Wednesday, September 28, 2016

New method reveals the secrets of bog bodies

Protein analyses on Denmark’s large collection of bog bodies gives archaeologists deeper insights into Iron Age culture and society.

Archaeologists have learned a lot about the lives of Iron Age Europeans from the mummified remains preserved in bogs--including how they dressed.

But not even the best-preserved bog can withstand the ravages of time. And archaeologists could not identify the exact origin of fibres from hair, wool, or skin in such old, degraded garments.

But this is all about to change, thanks to a new method, which analyses proteins in the fibres to determine exactly what type of animal they came from.

“With proteins, we could make a completely accurate species identification in 11 out of 12 samples and show that species identification that was carried out by microscopy on half of the samples was incorrect,” says lead-author Luise Brandt, who completed the research during her Ph.D. at the University of Copenhagen, but is now based at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

The new technique can for the first time help archaeologists to differentiate between goats or sheeps wool, for example, which would otherwise be difficult to do when studying hairs that had spent 2000 years in a bog, says Brandt.

Skins provides insight into Iron Age culture

Karin Frei, from the National Museum, Denmark, sees great potential in the new method, which should help archaeologists to learn more about how the prehistoric societies produced clothing from animals.

Frei was not involved in the new research, but she has also studied wool garments preserved in peat bogs.

“The method is very exciting because it allows us to clarify several archaeological issues, which have often been difficult to study with any certainty. This new method allows us to form a much more accurate picture,” says Frei.

According to Brandt, her method should help to identify how people selected the material from which to make their clothes, which may give an insight into the resources available at the time in that society.

"It’s important to know what kind of material you have chosen for what [purpose], and there were various skins that were particularly useful for different functions. It tells us whether they kept or hunted the animals at that time, and beyond the practical aspects, the choice of material also reflects their tastes, or a desire to send a certain signal through what they wore,” says Brandt.

For example, clothes are typically an indicator of a person’s position in society.

Hair breaks down in acidic bog environment

Even 2,000 years ago, Iron Age people in Northern Europe cared about what their clothes were made of and how they were made.

Archaeological findings have revealed, that people had a deep knowledge of the different animal skins and their characteristics, which influenced the cuts and appearance of the materials they used.

But there was a lot of confusion about which type of animal skins were actually used.

In 2011, Brandt tried to extract DNA from various materials found on bog bodies in Denmark. But she hit a dead end.

The DNA was too degraded to work out what type of material the clothes were made out of. So she switched her attention to proteins.

“I found out that proteins are preserved, ten times longer than DNA,” says Brandt.

The protein analyses showed that the composition of amino acids--the building blocks of proteins--in the various material changes according to animal species. They can therefore act as a fingerprint for the type of animal that the material came from.

Cloaks sewn with great care

Brandt analysed 12 samples from ten cloaks and a tunic from the Danish National Museum’s collection of leather suits that were preserved at a number of archaeological sites in Jutland, West Denmark. All of the garments are around 2000 years old.

She successfully identified the animal species in 11 out of 12 samples. Two samples came from cattle, three from goat, and six from sheep. The twelfth sample is from either a sheep or a goat, but this test was inconclusive as the protein that distinguishes between sheep and goat was not preserved.

The results suggest that Iron Age garments were made exclusively from the skins of domesticated animals, and not wild animals as popular mythology often suggests.

Tunic made from a young calf

More sensational is the discovery that that one of the garments, a tunic buried in Møgel bog in Jutland, west Denmark, was made from calf leather. It contained a protein found in blood—haemoglobin.

This particular type of haemoglobin is only produced during the last months of pregnancy and in the first three months after birth in the young calves, after which it is replaced by another type of haemoglobin.

“This extraordinary result told us that it was not only made from leather from a cow, but on top of that, it came from a calf,” says Brandt.

This discovery, along with the ability to extract proteins from 2000 year-old animal skin, gives archaeologists a greater understanding of Iron Age textile production.

