Archaeologists explore ocean floor for clues to early coastal settlement

by Cindy Weiss - April 23, 2007


Anthropologists in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences are identifying new sites to study archaeology that are fathoms, not feet, under the surface.


Anthropology professor Kevin McBride and doctoral candidate David Robinson are scoping out early coastal human settlement sites, now under water, that could reveal clues to how the Americas were settled.


McBride says early submerged sites may yield evidence of how the earliest coastal residents lived and how they got here.


McBride, who is also director of research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, was co-director and Robinson, a professional underwater archaeologist, one of the lead field archaeologists on a research expedition off Galveston, Texas, in March.


During the week-long expedition, teams of scientists from several federal agencies and research institutions explored the submerged landscape around the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, 115 miles off the Texas-Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico.


The area, one of 13 U.S. national marine sanctuaries, was chosen because of its interesting geology and biology and its potential to contain preserved landforms with signs of some of America’s earliest inhabitants.


The expedition used the U.S. Navy’s NR-1, the nation’s only nuclear-powered submarine dedicated to underwater research.


The tools of exploration also included a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), and state-of-the-art “telepresence” technology that enabled scientists and educators on shore to track from thousands of miles away what was going on in the Gulf.


McBride monitored the expedition from Mystic, along with co-director Robert Ballard, professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and president of the Institute for Exploration at Mystic Aquarium.


Looking for preserved elements of an old landscape, they surveyed 50-plus miles and found a six mile-long area about 300 feet under water that showed signs of what could be the intact remains of an old coastline and old river channels that would have led from shore to sea.


It’s an area that holds promise for more detailed analysis, he says.


At the height of the last glaciation, more than 20,000 years ago, the sea level was 350 to 400 feet lower than today, so what is now under water was then exposed land.


The NR-1 is able to sink down and roll along the ocean floor on truck tires, allowing scientists to look out through portholes and visually examine features from only a few feet away.


They could also map the sea floor with side-scan sonar while cruising 30-50 feet above the bottom.


“We were essentially going for a walk on the sea floor in an area where there had been an old coastline,” says Robinson.


The area was too deep for scuba diving, but the researchers were able to use the sub and the ROV’s high-definition video camera and sub-bottom profilers to see above and below the surface of the sea floor, learning more about its features than if they were diving.


McBride and Ballard monitored the work in real time, 24-hours a day, and produced 35 broadcasts for middle school students across the country.


Robinson will introduce students to underwater archaeology during this summer’s UConn Archaeology Field School, which is managed by McBride.


Robinson, who holds a master’s degree in shipwreck archaeology from Texas A & M University, is focusing his doctoral research at UConn on submerged settlements.


His interest stems from work he has done during the past decade in Maryland and currently with the Public Archaeology Laboratory in Rhode Island.


He has also traveled to Denmark several times during the past five years to work with some of the world’s experts in Stone Age underwater archaeology from the Danish National and Viking Ship museums.


While McBride and Robinson are developing research opportunities in underwater archaeology, Nicholas Bellantoni, associate professor of anthropology and state archaeologist, is interested in the management and preservation of sites.


Bellantoni hopes to explore the Long Island Sound for native sites in collaboration with UConn’s National Undersea Research Center (NURC) at Avery Point.


With a rich maritime history, Connecticut is a prime place to explore offshore, he says.


He expects there are probably hundreds, maybe thousands, of underwater archaeology sites, including shipwrecks, plane wrecks, and early Native American settlements in the Sound.


Bellantoni says the prospects for underwater archaeology in Connecticut include tourism as well as science.


He envisions creating “diver parks,” where recreational divers could visit and study historic shipwrecks.


He is working with NURC on topographical maps and locating archaeological sites in the Long Island Sound.


“We have not been able to pay enough attention to our submerged coastal resources,” he says.



Wollemi find an Aboriginal seat of the gods

James Woodford

April 21, 2007


A ROCK platform in the heart of the Wollemi wilderness may be the closest thing Australia has to Mount Olympus, the seat of the gods in Greek mythology.


Last spring archaeologists discovered an enormous slab of sandstone, 100 metres long and 50 metres wide, in the 500,000-hectare Wollemi National Park. It was covered in ancient art.


The gallery depicted an unprecedented collection of powerful ancestral beings from Aboriginal mythology.


Last week the archaeologists who found the platform, Dr Matthew Kelleher and Michael Jackson, returned with a rock art expert from Griffith University, Professor Paul Tacon, a Blue Mountains-based archaeologist, Wayne Brennan, and several of their colleagues. Two senior members of the Aboriginal community - a Darkinjung sites officer, Dave Pross, and a Central Australian artist, Rodger Shannon-Uluru - and the Herald joined the expedition.


