Lost Cities – Caral

Today we jump across the Atlantic to one of my other passions; pre-Colombian civilisations, to bring you yet another “Lost City”. This is of course one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of the last century (in my opinion at least!), and one of the most magnificent sites in the world, with a very impressive team taking care of it. I am, of course, talking about the sacred city of Caral-Supe, or simply known as Caral. The site is currently under the protection of La Zona Arqueológica Caral (ZAC), which is a public entity created by a state decree in 2003 specifically to preserve the area. The location is, however, not quite what you would expect for a wonderful Andean discovery. Caral is in the desert terrace that overlooks the Supe river valley, approximately 23km away from the Pacific coast. So why is Caral included in our lost cities series? In a similar way than Gedi (https://nuhistory.wordpress.com/2018/10/30/lost-cities-gedi/ ), Caral was also abandoned. However, this happened more gradually over time.  The period of occupation for the site is understood to be between 2600BC and 2000BC. That is the conservative approach. However, there are evidence that suggest the area was settled much earlier than this, which would have made Caral the oldest city in the entirety of the American continent. The data takes us as far back as the Pyramids of Giza. Nonetheless, the recent discovery of Bandurria has taken the claim for oldest city in Peru, going back to the 4000BC. Although there had been previous investigations in the Supe valley (early 1900s), it wasn’t until 1948 when Paul Kosok – the researcher that brought us the original investigations on the Nazca lines – put Caral back on the map but under the name of Chupacigarro. However, his finds were dismissed due to the lack of typical artefacts previously found in the Andes cultures. It was later in the 70s when the investigations of the Peruvian archaeologists Carlos Williams brought it to the forefront of these types of investigations. Since then more people have come to investigate what has now been classified as the biggest thriving urban area in Andean Peru, and probably the city after which many more were modelled in the years to come. Nonetheless, the most important name is that of the woman who actually understood the site for what it was and that has allowed for its preservation by the ZAC: Ruth Martha Shady Solís. She started investigating the site in the 90s under the “Caral Project”. Her constant research and dedication have been plenty fruitful: she has enough evidence to establish the Caral (or Norte Chico civilization as it is known in English), as one of the earliest, or even the first known cultures in all South America.

So how did Caral get so lucky in terms of preservation? Well, the thing is that it was originally mistaken as a natural formation. Plus, thanks to the lack of any valuables (items of gold or other precious materials) being visible, it received little attention from looters. In addition, there are no evidence of warfare unlike in the previous two sites that we have seen so far. So, as you can see, things went well for the conservation of the ancient settlement,despite it only became a site recognise by the UNESCO in 2009. It is thanks to this that it has gained the status of one of the best investigates cities in the Norte Chico area of Peru. Now that you know about how the site got to us,you’d probably be wondering what there is actually left of it. Well, the total complex is of about 60 hectares renown for its architectural complexity.Amongst the structures found, there are huge stone and earthen platforms mounts and sunken circular courts, as well as pyramids and what appear to be residential buildings. The archaeology reflects this was a peaceful society,with no discoveries of fortifications or human remains that present signs of armed conflict. The people of Caral, much like the people in Gedi seemed to have thrived in commerce and had a strong economy. One of the most surprising pieces of evidence found was that of a quipu – also known as talking knots – which are these recording devices made out of fabric, similar to an abacus. Interestingly, quipus were believed to have been invented by the Inca,but the evidence of Caral show this system dates much further back. The city of Caral expanded amply across the region creating 19 temples plus what is known as Templo Mayor (main temple in Spanish) Caral itself. This is the reason why the site is mainly identified as a religious centre which is highlighted by the further evidence of ritualistic items found in the settlement and in the surrounding area. In addition, Caral also shows evidence of public buildings which reflect a central government and administration; it has been suggested that there were different social strata which this is evident in the development of the city and the different urban areas.So what type of people were the citizens of Caral? A total of 32 flutes have been recovered here by the archaeologists, which suggests the inhabitants were skilful artisans. In fact, the dating of the site was achieved through the carbon dating of woven carrying bags known as Shicras found in some of the temples. There are also evidence that suggest Caral was an advanced civilisation.In 2000 a team of archaeologist(Marco Machacuay and Rocío Aramburú) discovered a geoglyph just to the west of the site, which resembles a long screaming face, believed to be somewhat related  to the find in Cerro Sechin, just 150 km north of the site. It is likely that the geoglyph was part of the ceremonial and ritualistic aspects of this society. Finally,I think is it fair to point out that there are ample evidence of knowledge of astronomy, supported by different utensils, as well as a monolith ( known as huanca) located in one of the main squares.Shady believes that the monolith would have been used for the observation of time and the movement of the astral bodies.