Perhaps leather was just as important as meat

Brandt speculates that the skins may even have been just as important as the meat to local Iron Age people of the time.

“I think that the smoking gun was the haemoglobin. We can see that they went to great lengths to make the garments and choose the right skin,” says Brandt.

“But now we can see that they used calfskin for the tunic, which could suggest that the skin was a really important part of why they slaughtered young animals and that it was an important product,” says Bradt.

Livestock in the Iron Age were well-developed, but our perception is usually that they were bred primarily for food. But the new results suggest that the animals served a larger purpose.

Frei agrees.

“This is very important for how we view these Iron Age people and the society that they lived in,” says Frei.

“Because they chose calfskin, which is softer and more flexible than skin from older animals, we immediately get the feeling that these people didn’t just wear anything. It suggests a society that made clear decisions about what they found to be comfortable to wear, which is also what we do today,” she says.
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Reference:

Persson, Charlotte Price. 2016. “New method reveals the secrets of bog bodies”. Science Nordic. Posted: August 12, 2016. Available online: http://sciencenordic.com/new-method-reveals-secrets-bog-bodies

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The archaeology of the domestic cat

mousers and men

When did cats graduate from convenient pest-control to one of the world’s most popular pets, and how can you tell the difference in the archaeological record? The answer, John Buglass and Jennifer West suggest, may lie in Roman Yorkshire.

Today, the image of a pet cat purring on its owner’s lap is the epitome of cosy domesticity – but this was not always the case. While the archaeological record suggests that dogs staked their claim to being man’s best friend as long as 15,000 years ago (CA 301), felines were much slower in joining our households. But how far can we trace the evolution of this relationship, and how far is it possible to distinguish between cats that coexisted with humans for their own advantage (scavenging our settlements) or for ours (as resident pest control) and those cats that had taken the next step to achieve the status of a beloved pet? Again, archaeology may hold the key.

Pussycat went to sea

Excavations have uncovered cat remains all over the world, but genetic studies suggest that the domestic cat (Felis catus) first emerged as a distinct species from their ancestors, African wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica), in the Near East around 10,000 years ago. Since then they have spread around the world, being transported by humans (knowingly or otherwise) as we explored, traded, and settled. By 7000 BC, we can see evidence of cats cohabiting with humans in China, while some 5,300 years ago they had reached Cyprus – almost certainly introduced by humans, as the island had no indigenous cat population.

The first hints of actual integration with humans came later still, however, from Egypt around 4,000 years ago. This was a culture that revered cats as sacred, but felines also seem to have forged more worldly relationships with humans: an increased cooperation vividly illustrated in 18th Dynasty era (c.1350 BC) murals adorning the tomb chapel of a wealthy official, Nebamun, in Thebes (now on display in the British Museum). Here, a small striped cat is shown helping a hunter to catch or retrieve wild birds, much as we might employ a gundog today. But this is still clearly a working animal, rather than evidence of cats attaining a more sentimental status.

Moving into Europe, cats first appear in ancient Greek art in the 5th and 4th centuries BC – though never as an unambiguous pet – but in the Roman world they are shown in more clearly domestic scenes, including a mischievous moggy helping itself to the contents of a larder, captured in a 1st century AD mosaic from Pompeii’s ‘House of the Faun’. Feline figures feature far less frequently in Roman art than dogs, however, which might suggest that if they were regarded as pets by now, they had not yet attained the heights of popularity that they enjoy today. Once again, few of these depictions allow us to distinguish between resident mousers and members of the family.

Perhaps the most convincing image of a potential pet from this period comes from the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, which houses the gravestone of a Gallo-Roman child who died in the 2nd century AD. The stele bears an appealingly lifelike image of a little girl cuddling a cat to her chest. With a childish lack of concern for the animal’s comfort, she grips it under its front legs, leaving its lower body to dangle (and allowing an opportunistic cockerel, perhaps another pet, to seize the tip of its tail in its beak), all the while gazing out at the viewer as if posing for her portrait. An incomplete inscription identifies the girl only as the daughter of a man called Laetus, but it is tempting to fill in the gaps ourselves: might this be a loving depiction of a lost child, shown clutching a pet that she had played with in life?

