All posts by Archaeology World Team

Scottish storms unearth 1,500-year-old Viking-era cemetery

Scottish storms unearth 1,500-year-old Viking-era cemetery

The native Picts, a Celtic-language speaking tribe, once populated the Scottish Islands, similar to the natives that live on what is now Scotland. 

Archaeologists and volunteers are working to preserve human bones exposed by recent storms in an ancient cemetery above a beach on the Orkney Islands.

Several powerful storms on Scotland’s Orkney Islands have now revealed ancient human remains in a Pictish and Viking cemetery dated back to about 1,500 years ago.

To order to protect the damage to the former Newark Bay cemetery on Orkney’s largest island, volunteers are now placing sandbags and clay around. The site dates from the middle of the sixth century when ancient Pictish people inhabited the Orkney Islands.

The site is currently being protected by sandbags.

Picts or Norse?

The cemetery was used for about 1,000 years, and numerous burials from the ninth to the 15th century were Norsemen or Vikings who had seized the Orkney Islands from the Picts. Now, storm waves are destroying the low cliff where the ancient site is located, Peter Higgins from the Orkney Research Center for Archaeology (ORCA), said.

“Every time we have a storm with a bit of a south-easterly [wind], it really gets in there and actively erodes what is just soft sandstone,” Higgins explained.

Approximately 250 skeletons were taken out of the cemetery about 50 years ago, but researchers do not know how far the site extends from the beach. They believe that hundreds of Pictish and Norse bodies are still buried there.

“The local residents and the landowner have been quite concerned about what’s left of the cemetery being eroded by the sea,” Higgins said.

Uncovered bones are usually either coated with clay to protect them or removed from the site after their positions are thoroughly labeled, so it is rather unusual for bones to end up on the beach, he explained.

Researchers do not know yet of the exposed bones belong to Picts or Vikings, as no burial objects or funeral clothes were spotted, and the bodies were buried four of five layers under the surface.

Cultural Transition

Historians claim that the first Norse immigrants to the Orkney Islands established there in the late eighth century, leaving a rising new monarchy in Norway. They used the Orkney Islands to begin their own voyages and Viking raids, and ultimately, all the islands were ruled by the Norse, according to The Scotsman.

The relationship between the Picts and the Norse on the Orkney Islands is highly argued by scholars. They cannot know for sure whether the Norse took over by force, or were settlers who traded and entered marriage with the Picts. However, now, the ancient cemetery at Newark Bay may help researchers answer their questions.

“The Orkney Islands were Pictish, and then they became Norse,” Higgins said. “We’re not really clear how that transition happened, whether it was an invasion, or people lived together. This is one of the few opportunities we’ve got to investigate that.”

A part of the scientific work on the remains would require testing genetic material from the ancient bones, which might demonstrate that some people living on the Orkney Islands today are successors of people who lived there more than 1,000 years ago.

The scientific study of bones from the ancient cemetery at Newark Bay could reveal clues to the cultural transition from Pictish to Norse domination of the Orkney Islands.

“We’re fairly confident that we’re going to find that some local residents are related to people in the cemetery,” Higgins said.

Neolithic Artifacts Unearthed in Slovakia

Trnava archaeologists made a 6,000-year-old discovery

Ceramic fragments found under the fortification wall prove the skilfulness of the Lengyel culture.

In Trnava’s Zelený Kríček settlement pit, archeologists found several decorated ceramics fragments, antler tools and fragments of stone tools older than 6,000 years.

The investor is building a polyfunctional object near the gallery and the research, according to its head, Andrej Žitňan, uncovered an object which could be a part of the larger settlement discovered four years ago at Františkánska Street.

The discovery is located outside the middle age center of the town just in front of the town’s fortification wall.

 “Its existence until these days is a matter of lucky circumstances because it was preserved in the narrow area between the wall and filled town ditch,” said Peter Grznár of the Regional Monument Board in Trnava, as quoted by the TASR newswire

The finding dates back to the Neolithic Age, more specifically to the era of the Lengyel culture. Grznár said that the discovery contributes to the knowledge about the settlement of Trnava following the significant findings of the locality near Františkánska and Štefánikova Street.

