Archive for August, 2013


Beowulf and Grendel

Topic: Royal feasting hall

Archaeologists in Denmark have excavated the sixth-century great dining hall at the centre of the epic work

The dark secrets of the legend of Beowulf, England’s oldest work of epic literature, are gradually emerging from under a field in eastern Denmark.

Archaeologists in the country’s earliest royal ‘capital’ – Lejre, 23 miles west of modern Copenhagen – are investigating the joys of elite Dark Age life in and around what was probably the great royal feasting hall at the violent epicentre of the Beowulf story.

The archaeologists – led by Tom Christensen, director of the Lejre investigation – have so far managed not only to find, excavate and date the late 5 or early 6 century building most likely to have been Lejre’s first royal hall (described in Beowulf as `the greatest hall under heaven’), but have also succeeded in reconstructing what was on the menu at the great feasts held there.

Scientific study this year of the bones of literally hundreds of animals found near the hall, shows that they feasted on suckling pig, beef, mutton, goat meat, venison, goose, duck, chicken and fish.

Other finds from around the hall have included fragments of glass drinking vessels, 40 pieces of bronze, gold and silver jewellery, pottery imported from England and the Rhineland – and the wing of a sea-eagle, whose feathers may well have been used for fletching arrows. Twenty other gold items were found just a few hundred metres away.

The discoveries, reported in the current issue of BBC History Magazine, are of international importance.

“For the first time, archaeology has given us a glimpse of life in the key royal Danish site associated with the Beowulf legend’’, said project director Dr. Christensen, curator of Denmark’s Roskilde Museum, four miles from Lejre.

The Danes plan to put the finds on permanent display next year at Roskilde and Lejre Museums.

In the Beowulf legend – which is believed to have influenced some aspects of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and was turned into a 150 million dollar Hollywood film six years ago – a young nobleman from southern Sweden goes to neighbouring Denmark to save its ruling elite from the depredations of a monstrous man-eating giant called Grendel. The monster had entered the Danish king’s great feasting hall at Lejre, while the king and his warriors had been sleeping off an evening of feasting and drinking, and had succeeded in devouring a number of them.

On meeting the king, Beowulf offers to rid the land of the monster. The king accepts – and Beowulf waits alone in the great hall for the giant to attack again. In the epic battle between the two that then ensues, the giant is defeated and retreats to a cave beneath a nearby lake where he is finally killed by Beowulf.

As well as investigating the hall most likely to have been the one associated with the Beowulf legend, the archaeologists have found, excavated and dated six other royal feasting halls in Lejre.

They have discovered that the early Danish monarchy used each hall for only a few generations, before dismantling them and building a new one – usually on or very near the same site as its predecessor. Detailed examination of the buried remains of successive feasting halls has shown that they were used between around 500 and 1000 AD. All were roughly on the same site – except for the one associated with the Beowulf legend which was 500 metres to the north.

It may be that the change in location was somehow connected with events described in the legend, part of which actually states that the early royal hall, was in fact abandoned – because of the depredations of Grendel. Whether Grendel (meaning quite literarily ‘the destroyer’) originally existed in some less legendary form – perhaps symbolizing a malevolent spirit responsible for disease and death, or a particularly fierce-looking human enemy – is as yet unknown.

The quasi-legendary high status individual that Beowulf is based on probably lived in the 6 century AD. The story of his exploits was most likely brought to England by Scandinavian (potentially southern Sweden originating) settlers in the 6 or early 7 century AD. The poem was then written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, probably sometime in the 7th or 8 centuries.

A tiny, silver and gold-covered bronze box in the form of a pendant, decorated with dragon-like motifs, from Lejre, dating from the sixth century, the era associated with the ‘Beowulf’ legend2 / 3

Original article:
By David Keys August 26, 2013


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The University of Catania’s vines are secured with canes and woven juniper leaves. Photograph: Mario Indelicato

Topic: Ancient Italian Wine

Scientists plant vineyards with the aim of making wine using techniques from classical Rome described by Virgil

Italian archaeologists have grape expectations of their ancient wine

Archeologists in Italy have set about making red wine exactly as the ancient Romans did, to see what it tastes like.

Based at the University of Catania in Sicily and supported by Italy’s national research centre, a team has planted a vineyard near Catania using techniques copied from ancient texts and expects its first vintage within four years.

