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Photo: Carole Fritz.
This ancient conch shell from modern-day France was once used to play music.

For today’s story, you’ll want to go to the original article to see the detailed illustrations showing how a conch shell was turned into a musical instrument thousands of years ago — and how archaeologists figured it out.

Matt Simon reports at Wired, “Some 18,000 years ago, in a cave in what we now call France, a human being left behind something precious: a conch shell. It was not just any conch shell. Its tip had been lopped off—unlikely by accident, given that this is the strongest part of the shell—allowing a person to blow air into it. The shell’s jagged outer lip was trimmed smooth, perhaps to assist in gripping, and it also bore red, smudgy fingerprints that matched the pigment from a cave painting just feet away from where the object was found in 1931.

“But those archaeologists missed its true significance: It was an intentionally crafted musical instrument. Writing today in the journal Science Advances, researchers from several universities and museums in France describe how they used CT scans and other imaging wizardry to show that a person during the Upper Paleolithic age took great care to modify the shell, the oldest such instrument ever found. They even got a musician to play it for us, revealing sounds that have not rung out for millennia.

“The first clue to suggest this shell was actually an instrument is that broken tip, or apex. If you find a conch shell on a beach, you can’t just toot it as-is — you’ve got to knock that tip off to get air flowing through the internal chambers and to exit through the opening of the outer lip. …

“The researchers had a musician try playing the shell in the lab. You can hear three notes [at Wired]. The sound is a bit breathy, like a more earthy version of a trumpet or trombone.

“But the breakage around the apex turned out to be quite jagged. ‘It’s very irregular, and it was hurting his lips,’ says archaeologist Gilles Tosello of the University of Toulouse, a corresponding author on the paper. … Why would an ancient human take the trouble to modify a conch shell and then not add a mouthpiece? …

“As for the shell’s outer lip, Tosello and his colleagues could tell it had been chipped away, both from wear patterns and by comparing it to pristine shells of the same species, which have significantly larger lips. In addition, the researchers enhanced a photo of the inside of the lip … to reveal faint red splotches.

These are fingerprints left behind in ocher, and the pigment matches a wall painting of a bison that was mere feet from where the shell was found. That bison was actually etched into the wall, then covered with over 300 ocher fingerprints to shade it in.

“The researchers couldn’t date the shell itself, since that’d require breaking a piece of it off to do carbon dating. But … based on these nearby objects, which they think would have been used by the same people around the same era, they surmised that the shell is likely 18,000 years old. …

“This was in pre-agricultural times, so they would have been Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. [It is] likely that this person belonged to a band of 10 or 20 humans working together to survive.

“We also know that life must not have been too terrible, since people had the time and energy to make music. And after all, they didn’t need an instrument to make music in the first place. ‘With a voice, you can make music,’ says archaeologist Carole Fritz of the University of Toulouse, a corresponding author on the paper. That is, the shell is extraneous. ‘I think music is a very symbolic art for people,’ Fritz adds. …

“This find emphasizes the richness of Upper Paleolithic culture, says University of Victoria paleolithic archaeologist April Nowell, who wasn’t involved in the research. ‘We have music, we have art, we have textiles, we have ceramics,’ she says. ‘These were really complex people.’

More at Wired, here.

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Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty.
As construction for a tunnel under Stonehenge begins, archaeological surprises are turning up.

Do you ever wonder about the layers of civilization buried deep beneath your feet? John Hanson Mitchell wondered about my region’s layers back in a 1980s book, here. He got himself into a kind of trancelike state in which he believed he could sense the presence of indigenous tribes living their lives beside what is now Interstate 495.

More recently, as Steven Morris reports at the Guardian, “Bronze age graves, neolithic pottery and the vestiges of a mysterious C-shaped enclosure that might have been a prehistoric industrial area are [being] unearthed by archaeologists who have carried out preliminary work on the site of the proposed new road tunnel at Stonehenge.

“One of the most intriguing discoveries is a unique shale object that could have been part of a staff or club found in a 4,000-year-old grave. Nearby is the resting spot of a baby buried with a small, plain beaker. Ditches that flank the C-shaped enclosure contain burnt flint, suggesting a process such as metal or leatherworking was carried out there thousands of years ago.

“Just south of the site of the Stonehenge visitor centre, archaeologists came upon neolithic grooved ware pottery possibly left there by the people who built the stone circle or visited it.

“ ‘We’ve found a lot – evidence about the people who lived in this landscape over millennia, traces of people’s everyday lives and deaths, intimate things,’ said Matt Leivers, A303 Stonehenge consultant archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology. …

“The plan to drop the A303, which passes close to the stones, into a two-mile tunnel is hugely controversial, with many experts having said that carrying out such intrusive construction work would cause disastrous harm to one of the world’s most precious ancient landscapes and lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of artefacts. A legal challenge was launched against the £1.7bn plan late last year.

“Highways England and Wessex Archaeology, which is leading the exploration of the tunnel corridor, said they were working on the project systematically and sensitively. …

“Close to the western end, two burials of Beaker people, who arrived in Britain in about 2,500BC, were found. One was an adult, buried in a crouched position with a pot or beaker. Also in the grave was a copper awl or fragment of a pin or needle and a small shale cylindrical object, of a type that is not believed to have been found before.

“ ‘It is an oddity,’ said Leivers. More detailed work will be carried out to find out what it is, but one theory is that it could be the tip of a ceremonial wooden staff or mace. Also found in the same area was a pit dating to the age of the Beaker people containing the tiny ear bones of a child and a very simple pot – a sign that this too was a grave. Usually Beaker pots are ornate but this one is plain, probably to reflect the age of the person who died.

