Thursday, October 31, 2013

World's oldest bog body hints at violent past

Cashel Man has had the weight of the world on his shoulders, quite literally, for 4,000 years.

Compressed by the peat that has preserved his remains, he looks like a squashed, dark leather holdall.

Apart, that is, from one forlorn arm that stretches out and upward and tells us something of the deliberate and extremely violent death that he suffered 500 years before Tutankhamen was born.

Cashel Man is now being studied at the National Museum of Ireland's research base in Collins Barracks, Dublin. He was discovered in 2011 by a bog worker in Cashel bog in County Laois.

When the remains are brought out of the freezer, it is hard to tell that this was ever a human being.

Scientists say that there were significant clues to the social status of three bog bodies found in Ireland since the start of this century

  • Clonycavan Man (L) was said to be wearing a type of expensive, imported hair gel
  • Old Croghan Man (C) had finely manicured nails
  • Cashel Man (R) was found very close to the inauguration site for the kings of Laois

"It does look like mangled peat at first," says researcher Carol Smith.

"But then you can see the pores on the skin and it takes on a very human aspect quite quickly."

Carol starts to spray the body with non-ionised water. This prevents it deteriorating when exposed to room temperatures.

As we peer at the glistening bog-tanned body, we can see small, dark hairs on the skin, and a trail of vertebrae along his back.

Experts say that the remains of Cashel Man are extremely well preserved for his age. Radiocarbon dating suggests that he is the earliest bog body with intact skin known anywhere in the world. He is from the early Bronze Age in Ireland about 4,000 years ago.

Bog bodies with internal organs preserved have cropped up in many countries including Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Scotland and Spain.

But in Ireland, with its flat central, peaty plain, they have been particularly plentiful.

In the past 10 years, there have been two other significant finds, in varying states of decay. Both Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man, who were discovered in 2003, were violently killed but the preservative powers of the bog have allowed science to piece together their stories.

"The bog is an amazing place," says Isabella Mulhall, who co-ordinates the bog bodies research project at the museum.

"It is basically an anaerobic environment and the oxygen that bacteria feed off is not present, and therefore decomposition does not occur."

The process of preservation though is complicated, involving several factors including Sphagnum moss, which helps extract calcium from the bones of buried bodies.

Another critical element is acidity.

"The pH levels vary in bogs and in some cases you may not get the bog mummy; you may get a bog skeleton," says Isabella Mulhall.

"Even within a site, you may have a body partially mummified and the lower half could be skeletonised."

While the preservation offered by the bog gives scientists huge amounts on information on the diet, living conditions, background and lifestyle of the bodies, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

The bog destroys the DNA, depriving researchers of genetic information and making it very difficult for Irish people to claim descent from these ancients.

The Iron Age bodies of Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man are on display at the museum, which sits in a wing of Leinster House, the Irish parliament.

Eamonn Kelly is the long-time Keeper of Irish Antiquities and a man who has worked on all the major bog body finds.

He is an archaeologist of the old school, with a deep knowledge of Irish and European mythology and symbolism.

He patiently explains the stories behind the bodies on display, where the well-preserved hands are a striking feature.

"They are so evocative really. You can see those arms cradling a baby, or caressing a lover, or wielding a sword. But the personality is there; it's been preserved in their remains," he says.

Eamonn, or Ned as he is universally known, has developed a theory that connects the significant finds made in Ireland.

He argues that the bodies, all male and aged between 25 and 40, suffered violent deaths as victims of human sacrifice.

"When an Irish king is inaugurated, he is inaugurated in a wedding to the goddess of the land.

"It is his role to ensure through his marriage to the goddess that the cattle will be protected from plague and the people will be protected from disease.

"If these calamities should occur, the king will be held personally responsible. He will be replaced, he will pay the price, he will be sacrificed."

Nipple evidence

Eamonn says that Cashel Man fits this pattern because his body was found on a border line between territories and within sight of the hill where he would have been crowned. He suffered significant violent injuries to his back, and his arm shows evidence of a cut from a sword or axe.

However, a critical piece of information that would cement this argument is missing.

Because Cashel Man's chest was destroyed by the milling machine that uncovered him, the researchers are unable to examine the state of his nipples.

In the other two bog body cases, says Eamonn Kelly, the nipples had been deliberately damaged.

"We're looking at the bodies of kings who have been decommissioned, who have been sacrificed. As part of that decommissioning, their nipples are mutilated.

"In the Irish tradition they could no longer serve as king if their bodies were mutilated in this way. This is a decommissioning of the king in this life and the next."

The real surprise with Cashel Man is his age, being 1,500 years older than the other significant finds. But he may not be the last.

As the midland bogs are depleted, the scientists believe they could find other bodies of a similar age.

In December last year, more remains were found in Rossan bog, Co Meath, of a body that's being called Moydrum Man. Isabella Mulhall says there are indications that it could be the same age as Cashel Man.

"He hasn't been dated as yet, but we suspect that he would come as well from the very early levels of the bog and he would fit into that Bronze Age date range as well. But we have to confirm that with carbon dating," she says.

In the future, Cashel Man is likely to join the other bodies in the National Museum. Like the others, he will be treated sympathetically and with some reverence. This is hugely important to Eamonn Kelly and all the staff.

"I see these bodies as ambassadors who have come down to us from a former time with a story to tell. I think if we can tell that story in some small measure we can give a little added meaning to those lives that were cut short.

"And even though it was thousands of years ago, it is still in each and every case a human tragedy."

McGrath, Matt. 2013. “World's oldest bog body hints at violent past”. BBC News. Posted: September 23, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Skeleton of Ancient Prince Reveals Etruscan Life

The skeletonized body of an Etruscan prince, possibly a relative to Tarquinius Priscus, the legendary fifth king of Rome from 616 to 579 B.C., has been brought to light in an extraordinary finding that promises to reveal new insights on one of the ancient world’s most fascinating cultures.

Found in Tarquinia, a hill town about 50 miles northwest of Rome, famous for its Etruscan art treasures, the 2,600 year old intact burial site came complete with a full array of precious grave goods.

“It’s a unique discovery, as it is extremely rare to find an inviolate Etruscan tomb of an upper-class individual. It opens up huge study opportunities on the Etruscans,” Alessandro Mandolesi, of the University of Turin, told Discovery News. Mandolesi is leading the excavation in collaboration with the Archaeological Superintendency of Southern Etruria.

A fun loving and eclectic people who among other things taught the French how to make wine, the Romans how to build roads, and introduced the art of writing into Europe, the Etruscans began to flourish around 900 B.C., and dominated much of Italy for five centuries.

Known for their art, agriculture, fine metalworking and commerce, the Etruscans begun to decline during the fifth century B.C., as the Romans grew in power. By 300-100 B.C., they eventually became absorbed into the Roman empire.

Since their puzzling, non-Indo-European language was virtually extinguished (they left no literature to document their society), the Etruscans have long been considered one of antiquity's great enigmas.

Indeed, much of what we know about them comes from their cemeteries. Only the richly decorated tombs they left behind have provided clues to fully reconstruct their history.

Blocked by a perfectly sealed stone slab, the rock-cut tomb in Tarquinia appeared promising even before opening it.

Indeed, several objects, including jars, vases and even a grater, were found in the soil in front of the stone door, indicating that a funeral rite of an important person took place there.

As the heavy stone slab was removed, Mandolesi and his team were left breathless. In the small vaulted chamber, the complete skeleton of an individual was resting on a stone bed on the left. A spear lay along the body, while fibulae, or brooches, on the chest indicated that the individual, a man, was probably once dressed with a mantle.

At his feet stood a large bronze basin and a dish with food remains, while the stone table on the right might have contained the incinerated remains of another individual.

Decorated with a red strip, the upper part of the wall featured, along with several nails, a small hanging vase, which might have contained some ointment. A number of grave goods, which included large Greek Corinthian vases and precious ornaments, lay on the floor.

“That small vase has been hanging on the wall for 2,600 years. It’s amazing,” Lorenzo Benini, CEO of the company Kostelia, said.

Along with Pietro Del Grosso of the company Tecnozenith, Benini is the private investor who has largely contributed to the excavation.

Although intact, the tomb has suffered a small natural structural collapse, the effects of which are visible in some broken vases.

Mandolesi and his team believe the individual was a member of Tarquinia’s ruling family.

The underground chamber was found beside an imposing mound, the Queen Tomb, which is almost identical to an equally impressive mound, the King’s Tomb, 600 feet away.

About 130 feet in diameter, the Queen's Tomb is the largest among the more than 6,000 rock cut tombs (200 of them are painted) that make up the necropolis in Tarquinia. Mandolesi has been excavating it and its surrounding area for the past six years.

Both mounds date to the 7th century B.C., the Orientalizing period, so called due to the influence on the Etruscans from the Eastern Mediterranean.

According to Roman tradition, Demaratus, a Greek from Corinth, landed in Tarquinia as a refugee in the 7th century BC, bringing with him a team of painters and artisans who taught the local people new artistic techniques.

Demaratus then married an Etruscan noblewoman from Tarquinia, and their son, Lucumo, became the fifth king of Rome in 616 B.C., taking the name of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus.

The story emphasizes the importance of Tarquinia as one of the most powerful cities in the Etruscan league.

Indeed, the two imposing mounds would have certainly remarked the power of the princes of Tarquinia to anybody arriving from the sea.

According to Mandolesi, the fact that the newly discovered burial lies a few feet away from the Queen’s Tomb indicate that it belonged to one of the princes of Tarquinia, someone directly related to the owners of the Queen's Tomb.

“The entire area would have been off limits to anybody but the royal family,” Mandolesi said.

“In the next days we are going to catalogue all the objects. Further scientific tests will tell us more about the individual and the tomb,” Mandolesi said.

