Discover more from Grey Goose Chronicles
Monthly Archaeology Round-Up: September
New Indo-European language, Neanderthal debunking, Cannons, Cannibals & Skull Cups, Swords, Lost Temples, Chinese Emperors and more.
September brought us some incredible new ‘firsts’ and ‘earliests’ - we have languages, cannons, and timber to whet your appetite. We also saw an important revision to a classic Neanderthal burial, reminding us that good science does still exist, and theories can be overturned even decades later. A paper on a Neolithic cave tomb was a good place to introduce some methodology on how archaeologists work through bone fragments, and then we have the usual interesting fare of finds, sunken treasure and royal tombs - something for everyone.
In north-central Turkey there is an important archaeological site called Boğazköy-Hattusha. This was known as Hattusa to the Hittites, their capital city. Excavations have been ongoing here for a century, turning up invaluable cuneiform tablets - over 30,000 of them. However, the most recent discoveries revealed a long concealed secret. Hidden within a cultic ritual text, in the Hittite language, was a recitation, or chant, or prayer, in another Indo-European language. This unknown tongue has been assessed as belonging to the Anatolian-Indo-European languages:
The discovery of another language in the Boğazköy-Hattusha archives is not entirely unexpected, as Prof. Schwemer explains: "The Hittites were uniquely interested in recording rituals in foreign languages."
Such ritual texts, written by scribes of the Hittite king reflect various Anatolian, Syrian, and Mesopotamian traditions and linguistic milieus. The rituals provide valuable glimpses into the little known linguistic landscapes of Late Bronze Age Anatolia, where not just Hittite was spoken. Thus cuneiform texts from Boğazköy-Hattusha include passages in Luwian and Palaic, two other Anatolian-Indo-European languages closely related to Hittite, as well as Hattic, a non-Indo-European language. Now the language of Kalasma can be added to these.
The race is now on to examine the language and see what features it shares with other relatives. Despite Indo-European being the best studied language family on earth, we still have a long way to go to make sense of its evolution and development.
If there’s one factoid many people know about Neanderthals, it is that they sometimes buried their deceased with flowers, displaying the human tendency to care about one’s dead. The origin myth of this story comes from the excavation of Shanidar Cave in Iraq during the 1950’s and 1960’s by one Ralph Solecki. The Shanidar Neanderthals have revolutionised the way we understand our cousin species, and in 1960 the final set of remains, Shanidar 4 gave the hippy generation a beautiful tale - a man laid to rest strewn with flowers and plants. Later explanations looked at the medicinal uses of plants, or entertained the idea that the man was a shaman, but alas, it was not to be.
The Flower Burial hypothesis has always had sceptics, but now the final nail seems to have been hammered home. The outcome of a British research collaboration was published this month, and their meticulous reappraisal of the evidence has concluded that the pollen which was assumed to have come from the flowers, in fact almost certainly came from ground-nesting bees:
This current reappraisal suggests that Solecki's hypothesis — that all of the pollen clumps associated with Shanidar 4 were the result of flowers being placed under a deceased Neanderthal – is very unlikely. There are strong reasons to do with the seasonality of flowering of the species concerned to doubt Solecki's scenario of a single flower-gathering event (Table 1). The mixed clumps of pollen are more consistent with an alternative view, that ground-nesting bees were responsible for the emplacement of the clumps of pollen over one or more spring flowering seasons, while their corroded and flattened state might suggest that the pollen is ancient and thus that this happened more-or-less contemporarily with the Neanderthal activity.
The paper is worth reading in detail, and if anyone has been following along with my archaeological skills articles, then here are some great examples of context intrusion by animals. Archaeologists studying Shanidar Cave over the last few decades have been able to carefully identify both insect and rodent burrows which cut into the graves, a classic example of environmental intrusion which has taken since 1960 to correct.
Both the documentary and archaeological evidence for early European artillery and gunpowder weapons is scarce. It was a great sight to see this month that potentially the oldest naval artillery piece had been preserved and analysed - the Marstrand Cannon from Sweden, dating to between 1285-1399 cal AD. The cannon had been discovered by a diver, 5 km south-west of the island of Marstrand on the west coast of Sweden. Incredibly a piece of cloth had survived inside the piece, suggesting it was muzzle-loaded. While no gunpowder residue had been preserved, the analysis of the metal showed it was not made from the traditional ‘gunmetal’ - a tin bronze with high amounts of zinc and nickel - but instead had large amounts of lead, which would not have helped the gun, but shortened its lifespan. What we have here is an early example of an anti-personnel weapon aboard a ship, loaded with stones down the muzzle, made with a suboptimal alloy:
In the fourteenth century, however, battles between ships at sea were still being fought in the traditional manner, which was highly influenced by combat tactics on the ground. This meant that enemy ships were essentially approached in the same way as castles and other terrestrial fortifications. The only major difference was that combatants in this case were moving by means of ships on the water, and not by foot or on the back of horses. The idea was to come up against, or alongside, the enemy vessel and try to insert combatants aboard that vessel in order to fight and kill or capture its crew and seize it…
Early shipboard artillery like the Marstrand piece are not likely to have had the capacity to cause any major damage to an enemy ship, let alone to sink it. This was however not their intended purpose. Instead, they were used mainly as anti-personnel weapons, aiming to put the crew of the opposing vessel out of action
Wooden artefacts are the perfect nightmare for prehistorians. Based on any contemporary ethnographic record, they would be one of the dominant materials used for tools and objects during the deep past, but they very rarely preserve well. The oldest man made wooden implement dates to a shocking 780,000 years ago in Israel, but for all the hundreds of millennia that followed, we have a handful of remains - the Schöningen spears being one of the best known. To make matters worse, the best preservation occurs in cold and boggy climates, which makes the news from Africa this month all the more spectacular.