“A little farther south, the C-shaped enclosure was found. ‘It is a strange pattern of ditches,’ said Leivers. ‘It’s difficult to say what it was, but we know how old it is because we found a near-complete bronze age pot in one of the ditches.’ …

“Another find was a group of objects dating to the late neolithic period – when the stone circle was built – including grooved ware pottery, a flint and red deer antlers. …

“Highways England said the amount of survey work that had been carried out was unprecedented because of the significance of the site. David Bullock, A303 project manager for Highways England, said: ‘There has been a huge amount of investigations so that this route can be threaded through so as to disturb as little as possible.’ ”

What mysteries will your everyday items pose for archaeologists of the future? What will more advanced people with no need for mouth guards or braces, say, make of gizmos like that?

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo via the Met
This caravan account is recorded on a cuneiform tablet from the ancient city of Kanesh.

Sometimes we forget that the way things have been in recent years — or even recent centuries — are not the way things always have been. For example, we imagine women have come a long way in the business world since Victorian times, but the fact that women were managing their own caravans and accounts in 1870 BC is no longer part of our collective memory.

At the BBC Sophie Hardach reports on a new book that aims to rectify our ignorance. Women of Assur and Kanesh is by Cécile Michel, a senior researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France.

Hardach writes, “Around 1870 BC, in the city of Assur in northern Iraq, a woman called Ahaha uncovered a case of financial fraud. 

“Ahaha had invested in long-distance trade between Assur and the city of Kanesh in Turkey. She and other investors had pooled silver to finance a donkey caravan delivering tin and textiles to Kanesh, where the goods would be exchanged for more silver, generating a tidy profit. But Ahaha’s share of the profits seemed to have gone missing – possibly embezzled by one of her own brothers, Buzazu. So, she grabbed a reed stylus and clay tablet and scribbled a letter to another brother, Assur-mutappil, pleading for help: 

“ ‘I have nothing else apart from these funds,’ she wrote in cuneiform script. ‘Take care to act so that I will not be ruined!’ She instructed Assur-mutappil to recover her silver and update her quickly.

‘Let a detailed letter from you come to me by the very next caravan, saying if they do pay the silver,’ [the businesswoman wrote]. ‘Now is the time to do me a favor and to save me from financial stress!’

“Ahaha’s letters are among 23,000 clay tablets excavated over the past decades from the ruins of merchants’ homes in Kanesh. They belonged to Assyrian expats who had settled in Kanesh and kept up a lively correspondence with their families back in Assur, which lay six weeks away by donkey caravan. A new book gives unprecedented insight into a remarkable group within this community: women who seized new opportunities offered by social and economic change, and took on roles more typically filled by men at the time. They became the first-known businesswomen, female bankers and female investors in the history of humanity. 

“The bulk of the letters, contracts and court rulings found in Kanesh date from around 1900-1850 BC. … The Assyrians invented certain forms of investment and were also among the first men and women to write their own letters, rather than dictating them to professional scribes. It’s thanks to these letters that we can hear a chorus of vibrant female voices telling us that even in the distant past, commerce and innovation were not the exclusive domains of men.

“While their husbands were on the road, or striking deals in some faraway trading settlement, these women looked after their businesses back home. But they also accumulated and managed their own wealth, and gradually gained more power in their personal lives. 

“ ‘These women were really strong and independent, because they were alone, they were the head of the household while the husband was away,’ says Cécile Michel. … Through more than 300 letters and other documents, the book tells a strikingly detailed and colorful story of the women’s struggles and triumphs. …

“The businesswomen’s story is tied to that of the Assyrian merchant community as a whole. In their heyday, the Assyrians were among the most successful and well-connected traders of the Near East. Their caravans of up to 300 donkeys criss-crossed mountains and uninhabited plains, carrying raw materials, luxury goods and, of course, clay letters. 

“ ‘It was one leg of a huge international network, which started somewhere in Central Asia, with lapis-lazuli from Afghanistan, carnelian from Pakistan, and the tin may have come from Iran or further to the east,’ says Jan Gerrit Dercksen, an Assyriologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who has also worked on the Kanesh tablets. …

“Assyrian women contributed to this bustling commercial network by producing textiles for export, issuing loans to merchants, buying and selling houses, and investing in naruqqum [stock] schemes. Their skills as weavers allowed them to earn their own silver. They kept a keen eye on foreign fashions and market trends to secure the best prices, as well as on taxes and other costs that dented their profits. …

“ ‘They know perfectly well what they should get back in exchange for their textiles. And when they earn this money from the sale of their textiles, they pay for the food, for the house, for daily life, but they also invest,’ says Michel, who has also co-created a new documentary about the women. 

“This commercial acumen allowed some to slip into positions that were unusual for women at the time, by functioning as their husbands’ trusted business partners. The traders in turn benefited from having literate and numerate wives who could help with day-to-day business as well as emergencies.

“One Assyrian merchant writes to his wife, Ishtar-bashti: ‘Urgent! Clear your outstanding merchandise. Collect the gold of the son of Limishar and send it to me… Please, put all my tablets in safekeeping.’ Others ask their wives to pick specific tablets from the household’s private archives to find financial information or settle a business matter. …

“The women in turn don’t shy away from sending their husbands or brothers instructions and admonishments. ‘What is this that you do not even send me a tablet two fingers wide with good news from you?’ an Assyrian woman called Naramtum writes to two men.”

Lots more at the BBC, here.

Photo: Wikimedia
Ancient sites of Mesopotamia, including Assyria. In the lower right is what we now call the Persian Gulf.

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Photo: Kevin McGill
A view of the Terracotta Army in the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. In normal times, several million people visit the Xi’an, Shaanxi province, site each year.

I save links about interesting happenings to share later on the blog, but when coronavirus hit, some of the happenings in my pipeline seemed out of date. Archaeological finds are different. Anytime’s a good time to read about the excavation of terracotta warriors in China.

