Monday, June 25, 2007

Rise of man theory ‘out by 400,000 year

Our earliest ancestors gave up hunter-gathering and took to a settled life up to 400,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to controversial research.

The accepted timescale of Man’s evolution is being challenged by a German archaeologist who claims to have found evidence that Homo erectus — mankind’s early ancestor, who migrated from Africa to Asia and Europe — began living in settled communities long before the accepted time of 10,000 years ago.

The point at which settlement actually took place is the first critical stage in humanity’s cultural development.

Helmut Ziegert, of the Institute of Archaeology at Hamburg University, says that the evidence can be found at excavated sites in North and East Africa, in the remains of stone huts and tools created by upright man for fishing and butchery.

Professor Ziegert claims that the thousands of blades, scrapers, hand axes and other tools found at sites such as Budrinna, on the shore of the extinct Lake Fezzan in southwest Libya, and at Melka Konture, along the River Awash in Ethiopia, provide evidence of organised societies.

He believes that such sites show small communities of 40 or 50 people, with abundant water resources to exploit for constant harvests.

The implications for our knowledge of human evolution — and of our intellectual and social beginnings — are “profound” and a “staggering shift”, he said.

Professor Ziegert used potassium argon isotopic dating, stratigraphy and tool typology to compile his evidence. He will publish his findings this month in Minerva, the archaeology journal.

The news divided scholarly opinion yesterday.

Sean Kingsley, an archaeologist and the managing editor of Minerva, said: “This research is nothing less than a quantum leap in our understanding of Man’s intellectual and social history. For archaeology it’s as radical as finding life on Mars.

“As a veteran of over 81 archaeological surveys and excavations . . . Ziegert is nothing if not scientifically cautious, which makes the current revelation all the more exciting.”

But others were far from convinced. Paul Pettitt, senior lecturer in palaeolithic archaeology at the University of Sheffield, said: “Are they truly the remains of huts and not a natural phenomenon? Do they really date 400,000 years or are they much more recent? The site formation, age and implications are all questionable.”

He said that Homo erectus was a highly mobile hunter, that human remains can accumulate for a number of reasons and that the evidence to be published by Minerva does not indicate a year-round settlement.

Further scepticism was voiced by Paul Bahn, an archaeologist who specialises in the palaeolithic period. Although he believes that Homo erectus was quite advanced and capable of building durable structures, occasionally coming together in large groups, he remains to be convinced about settlements.

He said: “Homo erectus could have been there for a few days. He wouldn’t have carried the tools around. Inevitably, they accumulate. If hunter-gatherers found no cave or rock shelter, it makes sense that they might have built a shelter for a few days or seasonally. Just the fact that they’re made out of stone doesn’t mean they were permanent settlements.

Nick Barton, a lecturer in palaeolithic archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: “No unequivocal dating evidence is presented except that based on the typology of the artefacts. It is entirely possible that the site represents a palimpsest of material spanning the palaeolithic to the neolithic.”

Homo erectus — a species that has been recognised since the late 19th century — lived from about 1.6 million to 200,000 years ago, ranging widely from Africa and Asia to parts of Europe. Most of the anatomical differences between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens relate to the skull and teeth, with the former having a jutting browridge, a wide nose and large teeth.

Professor Ziegert said: “The first archaeological revolution in fact was not triggered by anatomically ‘modern humans’ in the neolithic, or indeed in the technological and cultural revolution associated with the upper palaeolithic, but by Homo erectus, upright Man, an altogether different ancestral species making waves at the dawn of humanity.”

After decades of fieldwork, Professor Ziegert is convinced that future discoveries will uphold his conclusions. Under his direction, the University of Hamburg has scheduled a further programme of excavations at Budrinna and Melka Konture over the next four years.

Solved mystery of Masada remains

AN ISRAELI anthropologist is using modern forensic techniques and an obscure biblical passage to challenge the accepted wisdom about human remains found at Masada, the desert fortress famous as the scene of a mass suicide nearly 2,000 years ago.

A new research paper re-examines the remains of three people found in a bathhouse at the site - two male skeletons and a woman's full head of hair, including two braids.
They were long thought to have belonged to a family of Zealots - the fanatic Jewish rebels said to have killed themselves rather than fall into Roman slavery in the spring of 73AD, a story that became part of Israel's national mythology.

