Monday, June 27, 2016

A Gateway to a Pan Sanctuary Exposed at Hippos


Has the gate to the compound of the god Pan been discovered at Hippos (Sussita)? A monumental Roman gate discovered in the excavations by the University of Haifa at Hippos may cast light on the bronze mask of Pan – the only object of its kind found anywhere in the world – that was discovered in the same site during last year’s excavation season. “Now that the whole gate has been exposed, we not only have better information for dating the mask, but also a clue to its function. Are we looking at a gate that led to the sanctuary of the god Pan or one of the rustic gods?” wonders Dr. Michael Eisenberg, the head of the expedition.
 
Last year, researchers from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa made one of the most unique and unusual findings of recent years. They unearthed a bronze mask representing   Pan, the god of shepherds. Half man and half goat, Pan also represents fields, music, and merriment. The discovery of bronze mask of this size depicting one of the gods was an innovation on the global level, a fact that seriously complicated efforts to date the item or explain its possible function. Dr. Eisenberg notes that until now it has only been possible to suggest hypotheses regarding the mask’s original functioning and to use artistic and stylistic criteria to propose a possible date for its casting.

The mask was discovered in the remains of a large basalt ashlar building, and the researchers assumed that uncovering the building would provide additional information about the unique object. As happens almost every year, Hippos did not fail to yield some surprises. The researchers were working on the hypothesis that the building formed part of the fortifications of the city, but as they dug deeper they found two square basalt towers with dimensions of approximately 6.30 meters x 6.30 meters and a portal of 3.7 meters wide in-between. The researchers concluded that the original gateway was over six meters high, while the building (propylaeum) itself was even taller. The propylaeum can probably be dated to the period of the Emperor Hadrian, who reigned from 117 to 138 CE, or slightly earlier. The mask was presumably fixed to a wall or altar at the compound, as its rear side included remnants of lead used for stabilization purposes. Now, however, the researchers can offer a fuller analysis regarding not only the mask’s dating, but also its function.

“When we found the mask on its own, we assumed that it had filled a ritual function. Since we found it outside the city, one of the hypotheses was that we were looking at evidence of a mysterious ritual center that existed outside the city. However, as we all know, monumental gate structures lead to large compounds. Accordingly, it is not impossible that this gate led to a large building complex – perhaps a sanctuary in honor of the god Pan or one of the other rustic gods – situated just before the entrance to the city of Hippos,” Dr. Eisenberg suggests.

“The mask, and now the gate in which it was embedded, are continuing to fire our imaginations. The worship of Pan sometimes included ceremonies involving drinking, sacrifices, and ecstatic rituals including nudity and sex. This worship usually took place outside the city walls, in caves and other natural settings. We are very familiar with the city of Paneas to the north of Hippos, which was the site of one of the best-known sanctuaries for the worship of Pan. But here we find a monumental gate and evidence of an extensive compound, so that the mystery only gets stranger. What kind of worship of Pan or his fellow Dionysus, the god of wine, took place here in Hippos? To answer that question, we will have to keep on digging,” concludes Dr. Eisenberg.

Since 2000, the ancient city of Hippos has gradually being unearthed by an international expedition under the auspices of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. Hippos lies within Sussita National Park, which is managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The next excavation season will be held in July 2016, with the participation of dozens of researchers and volunteers from Israel and around the world.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Domesticated rice in China: evidence it's about 9,000 years old


Rice farming is a far older practice than we knew. In fact, the oldest evidence of domesticated rice has just been found in China, and it's about 9,000 years old.

The discovery, made by a team of archaeologists that includes University of Toronto Mississauga professor Gary Crawford, sheds new light on the origins of rice domestication and on the history of human agricultural practices.

"Today, rice is one of most important grains in the world's economy, yet at one time, it was a wild plant...how did people bring rice into their world? This gives us another clue about how humans became farmers," says Crawford, an anthropological archaeologist who studies the relationships between people and plants in prehistory.

