Saturday, March 15, 2014

Secrets of Chinese Terra-Cotta Warrior Weapons Revealed

One of the most astounding archaeological discoveries of the 20th century is arguably the life-size terra-cotta army buried alongside China's first emperor. Now, scientists have figured out how the bronze triggers for the crossbows of the 8,000 terra-cotta warriors were manufactured.
Teams of craftspeople worked in small groups to produce the bronze pieces in batches for the tomb of ancient Emperor Qin Shi Huang, according to a new study detailed in the March issue of the journal Antiquity.

Prepared for the afterlife
Historical documents suggest that soon after Emperor Qin Shi Huang ascended to the throne in 246 B.C., he began work on his tomb near Xi'an, China. When the tomb was first unearthed in the 1970s,it revealed thousands of lifelike terra-cotta statues of artisans, musicians, officials, horses and soldiers. The epic effort conscripted 700,000 laborers, many of whom were convicts or people who were in debt to the empire, said study co-author Xiuzhen Janice Li, an archaeologist who was at the University College London at the time of the new work and is now at the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum in China. [In Images: Ancient Chinese Warriors Protect Secret Tomb]
The massive undertaking had an important goal: ensuring the emperor's military power and resources in the afterlife.
As part of the huge project, craftspeople sculpted about 8,000 colorful warriors — likely using real human beings as inspiration — and those warriors wore stone armor and "wielded" lances, swords and crossbows.
But it wasn't clear exactly how these ancient weapons were made. The crossbows were made of wood or bamboo that rotted long ago, and only the tips and triggers for the bows remained, Li told Live Science.

Small workshops
To learn more about how the massive trove was built, Li and her colleagues visually inspected and measured about 216 of the five-part crossbow triggers from the mausoleum.
The lack of wear on the metal pieces suggests the weapons were never used in actual battle, but were instead built solely for the tomb, the researchers said.

In addition, the team analyzed the spots where triggers were found in the tomb, as well as the variation in the size and shape of the pieces.
The pieces were mostly uniform, suggesting the interlocking trigger parts were made in the same or nearly-identical molds and produced in small batches. Each batch of the trigger pieces was likely then assembled in small cells, or workshops, perhaps headed by an overseer.  That model contrasts with the "assembly line" hypothesis that some archaeologists thought might have been used.
Mirror of society
The organization into small workshops was similar to the structure the emperor imposed on the rest of society in ancient China, said study co-author Marcos Martinón-Torres, an archaeologist at the University College London.
"He abolished any privileges inherited by blood, and the population was divided in small groups that were collectively responsible for their adherence to imperial laws," Martinón-Torres wrote in an email to Live Science. "For example, if someone in one of these groups committed a crime, all of them were held responsible, unless they reported the culprit and allowed them to be punished."
The manufacturing technique used in the workshop also may have been used by weapon makers for the Emperor of Qin's real armies, though that's just speculation, Martinón-Torres said.
"The cellular workshop model we postulate for the weapons manufacture in the mausoleum would have also offered useful flexibility for armies on the move," he said.

Source: LiveScience

Friday, March 14, 2014

Ancient petroglyphs found by drone in southern Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — A video recently posted on YouTube claims “Drone discovers ancient petroglyphs in Utah.”
The video was made by Bill Clary of Colorado who owns ’Got Aerials,’ a business which sells drones. His website shows several samples of video taken by drones, many in spectacular outdoor settings.
Clary claims the petroglyphs were filmed on a high canyon wall in Southern Utah, but declined to say exactly where, telling FOX 13 he is making an effort to contact the property owners.
Jerry Spangler who heads the Colorado Plateau Archeological Alliance ( reviewed the video for FOX 13.
“What you showed me is what we call San Juan basketmaker style. Broad shoulders, pecked in outline, skinny legs. It’s a very classic style made by the basketmaker people from about 500 B.C. through around 8600,” Spangler said.
Spangler said it is possible that the petroglyphs seen in the video have gone unnoticed for centuries, perhaps longer.
He added there are likely thousands of archeological sites in Utah yet to be discovered — there are hundreds of known sites, which have not yet been fully documented.
“Some of these sites are so incredibly difficult to get to, just for safety reasons we can’t get to them,” Spangler said.
Spangler believes drones could become an invaluable research tool, but also thinks it may be hard for organizations like the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and organizations like his own to keep up with the discoveries, which people like Clary will likely make.
Spangler said looting and vandalism at archeological sites has long been a problem, and speculates that the sharing of information online will accelerate such behaviors. He hopes Clary and others will closely guard information about locations and access, noting that each discovery is unique, and future finds could unlock clues to human history
“The more remote that sight is, the more likely it is to be intact,” Spangler said.
It is illegal to tamper with, vandalize, or remove anything from an archeological site on public property.
While the archeologist interviewed for our story did not immediately recognize the petroglyph panel, one of our viewers did. Jonathan Bailey is an avid hiker and photographer who says he and others have visited the petroglyph panel many times and provided photos as well. He says his photos were taken long before the panel was captured on video by a drone, dispelling the idea that the petroglyphs are a new discovery. Bailey maintains a website of his photos and adventures, which is well worth checking out.

