modern European populations.

And like every pandemic, the second plague pandemic had to start somewhere.

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#ancient-dna, #archaeology, #biological-archaeology, #black-death, #bubonic-plague, #medieval-archaeology, #metagenomics, #science, #y-pestis, #yersinia-pestis

Ancient Women’s Teeth Reveal Origins of 14-Century Black Death

A medieval cemetery yields DNA evidence of the deadly pandemic bacterium’s Central Asian ancestor

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#archaeology, #biology, #genetics

Ancient Women’s Teeth Reveal Origins of 14th-Century Black Death

A medieval cemetery yields DNA evidence of the deadly pandemic bacterium’s Central Asian ancestor

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#archaeology, #biology, #genetics

Archaeologists find hidden chamber beneath ancient Peruvian temple

The circular plaza at Chavin de Huantar—once a ceremonial gathering space, and later the site of a village.

Enlarge / The circular plaza at Chavin de Huantar—once a ceremonial gathering space, and later the site of a village. (credit: CyArk Chavin Database)

Today, the temples, canals, and plazas of Chavín de Huántar stand mostly in ruins. But the site (about 250 kilometers north of Lima, Peru) was once was the heart of the Chavín culture, a civilization that flourished in the central Andes centuries before the rise of the Inca Empire. Its oldest granite and limestone temples date back to about 1200 BCE, but people have lived at the site for much longer, since at least 3000 BCE.

Even after the Chavín culture’s power faded, members of the Huaraz group used stones from the ancient temples to build a village in an abandoned plaza. People lived at Chavín de Huántar until the 1940s. The place has had a long enough life that, over thousands of years, even the people who lived there lost track of some of its secrets.

Archaeologists rediscovered one of those secrets by accident: a narrow duct leading to a small ritual chamber eight meters deep beneath one of the site’s temple buildings. Based on the style of its architecture, the hidden chamber may be older than any other building or tunnel at the site.

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#ancient-people-did-stuff, #ancient-south-america, #archaeology, #indigenous-south-america, #peru, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science

Diving brothers found the wreck of the Gloucester 300+ years after sinking

In 1682 a royal ship carrying the heir to the English throne ran aground and sank off the Norfolk Coast. The wreck was discovered by two brothers in 2007 and has remained a closely kept secret until now.

At 5:30 am on the morning of May 6, 1682, a ship called the Gloucester ran aground on a sandbank off the coast of Norfolk and sank within the hour. Among the passengers was James Stuart, Duke of York and future King James II of England, who escaped in a small boat just before the ship sank. Had he perished, British history might have played out quite differently. Yesterday we learned that the wreck of the Gloucester was discovered by a pair of brothers in 2007, although it took several more years to verify that the wreck was indeed the Gloucester. Its discovery has been a closely guarded secret until now.

“Because of the circumstances of its sinking, this can be claimed as the single most significant historic maritime discovery since the raising of the Mary Rose [Henry VIII’s favorite warship] in 1982,” said maritime history expert Claire Jowitt of the University of East Anglia (UEA). “The discovery promises to fundamentally change understanding of 17th-century social, maritime and political history.” Jowitt is the author of a new paper published in the journal English Historical Review, outlining the significance of the find.

This was a particularly fraught historical period, rife with political intrigue and religious tensions. In January 1649, King Charles I was executed and Oliver Cromwell came into power as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Ireland, and Scotland. The executed king’s sons, Charles (the heir) and James, fled to France where they lived in exile.

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#archaeology, #gaming-culture, #history, #king-james-ii, #maritime-archaeology, #science, #shipwrecks

Pompeii victim had spinal tuberculosis when he died

This is not what a healthy lumbar vertebra is supposed to look like.

Enlarge / This is not what a healthy lumbar vertebra is supposed to look like. (credit: Scorrano et al. 2022)

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the Roman city of Pompeii in ash in 79 CE. Anthropologists recently sequenced ancient DNA from one of the victims, a man in his late 30s, providing a glimpse into the family background of a Roman citizen.

The results also suggest that he suffered from a tuberculosis infection in his lower spine. In one of the victim’s vertebrae, the study found DNA from the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, suggesting that the infection had traveled through the bloodstream from his lungs to his lower spine.

Pompeii man was Italian

A team led by anthropologist Gabriele Scorrano of the University of Rome sequenced the genome of the victim, which revealed, unsurprisingly, that man was of central Italian descent. Although the ancient man’s genome didn’t yield much new information about life in Pompeii, it proves that bones from Pompeii may still contain enough DNA to sequence—and that could be exciting news.

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#ancient-dna, #ancient-rome, #anthropology, #archaeology, #biological-anthropology, #pompeii, #potts-disease, #science, #tuberculosis, #vesuvius

Lidar reveals networks of pre-Columbian cities and towns in Bolivia

Cotoca, a 125 hectare settlement, sits at the center of a network of causeways linking it to smaller communities.

Enlarge / Cotoca, a 125 hectare settlement, sits at the center of a network of causeways linking it to smaller communities.

An airborne lidar survey recently revealed the long-hidden ruins of 11 pre-Columbian Indigenous towns in what is now northern Bolivia. The survey also revealed previously unseen details of defensive walls and complex ceremonial buildings at 17 other settlements in the area, built by a culture about which archaeologists still know very little: the Casarabe.

In the last few years, lidar—which uses infrared beams to see what lies beneath dense foliage—has helped archaeologists map a long-hidden, long-forgotten landscape of towns, fortresses, causeways, canals, terraced fields, and ceremonial sites left behind by the Maya and Olmec civilizations across a huge swath of modern Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico. Those cultures are fairly well-known to archaeologists and historians, but lidar surveys have still revealed some huge surprises. And we know far less about the Casarabe culture, as it hasn’t been the subject of as many surveys and excavations as bigger, more famous civilizations like the Maya.

But a recent lidar survey, led by Heiko Prümers of the German Archaeological Institute, shed more light (infrared, specifically) on the Casarabe culture’s network of towns and cities, linked by hundreds of kilometers of causeways and canals. The survey also revealed a thriving urban culture in an area where historians once assumed very few people lived before Spanish colonization.

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#aerial-archaeology, #airborne-archaeology, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #archaeology, #bolivia, #casarabe-culture, #indigenous-south-america, #lidar, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science

Analysis of prehistoric feces shows Stonehenge people had parasites

The prehistoric monument of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK. A large Neolithic settlement known as Durrington Walls is less than two miles away and is believed to be where the people who built the famous site camped during the main stage of construction.

Enlarge / The prehistoric monument of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK. A large Neolithic settlement known as Durrington Walls is less than two miles away and is believed to be where the people who built the famous site camped during the main stage of construction. (credit: Adam Stanford)

Nearly two miles away from Stonehenge, there is a large Neolithic settlement known as Durrington Walls, believed to be where the people who built the famous site camped during the main stage of construction. British archaeologists have analyzed fossilized fecal matter collected at the site and found that it contained the eggs of parasitic worms, according to a new paper published in the journal Parasitology. The preserved feces belonged to both dogs and humans, indicating that people brought dogs to the site with them for winter feasts and likely shared the scraps with the canines.

“This is the first time intestinal parasites have been recovered from Neolithic Britain, and to find them in the environment of Stonehenge is really something,” said co-author Piers Mitchell, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge. “The type of parasites we find are compatible with previous evidence for winter feasting on animals during the building of Stonehenge.”

