All posts by Archaeology World Team

Maya Stucco Masks Revealed in Mexico

Maya Stucco Masks Revealed in Mexico

These faces, these portraits, look at us from the past, their gaze transports us to the royal court of the ancient and powerful Mayan kingdom.

The Federal Ministry of Culture, through the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), announced that, in 42 years of research work in the archaeological zone of Toniná, archaeologist Juan Yadeun Angulo, has found a diversity of archaeological materials, among which a large number of masks stand out, with various representations in stucco and sculptures, which give an idea of ​​the ancient inhabitants of this city.

The researcher from the INAH Chiapas Center indicates that some of the stucco pieces were found around the structure known as the House of the Recreation of the Universe, which is to the southeast of the Sunken Plaza of the Palacio de Los Caracoles, which date from around from the years 650 to 700 of our era.

Yadeun Angulo explains that these masks, the majority of which were discovered in 2013, and since then, protected and preserved by the INAH, in the archive’s warehouse of the archaeological site, represent themes of the underworld, the earth and the sky, the levels were the lords of Toniná, the rulers and the people in general thought that it was distributed to the world and to the deities.

Likewise, in Toniná, the use of the human face in architecture is clearly seen: “Here the human body is part of the decoration of the buildings”, highlights the archaeologist.

Within the singular collection of masks, the representation of the lord of the underworld found in a crypt of the Temple of the Sun in 2018 stands out first; the archaeologist explains that all the beings of the underworld do not have a lower jaw, which makes it evident that they are dead, in addition to the fact that this representation is clearly a deity with said characteristic.

“This gentleman has the upper jaw and a shark tooth, because they are solar deities and he really is a monstrous doll, it was part of a huge representation, where it was seen how the lords of Toniná have a relationship with fantastic beings from the interior of the earth and of the starry sky”, comments the archaeologist.

The representation of gods from other cultures also stands out, such as that of a totally Teotihuacan Tláloc; Although the piece is fragmented, it presents the typical characteristics of this Central Mexican deity, who we know had a great influence on the Classic Maya, for which Yadeun warns that this sculpture speaks of an evident relationship with the Central Highlands.

In the same way, there are other sculptures that represent rulers who are in the exercise of their power and, therefore, are remembered with all their magnificence. 

The archaeologist also mentions another mask that served as a mannequin and as an element to make jade masks, since masks can still be seen on top of the mask-mannequin.

Yadeun Angulo hopes that in the future they will be able to hold temporary exhibitions to show the public the valuable collection that Toniná keeps since there are collections of full-body sculptures of ruling gods, representations of scenes from the Popol Vuh myth, as well as entire pages, where the twins Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué are seen, who are related to the earth, the beings of the underworld and the sky.

“These faces, these portraits, look at us from the past, their gaze transports us to the royal court of the ancient and powerful Mayan kingdom of Po’o”, concludes the archaeologist. 

Early Dog Identified in Spain’s Basque Country

Early Dog Identified in Spain’s Basque Country

A humerus analyzed by the UPV/EHU’s Human Evolutionary Biology group belonged to a specimen that lived in the Paleolithic period, 17,000 years ago.

Early Dog Identified in Spain’s Basque Country
Erralla humerus. a) Anterior view. b) Posterior view. c) Medial view. d) Lateral view.

The dog is the first species domesticated by humans, although the geographical and temporal origin of wolf domestication remains a matter of debate. In an excavation led by Jesus Altuna in the Erralla cave (Zestoa, Gipuzkoa) in 1985 an almost complete humerus was recovered from a canid, a family of carnivores that includes wolves, dogs, foxes and coyotes, among others.

At that time it was difficult to identify which species of canid it belonged to.

Now the Human Evolutionary Biology team at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), led by Professor Conchi de la Rúa, has carried out an in-depth study of the bone remains.

A morphological, radiometric and genetic analysis has enabled the species to be identified genetically as Canis lupus familiaris (domestic dog).

