Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Climate change led to collapse of ancient Indus civilization

A new study combining the latest archaeological evidence with state-of-the-art geoscience technologies provides evidence that climate change was a key ingredient in the collapse of the great Indus or Harappan Civilization almost 4000 years ago. The study also resolves a long-standing debate over the source and fate of the Sarasvati, the sacred river of Hindu mythology.

Once extending more than 1 million square kilometers across the plains of the Indus River from the Arabian Sea to the Ganges, over what is now Pakistan, northwest India and eastern Afghanistan, the Indus civilization was the largest—but least known—of the first great urban cultures that also included Egypt and Mesopotamia. Like their contemporaries, the Harappans, named for one of their largest cities, lived next to rivers owing their livelihoods to the fertility of annually watered lands.

"We reconstructed the dynamic landscape of the plain where the Indus civilization developed 5200 years ago, built its cities, and slowly disintegrated between 3900 and 3000 years ago," said Liviu Giosan, a geologist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and lead author of the study published the week of May 28 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Until now, speculations abounded about the links between this mysterious ancient culture and its life-giving mighty rivers."

Today, numerous remains of the Harappan settlements are located in a vast desert region far from any flowing river. In contrast to Egypt and Mesopotamia, which have long been part of the Western classical canon, this amazingly complex culture in South Asia with a population that at its peak may have reached 10 percent of the world's inhabitants, was completely forgotten until 1920's. Since then, a flurry of archaeological research in Pakistan and India has uncovered a sophisticated urban culture with myriad internal trade routes and well-established sea links with Mesopotamia, standards for building construction, sanitation systems, arts and crafts, and a yet-to-be deciphered writing system.

"We considered that it is high time for a team of interdisciplinary scientists to contribute to the debate about the enigmatic fate of these people," added Giosan.

The research was conducted between 2003 and 2008 in Pakistan, from the coast of the Arabian Sea into the fertile irrigated valleys of Punjab and the northern Thar Desert. The international team included scientists from the U.S., U.K., Pakistan, India, and Romania with specialties in geology, geomorphology, archaeology, and mathematics. By combining satellite photos and topographic data collected by the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), the researchers prepared and analyzed digital maps of landforms constructed by the Indus and neighboring rivers, which were then probed in the field by drilling, coring, and even manually-dug trenches. Collected samples were used to determine the sediments' origins, whether brought in and shaped by rivers or wind, and their age, in order to develop a chronology of landscape changes.

"Once we had this new information on the geological history, we could re-examine what we know about settlements, what crops people were planting and when, and how both agriculture and settlement patterns changed," said co-author Dorian Fuller, an archaeologist with University College London. "This brought new insights into the process of eastward population shift, the change towards many more small farming communities, and the decline of cities during late Harappan times."

The new study suggests that the decline in monsoon rains led to weakened river dynamics, and played a critical role both in the development and the collapse of the Harappan culture, which relied on river floods to fuel their agricultural surpluses.

From the new research, a compelling picture of 10,000 years of changing landscapes emerges. Before the plain was massively settled, the wild and forceful Indus and its tributaries flowing from the Himalaya cut valleys into their own deposits and left high "interfluvial" stretches of land between them. In the east, reliable monsoon rains sustained perennial rivers that crisscrossed the desert leaving behind their sedimentary deposits across a broad region.

Among the most striking features the researchers identified is a mounded plain, 10 to 20 meters high, over 100 kilometers wide, and running almost 1000 kilometers along the Indus, they call the "Indus mega-ridge," built by the river as it purged itself of sediment along its lower course.

"At this scale, nothing similar has ever been described in the geomorphological literature," said Giosan. "The mega-ridge is a surprising indicator of the stability of Indus plain landscape over the last four millennia. Remains of Harappan settlements still lie at the surface of the ridge, rather than being buried underground."

Mapped on top of the vast Indo-Gangetic Plain, the archaeological and geological data shows instead that settlements bloomed along the Indus from the coast to the hills fronting the Himalayas, as weakened monsoons and reduced run-off from the mountains tamed the wild Indus and its Himalayan tributaries enough to enable agriculture along their banks.

"The Harappans were an enterprising people taking advantage of a window of opportunity – a kind of "Goldilocks civilization," said Giosan. "As monsoon drying subdued devastating floods, the land nearby the rivers - still fed with water and rich silt - was just right for agriculture. This lasted for almost 2,000 years, but continued aridification closed this favorable window in the end."