At Kalambo Falls, Zambia, a predominantly British team of researchers unearthed two interlocking logs dated to 476,000 years ago. They also found a number of tools including a wedge, digging stick, cut log and notched branch dated to around 390,000 years ago. This is so old that we don’t know which species made them. The Acheulean era tools found in the same context as the wood suggests either Homo erectus or heidelbergensis perhaps, but the jury is still out. The wooden tools alone would be remarkable enough, but the ‘Lincoln log’ style trunks points towards something else - wooden structures.
Barham wonders whether the wood was used to make a platform for fishing or to keep things off the muddy forest floor, some kind of raised track or even a simple shelter. Without further wooden material from the site, it’s really anybody’s guess, he says. “Madness lies that way.”
-These ancient whittled logs could be the earliest known wooden structure (2023) Ewen Calloway
The topic of houses and structures has constantly vexed prehistorians, who really have nothing to go on except speculation and analogy. We have no idea when and what the first structures were, whether they were houses, food storage platforms, raised beds, fishing weirs, meat smokers or animal pens. This discovery has finally given us some evidence about early human woodworking skills and put some speculations on slightly firmer ground.
The overlap between the Neolithic and Bronze Ages is a moment of great importance in European prehistory. Often the process is invisible, but burial sites off the perfect opportunity to see how mortuary rites changed. How Man deals with his dead is a window into the soul of a culture, how they view the body, the individual, the group, the dead, how much agency do they have and so on. This paper, a Swiss-Spanish collaboration, examines skeletal remains deposited in a cave in southern Iberia from 4,000 to 1,000 BC.
Finding a heap of fragmented bones is always a challenge, one of the main ones being ‘how many individuals does this represent?’. When you have bits of feet, loose teeth, spare fingers, it becomes very tricky. Archaeologists use a method called ‘Minimum Number of Individuals’ (MNI), which is a logical approach to tackling the problem. Laying out all the bones and teeth, individuals are calculated through elimination - if you had two left femurs, one molar and two different ribs, you would deduce two individuals from the two femurs and place the molar and ribs with either of them, giving you a minimum of two. Of course each bone could in theory have come from different people, and the process is more complex, but that’s the basic framework.
In this case we have 411 bone fragments and 10 loose teeth, resulting in an MNI of 12, 7 adults and 5 sub-adults of some kind. Radiocarbon dating the bones revealed deposition in three phases: 3900–3750 cal. BC, 2600–2300 cal. BC and 1400 and 1200 cal. BC.
What makes these bones especially interesting is the way in which they have been modified. Many show signs of having been defleshed, almost butchered, some with fragmentation to access the marrow in the long bones, one bone had been turned into a tool. A skull had been turned into a ‘cup’, which is a phenomena found not only in the Upper Palaeolithic, but in other contemporary Neolithic burial sites.
The specimen from Cueva de la Carigüela has been interpreted as the result of opening the cranium in order to access the brain, in line with the abundant cases of cannibalism archaeologically documented for the Neolithic of Andalusia [69, 76, 77]. Another Neolithic example of skull-cup comes from Cueva de El Toro (Antequera, Málaga) . This find has been interpreted as the final product of a process involving the skinning, percussion, and boiling of a human head. It shows percussion marks along the edge as well as departing cracks quite similar to the scraping marks on the exocranial surface of the CM cranium
Interestingly, this is not an isolated case at CM; similar smoothing and polishing were also observed on a fibula fragment (MR18-Z134). Also in these cases, the bone was apparently first broken, and subsequently smoothed at one end through its use as a tool.
The authors don’t stress this so much, but I find the continuity of practice across the different time periods to be very interesting. We know that there were huge population turnovers across the Bronze Age, and to see a place where a mortuary tradition of disarticulation and collective burial survived is fascinating. It would be interesting to see if there was a genetic shift through the life of the cave, or whether some kind of special practice was preserved from the Neolithic onwards.
A cache of Roman era swords was discovered in a small cave in En Gedi Nature Reserve, Israel. The preservation is incredible, including the wooden scabbards. Three straigh-bladed ‘spatha’, one ring-pommel sword, and a pilum were amongst the discoveries. Dating them will give researchers a better idea, but the initial belief is that these were stolen and hidden during the Jewish-Roman wars (AD 66-136).
The Chinese Institute for Archaeology announced the discovery of the tomb of Emperor Xiaomin. He was one of the founders of the Northern Zhou Dynasty (AD 557-581), which was led by the para-Mongolic Xianbei steppe peoples. The Xianbei were remnants of the Donghu people who had been defeated and splintered by the powerful Xiongnu many centuries earlier. Many contemporary sources describe some Xianbei as ‘white’ with blonde hair and blue eyes, which has been a contested point for years. Some genetic work has been done, but given the heterogeneity of steppe peoples it will be interesting to see if any aDNA can be recovered from the ‘Heavenly Prince’
A major new Palaeolithic cave art complex has been discovered at Cova Dones, Valencia. This region contains the majority of all Palaeolithic cave art, but preliminary work suggests that novel techniques were being employed here, including use of red-clay and scraping the immediate lime layer to create contrasting colours. 110 paintings have been identified so far, we’ll wait to see what happens.
"The joint Egyptian-French archaeological mission, between the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the European Institute of Marine Archaeology, found a temple to the goddess Aphrodite from the fifth century BC,” Waziri said in a statement.
He then pointed out that "this was done during underwater excavations in the city of Thonis-Heraklion, which is submerged in Abu Qir Bay in Alexandria."
The statement highlighted that "the mission found inside the temple bronze and ceramic artifacts imported from Greece, in addition to the remains of buildings supported by wooden beams dating back to the fifth century BC."
Grey Goose Chronicles is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.