Hofmeyr-Skull supports the "Out of Africa"-Theory

Dating of skull delivers the first fossil indicator that modern humans evolved in Africa


Reliably dated fossils are critical to understanding the course of human evolution. A human skull discovered over fifty years ago near the town of Hofmeyr, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, is one such fossil. A study by an international team of scientists led by Frederick Grine of the Departments of Anthropology and Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University in New York published today in Science magazine has dated the skull to 36,000 years ago. This skull provides critical corroboration of genetic evidence indicating that modern humans originated in sub-Saharan Africa and migrated about this time to colonize the Old World. (Science January 12, 2007)


"The Hofmeyr skull gives us the first insights into the morphology of such a sub-Saharan African population, which means the most recent common ancestor of all of us - wherever we come from," said Grine.


Although the skull was found over half a century ago, its significance became apparent only recently. A new approach to dating developed by Grine team member Richard Bailey and his colleagues at Oxford University allowed them to determined its age at just over 36,000 years ago by measuring the amount of radiation that had been absorbed by sand grains that filled the inside of the skull’s braincase. At this age, the skull fills a significant void in the human fossil record of sub-Saharan Africa from the period between about 70,000 and 15,000 years ago. During this critical period, the archaeological tradition known as the Later Stone Age, with its sophisticated stone and bone tools and artwork appears in sub-Saharan Africa, and anatomically modern people appear for the first time in Europe and western Asia with the equally complex Upper Paleolithic archeological tradition.


In order to establish the affinities of the Hofmeyr fossil, team member Katerina Harvati of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, used 3-dimensional measurements of the skull known to differentiate recent human populations according to their geographic distributions and genetic relationships. She compared the Hofmeyr skull with contemporaneous Upper Paleolithic skulls from Europe and with the skulls of living humans from Eurasia and sub-Saharan Africa, including the Khoe-San (Bushmen). Because the Khoe-San are represented in the recent archeological record of South Africa, they were expected to have close resemblances to the South African fossil. Instead, the Hofmeyr skull is quite distinct from recent sub-Saharan Africans, including the Khoe-San, and has a very close affinity with the European Upper Paleolithic specimens.


The field of paleoanthropology is known for its hotly contested debates, and one that has raged for years concerns the evolutionary origin of modern people. A number of genetic studies (especially those on the mitochondrial DNA) of living people indicate that modern humans evolved in sub-Saharan Africa and then left between 65,000 and 25,000 years ago to colonize the Old World. However, other genetic studies (generally on nuclear DNA) argue against this African origin and exodus model. Instead, they suggest that archaic non-African groups, such as the Neandertals, made significant contributions to the genomes of modern humans in Eurasia. Until now, the lack of human fossils of appropriate antiquity from sub-Saharan Africa has meant that these competing genetic models of human evolution could not be tested by paleontological evidence.


The skull from Hofmeyr has changed that. The surprising similarity between a fossil skull from the southernmost tip of Africa and similarly ancient skulls from Europe is in agreement with the genetics-based "Out of Africa" theory, which predicts that humans like those that inhabited Eurasia in the Upper Paleolithic should be found in sub-Saharan Africa around 36,000 years ago. The skull from South Africa provides the first fossil evidence in support of this prediction.


Original work:

F.E. Grine, R.M. Bailey, K. Harvati, R.P. Nathan, A.G. Morris, G.M. Henderson, I. Ribot, A.W.G. Pike

Late Pleistocene Human Skull from Hofmeyr, South Africa and Modern Human Origins

Science, 12. January 2007



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Sandra Jacob, Press and Public Relations

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Dr. Katerina Harvati

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Prof. Dr. Frederick E. Grine

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Public release date: 11-Jan-2007

Contact: John Hoffecker



University of Colorado at Boulder

Earliest evidence of modern humans in Europe discovered by international team

Stone, bone and ivory artifacts may date back 45,000 years


Modern humans who first arose in Africa had moved into Europe as far back as about 45,000 years ago, according to a new study by an international research team led by the Russian Academy of Sciences and the University of Colorado at Boulder.