Discovery News will follow the archaeologists live as they remove the goods from the burial chamber.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2013. “Skeleton of Ancient Prince Reveals Etruscan Life”. Discovery News. Posted: September 20, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Ancient Forest Thaws From Melting Glacial Tomb

An ancient forest has thawed from under a melting glacier in Alaska and is now exposed to the world for the first time in more than 1,000 years.

Stumps and logs have been popping out from under southern Alaska's Mendenhall Glacier — a 36.8-square-mile (95.3 square kilometers) river of ice flowing into a lake near Juneau — for nearly the past 50 years. However, just within the past year or so, researchers based at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau have noticed considerably more trees popping up, many in their original upright position and some still bearing roots and even a bit of bark, the Juneau Empire first reported last week.

"There are a lot of them, and being in a growth position is exciting because we can see the outermost part of the tree and count back to see how old the tree was," Cathy Connor, a geology professor at the University of Alaska Southeast who was involved in the investigation, told LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet. "Mostly, people find chunks of wood helter-skelter, but to see these intact upright is kind of cool."

The team has tentatively identified the trees as either spruce or hemlock, based on the diameter of the trunks and because these are the types of trees growing in the region today, Connor said, but the researchers still need to further assess the samples to verify the tree type.

A protective tomb of gravel likely encased the trees more than 1,000 years ago, when the glacier was advancing, Connor said, basing the date on radiocarbon ages of the newly revealed wood. As glaciers advance, Connor explained, they often emit summer meltwater streams that spew aprons of gravel beyond the glacier's edge.

A gravel layer about 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) high appears to have encased the trees before the glacier ultimately advanced enough to plow over them, snapping off limbs and preserving the stumps in an ice tomb.

Taku Glacier, located south of Juneau, is currently triggering this same process as it advances over a modern forest of cottonwood trees, offering the researchers a chance to observe the process in real time, Connor said.

Unlike the growing Taku Glacier, which accumulates snow at a high elevation and thus is well situated to grow, the lower-elevation Mendenhall Glacier has retreated by an average rate of about 170 feet (52 m) per year since 2005. This year's summer retreat has not yet been calculated, but the team expects it to be relatively high due to unusually warm summer temperatures, Connor said.

Glacial retreat worries many locals who are concerned about the threat of rising sea levels and loss of major freshwater sources that they rely on for drinking water. Anchorage, the state's most populated city, relies entirely on the retreating Eklutna Glacier for its drinking water.

Still, glacial retreat does offer an interesting opportunity to investigate well-preserved remnants of an ancient world. The team plans to return to the Mendenhall Glacier to dig through sediment in search of pine needles associated with the trees, along with other vegetation. They also plan to measure the growth bands of the trees to determine how old the trees were when they died.

"These are relict stories, and piecing them together with radiocarbon dating and stratigraphic work would help piece together the chapters of the story," Connor said.

The researchers have not yet published the results from the investigation but plan to do so once they have gathered more data.

Poppick, Laura. 2013. “Ancient Forest Thaws From Melting Glacial Tomb”. Live Science. Posted: September 20, 2013. Available online:

Monday, October 28, 2013

The importance of keeping a beat

Researchers link ability to keep a beat to reading, language skills

The findings of a Northwestern University study of more than 100 high school students lend proof to the surprising link between music, rhythmic abilities and language skills.

The study -- the first to provide biological evidence linking the ability to keep a beat to the neural encoding of speech sounds -- has significant implications for reading, according to Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

Previous investigations found a link between reading ability and beat-keeping, says Kraus in a study published in the Sept. 18 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. Previous research has established a link between reading ability and neural response consistency. "By directly linking auditory responses with beat-keeping ability, we have closed the triangle," Kraus says.

The study demonstrates that accurate beat-keeping involves synchronization between the parts of the brain responsible for hearing as well as movement. Where previous research investigations focused on the motor half of the equation, Kraus and co-author Adam Tierney focused on the auditory component.

Because hearing sounds of speech and associating them with the letters comprising written words is crucial to learning to read, the Northwestern researchers reasoned that the association between reading and beat synchronization likely has a common basis in the auditory system.

To investigate the relationship between beat-keeping and auditory processing, 124 Chicago high school students visited Kraus's lab and were given two tests. In the first, they were asked to listen to a metronome and tap their finger along to it on a special tapping pad. Tapping accuracy was computed based on how closely their taps aligned in time to the tick-tock of the metronome.

In a "brainwave test," the students were fitted with electrodes measuring the consistency of their brain response to a repeated syllable. Across the population, the more accurate the adolescents were at tapping along to the beat, the more consistent their brain response was to the speech syllable.

"This is supported biologically," Kraus says. "The brainwaves we measured originate from a biological hub of auditory processing with reciprocal connections with the motor-movement centers. An activity that requires coordination of hearing and movement is likely to rely on solid and accurate communication across brain regions."

Accurate beat-keeping's implications for reading and language skills simply make sense, according to the co-authors. "Rhythm is an integral part of both music and language," Kraus says. "And the rhythm of spoken language is a crucial cue to understanding."

For example, you might slow down your speech or stress one syllable more than another to emphasize a particular point. And minute timing differences distinguish consonants, such as "b" and "p." Hearing that timing distinction is necessary to identify the sounds with the letters that represent them.

"Musicians have highly consistent auditory-neural responses," says Kraus. "It may be that musical training -- with its emphasis on rhythmic skills -- can exercise the auditory-system, leading to less neural jitter and stronger sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential to learning to read."

Kraus, who is the Knowles Chair in Northwestern's School of Communication and professor of neurobiology in Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is conducting longitudinal investigations that look directly at the effects of music training by measuring beat synchronization, response consistency, reading and other language skills in children as they progress through music instruction from year to year.

EurekAlert. 2013. “The importance of keeping a beat”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 17, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The genes that make you a true individual

Your compatibility genes make you unique as well as affecting all parts of your life, from your health to your choice in partner, finds Mark Viney

I AM me, and thou art thee. We are all individuals, and our individuality matters.

During the second world war, doctors tried to save severely burned pilots with grafts of donated skin. The grafted skin looked good for a few days, but then withered and died. Studies led by Peter Medawar – who won a 1960 Nobel prize for his work – found that grafts of an individual's own skin did work, while those of a donor did not.

We now know that the donor skin grafts failed because the recipient's immune system recognised the grafted skin as foreign and killed it. The same process leads to the rejection of donated organs. But how does our immune system learn what is self and what is foreign?

As immunologist Daniel Davis explains in The Compatibility Gene, it is all down to specific genes – formally known as the major histocompatibility complex genes.

Although our appearance, lifestyle and career path may make us feel unique, we are actually always one of a group: it is only our compatibility genes that define us as true individuals. Davis provides a well-written and easy-to-read account of the sometimes complicated biology behind the crucial genes that affect our lives so profoundly.

From early on in the evolution of life, individual cells – and later multicellular organisms – developed the ability to recognise that which was the same as them, and that which was different.

Davis recounts how, when we are growing as fetuses, our compatibility genes train the immune system to recognise our own cells and tissues as "self" and so, in healthy people, they know what not to attack. Our cells are identified by the presence of unique surface molecules, coded for by the compatibility genes.

Meanwhile, our immune systems make antibodies. These are randomly generated in a kind of lottery, which means they will be able to attack a great diversity of molecules, especially those of pathogens.

By chance, though, a few of these antibodies will also match the compatibility-gene molecules on our own cells. Leaving such antibodies around would be suicide – literally. To stop this, Darwinian-style selection comes into play within the immune system, eliminating any cells that produce antibodies matching "self".

In this way, all of our cells are defined by compatibility genes, and our immune systems have been trained to recognise them as self, so that everything else is foreign and, thus, is attacked. All life on the planet – single-celled bacteria, plants and animals – consists of individuals differentiated by a compatibility gene system.

The pilots' skin grafts failed, therefore, because a successful transplant of any tissue requires matching of donor and recipient compatibility genes. This is not an easy task, as Davis makes clear by a bit of self-study.

He recounts how he gained a measure of his individuality by having his compatibility genes analysed by an organ donation matching service, which immunologically mapped key parts of these genes. Out of 18 million people in an international database of potential organ donors, he is just one of four similar, but not identical, individuals. His wife comes in at one of 185 out of the 18 million – as he says, "not quite the one in a million I always thought she was".

But compatibility genes affect many more aspects of our lives than just organ donation, says Davis. They are at work all the time, but their industry is largely silent to us.

Double-edged diversity

Think back to your last winter cold. When you caught it, viruses entered your cells and started to grow. These infected cells signalled the disease to your immune system by putting small pieces of virus on their own surface, attached to one of your compatibility gene products. As Davis explains, "a cell constantly 'reports' on its surface samples of all the proteins that it is making", and the immune system goes looking for anything that is "non-self". In this way, during that cold your immune system recognised the "infection flag" on those virus-infected cells, killed them, and killed the viruses too.

The sort of compatibility genes you are endowed with has a huge effect on the immune response you made to that infection, and so how ill you got. They define your disease susceptibility, or resistance. You are an individual and your immune response to an infection is individual too.

It is also possible to trace human history in the diversity of compatibility genes. Our African ancestral home has the greatest diversity of compatibility genes on the planet. In Africa, there is a correlation between compatibility gene types and language groups, reflecting how migration and interbreeding have simultaneously affected genetics and linguistics. Humans moved out of Africa, founding new populations from small groups of individuals. The further we are from Africa then, roughly, the less diverse our compatibility genes are because smaller groups of people – and fewer compatibility genes – founded more distant populations.

In the modern world, people are more mobile than ever, and many have moved away from their ancestral homes. As a result, most urban Western societies have planet-wide mixtures of compatibility genes, geographically rearranging our diversity. Although there may be a long-term effect on genetic diversity in these areas, it depends on who has a family with whom. But with this modern global shake-up, we have to take note of our compatibility genes – take note of our individuality.

