Sunday, December 11, 2016


Sometimes a stroke of luck or an accidental event can lead to the most amazing discoveries. Giles Hamm of La Trobe University, Australia, had been surveying gorges in the Flinders Ranges in Southern Australia, in the company of local tribal elder, Clifford Coulthard. Clifford suddenly had to answer a call of nature and wandered out of sight, into a side gorge, which formed a type of rock shelter. It was there that he saw some amazing rock art.

On closer investigation they discovered evidence of well-crafted stone tools and the bones from a long extinct marsupial, with the name Diprotodon Optatum. When the artifacts were radio carbon dated they were astounded to discover that they dated from approximately 47,000 BCE, not long after it is believed that humans first arrived in Australia. In fact, this find pre-dates any similar find by approximately 10,000 years.

Hamm published his findings in the journey Nature and is intrigued by what he found: "The old idea is that people might have come from the East, from the Levant, out of Africa, and these modern humans may have come with a package of innovative technologies". He went on to say "But the development of these fine stone tools, the bone technology, we think that happened as a local innovation, due to a local culture evolution".

Not everyone, however, is convinced. The dating comes from analysis of burnt eggshells and the layer in which they were discovered. Huw Barton, bio archaeologist from the University of Leicester (UK) believes the fragments may have dropped lower and represents human occupation 10,000 years later, in line with other finds in the area. Further study is obviously needed.

Edited from The Guardian (2 November 2016)
[2 images]


A gigantic gold torc, so big one expert thinks it may have been worn to protect a pregnant woman, has been found in a ploughed field in Cambridgeshire (England). It was made from 730 grams of almost pure gold more than 3,000 years ago.

The workmanship closely resembles one from nearby Grunty Fen, found in 1844 and now in the collection of the archaeology museum of Cambridge University. However, like many torcs that were apparently buried for ritual reasons, that one had been coiled up.
"There was a lot going on in Bronze Age East Anglia," said Neil Wilkin, the curator of Bronze Age Europe at the British Museum, "but it's been a while since we've had anything as hefty as this."

Torcs are usually described as collars, with the longer ones thought by some to have been worn as belts, but Wilkin said this torc was longer than even extra-large waist measurements of men's trousers. Wilkin said they were never found buried with the remains of the dead, and he wondered if it could have been loaned by the tribe to be worn as protection by a woman in late pregnancy. Alternatively, he thought it could have been a magnificent ornament to give extra value to an animal about to be sacrificed.

The site and the finder have remained anonymous, but the discovery was reported to Helen Fowler, the local finds liaison officer through the network of archaeologists recording such finds. She said she was 'gobsmacked' when it came out of the finder's briefcase. The last torc she had handled was bracelet sized, but this one was far too big to fit on her weighing scales.

Wilkin said the workmanship was astonishing: the torc was shaped from a square section bar of gold, and then twisted and burnished. "If you take callipers, and measure the gaps between the twists, they are absolutely spot on accurate." It is hoped Ely Museum will acquire the torc, with the reward shared between finder and landowner. The slightly shorter and lighter Corrard torc, found in Northern Ireland, was valued at up to £150,000 ( US$ 186,000) three years ago.

Edited from The Guardian (28 November 2016)
[3 images

Tuesday, December 06, 2016


The vigiles (or cohortes vigilum) were formed during the reign of Augustus to act as ancient Rome's permanent firefighting service. Evolving from earlier slave teams, the vigiles were organized as an urban military unit and eventually recruits came from the Roman citizenry. The body, with a permanent camp of its own and equipment stations dotted around the city, patrolled the streets of Rome each night and also performed certain nocturnal policing duties to ensure public order.

The vigiles were created by Augustus in 6 CE to meet the high risk of fires in the capital presented by its high population density and widespread use of wooden housing and other buildings which had timber parts. It was not the first time such a force had been created for the avaricious Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of Rome's all-time richest men, had spotted the chance of making money by offering low prices for burning buildings and then having his team of slaves extinguish the fire so that it could be saved for redevelopment. If the property owner refused Crassus' offer, then the fire was left to rage on unabated.

