Category Archives: EUROPE

Renovations Reveal Twelfth-Century Bath House in Spain

Renovations Reveal Twelfth-Century Bath House in Spain

According to an El País report, renovation of a popular tapas bar on Seville’s Mateos Gago Street revealed the walls and skylights of a twelfth-century hammam, or bathhouse, built during the rule of the Almohad Caliphate

Renovations Reveal Twelfth-Century Bath House in Spain
The 12th-century bathhouse discovered in the popular bar Cervecería Giralda, in Seville.

On Mateos Gago Street, in the southern Spanish city of Seville, the hammam is situated only a few meters from the Roman Catholic cathedral of the city, and for a century it has been one of the most crowded Arab baths in the city.  The thing is, customers were not going there to immerse themselves in water, but rather to pour the liquid down their throats: the baths were concealed under a popular bar named Cervecería Giralda.

In the early 1900s, the architect Vicente Traver converted the building into a hotel, thus concealing (and preserving) a bathhouse dating back to the 12th century, during the days of the Almohad Caliphate that ruled Al-Andalus.

The ancient structure emerged again last summer when the bar underwent some renovation work. The work exposed high-quality murals that are unique to Spain and Portugal.

The find came as a big surprise as everyone had previously thought the structure was nothing more than “a Neo-Mudejar pastiche,” in the words of Fran Díaz, the architect in charge of the refurbishment.

Paintings in one of the vaults of the hammam discovered in Seville.

“The most important thing is that we realized the bath was completely painted, from top to bottom, with high-quality geometric decoration,” says Álvaro Jiménez, an archeologist who has supervised the work. “The drawings were made in red ochre on white, and large fragments were preserved on the walls and vaulted ceilings. This is the only surviving Arab bath with an integral decoration; until now, the only known examples had painted just on the baseboards.”

“It’s been a complete surprise. This is an important discovery that gives us an idea of what other baths might have looked like during the Almohad period, especially in Seville, which was one of the two capitals of the empire together with Marrakech,” adds the archeologist Fernando Amores, who collaborated on the project. “The hammam is very near the site of the main mosque, which was also built in the 12th century, and which also explains its much richer decorative elements.”

The first probes under the false ceilings at Giralda – one of the most popular venues in Seville’s historic center – soon unearthed several different kinds of skylights known as luceras. This discovery triggered a completely different approach to the reform work, which began focusing on the complete recovery of the Arab baths.

“Given the relevance of the finds, architecture took a step back and made way for archeology. The solution we found to preserve the baths while allowing the space to keep functioning as a bar was to use a metal cornice to crown the traditional wall tiles put there by Vicente Traver and which are now a part of the establishment’s personality; the original wooden bar counter has also been preserved,” notes Fran Díaz.

The cold room of the hammam at Cervecería Giralda

The 202-square-meter tapas bar, which opened in 1923, will continue in operation when the work ends next month.

The venue’s main space, where the bar counter is located, was once the warm room of the hammam, a space covering 6.70 square meters with an eight-sided vaulted ceiling resting on four columns. One side opens into a rectangular room with a barrel vault that is 4.10 meters wide and 13 meters long, once serving as the bath’s cold room. The kitchen area is where the hot room must have been, although the only remaining vestige is a portion of an arch.

The baths were accessed from Don Remondo street, where the dry area used to be, notes Álvaro Jiménez, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the remains of the Almohad mosque, now the site of Seville’s Roman Catholic cathedral.

The restoration work unveiled 88 skylights in different shapes and sizes, such as stars, lobulated designs, and octagons, that together are much more elaborate than decorations found in other Arab baths from the same period.

Amores also highlights the paintings in the arches of the warm room, made in a zigzagging style meant to represent water. “Nearly all the representations in the Islamic world allude to paradise,” he notes.

The uniqueness of this bath does not rest solely on its latticed paintings, but also on the five rows of skylights in the cold room – other baths have three, and sometimes just one. The cold room, which for the last century has served as the bar’s eating area, lost two meters in 1928 when Mateos Gago street was widened.

A geometric design above the door leading to the cold room of the baths.

In order to understand the structure of the baths, which were typically built by the state and handed over to third parties for management, an expert named Margarita de Alba used photogrammetry techniques to recreate what these spaces must have looked like in the 12th century when Seville was known as Isbilia.

“There is documentary evidence in Christian texts from 1281 about the so-called baths of García Jofre, described as adjoining a property given by King Alfonso X to the Church of Seville. The next testimony is from the 17th-century historian Rodrigo Caro, who said that the vault you see when you enter from Borceguinería [the earlier name for Mateos Gago street] is not a bath, writing: ‘I’d sooner believe these are relics from some circus or amphitheater.’

