All posts by Archaeology World Team

Archaeological Sites Investigated in Northern Alaska

Archaeological Sites Investigated in Northern Alaska

Archaeologist Jeff Rasic of the National Park Service has investigated archaeological sites at Howard’s Pass, a several miles–wide tundra plateau located in the mountains of northern Alaska’s Brooks Range.

A National Park Service climate-observing station in Howard Pass, a broad crossing of the Brooks Range between Alaska’s North Slope and the Noatak River drainage.

The sites date back some 11,000 years and include traces of houses, tent rings, food-storage pits, tool-making debris, and cairns that may have been used to help drive caribou into hunting traps. 

Jeff Rasic is an archaeologist for the National Park Service who has sifted through wet soil near Howard Pass. The pass, named for U.S. Navy explorer William Howard (who traversed it during an expedition on April 21, 1886), is more than 100 miles from the closest villages today, Ambler and Kobuk, both to the south.

Howard Pass was not so quiet over the past 11,000 years. In the area, archaeologists have found hundreds of house remains, tent rings, food-storage pits, scattered stone chips from tool makers and cairns that resembled humans to help drive caribou into traps.

“People took advantage of caribou, fish, muskox, berries, waterfowl — and in the earliest period, probably bison,” Rasic wrote about Howard Pass, a tundra bench several miles wide that caribou from the Western Arctic herd still click through during seasonal migrations.

This food-rich area has another side to its character. Howard Pass’s Inupiaq name is Akutuq, a word for a treat made of whipped animal fat, sugar, and berries. Natives gave the pass that name because the wind-tortured snow patterns there reminded them of akutuq.

National Park Service scientists in 2011 installed a rugged weather station at Howard Pass as one of 50 similar climate stations in hard-to-reach parklands across Alaska. The stations are battery and solar-powered and send their data in blips to orbiting satellites.

That information has included — on Feb. 21, 2013 — a wind-chill temperature of minus 96.9 degrees Fahrenheit. The air temperature that day was minus 45.5 degrees F. The wind blew at a sustained 54 miles per hour.

“This was not an isolated event,” Pam Sousanes of the National Park Service said of the Howard Pass windchill. “Similar conditions have been recorded in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.”

The average wind chill for Feb. 12-16, 2014, was minus 84.5 degrees F when the highest wind gust through the pass was 103 miles per hour. Wind chills of minus 70 or lower have been recorded each year.

This low spot in the western Brooks Range becomes a wind tunnel when there a great atmospheric-pressure difference that exists between Alaska’s North Slope and the rest of the state. Cold air from the north rips southward though the pass.

“The wind chill can be so severe as to freeze to death caribou caught there by a winter storm,” wrote Ernest Burch in the book “Alliance and Conflict: The World System of the Inupiaq Eskimos.” “After every bad blow, the Eskimos used to go into the pass to look for well-preserved caribou carcasses.”

Sousanes and her colleague Ken Hill have replaced the wind monitor on the Howard Pass station every year; the steel mast that holds it up is pocked by rocks and ice.

Minus 100 degrees does not seem to mesh with human occupation; nor does a place with no firewood.

However, not only is the pass loaded with archaeological sites, a few of them are winter dwellings, Rasic said, with half the living area underground and featuring cold-trap tunnels at the entrances.

Why might people have chosen a spot with such inhumane conditions?

“It’s a reliable place to harvest caribou, and there are lakes with fish,” Rasic said. “If you are someone trying to escape clouds of mosquitoes, winds aren’t necessarily bad. And maybe a windswept place is good for winter travel — hard and crusty, good to get around on.”

Uprooted tree reveals a violent death from 1,000 years ago

Uprooted tree reveals a violent death from 1,000 years ago

The remain of a young man who died of what appears to be knife wounds sometimes between ad 1030 and 1200 was discovered tangled in the roots of a 215-year-old beech tree.

A hurricane erupted over the wild Atlantic shores of northwestern Ireland and fell a 215 years old beech tree in the middle of a County Sligo field straight out of the ground.

It was not the huge tree that drew widespread attention, but what was discovered snapped up in his twisted roots – half a human skeleton pulled out of his grave. It was not the massive tree.

After learning of the discovery of the bones, Ireland’s National Monuments Service called in archaeologist Marion Dowd to undertake a rescue excavation of the body that had, in essence, risen from the grave.

In her 20 years of academic and commercial work, Dowd had never seen anything like what she encountered at this site.

Excavating bones from tree roots.

Having just launched her own private firm, Sligo-Leitrim Archaeological Services, Dowd couldn’t have asked for a more bizarre maiden project. “

As excavations go, this was certainly an unusual situation,” Dowd says. “The upper part of the skeleton was raised into the air trapped within the root system.

The lower leg bones, however, remained intact in the ground. Effectively, as the tree collapsed, it snapped the skeleton in two.” The bones still in the burial plot were in a very well preserved condition.