“We are more used to archeological digs but wanted to make society more aware of our work, otherwise we risk being seen as extraterrestrials,” said archaeologist Daniele Malfitana.

At the group’s vineyard, which should produce 70 litres at the first harvest, modern chemicals will be banned and vines will be planted using wooden Roman tools and will be fastened with canes and broom, as the Romans did.

Instead of fermenting in barrels, the wine will be placed in large terracotta pots – traditionally big enough to hold a man – which are buried to the neck in the ground, lined inside with beeswax to make them impermeable and left open during fermentation before being sealed shut with clay or resin.

“We will not use fermenting agents, but rely on the fermentation of the grapes themselves, which will make it as hit and miss as it was then – you can call this experimental archaeology,” said researcher Mario Indelicato, who is managing the programme.

The team has faithfully followed tips on wine growing given by Virgil in the Georgics, his poem about agriculture, as well as by Columella, a first century AD grower, whose detailed guide to winemaking was relied on until the 17th century.

“We have found that Roman techniques were more or less in use in Sicily up until a few decades ago, showing how advanced the Romans were,” said Indelicato. “I discovered a two-pointed hoe at my family house on Mount Etna recently that was identical to one we found during a Roman excavation.”

What has changed are the types of grape varieties, which have intermingled over the centuries. “Columella mentions 50 types but we can only speculate on the modern-day equivalents,” said Indelicato, who is planting a local variety, Nerello Mascalese.

“To sweeten up their wine, which could be vinegary, the Romans added honey and water to it,” he said. “They made better stuff for nobles and cheaper, more vinegary stuff for slaves. We will try and make both types.”

The drinking habits of Romans have also changed in two millennia. Whereas Italians today drink moderately with meals, their ancestors were more given to drunken carousing.

“An edict was issued in the first century AD halting the planting of vineyards because people were not growing wheat any more,” said Indelicato.

“The Romans took the concept of getting together for a drink from the Greeks after they conquered the Greek-controlled Italian city of Taranto in the third century BC.

“They drank at festivals to mark the pending harvest, after the harvest. In fact, any occasion was good for a drink.”

Original article:

the guardian.com

By Tom Kington August 22, 2013

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Two horizontal planting furrows. On the right, a vertical line exhibits the fort extension wall. (Photo courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Topic: Farming in Jamestown

This summer, as archaeologists at James Fort searched for the walls of the fort’s 1608 extension, they uncovered 10 furrows from the fort’s earliest farming efforts.

Because the furrows, which are planting trenches, were found under a fort extension wall from 1608, archaeologists believe they are from the early months of the settlement.

About 10 years ago, furrows were found near to the southeast of the fort. With the latest discovery, furrows on the settlement equal about a half acre.

In 1607, John Smith wrote, “What toile wee had, with so smal a power to guard our workmen adaies, watch al night, resist our enimies and effect our businesse, to relade the ships, cut downe trees, and prepare the ground to plant our corne, etc.”

When the settlers arrived at the fort, they did not have animals to farm with as they had in England. To plant crops, dirt was hoed by hand into mounds to create ditches between the rows, and seeds were planted in the mounds—the same way the Native Americans planted corn.

“That system of farming with bending over and hoeing up the ground dominates the Virginia landscape for centuries,” said Jamestown Rediscovery Senior Staff Archaeologist David Givens.

The drawback to the style of farming was the havoc it wreaked on colonists’ bodies.

Givens said Virginia colonists’ skeletons deviated from others showing arthritis and broken bones from hoeing and lifting heavy loads of tobacco.

“Virginia is one of the richest colonies in the New World and that’s literally on the backs of the colonists,” Givens said.

Soon, soil samples will be taken from the furrow soil and sent out for testing. The tests will reveal exactly what crops were grown in the furrows. Givens said it would be difficult to tell whether the crops grown in the furrows are still grown in the world today.

Corn cobs have been found at Historic Jamestowne and come from two strains of corn still grown today. The cobs reveal the strain of corn: Southern Dent and Northern Flint. Cobs have not been found near the furrows so the soil will be tested for pollen.

Givens said he would love to plant some of the corn strains the colonists grew at the fort, but there are too many deer.

