Huge Cache of Stolen Antiquities Found in Central Israel
A vast cache of antiquities looted from sites in the West Bank was revealed on Thursday by the Israel Antiquities Authority. While antiquities theft is common in Israel, and thieves and traders are often caught, this was a big catch.
Ancient cuneiform tablets, a bronze figurine, jewellery, seals, and no less than 1,800 coins were seized from the home of an antiquities trader in Modi’in on Sunday by police working with the Israel Antiquities Authority theft prevention team.
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According to the IAA, the trader admitted to buying antiquities from looters operating in the West Bank, smuggling them into Israel, and illegally trading them.
Some of the items and coins appear to have fresh dirt on them, the inspectors reported, lending credence to the suspicion that they were looted recently.
Some of the coins bear the name of Shimon Bar Kochba, the leader of the ill-fated revolt against the Romans from 132 to 135 C.E.
The inspectors also seized coins from the Persian period, silver coins from the Hellenistic period, more from the Hasmonean period and others from the time of the rebellion, the IAA announced on Thursday.
One rare item was a silver “shekel” coin from the time of the First Jewish-Roman War in 67 C.E., the IAA stated. It bears the legend “Holy Jerusalem” in Hebrew on one side with the image of a bunch of three pomegranates. The other side says “Shekel Israel Year 2” (the letter bet) and the image of a goblet.
That particular coin seems to have been in the process of being cleaned, a job only half done, the IAA says.
Some of the seized coins had already been packaged in envelopes for mailing abroad.
The suspect is not licensed to sell antiquities overseas, said IAA theft prevention chief Ilan Hadad. The next stage of this case is to track down the thieves, the anti-theft unit said.
Eli Eskosido, the director-general of the IAA, mourned that the illegal trade encourages looters who do not cavil at destroying ancient sites, to the detriment of posterity.
“The worst thing about destroying a site is that you only have one shot at excavating,” antiquities inspector Hillel Silberklang told Haaretz in February. “Whatever information it had is lost forever, and damage to an archaeological site is final.”
Livestock and dairying led to dramatic social changes in ancient Mongolia, U-M study shows
The movement of herders and livestock into the eastern steppe is of great interest to researchers, but few scholars have linked the introduction of herds and horses to the rise of complex societies.
Now, a new study in the journal PLOS ONE provides interdisciplinary support for connections between livestock dairying and the rise of social complexity in the eastern steppe. Using proteomic analysis of human dental calculus from sites in the Mongolian Altai, the researchers demonstrate a shift in dairy consumption over the course of the Bronze Age.
By tracking the consumption of dairy among populations in the Altai Mountains in Mongolia, researchers revealed the critical role of domesticated sheep, goats and cattle in ancient economies.
The adoption of ruminant livestock eventually led to population growth, the establishment of community cemeteries and the construction of large monuments. While these pronounced changes occurred in tandem with the earliest evidence of horse dairying in Mongolia, the consumption of horse dairy remained a relatively novel practise until later periods.
Thus, the spread of herds into the Mongolian Altai resulted in immediate changes to human diets, with a delay in subsequent social and demographic transformations, said study lead author Alicia Ventresca Miller, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan.
“As we push back the dates of the introduction of livestock, we need to rethink the pace of social change, which may occur on much longer timescales,” she said.
Ventresca Miller and colleagues from U-M and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany extracted proteins from calculus samples to identify caseins and whey associated with ruminant and horse dairy.
Results were interpreted in consultation with researchers from the National University of Mongolia and National Museum of Mongolia, in an effort to clarify how ancient societies changed after the adoption of domesticated livestock.
Dramatic social changes and monumental constructions were fueled by a long-term dependence on sheep, goats and cattle, Ventresca Miller says. This is supported by finds of mostly ruminant bones in large monumental Khirgisuurs in the Altai Mountains, while in other areas of Mongolia horse bone deposits have been identified along with ruminants.
“These new results might allow for a shift in our understanding of Bronze Age dynamics,” said Tsagaan Turbat, professor of archaeology and anthropology at the National University of Mongolia.
Turbat believes that Deer Stone-Khirgisuur complexes, the most studied in the region, may have originated from Sagsai groups in the Altai Mountains.