In another major finding, the researchers believe they have settled a long controversy about the fate of a mythical river, the Sarasvati. The Vedas, ancient Indian scriptures composed in Sanskrit over 3000 years ago, describe the region west of the Ganges as "the land of seven rivers." Easily recognizable are the Indus and its current tributaries, but the Sarasvati, portrayed as "surpassing in majesty and might all other waters" and "pure in her course from mountains to the ocean," was lost. Based on scriptural descriptions, it was believed that the Sarasvati was fed by perennial glaciers in the Himalayas. Today, the Ghaggar, an intermittent river that flows only during strong monsoons and dissipates into the desert along the dried course of Hakra valley, is thought to best approximate the location of the mythic Sarasvati, but its Himalayan origin and whether it was active during Vedic times remain controversial.

Archaeological evidence supports the Ghaggar-Hakra as the location of intensive settlement during Harappan times. The geological evidence—sediments, topography— shows that rivers were indeed sizable and highly active in this region, but most likely due to strong monsoons. There is no evidence of wide incised valleys like along the Indus and its tributaries and there is no cut-through, incised connections to either of the two nearby Himalayan-fed rivers of Sutlej and Yamuna. The new research argues that these crucial differences prove that the Sarasvati (Ghaggar-Hakra) was not Himalayan-fed, but a perennial monsoon-supported watercourse, and that aridification reduced it to short seasonal flows.

By 3900 years ago, their rivers drying, the Harappans had an escape route to the east toward the Ganges basin, where monsoon rains remained reliable.

"We can envision that this eastern shift involved a change to more localized forms of economy: smaller communities supported by local rain-fed farming and dwindling streams," said Fuller. "This may have produced smaller surpluses, and would not have supported large cities, but would have been reliable."

Such a system was not favorable for the Indus civilization, which had been built on bumper crop surpluses along the Indus and the Ghaggar-Hakra rivers in the earlier wetter era. This dispersal of population meant that there was no longer a concentration of workforce to support urbanism. "Thus cities collapsed, but smaller agricultural communities were sustainable and flourished. Many of the urban arts, such as writing, faded away, but agriculture continued and actually diversified," said Fuller.

"An amazing amount of archaeological work has been accumulating over the last decades, but it's never been linked properly to the evolution of the fluvial landscape. We now see landscape dynamics as the crucial link between climate change and people," said Giosan. "Today the Indus system feeds the largest irrigation scheme in the world, immobilizing the river in channels and behind dams. If the monsoon were to increase in a warming world, as some predict, catastrophic floods such as the humanitarian disaster of 2010, would turn the current irrigation system, designed for a tamer river, obsolete."

Friday, May 25, 2012

Oldest Jewish archaeological evidence on the Iberian Peninsula

Archeologists of the Jena University found this marble plate with a Hebrew inscription at an excavation site in the south of Portugal. Credit: Photo: Dennis Graen/FSU

On a marble plate, measuring 40 by 60 centimetres, the name "Yehiel" can be read, followed by further letters which have not yet been deciphered. The Jena Archaeologists believe that the new discovery might be a tomb slab. Antlers, which were found very close to the tomb slab in the rubble gave a clue to the age determination. "The organic material of the antlers could be dated by radiocarbon analysis with certainty to about 390 AD," excavation leader Dr. Dennis Graen of the Jena University explains. "Therefore we have a so-called 'terminus ante quem' for the inscription, as it must have been created before it got mixed in with the rubble with the antlers."

The earliest archaeological evidence of Jewish inhabitants in the region of modern-day Portugal has so far also been a tomb slab with a Latin inscription and an image of a menorah - a seven-armed chandelier - from 482 AD. The earliest Hebrew inscriptions known until now date from the 6th or 7th Century AD.

The place of discovery is a Roman villa near Silves. Credit: Photo: Dennis Graen/FSU
For three years the team of the University Jena has been excavating a Roman villa in Portugal, discovered some years ago by Jorge Correia, archaeologist of the Silves council, during an archaeological survey near the village of São Bartolomeu de Messines (Silves). The project was aiming at finding out how and what the inhabitants of the hinterland of the Roman province of Lusitania lived off. While the Portuguese coast region has been explored very well, there is very little knowledge about those regions. The new discovery poses further conundrums. "We were actually hoping for a Latin inscription when we turned round the excavated tomb slab," Henning Wabersich, a member of the excavation reports. After all, no inscriptions have been found so far and nothing was known about the identity of the inhabitants of the enclosure. Only after long research the Jena Archaeologists found out which language they were exactly dealing with, as the inscription was not cut with particular care. "While we were looking for experts who could help with deciphering the inscription between Jena and Jerusalem, the crucial clue came from Spain" Dennis Graen says. "Jordi Casanovas Miró from the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya in Barcelona – a well-known expert for Hebrew inscriptions on the Iberian Peninsula – is sure that the Jewish name "Yehiel" can be read, - a name that is already mentioned in the Bible."

