Ancient Britons drank from human skulls

From BBC News:

Ancient Britons were not averse to using human skulls as drinking cups, skeletal remains unearthed in southwest England suggest.

The braincases from three individuals were fashioned in such a meticulous way that their use as bowls to hold liquid seems the only reasonable explanation.

The 14,700-year-old objects were discovered in Gough’s Cave, Somerset.

Scientists from London’s Natural History Museum say the skull-cups were probably used in some kind of ritual.

“If you look around the world there are examples of skull-cups in more recent times – in Tibetan culture, in Fiji in Oceania, and in India,” said Dr Silvia Bello, a palaeontologist and lead author of a scientific paper on the subject in the journal PLoS One.

“So, skulls have been used as drinking bowls, and because of the similarity of the Gough’s Cave skulls to these other examples, we imagine that that’s what these ancient people were using them for also,” she told BBC News.

Gough’s Cave is situated in the Cheddar Gorge, a deep limestone canyon on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills.

Palaeo-investigations started there a hundred years ago, with many of the finds now held at the Natural History Museum (NHM).

The site is particularly noteworthy for the discovery in 1903 of “Cheddar Man”, the complete skeleton of a male individual dating to about 10,000 years ago.

But the users – and owners – of the skulls discussed in the PLoS One article are actually from an earlier period in the history of the British Isles.

This was during a brief warm spike in a series of ice ages that allowed humans living in southern Europe to venture north into what was otherwise an utterly inhospitable landscape.

These Cro-Magnons, as we now call them, were hunter-gatherers living on their wits and, it seems, eating human flesh when the need and opportunity arose.

Gough’s Cave famously held the remains of human bones that had been butchered to extract marrow in exactly the same way as animal bones on the site had been processed.

Our modern sensibilities find the thought of cannibalism repulsive, but these people lived in a different age, Dr Bello said:

“They were a one man band; they were going out, hunting, butchering and then eating their kill. And they were extremely skilled at what they did, but then that’s how they survived.

“I think the production of the skull-cups is ritualistic. If the purpose was simply to break the skulls to extract the brain to eat it, there are much easier ways to do that.

“If food was the objective, the skull would be highly fragmented. But here you can really see they tried to preserve most of the skull bone; the cut marks tell us they tried to clean the skull, taking off every piece of soft tissue so that they could then modify it very precisely. They were manufacturing something.”

NHM colleague Professor Chris Stringer helped excavate one of the skull-cups in 1987 and is a co-author on the paper.

“We’ve known that these bones were treated in this way for 20 years; it’s been evident that there were cut marks on the skulls,” he told BBC News.

“But by applying the latest microscopic techniques and the experience we’ve got in working on butchered animal remains, as well as human remains, we can start to build up a much more detailed picture of how the Gough’s Cave remains were treated. Yes, cannibalism is the most likely explanation. What we can’t say is whether these people were killed to be eaten, or whether they died naturally. Were they even members of the same group?”

And precisely how the cups were used cannot be known with total confidence either, although in more recent examples of such practice they have held blood, wine and food during rituals.

At about 14,700 years old, the Gough’s Cave skull-cups would represent the oldest, recognised examples in the world.

The museum plans to put a detailed model of one of the skull-cups on display this March so that visitors can get a deeper insight the practices of these ancient Britons.

From BBC News.

Another article on the matter here.

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The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked

From The Independent:

The Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked exhibition in Edinburgh brings together the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland’s collections of the Lewis Chessmen – a set of medieval gaming pieces, originating most likely from Trondheim in the 12th or 13th century, which were discovered on the Hebridean island of Lewis sometime between 1780 and 1831.

Individually hand-carved from walrus ivory, and numbering 93 pieces in total – 82 of which are held by the British Museum, the remaining 11 by the National Museum of Scotland – the Lewis Chessmen are world famous for their mysterious origins, unique design and curious, almost comical expressions, which range from moody kings to a frightened-looking warder biting down on his shield. They even made a cameo in the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Lewis Chessmen Unmasked curator Dr David Caldwell revealed ten fascinating facts about the artefacts, covering everything from the story behind their enchanting expressions to a new theory on when and where on Lewis they were found, why it’s unlikely that a handful of missing Chessmen will ever be discovered, and why the 82 pieces owned by the British Museum will most likely never be repatriated.

Continue here to discover the “10 things you didn’t know about…”

The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked (Exhibition)

Acropolis Museum celebrates first anniversary

From ana.gr:

New Acropolis Museum Entrance

More than two million people have visited the new Museum of the Acropolis during its first year of operation, according to figures presented by the museum to mark the first anniversary since it first opened to the public on June 20, 2009.

The museum’s board chairman Prof. Demetris Pandermalis said the museum received a total of 2,010,641 visitors in that time, had set research and scientific goals, made progress in the area of conservation and also in educational programmes.

