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.”
Researchers investigating a 14th century burial ground have identified a rare case of “coffin birth” – a gruesome phenomenon in which a deceased pregnant woman’s fetus is expelled within the grave.
The remains of a mother and fetus were buried alongside those of two other children in the early days of the Black Death in Italy, however researchers cannot say for certain that they died of the plague [Credit: Fabrizio Benente (Universita di Genova – DAFIST)]
The event, which has seldom been reported in archaeology, is known as postmortem fetal extrusion. It results from a build-up of gas pressure within the decomposing body.
“In this case, we have a partial expulsion of a 38- to 40-week-old fetus, which was found to be complete and to lie within the birth canal,” Deneb Cesana, at the University of Genova, told Seeker.
The remains of the woman and her unborn baby were originally uncovered in 2006, interred with two other young individuals that scientists say were aged 12 and three years old. Only recently has the discovery been fully investigated.
The research was led by Cesana and her colleagues Ole Jørgen Benedictow, a plague historian at the University of Oslo, and Raffaella Bianucci, a bioanthropologist at the University of Warwick in England. Their work appears in the journal Anthropological Science.
The gravesite was found in the cemetery of the “ospitale” (hostel) of San Nicolao di Pietra Colice, located some 45 miles from Genova.
The hostel, which also housed a church, was situated in the Northern Apennines at about 2,600 feet above sea level, and was used as a resting place by travelers and pilgrims heading to Rome and trekking along the two major transit routes of the Liguria region.
“The woman was found laying slightly on her side, while on her left there were two young individuals of unknown sex,” said archaeologist Fabrizio Benente, of the University of Genova.
Benente, who was not involved in the anthropological study, directed the excavation campaign with a team of the International Institute of Ligurian Studies and the University of Genova.
“This was the only multiple burial found at the cemetery,” he said. “The others were all single graves.”
(a) Skeleton of the adult female (b) Skeleton of the 12-year-old sub-adult (c) Skeleton of the 3-year-old sub-adult (d) Skeleton of the 38–40-week-old fetus [Credit: Cesana, D., Benedictow, O.J., & R. Bianucci]
He added that the corpses had been buried simultaneously and directly into the soil, and dated the burial to the second half of the 14th century.
The timing corresponded to the arrival of the Black Death in Genoa in 1348. The researchers hypothesized that the woman and the two children likely died of the bubonic plague.
Bianucci’s analysis confirmed that three of the four individuals – the woman, the fetus, and the 12-year-old child – tested positive for the F1 antigen of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague.
“This is the first evidence of Y. pestis infection in 14th-century Liguria,” Bianucci said.
“Our finding supports the notion that the contagion, which had originally started from Genoa’s port area, progressively spread and disseminated through the main communication routes,” she added.
Anthropological investigations carried out and funded by the Archaeological Museum of Sestri Levante and the Archaeological Superintendency of Liguria showed that the woman, who was about 5 feet 11 inches tall, was between 30 and 39 years old when she died.
It emerged that she had several ailments during her life. Her teeth revealed localized periodontitis and linear enamel hypoplasia – a band-like dental defect that denotes childhood physiological stress – while her bones showed evidence of other diseases.
The woman also suffered from congenital hip dysplasia and was likely affected by Legg–Calvé–Perthes disease, a childhood condition that affects the hip, resulting in a permanent deformity of the head of the thigh bone (femur). She likely walked with a limp.
The skeleton of the 12-year-old showed signs of lesions that were possibly linked to metabolic diseases or nutritional deficiencies. The 3-year-old child had no evidence of disease.
The researchers have not yet conducted DNA analysis that will determine the sex of the children and whether they have a relationship with the pregnant woman.
According to Benente, it is possible that they were her children. He believes that they ended up in the mountains, far from the villages, because the hostel of San Nicolao might have worked as a lazaretto, a hospital for people afflicted with contagious diseases.
“She was in advanced pregnancy and limping,” Benente said. “This wasn’t the best condition to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, possibly with two kids.”
According to the authors of the study, every conclusion is premature before DNA tests and further research are carried out.
“At the moment we can really only say that the skeleton of this unfortunate and frail woman is providing us with a new case of coffin birth,” Bianucci said, “which adds to the limited number reported so far.”
For a large part of human prehistory, people around the world practised trepanation: a crude surgical procedure that involves forming a hole in the skull of a living person by either drilling, cutting or scraping away layers of bone with a sharp implement.
To date, thousands of skulls bearing signs of trepanation have been unearthed at archaeological sites across the world.
But despite its apparent importance, scientists are still not completely agreed on why our ancestors performed trepanation.
