Archaeologists Solve Mystery of 5,600-Year-Old Skull Found in Italian Cave

Archaeologists Solve Mystery of 5,600-Year-Old Skull Found in Italian Cave

A Stone Age woman’s skull took an unlikely trip after she died 5,600 years ago when mud and water washed it away from her gravesite and into the craggy rocks of a steep cave in what is now Italy, according to a recent analysis.

Archaeologist Lucia Castagna recovers the 5,600-year-old human skull at the top of a vertical shaft in the Marcel Loubens cave, in the Bologna area of northern Italy.

When archaeologists found the skull, its resting spot in the cave shaft was so hard to reach that only one archaeologist, using rock climbing equipment, could squeeze into the space to recover it. During later analysis, the researchers found that the skull was very scratched up; at first, they couldn’t make heads or tails of what had happened to the ancient woman. 

But, after determining which of the skull’s lesions were likely caused by humans and which were likely incurred as the skull tumbled against various rocks, the researchers came up with a possible scenario.

Once this woman died, people in her community likely dismembered her corpse — a funeral practice performed at other burials from this time period and region. After people separated the woman’s skull from the rest of her body, environmental forces swept it away into the cave, the researchers suggested. 

Archaeologists discovered the lone skull in 2015 in northern Italy’s Marcel Loubens cave. Caves are common sites for ancient burials, but archaeologists couldn’t find any other human remains there, even when they returned in 2017 with climbing equipment to retrieve the skull. 

A CT (computed tomography) scan and analysis of the skull itself revealed that the woman was between the ages of 24 and 35 when she died, while radiocarbon dating indicated that she lived between 3630 and 3380 B.C., during the New Stone Age, or Neolithic period. To put that into perspective, this woman lived just before Ötzi the Iceman, whose mummified remains date to 3300 B.C. and were also found in northern Italy.

What happened?

Several traumatic lesions on the woman’s skull helped the researchers piece together her strange story. One dent — which showed signs of healing, meaning it was incurred when she was alive — may have been made forcefully with tools, as there were parallel grooves below it, the researchers said.

Perhaps this woman had undergone cranial surgery, such as trepanation — a technique employed during the Neolithic and later in which holes are made in the skull, they said. A smudge of red ocher pigment found on this dent may have been placed there for therapeutic or symbolic reasons, the team noted.

Other lesions indicated that the soft tissues on her skull had been cut and scraped off after she died, as these lesions showed no signs of healing, the researchers said. This practice has been documented at other Neolithic burials in Italy; for instance, at Re Tiberio Cave in northern Italy, the long arm and leg bones of up to 17 Neolithic human skeletons were arranged in order, and their heads were missing — clues that these people’s body parts might have been separated and rearranged after death.

Other Neolithic remains found at nearby caves also show evidence of cranial scrape marks that were made after those people died, the researchers said.

Archaeologists Solve Mystery of 5,600-Year-Old Skull Found in Italian Cave
Some of the marks seen on the woman’s skull predated her death, while others were likely left by natural forces following her burial.

Life during the Neolithic was challenging, so it’s no surprise that the woman wasn’t in the best health. Tiny holes on top of her skull may be related to inflammation, possibly from chronic anaemia (iron or vitamin B12 deficiency), the researchers said.

The woman also had two dense, ivory-like spots on her skull, which were likely benign tumours. Even her tooth enamel was underdeveloped, suggesting that she had health problems when her permanent teeth were developing in early childhood. She also had several cavities, possibly due to a diet high in carbohydrates, the researchers said.

Rocky tumble

Other damage and encrusted sediment on the woman’s skull told another story — essentially, that natural forces moved the woman’s cranium after her burial. After the woman was laid to rest, the dismembered skull rolled away, probably with water and mud that was flowing downhill toward a sinkhole. 

“After a long and bumpy ride, [the skull] accidentally ended up in the cave,” the researchers said in a statement. Over time, the sinkhole’s geological activity created a cave, where the skull sat for 5,600 years until it was discovered by modern archaeologists.