Monday, December 05, 2016


During the rebuilding of its elementary school, officials from the Owego Apalachin Central School District brought in the Binghamton University Public Archaeology Facility (PAF) to help examine the school grounds. During the excavation, the BU team unearthed Native American artifacts that are over 3,000 years old. After the building was destroyed by flooding during Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, the BU PAF was hired by the district in compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 as they rebuilt the school.

According to the act, if construction is to be done on public land, a section of the area must first be examined to determine if it meets one of the criteria for a historic site. These criteria include the site having significance to the formation of the United States or native populations, importance to cultural foundations of the nation and the preservation of the area in a way that benefits the public’s understanding of history. In its excavation, the archaeological group found over 500 prehistoric artifacts, including multiple projectile points from spears or darts. The dating of the artifacts placed them around 1,500 B.C. before the invention of the bow and arrow. In addition, researchers were able to determine that the artifacts were likely left by a nomadic group during a nut collection based on hickory and butternut shells preserved in the area.

The funds and permits for the excavation were provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which also provided assistance in the area following the tropical storm. The BU PAF was called in because of their prior relationship working with the school to put on different educational programs for elementary school students and their proximity to the site. According to Nina Versaggi, director of the PAF and an associate professor of anthropology, the facility moved through a three-phase process while in communication with both FEMA and district officials.

First, they determined if there was an archaeological site at the elementary school by examining the soil for artifacts. Next, the site was considered according to the guidelines put out in the National Historic Preservation Act to determine if it had historical significance to Native American tribes. After the excavation, FEMA communicated with Native American groups, from the Onondaga and Seneca Nations, so that their wishes for the preservation of the artifacts could be taken into account.

Among the requests from the Onondoga representative was to put on a program, with the PAF, for the children who attend Owego Apalachin Elementary School about the artifacts found beneath their school. Andrea Kozub, the project director and faunal analyst for the PAF, helped work on-site in the discovery of the artifacts. She felt that smaller archaeological sites had not been properly utilized in understanding prehistoric life. “In the past, the importance of smaller encampments the Owego Elementary School were overlooked or the sites were dismissed with little investigation, and yet we know that people were not living in big villages all the time,” Kozub wrote in an email. “They used the whole landscape in a variety of ways. So preserving the information about these sites before they are impacted by construction is essential to having a three dimensional understanding of how people lived.”

Versaggi hoped that the discovery of prehistoric artifacts locally could help remind people that even though they can feel very far from the prehistoric past, it is still an important part of human heritage.


About 9,000 years ago, Mesolithic humans in Ireland buried someone important on the banks of the River Shannon in Hermitage, County Limerick. The burial, originally uncovered in 2001, is notable for several reasons. First, according to a press release, it is the earliest recorded burial in Ireland. Second, the remains were cremated, which was unusual since in most burials of this period bodies were covered intact. The site also had a large wooden post planted near it, marking the site, another unusual feature for burials in Europe.

But new analysis of a polish adze or axe head recovered from the grave is changing the story of Ireland’s early inhabitants even more. Laura Geggel at LiveScience reports that the axe, made of shale, appeared little used, meaning it was likely an object created to accompany the deceased. Researchers took a closer look at the axe and found that the axe was probably never used as a tool and that tip was intentionally blunted, perhaps as a funerary rite symbolizing the owner’s death. The research appears in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

“This type of insight into burial practices is incredibly rare for this part of the world,” Aimée Little, an archaeologist at the University of York and lead author of the study tells Geggel. “Nine thousand years ago, people in Ireland were making very high-quality artifacts specifically to be placed in graves.”

The polished axe is probably the oldest such axe ever found in Europe. According to the press release, it’s also something of an anachronism. “The adze is exceptional as we traditionally associate polished axes and adzes like this with the arrival of agriculture in Europe, around 3000 years later,” says Ben Elliott, an archeologist at York and co-author. “Although polished axes and adzes are known from pre-agricultural sites in Ireland and other parts of Europe, to find such a well-made, highly polished and securely dated example is unprecedented for this period of prehistory.”

