Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Mexico finds 'main' skull rack at Aztec temple complex

Mexican archaeologists believe they have found the main trophy rack of sacrificed human skulls at Mexico City's Templo Mayor Aztec ruin site.

Racks known as "tzompantli" were where Aztecs displayed the severed heads of sacrificial victims on wooden poles pushed through the sides of the skull.

But archaeologists at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History said Thursday that this one was different. Part of the platform where the heads were displayed was made of rows of skulls mortared together roughly in a circle. All the skulls were arranged to look inward toward the center of the circle, but experts don't know what was at the center.

The find was made between February and June under the floor of a colonial-era house in downtown Mexico City.
Reference: 2015. “Mexico finds 'main' skull rack at Aztec temple complex”. Posted: August 20, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ruins in Nara likely site of largest settlement in 4th century

Researchers are excavating what could have been one of the nation's largest settlements in the fourth century.

The Archaeological Institute of Kashihara said Aug. 19 it has uncovered remains of pit houses and ditches that marked out boundaries at a site known as the Nakanishi ruins.

Researchers hope the discovery will help fill in missing blanks about the region's history.

“The site occupies a prominent area,” said Fumiaki Imao, a senior researcher at the institute, adding that the structures may have been used for rituals under the direct control of the early Yamato imperial court.

The site is adjacent to the famous Akitsu ruins, which yielded evidence of many large and unique structures dating from early fourth century during the Kofun Period.

According to the researchers, the two sites were possibly constructed in an integrated manner. If so, they would constitute one of the largest settlements known from that era.

Little is known about the workings of the Yamato imperial court during the fourth century, and researchers said they hope the excavation project will help shed light on the period.

Among the finds at the Nakanishi ruins are 26 dugout facilities that measure 3 meters by 3 meters to 6.5 meters by 6.5 meters, as well as ditches ranging in width from 30 centimeters to 1 meter that were created to mark out boundaries. From 2009, researchers realized that many structures at the Akitsu ruins were similar to those at Ise Jingu shrine, along with remains of board fences that surrounded those facilities. The area of interest stretches 150 meters east to west and 100 meters north to south, making it likely the structures were used as religious facilities.

The Nakanishi ruins are located southwest of the Akitsu site and face almost the same direction, researchers said. That suggests religious facilities and residential structures used to stand in an organized way within an area measuring more than 200 meters east-west and 400 meters north-south that straddle the two archaeological sites.

Hironobu Ishino, an archaeologist who is honorary director of the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Archaeology, noted that the southwestern part of the Nara basin used to be ruled by the powerful Katsuragi family.

“The latest discoveries could represent the family’s exclusive ritual facilities,” he said.

Tsukamoto, Kazuto. 2015. “Ruins in Nara likely site of largest settlement in 4th century”. The Asahi Shimbun. Posted: August 20, 2015. Available online:

Monday, November 23, 2015

The ceremonial sounds that accompanied our ancestors' funerals, 15,000 years ago

They decorated graves with flowers, held ceremonial meals before their funerals, and -- as a new study from the University of Haifa now shows -- the Natufians who lived in our region 15,000 -- 11,500 years ago also created massive mortars that were used to pound food at their burial ceremonies. The pounding sound of these large mortars informed the members of the community that a ceremony was underway. "The members of the Natufian culture lived during a period of change, and their communal burial and commemorative ceremonies played an important role in enhancing the sense of affiliation and cohesion among the members of the community," explain Dr. Danny Rosenberg and Prof. Dani Nadel, from the Zinman Institute of archaeology, University of Haifa, who undertook the study.

The Natufians were among the first humans to abandon the nomadic lifestyle and settle in permanent communities, including the construction of buildings with stone foundations. It is even possible that they engaged in initial forms of cultivation. They were also among the first human cultures that established cemeteries -- defined areas in wish burial took place over generations, in contrast to the random burial seen in more ancient cultures. As research has progressed, scholars have gradually come to appreciate the importance the Natufians attached to burial in the social and ceremonial context. They were the first to pad their graves with flowers and leaves, and researchers from the University of Haifa have recently found evidence of large banquets held by the Natufians during funerals and commemorative ceremonies.