As you may know, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in China is a designated Unesco World Heritage site. The online Unesco description says (with prescience), “No doubt thousands of statues still remain to be unearthed at this archaeological site, which was not discovered until 1974. Qin (d. 210 B.C.), the first unifier of China, is buried, surrounded by the famous terracotta warriors, at the centre of a complex designed to mirror the urban plan of the capital, Xianyan. The small figures are all different; with their horses, chariots and weapons, they are masterpieces of realism and also of great historical interest.”

In January this year, Taylor Dafoe reported at Artnet that more statues had indeed been discovered. “The Terracotta Army,” he writes, “just got a little more formidable.

“More than 200 additional funerary sculptures have been uncovered near the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, in Xi’an, the capital of China’s Shaanxi Province. The relics join the 8,000 already unearthed soldiers that constitute the Terracotta Army, created 2,200 years ago to protect the emperor in the afterlife.

“The discovery, first announced by the country’s state-run news agency, came during a decade-long excavation of the first of four pits at the mausoleum. … Archaeologists uncovered roughly 200 new warriors, 12 clay horses, and two chariots, as well as a number of bronze weapons, over the past 10 years.

“According to Shen Maosheng, the archeologist who led the dig, the new findings provide researchers with a clearer picture of how the ancient Chinese military operated. For instance, Maosheng notes that most of the newly uncovered figures are depicted either holding poles or bows — a clue that reveals the soldiers’ battlefield roles and responsibilities.

One of the world’s most treasured historical artifacts, the army was first discovered by a group of local farmers trying to dig a well roughly a mile east of Emperor Qin’s tomb in 1974. They stumbled upon a vault that held thousands of human-sized military figures, each unique in appearance, all lined up in battle formation. …

“Researchers believe it took 700,000 laborers as much as 30 to 40 years to complete the army and its tombs, and that there are still likely more vaults and warriors to be discovered.” More.

Have any readers visited the mausoleum? I was in China once, when my husband was working there, but for the 10-day visit, I stayed in Shanghai and environs. Xi’an would have been too far, and besides it was Spring Festival (or Lunar New Year) at the time, and the whole country was on the road. If you have seen the terracotta warriors, I would love to know your personal reactions.

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Photo: Ratno Sardi
Anncient cave art discovered in Indonesia depicts a type of buffalo called an anoa confronting small mythological human-animal figures.

Just when we thought humans had discovered all the nooks and crannies of our planet, someone finds cave paintings that are older than old.

Ewen Callaway writes at the journal Nature, “A cave-wall depiction of a pig and buffalo hunt is the world’s oldest recorded story, claim archaeologists who discovered the work on the Indonesian island Sulawesi. The scientists say the scene is more than 44,000 years old.

“The 4.5-metre-long panel features reddish-brown forms that seem to depict human-like figures hunting local animal species. Previously, rock art found in European sites dated to around 14,000 to 21,000 years old were considered to be the world’s oldest clearly narrative artworks. The scientists working on the latest find say that the Indonesian art pre-dates these.

“ ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before. I mean, we’ve seen hundreds of rock art sites in this region, but we’ve never seen anything like a hunting scene,’ says Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, whose team describes the finding in Nature [last] December.

“Other researchers say the discovery is important because the animal paintings are also the oldest figurative artworks — those that clearly depict objects or figures in the natural world — on record. But some aren’t yet convinced by the claim the panel represents a single ‘scene’, or story. They suggest it might be a series of images painted over the course of perhaps thousands of years. …

“ ‘They’ve invented everything,’ Pablo Picasso is reported to have said after visiting the famed Lascaux Cave, in France’s Dordogne Valley. The site, discovered in 1940, includes hundreds of animal figures painted around 17,000 years ago. An image from the cave, and others from the same period, are widely considered to be the earliest known narrative artworks. …

“Brumm was sitting at his desk in Australia in December 2017, when an Indonesian colleague texted blurry pictures of the hunting scene, from a cave in southern Sulawesi called Leang Bulu’Sipong 4. ‘These images appeared on my iPhone. I think I said the characteristic Australian four-letter word out very loud,’ says Brumm.

A team member named Hamrullah, who is a Sulawesi-based archaeologist and caver, had found the paintings after shimmying up a fig tree to reach a narrow passage at the roof of another cave.

“The panel seems to depict wild pigs found on Sulawesi and a species of small-bodied buffalo, called an anoa. … The depiction of these animal–human figures, known in mythology as therianthropes, suggests that early humans in Sulawesi had the ability to conceive of things that do not exist in the natural world, say the researchers. …

“Archaeologist Bruno David, at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, [says] it would be worth testing whether the pigments used to paint the animals and the therianthropes are the same.

“If the entire painting is more than 44,000 years old, it could mean that early humans have arrived in southeast Asia with the capacity for symbolic representation and storytelling, David says. Archaeologists have already found paint palettes and objects such as eggshells with abstract engravings made by early humans in southern Africa, he adds.” More here.

Photo: Sakurai Midori
A contemporary anoa in Indonesia’s Surabaya Zoo.
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Photo: Klaus Wagensonner/Yale Babylonian Collection
The Yale Babylonian Collection houses four tablets that contain recipes for stews, soups, and pies. Three tablets date back to “the Old Babylonian period, no later than 1730 B.C.,” says National Public Radio.

When I come home after being away a long time and feel overwhelmed by all the things that have to get done to settle back into my life, I like to start with some completely unnecessary little chore. I find it’s calming.

Perhaps in these difficult times, when we wake up in the night afraid of what will happen next, it can stabilize us to do something totally unnecessary and unrelated to the worries of our world.

How about cooking something from a 4,000-year-old recipe?