He also announced the launch of the museum’s first touring exhibition “Pericles Xanthippos” on June 20. This uses archaeological finds such as inscriptions, coins and other artifacts to illustrate and explore the life of the famous ancient Athenian statesman, the man who led Athens during its ‘Golden Age’ and who conceived the idea of building the Parthenon. The exhibition will run until January 31, 2011.

The Acropolis Museum is the first public museum in the country that operates as a public-sector legal entity and its aim is to cover its costs with its own revenues as much as possible. It currently employs a staff of 200, some of whom are contract workers and civil servants detached from the culture ministry. It currently covers its public utility bills on its own and gets financial assistance from the Organisation for the Building of the New Acropolis Museum (OANMA).

Once a presidential degree on the operation of the museum is completed, following delays caused by the change of ministers and government, this will allow the museum to address the issue of hiring managerial staff and the position of the director will be proclaimed.

Pandermalis also referred to the museum’s medical unit and in-house doctor, noting that this had dealt with 377 incidents from November 1, 2009 until May 31, 2010, of which 67 percent were visitors to the museum.

The ticket will remain at 5 euros in 2011, by decision of the museum’s board, while it has also allowed the lease of the restaurant and cafe area on terms decided by the museum management.

From ana.gr

Acropolis Museum

The rescued treasures of Afghanistan

From Young Germany:

Tillya Tepe, Thierry Ollivier © Musée Guimet/Réunion des musées nationaux (RMN), Paris

Excavation of prehistoric sites has revealed that Afghanistan has some 50,000 years of human history. Its farming communities were some of the earliest anywhere in the world and it served as a strategic East-West point along the Silk Road trading route. The ancient Aryan tribes brought Indo-Iranian languages, and great empires conquered and absorbed the lands into their domains.

For the first time in Germany, the Bundeskunsthalle presents the legendary treasures of Afghanistan which have miraculously survived years of instability and war. The Bonn exhibition reveals this synthesis of cultures immediately. Greek, Persian and Indian motifs are on-display from a richly detailed Aphrodite with angel wings to an Indian bindi next to Eros riding a dolphin.

The spectacular gold, silver and ivory objects are witness to the Kingdom of Bactria, a civilization which grew in ancient Afghanistan at the interface of cultures along the Silk Road, becoming a kind of melting pot of East and West. Resulting from Alexander the Great’s campaign in 330 BC, more and more Greeks and Macedonians moved into the ancient cultural landscape, influencing the Bactrian high culture.

From the Bronze Age settlement Tepe Fullol in ancient Bactria (around 2000 BC) there are delicately crafted gold and silver objects – the oldest pieces in the exhibition. The gold vases reveal a refined aesthetic and underscore the fundamental importance that Bactria played in the exchange between the Middle East and India in particular.From Ai Khanum, one of the cities founded by Alexander the Great, evidence of the Greek-Hellenistic influence on the edge of the steppe is presented. The Greek presence in Central Asia was a cornerstone of the development of art south of the Hindu Kush. The findings show the purity of Greek tradition, as well as a symbiosis with oriental styles.

Bactrian Aphrodite, Tillya Tepe (Grave 6), Thierry Ollivier © Musée Guimet/Réunion des musées nationaux (RMN), Paris

The focus of the exhibition are the imposing gold finds from the six graves in the Tillya Tepe from the 1st century AD. The “gold hill” takes its name from the extraordinary diversity and sophistication of the jewelry found there with its precious stones. The exquisite jewels are obvious evidence of Greco-Roman, Indian and even Chinese interactions.

The exhibit concludes with the great finds of Bagram, the former Alexandria of the Caucasus. The treasures stem from two bricked-up chambers in a former royal palace. The artistically carved ivory objects testify to the Indian influence in the region. In addition there are numerous glass vases, bronzes and other pieces binding Alexandria and the Roman world.

The Afghan treasures are of priceless art and cultural value. For many years, the objects in the exhibition were thought to have been stolen or destroyed. Given the unstable situation at the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, courageous employees of the Kabul National Museum hid the most important objects and artifacts in the late 1980s. Only in 2004 was the Presidential Palace in Kabul opened again to reveal the treasures.

230 of the most valuable pieces are on-stage in Bonn. In addition to telling Afghanistan’s history, the unique exhibition hopes to elucidate the ancient interplay between cultures.

From Young Germany

The Exhibition “Afghanistan. Rescued Treasures” is on display until October 3rd 2010.

Official exhibition website

Teotihuacan – Mexico’s Mysterious Pyramid City

Excellent news for all the Aztec aficionados – “Teotihuacan – Mexico’s Mysterious Pyramid City” is the name of an exhibition to be presented by the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin from 1 July to 10 October 2010.

In memoriam Felipe Solís Olguin (1944–2009)
The initiator and curator of this exhibition was Felipe Solís Olguín, who had brought the “Aztecs” to Berlin in 2003. The director of the world-famous “Museo Nacional de Antropología” in Mexico City died in April 2009, a few weeks before the great show opened there. The exhibition is dedicated to his memory.

