Search This Blog

Showing posts with label archaeology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label archaeology. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Varna Gold

At the height of communism, proof of a pre-historic class stratified society was found behind the Iron Curtain. An ancient cemetery was found in the Bulgarian city of Varna when digging trenches for the electrical foundation of a new cannery. Much like the discovery of Kennewick Man in 1996, the discovery of what would come to be known as the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis would completely reshape our understanding of prehistoric society. Unlike the discovery of Kennewick Man, archaeologists found something shinier, more telling, and worth far more money than bones--gold. 138 pounds (63 kg) of gold to be exact.

Image result for varna gold
Gold animal ornament found at Varna. This would most
likely be sewn onto clothing.
In October of 1972 Raycho Marinov found a dirty bracelet in the bucket of his excavator. He was digging in West Varna, where it wasn't too uncommon to find historical artifacts. Farmers frequently dug up copper coins in their fields, so Raycho didn't think too much of it. He gathered up the bracelet, as well as a few other pieces of jewelry he found lying in the area, and put them in a shoebox with his boots. He forgot about the box for a couple of weeks before giving the gold to his old teacher, and curator of the local history museum, Dimitar Zlatarski. Zlatarski, recognizing the value of the pieces, called in experts from the Varna Archaeological Museum.

Upon examination, it turned out that what Marinov had found was far more valuable than the copper coins found in nearby fields. The jewelry dated back to the Copper Age, and Marinov's find was the biggest find of Copper Age artifacts at the time.

A full fledged excavation began almost immediately. Though it had been months since Marinov found the original pieces of jewelry, the dig site remained mostly intact. Archaeologists descended on the site in droves, and a near constant dig was in progress from 1972 to 1991.

This clay head, adorned with gold, was found in one
of the 'ceremonial graves'. These clay figurines were
most likely buried for religious purposes.
What archaeologists found in Varna was a vast graveyard belonging to the long vanished Varna Culture, a Copper Age society living in Eastern Europe long before the invasion of Indo-Europeans. Hundreds of graves littered the landscape, buried under years of debris.

Much like many other societies, the people of the Varna Culture buried their dead with funerey goods--presumably to help the deceased in the afterlife. These grave goods gave insight into the dress and customs of the Varna Culture. The quality of (or lack thereof) of the goods proved that the Varna Culture had a system of social classes, making them one of the first cultures in the world to do so.

The evidence of some sort of class structure became evident when archaeologists opened what is now called Grave 43. It contained the bones of a man positively dripping in gold. The man wore bracelets, necklaces, rings, and carried a scepter. Gold disks, presumably once sewn to his long disintegrated clothing, surrounded him, as well as a gold sheathe for his penis. Though the archaeologists had found that some graves were nicer than others, they hadn't found a grave with such riches.

The fact that the skeleton was a male was particularly interesting to the archaeologists, because it challenged the contemporary theory that prehistoric Europe was a matriarchal society, and didn't become a patriarchal society until the invasion of the Indo-Europeans. Grave 43 was the first instance of a man who had been buried with a large amount of precious grave goods. Though some archaeologists suggest that this man could have lived during a period of transition, Grave 43 still leaves more questions than it answers.
Image result for varna gold
The contents of Grave 43

Actual humans weren't the only ones to be buried with tons of gold. Several graves full of gold and clay heads were also excavated. It is speculated that these are 'ceremonial graves', and that the gold jewelry is an offering for the deities represented by the clay heads.

Unfortunately, about 30% of the dig site remains unexplored. Excavation stopped in 1991 due to a lack of funds, and archaeologists have been unable to raise the money to begin again. Much of the discovered gold resides at the Varna Archaeology Museum, and the gold frequently tours museums across Europe.

The find at Varna represents a major piece of the puzzle that is pre-historic European society. Though these discoveries raise many more questions than they answer, the provide valuable insight into the wealth of the society, the size of the Varna Culture, and into their religious beliefs and practices.

Sources
Varna Man and the Wealthiest Grave of the 5th Millennium BC
The Oldest Gold Treasure in the World
Mystery of the Varna Gold

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Facts are in the Feces

Hippocrates, widely considered to be the father of modern medicine, proposed some pretty crazy hypothesis. Four humors, wandering womb, many of his theories have since been discredited.¹ However, Hippocrates' documentation of parasites in the Ancient Greeks has recently been confirmed by archaeologists digging on the Greek island of Kea.

Image result for hippocrates
Hippocrates
According to Hippocrates, there were three different types of parasites that could be found in the human digestive system--Helmins strongyle, Ascaris, and Helmins plateia. He detailed the symptoms of each type of worm, and his proposed treatments in the Hippocrates Corups, a collection of his writings.

While the likelihood of the Ancient Greeks having parasites was never in doubt, historians and archaeologists were confused as to exactly what parasites Hippocrates was referring to. There was no archaeological evidence of parasites from Hellenic times, so it was generally assumed that Hippocrates' three worms were all different variants of pin worms.