Maria Godoy asks at National Public Radio, “What did a meal taste like nearly 4,000 years ago in ancient Babylonia? Pretty good, according to a team of international scholars who have deciphered and are re-creating what are considered to be the world’s oldest-known culinary recipes. …

“The tablets are part of the Yale Babylonian Collection at the Yale Peabody Museum. Three of the tablets date back to the Old Babylonian period, no later than 1730 B.C., according to Harvard University Assyriologist and cuneiform scholar Gojko Barjamovic, who put together the interdisciplinary team that is reviving these ancient recipes in the kitchen. A fourth tablet was produced about 1,000 years later. All four tablets are from the Mesopotamian region, in what is today Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

For a long time, says Barjamovic, scholars thought the tablets might be medical texts. In the 1940s, a researcher named Mary Hussey suggested the writing was actually recipes, but ‘people really didn’t believe her”‘ at the time, he says.

” ‘The tablets all list recipes that include instructions on how to prepare them,’ the authors write in a piece about their work published in Lapham’s Quarterly [in 2019]. ‘One is a summary collection of twenty-five recipes of stews or broths with brief directions.’ …

“The researchers write that the ‘stews represent an early stage of a long tradition that is still dominant in Iraqi cuisine’ — specifically, aromatic lamb stews [flavored] ‘with a combination of spices and herbs and members of the Allium family, such as onion, garlic, and leek. These seem to be direct descendants of the Babylonian versions found on the culinary tablet with stew recipes.’

“So far, the cooking team — which also includes a food historian, a curator, a chemical biologist specializing in food, a professional chef and an expert on cultural heritage — has re-created three stews. ‘One is a beet stew, one is vegetarian, and the final one has lamb in it,’ says Barjamovic.

“NPR’s Scott Simon spoke with Barjamovic about the research. …

“Why have these recipes taken so long to come to light?
“Well, people don’t expect ancient texts to be food recipes. They were known since the 1920s, really, but were thought to be perhaps medical texts, stuff like that. It was really only Mary Hussey, a scholar from Connecticut, who suggested that they might be recipes [back in the 1940s]. And people really didn’t believe her until a French author and scholar [French Assyriologist Jean Bottéro] in the 1980s was asked to write an encyclopedic article about cooking in the ancient world. He had heard about this rumor that they might be recipes. So he went to Yale and found out that they were. And of course, being a Frenchman, he started working on them.

“So have you tasted any of the recipes?
“Yes, I’ve cooked these many times now. And the big difference between our French colleague, Monsieur Bottéro, and the way that he could handle these texts in the ’80s and now is that we have a somewhat greater knowledge of, first of all, the ingredients listed in the texts themselves. We quite simply understand many of the words better than he did. But secondly, and more importantly, we’re working together as a team and he worked alone.

“Are they good?
“Yes, they are, I would say — some of them. … Not as foreign as you might imagine. And there are some basic elements that we share with this kind of cooking. And there are certain aspects of the human palate which are not going to change, which biologically we remain the same.

“Any big-name chefs express an interest in making the recipes or putting them into restaurants?
“Big name? No. Small name? Yes. All over the place, there are lots of people who are contacting me these days and asking whether, you know, one would be interested in collaborating on having this presented in a restaurant.”

More at NPR, here.

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Photo: Zlatko Bala/Department of Archaeology/University of Zadar
Dogs’ sensitive noses are being used for an expanding array of searches. In the photo above, a dog provides assistance on an archaeological dig.

I keep hearing about new ways that the sensitive noses of dogs are being used to help humans. We know they can help people with disabilities and sniff out contraband drugs in airports. I’ve also heard they can detect certain diseases in people before doctors can. And in this story, they are used by archaeologists to find ancient tombs.

Joshua Rapp Learn writes at the Guardian, “The scent-tracking abilities of trained dogs have helped archaeologists discover iron age tombs in Croatia dating back nearly three thousand years. …

“Experts have said that using dogs could be a good way to identify archaeological sites, as it is less destructive than many traditional methods.

“ ‘Dogs’ noses obviously don’t make mistakes,’ said Vedrana Glavaš, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Zadar in Croatia and the lead author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.

“Glavaš had already found a few tombs in a necropolis near the prehistoric hilltop fort of Drvišica, which dates back to the eight century BC. Hoping to find more, she contacted Andrea Pintar, a trainer who works with dogs used for sniffing out graves in criminal investigations. …

“Glavaš first sent the dogs to graves they had dug up the previous year but which were not apparent, without telling the trainers the location.

“ ‘We always use at least two dogs to confirm the position,’ Glavaš said, adding that the second trainer and dog were not told where the first dog and trainer had indicated a grave.

“The canines discovered all three graves, even though the human remains, associated artefacts and surrounding soil had been removed. The area had also been exposed to wind, sun and rain since the excavation.

Glavaš said the porous rock around the excavated soil had probably absorbed enough of the aroma of decomposition that the dogs could still detect it.

“Glavaš then let the dogs loose in an area they suspected more remains could be found, and excavated six new tombs – five of which are described in the recent paper. The dogs were extremely accurate in every case.

“The tombs consist of small stone burial chests in the middle of walled stone circles, each about five metres in diameter. Each chest contained small bones such as the fingers and feet of several individuals – perhaps several generations from the same family – along with buckles and other artefacts.

“Glavaš said the people in the site were probably fairly poor due to the harsh, windy climate of the area and the difficulty of growing crops. …

“Angela Perri, a postdoctoral archaeology researcher at Durham University who was not involved in the study, said using dogs to sniff out burials [can] be used in situations where ground-penetrating radar or other techniques may not work. …

“Perri, who studies the ancient history of how humans first began to domesticate and use dogs, said the technique was just the latest in humans’ long history of using dogs as biotechnology. ‘We’re still finding new ways of having dogs help us,’ she said.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Takeshi Inomata
Human activity at the Mayan city Moral Reforma in Mexico ended about 1,400 years ago. Recently, researchers figured out that
lidar maps revealing underground Mayan archaeological sites, though ordinarily costly, are free if you know where to look.

