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Photo: John Hart/ Wisconsin State Journal.
The State Journal reports, “A 1,200-year-old dugout canoe was raised from Lake Mendota [Nov. 2] by the Wisconsin Historical Society. The canoe … is the oldest intact boat ever recovered from Wisconsin waters.”

My Wisconsin brother sent me a cool article recently about the discovery of an ancient canoe. I suspect that blogger Rebecca Cunningham knows all about this as she lives in Madison.

Barry Adams at the Wisconsin State Journal has the story.

“Tamara Thomsen and Mallory Dragt thought they would take a spin under Lake Mendota on a couple of underwater scooters, motorized gadgets that scuba divers use to propel themselves through the water. It was a beautiful Saturday morning in June, and the duo, who work at Diversions Scuba, debated whether they had just seen a log sticking out of the bottom of the 9,781-acre lake or something extremely rare.

“The discovery, on a slope in 27 feet of water near Shorewood Hills, has turned out to be about as historic as it gets.

“After a bit of investigation, it turns out that Thomsen, who is also a maritime archaeologist for the Wisconsin Historical Society, was right in judging that it was more than just a log: It was a dugout canoe. A few weeks later, carbon-14 dating showed that the 15-foot-long vessel was an estimated 1,200 years old, the oldest intact boat ever found in Wisconsin waters.

“On a brisk Tuesday, amid a chop of waves and 50-degree water, the canoe was brought to shore by teams of divers who shared fist bumps and hugs to applause from residents of the Spring Harbor neighborhood who had gathered at the beach to witness the canoe’s return to shore.

“ ‘This is the first time this thing has been out of the water in 1,200 years. And maybe they left from this very beach to go fishing,’ said James Skibo, Wisconsin’s state archaeologist. ‘Not only has it been underwater; it’s been under the ground. The reason it’s so well preserved is that it has not been exposed to the light. So that’s one of the reasons we have to start preserving it.

‘There’s living organisms on it that are chewing away on it as we speak.’

“The canoe will ultimately be displayed in the Historical Society’s proposed new and expanded museum on Capitol Square. But for the next two years, it will undergo a series of treatments. The first, in a 16-foot-long, 3-foot-wide tank at the State Archive Preservation Facility on Madison’s Near East Side, will preserve its liquid environment, although mixed in the water will be a biocide to kill any algae or microorganisms. That’s followed with a treatment of polyethylene glycol designed to replace the water that has saturated the wood.

“The process will make the structure more solid and stable, and prevent further degradation, said Amy Rosebrough, a leading expert on the Effigy Mound builders of Wisconsin, who likely made the canoe and inhabited villages and encampments around Lake Mendota and throughout much of southern Wisconsin. A cache of net sinkers, used to weigh down fishing nets, was also found with the canoe, which could have been made from basswood or a walnut tree, two common woods used for dugouts during that time frame.

“ ‘This is extraordinarily rare,’ said Rosebrough. ‘We really don’t have anything like this from Wisconsin. We have found pieces of dugouts before in various lakes (but) nothing this intact and nothing intact this old.’ …

“The people who built the dugout canoes in what is now Dane County were ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Typical techniques could have included using a combination of burning the inside of the canoe and using stone tools to scrape out the charred and soften remains. Bill Quackenbush, the Ho-Chunk’s tribal historic preservation officer, was on hand Tuesday to watch the dugout canoe emerge from the lake. The Ho-Chunk are referred to as ‘People of the Big Water.’

“ ‘When it comes to items of this nature, if it’s going to protect and preserve the history and culture of us in this area, we’re all in support of that,’ Quackenbush said of the canoe’s recovery. …

“The recovery effort began last week with divers carefully dredging around the canoe. Once sediment was removed and the boat fully exposed, rods of rebar were stuck into the lake bottom and a web of rope tied over the canoe to keep it in place.

“On Tuesday morning, a small armada of boats made their way to the site. … Thomsen drove [a] boat that included Randy Wallander, a volunteer diver from Manitowoc who has years of experience bringing up large objects from Lake Michigan. His equipment included large yellow floats, diving gear and four 45-pound bags of sand that were placed in the canoe to give it weight as it was towed into shore in a sling supported by the floats at just above idling speed. The 1-mile trip took nearly two hours, after which divers unhooked the canoe from a boat and walked it the last 100 yards or so to shore. …

“ ‘It was a team effort,’ Thomsen said. ‘I’m actually surprised at how smooth it went. You always expect for there to be problems and you anticipate the worst and hope for the best, but it came up faster than we thought. Everybody really danced together to make it come up.’ ”

More at Madison.com, here.

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Photo: Goban1.
The Chinese game called Go is more than 2,500 years old.

This past summer, I blogged about a new board game called Wingspan. It sounded wonderful, especially for bird lovers, like those in my family. I bought it.

Well, I think it is going to be wonderful, but the rules are really hard. Recommended for people over 14, it is still too “buch for be, “as Rudyard Kipling’s Elephant’s Child says.

Fortunately, it’s not too much for my 9-year-old grandson, who is gradually figuring it out and explaining it. Otherwise, I might have had to call on artificial intelligence experts, like those described in today’s story.

