Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Since I am the author (with Caroline Malone) of Stonehenge published by Oxford University Press, I keep an eye on what's happening with the site. The newest, during the 2nd week of the public inquiry, is that the proposal to run a land train as part of the plans for a new L67.5m Stonehenge visitors center would be too "intrusive."

The aim is to use the train to transport tourists from the visitors centre to within walking distance of the ancient stones. But the chairman of the Stonehenge Alliance, George McDonic, said the trains would conflict with both
national and international policies that seek to protect the landscape around the World Heritage site.
Mr McDonic said the development should not begin until the planning authority had been given full details of the land train shelters to be built at the drop-off areas. He also said he did not have an alternative transport solution, instead suggesting the matter should go back to public consultation.
Archaeologist Dr Kate Fielden gave evidence about the effect the land train would have on the location. She said: "Operating in the north-eastern part of the site, it will be both visibly and audibly intrusive, particularly at King Barrow Ridge. The exceptional views will become further damaged by modern intrusions, such as the A303, which already impinges." She added that financial considerations seemed to be more important to English Heritage than what was best for the World Heritage site and that the current site was better for dispersal into the surrounding landscape.

Source: Salisbury Journal (15 December 2006)

Monday, December 18, 2006

See a 3D animation of a prehistoric English site

Archaeologists at Wessex Archaeology have completed a 3D animation that reveals a prehistoric landscape, now submerged under the English Channel, as it might have appeared 8000 years ago.

At the end of the last ice age the River Arun in West Sussex flowed a further 8 miles out. Archaeological survey has revealed the lay of the land, and what plants and trees grew there. The complex evidence has been turned into a compelling animated tour showing how the landscape
might have looked and how families made a living from the land and the sea. This is wonderful... do try it:
The video is available on YouTube

Saturday, December 16, 2006


Small wonder you missed the experience at the 2500 year old passage grave called Newgrange (Ireland) -- as next week between December 19 and 23 -- if the weather cooperates -- 20 lucky people a day will crowd into the ancient Irish monument's main chamber. There, they'll bathe in 17 minutes of light of the rising sun that lights up the passage of the monument on the shortest days of the year. This year about 28,000 people applied to take part in the ritual at the Newgrange monument, located in the Irish countryside in County Meath.
Each year
as many as 200,000 people come to visit Newgrange, making it the most visited archaeological site in Ireland. I've managed to visit Newgrange twice but never at Solstice time. Access to the monument is controlled by the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Center. The solstice is the most sought-after time to visit the monument. So in 2000 the visitor center switched to a lottery system for tickets, deeming luck-of-the-draw fairer than a ten-year-long wait list. Schoolchildren pick the winners in late September or early October. For five days around the winter solstice, those 20 lottery winners a day are granted access to the chamber at sunrise. And on the day of the actual winter solstice--usually December 21--several hundred people also gather outside Newgrange to watch the sunrise.

The monument incorporates knowledge that could only have been gained through precise astronomical observations. "The people who built it knew about the winter solstice -- knew when it occurred, knew where the sun would rise -- and built a monument that took advantage of that event and incorporated it symbolically into the monument," says astronomer Edwin Krupp of the Griffith Park (Los Angeles) Observatory. The 62-foot-long passage faces the winter solstice sunrise. A little window above the door allows light from the rising solstice sun to reach the depths of the burial chamber from about 8:58 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. local time.

Newgrange is the most elaborate of several passage tombs in the rich agricultural lands along
the Boyne River about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Dublin. The number of area monuments "suggests this wasn't a small rural community of a few farmers and herders," Krupp says. "We're seeing something there certainly bordering on chiefdomship, if not actually a
chiefdomship." According to Krupp, the full story behind the purpose of Newgrange and its kin is still shrouded in mystery. "It is very deliberately designed and constructed to capture the light of the rising sun at the winter solstice, to allow that beam of light to fall on the innermost chambers of it--a place where the remains of the honored dead were incorporated," Krupp said. Scratch marks in the window above the door indicate that rocks were repeatedly removed and put in place to open and close the window, suggesting a regular gathering at the monument for a winter solstice ritual.