After Dowd’s excavation, osteoarchaeologist Linda Lynch conducted a three-month analysis. Last week, the results of the radiocarbon dating revealed that the grave belonged to a young man between the ages of 17 and 20 who died during the medieval period between 1030 and 1200 A.D.

With a height of 5 feet, 10 inches, he was much taller than the average medieval person, which indicates he came from a family with a relatively high social status who could afford a nourishing diet.

However, he didn’t have an easy childhood as a mild spinal joint disease suggests he was involved in physical labor from an early age.

Dowd determined that the medieval teenager had received a formal Christian burial because his body was placed on his back in a traditional east-west orientation with his arms by his side.

While historical records indicate there was once a church and graveyard in the general area, no other bones or signs of additional burials were discovered in the immediate vicinity of the fallen tree.

Dowd estimates the grave was at least a foot under the ground and says the person who planted the beech tree around 1800 would have been unaware of the presence of a grave just below his feet.

Lower leg bones were in the grave, but the upper body was tangled up in roots.

It appears that the young man’s demise was a violent one. Dowd found two cuts to his ribs that were inflicted by a single-edged weapon, probably a knife.

She also discovered a visible stab wound to the left hand which suggests he may have attempted to defend himself from his attacker.

“This burial gives us an insight into the life and tragic death of a young man in medieval Sligo,” Dowd says. “He was almost certainly from a local Gaelic family, but whether he died in battle or was killed during a personal dispute, we will never know for sure.”

Dowd says there are no plans yet for further analysis of the bones, so this medieval murder mystery may endure.

The remains found beneath the uprooted tree will eventually be sent to the National Museum of Ireland in the capital city of Dublin.

Synchrotron X-ray sheds light on some of the world’s oldest dinosaur eggs

Synchrotron X-ray sheds light on some of the world’s oldest dinosaur eggs

In the most minor details, an international team of scientists led by the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa was able to re-construct the skulls of some of the world’s oldest documented 3D dinosaur embryos by using powerful and non-destructive ESRF synchrotron technology.

The skulls evolve as the crocodiles, ducks, turtles, and Lizards today. They are in the same order The results are published in scientific reports

In an article in Scientific Reports, the University of Witwatersrand releases 3D reconstructions of the nearly 2 cm long skulls of some of the oldest dinosaur embryos in the world.

Dinosaur egg concept Dinosaur 'Easter eggs' reveal their secrets in 3D thanks to X-rays and high-powered computers.
Dinosaur egg concept Dinosaur
‘Easter eggs’ reveal their secrets in 3D thanks to X-rays and high-powered computers.

Embryos, discovered in 1976, related to the legendary South African dinosaur Massospondylus carinatus (five-meter long herbivores nestled in the Free state region 200 million years ago in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park (Free State Region, South Africa).

The scientific usefulness of the embryos was previously limited by their extremely fragile nature and tiny size. In 2015, scientists Kimi Chapelle and Jonah Choiniere, from the University of Witwatersrand, brought them to the European Synchrotron (ESRF) in Grenoble, France for scanning.

At the ESRF, an 844 meter-ring of electrons travelling at the speed of light emits high-powered X-ray beams that can be used to non-destructively scan matter, including fossils.

The embryos were scanned at an unprecedented level of detail — at the resolution of an individual bone cell. With these data in hand, and after nearly 3 years of data processing at Wits’ laboratory, the team was able to reconstruct a 3D model of the baby dinosaur skull.

“No lab CT scanner in the world can generate these kinds of data,” said Vincent Fernandez, one of the co-authors and scientists at the Natural History Museum in London (UK).

“Only with a huge facility like the ESRF can we unlock the hidden potential of our most exciting fossils. This research is a great example of a global collaboration between Europe and the South African National Research Foundation,” he adds.

Up until now, it was believed that the embryos in those eggs had died just before hatching. However, during the study, lead author Chapelle noticed similarities with the developing embryos of living dinosaur relatives (crocodiles, chickens, turtles, and lizards).

By comparing which bones of the skull were present at different stages of their embryonic development, Chapelle and co-authors can now show that the Massospondylus embryos were actually much younger than previously thought and were only at 60% through their incubation period.

The team also found that each embryo had two types of teeth preserved in its developing jaws. One set was made up of very simple triangular teeth that would have been resorbed or shed before hatching, just like geckos and crocodiles today.

The second set was very similar to those of adults and would be the ones that the embryos hatched with. “I was really surprised to find that these embryos not only had teeth but had two types of teeth. The teeth are so tiny; they range from 0.4 to 0.7mm wide. That’s smaller than the tip of a toothpick!” explains Chapelle.

The conclusion of this research is that dinosaurs developed in the egg just like their reptilian relatives, whose embryonic developmental pattern hasn’t changed in 200 million years.