Samantha HuiQi Yow explains at Wired: “In 1901, on an excavation trip to Crete, British archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed items he believed belonged to a royal game dating back millennia: a board fashioned out of ivory, gold, silver, and rock crystals, and four conical pieces nearby, assumed to be the tokens. Playing it, however, stumped Evans, and many others after him who took a stab at it. There was no rulebook, no hints, and no other copies have ever been found. Games need instructions for players to follow. Without any, the Greek board’s function remained unresolved—that is, until recently.

“Enter artificial intelligence and a group of researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Thanks to an algorithm the team used to analyze the playability of one suggested ruleset, the century-old guesswork could soon be taken out of the Knossos game. Today, not only can its recognition as a game be further assessed, with hopes of a clearer answer in future, a version of it is also playable online.  And for the first time, so are hundreds of other games thought to have been lost to history.

“Board games go back a long way. Centuries ago, before the chess we know today, there was Chaturanga in India, Shogi in Japan, and Xiangqi in China. And long before them was Senet, one of the earliest known games, which, along with others played in ancient Egypt, may have ultimately inspired backgammon. ‘Games are social lubricants,’ explains Cameron Browne, a computer scientist at the university who received his PhD in AI and game design. ‘Even if two cultures don’t speak the same language, they can exchange play. This happened throughout history. Wherever people spread to, wherever soldiers were stationed, wherever merchants were trading. Anyone who had time to kill would often teach those around them the games they knew.’ …

“[But] the rules were typically passed on by word of mouth instead of being written down. The little that is known is left open to modern interpretation.

“It’s these lapses in board game history that gave legs to the five-year Digital Ludeme Project, which Browne leads. ‘Games are a great cultural resource that’s been largely underutilized. We don’t even know how so many of them were played, especially when you go farther back in time,’ he says. ‘So the question for me was, can we use modern AI techniques to shed insight into how these ancient games were played and, together with the evidence available, help reconstruct them?’

“As it turns out, the answer is a resounding yes. It’s been three years since Browne and his colleagues set to work, and already they have brought nearly a thousand board games online, ranging from across three time periods and nine regions. Thanks to them, games once popular in the second and first millennia BC, like 58 holes, are now just a few clicks away for anyone on the internet.

“Interestingly enough, this reconstruction process begins with the opposite. Games are first broken down into fundamental units of information called ludemes, which refers to elements of play such as the number of players, movement of pieces, or criteria to win. Once a game is codified in this manner, the team then fills in the missing pages of its rulebook with the help of relevant historical information, like when it or another game with similar ludemes was played and by whom.

“The riddle however is only partly solved at this stage. Others who do similar work–manually–usually hit a dead end here. It’s because what looks good on paper might not translate as well in reality, Browne explains. ‘The rules might make sense when you read them, but you don’t know how well they actually work unless you play the game. Quite often, rules that make perfect sense play terribly as games.’ …

“But computers can have blind spots too, in that they only measure what’s measurable. Here’s where Walter Crist comes in.” More at Wired, here.

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Photo: IPHES.
Archaeologist makes a 3D scan of the prehistoric cave art at Font Major in Spain.

Without going into space and littering it with our detritus and conflicts, there are plenty of unknowns here to satisfy our taste for exploration. In this article from ArtNet News, we learn, for example, about a recent discovery made in Spain that opened up a whole new batch of mysteries.

Javier Pes writes, “Experts have discovered a cave full of prehistoric carvings in northern Spain. Among the hundreds of rock carvings, some believed to be 15,000 years old, are vivid depictions of horses, deer, and bulls, as well as a wealth of mysterious and abstract symbols. Unlike the famous prehistoric paintings at Altamira, also in northern Spain, the recently discovered cave art in Catalonia is carved directly into the soft surface of the rock.

“A team of archaeologists stumbled across the richly decorated cave at the end of October 2019. … Josep Maria Vergès, who led the team from IPHES (the Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution) described the find as ‘exceptional’ in a statement, and compared the cave to a ‘shrine.’

“The cave art is now being recorded and studied using 3D scanning technology. The engravings were created on a layer of soft sand deposited on the cave’s surface in an area that is difficult to access. The artworks are extremely fragile. … Several figures seem to have been damaged in the past by visitors who were unaware of their existence. Experts are now studying the best way to preserve the remarkable finds.

“Vergès tells Artnet News, that he felt a ‘mixture of surprise and disbelief, followed by great satisfaction,’ when the he first saw the ancient works of art. ‘Surprise because the cave is not an ideal place to find engravings due to the characteristics of the rock, the walls were very irregular, and the specialists thought that it was not suitable for painting or engraving.’ …

“The oldest art in the cave is believed to date back to the Late Stone Age, or Upper Paleolithic period. The earliest cave paintings at Altamira date from the same period, although they are around 20,000 years older. 

“Researchers uncovered the art within a nearly two-mile-long complex of caverns about 60 miles from Barcelona called the Cave of Font Major, which was first discovered in 1853. Parts of this cave complex, one of Europe’s largest, are open as a subterranean museum, although the specific stretch containing these carvings is closed to the public. …

“[In a related event] anthropologists working at Abri Blanchard in France’s Vézère Valley announced in 2017 the rediscovery of a 38,000-year-old rock engraving. It depicts an aurochs, or wild cow, and rows of dots. That ancient image is believed to be one of the earliest artworks found in Europe.”