Little tells Fiona Gartland at The Irish Times that the axe shows that people in Ireland at that time weren’t just hunter-gatherers eking out an existence. They had a well-developed culture that included taking care of the dead. “You have really, very complex behavior at play here, in terms of the making and treatment of the adze as part of the funerary rights,” says Little. “We make the argument it was probably commissioned for the burial and was probably used as part of the funerary rights, possibly to cut the wood for the pyre for the cremation, or to cut the tree used as the grave post marker.” The cremation too, which requires a fire between 645 and 1,200 degrees would have also required some know-how and experience, Little tells Gartland. In fact, she says whoever prepared the grave took painstaking effort to pick up every tiny fragment of bone to put in the burial.

While the axe may prove to be the oldest polished axe in Europe, it is by no means the oldest in the world. That distinction goes to a 49,000-year-old stone axe found in Australia in May.

Read more:
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12!
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter


A row over the future of Rome's metro is threatening to delay urgent work to stabilize the Colosseum, adding to fears for the ancient amphitheatre after Italy's recent earthquakes caused troubling cracks in its exterior walls. The 2,000-year-old, partly-ruined structure was allocated four million euros in 2014 to carry out reinforcements deemed necessary to offset the impact of tunneling for a new underground train line which will pass close by. But the money was never released and guardians of the city's architectural heritage now fear it never will be after new mayor Virginia Raggi announced she plans to dissolve the underground company, Roma Metropolitana.

"By liquidating Roma Metropolitana, the mayor has left us without anyone to deal with regarding the financing needed for the urgent strengthening of the Colosseum," a spokesman for the superintendent of the city's archaelogical treasures told AFP. The superintendent himself, Francesco Prosperetti, has warned that he will seek to block any further work on the still-unfinished metro extension if the funds are not released. "The Colosseum cannot wait any longer," Prosperetti told Italian media. "As a citizen I would not like to delay the metro but as the defender of this monument I may not have any choice."

Raggi has said work on the metro project will continue with new management progressively replacing Roma Metropolitana, an organization she has accused of overseeing the "shameful squandering of public funds." The new line is supposed to run from the city center to the eastern suburbs. Most of it opened last year but the final section, which will bring it into the Colosseum area and connect with the capital's two other metro lines, remains unfinished.

Started in 2007 with a budget of 2.2 billion euros ($2.4 billion), the work is now forecast to cost at least 3.7 billion and Raggi has put plans for a northern extension of the line on indefinite hold. Earthquakes in central Italy on August 24th, October 26th and October 30th were powerful enough in Rome to result in a number of new cracks appearing in the Colosseum's exterior walls. But Italy's top tourist attraction has remained open to the public. The landmark site has survived dozens of earthquakes over the centuries although it was a tremor that led to the collapse of its southern wall in 1703.

Prosperetti said work was most urgently required on interior walls in the top section of the structure, which is not open to the public.
The exterior of the Colosseum has recently been given a facelift thanks to a three-year clean-up financed by the upmarket fashion and footwear company Tod's.

Sunday, December 04, 2016


According to the AP, despite protests from the governments of Cyprus and Egypt the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, U.S., decided to go ahead with the sales of nearly two dozen antiquities at Christie’s in New York. The auction that took place on Tuesday is said to have brought in $640,000 to the museum.

As to why they were selling the items, the museum stated that since the objects were not on display all the time and not considered prized artifacts, the selling of the pieces was not a big deal as Museum Director Brian Kennedy told the AP that the museum respects others’ viewpoints but sometimes sells items to maintain a high-quality collection. He stated that the money from the sale would go towards other acquisitions.

Expert archaeologists disagree with the museum, saying that these pieces should have stayed with the museum as modern laws make it difficult to acquire such objects. Furthermore, the government of Cyprus tried to get the museum to sway from selling the artifacts, saying that they are not trying to insist that they be returned to Cyprus, rather that they stay in a museum collection, protected and able to be viewed by the public.

The Toledo newspaper, The Blade reported that of the 23 pieces sold at auction at Christie’s in New York on Tuesday one piece was a Cypriot limestone head of a male votary from 6th century B.C. and is a prime example of the types of items the Cypriot government was fighting to keep at the museum. On Monday, less than 24-hours before the auction went forward, Ambassador Pantelides was still pleading with the museum to postpone the sale, but they did not. Officials from Egypt also tried to stop the sale and have the items that are of Egyptian origin returned to their country.