The skull’s resting spot is “unusual,” but “the authors are able to provide a plausible scenario of how the skull ended up in this cave,” said Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage, in Hannover, Germany, who wasn’t involved in the study. But the origin of some of the skull’s lesions is still murky, he said.

“I have the feeling the authors themselves, who did a very good job, are not 100% sure about this,” Terberger told Live Science in an email. “It is not always easy to distinguish between striations (caused by transport in the sediment/rocky ground) and cut marks.”

Even though this skull represents just one individual, “case studies like this are important to show the huge variety of postmortem episodes that can actually happen to skeletal remains, initiated by natural or anthropogenic [human-caused] factors,” Christian Meyer, lead researcher at the OsteoArchaeological Research Center in Germany, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Live Science in an email.

Graves of nearly 600 cats and dogs in ancient Egypt may be the world’s oldest pet cemetery

Graves of nearly 600 cats and dogs in ancient Egypt may be the world’s oldest pet cemetery

A well-preserved burial ground in the researchers consider to be at the very origin of human burial customs has been found in Egypt the skeleton remains of over 600 cats, dogs, monkeys were found carefully laid in individual graves in Berenike, a remote seaport on the western coast of the Red Sea.

Some of the animals were still wearing collars and other adornments, and others showed evidence of illnesses indicating they had been cared for by humans.

But the lack of mummification or sacrifice at the 2,000-year-old site suggests these were companion animals, not used in rituals or venerated as gods.

The remains of some 588 cats, dogs and monkeys were found in a site in the ancient Egyptian port of Berenike in what archaeologists believe may be the oldest known pet cemetery, Pictured: A cat skeleton from Berenice wearing a bronze collar

Berenike was founded in 275 BC by Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who named it after his mother, Berenice I of Egypt. It was a bustling Roman port, and excavations have uncovered ceramics, spices, fabrics and other goods from as far away as India, as well as luxury items from across the empire.

Berenike was also a way station for ‘war elephants’ from Africa that would be sent out to fight in various battles. Archaeozoologist Marta Osypinska and her archaeologist husband, Piotr, originally discovered the cemetery site in 2011 while excavating a Roman trash dump on the edge of town.

Graves of nearly 600 cats and dogs in ancient Egypt may be the world’s oldest pet cemetery
A number of the dogs found on the site had medical issues that they couldn’t have survived without a human caregiver. Many, like this dog, were buried under pottery ‘which formed a kind of sarcophagus’

In 2017, they unearthed the remains of about 100 animals, mostly cats, and began to form a picture of what the area was used for. Other experts still believed they may have simply been discarded trash.

It wasn’t uncommon to bury pets in ancient Egypt but usually, they’d be interred with their owners, not placed in a dedicated space.

‘At first, some very experienced archaeologists discouraged me from this research,’ Osypinska told Science. They insisted there was little to learn about Berenike culture from studying pets.

‘I hope the results of our studies prove that it’s worth it,’ she told the magazine.

Marta and Piotr Osypinska first unearthed the site in 2011 but didn’t immediately determine its purpose as a pet cemetery. Even after more than 100 animal remains were discovered there, experts discouraged their research

According to her research, published in the journal World Archaeology, the ‘pet cemetery’ at Berenice functioned for about a hundred years, from the mid-first century to the mid-second century. In all, the team has found 585 animals to date, some of which are not native to Africa.

The vast majority — more than 90 per cent — were cats, though there were also dogs, baboons, and two species of macaques native to the Indian subcontinent.

Of the dogs, most were light-coloured Spitz types, though there were also toy dogs and larger canines more like mastiffs. Many of the cats wore metal collars or necklaces threaded with ostrich-shell beads. Osypinska told Science many of the animals were covered with textiles or pottery, ‘which formed a kind of sarcophagus.’