For archaeologists keen on learning more about the health and diet of past populations—as well as how certain parasites evolved over the evolutionary history of the microbiome—preserved samples of ancient poo can be a veritable goldmine of information. For instance, ancient Iron Age miners in what is now Austria were quite fond of beer and blue cheese, according to a 2021 analysis of preserved paleo-poop excavated from the prehistoric underground salt mines of Hallstatt-Dachstein/Salzkammergut, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Fecal samples are usually found in dry caves, desert areas, frozen areas, or waterlogged environments (like bogs), where desiccation, freezing, and similar processes preserve the fecal matter for posterity.

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#archaeology, #coprolites, #paleofeces, #science, #stonehenge

Inca priests plied child sacrificial victims with drugs

Inca priests plied child sacrificial victims with drugs

Enlarge (credit: By Nilsf – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23446041)

A recent toxicology analysis of the 500-year-old remains of two small children sacrificed in a ritual atop southern Peru’s Ampato volcano showed that the children’s hair and fingernails contained traces of cocaine, as well as two chemical compounds from a flowering vine that’s a key ingredient in the psychedelic beverage ayahuasca.

The compounds in question, harmine and harmaline, are both part of a group of antidepressants called MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors). The only possible place the Inca could have found these compounds is the flowering vine known to modern science as Banisteriopsis caapi—and to the Indigenous Quechua people as “liana of the dead.” Famously, the liana is one of the two main ingredients in a ritual drink called ayahuasca, which can induce hallucinations or an altered state of mind.

But the analysis found no trace of the compound DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine), which makes ayahuasca such a powerful hallucinogenic. That compound comes from the other main ingredient in ayahuasca, a shrub called chacruna (which, incidentally, is a relative of the plant that gives us coffee).

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#ancient-south-america, #archaeology, #ayahuasca, #chicha, #cocaine, #human-sacrifice, #inca, #incan-empire, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science

This is what the Salisbury Plain looked like before Stonehenge

Stonehenge as viewed from the northeast

Enlarge / Stonehenge as viewed from the northeast, showing the post-and-lintel construction of the Sarsen Circle. (credit: Timothy Darvill)

Stonehenge was an important place for thousands of years before people placed the first stones, according to a recent study. Archaeologists used the microscopic remains of insects, pollen, fungal spores, and ancient DNA preserved in the soil to reconstruct the ancient environment of southwest England’s Salisbury Plain. Six-thousand years ago, the plain was a mosaic of open grassland and woods, where archaeological evidence shows that people once hunted herds of extinct cattle called aurochs.

Samuel Hudson, an environmental scientist at the University of Southampton, and his colleagues say their findings suggest that many of the ceremonial sites and routes left behind by Britain’s earliest farmers—the builders of Stonehenge—may date back thousands of years to land used by the first occupiers of Britain after the end of the last Ice Age.

What happens when worlds collide?

About a mile away from Stonehenge lies an older, less famous archaeological site called Blick Mead. Here, the Salisbury Plain meets the floodplain of the River Avon. Stone tools (more than 100,000 of them), butchered animal bones, and charred fish bones show that people came to this place repeatedly for thousands of years during the Mesolithic period.

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#ancient-britain, #ancient-dna, #archaeology, #megaliths, #mesolithic, #neolithic, #paleoecology, #palynology, #science, #stonehenge

Could this pottery shard be a 1,000-year-old hand grenade? Signs point to yes

Analysis of the residue inside this shard from a ceramic vessel indicates it may have been used as a hand grenade. The shard was excavated from a site in Jerusalem in the 1960s, and dates back to the 11th or 12th century CE.

Enlarge / Analysis of the residue inside this shard from a ceramic vessel indicates it may have been used as a hand grenade. The shard was excavated from a site in Jerusalem in the 1960s, and dates back to the 11th or 12th century CE. (credit: C.D. Matheson et al., 2022)

Archaeologists have analyzed the residue inside four medieval ceramic shards and determined that one of them may have been used as a hand grenade, according to a recent paper published in the journal PLOS One. And the explosive used was likely made locally rather than gunpowder imported from China.

Byzantine soldiers used early versions of grenades in the 8th century CE, building on the “Greek fire” invented a century earlier. Instead of using Greek fire with flamethrowers, they placed the incendiary material in small stone or ceramic (and later, glass) jars to create handheld explosives. By the 10th century, the technology had spread to China, with Chinese soldiers packing gunpowder into ceramic or metal containers with a fuse attached.

India likely also had grenade-like weapons. A 12th century manuscript (based on an earlier Sanskrit work) describes a terra-cotta elephant filled with explosives with a fuse that was unleashed on an invading army. A mid-14th century Chinese treatise references a “flying-cloud thunderclap cannon,” described as cast iron shells shaped like a ball and roughly the size of a bowl, filled with gunpowder (“divine fire”). Similar grenades first appeared in Europe in 1467 and have been a staple of warfare since.

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#archaeology, #science

Terahertz imaging reveals hidden inscription on 16th-century funerary cross

Georgia Tech's Alexandre Locquet (left) and David Citrin (right) with an image of the 16th-century funerary cross used in their study.

Enlarge / Georgia Tech’s Alexandre Locquet (left) and David Citrin (right) with an image of the 16th-century funerary cross used in their study. (credit: Georgia Tech-Lorraine)

In 1843, archaeologists excavated the burial grounds of Remiremont Abbey in Lorraine, France (the abbey was founded in the 7th century). It was medieval custom to bury the deceased with cross-shaped plaques cut from thin sheets of lead placed across the chest. The crosses often included inscribed prayers, but many of those inscriptions have been rendered unreadable over the ensuing centuries by layers of corrosion. Now, an interdisciplinary team of scientists has successfully subjected one such funerary cross to terahertz (THz) imaging and revealed its hidden inscription—fragments of the Lord’s Prayer (Pater Noster)—according to a new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Our approach enabled us to read a text that was hidden beneath corrosion, perhaps for hundreds of years,” said co-author Alexandre Locquet of Georgia Tech-Lorraine in Metz, France. “Clearly, approaches that access such information without damaging the object are of great interest to archaeologists.” According to the authors, this approach is also useful for studying historical paintings, detecting skin cancer, measuring the thickness of automotive paints, and making sure turbine blade coatings adhere properly.

In recent years, a variety of cutting-edge non-destructive imaging methods have proved to be a boon to art conservationists and archaeologists alike. Each technique has its advantages and disadvantages. For instance, ground-penetrating radar (radio waves) is great for locating buried artifacts, among other uses, while lidar is useful for creating high-resolution maps of surface terrain. Infrared reflectography is well-suited to certain artworks whose materials contain pigments that reflect a lot of infrared light. Ultraviolet light is ideal for identifying varnishes and detecting any retouching that was done with white pigments containing zinc and titanium, although UV light doesn’t penetrate paint layers.

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#archaeology, #gaming-culture, #physics, #science, #terahertz-imaging

Melting ice in a Norwegian alpine pass reveals a 1,500-year-old shoe

ancient leather shoe molded to a foam foot form

Enlarge / Conservation efforts for the shoe included careful reshaping and freeze-drying. (credit: Secrets of the Ice)

Sometime between 200 and 500 CE, someone crossing a high mountain pass in Norway discarded a shoe. More than 1,500 years later, an unusually warm summer melted centuries of accumulated snow and ice, revealing the ancient shoe—and an assortment of other objects left behind by ancient and medieval travelers on the snowy mountain trails. Archaeologists with the Secrets of the Ice project recovered the shoe in 2019, finished conserving it in 2021, and recently published a report about the site and the finds.

The report “is for internal archiving only and [is] not published,” Secrets of the Ice co-director Lars Holger Pilø told Ars in an email. “In addition, it is in Norwegian.”

But Pilø and his colleagues recently shared some highlights via the project’s social media and in a conversation with Ars.