Even the art historian José Gestoso said the vault is ‘of Mauritanian tradition, a construction that is frequently seen in Seville monuments from the 15th and 16th centuries,” says Jiménez, illustrating how popular belief held that the García Jofre bath had disappeared due to the passage of time.

But it was there the whole time. In the 17th century, there was a major reform that took down the vault in the warm room and rebuilt a much lower one to make room for an extra floor above it. “The building was ‘Italianized’ and the original columns, probably made from reused Roman columns, were replaced with others made with Genoese marble. All the skylights were shut. Our theory is that it became the premises for a merchant who built his home over the shop,” adds Jiménez.

The 20th-century architect Vicente Traver could have torn down the remains of the bathhouse, but he chose to protect and preserve them. And now, customers of Cervecería Giralda know that they are having their beers inside an Almohad hammam.

Stunning Swiss Stonehenge Discovered Underwater

Stunning Swiss Stonehenge Discovered Underwater

Archaeologists claim that a range of mysterious man-made stones submerged beneath the surface of a European lake is 5,000 years old. Local media reports that the so-called ‘Swiss Stonehenge’ sits 15feet down at the bottom of Lake Constance and is a Neolithic relic, with stones ranging in size up to around 100 inches wide.  

The man-made piles of stones were found on the Swiss side of the lake, a 207-square-mile body of water on the borders of Switzerland, Germany and Austria.

Each stone was located at regular intervals running completely parallel to the Swiss shoreline. A spokesman at the Archaeology Office of the Swiss Canton of Thurgau described the findings as ‘sensational’ after carrying out excavations of the lake bed.

Stunning Swiss Stonehenge Discovered Underwater
Archaeologists claim that a range of mysterious man-made stones submerged beneath the surface of an European lake are 5,000 years old (pictured)

A ship equipped with a digger with a 15-metre-long arm removed material alongside the stones to reveal them for study.  Analysis of how they were placed shows they were put down by humans and not by nature, archaeologists claim.  

Using underwater georadar developed by the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany, the team of scientists managed to study the lake’s sediment and stone deposits in search of the origin and purpose of the formations.

The Archaeology Office wrote: ‘With high-frequency electromagnetic pulses, the hidden layer of the lake bed in the vicinity of the stone structures was recorded.’

‘It is obvious that the stones of up to 40 centimetres in size rest on the post-glacial, banded lake deposits and clearly above the underlying upper edge of the moraine [a glacially formed accumulation of unconsolidated glacial debris].

‘Thus, it is now scientifically proven that the cairns did not originate naturally from the glacier, but were piled up by human hands.’

The man-made piles of stones were found on the Swiss side of Lake Constance, a 207-square-mile lake on the borders of Switzerland, Germany and Austria and work is ongoing to learn more about them

The spokesman added: ‘The first results produced using carbon dating show that the stones in area 5 were placed there around 5,500 years ago in the Neolithic period.’

In the following months, further investigations will be carried out with the hope of discovering more about the artefacts, which will be analysed by an international team of researchers.

Initially, it was unclear whether the stones were natural formations from the remnants of a glacier which was located in the area 18,000 years ago. The researchers had originally suspected that the formations were from the Bronze Age dating back to around 1000 BC.

A piece of Poplar wood retrieved by the divers which may have been used as part of the construction or excavation of the rocks. Experts have confirmed these mysterious piles of stones – compared to an underwater Stonehenge – found at the bottom of Lake Constance are much older than previously thought

Currently, there are various theories about the purpose of the stones, such as that they served as weirs, burial mounds or signposted transportation routes.

Urs Leuzinger, a researcher on the project, estimates that at the time of construction, the cairns were located along the shoreline or even in shallow water.

He said: ‘I’ve never really experienced anything like this. Whenever we dig something up, we usually know what it’s all about.’

He said that his team ‘has no intention to compete with the original Stonehenge’, saying that the moniker had been ‘chosen by German media’ and not by archaeologists. 

However, he said that there are some similarities with the Wiltshire monument as it required an equally impressive feat by prehistoric humans to transport such stones.

Dr Leuzinger said: ‘After all, our 170 cairns of 500 cubic metres of stones each does bring quite a decent amount to the shores of Lake Constance.’

The cairns were first discovered in 2015 by the Institute for Lake Research in the town of Langenargen in the south-western German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

It is thought they would have been near to a settlement of lake dwellings which are much deeper underwater perhaps close to what was once a prehistoric shoreline and are yet to be discovered, according to the Thurgau Office for Archaeology.