The animals were not haphazardly discarded, but carefully laid in individual pits. One feline was placed atop the wing of a large bird, the magazine reported.

Consulting with a veterinarian, Osypinska’s team was able to determine several of the animals had illnesses that would have killed them without human caregivers.

The remains of a dog that suffered from bone cancer were found in a mat of palm leaves covered with an amphora, according to Archaeology News Network.

Its belly still contained remains of fish and goat meat, its final meal. Other canines were missing most of their teeth, had gum disease or showed signs of joint degeneration.

‘We have individuals who have very limited mobility,’ Osypinska said. ‘Such animals had to be fed to survive, sometimes with special foods in the case of the almost-toothless animals.’

The kind of devotion required to nurse an old pet reveals the people of Berenice had strong emotional ties with domesticated animals, according to the report.

Archaeologists have uncovered mass animal graves in Egypt before, but almost always the creatures were either sacrificed or venerated, not treated as pets. Dozens of mummified cats were found in 2018 on the edge of the King Userkaf pyramid complex at the ancient necropolis of Saqqara, south of Cairo.

Several years earlier a labyrinth of sacred tunnels was uncovered in the same region, packed with the mummified remains of up to eight million dogs, some of which was just hours old when they were sacrificed.

Other canines were treated as living representatives of the dog-headed god Anubis, living out their lives in the nearby temple before being preserved and laid to rest in the network of tunnels. The people of Berenike treated these animals as loving companions, Osypinska insists, ‘They weren’t doing it for the gods or for any utilitarian benefit.’

One of the Largest Pyramids on Earth is Hidden Beneath the Forest

One of the Largest Pyramids on Earth is Hidden Beneath the Forest

A group of explorers set on solving the mystery of a long lost pyramid hidden deep in the Guatemala jungle rumoured to be larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza, received the treat of their lives.

El Mirador is a pre-Columbian Mayan settlement, located to the north of El Peten in Guatemala, first photographed from the air in 1930, but its remote location meant further exploration was limited. In 2003, Richard D. Hansen, an archaeologist from Idaho State University, initiated a major investigation and, although his team discovered that the area contained striking examples of the Preclassic Maya civilisation, its location prevented extensive documentation. However, 16 years on, digital media company Yes Theory have changed that, uncovering two large pyramids in the complex.

Thomas Brag, Ammar Kandil and Matt Dajer trekked for four days on foot through the Guatemala jungle, alongside seven other creators to fulfil Mr Kandil’s dream to climb a pyramid.

Documenting every step of their experience, they released “Finding the Lost Largest Pyramid in the World” on their website and later on YouTube on September 15, 2019.

First uncovering the colossal structure, Mr Dajer exclaimed: “We’ve just arrived at the very, very bottom base of a pyramid.

“You would never guess just walking through here, but this entire thing is limestone underneath and this is part of the pyramid.

The pyramid was hiding in the Guatemala jungle

“You can’t even grasp fully in your mind how huge this must have looked when it was for real.” The group then began making the monumental 50-minute-long journey up thousands of steps.

Mr Brag told the camera: “So these are the steps to the second platform and this entire thing that we are on is a man built.

“So once they started digging up the soil from what’s been layered up on top of this over thousands of years, they’re actually discovering the giant construction and the insane labour that it was to build this.

“This is just the steps up, I can’t even see the top from here.

“This is way bigger than I expected, it is insane.”

Eventually, they made it to the top, and the whole crew were left taken back.

The pyramid can be seen pocking out the jungle

Drone footage shows the pyramid-like never seen before.

An emotional Mr Kandil reflected during the film: “This is all to do with a dream I had.

“Everything about Yes Theory is saying ‘yes’ to those dreams that you think are so far-fetched.

“It’s being constantly in the pursuit to go after those dreams, to go after the things that matter the most to you in life.

“As you’re in the pursuit to do something you love and to do something that you dream of, you never who that inspires or what that ends up contributing to your life.

