Archive for May, 2013


Topic: ancient clam sites

The excavation of what appears to be an ancient food storage system along the beach of Russell Island, between Fulford Harbour and Swartz Bay, is helping to cast more light on the history and development of local aboriginal groups.

Six years after researchers discovered two clam gardens along the beachfront, University of Victoria students are sifting through sand, gravel and shells to figure out how and when the gardens were built. Some researchers have suggested the gardens helped augment a community’s food supply.

The gardens are beach areas where clams grow naturally and have been enhanced to increase clam production.

“From some groups of elders we’ve talked to, they say these clam gardens basically acted as food banks,” said Nathan Cardinal, the cultural resource management adviser for the Gulf Island National Park Reserve. “If they couldn’t get enough food to get through the winter, they could come here and grab shellfish.”

For the past three years, anthropology students have pitched their tents and spent May and part of June studying historical aboriginal sites around Vancouver Island. The clam gardens they are studying are small fields built on the beach at low tide with surrounding rock walls. The walls acted as a barrier to keep out seaweed and prevent predators from destroying the growing clams and other shellfish.

Like vegetable gardeners, those who tended the clam beds would till the sand, turning it over to provide the clams more oxygen.

“It shows that people didn’t passively react to their environment but rather created their own landscape,” said instructor Eric McLay.

McLay estimates the gardens on Russell Island are at least 1,000 years old. The island was once home to an aboriginal community and the clams may have been used for trade.

Clam gardens are a relatively new discovery for archeologists. The first one was found in the Broughton Archipelago in 1995. Since then, gardens have been discovered along coastlines from B.C. to Alaska.

For the UVic students, this week marks the one time each year that there’s a three-day window when the tides will be lowest, helping them get a clearer picture of the gardens.

Aboriginal representatives have joined the students to help teach about the role the gardens played in their culture.

Phillip Joe, a member of the Cowichan Tribe, said he remembers his grandparents telling him stories about the gardens. “The clam gardens are only a little bit of our culture, and there’s a lot more to be explained,” he said.

Original article:

times colonist


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Topic: ancient cooking pot found underground

In advance of the creation of an artisan centre in the federated districts of Bléré-Val-de-Cher, central France, archaeologists have been excavating Neolithic, Antique and Medieval remains. Among the Medieval remains, a well preserved underground refuge chamber was discovered, representing a rare archaeological find.

Refuge of a local elite?

The entrance to the underground refuge was hidden under the floor of a small building on stilts.

The discovery of a ceramic cooking pot in the infill of the underground chamber allows it to be dated to the end of the 11th century. At this time, the Counts of Anjou and Blois were quarrelling over the possession of the Touraine region, where there was a large network of military installations.

The refuge is entered by a staircase dug into the ground and is composed of a network of several hallways and rooms extending along more than fifteen linear metres. It is narrow and low (0.50 m wide on average, and 1.15 to 1.55 m high) and appears to have served as a refuge based on several elements, such as right-angled “elbows” that would have hidden the occupants and slowed down an assailant. The entrance was closed off by a door at the bottom of the staircase, and another protected the access to the three hallways. The chamber could also have been used to store and protect food from looters.

Interior space

The interior contains rather elaborate modifications including twenty niches to hold old lamps, benches carved into the limestone, a small well, fed by the groundwater table and boards to level the ground surface. All of these elements suggest that it could accommodate five or six persons for a prolonged period, possibly a small family unit belonging to the local elite.

Laboratory analyses

A series of laboratory analyses will contribute to the knowledge and understanding of this Medieval site. A pottery specialist will study the sherds and vases recovered from the infill of the underground chamber, a dendrochronologist will determine the date at which the trees were cut down to make the planks and a xylologist will identify their species. Radiometric dates will also be obtained. The traces left by the tools and techniques used to cut the stone will provide information on how the refuge was dug out. All of this data will be used to verify the hypotheses proposed by the archaeologists and help to clarify the age of this exceptional site.