More at ArtNet News, here.

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Photo: Ars Technica.
A recently published study suggests coastal Africa didn’t have a monopoly on innovation.

More Americans are starting to recognize the pernicious effects of coastal attitudes about the majority of US states. Sarah Smarsh’s wonderful memoir of growing up in Kansas, Heartland, was one thing that helped me understand that a derisive phrase some people use — “flyover country” — is both ignorant and dangerous.

Today’s story shows that there has been a similar attitude in African archaeology, where the only civilizations thought to be creative and innovative were on the coasts. The latest discoveries in the southern Kalahari reveal a different story.

Kiona N. Smith writes at Ars Techninca, “Between 125,000 and 70,000 years ago, people began to do some very modern things: collecting small objects for no practical reason, decorating things with pigments, and storing water and possibly even food in containers. The oldest known sites with evidence of those behaviors are along the coastline of southern Africa. …

“And according to one idea in paleoanthropology, something about that way of life enabled those early people — or maybe pushed them — to innovate. Their distant neighbors who lived far from the sea supposedly lagged behind the cultural times.

But Griffith University archaeologist Jayne Wilkins and her colleagues recently unearthed evidence that landlocked people were just as hip and modern as their counterparts on the coast.

“At Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter, there’s a layer of sediment dating back to 105,000 years ago and scattered with stone tools. In it, Wilkins and her colleagues found a large chunk of red ocher, worn flat and striated on two sides, as if it had been used as pigment. The rock shelter also held a cache of translucent white calcite crystals, which hadn’t been worked or used as tools; it looked as if someone had gathered up the crystals simply for the sake of having them, or maybe as a ritual offering. Several broken, burned pieces of ostrich eggshell, buried in the same layer, may once have held stores of water.

“The Ga-Mohana Hill artifacts are roughly the same age as the oldest similar finds on the coast, according to optically stimulated luminescence dating, which measures when quartz grains in the sediment were last exposed to light — in this case, about 105,000 years ago. That’s around the same time that people along the coast of southern Africa started collecting seashells for no apparent practical purpose, while people at Diepkloof Rockshelter in South Africa stored their water in the oldest known ostrich eggshell containers.

“It sounds like an almost laughably simple idea to a 21st century human: if you put some stuff inside a larger thing, you can carry it more easily and store it for later. But we’ve had the benefit of at least 200,000 years of figuring out how to do things. At one point in our distant prehistory, containers were an amazing new idea. It would have been, as Wilkins and her colleagues put it, ‘a crucial innovation for early humans.’

“The conclusion from these finds is that people in the African interior weren’t lagging behind coastal cultures at all. Some of the most important innovations in human prehistory happened in multiple areas of the continent at around the same time.

“If you’re not an archaeologist, it may seem obvious that people living inland could be just as innovative as people living on the coast, but all the evidence archaeologists had until now told a different story. The oldest traces of a whole suite of new (at the time) human behaviors have all been found at sites relatively close to the coastline. …

“That has more to do with geology than with what people were actually doing in the distant past. ‘Stratified Late Pleistocene sites with good preservation and robust chronologies are rare in the interior of southern Africa,’ [the research team] wrote in their recent paper. The result is what they describe as a ‘strong bias towards coastal sites that marginalizes the role of inland populations.’ …

“Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter [tells] us something important about our past: lots of people, in lots of different environments, found similar solutions to problems.”

More here.

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Photo: Ahmed Hasan / AFP via Getty Images.
The sealed wooden coffins at Saqqara in Egypt date from between the sixth and first centuries B.C.

On the weekend, when I was indoors with grandchildren for the first time in more than a year, one of the kids read to me from a book of “spooky stories.” One yarn was about mummies, which reminded me of the prepandemic time that grandson and I had visited the Egyptian section of the RISD Museum. Maybe Suzanne will show him the picture from today’s post about a recent discovery in Egypt.

Jo Marchant wrote about this at Smithsonian last November. “A giant trove of ancient coffins and mummies has been discovered at the vast Egyptian burial site of Saqqara. After hinting at a big announcement for days, the Egyptian antiquities ministry revealed the details this morning: more than 100 intact wooden coffins with brightly painted scenes and hieroglyphs, and well-preserved mummies inside.

“The announcement comes after a string of recent discoveries at Saqqara, including 59 intact coffins revealed in September and October. The newly announced coffins were found nearby, at the bottom of three 12-meter shafts revealed when archaeologists led by Mostafa Waziry, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, were removing debris from the site. Other finds include funerary masks and more then 40 statues of the funerary deity Ptah-Sokar, all untouched for at least 2,000 years.

“Speaking at a press conference at Saqqara with dozens of the coffins displayed on stage behind him, Egypt’s antiquities minister, Khaled el-Enany, praised the Egyptian archaeologists who excavated the finds, which mostly date from between the sixth and first centuries B.C. ‘They have been working day and night and I’m very proud of the result,’ he said. Their story will be told in a Smithsonian Channel docuseries called Tomb Hunters, scheduled to air in 2021.