Working with three researchers from the Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in Zhejiang Province, China, Crawford found the ancient domesticated rice fragments in a probable ditch in the lower Yangtze valley. They observed that about 30 per cent of the rice plant material -- primarily bases, husks and leaf epidermis -- were not wild, but showed signs of being purposely cultivated to produce rice plants that were durable and suitable for human consumption.

Crawford says this finding indicates that the domestication of rice has been going on for much longer than originally thought. The rice plant remains also had characteristics of japonica rice, the short grain rice used in sushi that today is cultivated in Japan and Korea. Crawford says this finding clarifies the lineage of this specific rice crop, and confirms for the first time that it grew in this region of China.

Crawford and his colleagues spent about three years exploring the five-hectare archaeological dig site, called Huxi, which is situated in a flat basin about 100 metres above sea level. Their investigations were supported by other U of T Mississauga participants -- anthropology professor David Smith and graduate students Danial Kwan and Nattha Cheunwattana. They worked primarily in early spring, fall and winter in order to avoid the late-spring wet season and excruciatingly hot summer months. Digging 1.5 metres below the ground, the team also unearthed artifacts such as sophisticated pottery and stone tools, as well as animal bones, charcoal and other plant seeds.

This study builds on Crawford's previous research into early agriculture in China, in which he has examined the ancient settlements, tools, and plant and animal management efforts that occurred in different regions of the country. He is interested in better understanding the forces that compelled our human ancestors to transition from hunters and gatherers to farmers.

"The question I ultimately want to answer is, what pushed them to move wholeheartedly into the farming regime? Why did they reduce their emphasis on hunting and expand into crop production?" Crawford says. "People did what they needed to do to make their lives more manageable and sustainable, and the unintended consequence was farming. With this rice discovery, we're seeing the first stages of that shift."


Evolution towards the first cities of Mesopotamia



Researchers from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona have revealed the latest archaeological discoveries on the origins and consolidation of the first farming societies in Upper Mesopotamia, in Iraqi Kurdistan.




The Gird Lashkir site is an archaeological tell with exceptional potential, with some 14 metres of sediments and a surface of approximately 4 hectares occupied by ancient populations. It is located close to the temporary river of Wadi Kasnazan and the cities of Kasnazan and Banaslawa, pertaining to the current capital of Kurdistan, Erbil (northern Iraq).

The archaeological dig has revealed a series of occupancies which go from the Neolithic period to the first millennium BCE.

Over 150 m2 have been uncovered, which distributed along the slopes of the tell, have allowed researchers to discover well conserved architectural remains of specialised buildings, personal houses and working areas located in exterior areas.

Researchers were able to differentiate between the more recent occupancies, located in the higher part of the tell and dating from the historic Neo-Assyrian period (until the end of the second millennium BCE). Several objects discovered from this era stand out and could indicate that one of the buildings was used as a warehouse, and could be linked to the exchange of goods.

Another very extensive and important occupancy, probably from the Early and Middle Bronze Age (more specifically from Ninevite V, 2600-2550 BC) was confirmed, with habitat vestiges in several areas of the tell and the discovery of very important objects.

The most ancient period, discovered on site this latest campaign, is an occupancy from the Uruk period (ca. 4000 to 3100 BCE), in one of the deepest digs conducted at some 4 metres below current ground level. Remains were also recovered from the Neolithic's Ubaid and Halaf periods (6000 to 4500 BCE).

The evaluation of the discoveries made at this site is very positive. First from a scientific viewpoint, given that there are no sites with an occupancy similar to the one in the area of Erbil and because it allows to discover the evolution of the settlement in the western plain of northern Kurdistan. The good conservation of the remains and the importance of the objects found confirm the potential of the settlement as a historical source of the first cities of Mesopotamia.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Wine used in ritual ceremonies 5000 years ago



Discovery of the vessel.
Credit: Ca' Foscari
 
Georgian-Italian archaeological expedition of Ca' Foscari University of Venice in collaboration with the Georgian Museum of Tbilisi has discovered vine pollen in a zoomorphic vessel used in ritual ceremonies by the Kura-Araxes population.