The bodies found at Masada were recognised as Jewish heroes by Israel in 1969 and given a state burial.

But now it seems Israel might have mistakenly bestowed the honour on three Romans, according to the paper, published yesterday in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology by anthropologist Dr Joe Zias and forensics expert Azriel Gorski.

Yigael Yadin, the renowned Israeli archeologist in charge of the original 1960s dig, thought the remains of the three were key in illustrating the historical account of Zealot men killing their wives and children and then themselves before the Roman soldiers breached Masada's defences.

"There could be no doubt that what our eyes beheld were the remains of some of the defenders of Masada," the archaeologist wrote in his book documenting the dig.

The new paper focuses on the hair, noting the absence of a skeleton to go with it. Forensic analysis showed the hair had been cut off the woman's head with a sharp instrument while she was still alive.

Dr Zias' attempt to explain the discrepancy led him to the Old Testament's Book of Deuteronomy, where a passage says that foreign women captured in battle by Jews must cut off all their hair, apparently in an attempt to make them less attractive to their captors.

He thus concluded that the hair belonged not to a Jewish woman but to a captured foreign woman.

In his scenario, the woman was attached to the Roman garrison stationed at Masada at the time the Zealots took over the fortress and killed the Roman soldiers. Jewish fighters threw two Roman bodies into the bathhouse, and then treated the woman captive according to Jewish law, cutting off her hair, which they threw in along with the bodies.

Once a pillar of Israeli identity - army units used to be sworn in on the mountaintop, shouting "Masada will not fall again" - the Masada story has fallen out of favour as Israelis became less comfortable with glorifying mass suicide and identifying with religious fanatics.

The very story of the suicide, as recounted in dramatic detail by the first century AD Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, has come increasingly into doubt, and many scholars now believe it was either greatly exaggerated or never happened at all.

The original archeologists at the site, Dr Zias said, "had the story and went around trying to find the proof". No concrete evidence for the Zealot suicide has been found, he said.

....It seems that for about three years, the Zealots were a thorn in the side of the Roman occupiers, who eventually sent a trouble-shooter General to fix it.

First, he had a retaining wall with guard towers built encircling the rock to contain the Zealots and prevent their escaping. Then he built the ramp to bypass the very good defensive approaches up the side of the rock face, "wearing out" over 5,000 slaves in the process. It was protected by hide-covered shelters on wheels which were pushed up the ramp as it was built to shelter the workers from attack from above while they toiled and, eventually, they were able to storm the flat top where the people lived.

Much of the ramp can still be seen, as can water cisterns dug into the rock and grain stores etc.

I recall that there was also a "palace" built down the side of the rock.

....According to the writer and traitor, Josephus who was there at the time, the troubleshooter general was Roman governor of Judea Lucius Flavius Silva, who had a slanging match every day with his opposite number Eleazar ben Yair, head of the Zealot Jews, the Sicarii. It was the X Fretensis who were the Legion attacking Masada.

The account of the siege of Masada was related to Josephus by two women who survived the suicide by hiding inside a cistern along with five children, and repeated Eleazar ben Yair's final exhortation to his followers, prior to the mass suicide, verbatim to the Romans

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Qumran - Dead Sea scrolls discovery site

The mysterious archaeological ruins located paces from where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered 60 years ago served first as a fortress before being adopted by Jewish religious sect, two UCLA researchers contend.

“Qumran was established originally as a fortress, just as the archaeological evidence shows, and then it was abandoned,” said Robert R. Cargill, a UCLA graduate student in Near Eastern Culture and Languages. “It was later resettled by the Essenes, an early Jewish religious community that came from Jerusalem, bringing with them the scrolls and continuing to copy and compose new scrolls.”

Cargill and collaborator William M. Schniedewind, chair of the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Cultures and Languages, arrived at the conclusion while building the world’s first three-dimensional computer model of the site, which has been the subject of debate since a Bedouin shepherd discovered the first scrolls in a cave above Qumran in 1947.

“Once you put all the archaeological evidence into three dimensions, the solution literally jumps out at you,” said Schniedewind, the project’s principle investigator.

The scholars hope their Qumran Visualization Project, slated to go on view June 29 at the San Diego Natural History Museum as part of the largest public exhibition of the scrolls ever mounted, will resolve the conflict surrounding the history and evolution of the West Bank site.