Over the years, numerous tools have been found at Natufian residential and burial sites, but relatively little attention has been paid to one of the most remarkable types of tools: large boulder mortars. Dr. Rosenberg and Prof. Nadel were fascinated by these boulders, some of which are almost a meter high and weight 100 kilograms. "These are the largest stone artifacts that were hewn during this period in the Middle East, and indeed they are much larger than most of the stone objects that were hewn here in much later periods," Dr. Rosenberg explains. "These boulders have been found at Natufian sites in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel, so that they clearly had a regional significance." Despite this, no one undertook an overall examination of the phenomenon of the boulders. "We were intrigued by the common features shown by these unusual tools, such as the raw material from which they were made, their dimensions, the hewing techniques involved, and their usage. Above all, though, we were fascinated by the settings in which the boulders were found and their association to burial ceremonies," the researchers noted.

The two researchers investigated most of the boulders of this type that have been found in the Middle East. They discovered that almost all the boulders were found in burial sites or in contexts relating to burial. Some of the objects were found buried in the ground, with only their upper edge visible. "The size and weight of the boulders shows that they were not intended to be mobile. The fact that some of them were buried suggests that they were supposed to remain in place as part of the 'furniture' of the burial site, or in the burial context itself. This point emphasizes that they were not created for everyday eating purposes, but formed an integral part of the ceremonies and occurrences in the areas in which the Natufians buried their dead."

The researchers argue that the giant boulders can be seen as part of a broader Natufian phenomenon connecting different areas through a single system of ceremonies and beliefs. Against the background of what is already known about Natufian burial customs, they concluded that the boulders also played a central role in these ceremonies, seeking to reinforce collective cohesion and identity. The food ground by the boulders played a social or ceremonial role, similar to familiar contemporary functions. The pounding on or in the boulders could be heard at a great distance, and may have served to announce the holding or the beginning of the burial ceremony, thereby informing the members of adjacent communities that an important ceremony was taking place -- much like church bells.

Science Daily. 2015. “The ceremonial sounds that accompanied our ancestors' funerals, 15,000 years ago”. Science Daily. Posted: August 20, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Archaeologists aim to unravel the mystery of the Rhynie Man

When a farmer ploughing an Aberdeenshire field in 1978 uncovered a six-foot high Pictish stone carved with a distinctive figure carrying an axe, it quickly earned the name the 'Rhynie Man', coined from the village in which it was found.

But in the decades since its discovery, little more is known about the Pictish figure, who he was or why he was created. Now a team of archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen are leading a dig which they hope will yield answers to the mystery of Aberdeenshire’s ‘oldest man’.

Believed to date from the fifth or sixth century, the Rhynie Man carries an axe upon his shoulder, has a large pointed nose and wears a headdress.

Dr Gordon Noble, a Senior Lecturer in archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, said their excavations would focus on the area around where the Rhynie Man was first found by local farmer Kevin Alston at Barflat and around the Craw Stane, another Pictish standing stone.

He said: “We did significant work at Rhynie in 2011/12 and identified that the area was a high-status and possibly even royal Pictish site.

“We found many long distance connections such as pottery from the Mediterranean, glass from France and Anglo-Saxon metal work with evidence to suggest that intricate metalwork was produced on site.

“Over the years many theories have been put forward about the Rhynie Man. However, we don’t have a huge amount of archaeology to back any of these up so we want to explore the area in which he was found in much greater detail to yield clues about how and why he was created, and what the carved imagery might mean.”

Excavations will continue throughout the week and on Saturday August 22 and 29 the archaeology team will take part in public open days showcasing previous finds at Rhynie and some of their initial thoughts on the current dig.

Dr Noble added: “From the evidence we have already, it looks like the Rhynie man stood somewhere near the entrance to the fort.

“We want to try and identify exactly where he was standing as this will give us a better idea how he fits into the high status site and what his role may have been.

“The Rhynie Man carries an axe of a form that has been linked to animal sacrifice and we hope to discover more evidence that might support the theory that he was created as part of ceremonies and rituals for high-status events, perhaps even those for early Pictish royal lineages.

