Archive for August, 2012


Topic: Ancient drink from holly plant

Like other pre-Columbian Native Americans in the southeastern U.S., people living 700 to 900 years ago in Cahokia, a large settlement distinquished by its massive earthenwork mounds in south-western Illinoise, consumed a “black drink”, a caffeinated drink made from the leaves of a holly tree that grew hundreds of miles away from the Cahokia site, according to a recent study. Consumption of the brew, according to the researchers, had a ritualistic or religious significance.

The discovery was made as the research team, consisting of scientists at the University of Illinois, the University of New Mexico, Millsaps College in Mississippi and Hershey Technical Center in Pennsylvania, were sampling plant residue found within distinct and relatively rare ancient cylindrical Cahokian beakers. They found key biochemical markers, which included theobromine, caffeine and ursolic acid, proportioned much like that found within drinking vessels at other sites in the southeastern U.S. The beakers, dating from A.D. 1050 to 1250, were found at ritual sites in and around Cahokia.

Anthropologist Patricia Crowan of the University of New Mexico and chemist Jeffrey Hunt of the Hershey Technical Center conducted the chemical analyses. The study was in part an outgrowth of a similar project where they performed tests on ceramic vessels found at the Chaco Canyon archaeological site in New Mexico. In A.D. 1100-1125, the inhabitants of Chaco consumed liquid chocolate from special ceramic vessels found there, as the ancient Maya did in Mexico and Central America centuries before.

“This finding brings to us a whole wide spectrum of religious and symbolic behavior at Cahokia that we could only speculate about in the past,” said Thomas Emerson, the director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey and a collaborator on the study.

Moreover, the findings add to the evidence for a widespread trade network between Cahokia and other settlements throughout the North American continent, particularly with those of the southeast. Says Emerson: “I would argue that it was the first pan-Indian city in North America, because there are both widespread contacts and emigrants. The evidence from artifacts indicates that people from a broad region (what is now the Midwest and southeast U.S.) were in contact with Cahokia. This is a level of population density, a level of political organization that has not been seen before in North America.”

Although the “black drink” appears to represent trade, the Cahokia beakers themselves are considered to be locally made. As cylindrical pots with a handle on one side and a tiny lip on the other, many of them are carved with symbols representing water and the underworld, similar to the whelk shells used in black drink ceremonies recorded by early European explorers in the southeast, where the source of the drink, the Yaupon holly, grows. The Yaupon holly contains very high levels of caffeine, possibly as much as six times that of strong coffee. Rapidly drinking large quantities of it, as described in the early accounts, caused vomiting, an intentional part of a purification ritual practiced before battle or other important events.

Residents of Cahokia, a massive pre-Columbian settlement near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, consumed “Black Drink” from special pottery vessels like this one. Credit: L. Brian Stauffer

Concurrent with the black drink, a series of figurines representing agricultural fertility, the underworld and life-renewal were produced from local pipestone. Most of these figurines were discovered associated with temple sites.

“We postulate that this new pattern of agricultural religious symbolism is tied to the rise of Cahokia – and now we have black drink to wash it down with,” Emerson said.

Greater Cahokia, a city with as many as 50,000 residents in its heyday during the 12th and 13th centuries A.D., was the largest prehistoric North American settlement north of Mexico. But its sudden emergence and decline within a 200-year period has remained a mystery among scholars. Despite its short-lived existence, however, its influence on art, religion and architecture is seen at settlements as far away as present-day Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Wisconsin.

The new findings are currently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as “Ritual Black Drink Consumption at Cahokia”.

The pre-Columbian settlement at Cahokia was the largest city in North America north of Mexico, with as many as 50,000 people living there at its peak. Credit: Painting by Lloyd K. Townsend. Image courtesy of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois.

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Topic: Early Fisherman

Before I get to my ancient food post for today, I wanted to thank everyone who follows, looks at or likes my blog! As of about twenty minutes or so ago I have had over 50,000 hits on my site in the almost three years I have been blogging. For a subject I was unsure anyone would be interested in, these statistics are overwelming. Thank you again and keep reading, I’m just getting started!


