Ötzi the iceman is the holy grail of glacial archaeology, nothing less. The discovery of the 5300-year-old mummified body and the associated artefacts created a media frenzy and great public interest. Today, 250000 people visit the Ötzi Museum in Bolzano each year to get a glimpse of Ötzi and the exhibited artefacts. A wealth of scientific papers, popular books and documentaries have been published.
Ötzi was discovered in 1991 in a gully at the Tisenjoch pass close to the Italian/Austrian border. The original interpretation by the Innsbruck-based archaeologist Konrad Spindler was that Ötzi froze to death in the gully. He was quickly covered by a glacier and remained encased in ice until he melted out in 1991. How else could the body and artefacts be so well preserved?
She suffered from the same strain of leprosy as other medieval skeletons from along the East Anglian coast, and from skeletons of the period from Denmark and Sweden – and closely related to the type of leprosy still found in modern red squirrels.
The disease was one of the most dreaded of medieval times, with many victims shunned and forced to live apart from society. The unfortunate woman – whose remains were found by chance in a garden in Hoxne in the late 20th century and are now in the collection of the museum in Diss – had disfiguring marks to the skull including the destruction of her nose, hallmarks of leprosy. The damage was so severe it suggests the disease would have had terrible effects on her life, leaving her with extensive facial lesions and probably nerve damage to her hands and feet.
Radiocarbon dating suggests that she lived between 885-1015AD, and analysis of the bacteria showed she had the same strain of leprosy as a man from Great Chesterford who lived centuries earlier. Inskip said the skeletal analysis, together with the prevalence of leper hospitals in East Anglia from the 11th century on, suggested the disease was endemic in the region for centuries, earlier than in other parts of the country. Inskip said the same chalky soil giving good bone preservation is found in other areas including Hampshire and Dorset, but no cases of leprosy have been found in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries there.
The authors suggest that North Sea trade links with Scandinavia may explain the prevalence of the disease in East Anglia.
Inskip, who said it was notable that squirrels were sometimes kept as pets, said: “It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive. Strong trade connections with Denmark and Sweden were in full flow in the medieval period, with King’s Lynn and Yarmouth becoming significant ports for fur imports.”
The last case of human leprosy in the British Isles was more than 200 years ago, but a recent study has demonstrated leprosy infection in red squirrels, now an endangered species, in once of their last UK strongholds, on Brownsea Island in Dorset. Red squirrels in Scotland have also been found to carry a different strain of leprosy. It affects the animals as it does humans, leaving them with lesions on their muzzles, ears and paws.
The strain in the squirrels is the same as one found in the nine-banded armadillo, which has been linked to some cases of human leprosy in Florida.
Eighty skeletons found shackled in a mass grave near Athens last year could be the remains of Cylon’s followers. The Athenian nobleman was the first recorded winner of the Olympic Games, but he went down in history for attempting to take over the city by force and become its only leader, some 2,600 years ago.
The skeletal remains were discovered in the Falyron Delta Necropolis – a large cemetery dating back to the 8th to 5th century BCE that was unearthed over a century ago during the construction of an opera house and a library south of Athens.
The wrists of the 80 individuals had been clamped by iron shackles. They were put in the mass grave but arranged in an orderly manner, which suggests they were not slaves.
They appear to have been the victims of a bloody execution. Archaeologists determined that they had died from blows to the head sometime between 675 and 650 BCE, as dated by the analyses of pottery fragments recovered from the grave. This was a time of great social unrest in Ancient Greece.
Discovering so many ancient skeletons in one place is rare, so the researchers were intrigued and wanted to find out who these individuals had been and why they were killed. Ever since the skeletons were unearthed, the most popular hypothesis discussed by archaeologists has been that these individuals were part of Cylon’s army that tried to take over the city.
What is certain is that the coup attempt failed. Cylon was defeated but managed to escape and hide in a temple. The men who fought for him were not so lucky, and just like the individuals in the mass grave, they were executed.
Archaeologists have started using innovative scientific techniques worthy of a CSI episode to learn more about what happened and to see if they can get clues to confirm this theory.
The tests conducted on the skeletons include DNA profiling as well as radiographic and isotopic analyses to shed light on these people’s age, geographic origin and social status. The archaeologists might also get an idea of whether these men were related and whether they were in good health overall.