But they added: ‘It may also be the case that the lake dwellings have already eroded away due to the erosion over the years.’

Medieval tunnel discovered under the castle in Szczecin in Poland

Medieval tunnel discovered under the castle in Szczecin in Poland

Archaeologists have uncovered over 270 meters of previously hidden tunnels beneath the Pomeranian Dukes’ Castle in Szczecin. They also warned that more detailed research was needed because they could collapse. Some of them come from the Middle Ages.

The management of the Pomeranian Dukes’ Castle informed about the discovery of tunnels that had not been known so far.

We have heard legends about the labyrinth of corridors under the castle, but there has never been evidence that they actually exist – informs Monika Adamowska, press spokeswoman for the Pomeranian Dukes’ Castle in Szczecin.

Pomeranian Dukes’ Castle

However, first, there was a construction disaster – one of the pillars collapsed in May 2017 and with it part of the vault of the northern wing of the Castle. The prosecution decided that soil erosion was probably to blame and the investigation was discontinued.

There was supposed to be a renovation, it was a disaster

The management of the castle, which for years has been wanting to renovate the northern terraces, on the occasion of this investment and taking into account the disaster, commissioned a series of construction and soil tests.

During this research, specialists from the Building Research Institute in Warsaw discovered a labyrinth of tunnels about 16 meters underground.

Medieval tunnel discovered under the castle in Szczecin in Poland

Under the escarpment and the northern wing, there is a branched network of corridors over 270 meters long – tells us, Adamowska. However, unfortunately, ITB employees also determined that the tunnels are not in good condition.

– This is a very serious situation. The tunnels are covered with rubble, which was used to strengthen the escarpment and created empty spaces, caverns, and rubble above them – continues Adamowska. Additionally, there is groundwater in this place.

This requires swift actions to reinforce the escarpment and a careful examination of the corridors and sheds new light on the recent disaster to which the underground structures may have contributed.

They did not expect tunnels from the Middle Ages

There are entrances to the tunnels probably from the north, which you have to dig. Unfortunately, specialists do not want to do it yet, because then the trees that grow on the part of the slope on which the castle stands could collapse on them.

On February 8, the municipal conservator of monuments gave permission to cut down the trees.

For now, cavers descended into the tunnels through a drilled vertical shaft. They took samples for testing and made photographic documentation. Then it turned out that the post-German corridors from World War II are connected with brick tunnels from the Middle Ages. This was a surprise for the scientists and management.

The findings were confirmed by tests of mortar and bricks samples carried out both in the castle’s Art Conservation Studio and in the Laboratory and Conservation Research Studio in Kraków.

The management of the castle emphasizes that it acts in accordance with the guidelines of specialists and is taking appropriate steps to secure the monument and at the same time investigate the new discovery. He also admits that it will extend the modernization of the terraces.

The Pomeranian Dukes’ Castle is one of the most important monuments in the region – the historic seat of the Griffin family, rulers of the Pomeranian Duchy. The first Slavic stronghold was built on the castle hill in the 12th century, but the modern building was built from the mid-14th century.

– The castle has revealed another secret to us, which may give us more information about the Griffin dynasty. I do not rule out that it may become an attraction for visitors in the distant future – comments Barbara Igielska, director of the Pomeranian Dukes’ Castle in Szczecin, on the discovery.

New Thoughts on the Origins of the Stonehenge

New Thoughts on the Origins of the Stonehenge

Traces of a Neolithic stone circle have been discovered in west Wales, near ancient bluestone quarries in the Preseli Hills, by a team of researchers led by Mike Parker Pearson of University College London, according to a Science Magazine report.

Around 3200 B.C.E., Stone Age farmers in Wales’s Preseli Hills built a great monument: They carved columns of unspotted dolerite, or bluestone, from a nearby quarry, then thrust them upright in a great circle aligned with the Sun. Exactly what the circle meant to them remains a mystery.

But new research reveals that several centuries later, their descendants took down many of the giant stones and hauled them 200 kilometers to the Salisbury Plain, where they created what is still the world’s most iconic prehistoric stone monument: Stonehenge.

New Thoughts on the Origins of the Stonehenge
A few toppled bluestones are visible at the prehistoric stone circle of Waun Mawn in Wales

The paper’s authors “make a very good argument Stonehenge is a dismantled stone circle from Wales,” says Alison Sheridan, a curator emerita at the National Museum of Scotland who was not part of the research team. “They dealt with very tricky data but came up with a brilliant hypothesis.”