Now you will probably be wondering, how does such an advanced and rich civilisation simply disappear? Well, Rodriguez argues that the abandonment of this settlement happened slowly over time, since the 2000BC – with it being deserted by the 1800BC. He argues that the most likely causes for this occurrence are due to natural phenomenon such as earthquakes and El Niño. The peak population of Caral would have been of around 3000 at its peak, however, if one was to consider the let’s call it metropolitan area of the settlement in the Supe Valley, this would encompass a total of approximately 20000 (Shady). The communities that formed the populace of Caral are believed to have been ayllus – an extensive population with a common familial origin that congregated to work for the envelopment of the lands of religious leaders of some sort, which
is a common type of conglomeration in Quechua societies. This was the essential glue of this population and what allowed them to thrive and developed for such a long time, hence emphasising the role of Caral as a scared city. Perhaps, the city lost religious significance and due to the fabric of its society started a slow mass exodus on to other thriving areas.

If you wanted to find out more about Caral, I am sad to say you will have to learn some Spanish as the majority of the publications are done by the local archaeologists. Shady and Rodrigues – which I have mentioned in my piece – have a multitude of books on the subject. Amongst these, I would recommend Rodríguez, Gonzalo (2015). Guerrero, Ricardo; Pease, María Elena, eds. Culturas antiguas del Perú: Caral. Hacia la primera civilización de América. As well as, Shady, Ruth; Cáceda, Daniel; Crispín, Aldemar; Machacuay, Marco; Novoa, Pedro; Quispe, Edna (2009). Caral. La civilización más antigua de las Américas: 15 años develando su historia. Nevertheless, I believe a lot of the work done by Shady has been translated to English. Otherwise have a look at Andean Archaeology III: North and South, Volume 3, edited by William Isbell, Helaine Silverman – also a pretty good book with an overall narrative.

Lost Cities – Gedi

Continuing this series of Lost Cities (https://nuhistory.wordpress.com/2018/10/11/lost-cities-xanadu/ for the first one) today I would like you to take you on a trip to the east coast of Africa. I know we don’t tend to go there much in this blog, so I thought this was a perfect opportunity to pay a visit. Where are we off to, you will be wondering? Well, today we are having a look at the ruins of the city of Gedi – or Gede depending on the spelling. This town is of medieval origin and seems to belong to the Swahili cultures of the area, however as the middle ages developed the influence of the Arabic expansion in Africa becomes apparent. Why am I referring to Gedi as a lost city? There are a few reasons. The first one ans perhaps most obvious is that, like with Xanadu, the settlement in currently in ruins. And this leads us to point 2: Gedi was abandoned by the locals, and we are still a bit unsure as to why exactly, particularly considering this seems to have been a remarkable settlement. Amongst the archaeological find we have Ming pottery, Venetian glass and even what seemingly is a flushing toilet! Another reason why I count Gedi into this list, is because there is virtually no record of it in the historical sources. Considering the heavy influence of the Portuguese during the Age of Discovery in these area, it is interesting to know they didn’t really acknowledge this place…Yet the archaeology seems rather clear: Gedi was a mighty town. So, where abouts exactly is what remains of Gedi? The location is in the Eastern coast of Kenya, in the Arabuko-Sokoke forest, and nearby the towns of Watamu and Malindi. The ruins excavated originally rediscovered in the 1920s, and it quickly became one of the most thoroughly excavated Swahili sites in the stretch that goes from southern Somalia to the Kenya-Tanzania border – there are 116 in total. Thankfully, it was made into a historic monument in 1927, and the status was elevated to that of a protected monument in 1929 following the looting of Chinese porcelain found in the site.  Nonetheless, and technically speaking, the location of Gedi had been known to non-African people since the 19th century. The British Sir John Kirk – explorer and companion of the renown Dr Livingstone, went to the site during his visit from Zanzibar. The first proper excavations were carried out in the 1940s under supervision of archaeologist James Kirkman, and were concentrated on the core buildings. This also led to the proclamation of the forest around it as a national park in 1948. The excavations around the mosque took precedence for the decades that followed, becoming this the key feature of research papers published on the subject, and hence enhancing the Arab influence in the area. As an example, the paper: “The Arab City of Gedi, The Great Mosque, Architecture and Finds” relates the vast majority of the information known about this building and the city itself. The author was, of course, Kirkman himself. Although seemingly forgotten and unknown to the colonist of the area, Gedi was known to the Mijikenda people, particularly the Giriama tribe one of the largest communities amongst the Mijikenda) who revere the site as a sacred place. This culture believe strongly in spirits and the otherworldly; despite the Islamic influence in the area, they still think there is a connection between Gedi and the spiritual world. Regarding the material culture of the site, we have a fair amount of stuff left. There is blatant evidence that Gedi was a walled town, with an inner and outer wall comprising an area of 45 acres. The walls alongside with the majority of the buildings here were made from coral stones extracted from the Indian ocean. They all seem to be one storey of height and there is a plurality of buildings, not just houses. Amongst these feature the already mentioned mosque, as well as a palace. Due to its location and growth, Gedi has been understood to be a trading centre, particularly with routes and commerce in the Indian Ocean. The period of occupation for the site has been dated thanks to carbon analysis of the remains and finds to the 11th century, and it seems the city was already abandoned by the to abandoned by the 17th. However, there are evidence of settlement in the vicinity of Gedi since the 6th century by different tribes and Swahili people. The estimated population of the city at its peak is of 2500, so perhaps not the greatest number one could think of but given the location it was certainly an important settlement. Gedi prospered and increased numbers until the early stages of the 16th century thanks to trade. And here comes the issue, you see, because it is likely that the most easily explained for the depopulation of the town had to do with its commercial nature. By the 16th century, the presence of Portuguese merchants in the area was extensive, and it is known that their monopolisation of trade led to the general decline of the local activities. Perhaps Gedi was one of the affected towns along the coastline as more and more Portuguese colonists established themselves a little further north. In addition, the Tanzania-Kenya border has traditionally been an area of conflict. There are mentions of raids from Somalia, and the evidence suggest the Galla people – or more commonly known these days as the Oromo –  from Ethiopia seem to have also been a likely contender for the depopulation of Gedi, which is a theory supported by Aylward Shorter in his study of the East African Societies. Currently, the site remains under the care of the National Museums of Kenya, and it is open to the public for touristic visits. However, the archaeological work is still ongoing. In fact, since the 90s, the investigations on Gedi have grown in interest and depth. The current works are attempting to understand the settlement beyond the narrow frame of its Arabic development and the mosque itself. Works by Stephane Pradines and Lynn Koplin have focused on other buildings found in the site which are seemingly mud thatched properties built between the inner and outer walls. This is helping reshape the history of the site as a socio-political body with an important urban development and not just a religious site of one kind or another.Another item of investigation and that comments on the economic importance of the settlement is the abundance of cowry shells. It has been speculated that, perhaps these were a form of currency amongst the people of Gedi, which would make sense considering the evidence for these shells been used as legal tender indifferent areas of Africa throughout history. However, as you can see there is still a lot of work to be done in Gedi as a whole. As usual, African cultures seem to be right at the bottom of the list of things to be investigated, and that needs to change. Hopefully as the years come by I may be able to revisit this post with bran new and up to date information on the site and see that wonderful remains from the middle ages all over the world are taken proper care of.  

