Children revealed to be the metal workers of prehistoric Britain

Source.

Scientists believe that some 4,000 years ago children as young as 10 wrecked their eyesight embellishing weapons and jewellery with minute scraps of gold, creating dazzling pieces so fine that the detail can barely be picked out with the naked eye. They were some of the best prehistoric metal work ever found in Britain.

The children may have been working in Brittany, where the largest concentration of daggers decorated with the tiny gold pins have been found, but the finest of all was excavated more than 200 years ago from a burial mound half a mile from Stonehenge.

Daggers at the Wiltshire Heritage Museum, Devizes, discovered in 1808 in Bush Barrow, Salisbury Plain, the richest and most important bronze age grave ever excavated in Britain.

Only fragments of the original wooden dagger handle survive intact, but originally it was decorated with 140,000 tiny studs, each almost as fine as a human hair and set into the wood at more than 1000 to the square centimetre. The price of such extraordinary work would have been painfully high, leaving some of the young craft workers very short sighted by the age of 15 and partially blind by the age of 20.

Ronald Rabbetts, an expert on the optics of the human eye, believes that only children and young teenagers would have had sharp enough eyesight for the most detailed work more than a thousand years before the invention of any form of magnifying glass.

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It would quickly have damaged their sight, however, he believes, leaving them unfit for general work, but perhaps maintained by the tribe for the rest of their lives as specialist craft workers.

“Only children and teenagers, and those adults who had become myopic naturally or due to the nature of their work as children, would have been able to create and manufacture such tiny objects,” he said. “There would almost certainly have been a section of the bronze age artisan class who, often as a result of their childhood work, were myopic for their adult life. They would therefore have been unable to do any other work apart from the making of tiny artefacts and would have had to be supported by the community at large.”

The gold from the Bush Barrow burial mound, now on display in a new gallery at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, was already regarded as extraordinary – made using simple tools but with a sophisticated understanding of geometry and design. But this is the first time scientists have considered the human cost of such work.

Bush Barrow on Normanton Down

“Every time I’ve walked past the cases in our museum I’ve thought ‘how the hell did they make them?’ – and now we know,” David Dawson, curator of the museum, said. “Our metal worker, Neil Burridge, who has made many replica pieces for us, has called them “the work of the gods” – but now we know they weren’t gods but children.”

In the programme the micro-artist Willard Wigan, whose tiny sculptures mounted in the eye of a needle or the head of a pin are avidly collected across the world, attempted to recreate some of the tiny studs, working under a microscope. “I cannot see an adult doing that because your eyesight starts to deteriorate even at 21,” he said. “The quality of the work is phenenomenal.”

The Bush Barrow burial mound was excavated in 1808, a period when there was a craze among amateur archaeologists for digging up the past. The skeleton, buried when the great stone circle was already 1,000 years old, was described by William Cunnington, a wool merchant who dug up scores of burial mounds with local land owner Sir Richard Colt Hoare, as the remains of “a stout and tall man”. He was buried with one of the most spectacular collections of grave goods ever found in Britain, including an axe, a mace, a gold-belt plate, bronze and copper daggers, and an intricately decorated gold lozenge-shaped plaque on his chest.

The decayed wooden handle of one of the daggers had the most spectacular decoration, the tiny gold pins set so they overlapped like fish scales. Far more of it was intact when uncovered, but the ancient wood distintegrated: in a phrase to cause anguish to modern archaeologists, Cunnington described “a scatter of shining points of gold” as the excavator’s trowel hit the handle.

Dawson said there was something heartbreaking as well as fascinating about the discovery. “It forces you to think of children working in conditions like child labour in carpet factories today … the worst of it is they must have known it would ruin their eyesight, but still they persevered.”

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Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

British Museum blog

silver-gilt brooch detailRosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum

One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.

The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration; they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.

Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th…

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Black Death victims unearthed in London

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Skeletons unearthed during excavations for London’s Crossrail project are those of Black Death victims who were buried during the 14th and 15th Century pandemics, DNA analysis has revealed.

The skeletons of 13 men, three women and two children, along with seven other unidentifiable remains, were found under Charterhouse Square in Farringdon during excavation work for the £14.8 billion project.