Different compatibility genes cause different responses to vaccination, different disease susceptibility, and different responses to treatment, so recognising compatibility genes will ultimately give better health for all. Such an approach is not politically neutral, with its echoes of racism and segregation, but our compatibility gene individuality cannot be ignored. Although Davis gives an up-to-date account of the science, he steers clear of the wider societal implications that might lie ahead.

Where else might compatibility gene effects be felt? Possibly in that most individual of decisions – the choice of a mate. Davis recounts the flurry of studies, starting in the 1990s, that wondered whether human attractiveness – based on smell – was controlled by compatibility genes. Researchers asked women to rate how attractive they found the odour of T-shirts worn previously – and sweated in – by men. They then looked at whether there was a correlation in women's responses and the relatedness of compatibility genes between the individual men and women.

The result from the first study was that women preferred the smell of men with compatibility genes dissimilar from their own. This answer was controversial; study and counter-study have followed since, with some finding these effects, others not.

Davis covers human compatibility genes well but a larger nod to compatibility systems in other animals and plants would not have gone amiss. These ubiquitous codes for uniqueness are a good reminder that we are just another species of animal. It is clear that other animals' compatibility genes are involved in their choice of mate, perhaps to avoid inbreeding.

Humans are so closely related to all other mammals – different physical appearances belying the very close physiological similarity – that analogous effects must occur among us. Indeed, it would be startling if we didn't use compatibility genes in some way when choosing our mates. Think of that next time you get intimate with the love of your life.

Viney, Mark. 2013. “The genes that make you a true individual”. New Scientist. Posted: September 17, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ancient ruined cities that remain a mystery

CRUMBLING walls. Breathtaking temples. Mysterious cities built entirely underground.

They are the astounding feats of architecture that have been left to decay for centuries.

But while they may be in ruins, the sites of the world's most ancient and intriguing cities continue to wow travellers.

From the popular Machu Picchu site in Peru, to the Pompeii ruins and the lesser-known Derinkuyu site in Turkey, here are eight amazing ruined cities that remain shrouded in mystery - or remain perplexing to this day, according to the science website

One thing's for sure, the world is a fascinating place.

Palenque, Mexico

One of the biggest - and best-preserved - of the Maya city-states, Palenque is full of temples, palaces and marketplaces that researchers believe date back to around 600-900 AD. Nobody is sure why the Maya civilisation was destroyed, and its great cities such as Palenque abandoned, but theories include war and famine. The decayed site has been restored and is a popular tourist spot.

Derinkuyu, Turkey

The largest and deepest of 200 underground cities in the Cappadocia region, this eerie location was home to approximately 20,000 people (plus livestock, a church, school and kitchen). The inhabitants dug tunnels and rooms beneath their homes in the soft volcanic rock.

The city reportedly grew to 85 metres and 11 levels deep. It is believed to date back to the early Byzantine Empire, as early as the 7th-8th centuries.

People fled to the area to find safety from anti-Christian Romans, bandits, and later on, anti-Christian Muslims. Huge rocks were rolled across the entrances, with air shafts letting fresh air in. It was sealed up at some point after the 10th century but reopened in 1969.

Catalhoyuk, Turkey

Believed to be one of the world's earliest urban settlements, thousands of people called Catalhoyuk home in 7400BC - 6200BC. And they did things quite differently to us.

In a unique design, the city was built like a honeycomb, with walls shared between different houses and doors cut in the roof so people had to climb on top to get inside. What's more, the dead were buried in the floor of their homes.

It's not clear what happened to the inhabitants of this ancient city.

Pompeii, Italy

One of the most famous ancient sites, Pompeii is a city frozen in time. Believed to have been founded in the 6th or 7th century BC, it was almost obliterated when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. Estimates vary, but more than 1000 people were killed instantly, and the town was buried and forgotten. That is, until it was rediscovered 1800 years later.

It's a fascinating place to visit as it has been perfectly preserved. There are many historical details alien to us such as bizarre art and graffiti, decorative penis statues and weird living arrangements. A resort town, it also has public baths, a brothel, amphitheatre and a hotel. Approximately 2.5 million people visit Pompeii every year.

Machu Picchu, Peru

It's the destination at the top of many travellers' bucket lists. The spectacular 'lost city' of Machu Picchu in Cusco was discovered in 1911 and is one of the most famous sites created by the Inca Empire.

In a remarkable feat of 15th-century construction, the Incas flattened the top of the 2430 metre high mountain to accommodate 140 structures including temples and houses. The city was divided into areas for royalty and the lower classes.

And it's not the jawdropping architecture that's the most puzzling part of Machu Picchu. How they ran a vast empire in an isolated area of Peru without building any marketplaces is quite puzzling, and dramatically different to most other old cities, where market squares were key. Why did they have no recognisable economy, and how did they prosper without it?

Cahokia, US

It's believed between 10,000 to 40,000 people called Cahokia home for hundreds of years. Surrounded by huge earthen pyramids and wooden structures, it's estimated the civilisation was at its height between 600-1400 AD. The inhabitants of Cahokia built huge markets and had sophisticated agricultural practices. More than 120 mounds were built here. It's not known why the city was abandoned in the 1200s, but the depletion of resources and disease may have played a part.

Great Zimbabwe

The giant, walled and wealthy city of Great Zimbabwe was home to around 30,000 people at its peak in 1200-1450. An important trade centre, it was rich in gold from local mines. The technologically advanced city features a huge enclosing wall some 20 metres high and was believed to have served as a royal palace for the Zimbabwean monarch. Famines may have contributed to its mysterious demise.

2013. “Ancient ruined cities that remain a mystery”. News Australia. Posted: September 17, 2013. Available online:

Friday, October 25, 2013

A History of Elves

Elves have been a popular subject in fiction for centuries, ranging from William Shakespeare's play "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to the classic fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien 300 years later. But it's only recently that elves have been confined to plays, books, and fairy tales: In centuries past, belief in the existence of fairies and elves was common among both adults and children.

Like fairies, elves were said to be magical, diminutive shape-shifters. (Shakespeare's elves were tiny, winged creatures that lived in, and playfully flitted around, flowers.) English male elves were described as looking like little old men, though elf maidens were invariably young and beautiful. Like men of the time, elves lived in kingdoms found in forests, meadows, or hollowed-out tree trunks.

Elves, fairies, and leprechauns are all closely related in folklore, though elves specifically seem to have sprung from early Norse mythology. By the 1500s, people began incorporating elf folklore into stories and legends about fairies, and by 1800, fairies and elves were widely considered to be simply different names for the same magical creatures.

As with fairies, elves eventually developed a reputation for pranks and mischief, and strange daily occurrences were often attributed to them. For example, when the hair on a person or horse became tangled and knotted, such "elf locks" were blamed on elves, and a baby born with a birthmark or deformity was called "elf marked."

Indeed, our forefathers trifled with elves at their peril. According to folklorist Carol Rose in her encyclopedia "Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins," though elves were sometimes friendly toward humans, they were also known to take "terrible revenge on any human who offends them. They may steal babies, cattle, milk, and bread or enchant and hold young men in their spell for years at a time. An example of this is the well-known story of Rip Van Winkle."

Evolving elves

Another type of elf emerged, one with a somewhat different nature and form than the mischievous and diminutive sprites of yore. Some elves, such as those depicted in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, are slender, human-sized, and beautiful, with fine — almost angelic — features. Tolkien's characters were drawn largely from his research into Scandinavian folklore, and therefore it's not surprising that his elves might be tall and blond. Though not immortal, these elves were said to live hundreds of years. They have also become a staple of modern fantasy fiction.

Gary Gygax, co-creator of the seminal role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, was not only influenced by Tolkien's elves but also instrumental in popularizing them, even including elves as one of the character races (along with humans) that gamers could play.

In either form, elves are strongly associated with magic and nature. As with fairies, elves were said to secretly steal healthy human babies and replace them with their own kind. These changelings appeared at first glance to be human babies, but if they became seriously sick or temperamental, parents would sometimes suspect that their own child had been abducted by elves. There were even legends instructing parents on how to get their real child back from its elven abductors.

Each generation seems to have their own use for elves in their stories. Just as leprechauns have historically been associated with one type of work (shoemaking), it is perhaps not surprising that many common (and commercial) images of elves depict them as industrious workers — think, for example of Santa Claus' toymaking elves or even the Keebler cookie-baking elves. Folklore, like language and culture, is constantly evolving, and elves will likely always be with us, in one form or another.

Radford, Benjamin. 2013. “A History of Elves”. Live Science. Posted: September 16, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, October 24, 2013

First Vikings in Orkney didn't trade with locals

The earliest Scandinavian settlers in Orkney, a group of islands in northern Scotland, may not have had as much contact with local inhabitants in the Early Middle Ages as previously thought, say NERC-funded scientists.

Archaeologists previously believed there was contact between the two peoples before the Vikings conquered Orkney, after finding earlier hair combs in Scottish styles but made of reindeer antler, in a region where reindeer aren't native. Archaeologists assumed this was evidence for trade and contact between the Scandinavian settlers and those from Scotland.

But a new non-damaging test that identifies the species of a bone or antler by matching the collagen from an artefact to a species on a database has shown that this is not the case.

The new research, led by researchers at the University of York, looked at loose teeth from hair combs found in Orkney from the pre- Viking era. They found that all those in Scottish styles are in fact made of red or roe deer, species that were found in Scotland at the time, whilst all those in Scandinavian styles were made from reindeer.

"We were doing this blind - we were expecting deer. We knew some would be reindeer and some wouldn't but didn't know which would be which," says Isabella von Holstein, a PhD student at the University of York, who led the study . "It overturns previous findings, where people have used a microscope to look at the combs, and it means very exciting things for interpreting how people were behaving in these times.."

The method of using collagen to test which animal an artifact originated from had never been done before, and some of the researchers on the project were skeptical of how accurate the technique would be.

