Category: willhunt

Second Neolithic ‘Venus’ Unearthed at Orkney, Scotland

The Venus of Orkney, a 4,500-year-old Neolithic sandstone figurine hailed as Scotland’s earliest depiction of a human face, has been a darling of British archaeology since it was excavated last year on the remote island of Westray. Now, the Venus, which earned a nomination at the recent British Archaeology Awards, will have to share the limelight archaeologists at the Links of Noltland site on Westray have uncovered a second remarkable Neolithic figurine, less than 100 feet from where the Venus was discovered.

Like the Venus, the recently excavated figurine is a tiny, delicate pendant-like figurine. Standing less than two inches high it lost its head sometime during the five millennia or so it spent underground the fired-clay figure is delicately carved and covered with geometric incisions probably fashioned with a sharp bone point. Whereas the Venuss carvings display attributes of a woman long hair, two round dots representing breasts the recent figurine bears no anatomical marker to suggest that it is male or female. The excavation team at Historic Scotland, however, believe the intricately carved rectangular panel on its front represents a females tunic.

The figurines start to allow us to consider the spiritual life of the Noltland families more than 4000 years ago, possibly with the earliest evidence we have of worship being channelled through physical representations of spirits or gods.

It is difficult to know what these mysterious figurines meant to the ancient people who carved them. For all we know, said Peter Yeoman, Head of Cultural Resources for Historic Scotland, they could be childrens toys. The Orkney figurines, however, bear striking resemblance to other prehistoric figurines found all over Europe, especially of ample-hipped female figures the Paleolithic Venus of Hohle Fels and the Neolithic cult figures of Catalhoyuk in Turkey come to mind. Such figurines, said Yeoman, are typically recognised as images of deities and fertility objects.

Understood as deities or objects of ritual, the tiny pendants from Orkney hold implications that have archaeologists buzzing. The figurines, said Yeoman, start to allow us to consider the spiritual life of the Noltland families more than 4000 years ago, possibly with the earliest evidence we have of worship being channelled through physical representations of spirits or gods.

Until the pendants on Orkney were brought to light, says Yeoman, it appeared that early inhabitants of Scotland had only worshipped deities at major monuments, such as Orkneys recently discovered Neolithic cathedral or the Ring of Brogdar. “[The figurines] suggest that perhaps they did not just represent their belief system on the grand scale, but also they had them in the home,” he said. To say the least, an exciting glimpse into the complexity of this obscure culture.

The archipelago of Orkney continues to be one of Scotlands richest archaeological areas. For local archaeologist Julie Gibson, the excavated pendants are further proof that Orkney is the best place in Scotland for encountering archaeology. From tiny objects to well-preserved Neolithic villages, temples, and grand ceremonial sites, this is the place to study the past in three dimensions.”

The areas most famous site may be the remarkably well-preserved Neolithic village ofSkara Brae, but look for Links of Noltland, which, in addition to the Venus and her clay companion, has yielded complex bone tool kits, stone beads and elaborately decorated stones, to gain prominence in Scottish archaeology.

Arbil, Iraq Discovery Could be Earliest Evidence of Humans in the Near East

Czech archaeologists have excavated remains of a prehistoric settlement in Arbil, north Iraq, which could date back as far back 200,000 years, placing it among the earliest evidence of hominid activity in the region. The expedition, led by Dr. Karel Novacek from the University of West Bohemia in Plzen, unearthed clusters of stone artifacts at the bottom of a 9-meter-deep pit dug just outside the tell in Arbil. Novacek recently explained to Heritage Key that the excavated stone tools, comprised of flakes, scrapers and cores, can be traced back to the Late Middle Paleolithic Age (200,000-40,000 years before present). The discoveries align chronologically with excavations carried out by Americans in the 1950s in the nearby plains between Kirkuk and Suleymaniya.

Ostrich Egg Shells Discovered in South Africa Could be Earliest Evidence of Human Language

Archaeologists in South Africa have recently unearthed some of the earliest evidence of human behavior – a cache of ostrich eggs dating back 60,000 years, etched with intricate geometric designs.

The abstract carvings are signs of what archaeologists call ‘symbolic thinking,’ a capacity particular to Homo sapiens. Unlike earlier hominids, our brains allow usto affix meaning to objects, to draw associations, to recognize and create symbols.
Symbolic thinking is the roots ofwriting, language and art; it is,to risk grandiosity, what makes us human.

So when the team at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, led by prehistorianPierre-Jean Texier, dug up the60,000-year-old decorated ostrich eggs, they knew they’d found something special. The eggs suggest that we ‘became human’ – i.e. started creating art, decorating objects and thinking symbolically – 20,000 earlier than scholars had originally thought.

The Creative Explosion Theory – Blasted

Until the 1990s, the accepted date for the dawn of modern thought was give-or-take 40,000 years ago. Homo sapiens, so the theories went, were anatomically modern by 200,000 years ago in Africa, but they didn’t adopt modern cognitive behavior until after they arrived in Europe. The stunning late Upper Paleolithic cave paintings at Chauvet,and Lascaux(Chauvetdates back roughly 35,000 years), were evidence of what scholars called a ‘creative explosion’. This, experts surmised, was the moment in history when language, art, and symbolic thinking converged in a great burst of cognitive power. It was, in other words, when humankind became human.

The decorated ostrich eggs bolster Henshilwood’s assertion that the abstract designs scratched into the ochre at Blombos were not haphazard doodles, but evidence of Middle Stone Age symbolic thinking.