It is thought that the area near the Barbican Centre, which was just outside the city boundary at the time, may be the location the location of the second emergency burial ground referenced in historical documents but until now it had never found.

Set up in the capital to cater for the masses of bodies, it means that thousands more could have been buried in a mass grave in the area. A ‘community excavation project’ is set to take place in July to try to determine the extent of the cemetery.

Carbon dating techniques on 10 of the skeletons conducted by scientists from Queen’s University Belfast indicated three separate “phases” of burials – coinciding with known separate outbreaks of the plague in the capital.

The Black Death spread from Europe to England in 1348 and the layer of bodies found at the bottom of the excavation site are estimated to have been buried between 1348 and 1349, while a second layer were dated to coincide with a second outbreak of the plague in 1361, the researchers said.

The final layer of bodies were laid to rest between 1433 and 1435 – when another devastating event of plague swept through London. Four of the skeletons had remnants of the Yersinia pestis bacterium – which causes plague – on their teeth, DNA analysis showed.

The findings will be featured in a new Channel 4 programme, Return Of The Black Death, during which scientists from Public Health England in Porton Down will argue that the DNA evidence shows that the plague must have been spread by coughs and sneezes rather than fleas on rats – as has been popular belief for many years.

The team led by Dr Tim Brooks argue that the infection spread so fast that it must have got into the lungs of already malnourished victims, meaning the outbreaks were in fact pneumonic plague rather than a bubonic plague.

Many of the bodies showed signs of poor health and of having jobs that involved heavy manual labour, the Queen’s University researchers said, noting a high rate of back damage and strain.

Four out of the 10 remains analysed are from people that grew up outside the capital, as far north as Scotland, showing that, just as today, London drew people from across the country.

Osteologist Don Walker, from the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola), said he was “amazed” how much information could be gleaned about each person.

“The skeletons discovered at Crossrail’s Farringdon site provide a rare opportunity for us to study the medieval population of London that experienced the Black Death,” he said.

“We can start to answer questions like: where did they come from and what were their lives like? What’s more, it allows for detailed analysis of the pathogen, helping to characterise the history and evolution of this devastating pandemic.”

Jay Carver, Crossrail’s lead archaeologist, added: “This is probably the first time in modern archaeological investigation that we have finally found evidence for a burial ground in this area which potentially contains thousands of victims from the Black Death and potentially later plague events as well.

“Historical documents suggest the burial ground was established for poor strangers. There is no doubt from the osteological work that the individuals buried here were not the wealthy classes, and they are representing the typical Londoner.”

Around 1.5 million Britons – more than a third of the population – died as a result of the Black Death, while about 25 million perished across Europe. More than 10,000 items of archaeological interest have been uncovered since the Crossrail project began.

1,500-year old plague victims discovered in Florence

A centuries-old burial pit packed with the bodies of probable plague victims has been discovered by chance near the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.

Workers who were digging the foundations for a new lift for an annex to the world-famous art galleries stumbled on the ancient cemetery, which contains at least 60 skeletons and dates to the fourth or fifth century AD.

The haphazard way in which the skeletons were found has led archaeologists to believe that they were probably buried in haste, possibly during a plague epidemic.

“They were all buried during the same period, so it was probably an epidemic that killed them,” said Andrea Pessina, the head of archaeology for the regional government of Tuscany.

Experts will conduct DNA and carbon-14 tests on the well-preserved skeletons to determine the cause and time of death, he said.

The skeletons showed no signs of physical injury or malnutrition.

“The remains bear no evidence of trauma,” said Mr Pessina, further supporting the theory that the people were killed by an epidemic.

The burial pit was found purely by chance. “We had to do some work to build the foundations of the new lifts for the museum and we came across this discovery,” said Alessandra Marino, an official in charge of the project.

Archaeologists believe there may well be more skeletons to discover, as they continue their excavations.

Epidemics such as the bubonic plague killed millions of people when they periodically swept across Europe, Asia and other parts of the world.

The best known epidemic, the Black Death of the 14th century, is estimated to have killed around 50 million people, or 60 per cent of Europe’s population.