Cantona – Ancient Ghost Town (Updated 4/10/2018)

Here is an updated version of something I wrote a little while back. However, more recent studies have provided interesting info that I thought was worth the share and rehash of the old post!

Nu History

The site of Cantona in the modern state of Puebla (Mexico) is one of those golden and mysterious archaeological finds that the experts are still trying to figure out. One of the main mysteries about this place is who actually occupied or originally settled in this ancient city. The experts suggest this could have been a settlement of the pseudo mythological Olmec people, but the archaeological finds are inconclusive. David Carballo has recently suggested that the urban plan of the city seems to indicate and agglomeration of different communities with the purpose of defence. Even the name of the settlement is disputed, and this could be key for our understanding of the site. According to the native inhabitants of the San Pedro Tepeyahualco area, the city’s name should be Caltonac.


Cantona was discovered in 1855, allegedly by Henri de Saussure, but it was Nicolas de Leon who in the early 1900s did extensive…

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Gegharot and the Armenian Bronze Age (Updated August 2018)

Some more updated information on something I wrote a while back – this site has become extremely important in the archaeological discourse of Armenia, the Bronze and the political relationships between countries in Europe and the Near East

Nu History

Today we are going to take a trip to the site of Gegharot in Armenia. This area is currently under excavation as part of the ArAGATS – American-Armenian Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies. The project which was developed in 1998 by Dr Adam Smith and Dr Ruben Badalyan focuses in the investigation of the Tsaghkahovit Plain of Central Armenia under the northern slopes of Mt. Aragats. Their aim is to understand the cultural diversity and historical issues in Armenia since ancient times and up to the modern age. Gegharot, is one of the specific field projects of the ArAGATS since 2005. In order for you to get the picture, I’ll give you first of all an overview of the site.

This is a Bronze Age settlement, with a fortified wall and a cemetery which was the main area of research upon its discovery in the…

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The Prehistoric Thames Valley

Despite living in London for most of my life, I only recently went to visit the Museum of London. The museum in general covers the entire history of the city, and has some great objects to go and stare at, especially in the medieval period for me. However, what I want to focus on right now is what the museum covers of period before the city, or any trace of it, even existed. This is the first part of the museum you’d see if you visit, and it covers the history of the Thames valley from before human settlement, and right through the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age, and beyond of course.

The River Thames has played a vital role in the development and story of London for the last 450,000 years. It is only 352 kilometres from source to the sea, but throughout time it has continuously shaped the local landscape. It has been used by humans as a highway, a boundary, a food store and a sacred stream. In London today most of the Thames has artificial embankments, but in prehistory the river was wider and shallower, and probably flowed in a number of different channels. To Julius Caesar the river was known as Tamesa – ‘the flowing one’.