The digging season is winding down, Givens said, but archaeologists will continue digging in the furrows area so they will be visible through the rest of the fall and into next year. Archaeologists will likely continue digging until October, if weather permits. Weekend archaeology will likely continue until October as well.

Visitors will be able to see the furrows when they visit Historic Jamestowne and can take one of two tours to learn more: Archaeology tours lead by archaeologists at 11 a.m. Monday through Friday or education tours at 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.


by Brittany Voll on August 22, 2013.

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Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), also known as Jack-by-the-hedge, flowering in spring by a roadside

Topic: Spice food

Europeans had a taste for spicy food at least 6,000 years ago, it seems.

Researchers found evidence for garlic mustard in the residues left on ancient pottery shards discovered in what is now Denmark and Germany.

The spice was found alongside fat residues from meat and fish.

Writing in the journal Plos One, the scientists make the case that garlic mustard contains little nutritional value and therefore must have been used to flavour the foods.

“This is the earliest evidence, as far as I know, of spice use in this region in the Western Baltic; something that has basically no nutritional value, but has this value in a taste sense,” said Dr Hayley Saul, who led the study from the University of York, UK.

The researchers looked at charred deposits found on the inside of pottery shards that had been dated to between 5,800 and 6,150 years ago.

These deposits contained microscopic traces of plant-based silica, known as phytoliths, which can be used to identify the plants from which they came.

It was these phytoliths that provided the evidence of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) in the carbonised scrapings.

The team found more phytoliths from residues taken from the inside of pots than from the outside, which they say shows that these were the direct result of culinary practice.

The implications from these findings challenge the previously held belief that hunter-gatherers were simply concerned with searching for calorific food. Dr Saul believes these latest results point to something much more like cuisine.

“That’s quite a new idea for hunter-gatherer archaeology in Europe,” she told BBC News.

The York scientist said it was likely that prehistoric chefs would have crushed the seeds: “Actually to get the flavour out you have to crush it really. I suspect that if they hadn’t been crushing the seeds, we would probably find more intact seeds in residues.”

Although this is the first evidence of spice use in Europe, flavouring food may have been a common practice in the Middle East much earlier. “There’s a cave in Israel where coriander has been found, and that’s dated to around 23,000 years ago. But it’s very difficult to build up a picture of exactly how it’s used. It’s linking it to cooking that’s quite important,” explained Dr Saul.

It seems that while prehistoric cuisine was flavoursome, it was far from varied. The researchers found no evidence for other spices, with the phytoliths being quite consistent across the sites they investigated.

“I think it was just really creative, and we often don’t give hunter-gatherer cultures in the past credit for exactly how inventive and creative they were with things.

“It’s often seen as being a period of culinary hardship where people were really struggling, but actually, its people really knew their environments, and knew how to make the best with what they’ve got. I think they were very clever, really,” said Dr Saul.

Original article:
August 21, 2013
By Suzi Gage
BBC News

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Ruins on the surface of Tel Dor, located about 19 miles (30 kilometers) to the south of Haifa, in Israel. Phoenician flasks from this site, dating back around 3,000 years, were among those that contained cinnamaldehyde, the compound that gives cinnamon its flavor. These finds indicate the existence of trade that brought cinnamon from the Far East to the area of modern-day Israel.
Credit: Photo by Lang Gito, CC Attribution 2.0 Generic

Topic: Cinnamon

How far would you go to get your cinnamon fix? If you lived in the Levant 3,000 years ago (a region that includes modern day Israel), very far indeed new research indicates.

Researchers analyzing the contents of 27 flasks from five archaeological sites in Israel that date back around 3,000 years have found that 10 of the flasks contain cinnamaldehyde, the compound that gives cinnamon its flavor, indicating that the spice was stored in these flasks.

At this time cinnamon was found in the Far East with the closest places to Israel being southern India and Sri Lanka located at least 3,000 miles (nearly 5,000 kilometers) away. A form of it was also found in the interior of Africa, but does not match the material found in these flasks.

This discovery “raises the intriguing possibility that long-range spice trade from the Far East westward may have taken place some 3,000 years ago,” researchers write in a paper to be published in the journal Mediterranean Archaeology andArchaeometry. Although cinnamon can be purchased today at any grocery or bulk food store, 3,000 years ago, people in the Levant would have needed to take part in trade that extended beyond the edge of the known world in order to acquire it, something this discovery suggests they were willing to do.