However, recently excavated corpses on Kea have shown differently. Feces, an incredibly useful archaeological find, generally dissolves into the dirt within a few years of having been placed there. However, skeletons on Kea were found with flecks of feces on the pelvis, giving archaeologists a chance to analyze it.

The findings were insightful. Not only did they find pin worms, but roundworms were found in the feces as well. This conclusively proves that Hippocrates discovered the pin worm centuries before it came to be known by that name, and that he also had knowledge of other types of parasite.



¹Though many of Hippocrates' theories have been discredited, and some may sound ridiculous today, he was a remarkable man. Hippocrates basically invented modern medicine, and he made a series of great discoveries. This is pretty huge considering that he had very little prior knowledge to work with.


Sources
Ancient Poo is the First Ever Confirmation that Hippocrates Was Right About Parasites
Poop Proof: Ancient Greeks Suffered From Gut Parasites
History of Medicine: Ancient Poop Reveals Parasitic Worms as Described By Hippocrates 2500 Years Ago

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The California Sphinx

There's been a lot of exciting finds announced this week, Caesar's landing place in Britain, Iron Age human remains in Turkey, and a 3,000 year old tomb found in China. However, the most exciting (in my opinion) was the discovery of one of the lost sphinxes from the 1923 film set for the movie The Ten Commandments.

Image result for california sphinx
Aforementioned Sphinx
In 1923 Cecil DeMille set out on an ambitious black and white film entitled The Ten Commandments.¹ It was an enormous undertaking. DeMille hired thousands of actors, and built a lavish set in the middle of the Californian desert. The set was designed by the popular French art deco designer, Paul Iribe, and included more than 20 sphinxes.

The film was a hit, but an expensive hit. The Ten Commandments grossed about $4.2 million at the box office, but cost about $1.5 million to make. At the end of filming the set was too expensive to dismantle, and DeMille didn't want to leave it in the desert for another movie studio to poach. So, he did the reasonable thing, and decided to bury it.

Years passed, and the set was almost forgotten about. However, in 1980 film director Peter Brosnan started searching for the set. He was able to get a $10,000 grant from the US government to start archaeological work. In 1990 he dug up the very first sphinx, and the Californian desert has been churning out more pieces of movie set ever since.

One of the remarkable things about this find is how well it was preserved. The sphinx was made of plaster, and was mostly intact. The paint was a bit chipped, but otherwise looked as good as it did in 1923. 


¹He later remade an expanded, colorized version of this film in 1956

Sources

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Root Of Man Found in Canal

You may have noticed, but I love prehistory. We know so little about where man actually came from, and because there's so little archaeological evidence surrounding early man every time something new is discovered it's very exciting. So, as you might guess, I was super stoked when earlier this week archaeologists announced that nearly a year ago they dug up two 9.7 million year old teeth in Germany that changes all previous theories about the origins of man.

Before I start, I have to say that these teeth weren't actually found in a canal, they were found in the Rhine Riverbed. Which makes it even more amazing that despite being buried in dirt for millions of years, the teeth were in good condition. According to the scientists on the project, they look like they could have been pulled yesterday.

9.7 million year old human tooth germany
One of the teeth. Kinda gross, but really cool.

According to Herbert Lutz, the lead author for the study, these teeth show similar characteristics to teeth previously found in hominids, the generally supposed precursors to man. What makes these teeth so interesting is their location. All previous bones and fossils of this age have been found in Africa or the Mediterranean areas. There aren't a lot of fossils found in Central Europe, and certainly not near the Rhine. It had been previously supposed that hominids were centralized in Africa and the Mediterranean area, but the finding of these teeth suggest hominids may have lived farther north as well.

Though two teeth might not seem like a big find, they're a big deal when it comes to learning about early man. The wear marks on the teeth will be able to help historians guess at the diet of these early people, and analysis of the enamel can help guess the age of the owner.

The reason that archaeologists waited so long to release their find is because these teeth completely overthrow everything previously known about the evolution of man, and they wanted to be 120% sure before telling McGraw-Hill to start rewriting their textbooks. However, a year later they are confident enough in their dating to release the find.

This article leaves me with many questions, and, I'll admit, I've been having fun speculating about the answers. My biggest question though-- why have this primate's teeth have lasted for 9 million years, when I have 357 new cavities every time I go to the dentist?¹


¹I'm just kidding, of course. Obviously those teeth are fossilized, and the differences between the prehistoric diet and the diet of a modern day chocolate addict are vastly different.

Sources
Prehistoric Teeth Dating Back 9.7 Million Years 'Could Rewrite Human History'
9.7 Million Year Old Fossilized Hominin Teeth From Germany Set To Take a Big Bite Out of the African Human Origin Theory
9.7 Million Year Old Teeth Fossils Raise Questions About Human Origins

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Kennewick Man

You know that moment? That awkward moment when you're testing the bones of you latest suspected murder victim, and that victim happens to be more than 8,000 years old? Well coroner Floyd Johnson and archaeologist James Chatter found themselves in this exact situation in 1996.