All this information could help confirm whether these men were likely to have been Cylon’s supporters. Preliminary results back up the idea that these were Cylon’s men, as they appear to have been young and healthy when they died, as would be expected of fighters in an army. However, more investigations will be needed before the full picture can emerge – the DNA analyses in particular are awaited with impatience to establish the relationships between these people who were executed together in such a violent manner.
Britons’ Stone Age ancestors possessed some unexpected talents, scientists have discovered. On top of their prowess in constructing great monoliths such as Stonehenge, they were also adept at staging first-rate parties.
Roast sweetened pork consumed with a range of rich dairy products including cheese and butter appear to have been commonplace at feasts – according to an English Heritage exhibition, Feeding Stonehenge, which will open this week at the stone circle’s visitor centre.
“More than 4,500 years have passed since the main part of Stonehenge was constructed,” said curator Susan Greaney. “But thanks to the sophistication of techniques we now have for dating and identifying chemicals, we can deduce – from food fragments left in pots and from the bones left in the ground – what meals were being consumed there.”
Stonehenge was constructed in several stages. However, the most important period occurred around 2,500BC when the great sarsen blocks that form the main ring were erected, said Greaney. “Recent analysis suggests this construction was completed over a period of about 50 years,” she added.
Scientists have also dated the occupancy of the neolithic village of Durrington Walls – which lies about a mile and a half north-east of Stonehenge – to a 50-year period that also occurred around 2,500BC.
“From this, we have drawn the conclusion that Durrington Walls was the place where the builders of Stonehenge lived and where they held celebrations connected with the great edifice they were building,” said Greaney.
The question is: what sustained these workers during the titanic task they had undertaken? What foods did they consume? “When we dug at Durrington Walls we found pits and middens filled with bits of pottery and bones of animals left over from feasts,” said Stonehenge researcher Professor Oliver Craig, of York University. “These have provided an immense amount of information.”
From the pot fragments, scientists were able to pinpoint fats, waxes and oils from the food cooked in these vessels. These fats, which seeped into the pottery and collected in pores, can now be analysed by a technique known as lipid analysis.
“We found the larger pots contained mainly pork,” said Craig. “However, smaller pots – which were found at different parts of the Durrington Walls site – contained dairy products. We think these milk-based foodstuffs had special significance. They may have been associated with purity or fertility, for example, and were consumed in a special area.”
The presence of dairy food poses a puzzle, however. Genetic evidence indicates that Britons at this time were lactose intolerant. Drinking milk would have made them ill. Yet dairy foods appear to have had widespread use.
This has led Craig and other scientists to argue that cow’s milk would not have been consumed directly but would have been turned into cheese and yoghurt – which would not have triggered lactose intolerance reactions. In other words, people gathering for these festivals would have been eating protein-rich dishes of butter and cheese and other processed dairy products.
As to the meat that was consumed, by far the most popular animal was the pig. “There are bits of pig skeleton, dated from this period, all over the place,” said Greaney. “And when you look at the teeth of these animals, it is noticeable that there are strong signs of decay – which suggests they were being fattened up on fairly sweet diets, possibly using honey. So honey-sweetened pork could well have been on the menu at these feasts.”
All the signs point to the fact that Stonehenge and Durrington Walls were associated with some very lavish celebrations. For example, at most other archaeological sites where animal bones have been left behind after being eaten, very little is left unconsumed. This was not the case at Durrington Walls where half-eaten chops were left discarded in many places. “This could have been the country’s first throw-away culture,” said Greaney.
This point was backed by Craig. “People were killing animals, stringing them up and eating them on a massive scale,” he said. “It must have been quite a show.”
However, this high protein intake of meat and cheeses was probably not typical of average Stone Age meals, he added. “I think people in those days would also have been eating vegetables and fruit but not here. Pork and beef and cheese – that was special festive fare – and that is what was consumed at Stonehenge.”
But the identity of any beverages that were consumed remains a mystery. “People always ask me: were our forebears consuming wine or beer or some other kind of alcoholic drink?” said Craig. “The answer is that we do not know. They may well have been, but we do not have the techniques or the evidence yet to say what that drink might be. That is for future research.”
The real face concealed by a clay mask on the mummified head of a Scythian warrior has been revealed for the first time in almost 2,000 years. The head is on display in an exhibition opening at the British Museum along with the scan, made in a St Petersburg hospital, which reveals that he had fine teeth, a ginger moustache, a pierced ear, a hole in his skull where his brains had been removed, and a savage wound, beautifully stitched and healed, which originally ran from the corner of his eye socket to the point of his jaw.