Artist’s impression of the prehistoric River Colne, a tributary of the Thames.

The Palaeolithic period up to 8800BC is characterised by climate change. Gradual, but continual cycles of warming then cooling, with periods when Britain was too cold to be occupied. During warmer times nomadic hunter-gatherers moved in and out of Britain, via a land bridge, following herds of animals. People would have eaten big game like mammoth and reindeer along with foraged foods such as nuts, fruit and roots. At the beginning of the Ice Age in this period, the Thames was much longer and ran through a different part of the UK. It started in the Welsh uplands, flowed across the English midlands and eventually joined the river Rhine in the southern part of what is now the North Sea. Nearly half a million years ago it was diverted into its present valley by ice sheets. Since then, it has changed course many times because of changes in global climate and sea level. Each time the sea level dropped, the river had to cut its way down through the land to reach the sea, leaving behind a dry flood plain. Nowadays, these former flood plains, or gravel terraces, are rich in archaeological finds, which were carried there by Ice Age flash floods. These include basic flint tools such as ‘hand axes’, as well as animal bones.

200,000 year old mammoth jaw found in Ilford, East London.

From 8800BC was the Mesolithic. As the climate warmed in this period the landscape changed from tundra to woodland. Hunter-gatherers continued to move in and out of Britain until it became cut off permanently from Europe around 6500BC. People began to manage the land to lure smaller prey such as red deer and wild boar into forest clearings. Tools changed and smaller worked flint was used to create weapons such as arrows. Evidence of transient Mesolithic occupation is provided by scatters of flint knapping debris found along the riverside of the Thames. The area of the Thames and its tributaries were widely used by mobile hunters and gatherers taking advantage of the rich fishing and wild fowling opportunities. As well as fresh water, the Thames provided these prehistoric people with a wide range of natural resources such as reeds, rushes and timber for building. The river bed was also full of flint nodules which were vital for making sharp tools. As mentioned, the wildlife was plentiful, and there were many types of fish and birds, and small mammals like beavers and otters. Larger animals, including deer and cattle, also came down to the river to drink. Seasonal runs of salmon, migrating birds and the occasional beached whale would have supplemented this diverse diet. Together, this made the Thames Valley a very prosperous place to live.

The fertile river banks were also prime soil to be farmed for grain, and this started to take place in the Neolithic period up to 2500BC. During this period there was a transition from nomadic hunter gathering towards small scale farming. Animals such as sheep and goats were domesticated and crops including spelt were grown. Excavations on the gravel terraces of the upper Thames at Yarnton in Oxfordshire show clear evidence of Early Neolithic farming. Here a rectangular ditched mortuary enclosure was constructed, a rectangular hall or communal longhouse defined by postholes, plus numerous pits and other postholes. It appears that Yarnton was an area of open grassland which was not continuously occupied, but was inhabited on an intermittent or seasonal basis for a long period of time by early pastoral farmers. The animal bones found at the site consist mostly of cattle, sheep, goat and pig. The presence of charred grain and bread demonstrates that cereals were produced nearby.

Various Stone Age tools on display at the Museum of London.

During this time we see the first evidence of monuments and large earthworks such as henges and cursus. Although centuries of cultivation of the Thames gravels have destroyed almost all the standing earthworks within this region, aerial survey has revealed a landscape covered with cropmarks of all periods. These surveys have also revealed long barrows, cursus monuments, causewayed enclosures, numerous ring ditches, mortuary enclosures and multiple henge monuments. One area of the Thames Valley where its cropmarks have been extensively excavated is Heathrow Airport. Work here revealed part of the Stanwell early neolithic cursus, which was later replaced by a series of late Bronze Age ditched fields. Interestingly, the Bronze Age settlement at Heathrow initially respected the line of the cursus; it was only encroached upon later, perhaps implying that over time its significance or sacred status was forgotten.

And it was the Bronze Age itself that came next from 2500BC to 800BC. The introduction of metal working changed lives and society. It is likely that those who controlled the supply, making and trade of bronze became more important and powerful. Britain was now a fully settled farming society. Widespread settlement would have led to friction between groups, and conflict over territory, and thus People began to live in more permanent roundhouses and protect their land. The emergence of weapons also becomes more prevalent during this time, perhaps for this reason. The Thames would have played an important role in these new issues, as the river acted as both a physical and psychological barrier. Settlements built on its islands used the water as a first line of defence. The remains of a number of wooden bridges have been found along the Thames. In the last century BC, the Thames also acted as a tribal boundary. Archaeologists have mapped out prehistoric territories using coins, and their conclusions suggest the river might have represented the boundary between neighbouring groups. According to Julius Caesar, the river was ‘fordable at one point only, and even there with difficulty’.

Bronze spearheads at the Museum of London.