“This may also help us to better understand the imagery used and why the Rhynie Man is depicted in this way. Standing at more than six-feet high the stone must have been an impressive sight to anyone coming to Rhynie some 1500 years ago.” Aberdeenshire Council Archaeologist, Bruce Mann, said: “The ongoing work is not only helping us to reveal more about this little understood period of history, but is proving to be a fantastic opportunity for people to actively learn about part of the rich history of Aberdeenshire.

“One day we will understand not only ‘who’ the Rhynie Man was, but also what part the Picts played in the early development of the village. It’s a very exciting time for the community, and I hope everyone enjoys visiting both the dig and the local area.” To help the public understand more about the Rhynie Man and Rhynie’s Pictish standing stones, the open day on Saturday August 22 will also feature stone carving with Monikie Rock Art, a Pictish pop-up café with ‘Rhynie Woman’, an artist collective that aims to raise awareness of the local landscape. On Saturday August 29, there will be a further open day to showcase what has been found in 2015 with site tours, activities on site for children and the Pictish café with Rhynie Woman will run once again.

Both days will run from 10-5pm. Visitors can park in the village and walk up to the Craw Stane field on the south of the village. Or they can park in the churchyard and walk up from there. 

University of Aberdeen News. 2015. “Archaeologists aim to unravel the mystery of the Rhynie Man”. University of Aberdeen News. Posted: August 20, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Early Britons: Have we underestimated our ancestors?

Have we underestimated the first people to resettle Britain after the last Ice Age? Evidence from a variety of sources suggests that early Britons were more sophisticated than we could have imagined.

Archaeologists once thought that the story of the early hunter-gatherer Britons was lost to the mists of time.

The hunter-gatherers left almost no trace of their nomadic existence behind.

As a result, the stone-age settlers of ancient Britain were thought of as simple folk, living a brutal hand-to-mouth existence.

But now, evidence is emerging that turns those assumptions upside down. Archaeological sites all over the UK and northern Europe are producing evidence that paints these people in a very different light.

Thanks to this cutting-edge science, we now have an increasingly clear picture of prehistory, and the adaptable, culturally rich, and sophisticated people who inhabited these islands.

A BBC Horizon documentary, to screen on Wednesday, tells the story of this quest to understand the first Britons.

Some of these Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, people lived at Blick Mead, Wiltshire - a few miles away from the future site of Stonehenge.

Here, groups seem to have managed and cleared rich forests, built structures and returned to the same place for over 3,000 years, according to a radio carbon date range that has yielded a uniquely long sequence for any Mesolithic site in Britain and Europe - 7,596-4,246 BC.

The springs at Blick Mead may have been the initial and practical reason why people lived there long before Stonehenge was built.

They have also preserved the remains of the animals they killed, tools they made and used, and possibly a structure they lived in.

The quantities of flint tools and animal bones, especially from extinct wild cattle known as aurochs, point to people living here for long periods of time and there being long-term special memories and associations with the place.

The types and variety of flint seem to reflect the movements of people who followed game with the seasons, and chose to stay in different areas according to the changing availability of plants for food and materials, and the needs for shelter.

Taken together, the flint and other stone tool evidence suggest that Blick Mead was a feasting and gathering place for thousands of years that people travelled large distances to reach. Far from it being a place nomads dropped into once in a while, time would have been spent there, ideas exchanged and new technologies discussed and adapted.

Hunter-gatherers prospered in Britain, but then, 6,000 years ago there was a dramatic and permanent change in the way our ancestors lived their lives. So dramatic in fact that it's been given a different historical name. This was the start of the new Stone Age in Britain - the Neolithic.

It was during the Neolithic that pottery emerged, the time when people built monuments like Stonehenge - but above all else, it's the point at which people became farmers.

Scientists and archaeologists have begun to uncover evidence that local hunter-gatherer ways survived the arrival of farming rather than being extinguished, as is often depicted.

And at Blick Mead, where rare evidence of hunter-gatherer life is so well preserved, finds include bones of mice, toads and fish - we can also discover more about the origins of Stonehenge.

Excavations at the site are showing that people were living in the area from the time of the first monuments to be built at Stonehenge.