Not only is the early date exceptional in this case, but also the place of the discovery: Never before have Jewish discoveries been made in a Roman villa, the Jena Archaelogist explains. In the Roman Empire at that time Jews usually wrote in Latin, as they feared oppressive measures. Hebrew, as on the re-discovered marble plate, only came back into use after the decline of the Roman supremacy, respectively in the following time of migration of peoples from the 6th or 7th century AD. "We were also most surprised that we found traces of Romans - romanised Lusitanians in this case - and Jews living together in a rural area of all things," Dennis Graen says. "We assumed that something like this would have been much more likely in a city."

Information about the Jewish population in the region in general was mostly passed down by scriptures. "During the ecclesiastical council in the Spanish town Elvira about 300 AD rules of conduct between Jews and Christians were issued. This indicates that at this time there must have been a relatively large number of Jews on the Iberian Peninsula already", Dennis Graen explains – but archaeological evidence had been missing so far. "We knew that there was a Jewish community in the Middle Ages not far from our excavation site in the town of Silves. It existed until the expulsion of the Jews in the year 1497."

In the summer the Jena Archaeologists will take up their work again. Until now they have excavated 160 square metres of the villa, but after checking out the ground it already became clear that the greater part of the enclosure is still covered in soil. "We eventually want to find out more about the people who lived here," Graen explains the venture. "And of course we want to solve the questions the Hebrew inscription has posed us."

Monday, May 21, 2012

Unique Gold Earring Found at Tel Megiddo

Researchers from Tel Aviv University have recently discovered a collection of gold and silver jewelry, dated from around 1100 B.C., hidden in a vessel at the archaeological site of Tel Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel. One piece — a gold earring decorated with molded ibexes, or wild goats — is "without parallel," they believe.

According to Prof. Israel Finkelstein of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures, the vessel was found in 2010, but remained uncleaned while awaiting a molecular analysis of its content. When they were finally able to wash out the dirt, pieces of jewelry, including a ring, earrings, and beads, flooded from the vessel. Prof. Finkelstein is the co-director of the excavation of Tel Megiddo along with Professor Emeritus David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University and Associate Director Prof. Eric Cline of George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

The researchers believe that the collection, which was discovered in the remains of a private home in the northern part of Megiddo, belongs to a time period called "Iron I," and that at least some of the pieces could have originated in nearby Egypt. Some of the materials and designs featured in the jewelry, including beads made from carnelian stone, are consistent with Egyptian designs from the same period, notes Ph.D. candidate Eran Arie, who supervises the area where the hoard was found.

A treasure trove with mysterious origins

When the researchers removed the ceramic jug from the excavation site, they had no idea there was jewelry hidden within. The jewelry was well preserved and wrapped in textiles, but the circumstances surrounding it are mysterious. According to Prof. Finkelstein, it is likely that the jug was not the jewelry's normal storage place. "It's clear that people tried to hide the collection, and for some reason they were unable to come back to pick it up." The owners could have perished or been forced to flee, he says. Prof. Ussishkin believes that it was the jewelry collection of the Canaanite woman who lived in the house.

The assortment of jewelry is also out of the ordinary, notes Arie. Though the collection includes a number of lunette (moon-shaped) earrings of common Canaanite origin, researchers found an abundance of gold items in the collection and a number of beads made from carnelian, which was frequently used in the making of Egyptian jewellery in the same period. This points to a strong Egyptian connection, whether in influence or origin. Such a connection would not be surprising, according to Prof. Cline, who stated that interactions between Egypt and Megiddo are known to have taken place during both the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.

The most notable piece, the researchers agree, is a gold earring with a pattern of molded wild goats. "For unique items, we work to find parallels to help place the items in their correct cultural and chronological settings, but in this case we still haven't found anything," say the researchers.

Adding dimension to a multi-layer dig

It's another fascinating find from a unique archaeological site. Tel Megiddo was an important Canaanite city-state until the early 10th century B.C.E. and a pivotal center of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 9th and 8th centuries B.C.E. It is a multi-layered site with various time periods clearly differentiated, and in this time period there are 10 to 11 strata well-dated through radiocarbon analysis. "Such a sequence of radiocarbon dates doesn't exist anywhere else in the region," says Prof. Finkelstein.