“Sometimes we end up achieving the dreams we never even knew we had.”

There are roughly 35 “triadic” structures in El Mirador, consisting of large artificial platforms topped with a set of three summit pyramids.  The most notable of such structures are the two huge complexes explored in the documentary, one is nicknamed “El Tigre”, with a height of 55 metres, while the other is called “La Danta”.

The La Danta temple measures approximately 72 metres (236 ft) tall from the forest floor and considering its total volume (2,800,000 cubic meters) is considered the largest in the world by many archaeologists.

For comparison, the Great Pyramid of Giza is 139 metres tall, but 2,583,283 cubic metres in volume. That has not stopped one of the Seven Wonder of the Ancient World from making headlines too, though.

Archaeologists Find A 2,500-Year-Old Grave In Siberia That Contains An Ancient Warrior Couple

Archaeologists Find A 2,500-Year-Old Grave In Siberia That Contains An Ancient Warrior Couple

On an investigation to a 2,500-year-year-old tomb of an ancient warrior and princess was discovered in Siberia. The pair are believed to have died in their 30s and were buried with a baby and an ‘elderly’ servant woman, archaeologists say.

The woman may have been 60 years of age when she died, as she died and was entombed in a crumpled position under the feet of the couple, who may have been spouses.

Remains of the child were scattered throughout the grave, which archaeologists say probably happened when rodents ate the flesh of the deceased. 

Experts unearthing the find in southern Siberia say the four people probably succumbed simultaneously to the same infection, and the servant was buried alongside them to look after the family in the afterlife. 

The warrior couple, the woman specifically, maybe proof of the lost Scythian civilisation, which inhabited the region of modern-day Russia until 2,200 years ago.

The pair are believed to have died in their 30s and were buried with a baby and an ‘elderly’ servant woman, archaeologists say. The elderly woman was likely in her 60s when she died. The bones of the child were scattered throughout the grave, probably by rodents

The fighter woman in the grave was buried with the same weaponry as the man, the researchers say, which is unusual.  In surviving records and other graves from the same time frame and location, female warriors were buried with a bow and arrows, long-range weapons, 

But the woman in the newly unearthed grave was armed with a long-handled weapon, either a hatchet or an axe, and a short sword. These weapons are best suited for hand-to-hand combat and a bloody melee and this difference is indicative of the Scythian culture, researchers say.   

Dr Oleg Mitko, head of Archeology at Novosibirsk State University, said: ‘We have an impressive set of weaponry. 

‘We found close fight weapons in a female grave, which is not so typical. The woman had a battle-axe.. so she was a part of warrior strata.’

Senior researcher Yuri Teterin said: ‘The man had two axes and two bronze daggers.

‘It is a brilliant burial in that there is an authentic bronze weaponry.’ The man also had a bronze mirror, the researchers say.

Wooden handles of the weapons have no survived millennia in soil, but the metallic elements have. The couple, the baby and servant, are from the Tagar culture, part of the Scythian civilisation, researchers believe. 

In contrast to other female warriors from ancient Siberia, the female in the grave was armed in with a long-handled weapon, either a hatchet or an axe, and a short sword. These weapons are best suited for hand-to-hand combat
The couple, the baby and servant, are from the Tagar culture, part of the Scythian civilisation, researchers believe

The older woman had two broken teeth and her possessions were only a broken comb and a small ceramic vessel, indicating she had little personal wealth.  

Larger ceramic vessels – believed to have been full of food – were also discovered which were filled with mutton and beef, researchers say. 

When they were buried 2,500 years ago, the grave goods and food would have been buried alongside the people because it was believed it helped people in the afterlife.

Scientists say there is no immediate evidence of battle wounds to suggest a cause of death, but further research will be undertaken.

One theory is that they succumbed to an infection at the same time, leading to them all being buried simultaneously. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus left a detailed account of the Scythians and their young women warriors.

But physician Hippocrates added that a young woman would cease her role as a fighter after ‘she takes to herself a husband’.