Anthropological accounts of 20th-Century trepanations in Africa and Polynesia suggest that, in these cases at least, trepanation was performed to treat pain – for instance, the pain caused by skull trauma or neurological disease.
Trepanation may also have had a similar purpose in prehistory. Many trepanned skulls show signs of cranial injuries or neurological diseases, often in the same region of the skull where the trepanation hole was made.
But as well as being used to treat medical conditions, researchers have long suspected that ancient humans performed trepanation for a quite different reason: ritual.
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The earliest clear evidence of trepanation dates to approximately 7,000 years ago. It was practised in places as diverse as Ancient Greece, North and South America, Africa, Polynesia and the Far East. People probably developed the practice independently in several locations.
Trepanation had been abandoned by most cultures by the end of the Middle Ages, but the practice was still being carried out in a few isolated parts of Africa and Polynesia until the early 1900s.
Since the very first scientific studies on trepanation were published in the 19th Century, scholars have continued to argue that ancient humans sometimes performed trepanation to allow the passage of spirits into or out of the body, or as part of an initiation rite.
However, convincing evidence is hard to come by. It is almost impossible to completely rule out the possibility that a trepanation was carried out for medical reasons, because some brain conditions leave no trace on the skull.
However, in a small corner of Russia archaeologists have turned up some of the best evidence for ritual trepanation ever discovered.
The story begins in 1997. Archaeologists were excavating a prehistoric burial site close to the city of Rostov-on-Don in the far south of Russia, near the northern reaches of the Black Sea.
The site contained the skeletal remains of 35 humans, distributed among 20 separate graves. Based on the style of the burials, the archaeologists knew that they dated to between approximately 5,000 and 3,000 BC, a period known as the Chalcolithic or “Copper Age”.
One of the graves contained the skeletons of five adults – two women and three men – together with an infant aged between one and two years, and a girl in her mid-teens.
Finding multiple skeletons in the same prehistoric grave is not particularly unusual. But what had been done to their skulls was: the two women, two of the men and the teenage girl had all been trepanned.
Each of their skulls contained a single hole, several centimetres wide and roughly ellipsoidal in shape, with signs of scraping around the edges. The skull of the third man contained a depression which also showed evidence of having been carved, but not an actual hole. Only the infant’s skull was unblemished.
The job of analysing the contents of the grave fell to Elena Batieva, an anthropologist now at the Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. She immediately recognised the holes as trepanations, and she soon realised that these trepanations were unusual.
They had all been made in almost exactly the same location: a point on the skull called the “obelion”. The obelion is on the top of the skull and towards the rear, roughly where a high ponytail might be gathered.
Less than 1% of all recorded trepanations are located above the obelion point. What’s more, Batieva knew that such trepanations were even less common in ancient Russia. As far as she was aware at the time, there was just one other recorded case of an obelion trepanation: a skull unearthed in 1974 at an archaeological site remarkably close to the one she was excavating.
Clearly, finding even one obelion trepanation is remarkable. But Batieva was looking at five, all of them buried in the same grave. This was, and is, unprecedented.
There is a good reason why obelion trepanation is uncommon: it is very dangerous.
The obelion point is located directly above the superior sagittal sinus, where blood from the brain collects before flowing into the brain’s main outgoing veins. Opening the skull in this location would have risked major haemorrhage and death.
This suggests the Copper Age inhabitants of Russia must have had good reason to perform such trepanation procedures. Yet none of the skulls showed any signs of having suffered any injury or illness, before or after the trepanation had been performed.
In other words, it appeared as if all of these people were trepanned while they were completely healthy. Was their trepanation evidence of some sort of ritual?
It was an intriguing possibility. However, Batieva had to give up the trail. She had many more skeletons to analyse from all over southern Russia, and could not afford to get sidetracked by just a few skulls, however enigmatic.
Before she gave up, Batieva decided to search through Russia’s unpublished archaeological records, in case any more strange obelion trepanations had been discovered but not reported.
Surprisingly, she got two hits. The skulls of two young women with obelion trepanations had been discovered years earlier: one in 1980 and another in 1992. Each one had been unearthed less than 31 miles (50km) from Rostov-on-Don, and neither showed any signs of having been trepanned for a medical reason.
This gave Batieva a grand total of eight unusual skulls, all clustered in a small region of southern Russia and potentially all of about the same age. A decade later, even more came to light.
In 2011, an international team of archaeologists was analysing 137 human skeletons. They had recently been excavated from three separate Copper Age burial sites in a mountainous part of southern Russia called Kabardino-Balkaria, around 310 miles (500km) south-east of Rostov-on-Don, close to the modern-day border with Georgia.