Image result for kennewick man
Facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man
On July 28, 1996 two hikers found a human skull by the Columbia river. They turned it over to the police, who turned it over to Floyd Johnson, the Benton country coroner. Suspecting that the skull had Native American connections, and knowing that the skull was very, very old, Johnson called in his archaeologist friend James Chatter. Chatter was able to excavate the rest of the body from the riverbank, and after sending a finger bone for analysis, they found out that the skeleton was more than 8,000 years old.

Here's where things get complicated. See, the land that the skull and skeleton were found on was being administered by the Army Corp of Engineers. The Corp of Engineers was in negotiations with local American Indian tribes over salmon fishing rights, and the Corp of Engineers were eager to appease the tribes, who demanded that the skeleton be handed over immediately for reburial.*

The tribes believed that Kennewick man was their distant ancestor, a belief proved by science in 2006. A body being buried, and remaining buried is an important part of Native American religion, which is why they wanted Kennewick Man returned for reburial.

As you might imagine, many scientists were more than a little dismayed, after all, how often do you come across an 8,000 year old skeleton? So, naturally, Smithsonian institute scientist Douglas Owsley, along with a few other scientists, decided to file a lawsuit against the US government.

What ensued was a 20 year legal battle over whether or not the skeleton could be studied. In the end the remains were given back to the Utilla tribe, and were reburied in February of 2017. Luckily for historians and scientists though, some research was done on the bones before they were reburied.

The findings of the analysis of Kennewick Man's skeletons completely changed the theories about how First Nation people ended up in North America. Previous theories said that First Nation people had most likely crossed on a land bridge between modern Russia and Alaska. Further studies confirmed that First Nation people could have sailed from the Japan area, keeping close to the shore to provide food for themselves. The sea-food rich diet that Kennewick Man ate adds strength to this theory.
Image result for kennewick man
The skeleton
You can learn a lot from bones, and a lot was learned from Kennewick man. There were tissue markers indicating that was right handed, and threw something (most likely a spear) quite frequently The markers suggest that he was throwing at a downward angle, suggesting that he was spear hunting for fish--a hypothesis his marine life diet certainly supports. There was further evidence suggestion that Kennewick man was very tough. He was in pain for most of his life, he had several ribs that broke, but never healed properly, there was a fracture in his shoulder, and he lived more than half of his life with a stone spear point embedded into his hip.

Kennewick man has been reburied, and it is unlikely that he will ever resurface, however scientists managed to glean enough information from him in their limited time of study to write a 680 page book about him. Their findings will continue to serve as an invaluable resource for archaeologists who study pre-history in North America.

*NAGPRA (Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act) is a law passed in 1990 that provides for the return of Native American remains and some artifacts to the tribes who own them. This was the law invoked by tribes concerning Kennewick man.

Sources
"Who Was Kennewick Man" by Reuben Flores, American Mosaic December 2015
Kennewick Man, The Ancient One
The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"Holy Moly, That's Old!"

"Holy moly, that's old!" is a quote directly taken from Alisha Gauvreau, PhD candidate at the University of Victoria. At the time, Gauvreau was presenting her finds on an archaeological dig that may change the way we think about how First Nation people originally came to North America.

Apparently, the annual meeting of the American Society of Archaeology was last week. At this meeting, which sounds pretty dope by the way, Alisha Gauvreau gave the findings of her dig at Triquet Island, BC. What she found was pretty standard for what you would expect from a stone age settlement--atlatl, fish hooks, hand drills for making fire. It wasn't necessarily what she found that was interesting (although that's still some cool stuff), but how old it was. When her finds were carbon dated, they learned that the settlement she and her team had discovered was nearly 14,000 years old.

Now, just in case you're confused, let me explain why this is significant. The most common theory for how people migrated from what is now Europe to North America is that people crossed over on the Bering Land Bridge--an area of land connecting modern Japan (or Siberia, depending on who you ask) with Alaska. Supposedly, First Nation people spread out over the continent from there. However, recent finds suggest that this isn't the case. In 1996, the discovery of a nearly 10,000 year old skeleton in Kennewick Washington, known as 'Kennewick Man' provided evidence that there were people in North America long before anyone crossed the Bering Land Bridge. Gauvreau's find helps support the theory that a small area of British Colombia and Washington didn't entirely freeze over during the ice age, and ancient people settled there.

This find was only presented a few days ago, so there's not a lot of in-depth scientific information about it available to the general public yet, but I, for one, am very excited. Finding a village like this can provide valuable insight to how stone age people lived, and who they were. I hope we hear more about this soon!

On a scale of one to ten, how excited about this are you? How do you think people originally came to North America? Make my day by leaving a comment. :)

Sources
Smithsonian
Anthropology.Net
Newser