This trade may go back ever further into antiquity and involve other goods and parts of the Middle East. The researchers note, for example, that black pepper from India has been found in the mummy of Ramesses II, a pharaoh of Egypt who lived more than 3,200 years ago.

From the Far East to Israel

At the time of this trade, Israel’s coastal inhabitants included the Phoenicians, a people so renowned for their seafaring skills the ancient writer Herodotus claimed they had succeeded in sailing around Africa around 600 BC (something scholars are doubtful of today).

But, while these people were great seafarers, they probably did not sail all the way to the Far East to get these goods, perhaps instead using intermediaries along the way.

“We don’t think they sailed directly [to the Far East]; it was a very hard task even in the 16th century A.D.” Dvory Namdar, a researcher with the Weizmann Institute of Science and Tel Aviv University, told LiveScience in an interview. Her research colleague Ayelet Gilboa, of the University of Haifa, also agreed in an interview that it was very doubtful there was a direct voyage.

They explained that the flasks that contained cinnamon were made locally in northern coastal Israel which back then was part of ancient Phoenicia. They appear to have been designed to hold precious contents, featuring a narrow opening with thick walls. Flasks like these have been found in special places such as treasuries and temple storerooms, the researchers noted.

Namdar and Gilboa explained that the bark from the cinnamon tree would have been brought in from the Far East in a dry form and, when it reached Phoenicia, was mixed with some form of liquid and put in these flasks. Then, afterwards it was shipped all over Phoenicia and also to neighboring regions such as Philistia (much of which is located in modern day southwest Israel) and Cyprus.

Cinnamon mixed in wine?

A further mystery the team faces: What was the cinnamon used for? The cinnamon from these flasks would have tasted “roughly the same as today,” Namdar said.

One possibility, Namdar and Gilboa said, is that people of the time mixed the cinnamon in with wine, an idea supported by the fact that the flasks were quite small, whereas wine was stored in bigger containers. “If you mix it with a bigger [container of wine], then you get flavored wine,” they said. Indeed, cinnamon is often used in wine-based recipes today, including ones for mulled or spiced wine.

The project was supported by a European Research Council Advanced Grant.

Original article:
By Owen Jarus, August 20, 2013


Bark from Cinnamomum verum, which is found naturally in southern India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar; another form of cinnamon comes from Cinnamomum cassia, found naturally in China, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. More research is needed to determine the origin of the cinnamon found in the ancient flasks.
Credit: Photo by H. Zell, CC

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This series is based on An Ancient Egyptian Herbal by Lisa Manniche published in 1989 by The British Museum Press.
For those not familiar with her work, Ms. Manniche is an Egyptologist and author of a number of books including Aromatherapy and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt.

I thought everyone might be interested in the ways food was used as a healing agent in the ancient world, as I have the most information on Ancient Egypt I will start there. I welcome any references on this subject from other cultures.
In subsequent posts I will also add how each of these foods were consumed as well.

Egyptian Lettuce

Lactuca sativa L. Lactuca virosa L.
Ancient Egyptian: L. sativa (‘bw); L. virosa (‘ft)

Lactuca sativa is the variety known in Britain as Cos lettuce, in France as ‘Romaine’. It is also widely eaten in modern Egypt. An oil can be extracted from the seeds.
In the Assyrian Herbal the seeds were used with cumin as a eye poultice. Dioscorides says that the Egyptians called the plant embrosi. . The latex of the older variety of L. sativa was used as a cough suppressant and mild sedative, and even as an anti-aphrodisiac. In ancient Egypt the plant had the opposite connotations. It was sacred to Min, god of fertility, because of its milky juice, reminiscent of semen. It was also related to the god Seth in an erotic context: he became pregnant after eating lettuces on which had been scattered the semen of his rival, the god Horus. Specimens of lettuce seed have been found, and the plant is frequently represented on the monuments, The priests in the temple of Philae were not allowed to eat lettuce.
The word (‘bw), is conspicuously absent from the medical text, but it has been recently been suggested that (‘ft), hitherto translated ‘merlilot’, is indeed the designation for L. virosa. In that case the Egyptians use it for a number of purposes:

A remedy to treat illness in one half of the belly:’ft 1; date juice1; boil in oil or fat and use as a poultice.

A remedy to remove pain in the belly: fresh beef 5 ro; frank- incense 1/64; ‘ft 1/8; juniper berries 1/16; fresh bread 1/8; sweet beer 25 ro; is strained and drunk for four days.

A remedy to expel worm from the belly: ‘ft 1; chaste tree 1; fermented plant juice 1; is combined and eaten. Afterward the patient will relieve himself of all the worms in his belly.

Treatment of any ailment from which a patient might suffer, that is any purulence: Lower Egyptian salt 1; ‘ft 1; is ground in oil or fat and used as a poultice.

A remedy to treat purulence in the ears: ‘ft: ‘ft is mixed with laudanum and poured into the ear.

Chopped ‘ft was thought to encourage the growth of hair if applied. Boiled with other ingredients, such as fermented plant juice, oil, beer, ‘ft and another plant(?), it was used to sooth a cough when strained and drunk for four days.
Finally, it was used in a general pain-killing beverage and another laxitive concoction, as well as in medicine taken for eye complaints.
The Copts used the seeds of lettuce ground with warm water as a worm killing beverage. The latex of bitter lettuce, mixed with honey and opium was used to treat the eyes.
By Joanna Linsley-Poe
Copyright August 19, 2013

Article reference:
An Ancient Egyptian Herbal,by Lisa Mannich


The above pictures are of lettuce depicted on tombs,( most often with the God Min), though for this purpose I did not include him.

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Excavation of the Neanderthal site of Abri Peyrony (France) where three bone tools (lissoirs) were recently discovered. Image courtesy of the Abri Peyrony Project.

Topic: Stone tools

Excavations at two cave sites in southwestern France have yielded bone fragments that show intentional shaping, likely by Neanderthals, to create specialized tools. Dated to before the known advent of modern humans in Europe, researchers suggest that they are the earliest specialized bone tools produced by Neanderthals, implying the need to re-assess elements of current theoretical models of Neanderthals and modern humans in Europe.

Excavating at the Pech-de-l’Azé I and Abri Peyrony sites, both located at separate tributaries of the Dordogne river in southwestern France, co-leader Shannon P. McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and colleagues recovered and analyzed assemblages of Mousterian of Acheulian Tradition (MTA) stone artifacts, which also included specially shaped deer rib bone artifacts known as Lissoirs not usually associated with MTA finds. Lissoirs are a specialized tool type made by grinding and polishing, and are thought to have been used on hides to make them tough, impermeable, and lustrous. Three specimens were found at Abri Peyrony and were dated to 47,710 – 41,130 Cal BP using radiocarbon accelerator mass spectrometry, and one specimen at Pech-de-l’Azé I, dated to 51,400 ka using optically stimulated luminescence dating techniques. The researchers identified the rib bone fragments as coming from medium-sized ungulates, specifically red deer or reindeer.

The dates make the bone tool finds the earliest known of their type associated with Neanderthals. Usually, such tools have been identified with modern humans who came upon the scene at a later time, but the dating and their location within a context of MTA stone tools, which are usually associated with Neanderthals, suggest that they were created by Neanderthals, not modern humans.

Reports McPherron, et al., “The bones reported here demonstrate that Middle Paleolithic Neandertals were shaping animal ribs to a desired, utilitarian form and, thus, were intentionally producing standardized (or formal) bone tools using techniques specific to working bone. These bones are the earliest evidence of this behavior associated with Neandertals, and they move the debate over whether Neandertals independently invented aspects of modern human culture to before the time of population replacement.”

“Thus, it remains to be determined whether MTA lissoirs are evidence that modern humans influenced Neandertals earlier and longer than previously suggested, whether these lissoirs represent independent invention and convergence, or whether, perhaps this time, Neandertals may have influenced subsequent Upper Paleolithic modern human populations in western Europe where lissoirs are common.”*

Details of their research have been published in a paper, Neandertals made the first specialized bone tools in Europe, by Marie Soressi, et al., in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

popular archaeology
August 12, 2013



A reconstruction of how lissoirs, made of deer ribs, could have been used to prepare hides to make them more supple, lustrous and impermeable. The natural flexibility of ribs helps keep a constant pressure against the hide without tearing it. The bottom half of the figure illustrates how the downward pressure ultimately results in a break that produces small fragments like three of the reported bones. Image courtesy of the Abri Peyrony and Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects.

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