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#ancient-europe, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #archaeology, #glacial-melt, #glaciers, #iron-age, #medieval-europe, #middle-ages, #norway, #science, #viking-age

Stone Age people may have gathered at night to watch animated “fireside art”

A VR simulation showing what a Palaeolithic plaquette looks like under the flickering light of a fire. Several horses are engraved on this plaquette. As the firelight moves different horses are illuminated, giving a sense of dynamism to the art. (Izzy Wisher, CC-BY 4.0)

In 1866, a French engineer named Peccadeau de l’Isle was working on the construction of a railway line in southern France, digging for artifacts along the banks of the River Aveyron in his spare time. Some 23 feet (7 meters) down, he found a number of prehistoric flint tools and prehistoric art. They included the famed Swimming Reindeer sculpture and a carved spear thrower in the shape of a mammoth, as well as numerous engraved flat stones called plaquettes, all created by the Magdalenian people sometime between 16,000 and 13,500 years ago.

The finds caused a sensation at the time, mostly because they provided evidence of a colder climate during this period and that men had co-existed during the ice age with mammoths. A new analysis by English archaeologists of the limestone plaquettes excavated by de l’Isle concludes that the stones may have been placed around fire hearths. The team’s digital reconstructions showed that the engraved images would appear to move and flicker in the firelight, amounting to a kind of animated “fireside art.” The details appear in a new paper published in the journal PLoS ONE.

“This must have been quite a powerful visual effect,” co-author Andrew Needham of the University of York told New Scientist—particularly in the context of a campfire. “This was likely an important social space. It might have been a place to share stories or chat and bond with each other after long days spent out in the landscape hunting and gathering. The art is not just the engraved lines on the rock, but those engraved lines experienced under the correct conditions of darkness and roving light. It changes our appreciation of what art was and how it was used by Magdalenian people.”

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#archaeology, #gaming-culture, #paleolithic, #science

We don’t know who made the giant stone jars found in northern India

We don’t know who made the giant stone jars found in northern India

Enlarge (credit: Nicholas Skopal)

Hundreds of huge stone jars lie partially buried on hillsides and ridges in northeastern India. A recent survey found 65 jars at four previously undocumented sites, and the survey’s leaders say there are probably many more sites still hidden in the area’s mountainous forests. The jars are part of a whole landscape of megaliths carved by an ancient Indian culture which—so far—archaeologists know little about.

Enormous burial urns

Sometime in India’s ancient past, people carved giant jars, some up to two meters wide and three meters tall, from solid sandstone blocks. They transported the jars to hillsides and ridges and lined them up carefully, with a good view of the lowlands. Today, hundreds of those jars are in various states of disrepair, spread across a 300 square kilometer swath of Assam, a state in northeast India.

Archaeologists say the jars are probably massive burial urns, but almost nothing is known about the people who made them. It’s not even clear exactly how old the jars are, because the types of dating that could provide that information haven’t been done yet. “We still don’t know who made the giant jars or where they lived,” said Australian National University archaeologist Nicholas Skopal, a co-author of the recent paper, in a statement. “It seems as though there aren’t any living ethnic groups in India associated with the jars.”

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#ancient-asia, #ancient-india, #archaeology, #grave-goods, #india, #laos, #plain-of-jars, #science

This is the oldest known use of the Maya calendar

Black and white sketch of pyramid and raised platform.

Enlarge / An artist’s sketch of what the 300-200 BCE temple complex at San Bartolo looked like in its heyday. (credit: Stuart et al. 2022)

Amid rubble buried beneath a Maya pyramid in Northern Guatemala, archaeologists found a broken bit of plaster with a glyph painted on it. A bar-and-dot symbol for the number “7” is drawn above a deer head, representing “7 Deer,” a date in the 260-day Maya calendar system. At around 2,300 years old, the painted plaster is the oldest known use of the calendar system once used by cultures across Mesoamerica, including the Aztec and the Maya—and still used by many Maya communities today.

“Its persistence in many communities up to the present day stands as a testament of its importance in religious and social life,” wrote University of Texas archaeologist David Stuart and his colleagues in their recent paper about the glyph. “Our ability to trace its early use back some 23 centuries stands as another testament to its historical and cultural significance.”

7 Deer, 2,300 years ago

The Maya calendar combines the numbers 1 through 13 with 20 words for animals, plants, or concepts. Those 20 words rotate in a set order; for instance, Deer is always followed by Rabbit, Water, Dog, Monkey, and Grass. When the numbers paired with the days reach 13, they start over, so 13 Rabbit would be followed by 1 Water, 2 Dog, and so on. (Pop quiz: What’s the day after 7 Deer?)

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#ancient-central-america, #ancient-south-america, #archaeology, #maya, #maya-calendar, #mesoamerica, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science

Ancient Peruvian was buried with tools for cranial surgery

Ancient Peruvian was buried with tools for cranial surgery

(credit: Sican National Museum)

Archaeologists recently unearthed an unusual tomb in a temple complex at the Huaca Las Ventanas archaeological site near Lambaeque, in northern Peru. The site belonged to the Sican culture, one of the several complex societies that flourished prior to the rise of the Inca Empire (around 1400 CE) in northern Peru. The tomb reveals that the Sican—like several other Indigenous cultures spanning the length of Peru and about 4,000 years of history—practiced a type of cranial surgery called trepanation.

The surgeon’s tomb

Trepanation is the delicate art of cutting or drilling a hole in a person’s skull. It sounds brutal, but it can actually help relieve pressure on the brain from inflammation or bleeding, such as might occur after a head injury. Modern surgeons sometimes use a similar procedure, called a craniotomy, to relieve pressure from bleeding under the membrane that surrounds the brain.

Of course, modern craniotomies are guided by CT scans and MRIs. Ancient surgeons just had to go by sight and feel, which makes their success rates pretty remarkable. Archaeologists in Peru have found the remains of about 800 trepanation patients from the last 4,000 years, and the majority of them show signs of bone healing around the edges of the hole—which means they survived serious head trauma and cranial surgery to treat it.

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#ancient-people-did-stuff, #ancient-south-america, #archaeology, #incan-empire, #indigenous-americans, #indigenous-communities, #indigenous-south-america, #peru, #science, #surgery

Researchers home in on possible “day zero” for Antikythera mechanism

The Antikythera mechanism

Enlarge / Fragment of the Antikythera mechanism, circa 205 BC, housed in the collection of National Archaeological Museum, Athens. (credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Image)

The mysterious Antikythera mechanism—an ancient device believed to have been used for tracking the heavens—has fascinated scientists and the public alike since it was first recovered from a shipwreck over a century ago. Much progress has been made in recent years to reconstruct the surviving fragments and learn more about how the mechanism might have been used. And now, members of a team of Greek researchers believe they have pinpointed the start date for the Antikythera mechanism, according to a preprint posted to the physics arXiv. Knowing that “day zero” is critical to ensuring the accuracy of the device.

“Any measuring system, from a thermometer to the Antikythera mechanism, needs a calibration in order to [perform] its calculations correctly,” co-author Aristeidis Voulgaris of the Thessaloniki Directorate of Culture and Tourism in Greece told New Scientist. “Of course it wouldn’t have been perfect—it’s not a digital computer, it’s gears—but it would have been very good at predicting solar and lunar eclipses.” 