Cats (and Romans) conquer Britain

Closer to home, our earliest clues to domestic cats in Britain also come mostly from the Roman period (again, much later than dogs, whose remains are known from sites as early as the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer camp at Star Carr, near Scarborough). Although their bones have also been found at a small number of Iron Age sites – notably seven 3rd-century BC skeletons excavated at Gussage All Saints hillfort in Dorset – our best evidence for their being adopted as household animals is found at villa sites like Bishopstone, Lullingstone, and Rudston, as well as in York.

In most of these cases, it once more remains unclear whether these animals were pest control or pets – but one site in the Mid Tees Valley seems more promising. This is a Romano-British villa at Dalton-on-Tees, North Yorkshire, which was first excavated by Teesside Archaeological Society in 1997. Their investigation revealed not only the remains of a substantial villa located beyond what was then accepted as the northern limit of such residences, but also a large and varied assemblage of over 3,700 well-preserved animal bones representing 28 different species. Almost 70% of these remains came from a well that had been backfilled sometime between the 2nd and 4th century AD, and among them were the remains of a small domestic cat.

Even a preliminary examination of its bones could tell that this was one unlucky feline: it had suffered devastating injuries to both the hind- and forelimb on its left side, with the entire head of the left femur missing, and the left elbow showing signs of having been badly broken. The fact that these wounds occur on the same side and – as we will discuss shortly – show similar signs of healing, suggests that they may have been inflicted at the same time, perhaps as a result of being kicked by a larger animal like a horse while hunting for food in a stable, or being hit by the wheel of a cart.

Whatever their cause, there is no doubt that they would have been disabling, potentially fatal injuries – and yet the cat had not died. Extensive new bone growth on both limbs shows clear signs of healing, while ‘polished’ wear patterns on the affected joint surfaces indicate that the limbs had eventually returned to use, albeit with a drastically reduced range of movement. In other words, it appears that a friendly human may have, if not nursed the stricken feline back to health, at least tended it with food and water while its bones knitted back together – a level of care above and beyond what you might expect to be accorded to ‘pest control’ or an opportunistic cohabiter.

Further analysis of the cat’s remains suggests that even after its fractures had healed the animal would no longer have been an effective hunter – one elbow was left partially fused, while its rear limb shows signs of an infection and healed break. Both injuries may (without all of the bones present to compare, we cannot be sure) have left the affected legs shorter than their counterparts.

If this stiff-legged, limping cat, which would certainly not have been able to earn its keep as a working mouser, had been allowed to continue living at the villa rather than being euthanised and replaced, might this suggest that its owner had felt a deeper emotional connection with the animal? If so, this could be our earliest evidence yet in Britain for a cat that was not just a household tool, but a cherished pet.
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Reference:

2016. “The archaeology of the domestic cat”. Current Archaeology. Posted: August 5, 2016. Available online: http://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/archaeology-of-the-domestic-cat.htm

Monday, September 26, 2016

Canadian anthropologist in a tight squeeze

In order to do her exciting excavation of fossils in South Africa’s Rising Star cave complex, Marina Elliottmust squeeze into some very narrow passages. Researchers have already uncovered am astounding 1,800 fragments of bones and teeth from 15 individuals of Homo naledi, somehow related to our own species.

A cranial capacity the size of a large orange

Although they share many features with us, they are also very different, says Elliott: “They are quite a bit smaller than modern humans and they had a very, very tiny head. They had a cranial capacity about a third the size of a modern human, so about the size of a large orange.

“And the body below this little head is quite slim, very long limbs, quite a short trunk, but a real combination of features that we haven’t seen in any other early hominid species.”

A ‘treasure trove’ of fossils

The site is highly significant as a “veritable treasure trove” of material that is not encased in hard rock, but preserved in relatively soft material which means it can be relatively easily unearthed, relatively intact.

Cousins or more?