‘They do not lay aside their virginity until they have killed three of their enemies, and they do not marry before they have performed the traditional sacred rites.’

‘Yet in this case, the woman warrior appears part of a family unit.

Archaeologist Anatoly Vybornov said: ‘Both male and women took part in hostilities. Violence was an acceptable and legal way to solve the problems then.’ 

50 Million Year Old Fossil Identified as Relative of Ostriches

50 Million Year Old Fossil Identified as Relative of Ostriches

The bird fossils were found more than a decade ago, completely intact with bones, feathers, and soft tissues in a former lake bed in Wyoming. Nesbitt cannot hide a grin as he calls the fossil a once-in-a-lifetime discovery for palaeontologists.

“This is among one of the earliest well-represented bird species after the age of large dinosaurs,” said Nesbitt, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences.

“You can definitely appreciate how complete these fossils are,” added Nesbitt of the remains, the focus of a research paper co-authored by Nesbitt and newly published in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History.

Some of the remains are now on display as part of the exhibit “Dinosaurs Among Us” at the New York-based history museum. The fossils Other specimens used in the study are kept by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and the Wyoming Geological Survey.

The new species is named Calciavis grandei — with “calci” meaning “hard/stone,” and “avis” from the Latin for the bird, and “grandei” in honour of famed palaeontologist Lance Grande who has studied the fossil fish from the same ancient North American lake for decades.

The fossils of Calciavis found in the US shows us that the flightless bird group that includes Ostrich of today had a much wider distribution and longer evolutionary history in North America.

The bird is believed to be roughly the size of a chicken, and similar to chickens, were mostly ground-dwelling, only flying in short bursts to escape predators.

Nesbitt began studying the fossil in 2009 whilst a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences, under Professor Julia Clarke, whom Nesbitt considers an important mentor. Clarke co-authored the paper with Nesbitt, who joined Virginia Tech’s faculty in 2014.

The work was funded by two grants from the National Science Foundation’s Earth Sciences Directorate.

Two fossils of Calciavis dating from the Eocene epoch — roughly between 56 million and 30 million years ago — were found by fossil diggers within the Green River Formation in Wyoming, a hotbed for extinct fish. “These are spectacularly preserved fossils, one is a nearly complete skeleton covered with feather remains, the others are nearly as complete and some show soft tissue remains,” said Nesbitt.

“Fossil birds are rare,” added Nesbitt, adding that as bird bones are hollow, they are far more fragile than most mammal bones, and more likely to be crushed during fossilization. One of the fossilized birds in this rare case apparently was covered in mud soon after death.

The former lake in which the fossil was found is best known for producing scores of complete fish skeleton fossils, but other fossils such as other birds, plants, crocodilians, turtles, bats, and mammals from an ecosystem roughly 50 million years old.

Included in the extinct group of early Palaeognathae birds, the Lithornithidae, Nesbitt and Clarke call the bird a close relative of living ostriches, kiwis, and tinamous now living in the southern continents. After tropical forests disappeared in North America, Calciavis and other more tropical birds went extinct, said, Nesbitt and Clarke.

“Relationships among species in this lineage of birds have been extremely contentious,” said Clarke. “We hope the detailed new anatomical data we provide will aid in finding a resolution to this ongoing debate.”

“The new bird shows us that the bird group that includes the largest flightless birds of today had a much wider distribution and longer evolutionary history in North America,” Nesbitt said. “Back when Calciavis was alive, it lived in a tropical environment that was rich with tropical life and this is in stark contrast to the high-desert environment in Wyoming today.”

50 Million Year Old Fossil Identified as Relative of Ostriches

The Calciavis skeleton will be important to interpreting new bird fossils and other fossils from the Eocene epoch that were collected decades ago. “This spectacular specimen could be a ‘keystone’ that helps interpret much of the sparse fossil of birds that once lived in North America millions of years ago,” said Nesbitt.