The current study pushes back the earliest date of horse dairying in the eastern steppe associated with Sagsai burials to about 1350 B.C.
As initial evidence of horse milk consumption is rare, this may have been a novelty since horses were an important feature of ritual life, the researchers say.
A rare Bronze Age spearhead has been found by workers while developing a wetland in Gloucestershire. Experts discovered it at Cirencester Sewage Works, near South Cerney, earlier this year and on 10 May estimated it is about 3,500 years old.
Archaeologists said it appeared to be a family heirloom that was placed into a pit for a reason unknown.
Other items unearthed include a selection of prehistoric pottery fragments and flint tools.
The spearhead was found on 22 March at the site owned by Thames Water, which is being turned into a wetlands area to improve biodiversity.
Cotswold Archaeology project manager Alex Thomson said: “Items like this are quite rare and during the Bronze Age they would have been equally as rare and quite special.
“It’s always exciting as you never know what you’re going to find, it could be absolutely nothing or, as in this instance, you could find more than you bargained for.”
Mr Thomson said he thought the spearhead was likely associated with a “wider settlement” found nearby during excavations undertaken in the late 1990s.
Thames Water archaeologist Victoria Reeve added: “We knew we were likely to come across something interesting while carrying out the work, which is why we had Cotswold Archaeology on site ready to record any archaeology that was present, but we were blown away by what we actually discovered.
“It was one of the first things that came out and normally if we had started excavating, we might have expected something to turn up more mid-way through.
“There’s been a lot of work in this wider area, so if you bring all of those sources together, then you can start to plot where you think people might have been in the past.”
The items will be taken back to a laboratory for analysis and then handed to the Corinium Museum in Cirencester.
Tomb Saviors: Two Giants Found In Ancient Graveyard Could Have Been Body Guards
Giant statues crafted more than 3,000 years ago could have been guardians of an ancient graveyard, say experts. The mysterious Bronze Age giants were found at a necropolis near Mont’e Prama in Cabras, a small town in the western part of the island of Sardinia.
Dated to between the 11th and 8th centuries BC, these giants – or Kolossoi – are the oldest human-shaped sculptures found in the Mediterranean.
Experts say they are younger than ancient Egyptian statues but older than Greek kouroi statues dating from the 7th century BC.
The new finds will be added to discoveries first made in 1974. The more recent excavations recovered 5,000 pieces, which include 15 heads and 22 torsos. Fully rebuilt, the statues measure 2.5 meters tall – or just over 8 feet.
The figures and other sculptures were carved in native grainy limestone.
The giants resemble others recovered in 2014, known as “boxers” for the curved shields each bears on the left arm. Italy’s Minister of Culture Dario Franceschini said: “An exceptional discovery, which will be followed by others, which has no equal in the Mediterranean.”
Franceschini said of the statues: “Two new jewels are thus added to this statuary group with a mysterious charm, capable of attracting the attention of the whole world.”
Expert Alessandro Usai, who has been digging at the site since 2014, said: “In particular, the two torsos found with the elongated shield that takes on a slightly enveloping shape with respect to the left arm and which flattens on the belly bring the findings back to the category of boxers.”
According to archaeologist Monica Stochino, who participated in the dig: “While the small and medium-sized fragments are brought to light daily, documented in situ on the ground and recovered, the two large and heavy blocks of the torsos will need time to be freed from the earth around them…”
She added that work remains to completely excavate the site, remove the artefacts, and ultimately exhibit them. The limestone used by the ancients was easily carved, but fragile, thus making transportation and restoration difficult. The Nuragic civilization of Sardinia lasted from about the 18th century BC until Roman colonization in 238 BC.
The name Nuragic refers to Sardinia’s most characteristic monument, the 7,000 circular stone “nuraghe” forts built across the island, which bear silent witness to the ancient people who left no written records.
The ancient Greeks and Romans later wrote mythical accounts about the Nuragic people. Nuragic people may have navigated elsewhere in the Mediterranean, ranging from what is now modern-day Spain and its islands, to mainland Italy, Crete, and even Israel. The Carthaginians from North Africa also lived on the island and may have dominated the Nuragic people. Their tombs and monuments include standing stones resembling Britain’s Stonehenge, as well as megalithic tombs known as dolmens, which are also found elsewhere in Europe.