Beyond that, Elliott says finding these 15 individuals of all ages may change our understanding of human evolution. “We don’t know yet whether Homo naledi is on the human line or just a distant cousin, but what it does tell us is that the picture that we’ve been painting for many years is a bit more complicated than we thought at first.”

Marina Elliott got her PhD in biological anthropology at Simon Fraser University in western Canada. She was named one of the National Geographic Society’s 2016 Emerging Explorers. She is now South Africa’s Witwatersrand University. Results of her work were published in the current edition of theJournal of Human Evolution.
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Reference:

Desjardins, Lynn. 2016. “Canadian anthropologist in a tight squeeze”. Radio Canada International Net. Posted: August 5, 2016. Available online: http://www.rcinet.ca/en/2016/08/05/canadian-marina-elliott-homo-naledi-rising-star-cave-fossils/

Sunday, September 25, 2016

First evidence of legendary flood reveals China’s origin story

Legend has it that a great flood engulfed China 4000 years ago. Lasting for more than 20 years, it was finally tamed by the heroic efforts of Emperor Yu, whose Xia dynasty marked the birth of Chinese civilisation and its transition into the Bronze Age.

“This was the first stage in the founding of Chinese civilisation,” says Wu Qinglong of Nanjing Normal University. “But no scientific evidence had been discovered until now.”

This lack of evidence for such a flood had prompted some to challenge the truth of the story.

But we now have the first compelling evidence that the flood did actually happen at the time and place chronicled in the legend.

In the Jishi Gorge, along the Yellow river, his team discovered rocks and sedimentary formations that could only have existed as a result of a cataclysmic flood.

They also found evidence of an earthquake and analysed the skeletons of three children (see picture below), which helped them recreate the timeline of what happened.

“The first thing was the earthquake, and this triggered a huge landslide that blocked the river,” says Darryl Granger of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. The dammed water became a lake 200 metres deep.

“The lake built up behind and took six to nine months to fill up before the water overtopped, causing the dam to fail catastrophically,” he says.

This released a huge volume of water, estimated at between 12 and 17 cubic kilometres, two to three times as much as contained by Loch Ness in Scotland.

The floods engulfed Lajia, the archaeological site 25 kilometres downstream where the bodies of the three children killed by the earthquake months earlier lay buried, and where the world’s oldest noodles were found.

Rocks and debris deposited by the floodwaters around the children’s home show the earthquake and flood must have happened within a year of each other. The clinching evidence for this was that cracks in Lajia created by the quake were filled with flood-related sediment, not the fine silt sediment deposited by annual rainwater runoff at the same site each year, showing that the flood sediment got there first, and so must have arrived within a year of the quake.

And radiocarbon dating of the skeletons showed the children died around 1920 BC, roughly in accordance with the time of the legend.

“It corresponds so closely in time with the legends of the flood and the beginning of the Bronze Age in China,” says David Cohen, an anthropologist at National Taiwan University.

Cohen says that according to the historical accounts, it took Emperor Yu 22 years to bring the floodwaters under control through massive dredging operations, after which he established the dynasty marking China’s transition to modernisation.

“In the accounts, the hero Yu was able to control the flood through dredging, bringing order from chaos,” says Cohen. “It’s very much about the establishment of a new political order and the principles of rulership that went with it.”

“The flood they document is in the right place and time to explain the origin of Yu’s flood,” says David Montgomery of the University of Washington in Seattle. “The case they’ve put together is quite compelling, but it doesn’t settle whether the flood reported was indeed the origin of this ancient flood story.”