The layer in which the jewelry was found has already been dated to the 11th century B.C., just after the end of Egyptian rule in the 12th century B.C., Arie says. Either the jewelry was left behind in the Egyptian withdrawal or the people who owned the jewelry were influenced by Egyptian culture.

The researchers hope that analysis of both the textiles in which the jewelry was wrapped and the jewelry itself will tell them more about the origins of the collection. If the gold is pure rather than a mixture of gold and silver, for example, the metal most likely will have come from Egypt itself, a region that was poor in silver resources but rich in gold.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Excavating Tel Kedesh

Complete article Tel Kedesh is an enormous mound located in the rural interior of Israel’s Upper Galilee region. It is more than half a mile north to south. It is a double mound, with an upper tell occupied since the Early Bronze Age (3150–2300 B.C.) and a plateau-like lower tell likely constructed in the Middle Bronze Age (2300–1550 B.C.)...

An aerial view shows the immense administrative building constructed around 500 B.C. and used until the 2nd century B.C. as it appeared after more than 10 years of excavation. (Courtesy Pascal Partouche, Skyview Photography, Ltd. We christened this the Hellenistic Administrative Building, on the basis of the granary and the archive, both administrative features.

Digging in the opposing southeastern and northwestern corners revealed that it was one enormous complex. The room next to the northwestern corner had a plastered floor, several wine jars from the Greek island of Rhodes, and 14 huge jars, almost five feet tall each, leaning against the walls. With permission from the Israel Antiquities Authority, we took the broken bottoms of two jars back to the United States for residue analysis and discovered phytoliths—mineral secretions left by plants after they decay—of Triticum aestivum (bread wheat). It was clear that this building had been a storeroom for wine and grain—lots of grain. Each jar held almost 25 gallons, which, once ground into flour, would produce about 150 loaves of bread.

Additional surprises came to light around the corner where we found more than 40 amphoriskoi (small, two-handled flasks) and about 1,500 tiny stamped clay lumps, or bullae. The bullae carry images including those of Greek deities, Seleucid kings, and animals and symbols. They have string holes through the sides and the neat linear impressions of papyrus on the back, both indications that they originally sealed rolled-up papyrus documents. The quantity of bullae in the room indicated that it once housed a sizeable archive. While none of the documents survive, the bullae themselves provide clues about who sent the texts and who officially approved them...

The hundreds of useful objects that were left behind in the building, including more than 20 Rhodian wine jars, continued to confirm that it had been abandoned very quickly. The wine vessels have handles stamped with the names of officials, each of whose tenures can be dated with great accuracy. The latest jars date to 144 or 143 B.C. According to 1 Maccabees 11:63–73, at that time there was a battle in the valley below the Kedesh plateau between the Hasmonean leader Jonathan (the Hasmoneans were a family of high priests and kings who ruled the Jewish state of Judea between 167 and 37 B.C.) and the Seleucid king Demetrius. Jonathan’s forces pursued the Seleucids to Kedesh, killed many, and camped there for several days before leaving for Jerusalem. It appears that the hastily abandoned remains found throughout the building are a result of that battle...

More on Evidence of a Cult in Judah at Time of King David

Complete article

Archaeologists in an Uproar Over David-and-Goliath-Era Finds at the Contested Edge of Jerusalem

Courtesy of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Scholars hope that recent discoveries at Khirbet Qeiyafa, an archeological site southwest of Jerusalem, will shed new light on the ancient history of present-day Israel, and even corroborate the story of David and Goliath recounted in the Bible. Though leaving ample room for debate, Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has told MSNBC that several objects found by his team strongly suggest the heretofore disputed presence of Israelites from the southern kingdom of Judea...

Garfinkel contends that his finds confirm that Khirbet Qeiyafa was an embattled outpost occupied by Israelites during the time of David. By his estimation, the columns, façades, and recessed doorways on the model shrines found at the site correspond strikingly to Solomon's temple. "For the first time in history," reads a statement from the Hebrew University, "we have actual objects from the time of David which can be related to monuments described in the Bible." Garfinkel furthermore points out that although archaeologists at the site have found thousands of bones of sheep, goats, and cattle, they have found no bones from pigs, which may suggest a dietary prohibition on swine like that observed by Hebrews.