These items sold on Tuesday are only a part of the nearly 70 pieces that the Toledo Museum of Art is planning to sell at auction. The pieces all originate from the Mediterranean countries of Greece, Egypt and Italy.
- See more at:


Looting plagues archeology in Egypt. Using satellite data, scientists at the University of Alabama found that stealing more than doubled between 2009 and 2010 and then doubled again after the revolution. The professors and archeologists at the university consider the crime "simply staggering". And what the researchers in Alabama discovered from thousands of kilometers in the sky, Soliman saw with her own eyes. "Tens of monuments were being looted," Soliman told me.

Some of the stolen items went to Europe and the US, but much of the Islamic art found its way to the neighboring Gulf region. A lion’s share winds up in private collections in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. But without hard facts at hand, Egypt cannot hope to retrieve the treasure trafficked under radar to their new private owners.

Without trained staff to look after them, no less damaging is the abandonment of many antiquity sites. “Without tourism,” officials tell Egyptologists like Soliman, “there is no money.” Privately, one official even told her, “May some of these artifacts disappear so we have less on our shoulders.”

Egypt is not helping itself. Try and secure an Islamic monument home, as scholars and researchers do sometimes for academic purposes, and you will find outrageously priced daily rentals reaching nearly 30,000 Egyptian pounds, says Soliman. It is the same faulty logic that has a failing Suez Canal increasing tariffs to make up for lost revenue. The result? Even more ships finding alternate routes and costing Egypt much-needed revenue. It is the same with antiquities tourism: how do you insist on setting such high prices when demand is at an all-time low and services are lacking at many of these sites?

Personal relationships, sleight of hand, a few pounds and a smile get Soliman access to many sites so she can document them. But under the draconian political circumstances, photographing dilapidated sites to bring attention to corruption and a slow-as-black-Egyptian-molasses bureaucracy could mean prison time. "I think 9,000 times before going to photograph…I have to be smart," she said. But she does risk arrest for her blog, Bassara Heritage, where she documents all that she sees with her trusted assistant, Mohamed Soliman, no relation, but a fellow history buff.

Egypt is in an unenviable economic hole. The country’s income from tourism, which reached over $12.5bn in 2010, had fallen to $5.9bn by 2013. The return of that missing revenue would do wonders for an economy that is losing allies in the all-important Gulf, with Saudia Arabia pulling back so much that Sisi, on Twitter earlier this week, said "enough dependence on our Arab brothers".

To get you have to give and Soliman says three things need to happen for the twin fields of Pharaonic antiquities and Islamic art to flourish:

1. Admit there is a problem

2. Wipe out corruption in "every corner and every breath"

3. A short term and long term plan for the overall management of the country’s antiquities

Soliman is right, but even more needs to change. Egypt is a country not only stagnating, but one that is taking decisive steps backwards under the auspices of a counter revolution. In such an environment, the old rule and the young are thrown by the way side because they represent change. Change and counter revolutions don’t mix. There are those within those two crucial ministries who want to protect these treasures, to document their existence and to stamp out corruption. But all of their purity of intent is blown to bits within ministries where standard operating procedure is highly averse to change.

When the dollar hits 17 Egyptian pounds, the economic disaster can be used to bring tourists with their strengthened dollars back. In a country experiencing a monumental fit of xenophobia triggered by the Sisi cult’s hyper nationalism, this is a near impossible task. If the enemy is the foreigner, how can he also be the savior? For hope to return where archeologists roam, there must be change. Much like the country housing it, the world of antiquities awaits a revolution to protect its very existence.

- Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist and analyst recently published in Ahram Online, Mada Masr,The New Arab, Muftah and Daily News Egypt. You can follow him on Twitter@cairo67unedited.

Saturday, December 03, 2016


Now, researchers suggest a new twist on an ancient explanation: Scandinavian practices that led powerful men to monopolize women also might have led to significant pools of unwed men. Many of these single men, looking for marriage, might have gone on raids to gain status, wealth and captives, and thus go on to secure brides and concubines of their own.

The idea that an excess of single young men led to Viking raiding is one of the oldest explanations for the Viking Age, put forward about 1,000 years ago by historian Dudo of St. Quentin in his tome "History of the Normans."