In the archeological site of Aradetis Orgora, 100 kilometers to the west of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Ca' Foscari's expedition led by Elena Rova (Ca' Foscari University of Venice) and Iulon Gagoshidze (Georgian National Museum Tbilisi) has discovered traces of wine inside an animal-shaped ceramic vessel (circa 3,000 BC), probably used for cultic activities.

The vessel has an animal-shaped body with three small feet and a pouring hole on the back. The head is missing. It was found, together with a second similar vessel and a Kura-Araxes jar, on the burnt floor of a large rectangular area with rounded corners, arguably a sort of shrine used for cultic activities. Results of radiometric (C14) analyses confirm that the finds date to circa 3000-2900 BC Both zoomorphic vessels are an unicum in the region.

The vessel, examined by palynologist Eliso Kvavadze, contains numerous well-preserved grains of pollen of Vitis vinifera (common grape vine), which shows wine's strategic role in the Kura-Araxes culture for ritual libations.

According to professor Rova, this is a significant discovery, "because the context of discovery suggests that wine was drawn from the jar and offered to the gods or commonly consumed by the participants to the ceremony."

It's a key-finding for Georgia, where grapewine has been cultivated since the Neolithic period. Now the Georgian wine culture has been dated back to the Kura-Araxes period, more than 5,000 years ago and is still continuing: in the course of traditional Georgian banquets, the supra, wine is consumed from vessels derived from animal horns in the context of elaborated ritual toasts.

The Kura-Araxes culture (second half of the fourth and first half of the third millennium BC) is the only prehistoric culture of the Southern Caucasus which spread over large areas of the Near East, reaching Iran and the Syro- Palestinian region.

Started in 2013, in only three years Ca' Foscari archeological excavations have achieved this impressive result, thanks also to the support of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 27 researchers and students from both countries and some local collaborators took part in 2015 campaign season, when the Kura-Araxes vessels were unearthed. The 2016 season will take place from June 17 until July 31.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Rare Cache of Silver Coins Dating to the Hasmonean Period was Discovered in Modi‘in


A hoard of silver coins dating to the Hasmonean period (126 BCE) was exposed in April in an archaeological excavation the Israel Antiquities Authority is currently conducting near Modi‘in, with the participation of local youth. The excavation is being carried out prior to the construction of a new neighborhood, at the initiative of the Modi‘in-Maccabim-Re‘ut municipality. The treasure was hidden in a rock crevice, up against a wall of an impressive agricultural estate that was discovered during the excavation there.

According to Avraham Tendler, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, "This is a rare cache of silver coins from the Hasmonean period comprised of shekels and half-shekels (tetradrachms and didrachms) that were minted in the city of Tyre and bear the images of the king, Antiochus VII and his brother Demetrius II. The cache that we found is compelling evidence that one of the members of the estate who had saved his income for months needed to leave the house for some unknown reason. He buried his money in the hope of coming back and collecting it, but was apparently unfortunate and never returned. It is exciting to think that the coin hoard was waiting here 2,140 years until we exposed it”.

According to Dr. Donald Tzvi Ariel, the head of the Coin Department at the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The cache, which consists of 16 coins, contains one or two coins from every year between 135–126 BCE, and a total of nine consecutive years are represented. It seems that some thought went into collecting the coins, and it is possible that the person who buried the cache was a coin collector. He acted in just the same way as stamp and coin collectors manage collections today”.

Tendler added, “The findings from our excavation show that a Jewish family established an agricultural estate on this hill during the Hasmonean period. The family members planted olive trees and vineyards on the neighboring hills and grew grain in valleys. An industrial area that includes an olive press and storehouses where the olive oil was kept is currently being uncovered next to the estate. Dozens of rock-hewn winepresses that reflect the importance of viticulture and the wine industry in the area were exposed in the cultivation plots next to the estate. The estate house was built of massive walls in order to provide security from the attacks of marauding bandits.