Researchers had already traced Stonehenge’s slabs of bluestone to the west coast of Wales; they’d even identified some of the quarries where the stones were extracted more than 5,000 years ago.

But radiocarbon dating showed a puzzling gap of several centuries between activity at the bluestone quarries and the earliest construction at Stonehenge.

Researchers wondered whether the distinctive, 2- to 3-meter-tall bluestones had been used to build other stone circles first, then moved to Stonehenge later. “They’re clearly not spending 200 years slowly moving them across the landscape,” says University of Southampton archaeologist Joshua Pollard, one of the co-authors. “It always seemed likely they were dismantling existing monuments.”

Over the past decade, researchers led by University College London archaeologist Michael Parker Pearson searched for ritual structures in the Preseli region that might have provided the stones—and the blueprint—for Stonehenge. In 2017 and 2018, they excavated parts of an ancient monument called Waun Mawn, where a handful of toppled bluestones similar to those at Stonehenge form a partial circle.

The excavations revealed distinctive socket-shaped pits where other stones had once stood. Connecting the dots between the empty sockets and toppled bluestones at Waun Mawn, researchers sketched out a circle 110 meters across—the same dimensions as the outer earthen ditch that was part of Stonehenge’s original layout. (The ritual center was rearranged multiple times over its 1000 year life span.) And, like at Stonehenge, the circle’s entrance was oriented toward sunrise on the midsummer solstice.

Parker Pearson’s team then measured the last time sediments inside the socket holes at Waun Mawn had been exposed to light, using optically stimulated luminescence; they also radiocarbon dated charcoal found inside the pits.

They estimate the missing stones were erected between 3400 and 3200 B.C.E. and then removed 300 or 400 years later, around the time the first construction at Stonehenge began, they report today in Antiquity. “We’re quite confident the reason they come down is they’ve gone to Stonehenge,” says Parker Pearson.

Researchers say the dismantling of Waun Mawn and the rise of Stonehenge could have been part of a larger migration from the Preseli Hills to the Salisbury Plain. Human and animal remain found at Stonehenge have chemical signatures suggesting their early years were spent on the Welsh coast. “We’ve got regular contact between the two regions,” Pollard says.

The results add to an emerging picture of Stonehenge’s origins in a complex, interconnected region centered on the Irish Sea that flourished in the fourth millennium B.C.E., Sheridan says.

“People and ideas and objects were moving over long distances, and the movement clearly had to do with the way society expressed power,” Sheridan says. “Uprooting stones is a classic example.”

Back in the Preseli Hills region, radiocarbon dates and pollen evidence suggest that millennia of farming and human occupation ended around the time the Waun Mawn circle was dismantled. “Evidence for human activity drops around 3400 B.C.E.,” Parker Pearson says, though researchers aren’t sure why the people left.

The researchers say the migrants from Wales might have relocated the stones as a way to stay symbolically connected to their past—or to draw on their ancestors’ authority to claim a new region. “They’re bringing ancestral symbols as an act of unification,” Parker Pearson says.

Erosion Reveals Possible Neolithic Village Site in Scotland

Erosion Reveals Possible Neolithic Village Site in Scotland

The Scotsman reports that erosion on the island of Orkney at the northern end of the Bay of Skaill has exposed deer antlers, a boar tooth, a cattle jawbone, and a large stone marked with incised triangles and a series of rectangular bands.

The artifacts were found about a half-mile away from the site of the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, which is located at the bay’s southern end.

Skara Brae is considered the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe with people first making their home there around 3,100BC.

It was discovered in 1850 when a storm exposed part of the coastal site. Now, almost 170 years later, coastal erosion may have uncovered its neighbour.

A section of badly damaged wall has been exposed by the work of the pounding tides at the north end of the Bay of Skaill. Deer antlers, a boar tooth, a cattle jawbone, and a large decorated stone have also been discovered.

A boar tusk found at the north end of the Bay of Skaill.

Sigurd Towrie, the spokesman for the Archaeology Institute at the University of Highlands and Islands, said the finds “suggest there is another settlement at the Bay of Skaill – one that, from previous environmental sampling, is likely to be 4,000 to 5,000 years old”.

He said: “If this is the case, and based on the scale of the eroded section, we may well be looking at a Neolithic/Bronze Age site on a par with Skara Brae – albeit one that is now disappearing at an alarming rate.”

The large decorated stone found on the beach, which is similar to those found at Skara Brae.

The large decorated stone was discovered in the Bay of Skaill by Mr. Towrie after he noticed animal remains falling from an eroding section of shoreline.

Closer inspection found the stone marked with a pair of incised triangles and a series of rectangular bands running across the surface.