“As the coronavirus pandemic devastates the tourism industry on which Egypt depends, the recent finds have been publicized in a series of increasingly dramatic events. At a previous press conference in October, Egyptian officials opened a coffin live on stage. This time they went one step further, not just opening a coffin but X-raying the mummy inside, revealing the individual to have been an adult male, perhaps in his 40s. ….

“Egyptologists have welcomed the announcement. To find an unplundered necropolis from this period is ‘extremely significant,’ says Salima Ikram, an archaeologist based at the American University in Cairo, who works at Saqqara. They note that although the latest find is larger, it doesn’t differ significantly from the previously announced finds. ‘This is very impressive, but it’s lots more of what we already have,’ says Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan at the Manchester Museum in the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, researchers are excited about the possibilities for learning more about this ancient sacred landscape, and the people who were buried there.

“Saqqara, located around 20 miles south of Cairo, is one of Egypt’s richest archaeological sites. Home to the 4,700-year-old Step Pyramid, Egypt’s oldest surviving pyramid that’s about 200 years older than the more-famous Pyramids at Giza, the site was used as a burial ground for more than 3,000 years. Like the previous 59 coffins, the newly announced finds mostly date from fairly late in ancient Egypt’s history, from the Late Period (664-332 B.C.) and the Ptolemaic period when Greeks ruled as Pharaohs (305-30 B.C.)

“During this period, Saqqara was far more than a cemetery, says Price. It was a pilgrimage site, he says, like an ancient Mecca or Lourdes, that attracted people not just from Egypt but from all over the eastern Mediterranean. Buildings such as the Step Pyramid were already thousands of years old at this time; people believed they were burial places for gods, and wanted to be buried close by.

‘Saqqara would have been the place to be seen dead in,’ says Price. ‘It had this numinous, divine energy that would help you to get into the afterlife.’

“Geophysical surveys have revealed the remains of numerous temples buried under the sand. Archaeologists have also discovered millions of animal mummies, including dogs, cats and birds, believed to have been left as offerings. Recent finds of mummified cobras, crocodiles and dozens of cats, including two lion cubs, were reported in November 2019 and feature in a Netflix documentary, ‘Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb,’ released this month. Meanwhile the discovery of an underground embalmers’ workshop, announced in April, suggests a thriving business in dealing with the dead, with coffins and masks to suit a range of budgets.

“But the undertakers weren’t digging from scratch, says Aidan Dodson, an Egyptologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. They were reusing older, looted tombs, he says, ‘scouring Saqqara for locations’ suitable for placing new coffins, even beneath the Step Pyramid itself. That makes the site a densely packed mix of finds that range thousands of years. ‘One would be hard pressed to dig and not find something,’ says Ikram. The latest coffins come from an area north of the Step Pyramid, next to the bubasteon, a temple complex dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet, where older tombs were reused to hold hundreds of mummified cats.” As Laurie would say, “Holy Cats!”

More at the Smithsonian, here.

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Photo: Barney Rowe/BBC.
Professors Alice Roberts and Mike Parker Pearson in Wales with the key to a legend about Merlin.

One should never completely dismiss a myth. There is usually a grain of historical truth buried inside. It has just gotten distorted as told and retold over centuries. I feel the same qualified trust about fantasy novels. I know they are imagined, but there is something about them I believe.

In today’s story we find archaeological proof of historical truth underlying an Arthurian legend about the magician Merlin.

As Dalya Alberge writes at the Irish Times, “An ancient myth about Stonehenge, first recorded 900 years ago, tells of the wizard Merlin leading men to Ireland to capture a magical stone circle called the Giants’ Dance and rebuilding it in western England as a memorial to the dead.

“Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account had been dismissed, partly because he was wrong on other historical facts, although the bluestones of the monument came from a region of Wales that was considered Irish territory in his day.

“Now a vast stone circle created by our Neolithic ancestors has been discovered in Wales with features suggesting that the 12th-century legend may not be complete fantasy. Its diameter of [120 yards] is identical to the ditch that encloses Stonehenge, and it is aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise, just like the Wiltshire monument.

“A series of buried stone holes that follow the circle’s outline has been unearthed, with shapes that can be linked to Stonehenge’s bluestone pillars. One of them bears an imprint in its base that matches the unusual cross section of a Stonehenge bluestone ‘like a key in a lock,’ the archaeologists discovered.

Mike Parker Pearson, a professor of British later prehistory at University College London, says:

‘I’ve been researching Stonehenge for 20 years now, and this really is the most exciting thing we’ve ever found.’

“The evidence backs a century-old theory that the great prehistoric monument was built in Wales and venerated for hundreds of years before being dismantled and dragged to Wiltshire, where it was resurrected as a second-hand monument.

“Geoffrey had written of ‘stones of a vast magnitude’ in his History of the Kings of Britain, which popularised the legend of King Arthur but is considered as much myth as historical fact. … The discovery will be published in Antiquity, the peer-reviewed journal of world archaeology, and explored in a documentary on BBC Two on [presented] by Prof Alice Roberts.