Large numbers of objects have been recovered from the Thames during dredging. These include human remains, particularly skulls, as well as weapons, tools and ornaments made from stone, bone and metal. Many are beautifully made and seem to have been placed in the river deliberately. This happened in rivers across northern Europe. There may have been a variety of reasons why prehistoric people did this. Was it to appease the river’s power in times of flood? The later second millennium BC was a period of climatic deterioration and rising river levels. These events may have prompted the development of a new water-oriented cult, replacing an earlier sky or earth oriented cult. This new cult could explain the numerous discoveries of bronze tools and weapons during dredging of the lower Thames, as offerings to the river.

From 800BC is the Iron Age. New strong iron tools enabled people to plough heavier soils and clear more forest. This created a farming boom which In turn saw an increase in the population. People had different roles in society such as druids, craftspeople and farmers. Wealthy leaders showed off their prestige with decorated gold and bronze objects, jewellery and imported goods. Coins were produced as symbols of power. Eventually the Romans write about life in Britain, even prior to their invasion of the island, and this ends the prehistory of Britain. London was established as Londinium in AD43 on a site that guarded the Romans’ bridgehead on the north bank of the Thames and a major road nexus.

That covers the history of prehistory in the Thames valley, and London before London. To see artefacts from this whole period, and further beyond up to the present day then take a trip to the Museum of London, I really recommend it! I should have gone a long time ago myself.

Prehistoric Thailand- Ban Chiang

Ban Chiang is a prehistoric archaeological site situated in Thailand with UNESCO world heritage status since 1992. It is famous for its red pottery designs that depict swirling lines. It is specifically located in the Nong han district within Udon Thani Province. The site was discovered by Steven Young, an Anthropology student at Harvard college in 1966.

The site was found to contain an array of pre-historic objects, the oldest some of which were said to have dated back to 2100 BC. It was suggested that Ban chiang came about in the Neolithic age however when humans were not working with metal tools, then through to the Bronze and Iron ages. Using technology; including radiometric dating, over time the timeframe of this site has become more defined.

Farm tools, jewellery, ceramics and pottery were all discovered as well as skeletal remains. The jewellery was found to contain bracelets, anklets and rings that were made of bronze. The tools were found to contain blades, spears, axes and hooks. This strongly implies that the people who lived at Ban Chiang were farming the land considering the tools that were found. This was particularly evident upon the discovery of rice fragments at the site too, suggesting this was what the settlers at Ban Chiang cultivated and included in their diet. There was also evidence to suggest the settlers during this stage held domesticated animals, which again heavily implies are farming community once thrived at Ban Chiang.

It was suggested that the discovery was found to contain a cemetery initially, but it was eventually found to be a burial dwelling, whereby the deceased were buried near or beneath their dwellings. This means that a lot of the artefacts found were buried with the skeletal remains. The makes sense considering the fine pottery, ceramics and jewellery that was found as this strongly implies the culture and burial practices of the people at Ban Chiang. However, it was also probable that they were used for personal wear.

Today Ban Chiang is a pivotal insight into Thailand’s prehistoric past and is said to be one of the greatest prehistoric discovered sites in all South-East Asia. The site heavily implies what life was like for the people who lived at Ban Chiang in terms of human evolution, social, agricultural and manufacture.

Although the site might not be as popular as Sukhothai Historical Park in Lower Northern Thailand it is still a captivating site that has  helped to shape our understanding of Thailand’s prehistoric past to the world since the 1960s.

The Altamura Man: an Overview of Neanderthal

The Altamura Man found in Italy is an interesting Neanderthal specimen. It was discovered in 1993 in the karstic cave of Lamalunga nearby Altamura (Puglia). The remains were at the bottom of a 26 ft deep well. The archaeologists suggest the cause of the death presumably was the accidental fall of the individual into the well. The find is in a great degree of conservation, even though this Neanderthal body has been dated as 150000 years old. However due to the calcification of the remains, the only parts left that are visible are the skull and a portion of the shoulder. A team lead by Giorgio Manzi has been investigating the body and their research produces DNA data that has categorise the specimen amongst the most ancient Neanderthal remains known from DNA extraction and analysis. This was published in the Journal of Human Evolution in 2015.

As I have kicked off with such a cool example of a pre-historic individual find, I thought I might as well talk a bit about Neanderthals as a whole since we have given them little mention here over the year. Moreover, I think Neanderthals are one of those historical people – or pre-historic in this case -that we tend to take for granted. I think many people still have this sort of cartoony idea about them being dumb cavemen, who were all whipped out because our cleverer and better looking Homo Sapiens ancestors came about with their evolutionary mad dash. Well, that is just not fair at all.

