Thursday, December 23, 2010

Did the Scots visit Iceland? New research reveals island inhabited 70 years before Vikings thought to have arrived

Kverkarhellir cave is a deep artificial cave that was dug out of soft rock.
New research indicates that construction on it began in ca. AD 800, nearly
70 years before the Vikings are believed to have settled Iceland.
Photo by Tom McGovern
Seljalandshellar cave is a three chambered artificial cave located near
Kverkarhellir. On its walls 23 carvings of the cross have been found.
A typological analysis reveals that they are similar to crosses drawn
in western Scotland in AD 800 and earlier. Photo by Kristján Ahronson   
One of the crosses found in Seljalandshellar cave. Analysis indicates
that it is similar to those carved in western Scotland
in AD 800 and earlier. Photo by Kristján Ahronson.
It is now thirty years since clerics, who live on the island [Thule] from the first of February to the first of August, told me that not only at the summer solstice, but in the days round about it, the sun setting in the evening hides itself as though behind a small hill in such a way that there was no darkness in that very small space of time... – Dicuil, an Irish monk, writing in AD 825, translation by J.J. Tierney.
New archaeological discoveries show that Iceland was inhabited around AD 800 – nearly 70 years before the traditional dating of its Viking settlement.
One possibility is that these early inhabitants may have been related to Irish monastic communities found throughout the Scottish islands at that time, and described in Viking-Age and medieval texts.
“Questions surrounding Iceland’s first settlement in the early medieval period have been of longstanding interest for scholars,” said Professor Kristján Ahronson of Prifysgol Bangor University in Wales and Visiting Professor at the University of Toronto. He led the team that made the discoveries.
As an example of the longstanding interest in this topic, Ahronson pointed to the University of Toronto’s Sir Daniel Wilson, who argued in 1851 that “when Norseman first visited Iceland in the latter half of the 9th century, it was uninhabited, but they discovered traces of the former presence of Irish monks.”
Kverkarhellir cave
One discovery was made at Kverkarhellir cave, on the land of Seljaland farm in southern Iceland. The cave is 7.5 metres long, and dug out of soft rock. Nearly 200 of these artificial caves have been found on the island. “Tool marks on the cave walls vividly illustrate the artificial nature of these sites,” said Professor Ahronson.
What makes Kverkarhellir special is the preservation of layers of sediments outside the cave mouth, specifically those from nearby volcanoes. Iceland has experienced many volcanic eruptions in its time. When an eruption takes place, a layer of ashy material known as “tephra” is deposited on the surface.
Ahronson said that these tephra layers are a “powerful dating tool,” which can be used to study past land surfaces and any artefacts found in these sediments. With this in mind the team went to work, digging just outside the entrance of the cave. As expected they encountered these tephra layers, including one from an eruption that happened around AD 871.
But when they dug deeper, unearthing older layers of sediments, they found something else. Ahronson said that they discovered “waste material from an episode of construction” – evidence of early activity at this cave. This discovery identifies Kverkarhellir cave as “older than any other site currently known in Iceland.”
To determine how early this presence was, the team measured the amount of wind-blown sediment that lies between the tephra and the waste material.
“Using the generally accepted but rough estimates for sediment accumulation in the area, (we have) a date of around AD 800,” said Ahronson, “though very local factors (affecting sediment accumulation) pose a challenge to precise dating.”
Animal tracks discovered dating to AD 871
To learn more about southern Iceland’s past environment, Ahronson’s team analyzed the form of tephra layers, looking at how they fell onto the ground.
If there are trees or a thick understory of vegetation, the ashy material will not land in some places, leading to gaps or features in the tephra layer. Also if an animal walks over tephra their footprints may be preserved.
The team plotted these irregularities out in 3D. This is a new technique involving excavation and mapping, initially tested over a small area - three by two meters in size. 
Nevertheless the team achieved clear results – including the fascinating discovery of possible animal tracks.
“Unexpected linear depression features were found in the tephra layer,” said Ahronson. “The size, shape and distribution, hold out the possibility that these were created by medium-sized herbivores, such as sheep or small- and medium- sized cows.”
The tracks date back to around AD 871, many decades after the new evidence for people at Kverkarhellir cave, but just about when the large-scale settlement of Iceland by Vikings is generally thought to have begun. 
The only larger mammals native to the island before humans arrived were arctic fox – which these tracks do not belong to.
A grassland environment in AD 871
There’s more.
The team discovered that these animals would have been walking over open grassland. When they analyzed the form of the tephra layer they found that, aside from the footprints, it was continuous and well-defined without “holes” or irregular gaps. In other words, there was little vegetation obstructing the volcanic material as it fell upon the ground.
 “Interpretation of this data suggests an open grassland environment without tree cover,” Ahronson said.
He said that there could be two reasons for this – some sort of natural process that kept this area free of trees. Or, it could be that humans were responsible for deforestation in the area. “Woodland clearance would probably have occurred several decades before AD 870 in order to produce such an open and well defined tephra layer.”
Curiously it looks as if the area was reforested sometime later. When the team analyzed tephra from an eruption around AD 920, they found that it contained “a number of medium-sized irregularly shaped gaps,” Ahronson said. “These were interpreted to be the result of a lush understory of vegetation.” A sign, perhaps, that Vikings and their animals had abandoned this area, or that its woodland was being managed.
Crosses in caves
A second cave site at Seljaland, close to Kverkarhellir, contains possible evidence of early occupation.
It’s known as the Seljalandshellar cave group and contains 19 large and 4 mid-sized carvings on its walls - representing the Christian symbol of the cross. The team has been recording this art, and creating detailed illustrations of it.
 Ahronson emphasized that it is difficult to firmly date these carvings; however, he notes that their style is similar to early medieval crosses seen in western Scotland.
“Typological analysis of many key characteristics of this material – leaves us to note fundamental parallels, specifically with the early medieval sculpture from the west highlands and islands,” he said. “In western Scotland, we would generally see most of this comparable material as predating the Viking Age,” in other words AD 800 or earlier.
He added that “none of the sculpture from Seljaland, intriguingly, has any parallels we can identify with Scandinavian traditions at that time.”

A layer of Tephra from ca. AD 920. The light spot indicates an area where
the trunk of a tree may have been. Photo by Kristján Ahronson

Friday, December 17, 2010

Lucky duck! Spanish Bronze Age man suffered broken bone in neck – and lived

The hyoid bone is located at the base of the tongue.
Image from Gray's Anatomy, in public domain.

Archaeologists exploring a Bronze Age fortress at La Motilla del Azuer, in Spain, have come across a very lucky man.
One of the skeletons is of a man that lived more than 3,400 years ago and suffered a broken hyoid bone, likely caused by a blow to his neck.
The hyoid bone is a horseshoe shaped object located at the root of the tongue. Amazingly enough the injury healed and the man lived to be in his 40’s. He was five and a half feet and had a “moderate” build.
“This injury is extremely rare apart from hanging and strangulation, and it is even rarer since the individual survived this injury to his neck,” writes the research team that made the discovery. “This injury was probably produced by a direct impact to the neck.”
The discovery is set to be published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. If you have a subscription to the journal (or access to a library with one) you can already see it on their website. The research team is from the University of Granada, in Spain, and is led by Silvia Jiménez-Brobeil.
Archaeologists don’t yet have a firm date for the skeleton but the site itself dates back between 3,400 and 4,200 years ago.
Brobeil’s team says that it’s unlikely that this man’s injury was an accident. “The location of the injury and the fact that it is healed, suggest that a direct impact was the cause rather than a bimanual strangulation,” the team writes.  
Furthermore the place where this man lived, Motilla del Azuer, was clearly built with war in mind. “It was a fortification, surrounded by a small settlement and a necropolis,” a team of archaeologists led by Trinidad Nájera Colino and Fernando Molina González said in a 2007 press release.
The mound of the fortification which has been recovered has a diameter of about 50 metres, and is composed of a tower, two walled enclosures and a large courtyard.” The tower was “7 metres high, east and west.”

Friday, December 10, 2010

What’s inside? Sealed jar discovered at Qumran – site of Dead Sea Scrolls

View Qumran - discovery of sealed pot in a larger map

Randall Price holding the sealed jar from Qumran. An article
set to appear in the journal Archaeometry reveals that it
contains gypsum, a soft mineral used to make plaster.

A shot of the jar as it was found on the excavation site.

The jar against a black background.

Qumran was occupied between 100 BC - AD 70.
The sealed pot was found 50 meters south of it.
Photo by James Emery, CC Attribution 2.0 Generic
-The excavation team has released pictures of the sealed jar.

An intact, sealed, jar has been discovered at Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in nearby caves.

A multinational team of scientists have been analyzing the jar and their findings are set to be published in the journal Archaeometry. If you have a subscription (or access to a library with one) you can already see the article on the publication’s website.

“The finding of an intact and sealed storage jar is an extremely rare event,” the researchers write. The discovery “provides a unique possibility to analyse its last contents.”

Altogether nine scientists are credited in the paper. Kaare Lund Rasmussen, of the University of Southern Denmark, is listed at the lead author.

The jar itself was excavated in 2004. It was found about 50 meters south of Qumran in an uninhabited area that may have been used for agriculture. Animal bones and pottery shards were unearthed nearby. The group that found it was led by Randall Price of Liberty University and Oren Gutfeld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Pictures of the jar are published in the journal article. The rights to them appear to be held by the excavation group and a request to have them republished on this website was not granted as of press time. (UPDATED DEC 27 - PICTURES HAVE NOW BEEN RELEASED - SEE ABOVE)

“The intact jar, named Jar-35, was sealed with an overturned bowl fastened as a lid,” Rasmussen’s team writes. “When the lid was lifted and a camera lowered into the interior, a deposit up to 3 cm thick was discovered lining the bottom and the sides.”

A jar of gypsum

The scientists used a wide variety of analytical techniques to determine what is inside the jar. One of the techniques uses x-rays to search for crystalline material – the test succeeded in identifying a substance. “Based on this analysis, it is evident that the only significant crystalline phase in the deposit is gypsum,” the scientists write.

Also found in the jar was a small amount of charcoal. They were able to radiocarbon date it, determining that the coal was used sometime between 100 BC and AD 15, a period when Qumran would have been inhabited.

After determining that there were no other materials in the jar the scientists focussed their work around a new question – why would the inhabitants of Qumran seal gypsum inside a pottery vessel?

“The most straightforward hypothesis is that Jar-35 was a storage and transport jar for gypsum,” writes the research team. “Perhaps the gypsum was intended for lining the cisterns of Qumran.”
It seems possible. Gypsum is a soft mineral that can be used to make plaster – something which there is plenty of at Qumran.

Archaeologists Yuval Peleg and Yitzhak Magen have conducted extensive excavation work at the site. At one point they say that the residents turned Qumran’s stables into pools. “Two of the entrances,” Peleg and Magen write in a report, “were sealed and plastered and the space was divided by low, plastered walls into six shallow pools.”

They also note the presence of plastered floors, plastered water channels and even a partly plastered aqueduct. “Upstream in Nahal Qumran, an aqueduct – partly constructed and plastered and partly rock-cut – drew water from the stream.”

Alternative explanations

The scientists raise a few other possibilities – one is that Qumran’s residents waterproofed this particular jar by lining it with gypsum. It then could have been used to store water or another type of liquid. “Against this hypothesis is the fact that there have been no previous reports of gypsum lining of such jars,” the team writes.

Another idea is that the gypsum might have had some sort of industrial use. “Precisely which ancient industry might have been reflected by the use of gypsum is not clear,” they say. The team found no organic compounds that suggest the mineral was used for perfume or glue making.

Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls

More than 900 Dead Sea Scrolls have been found at Qumran. They include early copies of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), historical documents and community rules.

There is an active debate as to how they got to caves near Qumran. Whether this jar discovery has any impact on the discussion remains to be seen.

A bit of background on this debate:

Originally it was believed that a group called the Essenes lived at the site and wrote the scrolls. However recent archaeological work by Peleg and Magen suggests that the site was used as a military outpost by the Hamoneans starting around 100 BC. They were a dynasty of Jewish kings that ruled much of Palestine.

“Qumran was not a fortress capable of withstanding the assault of an attacking army, but rather a forward observation and supervision post that controlled land and sea traffic along the Dead Sea Coast,” the two archaeologists write.

According to their research the Hasmonean soldiers left Qumran around 63 BC, after the Romans arrived in the region. Civilians then took over the site and used it for pottery production. This civilian settlement lasted until about AD 70 when Jewish residents throughout Palestine revolted against the Romans. Jerusalem came under siege, with refugees fleeing the city.

Some of them headed south, until they came to Qumran and its harsh terrain. “Qumran is the last station,” Yuval Peleg said in an interview, done a year back. “The water came to the cliffs after Qumran.” They couldn’t bring the scrolls with them, so the people put them in caves before resuming their flight. They never returned.

Another idea, as to how the scrolls got to Qumran, comes from Robert Cargill, a researcher at UCLA who has created a virtual model of the site. He agrees that the site was first used as a military outpost and was later converted for civilian use.

He suggests, however, that these civilians wrote some of the scrolls found in Qumran’s caves. He points out that multiple inkwells have been found at the site. “Somebody was writing something at Qumran,” he said in an interview that took place a year back. Cargill also points out that some of the caves are located very close to the site. They “cannot be gotten through without going through the residence of Qumran.”

In addition to writing scrolls, Cargill suggests that Qumran’s civilians would have brought in examples from elsewhere in Palestine, building up a collection. When the Romans approached the site, just before AD 70, these people put them into caves and then fled.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

2,300 year old temple discovered at Thmuis in Egypt – built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus

A column from the newly discovered temple of Ptolemy II at Thmuis. It may have been built as a memorial temple for his dead queen - Arsinoe II. Photo courtesy Professor Robert Littman

The cartouche of Ptolemy II, found on the temple. Photo courtesy Professor Robert Littman
Mudbrick structures jut out from the ruins of ancient Thmuis. Photo courtesy Professor Robert Littman

A figure of the hippo goddess
Taweret. It was discovered near
the harbour of Thmuis. Photo
courtesy Professor Robert Littman
A temple built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus has been discovered at the ancient city of Thmuis (also known at Tell Timai) on the Nile Delta in Egypt.
Ptolemy II was a king of Egypt and the son of one of Alexander the Great’s generals. During his reign Egypt had a vast navy and controlled harbours and territory throughout the eastern Mediterranean. He erected a stela (a stone carving) at Thmuis and inaugurated a building and restoration program in the city.
Archaeologists believe that the newly discovered temple may have been built as a memorial to his dead queen – Arsinoe II. She was held in such high regard that the king deified her after she died.  
“We suspect this was a temple that was built for Arsinoe (the second) – a memorial temple for Arsinoe,” said Professor Robert Littman of the University of Hawaii. He leads the research team along with Jay Silverstein, an archaeologist at the same institution.  
More work needs to be done on the structure, “right now all we have are fluted columns and one inscription, one cartouche of Ptolemy,” said Professor Littman. He added that they have also found fragments from an art relief.
The size of the columns suggests that it was a large temple. The team plans to use Ground Penetrating Radar and magnetic survey to determine its dimensions and get clues as to its layout. 
Arsinoe II was Ptolemy II’s sister and second wife, becoming his queen after he disavowed his first bride, Arsinoe I. She has been in the news recently with new research suggesting that she ruled Egypt as a female pharaoh alongside the king.
After Arsinoe II’s death in 268 BC “Philadelphus used the name of Arsinoe to give an identity, a colour, to the representation of his empire as a sea power,” writes Celine Marquaille, of Kings College London, in a book on Ptolemy’s life.
The king had a powerful navy and “linked this power to his dynasty by creating a deity Arsinoe-Aphrodite-Kypris,” Marquaille said. The newly created goddess became a protector of seafarers.
That wasn’t the only aspect of Arsinoe II’s deification. After her death statues were created depicting the queen as the goddess Isis. Silverstein said that archaeologists from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities have found an example at Thmuis itself, some distance away from the newly discovered temple. 
The growth of Thmuis
In 332 BC Alexander the Great entered Egypt, chasing out the Persians and inaugurating a line of Greek rulers that would last nearly 300 years. Historians refer to this period as the “Ptolemaic Dynasty,” so named after the general that took control of Egypt after Alexander’s death – Ptolemy I Soter.
The city of Thmuis flourished during this time. Located on the eastern Nile Delta it grew in population and size.
The area around it has a long history.
Just 500 meters to the north there was another ancient city, called Mendes. That site was founded more than 5,000 years ago, but was in decline at the time of the Ptolemies. “Apparently the course of the Mendesian branch of the Nile started to change - the northern tell, Mendes, fell into disuse,” said Professor Littman. “(It) severely wanes in the 5th and 4th centuries and Thmuis increases in size and population.”
Silverstein added that the team is “looking at the possibility a branch of the Nile River, or a tributary of that, ran between the two cities.”
The harbour of Thmuis was important to the city’s success. The team has been trying to locate it by using core samples, excavation and magnetic survey. “We think we’re right at the water line now,” said Silverstein.
Among the finds they’ve made is a five inch statue of the hippo goddess Taweret, it dates back about 2,200 years. “By the Ptolemaic Period, Taweret had the title Lady of the Birth House,” writes Geraldine Pinch, of Oxford University, in her book on Egyptian Mythology. “Female hippopotamus was respected as a fierce protector of her young and the embodiment of the life-giver power of water.”
The Siege of Jerusalem - Thmuis as a staging ground
In 30 BC, Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemaic rulers, committed suicide, reportedly by snake bite. The Roman emperor Augustus took over Egypt, incorporating it into his empire as a province.
Thmuis continued to play an important role. In AD 70 the Roman army used the city as a staging ground while on their way to lay siege to Jerusalem. Jewish residents throughout Palestine were revolting against Roman rule.
The legions were led by their commander, Titus.
“Titus accordingly proceeding by land as far as Nicopolis, distant twenty furlongs from Alexandria, there put his army on board long galleys, and advanced up the river, along the Mendesian prefecture, to the city of Thmuis,” wrote Flavius Josephus, in AD 75, telling how the Roman army gathered together to attack Jerusalem.
Littman said that the team hasn’t found firm archaeological evidence of this army. One possible artefact from these legions is a coin from Judea that was found north of Thmuis, at Mendes. “The coin comes from a period after the sack of Jerusalem,” said Littman.
He said that it’s possible that the coin was dropped by a soldier returning from the battle. “Even though the sources don’t say that Titus marched on back, there’s a good chance that he did,” said Littman. “The garrison that he was taking came from Alexandria to begin with.”
Thmuis today – an endangered site
The city continued to be occupied long after the Romans arrived. In the fourth century AD the writer Ammianus Marcellinus named it one of Egypt’s most important towns.
As Egypt converted to Christianity in the time after the 1st century AD, the city came to have its own bishop. In AD 305 the bishop of Thmuis, a man named Phileas, was beheaded in Alexandria. He was later canonized as a saint.
Thmuis continued to be occupied into the Coptic and Islamic Periods, declining, it seems, during the Middle Ages. Even today there are people living near the site – a fact which poses a conservation challenge. All throughout the Nile Delta populations are growing, putting pressure on its archaeological sites.
“15 percent of the Tell in the last decade has been lost to encroachment of the villages building on the site.” said Littman.
But the biggest challenge being faced at Thmuis is a stadium that is going to be built. “The stadium is a fait accompli, there’s no way to stop it, but we hope that this will be the last encroachment on the site,” said Littman.
Silverstein added that the University of Hawaii team is working on a conservation plan that hopefully will save a good portion of Thmuis. “We hope that 80 percent of the site will be preserved – we’re working on a plan of conservation with the Egyptian authorities and Egyptian scholars.”
Right now there is no tourism traffic at the site whatsoever – something which makes it more difficult to get the story of Thmuis known to the outside world.
 “We have never seen a tourist at Timai (modern name for Thmuis) except for the occasional archaeologist who comes to visit,” said Littman. He explained that tourists rarely venture into the Nile Delta, and when they do they usually visit Alexandria or Tanis.
“Typically the tourist who comes to Egypt will go to the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, the Valley of the Kings and Aswan – that’s sort of the typical route.”
This may change in the years ahead. “One of the things that the antiquities authority wants to do is (to) work on some of these sites in the delta to promote tourism there.”
For now the archaeological team is using their research to let people know about Thmuis, an awareness that hopefully will translate into conservation and keep the ancient city intact for years to come.

The platform of a first century BC temple at Thmuis. Photo courtesy Professor Robert Littman

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

From Iran to Corinth – Pottery research shows Greek city engaged in long distance trade during medieval times

View Corinth's trade in a larger map

This has been identified at the
oldest albarelli jar known to exist.
It was created in the 11th century in
Fustat and subsequently exported to
At the end of ancient times, Corinth, one of the most famous cities in the Greek world, lay partly in ruins.
“The mid 6th century city fell victim first to bubonic plague, with high mortality levels, and subsequently a deep economic recession that lasted, according to the archaeological finds, for 500 years,” write archaeologists from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in an overview on their website. The school has been excavating Corinth since 1896.
The city didn’t recover until well into the Middle Ages. But recover it did – starting in the 9th century it began to expand. The area over what was once a Roman forum turned into a “dense mass of houses, workshops, bathhouse and monasteries,” say the archaeologists.
Trade, production and outside contacts all increased. Once again it was a good time to be a Corinthian. “Corinth at its apogee in the later 11th century and the 12th century may have employed as many as 230 cobblers and 70 potters and assistants in twenty pottery workshops,” writes site excavator Guy Sanders in an article.
During this period of recovery it remained under Byzantine rule – although this was interrupted in 1147 when the Normans, led by Roger II of Sicily, raided the city. The Normans were rivals of the Byzantines, competing with them for power in the Mediterranean.
Trade with the Middle East
Now, thanks in part to research conducted by Robert Mason, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Canada, we know that medieval Corinth was involved in long distance trade throughout the Middle East. These imports include rare and complex ceramics from places as distant as Kashan Iran, more than 2,500 kilometres away.
Mason is an expert in the pottery of the Middle East. By studying the minerals the pots are made out of, and the decorations on their surface, he is able to determine where and when they were created.
Last summer he was in Corinth carrying out his work and last week he presented his findings at a meeting of the Toronto chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America.
He said that the Corinthians started this long distance trade almost as soon as they got back on their feet. In the 9th and 10th centuries, as Corinth was beginning its expansion, the city imported pieces from Basra, a centre of pottery production located in southern Iraq, near the Persian Gulf.
“How it (pottery from Basra) got there is hard to say,” said Mason. “There’s like one or two in the 9th century (then) a whole bunch in the 10th century.” These examples include lusterware plates that may have been used for church services. Mason described them as “beautiful shining pots, very different from the stuff they would have had locally.” They “might have been gifts,” he said, perhaps from a bishop in the Middle East.
He emphasized that Corinth wasn’t the only city importing goods made in Basra, far from it. “The trading networks of some of these pottery production centres are quite colossal,” he said. “Basra, for instance, covers the full extent of the Old World as found in China, in Spain, South Africa.”
Basra’s pottery was in demand for a good reason. Mason explained that they used a complex technique to create them. “You have a finished vessel and you paint it with this metallic paint which then fuses to the surface in another firing.” However “if you don’t fire it properly the second time you’ll end up with a complete mess.”
Basra wasn’t the only Middle East city that Corinth imported from. All together from AD 800 to AD 1200 the people also brought in ceramics from Damascus, Fustat (in present day Old Cairo) and Kashan.
The focus of this trade moved around. The 9th and 10th century ceramics tended to be from Basra. On other hand the 12th century saw Corinth take in imports from Damascus as well as a small number from Iran.  
Mason was surprised to find that in the 11th century the Corinthians imported albarelli, a type of apothecary (medicinal) jar with a concave waist. They were brought in from Fustat in Egypt.
“We know that albarelli come from the Middle East,” he said. But the examples at Corinth are “the earliest albarelli that exist,” he said, emphasizing that he has never seen one this early anywhere in the world.
Contact suddenly ends
Mason’s work also brought up a mystery. After AD 1200 he could not find a single piece of pottery from the Middle East at Corinth. For some unknown reason the Corinthians appear to have stopped importing ceramics from the region altogether.
“After 1200 there’s nothing there and I don’t know why – it’s not like there’s something unpleasant going on,” said Mason. Trade continued between the Middle East and other places in Europe. “You have pottery from Damascus in places like England and Norway,” he said.
“It’s not like the end of the crusades or anything like that.”
Mason and the other Corinth researchers are trying to find out what might have stopped this trade. A look through the history books reveals that while Corinth certainly didn’t collapse in AD 1200, there certainly were political changes happening at that time.
The Byzantine Empire, which had overseen the revival of Corinth, was in a state of upheaval. “Soon after the death of Manuel Komnenos in 1180, the Byzantine court degenerated into a farcical display of court intrigue, murder and palace coups,” writes modern day historian Nicholas Doumanis in his book on Greek history.
This internal strife weakened Byzantium, allowing it to be sacked by a group of Crusaders in 1204. They did it with the excuse that they wanted to get a debt repaid.  
“The Peloponnese, now under the authority of the ‘Prince of Achaea’, was subdivided into fiefdoms that controlled each locality from a series of fortresses,” writes Doumanis. It would be decades until Byzantium managed to take back territory in the area.  
Whether these events could have led to Corinth cutting ties between itself and the Middle East is unknown, however, the timing seems to make it possible.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Paupers and the pyramids: 400 “poor” burials unearthed near Giza

The "Wall of the Crow" is depicted in this 1837
illustration by Richard Vyse.
At a scholarly conference in Atlanta archaeologists announced that the burials of 400 people – dating between 2,700 and 2,000 years ago – have been excavated on the Giza plateau in Egypt.

The discovery was made by researchers with AERA (Ancient Egypt Research Associates), a group led by Mark Lehner that conducts work at Giza.
Research shows that these individuals were malnourished and lacked grave goods. The pyramids at Giza were built about 4,500 years ago, so these people would have been buried long after it was constructed.
The burials were found beside a 200 meter long ancient wall called the “Wall of the Crow.” The wall was first constructed in the time of the pyramids and is located just south of the Sphinx.
Analysis indicates that these 400 individuals were not well off.  These graves are generally poor, with little or no grave goods, and belong to people on the lower end of the socio-economic scale,” writes archaeologist Jessica Kaiser in a paper she presented at the conference. “There is a high incidence of haematological disorders present in the [bone] material, suggesting a sub-standard diet for this population.”
Haematology means blood disorders.
Curiously the men appear to be in worse shape than the women. “Traumatic injuries (fractures and dislocations) are almost exclusively occurring in the males, suggesting a definite difference in lifestyle between the sexes,” writes Kaiser.
An Egypt ruled by foreigners
The Egypt these people lived in was a very different place than the one that existed at the time Giza’s pyramids were built. Between 2,700 and 2,000 years ago the country was under the sway of a large number of foreign rulers.

Starting in the 8th century BC the country was ruled by Nubian kings who had come from the south in modern day Sudan. Then in 671 BC the Assyrians drove them off, took control of the country, and decided to allow a series of native born rulers (also called the Saite Dynasty) to reign starting with Necho I.
These native rulers did not last. In 525 BC Egypt was conquered again, this time by the Persians. Then In 332 BC Alexander the Great came into Egypt inaugurating a line of Greek rulers. Finally in 30 BC the Roman Emperor Octavian took over after the suicide of Cleopatra – turning Egypt into a Roman province.
The Wall of the Crow
“The Wall of the Crow” is the local name for a 200 meter long wall found just south of the Sphinx. AERA’s work suggests that construction of the wall started at the same time that the pyramids were being built 4,500 years ago.
The area beside the wall has been used as a burial ground for millennia, indicating that the structure had religious importance. The AERA team writes on their website that “the Late Period (747-525 BC) residents of nearby towns must have considered the area around the Wall of the Crow as sacred ground.”
Giza is not the only Egyptian pyramid complex to be used as a burial ground long after it was constructed. Archaeological work at Seila, a pyramid slightly older than the ones at Giza, indicates that there are nearly one million mummies buried in its vicinity.
“It seems very reasonable to suppose that the pyramid designated that as a sacred place,” Seila Pyramid excavator Kerry Muhlestein said. “Once that place is a sacred place it typically will remain a sacred place.”

Monday, November 22, 2010

Unreported news

A Terracotta General, on display at the
Royal Ontario Museum as part of a
special exhibition. Photo by Owen Jarus
In October site excavator Dr. Duan Qingbo
told a Toronto audience of new research
indicating that foreigners had helped build
the army.

The Terracotta Warriors are one of the most fantastic archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

Thousands have been found near the First Emperor's tomb in Xi'an China. Each of them has a unique face, suggesting that they were modelled on real people who lived 2,200 years ago. 

Last month Duan Qingbo, an archaeologist who has been leading digs at the tomb for nearly 20 years, stopped by the Royal Ontario Museum to give a lecture. In it he dropped a surprise – new evidence which suggests that foreigners helped construct the First Emperor’s tomb. I was at the lecture and wrote a story for both Heritage Key and The Independent (UK).

It’s a fascinating discovery and one that is now in the public domain.

Now, with the launch of this new website, I hope to bring you more of these kinds of stories. Untold tales of heritage research and discovery.

Why do this?

Let me take you back a bit. In July 2009 I started a position as the Toronto Correspondent with Heritage Key Media. It is an online publication, based in London UK, that publishes news and feature stories on ancient history and archaeology. It also has virtual 3D programming.

I’ve always had an interest in the ancient world so this position was more fun than work. I dived into it – writing news articles, features, reviews, short bios and descriptions. As I adjusted to the position, and got the lay of the archaeological land, I began to realize that there were many heritage stories that were not being widely covered.

The discovery of a 2,000 year old East Asian skeleton in southern Italy, an enigmatic Islamic gold medallion found in Petra and new research by UBC Professor Thomas Schneider that tells the real story of Nazi Egyptology (not the fictional version seen in Hollywood films), there were so many untold stories to write about! More than a dozen of my pieces were republished in The Independent (UK), a major British newspaper.  

Unfortunately this position came to an end recently. Heritage Key continues on albeit with more of a focus on the virtual 3D programming (if you haven't tried it yet, I would encourage you to do so - it's quite a treat!).  

Which brings me to this new site:

On it I plan to continue my work – writing heritage stories that have not appeared widely in the news media. The site I’m using is technically quite simple and to support this work I have some advertising via the Amazon Associates Program.

Telling the stories

Over the next few months I’m looking forward to telling you untold stories of heritage discovery. There is so much out there to talk about!

I would encourage you to follow my twitter feed I have also created a RSS link if you prefer to use an online reader.

If you know of a heritage story that has not been widely reported on then please contact me at I check my email constantly so you shouldn’t have to wait long for a reply.

Also, if there is an error, please don’t hesitate to contact me at the same address. Once I verify the error I will correct it immediately. A journalism professor once told me that the best newspapers are those that are full of corrections so – please – correct away!

Thank you and best wishes,