As we’ve previously reported, in 1900, a Greek sponge diver named Elias Stadiatis discovered the wreck of an ancient cargo ship off the coast of Antikythera island in Greece. He and other divers recovered all kinds of artifacts from the ship. A year later, an archaeologist named Valerios Stais was studying what he thought was a piece of rock recovered from the shipwreck when he noticed that there was a gear wheel embedded in it. It turned out to be an ancient mechanical device. The Antikythera mechanism is now housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

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#antikythera-mechanism, #archaeoastronomy, #archaeology, #astronomy, #celestial-mechanics, #gaming-culture, #science

Jerusalem Archaeology Modernizes but Runs into Ancient Problems

A new generation of scholars working in the Holy Land remain haunted by scripture and riven by modern politics

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#archaeology, #features, #social-sciences

Archaeologists unearth ancient Sumerian riverboat in Iraq

Archaeologists unearth ancient Sumerian riverboat in Iraq

Enlarge (credit: German Archaeological Institute)

All that’s left of the ancient boat today is the bitumen, a black tar that once coated its framework of reeds, palm leaves, or wood. That fragile organic material is long gone, leaving behind only ghostly imprints in the bitumen. But there’s enough left for archaeologists to tell that in its heyday, the boat would have been a relatively slender craft—7 meters long and about 1.5 meters wide—well-suited to navigating the rivers and canals of ancient Sumer.

Archaeologists found the boat in an area that, 4,000 years ago, would have been the bustling hinterlands of the largest city in the world: Uruk. Founded in 5000 BCE from the merger of two smaller settlements on the bank of the Euphrates River, Uruk was one of the world’s first major cities and possibly even the birthplace of the world’s first writing (the oldest known writing samples in the world are tablets from Uruk). The Sumerian King List claims the legendary hero-king, Gilgamesh, ruled from his seat at Uruk in the 2600s BCE, which is not long before the recently excavated boat was built, sailed, and sank.

At its height around 3000 BCE, Uruk boasted 40,000 residents in the city itself, with a total population of about 80,000 or 90,000 people in the surrounding hinterlands. The area outside the city boasted smaller communities, farms, ancient manufacturing workshops, and networks of canals. Uruk was beginning its long, slow decline by 2000 BCE, around the time our boat was built.

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#ancient-mesopotamia, #ancient-sumer, #archaeology, #boats, #euphrates-river, #nautical-archaeology, #science, #sumer

A tsunami wiped out ancient communities the Atacama Desert 3,800 years ago

A tsunami wiped out ancient communities the Atacama Desert 3,800 years ago

Enlarge (credit: Salazar et al. 2022)

A recent study of geological deposits and archaeological remains has identified a massive earthquake and tsunami that wiped out communities along the coastline of Chile’s Atacama Desert around 3,800 years ago. Studying the ancient disaster—and people’s responses to it—could help with modern hazard planning along the seismically active coast.

A long-forgotten disaster

Broken walls and toppled stones reveal the calamity that struck Zapatero, an ancient community in what’s now northern Chile, about 4,000 years ago.

The people who lived along the coast of the Atacama Desert 5,700 to 4,000 years ago built villages of small stone houses atop massive piles of shells (Zapatero’s shell-filled midden is two meters deep and spans 6 square kilometers). Usually, these houses stood adjacent to each other, opening onto inner patios. People buried their dead beneath the houses’ floors. The cement floors were made from algae ash, seawater, and shells—the same material that held the stone walls together.

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#ancient-people-did-stuff, #ancient-south-america, #archaeology, #atacama-desert, #chile, #earthquakes, #geoarchaeology, #geology, #natural-disasters, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science, #tsunamis

The world’s oldest pants are a 3,000-year-old engineering marvel

The world’s oldest pants are a 3,000-year-old engineering marvel

Enlarge (credit: Wagner et al. 2022)

With the help of an expert weaver, archaeologists have unraveled the design secrets behind the world’s oldest pants. The 3,000-year-old wool trousers belonged to a man buried between 1000 and 1200 BCE in Western China. To make them, ancient weavers combined four different techniques to create a garment specially engineered for fighting on horseback, with flexibility in some places and sturdiness in others.

The softer side of materials science

Most of us don’t think much about pants these days, except to lament having to put them on in the morning. But trousers were actually a technological breakthrough. Mounted herders and warriors needed their leg coverings to be flexible enough to let the wearer swing a leg across a horse without ripping the fabric or feeling constricted. At the same time, they needed some added reinforcement at crucial areas like the knees. It became, to some extent, a materials-science problem. Where do you want something elastic, and where do you want something strong? And how do you make fabric that will accomplish both?

For the makers of the world’s oldest pants, produced in China around 3,000 years ago, the answer was apparently to use different weaving techniques to produce fabric with specific properties in certain areas, despite weaving the whole garment out of the same spun wool fiber.

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#ancient-china, #ancient-people-did-stuff, #archaeology, #experimental-archaeology, #fabric, #pants, #science, #weaving

A fresh take on why Octavian won the war against Antony and Cleopatra

Anachronistic baroque painting of the pivotal Battle of Actium by Laureys a Castro, 1672.

Enlarge / Anachronistic baroque painting of the pivotal Battle of Actium by Laureys a Castro, 1672. (credit: Public domain)

Historians widely consider the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE to be the decisive event that led to Octavian defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The couple committed suicide—Antony by stabbing himself in the stomach, and Cleopatra by the bite of an asp (or, alternatively, by some other poison). Octavian subsequently became the Roman Emperor Augustus, thereby ushering in the Pax Romana, a 200-year period of peace and prosperity that lasted until 180 CE.

Barry Strauss, a historian at Cornell University, argues that the true pivotal moment in the conflict occurred some six months before as part of a strategic campaign to cut off the supply lines for Antony and Cleopatra’s forces. Strauss makes his case in his new book, The War that Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium, re-creating the battle in detail, as well as what he maintains was the turning point of the war six months before.

This is a particularly dramatic historical period that inspired two separate historical plays by William Shakespeare. Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar was famously stabbed to death at the Curia of Pompey on the ides of March in 44 BCE. The senators who killed him thought assassination was the only way to preserve the republic, but the murder ultimately led to the republic’s collapse. The following year, Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, formed the Second Triumvirate with Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.

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#antony-and-cleopatra, #archaeology, #ars-shopping, #battle-of-actium, #books, #gaming-culture, #history, #military-history, #octavian, #octavius, #roman-history, #science

Robotic dog will be on patrol in Pompeii

Robotic dog will be on patrol in Pompeii

Enlarge (credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii)

The nearby volcano blackened the sky and swallowed the city in clouds of ash; centuries later, robot dogs now prowl the ruins, guarding the city’s dead against the ravages of time.

That’s not a movie plot. It’s what’s actually happening at the 2,000-year-old Roman ruins of Pompeii, in Southern Italy. Boston Dynamics’ robot dog, Spot, will help archaeologists and preservation crews by patrolling the 66-hectare site for signs of erosion, damage, and looting.

“They’re good dogs, Brent”

The volcanic ash that buried Pompeii in 79 CE turned a thriving Roman coastal city into a well-preserved tomb—and a time capsule. Today, the archaeological site is one of the most famous in the world, and it continues to reveal new glimpses of life in a cosmopolitan Roman city during the empire’s heyday, like an ancient fast-food counter excavated in 2020.

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#archaeology, #boston-dynamics, #looting, #pompeii, #robots, #science

Space Archaeology Takes Off

An International Space Station project is “one small step” for off-world fieldwork

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#advances, #archaeology, #social-sciences

Anthropology Association Apologizes to Native Americans for the Field’s Legacy of Harm

For decades anthropologists exploited Indigenous peoples in the name of science. Now they are reckoning with that history

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#anthropology, #archaeology, #ethics, #social-sciences

Largest Aztec temple was decorated with over 100 starfish

This imprint preserves details of the internal structure of the starfish, as well as its overall shape. It's one of 164 starfish recently unearthed at the Templo Mayor site in Mexico City.