I think we tend to forget and overlook the fact that Neanderthals had, with their more stocky bodies, larger cranial capacities than your average Sapiens, and we just as crafty as any of the other early humans species in this worlds. Neanderthals have left an astonishing record of stone tools. Some of the most abundant and impressive founds come from France, particularly the area of Dordogne. In fact it is one of this French sites, Le Moustier, that gives the name of the culture (or as fancy archaeologist call it – techno-complex) known as Mousterian. This is a collection of flint tools of Neanderthal craft that emerged during the Middle Paleolithic (from 160000 BP to 40000 BP). But this was not a culture and type of tool making technique restricted to France. Remains of Mousterian span from far east as Siberia, to the plains of Spain. In Spain one can find the site of Atapuerca, just in the north of Castile, which is another famous settlement and data-analysis centre for the investigation of the evolution and development of early human societies. So, in this regard, our Altamura Man is not so uncommon in terms of his location. Therefore, I hope you now understand that the real uniqueness behind this find has more to do with the state of preservation and its calcification due to the geological conditions of the cave. As well as his age, of course.

Another thing that a lot of people do not realise, is that there is still a lot of Neanderthal in our modern human bodies. It has now been commonly accepted by scientist that Neanderthals were, at least in part, assimilated into the Homo Sapiens group via reproduction and mating. In fact, recent studies suggest that the sexual interaction between the two species happened much earlier than previously thought: around 100000 years ago, before, or during the first waves of diaspora from the African continent. Therefore, Neanderthal DNA runs through our veins, and it is still found individuals in the far East alongside Denisovans genetics. We have come a long way to understand this species since the first discoveries of Neanderthal remains in the 19th century. One of the first finds was that of an infants skull in Engis (modern-day Belgium). However, there is still much unknown about their lives, legacy and extinction. The scientific community still holds strongly that the Neanderthals became extinct due to climatological changes they were unfit to over come – presumably a long-lasting period of extreme cold in which our distant forebears outlasted their cousins due to, perhaps, higher adaptability. We do know that Neanderthal society was a hunting-gathering type; and that is about it. From the analysis of their teeth and the abundant evidence of weapons of their making, we now know that they were in fact apex predators, hunting from deer to mammoths. However, very recent report coming from El Sidron, (Spain), suggest that at least this group of Neanderthals survived mostly on mushrooms and plant leftovers, like pine nuts. Their social groups were also much smaller and farther wide-spread than those of the Homo Sapiens. And from there on everything gets a bit vague. There are some claims to artistic expressions in Neanderthal culture, such as some shells with pain found in a site in Murcia (Spain), as well some scratched rock surfaces found in Gibraltar that could be understood as rock cave art. However, the studies are inconclusive due to the lack of consistent evidence.

In any case, what comes across from this general overview of Neanderthals is the need of further investigations due to our lack of understanding. There is a serious lack of researchers investigating the Stone Age, or certain parts of it in Europe and the rest of the world, due to the difficulties this supposes. However, I think the challenge should encourage us to get more involved. Everyday science and our methods and resources get a little bit better to allow us to understand the very distant past with more clarity. We need to keep on pursuing this knowledge so that specimens like the Altamura Man stop being a funny coincidence in our historical, and pre-historic record, and turn them into highlights of the early origins of our societies.

Uncovering the Neolithic at Ness of Brodgar

Today I bring you an update about a place I have been wanting to go visit now for quite sometime, yet it always seems to escape me. I am talking about Ness of Brodgar, which is part of the archaeological compound found in Orkney located between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. The site is 2.5 hectares and in combination with the other two, it forms the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. Most people would think, well okay this is just another of those cool rocky man-made formations, why such a fuss? Well the thing is that the team that has been working in this area is pretty much convinced that Ness of Brodgar is actually older than Stonehenge – around 500 years – which of course has serious implications in our understanding of the Neolithic developments in Britain, and for that purpose the entirety of Europe. The team act work on site is led by Nick Card from the Orkney Research Centre For Archaeology UH, and has been investigating the site for over a decade. The investigation started in 2005, when Nick Cord decided to explore a whaleback mound that was believed to be a natural formation. The actual dig started in 2008.

The finds here are unique. These include clay figurines with marked faces and bodies as well as painted wall designs from around 3000 BC. This is quite a remarkable part of the discovery as Nick Card and Antonia Thomas advise:

‘until recently, relatively few examples of Neolithic decorated stonework

had been found in Orkney, with even fewer from secure stratigraphic contexts. As a result

of the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar however, the number of known examples has

more than doubled.’

(Card, Nick and Thomas, Antonia Susan orcid.org/0000-0002-1959-7260 (2012) Painting a picture of Neolithic Orkney : decorated stonework from the Ness of Brodgar. In: Cochrane, Andrew and Jones, Andrew Meirion, (eds.) Visualising the Neolithic. Oxbow Books , Oxford , pp. 111-124).

The archaeologist have seen and identified an increased used of carved ceramic maces and axe heads too. The items found during the excavation have raised questions regarding the use and function of such place. Current theories contemplate the possibility that this could have been a great temple complex. One of the reasons behind this thought it the fact that the site contains a really high number of rooms to have been some sort of military building. Even from the point of view of the domestic sphere, the details known about human living during the Neolithic period suggest that communities would have lived in smaller singular buildings – nothing quite of the vast dimensions unearthed at Ness of Brodgar. This was further backed with the geophysics analysis of the area, suggesting that the sheer size of the complex goes beyond our current understanding of everyday Neolithic society.