Dr. Antonia Thomas, the Archaeology Institute’s rock art specialist, confirmed the find was potentially a carved stone – one with designs similar to those recorded at Skara Brae.

The Bay of Skaill, where evidence of another potential Neolithic settlement has emerged.

It has long been thought that more Neolithic settlements may have dotted the bay surrounding Skara Brae. During building work in the 1930s, a wall was discovered to the north of the bay along with midden material, animal bone, and four burials, which were later moved.

The new finds have refreshed interest in who may have lived around the bay during the New Stone Age.

The discovery of deer remains is an unusual find for a Neolithic site on Orkney, with the animal perhaps used for rituals rather than food, it is understood.

The Bay of Skaill is now under close observation from the archaeology institute, although an excavation is unlikely in the near future given restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

A section of wall which has been exposed at the Bay of Skaill which may have been part of an undiscovered Neolithic settlement.
The cow mandible recovered from the eroding shoreline section. Towrie discovered the stone while visiting the Bay of Bay Skaill after she noticed animal remains falling from an eroding section of shoreline

Mr. Towrie said: “UHI Archaeology Institute will continue to carefully monitor the extent of the coastal erosion and act as an when necessary.”

Skara Brae is considered the best-preserved prehistoric settlement of any period in the British Isles. Its preservation in the sand has left a vivid impression of life in a prehistoric village.

An ‘exceptional’ collection of artifacts recovered from the site tell a story of farming and fishing among its inhabitants, as well as jewellery making and crafts.

One of the houses at Skara Brae contains a hearth and stone beds. One bed, which is decorated, lies directly over the burial site of two mature women laid to rest in a crouched position.

Turkey: 1,550-year-old church’s Marble Floor meticulously restored

Turkey: 1,550-year-old church’s Marble Floor meticulously restored

The Anadolu Agency reports that an ancient floor surface made up of at least four different colors of marble has been uncovered at the site of the ancient city of Stratonikeia in southwestern Turkey. 

The latest project on a 1,550-year-old Byzantine church and its marble floors stand out as one of the most eye-catching restoration projects in the ancient city recently.

The Byzantine church at the ancient site, which is on the UNESCO Tentative World Heritage List, historically used to serve religious people with an enchantingly colorful marble floor. The excavation and restoration project at the site will restore the marble structure back to its original, glorious state.

Professor Bilal Söğüt from Pamukkale University, head of excavations at Stratonikeia and Lagina sites, said that most of their archaeological work was focused on Western Street, where the church is also located. Söğüt said the church was built after an earthquake hit the city in 365 A.D. and stood until the seventh century.

“The region of the church, built on the colonnaded street, was turned into a graveyard in the later period. Today, we are unearthing both the graveyard and the church. Currently, we are working on restoring the church’s flooring,” Söğüt told Anadolu Agency (AA).

Söğüt stated that Stratonikeia was one of the largest marble ancient cities in the world and was home to many civilizations during its history, which helped retain its importance in Hellenistic, Roman, Ottoman, and Republic periods.

He explained that materials retrieved from the excavation site, which were ruined during the Byzantine era when the church was turned into a graveyard, are carefully reconstructed staying true to their original state, and are repaired in a place that could be described as a “stone hospital,” and then they are meticulously placed on the floor of the church.

Söğüt pointed out that given the church’s age, it had traces from many eras. “So, here we display the base and flooring of the Byzantine church but also samples of the Byzantine graves which were built on top of the church as well,” he said.

The professor said that the marble plates of the church floor had unique geometric patterns and they are collected by the archaeological team to restore. “The floor of the church is made of colorful marbles. This is the first time we have seen such a work in the city.

We reconstruct and refloor the church floor with marbles that we unearth during our excavations and give visitors a chance to see the ancient times.” Noting that they have so far discovered 62 graves at the church site, he added that they will display the most preserved of these alongside the church’s architecture.

Söğüt stated that the structures that the archaeological team discovered were also being worked on by an illustration team to transfer the ancient works into a digital 3D space. He said that these 3D drawings would be made available for viewing to visitors in the workshop area of the site.

City of historic remains

Stratonikeia was an ancient city built upon the remains of a Carian settlement, known as Idrias, which is thought to be the first settlement to be funded by the Lycians, another ancient Anatolian civilization.

According to Strabo, a Greek philosopher, and historian, the ancient city was founded in the Seleucid Empire during the reign of King Antiochus I Soter (281–261 B.C.), who named it after his wife, Stratonice, although that is contested amongst historians.