Since the real head closely resembles the painted mask, the curator St John Simpson assumes that the faintly smiling mask of a young woman beside him, which has yet to be scanned, is also based on her appearance in life.
Her body was found lying beside his in a timber-lined tomb chamber, and she almost certainly did not die a natural death.
The Greek historian Herodotus left vivid accounts of the nomadic Scythian horsemen and archers who terrorised their neighbours from an empire stretching for centuries from the Black Sea to the borders of China. His stories, often doubted, have been vindicated by recent archaeological finds, and he wrote that when a princely warrior died, a concubine was often chosen to accompany him to the grave, along with servants and horses.
“Herodotus says garrotting was used, so that would have been relatively quick and merciful,” Simpson said. “The horses we find in tombs were usually killed by a single blow between the eyes from a pointed battle axe – quite humane, like a captive bolt for a fallen race horse – so that could be another consideration.” He added hopefully: “We do also have to remember that people really do die of a broken heart.”
The scans were completed and processed so recently that they were seen for the first time in London by the Russian curators who accompanied the spectacular loans from the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, including some of the first superb golden belt buckles and dress ornaments collected in the 17th century by Peter the Great.
The nomads had no writing and built nothing permanent except their tombs, but fortunately buried everything from their world for the dead to use in the next. The displays include not just the superb golden ornaments and metal work including weapons and utensils, but, astonishingly preserved by the permafrost of Siberia, furs, textiles, wooden furniture and containers, tattooed human skin, horse harnesses and saddles, the oldest pair of chopsticks ever found outside China, and two lumps of cheese.
Their luxury imports from China included beautiful silks so precious that even scraps were carefully kept and re-used, including a piece used to trim a child’s quiver of arrows, found with the masked mummies in the Oklakhty burial ground in southern Siberia. There was also a tiny sheepskin coat, on which the man’s head was pillowed.
The same tomb held two even more eerie objects, which Simpson hoped to borrow for the exhibition: literally straw men, two life-size stuffed effigies, with clay masks similar to those on the real heads. They were too fragile to travel, and are still being studied – but the first x-rays suggest they contain cloth bags of cremated human remains, presumably carried on horseback across the plains until they could be added to the bodies lying in the family tomb.
“When I saw them lying in a dimly lit room in St Petersburg, and one of the curators lifted the head – shedding bits of straw – to look at me, it was an image straight out of some Hollywood horror movie,” Simpson recalled. “I put the photograph on my office door as a way of saying ‘keep away from here’ in the last three weeks I was working flat out trying to get the catalogue finished – it was very effective.”
Stonehenge is one the UK’s most visited tourist attractions – and one of the world’s most enigmatic ancient monuments. People come from all over the world to stare at the iconic stone pillars and wonder how, and why, they were put in place.
The site may be instantly recognisable, but there is far more to it than first meets the eye. As archaeologists study this area, mystery after mystery unfolds. But a coherent story may be beginning to emerge.
That has been particularly true over the last decade. Researchers have been studying not just the monument itself, but the area around it, hoping to find clues in this intriguing landscape of prehistoric monuments.
Underground imaging and excavation have revealed that Stonehenge was once part of a complicated network of structures: ancient burial mounds, unknown settlements, processional routes and even gold-adorned burials. The finds paint a picture of a far more mysterious and elaborate Neolithic and Bronze Age world than previously thought.
One such project that looked at Stonehenge in this holistic way was the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, which ran from 2010 to 2014. Underground radar and magnetic imaging techniques revealed that Stonehenge lies at the centre of a complex web of structures covering an estimated 4.5 square miles (12 sq km). The project caused a media frenzy in 2015, when scientists announced the finding of a potential ‘Superhenge’ at nearby Durrington Walls – a huge 500m (1,640ft) diameter stone circle.
However, this frenzy was short-lived. When excavating the site, the archaeologists didn’t find any stones. Instead, they found that timber posts once stood here. After they were removed, the holes were filled with chalk and then covered in earth to form a henge bank. On radar scans, the gaps in the loose chalk had looked like stones.
Despite this setback, UK lead for the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project Vincent Gaffney stressed that the project revealed hundreds of new features and many sites never seen before. “Following this survey, we know not only where things are but where they aren’t as well,” said Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford.