It often takes time, a creative thinker, and a hot tip to uncover the best way to access technology. In this example, an archaeologist learned that the expensive underground maps he needed for his research could be found free online.

Zach Zorich writes at the New York Times, “Until recently, archaeology was limited by what a researcher could see while standing on the ground. But light detection and ranging, or lidar, technology has transformed the field, providing a way to scan entire regions for archaeological sites.

“With an array of airborne lasers, researchers can peer down through dense forest canopies or pick out the shapes of ancient buildings to discover and map ancient sites across thousands of square miles. A process that once required decades-long mapping expeditions, and slogging through jungles with surveying equipment, can now be done in a matter of days from the relative comfort of an airplane.

“But lidar maps are expensive. Takeshi Inomata, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona, recently spent $62,000 on a map that covered 35 square miles, and even was deeply discounted. So he was thrilled last year when he made a major discovery using a lidar map he had found online, in the public domain, entirely for free.

“The map, published in 2011 by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography, covered 4,440 square miles in the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas. …

“Dr. Inomata learned about the map from Rodrigo Liendo, an archaeologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The resolution of the map was low. But the outlines of countless archaeological sites stood out to Dr. Inomata. So far, he has used it to identify the ruins of 27 previously unknown Maya ceremonial centers that contain a type of construction that archaeologists had never seen before. …

“His findings have not yet been peer-reviewed, but Dr. Inomata has presented his work at four conferences during the past year. ‘The stuff he is finding is crucial for our understanding of how Maya civilization developed,’ said Arlen Chase, an archaeologist at Pomona College, who did not contribute to Dr. Inomata’s work. …

“The 27 sites he identified on the map have a type of ceremonial construction that Dr. Inomata and his colleagues had never seen before — rectangular platforms that are low to the ground but extremely large, some as long as two-thirds of a mile.

“ ‘If you walk on it, you don’t realize it,’ Dr. Inomata said of the platforms. ‘It’s so big it just looks like a part of the natural landscape.’ The similarities between these sites and the early buildings they found at Ceibal led them to believe they both date to sometime between 1000 B.C. and 700 B.C. …

“While lidar technology is giving archaeologists new ways to analyze the ancient world, the change in perspective has been shocking and a little disorienting for some researchers. Marcello Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University, was the lead author of a lidar survey that covered 800 square miles of the Petén rainforest in Guatemala. He is also the director of an excavation at the Maya city of La Corona. Seeing the edges of the city as well as buildings between cities and the roads that connected them was shocking to him.

‘The word that all of us used when we started looking at the lidar was “humbling,” ‘ he said. ‘It humbled all of us in showing us what we had missed.’

“Dr. Inomata agreed. Even in areas where they were busy excavating, he said, ‘lidar was showing us things we didn’t notice.’ This included broad causeways and agricultural terraces, which are difficult to see in an excavation. …

“Viewing the archaeology of an entire region, in detail, will allow archaeologists to answer bigger-picture questions, such as the ones that Dr. Inomata has about the interactions the Maya had with the Olmec at the beginning of their civilization. …

“ ‘The future pattern,’ Dr. Inomata said, ‘will be that everything will be covered by lidar, like topographic maps today.’ ”

Lots more detail at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Diamond Light Source Ltd
Here’s the team taking on the challenge of reading scrolls charred by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Recent technology is making the impossible possible.

In the always-new-angles-in-archaeology department, here’s a recent story about using advanced technology to read ancient scrolls once thought beyond deciphering.

Nicola Davis writes at the Guardian, “When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79 it destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, their inhabitants and their prized possessions – among them a fine library of scrolls that were carbonised by the searing heat of ash and gas.

‘But scientists say there may still be hope that the fragile documents can once more be read thanks to an innovative approach involving high-energy x-rays and artificial intelligence.

“ ‘Although you can see on every flake of papyrus that there is writing, to open it up would require that papyrus to be really limber and flexible – and it is not any more,’ said Prof Brent Seales, chair of computer science at the University of Kentucky, who is leading the research.

“The two unopened scrolls that will be probed belong to the Institut de France in Paris and are part of an astonishing collection of about 1,800 scrolls that was first discovered in 1752 during excavations of Herculaneum. Together they make up the only known intact library from antiquity, with the majority of the collection now preserved in a museum in Naples.

The villa in which they were found is thought to have been owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator who was assassinated in 44BC.

“Experts have attempted to unroll about half of the scrolls through various methods over the years, although some have been destroyed in the process and experts say unrolling and exposing the writing to the air results in the ink fading.

“Seales and his team have previously used high-energy x-rays to ‘virtually unravel’ a 1,700 year old Hebrew parchment found in the holy ark of a synagogue in En-Gedi in Israel, revealing it to contain text from the biblical book of Leviticus.

“However, while the En-Gedi scroll contained a metal-based ink which shows up in x-ray data, the inks used on the Herculaneum scrolls are thought to be carbon-based, made using charcoal or soot, meaning there is no obvious contrast between the writing and the papyrus in x-ray scans. …

“As a result the team have come up with a new approach that uses high-energy x-rays together with a type of artificial intelligence known as machine learning. The method uses photographs of scroll fragments with writing visible to the naked eye. These are used to teach machine learning algorithms where ink is expected to be in x-ray scans of the same fragments, collected using a number of techniques.

“The idea is that the system will pick out and learn subtle differences between inked and blank areas in the x-ray scans, such as differences in the structure of papyrus fibres. Once trained on the fragments, it is hoped the system can be used with data from the intact scrolls to reveal the text within. …

“As for what the scrolls contain, the researchers say they are excited.