The direct dating of the humerus by means of carbon-14 using particle accelerator mass spectrometry gives it an age of 17,410–17,096 cal. BP, (calibrated years Before the Present, i.e. the results obtained are adjusted to take into account changes in the global concentration of radiocarbon over time). That means that the Erralla dog lived in the Magdalenian period of the Upper Paleolithic, which makes it one of the most ancient domestic dogs to have existed so far in Europe.

The Erralla dog shares the mitochondrial lineage with the few Magdalenian dogs analyzed so far.

The origin of this lineage is linked to a period of cold climate coinciding with the Last Glacial Maximum, which occurred in Europe around 22,000 years ago.

“These results raise the possibility that wolf domestication occurred earlier than proposed until now, at least in western Europe, where the interaction of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers with wild species, such as the wolf, may have been boosted in areas of glacial refuge (such as the Franco-Cantabrian) during this period of the climate crisis,” explained Conchi de la Rúa, head of the Human Evolutionary Biology group.

Scientists discover 80,000-year-old bone tools

Scientists discover 80,000-year-old bone tools

Scientists discover 80,000-year-old bone tools
From left to right: experimental debarking in Africa, the bone tool tip after use, Francesco d’Errico making replicas of an experimental bone tool in the field.

Until the beginning of this century, the production of fully worked bone tools was considered an innovation introduced in Europe around 40,000 years ago by modern humans.

Research carried out over the last two decades has led to the discovery of bone tools in several regions of Africa, some of which could date back 100,000 years.

But these early bone tools are rare and non-standardised in shape.

Key cultural innovations

The discovery of 23 bone tools from the Sibudu rock shelter, Kwa Zulu-Natal, South Africa, all with a flattened ogival-shaped end, found in archaeological layers dated between 80,000 and 60,000 years ago, changes the picture.

“Our new study documents the technology and function of the earliest fully shaped bone tools from this region. The discovery of these tools contributes to a better understanding of when and how these innovations arose, and what they were used for,” Francesco d’Errico says. He is the lead author of the paper just published in Scientific Reports.

d’Errico is part of the SapienCE team at the University of Bergen. The SapienCE Centre of Excellence consists of an interdisciplinary team of world-leading scientists. The aim of SapienCE is to improve our understanding of how and when Homo sapiens evolved into who we are today.

Specialised tools for debarking activities

“Our results suggest that the Sibudu double-bevelled tools were not used for hunting or hide processing activities, which are tasks the earliest bone tools have been traditionally associated with, but rather for functions devoted to the exploitation of vegetal resources,” d’Errico explains.

The research was carried out by analysing the use of wear on archaeological and experimental tools with a confocal microscope. This allowed the researchers to measure the roughness parameters of the wear left on the tooltips by use.

Textural and discriminant analysis indicate that most of the bone tools discovered were used in debarking activities, and possibly for digging in humus-rich soil, likely to extract roots or underground storage organs.

Standardised cultural traits

The scientists note that this type of tool continued to be used at this site for 20,000 years, despite the fact that the occupants radically changed the way they produced stone tools during this period.

“These bone tools certainly reflect a local cultural adaptation to a specific environment, as we do not find them elsewhere. Our results support a scenario in which some modern human groups in southern Africa developed and maintained specific, highly standardised cultural traits locally while sharing others across the subcontinent,” d’Errico says.

Complex technical systems

This also implies that MSA peoples had networks allowing the sharing of similar technologies, cultural practices, and new innovations over large territories, while simultaneously maintaining local cultural traits and traditions.

This study confirms that Middle Stone populations already had complex technical systems to help them gather a variety of resources.

The bark of the trees on which the researchers conducted the debarking experiments is not edible but still used in traditional African medicine.

The bark may have been used already 80,000 years ago for similar purposes by Southern African early modern humans.

Roman Colosseum’s Sewers Investigated With Robots

Roman Colosseum’s Sewers Investigated With Robots

Roman Colosseum’s Sewers Investigated With Robots
The Colosseum is one of Italy’s most popular tourist sites

Spectators at Rome’s ancient gladiator arena, the Colosseum, may have enjoyed snacks of olives, fruit and nuts, archaeologists have found.