Italy was badly hit by the disease, with one chronicler in Siena recalling bodies being buried in circumstances similar to those of the newly-discovered burial pit in Florence.

“In many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city,” wrote the chronicler, Agnolo di Tura, whose five children were killed by the epidemic.

From telegraph.

What wiped out almost a third of Londoners in 1258?

From The Guardian:

When archaeologists discovered thousands of medieval skeletons in a mass burial pit in east London in the 1990s, they assumed they were 14th-century victims of the Black Death or the Great Famine of 1315-17. Now they have been astonished by a more explosive explanation – a cataclysmic volcano that had erupted a century earlier, thousands of miles away in the tropics, and wrought havoc on medieval Britons.

Spitalfields Market in east London where 10,500 medieval skeletons were found.

Scientific evidence – including radiocarbon dating of the bones and geological data from across the globe – shows for the first time that mass fatalities in the 13th century were caused by one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 10,000 years.

Such was the size of the eruption that its sulphurous gases would have released a stratospheric aerosol veil or dry fog that blocked out sunlight, altered atmospheric circulation patterns and cooled the Earth’s surface. It caused crops to wither, bringing famine, pestilence and death.

The Icelandic volcano of 2010, which spewed out ash which disrupted flights for a few days, was miniscule in comparison.

Mass deaths required capacious burial pits, as recorded in contemporary accounts. In 1258, a monk reported: “The north wind prevailed for several months… scarcely a small rare flower or shooting germ appeared, whence the hope of harvest was uncertain… Innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were found lying all about swollen from want… Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection… The pestilence was immense – insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly. In London alone 15,000 of the poor perished; in England and elsewhere thousands died.”

There does not seem to have been any explanation at the time; it was probably assumed to be a punishment from God. London’s population at the time was around 50,000, so the loss of 15,000 would have radically changed the city.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the volcano’s exact location has yet to be established. Mexico, Ecuador and Indonesia are the most likely areas, according to volcanologists, who found evidence in ice cores from the northern hemisphere and Antarctic and within a thick layer of ash from Lake Malawi sediments. The ice core sulphate concentration shows that it was up to eight times higher than Indonesia’s Krakatoa eruption of 1883, one of the most catastrophic in history.

Some 10,500 medieval skeletons were found at Spitalfields market, the site of the Augustinian priory and hospital of St Mary Spital, and the remains suggest there may have been as many as 18,000. The excavation between 1991 and 2007 by the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola) was the largest ever archaeological investigation in the capital. It was a member of that team, osteologist Don Walker, who discovered the link with a volcano. The findings will be revealed in Mola’s report, to be published on Monday.

“That was a eureka moment,” he told the Observer. “These people living in medieval London would have had no idea that this global event – one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the Holocene, which is the last 10,000 years, and certainly the largest of the last millennium – was causing the problems.”

He now believes that mass burials in medieval pits across Britain and Europe might also have been caused by the same disaster.

When the skeletons were found, he said: “People immediately thought Black Death, or battle graves, but there wasn’t enough evidence of injuries.” Radiocarbon dating revealed dates around 1250. “So we thought ‘what could it be’?”

Delving into documentary evidence he found references in 1257-58 to “heavy rains” and “a failure of the crops; …a famine ensued… many thousand persons perished”. Specific diseases of malnutrition – scurvy and rickets – were also found among some skeletons, although malnutrition would not have been the sole cause of death during famine. Many would have suffered hunger-induced diseases, such as dysentery, and diseases which are more a product of social disruption caused by famine, such as typhoid fever.

In exploring the cause of such devastation, he discovered that volcanologists had been trying to locate the site of this massive volcano. He said: “What is new is linking the cause of the deaths of so many thousands to this volcano. No-one has linked it to archaeological evidence – and specifically to these mass burial pits. Documentary evidence is not necessarily reliable, whereas now we’ve got physical evidence.”