Generations of scholars have clashed over whether Qumran served exclusively as a monastery for the scholarly and pacifist Essenes; a fortress for the mighty Hasmoneans, whose victory against ancient Greek occupiers is celebrated during Hanukkah; or a rich Jerusalem family’s villa that was later adapted by the Essenes as a Jewish communal compound.

With the judiciousness of Solomon, Cargill and Schniedewind cut the three competing theories down the middle, contending that none of them hold together without elements from the others.

“We felt it was of the utmost important to allow the archaeological remains to speak for themselves,” said Schniedewind. “So we decided to follow the evidence in modeling the site, no matter where it would lead. In attempting to reconstruct many of the suggestions made by scholars over the years, we found that many were simply not possible architecturally. But when half of the elements were taken from each of the competing theories and added to each other, the most plausible — and buildable — explanation emerged.”

Cargill and Schniedewind contend that the original 20,150-square-foot, two-story structure, which has a four-story tower and surrounds a 3,229-square-foot courtyard, could not have been built originally as the home of a sectarian religious community, as Roland de Vaux, a French Dominican priest who led the original excavation of the site, held. De Vaux maintained that the original occupants, who refer to themselves in the scrolls as the “Yahad,” were the Essenes.

Central to de Vaux’s theory is the existence of a communal dining hall, which was vividly described in the scrolls. While early excavations indeed discovered enough pottery to feed a religious community, the dining room was not part of the original structure, the UCLA researchers contend.

“Once we put the dining hall into the model, we realized it had to be an addition,” Cargill said. “It only fits to the south of the original structure.”

When the site served as a fortress, housing fewer people than the Jewish religious settlement, residents would have eaten elsewhere, possibly in a central courtyard where ovens have been excavated, the UCLA team contends.

Similarly, 1,120-square-foot, two-story scriptorium — or large work room for producing scrolls — has long been thought to be central to the religious community, but the position of the room and thickness of the walls are more consistent with an addition than an original feature of the structure, the UCLA team found.

But if Qumran does not appear to have been originally designed for communal life, its evolution is not consistent with use exclusively as a fortress either, say the UCLA researchers. In an influential 1996 article about Qumran, University of Chicago professor Norman Golb argued that the site, occupied from about 163 B.C. to A.D. 73, was always a fortress.

While original features of the structure, such as a defensive four-story tower on one side and protective precipices on two opposing sides, would be expected of a fortress, the array of outbuildings and additions reflect a more pastoral, contemplative life, the UCLA team found. For instance, the researchers have been able to bring to life a vast water system that flowed through the site, filling 10 ritual baths, separating clay for pottery production, and sustaining residents, livestock and crops. Moreover, only a low wall appears to have protected agricultural portions of the compound’s northwest side —not the heavy fortification that would be expected of a fortress.

“The Qumran model shows that the nature of the expanded areas, specifically those in the northwest annex and within an inner courtyard, was of a communal, non-military nature,” said Schniedewind, who participated in an archaeological dig at Qumran over a decade ago.

Cargill and Schniedewind credit French archaeologist Jean-Baptiste Humbert with first suggesting the hybrid approach that inspires their own “synthetic” theory. Humbert contended in a 2002 book that Qumran was first built as a home, possibly a vacation home, for a wealthy Jerusalem family before being abandoned and reoccupied in the late first century B.C. Like Cargill and Schniedewind, Humbert has contended that the site’s eventual occupants were the Essenes.

“This interpretation was a crucial step in the right direction,” Cargill said. “But the shared rooms — the dining room, the scriptorium, the pottery works — appear to have been built for a community of people. This isn’t just for one wealthy family out in the desert. This is an entire community center [whose residents] sustained themselves making pottery and may have even fed themselves from their own crops.”

Like many scholars before them, Cargill and Schniedewind believe the Essenes, who practiced communal ownership, brought all of their possessions to the site, including about 70 percent of the scrolls discovered in the area. They believe that the Essenes are the Yahad group described in the remaining 30 percent of the recovered scrolls, and that they are the authors of those texts, composed at Qumran, which describe communal life in the Judean desert. The UCLA team theorizes that the Essenes may have anticipated an attack from Roman soldiers when they packed the scrolls in earthenware jars and hid them in caves in the hills above Qumran.