The new model links this older idea with the customs of polygyny, or having multiple wives, and concubinage, or the keeping of concubines, that ancient texts such as the "Sagas of Icelanders," medieval German chronicles, and reports by travelers such as the 10th-century Arab envoy Ahmad Ibn Fadlān suggested that Scandinavians once practiced, the researchers said.

Polygyny and concubinage would have limited the number of women eligible for single men to marry. Evolutionary biology suggests that such an imbalance would have then boosted competition for mates among unmarried men. Indeed, prior work has suggested that, on average, men die in warfare more often in polygynous societies than in monogamous ones, the researchers said.

This resulted in volatile societies in Scandinavia in which men were moved to engage in risky behavior, such as raiding expeditions to gain wealth and status to attract brides and to secure female slaves. One consequence of this was a surge in raiding that is linked with the start of the Viking Age, the researchers suggested.


American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) late last week released a set of satellite images which show retreating Islamic State jihadists have all but destroyed the remains of two ancient Assyrian capitals near Mosul.

The famous, 2900-year-old mud-brick ziggurat of Nimrud appears to have been bulldozed in recent weeks, along with several outlying ancient structures.


The Palestinian Authority is planning to claim ownership of the Dead Sea Scrolls and demand that UNESCO order Israel to surrender the artifacts, Israel Hayom learned over the weekend.

Discovered in the Qumran Caves in the eastern Judean Desert between 1947 and 1956, the scrolls -- a trove of 981 different texts dating back to the time of the Second Temple -- are believed to be the work of members of a Jewish sect known as the Essenes.

The majority of the scrolls are written in Hebrew, some are written in the Aramaic dialects common to the area at that time, and a handful of parchments are written in Greek.


Scientists headed by Professor Peter Pfälzner from the University of Tübingen and Dr. Hasan Qasim from the Directorate of Antiquities in Dohuk conducted the excavation work in Bassetki between August and October 2016. As a result, they were able to preempt the construction work on a highway on this land. The former significance of the settlement can be seen from the finds discovered during the excavation work. The city already had a wall running around the upper part of the town from approx. 2700 BC onwards in order to protect its residents from invaders.

Large stone structures were erected there in about 1800 BC. The researchers also found fragments of Assyrian cuneiform tablets dating from about 1300 BC, which suggested the existence of a temple dedicated to the Mesopotamian weather god Adad on this site. There was a lower town about one kilometer long outside the city center. Using geomagnetic resistance measurements, the archeologists discovered indications of an extensive road network, various residential districts, grand houses and a kind of palatial building dating from the Bronze Age. The residents buried their dead at a cemetery outside the city. The settlement was connected to the neighboring regions of Mesopotamia and Anatolia via an overland roadway dating from about 1800 BC.

Bassetki was only known to the general public in the past because of the "Bassetki statue," which was discovered there by chance in 1975. This is a fragment of a bronze figure of the Akkadian god-king Naram-Sin (about 2250 BC). The discovery was stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad during the Iraq War in 2003, but was later rediscovered by US soldiers. Up until now, researchers were unable to explain the location of the find. The archeologists have now been able to substantiate their assumption that an important outpost of Akkadian culture may have been located there.

Although the excavation site is only 45 kilometers from territory controlled by the Islamic State (IS), it was possible to conduct the archeological work without any disturbances. "The protection of our employees is always our top priority. Despite the geographical proximity to IS, there's a great deal of security and stability in the Kurdish autonomous areas in Iraq," said Professor Peter Pfälzner, Director of the Department of Near Eastern Archaeology at the IANES of the University of Tübingen. The research team consisting of 30 people lived in the city of Dohuk, which is only 60 kilometers north of Mosul, during the excavation work.

In another project being handled by the "ResourceCultures" collaborative research center (SFB 1070), Pfälzner's team has been completing an archeological inspection of territory in the complete area surrounding Bassetki as far as the Turkish and Syrian borders since 2013 -- and 300 previously unknown sites have been discovered. The excavations and the research work in the region are due to be continued during the summer of 2017. "The area around Bassetki is proving to be an unexpectedly rich cultural region, which was located at the crossroads of communication ways between the Mesopotamian, Syrian and Anatolian cultures during the Bronze Age. We're therefore planning to establish a long-term archeological research project in the region in conjunction with our Kurdish colleagues," says Pfälzner. The excavation work is being funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.