April Holloway | Ancient Origins | December 26, 2013
One of the best things about archaeology is uncovering the unexpected. Some of the findings listed below certainly fit into this category – from elongated skulls to vampire graves, green slime, and the DNA of Bigfoot, 2013 has been an eventful year!
French archaeologists made a surprising discovery during an excavation in Alsace, France, when they uncovered a substantially elongated skull dating back 1,500 years. The finding prompted the archaeologists to extend their search over 7.5 acres, which resulted in the discovery of an abundance of artefacts, human and animal remains from Neolithic, Gallic, Gallo-Roman, and Merovingian societies. The skull appears to have been intentionally elongated through the practice known as cranial deformation, which is usually associated with ancient Mesoamerican cultures and was practiced extensively in Europe, Africa, Asia, and as noted, South America. The skull was discovered during excavation of a necropolis containing 18 burials, in a tomb belonging to a woman who clearly held a high status position in society as she was buried with a rich assortment of treasures including gold pins, a silver mirror, beads of glass and amber, a comb made from deer antler and a number of other goods. Cranial deformation was frequently associated with the elites of society and affirmed their high status. The important question of course is why?
A leading expert on animal mummies has released the results of a new analysis on a discovery made in 2009 in Egypt where archaeologists found a highly unusual canine burial in a large mud-brick structure in Abydos, one of Egypt’s oldest standing royal monuments. Two well preserved dogs were found curled up inside large ceramic pots, dating back around 3,000 years. A large number of mummified dogs and dog cemeteries have been found throughout Egypt, but it is the first time that dogs have been found in burial jars. Nicknamed Houdini and Chewie, the dogs still had their fur largely intact. Houdini was found in a large two-handled pot, and buried without any wrappings. His fur was a brown-auburn colour and appears to have been coated by an oil or resin, perhaps for preservation. Due to the size of the dog, the researchers could not work out how he was placed inside the jar so they named him after the magician, Houdini.
A team of researchers from London’s Royal College of Art (RCA) discovered that the stones used to construct Stonehenge hold musical properties and when struck, sound like bells, drums and gongs. It is suggested that these properties could be the reason why the builders were willing to travel so far to source the stones from Wales and bring them to the site in Salisbury Plain, England. Experts conducted acoustic tests at the site by tapping the bluestones with small quartz hammerstones to test for sounds. They found that the stones made metallic and wooden sounds in many different notes. Such sonic or musical rocks are referred to as ‘ringing rocks’ or ‘lithophones’. The investigators believe that this ‘acoustic energy’ could have been the prime reason why these stones were transported nearly 200 miles from Preseli to Salisbury Plain, as archaeologists have not yet been able to explain why they were brought so far when there were plentiful local rocks from which Stonehenge could have been built.
The Natural History Museum in London made an announcement about a specialised department which has been likened to the well-known X-Files programme. The unit’s Identification and Advisory Service will be responsible for investigating a wide-range of unexplained phenomena, and so far they have been contending with so-called ‘space slime’, and a host of bizarre items discovered by the British public including bones resembling a dragon skull, round objects believed to be meteorite fragments, and a skull with long tusks believed to have belonged to the ice-age sabre tooth tiger. The research team takes a scientific approach to all the submissions and so-far they have been able to solve many of the mysteries. However, one of the unexplained phenomena still has the team baffled – the mysterious slime discovered in a nature reserve in Somerset. The slime appeared at the same time as a meteor crashed to earth in Chelyabinsk, Russia, which has led many to believe that the strange substance has come from space. An amateur photographer claimed he had captured a mysterious object whizzing through the sky above the park on camera. The object appeared to be a meteor, although this was not confirmed by astronomers. The London museum’s Angela Marmont Centre (AMC) for UK Biodiversity, which houses the Identification and Advisory Service, was tasked with investigating the mysterious slime, with the aim of establishing whether it had fallen from space, or if its origins were rather more terrestrial. Laboratory tests have so far failed to find just what it could be – and where it had come from.