“A century ago the geologist Herbert Thomas established that the spotted dolerite bluestones at Stonehenge originated in the Preseli hills of Pembrokeshire [Wales] where, he suspected, they had originally formed a ‘venerated stone circle.’ The newly discovered circle – one of the largest ever constructed in Britain – is about 5km from the Preseli quarries from which the bluestones were extracted before being dragged more than 225km to Salisbury Plain some 5,000 years ago.

“In 2015 Parker Pearson’s team discovered a series of recesses in the outcrops of Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-felin with similar stones that the prehistoric builders extracted but left behind … quarried almost four centuries before Stonehenge was constructed.

“It convinced Parker Pearson in 2015 that ‘somewhere near the quarries there is the first Stonehenge and that what we’re seeing at Stonehenge is a second-hand monument.’ “

At the Irish Times, here, you can learn how the archaeologists managed to carbon-date the circle despite the destructive effects of acidic soil.

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Photo: Marie-Claire Thomas/ Wild Blue Media
Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon presenter Ella Al-Shamahi places her hand next to ancient handprints found in Columbia.

There are always new things to discover. We’ll never stop needing scientists to discover treatments and cures for emerging illnesses or new kinds of energy to replace fossil fuels. We’ll never stop needing diplomats and non-diplomats to discover ways to make peace or artists to lead us to new frontiers of imagination.

And what about archaeologists? New discoveries of ancient artifacts continue to teach us so much about both our history and our future.

Hakim Bishara writes at Hyperallergic, “In a remarkable discovery, archaeologists have found one of the world’s largest collections of prehistoric rock art in the Amazonian rainforest. Tens of thousands of paintings of animals and humans, made up to 12,600 years ago, were found on an eight-mile rock surface along the Guayabero River in the Colombian Amazon.

“Called ‘the Sistine Chapel of the ancients,’ the collection includes drawings of large mammals, birds, fish, lizards, handprints, and masked figures of dancing humans. The ancient paintings also record interactions between humans and extinct species of giant Ice Age mammals like mastodons.

“The discovery belongs to a joint team of Colombian-British researchers, led by Jose Iriarte, a professor of archaeology at Exeter University in the United Kingdom. The archeologists conducted the main bulk of excavations in the area between 2017-2018 with the intent of revealing their findings in the [British] documentary series Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon. … The documentary’s presenter is Ella Al-Shamahi, an archaeologist and explorer. The findings are also outlined in an article in the journal Quaternary International.

“In an email to Hyperallergic, the researchers wrote: ‘The excavations, in the deep soil around the shelters, have revealed one of the earliest secure dates for the occupation of the Colombian Amazon and clues about people’s diet at this time, as well as the remains of small tools and scraped ochre used to extract pigments to make the paintings.’

“The team has also found realistic drawings of deer, tapirs, alligators, bats, monkeys, turtles, serpents, and porcupines. There are also depictions of creatures resembling a giant sloth, camelids, horses, and three-toe ungulates with trunks.

‘These native animals all became extinct, probably because of a combination of climate change, the loss of their habitat and hunting by humans,’ the researchers wrote.

“According to the researchers, communities that lived in the area at the time of the drawings were hunter-gatherers who fished in the nearby river. Remains of bones and plants found during the excavations shed information about their diets, which included palm and tree fruits, piranha, alligators, snakes, frogs, rodents such as paca, capybara, and armadillos. …

“The archaeologists wrote, ‘At the time the drawings were made temperatures were rising, starting the transformation of the area from a mosaic landscape of patchy savannahs, thorny scrub, gallery forests and tropical forest with montane elements into the broadleaf tropical Amazon forest of today.’ “

More pictures at Hyperallergic, here. That list of animals is reminding me of Suzanne at age 5, when she was a huge fan of the capybara. We saw a few at Disney World that year.

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Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo
The “lost” colony of Roanoke, Virginia.

The mystery of the “lost colony” of Roanoke, Virginia, may be solved. The answer seems to lie in the enmity of two indigenous tribes and in the likelihood that the English relocated from Roanoke to the village of their friends, the Croatoans.

Jeff Hampton at the Virginian-Pilot reports, “The English colonists who settled the so-called Lost Colony before disappearing from history simply went to live with their native friends — the Croatoans of Hatteras, according to a new book.

‘They were never lost,’ said Scott Dawson, who has researched records and dug up artifacts where the colonists lived with the Indians in the 16th century. ‘It was made up. The mystery is over.’

“Dawson has written a book, published in June, that details his research. It is called ‘The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island,’ and echos many of the sentiments he has voiced for years. A team of archaeologists, historians, botanists, geologists and others have conducted digs on small plots in Buxton and Frisco for 11 years.

“Dawson and his wife, Maggie, formed the Croatoan Archaeological Society when the digs began. … Teams have found thousands of artifacts 4-6 feet below the surface that show a mix of English and Indian life. Parts of swords and guns are in the same layer of soil as Indian pottery and arrowheads. …

“Dawson’s book draws from research into original writings of John White, Thomas Harriot and others. Most of their writings were compiled at the time by English historian Richard Hakluyt. Records from Jamestown also helped Dawson understand more about the tribes’ political structure.