A fishermen’s hut (verbúð in Icelandic) from the first part of the 15th century was discovered during archaeological research at Gufuskálavör on Snæfellsnes peninsula this summer. It is likely the first verbúð from that period to be excavated in its entirety.

“We have obtained a pretty good picture of what fishermen’s huts looked like in the 15th century,” archaeologist Lilja Björk Pálsdóttir, who leads the excavation at Gufuskálavör, told Morgunblaðið.

Rowboats were operated by fishermen at Gufuskálavör for centuries, at least from the 13th century and until the 20th century.

The remains of the huts are located on the seashore and are threatened by erosion and so Lilja Björk and her associates are racing against the forces of nature.

The remains resembled sand-covered hillocks in the landscape and have not been studied to any large extent before.

“We never suspected that these sand dunes were anything else than sand dunes that had occurred through relocation of the soil. I at least was surprised to see these remains appear,” commented former parliamentarian Skúli Alexandersson, who chairs the district council in Hellissandur.

He is interested in the area’s history and has monitored the progress of the archaeologists closely. “It is very valuable to excavate these human settlements and to try to determine who built them and how they were used.”

Verbúð is typically a temporary dwelling for fishermen, who worked as farmers or farmhands or tended to other duties outside of the fishing season. However, in the hut excavated at Gufuskálavör, there are indications that people lived there longer.

Most of the objects discovered are related to fishing, such as hooks, but also other objects, like knitting needles. A dice made from walrus tooth surprised archaeologists, because the material is expensive and fishermen weren’t wealthy.

The Icelandic Institute of Archaeology is working on the excavation in collaboration with City University of New York, Stirling University in the UK, the Archaeological Heritage Agency of Iceland and Snæfellsjökull National Park.

In Bolungarvík in the West Fjords, visitors can familiarize themselves with the Icelandic verbúð in a living museum.

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July, 26 2012

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Topic: Ancient Drought

Ancient pollen and charcoal preserved in deeply buried sediments in Egypt’s Nile Delta document the region’s ancient droughts and fires, including a huge drought 4,200 years ago associated with the demise of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, the era known as the pyramid-building time.

“Humans have a long history of having to deal with climate change,” said Christopher Bernhardt, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Along with other research, this study geologically reveals that the evolution of societies is sometimes tied to climate variability at all scales — whether decadal or millennial.”

Bernhardt conducted this research as part of his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, along with Benjamin Horton, an associate professor in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science. Jean-Daniel Stanley at the Smithsonian Institution also participated in the study, published in July’s edition of Geology.

“Even the mighty builders of the ancient pyramids more than 4,000 years ago fell victim when they were unable to respond to a changing climate,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “This study illustrates that water availability was the climate-change Achilles Heel then for Egypt, as it may well be now, for a planet topping seven billion thirsty people.”

The researchers used pollen and charcoal preserved in a Nile Delta sediment core dating from 7,000 years ago to the present to help resolve the physical mechanisms underlying critical events in ancient Egyptian history.

They wanted to see if changes in pollen assemblages would reflect ancient Egyptian and Middle East droughts recorded in archaeological and historical records. The researchers also examined the presence and amount of charcoal because fire frequency often increases during times of drought, and fires are recorded as charcoal in the geological record. The scientists suspected that the proportion of wetland pollen would decline during times of drought and the amount of charcoal would increase.

And their suspicions were right.

Large decreases in the proportion of wetland pollen and increases in microscopic charcoal occurred in the core during four different times between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago. One of those events was the abrupt and global mega-drought of around 4,200 years ago, a drought that had serious societal repercussions, including famines, and which probably played a role in the end of Egypt’s Old Kingdom and affected other Mediterranean cultures as well.