So-called Trnava Venuses were also found here; they are the oldest artistic display ever found in the town’s area with an estimated age of 6,700 to 6,800 years.

Archaeologist Žitňan said that the Neolithic settlement was wider than expected based on the previous findings because all surrounding lands are already built-up.

“Ceramic fragments found under the fortification wall have beautiful decorations. They prove the skilfulness of the Lengyel culture,” he said, as quoted by TASR

‘Little Foot’ skull reveals how this more than 3 million-year-old human ancestor lived

‘Little Foot’ skull reveals how this more than 3 million-year-old human ancestor lived

High-resolution micro-CT scanning of the skull of the fossil specimen known as “Little Foot” has revealed some aspects of how this Australopithecus species used to live more than 3 million years ago.

Comparison of the nearly intact first cervical vertebra of ‘Little Foot’ and two other Australopithecus from Sterkfontein in South Africa and from Hadar in Ethiopia showing how to complete ‘Little Foot’ is as compared to the rest of the fossil record.

The ~3.67 million-year-old fossil specimen’s meticulous excavation cleaning and testing of the skull showed the most complete Australopithecus adult first cervical vertebra yet found.

A description of the vertebra by Wits University researchers Dr. Amélie Beaudet and the Sterkfontein team was published in the Scientific Reports.

Little Foot’s skeleton was first revealed in 2017.

The Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, the International Palaeontological Trust, the National Research Foundation the University of the Witwatersrand and the French National Center for Scientific Research, through the French Institute of South Africa, support this research program.

The first cervical vertebra (or atlas) plays a crucial role in vertebrate biology. Besides acting as the connection between the head and the neck, the atlas also plays a role in how blood is supplied to the brain via the vertebral arteries.

By comparing the atlas of “Little Foot” with other fossils from South and East Africa as well as living humans and chimpanzees, the Wits University team shows that Australopithecus was capable of head movements that differ from modern humans.

“The morphology of the first cervical vertebra, or atlas, reflects multiple aspects of an organism’s life,” says Beaudet, the lead author of the study.

“In particular, the nearly complete atlas of ‘Little Foot’ has the potential to provide new insights into the evolution of head mobility and the arterial supply to the brain in the human lineage.”

The shape of the atlas determines the range of head motions while the size of the arteries passing through the vertebrae to the skull is useful for estimating blood flow supplying the brain.

“Our study shows that Australopithecus was capable of head movements that differ from us. This could be explained by the greater ability of Australopithecus to climb and move in the trees.

However, a southern African Australopithecus specimen younger than ‘Little Foot’ (probably younger by about 1 million years) may have partially lost this capacity and spent more time on the ground, like us today.”

The overall dimensions and shape of the atlas of “Little Foot” are similar to living chimpanzees. More specifically, the ligament insertions (that could be inferred from the presence and configuration of bony tubercles) and the morphology of the facet joints linking the head and the neck all suggest that “Little Foot” was moving regularly in trees.

Because “Little Foot” is so well-preserved, blood flow supply to the brain could also be estimated for the first time, using evidence from the skull and vertebrae.

These estimations demonstrate that blood flow, and thus the utilization of glucose by the brain was about three times lower than in living humans and closer to those of living chimpanzees.

“The low investment of energy into the brain of Australopithecus could be tentatively explained by a relatively small brain of the specimen (around 408cm3), a low-quality diet (low proportion of animal products) or high costs of other aspects of the biology of Australopithecus (such as upright walking). In any case, this might suggest that the human brain’s vascular system emerged much later in our history.”

The Lost City Of Heracleion Discovered Deep Underwater After 1,200 Years

The Lost City Of Heracleion Discovered Deep Underwater After 1,200 Years

For centuries, the ‘ lost city of Atlantis has eluded explorers and is almost certainly the stuff of myth. Staggeringly, though, an ancient city that is Atlantis in all but name has emerged from under the sea near Alexandria — and now the lost world of Heracleion is giving up its treasures.

Like in the classical tale, Heracleion was once a wealthy, prosperous place, around 1500 years before it was swallowed up by the sea. It was grand enough to be mentioned by the Greek writer Herodotus, the 5th-century BC historian.