Mont’e Prama, where the new statues were found, is a necropolis or cemetery dating from the end of the 9th century to the first half of the 8th century that features a funerary road. It shows three phases: the first consists of simple tombs where bodies were inhumed; a second featuring grouped tombs each covered by rough stone slabs; and a third in which perfectly-aligned tombs are covered with square slabs.
The giant statues were shattered in ancient times and then deposited on top of or next to the tombs. While the stone was quarried nearby, it is not known where the statues were originally erected before ending up at the necropolis. Some experts believe they were used to mark off a sacred space, while others assert they were placed on slabs covering the tombs.
Opinions also differ over their destruction, with some experts asserting it came because of internal strife among the Nuragic peoples, while others blame Phoenicians of nearby Tharros on the Sinis peninsula.
Yet another theory proposes that the statues were demolished by Carthaginians, during the much later second half of the 4th century BC.
The statues appear to be warriors or “boxers,” and may represent Nuragic ancestors, gods, or mythical heroes, while Mont’e Prama may have been a heroon or hero-shrine where they were worshipped.
As evidence that it was a place for honouring heroes, Usai noted that among the 170 tombs, there were none with the remains of children or elderly people. There were very few women buried at the necropolis, which appeared to be almost exclusively reserved for young men. Stochino explained that the research addressed two main objectives: “To confirm the extension of the monumental arrangement of the area with the definition of the funerary road and the creation of the sculptural complex made up of statues, models of nuraghe and betyls.”
According to the experts, the model nuraghe may have represented community identity or solidarity. Betyls or baetylus are sacred stones that some ancient cultures believed either gave access to their gods or were actually endowed with life. The word comes from the Semitic ‘bet el’, or ‘house of the god’, in much the same way as the biblical Bethel does.
As to the identity of the giants, and their purpose and fragmentation, Usai said that he leans to the conclusion that the statues were victims of a “natural” destruction, even while he granted that further investigation based on data may eventually uncover the mystery.
Ancient DNA gives new insights into the ‘lost’ Indigenous people of Uruguay
The first whole-genome sequences of the ancient people of Uruguay provide a genetic snapshot of Indigenous populations of the region before they were decimated by a series of European military campaigns. PNAS Nexus published the research, led by anthropologists at Emory University and the University of the Republic, Montevideo, Uruguay.
“Our work shows that the Indigenous people of ancient Uruguay exhibit an ancestry that has not been previously detected in South America,” says John Lindo, co-corresponding author and an Emory assistant professor of anthropology specializing in ancient DNA. “This contributes to the idea of South America being a place where multi-regional diversity existed, instead of the monolithic idea of a single Native American race across North and South America.”
The analyses drew from a DNA sample of a man that dated back 800 years and another from a woman that went back 1,500 years, both well before the 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. The samples were collected from an archaeological site in eastern Uruguay by co-corresponding author Gonzalo Figueiro, a biological anthropologist at the University of the Republic.
The results of the analyses showed a surprising connection to ancient individuals from Panama — the land bridge that connects North and South America — and to eastern Brazil, but not to modern Amazonians. These findings support the theory proposed by some archaeologists of separate migrations into South America, including one that led to the Amazonian populations and another that led to the populations along the East coast.
“We’ve now provided genetic evidence that this theory may be correct,” Lindo says. “It runs counter to the theory of a single migration that split at the foot of the Andes.”
The archaeological evidence for human settlement of the area now known as Uruguay, located on the Atlantic coast south of Brazil, goes back more than 10,000 years. European colonizers made initial contact with the Indigenous people of the region in the early 1500s.
During the 1800s, the colonizers launched a series of military campaigns to exterminate the native peoples, culminating in what is known as the massacre at Salsipuedes Creek, in 1831, which targeted an ethnic group called the Charrúa. At that time, the authors write, the term Charrúa was being applied broadly to the remnants of various hunter-gatherer groups in the territory of Uruguay.
“Through these first whole-genome sequences of the Indigenous people of the region before the arrival of Europeans, we were able to reconstruct at least a small part of their genetic prehistory,” Lindo says.