Numerous bronze coins minted by the Hasmonean kings were also discovered in the excavation. They bear the names of the kings such as Yehohanan, Judah, Jonathan or Mattathias and his title: High Priest and Head of the Council of the Jews. The finds indicate that the estate continued to operate throughout the Early Roman period. The Jewish inhabitants of the estate meticulously adhered to the laws of ritual purity and impurity: they installed ritual baths (miqwe’ot) in their settlement and used vessels made of chalk, which according to Jewish law cannot become ritually unclean.

Evidence was discovered at the site suggesting that the residents of the estate also participated in the first revolt against the Romans that broke out in 66 CE: the coins that were exposed from this period are stamped with the date “Year Two” of the revolt and the slogan "Freedom of Zion". The estate continued to operate even after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. "It seems that local residents did not give up hope of gaining their independence from Rome, and they were well-prepared to fight the enemy during the Bar Kokhba uprising”, said Tendler. “During the excavation we saw how prior to the uprising the inhabitants of the estate filled the living rooms next to the outer wall of the building with large stones, thus creating a fortified barrier. In addition, we discovered hiding refuges that were hewn in the bedrock beneath the floors of the estate house. These refuge complexes were connected by means of tunnels between water cisterns, storage pits and hidden rooms. In one of the adjacent excavation areas a miqwe of impressive beauty was exposed; when we excavated deeper in the bath we discovered an opening inside it that led to an extensive hiding refuge in which numerous artifacts were found that date to the time of the Bar Kokhba uprising”.

The unique finds revealed in the excavation will be preserved in an archaeological park in the heart of the new neighborhood slated for construction in Modi‘in-Maccabim-Re‘ut.


Thursday, June 9, 2016

Old World metals traded on Alaska coast hundreds of years before contact with Europeans


Two leaded bronze artifacts found in northwestern Alaska are the first evidence that metal from Asia reached prehistoric North America prior to contact with Europeans, according to new Purdue University research.

"This is not a surprise based on oral history and other archaeological finds, and it was just a matter of time before we had a good example of Eurasian metal that had been traded," said H. Kory Cooper, an associate professor of anthropology, who led the artifacts' metallurgical analysis. "We believe these smelted alloys were made somewhere in Eurasia and traded to Siberia and then traded across the Bering Strait to ancestral Inuits people, also known as Thule culture, in Alaska. Locally available metal in parts of the Arctic, such as native metal, copper and meteoritic and telluric iron were used by ancient Inuit people for tools and to sometimes indicate status. Two of the Cape Espenberg items that were found - a bead and a buckle -- are heavily leaded bronze artifacts. Both are from a house at the site dating to the Late Prehistoric Period, around 1100-1300 AD, which is before sustained European contact in the late 18th century."

The findings are published in Elsevier's Journal of Archaeological Science, and the research was funded by the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs Arctic Social Sciences.

"This article focuses on a small finding with really interesting implications," said Cooper, who also has a courtesy appointment in materials engineering and is an expert in metallurgy and archaeology in the western Arctic and Subarctic. "This will cause other people to think about the Arctic differently. Some have presented the Arctic and Subarctic regions as backwater areas with no technological innovation because there was a very small population at the time. That doesn't mean interesting things weren't happening, and this shows that locals were not only using locally available metals but were also obtaining metals from elsewhere."

The items were found on Alaska's northwest coast at Cape Espenberg on the Seward Peninsula where the Thule people lived in houses. The field work was led by Owen K. Mason and John F. Hoffecker, both of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder. From 2009-2011, their team excavated a variety of artifacts including six items with metal. Cooper coordinated the metallurgical analysis.

Metal artifacts are rarely found because they were usually used until they were worn down and, therefore, not well preserved at field sites.

"These items are remarkable due to curation and preservation issues," Cooper said.

The cylindrical bead and a fragment of a small buckle strap-guide are composed of leaded bronze, which is an alloy of copper, tin and lead. The fragmented leather strap on the buckle provided radiocarbon dating, and the item was dated to 500-800 years old, although the metal could be older.

"The belt buckle also is considered an industrial product and is an unprecedented find for this time," Cooper said. "It resembles a buckle used as part of a horse harness that would have been used in north-central China during the first six centuries before the Common Era."