While the news has made headlines across Israel, Garfinkel has failed to convince many Biblical scholars who know Khirbet Qeiyafa well. Prof. Nadav Na'aman, a historian and archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, was unmoved by the lack of pig bones at the site. "The Canaanites also did not eat pork," he told Ha'aretz. "Only the Philistines ate a great deal of pork at this time." Responding to Garfinkel's description of the artifacts as "totally different from Philistine, Canaanite or the cult in the Kingdom of Israel," Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University told the Times of Israel that that Biblical distinctions between Israelites and Philistines are "fuzzier than the way they are often described."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Anthropologists discover earliest form of wall art

Anthropologists working in southern France have determined that a 1.5 metric ton block of engraved limestone constitutes the earliest evidence of wall art. Their research, reported in the most recent edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows the piece to be approximately 37,000 years old and offers rich evidence of the role art played in the daily lives of Early Aurignacian humans.

The research team, comprised of more than a dozen scientists from American and European universities and research institutions, has been excavating at the site of the discovery—Abri Castanet—for the past 15 years. Abri Castanet and its sister site Abri Blanchard have long been recognized as being among the oldest sites in Eurasia bearing artifacts of human symbolism. Hundreds of personal ornaments have been discovered, including pierced animal teeth, pierced shells, ivory and soapstone beads, engravings, and paintings on limestone slabs.

"Early Aurignacian humans functioned, more or less, like humans today," explained New York University anthropology professor Randall White, one of the study's co-authors. "They had relatively complex social identities communicated through personal ornamentation, and they practiced sculpture and graphic arts."

Aurignacian culture existed until approximately 28,000 years ago.

In 2007, the team discovered an engraved block of limestone in what had been a rock shelter occupied by a group of Aurignacian reindeer hunters. Subsequent geological analysis revealed the ceiling had been about two meters above the floor on which the Aurignacians lived—within arms' reach.

Using carbon dating, the researchers determined that both the engraved ceiling, which includes depictions of animals and geometric forms, and the other artifacts found on the living surface below were approximately 37,000 years old.

"This art appears to be slightly older than the famous paintings from the Grotte Chauvet in southeastern France," explained White, referring to the cave paintings discovered in 1994.

"But unlike the Chauvet paintings and engravings, which are deep underground and away from living areas, the engravings and paintings at Castanet are directly associated with everyday life, given their proximity to tools, fireplaces, bone and antler tool production, and ornament workshops."

He added that this discovery, combined with others of approximately the same time period in southern Germany, northern Italy, and southeastern France, raises new questions about the evolutionary and adaptive significance of art and other forms of graphic representation in the lives of modern human populations.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Remains were Discovered of the Closest Building to the First Temple

On its Floor – a Hebrew Seal Bearing the Name ‘Matanyahu’
The remains of a building dating to the end of the First Temple period were discovered below the base of the ancient drainage channel that is currently being exposed in IAA excavations beneath Robinson’s Arch in the Jerusalem Archaeological Garden, adjacent to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. This building is the closest structure to the First Temple found to date in archaeological excavations.

In the excavations, underwritten by the Ir David Foundation, a personal Hebrew seal from the end of the First Temple period was discovered on the floor of the ancient building. The seal is made of a semi-precious stone and is engraved with the name of its owner: “Lematanyahu Ben Ho…” ("למתניהו בן הו..." meaning: “Belonging to Matanyahu Ben Ho…”). The rest of the inscription is erased.

From the very start of the excavations in this area the archaeologists decided that all of the soil removed from there would be meticulously sifted (including wet-sifting and thorough sorting of the material remnants left in the sieve).

People used personal seals in the First Temple period for the purpose of signing letters and they were set in a signet ring. The seals served to identify their owner, just as they identify officials today.

According to Eli Shukron, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “the name Matanyahu, like the name Netanyahu, means giving to God. These names are mentioned several times in the Bible. They are typical of the names in the Kingdom of Judah in latter part of the First Temple period – from the end of the eighth century BCE until the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. To find a seal from the First Temple period at the foot of the Temple Mount walls is rare and very exciting. This is a tangible greeting of sorts from a man named Matanyahu who lived here more than 2,700 years ago. We also found pottery sherds characteristic of the period on the floor in the ancient building beneath the base of the drainage channel, as well as stone collapse and evidence of a fire”.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Inscriptions Found on Walls of a Maya Dwelling Reflect Calendar Reaching Well Beyond 2012

A vast city built by the ancient Maya and discovered nearly a century ago is finally starting to yield its secrets.

Excavating for the first time in the sprawling complex of Xultún in Guatemala’s Petén region, a team of archaeologists lead by Boston University Assistant Professor of Archaeology William Saturno has uncovered a structure that contains what appears to be a work space for the town’s scribe, its walls adorned with unique paintings — one depicting a lineup of men in black uniforms — and hundreds of scrawled numbers. Many are calculations relating to the Maya calendar.__One wall of the structure, thought to be a house, is covered with tiny, millimeter-thick, red and black glyphs unlike any seen before at other Maya sites. Some appear to represent the various calendrical cycles charted by the Maya — the 260-day ceremonial calendar, the 365-day solar calendar, the 584-day cycle of the planet Venus and the 780-day cycle of Mars, reports Saturno, who led the exploration and excavation.