CT Scans Suggest Egyptian Pharaoh Was Brutally Executed on the Battlefield

CT Scans Suggest Egyptian Pharaoh Was Brutally Executed on the Battlefield

Seqenenre Taa II, the Egyptian pharaoh, may have died on the battlefield, surrounded by attackers carrying daggers, swords, and spears. According to a recent computed tomography (CT) scan of the pharaoh’s damaged mummy, which revealed new facial wounds that ancient embalmers tried to disguise.

A CT scan of the skull of Seqenenre Taa II, whose facial wounds suggest a violent battlefiend death

A broad cut in the pharaoh’s forehead, wounds across his eyes and cheeks, and a knife wound at the base of the skull that may have penetrated the brain stem were all visible. The attackers, it seems, surrounded the defeated ruler on every side.

“This suggests that Seqenenre was really on the front line with his soldiers, risking his life to liberate Egypt,” study lead author Sahar Saleem, a professor of radiology at Cairo University, said in a statement.

The mummy of Seqenenre Taa II was first discovered in the 1880s. Even then, archaeologists noticed several prominent wounds on the pharaoh’s face.

A war over hippos

Seqenenre Taa II (also spelled Seqenenre Tao II) was the ruler of southern Egypt between about 1558 B.C. and 1553 B.C., during the occupation of Egypt by the Hyksos, a people who probably came from the Levant.

The Hyksos controlled northern Egypt and required tribute from the southern part of the kingdom.

According to fragmentary papyrus accounts, Seqenenre Taa II revolted against the occupiers after receiving a complaint from the Hyksos king that the noise of hippos in a sacred pool in Thebes was disturbing his sleep.

The king lived in the capital city of Avaris, 400 miles (644 kilometres) away. On this trumped-up charge, the Hyksos king demanded the sacred pool be destroyed — a grave insult to Seqenenre Taa II. 

This insult may have been the prelude to war. Text on a carved rock slab found in Thebes recounts that Seqenenre Taa II’s son and immediate successor, Kamose, died in battle against the Hyksos. 

No one knew what had happened to the pharaoh, even after his mummy was discovered in 1886. Archaeologists noticed wounds on the skull and speculated that he’d been killed in battle or perhaps murdered in a palace coup. The 19th-century archaeologists who found the mummy reported a foul smell when they unwrapped it, leading them to suspect that the mummy had been hastily embalmed on the battlefield. 

The new study uses X-rays from multiple angles to build a 3D image of the pharaoh’s mummy. The pharaoh’s remains are in poor condition, with bones disarticulated and the head detached from the rest of the body. 

Violent death 

Nevertheless, the wounds on the skull tell the story of brutal death. The pharaoh had a 2.75-inch-long (7  centimeters) cut across his forehead, which would have been delivered from an axe or sword stroke from above. This wound alone could have been fatal. Another potentially fatal slice above the pharaoh’s right eye was 1.25 inches (3.2 cm) long and possibly made by an axe. More cuts on the nose, right eye and right cheek came from the right and from above and may have been delivered with an axe handle or blunt staff, the researchers said. 

Meanwhile, someone in front of the king swung a sword or an axe at the pharaoh’s left cheek, leaving another deep slice. From the left, a weapon — probably a spear — penetrated the base of his skull, leaving a 1.4-inch-long (3.5 cm) wound.  

Early archaeologists had previously reported many of these wounds, but Saleem and her colleague, Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, discovered a new set of skull fractures covered by embalming material. Concentrated on the right side of the skull, the damage seems to have been caused by a dagger and a heavy, blunt object, perhaps an axe handle. 

The mummy’s hands were flexed and clenched, but there were no defensive injuries on his forearms, leading the researchers to suggest that perhaps Seqenenre Taa II’s hands were bound when he died. He may have been captured on the battlefield and executed by multiple attackers, Saleem said in the statement. 

Radiologist Sahar Saleem stands with the mummy of Seqenenre Taa II during CT scanning.