Food fragments of figs, grapes, cherries, blackberries, walnuts and more have been unearthed at the site. Archaeologists also found the bones of bears and big cats that were probably used in the arena’s hunting games.

The discoveries were made by archaeologists examining the 2,000-year-old landmark’s sewers.

Relics like these provide a snapshot into the “experience and habits of those who came to this place during the long days dedicated to the performances”, said Alfonsina Russo, Director of the Colosseum Archaeological Park.

Researchers say bones from bears and lions were probably left by animals that were forced to fight each other and gladiators for entertainment. Smaller animal bones belonging to dogs were also found.

The study began in January 2021 and involved the clearance of around 70m (230ft) of drains and sewers under the Colosseum, which remains one of Italy’s most visited landmarks.

Specialist architects and archaeologists used wire-guided robots to navigate the arena’s complex drainage system – aiding their understanding of daily life in Rome as well as ancient hydraulic structures, researchers said.

The Colosseum was the biggest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire, falling into disuse around 523 AD. It was famous for hosting gladiatorial fights and other public spectacles in front of crowds of tens of thousands.

Ancient coins were also discovered in the dig, including 50 bronze coins dating back to the late Roman period, spanning roughly 250-450AD and a silver commemorative coin from around 170-171AD celebrating 10 years of Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ rule.

Medieval Woman’s Burial in Switzerland Yields Gold Brooch

Medieval Woman’s Burial in Switzerland Yields Gold Brooch

An excavation of a 7th Century grave site in Switzerland has thrown up a “spectacular” kind of jewellery and afforded valuable insight into medieval society.

A golden brooch was found among other valuable artefacts at the Basel burial site.

The 15 graves belonged to wealthy people of that time who were buried in their finery. The most significant find was a golden robe brooch belonging to a woman aged about 20 at her death.

The woman was also buried with a treasure trove of other jewellery, including 160 pearls, an amber pendant and a belt with an iron buckle and a silver-inlaid tongue.

Other graves revealed high society occupants adorned with highly crafted ornaments.

The archaeological site in Basel, northwest Switzerland, has been excavated over a number of years. In the summer, the body of a warrior was uncovered with a significant head injury caused by a sword blow.

The latest graves were discovered when workers were laying new heating pipes in the city.

“It appears to be a hotspot, a special place where particularly wealthy people were buried,” said Basel cantonal archaeologist Guido Lassau.

Excavations will resume in January and plans are being made to display the finds in a public exhibition.

Ancient barn conversion with steam room found at Roman villa in Rutland

Ancient barn conversion with steam room found at Roman villa in Rutland

Ancient barn conversion with steam room found at Roman villa in Rutland
The bathing suite at the Roman villa in Rutland.

If you thought barn conversions were a relatively recent development for the property-owning classes, you’d be wrong – probably by 16 or 17 centuries.

Archaeologists at the site of a Roman villa complex in the east Midlands have discovered that its wealthy owners converted an agricultural timber barn into a dwelling featuring a bathing suite with a hot steam room, a warm room and a cold plunge pool.

Fresh evidence of the villa owners’ lavish lifestyle comes two years after a family found fragments of ancient pottery on a ramble through farmland in Rutland. Archaeologists from the University of Leicester, in partnership with Historic England and Rutland county council, later unearthed a rare mosaic depicting Homer’s Iliad.

The finding – now protected by the government – was described as “the most exciting Roman mosaic discovery in the UK in the last century”.

Work at the villa site.

Now the same team has unveiled further discoveries at the site, including the conversion of a barn the size of a small church.

The barn was supported by large timber posts and may have had two storeys. It was converted to stone in the third or fourth century, with one end becoming a dwelling with many floors, and the other retained for agricultural or craft work.

The main feature of the dwelling was a Roman-style bath suite with sophisticated underfloor heating and heating ducts built into the walls. A tank outside the building may have been used to collect water from the roof.