“The evidence shows the colony left Roanoke Island with the friendly Croatoans to settle on Hatteras Island. They thrived, ate well, had mixed families and endured for generations. More than a century later, explorer John Lawson found natives with blue eyes who recounted they had ancestors who could ‘speak out of a book,’ Lawson wrote.

“The two cultures adapted English earrings into fishhooks and gun barrels into sharp-ended tubes to tap tar from trees.

“The Lost Colony stemmed from an 1587 expedition. Just weeks after arriving, White had to leave the group of settlers — including his daughter, Eleanor Dare, and newborn granddaughter, Virginia — to get more supplies from England. White was not able to return for three years. When he arrived at Roanoke Island in 1590 he found ‘CROATOAN’ carved on a post and “cro” on a tree. He found no distress marks.

“They literally made a sign. It was expected the colonists would go with their friends, the Croatoans and tribe member, Manteo, Dawson said. Manteo had traveled to England with earlier expeditions and was baptized a Christian on Roanoke Island.

“White later wrote of finding the writing on the post, ‘I greatly joyed that I had found a certain token of their being at Croatoan where Manteo was born …’

“A bad storm and a near mutiny kept White from reaching Hatteras. He returned to England without ever seeing his colony again. …

“A lead tablet and lead pencil found at the dig could have belonged to White himself, Dawson said. White also was part of the 1585 group, working as an artist who drew natives and wildlife. …

“He likely used the newly discovered tablet or a similar one to draw the miniature pictures. The uncovered tablet has an impression of an Englishman shooting a native in the back. …

“The Croatoans assisted the English in the ambush, Dawson said. The Secotans and the Croatoans hated each other, Dawson said. Secotans enslaved Croatoans just a few years before the English arrived. …

“White was concerned about the danger posed by the Secotans when he left for England. The Croatoans saved the colonists by taking them away from Roanoke Island to their Hatteras Island village, Dawson said. ‘You’re robbing an entire nation of people of their history by pretending Croatoan is a mystery on a tree,’ he said.” More here.

Although this explanation makes perfect sense to me, I would still love to hear from archaeologists not involved in the dig. What do you think?

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500-year-old-rock-art-may-have-been-made-with-beeswax

Photo: Archaeologists Liam M. Brady, John J. Bradley, Amanda Kearney, Daryl Wesley
Was this ancient rock art created using beeswax stencils?

Here’s a tip for making detailed art that lasts. I’m talking about 500 years and counting. A team of archaeologists now believes the secret of certain cave paintings is beeswax.

Sarah Cascone writes at Artnet News, “Archaeologists in Australia believe they have identified a previously undocumented beeswax stenciling technique used by ancient artists to create cave paintings.

“Most rock art stencils are large in scale. Artists would place their hand or other objects on the wall and spray liquid pigment, creating a full-size negative image. But the artworks at a Limmen National Park site called Yilbilinji, in the Gulf of Carpentaria region of northern Australia, are much smaller. There are 17 tiny stenciled paintings at the site, some depicting human figures and animals, such as kangaroos and turtles, others of boomerangs and geometric designs.

“Studying the 500-year-old rock art there, a team from Australia’s Flinders University and Monash University, have come up with a new theory about how Aboriginal artists created the miniature and small-scale stenciled motifs.

“The team was able to replicate the mysterious miniature art using tiny models sculpted from beeswax, publishing their findings last month in the journal Antiquity. Representatives of the local Indigenous Marra people assisted with the experiment, which only used materials that are native to the region.

“The researchers believe that the Yilbilinji artwork may have served a spiritual purpose in religious rituals. On the other hand, the artwork is placed low to the ground, suggesting it may have been made by children.” More at Artnet, here.

Don’t you wonder how future archaeologists will interpret artifacts dug up from our own culture? Will their theories be as far apart as “It’s for a solemn religious ceremony,” “No, it’s for a child’s game”?

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Photo: Mark Brodkin Photography/ Getty Images
After archaeologists found steps and postholes on either side of a ramp, they concluded the pyramid builders were able to haul from both directions, shortening the time to complete construction.

What were you taught in school about how the pyramids in Egypt were constructed? The story has always been partly guesswork, like the story of Stonehenge and the giant statues on Easter Island, narratives that change as new bits of data are uncovered.

Kevin Rawlinson writes at the Guardian, “The mystery of how, exactly, the pyramids were built may have come a step closer to being unravelled after a team of archaeologists made a chance discovery in an ancient Egyptian quarry.

“Scientists researching ancient inscriptions happened upon a ramp with stairways and a series of what they believe to be postholes, which suggest that the job of hauling into place the huge blocks of stone used to build the monuments may have been completed more quickly than previously thought.

“While the theory that the ancient Egyptians used ramps to move the stones has already been put forward, the structure found by the Anglo-French team, which dated from about the period that the Great Pyramid of Giza was built, is significantly steeper than was previously supposed possible.