Original article:
past horizons
May 28, 2013



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Topic: Fremont diet

It seems the ancient Fremont people would have taken a real fancy to scones, Jell-O, funeral potatoes and Dutch Ovens.

Granted, Utah’s signature foods were not exactly on Fremont menus 1,000 years ago, but these early state dwellers did chow down on bone, hide and connective tissues, from which gelatin is derived. They also consumed plenty of bread- and potato-related food items found in their maize, tubers and rhizomes, and engaged in some serious containment cooking.

Bon appétit!

Food sustains and even explains a little bit about the people who consume it.

Yes, people are what they eat and that is why Timothy Riley, archaeologist with Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum, is so interested in determining who the Fremont people were by what they ate. These mysterious people, who were both farmers and nomads, inhabited the region comprising Utah as well as parts of Idaho, Nevada and Colorado between 400-1350 A.D.

Plants and diet have always been a favorite topic for Riley and were the focus of a recent lecture he gave at USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum as part of Utah Archaeology Week. And best of all, he didn’t just talk about what the Fremont people ate; he dished it out in the form of a four-course evening of sampling.

Riley began with cattail and spring onion salad followed by dusky grouse with pinion nuts and Juniper berries. After that came tasty venison steak with dried and roasted pumpkin seeds – a definite crowd pleaser.

By the end of the evening, the 30 or so people in attendance experienced the Fremont culture as though they had been guests in their pithouses. The similarities between then and now made dining with the Fremont not only bearable to the palate but really quite pleasant.

Of course in order to develop his menu, Riley had to get his hands a little dirty because he could only determine what went in the mouths of the Fremonts by carefully studying what came out of them.

Yes, his menu was based on fossilized human waste, called coprolites.

And Riley couldn’t have been happier digging through the dung knowing it was for the greater good. There is much to be found in discards. What fascinated him was the amount of animal hair, fish, seeds, grass and fiber he found in Fremont waste.

Because such matter is not easily preserved, human coprolites are particularly rare and, shy of stumbling upon Fremont latrines, elusive. In fact, the best examples of Fremont feces finds date back to the 1960s and 70s from which Riley did his research. These samples were dug up by archaeologists at three Fremont sites in Utah, including the Hogup Cave site along the Great Salt Lake.

By studying the eating habits of the Fremont Indians, Riley knows when they were heavier into hunting and gathering and when they were more likely chilling in their pithouses as farmers. He can also tell you when they were physically healthiest – think Mediterranean Diet – and when they were likely dipping into their corn-only food storage.

“Coprolites actually do give you direct evidence that people were not just gathering these plants and using them for baskets and tools, they were also eating them and combining them and so the idea of menus and meals is something you can get at through coprolites.”

And to his biggest surprise, despite the plethora of Fremont granaries throughout the region storing all that maize, what was most abundant in the coprolites were wild seeds.

Of the 30 coprolites he analyzed, 17 reflected no field-grown foods. The remaining samples revealed eight with corn and the other five with corn and other domestic foods. At the sites where corn had been the most heavily ingested, such as the Hogup site, they also found greater nutritional stress. Maybe they figured out, and a little too late, that strictly farming was not good for their health – more nuts and berries were in order.

After 1150, they evidently switched primarily to a hunter-gatherer diet and were the better for it – their muscle mass increased and their nutrient stress decreased, as reflected in the Harris lines in teeth and skeletal robusticity based on muscle attachments, Riley said.

“It looks like people who were eating a lot of maize were actually probably the least healthy,” he said. “We see that a fair amount in hunter-gatherer versus agricultural populations. Hunter-gathers tend to have seasonal nutrition stress but they don’t have long-term nutritional deficiencies the same way agriculturalists tend to.”