The team also revisited the area of the mosaic which was thought to be laid in a dining room, known as a triclinium, within the main villa building. They discovered fragments of polished marble, broken stone columns and painted wall plaster that hint at grand decoration.

The dining room had been built as an extension to the main villa, suggesting that the owners wanted a special area for feasting as they gazed over the Iliad mosaic.

A newly found mosaic at the site.

The new excavations also revealed additional mosaics in the corridors leading to the dining room, including one with a kaleidoscopic geometric design.

John Thomas, the deputy director of the University of Leicester archaeological service, said: “It’s difficult to overstate the significance of this Roman villa complex to our understanding of life in late Roman Britain.

While previous excavations of individual buildings, or smaller-scale villas, have given us a snapshot, this discovery in Rutland is much more complete and provides a clearer picture of the whole complex.

“The aim of this year’s work has been to investigate other buildings within the overall villa complex to provide context to the Trojan war mosaic. While that is a wonderful, eye-catching discovery, we will be able to learn much more about why it was here, and who might have commissioned it, by learning about the villa as a whole.”

Duncan Wilson, Historic England’s chief executive, said the site had “posed many questions about life in Roman Britain”. Its significance would become clearer as the evidence was examined over the next few years by specialists, he added.

Mummies With Golden Tongues Found in Egypt

Mummies With Golden Tongues Found in Egypt

An Egyptian archaeological mission has unearthed a new part of the Quweisna necropolis in Menoufiya governorate that is replete with mummies with golden tongues.

The discovery was made during excavations carried out in the central Nile Delta governorate in the past three months at the necropolis.

The mission also found a collection of clay pots, golden sheets in the shape of scarabs and lotus flowers, as well as a number of funerary stony amulets, scarabs, and vessels from the late ancient Egyptian, Ptolemaic, and Roman periods.
 
“The mummies with golden tongues are in a bad conservation condition,” said Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Waziri added that skeleton remains of mummies covered with golden sheets, wooden anthropoid coffins, and copper traces that were once used in making coffins were also found.
 
Ayman Ashmawi, head of the ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector, said that the newly discovered part of the necropolis has a different architectural style.

Ashmawi explained that this discovered part is made of mudbrick and composed of a main vaulted hall with three vaulted burial chambers and a burial shaft with two side chambers.

“Early studies on the burials, the mummies, and the funerary collection found indicate that this necropolis was used during three different periods: the late ancient Egyptian, the Ptolemaic, and part of the Roman period,” he added.

Quweisna necropolis, which is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Nile Delta, houses a collection of tombs and burial chambers from several archaeological eras. 

This collection reveals the changes in the architectural style of tombs and the burying methods used in the different ages. 

Quweisna is also home to a very distinguished necropolis for sacred birds.

During the past archaeological seasons, the mission has succeeded in uncovering a collection of tombs, remains of buildings, mummies, coffins, and sarcophagi, including a huge anthropoid sarcophagus carved in black granite for one of the senior priests of Atribis (today’s Banha in Qalioubiya governorate north of Cairo).

How Did Humans Boil Water Before the Invention of Pots?

How Did Humans Boil Water Before the Invention of Pots?

On a blustery day in October, Andrew Langley and 13 other graduate students headed to the woods to learn to boil water. They were allowed no obvious cooking vessels: no pots, no pans, no bowls, no cups, no containers at all. But they did bring deer hides, which Langley had carefully procured from deer farms. They were to boil water the Paleolithic way.

How Did Humans Boil Water Before the Invention of Pots?

Langley is a doctoral student in archaeology at the University of York, and he studies how prehistoric humans cooked without pottery. Ceramics are a relatively recent invention in the long arc of human history.

Pottery shards appear in the archaeological record only 20,000 years ago, first in China and then many millennia later in the Near East and Europe. Metal cookware is an even more recent innovation. For tens or even hundreds of thousands of years before all this, our ancestors were building fires and using heat to make food tastier, safer, and easier to digest. The invention of cooking, anthropologists have argued, helped make humans human.