For most of the day the engravings are almost invisible. In the low light of dawn and dusk the images are briefly revealed.


The team had five days to document 42 figurative motifs, and by the first evening Professor Tacon, Mr Brennan and Dr Kelleher had recognised a gathering of the gods. The supreme being Baiame and his son Daramulan were both there. Near them is an evil and powerful club-footed being, infamous for eating children.


Several ancestral emu women and perhaps the most visually powerful of the images - an eagle man in various incarnations - are also depicted.


"The site is the Aboriginal equivalent of the palace on Mount Olympus where the Olympians, the 12 immortals of ancient Greece, were believed to have lived," Professor Tacon said.


"This is the most amazing rock engraving site in the whole of south-eastern Australia."


Even in famous rock art regions in the north it is extremely rare to see big gatherings of ancestral beings depicted together, he said.


It is almost impossible to imagine how humans could travel through, let alone survive in, the Wollemi. It is dissected by deep canyons and in places almost impassable.


And yet the archaeologists have found hundreds of sites in the past five years. It seems almost certain that the engravings are part of a much larger network of songlines and stories, the full meaning of which is all but lost.


Pross was struck by the complexity of the tale that the drawings must once have told.


"They reckon we didn't have written language," he said.


"We didn't have a, b, c, d but we had a written language in these engravings. They would have been able to read from site to site to site."


In many cases the figures seem to point to other important geographical features or major cultural sites, and possibly to patterns in the stars.


The team also found evidence of everyday existence, such as rock shelters that still bear signs of their occupants - hand stencils, a partial stone axe head, flakes from stone tools and at the back of a cave timber that could only have been stacked by a person.


"The only thing we haven't found out here is a living community," Dr Kelleher said.



Inconveniently, Rapa Nui did not commit ecocide

Norman Hammond, Archaeology Correspondent


A new theory on the fate of Easter Island, now known by its native name of Rapa Nui — meaning “navel of the world” — posits that rats and outsiders, not the environmental depredations of its native people, caused the depletion of the island’s resources and the shrinking of its human population.


For two and a half centuries, Easter Island has been famed for its moai statues, tall stone heads with elongated features that are found across the island. The island has become a parable of human excess and environmental catastrophe: its inhabitants are alleged to have destroyed the forest cover, depleting their food sources and shelter and eventually leaving themselves unable to build canoes.


Jared Diamond’s recent book Collapse calls Rapa Nui “the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources”.Some scholars have termed this “ecocide”: a self-inflicted depletion of the enviroment to a point of no return, and see in the example of Rapa Nui a warning for us all.


Yet rats, rather than people, may have been the crucial factor on Rapa Nui, according to the archaeologist Terry Hunt, of the University of Hawaii. He notes that the Pacific rat, Rattus exulans, arrived as a commensal animal with human settlers, possibly as a fast-breeding source of protein for voyagers.


Dr Hunt believes that the impact of the rat on the forests of Rapa Nui was devastating. In the Journal of Archaeological Science, using comparative data from Hawaii, where all but a few islands have been ravaged by rats, he estimates that “the rat population of Rapa Nui could have exceeded 3.1 million within a very short time following their introduction”.


One of the most important plants, the giant Jubaea palm tree, now extinct on Rapa Nui, yields a hard-shelled nut: every example found in cave deposits had been gnawed and rendered infertile. Hunt suggests that this, together with nibbling of the seedlings, effectively halted regeneration of the forest cover, while “a large rat population would also prey directly upon nesting seabirds, land-birds” and other species, contributing to their extinction.


Archaeological evidence from Hawaii shows that forest decline, apparently because of rats and measured by falling tree pollen counts, preceded the human impact of clearance and burning.


Hunt argues that settlers arrived on Rapa Nui much later than has hitherto been believed. While a new consensus has been building for an arrival around AD 700-800, Hunt’s excavations at Anakena, on the north side of Rapa Nui, suggest settlement as late as 1200. The palaeoenvironmental record shows that deforestation occurred over about 400 years between 1250 and 1650, with remnants of forest lasting into historic times, with the human population rising, he suggests, to a maximum of about 4,000 by AD 1370. There is no evidence for a large and unsustainable population of 15,000 or more as Diamond claims.


Such a large total, followed by a “crash”, “is critical to notions of ecocide, and despite repeated claims, Rapa Nui does not appear to represent a case of ecocide,” Dr Hunt says. “The documented population collapse for Rapa Nui occurred as a result of European contacts, with Old World diseases and slave-trading.” Journal of Archaeological Science 34: 485-502.



Neolithic settlement found

But lack of funds and plans for construction quell hopes for exhibit of prehistoric site

By Lisa Nuch Venbrux

Staff Writer, The Prague Post

April 18th, 2007


Research technician Tonda Gábr analyses a pit where 100 flint instruments were found.

The Liberec region in north Bohemia is proud of its cultural attractions. Dozens of sites, from castle ruins to glass museums, are prominently promoted on its regional Web page.

If archaeologist Petr Brestanovsky had his way, another site would be added to this list. But the Czech Republic’s spotty record preserving archaeological sites could mean his vision of an open-air museum, exhibiting the region’s newly discovered prehistoric settlement, may not come to pass. And a dearth of money and political will to fully explore the site could leave its treasures buried indefinitely.

Brestanovsky’s dream of an archaeological park began early April during a routine excavation in the small town of Příšovice, roughly 50 kilometers (31 miles) outside Prague. There, in a 4-hectare (10-acre) stretch of land between a highway and railroad tracks, Brestanovsky’s team discovered scores of houses and objects belonging to a civilization from some 6,500 years ago.

“We are at the very beginning right now,” Brestanovsky says, but, despite surveying just 15 percent of the area, he and his team have already uncovered 150–200 objects. These include knives, scrapers, metal objects and pottery from the Neolithic period. The most exciting aspect of the find, according to the archaeologist, are circular huts 4–8 meters in diameter that would have been used for small families.

Though many such villages have been found in the Czech Republic, Brestanovsky, who has worked in the region for 10 years, says this find is special. “The last time we had some research going on was in the 1990s, in Maškov …where there was a large house found for more families.” He says the smaller houses found in Příšovice are a “huge step” from what was found in Maškov.

Less than ideal

Industry trumped agriculture in the intervening millennia since Celts and the first agriculturists used that land. Now, an auto-parts factory is slated to be built in the same place.

Jan Van Geet, CEO of Belgian industrial building company VGP, acquired the land two years ago for an undisclosed but “substantial” sum. He says he was “very surprised” about the find.

After getting all the necessary permits for beginning the factory’s construction, Van Geet funded an archaeological survey, which Czech law requires. It was then the investor learned of the artifacts buried beneath the soil, and he delayed plans for construction until research could be carried out.

“There are no harsh feelings between us and the archaeologists,” Van Geet emphasizes. “People should have respect for the cultural findings below the land.”

The construction delay may only last a few weeks. The company will go ahead with building after making plans to protect the artifacts — some of which would remain under the soil.

“It seems to be a very nice find, but we will cover it up with a very large piece of land so that it can be another 6,000 years under the ground without being harmed,” Van Geet says. “If it were a find like the pyramids in Giza, then I would say we will do something else.”

Brestanovsky says Van Geet’s plans for the site are not ideal, even with the company’s proposed methods of conservation such as topsoil or a concrete crust. But the site’s future could be worse. “Things are fragile, so trucks moving and bumping above may crush it, but it is still better than if there were excavators digging up underground garages and destroying the whole site completely.”

Dim prospects

As of now, Brestanovsky and his colleagues will explore and research the site, and some significant artifacts will be extracted before construction of the auto-parts facility begins. These plans would change only if the state or another entity bought the land, an outcome considered unlikely by nearly all parties involved.

For one, Antonín Lízner, the mayor of Příšovice, is not considering buying the land. He says town residents generally do not consider such cultural finds beneficial. “Logically they fear restrictions in what they can actually do with their property.” Furthermore, VGP’s plans would also create jobs in the town, he says.

A Liberec region spokesperson would not comment on the region’s plans, while the Culture Ministry had not responded to The Prague Post by press time. Taken together, the prospects of preserving the site as an open-air museum look dim.

“Realistically, the regional government will not have the money to buy the plot off [and] the Culture Ministry will not provide any money for us,” Brestanovsky admits. Despite the regional government earmarking increasing amounts of money for archaeological research, Brestanovsky says the country’s commitment to archaeology is weak. “In the past some things were destroyed, not taken care of. … Here in the Czech Republic, we don’t really know how to protect and preserve these sites and monuments.”

On this point, Van Geet agrees. “The government should make more money available for them. That’s why all these things are in the press, because, in the end, it’s all about frustrations.”



Unique Ancient Thracian Chariot Unearthed in Bulgaria

21 April 2007, Saturday


A completely intact Thracian chariot was unearthed by the Bulgarian archaeologist Vesselin Ignatov on Friday, Darik News reported.


The chariot was found near a burial barrow close to the central Bulgarian town of Nova Zagora. Ignatov and his team have already dated the finding to 2 century BC. The chariot has two wheels with its roof made of heavy bronze in the form of eagle heads and a folding iron chair, where the driver sat. The chariot was aimed to be pulled by three horses.


The uniqueness of the finding is that it is completely intact, with all its parts on place except the wooden ones, and now we can calculate its precise size and how exactly it was placed in the tomb, Ignatov said. He believes a second chariot will be found as the excavations continue.


Luckily this time the archaeologists reached the incredible finding before the treasure hunters, because they usually look only for gold and coins and destroy all other valuable objects.


Another Thracian chariot was found near the Sadievo village and another one was found near Korten, so now that there is a third one the regional historical museum in Nova Zagora town plans to open a museum of the Thracian chariots.





10:30 - 20 April 2007


A silver eagle unearthed by archaeologists could help settle a long-standing debate about one of the most important battles in English history.


More than 500 years after the Battle of Bosworth Field, experts are divided on where the clash took place.


The decisive clash of the Wars of the Roses, in 1485, led to the death of Richard III and the crown passing to Henry Tudor.


While many believe the conflict was settled on Ambion Hill, near Sutton Cheney, others claim the fight could have happened up to eight miles away, in Warwickshire.


A tiny heraldic trinket - an eagle with wings spread standing on a branch - could now be a key piece of evidence.


It was found by volunteers working for Leicestershire County Council who have been searching in the vicinity of the visitor centre at Ambion Hill.


They are two years into a three-year archeological survey of the area to pinpoint the battle's precise location.


The badge dates from the late 15th century.


Peter Liddle, keeper of archeology for the county council, said: "The item in itself is not valuable because, sadly, it is broken.


"It would, however, have belonged to a man of wealth - perhaps a retainer to a nobleman.


"Far more significant, though, is its age which matches the battle date exactly. It is the sort of thing that could easily get lost in the melee.


"Of course we can't be sure how it got there. It is unusual because looters would have stripped the field of valuables.


"It is a straw in the wind, but it is exactly the right kind of straw."


Heraldry experts have so far been unable to match the symbol to a noble known to have been at the battle.


Mr Liddle said: "We are feeling more confident now that we are closer to finding the right place than we have been before.


"We still have a year left and we hope to find more evidence."


Yesterday, the badge was declared an item of treasure at an inquest in Loughborough.


The court heard it was found in farmland by Richard McInder in December 2005 but has only recently been dated by the British Museum.


Mr McInder has waived his rights to a fee if the item is sold, but the landowner may still be paid a sum.


It is hoped the badge will eventually be displayed at the battlefield site's visitor centre.


Sutton Cheney resident Pauline Foster used to give guided walks at the site.


She said: "We know nobleman William Stanley was at the battle. He was a fence-sitter who only intervened when he saw it was going Henry's way. His family's symbol was an eagle.


"I take the view that if Richard and Henry were around today they wouldn't know exactly where they fought because the landscape has changed.


"I'm not sure the exact location is so important. It doesn't affect the political and historical significance that a king was killed."



Native American Burial Ground Unearthed

Kim Fields

April 20, 2007 - 6:17PM


It's being called a significant find, Native American remains dating back possibly 11 hundred years. The burial ground was unearthed recently at a construction site on private property in Hamilton County, but archaeologists aren't saying exactly where. They don't want to tip off looters who may vandalize the area. But one archaeologist who was on site says he was very impressed with what he found.


He's not saying where, but Dr. Nick Honerkamp with University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Institute of Archaeology says at least 18 people were identified at the site along with trash and storage pits.


"There's several burials, some with pretty exotic grave goods which is an indication of high status people that were buried with high status items."


Honerkamp's worked for years at various sites including one in Audubon Acres in 1993. He was called to the latest discovery in February.


"I went back out and started excavating in this little pit that I saw and I found some human teeth."


Just like the tedious process of excavating, land developers who stumble upon remains must go through lengthy, legal procedures. Honerkamp says with the latest find, the land owner, state archaeologist and medical examiner's office conferred and agreed to remove the remains. They will likely rebury them somewhere else.


"They had to get a court order to remove the cemetery, which it is now or it was. That was done. The Native American community was informed officially by the state archaeologist."


While the land owner was completely within his rights, Honerkamp says it's unfortunate another burial ground's been moved.


"This is what developers do. They have an economic motive. The project couldn't continue and leave that huge section of earth there. That's what happens a lot."


Honerkamp says it's also unfortunate they have to worry about looters vandalizing the site. It's such a problem, he's actually had to have police escorts at some of the burial grounds he's worked.