We have always thought of Mesolithic people, the first Britons, as hunter-gatherers, living a nomadic life, primitive and precarious. But what has been recently revealed at Blick Mead, and elsewhere, is the existence of a much more complex, dynamic society.

The dramatic discoveries at Blick Mead are only partly important because they provide the back story to the Stonehenge story; they are also important because they reflect the growing importance of these peoples to British history generally.

And these earliest British stories are showing that the Mesolithic was a defining period in the history of these isles.

HORIZON - First Britons is on BBC Two at 20:00 on Wednesday 19 August.

Jacques, David. 2015. “Early Britons: Have we underestimated our ancestors?”. BBC News. Posted: August 19, 2015. Available online:

Friday, November 20, 2015

ISIS Beheads Elderly Ex-Antiquities Chief in Syria's Palmyra

The Islamic State group beheaded the 82-year-old retired chief archaeologist of Palmyra after he refused to leave the ancient city, Syria’s antiquities chief said.

A UNESCO World Heritage site famed for well-preserved Greco-Roman ruins, Palmyra was seized from government forces in May, fueling fears the IS jihadists might destroy its priceless heritage as it had done in other parts of Syria and Iraq.

Syrian antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told AFP he had urged Khaled al-Assaad to leave Palmyra, but he had refused. Fears for Syria's Palmyra As ISIS Seizes Historic City

“He told us: ‘I am from Palmyra and I will stay here even if they kill me.’”

Abdulkarim said Assaad was murdered execution-style on Tuesday afternoon in Palmyra, in central Homs province.

“Daesh has executed one of Syria’s most important antiquities experts,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Photos purporting to show Assaad’s body tied to a post in Palmyra were circulated online by IS supporters.

The killing is one of hundreds that have been carried out by IS in and around Palmyra since they took the city. The United States, France and UNESCO voiced outrage over Assaad’s death.

“He was the head of antiquities in Palmyra for 50 years and had been retired for 13 years,” Abdulkarim said.

He hailed Assaad as a leading expert on the ancient history of the city, which grew from a caravan oasis first mentioned in the second millennium BC.

“He spoke and read Palmyrene, and we would turn to him when we received stolen statues from the police and he would determine if they were real or fake.”

- ‘They’ll never silence history’ -

Abdulkarim said Assaad’s body had been hung in the city’s ancient ruins after being beheaded.

But the photo circulating online showed a body on a median strip of a main road, tied to what appeared to be a lamp post.

A sign attached to the body identified it as that of Assaad.

It accused him of being an apostate and a regime loyalist for representing Syria in conferences abroad with “infidels”, as well as being director of Palmyra’s “idols”.

It also claimed he had been in contact with regime officials.

Abdulkarim said Assaad had been detained by IS last month along with his son Walid, the current antiquities director for Palmyra, who was later released.

He said the jihadists were looking for “stores of gold” in the city.

“I deny wholeheartedly that these stores exist,” Abdulkarim said.

“The whole family is truly remarkable. (Assaad’s) other son Mohammed and his son-in-law Khalil actively participated in the rescue of 400 antiquities as the town was being taken over by the jihadists,” he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, also reported the death, saying Assaad had been killed in a “public square in Palmyra in front of dozens of people”.

UNESCO’S director general, Irina Bokova, said she was “both saddened and outraged to learn of the brutal murder,” adding that “they killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra”.

“His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history.”

The killing also prompted condemnation from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who said Assaad had worked with numerous French archaeological missions over the years.

“This barbaric murder joins a long list of crimes committed over the past four years in Syria,” he said in a statement, calling for those responsible to be brought to justice.

In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby decried the “brutal, gruesome murder”.

IS captured Palmyra on May 21, prompting international concern about the fate of the city’s antiquities.

The IS group’s harsh vision of Islam considers statues and grave markers to be idolatrous, and the group has destroyed antiquities and heritage sites in other territory under its control in Syria and Iraq.

“These attempts to erase Syria’s rich history will ultimately fail,” Kirby said in Washington.

So far, Palmyra’s most famous sites have been left intact, though there are reports IS has mined them, and the group reportedly destroyed a famous statue of a lion outside the city’s museum in June.