Selecuid Empire was a Hellenistic state in western Anatolia which existed between 312 BC to 63 B.C. Stratonikeia was founded as a confederation of several settlements surrounding the Carian settlement of Idrias with Anatolian and Macedonian settlers.

Although Stratonikeia’s later fell into ruin, its existence was never a secret. Richard Pococke, an English churchman and travel writer, even published a book called “A Description of the East, and Some Other Countries,” in which he described in great detail the city’s theater, bouleuterion (council house), and one of the city gates.

The city’s many historical remains include a gymnasium, a training facility for competitors in public games, which was built in second century B.C. and is the largest known gymnasium from the ancient period, a bouleuterion, which is located at the center of the city, and a theater, built on a natural slope in the southern part of the city. The Greco-Roman type theater, dated to the Hellenistic period, hosted approximately 12,000 people in its prime.

There is also the Augustus-Imperial Temple, which is situated on an upper terrace south of the theater and seems to be designed together with the theater.

The temple, designed as a peripteros, a type of ancient Greek or Roman temple surrounded by columns, is thought to be from the Early Imperial Period. The city also houses a Roman bath, dating back to the second century A.D., which is one of the three baths in Stratonikeia that are indicated in inscriptions.

The remains of the ancient city of Stratonikeia, Muğla, southwestern Turkey, Feb. 9, 2021.

The northern City Gate acts as an important entrance but at the same time as a ritualistic place because it allows the sacred road of Lagina Hecate to enter the city. The gate has a monumental arched entrance on both sides, and there is also a monumental fountain in between the entrances, with semicircular pools decorated with columns and statues in Corinthian order.

Besides, rock carvings of mythological masks shine out among the significant archaeological findings of the city. These masks depict the characters in the plays performed at the theater, ancient gods and goddesses, as well as animal figures.

Deep in a Cave in France Neanderthals Constructed Mysterious Ring Structures 176,000 Years Ago

Deep in a Cave in France Neanderthals Constructed Mysterious Ring Structures 176,000 Years Ago

In February 1990, thanks to a 15-year-old boy named Bruno Kowalsczewski, footsteps echoed through the chambers of Bruniquel Cave for the first time in tens of thousands of years.

The cave sits in France’s scenic Aveyron Valley, but its entrance had long been sealed by an ancient rockslide. Kowalsczewski’s father had detected faint wisps of air emerging from the scree, and the boy spent three years clearing away the rubble. He eventually dug out a tight, thirty-meter-long passage that the thinnest members of the local caving club could squeeze through.

They found themselves in a large, roomy corridor. There were animal bones and signs of bear activity, but nothing recent. The floor was pockmarked with pools of water. The walls were punctuated by stalactites (the ones that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that stick up).

Some 336 meters into the cave, the caver stumbled across something extraordinary—a vast chamber where several stalagmites had been deliberately broken. Most of the 400 pieces had been arranged into two rings—a large one between 4 and 7 meters across, and a smaller one just 2 meters wide. Others had been propped up against these donuts. Yet others had been stacked into four piles. Traces of fire were everywhere, and there was a mass of burnt bones.  

These weren’t natural formations, and they weren’t the work of bears. They were built by people. Recognizing the site’s value, the caver brought in archaeologist Francois Rouzaud. Using carbon-dating, Rouzaud estimated that a burnt bear bone found within the chamber was 47,600 years old, which meant that the stalagmite rings were older than any known cave painting. It also meant that they couldn’t have been the work of Homo sapiens. Their builders must have been the only early humans in the south of France at the time: Neanderthals.

Deep in a Cave in France Neanderthals Constructed Mysterious Ring Structures 176,000 Years Ago
Scientists take measurements for the archaeo-magnetic survey in the Bruniquel Cave, where they found near-circular structures made of stalagmites.

The discovery suggested that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than anyone had given them credit for. They wielded fire, ventured deep underground, and shaped the subterranean rock into complex constructions. Perhaps they even carried out rituals; after all, there was no evidence that anyone actually lived in the cave, so what else were the rings and mounds for?  

Rouzaud would never know. In April 1999, while guiding colleagues through a different cave, he suffered a fatal heart attack. With his death, work on the Bruniquel Cave ceased, and its incredible contents were neglected. They’ve only now re-entered the limelight because Sophie Verheyden went on holiday.

A life-long caver, Verheyden works at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, where she specializes in stalagmites. She treats them as time capsules, using the chemicals within them to reconstruct the climate of past millennia. So when she learned about Bruniquel Cave, while visiting the region on holiday and seeing a display at a nearby castle, she had only one thought: Why hadn’t anyone dated the broken stalagmites themselves?”