"We were very surprised to find there was a piece of whale in the middle of our samples, which was very puzzling," von Holstein explains. "But we double-checked and another researcher from the project, Dr Steve Ashby from the University of York, was delighted because he had put that in as a test piece and we found it! It was from a completely different type of comb."

Since collagen testing doesn't damage the samples and is relatively cheap to conduct, it is likely to be used in the future on other archaeological artifacts. Particularly since bone and antler have always been common materials for humans to make things from.

While the study shows that early Scandinavian settlers in Orkney didn't trade with the Scottish inhabitants, it still raises interesting questions over trade within Scotland, particularly in areas like Orkney where deer antler combs have been found, but the deer in the area were scarce.

The study was funded by NERC, the European Union, and the Catherine Mackichan Trust.

Jarlett, Harriet. 2013. “First Vikings in Orkney didn't trade with locals”. Planet Earth Online. Posted: September 17, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Irish weights were a key Viking Age trading tool

OPINION: Weights played an important role in Viking trading. The weights made it possible to value items and receive the correct payment – and items of huge value were sometimes at stake.

The great streams of silver that reached Scandinavia in the Viking Ages – first the Arabic silver from Russia, and later coins from Germany and Britain – were for the most part converted into silver jewellery by local craftsmen.

Much of the silver arrived as coins, whether through trade, looting or as paid danegeld [a tax raised to pay tribute to the Viking raiders to save a town from being ravaged]. However, in the beginning the central element was the weight of the silver, rather than the coins themselves.

This turned the balance weight scale into an important tool, along with its accompanying weights. Weights were among the most important tools in the Viking Age as they were a prerequisite for many types of trading. The weights made it possible to value items and to get the correct payment for them – the very nerve centre of business. Trading was a highly specialised profession, and items of great value were sometimes at stake.

Decorated shrines and crosses

Weights are not uncommon finds from the Viking Age, and from Denmark there are at least six exemplars with their own stories to tell. The weights are made of small Irish decorative mountings that have been broken off the objects they were originally attached to. These objects included shrines, crosses and other furniture from churches and monasteries.

The mountings were later turned into weights by soaking them in lead until they reached the desired weight.

The mountings themselves are made of gilt bronze, and some of them are further decorated with inlaid amber. These weights, which originally formed part of prestigious church objects, ended up in Viking society where their function was somewhat different from their original purpose.

Weights appear in a variety of contexts

Some of the mountings are circular, and that allows us to say with some certainty that they have been attached to reliquaries.

We know of many of these kinds of shrines from churches and monasteries. One can imagine a bunch of marauding Vikings breaking off the decorative mountings so they could bring them back home where they could be turned into jewellery or weights.

The Scandinavians were, however, not the only ones to engage in this form of bad behaviour. Infighting and power struggles in Ireland could also turn the local men into plunderers.

Weights with Irish mountings appear frequently in Scandinavia. In addition to the finds in Denmark, we know of ‘Viking-related’ weights in Norway and from a large burial ground at Kilmainham/IslandBridge near Dublin, Ireland.

Weights tell of international relations

Two of the mountings found in Denmark have different shapes from the other ones. One of them is square and the other is formed as a male mask. These may have been attached to a variety of objects, but cannot be as easily linked to specific church and monastery fixtures as the circular mountings.

These Irish weights with their ’foreign’ mountings therefore indicate lively contact with foreign shores in the Viking Age. This has been known for some time, especially from written sources that tell of the Vikings’ plundering and marauding behaviour towards their neighbours.

The interesting thing is that in recent decades we have seen an increasing number of metal-detector finds that further emphasize these relations. Out of the thousands of finds made every year by volunteers and amateur archaeologists, we occasionally come across rarities like these.

These weights tell us not only about the relations between the Vikings and their neighbours, but also about conflicts, since churches and monasteries were probably not very keen to let go of their valuable treasures.

Merchants needed to be ‘men of the world’

Recasting ’foreign’ decorative mountings into items other than weights is not an unknown phenomenon in Viking Age Scandinavia. We also know of other objects, especially brooches that used to be mountings but which have now been reworked.

This phenomenon is interesting in its own right, because why did people use these ‘recycled mountings’? Was it only because they were thought to be pretty and exotic, or could there perhaps be something more to it?

In international trading relations, there was a potential risk for everyone involved.

The trade could go wrong. One could end up being cheated, getting into trouble or perhaps even getting killed. So when trading with unknown people from distant shores, an additional element of uncertainty was added. There was no guarantee that the people you were trading with shared your worldview and your moral principles.

It was therefore important as a professional merchant to know a lot about many different peoples, so that you could trade successfully with various types of people.

Possessing such an intuitive understanding of different cultures gave the tradesmen a high social status, as this understanding was a prerequisite for much of the trading in the Viking era, which is characterised by extensive contact with the world outside Scandinavia.

Paradoxically, however, the weights with the Irish mountings, which originally ended up in Scandinavia as a result of a conflict, are regarded as a demonstration of the merchant’s extensive understanding of distant places and his ability to enter into trade relations with ‘strangers’.

Weights: important tools and great status symbols

The peculiar weights with the Irish mountings may have had two functions – in addition to their primary function as weights. They could partly signal the merchant’s status: “I am a merchant with some luxury items and access to these kinds of rarities.”

The weights could also signal to foreign people that this was a merchant who could do well outside of his own narrow circle: “I understand foreign cultures and am willing to trade under changing conditions.”

A trade is, in its simplest form, a meeting between two people in which a deal is made and items or services are exchanged. But it is also a meeting where there is an exchange of words and where cultures and opinions meet.

The specific traces only offer clues

It is extremely difficult – more than a thousand years after it took place – to speculate about such meetings. But the specific traces – the objects left behind by the Vikings – can give us a clue about some of the ideas and values that were in play at the time.

The ’Irish weights’ are a good example of this. These weights could add an extra layer of information to the traders – their international design could signal that the merchant was a man of the world, a man who could converse with foreign people, and that for a ’foreigner’ it was safe to trade with him. This merchant was willing to trade with foreign neighbours, who may have had values that were different from his own.

This may also be part of the reason why we sometimes find these very special objects from the Viking Age.

Baastrup, Maria Panum, PhD. 2013. “Irish weights were a key Viking Age trading tool”. Science Nordic. Posted: September 13, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Faces of Ancient Mexico Revealed in Skulls

Long before the arrival of European colonists, the indigenous people of Mexico showed wide variation in their facial appearance, a diversity that perhaps has not been fully appreciated, a new study of skulls suggests. Researchers hope their findings might help forensic investigators acurately identify people who are killed attempting to cross the U.S. Border.

"There has long been a school of thought that there was little physical variation prior to European contact," study researcher Ann Ross, a forensic anthropologist at North Carolina State University, said in a statement. "But we've found that there were clear differences between indigenous peoples before Europeans or Africans arrived in what is now Mexico."

In other words, the researchers say there is not one phenotype, or bundle of physical characteristics, for all native people — contrary to earlier studies that looked at hair color, skin color and body form, and concluded that physical variation among indigenous Mexican people was modest.

Through some forensic sleuthing, Ross and colleagues discovered differences between geographically separate groups in the shapes in their cheekbones, the bones surrounding their eyes and the bridge of their nose, before they ever made contact with Westerners.

The researchers examined dozens of pre-Columbian skulls found in Mexico, including bones from the iconic Maya city of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula and remains of people from the Tarascan culture much farther inland, in the Michoacan state. The team also looked at the skeletons of people of Spanish origin, African Americans and contemporary Mayans for comparison.

The researchers focused on facial features rather than skull shapes, because some ancient groups in Mexico practiced skull modification, Ross told LiveScience Wednesday evening. Archaeologists have turned up evidence showing that some cultures bound the heads of children so that they would be warped into alien-like shapes.

Compared with the Spanish and African groups, the Native American groups in Mexico generally had broader, shorter faces, Ross said.

But a statistical analysis of the facial landmarks on the skulls showed differences within the indigenous populations in different parts of Mexico. The skulls in the Michoacan sample were especially distinct from the other Mexican samples, which the researchers believe is in line with previous findings that suggest the Tarascans were a culturally and linguistically distinct group that may have been more aligned with other groups in South America.

"This makes it clear that there was no clear, overarching phenotype for indigenous populations," another study researcher Ashley Humphries, a doctoral student at the University of South Florida, said in a statement. "All native peoples did not look alike."

Ross said she has already published a study on skull variation in ancient Peru and she is hoping that a database of these morphologies could help identify victims of violence near the U.S.-Mexico border.

"We have a huge crisis in the United States of border-crosser deaths," Ross told LiveScience. "A lot of these people come from Mexico, and really all over Latin America, but the morphologies that are used to establish identity are not well understood."

"If we know the variation that is going on in Mexico and Mesoamerica, hopefully we'll be able to help identify the origin of border-crossing fatalities," Ross added.

Their findings were detailed this month in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

Gannon, Megan. 2013. “Faces of Ancient Mexico Revealed in Skulls”. Live Science. Posted: September 12, 2013. Available online:

Monday, October 21, 2013

Lakeshore archeology dig finds artifacts from 4,000 years ago

Visit the website to see great pictures from the dig.

More than 80,000 artifacts that provide a glimpse of life in the region 4,000 years ago have been recovered by archeologists on the banks of the Puce River.

While most of the arrowheads and pieces of pottery found are 1,000 to 1,200 years old, scientists kept digging deeper and eventually came across artifacts that were 4,000 years old, said Jacqueline Fisher, an archeologist hired by the county.

The artifacts were discovered during an environmental assessment for the construction of an expanded Puce River bridge on County Road 22.

“It was like excavating a layer cake,” Fisher said. “You move down to the plate and you move back in time.”

The excavation was done by hand over a one-hectare dig site. Some artifacts were discovered in soil less than a foot deep and Fisher said there was evidence of later Euro-Canadian habitation, including the impression of a wood cabin.

Three members of the Walpole Island First Nation have assisted with the dig.

