An Age of Plunder

From the New York Times (hat tip: Dan Franke): a review of Toby Wilkinson, A World Beneath the Sands: The Golden Age of Egyptology

No civilization has visited itself upon the Western imagination as powerfully as that of ancient Egypt. With its fathomless mystery, its architectural majesty, its artistic inspiration, civic order and sheer volume of wealth, ancient Egypt has captivated us and compelled us not just to understand it but to possess it — to literally grab our shovels, dig up its stuff and haul it home with us.

Who’s “us”? By all accounts just about everybody in history who found himself in Egypt while the digging was easy, and even long after Egyptian law made it difficult. The idea was that possession of a nice piece of ancient Egyptian art would lend a stamp of legitimacy — a greater greatness, let’s say — to any empire or, indeed, any private back garden in Dorset. The Greeks pondered it, the Romans started it and various Europeans got awfully good at it. But, as the Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson demonstrates in his excellent new book, “A World Beneath the Sands,” nobody in history succumbed more feverishly to the compulsion to take hold of ancient Egypt nor succeeded at it more thoroughly than the British and the French.

Wilkinson’s ambitious focus is the hundred years of Egyptology between Jean-Francois Champollion’s groundbreaking deciphering of the Rosetta stone in 1822 and Howard Carter’s sensational discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. During that century of exploration and excavation the science of Egyptology was shaped as much by benevolent curiosity and genuine scholarly interest as by the cutthroat imperialist rivalry between Britain and France.

Both nations had a burning desire to best the other in the struggle to gain control of Egypt politically and archaeologically, and both used the Egyptian collections in their national museums — the Louvre and the British Museum — as the measure and symbol of their success. Whoever seized the biggest statues and tallest obelisks, whoever got the best and the most of Egyptian antiquity and lugged it home and filled their museum with it would be the de facto winner. Winner of what exactly isn’t Wilkinson’s present concern, but his evidence suggests it meant more than just colonial expansion or the crucial access to India that Egypt offered. The bitter contest was, it seems, as much pathological as it was practical.

Read the whole thing, and also Brian Fagan, The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt (2004). 

The Gjellestad Longship

News from Norway (hat tip: David Winter):

Norway excavates a Viking longship fit for a king

Pyramids, castles, palaces: symbols of power and status have taken many forms down the ages, and for the Vikings what really counted was the longship.

This month Norwegian archaeologists hope to complete their excavation of a rare, buried longship at Gjellestad, an ancient site south-east of Oslo. It is the first such excavation in Norway for about a century.

Most of the ocean-going ship has rotted away over the centuries, but archaeologist Dr Knut Paasche believes the layout of the iron nails will still enable a replica to be built eventually.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) revealed it to be about 19m (62ft) long and 5m (16ft) wide – putting it on a par with the well-preserved Oseberg and Gokstad Viking ships on display in Oslo.

Those ships were found on the western side of the wide Oslo Fjord.

In the 9th Century the Vikings started using sails, but they still needed strong rowers too for their epic voyages.

In their longships they travelled all around the British Isles, raiding coastal communities, then settling and leaving a legacy of fine craftsmanship, as well as Norse words and names.

The Norse Vikings ventured to Iceland and some then settled in Greenland and Vinland in North America – what later became Newfoundland.

The Gjellestad warrior longship dates from the pre-Christian Viking period 750-850 AD, Mr Paasche of the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (Niku) told the BBC.

“We don’t yet know if this was a rowing or sailing ship. Others, like the Gokstad and Tune ships, combined rowing and sailing,” he said.

Study of the keel will be crucial and, he said, “the keel looks very different from the others, which is really exciting”.

More at the link

The Dismal Swamp

From Smithsonian Magazine:

Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom

The Great Dismal Swamp was once a thriving refuge for runaways

The worse it gets, as I wade and stumble through the Great Dismal Swamp, the better I understand its history as a place of refuge. Each ripping thorn and sucking mudhole makes it clearer. It was the dense, tangled hostility of the swamp and its enormous size that enabled hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of escaped slaves to live here in freedom.

We don’t know much about them, but thanks to the archaeologist hacking through the mire ahead of me, we know they were out here, subsisting in hidden communities, and using almost nothing from the outside world until the 19th century. The Dismal Swamp covered great tracts of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina, and its vegetation was far too thick for horses or canoes. In the early 1600s, Native Americans fleeing the colonial frontier took refuge here, and they were soon joined by fugitive slaves, and probably some whites escaping indentured servitude or hiding from the law. From about 1680 to the Civil War, it appears that the swamp communities were dominated by Africans and African-Americans.