Mass burial pit in east London – next to Spitalfields Market

Volcanologist Bill McGuire, author of Waking the Giant, on how climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, said: “Volcanoes have a very long reach because they can impact climate…They don’t just affect people nearby.”
He cited an Icelandic eruption in 1783 which produced a sulphurous cloud that hung over Europe for nearly a year, affecting air quality and causing thousands of deaths.

The 13th-century eruption was far bigger, he said. “This was the biggest eruption in historic times. It may have brought the temperatures down by 4°c, a huge amount. Because it was somewhere in the tropics it meant that the winds of both hemispheres were able to carry these gases right across the planet. If you have a volcanic eruption at high latitudes, then the gases will stay in the northern hemisphere. But if you have an equatorial or tropical eruption that’s big enough, then the sulphur gases can spread into both hemispheres and really encircle the whole planet in a sulphurous veil.”

McGuire is Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. Asked whether another such volcanic eruption is due, he said: “It’s been pretty quiet for a while. I’m looking forward to something big.” Only a volcanologist would take that view.

“Frankenstein” mummies discovered in Scotland

From ANN:

In a “eureka” moment worthy of Dr. Frankenstein, scientists have discovered that two 3,000-year-old Scottish “bog bodies” are actually made from the remains of six people.

According to new isotopic dating and DNA experiments, the mummies—a male and a female—were assembled from various body parts, although the purpose of the gruesome composites is likely lost to history. The mummies were discovered more than a decade ago below the remnants of 11th-century houses at Cladh Hallan, a prehistoric village on the island of South Uist (map), off the coast of Scotland. The bodies had been buried in the fetal position 300 to 600 years after death.  Based on the condition and structures of the skeletons, scientists had previously determined that the bodies had been placed in a peat bog just long enough to preserve them and then removed. The skeletons were then reburied hundreds of years later.


Terry Brown, a professor of biomedical archaeology at the University of Manchester, said there were clues that these bog bodies were more than they seemed. On the female skeleton, “the jaw didn’t fit into the rest of the skull,” he said. “So Mike [Parker Pearson, of Sheffield University] came and said, Could we try to work it out through DNA testing?”

Brown sampled DNA from the female skeleton’s jawbone, skull, arm, and leg. The results show that bones came from different people, none of whom even shared the same mother, he said. The female is made from body parts that date to around the same time period. But isotopic dating showed that the male mummy is made from people who died a few hundred years apart.

Quick Dip in the Bog 

Another clue to the odd nature of the Cladh Hallan mummies is their unusually well-preserved bones. A peat bog is a high-acid, low-oxygen environment, which inhibits the bacteria that break down organics, said Gill Plunkett, a lecturer in paleoecology at Queen’s University Belfast who was not involved in the current study.

“The combined conditions are particularly good for the preservation of most organic materials,” she said.

“But on the other hand, the acidic conditions will attack calcium-based materials,” so most known bog bodies have better preserved skin and soft tissue than bones.

In the Cladh Hallan bodies, the bones are still articulated—attached to each other as they would be in life. This suggests that the buriers removed the bodies from the peat bog after preservation but before acid destroyed the bones. When the mummies were later reburied in soil, the soft tissue again began to break down. The researchers aren’t sure why the villagers went through this unusual process, or why they built composite mummies in the first place. A cynical theory, study author Brown said, assumes that the Bronze Age people of Cladh Hallan were just eminently practical: “Maybe the head dropped off and they got another head to stick on.”

Another possibility is that the merging was deliberate, to create a symbolic ancestor that literally embodied traits from multiple lineages. Brown cites the example of the Chinchorro mummies discovered in the Chilean Andes, where embalmers reinforced or reconstructed bodies with sticks, grass, animal hair, or even sea lion skin.

“It seems the person is not so important, but the image is. So it’s not a single identity, but it’s representing something.”

More Combo Mummies Out There? 

According to Brown, there may be other composite bodies waiting to be discovered. Often when scientists study the DNA of very ancient remains, they sample only one part of a body to prevent needless damage to the skeleton. Additional composite bodies, if they exist, are likely to come from such long-ago time periods.

“I think you’d have to go back to a time when the rituals were more bizarre,” Brown said. “You’d have to go back to the mists of unrecorded time.”

The new paper about the composite female mummy appears in the August issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.