The evidence consists of stone, bone and ivory tools discovered under a layer of ancient volcanic ash on the Don River in Russia some 250 miles south of Moscow, said John Hoffecker, a fellow of CU-Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. Thought to contain the earliest evidence of modern humans in Europe, the site also has yielded perforated shell ornaments and a carved piece of mammoth ivory that appears to be the head of a small human figurine, which may represent the earliest piece of figurative art in the world, he said.


"The big surprise here is the very early presence of modern humans in one of the coldest, driest places in Europe," Hoffecker said. "It is one of the last places we would have expected people from Africa to occupy first."


A paper by Michael Anikovich and Andrei Sinitsyn of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Hoffecker, and 13 other researchers was published in the Jan. 12 issue of Science.


The excavation took place at Kostenki, a group of more than 20 sites along the Don River that have been under study for many decades. Kostenki previously has yielded anatomically modern human bones and artifacts dating between 30,000 and 40,000 years old, including the oldest firmly dated bone and ivory needles with eyelets that indicate the early inhabitants were tailoring animal furs to help them survive the harsh climate.


Most of the stone used for artifact construction was imported from between 60 miles and 100 miles away, while the perforated shell ornaments discovered at the lowest levels of the Kostenki dig were imported from the Black Sea more than 300 miles away, he said. "Although human skeletal remains in the earliest level of the excavation are confined to isolated teeth, which are notoriously difficult to assign to specific human types, the artifacts are unmistakably the work of modern humans," Hoffecker said.

An assemblage of bone and ivory artifacts from the lowest layer at Kostenki that includes a perforated shell, a probable small human figurine (three views, top center) and several...

Click here for more information.


The sediment overlying the artifacts was dated by several methods, including an analysis of an ash layer deposited by a monumental volcanic eruption in present-day Italy about 40,000 years ago, Hoffecker said. The researchers also used optically stimulated luminescence dating -- which helps them determine how long ago materials were last exposed to daylight -- as well as paleomagnetic dating based on known changes in the orientation and intensity of Earth's magnetic field and radiocarbon calibration.


Anatomically modern humans are thought to have arisen in sub-Saharan Africa around 200,000 years ago.


Kostenki also contains evidence that modern humans were rapidly broadening their diet to include small mammals and freshwater aquatic foods, an indication they were "remaking themselves technologically," he said. They may have used traps and snares to catch hares and arctic foxes, exploiting large areas of the environment with relatively little energy. "They probably set out their nets and traps and went home for lunch," he said.


While there is some evidence Neanderthals once occupied the plains of Eastern Europe, they seem to have been scarce or absent there during the last glacial period when modern humans arrived, he said. The lack of competitors like the Neanderthals might have been the chief attraction to the area and the reason why modern humans first entered this part of Europe, Hoffecker said.


"Unlike the Neanderthals, modern humans had the ability to devise new technologies for coping with cold climates and less than abundant food resources," he said. "The Neanderthals, who had occupied Europe for more than 200,000 years, seem to have left the back door open for modern humans. "


The ivory artifact believed to be the head of a small figurine, discovered during the 2001 field season, was broken and perhaps never was finished by the person who began crafting it more than 40,000 years ago, said Hoffecker. "This is a really interesting piece," he said. "If confirmed, it will be the oldest example of figurative art ever discovered."


Buried under 10 feet to 15 feet of silt, the artifacts at Kostenki include blades, scrapers, drills and awls, as well as sturdy antler digging tools known as mattocks that resemble crude pick-axes, he said. Mattocks have been found at other Old World sites and the arctic and were used to dig large pits for the storage of foods and fuel, although traces of such pits have yet to turn up at the lowest levels of Kostenki, he said.


Large animal remains at Kostenki include mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, bison, horses, moose and reindeer. A bone chemistry analysis from 30,000-year-old human remains indicates a high consumption of freshwater aquatic foods -- either water birds, fish, or both -- more evidence for efficient food gathering techniques, he said.


Except for some early sites in the Near East, the oldest evidence modern humans outside of Africa comes from the Australian continent roughly 50,000 years ago, said Hoffecker, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2006. Several modern human sites in south-central Europe may be almost as old as Kostenki, he said.