The real importance of the site is due to the building site and the techniques used in its construction. 5000 tones of rocks were used to construct what looks to be a symbolic layout. The type of stone use in this site is flagstone, which is abundant in these islands. Due to its physical properties, flagstone presents itself as a material easy to work where you can obtain flat blocks for construction as well as durable tools. It has been pointed out that the extensive use of stone work in Orkney during the Neolithic may not just be related to the lack of timber, but perhaps plays a further symbolic meaning which Mike Parker Pearson advises may be related to the culture of stone circle buildings. This also seems to have some close connection with other structures of a similar type found in the Hebrides. The position of the complex is also striking as it is in the middle of a promontory. Perhaps the evidence could be indicating a Neolithic theocratic society, as perceived from the great power the site suggests priest may have held.  Another theory that relates the site to what we now know from Stonehenge is the fact that this area could well be part of a larger ceremonial promenade – similar to the one located on the Salisbury plain. The main supporter of this idea is Prof. Mike Parker Pearson, who was also involved on the Stonehenge Riverside Project.

As you can see this site is really helping us reshape our archaeological and historical knowledge of Orkney and the Neolithic, which can have serious repercussions in our general understanding of the British Isles as well as early human history. There is so much more that will come out of this, as the excavations go on. So if you want to find out more, or keep an eye out for possible new discoveries, I suggest you have a look into their website, where you can also find a lot of extra information from the archaeological record point of view, in addition to audio-visual material that is really worth while:



Burial Practices in Early Medieval Northern Europe

Today we are going to talk about something that my archaeology friends find fascinating, and most other humanist consider as particularly gross – the dead. Death is a key moment in anyones existence – dare I say The Most Crucial? But it can be quite a nasty and blunt topic to discuss. Nevertheless, in the medieval period, the dead were still important for their societies, in a way or another. And burials could create a great deal of tension in certain communities. After all, we have to consider these people were far more influenced by religion and belief than perhaps our modern society – or so we think…Anyway, strap on your seatbelts and jump on the cart…(trying really hard not to make a Monty Python joke here…too late!).


The world of the early middle ages was one of religious diversity. Both pagans and Christians coexisted for some centuries, each of them with different practices related to the veneration of their deities and the rituals this implicated. Like in many other cultures, just like nowadays, death was another step in life. However, death involved the reunion of the deceased with his ancestors and even with the Gods, therefore it is understandable that burials and other practices related with death represent religious connotations of these individuals.

Starting with a classic the account of Ibn Fadlan on Viking burials on the other hand provides details of the actual Scandinavian rites of death; from the moment in which the corpse was temporarily buried to the burning of the funerary ship. If you have seen The 13th Warrior , you probably get the idea: human sacrifice, chanting, party, the Angel of Death and her spooky predicaments…Nonetheless, there is a major problem in relying on this type of sources – Fadlan I mean, not the movie – religious bias, judgement and exaggeration.

The situation is slightly different once the archaeological records are approached. Think of the Ogam stones from Ireland or the Pictish Class I stones. Even though they provide us with key information about the practice of burials (the disposal of the bodies, the grave-goods they used, etc.) there are still problems in understanding the religious convictions of the different individuals interred. It is usually assumed that if the orientation of the grave is east-west and has no grave-goods then the burial is Christian, while if it is flexed and presents irregularities it is most likely to be pagan, but it does not always work like that. In addition, it has to be considered that throughout time graves have been re-used or even robbed, leaving both archaeologists and historians without their original context – and as you know I am a fan of context, because contact is crucial.

One could easily assume that interments within a churchyard with no grave-goods are most likely Christian burials, as the members of the Church would not let a non-Christian disturb their eternal place of rest. Moreover, we have the reassurance that certain type of graves and markers are most certainly Christian, due to a prolonged and consistent use of these. For example, head box graves at least from the 7th century onwards seem to have a clear Christian connotation. These and similar types of graves would be decorated or marked by the sign of the cross, or the chi-rho symbol which is the most explicit  form of identifying Christian iconography. In addition, it seems likely that the Ogam stones of Cork and Kerry with the ANM inscription are related to Christian individuals as well, as the language used in them is Latin, or Latin influenced, and usually contain the depiction of the cross. The same could be said about the stones marked in their wider face with Maltese crosses, which have been dated from sometime between the 6th and the 8th century from Ireland to the Hebrides and that have clear parallels in the continent.