“They believe the inclusion of the steps and the postholes either side of a rampway suggests the builders were able to haul from both directions, rather than simply dragging a block behind them. The team believes those below the block would have used the posts to create a pulley system while those above it pulled simultaneously. …

“Dr Roland Enmarch, a senior lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Liverpool and the co-director of the project that made the discovery, the Hatnub Survey, … told the Guardian that … the alabaster quarry itself, as well as the inscriptions they were there to study, had been known to Egyptologists for a long time, having first been found by Howard Carter – the discoverer of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

“His team’s original focus was not on the ramp leading down into the quarry, but on properly documenting the inscriptions found there. But their attention was soon drawn to the former’s construction – and what it could tell them about how pyramids were built.

“They said the inscriptions allowed them to date the ramp to around the time of the Pharoah Khufu, or Cheops, who built the Great Pyramid.” More here.

It’s amazing how archaeologists keep deepening our knowledge of the past. At the same time, the use of slave labor in building these monuments remains almost too painful to think about. And it reminds me that although slavery is no longer accepted as normal, we still face huge challenges to obliterate it.

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kazakhstan-treasure

In the remote Tarbagatai mountains, where Kazakhstan meets northern China, archaeologists have found an ancient treasure.

I have heard that the day-to-day life of an archaeologist is all mud and digging and measuring — not glamorous. But imagine having your efforts rewarded by unearthing a pile of gold! You don’t get to keep it, of course, but it must be a thrill to feel a sudden connection with artisans of thousands of years ago.

Natasha Frost writes at the History website, “Archaeologists have unearthed a cache of thousands of millennia-old pieces of gold jewelry in an ancient burial mound in Kazakhstan.

“The remote Tarbagatai mountains, where Kazakhstan meets northern China, was once home to the Saka. These expert horsemen were a nomadic people who moved across Eurasia through Iran, India and Central Asia for many hundreds of years—until they were conquered by Turkic invaders in the 4th century A.D. It’s believed these glittering objects may have belonged to members of their elite.

“Though many mysteries remain about the Saka people, their skill with metal is well documented. Among the finds are intricate earrings shaped like little bells, a necklace studded with precious stones, and piles of chains and gold plates. Tiny animals have been expertly wrought out of gold. The items show evidence of micro-soldering, a highly sophisticated technique for artifacts estimated to be as much as 2,800 years old. …

“Some 200 other burial mounds have [been] found on the fertile Kazakh plateau, which was regarded as a paradise by Saka kings. Few have been found with quite so much treasure, however, since widespread looting during the time of Peter the Great depleted many of the burial sites of their riches. Experts say that the area has become a focus for archaeologists, who hope to find other precious objects in other sites. …

“Local politicians are celebrating the discovery, which they say helps to inform them about their ancestors. ‘This find gives us a completely different view of the history of our people,’ former Prime Minister Danial Akhmetov said, in an interview with Kitco News. ‘We are the heirs of great people and great technologies.’ ”

More here.

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Photos: British Museum
Tello in Iraq is the site of one of the oldest cities on earth. After the fall of Saddam, looted treasures ended up in London and, thanks to archaeological detective work, have been returned. Today the site is protected by both Iraqi archaeological police and a local tribe.

When you think something is lost forever, hold on to hope. If looted archaeological fragments that have been smuggled to another country can be identified and returned, you can find the family heirloom you put in a too-safe place. You can find the delight you once took in simple things back when you were too young to read the news.

Maev Kennedy reported for the Guardian in August, “A collection of 5,000-year-old antiquities looted from a site in Iraq in 2003 after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and then seized by the Metropolitan police from a dealer in London, will be returned to Baghdad this week.

“It comes after experts at the British Museum identified not just the site they came from but the temple wall they were stolen from.

The eight small pieces had no documentation of any kind to help the police, but the museum experts could literally read their origin.

“They included cone-shaped ceramics with cuneiform inscriptions identifying the site as Tello, ancient Girsu in southern Iraq, one of the oldest cities on earth recorded in the earliest form of true written language.

“The inscriptions named the Sumerian king who had them made almost 5,000 years ago, the god they were dedicated to, and the temple. And by an extraordinary coincidence the museum had an archaeologist, Sebastian Rey, leading a team of Iraqi archaeologists at the site, uncovering the holes in the mudbrick walls of the temple they were torn from, and the broken pieces the looters had discarded. …

“Iraqi ambassador Salih Husain Ali [said] the protection of antiquities was an international responsibility and praised the British Museum and its staff ‘for their exceptional efforts in the process of identifying and returning looted antiquities to Iraq.’ …

“St John Simpson, the assistant keeper at the Middle East department of the museum, said: ‘Uniquely we could trace them not just to the site but to within inches of where they were stolen from. This is a very happy outcome, nothing like this has happened for a very, very long time if ever.’ …

“The site of the Eninnu temple at Tello is now protected, not just by the reformed Iraqi archaeological police, but by a local tribe. …

“With no apparent way of tracing their origin, they sat in police stores until some of the antiquities cold cases were reopened with the reforming of the Met’s art and antiquities squad, and brought to the museum earlier this year. …

“The museum experts hope their methodology could be used to create maps of specific sites and types of antiquities, making the work of looters much more difficult.”

More at the Guardian, here. Wouldn’t you like to reach across time and tell the craftsman of the sweet little bull below that people in 2018 are still enjoying it?

Treasures looted from the site of an ancient city in Iraq include a tiny marble amulet of a bull.