“ ‘For the most part the writings [in opened scrolls] are Greek philosophy around Epicureanism, which was a prevailing philosophy of the day,’ said Seales. Another possibility is that the scrolls might contain Latin text. While classical libraries are believed to have had a Greek section and a Latin section, only a small proportion of scrolls from Herculaneum have so far been found to be in Latin, with the possibility there is a Latin section within the villa yet to be excavated.

“Dr Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist and classicist at the University of Oxford who has been involved in training the team’s algorithms, … is hoping the scrolls might even contain lost works, such as poems by Sappho or the treatise Mark Antony wrote on his own drunkenness. ‘I would very much like to be able to read that one,’ he said.”

More here.

Hmmm, the scrolls are from the home of Caesar’s father-in-law? I never heard mention of him, and now all I can think about is he must not have raised his daughter to be “above suspicion.” Or was she falsely accused?

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Photo: Ruben Ortega Martin, Raices de Peraleda
Drought has uncovered a Spanish version of Stonehenge, the 7,000-year-old Dolmen of Guadalperal.

As global warming brings changes to our planet, the permafrost is melting and releasing dangerous bacteria. But sometimes other, less harmful things come to light.

Caroline Goldstein writes at ArtNet, “If there’s even the slightest silver lining to the ravages of climate change, it’s that the warming conditions are revealing some previously unknown archaeological sites and artifacts.

“This past summer, an extreme drought in the Extremadura area of Spain that caused the Valdecañas Reservoir’s water levels to plummet has revealed a series of megalithic stones. Previously submerged underwater, the Dolmen de Guadalperal, often called the Spanish Stonehenge, are now in plain sight.

“Though the Dolmen are 7,000 years old, the last time they were seen in their entirety was around 1963, when the reservoir was built as part of Franco’s push toward modernization. …

“Angel Castaño, who lives near the reservoir and serves as the president of a Spanish cultural group, told the website the Local, ‘We grew up hearing about the legend of the treasure hidden beneath the lake and now we finally get to view them.’

“The approximately 100 menhirs are, like Stonehenge, hulking megalith stones — some standing up to six feet tall — that are arranged in an oval and appear oriented to filter sunlight. Evidence suggests that these stones could actually be 2,000 years older than Stonehenge.

“Castaño is working with the group Raices de Peraleda to move the dolmen before rains come and re-submerge them. ‘Whatever we do here needs to be done extremely carefully.’ he said.”

I guess so. I can’t help wondering if it would be better to move the reservoir and leave the stones, which obviously were placed where they are for a reason. But not being an engineer, I suppose moving the reservoir would be even more difficult. And already access to water is becoming a serious problem around the world. (For a heartbreaking story about the difficulty many Navajo people have getting clean water, read this.)

So hard to balance conflicting goods!

More here.

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Greece Enigmatic Islet

Photo: Greek Culture Ministry via AP
A newly discovered stone staircase is seen in the lower terraces of Dhaskalio islet off Keros island in the Aegean Sea, Greece.

I’m a sucker for any story with revelations about Ancient Greece. But the first article I read on excavations on Keros island made wild claims about how they showed the origins of Greek culture and the reasons the ancients thought their gods lived on mountain tops. Worse, in illustrating the story, the newspaper chose a photo of a burial mask that has been around forever. I had a replica of that very mask as a kid, when there was speculation it was Agamemnon’s.

So I looked for a more more factual article.

The Athens-Macedonian News Agency reports at the National Herald, “An extensive and extremely interesting series of exhibitions has been organised on the Cyclades islands this year by the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities. …

“Among these are the exhibitions ‘From the world of Homer. Tinos and the Cyclades in the Mycenaean era’ that runs between July 13 and October 14, which is being held in cooperation with the Piraeus Group Cultural Foundation (PIOP) at the its Museum of Marble Craft in the village of Pyrgos, Tinos. A second exhibition [is] to be inaugurated on July 14 at Archaeological Collection of Koufonisia and will run until September 30, 2019.

“ ‘Both exhibitions are extremely important,’ said Dimitris Athanasoulis, Director of the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities, to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA). ‘On the occasion of the founding of the tomb of Agia Thekla in Tinos, we have a first exhibition for an unknown period of the Cyclades, the Mycenaean period, presenting great and unknown material.’ …

“Four-year excavations and research on the extraordinary architectural findings of Kavos on the island of Keros in the Cycladic Islands group confirmed the existence in Early Cycladic times of a complex, stratified and technically expert society.

“[The research programme under Cambridge University] has ‘revealed impressive architectural remains of a significant Early Cycladic settlement,’ the ministry said.
Under the project, excavations took place on the small islet of Daskalio, originally connected to the nearby site of Kavos on Keros through a narrow strip of land. … The remains of the culture at the time include ‘impressive staircases, drainage pipes and stone buildings that reveal an advanced urban architecture without precedence for the specific period. …

” ‘The complicated, interlinked and multi-level architecture shows the existence of a well-organised and well-built settlement on a steep promontory,’ it added. …

“According to co-excavator professor Colin Renfrew, Daskalio shows that the building techniques that were applied, the existence of huge entrance gates, stone ladders and the drainage pipes throughout the island show that there must have been a specialist architect and a central administration to carry out the building programme. He said the complexity of the construction is only comparable to Knossos on Crete for the same early period, he said. …

“Co-director of the site Michael Boyd added that a unique feature of the site includes the fact that metallurgy played a significant role throughout the life of the settlement. Its extent and scale proves a constant replenishing of raw materials from western Cyclades and Attica, and a social structure that trained and passed skills on to newer generations.”

More here.