The discoveries should give residents a sense of connectedness to the region, said Robert Weir, a University of Windsor classical studies professor. “We don’t think of Canada as an old country, but there are lots of stories to tell.”

Field director Ruth Macdougall said it wasn’t surprising that the banks of the Puce River were a popular site for camping, fishing and hunting for millennia because the ground is sand, which drains well, while the rest of the county is clay.

What makes the Puce River bridge excavation site unique among hundreds of archeological digs done in the world is the earth was undisturbed as if it were frozen in time.

Other than the addition of topsoil at some point in the past century, artifacts were discovered underground exactly where First Nations people left them.

Usually artifacts are found in disarray in already plowed ground churned for agricultural planting.  Weir said he’s never done a dig in Greece, for instance, where the ground wasn’t chewed up.

The undisturbed property helps archeologists piece together the First Nations story better, Fisher said.

“You get a better sense of what people were doing and can almost visualize people on the site,” she said. “We’ve got things like a broken pot and that pot stayed in place for 1,000 years. When we first took off the dirt, it’s the first time someone has touched it in 1,000 years.”

An untouched archeological site is so rare that Fisher has only worked on six of hundreds of projects in her 26-year career.

Once the artifacts are brought to a laboratory in Hamilton, Macdougall said she wants to try to piece together one of the broken pots with glue. Scientists also found spearheads, stone drills and stone knives.

While all artifacts are owned by the province, there is the possibility of returning some to the community for an exhibit or permanent display, officials said.

The dig started in July 2012 and will be finished at the end of this month.  It will cost the county an estimated $1.1 million, an expense that is expected to be absorbed into the $11 million budget for the construction of a new three-lane Puce River bridge, the rehabilitation of the old bridge and some road work.

This is the biggest archeological dig ever found during a county construction project, county engineer Tom Bateman said.

The county and archeologists co-ordinated work so that construction and artifact finding could continue simultaneously. The county expects the new span to open in late spring of 2014 and then the old bridge will be closed and rehabilitated. Eventually the bridge will have five lanes.

While the county built some contingency money and possible archeological costs into the budget, they did not anticipate the actual cost.

“What we are looking at is an unbudgeted component,” Bateman said. “Funds will be drawn from the roadway expansion reserve (fund). At present it is not causing us to defer or scale back anything. We have a multi-year expansion program. It might take longer to replenish that money back.”

Wolfson, Monica. 2013. “Lakeshore archeology dig finds artifacts from 4,000 years ago”. The Windsor Star. Posted: September 11, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, October 20, 2013

10,000 year old bones are earliest from northern Britain

Kents Bank Cavern, on the north side of Morecambe Bay, was excavated in the early 1990s and many of the bones found there are now in the Dock Museum, Barrow-in-Furness. Scientists from Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and the University of Nottingham have just published the results of an analysis of some of these bones in the Journal of Quaternary Science.

This study included a fragment of human leg bone radiocarbon dated to just over 10,000 years old. This is the earliest known human bone from northern Britain, following the retreat of the polar conditions of the last Ice Age.

Similar ritual behaviour as south

Archaeologist and PhD student Ian Smith from LJMU’s School of Natural Science and Psychology, explained why the find is of archaeological interest:

“Previous cave burials of humans from around this date have been in southern England, with later dates further north. However, the date of this human femur is contemporary with the earliest postglacial human bones from caves in the south suggesting similar ritual behaviour in both Cumbrian and Somerset caves at the same time.

“The study also dated bones of elk (a large deer species no longer found in Britain) and horse, showing that they came from a ‘warm snap’ at the end of the last Ice Age, between 12 and 13 thousand years ago. We know that humans were in southern Cumbria at this time as their stone tools have been found – but as yet no human bones have been dated to this time. Clearly horse and elk would have been good prey for these human hunters, but there is no direct evidence on the Kent’s Bank bones to suggest that they were killed by people.”

Horse bones particularly interesting

Dr Dave Wilkinson, an ecologist at LJMU, and one of the authors of this study, commented:

“The horse bones are particularly interesting as there has been a lot of uncertainty surrounding the occurrence of horse in this period. Both horse and elk later became extinct in Britain, with people subsequently reintroducing horse to this country.”

The elk bone also produced evidence of another animal, as the bones had been chewed by either a wolf or large dog.

New archaeology gallery

Dr Hannah O’Regan, a co-author and archaeologist at the University of Nottingham with a particular interest in caves, said:

“Ian’s work on the bones from Kent’s Bank show just how important cave archaeology and museum collections can be. Caves can preserve bones which would have decayed elsewhere, and once the material is excavated museums keep them for future study. Without these, we wouldn’t have known about our earliest northerner.”

Sabine Skae, Collections Manager at The Dock Museum added:

“This collection tells an important story of the changing environment and early human activity in Cumbria. A lynx jaw bone from the Kents Bank collection is one of the highlights of our new archaeology gallery as well as Palaeolithic tools, Langdale axes and the recently discovered Viking treasure, the Furness Hoard.”

Past Horizons. 2013. “10,000 year old bones are earliest from northern Britain”. Past Horizons. Posted: September 11, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Extraordinary kurgan burial shines new light on Sarmatian life

A Sarmatian burial mound excavated this summer in Russia’s Southern Ural steppes has yielded a magnificent but unusual treasure.

The artefacts contained within the mound are helping to shed light on a little-known period of the nomadic culture that flourished on the Eurasian steppe in the 1st millennium BC.

The archaeological study of this remarkable ancient tomb, or kurgan, was carried out by the expedition of the Institute of Archaeology (Russian Academy of Sciences), led by Professor Leonid T. Yablonsky.

No written language

The nomadic peoples had no written language therefore scientists can only learn about their cultures and traditions through archaeological data.

The kurgans which are scattered across the steppes contain many Scythian and Sarmatian relics and while the nomads successfully interacted with the Persian Achaemenid and Greek civilizations, they still preserved a unique culture of their own.

Completing the study of an extraordinary monument

This year archaeologists excavated the eastern part of Mound 1 at Filippovka 1 kurgan in the Orenburg region. This section was approximately 5m high and 50m long and was left unexplored by the previous expedition more than 20 years ago. The aim was to complete the study of this extraordinary monument, which had already famously entered the annals of world culture with the discovery of 26 “golden” deer statuettes.

Another major challenge for the archaeologists was to ensure the preservation of this unique cultural heritage which faces a large number of imminent threats with robbery being a major problem.

Massive cast bronze cauldron

An underground passage near the entrance was the first area of exploration this season. A massive cast bronze cauldron with a diameter of 102 cm was discovered there. Its handles were fashioned in the traditions of the Scythian-Siberian animal style with an image of two griffins, beak to beak.

Burial chamber

Under the eastern mound an undisturbed burial chamber was discovered measuring approximately 4x5m and 4m deep. At the bottom of the chamber several stratified layers of debris were excavated to reveal exceptionally rich and varied grave goods accompanying a human skeleton. The material associated with the burial seemed to belong to a woman as it contained what is regarded as representing typically female artefacts and jewellery. However, initial osteological examination of the skeletal morphology revealed the occupant of the burial to be male; though DNA-analysis is still to be carried out.

Grave goods

A small wicker chest that is thought to be a vanity case was found near the skull. It was filled to the brim with items including a cast silver container with a lid, a gold pectoral, a wooden box, cages, glass, silver and earthenware bathroom flasks, leather pouches, and horse teeth that contained red pigments.

Nearby lay a large silver mirror with gilded stylized animals on the handle and embossed decoration on the back with the image of an eagle in the centre, surrounded by a procession of six winged bulls.

The garments were decorated with several plaques, depicting flowers, rosettes and a panther leaping on a saiga’s (antelope) back. There were also 395 pressed pieces of gold leaf sewn onto the breeches, shirt and scarf. A fringed shawl was held together with a golden chain and the sleeves of the shirt were embellished with multicoloured beads, forming a complex geometric pattern. Two cast gold earrings decorated in places with cloisonné enamel were found in the area of the temporal bones.

Tattooing equipment

The archaeologists also uncovered equipment used in the art of tattooing, including two stone mixing palettes and iron, gold covered needles, as well as bone spoons used to blend paints and pens decorated with animals.

More than one thousand artefacts were recovered from the tomb and they constitute an invaluable research resource that will add to the growing corpus of data that is shedding light on the history of the Eurasian continent.

This excavation represents a major breakthrough in the study of the mysterious Sarmatian culture of the Early Iron Age.

Yabionsky, Leonid T. 2013. “Extraordinary kurgan burial shines new light on Sarmatian life”. Past Horizons. Posted: September 17, 2013. Available online:

Friday, October 18, 2013

Buried Saharan Rivers May Have Led Humans Out of Africa

Some 100,000 years ago, three large rivers snaked through what is today the bone-dry Sahara Desert, new research suggests.

The rivers, now buried, would have created pockets of green areas and provided water in a parched landscape. That, in turn, could have allowed ancient humans to migrate from across the Sahara and then out of Africa, according to research detailed today (Sept. 11) in the journal PLOS ONE.

"These rivers were big," said study co-author Thomas Coulthard, a hydrologist at the University of Hull in England. "They were about the same as the Missouri or the Rhine or even the Nile when it's low flow."

Out of Africa

Some scientists think humans left central Africa between 125,000 and 100,000 years ago. (A recent study suggested the migration happened as early as 62,000 years ago.) Humans may have first migrated to the west coast of Africa before traveling along the coastline to the Middle East, or they may have moved along the Nile or around the Arabian Peninsula. Those routes would have required thousands of miles of travel.

Traveling through the Sahara Desert would have been a more direct route for people in Central Africa. But the Sahara Desert today is one of the driest places on Earth, with half of the Sahara receiving less than an inch of rainfall a year, making any trek arduous.

But archaeological remains suggest the Sahara was once settled, and some scientists thought a few small rivers threading through the desert might have once been large and continuous.