After tasting the spring onion salad, the pinion nuts and pumpkin seeds, the palatable merits of mixing it up became especially apparent to Riley’s guests. But it was not just about the food that was prepared but also how it was prepared that was important to the evening. Archaeologists have determined that the Fremont people used cooking slabs, (like pizza stones), hand-held grinding stones, called manos, parching trays, boiling baskets and ceramic vessels.

The food on this particular night was prepared primarily through boiling in ceramic vessels, which made for tender and moist morsels. So not only did Riley prepare and serve what he said he’s 99 percent sure the Fremont people ate, he also cooked it up in the same ceramic fashion that they did. Utah’s fascination with Dutch Ovens appears to run deeper than anyone could have imagined.

Original article:

May 23, 2013

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Topic: Ancient trading center

Excavations at an archaeological site in Bahrain are shedding light on one of the oldest trading civilisations.

Despite its antiquity, comparatively little is known about the advanced culture represented at Saar.

The site in Bahrain, thought to be the location of the enigmatic Dilmun civilisation, was recently discussed at a conference in Manama, the Gulf nation’s capital, organised by the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural body (Unesco).

The meeting was devoted to wide-ranging debate on heritage tourism; Bahrain is a Unesco regional headquarters and one of its key attractions is an abundance of ancient sites.

At Saar (named after the closest modern village), with the scorching sun rising ever higher in the sky, a Bahraini archaeologist patiently explained to a group of workers how to re-point a low wall in a state of near collapse.

This meticulous maintenance of the archaeological settlement marks a turning point in the way Bahraini specialists are dealing with the vast store of historical remains on the island.

According to Salman al-Mahari, the Bahraini archaeologist in charge, the Saar settlement divides into two: a residential zone and, at a small distance, the cemetery where the inhabitants buried their dead.

Archaeologists have uncovered a cemetery some distance from Saar’s residential zone
“This site has provided a lot of information about daily life,” he explains. “This has enabled us to compare finds made here with objects unearthed at other locations on the island. It is evident that this city and graveyard date back to the early Dilmun period.”

Dilmun, one of most important ancient civilisations of the region and said to date to the third millennium BC, was a hub on a major trading route between Mesopotamia – the world’s oldest civilisation – and the Indus Valley in South Asia.

It is also believed that Dilmun had commercial ties with ancient sites at Elam in Oman, Alba in Syria and Haittan in Turkey.

As Salman al-Mahari confirms, the team is now preserving what has been found to ensure that the historical findings are made accessible.

“For 4,000 years this site was underground so it was sheltered,” he says. “Now after excavation, it is exposed to the elements. We have no immediate plans to carry out further excavations. We want to protect the site and to interpret what we have unearthed for visitors.”

The Saar site is far from being the most significant relic of the Dilmun era. On the northern tip of the island, archaeological expeditions have uncovered seven successive levels of settlements at the Qal’at al Bahrain (the fort of Bahrain). Under the oldest and most extensive fort, three consecutive Dilmun cities as well as a Greek city dating back to 200 BC have been unearthed.

The site is impressive: the outer walls enclose an area of several hundred square metres. At its centre lie massive carved stones marking the entrance and walls of a chamber containing an altar once flanked by copper-faced pillars.

The Dilmun civilisation was a trading link between the Middle East and South Asia
Next to it is another structure where the presence of blackened animal bones and charred earth suggest a chamber for sacrifices to the gods.

On the other side of the central altar, a flight of carved steps leads down to a pool, a deep, stone-walled well built over one of the numerous underground springs where one of three principal Sumerian deities – Enki, the water-dwelling god of wisdom – supposedly lived.

The abundance of sweet water flowing from springs which still supply the island with much of its drinking water was one of the cornerstones of Dilmun. The island was an oasis of fertility in ancient times in a mainly desolate region. This could have given rise to a legend that Bahrain may even have been the biblical Garden of Eden.