Three of the other four items from another house were determined to be copper - a piece of bone fishing tackle with a copper hook, an eyed copper needle and a small fragment of sheet copper. The final item was a bone fishing lure with iron inset eyes. All items were analyzed with X-ray fluorescence technology.

This house is considerably younger, dating to the 17th to 18th centuries, and is part of a trading network in Alaskan native copper.



Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Ice age bison fossils shed light on early human migrations in North America


Scientists using evidence from bison fossils have determined when an ice-free corridor opened up along the Rocky Mountains during the late Pleistocene. The corridor has been considered a potential route for human and animal migrations between the far north (Alaska and Yukon) and the rest of North America, but when and how it was used has long been uncertain.

The researchers combined radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis to track the movements of bison into the corridor, showing that it was fully open by about 13,000 years ago. Their findings, published June 6 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that the corridor could not account for the initial dispersal of humans south of the ice sheets, but could have been used for later movements of people and animals, both northward and southward.

In the 1970s, geological studies suggested that the corridor might have been the pathway for the first movement of humans southward from Alaska to colonize the rest of the Americas. More recent evidence, however, indicated that the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets coalesced at the height of the last ice age, around 21,000 years ago, closing the corridor much earlier than any evidence of humans south of the ice sheets. The initial southward movement of people into the Americas more than 15,000 years ago now seems likely to have been via a Pacific coastal route, but the Rocky Mountains corridor has remained of interest as a potential route for later migrations.

"The opening of the corridor provided new opportunities for migration and the exchange of ideas between people living north and south of the ice sheets," said first author Peter Heintzman, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Santa Cruz who led the DNA analysis.

Previous work by coauthor Beth Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, had shown that the bison populations north and south of the ice sheets were genetically distinct by the time the corridor opened. By analyzing bison fossils from within the corridor region, the researchers were able track the movement of northern bison southward into the corridor and southern bison northward.

"The radiocarbon dates told us how old the fossils were, but the key thing was the genetic analysis, because that told us when bison from the northern and southern populations were able to meet within the corridor," Heintzman said.

The results showed that the southern part of the corridor opened first, allowing southern bison to start moving northward as early as 13,400 years ago, before the corridor fully opened. Later, there was some movement of northern bison southward, with the two populations overlapping in the corridor by 13,000 years ago.

"Bison fossils are the most widespread Quaternary mammal in western North America and of interest because they survived the extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene, unlike most other North American large mammals," said coauthor Duane Froese of the University of Alberta. "We were able to sample bison fossils, largely from museum collections, including critical ones from central Alberta that dated to the initial opening of the corridor."

According to Shapiro, archeological evidence suggests that human migration within the corridor was mostly from south to north. Sites associated with the Clovis hunting culture and its distinctive fluted point technology were widespread south of the corridor around 13,000 years ago and decline in abundance from south to north within the corridor region. A Clovis site in Alaska has been dated to no earlier than 12,400 years ago.

"When the corridor opened, people were already living south of there. And because those people were bison hunters, we can assume they would have followed the bison as they moved north into the corridor," Shapiro said.

The steppe bison of the Pleistocene (Bison priscus) were much bigger than modern bison (Bison bison), she said. Before the corridor closed, prior to the last glacial maximum, they moved freely up and down between the ice-free regions in the north and grasslands south of the ice sheets. After the ice sheets coalesced, the population that was cut off to the south contracted, leaving one genetically distinct southern lineage.

The DNA analysis used in this study focused on mitochondrial DNA, which is easier to recover from fossils than the DNA in chromosomes, because each cell has thousands of copies of the relatively short mitochondrial DNA sequence. While Shapiro's lab led the DNA analyses, Froese's lab led the radiocarbon dating work.

Many of the fossils they analyzed came from collections at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton and other institutions. "Thousands of steppe bison fossils are recovered in northern Canada every year," said coauthor Grant Zazula of the Government of Yukon Palaeontology Program in Whitehorse. "Most of these fossils are uncovered by mining or gravel pit operators and later made available to scientists for study. These results speak to the importance of collecting and preserving fossils in order to better understand our history."