Ancient rivers

To test out that idea, Coulthard and his colleagues created a computer model of the magnitude of monsoons in a region of the Sahara spanning 4.6 million square miles (12 million square kilometers) as it existed about 100,000 years ago. At that time, the monsoon rains landed hundreds of miles north from where they fall now.

As a result, heavy rains fell on the north face of two Saharan mountain ranges, the Ahaggar and Tibesti mountains, which span portions of Algeria, Libya and Chad.

The model used topography to predict where the water would have flowed.

Even with high water loss due to evaporation and groundwater absorption, the researchers found that higher rainfall fed three small, mostly dry rivers — the Irharhar, Sahabi and Kufra — that were much larger than today and spanned the length of the Sahara.

"It isn't a huge amount, but it's the amount of rainfall you might get in southern Spain," Coulthard told LiveScience.

These rivers would have provided green habitats to support people migrating from Africa, Coulthard said.

In fact, archaeologists have found stone tools dating to that time around the Irharhar River, Coulthard said. And archaeological finds may be hidden near the other two rivers.

"The area is covered in sand dunes and sand sea, so there's a whole raft of archaeological evidence that's just kind of buried there," Coulthard said. (Sand sea is a flat area of sand with no vegetation and really no physical features.)

True migration route? The findings are reasonable and convincing, Paul Myers, an earth scientist at the University of Alberta in Canada, who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email.

"We know that orbital changes effect the monsoon and precipitation in this region. It has also been shown before that in other periods the Sahara has been quite wet," Myers said, referring to the slight changes to Earth's orbit over time.

But a Saharan route out of Africa is still unlikely, said Chris Stringer, an anthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, who was not involved in the study.

"Even these river systems are some way from the route through the narrow area east of the Nile, which is going to lead them into Israel," Stringer told LiveScience.

After making it through the Sahara, migrating people still would have needed green areas to migrate east out of Africa, he said.

Instead, the findings could help explain how technological advances, such as the prevalence of red ochre paint, spread within Africa at the time, Stringer said.

Ghose, Tia. 2013. “Buried Saharan Rivers May Have Led Humans Out of Africa”. Live Science. Posted: September 11, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ancient Road Leading to Stonehenge Found

Scientists have uncovered a portion of an ancient path that may have led to Stonehenge.

While dismantling a modern road that runs near Stonehenge, the archaeologists uncovered two ditches found to be remnants of an ancient pathway called the avenue. Archaeologists have known of the avenue and suspected it led directly to the monument, but the modern road had cut the delicate pathway in two, obscuring its purpose. The new discovery confirms the avenue's role as an ancient pathway to the site.

"We found the bottoms, the truncated ditches, that belong to the feature known as the avenue, which is the processional leading up to Stonehenge," said archaeologist Heather Sebire, a property curator for English Heritage, which manages Stonehenge.

During the most recent Congress of Egyptologists, the Supreme Council of Antiquities revealed plans for new museums and digs in Egypt.

An exceptionally dry season also revealed the imprints where three stones used to lie in the main stone circle, suggesting the massive stone monument was once a complete circle.

Removing a road

The purpose of Stonehenge is an enduring mystery. Some have argued it was a massive sound illusion, a symbol of unity or a monument built on a sacred hunting ground.

For years, English Heritage had planned to remove the A344 road that snaked through the area and cut quite close to Stonehenge. Though archaeologists suspected the A344 had cut the avenue almost perpendicularly, they weren't optimistic they would find any traces of the earthwork, because the road is now recessed into the ground below the grass level.

But after workers pulled up the tarmac of the road, archaeologists noticed two parallel ditches that were almost perpendicular to the road. The ditches connected the truncated parts of the avenue. Though the banks of the pathway have long since disappeared, the ditches remained.

The discovery confirms that the avenue, which is about 1 foot (30 centimeters) wide, extended 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometers) straight to the stone monument before snaking onward for about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to the Avon River in the nearby village of Amesbury.

No one knows exactly what the avenue was used for, but archaeologists have some ideas.

"We think it was a processional way; it was where people processed up into Stonehenge," Sebire told LiveScience.

Dry summer

An unusually dry summer also has revealed the presence of three dry patch marks within the stone circle where massive boulders may have once stood. Dry weather can often reveal archaeological features that have been obscured for centuries.

But those traces can be fleeting, Sebire said.

"They're quite ephemeral. It rained a few weeks ago, and it disappeared," Sebire said.

Archaeologists have yet to conduct thorough excavations but have surveyed and photographed the imprints.

The discovery bolsters the notion that Stonehenge was once a full circle; some archaeologists believe that Stonehenge was never completed.

Ghose, Tia. 2013. “Ancient Road Leading to Stonehenge Found”. Discovery News. Posted: September 11, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Pagan-era rock tombs unearthed in southeastern part of Turkey

Rock tombs from the third and second century BC have been revealed in the southeastern province of Mardin’s Midyat district. The rock tombs belong to Roman times and are believed to belong to a pagan culture that was centered on the area

Construction in the southeastern province of Mardin’s Midyat district has unearthed ancient rock tombs that are believed to date from the pagan era between the third and second centuries B.C.

The tombs were discovered during construction works that were being conducted to enlarge a road heading to a tent city erected for Syrian refugees.

A total of four rock tombs were initially discovered, but subsequent excavation work at Mor İbraham Church and other venues revealed an additional 11 tombs, some with human skeletons.

Midyat District Gov. Oğuzhan Bingöl said the tombs had been discovered by chance and that they had begun a new information project under the direction of the Mardin Museum.

Mardin Museum Manager Nihat Erdoğan said a total of five archaeologists and two anthropologists would work on the tombs.

There are skeletons, as well as effects belonging to the people and gifts bestowed upon them posthumously buried there indicating that they came from a pagan culture. The tombs date from Roman times, said Erdoğan, adding that that the grave sites were in extremely good condition. 

“This area has been taken under protection and declared an archaeological area,” he said, noting that the tombs were very important in terms of casting light on the ancient era. “There are many works from the fifth century [A.D.], but for the third and second century [B.C.] we do not have enough information.”

The excavations works that are continuing in the area are expected to show and reveal other areas in which the family was buried in ancient times.

“The [archaeological] team was formed exclusively for the excavations and currently they are working on analyzing what they have found,” he said.

Until now, bracelets, teardrop bottles and necklaces have been found. The findings will later be analyzed and dispatched to a museum to be displayed. 

“After cleaning this are, we are hoping to open this area as a touristic area,” said Erdoğan, adding that the team expected to finish the works within two months.

Midyat, a prominent site for Syriac culture, has many attractions such as the Mor Sobo Cathedral, which served as the center for Syriac metropolitans for nine centuries, as well as the Virgin Mary Church, which is located near a 2,000-year-old monument. 

Each of the structures is a part of historical heritage and culture, said the district governor.

Doğan News Agency. 2013. “Pagan-era rock tombs unearthed in southeastern part of Turkey”. Hurriyet Daily News. Posted: September 10, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

12,000 year old lineage of the first settlers in the Americas

About 30 human skeletons that have been dated to the second millennium BC have been discovered in the cave of La Grave, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, and could provide vital clues relating to the first settlers in the Americas according to archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

Oldest genetic lineages

Based on osteometric studies, ancient DNA and radiocarbon tests that have been applied to the skeletal remains which began to be recovered in 2011 near the town of Tula, it is possible this area has signs of one of the oldest genetic lineages in the Americas, associated with the men who crossed into the continent around 12 thousand years ago.

The exploration and excavation of burial caves in Tamaulipas seeks to “better understand the origin, development, quality and lifestyle of ancient cultures who settled in the region,” said physical anthropologist Jesús Ernesto González Velasco who works at the INAH Centre, Tamaulipas.

The radiocarbon dates of the skeletal remains, place them between 1387-1195 BCE and 1313-914 BCE.

Previous DNA studies, conducted in the Paleo-DNA Laboratory of Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada, from mummified samples found in Escondida or Enchanted Cave, identified an identical mitochondrial lineage (genetic profile).

The ancient DNA profile found in the sample of La Escondida indicates belonging to haplotype C (set of DNA variations), which is generally associated with various groups that settled early in the Americas.

Exploring cave archaeology

To explore the vast region of the Sierras Madre Oriental and Tamaulipas, where many prehistoric caves and cave art are still waiting to be discovered , an interdisciplinary team was formed with  specialists from the IIA, UNAM, University of Cordoba, Spain , and Tamaulipas INAH Centre.

Work began in 2009, in the cave of La Sepultura, located in the city of Tula and by 2010, archaeologists had uncovered the remains of at least three individuals, plus a well preserved  assemblage of mat fragments and wooden objects.

By October 2011 skeletal remains were recovered of between 26 and 30 individuals and the exciting discovery of further cavities, including the Cave of the Dead, in the Sierra de Naola, where they found more bones,pottery and lithics.

Scientists hope that this latest discovery will shed more light on the origin of Mexican prehistoric groups and their dispersion over time.

Past Horizons. 2013. “12,000 year old lineage of the first settlers in the Americas”. Past Horizons. Posted: September 9, 2013. Available online:

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pictish burials found at ‘Royal Rhynie’ site

The grave of what could be a member of early Pictish royalty has been discovered as part of an archaeological dig in northeast Scotland.

The discovery is one of the few made in this area and was found in a carefully made grave lined with sandstone slabs, suggestive of a high status burial.

Legacies of the Picts

The Pictish Kingdoms that emerged in northern Scotland in the post-Roman period (c.AD 400-900) were important political players both regionally and on a European scale.  The major legacies of the Picts include some of the most spectacular archaeological sites and artistic achievements of Early Medieval European society.

Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, has long been known for its eight carved standing stones including the renowned ‘Craw Stane’. Previous digs have uncovered rare examples of Mediterranean imports and intricate metalwork which add to the theory that the area was a former Pictish centre of power.

The latest discovery, made during the Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project (REAP), is the first time remains of a body have been uncovered at the site.

