MACHU PICCHU – rare tombs discovered

Eighty skeletons and stockpiles of textiles found in caves near the ancient Inca site of Machu Picchu may shed light on the role that the so-called lost city of the Inca played as a regional center of trade and power, scientists say.

Researchers found the artifacts and remains at two sites within the Machu Picchu Archaeological Park in southeastern Peru, said Fernando Astete, head of the park.

The remains, most of which were found in May 2008 at a site called Salapunku, probably date to 500 to 550 years ago, said Francisco Huarcaya, the site’s lead researcher.

Due to extensive looting, however, as much as 75 percent of the fabrics found wrapped around the remains are in “bad shape,” Huarcaya said.

So far only the heads and shoulders of most of the bodies have been uncovered, Astete added.

“The head and shoulder bones are seen first, because the Inca buried their dead [sitting] in the fetal position,” he explained.

Formal excavations will soon begin at both sites. Huarcaya plans to exhume the remains of five people at Salapunku later this month.

The modest funerary wrappings, made of vegetable fiber, and the simple grave objects, including unadorned ceramics, suggest that the dead unearthed at Salapunku were peasant farmers, Huarcaya said. Weavers have been found accompanied by their weaving baskets, balls of thread, looms, and textiles, according to Guillermo Cock, an expert on Andean cultures.

Textiles found at the second site, called Qhanabamba, discovered in August 2008, may also provide clues to the social rank of the dead.

Peasants were more likely to have been buried with textiles made from llama wool, while wool of the vicuña-a relative of the llama-was reserved for nobility, said Astete, the park’s director.

“Finding organic material in the mountains is significant because it’s so scarce,” he said. “The humidity from rain decomposes individuals and textiles.”

Analysis of the bones should also reveal age at death, sex, cause of death, diet, and perhaps even the dead’s occupations, Astete added.

“We should be able to tell whether these people carried large burdens to help construct terraces, for example. Their bones will be bent, not straight. They will have deformities,” he explained.

“Bones will also tell us about their diets and diseases. A fracture would reveal an accident.”

The burial of human remains held special significance for the Inca, added Huarcaya, the lead researcher.

“The remains in tombs are like the guardians of the population in Andean ideology,” he said. “For [ancient Andeans], death does not exist.”

Machu Picchu

Built around 1460, the city of Machu Picchu seems to have been abandoned after the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, though it was never found by the conquerors.

Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham brought Machu Picchu to worldwide attention after local Indians led him to the site in 1911.

The new discoveries promise to shed light on the mystery of the ancient city and its role within the Inca Empire, Cock said.

“We know Machu Picchu, but we don’t know its surrounding areas,” he said.

“I think new material will be found that will help us understand the Inca’s relationship with the region.”

Original article

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Mass grave in the centre of Oxford

Archaeologists now believe a dozen skeletons discovered in a mass grave in the centre of Oxford may have belonged to executed criminals from Saxon times.

A team of three archaeologists have been digging in the quadrangle of St John’s College in Blackhall Road, off St Giles, for nearly two weeks since the discovery was made.

The bones of 12 or 13 bodies have gradually been uncovered after a body part was discovered 80cm below ground level by diggers excavating the plot before a new quadrangle is built.

City archaeologists have labelled the find the most exciting in Oxford for nearly half a century, and predict more bodies could be found in the area.

But they cannot date the corpses exactly because the bodies were stripped of clothing before they were thrown into the mass grave.

Sean Wallis, project manager for Thames Valley Archaeological Services, said: “We were expecting to find evidence of Medieval activity, but we did not picture to find any bodies.

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“They look as if they were all young men in their late teens, and we are looking at Saxon times.

“We originally thought they could be Roman but now we think it could be more recent, based on the condition of the bodies, which survived very well.

“We have no idea how many we will find – they are still popping up.”

The archaeologists’ job has been made more difficult by the fact the bodies have been thrown on top of one another, rather than laid out neatly like a Christian burial.

Mr Wallis said: “It looks like a mass grave.

“The bodies have been chucked in, and it doesn’t look as though there was a pit dug deliberately.

“They could be executed criminals or they could be battle victims. Some of it does look grisly. It doesn’t look as if they met a particularly nice end.

“It is exciting. I’ve been digging for 10 years and I’ve not found anything close to this.”

Brian Durham, Oxford City Council‘s archaeologist, said: “This is certainly rare. I haven’t seen anything like it in the 40 years I’ve been digging in the city.

“The idea that they might be battle victims is possible, but I think we will only know that if we start finding war wounds on them as they remove them. They are all males of fighting age so it makes sense.”

He said the 12m by 3m spot could have been some sort of memorial, and added: “These people’s bodies were stored somewhere else until they had decayed a bit, and then buried quite roughly.

“There are limbs lying on their own, but they are whole limbs.

“There were occasions when young men might have got chopped up. There are a couple of occasions when Oxford was beseiged and it is a possibility they could be casualties of battle.”

Original article title “Experts bone up on grisly relicsby OXFORD MAIL’S George Hamilton