“For the first time we get to see what may be actual records kept by a scribe, whose job was to be official record keeper of a Maya community,” Saturno said. “It’s like an episode of TV’s ‘Big Bang Theory,’ a geek math problem and they’re painting it on the wall. They seem to be using it like a blackboard.”

The discovery is reported in the June issue of National Geographic magazine and in the May 11 issue of the journal Science.

The project scientists say that despite popular belief, there is no sign that the Maya calendar — or the world — was to end in the year 2012, just one of its calendar cycles. “It’s like the odometer of a car, with the Maya calendar rolling over from the 120,000s to 130,000,” said Anthony Aveni,, professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University, a coauthor of the Science paper. “The car gets a step closer to the junkyard as the numbers turn over; the Maya just start over.”

The mural represents the first Maya art to be found on the walls of a house. “There are tiny glyphs all over the wall, bars and dots representing columns of numbers. It’s the kind of thing that only appears in one place — the Dresden Codex, which the Maya wrote many centuries later. We’ve never seen anything like it,” said David Stuart, Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at the University of Texas-Austin, who deciphered the glyphs.

The vegetation-covered structure was first spotted in 2010 by Saturno’s student Max Chamberlain, who was following looters’ trenches to explore the site of Xultún, hidden in the remote rain forest of the Petén. Then, supported by a series of grants from the National Geographic Society, Saturno and his team launched an organized exploration and excavation of the house, working urgently to beat the region’s rainy seasons, which threatened to erase what time had so far preserved.

Xultún, a 12-square-mile site where tens of thousands once lived, was first discovered about 100 years ago by Guatemalan workers and roughly mapped in the 1920s by Sylvanus Morley, who named the site “Xultún” — “end stone.” Scientists from Harvard University mapped more of the site in the 1970s. The house discovered by Saturno’s team was numbered 54 of 56 structures counted and mapped at that time. Thousands at Xultún remain uncounted.

The team’s excavations reveal that monumental construction at Xultún began in the first centuries B.C. The site thrived until the end of the Classic Maya period; the site’s last carved monument dates to around 890 A.D. Xultún stood only about five miles from San Bartolo, where in 2001 Saturno found rare, extensive murals painted on the walls of a ritual structure by the ancient Maya.

“It’s weird that the Xultún finds exist at all,” Saturno said. “Such writings and artwork on walls don’t preserve well in the Maya lowlands, especially in a house buried only a meter below the surface.”

The Writing on the Walls

The house contains three intact walls, each telling its own story to researchers — and posing its own mysteries:

The north wall lies straight ahead as one enters the room. An off-center niche in the wall features a painting of a seated king, wearing blue feathers. A long rod made of bone mounted on the wall allowed a curtain to be pulled across the king’s portrait, hiding it and revealing a well-preserved painting of a man whose image is wrapped around the wall; he is depicted in vibrant orange and holds a pen. Maya glyphs near his face call him “Younger Brother Obsidian,” a curious title seldom seen in Maya text. Based on other Maya sites, Saturno theorizes he could be the son or younger brother of the king and possibly the artist-scribe who lived in the house. “The portrait of the king implies a relationship between whoever lived in this space and the royal family,” Saturno said.

Four long numbers on the wall representing one-third of a million to 2.5 million days likely bring together all of the astronomical cycles — such as those of Mars, Venus and the lunar eclipses — the Maya thought important, dates that stretch some 7,000 years into the future. This is the first place Maya archaeologists have found that seems to tabulate all of these cycles in this way. Another number scratched into the plaster surface likely records the date — 813 A.D., a time when the Maya world had begun to collapse.

The west wall: Three male figures loom on this wall, all of them seated and painted in black, wearing only white loincloths, medallions around their necks and identical single-feathered, miter-style head dresses. “We haven’t seen uniform head dresses like that anywhere before,” Saturno said. “It’s clearly a costume of some kind.” One of the figures is particularly burly, “like a sumo wrestler,” and he is labeled “Older Brother Obsidian.” Another is labeled as a youth.