“Our pollen record appears very sensitive to the decrease in precipitation that occurred in the mega-drought of 4,200 years ago,” Bernhardt said. “The vegetation response lasted much longer compared with other geologic proxy records of this drought, possibly indicating a sustained effect on delta and Nile basin vegetation.”

Similarly, pollen and charcoal evidence recorded two other large droughts: one that occurred some 5,000 to 5,500 years ago and another that occurred around 3,000 years ago.

These events are also recorded in human history — the first one started some 5,000 years ago when the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt occurred and the Uruk Kingdom in modern Iraq collapsed. The second event, some 3,000 years ago, took place in the eastern Mediterranean and is associated with the fall of the Ugarit Kingdom and famines in the Babylonian and Syrian Kingdoms.

“The study geologically demonstrates that when deciphering past climates, pollen and other micro-organisms, such as charcoal, can augment or verify written or archaeological records — or they can serve as the record itself if other information doesn’t exist or is not continuous,” said Horton.

This study, Nile delta response to Holocene climate variability, was published in the July edition of Geology, and was authored by Christopher Bernhardt, USGS; Benjamin Horton, Penn; and Jean-Daniel Stanley, Smithsonian Institution. Support for the work came from the University of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Smithsonian Institution.

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Topic: More on Silchester-Olive stone pre Roman:

The tiny skeleton of a dog at the Silchester dig

A single olive stone unearthed at the ancient town of Silchester is among the extraordinary finds that are leading archaeologists to rewrite British history.

By the gap in a hedge bordering the entrance off a muddy lane in Hampshire, the young diggers on one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in Britain have made a herb garden: four small square plots. The sudden blast of sunshine after months of heavy rain has brought everything into bloom, and there’s a heady scent of curry plant and dill, marigold and mint.

Many of the plant seeds are familiar from Roman sites across Britain, as the invaders brought the flavours and the medical remedies of the Mediterranean to their wind-blasted and sodden new territory, but there is something extraordinary about the seeds from the abandoned Iron Age and Roman town of Silchester.

Part of a folding knife found at Silchester

The excavation run every summer by Dr Amanda Clarke and Professor Michael Fulford of the archaeology department at Reading University, using hundreds of volunteer students, amateurs and professionals, now in its 15th season, is rewriting British history.

The banal seeds are astonishing because many came from a level dating to a century before the Romans. More evidence is emerging every day, and it is clear that from around 50BC the Iron Age Atrebates tribe, whose name survived in the Latin Calleva Atrebatum, the wooded place of the Atrebates, enjoyed a lifestyle that would have been completely familiar to the Romans when they arrived in AD43.

Their diet would also be quite familiar to many in 21st-century Britain. The people ate shellfish – previously thought to have been eaten only in coastal settlements – as well as cows, sheep, pigs, domesticated birds such as chicken and geese as well as wild fowl, and wheat, apples, blackberries, cherries and plums. They ate off plates, again previously thought a finicky Roman introduction, and flavoured their food with poppy seed, coriander, dill, fennel, onion and celery. They had lashings of wine, imported not just in clay amphorae but in massive barrels, and olive oil.

And they had olives. One tiny shrub in the herb garden represents the recent discovery, news of which went round the world: a single battered, charred olive stone excavated from the depths of a well, the earliest ever found in Britain. All the Atrebates needed for the perfect pizza was tomatoes to arrive from the new world.

They had other luxury imports, too: glass jugs and drinking glasses,  gold from Ireland, bronze jewellery and weapons from the continent, beautiful delicate pottery from Germany and France.

They also had town planning, another presumed later introduction. The Romans were undoubtedly better road engineers; in the torrential rain earlier this summer, their broad  north-south road, built with a camber and drainage ditches, stayed dry,  while the Iron Age road turned into a swampy river. But the evidence is  unarguable: the Iron Age people  lived in regular house plots flanking broad gravelled roads, aligned with the sunrises and sunsets of the summer and winter solstices, in a major town a century earlier than anyone had believed.