The archaeologists had not set out to discover trepanations. They were there to learn about the general health of the prehistoric inhabitants of the region. But among the 137 skulls, they found nine with conspicuous holes.
Five of them were standard examples of trepanation. The holes had been made in a variety of different locations around the front and side of the skull, and all of the skulls showed signs of having suffered a physical trauma, suggesting that the trepanations had been performed to treat the effects of the injuries.
But none of the other four trepanned skulls showed any signs of damage or disease. What’s more, all four had been trepanned exactly above the obelion point.
Quite by chance one of the researchers – Julia Gresky, a German anthropologist – had already read Batieva’s paper describing the unusual trepanations from the Rostov-on-Don region.
The 12 skulls would have been remarkable discoveries wherever they had been found. But the fact that they were all discovered in the same tiny corner of Russia meant that a connection seemed likely. If there was no link, the odds that a batch of such rare trepanations would turn up exclusively in southern Russia would have been exceedingly low.
Gresky, Bateiva and their colleagues argue that, while this idea is difficult to prove, the clustering of these unusual trepanations suggests that southern Russia may have been a centre for ritual trepanation.
Maria Mednikova of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow is an expert on Russian trepanation. She believes that trepanations in specific, dangerous areas of the cranium may have been performed to achieve “transformations” of some kind. She suggests that, by trepanning in these places, people thought they could acquire unique skills that ordinary members of society did not have.
We can only speculate as to why these 12 apparently healthy people were trepanned in such an unusual and dangerous way. But thanks to the trepanation holes themselves, we can infer a surprising amount about the fate of the people after they received their trepanation.
One of the 12 skulls belonged to a woman under the age of 25, who had been buried at one of the sites near Rostov-on-Don. It showed no signs of healing, suggesting that she died during her trepanation or shortly afterwards.
However, the owners of the other skulls seem to have survived their operations. Their skulls showed bone healing around the edges of the trepanation holes – although the bone never completely re-grew over the holes.
Three of the 12 skulls showed only slight signs of healing around the trepanation hole, suggesting that their owners only survived between two and eight weeks after the operation. Two of these individuals were women between 20 and 35 years of age. The third was an elderly person between 50 and 70 years old, whose sex could not be determined.
The other eight skulls showed more advanced healing. Based on what we know about bone healing today, these individuals probably survived for at least four years after their operations.
These eight survivors included all five of the people from the mass grave near Rostov-on-Don, whose bizarrely-trepanned skulls first attracted Batieva’s attention almost 20 years ago.
The two men, two women and one adolescent girl had all survived with their obelion holes for years. The girl, who based on her skeleton was between 14 and 16 years old, must have been trepanned when she was no older than 12, and possibly much younger.
It is still possible that these 12 people were suffering from diseases or head injuries. In that case, the trepanning operation may have worked for at least eight of them.
But it is also possible that Batieva and her colleagues are right, and these people were trepanned for a ritual purpose. If that is true, we can only guess at what benefits they received – or believed they had received – throughout the rest of their lives.
They are proud of their Viking ancestors but are not as Norwegian as they might think. The lion’s share of the genes of Orkney Islanders can be traced to the native peoples who lived their several millennia before Norwegians invaded and annexed the islands in the 9th century.
British and Australian researchers have mapped the genetic structure of today’s Brits. They found that the only place where the Viking inheritance is genetically strong is the Orkney Islands. Orkney were under Norwegian rule for centuries and as a result, 25 percent of Orkney Islanders’ genes can be traced to Norway.
The locals tend to be enthusiastic about their Viking heritage, which has now also been strongly identified in their genes:
“The people here are very fond of Norway and I feel most welcome,” says Ragnhild Ljosland. The Norwegian researcher is an associate professor at the Centre for Nordic Studies at Orkney College in Kirkwall, which is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.
Ljosland’s research is in language, not genetics. She explains that words in Orkney dialect often have a close historic relationship to Norway:
“I feel that the Orkney dialect is just as Norwegian as it is Scottish,” she says. Ljosland mentions vowels, which have remained the same. For instance the Norwegian båt and the English boat, or the names for farming tools and animals. As for birds the Norwegian skarv (cormorant) is a scarfe in Orkney, a teist is a tistie and a lomvi is a loomie.
Ragnhild Ljosland explains that in the 15th and 16th centuries Norway and the the rest of Scotland shared stronger linguistic traits. Contemporary Norwegian and Scottish speech was then closely related.
Using the landscape
The Centre for Nordic Studies has initiated a project which also covers the way the Vikings made use of the landscape when they settled in the Orkneys.