Enlarge / This imprint preserves details of the internal structure of the starfish, as well as its overall shape. It’s one of 164 starfish recently unearthed at the Templo Mayor site in Mexico City. (credit: INAH)

Aztec priests at Tenochtitlán offered a whole galaxy of starfish to the war god Huitzilopochtli 700 years ago, along with a trove of other objects from the distant edges of the Aztec Empire. Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) recently unearthed the offering on the site of the Templo Mayor, the main temple in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, in what is now Mexico City.

Ahuizotl, coast to coast

The offering included 164 starfish from a species called Nidorella armata, known less formally as the chocolate chip starfish because it’s mostly the color of cookie dough, but it has dark spots. (It shares the nickname with the other chocolate chip sea star, Protoreaster nodosus, which provides an excellent argument in favor of scientific names.) Nidorella armata lives along the Pacific coastline from Mexico south to Peru, where it hangs out on shallow-water reefs of rock and coral.

For Tenochtitlán, the nearest source of chocolate chip starfish would have been nearly 300 kilometers away from the Aztec capital. Chunks of coral found in the same offering came from about the same distance away but in roughly the opposite direction—the western end of the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, these items came from the farthest eastern and western edges of the Aztec Empire, places that the Aztec ruler Ahuizotl had only recently conquered.

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#archaeology, #aztec, #aztec-empire, #indigenous-americans, #mesoamerica, #mexica, #nahuatl, #pre-columbian-civilizations, #science, #templo-mayor, #tenochtitlan

Legendary Shipwreck of Shackleton’s Endurance Discovered in Antarctic Waters

The discovery of the wreck is “a milestone in polar history,” says the director of the search for it

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#archaeology, #social-sciences

UK archaeologist suggests Stonehenge may have been an ancient solar calendar

A new theory holds that Stonehenge served as an ancient solar calendar.

Enlarge / A new theory holds that Stonehenge served as an ancient solar calendar. (credit: Timothy Darvill/Bournemouth University)

Scholars have long speculated that the famed prehistoric monument Stonehenge might have served as some kind of calendar that helped local people predict eclipses, summer and winter solstices, the equinox, and other relevant celestial events. Now, a British archaeologist has concluded that the site was designed as a solar calendar, and he describes his system in a recent paper published in the journal Antiquity.

“Finding a solar calendar represented in the architecture of Stonehenge opens up a whole new way of seeing the monument as a place for the living—a place where the timing of ceremonies and festivals was connected to the very fabric of the universe and celestial movements in the heavens,” Bournemouth University archaeologist Timothy Darvill said.

Stonehenge is located on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. It consists of an outer circle of vertical sandstone slabs (sarsen stones), connected on top by horizontal lintel stones. There is also an inner ring of smaller bluestones and, within that ring, several free-standing trilithons (larger sarsens joined by one lintel). Radiocarbon dating indicates that the inner ring of bluestones was set in place between 2400 and 2200 BCE. But the standing arrangement of sarsen stones wasn’t erected until around 500 years after the bluestones.

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#anthropology, #archaeoastronomy, #archaeology, #gaming-culture, #science, #stonehenge

A 40,000-year-old Chinese stone tool culture unlike any other

Extreme close-up photo of prehistoric stone tool.

Enlarge / This chert bladelet still has a remnant of its bone haft attached. (credit: Wang et al. 2022)

We know the oldest human cultures only from their most durable parts: mostly stone tools, sometimes bone. Show an experienced Pleistocene archaeologist a chert blade, and they can probably tell you which hominin species made it, how long ago, and where. But the 40,000-year-old stones and bones archaeologist Fa-Gang Wang and his colleagues recently unearthed at a 40,000-year-old Chinese site called Xiamabei look like nothing archaeologists have seen before.

Unique stone tool technology

The people who lived at Xiamabei, in northern China’s Niwehan Basin, used a toolkit that consisted mostly of tiny bladelets (small, sharp pieces of stone), often hafted onto bone handles. Based on microscopic traces of wear and tear on the tools, people at Xiamabei seemed to have used the same generic bladelets for everything from scraping hides and cutting meat to boring wood and whittling softer plant matter.

Nearly every one of the 382 stone tools unearthed at Xiamabei is less than four centimeters long; making and using these smaller blades would have allowed early humans to do more work with less material. Handles helped make the tools easier to grip and more versatile; Wang and his colleagues found one bladelet with part of a bone haft still attached to the stone. On several of the 17 other bladelets the researchers examined closely for microscopic signs of wear, they found tiny scratches left by bone handles, along with imprints from the plant fibers used to bind the bladelets in place.

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#archaeology, #human-expansion, #human-migration, #ocher, #out-of-africa, #paleolithic, #pleistocene, #science, #stone-tools

Early humans kept getting their heads knocked in

Early humans kept getting their heads knocked in

Enlarge (credit: Sala et al. 2022)

Early humans suffered frequent head injuries but often lived long enough for those injuries to heal. That’s the result of a study that analyzed twenty 350,000-year-old skulls from a cave in Spain. The study also found that recovery wasn’t inevitable—several of the individuals in the cave apparently died from violent blows to the head.

Welcome to the Pit of Bones

About 350,000 years ago, deep in a cave network in what is now northern Spain, the remains of at least 29 people somehow ended up at the bottom of a 13-meter-deep shaft. Paleoanthropologists have unearthed thousands of broken pieces of bone, which add up to the partial skeletons of at least 29 members of a hominin species called Homo heidelbergensis, which may have been a common ancestor of our species and Neanderthals.

The pit, called Sima de los Huesos, contains a mix of ages and genders. Paleoanthropologists are still debating whether the pit was a burial site or just a place where bones washed in with floodwaters.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #hominins, #homo-heidelbergensis, #paleoanthropology, #science, #sima-de-los-huesos

This 5,300-year-old skull shows evidence of the earliest known ear surgery

Lateral view of a skull found at the El Pendón site in Spain, showing signs of a primitive form of ear surgery.

Enlarge / Lateral view of a skull found at the El Pendón site in Spain, showing signs of a primitive form of ear surgery. (credit: ÑFotógrafos Photography Study)

Archaeologists have excavated a 5,300-year-old skull from a Spanish tomb and determined that seven cut marks near the left ear canal are strong evidence of a primitive surgical procedure to treat an inner ear infection. That makes this the earliest known example of ear surgery yet found, according to the authors of a recent paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. The Spanish team also identified a flint blade that may have been used as a cauterizing tool.

The excavation site is located in the Dolmen of El Pendón in Burgos, Spain, and consists of the remains of a megalithic monument dating back to the 4th century BCE, i.e., the late Neolithic period. The ruins include an ossuary holding the bones of nearly 100 people, and archaeologists have been excavating those remains since 2016.

In July 2018, the team recovered the skull that is the subject of this latest study. The skull was lying on its right side, facing the entrance of the burial chamber, and while most of the cranium was intact, no teeth remained. The missing teeth, plus the loss in bone density and fully ossified thyroid cartilage, indicated that this was the skull of an elderly woman aged 65 or older.

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#archaeology, #ear-surgery, #gaming-culture, #human-anatomy, #otology, #science

X-rays help unlock secrets of King Tut’s iron dagger, made from a meteorite

Burial bling.

Enlarge / The burial mask of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen recovered from the boy king’s tomb. (credit: Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images)

Among the many items recovered from King Tut’s tomb was a dagger made of iron, which is a material that was rarely used during Egypt’s 18th dynasty. That iron likely came from a meteorite, and a recent paper published in the journal Meteorites and Planetary Science sheds further light on precisely how that iron dagger was forged, as well as how it came into Tut’s possession.