“It’s incredible that in more than 250 million years of reptile evolution, the way the skull develops in the egg remains more or less the same. Goes to show — you don’t mess with a good thing!,” concludes Jonah Choiniere, professor at the University of Witwatersrand and also co-author of the study.

The team hopes to apply their method to other dinosaur embryos to estimate their level of development.

They will be looking at the rest of the skeleton of the Massospondylus embryos to see if it also shares similarities in development with today’s dinosaur relatives.

The arms and legs of the Massospondylus embryos have already been used to show that hatchlings likely walked on two legs.

Three Well-Preserved Ancient Boats Unearthed in Serbia

Probable Roman shipwrecks unearthed at a Serbian coal mine

Uryadovy Courier reported that coal miners in Serbia recently dug up an unexpected surprise: three probable Roman-era ships, buried in the mud of an ancient riverbed for at least 1,300 years.

The largest is a flat-bottomed river vessel 15 meters long, which seems to have been built with Roman techniques. Two smaller boats, each carved out from a single tree trunk, match ancient descriptions of dugout boats used by Slavic groups to row across the Danube River and attack the Roman frontier.

The Kostolac surface mine lies near the ancient Roman city of Viminacium, once a provincial capital and the base for a squadron of Roman warships on the Danube River.

When the Roman Empire ruled most of Southern Europe, the Danube or one of its larger branches flowed across the land now occupied by the mine.

The three ships lay atop a 15-meter- (49-foot-) deep layer of gravel, buried under seven meters (23 feet) of silt and clay, which preserved them for centuries in remarkably good condition—or did until the miners’ earthmoving equipment dug into the steep slope to excavate for the mine.

“The [largest] ship was seriously damaged by the mining equipment,” archaeologist Miomir Korac, director of the Archaeological Institute and head of the Viminacium Science Project, told Ars in an email. “Approximately 35 percent to 40 percent of the ship was damaged.

But the archaeological team collected all the parts, and we should be able to reconstruct it almost in full.” With any luck, that reconstruction will help archaeologists understand when the three ships were built and how they came to rest in the riverbed.

Social distancing makes it hard to get a date

The large ship had a single deck with at least six pairs of oars, along with fittings for a type of triangular sail called a lateen sail. It would have carried a crew of 30 to 35 sailors, and apparently it had a lengthy career: traces of repairs to the hull suggest a ship with some miles under it. Iron nails and other iron fittings held the ship’s timbers and planks together, and they’ve survived for centuries thanks to the silt and clay that sealed the ship away from oxygen and microbes.

By contrast, the dugout longboats were much simpler craft. Korac described them as “rudimentary,” although one had carved decorations on its hull.

Although elements of the largest ship’s construction are Roman, Korac says those same shipbuilding techniques may also have been used by later Byzantine or medieval shipwrights. Without radiocarbon dating or geological analysis of the sediment layers at the site, it’s impossible to be entirely sure when the ships were built. Korac and his colleagues have sent wood samples from preserved oak trees buried nearby to a lab for analysis, but the COVID-19 pandemic has held everything up.

“Coronavirus is setting all actions now,” he told Ars.

But the odds are in favor of the Kostolac ship being Roman in origin. Historical documents don’t mention any ports or other navigation infrastructure in the area after Viminacium fell to invading groups in the 600s CE. If that’s the case, then these three ships, wrecked together in the former bed of the Danube, may record a snapshot of either commerce or conflict on the Roman frontier.

Fight, flight, or founder?

Given the site’s proximity to the Roman naval base at Viminacium, it’s tempting to imagine a battle on the Danube between a Roman warship and attacking Slavic fighters in dugout longboats. Historical sources don’t mention any river battles near Kostolac, but they do mention a couple of battles further upriver, near the Roman ports of Singidunum and Sirmium.

But while there’s no evidence to rule out the idea of dueling river warships in a fight to the death, there’s no evidence pointing to a battle, either. None of the vessels has any trace of fire or other combat damage, and nothing about the largest ship conclusively identifies it as a warship rather than an ordinary river transport. The ship’s crew left no personal belongings or artifacts aboard; there’s just the ship and its fittings, beautifully preserved but perfectly empty.

“The lack of finds prevents us from identifying the boat without further analyses,” Korac told Ars.

On the other hand, the dugout longboats, called monoxylons, were something like landing craft. “A monoxylon is not a combat ship. It is just a way to cross the river and invade on land,” Korac told Ars. “Facing larger ships, monoxylons could be easily defeated, as it is testified in sources from [the] 6th century mentioning a Roman fleet from Singidunum repelling barbarian attacks on the Roman Empire.”

Korac suggested one possible scenario for the shipwrecks: “The ships were either abandoned or evacuated. They did not sink suddenly with cargo,” he told Ars. “If these happened during the barbarian invasion and withdrawal of Roman troops, the ship could be abandoned and sunken in order not to fall into the hands of the enemy.”

For now, further excavations and analysis are on hold, but all three shipwrecks have been relocated to the nearby archaeological park.