“The Vikings came here and found a landscape which was already in use, with farms, paths and burial mounds. These mounds look like the ones in Norway from the Viking Era, but they actually pre-date them,” explains Ljosland.
The same goes for the genetic make-up of today’s Orkney Islanders. It traces back much further than many have believed. A surprisingly large amount of their genes stems from the Picts and other peoples who lived on the islands long before Harald Fairhair took control of them in 875.
The other Vikings who dominated parts of the UK – the Danes in Danelaw (or Danelagh) in Eastern England – have not left anything comparable to the DNA signature as the Norwegian Vikings in the Orkneys. In fact the population of the Orkneys is the most genetically distinct in the UK, thanks to a quarter of their DNA coming from Norwegian ancestors. Most of the population in Eastern, Southern and Central England is fairly homogenous. Prior to the mass migrations of the 20th century, the last immigrants to significantly alter the British genetic make-up were the Anglo Saxons who came in the 5th century after the Romans left Great Britain.
No equivalent in Celtic DNA
The Celtic languages and culture are seeing something of a revival in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. But the latest research shows that the Celtic impact is more a matter of culture than genes. The Celts in Southwest England’s Cornwall, for instance, were far closer related to other English groups than to the Celts in Wales and Scotland.
The international team of researchers behind the charting of the British genes is from the University of Oxford, University College London and Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia. The collected DNA samples from a carefully chosen geographically diverse sample of over 2,000 Brits. All of those selected had grandparents who were born less than 80 kilometres from one another. This has given the scientists information about the genes of the local populations in three generations.
The data was then compared with samples from 6,200 persons in ten different European countries.
Professor Peter Donnelly of the University of Oxford, who co-led the research, said in a press release: “It has long been known that human populations differ genetically, but never before have we been able to observe such exquisite and fascinating detail. By coupling this with our assessment of the genetic contributions from different parts of Europe we were able to add to our understanding of UK population history.”
Archaeologists uncovered the tomb dating from the fifth century BC in an industrial zone in the small town of Lavau, in France’s Champagne region. Inrap, which routinely scours construction sites in order to find and preserve the country’s archaeological heritage, began excavating at Lavau site in October 2014.
A 40-metre-wide burial mound of the Celtic ruler crowns a larger funeral complex, which archaeologists said preceded the royal’s final resting place, and could have first been built during the Bronze Age.
The prince was buried with his prized possessions, which archaeologists said were still being unearthed.
The most exciting find has been a large bronze-decorated cauldron that was used to store watered-down wine. Inrap said it appears to have been made by Etruscan craftsmen in what is now northern Italy.
Buried inside the cauldron was a surprisingly-well preserved ceramic wine pitcher made by Greeks.
The pieces “are evidence of the exchanges that happened between the Mediterranean and the Celts,” Inrap president Dominique Garcia recently told journalists on a field visit.
Garcia said the end of the sixth and beginning of the fifth centuries BC were characterised by the rise of Etruscan and Greek city states like Marseille in southern France.
Mediterranean merchants, seeking slaves, metals and other precious goods, opened trading channels with continental Celts, and often presented ornate goods as “a kind of diplomatic gifts” to local leaders, Garcia said.
The discovery was made in the basement of a Monoprix supermarket located on Rue Sebastopol. The archaeologists have found eight separate mass grave so far. Seven of them have between five and twenty individuals, buried two to five deep. The eighth grave has at least 150 dead. They were deposited carefully and show a deposit method very organized: at least two rows of individuals are filed “head to tail”, a third row seeming to grow beyond the limits of the excavation. The bodies are buried five to six deep.
“We expected it to have a few bones to the extent that it had been a cemetery but not find mass graves,” store manager Pascal Roy told Agence France Presse.
This very large mass grave appears to correspond to a mortality crisis whose cause is currently unknown. Adults (women and men of all ages) and children are represented. The skeletal remains do not show damage to immediately identify the cause of the mass death. Paris was struck by the Black Death in the 14th century, and suffered other plagues in following centuries.
“What is surprising is that the bodies were not thrown into the graves but placed there with care. The individuals – men, women and children – were placed head to toe no doubt to save space,” said archaeologist Isabelle Abadie, who is leading the dig.
The site was once home to l’hôpital de la Trinité, which was built in 1202. Located just outside the medieval walls of Paris, the hospital provided care for pilgrims and the poor. By the 16th century the site had become an orphanage and its buildings were torn down in 1817.
France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) plan to carry out extensive research on the site. They note that many aspects of funeral practices associated with medieval and early modern hospitals remain unknown in France, with less than a dozen sites in the country have been the subject of archaeological studies. They will soon carry out DNA testing in order to learn more about the people who were buried here.