"The winter solstice is a crucial moment, in that it marks the time the sun has reached the depths of winter--its darkest moment, its death, and its rebirth," Krupp added.

Source: National Geographic News (7 December 2006)

Thursday, December 14, 2006


A Roman ship, wrecked off the coast of Spain in the 1st Century AD, has been dazzling archaeologists with the array of historical treasures on board. It is 100 ft long and would have held 400 tons of trading goods. Those would include hundreds of jars of garum - a fish sauce which was a favourite condiment for rich Romans. Garum was a highly-prized delicacy served to wealthy Romans as an accompaniment to a wide variety of dishes. Romans considered it an aphrodisiac. It is thought that the ship was also carrying ingots of lead.

It was accidentally discovered six years ago by sailors whose anchor snagged a jar. The ship is in great condition and extremely accessible - lying in just 25m of water, and 1.5km (one mile) from the coast of Valencia.
Once news of the ship's discovery was announced in 2000, souvenir hunters targeted it, forcing Spanish authorities to erect a steel cage around the wreck to protect it.

After years of arranging funds, expertise and equipment, a proper exploration of the site began in July of this year. Since then, marine archaeologists have been conducting the painstaking work of cataloguing what was on board.

"For archaeologists, a sunken ship is a historic document that tells us about ancient history and how its economy worked," Javier Nieto, director of the Centre for Underwater Archaeology of Catalonia, said of the find. "This ship will contribute a lot," he added.


Associate Professor Sheila Coulson, from the University of Oslo, can now show that modern humans, Homo sapiens, have performed advanced rituals in Africa for 70,000 years. She has discovered mankind’s oldest known ritual. The archaeologist made the surprising discovery while she was studying the origin of the Sanpeople. A group of the San live in the sparsely inhabited area of north-western Botswana known as Ngamiland.
Coulson made the discovery while searching for artifacts from the Middle Stone Age in the only hills present for hundreds of kilometers in any direction. This group of small peaks within the Kalahari Desert is known as the Tsodilo Hills and is famous for having the largest concentration of rock paintings in the world.
According to the San creation myth, mankind descended from the python and the ancient, arid streambeds around the hills are said to have been created by the python as it circled the hills in its ceaseless search for water. Sheila Coulson’s find shows that people from the area had a specific ritual location associated with the python. The ritual was held in a little cave on the northern side of the Tsodilo Hills. The cave itself is so secluded and access to it is so difficult that it was not even discovered by archaeologists until the 1990s.
When Coulson entered the cave this summer with her three master’s students, it struck them that the mysterious rock resembled the head of a huge python. On the six meter long by two meter tall rock, they found three-to-four hundred indentations that could only have been man-made. When they saw the many indentations in the rock, the archaeologists wondered about more than when the work had been done. They also began thinking about what the cave had been used for and how long people had been going there. With these questions in mind, they decided to dig a test pit directly in front of the python stone.
At the bottom of the pit, they found many stones that had been used to make the indentations. Together with these tools, some of which were more than 70,000 years old, they found a piece of the wall that had fallen off during the work. In the course of their excavation, they found more than 13,000 artifacts. All of the objects were spearheads and articles that could be connected with ritual use, as well as tools used in carving the stone. They found nothing else. As if that were not enough, the stones that the spearheads were made from are not from the Tsodilo region but must have been brought from hundreds of kilometers away.

Up to now, scholars have largely held that man’s first rituals were carried out over 40, 000 years ago in Europe, it now appears that they were wrong about both the time and place.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


Recently archaeologists surveying for a suburban housing development near Southampton on Long Island (NY) discovered an ancient American Indian skull. It dates from 1000 to 3000 years according to the Suffolk County medical examiner's office.

The skull was given to the Shinnecock Indian Nation in nearby Southampton for reburial, the Southampton police reported. The town requires such a study for American Indian artifacts before development can begin because of the centuries-old history of the Shinnecock tribe who have lived on the shores of Eastern Long Island for centuries. The glamorous Hamptons are only a couple of hours drive from New York City.