Kingdom of Kush

Archaeologists rescue clues to ancient kingdom from the rising Nile

Damming in Sudan threatens remains of first sub-Saharan state

Archaeologists from the University of Chicago have discovered a gold processing center along the middle Nile, an installation that produced the precious metal sometime between 2000 and 1500 B.C. The center, along with a cemetery they discovered, documents extensive control by the first sub-Saharan kingdom, the kingdom of Kush.

The team from the University’s Oriental Institute found more than 55 grinding stones made of granite-like gneiss along the Nile at the site of Hosh el-Geruf, about 225 miles north of Khartoum, Sudan. The region was also known also known as Nubia in ancient times.

Groups of similar grinding stones have been found on desert sites, mostly in Egypt, where they were used to grind ore to recover the precious metal. The ground ore was likely washed with water nearby to separate the gold flakes.

“This large number of grinding stones and other tools used to crush and grind ore shows that the site was a center for organized gold production,” said Geoff Emberling, Director of the Oriental Institute Museum and a co-leader of the expedition. The research was funded by the the National Geographic Society and the Packard Humanities Institute, which also has offered to support all the teams working in the Fourth Cataract salvage project, the location of the University’s expedition.

“Even today, panning for gold is a traditional activity in the area,” said Bruce Williams, a Research Associate at the Oriental Institute and also a co-leader of the expedition. “Water is a key ingredient for the production of gold and it is possible that bits of gold ore were found in gravel deposits nearby in wadis (dry creek beds) and crushed on the site.” The team also excavated a cemetery where they uncovered burials with artifacts that suggest the region was part of the Kingdom of Kush, which would have ruled an area much larger than previously believed. Such discoveries show that the kingdom, the first in sub-Saharan Africa to control a territory as much as 750 miles in length.

“This work is extremely exciting because it can give us our first look at the economic organization of this very important, but little known ancient African state,” said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. “Until now, virtually all that we have known about Kush came from the historical records of their Egyptian neighbors, and from limited explorations of monumental architecture at the Kushite capital city Kerma. The Oriental Institute excavations at Hosh el-Geruf will allow scholars to understand the rural sources of the riches of Kush.”

The University of Chicago expedition is part of an international recovery project underway intended to find artifacts related to Kush and other civilizations that flourished in the area before archaeological sites are covered by a steadily rising Nile. The area is being flooded by Hamdab or Merowe Dam, located at the downstream end of the Fourth Cataract. The lake to be formed by this dam will flood about 100 miles of the Nile Valley in an area that had previously seen no archaeological work.

“Surveys suggest that there are as many as 2,500 archaeological sites to be investigated in the area. Fortunately, this is an international effort-teams from Sudan, England, Poland, Hungary, Germany and the United States have been working since 1996, with a large increase in the number of archaeologists working in the area since 2003,” Emberling said.

The area will probably be flooded next year, but the team hopes to return for another season of exploration. The sites studied by Emberling and Williams provide important new information on the ancient Kingdom of Kush, which flourished from about 2000 to 1500 B.C.

“The Kingdom of Kush was unusual in that it was able to use the tools of power-military and governance-without having a system of writing, an extensive bureaucracy or numerous urban centers,” Emberling said. “Studying Kush helps scholars have a better idea of what statehood meant in an ancient context outside such established power centers of Egypt and Mesopotamia.”

Among the artifacts they found in burials nearby at the site al-Widay were pottery vessels that appear to have been made in the center of the kingdom, a city called Kerma, some 225 miles downstream.

The graves for the cemetery, which were for elite members of the community, included 90 closely-packed, roughly constructed stone circles covered shafts that were circular and lined with stones, a feature noted in the so-called Pan Graves of Lower Nubia and Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, about 1700 B.C., said Emberling. “These, and the broad-bottomed black-topped cups they contained, are generally assigned to the Medjay, people of the Eastern Desert, who at times served as soldiers and police in Egypt.”

“A few of the tombs had the rectangular shafts of the later Classic Kerma burials, graceful tulip-shaped beakers and jars of Kerma type and even imported vessels from Egypt, as well as scarabs and faience and carnelian beads, and there were even several beds or biers,” he said.

“Finds of Kerma material at the Fourth Cataract was one of the major surprises of the salvage effort and suggests the leaders of Kush were able to expand their influence much further than was previously known, possibly including as much as 750 miles along the banks of the Nile,” said Williams.