These kinds of surveys are key, Gaffney said, because they allow archaeologists “to investigate all areas of land equally, and not just the monuments we know. This allows us to interpret the evidence in a more sophisticated manner.
“What this has revealed is a completely unknown monumental phase of Durrington Walls. In between the Neolithic village and the massive earthwork was a massive ring of posts somewhere between 4-6m (13-20ft) in height – a minimum of 200 and perhaps as many as 300. This is completely new and would have been missed entirely without the survey.”
The finding of another huge monument in the area has changed the way archaeologists look at the development and history of the region. “Increasingly, I would suggest that we are beginning to see the mosaic of blank areas and monuments as suggesting processional movement,” said Gaffney.
In other words, the landscape was used in religious or ceremonial processions related to the monuments.
Mike Parker Pearson of University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, who led the Stonehenge Riverside Project from 2003 to 2009, thinks that the posts at Durrington Walls were put up with the intention that they would be taken down soon after. “They may only have stood for a matter of months before they were replaced by the henge bank and ditch,” he said. “Their purpose seems to have been to mark the perimeter of the great village, by now abandoned. So perhaps the posts were a monument to the people who lived here while building Stonehenge.”
Whatever the monument was used for, it shows that Stonehenge isn’t alone in this landscape. Understanding the significance of Stonehenge depends on understanding everything else around it as well.
The Stonehenge Riverside Project found that Stonehenge was built in two phases. The first – a ditch, bank and circle of bluestones – was built 500 years earlier than previously thought, more than 4,500 years ago. The second phase, when the larger, iconic outer circle was erected, came about 500 years after the first.
The area, however, was occupied beginning around 9,000 years ago, suggesting it had significance long before Stonehenge was built.
Twenty miles (30km) away lies the less well-known but just as significant site of Avebury, home of the largest stone circle in Europe. But the Neolithic reach of this area extended even further – such as into Wales, where prehistoric Britons procured the bluestones for Stonehenge’s inner circle.
Meanwhile, Parker Pearson says, it seems that the big stones at Stonehenge came from the Avebury area.
This suggests that these significant Neolithic landscapes – Salisbury Plain, Avebury and the Preseli hills in Wales, another area rich with prehistoric monuments – were linked. And holding that link together was Stonehenge.
Parker Pearson suggests that the Welsh bluestones were the first to be put in place at Stonehenge, and that it was the monument that they came from that was important. The stones would have been considered to be ancestral symbols of western Britons, he said, and “bringing them to Salisbury Plain was an act of unification of the two main Neolithic peoples of southern Britain.”
Even today, the Preseli hills are dotted with dolmens (ancient tombs). “The density of dolmens reveals that this was an important region (both politically and spiritually) some 700 years before Stonehenge,” Parker Pearson said, making it “possibly a leading territory within western Britain in the centuries before 3000 BC.”
But even if we agree with the theory that bringing the stones from Wales was a symbolic and even political, act, it presents another mystery: how did prehistoric Britons move those huge stones?
Some suggest that people didn’t move the stones at all, and that instead, glaciers transported the stones across southern Britain. But the finding of two ancient stone quarries in Preseli ended that debate for the most part.
Scientists also have experimented with ideas of how to transport the large stones 160 miles (260km) from Wales. According to Parker Pearson, they discovered that moving small megaliths like the bluestones, which mostly weighed 2 tons or less, was not actually that difficult – even with just dragging the stone on a sledge.
In another recent finding, archaeologists discovered the cremated remains of people buried at Stonehenge. The Stonehenge Riverside Project’s 2008 excavation retrieved about 58 burials, including at least nine men – and 14 women. As it is thought that anyone buried at Stonehenge had elevated social status, this therefore poses questions about the role of women in the Neolithic period.
“It frequently seems that there is always something new from Stonehenge, but I continue to be surprised that we keep finding so much – even in areas that have been studied intensively for years,” said Gaffney. “The latest findings from Durrington demonstrate that new technology doesn’t just find new sites, it dramatically transforms how we understand known sites.
“It also emphasises not just how unique Stonehenge was, but how important the landscape around that monument was – and that we are still just beginning to understand how it developed and what it meant to the people who built Stonehenge.”
Even so, no matter how many new discoveries are made, it seems that Stonehenge will only continue to throw up new questions for scientists and the media to ponder. These Neolithic people had huge skill and ambition.
Such a huge monument erected so perfectly, over many centuries, is not something easy for us to understand in our fast-paced, modern world.