He told the fabulous story of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world — she of the face that launched a thousand ships — travelling to Heracleion, then a port of ‘great wealth’, with her glamorous Trojan lover, Paris.

French marine archaeologist Frank Goddio explains text on the stele of Heracleion
Franck Goddio and divers from his team inspect the statue of a pharaoh

But no physical evidence of such a grand settlement appeared until 2001 when a group led by French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio stumbled upon some relics that led them to one of the greatest finds of the 21st century.

Goddio was in search of Napoleon’s warships from the 1798 Battle of the Nile, when he was defeated by Nelson in these very waters, but came upon this much more significant discovery. Goddio’s team has since been joined by the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology and the Department of Antiquities of Egypt to produce a wealth of dazzling finds.

The archaeologists first faced the mammoth task of reassembling massive stone fragments on the seabed before they could haul them to the surface. Twelve years on, their fabulous finds have been exposed to public view for the first time after more than a millennium spent beneath the silt and water of Aboukir Bay, 20 miles north-east of Alexandria.

Among the discoveries are colossal statues of the Egyptian goddess Isis, the god Hapi, and an unidentified Egyptian pharaoh — all preserved in immaculate condition by their muddy burial shroud. Along with these 16ft statues, there are hundreds of smaller statues of Egyptian gods — among them the figures that guarded the temple where Cleopatra was inaugurated as Queen of the Nile.

It seems the Amun-Gereb temple at Heracleion was the Egyptian equivalent of Westminster Abbey, where our own Queen was crowned 60 years ago. Dozens of sarcophagi have been found, containing the bodies of mummified animals sacrificed to Amun-Gereb, the supreme god of the Egyptians. Many amulets, or religious charms, have been unearthed, too, showing gods such as Isis, Osiris and Horus.

These were made not just for the Egyptians but for visiting traders, who incorporated them into their own religions and also, one imagines, kept them as trinkets to remind them of their far-flung journeys. The importance of Heracleion has been further proved by the discovery of 64 ships — the largest number of ancient vessels ever found in one place — and a mind-boggling 700 anchors.

Other finds illustrate how crucial Heracleion was to the economy of the ancient world. Gold coins and lead, bronze and stone weights from Athens (used to measure the value of goods and to calculate the tax owed) show that Heracleion was a lucrative Mediterranean trading post.

In the ancient world, the Mediterranean Sea was their equivalent of a superfast motorway. All their greatest cities, including Constantinople, Rome and Athens, were either on the coast or on rivers with easy access to it.

And now Heracleion can be added to their number as Egypt’s most important port during the time of the later pharaohs. It was, if you like, a major motorway junction — the spot where the Nile, Egypt’s lifeline, met the Med. Archaeologists have determined that as well as having a naturally navigable channel next to its ancient harbour, a further artificial channel appears to have been dug to expedite trade.

The Heracleion finds will add tremendous depth to our understanding of the ancient world — not least because, among the discoveries, there are perfectly preserved steles (inscribed pillars) decorated with hieroglyphics. Translated, they will reveal much about the religious and political life in this corner of ancient Egypt.

It was a similar inscription on the Rosetta Stone — discovered in the Nile Delta town of Rosetta in 1799 by a French soldier, and now in the British Museum — that cracked the code of hieroglyphics in the first place.

And like the Rosetta Stone, those steles found beneath the waters of Aboukir Bay are inscribed in Greek and Egyptian, too. Who knows how many more archaeological gems will be uncovered at Heracleion?

The very name of the city is taken from that most famous of Greek heroes, Heracles — aka Hercules — whose 12 labours, from killing the  Hydra to capturing Cerberus, the multi-headed hellhound that guarded the gates of the Underworld, captivated the ancient world.

Heraklion, Crete’s capital and largest city, is also named after Heracles, as was Herculaneum, the ancient Roman town that was buried under ash when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.

It appears that Heracleion faded in importance in the later classical period, eclipsed by its neighbouring city of Alexandria, which became the capital of Egypt in 312BC.

Still, Heracleion lingered on, later under Roman control, until it slipped into its watery grave some time in the 6th or 7th century AD. What a thrilling discovery we have on our hands now that the sea has, 1,500 years later, giving up one of its greatest secrets.