The east wall: Although badly eroded, another black-painted human figure and remnants of others can be seen. But the wall is dominated by numerical figures, including columns of numbers representing counting and calendrical calculations. Some of the numbers track the phases of the moon; others try to reconcile lunar periods with the solar calendar. “Skywatching like this was a tool for predicting eclipses,” Saturno said. One well-preserved section contains numerical notes painted in red that appear to be corrections to more formal calculations appearing alongside them.

“The most exciting point is that we now see that the Maya were making such computations hundreds of years — and in places other than books — before they recorded them in the Codices,” Aveni said.

The scientists say the symbols reflect a certain world view. “The ancient Maya predicted the world would continue, that 7,000 years from now, things would be exactly like this,” Saturno said. “We keep looking for endings. The Maya were looking for a guarantee that

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

First Evidence of a Cult in Judah at Time of King David

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Prof. Yosef Garfinkel with a stone shrine model found at Khirbet Qeiyafa. (Credit: Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, the Yigal Yadin Professor of Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, announced May 8 the discovery of objects that for the first time shed light on how a cult was organized in Judah at the time of King David. During recent archaeological excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, a fortified city in Judah adjacent to the Valley of Elah, Garfinkel and colleagues uncovered rich assemblages of pottery, stone and metal tools, and many art and cult objects. These include three large rooms that served as cultic shrines, which in their architecture and finds correspond to the biblical description of a cult at the time of King David.

This discovery is extraordinary as it is the first time that shrines from the time of early biblical kings were uncovered. Because these shrines pre-date the construction of Solomon's temple in Jerusalem by 30 to 40 years, they provide the first physical evidence of a cult in the time of King David, with significant implications for the fields of archaeology, history, biblical and religion studies.

The expedition to Khirbet Qeiyafa has excavated the site for six weeks each summer since 2007, with co-director Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The revolutionary results of five years of work are presented in a new book, "Footsteps of King David in the Valley of Elah," published by Yedioth Ahronoth.

Located approximately 30 km. southwest of Jerusalem in the valley of Elah, Khirbet Qeiyafa was a border city of the Kingdom of Judah opposite the Philistine city of Gath. The city, which was dated by 10 radiometric measurements (14C) done at Oxford University on burned olive pits, existed for a short period of time between ca. 1020 to 980 BCE, and was violently destroyed.

The biblical tradition presents the people of Israel as conducting a cult different from all other nations of the ancient Near East by being monotheistic and an-iconic (banning human or animal figures). However, it is not clear when these practices were formulated, if indeed during the time of the monarchy (10-6th centuries BC), or only later, in the Persian or Hellenistic eras.

The absence of cultic images of humans or animals in the three shrines provides evidence that the inhabitants of the place practiced a different cult than that of the Canaanites or the Philistines, observing a ban on graven images.

The findings at Khirbet Qeiyafa also indicate that an elaborate architectural style had developed as early as the time of King David. Such construction is typical of royal activities, thus indicating that state formation, the establishment of an elite, social level and urbanism in the region existed in the days of the early kings of Israel. These finds strengthen the historicity of the biblical tradition and its architectural description of the Palace and Temple of Solomon.

According to Prof. Garfinkel, "This is the first time that archaeologists uncovered a fortified city in Judah from the time of King David. Even in Jerusalem we do not have a clear fortified city from his period. Thus, various suggestions that completely deny the biblical tradition regarding King David and argue that he was a mythological figure, or just a leader of a small tribe, are now shown to be wrong." Garfinkel continued, "Over the years, thousands of animal bones were found, including sheep, goats and cattle, but no pigs. Now we uncovered three cultic rooms, with various cultic paraphernalia, but not even one human or animal figurine was found. This suggests that the population of Khirbet Qeiyafa observed two biblical bans -- on pork and on graven images -- and thus practiced a different cult than that of the Canaanites or the Philistines."

Description of the findings and their significance:

The three shrines are part of larger building complexes. In this respect they are different from Canaanite or Philistine cults, which were practiced in temples -- separate buildings dedicated only to rituals. The biblical tradition described this phenomenon in the time of King David: "He brought the ark of God from a private house in Kyriat Yearim and put it in Jerusalem in a private house" (2 Samuel 6).

The cult objects include five standing stones (Massebot), two basalt altars, two pottery libation vessels and two portable shrines. No human or animal figurines were found, suggesting the people of Khirbet Qeiyafa observed the biblical ban on graven images.

Two portable shrines (or "shrine models") were found, one made of pottery (ca. 20 cm high) and the other of stone (35 cm high). These are boxes in the shape of temples, and could be closed by doors.

The clay shrine is decorated with an elaborate façade, including two guardian lions, two pillars, a main door, beams of the roof, folded textile and three birds standing on the roof. Two of these elements are described in Solomon's Temple: the two pillars (Yachin and Boaz) and the textile (Parochet).