These theories held until strange outliers started turning up at archaeological digs in Africa. Namely at a site called Blombos Cave, located about 180 miles east of Capetown, South Africa. Between 1991 and 2002, State University of New York (Stony Brook) archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood uncovered a treasure trove of artifacts which pointed to early symbolic thinking. Among other things, his team found tiny decorative mollusk beads and complex bone tool kits. Most remarkable, though, were pieces of ochre inscribed with a grid of elaborate geometric patterns. Given the complex nature of the designs, and the fact that ochre is a soft material, unsuitable for practical uses like tool-making, Henshilwood asserted that the etched ochre was a case of decoration, and evidence of complex thought. He went one step further with his hypothesis, suggesting that the intricate cross-hatched designs “could have been interpreted by those people as having meaning that would have been understood by others.” In other words, they were based on language.

But the part that had the scientific community scratching its head was the age of the finds: the stratum of rock from which these objects were excavated was dated between 77,000 and 70,000 years. That’s about 40,000 years earlier than the gooey-sounding “creative explosion” in Europe. Of course, these little cross-hatches didn’t hold a candle to the masterpieces in Chauvet and Lascaux. But the implications of the find were no less astounding. Talk about an altered timeline: according to the discoveries at Blombos, our ancestors had been behaving and thinking like modern humans for twice as long as scholars thought. Nevermind the holes this theory exposed in an entirely Euro-centric version of the history of humankind.

Creative Expression… or First Signs of Language?

Of course, there were doubts about the finds at Blombos. Steve Kuhn, anthropologist at the University of Arizona told the BBC back in 2002, “I’d be more comfortable if there were more of these engraved stones; if these alleged symbols were found many times in different places. It is possible they were just doodlings that really didn’t mean anything.”

Which is why the recent find at Diepkloof is so significant. The decorated ostrich eggs bolster Henshilwood’s assertion that the abstract designs scratched into the ochre at Blombos were not haphazard doodles, but evidence of Middle Stone Age symbolic thinking. The team at Diepkloof, which has been digging at the site since 1999, has unearthed shards from approximately 25 ostrich eggs across 18 archaeological layers, dated between 55,000 and 65,000 years ago. However rudimentary the scratchmarks, the team is convinced that they display complex order. Not only do the decorations show varying styles, including parallel lines with cross-hatches (like rail-road tracks) and repetitive non-parallel lines, but the styles appear to evolve over time. The railroad track motif, for example, appears only in the earliest 12 layers of the site, then disappears.

The greatest evidence for symbolism in these markings, though, is that a number of the fragments were intentionally pierced with a tool to bore a hole in the top part of the egg. Texier and his team take this as evidence that these large eggs, which had a volume of roughly one litre, were used as canteens, a practice they recognized from historic hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari desert. The same way we might put labels on the sugar and coffee jars in the kitchen, the Kalahari tribes decorated their eggs with markings to denote their contents or ownership. If, 60,000 years ago, Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers at Diepkloof were doing the same, then, as the team has said, the ostrich eggs [represent] the earliest evidence of the existence of a graphic tradition among prehistoric hunter-gatherer populations. Not to mention that they extend the history of humankind by 20,000 years.

Ancient Roman Palace Discovered at Gabii

The remnants of a royal palace built by the family of ancient Romes legendary tyrant king, Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), have been unearthed at Gabii, an ancient site 12 miles south of Rome, according to reports from archaeologists on Thursday. Excavators believe that the palace, which dates back to the 6th century BC, was the home of Tarquinius Superbuss son, the notorious prince Sextus Tarquinius.

Recovered fragments of the palaces terracotta roof display an image of the minotaur, a family emblem of the Tarquins, which has led archaeologists to suggest that it was home to many generations of Tarquins. While only a small portion of the site has been officially excavated, the finds to-date provide glimpses of a once opulent structure.

Superbus and his son were a historically influential, if unsavory pair. The Etruscan Tarquinius Superbus, who apparently murdered his predecessor to become Romes 7th king, ruled with such brutality that the Roman people vowed never to live under a king again. His reign ended with the revolt of 510 BC, which resulted in the creation of the Roman Republic. According to the Roman historian Livy (59 BC AD 17), it was the despots son, Sextus, who ultimately brought on the revolt, when he raped Lucretia, the honorable wife of his cousin Tarquinius Collatinus. When Lucretia stabbed herself, angry Gabians stormed Sextuss palace, tore the building to pieces, and murdered the prince.

While the excavations at Gabii will shed light on this tumultuous crossroads in Roman history, excavators underline the sites archaeological significance. “It’s an extraordinary find,” said Romes Archaeological Superintendent Angelo Bottini. “The way the site was demolished by furious locals in ancient times and later escaped local urban sprawl has allowed the palace to come to us virtually intact. While most buildings of such antiquity in Rome were torn down to make way for newer constructions, the 6th-century BC palace, which was found on the slopes of a dormant volcano, went untouched. The site has the highest standing walls roughly 6.5 feet of any Roman ruin from that period.

Look for the ancient city of Gabii to reveal more significant finds in the coming archaeological seasons. Nicola Terrenato, professor of classical archaeology at the University of Michigan who also leads an excavation at Gabii, said,”Gabii’s archaeological potential is enormous. It is one of the largest cities in Latium, and it is completely unencumbered by later buildings. When one thinks that what has been excavated yet is far less than 10 percent of the city, it is clear that many more surprises are in store.