Read the whole thing.

In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history

From Business Insider:

The origin story of Stonehenge has baffled archaeologists for centuries.

The mysterious monument, erected in two waves of flurried construction 5,000 and 4,500 years ago, on the UK’s Salisbury Plain features two distinct types of stone slabs in half circles.

Researchers traced one stone type, the smaller bluestones, to a site in Wales. But the origin of Stonehenge’s 30-foot (9-meter) sandstone boulders, called sarsens, remained an unsolved puzzle until now. 

According to a study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, Stonehenge’s builders dragged most of these 50,000-pound (22,700-kilogram) sarsens from a woodland area in Wiltshire.

The area, called West Woods, is more than 15 miles (25 kilometers) from the monument — “which is insane really if you think about it,” David Nash, the lead author of the study, told Business Insider.

He added, “Our results suggest that most of the sarsens at Stonehenge share a common chemistry, which is why we’re saying they come from the same area.”

The findings could help archaeologists figure out how the builders transported the giant stones south.

More at the link.

Clovis Not First Anymore

A recent and significant find, as reported by Tom Metcalfe for NBC News (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

Ancient stone tools suggest first people arrived in America earlier than thought

Three deliberately-shaped pieces of limestone — a pointed stone and two cutting flakes — may be the oldest human tools yet found in the Americas.

Pieces of limestone from a cave in Mexico may be the oldest human tools ever found in the Americas, and suggest people first entered the continent up to 33,000 years ago – much earlier than previously thought.

The findings, published Wednesday in two papers in the journal Nature, which include the discovery of the stone tools, challenge the idea that people first entered North America on a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and an ice-free corridor to the interior of the continent.

Precise archaeological dating of early human sites throughout North America, including the cave in Mexico, suggests instead that they may have entered along the Pacific coast, according to the research.

Ciprian Ardelean, an archaeologist with the Autonomous University of Zacatecas in Mexico, the lead author of one of the papers, said the finds were the result of years of careful digging at the Chiquihuite Cave in north-central Mexico.

The steeply-inclined cave is high on a mountainside and filled with crumbling layers of gravel: “The deeper you go, the higher the risk for the walls to collapse,” he said.

The excavations paid off with the discovery of three deliberately-shaped pieces of limestone — a pointed stone and two cutting flakes — that may be the oldest human tools yet found in the Americas.

They date from a time when the continent seems to have been occupied by only a few groups of early humans – perhaps “lost migrations” that left little trace on the landscape and in the genetic record, Ardelean said.

More at the link. UPDATE: More at Nature.

Por-Bazhyn

Here is something interesting to see if you’re ever in Tuva. From the Siberian Times:

Mysterious mountain palace, one of the wonders of Siberia, was built in 777 AD

By Anna Liesowska

Breathtaking island complex close to Mongolian border rumoured to have been built for tragic Chinese princess.

New scientific findings have pin-pointed the date of the construction of stunning Por-Bajin in Lake Tere-Khol some 2,300 metres above sea level.

It was designed only for summer living between the magnificent Sayan and Altai ranges but in fact was never occupied.

Its purpose and inspiration have long perplexed experts, and it has amazed almost everyone who has ever ventured here to the very centre point of Eurasia.

As President Vladimir Putin said: ‘I have been to many places, I have seen many things. But I have never seen anything of the kind.’

Now, though, Por-Bajin has given up one key secret.

Research by the University of Groningen using a special carbon-14 dating technique has now established it was built in 777 AD, two decades later than the previous best guesses.

‘In the complex, the scientists found a beam with a spike from the year 775. As they were able to ascertain that the tree was felled two years later, the complex must have been constructed in 777,’ says a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings likely undermine the romantic theory that this was a royal summer home, as espoused by local academic Demir Tulush, of Tuva Institute of Humanities and Social and Economic Research.

He had suggested the version that it could be have been a ‘summer palace built for a Kha Khan’s wife’, possibly the spouse or intended partner of Byogyu-kagan, son of Boyan-Chor.

‘It is known that Chinese princesses could become the wives of Uighur and Turk Kha Khans,’ he explained.

‘Probably, one such princess was destined to live in this palace, but something happened to her on the way here, and she never came to the site. It was totally abandoned in 30 or 40 years.’

More at the link, including lots of images. I reprint the one at Wikipedia:

“Aerial view of site of Por-Bazhyn taken from a microlight plane before start of excavation season 2007.”

Shall These Bones Live?