The work opens the door to modern-day Uruguayans seeking to potentially link themselves genetically to populations that existed in the region before European colonizers arrived. “We would like to gather more DNA samples from ancient archaeological sites from all over Uruguay, which would allow people living in the country today to explore a possible genetic connection,” Lindo says.
The Lindo ancient DNA lab specializes in mapping little-explored human lineages of the Americas. Most ancient DNA labs are located in Europe, where the cooler climate has better-preserved specimens.
Less focus has been put on sequencing ancient DNA from South America. One reason is that warmer, more humid climates throughout much of the continent have made it more challenging to collect usable ancient DNA specimens, although advances in sequencing technology are helping to remove some of these limitations.
“If you’re of European descent, you can have your DNA sequenced and use that information to pinpoint where your ancestors are from down to specific villages,” Lindo says. “If you are descended from people Indigenous to the Americas you may be able to learn that some chunk of your genome is Native American, but it’s unlikely that you can trace a direct lineage because there are not enough ancient DNA references available.”
Further complicating the picture, he adds, is the massive disruption caused by the arrival of Europeans given that many civilizations were destroyed and whole populations were killed.
By collaborating closely with Indigenous communities and local archaeologists, Lindo hopes to use advanced DNA sequencing techniques to build a free, online portal with increasing numbers of ancient DNA references from the Americas, to help people better explore and understand their ancestry.
Co-authors of the current paper include Emory senior Rosseirys De La Rosa, Andrew Luize Campelo dos Santos (the Federal University of Penambuco, Recife, Brazil), and Monica Sans (University of the Republic, Montevideo, Uruguay), and Michael De Giorgio (Florida Atlantic University).
Cattle May Have Been Domesticated in the Central Nile Valley
Scientists have found that humans domesticated cattle around 10,000 years ago in the Central Nile region in today’s Sudan.
The preliminary conclusions from researchers at the Polish Academy of Sciences who recently returned from excavations overturn traditional thoughts that domesticated cattle came to East Africa from the lands of Turkey and Iraq.
Researchers are now waiting for precise sample dating results that will confirm their age. All indications are, however, that it is a period far preceding the 5th millennium BCE, a commonly accepted date of introduction of domesticated cattle from the Middle East. This would mean that domestication took place locally.
The area of the latest research was the Letti Basin in the Central Nile Valley. So far, this area has been known mainly as the economic base of the capital of the medieval kingdom of Makuria – Old Dongola, where Polish excavation missions have been working for five decades.
Dr. Piotr Osypiński from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology PAS, who conducts research in the Letti Basin together with Dr. Marta Osypińska from the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Wrocław said: “The traces of human presence in this area are definitely older and reach the 8th-millennium BCE. We focused on them during the latest research”.
Researchers call this area the great African intersection because this is where the trails of animals and people, existing for millennia along the Nile, cross the Sahel belt – the southern border of the Sahara.
In this area, on the edge of the desert and arable areas, the researchers discovered archaeological sites, several millennia older than the ancient civilizations and the Christian kingdom of Makuria. Their research sheds light on the topic of domesticating cattle by the first shepherds about 10,000 years ago.
The puzzle is where the domesticated cattle of early Eastern Sahara shepherds came from, says archaeozoologists, Dr. Marta Osypińska.
Geneticists suggest that all domestic cattle we know today originated from a herd of aurochs that lived about 10,000 years ago in the lands of today’s Turkey and Iraq. Therefore, it would have to reach Africa in a domesticated form, according to the prevailing views in the 5th-6th millennium BCE.
However, archaeologists thought earlier that African cattle were domesticated also locally, in the Eastern Sahara region. The deserting ecosystem was to be conducive to ‘strengthening relations’ between humans and aurochs, and humans had followed the herds of these large ruminants from the earliest times. However, there was no direct evidence that such a process actually took place, i.e. the remains of wild cattle and its transitional and domesticated forms. In the case of African domestication, the very presence of the remains of archaic cattle (in sites older than those indicated by geneticists in the 5th-6th millennium BC) would constitute such evidence.
Dr. Osypińska said: “Due to the lack of finds (from earlier excavations) in the form of well-preserved bones of large ruminants, the idea of local domestication of cattle was abandoned, and genetic reports dominated the scientific debate. Meanwhile, during our research in Letti, we made discoveries that shed new light and allow us to resume the debate about the origin of cattle in Africa.”
At one of the sites from the beginning of the Holocene Age (approx. 10,000 years ago), the researchers discovered the remains of domesticated cattle with ‘aurochs-like’ features. They were among the bones of other, strictly wild species of animals inhabiting the savannah.
The researchers are waiting for precise sample dating results, which will confirm their age and allow them to talk about the local domestication.
Osypiński said: “That group of people already knew ceramic vessels, used quern-stones to grind cereal grains (wild varieties of millet), so they can be called early-Neolithic communities. They still hunted wild savannah animals, with one only exception – cattle at an early stage of domestication.”
From a layer from the same period, archaeologists extracted a tiny clay figurine depicting a cow. Although the head has not survived, according to the discoverers the silhouette undoubtedly points to a large ruminant. Very similar figurines are known in many shepherd cultures, including the Nuer people from South Sudan, the researchers say.
The interdisciplinary team’s research was financed by the Polish National Science Centre.
A child’s 130,000-year-old tooth could offer clues to an extinct human relative
Palaeontologists in Laos have uncovered an ancient molar that likely belonged to a young Denisovan girl. The discovery is a big deal, as the Laotian cave in which the molar was found is now one of only three spots known to host these enigmatic humans.
In addition to Siberia and the Tibetan Plateau, we can now add Laos to the achingly shortlist of places that have yielded fossils of an elusive human species known as the Denisovans.
A team of palaeontologists found the suspected Denisovan molar at the Tam Ngu Hao 2 cave in the Annamite Mountains of Laos. The molar dates to the middle Pleistocene, and it’s the first Denisovan fossil ever to be found in southeast Asia. A paper detailing this discovery is published today in Nature Communications.
Laura Shackelford, an anthropologist from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-author of the new study, was excited to learn that Denisovans, like their Neanderthal cousins, inhabited a variety of environments, some of them extreme.
“Although we only have a few fossils representing the Denisovans, this new fossil from Laos demonstrates that much like modern humans, Denisovans were widespread and they were highly adaptable,” Shackelford explained in an email. “They lived in the cold arctic temperatures of Siberia, in the cold, [oxygen poor] environment of the Tibetan Plateau, and now we know they were also living in the tropics of southeast Asia.”
What’s more, the new discovery “further attests” that southeast Asia was “a hotspot of diversity for the genus Homo” during the middle to late Pleistocene, as the scientists write in their study. So in addition to Denisovans, this part of the world was once home to H. Erectus, Neanderthals, H. floresiensis, H. luzonensis, and H. sapiens.
That a Denisovan fossil was found in Laos is not a huge surprise. Traces of Denisovan DNA have been detected within the genomes of modern southeast Asian and Oceanian populations. The Ayta Magbukun—a Philippine ethnic group—have retained approximately 5% of their Denisovan ancestry, the highest of any human group in the world. Denisovans branched off from Neanderthals at some point between 200,000 and 390,000 years ago. They eventually went extinct, but not before interbreeding with modern humans. The Laotian molar is just the 10th Denisovan fossil to be found and the first outside of Siberia and Tibet.
The Annamite Mountains contain an abundance of limestone caves. Each year, Shackelford and her colleagues dispatch geologists to the area in hopes of finding spots worthy of further paleontological investigation.
“In 2018, our geologists spent the morning surveying and returned to the site before lunch with their pockets full of sediment samples that they had collected from a potential new site, what we now know as Tam Ngu Hao 2 or Cobra Cave,” Shackelford told me. “In these first samples, among fragments of fossil animal teeth, we found the tooth.”
By dating the sediment in which the molar was found, the team aged the fossil to between 164,000 and 131,000 years old. Protein analysis of the tooth’s enamel identified the fossil as belonging to a member of the Homo genus, but this test couldn’t pin down the exact species.
“We do know that this is the tooth of a girl who died when she was between about 4 to 8 years old,” said Shackelford. “Since this tooth comes from a child, we are currently doing additional analyses of tooth growth and development.”