Contact: John Hoffecker, (303) 220-7646


Jim Scott, (303) 492-3114

Jan. 11, 2007


Editors: Contents embargoed until Thursday, Jan. 11, at 2 p.m. EST.


The study also included researchers from the University of Arizona, the Kostenki Museum-Preserve in Kostenki, the University of Illinois-Chicago, Boston University, the University College London and the Institute of Environmental Geology, Climate and Geoengineering in Rome. Research at Kostenki has been funded by the Leakey Foundation and the National Science Foundation.



Ivory carving pushes back date of modern man's venture into Europe

The Times      January 12, 2007

Lewis Smith, Environment Reporter


An ivory carving appearing to show the head of a human being marks Modern Man’s first attempt at figurative art, archaeologists believe.


The carving was found with primitive tools and two human teeth at a site dating back further than any other settlement found in Europe.


It is forcing scientists to reassess the date at which Modern Man occupied Europe after leaving Africa, and the routes that were taken.


The settlement is thought to be about 45,000 years old. It is much farther north than any other similar site. Until the discovery, at Kostenki, close to the River Don in southern Russia, Modern Man, who evolved about 195,000 years ago, was thought to have moved to Europe between 40,000 and 42,000 years ago.


Artefacts found suggest that the inhabitants had learnt to make jewellery, were skilled at toolmaking and had begun to trade. The carving seems to have been discarded before the artwork had been completed.


Archaeologists are confident that it represents the earliest known carving of a human figurine but accept that there may be some dispute over whether it really shows a head.


The international team, including academics from University College London, involved in the dig was stunned at the dating results which show that the site at Kostenki to be the earliest evidence of occupation in Europe by Modern Man.


“The big surprise here is the very early presence of modern humans in one of the coldest, driest places in Europe,” said John Hoffecker, of the University of Colorado at Boulder in the United States.


“It is one of the last places we would have expected people from Africa to occupy first.”


Animal bones uncovered show that the inhabitants were expanding their diet to include small mammals, fish and other aquatic creatures.


This, the researchers said, suggests that the people were “remaking themselves technologically” and may have used snares to trap hares and Arctic foxes, and nets for fish.


The remains of other animals at the site, which were likely to have been hunted and eaten, include reindeer and horses.


Evidence of early trading networks was thrown up by the realisation that the shells the inhabitants used for jewellery had come from the Black Sea, more than 300 miles away.


Similarly, the stone they used for toolmaking had been transported as far as 100 miles. Among the tools found was a rotary drill which was used to make holes in stone ornaments. Antlers were used by the settlers to dig and other tools included blades, scappers and awls. Reporting their findings in the journal Science, the team of archeologists said that it was clear that there was a “fully developed Upper Paleolithic industry on the central East European Plain” and that the number of artifacts showed that it was a well-used site.


They said that the arrival of Modern Man in the region appeared to have taken place “several thousand years before their spread across Western and Eastern Europe”.


They added: “It has implications for both the timing and routes of modern human dispersal.”


The dig was led by archaeologists from the Russian Academy of Sciences and the University of Colorado.


Neanderthals occupied the region before Homo sapiens arrived but there is little evidence that they occupied the area simultaneously.


The absence of Neanderthal competitors may, researchers said, explain the attractions of the area for Modern Man but the researchers have yet to understand why people travelled that far north in the first place.



Jan 12, 2007 6:13 am US/Central

Tools Found In Walker, May Be 14,000 Years Old


(AP) Walker, Minn. Archaeologists have discovered stone tools atop a hill in this northern Minnesota town that may be 13,000 to 14,000 years old, according to a published report.


From the rough stone tools, archaeologists are speculating that "we're looking at certainly the relatively earliest occupants of the North American continent," biologist and archaeologist Matt Mattson said in a Star Tribune of Minneapolis report Thursday night. He worked on the project for the Leech Lake Heritage Sites Program, which is based near Cass Lake.


Britta Bloomberg, Minnesota's deputy historic preservation officer, said it may be among the oldest known archaeological sites in North and South America. A half-dozen archaeologists, soil scientists and others who have examined the site all said the artifacts are genuine, she said.


The stone tools were found while archaeologists were investigating the path of a road where the city is planning to expand for a community center, housing and businesses.


Archaeologists found 50 or more objects while digging through an area of about 50 square yards. The artifacts ranged from large hammer stones to small hand-held scrapers.


Mattson said the objects were found underneath a band of rock and gravel that appeared to have been deposited by melting glaciers and then covered by windblown sediment, Mather said.


David Mather, state archaeologist for the National Register of Historic Places, said the find "is something off our radar. We didn't think it was even possible in Minnesota."


"(This) could be a real watershed for understanding Minnesota's history," he said.


Mather said the site appears to be "much older" than the Clovis era of finely made spear points that defines the paleo-Indian period.


The find is "startling enough that appropriate response from every archaeologist and glacial geologist is skepticism." But, he added, a half-dozen archaeologists, soil scientists and others who have examined the site all say the artifacts are genuine.


Human remains, wood or textiles, if there were any, would have dissolved long ago in the acidic soil. The oldest human remains found in Minnesota belonged to the Browns Valley Man, who lived about 9,000 years ago. His remains were discovered in 1933 in a gravel pit near the town of Browns Valley in western Minnesota.


Walker is about 190 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.



Jiroft is lost link of chain of civilization: Majidzadeh


TEHRAN, Jan. 12 (MNA) -- Iranian archaeologist Yusef Majidzadeh believes that Jiroft is the lost link of the chain of civilization and says it has such a significant civilization that he would be proud to be named an honorary citizen of the ancient site.


In a seminar entitled “Jiroft, the Cradle of Oriental Civilization” held in Kerman on Thursday, he said, “The history of civilization in Jiroft dates back to 2700 BC and the third millennium civilization is the lost link of the chain of civilization which archaeologists have long sought.


“We do not deny the Mesopotamian civilization, but we believe that the Jiroft civilization is of equal importance to the Mesopotamian. The only difference is that the Mesopotamian civilization had cultural continuity while the Jiroft civilization suffered from ups and downs for natural reasons. Thus it emerged in a certain period and was buried at a later time.”


Located next to the Halil-Rud River in the southern province of Kerman, Jiroft came into the spotlight nearly five years ago when reports of extensive illegal excavations and plundering of the priceless historical items of the area by local people surfaced.


Since 2002, five excavation seasons have been carried out at the Jiroft site under the supervision of Professor Majidzadeh, leading to the discovery of a ziggurat made of more than four million mud bricks dating back to about 2200 BC.


Many ancient ruins and interesting artifacts have been excavated by archaeologists at the Jiroft ancient site, which is known as the “archeologists’ lost heaven”.


After the numerous unique discoveries in the region, Majidzadeh declared Jiroft to be the cradle of art. Many scholars questioned the theory due to the fact that no writings had yet been discovered at the site, but shortly afterwards his team discovered inscriptions at Konar-Sandal Ziggurat, which caused experts to reconsider their views on Jiroft.


During the seminar, Majidzadeh elaborated on the latest theories about ancient Jiroft while showing slides of a number of artifacts discovered in the region.


“The artifacts show that the region had advanced industries and art. The bas-reliefs and engravings on the artifacts show that the region had at least a 500-year history of art before the objects were created,” Majidzadeh said.


He has held regular programs to educate the local people on the importance of ancient Jiroft in order to discourage illegal excavations and smuggling of artifacts from the region.


“Almost all of the people who once were the smugglers of these artifacts are now helping teams of archaeologists working in the region,” Majidzadeh explained.


Last December, he suggested that archaeologists use the term Proto-Iranian instead of Proto-Elamite for the pre-cuneiform script in use at several sites.


He argued that the inscriptions recently discovered at Konar-Sandal and at some other ancient sites in Iran are older than the oldest inscriptions, like Inshushinak, found at Elamite sites.



Dynasty revealed


For more than three centuries, since historians and Egyptologists began to write the first history in modern times of the 20th dynasty of Ancient Egypt, compiled from hieroglyphic texts drawn on papyri or engraved on tombs and temple walls, the history of the dynasty has remained virtually unchanged. However, this is archaeology, and in archaeology nothing can be said to be fixed. A newly-unearthed stela in the avenue lined with ram-headed sphinxes that once connected the temples of Luxor and Karnak, along which official and religious processions passed for centuries, has thrown further light on this ancient era.


The new information not only illustrates the growing power of the priesthood during the New Kingdom, but also changes some concepts of the 20th dynasty, especially the facts and figures relating to its founder, the Pharaoh Setnakhte.


The stela is a quartzite religious relief engraved in two parts; the upper one featuring Setnakhte wearing the blue crown and kneeling before the god Amun- Re, who holds the key of life in his right hand and the waset symbol in his left hand. The pharaoh is offering the god the feather of justice, while the goddess Mut, standing in the background, raises her left hand as a symbol of protection and holds the key of life in her right. The lower part bears 17 lines of hieroglyphic text followed by a scene showing Bakenkhunsu, the High Priest of Amun-Re, wearing his religious robes and praying.


Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), described the discovery as one of the most important finds of 2006. "It adjusts the history of the 20th dynasty and reveals more about the life of Bakenkhunsu," Hawass says.


Ever since the discovery several years ago of his four limestone statues, now exhibited at the Egyptian Museum, nothing was known about Bakenkhunsu except for his title as the High Priest of Amun-Re. Now, Hawass says, after deciphering the hieroglyphic text, the priest's family members and relatives have been identified. The priest's construction achievements at Karnak Temple's Great Hall can also be recognised. The text mentions that Bakenkhunsu carried out and oversaw several construction projects at the Great Hall.


Luxor monuments director Mansour Borayek told Al-Ahram Weekly that early studies on the stela revealed that it was a very well-preserved Ancient Egyptian object carved for Bakenkhunsu during the fourth year of Setnakhte's reign. It was made to be installed in the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak. This date contradicts with the accepted record, which says Setnakhte ruled Egypt for only three years. According to the new information provided by the stela, Setnakhte's reign certainly lasted for four years, and may have continued for longer. Hence, early constructions at the Temple of Amun-Re in Karnak could be attributed to Setnakhte and completed by his son and successor Ramesses III, who also built a mortuary temple at Medinet Habu on Luxor's west bank.


Ramesses III was arguably the last of the great pharaohs to sit on the throne of Egypt. His reign was a time of considerable turmoil throughout the Mediterranean that also saw the Trojan wars, the fall of Mycenae and a great movement of displaced people from all over the region that was to wreak havoc; even toppling empires.


The stela is now being subjected to comprehensive studies in an attempt to reveal more of the 20th dynasty's secrets and, according to what may be discovered, to rewrite its history.


The stela was found accidentally by an Egyptian excavation team working on a project to reconstruct the ram-headed sphinx avenue in Luxor.


Although the 20th dynasty was founded by Setnakhte, its most important member was Ramesses III, who modelled his career after the great pharaoh of the previous dynasty, Ramesses II. The 20th is considered to be the last dynasty of the New Kingdom of Egypt, and was followed by the Third Intermediate Period.


The era of these rulers is notable for the beginning of the systematic robbing of royal tombs. Many surviving administrative documents from this period are records of investigations and punishment for these crimes, especially in the reigns of Ramesses IX and Ramesses XI.


Unfortunately the bickering between the royal heirs that had been a feature the 19th dynasty continued in the 20th, with the winner being the strongest. This group of heirs was described by Diodorus Siculus as "confirmed sluggards devoted only to indulgence and luxury," without "any deed worthy of historical note". However, at this time Egypt was increasingly beset by a series of droughts, below- normal flood levels of the Nile, famine, civil unrest and official corruption -- all of which would limit the managerial abilities of any king. The power of the last pharaoh, Ramesses XI, grew so weak that in the south the High Priests of Amun at Thebes became the de facto rulers of Upper Egypt, while Smendes controlled Lower Egypt even before Ramesses XI's death. Smendes went on to found the 21st dynasty at Tanis.