Preserved skeletal material

“We found elements of the legs, pelvis and jaw bone which we recovered and are now analysing in the lab,” explained project leader Dr Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen.

“It’s extremely rare to find any human remains from this era in the northeast of Scotland as the soil in this part of the world is so acidic. One of the graves had been carefully made from split sandstone slabs to create a cist and the stone lining and collapsed capstones helped to preserve skeletal material.

Unlike Anglo-Saxon areas to the south, the tradition in Scotland was largely for unfurnished burial so rich grave assemblages are not expected.

“The nearby presence of the settlement near the Craw Stane strongly suggests these may have been burials of high status individuals and that Rhynie was, like other political centres, a landscape of power rather than a series of individual sites.”

The remains will now be studied using a raft of scientific techniques including radiocarbon and stable isotope analysis, if the level of bone preservation is sufficient.

Northern Picts as major players

The Pictish heartlands and main powerbase were long assumed to lie in central Scotland but recent research has suggested the most cited Pictish kingdom, Fortriu, was based in the Moray Firth area and as such the northern Picts may have been major players during this time.

Shards of medieval imported glass from the west of France were also found near the remains during the latest dig at Rhynie.

Dr Meggen Gondek of the University of Chester added: “The imports along with the presence of evidence for fine metalworking, suggest that Rhynie is a high-status site dating to the early stages of the development of the post-Roman kingdoms in northern Europe. The 5th-6th century dates for Rhynie places it in the centuries immediately following the withdrawal of the Roman army from Britain.”

Past Horizons. 2013. “Pictish burials found at ‘Royal Rhynie’ site”. Past Horizons. Posted: September 9, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, October 13, 2013

How we're herded by language

Metaphors can persuade us to war or bring us back from the brink. We must try to be more aware of them

Here come the old metaphors again – and some new ones, too. In the last few days we have heard Barack Obama flooding the zone so as to urge strikes in Syria, within time windows, but without boots on the ground, because of the crossing of a red line which, back in May, threatened to box in the president, or even turn into a green light for Bashar al-Assad, who himself says that "the Middle East is a powder keg, and today the fuse is getting shorter". John Kerry calls people who hesitate "armchair isolationists", which suggests useless snoozers by the fireside rather than thoughtful opponents. Meanwhile, the media dubs France "America's poodle". So vivid are British memories of that taunt that the very thought of it may have accelerated the quick decision this time to reject military involvement.

Metaphors are powerful. They can herd us to war or hold us back from the brink (these being metaphors too). Yet meanings shift. Whole theses could be written on the history of armchairs and poodles. Indeed, in a discussion of the poodle trope at the University of Pennsylvania's Language Log site, contributors trace the present meaning of eager, obedient lackey back to at least 1907, when Lloyd George called the House of Lords the Earl of Balfour's poodle. Beyond that, poodles appeared differently in Goethe's Faust, where the devil Mephistopheles disguises himself as one. When his true shape is revealed, Faust cries, "Das also war des Pudels Kern!" – "So that was the poodle's core!" – which became a German catchphrase. It seems a world away from what the original breeders must have had in mind when they bred the Pudelhund to be an agile, intelligent water retriever. (And they actually make good war dogs.)

Once you start noticing the metaphors in everything you say, you realise how central they are to human ways of grasping the world. They are not merely an accident of language, but rooted in our minds and even bodies. This was the message of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By, which analysed such pre-linguistic "conceptual metaphors" as the idea that anger makes one boil over or explode, or that whatever is "up" is good and whatever is "down" is bad. This is why Kerry's armchair works: if you sit down, you are not stepping up to the plate.

This is also the reason why talk of military "strikes" is significant. The term is more metaphorical than it may sound, and calls to mind carefully aimed knock-out punches or lightning bolts. We are more likely to think of a sharp, effective blow than with "bomb", which brings to mind explosions, injuries, mess. Bombs imply a down and outward movement, with things pounded to bits. Strikes imply an into and through movement, which sounds nicer. Our response is physical and instinctive, just as with the up/down distinction.

All this would be of merely curious interest were it not for the fact that metaphors make a difference to how we do things. Research suggests that talk of economic bangs and collapses has self-fulfilling effects, and that people approach law enforcement differently according to whether they think of crime as a "spreading virus" or a "ravening beast". In medicine, metaphors of attack and defence can influence approaches to dealing with disease.

In politics, however, the situation is complicated by politicians' habit of using language to manipulate the public and each other. It is not easy to distinguish between a soundbite coined to placate the masses and a genuine conceptual metaphor to which the politicians themselves are in thrall, and of which they should beware.

Either way, once we start seeing something as a crossed line, a window of opportunity or a lightning strike, it can be hard to control our responses. We cannot help thinking metaphorically – that is how we are made – but we can reflect on it. We should do so, at the least, whenever we are asked to turn into poodles, get up from our chairs or strike anything.

Bakewell, Sarah. 2013. “How we're herded by language”. The Guardian. Posted: September 6, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Researchers discover rare fossil ape cranium in China

A team of scientists from Penn State, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Arizona State University, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, and the Yunnan Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute has announced a new cranium of a fossil ape from Shuitangba, a Miocene site in Yunnan Province, China.

The new juvenile cranium of the fossil ape Lufengpithecus, recently described online in the Chinese Science Bulletin, is a significant discovery because juvenile crania of apes and hominins are extremely rare in the fossil record, especially those of infants and young juveniles. The new cranium is only the second relatively complete cranium of a young juvenile in the entire Miocene (23-5 million years ago) record of fossil apes throughout the Old World, and both were discovered from the late Miocene of Yunnan Province. The new cranium is also noteworthy for its age. Shuitangba, the site from which it was recovered, at just over 6 million years, dates to near the end of the Miocene, a time when apes had become extinct in most of Eurasia. Shuitangba has also produced remains of the fossil monkey, Mesopithecus, which represents the earliest occurrence of monkeys in East Asia.

"The fossils recovered from Shuitangba constitute one of the most important collections of late Miocene fossils brought to light in recent decades because they represent a snapshot from a critical transitional period in earth history,” said Dr. Nina Jablonski, co-author and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Penn State. “The ape featured in the current paper typifies animals from the lush tropical forests that blanketed much of the world's subtropical and tropical latitudes during the Miocene epoch, while the monkey and some of the smaller mammals exemplify animals from the more seasonal environments of recent times."

Jay Kelley, Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, said, “The preservation of the new cranium is excellent, with only minimal post-depositional distortion. This is important because all previously discovered adult crania of the species to which it is assigned, Lufengpithecus lufengensis, were badly crushed and distorted during the fossilization process. In living ape species, cranial anatomy in individuals at the same stage of development as the new fossil cranium already show a close resemblance to those of adults.

“Therefore, the new cranium, despite being from a juvenile, gives researchers the best look at the cranial anatomy of Lufengpithecus lufengensis,” he noted. “Partly because of where and when Lufengpithecus lived, it is considered by most to be in the lineage of the extant orangutan, now confined to Southeast Asia but known from the late Pleistocene of southern China as well. “

The team notes that however, the new cranium shows little resemblance to those of living orangutans, and in particular, shows none of what are considered to be key diagnostic features of orangutan crania. Lufengpithecus therefore appears to represent a late surviving lineage of Eurasian apes, but with no certain affinities yet clear. The survival of this lineage is not entirely surprising since southern China was less affected by the climatic deterioration during the later Miocene that resulted in the extinction of many ape species throughout the rest of Eurasia. The researchers are hopeful that renewed excavations will produce the remains of adult individuals, which will allow them to better assess both the relationships among members of this lineage as well as the relationships of this lineage to other fossil and extant apes.

"In addition to the ape, we have recovered hundreds of specimens of other animals and plants," said co-author Dr. Denise Su, Curator of Paleobotany and Paleoecology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "We are looking forward to going back to Shuitangba next year to continue fieldwork and, hopefully, find more specimens of not only the ape but other animals and plants that will tell us more about the environment. Given what we have recovered so far, Shuitangba has great potential to help us learn more about the environment in the latest part of the Miocene in southern China and the evolution of the plants and animals found there."

EurekAlert. 2013. “Researchers discover rare fossil ape cranium in China”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 6, 2013. Available online:

Friday, October 11, 2013

Finally Mapped: The Brain Region That Distinguishes Bits from Bounty

In comparing amounts of things -- be it the grains of sand on a beach, or the size of a sea gull flock inhabiting it -- humans use a part of the brain that is organized topographically, researchers have finally shown. In other words, the neurons that work to make this "numerosity" assessment are laid out in a shape that allows those most closely related to communicate and interact over the shortest possible distance.

This layout, referred to as a topographical map, is characteristic of all primary senses -- sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste -- and scientists have long assumed that numerosity, while not a primary sense (but perceived similarly to one), might be characterized by such a map, too.

But they have not been able to find it, which has caused some doubt in the field as to whether a map for numerosity exists.

Now, however, Utrecht University's Benjamin Harvey, along with his colleagues, have sussed out signals that illustrate the hypothesized numerosity map is real.

Numerosity, it is important to note, is distinct from symbolic numbers. "We use symbolic numbers to represent numerosity and other aspects of magnitude, but the symbol itself is only a representation," Harvey said. He went on to explain that numerosity selectivity in the brain is derived from visual processing of image features, where symbolic number selectivity is derived by recognizing the shapes of numerals, written words, and linguistic sounds that represent numbers. "This latter task relies on very different parts of the brain that specialize in written and spoken language."

Understanding whether the brain's processing of numerosity and symbolic numbers is related, as we might be tempted to think, is just one area that will be better informed by Harvey's new map.

To uncover it, he and his colleagues asked eight adult study participants to look at patterns of dots that varied in number over time, all the while analysing the neural response properties in a numerosity-linked part of their brain using high-field fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). Use of this advanced neuroimaging method allowed them to scan the subjects for far fewer hours per sitting than would have been required with a less powerful scanning technology.