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Photo: Stefan Sauer/AFP/Getty Images
Amateur archaeologist Rene Schoen (left) and 13-year-old student Luca Malaschnichenko looking for treasures in Schaprode, Germany. The boy made a startling discovery in January, then participated in a professional dig that uncovered a larger trove.

In this National Public Radio story, a young boy working with an amateur archaeologist gets to experience the thrill of a significant find, one that underscores the historical connection between Germany and Denmark.

It wasn’t aluminum trash he found. It was a silver coin.

Camila Domonoske reports at NPR, “An amateur archaeologist and a 13-year-old student have uncovered a stash of thousand-year-old coins, rings and pearls on an island in the Baltic Sea in northern Germany, including items that might be tied to Harald Bluetooth, the famous king who united Denmark.

“René Schön and student Luca Malaschnitschenko were searching northern Rügen island with metal detectors when they found something they thought was aluminum but turned out to be silver, Agence France-Presse reports. …

“The two alerted professional archaeologists, and then helped recover of the rest of the trove — more than 600 silver objects dating from the late 10th century. …

“About 100 of the coins are from the reign of King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark: the largest find of such coins in the southern Baltic region, the [archaeology office of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania] office says.

“Harald I — his nickname is believed to come from a dead tooth that may have looked blueish — was a Viking king who united Denmark, conquered Norway and converted to Christianity.

“And based on the date of the stash, the state archaeology office says, it’s possible that the hoard wasn’t just from Bluetooth’s reign, but that it was directly tied to the king himself. …

“In case you were wondering: Yes, King Harald Bluetooth is the namesake for Bluetooth wireless technology. An Intel engineer who worked on the technology, Jim Kardach, was reading about Vikings as the project developed.

“In his words, King Bluetooth ‘was famous for uniting Scandinavia just as we intended to unite the PC and cellular industries with a short-range wireless link.’ The Bluetooth symbol is a runic representation of his initials.”

More here.

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Art: Albrecht Dürer
“Virgin and Child With Pear,” at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  Heritage fruit archaeologist Isabella Dalla Ragione says it’s not a pear.

I loved reading about this side effect of an Italian woman’s work to preserve heritage fruits: she discovered that a fruit in a famous painting was mislabeled.

Elisabetta Povoledo writes at the NY Times, “On her farm, Isabella Dalla Ragione pursues a personal mission — saving ancient fruit trees from extinction — with a strong sense of urgency. Rescuing vanishing varieties is a race, she says, ‘and lots of times we arrived late.’ …

“To find and collect their forgotten varieties, for decades she and her father chatted up farmers and motley locals in the Umbrian and Tuscan countryside. They gathered branches, and with them the traditions and chronicles tied to the fruits. …

“But because fruit was not always described in detail in written records, she also began to examine the works of Renaissance and Baroque painters working in Umbria and Tuscany at a time when ‘artists had close relations to agriculture’ and were sensitive to the seasons and local varieties, she said. …

“A closer look at Albrecht Dürer’s ‘Virgin and Child With Pear,’ at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, for example, reveals a clear misnomer, Ms. Dalla Ragione said.

“ ‘If it were a pear, it would show a stalk on top,’ she said. ‘Mary is clearly holding a muso di bue apple.’ …

“Ms. Dalla Ragione created a nonprofit foundation, the Arboreal Archaeology Foundation, in 2014 ‘because it made it easier to give a future to all this,’ she said.”

Read more about her quixotic but intriguing work here.

Photo: Francesco Lastrucci for The New York Times
Isabella Dalla Ragione picking apples on her farmstead in San Lorenzo di Lerchi, Italy.

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National Public Radio recently featured a story on the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III, the English king that Shakespeare fans love to hate. What does the unearthing of the king’s 15th century remains have to tell the 21st century?

The woman who found him, Philippa Langley, is decribed by NPR as “an amateur historian with a passion for Richard III. And one day, a good decade ago, her research took her into Leicester, and she had a kind of bizarre experience in a car park in Leicester, where she suddenly thought, for no particular reason at all, that she was standing on Richard’s grave. And at that moment, she just said to herself, ‘I just want to excavate Richard.'”

It was as if Richard III was sending a message.

“It happened in stages. The remarkable thing was that they actually found it on the first day of the dig. They were just preparing the ground and [archaeologist Jo Appleby] found a small bit of leg, a leg bone. So she carries on digging, and gradually she uncovers this complete curved spine, and it connects up with the neck, and she sits back and she looks at it, and she says to herself, ‘This is Richard III.’

“The statistical likelihood of them hitting the skeleton is zero — there were so many coincidences and chances that made this happen. …

“The radiocarbon dating showed the man had died at the right time to be somebody who had died at the Battle of Bosworth. The anatomy of the man matched very precisely the phyiscal descriptions we have of Richard. For example, he’s described quite clearly as being quite a frail man, and that is exactly how the skeleton is.”

Richard’s defenders have always said that Shakespeare may have written an amazing play, but he gave Richard a bad rap. Since I have a tendency to believe the truth of fiction more than the facts of history, I better stay out of the argument and let you read the rest of the story for yourself. More here.

Art: Richard III (Reuters)

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