Tutankhamen was the son of Akhenaten and ascended to the throne when he was just 8 or 9 years old. He wasn’t considered an especially important pharaoh in the grand scheme of things, but the treasures that were recovered from his tomb in the 1920s are what led to his fame. Those treasures included the famous gold burial mask (pictured above), a solid gold coffin, thrones, archery bows, trumpets, a lotus chalice, and various pieces of furniture.

These became part of a global touring exhibition, which received worldwide press coverage during the 1960s and 1970s in particular. The mummy even inspired a couple of songs: Steve Martin’s hit “King Tut” (which debuted on Saturday Night Live in 1978) and the lesser-known “Dead Egyptian Blues,” by the late folk rock singer Michael Peter Smith (which contains the immortal line, “Your sarcophagus is glowing, but your esophagus is showing”).

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#ancient-egypt, #archaeology, #gaming-culture, #king-tut, #metallurgy, #meteorites, #science, #tutankhamen, #x-ray-fluorescence

Members of our species were in Western Europe around 54,000 years ago

Members of our species were in Western Europe around 54,000 years ago

Enlarge (credit: Slimak et al. 2022)

According to a recent study, a child’s tooth unearthed from an old layer of a cave floor in Southern France belonged to a member of our species. If so, the tooth is now the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens living in Europe, and its presence means that our species shared Europe (or parts of it) with Neanderthals for at least 10,000 years. But other fossils from the site suggest that the Pleistocene tale of two species was more complex than we’ve realized.

Finding the first Homo sapiens in Europe

People lived at Grotte Mandrin, a rock shelter in Southern France’s Rhone Valley, for tens of thousands of years. Until roughly 54,000 years ago, those people were Neanderthals. In the oldest layers of cave floor sediment, archaeologists unearthed a child’s molar. Based on its shape and dimensions, the tooth once belonged to a Neanderthal child, which was exactly what paleoanthropologists would expect in a layer of sediment between 79,000 and 62,000 years old.

An adult Neanderthal molar from the next layer up, dated to between 69,000 and 56,000 years old, was also not startling to anthropologist Ludovic Slimak, of Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès, and his colleagues. But a child’s molar unearthed from the next layer—somewhere between 56,800 and 51,700 years old—was a real surprise. The tooth’s size and shape was clearly not Neanderthal; when Slimak and his colleagues compared it to other upper second molars, they found that it fit best with very early members of our own species.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #hominins, #human-expansion, #human-migration, #neanderthals, #out-of-africa, #paleoanthropology, #pleistocene, #science

Confirmed: Curia of Pompey, where Julius Caesar was killed, was built in three phases

Relatively modern city surrounds ancient ruins.

Enlarge / The Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome contains the Curia of Pompey. This place is falling apart. New study concludes it was built in 3 phases. (credit: Adam Carr / Wikipedia)

The Curia of Pompey is famous for being the site where Julius Caesar was stabbed to death on the ides of March in 44 BCE. It is of great interest to tourists, historians, and archaeologists alike. After analyzing mortar samples collected from the curia, researchers from Italy and Spain have confirmed an earlier hypothesis that the structure was constructed in three distinct phases, according to a recent paper published in the journal Archaeometry.

In ancient Rome, a curia was a structure where members of the senate would meet. The great Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) built this particular curia as a memorial to his own military achievements. A large theater section contained a temple, a stage, and seating on one end; a large porticus (housing the general’s art and books) surrounded a garden in the middle; and the Curia of Pompey was at the opposite end.

During Julius Caesar’s reign, the Roman senators temporarily met in the Curia of Pompey after their usual Curia on the Comitium burned down in 52 BCE. (Followers of an assassinated tribune named Publius Clodius Pulcher set it on fire while cremating his body.) Caesar’s planned replacement (Curia Julia) was under construction as a replacement meeting site when the ruler met his own brutal demise at the base of the Curia of Pompey. The senators who killed him thought assassination was the only way to preserve the republic, but the murder ultimately lead to he republic’s collapse.

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#archaeology, #archaeometry, #gaming-culture, #science

This Ancient Roman ceramic pot was probably a portable toilet, study finds

Rim fragments of a chamber pot being excavated at a Roman villa site in Sicily.

Enlarge / Rim fragments of a chamber pot being excavated at a Roman villa site in Sicily. (credit: R.J.A. Wilson)

Ancient Roman archaeological sites are littered with ceramic pots, and it can be challenging to definitively determine the purpose of any given pot—for instance, if it was used for storage or as a portable toilet (chamber pot). Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of British Columbia have now analyzed the residue on one such ceramic pot and identified the eggs of intestinal parasitic worms commonly found in feces, according to a new paper published in the journal Archaeological Science Reports. That’s strong evidence that the 1,500-year-old pot in question was most likely used as a chamber pot.

“Conical pots of this type have been recognized quite widely in the Roman Empire, and in the absence of other evidence, they have often been called storage jars,” said co-author Roger Wilson of the University of British Columbia. “The discovery of many in or near public latrines had led to a suggestion that they might have been used as chamber pots, but until now, proof has been lacking.”

Archaeologists can learn a great deal by studying the remains of intestinal parasites in ancient feces. Just last month, we reported on an analysis of soil samples collected from a stone toilet found within the ruins of a swanky 7th-century BCE villa just outside Jerusalem. That analysis revealed the presence of parasitic eggs from four different species: whipworm, beef/pork tapeworm, roundworm, and pinworm. (It’s the earliest record of roundworm and pinworm in ancient Israel.)

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#ancient-parasites, #ancient-rome, #archaeology, #fecal-matters, #gaming-culture, #paleoparasitology, #roman-chamber-pots, #science

The oldest hominin fossil ever found in the Levant

The oldest hominin fossil ever found in the Levant

Enlarge (credit: Barash et al 2022)

When the first members of our species ventured out of Africa, they walked into a world that earlier hominins, such as Homo erectus, had first explored a million years earlier. According to a recent study of a 1.5 million-year-old vertebra, those earlier hominins may have expanded beyond Africa in several waves—each following different environments and equipped for different ways of life.

Taking a second look

Anthropologists found a single vertebra from the lower back of a hominin child who died 1.5 million years ago. Mixed with the fossilized bones of hippos, mammoths, giraffes, saber-toothed tigers, and warthogs, the bone had sat among the remains of Pleistocene fauna since the 1966 excavation that unearthed it. But when University of Tulsa anthropologist Miriam Belmaker, a co-author on the recent study, looked through the animal fossils as part of another recent study (an effort to narrow down the age of the site), she recognized the vertebra as belonging to a member of our genus, Homo.

And the fact that the pieces of the vertebra hadn’t all fused together into a single hard, bony piece meant that it came from a child who hadn’t yet finished growing and maturing. They were probably somewhere between 6 and 11 years old when they died.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #hominins, #homo-erectus, #human-evolution, #human-migration, #out-of-africa, #paleoanthropology, #science, #the-levant

Controversy erupts over Aussie museum’s identification of HMS Endeavour wreck

Painting by Samuel Atkins of the HMS <em>Endeavour</em> off the coast of New Holland during Cook's voyage of discovery (1768-1771).

Enlarge / Painting by Samuel Atkins of the HMS Endeavour off the coast of New Holland during Cook’s voyage of discovery (1768-1771). (credit: Public domain)

The HMS Endeavour is famous for being sailed by Capt. James Cook to the South Pacific for a scientific expedition in the late 18th century. But the Endeavour (by then renamed the Lord Sandwich) met its demise in the Atlantic, when it was one of 13 ships the British deliberately sank (or “scuttled”) in a Rhode Island harbor during the American Revolution.