Clément Zanolli, an expert on the evolution of human teeth and a co-author of the new study, said the identification of the Denisovan molar arose from multiple lines of morphological evidence.
The Laotian molar, he told me, bears a resemblance to teeth found on the partial Denisovan mandible from Tibet, including large tooth dimensions and various distinguishing features that separate it from other Homo species known to inhabit southeast Asia, including Neanderthals and modern humans.
“Among the human groups previously cited, the molar from Laos is closest to Neanderthals, and we know from paleogenetics that Denisovans were a sister group of Neanderthals, meaning that they were closely related and shared morphological features,” Zanolli, who works at the University of Bordeaux, explained in an email. “For these reasons, the most parsimonious hypothesis is that the tooth that we found in Laos belongs to a Denisovan individual.”
It’s not impossible that the molar belonged to a Neanderthal, but if that’s the case, that “would make it the south-eastern-most Neanderthal fossil ever discovered,” according to the paper.
“We are confident it is Denisovan,” Fabrice Demeter, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Copenhagen and a co-author of the study, told me in an email. But to “further confirm our results if needed, genetic analyses would be useful,” he said. Unfortunately, however, “DNA tends to fragment more quickly and intensely in tropical environments,” and it’s for this reason that “no ancient DNA from any Pleistocene human has been sequenced so far,” he added.
The new fossil is important because it affirms something already hinted at by the genetic data—that Denisovans once inhabited a wide area of southeast Asia. What’s more, it “confirms that Denisovans were present in this region and could have met with Late Pleistocene modern humans,” according to Zanolli. And lastly, it shows that Denisovans could live in both cold, high-altitude environments and the tropical forests of southeast Asia.
The Denisovans appear to have been an adaptable group. But that just makes their sudden disappearance some 50,000 years ago all the more mysterious.
An ancient temple dedicated to Zeus unearthed in Egypt
Archaeologists in Egypt have uncovered the remains of an ancient temple built to honour Zeus-Kasios, a deity sporting the features of both Zeus and the weather-god Kasios, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced on Monday.
The ruins were unearthed at the Tell el-Farama archaeological site in the northwestern Sinai Peninsula.
In Greco-Roman times (332 B.C. to A.D. 395), this area was known as the city and harbour of Pelusium, which sat on the far eastern mouth of the Nile River.
Due to its strategic location, people used Pelusium for various functions, including as a fortress during the time of the Egyptian pharaohs; and artefacts dating to the Graeco-Roman, Byzantine, Christian and Islamic periods suggest it was in use in various ways then as well, according to a 2010 paper presented at the Sinai International Conference for Geology and Development.
The archaeological team zeroed in on the temple after excavating around the remains of two pink granite columns lying on the ground’s surface, Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said in the statement.
These columns once formed the temple’s front gate but collapsed in ancient times when a mighty earthquake rocked the city.
Researchers have been aware for several decades that there might be a Zeus-Kasios temple at the site.
In the early 1900s and later in the 1990s, archaeologists ascertained that the granite columns were likely brought on barges via the Nile from Aswan in southern Egypt to Pelusium, according to the 2010 paper.
Moreover, the late French Egyptologist Jean Clédat found Greek inscriptions at the site, indicating that a temple for Zeus-Kasios had been built there in Graeco-Roman times. However, archaeologists never did a formal excavation at the site, which is near an ancient fort and a church.
Now, archaeologists have discovered previously unknown remains of the temple, including granite blocks that were likely part of a staircase leading to the temple’s entrance on the eastern side of the building, Ayman Ashmawy, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Sector at the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said in the statement.
Several large blocks of pink granite were found in the streets around the temple site, indicating that later workers repurposed the temple’s stones for other projects, such as nearby churches.
Scientists are now documenting the newly analyzed blocks with photogrammetry, a technique in which many digital images are used to create virtual 3D images, which will help the team attempt to recreate the temple virtually, Hisham Hussein, the director of Sinai archaeological sites, said in the statement.
Inscriptions found on some of the granite blocks suggest that Roman Emperor Hadrian (ruled A.D. 117-138) renovated the temple, Hussein added.