She knew that Rouzaud’s date of 47,600 years was impressive but suspect. Carbon dating is only accurate for samples younger than 50,000 years, so the Bruniquel material was hitting the technique’s limits. They could well have been much older. To get a better estimate, Verheyden assembled a team including archaeologist Jacques Jaubert and fellow stalagmite expert Dominique Genty. In 2013, they got permission to study the site and crawled into it themselves. “I’m not very big, and I had to put one arm before me and one behind to get through,” says Verheyden. “It’s kind of magical, even without the structures.”

After drilling into the stalagmites and pulling out cylinders of rock, the team could see an obvious transition between two layers. On one side were old minerals that were part of the original stalagmites; on the other were newer layers that had been laid down after the fragments were broken off by the cave’s former users. By measuring uranium levels on either side of the divide, the team could accurately tell when each stalagmite had been snapped off for construction.

Their date? 176,500 years ago, give or take a few millennia.

“When I announced the age to Jacques, he asked me to repeat it because it was so incredible,” says Verheyden. Outside Bruniquel Cave, the earliest, unambiguous human constructions are just 20,000 years old. Most of these are ruins—collapsed collections of mammoth bones and deer antlers. By comparison, the Bruniquel stalagmite rings are well-preserved and far more ancient.

And if Rouzaud’s work made it unlikely that modern humans built the rings, Verheyden’s study grinds that possibility into the dust. Neanderthals must have been responsible. There simply wasn’t any other hominin in that region at that time.

This 3D reconstruction reveals the stalagmite structures in the Bruniquel Cave in France.

Why did they build the rings and mounds? The structures weren’t foundations for huts; the chamber contains no stone tools, human bones, or any other sign of permanent occupation, and besides, why build shelter inside a cave? “A plausible explanation is that this was a meeting place for some type of ritual social behavior,” says Paola Villa from the University of Colorado Museum.

“When you see such a structure so far into the cave, you think of something cultural or religious, but that’s not proven,” adds Verheyden. Indeed, despite some fanciful speculations about cave bear cults, no one really knows.

Nor is it clear how the Neanderthals made the structures. Verheyden says it couldn’t have been one lone artisan, toiling away in the dark. Most likely, there was a team and a technically skilled one at that. They broke rocks deliberately and arranged them precisely. They used fire, too. More than 120 fragments have red and black streaks that aren’t found elsewhere in the chamber of the cave beyond.

They were the result of deliberately applied heat, at intensities strong enough to occasionally crack the rock. “The Neanderthal group responsible for these constructions had a level of social organization that was more complex than previously thought,” the team writes.

These discoveries are part of the Neanderthals’ ongoing rehabilitation. Since their discovery, scientists have tried to understand why they died out and we did not, with the implicit assumption that they were inferior in some important way. Indeed, to describe someone as a Neanderthal today is to accuse them of unsophisticated brutishness.

But we now know that Neanderthals made tools, used fire, made art, buried their dead, and perhaps even had language. “The new findings have ushered a transformation of the Neanderthal from a knuckle-dragging savage rightfully defeated in an evolutionary contest, to a distant cousin that holds clues to our identity,” wrote Lydia Pyne in Nautilus.

And now, we have Bruniquel Cave with its structures that are unprecedented in their complexity, antiquity, and depth within the darkness. We know that 400,000 years ago, some ancient hominins chucked their dead into a cave at Sima de Los Huesos, but there’s no evidence of the careful constructions in Bruniquel. There’s evidence of painting and sculpture within caves, but none older than 42,000 years. There are signs that Neanderthals used caves, but nothing to suggest that they frequently ventured deeper than sunlight.

“I think we have several lines of evidence showing that the cognitive abilities and behaviors of Neanderthals were complex,” says Marie Soressi from Leiden University. “But we had no direct evidence of their ability to build. That changes the picture for me. It’s puzzling to find such structures so deep inside the cave.”

To solve these puzzles, Verheyden wants to start cutting into the cave’s floor. It has been covered by layers of calcite, which may conceal specimens that hint at the chamber’s purpose. Verheyden also notes that the entrance they’ve been using cannot possibly have been the only one. “We’re crawling through this small thing and there are bear hollows in the cave. I don’t think the bears went in that way!” she says. “There must have been some other passage that collapsed.”

50,000-Year-old Neanderthal Microbiome Analyzed

50,000-Year-old Neanderthal Microbiome Analyzed

Neanderthals’ gut microbiota already included some beneficial micro-organisms that are also found in our own intestine. An international research group led by the University of Bologna achieved this result by extracting and analyzing ancient DNA from 50,000-year-old fecal sediments sampled at the archaeological site of El Salt, near Alicante (Spain).

