Well preserved coffins hint towards more discoveries in a famed necropolis.
- Archaeologists in Egypt have discovered more than two dozen sarcophagi in the last month.
- Experts predict more discoveries in the coming weeks.
- Their discovery is another credit to Saqqara, the necropolis of the old capital of Memphis.
More mummies than a horror movie<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzMTA4OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjQ3Nzc5OX0.Vf-N6VDF0tVTarGsPg46iPDARKKIqYqd32b7Zltvxn0/img.jpg?width=980" id="4aad6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6000d3bd2b06357cc5155b1372689044" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="coffin close-up" />
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul Play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Most of Stonehenge's megaliths, called sarens, came from West Woods, Wiltshire.
- Researchers have known Stonehenge's smaller bluestones came from Preseli Hills, Wales, but the source of its sarsens has remained a mystery.
- Using chemical analysis, scientists found a matching source at West Woods, approximately 16 miles north of the World Heritage Site.
- But mysteries remain, such as why that site was chosen.
Discovering Stonehenge's signature<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUyOTYyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MzQ2NDc3Nn0.zb-izy2gdpzY5RboUnWumoX1XqP7WgqqkfANYnMkRSA/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C726%2C0%2C-4&height=700" id="a041b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0e067140288228fad6eac4ba6f39e668" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="men lifting stone with ropes" />
In 1958, engineers undertook the task of re-erecting a Stonehenge trilithon that fell in 1797. Three cores drilled into a sarsen disappeared soon after.
For every answer, another question<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUyOTYyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDM2NjEzNX0.a-19rNvjoIxomMUOOsgZ4qsN-cFEgycwBO-v73gtOuU/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C164%2C0%2C1&height=700" id="e9b1f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="35c8b40c523b6f6f53642c51eaf6ab38" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="stonehenge with low sun in the background" />
A view of Stonehenge during the Summer Solstice.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)<p>Thanks to Nash and his team, scientists now know the source of Stonehenge's sarsens. This clue can help them solve other Stonehenge mysteries. That most of the stones were sourced from one location, the study notes, suggests that they were erected at about the same time. It also reveals the routes the Neolithic builders had to traverse with their heavy loads.</p><p>But questions remain. Why did the builders choose West Woods when the Salisbury Plain is dense with sarsen? Why were two megaliths (Stones 26 and 160) sourced elsewhere? And were the missing stones gathered from West Woods or elsewhere? </p><p>These questions only touch on the sarsens. The question that intrigues so many of the monument's visitors remains hotly debated: Who built Stonehenge and why? Was it a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/mar/09/archaeology-stonehenge-bones-burial-ground#:~:text=Stonehenge%20may%20have%20been%20burial%20site%20for%20Stone%20Age%20elite%2C%20say%20archaeologists,-This%20article%20is&text=Centuries%20before%20the%20first%20massive,a%20theory%20disclosed%20on%20Saturday." target="_blank">burial site for the Stone age elite</a>? <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120622163722.htm" target="_blank">A monument marking British unification</a>? <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/mar/15/circular-thinking-stonehenges-origin-is-subject-to-new-theory" target="_blank">A Druid Mecca</a>? We don't know, but as scientific tools advance, we may be able to break the prehistoric silence that has laid over Stonehenge for so long.</p>
Archaeologists suggest this may have been the Americas' "oldest hotel."
- Scientists have found ancient tools as well as plant and animal remains in a high-altitude cave.
- The site is dated to 30,000 years ago, pushing back estimates of the first humans to arrive in the Americas by 15,000 years.
- There is no sign these mysterious people remain in the modern gene pool.
A game-changing puzzle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUxMTQxOC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODc0MjIyNH0.EOi6PulBQXz7mSUfVVOVXlmFPWZfMVzlKjEngYMYNWo/img.jpg?width=980" id="67747" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436fdbf2db7c960a56b6b22a969b5649" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="carved stone tool" />
Image source: Ciprian Ardelean/St. John's College, University of Cambridge<p>Inside the high-altitude cave some 9,000 feet above sea level, archaeologists found almost 2,000 stone tools. The scientists also found plant and animal remains at the site that radiocarbon dating identified as being from 25,000 to 30,000 years ago. One of the paper's first authors, geneticist <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Mikkel_Pedersen" target="_blank">Mikkel Winther Pedersen</a> of the University of Copenhagen, says, "We identified DNA from a wide range of animals including black bears, rodents, bats, voles and even kangaroo rats."</p><p>So, whose tools and animals were they? The researchers have no idea, since no human remains were found in the cave. This suggests the site was not a permanently occupied settlement, but instead a place that people used only periodically. "These early visitors didn't occupy the cave continuously," says Willerslev. "We think people spent part of the year there using it as a winter or summer shelter, or as a base to hunt during migration. This could be the Americas' oldest ever hotel."</p><p>Ardelean says that perhaps the most important thing is who they <em>don't</em> seem to have been, based on the style of tools that were found: the people of the Clovis culture. "We don't know who they were, where they came from or where they went. They are a complete enigma. We falsely assume that the indigenous populations in the Americas today are direct descendants from the earliest Americans, but now we do not think that is the case.</p>
Winter lodgings?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUxMTQyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMDk4MzUyMH0.PY6qDJJ4bQBZul6ilogXUnFKxVcl2e523mJ5agkEX0I/img.jpg?width=980" id="42ae4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4be1c18a7b4c9a7646bc637e82e91038" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Devlin A. Gandy/St. John's College, University of Cambridge<p>The time to which the Chiquihuite Cave specimens date mean people were there during the Last Glacial Maximum — this was a time when continental ice sheets were at their maximum size, making northern Mexico seriously cold. Ardelean says, "There must have been horrible storms, hail, snow." Nonetheless, the archaeologist, who worked the site for 10 years and even spent months living in the cave, tells <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02190-y" target="_blank">Nature</a> that it's well-insulated and would have provided adequate shelter.</p>
Exploring Chiquihuite Cave<iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/X18i8HEq3Lc" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p>While the excitement in archaeology typically derives from findings constructed bit-by-bit from the painstaking collection of artifacts, the excavation of the difficult-to-reach Chiquihuite Cave was an exceptionally charged experience. The cave is located in a region of Mexico controlled by drug cartels, and the safety of the scientists was by no means assured.</p><p>"It was an unforgettable experience," recalls Pedersen. "It is a very unsafe place to travel, so we were accompanied by Mexican police officers in armored cars to the foot of the mountain. We left before sunrise to climb up to the cave so that we weren't spotted."</p><p>Says Willerslev, "I will never forget being part of this research, it was an unbelievable experience. The implications of these findings are as important, if not more important, than the finding itself. This is only the start of the next chapter in the hotly debated early peopling of the Americas."</p>
A migration-route deal-breaker<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUxMTQyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkwNjMzNX0.3bM2lAjKZc3dA_iMd2Yp57IXWi5xnRIhatcGLEpIfv4/img.jpg?width=980" id="a3d06" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c605c85f4878c794cf1d8770ecc3ea33" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="ice on plants" />
Image source: Sarah Cervantes/Unsplash<p>The first few pages of that next chapter may be a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02137-3" target="_blank">companion paper</a> published by two of the study's contributing authors — <a href="https://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/people/lorena-becerra-valdivia" target="_blank">Lorena Becerra-Valdivia</a> of the University of New South Wales and<a href="https://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/find-an-expert/professor-tom-higham" target="_blank"> Thomas Higham</a> from the University of Oxford. It contains a statistical model of early human settlement of the hemisphere based on the Chiquihuite Cave and 41 other archaeological sites in North America, as well as Beringia, a region of eastern Siberia and western Alaska. Its authors also factored in historical climatic evidence and genetics. Their model presents a history in which humans were in North America far earlier than the previously accepted date of 15,000–16,000 years ago. That the model is based on sometimes ambiguous data from so many sites inevitably means that its conclusions are likely to be controversial, but it is in any event a worthwhile contribution to the discussion.</p><p>The model also supports the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coastal_migration_(Americas)" target="_blank">Costal Migration Hypothesis</a> that visitors traveling the continent during the glacial maximum would have had to hug the coastlines to avoid the ice sheets atop inland areas.</p><p>So, whoever these early humans were, what happened to them? Geneticist <a href="https://reich.hms.harvard.edu" target="_blank">David Reich</a> of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts tell Nature, "There continues to be no convincing genetic evidence of a pre-15,000-years-ago human presence in the Americas." Ardelean, for one, is not dissuaded by this. He proposes that these early populations simply didn't survive long enough to contribute to the modern gene pool. He says, undeterred, "I definitely advocate for the idea of lost groups."</p><p>Ardelean concludes, "The peopling of the Americas is the last holy grail in modern archaeology. Unconventional sites need to be taken seriously, and we need to go out and intentionally look for them. This site doesn't solve anything, it just shows that these early sites exist. We are dealing with a handful of humans from thousands of years ago, so we cannot expect the signals to be very clear. We have literally dug deeper than anyone has done in the past."</p>
The discovery pushes back humanity's history with domestication.
- Until now, it was thought that cats weren't domesticated in Central Asia until much later.
- The completeness and details of the skeleton suggest it was someone's pet.
- Isotopic examination reveals a high-protein diet most likely provided by caring humans.
Piecing together history through archaeology is inherently sketchy. Clues that tell a complete story could be anywhere — so much depends on the artifacts that just happened to have been found. It's a credit to archaeologists' knowledge and imagination that they've been able to piece together as much about the distant past as they have.
The recent discovery of a nearly complete skeleton from 775–940 CE belonging to a house cat living along Asia's Silk Road significantly pushes back humanity's history with domesticated animals. Prior to this find, the domestic Felis catus L. — as opposed to F. l. ornat, the wild steppe feline — according to DNA testing, wasn't seen in the archaeological record of Central Asia until around the colonial period of the 18th and 19th centuries. While the remains of domesticated dogs are commonly found, cats are not, and certainly not specimens that are sufficiently complete. This allows archaeologists to infer much about the individual animal's life story. This cat's story is published in the journal Scientific Reports.
The Silk Road
Image source: Nithid/Shutterstock
The legendary Silk Road was not, its name notwithstanding, a single road. Rather, it was a network of trade routes running across Asia from China to the Mediterranean. It was at its height between 130 BCE (when it was officially established by China's Han Dynasty) and 1453, when the Ottoman Empire closed it down.
While the Silk Road's primary purpose was commercial — the transport of goods across the ancient world — the communities through which it passed were exposed to a rich assortment of distant cultures, and its influence was thus profound. When the Silk Road was shut down, explorers took to the world's oceans in search of new trade routes that might replace it.
One of the many communities along the trade route was the early medieval settlement of Dzhankent, located in Kazakhstan, east of the Caspian Sea. It was populated primarily by a pastoralist Turkic tribe called the Oghuz. The Oghuz were nomads who controlled Dzhankent and ruled the surrounding region until the 11th century.
The Dzhankent cat
Image source: Haruda, et al
The tomcat skeleton was found in Dzhankent, and had apparently been deliberately buried, though there is no evidence of any sort of ritual involved, or even clear grave delineations. Still, the deliberate burial means its bones were well-preserved.
"A human skeleton is like a biography of that person," says lead investigator Ashleigh Haruda from the Central Natural Science Collections at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU). "The bones provide a great deal of information about how the person lived and what they experienced." In the case of the cat, there were enough remains — its entire skull including its lower jaw, along with parts of its upper body, legs and four vertebrae — to understand quite a bit about its life.
Haruda's team included both archaeologists and DNA specialists. The tabby did not have an easy life, says Haruda, who conservatively estimates the cat was at least one year old at the time of death.
X-ray and 3D imaging of the bones revealed that "the cat suffered several broken bones during its lifetime." Isotope analysis revealed a high-protein diet, and according to Haruda, "It must have been fed by humans since the animal had lost almost all its teeth towards the end of its life."
From an historical point of view, the cat's presence in the Oghuz community suggests a surprisingly early change in the way these people viewed animals. "The Oghuz were people who only kept animals when they were essential to their lives," says Haruda. "Dogs, for example, can watch over the herd. They had no obvious use for cats back then."