Although researchers have discovered pharaoh mummies with violent wounds before, there had been no evidence of pharaoh battlefield deaths until now, Saleem told Live Science. For example, Ramesses III had his throat cut in a palace coup, she said. Historical accounts tell of Ramesses II and Thutmose III taking part in the battle, but there is no evidence of injuries on their mummies. The mummy of an unidentified nobleman had an arrow embedded in its chest, Saleem said, which may have occurred in battle. 

The fact that embalmers tried to patch up Seqenenre Taa II’s skull wounds suggests that he wasn’t hastily embalmed, the researchers wrote in their new study, in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.

The pharaoh’s desiccated brain was also stuck to the left side of his skull, suggesting that someone laid him on his side after his death, either at the place where he fell or while his body was being transported for embalming. 

Seqenenre Taa II may have lost his life in battle, but his successors eventually won the war. After Kamose died, Seqenenre Taa II’s consort, Ahhotep I, likely acted as regent, continuing the rebellion against the Hyskos. When Seqenenre Taa II and Ahhotep I’s son Ahmose I came of age, he inherited the throne and finally pushed out the foreign occupiers. Ahmose I would unify Egypt and launch the New Kingdom, the period of ancient Egypt’s peak power between the 16th and 11th centuries B.C. 

New technique reveals hidden detail in an ancient Etruscan painting

New technique reveals hidden detail in an ancient Etruscan painting

Multi-illumination hyperspectral extraction (MHX) has been used to reveal previously unseen details in 2,500-year-old Etruscan tomb paintings, according to a Live Science report.

For instance, they found new details in a painting from the “Tomb of the Monkey” and scenes of an underworld in another work of art.

The Etruscans created detailed paintings, but the passage of time has meant that many of them are now only partly visible and that much of their colour has been lost. 

New technique reveals hidden detail in an ancient Etruscan painting
Using a new technique to restore this Etruscan painting (left) from the 2,500-year-old “Tomb of the Monkey,” researchers revealed what it really looked like so long ago (right).

“A major issue is the significant loss of information on the polychromy [colours] of the preserved paintings, with special regard to some specific colours owing to their physical-chemical composition,” Gloria Adinolfi, a researcher at Pegaso Srl Archeologia Arte Archeometria (a research institute), said in a presentation given Jan. 8 at the virtual joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies. 

The fact that some colours survive the passage of time better than others can give a distorted view of what ancient paintings looked like at the time they were painted, Adinolfi said. For example, some shades of green tend not to survive well, whereas red often does, she said.

“Red oaks usually seem to be more resistant so that sometimes reds are dominant and alter the correct perception of the original polychromy of the pictorial decoration,” Adinolfi said. 

Revealing ancient paintings

To reveal the paintings, the scientists used a technique called multi-illumination hyperspectral extraction (MHX), which involves taking dozens of images in the visible, infrared and ultraviolet bands of light and processing them using statistical algorithms developed at the National Research Council of Italy in Pisa, said team member Vincenzo Palleschi, a senior researcher at the research council. 

The technique can detect Egyptian blue, a colour developed in ancient Egypt that “has a very specific response in a single spectral band,” Palleschi said. The team also analyzed the residual remains of other remaining colours to help determine what colours were in the painting. 

By combining the MHX and colour analyses, the team revealed vanished scenes from ancient Etruscan paintings.

The researchers unveiled several examples during the presentation, including details of paintings depicting the Etruscan underworld showing rocks, trees and water. 

In the Tomb of the Monkey, so named because a painting in the tomb shows a monkey on a tree, the researchers uncovered details of a painting depicting a person.

To the naked eye, the painting looks like a red blur, but after the MHX and colour analyses were complete, the painting clearly showed a person carrying an object and details of their hair and face.

The tomb was discovered in the 19th century but now, with the new technology, the painting has become much more visible. 

The team’s research is ongoing, and more paintings may be revealed in the future. 