Now, the Australian National Maritime Museum has announced that its researchers have confirmed that a shipwreck proposed as a likely candidate in 2018 is indeed the remains of the HMS Endeavour. However, the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP)—the museum’s research partner in the project—promptly released a statement calling the announcement premature. RIMAP insists that more evidence is needed and that its own final report is still forthcoming.

The HMS Endeavour holds special relevance for the scientific community because Cook’s first voyage (1768-1771) was, in part, a mission to observe and record the 1769 transit of Venus across the Sun. The observation was part of a combined global effort to determine the distance of the Earth from the Sun. Those observations proved less conclusive than had been hoped, but during the rest of the voyage, Cook was able to map the coastland of New Zealand before sailing west to the southeastern coast of Australia—the first record of Europeans on the continent’s Eastern coastline.

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#archaeology, #gaming-culture, #hms-endeavour, #science, #shipwrecks

Did eating meat really make us human?

Did eating meat really make us human?

Enlarge (credit: Kryssia Campos | Getty Images)

Twenty-four years ago, Briana Pobiner reached into the north Kenyan soil and put her hands on bones that had last been touched 1.5 million years ago. Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist, was digging up ancient animal bones and searching for cuts and dents, signs that they had been butchered by our early ancestors trying to get at the fatty, calorie-rich bone marrow hidden within. “You are reaching through a window in time,” says Pobiner, who is now at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. “The creature who butchered this animal is not quite like you, but you’re uncovering this direct evidence of behavior. It’s really exciting.”

That moment sparked Pobiner’s lasting interest in how the diets of our ancestors shaped their evolution and eventually the emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens. Meat, in particular, seems to have played a crucial role. Our more distant ancestors mostly ate plants and had short legs and small brains similar in size to a chimpanzee’s. But around 2 million years ago, a new species emerged with decidedly humanlike features. Homo erectus had a larger brain, smaller gut, and limbs proportioned similarly to those of modern humans. And fossils from around the same time, like those excavated by Pobiner in Kenya, show that someone was butchering animals to separate lean meat from the bone and dig out the marrow. For decades, paleontologists have theorized that the evolution of humanlike features and meat eating are strongly connected.

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#anthropology, #archaeology, #carnivore, #evolution, #homo-erectus, #homo-sapiens, #meat-eating, #science

Long-lost sphinxes of Egyptian king Amenhotep III unearthed at Luxor

Long-lost sphinxes of Egyptian king Amenhotep III unearthed at Luxor

Enlarge (credit: Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)

Archaeologists in Egypt recently rediscovered two sphinxes that guarded the mortuary temple of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, the grandfather of Tutankhamun. Despite 3,400 years of weathering, the sphinxes still bear the carved limestone face of the pharaoh, who is adorned with a royal headdress and beard. The pair of 8-meter-long sphinxes flank the entrance to a processional avenue, which celebrants would have followed from the main part of the temple to a columned courtyard.

The Temple of Millions of Years lasted less than a century

Amenhotep III ordered the temple, which he called the Temple of Millions of Years, to be built late in his reign. The temple served as a monument to the pharaoh’s rule—think of it as an especially grand, monarchist version of a US presidential library—but also as a temple where priests could hold rituals and make offerings to the dead pharaoh, who was worshipped as a god.

The sprawling 35-hectare complex stood across the Nile River from the ancient city of Thebes, where Amenhotep III ruled in life. It’s also not far from the Valley of the Kings and Amenhotep III’s royal tomb. Ancient records describe the earthquake that destroyed most of the temple in about 1200 BCE, leaving only two 18-meter-tall, 720-ton statues of Amenhotep III standing.

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#amenhotep-iii, #ancient-egypt, #archaeology, #egyptology, #king-tut, #science

A rare find: archaeologists unearth 4,000-year-old board game in Oman

One stone among many is decorated with board game.

Enlarge

Archaeologists working in Oman’s Qumayrah Valley recently unearthed a rare artifact: a stone board game dating back some 4,000 years. The board features grid-like markings (possibly indicating fields) and holes for cups. It was found at a site near the village of Ayn Bani Saidah.

The excavation is part of an ongoing project to study the Iron and Bronze Age settlements in the Qumayrah Valley. The dig is a collaboration between Sultan al Bakri, director general of antiquities at the Ministry of Heritage and Tourism in Oman, and Piotr Bielinski of the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw. The area is one of the least-studied regions of the country, but the archaeological finds thus far indicate that the Qumayrah Valley was likely part of a major trade route between several Arab cities.

There is archaeological evidence for various kinds of board games from all over the world dating back millennia: senet and Mehen in ancient Egypt, for example, or a strategy game called ludus latrunculorum (“game of mercenaries”) favored by Roman legions. The board just discovered at the Omani site might be a precursor to an ancient Middle Eastern game known as the Royal Game or Ur (or the Game of Twenty Squares), a two-player game that may have been one of the precursors to backgammon (or was simply replaced in popularity by backgammon).

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#ancient-board-games, #ancient-mesopotamia, #archaeology, #gaming-culture, #royal-game-of-ur, #science

Researchers date the oldest known human skull at 233,000 years

Researchers date the oldest known human skull at 233,000 years

Enlarge (credit: Vidal et al 2022)

The oldest known Homo sapiens fossil is about 36,000 years older than previously thought, according to a recent study. Volcanologists matched a layer of ash above the fossil skull to an eruption of southern Ethiopia’s Shala volcano 233,000 years ago. Their findings seem to line up well with other recent research about when our species’ branch of the family tree split from that of our nearest hominin relatives, the ancestors of the now-extinct Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Geochemical fingerprints on a Pleistocene crime scene

Finding the oldest member of our species hasn’t been easy for paleoanthropologists. There’s only a handful of sites in Africa where early Homo sapiens fossils—anything older than about 100,000 years—have turned up, and some of the samples have been nearly impossible to pin a precise date on. At other sites, the fossils don’t quite have all the features that distinguish our skulls from those of our now-extinct hominin cousins: things like a high, round cranium (the round part of your skull that holds your brain) and a chin.

One fossil, a skull found near the Omo River in southern Ethiopia, does have all the hallmarks of anatomically modern humans; among other traits, Omo I has a chin and a tall cranium. The skull was buried (probably not on purpose) in a layer of sediment that was later covered by ash from at least one volcanic eruption. In theory, that ash should make it easy to measure the fossil’s minimum age.

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#archaeology, #argon-isotope-dating, #hominins, #human-evolution, #paleoanthropology, #radiometric-dating, #science, #volcanoes

Over 100 different species made this 2,200-year-old shipwreck home, study finds

The ship's ram as it was found on the seabed off Sicily at a depth of nearly 90 m, covered in marine life.

Enlarge / The ship’s ram as it was found on the seabed off Sicily at a depth of nearly 90 m, covered in marine life. (credit: K. Egorov/SDSS-GUE)

Shipwrecks hold an enduring fascination, both because of how they connect us to the past and because of the potentially priceless treasures that could be lurking within their sunken remains. They are also invaluable resources for scientists interested in studying how marine ecosystems evolve and thrive, since sea creatures inevitably colonize the wreckage, transforming destruction into life. In fact, more than 100 distinct animal species were found living on a 2,200-year-old Mediterranean shipwreck, according to a recent paper published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

“Shipwrecks are often studied to follow colonization by marine organisms, but few studies have focused on ships that sank more than a century ago,” said co-author Sandra Ricci of Rome’s Istituto Centrale per il Restauro (ICR). “Here we study for the first time colonization of a wreck over a period of more than 2,000 years. We show that the ram has ended up hosting a community very similar to the surrounding habitat, due to ‘ecological connectivity’—free movement by species—between it and the surroundings.”