Tales of a fierce ‘Abominable Snowman’, otherwise called Yeti, Sasquatch or Bigfoot, is one of the world’s most enduring mysteries. Apparent eye-witness accounts, blurry home videos, and traces of large non-human footprints have instilled both fear and curiosity in people for centuries. Now, it appears that the mystery has been solved thanks to a new DNA study conducted by British Scientists, and the results are surprising. Oxford University genetics professor Bryan Sykes conducted a DNA analysis on hair samples from suspected yetis, one found in the western Himalayan region of Ladakh and the other from Bhutan, 800 miles away. Skyes used these samples to compare them to those in GenBank, the international repository of gene sequences of known species. Sykes was surprised and perplexed to find a 100% match with a sample from an ancient polar bear jawbone found in Norway, which dates back between 40,000 and 120,000 years ago. This was around the time that the polar bear and the related brown bear were separating into different species and Sykes believes the most likely explanation is that the animal is a sub-species of brown bear that is descended from an ancestor of the ancient polar bear. Professor Sykes said: “It may be some sort of hybrid and if its behaviour is different from normal bears, which is what eyewitnesses report, then I think that may well be the source of the mystery and the source of the legend.”
New research has offered clues to decoding the secrets of the Mesopotamian clay balls, which were found in Iran and date back 5,500 years. The study, which used CT scanning to look inside the clay balls, revealed that the balls may represent the world’s “very first data storage system”. Their sizes vary from golf ball size to baseball size and to date, only about 150 intact examples have been found in the region. Researchers used high-tech equipment to look inside the balls and found that they contained tokens in a variety of geometric shapes. It is possible that the shapes conveyed numbers used in counting different types of products which were exchanged. Rather strangely, the CT scan also revealed that one ball contained tokens which would have been wrapped in cloth before being put in the ball and then had a bitumen-type liquid poured over them. The reason for this still remains a mystery. The region that once contained the flourishing civilization of Mesopotamia is not the only place where clay or stone balls have been found. More than 400 carved stone balls were found in Scotland dating back to the Neolithic period between 3000 and 2000 BC, and thousands of baseball-sized clay balls were found in the ancient Neolithic city of Çatalhöyük in Turkey. Is it a coincidence that these artefacts have been found in many countries around the world belonging to the same era? Were they used for the same purpose?
New research suggests that a calendar based on the movement of planet Venus was used in the daily lives of people in ancient Aegean civilizations about 4,000 BC, and may have even been used to track milestones during pregnancy. Neolithic objects in the shape of ‘frying pans’ that were found in Greece, were decorated with concentric circles, spirals, radial patterns and sometimes rowing vessels. Professor of space physics, Minas Tsikritsis, suggested that the objects were used as calendars to perform astronomical calculations of the orbits of Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Sun. The interesting thing is that it looks that the movement of planet Venus was correlated to the biological cycle of pregnancy. Planet Venus (related to Goddess Aphrodite) appears before the sunrise for 263 days (approximately 9 moon months) and another 265 days after the sunset. So half of Venus cycle is approximately 9 months which coincides with the biological cycle of pregnancy. Adding to that, it can be seen that on some of the objects triangles and other symbols were engraved next to specific days of the calendar, and some even had engravings in the shape of the female uterus. This suggests that such a calendar was used by women to determine if they were pregnant or not, as well as tracking the milestones of their pregnancy.
Archaeologists discovered an ancient brew house which was visited daily by monks of the former Bicester Priory in England. The holy men drank beer daily to kill off bacteria and would have drunk around 10 pints of beer each week. “Monks would get eight to 10 pints of ale a week. It had a small amount of alcohol that killed bacteria – it was safer than drinking the water,” said Andrew Weale, manager of Thames Valley Archaeology. “Up to the 18th/19th century, part of your salary would be in beer.” While monks led a solitary life of work and prayer, they also believed in hospitality and charity. Monasteries were renowned as places of refuge for travellers seeking a safe, clean place with decent food and drink. The monks grew or traded for their food and made their own drinks, thus beer and wine were readily available at the monasteries.
Archaeologists working on Bulgaria’s Perperikon site found the skeleton of a male buried with an iron stake plunged through its chest, a ritual practiced in the Middle Ages to prevent the individual ‘turning into the undead’. Coins found with the body have been tentatively dated to the 13th and 14th century. It is not the first ‘vampire grave’ to be uncovered in Bulgaria. The discovery echoes a similar one made in Sozopol last year. Throughout Bulgaria, the remains of over 100 vampire-treated people, all of them men, and all of them prominent citizens, have been found. According to pagan beliefs, people who were considered bad during their lifetimes might turn into vampires after death unless stabbed in the chest with an iron or wooden rod before being buried. People believed the rod would also pin them down in their graves to prevent them from leaving at midnight and terrorising the living. Vampire legends form an important part of the region’s folklore.
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