Pharaoh's pots give up their secrets

16 March 2007

Debora Mackenzie


FOR a century, they have been on display in the Louvre museum in Paris, labelled as Canopic jars holding the embalmed innards of the great Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II. But the four pots, covered in hieroglyphs, are not what they seem.


An analysis by French chemists has revealed that the jars in fact contain ordinary cosmetics, produced at a much later date.


The blue jars arrived in the Louvre in 1905. They carry the name of Rameses II, and seemed to contain embalmed organs, including a trace of what appeared to be heart tissue. Yet Rameses's actual mummy still has its heart - the one organ ancient Egyptians left inside mummies so it could be weighed in the afterlife by the god Thoth. "The jars look like the pots of unguents found in King Tut's tomb, among others, not like other Canopic jars," says Jacques Connan of the University of Strasbourg, France.


With the Louvre's permission, Connan's team sampled traces of material in the pots, and analysed them using mass spectrometry and chromatography techniques used in the petroleum industry to identify complex organic mixes.They found no evidence of beeswax, bitumen or other materials Connan says were common in Egyptian embalming. Instead, the ratio of non-radioactive isotopes of carbon was typical of animal fats, while the fatty acids matched pig fat. There were also unusual molecules formed from fatty acids joined with aromatic alcohols found in pine or cedar, woods ancient Egypt imported from the Levant.


Connan concludes that the jar probably held scented ointment made by heating aromatic wood in fat, of the type Egyptians used to anoint their heads, and sacred images (Journal of Archaeological Science, vol 34, p 597).


The ratio of radioactive carbon-14 dated the material at 1035 BC, give or take 50 years. Rameses II died in 1213 BC. A yellowish powder, a remnant of the embalmed packages the jars contained in 1905, turned out to be pure mastic tree resin - which is still used in foods and embalming - from 275 BC.


The Louvre now believes the pots were made for a temple to the sun god Amun-Ra. Because Rameses II built the temple, his name is on the jars, but they were probably used to hold ritual ointments, then later recycled as containers for resin-embalmed remains. "There are thousands of objects like this in museums that have been attributed, but never verified," says Connan.

From issue 2595 of New Scientist magazine, 16 March 2007, page 12



Mummies' parasites


Ana Vicente and her team at the Oswaldo Cruz Institute in Rio de Janeiro began their quest for ancient pinworm RNA at San Pedro de Atacama, a pre-Incan village that was once part of an important trade route to the Pacific coast. Considered the driest place on earth, the region boasts 35 mm of rainfall in its wettest years and is considered a veritable time capsule for archaeologists, says paleoparasitologist Adauto Araujo, "There are so many bodies there, that archaeologists no longer excavate them."


In 1994, Araujo stopped in at San Pedro's Gustavo Paige Archaeological Museum to give long-dead mummies their first colonoscopies. Carefully, he inserted a slender pair of forceps through the anus and plucked dried bits of feces from the colon. In a few cases, Araujo entered the intestine from openings in the mummies' abdomens. A handful of specimens were collected the easy way - from ancient toilets.


Enterobius vermicularis, or pinworm, is an itchy but harmless intestinal parasite that has been with humans since before they were human. Pinworm eggs have been recovered from a communal latrine near the ancient Dead Sea settlement of Qumran, from fossilized feces in Dust Devil Cave in southern Utah, and from the intestinal contents of an Argentinean mummy. Since pinworms require a human host for their entire life cycle, their genes could be used to answer the controversial question of how humans arrived in South America in the first place.


"During the movement from North to South America, this parasite had to have been with humans in order to get here," says Vicente. "Did the pinworms that are here now, come with these ancient human migrations across the Bering land bridge?" The alternative theory - transpacific migration - posits that a second influx of humans took place by sea on South America's west coast. If that's the case, then human pinworms from North and South America will have different evolutionary histories.


Of course, a couple thousand years of heat, humidity, and bacterial activity wreaks havoc on long chains of nucleic acids. Add to that the fact that most coprolites - fossilized feces - were collected by archaeologists who hadn't guarded them from genetic contamination, leaving them languishing on museum shelves for 10 years or more. PCR becomes a nightmare.