Here are some more details from Berliner Festspiele:

Exhibition poster

More than 450 outstanding objects giving a comprehensive insight into the art, everyday life and religion of this enigmatic culture will be on view in Europe for the first time. They include specimens of monumental architecture, filigree vessels and figures, costly stone carvings, masks, statues of gods and representations of animals as well as examples of highly symbolic murals which have retained their brilliant colours since their creation some 2,000 years ago. Permission has been given for the first (and probably the last) time for the 15 large-format fragments of murals to be sent abroad. Numerous exhibits were only discovered in the latest excavations.

In its Classical Epoch (100 B.C. to 650 A.D.) Teotihuacan was the first, largest and most influential metropolis on the American continent. Some thousand years later, in the 14th century, when the Aztecs discovered the abandoned ruins of the city, they gave it the name of Teotihuacan – “the place at which men become gods” – and used it as the setting for their own creation myth.

Archaeological Site
Located nearly 50 kilometres to the north of Mexico City, Teotihuacan has had UNESCO heritage status since 1987 and is the most frequently visited of Mexico’s 170 accessible archaeological sites. The pyramid city lies in a wide valley that has been settled since time immemorial. Between the first century B.C. and about 650 A.D. the inhabitants laid out a unique Ceremonial Centre on the basis of astronomical observations. The main pyramids are the 63-metre-high Pyramid of the Sun, (Pirámide del Sol) with a lateral length of 215 metres, and the 48-metre-high Pyramid of the Moon (Pirámide de la Luna) at the northern end of the two kilometre-long Avenue of the Dead (Calzada de los Muertos). The southern end of the ensemble, of which only a fraction has been excavated and studied, is dominated by what the Spaniards called the “Citadel” (Ciudadela), containing the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent (Templo de la Serpiente Emplumada), and the Aztec Rain God, Tlaloc, which is decorated with 365 sculptures of these divinities. In this complex and under the Pyramid of the Moon archaeologists have made important discoveries in recent decades, showing that burials and sacrificial offerings, wars and taking of captives, were part of everyday life in Teotihuacan.

The City

Pyramid of the Sun

Until its mysterious end in the 7th century, which was accompanied by a devastating fire, Teotihuacan was a powerful political, military, economic and cultural centre that influenced the whole of Mesoamerica, especially in the fields of architecture and art. The area covered by the city, which in its heyday was home to over 160,000 people and was one of the greatest cities in the world, was about 20 square kilometres. It was laid out along wide avenues and had efficiently functioning drainage and water-supply systems. The imposing and splendid pyramids, temples and palaces were coated with stucco and decorated with murals in brilliant colours. There were public buildings, administrative quarters, and various residential areas. Particularly worthy of note are the accommodations and workshops kept for visiting artists, craftsmen and traders from such places as Oaxaca or the Maya cities, who contributed to the city’s prosperity.

The Exhibition
Treasures from leading Mexican museums have been brought together for this exhibition. Most of the exhibits come from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and the two museums in Teotihuacan itself. In addition, the Anahuacalli Museum – built by Diego Rivera for his collection of pre-Spanish sculptures – has for the first time lent valuable items.

The exhibition is divided into nine sections. The first item to welcome the visitor is the Great Jaguar of Xalla, one of the more recent finds from a palace complex and a characteristic example of decorative monumental architecture. An introduction to the development of the city and its archaeological history is followed by a section on architecture and town planning as represented by sculptures, friezes and murals. The social themes of politics, hierarchies, economy, war and commerce are represented by a multitude of objects, including stone sculptures, clay vessels and jade jewellery. Obsidian, for example, was the material from which weapons were made, Teotihuacan being a great manufactory of weapons. There is a spectacular reconstruction of a tomb found under the Pyramid of the Moon in the course of an excavation campaign in 1998-2004. Original objects are shown in glass cases. A special category may be seen in the “innkeeper figures”, which house inside them tiny, elaborately shaped figurines arranged as in a seedling box. Religion, gods and rituals, urban and social life, art, crafts and workshops as well as cultural exchange are further themes of this unique show, which displays a wealth of new findings.

From Berliner Festspiele

Museum of Art and Archaeology of the Côa Valley

The Côa Valley (Portugal) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, inscribed in the WH List in 1998 under the official name of “Prehistoric Rock-Art Sites in the Côa Valley“. According to WHC: this exceptional concentration of rock carvings from the Upper Palaeolithic (22,000–10,000 B.C.) is the most outstanding example of early human artistic activity in this form anywhere in the world.

From ArchDaily:

The Museum of Art and Archaeology in the Côa Valley is conceived as an installation in the landscape. The monolithic triangular form is a direct result of the valley’s confluences. Its materiality evokes the local stone yards and reflects two different natures: the concrete’s matter, and the local stone’s texture and colour.

Architects: Camilo Rebelo + Tiago Pimentel/Sandra Barbosa

For more amazing images and plans of the museum, including detailed information, visit ArchDaily here.