Neolithic feasts at Stonehenge

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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.”

SOURCE.

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Face of Scythian warrior revealed

The Scythian man’s face, showing a scar from his eye socket to his jaw. Photograph: British Museum
The Scythian man’s face, showing a scar from his eye socket to his jaw.
Photograph: British Museum

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.

Dr Svetlana Pankova with the head as it is scanned in St Petersburg. Photograph: British Museum

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.”

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The man’s clay mask. Photograph: British Museum

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 exhibition, Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia, also has loans from the new National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Ashmolean and the Royal Collection in the UK.

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.

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A gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear, part of the exhibition. Photograph: V Terebenin/The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

“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.”

Source.

The world’s largest sunken ship museum in İstanbul

From Today’s Zaman:

The world’s largest sunken ship museum will be established in İstanbul thanks to finds from the Port of Theodosius dating back to the fourth century, which was discovered in Yenikapı during excavations in the Marmaray project, an undersea commuter tunnel linking Asia and Europe.

Scientists studying the 36 sunken ships salvaged at the Yenikapı archeological site have been able to identify the trees used in building the vessels and their methods of construction.

Professor Ünal Akkemik from the forest engineering department at the forestry faculty of İstanbul University has said that the ships, dating back to the fourth century, were mainly made of oak. Noting that they are confident of uncovering the dates and methods of construction, Akkemik said: “So far 36 ships have been retrieved during the excavations, and I have conducted wood-related assays on 27 of them. We have completed our studies on 20 vessels. These ships were built mainly using oak trees as well as plane, chestnut, pine, cypress, common ash and beech. Some vessels were largely made of oak but had chestnut for the outer portions and oak for inner components. Others were mainly constructed using pine trees.”

Excavations during the Marmaray project had uncovered several archeological sites that would open a new chapter in the history of İstanbul, the Byzantine Empire and the world. These sites include secret passages, tombs, churches, works from the Bronze Age, ports, vessels and city walls that have been unknown to us until now. The archeological site at Yenikapı uncovered the ancient Port of Theodosius and with it, 36 sunken ships dating back from the fourth century were exposed to the light of day. Scientists at the laboratories of the forestry faculty at İstanbul University conducted several studies on samples from these ships to identify the trees used in their construction as well as their dates of construction. Akkemik said he has been analyzing the samples for two years. “The samples were sent to us after the sunken ships were salvaged. We conducted various tests and identified the materials used in building these ships. Four of these vessels were galleys. The rest were light commercial vessels,” he said.

Akkemik notes that ship no. 12 from the Yenikapı archeological site was the first vessel he examined in the group. “The trees used to build this ship were oak, chestnut, common ash, beech and walnut. All of these except for walnut can be found in the Belgrade Forest [in İstanbul]. This ship was probably constructed in or near İstanbul. Hard and durable woods from oak trees were used for the skeleton. Although oak is common in Turkey, we don’t know whether the oak used in this ship was procured from Turkey or elsewhere. It may have been procured from Romania or Bulgaria,” he said.

From Today’s Zaman.

 

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)

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