From The Telegraph (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

Bones hidden in church revealed to be remains of one of England’s earliest saints

The discovery has been hailed as a ‘stunning result of national importance’

Bones hidden away by monks during the Reformation have been confirmed as belonging to one of England’s earliest saints who founded the country’s first nunnery. 

The seventh-century remains of St Eanswythe, a Kentish Royal Saint who was the daughter and granddaughter of Anglo-Saxon kings, have finally been identified by historians.

The relics survived the upheavals of the Dissolution of the Monasteries – in which King Henry VIII aimed to destroy the monastic system – after being squirrelled away in a lead box behind a church wall in Kent.

Her remains were discovered in 1885. However, it is only now – more than 1,300 years after her death and after carbon dating her teeth and bones – that historians believe they have finally identified England’s first abbess and one of the country’s earliest saints.

The remarkable discovery was made by Kent archaeologists and historians, working with Queen’s University in Belfast, who confirmed that human remains kept at the Church of St Mary and St Eanswythe Folkestone are almost certainly those of the saint.

The discovery has been hailed as “a stunning result of national importance” and has drawn comparisons with the exhumation of King Richard III after DNA confirmed that bones found beneath a Leicester car park in 2012 were those of the former king of England.

Read the whole thing, and the Finding Eanswythe website.

The Black Death

From Smithsonian Magazine (hat tip: Dan Franke):

Mass Grave Shows the Black Death’s ‘Catastrophic’ Impact in Rural England

At least 48 individuals were buried in a single grave in Lincolnshire, suggesting the community struggled to deal with an onslaught of plague victims

In the summer of 1348, the Black Death arrived in southwest England. The deadly disease rapidly swept through the country, ultimately killing between one-third and one-half of its population. Now, a team of researchers writing in the journal Antiquity has revealed new details about a mass grave of probable Black Death victims buried in the English countryside. The discovery offers rare insight into the plague’s “catastrophic” impact on rural communities.

The grave, located on the grounds of the historic Thornton Abbey in North Lincolnshire, was first excavated in 2013. Archaeologists unearthed the remains of at least 48 individuals, including 27 children. Differences in levels between the rows of bodies suggest the grave was “filled over the course of several days or weeks,” according to the study’s authors. Radiocarbon dating of two skeletons indicated the victims died sometime between 1295 and 1400, while ceramics and two silver pennies found in the grave helped experts narrow the date range down to the mid-14th century.

Though the researchers acknowledge that any number of factors could have driven the mass fatality in Lincolnshire, they suspect the Black Death is the “most probable cause.” Documentary evidence indicates the bubonic plague had hit Lincolnshire by the spring of 1349. What’s more, centuries-old DNA extracted from the teeth of 16 individuals buried at the site revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the disease.

The skeletons’ ages—which ranged from 1 year old to over 45—lend further credence to the theory that something devastating was at play. Hugh Willmott, a senior lecturer in European historical archaeology at the University of Sheffield and leader of the excavation, tells Live Science’s Mindy Weisberger that medieval cemeteries are typically dominated by very young and relatively old individuals, who are particularly susceptible to disease and injury.

“But what we’ve got is not that profile at all,” says Willmott. “We can tell from the proportion of individuals that everyone is being affected, and everyone is dying.”

Read the whole thing

The Original Windsor Castle

Wikipedia.

The oldest extant part of Windsor Castle is the central Round Tower, which dates from the twelfth century, although no visit would be complete without seeing St. George’s Chapel (fifteenth century, in the lower ward to the left) and the State Apartments (nineteenth century, in the upper ward to the right). Windsor is one of the more important royal castles, from which the current dynasty takes its name and derives its heraldic badge.

Wikipedia.

People forget, though, that Windsor was founded as a castle by William I shortly after the conquest – and now a vision of what that castle might have looked like has been produced. From the Independent:

the first Windsor Castle, built in 1071 to deter Anglo-Saxon rebels, is thought to have consisted of a multi-storey wooden keep on top of a large earthen mound flanked to its north and west by a two-and-a-half acre palisaded triangular courtyard (known as a bailey or ward).

It was probably built there for three very specific reasons. Being on a hill it was easier to defend and, because the Thames was unusually narrow at that point, it could be easily bridged. Indeed, it is now thought that the very first Windsor Bridge was probably built by William the Conqueror at the same time that the castle was erected. The third reason was its proximity to an Anglo-Saxon royal palace at Old Windsor – just one-and-a-half miles away.

The reconstruction of that first Windsor Castle (as it would have looked in around 1085) has just been published by the Royal Collection Trust (which manages most public access aspects of Windsor Castle) in a major new book – Windsor Castle: A Thousand Years of a Royal Palace.