But as Abdullah Hassan Yehia, the keeper of the Qal’at al Bahrain, explains, the fertile nature of the island encouraged more than just agriculture (Dilmun was famed for its vegetable production). There is strong evidence of religious practices and beliefs that can be compared with those in other advanced societies of the time.

“The belief system here has a lot in common with those of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt,” he says. “Belief in the after-life is shown by burying the dead with possessions such as tools, food, drinking vessels and gold. We’ve even found weapons.”

Abdullah Hassan Yehia also explains that the Dilmun merchants had a monopoly of trade in copper, a precious commodity which was shipped from the mines of Oman to the cities of Mesopotamia. But he debunks the theory that Bahrain may have been used by prehistoric inhabitants of the Arabian mainland as a cemetery.

The fort overlies three consecutive Dilmun cities
The island has approximately 170,000 burial mounds covering an area of 30 square kilometres or 5% of the main island area.

The majority of the burial grounds date back to the second and third centuries BC but some are as recent as 2,000 years old. The oldest and largest burial mounds, referred to as the “Royal Tombs”, are found at Aali and measure up to 15m in height and 45m in diameter.

Archaeologist Salman Al-Mahari agrees: “There were a number of large population centres on the island. We have calculated that there would have been a significant number of deaths of both adults and children who would have been buried here,” he says.

This sort of debate is exactly what Khalifa Ahmed Al Khalifa, assistant director of programmes at the Arab regional Centre for World Heritage is keen to encourage.

Khalifa Ahmed al-Khalifa from the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage explains why it is time to make the “extraordinary artefacts” available to the public

“There has been a lot of academic work carried out over the past decades,” he recaps. “The idea is to simplify and interpret all this academic information so that local people and international visitors can grasp the importance of our heritage.”

Using Saar as an example, he continues. “It includes houses, restaurants, commercial outlets, a cemetery and a place of worship. These are all part of a modern city.”

“One of the characteristics of Saar are its honeycomb-shaped burial complexes. This is the sort of thing that people find fascinating,” he adds. “As long as it is presented in an easily digestible way.”

While academic research continues into life 4,000 years ago in Dilmun, with an emphasis on trade, diet, gods, pottery and other industries as well as local burial customs, there is now a focus on making everything interesting to the layperson.

“It’s quite a challenge that we’re facing,” says Khalifa Ahmed al-Khalif. “But with the help of new technology we’ll be able to place Bahrain on the [ancient] global map.”

Original article:
By By Sylvia Smith
BBC News, Manama, Bahrain
May 20, 2013


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Topic: The potato

It is the first time scientists have decoded the genome of a plant pathogen and its plant host from dried herbarium samples. This opens up a new area of research to understand how pathogens evolve and how human activity impacts the spread of plant disease.

Phytophthora infestans changed the course of history. Even today, the Irish population has still not recovered to pre-famine levels. “We have finally discovered the identity of the exact strain that caused all this havoc”, says Hernán Burbano from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology.

Many intact pieces of DNA

For research to be published in eLife, a team of molecular biologists from Europe and the US reconstructed the spread of the potato blight pathogen from dried plants. Although these were 170 to 120 years old, they were found to have many intact pieces of DNA.

“Herbaria represent a rich and untapped source from which we can learn a tremendous amount about the historical distribution of plants and their pests – and also about the history of the people who grew these plants,” according to Kentaro Yoshida from The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich.

Irish potato famine pathogen

The researchers examined the historical spread of the fungus-like oomycete Phytophthora infestans, known as the Irish potato famine pathogen. A strain called US-1 was long thought to have been the cause of the fatal outbreak. The current study concludes that a strain new to science was responsible. While more closely related to the US-1 strain than to other modern strains, it is unique. “Both strains seem to have separated from each other only years before the first major outbreak in Europe,” says Burbano.

The researchers compared the historic samples with modern strains from Europe, Africa and the Americas as well as two closely related Phytophthora species. The scientists were able to estimate with confidence when the various Phytophthora strains diverged from each other during evolutionary time. The HERB-1 strain of Phytophthora infestans likely emerged in the early 1800s and continued its global conquest throughout the 19th century. Only in the twentieth century, after new potato varieties were introduced, was HERB-1 replaced by another Phytophthora infestans strain, US-1.

Several connections with historic events

The scientists found several connections with historic events. The first contact between Europeans and Americans in Mexico in the sixteenth century coincides with a remarkable increase in the genetic diversity of Phytophthora. The social upheaval during that time may have led to a spread of the pathogen from its centre of origin in Toluca Valley, Mexico. This in turn would have accelerated its evolution.

The international team came to these conclusions after deciphering the entire genomes of 11 historical samples of Phytophthora infestans from potato leaves collected over more than 50 years. These came from Ireland, the UK, Europe and North America and had been preserved in the herbaria of the Botanical State Collection Munich and the Kew Gardens in London.

“Both herbaria placed a great deal of confidence in our abilities and were very generous in providing the dried plants,” said Marco Thines from the Senckenberg Museum and Goethe University in Frankfurt, one of the co-authors of this study. “The degree of DNA preservation in the herbarium samples really surprised us,” adds Johannes Krause from the University of Tübingen, another co-author. Because of the remarkable DNA quality and quantity in the herbarium samples, the research team could evaluate the entire genome of Phytophthora infestans and its host, the potato, within just a few weeks.

Crop breeding methods may impact on the evolution of pathogens. This study directly documents the effect of plant breeding on the genetic makeup of a pathogen. “Perhaps this strain became extinct when the first resistant potato varieties were bred at the beginning of the twentieth century,” speculates Yoshida. “What is for certain is that these findings will greatly help us to understand the dynamics of emerging pathogens. This type of work paves the way for the discovery of many more treasures of knowledge hidden in herbaria.”

Original article:
past horizons
May 22, 2013

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Topic: Flint tools

The flint workshops, remains of which were found by archaeologists, had been used by Neanderthals. The researchers are waiting for more detailed information on the site dating. The workshop is certainly more than 45 thousand years old.

“Tools were made by a specific canon of Neanderthals living in Central Europe. These items have a cutting edge on both sides, they are bifacial” – said Dr. Wiśniewski.

Tools, including bifaces and asymmetric blades, are made of siliceous rocks, commonly called flint. According to head researcher, Neanderthals made their tools with holders made of antlers, wood or other materials. This is evidenced by the results of the microscopic analysis of similar items discovered in Germany. Among the flint, archaeologists also found fragments of coarse grained crystalline rock used as pestles – support tools in the manufacture of other tools. This is one of few places in Poland, where archaeologists discovered tools of this kind.

“We believe that a thorough analysis of the remains of biface and knife workshop will allow us to better understand the procedures for making these complex tools. We are also going to compare our finds with the ones from Moravia, because we would like to answer the question asked for a long time: how were the Neanderthals living the present territory of Silesia connected with the group from Moravia? Was it the same population or a completely separate community?” – added the scientist.

According to archaeologists, the place the discovery is not accidental. Further south is the Moravian Gate, known migration route of nations from southern European over the millennia. This is one of the Central Europe’s largest corridors intersecting Sudetes and Carpathian Mountains.

“In this territory, we are finding traces of various activities: from hunting and slaughtering migrating wild game, to places of prolonged stay of Neanderthal groups of hunters and gatherers” – said the archaeologist. However, this is the first site so rich in finds from the Paleolithic period found in this area.

Archaeological work on the site began in August 2012 and will continue this summer. One of the first tasks will be to take samples needed for more accurate dating of the site. The analyses will be carried out by thermoluminescence (TL). It is used to determine the age of deposition of particular layers. Also involved in the work in the area of the site is Dr. Janusz Badura, responsible for natural research.

“We also need to learn more about the natural and climatic conditions accompanying the Neanderthals. This is the purpose of the search for sediments containing pollen from the period of interest. Our dream is to discovery skeletal remains of the game of the period” – concluded the researcher.


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Topic: Ancients in New Zealand

A University of Otago-led multidisciplinary team of scientists have shed new light on the diet, lifestyles and movements of the first New Zealanders by analysing isotopes from their bones and teeth.

In research published today in the prestigious international journal PLOS ONE, the team are able to identify what is likely to be the first group of people to colonise Marlborough’s Wairau Bar possibly from Polynesia around 700 years ago. They also present evidence suggesting that individuals from two other groups buried at the site had likely lived in different regions of New Zealand before being buried at Wairau Bar.

The researchers, co-ordinated by the Department of Anatomy’s Associate Professor Hallie Buckley, undertook isotopic analyses of samples recovered from the koiwi tangata (human remains) of the Rangitane iwi tupuna prior to their reburial at Wairau Bar in 2009.

The Wairau Bar Koiwi Project is part of a larger archaeological project being conducted in collaboration with the Rangitane iwi, the Canterbury Museum and the University of Otago. The interpretation of these new data was strengthened by collaboration with colleagues from SPAR, the University of Otago archaeologists who undertook the more recent archaeological excavations at the site.

“By examining ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes present in bone collagen we were able to estimate individuals’ broad dietary makeup over a 10-20 year period prior to death. Our analysis of strontium isotopes in teeth allowed us to distinguish between people growing up in geologically different landscapes,” says Dr Rebecca Kinaston, who conducted the isotope analyses on the bones and teeth.

The tupuna were originally buried in three separate groups in a large village at the Wairau site. First excavated over 70 years ago, this ancient settlement is one of the most important archaeological sites in New Zealand because of its age and the range of east Polynesian type artefacts found there.

Previous research found that one of the burial groups displayed distinct cultural differences to the two other burial groups at the site. These included the positions in which they were interred and the presence of more numerous and rich grave offerings, including whale bone ornaments and moa eggs generally not found with the other two groups.

The new isotopic analysis of bone collagen and teeth suggests that members of this first group shared similar diets and childhood origins, while individuals in Groups 2 and 3 displayed highly variable diets and spent their childhood in geologically different areas to Group 1.

“Interestingly, Group 1 individuals showed a dietary trend similar to that identified in prehistoric individuals from a site in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, with both sets of people sharing a low diversity in protein sources,” Dr Kinaston says.

In contrast, dietary patterns in Groups 2 and 3 were found to be in line with individuals who spent most of their lives eating from a wide range of protein sources, such as would be available through New Zealand’s then bountiful seal, moa and other bird populations.

The large range found in Group 2 and 3’s strontium isotope ratios could reflect that they grew up in regions outside of Wairau Bar—but not where Group 1 did—and also that they were hunting and gathering across a wide geographical range, says Associate Professor Hallie Buckley.

“This is consistent with other archaeological evidence that the first settlers in New Zealand were highly mobile. That members of Groups 2 and 3 were still buried back at Wairau suggests that this village may have fulfilled both a ceremonial and home base function.”

If this is the case, this may represent the roots of the tangihanga ritual, in which Maori are buried in their ancestral lands, developing among these first New Zealanders, Associate Professor Buckley says.

Original article:
May 16, 2013

Info on Wairau Bar

This site is known as Wairau Bar, because a bar or bank of gravel has formed where the Wairau River meets the sea. Early Polynesians used the site as a moa-hunting camp, and archaeological excavations have revealed the butchered remains of countless huge birds, together with human skeletons. As the moa is now thought to have become extinct very quickly, possibly within 100–200 years of human settlement, those who hunted it must have been among the first generations of Polynesian arrivals. In addition, the types of cultural objects (artefacts) found with skeletons at Wairau Bar are of a distinct early form that has close affinities with artefacts from the Cook, Society and Marquesas islands in East Polynesia.

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