They feared gods who demanded sacrifices as startling as anything in a gothic novel. Ravens have been found buried across the site, as well as dozens of dog burials, not just slung into a well or cesspit but carefully buried, often with other objects, one with the body of an infant, one standing up as if on guard for 2,000 years. Another tiny skeleton, no bigger than a celebrity’s handbag dog, was one of a handful ever found in Europe from such an early date: the evidence suggests it lived for up to three years, and was then laid curled as if asleep into the foundations of a house. Only last Friday the skeleton of a cat turned up, carefully packed into a clay jar.

A unique folding knife showing two dogs mating, another fabulously expensive import, was also deliberately buried.

“We are only just beginning to get a handle on all this, as our excavation is really the first ever major modern exposure of a late Iron Age town in Britain, and we still have a long way to go,” says Fulford, who has been digging at Silchester since he was a junior lecturer in the 1970s, and expects the work to continue long after his day.

Fulford spends the winters brooding on each summer’s finds, and has reached the conclusion, startling even to him, that the town was at its height of population and wealth before the Romans arrived.

He believes it was founded around 50BC by Commius, an Atrobates leader once a trusted ally of Julius Caesar, who then joined an unsuccessful rebellion against him and had to leave Gaul sharpish. Whether Commius headed for an existing Atrobates settlement at Silchester, or started to build on a greenfield site, a defensible hill with excellent views, near the navigable Kennet and Thames, is, Fulford suggests, “a million-dollar question – why here?” They have found nothing earlier than 50BC – yet.

Commius’s town flourished, trading across Britain, Ireland and both Roman and Iron Age tribal Europe. The Callevans paid for their luxuries with exports of metalwork, wheat – the site is still surrounded by prime farm land, and there is evidence of grain-drying on an industrial scale – hunting dogs, and, almost certainly, slaves: British slaves and dogs were equally prized in continental Europe. They have also found evidence in little flayed bones for a more exotic craft industry, puppy-fur cloaks.

Commius was succeeded by three quarrelsome sons – significantly dubbing themselves on coins as “rex” or king – who successively deposed one another. The third, Verica, was toppled by local tribes and made a move that would change the course of British history: he fled to Rome and asked for help – and in AD43 the Romans came.

This summer the diggers are right down at the earliest Roman level, which suggests light, short-lived, possibly military buildings, in contrast with substantial pre-invasion structures including one massive rectangular house that may prove to be the largest Iron Age house in Britain. This week they are clearing a cesspit so neatly dug it must be military, so may soon know whether the Romans ate British wheat or Roman fish sauce.

Within 20 years, large parts of the town were torched, possibly in Boudicca’s rebellion of 60-61AD. More Roman buildings followed, including baths, temples, a forum market place and a huge basilica, but it would take another two centuries before the Atrebates street grid was wholly abandoned for the Roman compass points.

People have been fascinated by Silchester for centuries: there are records of King John visiting in the 13th century, and an inscribed memorial stone was excavated in the 16th century. From the 1890s the Society of Antiquaries mounted a 20-year excavation that uncovered the heart of the Roman town (missing much beyond the reach of Victorian science) but in the 1860s and 70s the vicar of Stratfield Saye, the memorably named James Joyce, a passionate amateur antiquarian, had already conscripted local agricultural labourers as excavators, with the backing of his landlord, the Duke of Wellington.

Joyce recorded his finds in beautiful watercolours, including the wonderful bronze eagle he found on 6 October 1866, the single most famous from the site. He interpreted it as a regimental standard, the pride and honour of its men, wrenched from its post and buried to save it from whatever disaster came in the scorched layer overlying it. The find inspired Rosemary Sutcliffe’s 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth, and last year’s Hollywood movie The Eagle.

Fulford believes the bird, though wonderful, is actually part of a monumental sculpture of a god or an emperor, which escaped being melted down when the great basilica became a scrapyard and workshop.