The stone shrine is made of soft limestone and painted red. Its façade is decorated by two elements. The first are seven groups of roof-beams, three planks in each. This architectural element, the "triglyph," is known in Greek classical temples, like the Parthenon in Athens. Its appearance at Khirbet Qeiyafa is the earliest known example carved in stone, a landmark in world architecture.

The second decorative element is the recessed door. This type of doors or windows is known in the architecture of temples, palaces and royal graves in the ancient Near East. This was a typical symbol of divinity and royalty at the time.

The stone model helps us to understand obscure technical terms in the description of Solomon's palace as described in 1 Kings 7, 1-6. The text uses the term "Slaot," which were mistakenly understood as pillars and can now be understood as triglyphs. The text also uses the term "Sequfim," which was usually understood as nine windows in the palace, and can now be understood as "triple recessed doorway."

Similar triglyphs and recessed doors can be found in the description of Solomon's temple (1 Kings 6, Verses 5, 31-33, and in the description of a temple by the prophet Ezekiel (41:6). These biblical texts are replete with obscure technical terms that have lost their original meaning over the millennia. Now, with the help of the stone model uncovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa, the biblical text is clarified. For the first time in history we have actual objects from the time of David, which can be related to monuments described in the Bible.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Early North Americans lived w/ mammoths, mastodons and giant ground sloths

A new University of Florida study that determined the age of skeletal remains provides evidence humans reached the Western Hemisphere during the last ice age and lived alongside giant extinct mammals.

The study published online today in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology addresses the century-long debate among scientists about whether human and mammal remains found at Vero Beach in the early 1900s date to the same time period. Using rare earth element analysis to measure the concentration of naturally occurring metals absorbed during fossilization, researchers show modern humans in North America co-existed with large extinct mammals about 13,000 years ago, including mammoths, mastodons and giant ground sloths.

“The Vero site is still the only site where there was an abundance of actual human bones, not just artifacts, associated with the animals,” said co-author Barbara Purdy, UF anthropology professor emeritus and archaeology curator emeritus at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. “Scientists who disputed the age of the human remains in the early 20th century just did not want to believe that people were in the Western Hemisphere that early. And 100 years later, every single book written about the prehistory of North America includes this site and the controversy that still exists.”

Following discovery of the fossils in South Florida between 1913 and 1916, some prominent scientists convinced researchers the human skeletons were from more recent burials and not as old as the animals, a question that remained unanswered because no dating methods existed. “The uptake of rare earth elements is time-dependent, so an old fossil is going to have very different concentrations of rare earth elements than bones from a more recent human burial,” said lead author Bruce MacFadden, Florida Museum vertebrate paleontology curator. “We found the human remains have statistically the same concentrations of rare earth elements as the fossils.”

The little information known about the first humans to appear in North America is primarily based on bone fragments and artifacts, such as stone points used for hunting. Other sites in California, Montana and Texas show human presence around the same time period based on artifacts, but two nearly complete human skeletons were discovered at the Vero Beach site. As bones begin to fossilize they absorb elements from the surrounding sediment, and analysis is effective in distinguishing different-aged fossils deposited in the same locality. Instead of radiocarbon dating, which requires the presence of collagen in bones, researchers used mass spectrometry to compare rare earth elements in the specimens because a lack of collagen in the Vero Beach specimens made radiocarbon dating impossible, Purdy said.

Researchers analyzed samples from 24 human bones and 48 animal fossils in the Florida Museum’s collections and determined the specimens were all from the late Pleistocene epoch about 13,000 years ago. While rare earth element analysis method is not as precise as radiocarbon dating, Purdy said the significance of human skeletons found in Vero Beach is unquestionable in terms of their presence in the Western Hemisphere.

“It is important to note that they [the authors] did not provide an absolute or chronometric date, rather the geochemistry shows that the trace elemental geochemistry is the same, thus the bones must be of the same age,” said Kenneth Tankersley, an assistant professor in the University of Cincinnati anthropology and geology departments.

Native fauna during the last ice age ranged from extinct jaguars and saber-toothed cats to shrews, mice and squirrels still present in Florida. Researchers speculate humans would have been wanderers much like the animals because there was less fresh water than in later years, Purdy said.

“Humans would have been following the animals for a food supply, but that’s about all we know,” Purdy said. “We know what some of their tools looked like and we know they were hunting the extinct animals but we know practically nothing about their family life, such as how these ancient people raised their children and grieved for their dead.”