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Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
North Sea fishing crews have discovered archaeological artifacts in their nets.

I was saying to my husband the other day that I don’t know why scammers think older people are such a good target. Don’t we know more to watch out for after a lifetime of testing reality? But then I find myself susceptible to stories that for one reason or another I want to believe. So maybe it’s true about old folks.

Those of us who want to believe in things like the Lost City of Atlantis will have fun with this story about human settlements that may be submerged under the North Sea.

Nazia Parveen writes at the Guardian, “Lost at the bottom of the North Sea almost eight millennia ago, a vast land area between England and southern Scandinavia which was home to thousands of stone age settlers is about to be rediscovered.

“Marine experts, scientists and archaeologists have spent the past 15 years meticulously mapping thousands of kilometres under water in the hope of unearthing lost prehistoric tribes.

“[In May] a crew of British and Belgian scientists set off on their voyage across the North Sea to reconstruct the ancient Mesolithic landscape hidden beneath the waves for 7,500 years.

The area was submerged when thousands of cubic miles of sub-Arctic ice started to melt and sea levels began to rise.

“The ancient country, known as Doggerland, which could once have had great plains with rich soils, formed an important land bridge between Britain and northern Europe. It was long believed to have been hit by catastrophic flooding.

“Using seabed mapping data the team plans to produce a 3D chart revealing the rivers, lakes, hills and coastlines of the country. Specialist survey ships will take core sediment samples from selected areas to extract millions of fragments of DNA from the buried plants and animals.

“Prof Vincent Gaffney, from the University of Bradford’s school of archaeological and forensic sciences, said: ‘If this is successful it … would be new knowledge of what is really a lost continent.’ …

” ‘We can’t walk those fields looking for pottery or stone fragments, we can’t dig. We’re going to drop “grabs,” or do very small-scale dredges, to see if we can find these stones or tools, to give us a clue as to what is there. We are talking about an area that is the size of a modern European country. And we know almost nothing about it.’ …

“In previous studies funded by the European Research Council, the Lost Frontiers team mapped the Doggerland region, which is about the size of the Netherlands. The team could identify the location of river valleys, marshlands, hills and even white cliffs, but was unable to find evidence of human activity.

“Gaffney said … ‘Vast areas of the North Sea were dry land and inhabited. Then sea levels rose, and pretty much everything about the world changed in this period. The most pleasant places to live would have been on the great plains – which are now out at sea. This is where they would have wanted to be, not in the hills. But it’s all been lost.’ …

“It is understood the ancient civilisation originally covered about 260,000 sq km (100,000 sq miles). However, after the ice age ended, coastal zones became increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic flooding and entire civilisations would have been lost.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photos: Greek Ministry of Culture
Hellenistic era building foundations, found at Agia Sophia Station, Thessaloniki.

Having studied Ancient Greek for five years in school, I retain a soft place in my heart for the culture and history of that part of the world and am always interested in the latest archaeological finds. Here is a story about setting out to build a subway system in the city of Thessaloniki and finding unexpected treasures.

Nick Squires writes at the Telegraph, “The construction of a metro network beneath the Greek city of Thessaloniki has unearthed an extraordinary treasure trove of ancient artefacts, from gold wreaths and rings to statues of the goddess Aphrodite. …

“Archeologists have dug up more than 300,000 artefacts, from coins and jewellery to marble statues, amphorae, oil lamps and perfume vases. They were found in what would have been the thriving commercial centre of the ancient city, which was the second most important conurbation in the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople.

“During the construction of the metro network, archeologists found a stone-paved road, the Decumanus Maximus, which would have run through the heart of Thessaloniki in the sixth century AD, as well as the remains of villas, shops, workshops and an early Christian church. More than 5,000 tombs and graves were uncovered, some of them containing exquisite golden wreaths.

“ ‘The excavations are the biggest archaeological project of recent years in Greece,’ Yannis Mylopoulos, the chairman of Attiko Metro, the company building the network, told the Telegraph. …

“ ‘A large number of statues depicting Aphrodite have been found in the city centre, while several more came to light in the area around the Church of the Acheiropoietos (a fifth century AD Byzantine church),” Dr Polyxeni Adam-Veleni, the head of the antiquities department in Thessaloniki, told a recent conference on the discoveries. …

“Work on the new metro system, which is designed to ease traffic congestion and reduce air pollution in the city, began in 2006. The network of 18 stations was supposed to have been finished in 2012, but progress was stalled by the discovery of so many antiquities. It is now due to be operational next year.

“The 100 yard-long paved road – the Decumanus Maximus – will remain in situ and will be incorporated into one of the network’s stations, Eleftherios Venizelos, named after a prominent politician and national hero from the early 20th century.

“ ‘People will be able to see it when they enter and exit the metro station and can even go down and walk on it if they want,’ said Prof Mylopoulos. …

“Incorporating ancient archeological sites into an underground rail network was a huge challenge in terms of both engineering and expense. … Findings from the metro excavation will be displayed in various museums in Thessaloniki.”

More here.

Gold crown from a burial dating to the late 4th – early 3rd century. BC found at Syntrivani Station, Thessaloniki.

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Image: Casto Vocal
Virtual reconstruction of northernmost section of pre-Incan temple in Bolivia.

Here’s why a general education may equip the workforce of the future better than job-specific training: you never know what skills will be needed. In this example, a new breed of adaptable archaeologist is expanding the use of 3-D technology to reimagine lost worlds.

George Dvorsky writes at Gizmodo, “The 1,500-year-old Pumapunku temple in western Bolivia is considered a crowning achievement of Andean architecture, yet no one knows what the original structure actually looked like. Until now.