Rome and Carthage were archrivals in the mid-3rd century BCE who fought three wars. The first war began in 264 BCE on and around the island of Sicily, and it dragged on for 23 years. Almost everything we know about the First Punic War comes from the writings of Greek historian-turned-Roman hostage Polybius, who wrote The Histories about a century after the First Punic War ended. While there has been some debate about the accuracy of his accounts, most modern historians still rely heavily on Polybius, and his version of events is typically accepted when there are contradictions in other historical sources.

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#archaeology, #ecology, #first-punic-war, #history, #science, #shipwrecks

Intestinal parasites plagued Jerusalem’s wealthy elite, toilet excavation reveals

A 2,700-year-old toilet seat made of stone revealed the poor sanitary conditions of a 7th-century Jerusalem luxury villa.

Enlarge / A 2,700-year-old toilet seat made of stone revealed the poor sanitary conditions of a 7th-century Jerusalem luxury villa. (credit: Yoli Schwartz, The Israel Antiquities Authority)

The wealthy, privileged elite of Jerusalem in the 7th century BCE were plagued by poor sanitary conditions and resulting parasitic intestinal diseases, according to a recent paper published in the International Journal of Paleopathology. An analysis of soil samples collected from a stone toilet found within the ruins of a swanky villa revealed the presence of parasitic eggs from four different species. The work should help document the history of infectious disease in the region, providing additional insight into the daily lives of the people who once lived there.

“The findings of this study are among the earliest observed in Israel to date,” said author Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv University and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, who is a leading researcher in the emerging field of archeoparasitology. “These are durable eggs, and under the special conditions provided by the cesspit, they survived for nearly 2,700 years. Intestinal worms are parasites that cause symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, and itching. Some of them are especially dangerous for children and can lead to malnutrition, developmental delays, nervous system damage, and, in extreme cases, even death.”

Yes, it sounds gross, but archaeologists can actually learn a great deal by studying the remains of intestinal parasites in ancient feces. For instance, per Langgut, prior studies have compared fecal parasites found in hunter-gatherer and farming communities, thereby revealing dramatic dietary changes, as well as shifts in settlement patterns and social organization coinciding with the rise of agriculture. The domestication of animals in particular led to more parasitic infections in farming communities, while hunter-gatherer groups were exposed to fewer parasites and transmissible diseases given their nomadic lifestyle. This is even reflected in modern nomadic communities of hunter-gatherers.

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#antiquities, #archaeology, #archeoparasitology, #gaming-culture, #israel-antiquity-authority, #paleopathology, #science

Ancient Peruvians partied hard, spiked their beer with hallucinogens to win friends

A vessel from the Wari site of Conchopata features the tree and its tell-tale seed pods sprouting from the head of the Staff God.

Enlarge / A vessel from the Wari site of Conchopata features the tree and its tell-tale seed pods sprouting from the head of the Staff God. (credit: J. Ochatoma Paravicino/M.E. Biwer et al., 2022)

Lacing the beer served at their feasts with hallucinogens may have helped an ancient Peruvian people known as the Wari forge political alliances and expand their empire, according to a new paper published in the journal Antiquity. Recent excavations at a remote Wari outpost called Quilcapampa unearthed seeds from the vilca tree that can be used to produce a potent hallucinogenic drug. The authors think the Wari held one big final blowout before the site was abandoned.

“This is, to my knowledge, the first finding of vilca at a Wari site where we can get a glimpse of its use,” co-author Matthew Biwer, an archaeobotanist at Dickinson College, told Gizmodo. “Vilca seeds or residue has been found in burial tombs before, but we could only assume how it was used. These findings point to a more nuanced understanding of Wari feasting and politics and how vilca was implicated in these practices.”

The Wari empire lasted from around 500 CE to 1100 CE in the central highlands of Peru. There is some debate among scholars as to whether the network of roadways linking various provincial cities constituted a bona fide empire as opposed to a loose economic network. But the Wari’s construction of complex, distinctive architecture and the 2013 discovery of an imperial royal tomb lend credence to the Wari’s empire status. The culture began to decline around 800 CE, largely due to drought. Many central buildings were blocked up, suggesting people thought they might return if the rains did, and there is archaeological evidence of possible warfare and raiding in the empire’s final days as the local infrastructure collapsed and supply chains failed.

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#archaeology, #beer, #chemistry, #gaming-culture, #hallucinogens, #history, #science, #wari

High-speed rail construction reveals Roman town in the UK

aerial photo of archaeological site

Enlarge / Aerial shots with drone of Blackgrounds Roman archaeological site. (credit: HS2)

Archaeologists surveying the planned route of a high-speed railway between London and Birmingham in the UK unearthed the remains of a Roman trading town in what is now South Northamptonshire.

At its height, the town boasted an assortment of workshops and businesses, with long-buried foundations that archaeologists have spent the past year carefully unearthing from the site’s dark—almost black—soil. Artifacts at the site, from jewelry and finely made ceramics to more than 300 Roman coins, hint at ancient affluence. According to archaeologists with the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) Headland Infrastructure, most of that wealth probably came from trade along the nearby River Cherwell or the 10-meter-wide stone-paved Roman road running through the middle of the town.

“It indicates that the settlement would have been very busy, with carts simultaneously coming and going to load and unload goods,” said MOLA Headland Infrastructure in a statement.

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#ancient-rome, #archaeology, #iron-age-europe, #roman-britain, #roman-empire, #science

Gruesome Viking “blood eagle” ritual is anatomically possible, study finds

Thorbjørn Harr played Jarl Borg of Götaland in the first two seasons of the History Channel series <em>Vikings</em>. Spoiler alert: He met with a gruesome death via the legendary "blood eagle" ritual. The ritual may have been a myth, but a new study shows it is anatomically possible.

Enlarge / Thorbjørn Harr played Jarl Borg of Götaland in the first two seasons of the History Channel series Vikings. Spoiler alert: He met with a gruesome death via the legendary “blood eagle” ritual. The ritual may have been a myth, but a new study shows it is anatomically possible. (credit: History Channel)

The History Channel series Vikings is a fictional account of legendary Norse hero Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), who was born a farmer and became a Scandinavian king. Early in the series, a rival leader named Jarl Borg (Thorbjørn Harr) of nearby Götaland leads an attack on Ragnar’s men and even convinces Ragnar’s brother to betray him. Borg doesn’t get an easy death when his schemes ultimately fail and he is captured. Ragnar performs the blóðǫrn (“blood eagle”) on Borg, a gruesome process of ritualized torture and execution allegedly carried out during the Viking Age (c. 750–1050).

The series prides itself on being as historically accurate as possible, which is a challenge, given that much of what we know about the Viking Age comes from epic poems telling of their achievements in spoken form, finally written down centuries later. That’s especially the case with the blood eagle ritual, which has long been dismissed as mere legend—whether because of repeated misunderstandings during translations of the poems or perhaps a desire by Christian scholars to portray the pagan Vikings as barbaric.

(Warning: some graphic anatomical descriptions follow.)

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#anatomy, #archaeology, #gaming-culture, #human-anatomy, #science, #vikings

Historic Shipwreck Keeps Moving, Revealing Dangerous Underwater Mudflows

A ship sunk by a German U-boat in 1942 can today help track large pulses of mud from the Mississippi River

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#archaeology, #environment, #oceans

Historical Shipwreck Keeps Moving, Revealing Dangerous Underwater Mudflows

A ship sunk by a German U-boat in 1942 can today help track large pulses of mud from the Mississippi River

— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

#archaeology, #environment, #oceans