With the fMRI data that resulted, Harvey and his team used population receptive field modelling, which aims to measure neural response as directly and quantitatively as possible. "This was the key to our success," Harvey said. It allowed the researchers to model the human fMRI response properties they observed following results of recordings from macaque neurons, in which numerosity experiments had been conducted more extensively.

Their efforts revealed a topographical layout of numerosity in the human brain; the small quantities of dots the participants observed were encoded by neurons in one part of the brain, and the larger quantities, in another.

This finding demonstrates that topography can emerge not just for lower-level cognitive functions, like the primary senses, but for higher-level cognitive functions, too.

"We are very excited that association cortex can produce emergent topographic structures," Harvey said.

Because scientists know a great deal about topographical maps (and have the tools to probe them), the work of Harvey et al. may help scientists better analyse the neural computation underlying number processing.

"We believe this will lead to a much more complete understanding of humans' unique numerical and mathematical skills," Harvey said.

Having heard from others in the field about the difficulty associated with the hunt for a topographical map of numerosity, Harvey and colleagues were surprised to obtain the results they did.

They also found the variations between their subjects interesting.

"Every individual brain is a complex and very different system," Harvey explained. "I was very surprised then that the map we report is in such a consistent location between our subjects, and that numerosity preferences always increased in the same direction along the cortex."

"On the other hand," he continued, "the extent of individual differences … is also striking." Harvey explained that understanding the consequences of these differences for their subjects' perception or task performance will require further study.

Science Daily. 2013. “Finally Mapped: The Brain Region That Distinguishes Bits from Bounty”. Science Daily. Posted: September 5, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Study finds language and tool-making skills evolved at the same time

Research by the University of Liverpool has found that the same brain activity is used for language production and making complex tools, supporting the theory that they evolved at the same time.

Researchers from the University tested the brain activity of 10 expert stone tool makers (flint knappers) as they undertook a stone tool-making task and a standard language test. They measured the brain blood flow activity of the participants as they performed both tasks using functional Transcranial Doppler Ultrasound (fTCD), commonly used in clinical settings to test patients' language functions after brain damage or before surgery.

The researchers found that brain patterns for both tasks correlated, suggesting that they both use the same area of the brain. Language and stone tool-making are considered to be unique features of humankind that evolved over millions of years. Darwin was the first to suggest that tool-use and language may have co-evolved, because they both depend on complex planning and the coordination of actions but until now there has been little evidence to support this.

Dr Georg Meyer, from the University Department of Experimental Psychology, said: "This is the first study of the brain to compare complex stone tool-making directly with language.

"Our study found correlated blood-flow patterns in the first 10 seconds of undertaking both tasks. This suggests that both tasks depend on common brain areas and is consistent with theories that tool-making and language co-evolved and share common processing networks in the brain."

Dr Natalie Uomini from the University's Department of Archaeology, Classics & Egyptology, said: "Nobody has been able to measure brain activity in real time while making a stone tool. This is a first for both archaeology and psychology."

EurekAlert. 2013. “Study finds language and tool-making skills evolved at the same time”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 2, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Code of Hammurabi: Ancient Babylonian Laws

The Code of Hammurabi refers to a set of rules or laws enacted by the Babylonian King Hammurabi (reign 1792-1750 B.C.). The code governed the people living in his fast-growing empire. By the time of Hammurabi's death, his empire included much of modern-day Iraq, extending up from the Persian Gulf along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

There are as many as 300 laws that discuss a wide range of subjects, including homicide, assault, divorce, debt, adoption, tradesman’s fees, agricultural practices, and even disputes regarding the brewing of beer.

The code is best known from a stele made of black diorite, more than seven feet (2.25 meters) tall, that is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The stele was found at the site of Susa, in modern-day Iran, by excavators who were led by Jacques de Morgan at the beginning of the 20th century. Scholars believe that it was brought to Susa in the 12th century B.C. by an Elamite ruler who subsequently erased a portion of it in preparation for creating an inscription of his own.

Originally, Hammurabi would have displayed the stele at the site of Sippar, in modern-day Iraq, likely in a prominent temple. In ancient times, Sippar was the home of the sun god Shamash, and the top of the stele shows an image of Hammurabi before this god, with rays coming from Shamash’s shoulders. Scholars widely believe that other, now lost, steles would have existed in other cities in Babylon that were controlled by Hammurabi.

After Hammurabi’s death, his system of laws became something of a classic in the ancient world, and scholars have found examples of them written on tablets, which were copied as late as the 5th century B.C., more than a millennium after Hammurabi’s death.

The term “Code” of Hammurabi is a modern one, so named after the 19th-century “Code Napoleon.” Scholars today debate the meaning behind the stele that is now in the Louvre and whether the rules Hammurabi enacted truly represent a full law code.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, Hammurabi himself states in the prologue to his laws that his right to make them was one given by the gods themselves.

“Anu and Enlil ordained Hammurabi, a devout prince who fears the gods, to demonstrate justice within the land, to destroy evil and wickedness, to stop the mighty exploiting the weak, to rise like Shamash over the mass of humanity, illuminating the land …” (Translation from "The New Complete Code of Hammurabi," by H. Dieter Viel, University Press of America, 2012)

A harsh and unequal law

Each law consists of a potential case followed by a prescribed verdict. The verdicts could be very harsh indeed, and Columbia University professor Marc van de Mieroop notes in his book "King Hammurabi of Babylon" (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) that the death penalty is listed as punishment no fewer than 30 times. It was the punishment given even for “the theft of temple or palace property or when a runaway slave is given refuge,” van de Mieroop writes.

Furthermore, the punishments ordered were by no means uniform but rather depended on the social status of the accused and the accuser. The punishments were only “eye for an eye” if the two individuals involved were socially equal.

For instance, van de Mieroop notes that if a member of the elite blinded a commoner or broke the commoner's bone, that elite person had to pay one pound of silver as penalty. On the other hand, if a person struck someone who was of a higher social status, then that person can expect severe punishment:

“If a member of the elite strike the cheek of a member of the elite who is of a higher social status than him, he shall be flogged in public with 60 strikes of an ox-whip,” reads one law (translation from van de Mieroop’s book).

Women could not necessarily expect equal treatment either. One law reads, “if a finger has been pointed at a man’s wife because of some male but she has not been caught copulating with another male, she shall leap into the River for the sake of her husband,” (translation by H. Dieter Viel).

On the other hand a woman could, depending on the circumstances, get an inheritance. There were laws protecting a woman in the event that her husband was taken captive in war and had to live with another man when her food ran out. There were also laws that governed the support a temple-woman should receive from her brothers after her father had died.

Burden on the accuser and judges

In the laws, it is clear that not only is there a burden on the accused but also on the accuser should they be unable to prove their case.

For instance, the penalty for homicide states that “if a man has made allegations against another man, and he has laid a charge of homicide against him but is unable to substantiate his guilt, the one who made the allegations against him shall be killed.” (Translation by H. Dieter Viel)

Judges were also held to a certain standard in the laws. Hammurabi ruled a vast empire and would not have been able to rule on every case himself. Van de Mieroop notes that in the king’s absence, a committee of men from the communities involved could act as a judge in Hammurabi’s place.

The penalties for a judge trying to change a sealed verdict was severe, “he shall pay 12 times the amount of the loss which had occasioned the trial,” reads the law in question.

How were the laws formed?

Hammurabi was not the first ruler in the Middle East to write down laws. Dominique Charpin, a professor at École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, writes in his book "Writing, Law and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia" (University of Chicago Press, 2010) that scholars know of the existence of three law codes, set down by kings, that preceded Hammurabi.

The oldest was written by Ur-Nammu, a king of Ur, who reigned 2111-2094 B.C., about three centuries before Hammurabi. “These older codes obviously inspired that of Hammurabi,” Charpin writes.

In addition, Hammurabi would probably have drawn on his own personal experiences in putting together his laws, basing them in part on past cases that he had ruled on.

A full law code?

Scholars have noted problems in reading Hammurabi’s laws as a full law code in the modern sense. For instance, van de Mieroop notes that the code does not cover every dispute that could have arisen and contains inconsistencies.

“One law demands the death penalty when something is accepted for safekeeping without a proper document, because the recipient is a thief,” van de Mieroop writes. On the other hand, a related law simply states that “if a man gives goods for safekeeping without witnesses or a contract and they deny that he gave it, that case has no basis for a claim.”

Van de Mieroop also notes that “in the extensive documentation of court cases judged in Hammurabi’s reign and afterwards there is no reference to a collection of laws that was the basis for a decision.”

The purpose of the stele

Another problem that researchers face is what was the purpose of the stele, now in the Louvre, that originally would have been displayed at Sippar? Charpin notes that, even if one could read, the stele would be difficult to use as a reference to look up a law.

Van de Mieroop writes that the answer to this mystery appears to lie in the stele’s epilogue, a section of writing after the laws were given. In it Hammurabi makes two main points, one is that anyone in his kingdom could come to the statue, see (or hear) the words on it and “understand his problem, and may he be content in his heart.” In other words it was a monument to the king’s sense of justice and a way to make his subjects feel better when they felt they had been wronged.

The second point the epilogue makes is that the kings who succeed Hammurabi should not change or disregard these laws or try to alter the identity of the person who made them.

If any future ruler does try this Hammurabi puts a lengthy curse on them. “Anu, the father of the gods, the one who designated me to rule, will surely remove from him the splendour of sovereignty, whether that man is a king or a lord or a governor or a person appointed to some other function, and he will smash his staff and curse his destiny…” part of Hammurabi’s curse reads (translation by H. Dieter Viel). In other words the stele was also a monument stating that Hammurabi’s sense of justice should rule over the land forever.

Jarus, Owen. 2013. “Code of Hammurabi: Ancient Babylonian Laws”. Live Science. Posted: September 3, 2013. Available online: