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Monthly Archaeology Round-Up: January
Mummified crocodiles, Neolithic Warfare, Cave Art Calendars, Archaic Obsidian Workshops, Mysterious Iron Age Tunnels, Siberian Genetics and more
A wide-ranging genetic study from Scandinavia has revealed some curious migration waves in the Viking and Medieval periods. Using 48 new genomes, 249 published genomes and 16,638 modern individuals, researchers from Stockholm University and the Icelandic deCODE Genetics group created a model of Scandinavian ancestry through time. The results indicate that British-Irish and eastern Baltic Uralic immigration impacted the internal populations for many centuries, before declining towards the more homogenous populations of today. The Uralic population impact was limited mostly to Gotland and central Sweden. There was a noticeable bias towards female genetic intrusion from the Baltic, and a lesser bias from Britain-Ireland. A number of unusual graves were included in the study, such as the female Kvie burial from Gotland, where the style differed markedly from the typical custom and the woman appeared to have undergone head binding during her childhood.
Although this has been presented in the wider media as an example of Viking multiethnicity, it isn’t at all surprising that female-biased immigration into Scandinavia occurred and then died away. Young men raiding and trading on the coastlines of the North Sea and the Baltic likely took local wives and slaves, many of whom would have returned home. On top of this we have missionaries, monks, diplomats and traders moving back and forth across the seas, potentially bringing new genetic inputs to the Scandinavian populations. That these external signals die away over time suggests that these were not large groups of colonisers or emigrants. The study does also note that we have a selectivity problem during these periods, where Viking burial rites typically involved cremation, meaning that foreign or lower-caste individuals would be buried. This only compounds the problem, where an over-representation of non-local people skews the dataset towards the out-groups. Like with many other times and places, internal hierarchies in communities can result in a false genetic legacy where cremation was preferred by one group than another.
The meaning of Palaeolithic cave art in Europe has been a puzzle to researchers and observers since it was discovered and formally studied in the 19th century. Theories ranging from simple enjoyment to complex ideas about shamanism and consciousness have come and gone, but one aspect of the art style has remained stubbornly opaque - the non pictorial dots, symbols and motifs which remain constant for thousands of years. In a landmark breakthrough both for independent research and Palaeolithic studies, a paper from Cambridge University Press outlines a new theory for three of the 32 known signs - the dot, the line and the Y shape.
The work for the paper was largely done by a furniture conservator, Bennett Bacon, who independently worked on the problem for years before contacting Palaeolithic specialist Paul Pettitt. Putting together a research group they tested the hypothesis that the dots and lines represented a lunar based calendar. Combined with the Y sign they argue that the three would indicate to a viewer when a particular species would give birth in the vicinity. The data outlined in the paper hasn’t convinced everyone, but as a jumping off point for making sense of the symbols the hypothesis seems both credible and grounded in empirical observation.
We hypothesize that spring, therefore, with its obvious signals of the end of winter and corresponding faunal migrations to breeding grounds, would have provided an obvious, if regionally differing, point of origin for the lunar calendar… For now, we restrict our terminology to proto-writing in the form of a phrenological/meteorological calendar. It implies that a form of writing existed tens of thousands of years before the earliest Sumerian writing system.
Neolithic Warfare Was Endemic
Anyone who regularly reads this newsletter will be aware of the recurring discoveries of mass graves during the European Neolithic, often with the skeletons showing signs of a violent death and even torture. Just this month yet another was uncovered at Vráble-Ve`lke Lehemby, Slovakia, where 38 headless bodies were unearthed from a large pit. Putting all these sites together with other archaeological data to paint a general picture has been a challenge for decades, but a powerful new bioarchaeological paper this month attempts to do just that. In summary:
Compiling data from various sources, it becomes apparent that violence was endemic in Neolithic Europe, sometimes reaching levels of intergroup hostilities that ended in the utter destruction of entire communities
By looking at nearly 200 instances of skeletal trauma across north-western Europe, the authors conclude that roughly 10% of the population over many millennia were killed or injured through interpersonal or group violence. This time span is huge and different cultures come and go - the Funnelbeaker, Michelsberg etc - but the levels of violence and the many instances of mass killings strongly refute any previous ideas that the Neolithic was a peaceful time. What is absent is any development of a professional warrior class. The weapons of Neolithic warfare are bows-and-arrows, stone axes and tools and antler picks, the common equipment of hunters and farmers. Resource scarcity, over farming, disease and the growth of dominant polygamous male households may all have contributed to the spasms of collective violence, whilst in some places young women and teenagers are absent from the mass graves, suggesting they were taken as slaves or captives. Each time and place needs its own explanation, and we will always miss the personal factors of prehistoric conflict, but one thing is for sure:
Consideration of patterns and prevalence at a broad regional and diachronic scale, as presented in the current study, determines that for Northwestern Europe at least, the conception of the “peaceful Neolithic” is dead.
Timescales like 1.2 million years are inconceivable to the human mind, and we still know very little about the lives of those early hominins. Stone tools are the typical artefact from sites extending that far back, and archaeologists who work in the deep Palaeolithic era have developed many techniques for extracting data from these objects. This paper from Simbiro III level C, in the upper Awash valley of Ethiopia, is one of those rare sites where we can start to infer more than just how an object was made and used. Here an intensely focused area produced 578 obsidian tools in just 4.8 m2, an astonishing amount for a time period where specialisation is not presumed to have developed. Noone can say for sure which species produced them, but given the shape of the tools and the time I’d guess Homo erectus. It seems that some of their number were skilled enough to sit and knap in one place, developing the careful methods needed to work obsidian, a razor-sharp volcanic glass. The end result was a standardised biface handaxe, and all the debris associated with them points towards the intentional replication of this single form. Therefore we can point to Simbiro III and say that an archaic human species had mastered obsidian handaxe production and that this one location was selected to preferentially make them, a sort of proto-factory or workshop, as they are called in the literature.
Excavations in Egypt continue to reveal surprise after surprise and this month was no exception. The first was a detailed paper on the mummified crocodiles of Qubbat al-Hawā (Aswan, Egypt). Five croc bodies and five heads, between 1.8 - 3.5m in length, were unearthed in varying degrees of decomposition. Representing both the Nile and West African species, the crocodiles were in a good enough state for researchers to assess were they came from, how they were treated in captivity and how they were killed and preserved. No radiocarbon dates were available, but stratigraphically and from previous finds they are likely from between the New Kingdom and the Byzantine period. It appears that they were captured, restrained with ropes and then killed either by drowning, suffocation or heat exposure. The bodies were then left to desiccate naturally, perhaps being buried in the sand or left out in the sun, before being wrapped in linen. The heads were then decapitated after death. No resin or bitumen was used, which is a marked difference to both human and other known crocodile mummies. Crocodile mummification and use as offerings to the Cult of Sobek was well known in antiquity, being documented by Herodotus, Diodorus, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch and Aelian.
The second surprise, reported through a press release, was the discovery of a young child, perhaps 8 years old, during excavations at the Fayoum necropolis (4th century BC - 7th century AD). The child was surrounded by an astonishing 142 dogs, all placed in his grave, with no signs of violence. We have few details about the find, but the child had a linen bag placed over their head, matching a similar grave in the necropolis where a person was shot with arrows. But the dogs are unaccounted for. Traces of blue clay hint that they may all have drowned simultaneously, but whether this was an accident or a deliberate offering is yet to be determined.
In a nice interview with Wired Magazine, archaeologists Graeme Cavers and Matt Ritchie explain how new laser scanning devices are helping to map out some of Scotland’s strangest archaeological features. Tunnels known as ‘souterrains’ are well documented for Iron Age sites across the Highlands, but nobody knows what they were made for. Low, cramped and about 10-15m in length, the souterrains appear in settlement sites but with no artefacts to help explain their use. Cavers and Ritchie describe in the article how the new devices - the Leica BLK360 laser scanner - can generate half a terabyte of data in a few hours, allowing them to generate detailed structural maps from the comfort of the office. The hope is that non-invasive models can help provide comparative studies into how they were made and for what purpose.
“Perhaps they were for storage, such as grain in sealed pots or dairy products like cheese. Perhaps they were for security, keeping valuables safe, or slaves or hostages secure. Or perhaps they were for ceremonial purposes, for household rituals, like a medieval shrine or private chapel.”
Finally, a very complex genetics paper from the Max Planck Institute reveals an entirely new genetic group in the Altai region. Without boring readers to death the paper roughly shows that:
The two previous major genetic groups for the region - the Ancient North Eurasians (ANE) and the Ancient Northeast Asians (ANA) - combined to produced a distinctive ‘Altai Hunter-Gatherer’ population.
This Altai group is a much more likely source of ANE ancestry to the Tarim Basin and bronze age pastoralists than other proposed migrations.
A 6,500 year old buried ‘shaman’ - Nizhnetytkesken - was found to carry substantial ANA heritage, despite being 1,500km away from his homeland. This indicates high mobility and a possible ANA presence in the Altai before the arrival of the Afanasievo culture.
Palaeo-Siberian populations from the mid-Holocene onwards received multiple pulses of Native American back-migrations, with modern populations such as the Chukchi and Itelmen carrying up to 20% Native American admixture.
Two 7,000 year old individuals from the Russian Far East show unexpectedly high levels of Jomon ancestry, suggestive that Japan and the Russian Far East were more closely connected than previously believed.
What this all means has yet to be determined, but many theories concerning the origins of different peoples and languages across the Eurasian steppe were missing vital genetic data, which this paper goes some way to assisting. The mystery of the Tarim mummies, the Tocharian language, the formation of various nomadic empires and many more are much closer to finally being unraveled.