Geneticist Alena Iñiguez from Vicente's group was able to piece together an SL1 RNA gene using a molecular magic trick developed in the 1990s and known as reconstructive polymerization. Essentially, the team let these small fragments polymerize on their own before they ran their PCR. Overlapping fragments tend to anneal themselves to each other and are then extended by the action of DNA polymerase. What goes in is jumble and what comes out is sequence.


Dispelling any misconceptions about the work, Araujo says that working with ancient feces isn't much different from handling its modern day counterpart. "Coprolites look like dried feces," he says. Back in Brazil, when he rehydrates samples in a bath of trisodium phosphate, the stench sticks with the lab for three days, after which time he scans the samples for evidence of parasite eggs.


Their work paid off recently, a paper in the International Journal of Parasitology (36:1419-25, 2006), confirms the presence of a pinworm infection in 27 pre-Columbian coprolite samples from the San Pedro site along with two others from Chile and one in Arizona. They were even able to find the SL1 signature in coprolites that had no microscopic evidence of eggs. Although they report a few peculiarities about the gene at the San Pedro site, they don't have enough data to issue a verdict on human migrations.


Iñiguez says the search has only just begun, and they're widening their scope to look at other sites in South America and other parasites. Their work on Trypanasoma cruzi, the protozoan behind Chagas' disease has implications for present day strategies to control the disease.


Though the group spends a good deal of time down in the dumps, the results lift their spirits. When Iñiguez first sequenced pinworm RNA from a reconstituted coprolite in 2003, "It was a big party," says Vicente. In short order the scientists gathered ice, limes, sugar, and Cachaça to mix Brazil's national beverage: the caiphirinia. They washed their hands first.



Ancient Mashed Grapes Found in Greece

Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News


March 16, 2007 — Either the ancient Greeks loved grape juice, or they were making wine nearly 6,500 years ago, according to a new study that describes what could be the world’s earliest evidence of crushed grapes.


If the charred 2,460 grape seeds and 300 empty grape skins were used to make wine, as the researchers suspect, the remains might have belonged to the second oldest known grape wine in the world, edged out only by a residue-covered Iranian wine jug dating to the sixth millennium B.C.


Since the Greeks influenced the Romans, who in turn influenced virtually all of Europe, it is possible that a drink made in a humble, post-framed house in eastern Macedonia influenced much of the world’s wine.


"For the Neolithic or the Bronze Age, we have no evidence for markets and a market economy," lead author Tania Valamoti told Discovery News.


"Production was on a household or communal basis," added Valamoti, who is a lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at Greece’s Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.


Valamoti and her team excavated four homes at a Neolithic site called Dikili Tash. After discovering the grape remains in one residence, they conducted charring experiments on fresh grapes, raisins and wine pressings to see what would best match the ancient seeds and skins. They determined the archaeological remains "morphologically resemble wine pressings and could not have originated from charred grapes or raisins."


Analysis of the grape remains determined they either were harvested from wild plants or originated from a very early cultivar.


Findings are published in the current journal Antiquities.


The scientists also found two-handled clay cups and jars, which they say suggest a use for decanting and consuming liquids. Charred figs were also found near the grape remnants. The presence of figs likely was not a coincidence, according to the researchers, who mentioned that juice from wild grapes often has a bitter taste.


"Figs could have been added to the grape juice prior to fermentation and the sugars contained in them would have entered the juice," explained Valamoti. "Or, they could have been added to the fermented product after completion of the fermentation process. Honey could be dealt with in the same way."


The world’s oldest wine, a 9,000-year old rice wine from China, also contained honey and fruits.


The ancient Greek grapes might change wine history, as experts previously theorized grape wine-making could have first spread throughout the Middle East.


Patrick McGovern, a senior research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, and one of the world’s leading ancient wine experts, has pointed out that "the wild grape never grew in ancient Egypt," yet evidence for wine there dates back to at least 2,700 B.C. Red wine residue was even found in King Tut’s tomb.


He and his colleagues believe wine-making became established in Egypt due to "early Bronze Age trade between Egypt and Palestine, encompassing modern Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and Jordan."