Hiker Accidentally Discovers 1,200-Year-Old Viking Sword in Norway

Hiker Accidentally Discovers 1,200-Year-Old Viking Sword in Norway

After hiking across the plateau that covers the region between the west and east sides of Norway, Goran Olsen sat down to take a break. That’s when he spotted a rusty sword blade lying under some rocks on the well-travelled mountain path.

While hiking on a mountain path in south-central Norway, a man recently stumbled on a well-preserved Viking sword that archaeologists say dates back to A.D. 750.

Archaeologists have identified Olsen’s find as a type of Viking sword made circa A.D. 750. That makes it some 1,265 years old, though the scientists have warned this is not an exact date.

Double-edged and made of wrought iron, the sword measures just over 30 inches long (77 centimetres). Though covered in rust, and lacking a handle, it is otherwise in excellent condition.

A hiker is dwarfed by the landscape of the mountain plateau where the Viking sword was found

The Haukeli mountains are covered in snow and frost at least six months out of the year and experience little humidity in summer, conditions that may explain why the sword is so well preserved. As County Conservator Per Morten Ekerhovd told CNN: “It’s quite unusual to find remnants from the Viking Age that are so well-preserved…[the sword] might be used today if you sharpened the edge.”

Beginning in the 8th century, many Vikings left their native homes in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, using advanced navigational technology to spread out across Europe and beyond. Famous—and feared—for their violent attacks on coastal cities and towns, they were also skilled traders and daring explorers who founded the first colony in Greenland and reached North America some 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

The Viking Age endured until the late 11th century, leaving a lasting impact on Western society and the world.

Viking law mandated that all free men were required to carry weapons and be prepared to wage war at all times. Of the most common weapons—swords, spears and battle-axes—swords were the most expensive to make. With their decorated hilts of silver, bronze or copper, Viking swords functioned as status symbols.

According to the pagan beliefs of many Vikings, a sword was a sacred object that could help its bearer enter heaven. After attaining the highest honour of dying in battle, the heroic Viking warrior, with his sword in hand, would feast with the gods in a special place known as Valhalla.

Many later Viking sword blades were emblazoned with specific markings, believed to be the names of their creators. Of the thousands of Viking swords that have been discovered across Scandinavia and northern Europe—most excavated from burial sites or found in rivers—some 170 have been marked with the name Ulfberht.

Their superior quality shocked archaeologists, as the technology needed to produce such pure metal would not be invented for another 800 years. In order to liquefy iron ore and remove impurities (known as “slag”), modern metalworkers heat it to 3,000°F (1,650°C); carbon is then added in order to strengthen the brittle iron.

In medieval times, when ovens could not achieve high-enough temperatures to liquefy the iron, metal workers would have to remove slag by pounding it out, a much less effective process.

With very little slag, and high carbon content, the Ulfberht blades are made of what’s known as “crucible steel,” a state-of-the-art metal that would not be seen in Europe again until the Industrial Revolution.

Experts believe the crucible steel used by the Vikings may have come from the Islamic world. Warriors in Central Asia had been using swords of material similar to that of the Ulfberht for centuries before the Viking Age, and a robust trade route known as the Volga connected Scandinavia with northern Iran from the early 9th to the mid-11th century.

Last March, researchers announced that a ring recovered from a 9th century Viking grave a century ago bears an Islamic inscription meaning “for/to Allah,” providing a rare physical link between the two worlds.

The sword Olsen discovered in Haukeli is not branded, and is missing its handle, but is still a strong blade. Experts believe it could be from a Viking burial site, or it could have belonged to a traveller who died in an accident or succumbed to frostbite. Either way, they say, its owner would likely have been a high-status member of Viking society.

The sword is now at the University of Bergen, for preservation and research purposes. Archaeologists are planning an expedition to the site of Olsen’s discovery for next spring, once the snow melts, in order to see if they can uncover any more artefacts.

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