Research – carried out by Dr Steven Brindle, co-author of the book and a leading expert on Windsor – has also generated the first ever archaeologically based modern reconstructions of Windsor Castle as it looked in 1216 and in 1272 (as well as in 1085). All three have just been published for the first time in the book.

Read the whole thing, which includes images from the new book. 

Links, Archaeological

• From Yleisradio Oy (Finland’s national broadcaster), news of the genetic origins of the Finns:

Iron Age DNA sheds light on Finns’ genetic origin

A new study suggests that during the Iron Age Finland was home to separate and different populations.

Researchers at Helsinki and Turku universities mapping ancient Finno-Ugric ancestry say modern-day Finns carry genes from diverse populations living in the region of Finland during the Iron Age.

They said they were able to reconstruct 103 complete mitochondrial genomes from archaeological bone samples, allowing them to trace maternal lineage. The samples were collected from burial sites across Finland and the Republic of Karelia, Russia.

Scientists found that genes associated with ancient farmer populations were more common in the east, whereas lineages inherited from hunter-gatherers were more prevalent in the west.

The SUGRIGE Finno-Ugric genome project said its study is the most extensive investigation to date focusing on the ancient DNA of people inhabiting the region of Finland.

• From Archaeology World, news of an interesting find in Yorkshire:

2,500-Year-Old Chariot Found – Complete with Rider And Horses

The managing director of Persimmon Homes in Yorkshire confirmed that an archaeological discovery of significant importance had been made. That discovery is a horse-drawn chariot from the Iron Age.

He went on to say that excavation is ongoing by archaeologists who will date the find along with detailing it.

During the Iron Age, it was common practice to bury chariots. What the archaeologists were not expecting to find was the remains of the rider of the chariot and the horses that pulled it.

The find dated back to 500 BC and at the time it was the only find of the kind in 200 years. To date, there have only been 26 chariots excavated in the UK.

Archaeologists said that it was unusual for horses to be buried along with the chariot and human remains.

• Monica Green in Eidolon:

When Numbers Don’t Count: Changing Perspectives on the Justinianic Plague

The Justinianic Plague, the pandemic that brought waves of plague to western Eurasia between 541 to about 750 CE, has been a feature of narratives about the “decline and fall of the Roman Empire” ever since the eighteenth century, when Edward Gibbon featured Procopius’s vivid description of plague’s assault on Constantinople in 542 during the reign of the Emperor Justinian. For two centuries since Gibbon, the Justinianic Plague (“JP” for short) received a few passing nods in accounts of the period we now call “late antiquity.” But overall, it elicited little attention from historians. Even in my own training as a historian of medicine in the 1970s and ’80s, it was barely a blip on the radar.

Not anymore! The JP has been known for some time as the “First Plague Pandemic” because it was followed by two others: the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century and the five-hundred-year reign of plague outbreaks it initiated in Eurasia and Africa, and then the Third Pandemic, which spread plague around the globe in the age of steamships at the turn of the twentieth century. (We have plague in Arizona, where I live, thanks to that last proliferation.)

All three pandemics, we know now, were caused by a single bacterium: Yersinia pestis. That finding is not actually surprising news, since Y. pestis’s role had been suspected ever since the bacterium was first discovered in 1894. Why, then, has the JP become a hot new topic, with more than a dozen new publications in the past five years, and more promised soon? For the same reason we often revisit old questions: because new evidence has become available. But some of that new evidence — in this case coming from genetics — is so new that most people don’t know what to make of it.

This might seem a debate of interest only to specialists in the history of medicine or demography and economics (who are concerned about assessing the pandemic’s effects on population levels), but for one urgent factor. The JP has now been linked to a pronounced change in climate that occurred in the sixth century. Indeed, such claims have been made for the Black Death, too. Does this mean that we should be looking at the events of the sixth century with new fearful eyes, scrutinizing the evidence for signs of disasters that might befall us, too? Perhaps not. The climate change that happened in the sixth century was global cooling, not warming. And viral diseases are a more likely threat to us than a bacterium like Y. pestis.

• From the BBC, some sad news:

Detectorists stole Viking hoard that ‘rewrites history’

Two metal detectorists stole a £3m Viking hoard that experts say has the potential to “rewrite history”.

George Powell and Layton Davies dug up about 300 coins in a field in Eye, near Leominster, Herefordshire, in 2015.

They did not declare the 1,100-year-old find, said to be one of the biggest to date, and instead sold it to dealers.

They were convicted of theft and concealing their find. Coin sellers Simon Wicks and Paul Wells were also convicted on the concealment charge.