Most of the pieces in the museum were evacuated by antiquities staff before IS arrived, though the group has blown up several historic Muslim graves.

IS has also executed hundreds of people in the city and surrounding area, many of them government employees.

The group also infamously used child members to shoot dead 25 Syrian government soldiers in Palmyra’s ancient amphitheatre.

Discovery News. 2015. “ISIS Beheads Elderly Ex-Antiquities Chief in Syria's Palmyra”. Discovery News. Posted: August 20, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Skeletons Of Jewish Victims Of Inquisition Discovered In Ancient Portuguese Trash Heap

Archaeologists undertaking routine excavations in Évora, Portugal, in advance of construction did not expect to find the remains of a dozen victims of the Inquisition. But both the bodies and the documentary evidence they found revealed that the men and women, likely convicted of practicing Judaism, were unceremoniously dumped outside the Inquisition Court along with regular garbage.

Writing in the latest issue of the  Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, archaeologists Bruno Magalhães, Teresa Matos Fernandes, and Ana Luísa Santos of the University of Coimbra detail the historical background of the Inquisition Court and its records, along with the archaeological findings of the skeletons themselves, which included 12 complete adults and a thousand bones from another 16 people.

Based on the structural plans of the Portuguese Inquisition architect Matheus de Couto, the archaeologists knew the bodies were found in the cleaning yard or trash dump of the jail associated with the Inquisition Court at Évora. These plans helped them narrow the date of use of the yard to between 1568-1634. Historical records also showed that at least 87 people died in the prison during that time and that many of them were dumped into the cleaning yard.

Magalhães and colleagues found the dozen complete skeletons – three male and nine female – in a wide variety of orientations and positions. More importantly, “the sediment surrounding the skeletons is indistinguishable from the household waste layer where they were placed, suggesting that the bodies were deposited directly in the dump,” the authors write.

The Portuguese version of the Inquisition is not as well known as the Spanish, but it was similar in method and reasoning. While the Roman Catholic Church and Papacy tried to fight heresy across Europe and the Middle East starting in the 12th century, Portugal did not establish an Inquisition until 1536, after yielding to pressure from neighboring Spain.

A court to try heretics under the Inquisition was set up at Évora, followed by later courts in Lisbon, Coimbra, and Porto, in order to ensure the population had purity of Catholic faith and discipline in religious beliefs and behaviors. Some of the main transgressions the Portuguese Inquisition judged people on included practicing Judaism, Protestantism, Islam, or witchcraft; bigamy; sodomy; and other blasphemies. They used techniques like strappado (suspension by the arms) and potro (the rack) to extract confessions.

While Magalhães and colleagues do not report any evidence of torture on the bones of the 12 women and men from the jail cleaning yard, they note that terrible living conditions in Inquisition jails “often led to the prisoner’s death, as shown in several individual records of the Évora Inquisition.” But what was done with the bodies of heretics when they died in jail?

During the Inquisition, convicted heretics were denied proper funerals. According to Catholic tradition, burials involved placement face-up with the head to the west.  Some of the bodies that Magalhães and colleagues found were face-up but others were face-down and some were lying on their side. Heads pointed in all directions. While face-down burials have been found in cases of suspected witchcraft and side-lying burials are consistent with some Islamic traditions, the researchers found that all of the people were tossed into the dump rather than being placed there with a purposeful orientation.

“ These are individuals who were left to rot in the religious court dump . In this way, the individuals from the Jail Cleaning Yard were not buried but discarded,” the authors suggest. “The purpose for the improper treatment of the deceased was not only punishing their body but mostly to weaken and destroy their soul, due to their perceived religious deviations.”

This research is the first to attempt to correlate skeletal remains and historical records of specific Inquisition prisoners. The jail dump could not be completely excavated, though, so the archaeologists cannot say for sure which skeletons matched which records, or whom the extraneous bones were from. But the dozens of people shown in the Évora Inquisition Court jail records were mostly accused of secretly practicing Judaism.  It is likely that these 12 women and men came to an ignominious end for the simple reason that they were not Catholic.

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “Skeletons Of Jewish Victims Of Inquisition Discovered In Ancient Portuguese Trash Heap”. Forbes. Posted: August 18, 2015. Available online: