Tests confirm age of prehistoric carving in Wales

28 July 2011


Recent discovery of a stylized reindeer engraving in a South Wales by Dr George Nash from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol, now has been scientifically dated. The date of the flowstone that covers the head of the reindeer is 12,572 +/- 659 years Before Present, and the rock-art below may be much earlier. It is now confirmed that the carved reindeer is one of Britain's earliest examples of engraved figurative rock art.

     Dr Nash discovered the faint engraving while visiting the Gower Peninsula caves near Swansea in September 2010 with students and members of the Clifton Antiquarian Club. "This engraving appears to have made by an artist using a flint point held in his or her right hand onto a limestone panel covered with flowstone.  The panel forms part of a very tight niche at the back of the cave," Dr Nash said.

     The discovery has being officially verified by experts from Oxford and Durham universities and the National Museum of Wales. The project team that includes Dr Peter van Calsteren and Dr Louise Thomas from the Open University, and Dr Mike Simms from the National Museums Northern Ireland is being financially supported by Cadw and logistically administered by the National Museum Wales.


Edited from Dr George Nash PR (28 July 2011)



The Last 3 Million Years At A Snail's Pace

Posted on: Friday, 5 August 2011, 09:26 CDT


Scientists at the University of York, using an 'amino acid time capsule', have led the largest ever program to date the British Quaternary period, stretching back nearly three million years.


It is the first widespread application of refinements of the 40-year-old technique of amino acid geochronology. The refined method, developed at York’s BioArCh laboratories, measures the breakdown of a closed system of protein in fossil snail shells, and provides a method of dating archaeological and geological sites.


Britain has an unparalleled studied record of fossil-rich terrestrial sediments from the Quaternary, a period that includes relatively long glacial episodes – known as the Ice Age – interspersed with shorter ‘interglacial’ periods where temperatures may have exceeded present day values.


However, too often the interglacial deposits have proved difficult to link to global climatic signals because they are just small isolated exposures, often revealed by quarrying.


Using the new method, known as amino acid racemization, it will be possible to link climatic records from deep sea sediments and ice cores with the responses of plants and animals, including humans, to climate change over the last three million years. The research is published in the latest issue of Nature.


The new method was developed by Dr Kirsty Penkman, of the Department of Chemistry, alongside Professor Matthew Collins of the Department of Archaeology at York, and measures the extent of protein degradation in calcareous fossils such as mollusc shells. It is based on the analysis of intra-crystalline amino acids – the building blocks of protein – preserved in the fossil opercula (the little ‘trapdoor’ the snail uses to shut itself away inside its shell) of the freshwater gastropod Bithynia. It provides the first single method that is able to accurately date such a wide range of sites over this time period.


Dr Penkman said: "The amino acids are securely preserved within calcium carbonate crystals of the opercula. This crystal cage protects the protein from external environmental factors, so the extent of internal protein degradation allows us to identify the age of the samples. In essence, they are a protein time capsule.


“This framework can be used to tell us in greater detail than ever before how plants and animals reacted to glacial and interglacial periods, and has helped us establish the patterns of human occupation of Britain, supporting the view that these islands were deserted in the Last Interglacial period.”


In a close collaboration with palaeontologist Dr Richard Preece in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, the study examined a total of 470 fossil remains from 71 sites in the UK and three on continental Europe. The method proved highly reliable with more than 98 per cent of samples yielding useful results, resulting in the largest ever geochronological program of the British Pleistocene.


Professor Collins said: "When we started this work 11 years ago, we thought it was going to be relatively straightforward to identify a good material for dating, but the first 3 years of research on shells showed that the stability of the mineral itself was vital. The tiny trapdoor of a snail proved to be the key to success."


Dr Preece added: “Luckily, fossil opercula are common in Quaternary sediments around the world, so the new technique can be used to build regional Ice Age chronologies everywhere, giving it enormous international scope”.


Vital to the study were the inter-disciplinary collaborations with Quaternary scientists, the core team of which involved researchers at the Department of Geography, University of Durham; Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, University of Birmingham; Institute of Archaeology, University College London; the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity, Leiden and the Department of Palaeontology, The Natural History Museum.


The analyses were funded by English Heritage, Natural Environment Research Council and the Wellcome Trust. The research is a contribution to the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project funded by the Leverhulme Trust.



Huge number of statue menhirs found on a Sardinian wall

31 July 2011


The astonishing discovery in the Sardinian countryside (Italy) of a small drystone wall entirely made of broken standing stones - many carved with stylised human figures - could make the site at Cuccuru e Lai, near Samugheo, one of the most important prehistoric sanctuaries of the island.

    Mauro Perra, archaeologist manager of the Villanovaforru Museum, said that the finding could be as important as the Mount Prama statues - a unique discovery with huge historical and scientific values.

    The broken standing stones date back to the Copper Age, or about 5000 years ago, and fit perfectly on the drystone wall, as they were probably broken up about 70 years ago, when the wall was built.

    Archaeologists started studying the area in the 1990s, when they made a dig near a giants tomb at Paule Lutturi; then in August 2008 they found a series of statue-menhirs (standing stones carved with human traits). Finally, this month a new dig led to the discovery of about 300 pieces of broken standing stones.

    "Around the 3rd millennium BCE, anthropomorphic statues spread throughout Europe. In Sardinia they can be found on Mandrolisai, Barigadu, at Laconi and Isili - in each area they have their own symbolic traits. Some of the stones discovered at Samugheo have carved faces, an inverted U and a central frieze, either with a grid or a herringbone design," Mauro Perra said.

    On a few of the recently discovered statues there is also a carved dagger. "This is typical of the carved stones found in the Alps," said Mr Perra. "It's also the same design found on the Lunigiana statue menhirs. That means that prehistoric Sardinia wasn't a small isolated island, but a place that was part of a larger cultural movement," he added.

    Some of the symbols carved on the stones found at Cuccuru e Lai are completely different from those of the Laconi stones. "The real meaning of the symbols is still unknown, but these standing stones may be well territorial markers," Perra said. The tallest stones discovered are about 1.20m tall, but the vast majority are badly broken. Now the aim of both local authorities and the Archaeological Superintendence is to organize a lab to allow experts to restore the broken stones.


Edited from L'Unione Sarda, Sardegna 24 (15 July 2011)



Rome's Pantheon may have been built as a massive sundial researchers reveal

It is one of the best preserved buildings from the Roman world, a 2,000-year-old testament to the immense power and wealth of the empire.

By Nick Squires, Rome12:55AM BST 01 Aug 2011


But mystery has always surrounded what lies behind the unusual design of the Pantheon, a giant temple in the heart of Rome that was built by the Emperor Hadrian.

Now experts have come up with an intriguing theory – that the temple acted as a colossal sun dial, with a beam of light illuminating its enormous entrance at the precise moment that the emperor entered the building.

Constructed on Hadrian's orders and completed in AD128, the Pantheon's hemispherical dome is punctured by a 30ft-wide circular hole known as the 'oculus'.

It provides the interior of the building with its only source of natural light and allows in rain and – on rare occasions – snow.

Giulio Magli, a historian of ancient architecture from Milan Polytechnic, Italy, and Robert Hannah, a classics scholar from the University of Otago in New Zealand, have discovered that at precisely midday during the March equinox, a circular shaft of light shines through the oculus and illuminates the Pantheon's imposing entrance.

They have been working on the theory since 2009 but recently brought together all their latest research in a paper published in a scholarly journal, Numen.

The precise calculations made in the positioning and construction of the Pantheon mean that the size and shape of the beam perfectly matches, down to the last inch, a semicircular stone arch above the doorway.

A similar effect is seen on April 21, which the Romans celebrated as the founding date of their city, when at midday the sun beam strikes a metal grille above the doorway, flooding the colonnaded courtyard outside with light.

The dramatic displays would have been seen by the Romans as elevating an emperor into the realm of the gods – a cosmological affirmation of his divine power as he entered the building, which was used as an audience hall as well as a place of worship.

He was in effect being "invited" by the sun to enter the Pantheon, which as its name suggests was dedicated to the most important deities of the Roman world.

"The emperor would have been illuminated as if by film studio lights," said Professor Magli. "The Romans believed the relationship between the emperor and the heavens was at its closest during the equinoxes.

It would have been a glorification of the power of the emperor, and of Rome itself." The sun had a special significance for the Romans, as it did for the ancient Egyptians. The god Apollo was associated with the sun, and the emperor Nero was depicted as the Greek sun god Helios in a giant statue called the Colossus, which gave its name to the Colosseum.

One of antiquity's most remarkable examples of engineering, the Pantheon's fine state of preservation is thanks to the fact that it was converted into a church in the seventh century, when it was presented to the Pope by the Byzantine Emperor Phocas.

It retains its original bronze doors and marble columns, some of which were quarried in the Egyptian desert and transported by the ship down the Nile and across the Mediterranean to Rome at huge expense.

The building now contains the tombs of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy, and the Renaissance artist Raphael.



New excavation at Caerleon 'could change understanding of Roman history in Wales'

by Graham Henry, Western Mail

Aug 5 2011


AN EXCAVATION of a newly-discovered network of ancient buildings could potentially change our understanding of Roman history in Wales, archaeologists believe.


Staff, students and volunteers from Cardiff University have begun a month-long project to excavate the “Lost City of the Legion” at Caerleon, near Newport.


Archaeologists from Cardiff University have started a dig which will last until September 1 – which they hope will unravel the biggest secrets yet to come out of the historic village, and said it may confirm that it was intended as a major seat of power.


A group of up to 40 workers have started excavating the site, which houses a large network of Roman buildings, discovered by accident last year.


Test trenches have already revealed what is thought to be a quayside wall where ships would have docked and unloaded their cargoes for the military garrison at Caerleon and other forts in Wales.


Experts hope that the site will reveal more information about early Roman history in Wales – with the size of the buildings to be uncovered indicating that its importance to early Romans was greater than first thought.


Dr Peter Guest, a senior lecturer at the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University, said that the project was “hugely exciting” because of the potentially seismic shift in our understanding of Roman history.


The size and scale of the buildings indicate that the village on the River Usk was intended to be more significant than first thought.


“Some of the buildings are absolutely enormous,” he said. “They could be bath houses, administrative buildings, town halls – but it’s exciting for those of us that are going to be at the site because we still don’t know so much.


“There are a lot of questions about the site remaining – what happened to them? What were they used for? How old are they? Those are questions that we can perhaps begin to answer with this project.”


Work began yesterday in the fields near Newport – and the group have already begun tweeting finds from the site, including shards of pottery.


The site was previously not thought to have been extensively occupied in the Roman period, before the find last year.


Dr Guest said that the excavation could be “hugely important” in shaping what we know about the Romans in Wales.


He said the month-long excavation – which began yesterday – could reveal that Caerleon was planned as a major administrative centre for the Romans in Britain, given the apparent size and prominence of the buildings.


He said: “The courtyard is the biggest building that we have got, it is so large that I cannot see the other end of it – but there are a whole series of other buildings attached in it.


“It is one of the most important sites that survives from Roman Britain and there is a huge amount still to learn from it. It could potentially change our understanding of early Roman history in Wales.


“This site is 2,000 years old and it seems it may not only have supposed to be a Roman fortress, but to become a western centre for the Romans in western Britain – but at the moment it seems that it didn’t happen for some reason.


“It is hard to underplay it, to be honest.”


Student archaeologists came across the network of buildings last year using sophisticated geophysical equipment that can “peer underground”.


And experts believe they could represent temples, town halls, bath houses, store buildings and huge courtyard – which is 100m long and could comfortably house the town’s existing amphitheatre inside its foundations.


Caerleon dates from 75 AD, and is one of only three permanent legionary fortresses in Britain and provides the only opportunity to study the Roman legions.


Archaeologists had already uncovered a slew of other buildings before the students’ find – including eight previously unknown barrack blocks, three large granaries, a monumental metal workshop and a very large store building.


The Cardiff team also uncovered an entire Roman suit of armour from the site, along with some weaponry.


Dr Guest added: “I am hoping that these building complexes that we have got have some very interesting stuff to find. It could be that the buildings we are excavating are from very early on after the conquest of the Welsh, and it may well have supposed to have been the main access route into western Britain.


“The buildings are such that this was intended to be the place that the conquerors exercised their imperial power, where they reported to the people of Britain that what they were used to in the past was no longer. An excavation like this will help try and answer questions, but will inevitably throw up some more.”


The dig – which runs until September 1 – is open to the public and there will be daily tours at 11am and 2.30pm, apart from Wednesdays.



If this is what a small glacial lake flood can do, imagine a big one



Humla is one of the most remote districts in Nepal, and in a remote corner of Humla lies the settlement of Halji in Limi VDC. On 30 June this village of 400 inhabitants was hit by a flash flood caused by a glacial lake bursting upstream.


At around 4:30 pm there was a loud roar from up the valley, and everyone ran out of their houses. At first, the raging brown water was retained by the gabion walls, the last stretch of which was built only a month earlier. Soon, the embankments gave way and the water and the boulders raced towards the village with great force.


The ground shook and the water was nearly black because of the landslides along the banks. People managed to evacuate in time and move most of their belongings, but had to watch as their homes and fields were carried away.


Fortunately no lives were lost, but some livestock was taken by the flood as were two houses and 200 ropanis of farmlands. Some poorer families lost all their fields. Food aid will therefore be needed for the winter. Water mills, bridges and sections of the main trail through the valley and up to high pastures were washed away.


The disaster was caused by a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) in the mountains above Halji. Due to global warming the water level of many glacial lakes across the Himalaya have risen dangerously, and could overflow with devastating consequences. The flood at Halji which is the fifth since 2006 has occurrs every year on almost the same date at the end of June.


The glacier lies on a plateau at 5,200-5,400m on the flanks of Mt Gurla Mandata in Tibet and there are five glacial lakes which feed into the river. But the flood was caused by another lake hidden under the glacier which is partly visible through a deep crevasse. Villagers who climbed the glacier just after the flood in 2009 say the lake was partly covered by a big ice sheet about 20-25 meters thick. Parts of this may have broken off and fallen into the lake last month, displacing huge amounts of water and causing the flood.


Halji village is constructed around the 11th century Rinchenling Monastery, one of the oldest in Nepal and a potential World Heritage Site. Because of the valley's scenic beauty and location on the pilgrimage path to Mount Kailash at the very end of the Great Himalayan Trail, it is also becoming an increasingly popular destination for trekkers. The village and its 1,000-year-old monastery are now threatened by future floods.


There is an urgent need to provide food and rebuild the homes of affected families, as well as to rehabilitate and strengthen the embankments before the next flood. Experts should also assess the risk of future outbursts of the glacial lake and develop a long term strategy to minimise the risks of a future, even bigger, disaster. Long term mitigation strategies may involve controlled drainage of the lake, building of further gabion walls to protect farmlands downstream by diverting water away from the village.


Astrid Hovden is a PhD fellow at the University of Oslo.



Sapphire ring 'belonged to Anglo-Saxon or Viking royalty'

By David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent

Friday, 29 July 2011


A unique gold and sapphire finger ring, found by a metal detectorist and  just purchased by the Yorkshire Museum, almost  certainly belonged to Anglo-Saxon or Viking royalty, very senior clergy or a leading member of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, say historians.


Of very great historical importance, it is the only Anglo-Saxon era sapphire ever found in the ground in Britain. The only other sapphire from the period is the one that the Queen wears in her Imperial State Crown, used at the opening of Parliament. Known as St. Edward’s sapphire, this latter gem was once part of King Edward the Confessor’s finger ring and is now the oldest gem in the British crown jewels.


The association of sapphires with high status – demonstrated by St. Edward’s gem – suggests that the sapphire ring, just purchased by the Yorkshire Museum, is of very substantial historical significance. It was found in a field some six miles to the south of York by a local metal detectorist, Michael Greenhorn, a railway technician, was subsequently declared treasure and has now been bought by the museum for £35,000.


It’s very likely that the ring belonged originally to an Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of York, one of the Earls of Northumbria or a senior member of one of Anglo-Saxon England’s royal families.


But narrowing down the field may not be an impossibility. For the Yorkshire Museum is to launch a multi-disciplinary investigation to unlock the secrets of their newly acquired and unique piece of treasure.


Although the ring probably dates from the early 10th to the mid 11th century, it could be much earlier, conceivably even from the 7th century. So the museum’s first task will be to narrow down the age range by looking for stylistic parallels in other pieces of Anglo-Saxon and other first millennium AD jewellery.


Secondly they want to better understand the sophisticated technology used to create the ring - especially the gold work. The precious metal alloy is of a very high standard – 90% gold, 8% silver and 2% copper.


The museum, in York, also plans to track down the ultimate origin of the sapphire itself. It’s possible that it came originally from India or Sri Lanka and a special scanning electron microscopy examination of the gem will almost certainly be carried out to identify trace elements and ascertain its geological background.


This may also help to reconstruct its pre-Anglo-Saxon history. Is it likely to have been imported into England or Europe from thousands of miles away in Anglo-Saxon times, or is it more likely that it was imported in Roman times and re-used in various different high status roles for hundreds of years before it was lost south of York a millennium or more ago.


Microscopic examination of wear marks on the ring may also shed light on its history – as might a detailed historical examination of the area around where it was found .


The Yorkshire ring, weighing 10.2 grams,  is 25.5 millimetres in diameter, and is adorned with a six millimetre deep-blue sapphire and pieces of red glass, all set into the gold.


In medieval times, sapphires were seen as magical objects – capable of protecting kings and other members of the ruling elite against assassination. They were seen as particularly powerful against death by poisoning! In the medieval mind, the ability of a sapphire to combat poison could even be tested - by swinging the gem above a spider. If the creature died, then the sapphire was seen as being in good working order.


Sapphires were also regarded as high status health aids (able to cure a range of complaints) – and as a guarantee of morality, capable of reducing human lust and impurity of thought.



Unearthed, a great Tudor local

Bo Wilson

5 Aug 2011


Archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be one of London's oldest pubs.


The 16th century tavern, The Three Tuns, was unearthed next to Holborn Viaduct, with parts in such good condition that it is possible to stand on the remains of the Tudor street and look through its window.


David Saxby, a senior archaeologist at the Museum of London, uncovered a basement bar room, a serving hatch and an inscription "Lotte" - possibly as part of the name Charlotte - at the foot of the staircase.


Other treasures include a bottle's glass medallion, which has the pub's logo of three barrels, and the words "at the 3 Tuns at Holborne Bridge". Water from the river Fleet would have been channelled into a brick tank for brewing.


The pub, which was buried in the late 19th century when the viaduct was built, was rebuilt several times, according to the team, most clearly after the Great Fire in 1666.



Armada wreck discovered off Donegal

Friday, 5 August 2011


The wreckage of a sunken vessel believed to be from the Spanish Armada has been discovered off the Donegal coast.


Underwater archaeologists are to explore the historic wreck, located in shallow waters in Rutland Harbour, near Burtonport.


Evidence uncovered during a dive survey revealed the vessel was likely to be a 16th-century ship, possibly part of the 1588 Spanish Armada.


Heritage minister Jimmy Deenihan has granted 50,000 euro for the excavation by the underwater archaeology unit from his department's National Monuments Service.


He said the discovery was a major find of significance not only to Ireland but also to the international archaeological, historical and maritime communities.


"If, in fact, it proves to be an Armada vessel, it could constitute one of the most intact of these wrecks discovered to date," he said.


"It could provide huge insight into life on board and the reality of the military and naval resources available to the Armada campaign."


Up to 24 ships of the 130-strong ill-fated fleet were wrecked along Ireland's rocky coastline. The location of the latest vessel means the search team will have better than usual access to find any artefacts that may still be on board.


Nearly 10,000 pieces of valuable treasure were discovered on the biggest ship in the fleet, the Girona, which sunk off the Antrim north coast in October 1588. The haul brought ashore by divers included hundreds of gold and silver coins, gold chains, pendants, rings and cameos containing inset rubies and pearls, silver forks and spoons, the ship's anchor, cannons and cannon balls.


Mr Deenihan said the Geological Survey of Ireland is supplying one of its research vessels, the RV Keary, free of charge as the main dive vessel off Donegal and will also carry out detailed marine geophysical surveys in the vicinity of the wreck.