It’s easy to imagine how prehistoric people could have roasted their food. It’s much harder to imagine how they could have boiled it without pottery. But that’s what Langley, who was helping lead a class of master’s students in archaeology, set out to attempt that October morning. Their boiling experiment was part of a course, and it took place at the York Experimental Archaeological Research Centre, a lakeside grove where researchers try to re-create the prehistoric by hafting arrowheads and weaving baskets out of reeds—and, in this case, boiling water. The students were divided into groups of two or three, and they set out on this extremely simple yet daunting task.

A couple of groups dug pits, filling them with coals and then lining them with either wet clay or deer hide. Others poured water into birch bark or pig stomachs (procured from a Chinese supermarket).

One group hung a deer hide from a tree and started heating small rocks in a fire—a technique inspired by the discovery of fire-cracked rocks in Paleolithic sites. These rocks had split and changed in distinct ways that suggested repeated heating and cooling. Archaeologists think that these stones were heated in fires and then dropped into water for cooking.

But you can’t use just any old rocks for boiling. “The stones are the most tricky part,” Langley says. Wet stones, such as those that have been sitting in a river bed, will explode when the water inside turns into steam. So will stones with air trapped inside them. “Things like granite and basalt are very good,” he says. For safety reasons, Langley provided the students with massage stones that he knew would not explode. Still, the students had to heat the stones gradually to make sure that they did not crack at all. They ended up slowly nudging the stones into the fire over the course of 10 to 15 minutes. Using multiple stones, they were able to get the water inside the deer hide to boil.

Another group was also attempting to boil water inside a deer hide hung directly over a fire—a technique admittedly less grounded in physical evidence from archaeological sites. In 2015, John Speth, a retired anthropologist at the University of Michigan, wrote a paper pointing out that you can actually boil water in a plastic water bottle.

The paper, he was happy to explain to me, was inspired by watching the reality show Survivorman, in which the outdoor expert Les Stroud boils water in a plastic bottle, with his son. Speth quickly found YouTube videos and other evidence of people heating water in paper cups, coconut shells, bamboo tubes, wooden bowls, and even leaves. It turns out that as long as the cooking container is filled with water, it does not get hot enough to ignite.

But when Speth began talking with other archaeologists about this, he found that they had rarely thought about Paleolithic humans boiling water this way, using seemingly flimsy and flammable containers long before the introduction of pottery.

However, ethnographers in the 19th and 20 centuries documented the Celts, Assiniboin, Cree, Ojibwa, and Blackfeet cooking without stones in birch bark, hides, and animal stomachs. These organic materials would have rotted, of course, leaving no artefacts for archaeologists to study. Speth wondered if humans could have boiled liquids this way long before the evidence showed up in the archaeological record.

One group of students decided to put this method to the test. They hoisted their water-filled deer hide directly over a fire, and they planned to let it go as long as the hide stayed intact. The hair on the outside singed, but the skin itself held up just fine. So the students waited and waited and waited. Four hours later, the hide was still intact. It did get very hard, but neither sprung a leak nor burned.

The students tried to boil water in a deer hide directly over a fire.

The water reached 60 degrees Celsius, or 140 degrees Fahrenheit, but it did not come to a boil. And the deer hide definitely added some extra flavour, if you will, to the water. “If you stuck your head over it while it was cooking, you could smell it,” says Christopher Lance, one of the students. They were, I was disappointed to learn, not allowed to drink the hide-boiled water for food-safety reasons.

The students are now writing up the results of their different pot-less boiling techniques. And Speth was incredibly pleased to hear that a group of students decided to put his idea of wet cooking without hot stones to the test.

It’s extremely speculative, he admitted. But archaeology always has to deal with the problem of an incomplete record, and certain types of evidence (i.e., anything that will rot) are always going to be more incomplete than others. It’s about considering the things we see and also the things we don’t see. “If nobody asked the question,” Speth said, “nobody would even think it’s worth thinking about.”