“It’s probably beyond the reach of science to ‘prove’ the origin of an oral tradition handed down generation to generation for a thousand years before the first written records,” he says. “But it supports the historicity of events central to the early history of Chinese civilisation, and provides another example of how some of humanity’s oldest stories — tales often taken as mythology or folklore — may be rooted in natural disasters that really happened.”
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Reference:

Coghlan, Andy. 2016. “First evidence of legendary flood reveals China’s origin story”. New Scientist. Posted: August 4, 2016. Available online: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2100038-first-evidence-of-legendary-flood-reveals-chinas-origin-story/

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Bones on Coast Could Be 1847 Shipwreck Victims

The Carricks of Whitehaven was en route to Quebec City when it went down

In late July, human remains were found near Cap-des-Rosiers, Quebec—and archaeologists believe they may belong to people who died at sea in 1847. The story of the Carricks of Whitehaven layers tragedy upon tragedy: Passengers on the Irish ship were trying to escape the potato famine that was killing their countrymen, only to see their ship go down in a storm while en route to Quebec City. Of the nearly 200 people on the Carricks, at least 80 are believed to have died off the Gaspe coast. Parks Canada archaeologist Martin Perron says the remains, which look to belong to five adults and three kids, appear to have been quickly deposited in what theCanadian Press calls a "shallow trench"—and could potentially be a mass grave.

Bones have been found in the same area before. The Globe and Mail's report on the initial May 2011 find there noted that historical accounts describe victims as being laid out on the beach before burial, but no specific location of the grave was reported. It quotes some historical writings: a magazine article from the time noting the ship "went to pieces in the course of two hours," and a 1919 book on Gaspe that stated, "For a whole day two oxcarts carried the dead to deep trenches near the scene of the disaster." A 2014 Mail article reported that the bones found in 2011 were determined to be those of three European children who experienced malnutrition—suggesting they were very likely Carricks victims. Parks Canada will be using ground-penetrating radar in a search for additional remains.
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Reference:

Seamons, Kate. 2016. “Bones on Coast Could Be 1847 Shipwreck Victims”. Newser. Posted: August 4, 2016. Available online: http://www.newser.com/story/229161/bones-on-coast-could-be-1847-shipwreck-victims.html

Friday, September 23, 2016

Fresh look at burials, mass graves, tells a new story of Cahokia

A new study challenges earlier interpretations of an important burial mound at Cahokia, a pre-Columbian city in Illinois near present-day St. Louis. The study reveals that a central feature of the mound, a plot known as the "beaded burial," is not a monument to male power, as was previously thought, but includes both males and females of high status.

The new study, published in the journal American Antiquity, is one of several recent analyses of the site from researchers at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at the University of Illinois and their colleagues at other institutions. All of the studies confirm the presence of males and females in the beaded burial.

In 1967, archaeologist Melvin Fowler discovered a massive burial site at Cahokia while excavating an unusual, ridgetop mound. This mound, now called Mound 72, held five mass graves, each containing 20 to more than 50 bodies, with dozens of other bodies buried individually or in groups, sometimes directly over the mass graves. Fowler identified 270 bodies in the mound.

Scientists later determined that all of the burials occurred between about 1000 and 1200, during the rise and peak of Cahokia's power and influence. Some of the burials appeared to be high-status individuals whose bodies were placed on cedar litters. "Mound 72 burials are some of the most significant burials ever excavated in North America from this time period," said ISAS director Thomas Emerson, who conducted the most recent study with physical anthropologist Kristin Hedman and skeletal analysts Eve Hargrave of ISAS, Dawn Cobb of the Illinois State Museum Society, and Andrew Thompson of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. The ISAS is a division of the Prairie Research Institute at Illinois.

"Fowler's and others' interpretation of these mounds became the model that everybody across the east was looking at in terms of understanding status and gender roles and symbolism among Native American groups in this time," Emerson said.

Emerson and his colleagues discovered that some of those early interpretations were based on inaccurate and incomplete information. Most of the errors involved the beaded burial. Here, two central bodies were placed, one on top of the other, on a partial bed of beads that also ran between and around the bodies. Several other bodies, buried at the same time, were arranged around this pair.

Fowler and later archaeologists came to believe that this was a burial of two high-status males surrounded by their servants. They interpreted the arrangement of beads associated with these central figures as the remains of a beaded cape or blanket in the shape of a bird. The pattern of beads near the heads of the two central bodies resembled a bird head, some thought.