The eagle is in a major gallery in Reading museum with wonderful  finds from the site, but although the gallery was redisplayed only a few years ago, there is very little on the earliest years of Calleva Atrebatum: that story is only emerging from the ground now.

Some time between the fifth and seventh centuries, it all ended. Arguments break out regularly among the diggers about what happened: with the foundation and the Romanisation of the town, it is the third great research question that the excavation was set up to answer.

Jesse Coxey, a postgraduate archaeologist from Vancouver, who learned of the excavation while on a dig in Israel – “the folks there said you’d learn more in a fortnight at Silchester than in your entire degree course, and they were right” – still holds the traditional view that it was abandoned as the Roman empire began to disintegrate.

“I think the Romans just packed up and left – it was all falling apart, and if they didn’t go then they’d be left behind. There might have been a few squatters afterwards, but basically that was it.”

Clarke, after supervising the excavation of two noisome wells every season, up to six metres deep, and usually sodden and stinking at the bottom, wonders if they didn’t eventually just poison all their water sources. “We’ve been digging down through wells which became latrines over older wells and older latrines, layer upon layer. There must have been enormous problems with contaminated water on a site like this with no river. Maybe finally they just ran out of new places to dig wells.”

Whatever the cause, everyone left. They tumbled the walls of imposing civic buildings that had long since become workshops or cattle sheds, burying fine mosaic floors already scorched and cracked by fires lit directly on top of the subtle decoration. They filled in the wells. They may have cursed the site with ritual burials including pots symbolically “killed” by holes deliberately punched through them, so nobody else could live among the ruins.

Windblown soil filled the ditches and covered the paved roads, grass grew over the forum and the temple courtyards, and the great Iron Age hall, where once a tiny dog far from the land where it was born yapped for its share of the coriander-flavoured stew, became a low mound in a green field. Only the jagged broken teeth of the Roman brick and flint walls remained above ground.

Towns went on but Silchester didn’t. The settlements reached by the Romans’ main roads – Winchester, Dorchester, Cirencester, and Londinium far to the east – flourished. With the exception of one small medieval manor, now part of a farm, and the church of St Mary, which probably stands on a Roman temple, nobody ever built on or lived at Calleva Atrebatum to this day – except the archaeologists, who set up their tent city every summer, and resume the attempt to peel back the earth and time itself.

The site is owned by Hampshire County Council, and the walls, in the guardianship of English Heritage, are open every day of the year. The annual excavation is open free to the public every day except Friday until 12 August. On Saturday 4 August there will be guided tours, talks, displays of finds and demonstrations.

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By Maev Kennedy, July 31, 2012


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Topic Ancient turkeys

Turkey Bones


Earliest use of Mexican turkeys by ancient Maya.


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Topic Roman ship

Photo: A jar is recovered from the ancient Roman ship. Credit: Centro Carabinieri Subacquei.



An almost intact Roman ship has been found in the sea off the town on Varazze, some 18 miles from Genova, Italy.

The ship, a navis oneraria, or merchant vessel, was located at a depth of about 200 feet thanks to a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) following tips from fishermen who had caught some jars in their nets.


The ship sank about 2,000 years ago on her trade route between Spain and central Italy with a full cargo of more than 200 amphorae.

Test on some of the recovered jars revealed they contained pickled fish, grain, wine and oil. The foodstuffs were traded in Spain for other goods.

“There are some broken jars around the wreck, but we believe that most of the amphorae inside the ship are still sealed and food filled,” Lt. Col. Francesco Schilardi, who led the Carabinieri Subacquei (police divers), said.


The ship, which dates to sometime between the 1st Century B.C. and the 1st Century A.D., is hidden under layers of mud on the seabed, which has left the wreck and its cargo intact.

The vessel will remain hidden at the bottom of the sea until Italian authorities decide whether to raise it or not.

“Right now the area of the finding has been secured, and no fishing or water traffic is allowed,” Lt. Col. Schilardi said.

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byRossella Lorenz

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