Source: Fox 13 News

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Petra monuments orientated according to celestial events.

During the winter solstice, the sun is filtered into the Monastery at Petra, Jordan, illuminating the podium of a deity. Just at this moment, the silhouette of the mountain opposite draws the head of a lion, a sacred animal. These are examples from a study where researchers from Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias and CSIC (Spain) showed how celestial events influenced the orientation of the great constructions of the Nabataeans.
The movement of the Sun in the skies of Petra determined the way in which the monuments of this and other Natabean cities were erected. This is according to a statistical analysis on the spatial position of their palaces, temples and tombs carried out by scientists from Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC) and CSIC, Spain, and the University of Perugia (Italy).
Nabataean religion
The results, published by the Nexus Network Journal, indicate that those great buildings were erected bearing in mind the equinoxes, solstices and other astronomical events that determined the Nabataean religion. The Nabataeans prospered in the first century BC and the first century AD in what is now Jordan and neighbouring countries.
The Nabataean monuments are marvellous laboratories where landscape features and the events of the sun, moon and other stars interact,” Juan Antonio Belmonte, researcher of IAC and coordinator of the study, stressed to SINC.
The astronomical orientations were often part of an elaborate plan,” he added “and, possibly, a mark of the astral nature of their religion, which showed incredible ‘hierophanies’ or demonstrations of the sacred on monuments related to cultic times and worship“.
Solsticial markers
A clear example is seen in Ad Deir, the Monastery at Petra. During the winter solstice, the light of the setting sun entering through the gate of the monument illuminates the sacred motab. It is a podium where some stone blocks, which represent divinities such as the god Dushara, are placed.
The effect is spectacular, and would have only been observable during the few days closest to this solstice,” commented Belmonte, who also emphasises how, just in this moment, another curious phenomenon is produced. As observed from the motab itself, the setting of the sun recreates the aspect of the head of a lion, the animal of the Nabataean goddess Al Uzza, on the opposite rocks.
Mathematical calculations also show the astronomical plan that the Urn Tomb follows, another famous monument where king Malichus II is thought to be buried. Its main gate is centred with its environment according to the equinox sunset, when the day equals the night, and the solar rays during the summer and winter solstices establish the two interior corners of the building..
This amazing set of three alignments within the plan of the tomb, in combination with significant features in the distant horizon can hardly be ascribed to chance,” underlined Belmonte. “We consider that it is a deliberate attempt to convert the hall of the Urn Tomb into a type of time-keeping device“.
When in 446 AD the Christian Bishop Jason converted the Urn Tomb into the Cathedral of Petra, the solsticial markers also served as a reference in determining Christmas Eve (24 December) and St. John the Baptist (24 June), the date on which the monument was consecrated to the new religion.
Source: Past Horizonts

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sardis dig reveals demon trap.

By any measure, the ancient city of Sardis — home of the fabled King Croesus, a name synonymous with gold and vast wealth, and the city where coinage was invented — is an archaeological wonder.

One of the great cities of Antiquity

The ruins of Sardis, in what is now Turkey, have been a rich source of knowledge about classical antiquity from the 7th century BC, when the city was the capital of Lydia, through to the later Greek and Roman occupations.
However, Sardis has given up another treasure in the form of two enigmatic ritual deposits, which are proving more difficult to fathom than the coins for which the city was famous.
The two deposits each consist of a small pot with a lid, a coin, a group of sharp metal implements and an egg, one of which is intact except for a hole carefully punched into it in antiquity,” explains Will Bruce, a classics graduate student a the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been digging at Sardis for the past six years.
The dig at Sardis is overseen by Nicholas Cahill, a UW-Madison professor of art history. Cahill has directed field research at the site for decades. Both ritual deposits, says Cahill, date from the Roman era and based on the location of the find, date to between AD 70 or 80. The team were excavating below the floor of a first century room, which had been built over the ruins of an earlier building, probably destroyed in a massive earthquake in AD 17. Digging beneath the floor, Bruce and his colleagues first uncovered a thin-walled, near intact jug and close to this, an assemblage of mostly unbroken pottery.
Ritual deposits from the Roman period
Within that assemblage, Bruce began to carefully uncover an inverted bowl, which turned out to be sitting on top of another. The bowls, still filled with dirt, were carefully removed and immediately turned over to conservators who cleaned and dissembled them to find a set of small pointed instruments, a coin with a lion and portrait of Nero, and the intact egg.
“The ritual offerings were dug into pits in the floor, after the room was constructed,” says Cahill. “We know they were renovating the room periodically, because in another part of the space there was a dump of painted wall plaster buried under the floor, presumably in a renovation.”
“The meaning of these deposits is still quite open to interpretation,” notes Cahill, “but burying votive deposits below ground or in a wall was a fairly common practice,” perhaps as a ritual offering to protect the house against demons. Roman literary sources suggest eggs were used in particular rituals – in one case, the egg is used to entice demons inside where they are then magically trapped.
For the archaeologists, part of the intrigue is that similar groups of bowls, needles, coins and eggs were discovered at Sardis more than 100 years ago when the temple of Artemis was excavated by Princeton University archaeologists. “It is an exact parallel to what they found in the early 20th century,” according to Cahill.
Sardis is famous as the place where coinage was invented in the Western world, first using electrum, an alloy of silver and gold, and later of pure gold and silver. Nearby sources of gold made ancient Lydia, and King Croesus, fabulously wealthy. While these Lydian coins are very rare, coins and coin hoards from later Greek and Roman occupiers of Sardis are routinely found.
But the coin found with the egg, says Cahill, seems to be special.
“The coin has a portrait of Nero on the front. The original reverse was hammered flat, and the image of a lion engraved in its place, which is very odd.” Expert numismatists have never seen anything like it. “The image of the lion is important because it is emblematic of the Lydian kings and of their native mother goddess Cybele,”Cahill says.
Cahill comments. “It is most unusual to find such fragile things so perfectly preserved.”
Source: Past Horizonts/
University of Wisconsin-Madison based on an original article by Terry Devitt

6,000-year-old crown found in Dead Sea cave revealed.

The world’s oldest crown, which was famously discovered in 1961 as part of the Nahal Mishar Hoard, along with numerous other treasured artefacts, are to be revealed in New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World as part of the 'Masters of Fire: Copper Age Art from Israel' exhibit. The ancient crown dates back to the Copper Age between 4000–3500 BC, and is just one out of more than 400 artefacts that were recovered in a cave in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea more than half a century ago.  The crown is shaped like a thick ring and features vultures and doors protruding from the top. It is believed that it played a part in burial ceremonies for people of importance at the time.  New York University writes: “An object of enormous power and prestige, the blackened, raggedly cast copper crown from the Nahal Mishmar Hoard greets the visitor to Masters of Fire. The enigmatic protuberances along its rim of vultures and building façades with squarish apertures, and its cylindrical shape, suggest links to the burial practices of the time.” The Nahal Mishmar Hoard was found by archaeologist Pessah Bar-Adon hidden in a natural crevice and wrapped in a straw mat in a cave on the northern side of Nahal Mishmar, which became known as the ‘Cave of Treasures’.  The 442 prized artefacts made from copper, bronze, ivory, and stone include 240 mace heads, 100 sceptres, 5 crowns, powder horns, tools and weapons.
Some of the items from the Nahal Mishmar Hoard. Photo source. Carbon-14 dating of the reed mat in which the objects were wrapped suggests that it dates to at least 3500 B.C. It was in this period that the use of copper became widespread throughout the Levant, attesting to considerable technological developments that parallel major social advances in the region. Some of these objects are like nothing ever seen anywhere else. The round knobs are usually said to be mace heads, but there is no evidence that any of them was ever used in combat. The remaining objects are even more unusual and unique in style, such as the bronze sceptre depicted below. 
Bronze sceptre from the Nahal Mishmar Hoard. Displayed at the Hecht Museum in Haifa. Photo source. The objects in the Nahal Mishmar hoard appear to have been hurriedly collected, leading to the suggestions that the artefacts were the sacred treasures belonging to the abandoned Chalcolithic Temple of Ein Gedi, some twelve kilometres away, which may have been hidden in the cave during a time of emergency. 
Chalcolithic Temple above modern Kibbutz Ein Gedi. Photo credit: Wikipedia Daniel Master, 

Professor of Archaeology at Wheaton College and a member of the curatorial team, said: “The fascinating thing about this period is that a burst of innovation defined the technologies of the ancient world for thousands of years.” 

Jennifer Chi, ISAW Exhibitions Director and Chief Curator, added: “To the modern eye, it's stunning to see how these groups of people, already mastering so many new social systems and technologies, still had the ability to create objects of enduring artistic interest.”

 The purpose and origin of the hoard remains a mystery. 

Featured image: The oldest crown in the world, found in the Nahal Mishmar Hoard. Photo source. 

By April Holloway 

Related Links The Nahal Mishmar Treasure – The Metropolitan Museum of Art The Chalcolithic hoard from Nahal Mishmar, Israel, in context – by P.R.S. Moorey Essays in Ancient Civilization Presented to Helene J. Kantor – by Albert Leonard & Bruce Beyer Williams

Source: Ancient Origins

Uncovering the Ancient Mysteries of Cosma

At once both monumental and obscure, it stands within a visually serene yet ruggedly remote setting. Named after its nearby namesake village of Cosma, nestled in the upper Nepeña Valley of central Peru, it is a relatively unexplored complex that includes three human-made mounds thought by archaeologists to be nearly 3,000 years old. During the summer of 2014, it will become a destination for a small team of archaeologists and students who will, for the first time, begin serious archaeological excavations at the site.
Until now, it has attracted little attention from the scholarly community. But Andean archaeologist Kimberly Munro, who is also a PhD student with Louisiana State University, hopes to change that.
"I was revisiting prehistoric sites in the upper Nepeña Valley originally surveyed by Richard Daggett and Donald Proulx in the 1970s," says Munro. "These sites were mostly ridge-top occupations and based on Daggett’s report, showed evidence of highland-coastal interaction; a topic of interest for me for my own dissertation research.” A local school principal from the town of Salitre had clued her in to a “large Inca site and a hilltop fortress known as Iglesia Hirca” near Cosma.
On the way to Cosma with some of her archaeological crew to investigate the tip, one site in particular caught Munro’s eye. “There is no public transport up the mountain to the town of Cosma, so we had to hitch a ride with the delivery truck that goes up once a week with the community’s supplies,” she said. “We were riding up on the top of the truck and when it took that last bend in the road before Cosma, I caught a glimpse of Karecoto [the local name of a large mound] for the first time – and honestly couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I knew it wasn’t natural, or Inca, and its massive size and composition was reminiscent of [ancient Peruvian] highland centers. Even though we were in the upper reaches of the coastal valley, we were still in a coastal valley, and this was something different from what we had seen throughout the rest of Nepeña.”
What Munro was looking at was actually one of several ancient sites that, together, bespoke a possible associated complex of structures with beginnings at least during ancient Peru’s “Early Horizon” period (900 – 1 BCE). She knew this after her inspection of the mounds and survey of surface ceramics and other finds at the sites: “From the density of the ceramics, and the different archaeological components I believe Cosma has been continuously occupied since at least the Early Horizon.”
The largest of the three mounds in the complex, Karecoto, is about 250 meters long and 70 meters wide, and features an underground gallery and truncated top. The top is flat, and Munro describes its location as including walls and domestic structures surrounded by what appear to be prehistoric canals. About 600 meters south of the large mound and across a ravine is a smaller mound, known as Ashipucoto, featuring signs of exposed architecture at its top due to looting. Above Ashipucototo the south is a ridgeline that supports what is interpreted as the domestic area of the site and, following the ridgeline about 1,000 meters up is an Inca occupation known as Caja Rumi, which features large boulders, more ancient terraces, and more domestic walls and architecture. Finally, perched atop an opposite ridge overlooking Karecoto and the village of Cosma is the third mound, and Iglesia Hirca, the hilltop fortress. All three mounds, excluding the Inca occupation, are tentatively dated by Munro to the Early Horizon Period.
The Nepeña river, Nepeña valley, and the Cosma location (right of center) in this image, with map inset showing Cosma location within the Caceres District, Department of Ancash, central Peru.Image credit Kimberly Munro. 
The Karecoto and Ashipucoto mounds labeled within the research area. Photo credit Kimberly Munro. 
Photo illustrating the mound portion and the built-up platform. Photo credit Kimberly Munro.
Interior of the Karecoto structure gallery. Photo credit Kimbery Munro.
Project Director Kimberly Munro explores the gallery (tunnel). Said Munro: "Exploring the gallery was surreal. It was clearly looted and cleaned out to be exposed within the mound like that….but it was obvious no one had been inside in some time. I was already overwhelmed by the size of the mound looming before us, but I wasn’t prepared to see the exposed tunnel......"   Photo credit David Chicoine. 
Wall remains of Iglesia Hirca, the hilltop fortress. Photo credit Kimberly Munro.  
Carved boulder at Caja Rumi. Photo credit Kimberly Munro.
For Munro, the site complex holds enormous potential for shedding light on the social, cultural, and economic/trade interactions of the ancient communities that dotted the regions between the coastal communities and those of the highlands. “For those studying interactions,” says Munro, “many people have looked at opposite ends of the interaction spectrum, either the highlands, or the coast. Not as many have looked at these in-between zones, or buffer communities. The hilltop fortress is reminiscent as well of the monumental sites found in the Moro pocket, lower down in the upper-Nepeña Valley. Chullpas and the Inca carved stones also date us to the Middle and Late Horizons, respectively. It appears we may have a full sequence, and being able to understand how these people plugged into the changing networks or big power players through time will be an important research question for the excavations.”
To find the answers, Munro will be co-directing an initial research team with Jeisen Navarro Vega of the Registro Nacional de Arqueologos del Peru (RNA) to conduct test excavations at the Karecoto and Ashipucoto mounds and a ridge-top site, along with total station mapping of the overall Cosma site complex. The effort won’t be easy. There is no public transportation to the site. To get there, one must catch a ride on a once-a-week delivery truck, or hike 5 hours from the next closest town of Jimbe. This presents a logistical challenge for packing in tools or supplies. Secondly, components of the site are situated on high ridge-tops about 1,000 meters above Cosma, and the sites of Iglesia Hirca and Caja Rumi alone are a three-hour hike from the town. Moreover, the sites are overgrown with trees, bushes, and tall cacti, requiring the team to first clear the vegetation before mapping and excavations can begin.
Another challenge will be related to the community of Cosma, itself. There is electricity, but no running water. The team will need to find ways to maintain an adequate amount of drinking water and, in the longer term, build showers and latrines.
“I also question how the project and our presence will fit into the community dynamics,” Munro worries. “Cosma is very small and community oriented, and I hope our presence does not disrupt the current dynamics and relationships in Cosma. These people do not have individual property rights, everything is communally owned and managed. I am curious to see how everyone manages and reacts with us living and working in Cosma.”
The town of Cosma, with the Cordillera Negra mountains in the background. The town has early 18th century Spanish colonial origins. It is listed by the district municipality as being “the oldest town in the department of Ancash." Photo credit Kimberly Munro. 
Source: Popular Archeology

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Mayan warrior queens wielded profound power, says researcher

A University of Calgary archaeologist is sharing new evidence to suggest powerful warrior queens in the Mayan civilization were not an anomaly.
According to Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a large contingent of Mayan warrior queens emerged between 600 to 800 AD.
Her research suggests these queens made a profound impact on their society in areas ranging from politics, culture and commerce to warfare blasts through previous ideas surrounding the role of women in Mayan society.
"As I began researching, I noticed the existing literature suggested there was only a few isolated examples of these warrior queens in Mayan society," said Reese-Taylor, an associate professor at the University of Calgary.
"I started to realize that was bogus. There were, in fact, many examples of noble warrior women."
Reese-Taylor began researching the idea in earnest after a 2004 archaeological expedition to the Great Pyramids of Naachtun in the forests of Guatemala — one of the most remote, inaccessible sites of the Mayan world.
There the research team discovered a massive stone pillar depicting a fierce Naachtun queen standing upon a conquered foe and Reese-Taylor says she decided to look for more evidence of Mayan queens from that era.
While researching a book on the topic, she discovered the appearances of such figures spikes dramatically between 600 and 800 AD, with hundreds of examples popping up in that time frame compared to almost nothing in earlier periods.
"It's suddenly this quantum leap in the number of women warriors depicted on these royal monuments," she said. "I began to amass this data and look at why this role might have emerged for women at this time."

Cultural biases blinded earlier research

While research on the warrior queens goes back to the late 19th century, Reese-Taylor says earlier archaeologists simply didn't have enough information — such as the ability to decipher hieroglyphics — to make sense of what they were investigating.
Up until the 1970s, researchers viewed the Maya as peaceful priest scholars who studied time, rather than warriors whose society involved sacrifice.
It's possible researchers in the post-World War era had a cultural desire for the possibility of utopian societies, and molded their understanding of the Mayan world to fulfill that fantasy.
As well, cultural biases may have put blinders on the research.
"In the late 19th and early 20th century, the idea of women as warriors was completely unheard of," Reese-Taylor said. "Women didn't lead battles. Figures like Catherine the Great and Joan of Arc were thought of as the exceptions of history."
Reese-Taylor's research is currently featured in the March 2014 issue of Discover magazine in an article entitled The Power and Glory of the Maya Queens."

Source: CBC News

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ancient Egyptian Soldier's Letter Home Deciphered.

A newly deciphered letter home dating back around 1,800 years reveals the pleas of a young Egyptian soldier named Aurelius Polion who was serving, probably as a volunteer, in a Roman legion in Europe.
In the letter, written mainly in Greek, Polion tells his family that he is desperate to hear from them and that he is going to request leave to make the long journey home to see them.
Addressed to his mother (a bread seller), sister and brother, part of it reads: "I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind," it reads. 

"I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you ..." (Part of the letter hasn't survived.)

Polion says he has written six letters to his family without response, suggesting some sort of family tensions.
"While away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger," he writes. "I shall obtain leave from the consular (commander), and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother …"
Found in an ancient Egyptian town
The letter was found outside a temple in the Egyptian town of Tebtunis more than a century ago by an archaeological expedition led by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt. They found numerous papyri in the town and did not have time to translate all of them.
Recently Grant Adamson, a doctoral candidate at Rice University, took up the task of translating the papyrus, using infrared images of it, a technology that makes part of the text more legible. His translation was published recently in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists.

Adamson isn't sure if the soldier's family responded to his pleas, or if Polion got leave to see them (it's unlikely), but it appears this letter did arrive home.
"I tend to think so. The letter was addressed to and mentions Egyptians, and it was found outside the temple of the Roman-period town of Tebtunis in the Fayyum not far from the Nile River," Adamson wrote in an email to Live Science.
Polion, who lived at a time when the Roman Empire controlled Egypt, was part of the legio II Adiutrix legion stationed in Pannonia Inferior (around modern-day Hungary)
He may have volunteered for the pay and food legions got. However, that doesn't mean Polion knew that he was going to be posted so far away from home.
"He may have volunteered and left Egypt without knowing where he would be assigned," writes Adamson in the journal article. According to the translation, Polion sent the letter to a military veteran who could forward it to his family.
An ancient soldier, a modern problem
The situation seen in this letter, a young man serving as a volunteer in a military unit far away from home, facing tensions with his family and seeking leave to see them sounds like something that happens in modern-day armed forces.
Although soldiers today have an easier time communicating and traveling back home (Polion would have had to travel for a month or more to reach Tebtunis from his posting in Europe), there are some themes that connect both ancient and modern soldiers, Adamson said.
"I think that some aspects of military service belong to a common experience across ancient and modern civilizations — part of our human experience in general really. Things like worry and homesickness."
The letter is now in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

Source: LiveScience

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Shamanic figurine guarding shaft tomb discovered in Colima.

shaft tomb containing skeletal remains along with a rich assemblage of grave goods, has been discovered in a later cemetery in the state of Colima, Mexico by researchers at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).
Archaeologist Marco Zavaleta Lucido explained, shaft tombs such as this are targeted by looters because of the beauty of the materials deposited within them. The excavators have produced a detailed record of this burial area which unusually, was found intact.

Shaman sculpture

The sculpture of a long faced shaman holding a blowpipe is the guardian of the shaft tomb sealed up more than 1500 years ago.
In April 2013 archaeologists uncovered and began excavating a cemetery that contained the remains of 35 adults, of both male and females, as well as three infants, all within stone cists dating to what is called the Colima phase, AD400 to 600. Near these burials Marco Zavaleta located a sealed vertical shaft of 1.50 metres square, which represented the entrance to the tomb, dating to a slightly earlier date (AD0-500).
Within this probably family tomb chamber they found the skeletal remains of one or two individuals placed deliberately on top of  another older internment. Once the archaeologists had excavated to floor level, they found another individual lying on its back.
Source: Past Horizonts / INAH

Prehistoric fossil collectors.


Ken McNamara on the earliest evidence of the fossil collecting instinct in humans

Geoscientist 22.05 June 2012
It was a cold Spring day in 1887 on the Chilterns when amateur archaeologist Worthington Smith made one of his most impressive discoveries – the skeletons of a young woman and a child that had lain entwined in their shallow grave for about 4000 years. But there was something very strange about this burial. They were not alone. Hundreds of balls of flint, each engraved with a five-pointed star, lay with the fragile bones – a cornucopia of fossil sea urchins. And to Smith’s expert eye, they all seemed to have been buried very carefully with the bodies in their chalky grave. Yet of all the possible grave goods that could accompany the deceased pair into the afterlife, why choose such strange objects?

Image: Drawing by Worthington G. Smith of skeleton of woman (he called Maud) and child that he found on Dunstable Down in 1887. The skeleton was buried with hundreds of fossil sea urchins.


It has only been for the last three hundred years or so that most people have accepted the view that fossils represent the petrified remains of organisms that once lived millions of years ago. In 1665 the great English physicist, astronomer, geologist, chemist, architect and microscopist Robert Hooke published his seminal book Micrographia, in which he argued that fossils “do owe their formation and figuration, not to any kind of Plastick virtue inherent in the earth, but to the Shells of certain Shell-fishes which...came to be.... filled with some kind of Mudd or Clay or petrifying Water, or some other substance, which in tract of time has been settled together and hardned [sic] in those shelly moulds into those shaped substances we now find them.”.

Image: Neolithic skeleton from Whitehawk causewayed camp, Brighton, found in 1933 buried with a fossil sea urchin (top left).

This may come as no surprise to us today, but in 17th Century Europe such thoughts were not only radical, but verged on the heretical. One who found this out to his cost was the late 16th Century Frenchman Bernard Palissy, who became the first martyr to palaeontology. He died of malnutrition and consumption two years after being incarcerated in the Bastille for having had the temerity to propose that some fossils were “sea-hedgehog [sea urchins] which in the course of time had been turned to stone”.

Hooke’s similar ideas had, in part, been prompted by the little fossils he called ‘button-stones’ and ‘helmet-stones’ that he had collected as a boy on the Isle of Wight. The former are what we now know as ‘regular’, radially symmetrical, sea urchins, the latter being the bilaterally symmetrical ‘irregular’ heart urchins. Both types occur commonly as fossils in Cretaceous and Jurassic rocks in England, and throughout much of Europe and the Mediterranean region.


Archaeological evidence from these areas reveals that, like Hooke, people have been intrigued by fossil sea urchins and have been collecting them for literally hundreds of thousands of years. Fossil collecting has, undoubtedly, a proud and extraordinarily long heritage. But what did these prehistoric collectors make of their fossil finds? Did they see them as sports of the Devil? Or were they gifts from the Gods? And why did they sometimes bury them with their dead?

Image: Fossil urchin Echinocorys scutatus preserved in flint, collected by Mr Alan Smith from a field in Linkenholt, Hampshire, and known by him as a ‘shepherd’s crown’ and kept by the front door of his cottage.

Long before people began popping fossil urchins in their graves, their distant ancestors had found more practical ways to use them in their daily lives. But these were not the kind of people that you and I would immediately recognise, for it is not just our species, Homo sapiens, that collects fossils. Other species of our genus Homo, living hundreds of thousands of years ago, were equally fascinated by them. But why fossil sea urchins in particular? What was it about these particular fossils that made them attractive to people so long ago? The answer lies, I believe, in the distinctive five-pointed star emblazoned on them.

The earliest evidence we have for someone collecting a fossil sea urchin is a flint handaxe made about 400,000 years ago and found in the gravels of Swanscombe, Kent. Taking pride of place on the axe is the distinctive five-rayed star pattern of the fossil urchin Conulus. Such an Acheulian hand axe is usually worked to a sharp edge on both sides. This one, though, has only been worked on one side. The last blow caused a sliver of the fossil to break off, making it likely that the flint knapper reasoned he would only destroy more of the fossil if he worked the other side. This prescient collector was probably a member of the species Homo heidelbergensis and appears to have been particularly taken by its five-pointed star. It seems that ours was not the first species to evolve an aesthetic sense.

A third species, Homo neanderthalensis, also liked collecting fossil urchins. A number of distinctive Mousterian culture scrapers have been found in France, some made entirely from these fossils, others, like the Swanscombe handaxe, incorporating them into the tool. And this tradition seems to have continued right through to Homo sapiens, many flint tools made about 5000 years ago that contained, or were constructed from, fossil urchins, having been found near a Neolithic flint mine at Spiennes in Belgium.


and incorporating the base of a fossil sea urchin, displaying the five-pointed star motif to best effect.Homo heidelbergensis The Neolithic marks the time when many societies gave up their nomadic hunter-gatherer existence and established permanent settlements. This is when we first find evidence of fossil urchins being used as grave goods. For thousands of years before the Common Era, people had been burying all sorts of items with their loved ones, to the great delight of archaeologists. As well as objects of personal adornment, such as clothing and jewellery, articles were usually those considered to be of some practical use in the afterlife – weapons, animals, pots, bowls, tableware and such like. So why place fossil urchins in graves? Either they must have meant much to the deceased when they were alive, or they had a meaning to them in the afterlife.Graves with both cremated and interred remains have been found to contain fossil urchins. In an Anglo-Saxon grave in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, England, a woman lies grasping a fossil urchin in her hand; in a grave of the same age near Cambridge another woman, who suffered from leprosy, is buried in her bed with a leather bag around her neck, containing a sole fossil urchin to accompany her into the afterlife. And high on the chalk downland in the Isle of Wight, five out of a cluster of 12 Bronze Age barrows excavated in the mid-19th Century contained burnt human bones, and all bar one contained a fossil urchin.
TabAll this points to a great spiritual significance attached to these fossils for thousands of years, from at least the Neolithic. Although the Bronze Age grave found by Worthington Smith yielded an impressive haul of more than 300 fossil urchins, this pales into insignificance when compared with the two to three cubic metres of fossil urchins found in a Bronze Age site near Héricourt in France. It has been calculated that this could represent an astonishing 20–30,000 fossils. At the other extreme large barrows (burial mounds) are known from Brittany that when excavated were found to contain nothing but a single fossil urchin - not even a body.

Image: Church-in-the-Wood, a Gypsy “tin tabernacle”, Bramdean, Hampshire. The date it was built, 1883, has been framed using fossil sea urchins.

Fossil urchins were not always found with the dead. Sometimes they show evidence of having been valued by the living, though not as tools. For instance, a cache of fossil urchins discovered in the remains of a settlement in Studland, Dorset that was inhabited between the first and fourth centuries seems to have been deliberately buried under the houses a number of times during this period - and always close to doors and windows! As no written record exists of why people did these things, the only way we can glean some insight into their motives is from the folklore attached to the fossils. Further, it may even be possible to link this with the myths that may have grown up around them – myths that may now be represented merely by a folk name, such as ‘shepherds’ crowns’ or ‘fairy loaves’. Together, archaeology, mythology and folklore allow a greater understanding of the motives behind the activities of prehistoric fossil collectors.



One myth is that of the ‘thunderstone’. A fossil urchin with a stone axe in a pot in an Iron Age cremation deposit in Kent indicates a link with Norse mythology through the god Thor. Folklore gathered in Denmark and southern England in the early 20th Century revealed that both fossil sea urchins and stone axes were called ‘thunderstones’ and were thought to have been thrown to Earth by Thor. But Thor was not only a malevolent thunder god. He was also the peasants’ god, who gave them protection. So these fossils were placed near windows and doors not only to ward off Thor’s frequently over-exuberant lightning strikes, but also to protect the house from evil.

Image: St Peter’s church Linkenholt, Hampshire, which has fossil urchins inserted around two of the church windows.

The other folk names commonly used for fossil urchins in England - ‘shepherd’s crowns’ and ‘fairy loaves’ - both likely derived from Celtic or pre-Celtic terms and beliefs in the association of these objects with the afterlife. Their frequent occurrence in burial mounds (sites of passage from this life to the next) points to a significance attached to ensuring the rebirth of the bearer. These spiritual beliefs degenerated in Christian times into folk traditions of ‘good luck’, so that ‘fairy loaves’ placed on window sills were thought to ensure that bread would rise and help keep the milk fresh. They were still also placed bear to doors to help keep the devil at bay. Perhaps this is why at the entrance to the churchyard surrounding a gypsy church (known as a ‘tin tabernacle’) constructed in Hampshire in 1883, 40 fossil sea urchins were set in cement in the shape of the date.

One of the more obvious clues to the activity of prehistoric fossil collectors comes from fossil urchins that have had a hole deliberately drilled through them. This activity goes back to the Upper Palaeolithic when, 35,000 years ago, fossils were drilled and used in necklaces. At one of the earliest known Neolithic settlements in the eastern Mediterranean, a site in Jordan nearly 11,000 years old called ‘Ain Ghazal, all fossil urchins recovered had been drilled. This behaviour continued for thousands of years, but was not just confined to the eastern Mediterranean. Drilled urchins have turned up in archaeological sites from North Africa, to France, to Gloucestershire. Was the only reason for drilling these fossils to wear them as necklaces? Probably not. Many were almost certainly used as spindle whorls while spinning wool. There may also have been a spiritual element to this activity related to the five-pointed star motif.

The importance of the five-pointed star pattern is reinforced by the discovery of some fossil urchins from Neolithic and Iron Age sites in Jordan that have been altered to enhance the five-rayed star pattern. Could these people have been seeing an image of themselves in this pattern – like the classic ‘stick drawing’ of the human form? Just think of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ – arms outstretched, legs apart, head held aloft – a human five-pointed star. This might explain one of the drilled urchins from ‘Ain Ghazal, where the hole was drilled off-centre, through what could be interpreted as the junction of the legs – a potent fertility object, perhaps.

Fossil urchinAPOTROPAIC

But of all the altered urchins found by prehistoric collectors, the most striking, surely, is one found at Heliopolis in Egypt which had hieroglyphs inscribed on it in about 1500 BCE. These tell us the name of the priest, Tja-nefer, who found it and also where he found it – in ‘the quarry of Sopdu’, a god sometimes known as the ‘Morning Star’. The presence of the distinctive five-rayed star on this fossil and the extensive use of this symbol by ancient Egyptians in their burial chambers to symbolise the stars in the sky to which the spirit of the pharaoh returned, suggests that these fossils might have played an important role in Egyptian funeral rites.

Image: Fossil urchin from Ain ‘Ghazal in Jordan that about 9000 years ago had a hole drilled through it, implying that the five-pointed star was representative of the human body.

As the perceived powers of fossil urchins declined with changing belief systems, so we find the five-rayed star pattern increasingly being used on its own in many societies. It was as though the star had been sloughed off the fossil. Five-pointed stars were being used in decorations nearly 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, and the symbol’s use as an apotropaic object (one that protects against evil) was widespread throughout Europe and the Mediterranean region through to the Middle Ages. Not unlike fossil sea urchins, it was used commonly in mediaeval times above doors of houses or stables to protect against the devil. This star also came to symbolise traits such as chivalry, courtesy, piety and kindness, which is why Sir Gawain’s shield was decorated with such a star.

These days it is not easy to escape this star. It spangles our clothes, sits on our footballs and proudly appears on more than 50 national flags. It clings to our food packaging, our clothes, our beer bottles and coffee shops. It even tattoos our bodies. And at Christmas you can’t walk down a street without being assailed by this heavenly symbol glittering in decorations and sitting smugly on top of the Christmas tree.
HeiroThe fossil sea urchin with its distinctive star is unique as an object whose significance can be traced through many cultures over hundreds of thousands of years. Its importance has changed from an early aesthetic attraction of the five-pointed star by early hominid species to being an object imbued with power and great spiritual significance, one that was thought to ease the passage into the afterlife. Its power then faded as it firstly came to be seen more as an object that protects against evil, before becoming just a lucky object.

To find out where the urchin lies in our imagination today you just have to travel to the north-west corner of Hampshire. Here, high on Salisbury Plain, sits the little village of Linkenholt. For millennia, those who have ploughed the flinty fields around the village found an abundance of ‘shepherd’s crowns’. And what did they do with them? They collected them of course, and in the 12th Century when they built their flint church, what else to do but set some around a window on the north side of the church – the devil’s side – no doubt to try to keep him out. When rebuilt in the late 19th Century, the villagers could not bear to lose this window and its protective fossil wreath, so they were reinstalled. As the fossils had obviously done such a good job, why not have more? So a window on the south side was also garlanded with fossil urchins.

And what of the local farmers? They still collected the fossils, in days of horse and plough, and took them home where they were placed in pots by the front door – faint, fossilised memories of protecting the house. But if you asked them why, they would simply reply, “Well, it’s just something you do, isn’t it?”.

* Ken McNamara is a Senior Lecturer in the Dept of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Sedgwick Museum. He is author of The Star-Crossed Stone, published by University of Chicago Press.

Source: The Geological Society