The hoard included a 9th Century gold ring, a dragon’s head bracelet, a silver ingot and a crystal rock pendant. Just 31 coins – worth between £10,000 and £50,000 – and some pieces of jewellery have been recovered, but the majority is still missing.

During their trial at Worcester Crown Court, Powell, 38, of Newport, and Davies, 51, of Pontypridd, had denied deliberately ignoring the Treasure Act, which demands significant finds be declared.

Experts say the coins, which are Saxon and believed to have been hidden by a Viking, provide fresh information about the unification of England and show there was an alliance previously not thought to exist between the kings of Mercia and Wessex.

“These coins enable us to re-interpret our history at a key moment in the creation of England as a single kingdom,” according to Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coins at the British Museum.

When Powell and Davies made their discovery in June 2015, they did not inform the farmer who owned the field and instead contacted dealers to find out the worth of the items.

A month later, they contacted the National Museum of Wales but only declared one coin each and three items of jewellery.

Both men claimed talk of a 300-coin hoard had been a rumour, but suspicions were aroused and police began to investigate. They recovered deleted photos on Davies’s phone which showed the hoard intact in a freshly dug hole.

• From the Norsk institutt for kulturminneforskning:

New ship burial found in Norway

A high-resolution georadar has detected traces of a ship burial and a settlement that probably dates to the Merovingian or Viking Period at Edøy in Møre and Romsdal County in Norway.

The discoveries were made by archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU)

The archaeological prospection approach using large-scale high-resolution georadar measurements was developed by the LBI ArchPro research institute and its partners, including NIKU, using technology from Guideline Geo.

“This is incredibly exciting. And again, it’s the technology that helps us find yet another ship. As the technology is making leaps forward, we are learning more and more about our past,” says Dr. Knut Paasche, Head of the Department of Digital Archaeology at NIKU, and an expert on Viking ships.

“We only know of three well-preserved Viking ship burials in Norway, and these were excavated a long time ago. This new ship will certainly be of great historical significance and it will add to our knowledge as it can be investigated with modern means of archaeology,” says Paasche.

From Smithsonian Magazine:

Authorities Recover 10,000 Artifacts Stolen by International Antiquities Trafficking Ring

The organized crime group had connections across Italy, Britain, Germany, France and Serbia

On Monday, authorities busted an international archaeological crime scheme in a sting dubbed “Operation Achei.” Per a press release, more than 350 police officers across five countries worked together to recover 10,000 ancient Greek and Roman artifacts stolen from archaeological sites in the Calabria region of southern Italy.

The Italian Carabinieri Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage led the investigation with support from the European Union’s law enforcement agency, Europol. The Carabinieri’s “culture commandos” have the skills of “archaeologists, paleontologists, art historians and combat-trained shock troops,” wrote National Geographic’s Frank Viviano in 2015.

Operation Achei began in 2017 with a focus on Calabria, the “toe” of Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula. The artifact traffickers allegedly used a backhoe-like excavator to dig up sections of known archaeological sites near the Hera Lacinia, according to the Associated Press. They then sifted through the disturbed areas with sophisticated metal detectors, Italian police officials told the Guardians Lorenzo TondoThe illicit excavators wore ski masks to hide their identities, but during one heist, the license plate of a parked car showed up on the police’s drone video surveillance.

After collecting the artifacts, the group conveyed the items to people who could carry them abroad, “where they were put up for auction in important international auction houses and sold at very high figures,” the investigators said at a press conference reported by the Guardian.

Police from France, Britain, Germany and Serbia assisted Italian authorities with the operation. Eighty home searches yielded artifacts from as early as the 4th century B.C. The recovered items include ancient jars, plates and jewelry worth millions of euros.

“The damage caused to the Italian cultural heritage by this criminal group is very significant as … the criminals were looting archaeological sites for many years,” Europol says in the statement.

Two alleged leaders of the illegal archaeology scheme have been jailed, and 21 other suspects remain under house arrest in Italy.

Illegitimate archaeological digs are regular occurrences in Italy, but the Carabinieri are specifically trained to catch perpetrators. Officers must study art history, archaeology and international legal conventions at the University of Rome, as well as “demonstrate exceptional investigative skills,” Captain Lanfranco Disibio, leader of the squad for Tuscany and Umbria, told National Geographic’s Viviano in 2015In 2014 alone, Viviano notes, the officers recovered around 130,000 artifacts worth more than $500 million.

There is still plenty of work left to do: As the Guardian reports, more than one million Italian artifacts remain missing today.