But since the Phoenicians and the Greeks largely controlled Egyptian trade during much of the Pharaonic period, because many such individuals had settled into the Delta, it is now possible that Greeks brought wine into Egypt and into numerous other places, through Greece’s extensive trade routes.


Valamoti and her colleagues hope further studies can be conducted on the Dikili Tash pottery, to determine whether tartaric acid, a component of grapes and wine, was present in the cups.



An Athenian Head of Aristotle from the Acropolis


The Greek Archaeological Service recently revealed a newly discovered head of Aristotle (384-322 BC) from the Athenian Acropolis, complete with a hooked nose. Previously known heads of Aristotle had broken or straight noses and Alkestis Horemi, the excavator, has described the portrait as ‘the best-preserved likeness ever found’, adding that ‘This is the only bust portraying the philosopher with a hooked nose in line with ancient descriptions’.


The excavators date the head to the 1st century AD because of its parallels to portraits of Augustus (27 BC - AD 14) and other early Julio-Claudians, although some features such as the long locks over the forehead actually bear a striking resemblance to portraits of Septimius Severus (AD 193 - 211). Greek portraits tended to be idealised, Republican Roman ones hyper-realised; the best example of this is Cleopatra, who had a small nose in Hellenistic Greek busts but a large one on coins associated with the Romans. The differing depictions of Aristotle are thus the result of design for different audiences at different periods.


The marble head (H. 46cm) was found in Makriyianni on the southern foot of the Acropolis in the area excavated for the New Acropolis Museum. Two other heads were revealed at the same time, although whether they were found with or near the Aristotle remains unclear. Their location ties in with the importance of Roman Athens and the Philosophical Schools - the probable identification of their location. One is a head of Hadrian (AD 117-138; H. 31cm) and the other the head of a priest, probably Dionysos (H. 34cm). The Theatre of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis was important in antiquity. To its south was a major sanctuary of Dionysos described by Pausanias as in the area of the Philosophical Schools. Leading Greek archaeologists have expressed concern that the government allowed these to be destroyed in their efforts to build the New Acropolis Museum rapidly on an unsuitable site.


Hadrian was well known as a Philhellene emperor who supported the Philosophical Schools. A bust of him found in conjunction with the two others would seem to confirm the interpretation of the site archaeologists have long been suggesting - home to the Philosophical Schools and an important sanctuary of Dionysos. The previous Greek government claimed that the site of the New Acropolis Museum only held bedrock. Subsequently, it has been denied that any important ancient institutions ever existed on the site or that they were being destroyed.


The official line from Alkestis Horemi is that ‘the bust [of Aristotle] had probably adorned a Roman villa’. But this is disingenuous since Philosophical Schools were generally set in houses, identical architecturally to private houses. The bust also appears to be a herm and these tend to be erected outdoors.


Dr Dorothy King



New find in Roman Circus excavation

15 March 2007 | 08:19



THE final piece in the archaeological jigsaw that is Colchester's Roman Circus has been found by excavators, the EADT can reveal.


The location of the 12 gates that released the competitors into frenetic and often violent chariot races was discovered near the sergeants' mess building in the former Colchester Garrison at Abbey Field.


These would have operated in the same way as greyhound traps, unleashing the charioteers on to the quarter-mile long opening stretch of the track.


With four horses at the head of each chariot, on full races there would have been 48 steeds pounding around the circuit, which is the only one ever to be found in the UK.


Foundations of the circus were first located in late 2004 when archaeologists were conducting digs at Abbey Field, prior to the construction of new housing.


News of the discovery was reported by media organisations around the world and thousands of visitors flocked to see the remains.


Since then, archaeologists have painstakingly discovered the stands, the central barrier and even one of the two turning posts round which the charioteers would career at the far end of the circus.


Now, with the discovery of the gates, a small piece of every constituent part of the circus has been located.


Developer Taylor Woodrow has supported the work of volunteers from Colchester Archaeological Trust (CAT), while their recent dig to find the gates was funded partly by the Essex Heritage Trust and also the Corporate Friends of the Friends of CAT.


Yesterday Philip Crummy, director of the trust, said that debris had even been found of the box which would have been above the gates, from where a magistrate would have dropped a handkerchief to herald the beginning of the seven-lap race.


A second magistrate would then have opened the traps with a lever and the chariots would thunder out to begin the spectacular competition.


“We know the box had a nice roof and painted walls, because when the circus was demolished - probably in the late Roman period - they left bits of them on the ground,” Mr Crummy said.


“This find is an important step forward for us. We are highly delighted. Although we have only excavated small parts of the site, we have now got all the elements of the circus.”






1,900-year-old skeleton found near Mildenhall


By Ben Murray, Stars and Stripes

European edition, Friday, March 16, 2007


BECK ROW, England — Archaeologists at a construction site for houses near RAF Mildenhall have uncovered a complete human skeleton estimated to be about 1,900 years old.


The preserved bones, believed to have been buried in the first or second century during the late Iron Age, were found Monday by Suffolk County Council archaeology service worker John Sims as he excavated a Roman-era trench at the site.


“This person appears to have been placed in what was an open ditch,” archaeology service project officer John Carver said Wednesday.


Carver said human remains are regularly found at construction sites in the area, but a specimen as complete as the Beck Row skeleton was less common.


Archaeologists were digging out cross sections of ditches believed to have been used for agricultural purposes, possibly drainage or irrigation, when the bones were found, Carver said.


The archaeological service regularly gains permission to investigate construction sites before foundations are poured, Carver said.


The position of the body – on its side with one arm stretched out – and lack of any monument led Carver to believe the person had not been formally buried there, he said.


Clues about the age of the skeleton were found at the construction site in previous weeks, including three first-century broaches, part of another human skull and a complete pig skeleton. In January, archaeologists also found ancient pottery, building materials, a Roman coin and a medieval belt buckle at the site.


The construction is part of an effort by a local developer to build scores of new homes for U.S. airmen and their families just yards from the Mildenhall fence line, though the Air Force has not contracted for the houses.


Sims, who dubbed the skeleton “Yorrick” after the skull in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” uncovered and sketched the position of the remains before Carver removed them Wednesday afternoon.


The bones will be added to the service’s collection for further study, Carver said.


The discovery of human remains at Air Force building sites has occurred a number of times in the past, most recently at RAF Lakenheath, when archaeologists dug up the remains of a 4,000-year-old female skeleton and several other sets of remains in the fall of 2005.


In 1998, one of the most famous finds from the region, an Anglo-Saxon warrior buried with his sword, shield, spear and horse, was found at RAF Lakenheath.



Centuries-old watchtower found in Trondheim


Archaeologists in Trondheim have found the remains of what they believe was a watchtower made of stone, probably dating from the time of King Sverre in the 1100s.


The tower, which may have been more than 20 meters high, is being called an "incredibly rare discovery" that can shed new light on Trondheim's history.


Preservation experts believe the tower ruins will be a new attraction in the city that's famed for its landmark Nidaros Cathedral. It's only the second non-church-related stone structure found from the early Middle Ages in Trondheim.


The tower is mentioned in a saga written in connection with a massacre in the city in 1206. It was discovered under two buildings that were about to be torn down to make way for a new hotel.


The portion that probably was the tower's first floor was being used as a vaulted cellar under the buildings. Sissel Skoglund of the state Office of Historic Monuments' Trondheim chapter (Riksantikvaren) said it's subject to automatic preservation but may be incorporated into the hotel. Discussions were set to begin with the hotel's developer, Entra Eiendom.


Archaeologist Ian Reed said the tower was located close to the mouth of the river Nidelven, with a view over the fjord. Its floor is in excellent condition and he and his colleagues have also found the sides of the tower's lower walls, which are about a meter-and-a-half thick.


Reed believes the tower was torn down in the late 1600s because residents needed its stone blocks for foundations for new homes built after a major fire, or for repairs to Nidaros Cathedral.



Digging up the past in Belgium

By Phil Mackie

BBC News, Belgium


Today, with the spring sun trying to burn through an early morning Belgian mist, it is hard to imagine that this innocuous looking potato field was once the hellish moonscape of the front line.


By the end of World War I life on the surface had become untenable. Tons of steel fell from the sky in a near continuous bombardment.


The Germans retreated into thick concrete pillboxes. The British dug further and further underground.


Today we often picture the British Tommy taking a drag from a cigarette leaning against the wall of his trench. In reality, especially around the Belgian town of Ypres, tens of thousands were living up to 40ft beneath the ground.


That is how far they had to dig to be safe from the German shelling.


After the battle of Passchendaele in 1917, when a quarter of a million British and Commonwealth soldiers died as troops advanced the few miles to Passchendaele Ridge, a brigade headquarters was built here.


Within a week of its completion in 1918, the Germans swept through during their spring offensive and recaptured all the territory gained at such a cost a few months earlier.


They moved into the tunnels and extended them. As the war drew to a close they were finally abandoned as British troops advanced again in the autumn of 1918.


They were sealed and flooded and have remained buried and half forgotten ever since.


Peter Barton, historian, author and expert in underground warfare, is hoping to be able to get back into the tunnels.


He said: "Those dugouts which we've explored before, everything was preserved, from the actual structure of the thing itself to blankets, to the wire on the bunks, to newspapers!"


But it is a race against time. Excavations in a nearby clay-pit mean the water that is preserving everything inside the tunnel system might be drained and the process of decay will begin.


Worse still, the tunnels might collapse.


So for two weeks he and a handful of others have been taking painstaking readings at the surface to try to map out the tunnels, using pegs and tape.


"It's a mixture of ancient and modern. We've used ground penetrating radar, which gave us a certain trace. And then we've used the ancient method of dowsing, and that matched exactly," said Peter Barton .


Helping him is Johann Van de Wall, a Belgian enthusiast who has successfully excavated smaller tunnels elsewhere.


"You can't believe that people were living there, they must have become mad living underground. They were like moles! It's unbelievable what they have built," he said.


A few feet beneath the surface the diggers reveal a layer of clay that is redder then the rest.


It is caused by the rust from the artillery and mortar shells, ammunition, helmets, rifles and bayonets that lie as a reminder of the horrors of the numerous battles fought here.


Within a few hours several shells were unearthed. In Britain this might have meant a call to the Bomb Squad and the evacuation of the local area.


But not here. It is impractical.


They are simply piled up in a corner of the field and from time to time the Belgian authorities come to take them away to be destroyed.


Digging for the tunnels is a dangerous and expensive business. They need to find an entrance, but so far have been unable to.


The farmer wants his field back in a few weeks to plant his next crop, which may mean they have to stop digging until the autumn.


It has been deeply frustrating, as Peter Barton explained: "The depth is a problem, to the roof of one of the tunnels it's 37ft, but we also know there were entrances, and it's finding them that's difficult."


Unless they find a way in, the secrets contained in these tunnels for 90 years will remain there.


The fear is that they could be destroyed before they are ever properly explored.

Story from BBC NEWS:



Published: 2007/03/14 19:33:41 GMT





Archaeologists uncover WWI underground village


A HUGE complex of secret tunnels built by Scots soldiers during the First World War has been discovered under a field in Belgium.


Archaeologists searching for the underground headquarters of a British unit found a maze of flooded tunnels covering an area the size of three football pitches.


Using radar technology, the team discovered a once-famous complex of corridors, mess rooms and sleeping quarters known as Vampire Dugout, 40ft under a muddy field near Ypres in Flanders.


The dugout, named after the band of soldiers who came out at night to resupply the front lines, is believed to be the biggest discovery of its kind.


Historians expect to find a treasure trove of personal belongings, clothes, weapons, bedding and newspapers.


Archaeologists first estimated the bunker would measure 200 metres by 150 metres, but tunnels have been found over an area 800 metres by 600 metres, and its outer limits have not yet been located.


Originally believed to have housed 50 British troops, it is now estimated to have been home to at least 300 soldiers in an underground village.


Speaking from the site, near the village of Zonnebeke, the historian Peter Barton said:


"It's a fantastic archaeological resource, which will tell us more about life in these bunkers than ever before."