Because the bird is a common motif related to warriors and supernatural beings in some Native American traditions, Fowler proposed that the central males of the beaded burial represented mythical warrior chiefs.

"One of the things that promoted the concept of the male warrior mythology was the bird image," Emerson said. Once this interpretation took hold, many researchers came to see this as evidence that Cahokia was "a male-dominated hierarchy," he said.

A fresh look at the early archaeologists' maps, notes and reports and the skeletal remains told a new and surprising story. First, the researchers found that there were 12 bodies associated with the beaded burial - not six, as had been previously reported. And independent skeletal analyses conducted by each of the co-authors - Thompson, Hedman, Hargrave and Cobb - revealed that the two central bodies in the beaded burial were actually male and female.

Further analyses revealed other male-female pairs on top of, and near, the beaded area. Some were laid out as fully articulated bodies. Others were disarticulated bodies, the bones of which had been gathered and bundled for burial near these important couples. The researchers also discovered the remains of a child.

"We had been checking to make sure that the individuals we were looking at matched how they had been described," Hedman said. "And in re-examining the beaded burial, we discovered that the central burial included females. This was unexpected."

"The fact that these high-status burials included women changes the meaning of the beaded burial feature," Emerson said. "Now, we realize, we don't have a system in which males are these dominant figures and females are playing bit parts. And so, what we have at Cahokia is very much a nobility. It's not a male nobility. It's males and females, and their relationships are very important."

The new findings are more in line with other evidence from Cahokia, Emerson said. "For me, having dug temples at Cahokia and analyzed a lot of that material, the symbolism is all about life renewal, fertility, agriculture," he said. "Most of the stone figurines found there are female. The symbols showing up on the pots have to do with water and the underworld. And so now Mound 72 fits into a more consistent story with what we know about the rest of the symbolism and religion at Cahokia."

Emerson said that those who saw warrior symbolism at Cahokia missed the special culture of the time period. "When the Spanish and the French came into the southeast as early as the 1500s, they identified these kinds of societies in which both males and females have rank," he said. "Really, the division here is not gender; it's class."

"People who saw the warrior symbolism in the beaded burial were actually looking at societies hundreds of years later in the southeast, where warrior symbolism dominated, and projecting it back to Cahokia and saying: 'Well, that's what this must be,'" Emerson said. "And we're saying: 'No, it's not.'"

Other recent findings related to the people buried in Mound 72 are described in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and a chapter in the book "Beyond Collapse: Archaeological Perspectives on Resilience, Revitalization and Transformation in Complex Societies."
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Reference:

Yates, Diana. 2016. “Fresh look at burials, mass graves, tells a new story of Cahokia”. Phys.org. Posted: August 4, 2016. Available online: http://phys.org/news/2016-08-fresh-burials-mass-graves-story.html

Thursday, September 22, 2016

This female skeleton has been discovered at an ancient burial ground on the site of the Queen's Hillsborough Castle residence in Northern Ireland

These are the remains of a well-preserved adult female found in an ancient burial ground at Hillsborough Castle, the Queen’s residence in Northern Ireland where archaeologists believe the cemetery could have been connected to a medieval church which once stood there.

Her skeleton could be 1,000 years old. She was unearthed by volunteers during the first day of digging at the castle, built during the 1780s on grounds now thought to have been used long before medieval times.

Slate roof tiles, nails and mortar discoveries could also be signs of a settlement in Hillsborough before the Georgian village that exists today.

Rosanagh Fuller, of Historic Royal Palaces, says the finds - made with the help of more than 300 local volunteers - are “extremely exciting”. Further analysis is expected to reveal more about a previously unknown part of the castle’s story.
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Reference:

Culture24 Reporter. 2016. “This female skeleton has been discovered at an ancient burial ground on the site of the Queen's Hillsborough Castle residence in Northern Ireland”. Culture24. Posted: August 4, 2016. Available online: http://www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/archaeology/art559811-hillsborough-castle-northern-ireland-county-down