“Using historical data, 3D-printed pieces, and architectural software, archaeologist Alexei Vranich from UC Berkeley has created a virtual reconstruction of Pumapunku — an ancient Tiwanaku temple now in ruins. Archaeologists have studied the site for over 150 years, but it wasn’t immediately obvious how all the broken and scattered pieces belonged together. The surprisingly simple approach devised by Vranich is finally providing a glimpse into the structure’s original appearance. Excitingly, the same method could be used to virtually reconstruct similar ruins. The details of this achievement were published [last December] in Heritage Science.

“First, some background on the structure. Pumapunku, which means ‘door of the puma,’ was a temple designed and built by the pre-Incan Tiwanaku culture, who lived and thrived in what is now western Bolivia from 500 AD to 1,000 AD. …

“Pumapunku displayed a level of craftsmanship that was largely unparalleled in the pre-Columbian New World, and it’s often considered the architectural peak of Andean lithic technology prior to the arrival of the Europeans. …

“Unfortunately, the ruins of Tiwanaku, and the Pumapunku temple in particular, have been ransacked repeatedly over the past half-millenium. Archaeologists have virtually no idea what the structure actually looked like. None of the blocks that once comprised the original structure are currently located in their original place, and many of them are badly damaged or decayed. …

“To overcome these difficulties and limitations, Vranich and his colleagues integrated historical archaeological data with modern computer software and 3D-printer technology to reconstruct the ancient temple, and by doing so, devised an entirely new approach to reconstructing and visualizing ancient ruins that would otherwise be impossible to build.

“The team created miniature 3D-printed models, at 4 percent actual size, of the temple’s 140 known pieces, which were based on measurements compiled by archaeologists over the past 150 years and Vranich’s own on-site observations of the ruins. … The researchers could have performed this work exclusively in the virtual realm, but they had better luck with tangible, physical pieces they could freely move around.

“ ‘It was much easier to use the 3D-printed models,’ Vranich told Gizmodo. ‘You can quickly manipulate them in your hand and try position after position. It is much slower and less intuitive on the computer.’ …

“Satisfied with their Lego-like configurations, the researchers keyed their creations into an architectural modeling program, culminating in a single hypothetical model of the temple complex. This wasn’t terribly difficult, as the construction methods used by the Tiwanaku people, and how they formed their incredibly geometric stones, are well documented, explained Vranich. But the exercise yielded some new findings.

“ ‘What we found out is that it appears they were making prototypes for each type of stone type, and then would have copied one after the other. It’s almost like it was a pre-Columbian version of Ikea.’ …

“Another interesting finding was that the gateways scattered around the site were lined up in a way to create a mirror effect. That is, ‘one big gateway, then another smaller one in line, then another,’ he said. ‘It would create an effect as if you were looking into infinity in the confines of a single room.’ ”

Read more here.

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Photos: Ciro Fusco / Pompeii Parco Archeologico
Frescoes in Pompeii’s newly discovered “Enchanted Garden” room. The ashes of Mount Vesuvius left the ancient city remarkably intact after the volcano erupted in 79 AD.

When my younger grandson told me about a volcano in Guadalupe, where Suzanne’s family spent the holiday, he hastened to reassure me that it didn’t erupt. He’s six, and a stickler for fact.

Whether young or old, we are all fascinated by the extraordinary power of volcanoes and the way they change the world very suddenly, sometimes with no warning at all.

The complete destruction of Pompeii by the volcano Vesuvius in Italy is one of the reasons eruptions have such a hold over the collective imagination.

Interestingly, Pompeii continues to yield previously unseen beauty to archaeologists even after all these years.

As Sarah Cascone reported in October at ArtNetNews, “Pompeii is the city that keeps on giving. More than two hundred and fifty years after the ancient Roman town was discovered buried under a heap of volcanic ash, the archeological finds show no sign of abating. Now, archaeologists for the Great Pompei Project have uncovered yet another impressive discovery: an ancient shrine, or lararium, covered in gorgeously preserved frescoes, in a 16-by-12-foot room containing an altar, a garden, and a small pool.

“The Italian media has dubbed the new room, which would have been partially covered by a tile roof, ‘the Enchanted Garden.’ The figures in the paintings include two serpents, a wild boar fighting unidentified creatures against a blood-red backdrop, and a mysterious man with the head of a dog that may have been inspired by the Egyptian god Anubis. In front of a painted peacock, strolling through the plants, there would have been a planted flower bed, extending the illusionistic decorative design into the real world.

“ ‘It is the first time that such complex decoration has been found in a space dedicated to worship inside a house,’ Massimo Osanna, the director of the Parco Archeologico di Pompei, told the Wall Street Journal, praising the find as exceptional.

“ ‘Every house had a lararium of some kind,’ Ingrid Rowland, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town, told the New York Times. But ‘only the wealthiest people could have afforded a lararium inside a special chamber with a raised pool and sumptuous decorations.’

“After clearing out the volcanic rock fragments, or lapili, that had buried the room for almost two millennia, archaeologists found an altar decorated with eggs, a symbol of fertility. There are burnt remains, which archaeologists believe may have contained food offerings, such as eggs, figs, or nuts, to fertility deities. The altar is flanked by paintings of the Roman gods of household rituals. …

“New excavations are much more careful than the original explorations of the site, which began in 1748. Without modern technology and techniques to aid their excavations, early archaeologists could be quite destructive. The new discovery helps provide a better understanding of what the early excavations would have looked like when first uncovered. …

“Since 2011, Italy has been carrying out much-needed preservation and restoration work to preserve the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Great Pompeii Project, an initiative aimed at stemming the deterioration of the ancient structures, had an initial budget of €105 million ($140 million). … The discovery of the ‘Enchanted Garden’ represents perhaps the project’s greatest success thus far.”

More here.

In Pompeii, a recently uncovered household shrine, or lararium, features two serpents among its beautifully preserved frescoes.

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