The 50,000 years old sedimentary faeces (the oldest sample of faecal material available to date) were collected in El Salt, Spain.

Published in Communication Biology, their paper puts forward the hypothesis of the existence of ancestral components of human microbiota that have been living in the human gastrointestinal tract since before the separation between the Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals that occurred more than 700,000 years ago.

“These results allow us to understand which components of the human gut microbiota are essential for our health, as they are integral elements of our biology also from an evolutionary point of view” explains Marco Candela, the professor of the Department of Pharmacy and Biotechnology of the University of Bologna, who coordinated the study.

“Nowadays there is a progressive reduction of our microbiota diversity due to the context of our modern life: this research group’s findings could guide us in devising diet- and lifestyle-tailored solutions to counteract this phenomenon.”

The Issues of the “Modern” Microbiota

The gut microbiota is the collection of trillions of symbiont micro-organisms that populate our gastrointestinal tract. It represents an essential component of our biology and carries out important functions in our bodies, such as regulating our metabolism and immune system and protecting us from pathogenic micro-organisms.

Recent studies have shown how some features of modernity — such as the consumption of processed food, drug use, life in hyper-sanitized environments — lead to a critical reduction of biodiversity in the gut microbiota. This depletion is mainly due to the loss of a set of microorganisms referred to as “old friends.”

“The process of depletion of the gut microbiota in modern western urban populations could represent a significant wake-up call,” says Simone Rampelli, who is a researcher at the University of Bologna and first author of the study. “This depletion process would become particularly alarming if it involved the loss of those microbiota components that are crucial to our physiology.”

Indeed, there are some alarming signs. For example, in the West, we are witnessing a dramatic increase in cases of chronic inflammatory diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer.

How the “Ancient” Microbiota Can Help

How can we identify the components of the gut microbiota that are more important for our health? And how can we protect them with targeted solutions? This was the starting point behind the idea of identifying the ancestral traits of our microbiota — i.e. the core of the human gut microbiota, which has remained consistent throughout our evolutionary history.

Technology nowadays allows to successfully rise to this challenge thanks to a new scientific field, paleomicrobiology, which studies ancient microorganisms from archaeological remains through DNA sequencing.

The research group analyzed ancient DNA samples collected in El Salt (Spain), a site where many Neanderthals lived. To be more precise, they analyzed the ancient DNA extracted from 50,000 years old sedimentary feces (the oldest sample of fecal material available to date). In this way, they managed to piece together the composition of the micro-organisms populating the intestine of Neanderthals. By comparing the composition of the Neanderthals’ microbiota to ours, many similarities aroused.

“Through the analysis of ancient DNA, we were able to isolate a core of microorganisms shared with modern Homo sapiens,” explains Silvia Turroni, a researcher at the University of Bologna and first author of the study.

“This finding allows us to state that these ancient micro-organisms populated the intestine of our species before the separation between Sapiens and Neanderthals, which occurred about 700,000 years ago.”

Safeguarding the Microbiota

These ancestral components of the human gut microbiota include many well-known bacteria (among which Blautia, Dorea, Roseburia, Ruminococcus and Faecalibacterium) that are fundamental to our health. Indeed, by producing short-chain fatty acids from dietary fiber, these bacteria regulate our metabolic and immune balance.

There is also the Bifidobacterium: a microorganism playing a key role in regulating our immune defences, especially in early childhood. Finally, in the Neanderthal gut microbiota, researchers identified some of those “old friends.” This confirms the researchers’ hypotheses about the ancestral nature of these components and their recent depletion in the human gut microbiota due to our modern life context.

“In the current modernization scenario, in which there is a progressive reduction of microbiota diversity, this information could guide integrated diet- and lifestyle-tailored strategies to safeguard the micro-organisms that are fundamental to our health,” concludes Candela. “To this end, promoting lifestyles that are sustainable for our gut microbiota is of the utmost importance, as it will help maintain the configurations that are compatible with our biology.”

Reference: “Components of a Neanderthal gut microbiome recovered from fecal sediments from El Salt” by Simone Rampelli, Silvia Turroni, Carolina Mallol, Cristo Hernandez, Bertila Galván, Ainara Sistiaga, Elena Biagi, Annalisa Astolfi, Patrizia Brigidi, Stefano Benazzi, Cecil M. Lewis Jr., Christina Warinner, Courtney A. Hofman, Stephanie L. Schnorr and Marco Candela, 5 February 2021,