Ancient 'warrior' found in permafrost

From correspondents in Moscow

January 10, 2007 11:48pm

Article from: Agence France-Presse


RUSSIAN archaeologists have uncovered the 2000-year-old remains of a warrior preserved intact in permafrost in the Altai mountains region, the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily says.


The warrior was blond had tattoos on his body. He was wearing a felt coat with sable fur trimmings and was buried in a wooden frame containing drawings of mythological creatures with an icepick beside him, the paper said.


Local archaeologists believe the man was part of the ruling elite of a local nomadic tribe known as the Pazyryk. Numerous other Pazyryk tombs have been found in the area.


“This is definitely a very serious discovery. It's incredibly lucky that the burial was in permafrost so it was very well preserved,” Alexei Tishkin, an Altai archaeologist, was quoted as saying.

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Stonehenge Didn't Stand Alone, Excavations Show

James Owen for National Geographic News January 12, 2007


Recent excavations of Salisbury Plain in southern England have revealed at least two other large stone formations close by the world-famous prehistoric monument.


One of the megalithic finds is a sandstone formation that marked a ritual burial mound; the other, a group of stones at the site of an ancient timber circle.


The new discoveries suggest that many similar monuments may have been erected in the shadow of Stonehenge, possibly forming part of a much larger complex, experts say.


The findings were part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, a joint initiative to explore the land around the iconic monument. Led by Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University, the project involves six English universities.


The first monument—a 9.2-foot-long (2.8-meter-long) sarsen stone—was found lying in a field next to the River Avon, 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) east of Stonehenge, which is located near the modern-day city of Salisbury (United Kingdom map).


The riverside sarsen—large sandstone blocks that occur naturally in southern England—had been stood upright, archaeologists say, like the blocks that form the main structure of Stonehenge.


A team lead by Colin Richards of Manchester University and Joshua Pollard of Bristol University found the hole that originally held the stone, dug between 2500 and 2000 B.C., as well as human remains and artifacts that date to the same period.


The partially cremated remains of two people were buried next to the stone, Pollard said. One was a large male whose unburned vertebrae suggest he was at least 6 feet (182 centimeters) tall.


"Seemingly he was so big they weren't able to cremate him properly," the archaeologist noted. "The unburnt bone is the product of that poor process of cremation."


Stone knives and arrowheads, a piece of limestone carved into the shape of a megalith, two pottery bowls, and a rare rock crystal were also unearthed near the burial site.


The rock crystal find is the earliest known example from Britain and possibly came from as far away as the Alps, Pollard said.


Archaeologists have suggested that other prehistoric burials in the area were connected to mainland Europe, Pollard added.


Such a connection ties in with theories that Stonehenge was an important pilgrimage destination or a place where people traveled in the hope of miracle cures. (Related: "Pagans Get Support in Battle Over Stonehenge" [October 31, 2002].)


Pollard's team also found new evidence for stone settings at Woodhenge, a site 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) northeast of Stonehenge where a timber circle was constructed in about 2200 B.C.


Pollard said excavations in the 1920s hinted a stone monument may once have been present at the site.


"We were able to confirm last summer that there had been standing stones—some very considerable stones—at Woodhenge," he said.


While only fragments of the formation were found, the holes the stones were set in suggest the blocks stood up to 3 meters (9.8 feet) tall, Pollard said.


The team also found evidence for two phases of stone settings that probably came after the timber circle had rotted, he added.


"Four smaller stones were replaced by two much bigger sarsen settings," he said. "So it goes from a timber monument to being a megalithic monument, albeit not on the same scale as Stonehenge."


What happened to the stones at Woodhenge remains a mystery, Pollard added, though one possibility is that they were added to Stonehenge.


The research team says there is evidence from old maps and ancient sources for other similar monuments near Stonehenge.


"There may have been many smaller megalithic settings across this landscape," Pollard said.


"I think it's extremely likely there would have been other standing stones," particularly to the east, added Julian Thomas, professor of archaeology at Manchester University.


Such monuments would have had an important connection to Stonehenge, Thomas said. The stones and artifacts buried alongside the satellite monuments may have also played a symbolic role in spreading the authority of Stonehenge into the wider landscape.


"It was a way of referring to its powerfulness and to the importance and significance of the activities that are taking place at the henge and the people who are officiating," Thomas said.


He added that these latest finds show that Stonehenge shouldn't be seen in isolation.


"There's an overarching scheme of things which links Stonehenge to the broader landscape."



Macabre secret of ancient cave revealed in TV series


A MORAYSHIRE cave was a place where, in order to show their grief, parents built the most macabre of memorials.


The heads of their offspring, perished before their time, were severed and placed on poles at the entrance to the cave, which was a temple to the dead children.


The secrets of the ancient cave will be revealed next week in a BBC Scotland television series. It suggests that around 3000 years ago, people from across the north of Scotland, the islands, and possibly even Ireland, brought their dead children to Sculptor's Cave, near Lossiemouth.



Ian Shepherd, an archaeologist, has carried out numerous excavations in the remote cave. Uncovering skeletal parts from six children, his work brought to light skull parts in the cave's entrance, which from the way they lay, indicated there had at one time been fleshy heads on poles.


"From what we can tell, these were simply people mourning their dead children," Mr Shepherd said. Prior to his discovery of the skull parts in 1979, a previous excavation 50 years before by classical archaeologist Sylvia Benton found thousands of bone parts - largely from juveniles.


Called the Sculptor's Cave because of ancient inscriptions at the entrance, the location of the cave has been known since Victorian times, but it is very remote.


It can only be accessed from the land at low tide along a mile of shingle beach or by scaling the cliff face. The BBC Scotland production team accessed it from the water by boat. Three thousand years ago, it might even have been an island, which would have reinforced its spiritual status.


Using computer graphics, the series, Art & Soul, will bring the cave back to life, showing the indicators of its religious significance and delving into its dark interior, a sacred pool strewn with Bronze Age treasures.


Richard Holloway, presenter of the programme, said: "Our earliest religions, our earliest rituals, are dark in every sense. This cave on the Moray coast hides a ghoulish, 3000-year-old secret.


"Getting into the cave from the sea was exhilarating if a little scary, but it underpinned the amazing sense of this place. It's a story that both thrills and appals. Yet it seems to demonstrate an early fascination with what came after death. Three thousand years ago, our ancestors came to this dark, foreboding cave to consecrate their child-dead."


He added: "In the depths of the cave, there's the first glimpse of the trapped pool of water - this was the bridge to another world, the high altar of a Bronze Age basilica.


"The standing stones at Callanish are older but they suggest a multitude of interpretations, and for me the picture about spirituality and ancient Scottish religious art becomes clearer in this cave.


"We know this place had spiritual meaning and we know it was decorated by human hand."


Art & Soul begins on BBC 2 Scotland on Monday at 9pm.



Friday, 12th January 2007

'Priceless' Roman find in farmer's field

Gary Skentelbery


A RARE solid silver Roman bracelet unearthed in a farmer's field has been declared treasure trove.


The snake-shaped ornament could be the only one of its kind in the world, making it priceless, it was revealed at a Stockport coroner's hearing.


Archaeologist James Balme didn't even need his metal detector to make the discovery, gleaming in the soil in the field at Lymm near Warrington.


The ancient jewellery will now be valued by a panel of experts at the British Museum in London.


Warrington Museum has already expressed an interest in displaying the item and James will consider selling it - if the price is right.


He will share the proceeds with farmer Tony Cookson, who owns the land on which James made his important find. James, who says it is impossible to put a value on the find, has previously discovered an unknown Roman fort and numerous prehistoric sites in the area, where he has recovered large quantities of prehistoric flint tools and weapons.


All his finds have been recorded by the portable antiquities scheme, the official body working in conjunction with the British Museum.


His discovery has provided new, exciting information about the wealth and social standing of the Roman citizens who lived and farmed in the area almost 2,000 years ago.


James said: "This is a very rare Roman solid silver snake bracelet, known as a zoomorphic bracelet, dating from the first to the second centuries. But what is really amazing is that it has been reworked in ancient times, possibly by the Saxons, who straightened the bracelet and pierced holes in it to use as a form of decoration or ornamentation.


"The actual bracelet is unique in its design and the attention to detail, especially the creature's head, is stunning.


"The head represents either a snake or possibly a sea serpent. There is little doubt that the bracelet would have been worn by a wealthy Roman citizen who lived in the area and could possibly be someone who was regarded as being of importance in the region."


Stockport coroner John Pollard recommended that the British Museum, where the find is in safekeeping, should now contact Warrington Museum after it has been valued with a view to acquisition.


Coroner's hearings are carried out on rare finds to determine if they are genuine treasure trove.


James said: "This could indicate that I am very close to what was once the site of an opulent Roman villa."


His discoveries are set to be featured on Channel 4's Time Team in March.




By Graham Spicer    09/01/2007


Excavations over the last three years have revealed some surprising finds at the amphitheatre. Photo Chester Archaeology


Groundbreaking research has revealed that Chester’s Roman amphitheatre was in fact a grand two-storey structure, similar to those found in parts of the Mediterranean, and was built on the foundations of a second, earlier theatre.


The new theories are to be fully revealed at the first international conference on amphitheatres, also to be held in Chester over the weekend of February 17 and 18 2007.


Speaking to the 24 Hour Museum, Dan Garner, Co-Director of the excavations at Chester, spoke about the fascinating new research:


“The original interpretation of the amphitheatre has been largely rewritten with the research we have done over the last three years,” he explained.


The findings will be examined at a major international conference in Chester.


The excavations found eight ‘vomitoria’, or entrance points, spaced evenly around the amphitheatre with two in each of its quadrants. They would have been housed in internal staircases running outside the structure’s walls, indicating that it had two storeys.


“This is the only amphitheatre in Britain which has this feature,” said Dan. “It demonstrates the height of the seating and therefore gives us the height of this structure.”


The findings could change the way historians think about Roman Chester.


“There were clearly wealthy people living there,” said Dan. “The thing we can’t be sure about is if it was a purely military settlement or if it was a civilian town.”

photo of the excavations of a roman amphitheatre next to a british town          


The amphitheatre would have seated 8-10,000 people. Photo Chester Archaeology


Estimates put the seating capacity of the two-floor amphitheatre at between 8-10,000 spectators, suggesting the town could have had a substantial civilian population.


“Chester was maybe being groomed as a possible provincial capital for the conquest of Ireland,” suggested Dan.


The amphitheatre was built in the second century AD, most probably in the time of the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus, who reigned from 193 until his death while campaigning in York in 211AD.


It was discovered in 1929 and is the largest uncovered amphitheatre found in the UK. Finds like bowls with pictures of gladiators on them indicate the gory activities that took place at the amphitheatre. Although of impressive size it was not as grand as the Imperial arenas modelled on Rome’s Colosseum that have been found elsewhere in mainland Europe.


The link with Septimus Severus provides a clue to its design – the Emperor was born in Leptis Magna in modern day Libya and many Roman amphitheatres in the region, at sites like El Djem in Tunisia, would have been very similar to Chester’s arena.


The excavations have also revealed a second amphitheatre built around 80-100AD upon which the later structure was built.


“The first one is a far more humble structure – similar to ones you got anywhere else in Britain," added Dan. "What we did find, though, was that it was furnished with an external staircase so although it was a far more simple design, it catered for spectators entering from the rear wall.”

photo of someone holding a replica roman sword with an ancient sword handle shown next to it     

The conference, Roman Amphitheatres And Spectacula: A 21st Century Perspective is organised by English Heritage and Chester City Council and will be held at Chester’s Grosvenor Museum on February 17-18 2007.


Speakers from around the world have been lined up to showcase new research and stimulate debate about amphitheatre studies. Details of new amphitheatre sites found across the Roman world will be revealed and the organisation of the spectacles, like gladiatorial combat, will also be examined.


For more details on the conference see their website and visit the Chester Amphitheatre project site for more details of the excavations or call Jane Hebblewhite on 01244 402009.