In the same way, certain practices could be considered, and have been considered pagan per se. Cremations have been regarded as pure pagan practice and have not been questioned by historians for a long time. Primary Frankish sources refer to this burning of dead men´s bodies as pagan rites and such practice was retaliated by capital punishment. In addition, the burials with grave-goods, especially horses, or horse related artefact, are usually considered a pagan practice which was particularly prominent in the Germanic speaking areas. In Frisia unlike anywhere else both cremation and horse burial practice carried on as late as the 9th century. There are other odd burials that are commonly regarded as non-Christian: human sacrifices. This seems quite prominent in Scandinavian and Germanic lands – remember Ibn Fadlan and the 13th Warrior? We even references to human sacrifice in the Carolingian capillary regarding Saxony. It states that “if anyone shall have sacrificed a man to a devil, and after the manner of the pagans shall have presented him as a victim to the demons, let him be punished by death” (in P.E.Dutton, Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, p. 67). These sort of practices would be unacceptable for the Christian Church as only God has rights on someone else’s life and therefore they should be regarded as purely pagan, with certainly no room to even consider malpractice.

But what seems non sensical, is the fact that we seem to want to establish this very clear-cut between what was pagan and was not. The idea that both religious beliefs shared time and ground with no interaction or exchange of any kind might seem reasonable to some, but highly unlikely. Approaches by imitation might have taken place before the conversion of these people, and for sure once Christianity installed itself in these new lands, lending and borrowing would have happened in order to provide the lay population with an easier transition. In Ireland, for example, there was an old pre-Christian custom to make lamentations or ‘keening’ for the deceased. There are reference to such practice in both the Bigotian and the Old Irish penitential. The first one seems sympathetic towards the subject as long as the lament is made for a good person, imitating therefore practices of Jacob from the Old Testament.The other, on the other hand, condemns such a practice by fifty nights of penance. Possibly the reason why this source is more strict, without totally prohibiting such a ritual, is to promote proper praying for the soul in religious mannerism rather than folk practice. These weird ideas and performances regarding the dead and religious ritual, reach their peak with generally considered to deviant burials: those in which the ritual has been altered as due to the unorthodoxy of the burial itself.  S.L.Fry suggests that usually this deviation is caused in order to dishonour the dead. However there seems to be a pattern: murderers, suicides, unbaptised children, women who died during or shortly after childbirth, as well as strangers. In any of these cases Christian burial was denied, and so it is possible that many deviant burials might have been identified as pagans when they were not such a thing. A similar case can be appreciated especially in the Cillin burials in Carrowkeel from the 9th to the 11th century, which present even more issues as the orientation of the graves was east-west, but the corpses were flexed and in odd positions. Nonetheless, this coincides with a well-spread tradition performed by Anglo-Saxons – to have a separated area for the disposal of child burials, like in Rands Furnells, Northamptonshire, and even other place in Northern Europe such as Norway during the 9th and 11th century like in the cathedrals of Trondheim and Hamar.

So what can be said about these practices? Where they Christian or pagan, or none? If one looks at Scandinavian rune-stones it could be argued that these memorials were mainly used for Christian purposes, in the same way a grave-slab would be, however they were developed from a pre-Christian practice and contained pagan elements. Even when their use was purely Christian, especially in Denmark, odd inscriptions can be found in these stones in the shape of curses, spells, and even invocations of Thor. The same sort of thing could be said about both Ogam and Pictish stones; all of them most likely started being a pagan symbol, changed slightly, but carried out with pejoratively the same purpose throughout the Christian era. It is true that certain aspects of burial practices and their associated rituals can be identified as being from Christian faith or pagan belief but unfortunately the matter cannot be answered in too a simplistic manner. There are issues like the nature of certain deviant burials that religion cannot explain. The fact that more than one person was interred in the same grave does not necessarily mean pagan. Maybe the grave was simply re-used, as it commonly happened, or it was rather a cultural marker for multiple deaths that would have seem exceptional for such small populations and therefore was reflected in the odd features of their death rituals. However, and leaving on the side all the scepticism this subject might cause, one could definitely argue that there was a level of religious consciousness that affected people’s choices when proceeding to death rites. And perhaps it was selfishness, and the reassurance that life after death was obtainable. It is quite possible that the desire for saving the soul of the deceased – as well as that of those performing the ritual –  made them incorporate elements from both Christian and pre-Christian traditions so they could have all the guidance needed in death in the same way it would have been when they were alive.


The Thracian Step Pyramid near Kovil (Bulgaria)

Here I bring you a quick update on a relatively recent archaeological discovery that has taken my interest. I am talking about the Thracian rock pyramid researched by Vassil Markov and his team of archaeologists. Markov is the head of the university research centre for ancient european and eastern mediterranean cultures at Bulgaria’s south-west university. According to the survey, this has been dated to be a thousand years older than the pyramids from Egypt. However, this is a more peculiar type of megalithic monument. What seems to have happened in Bulgaria is the use of a natural rock formation which later on was used for sacred rites. The landscape of Bulgaria seems to have promoted this culture of rock-cut ancient monuments. Georgi Nehkrizov advises of the use of rock-cut graves and tombs by the ancient Thracians in this area, however the phenomenon of rock-cut niches and altars seems to be exclusive and specific to the area where this pyramid has been found, in the area of the Rhodope mountains. However most of the sites of these characteristic that you can visit in Bulgaria seem to be just suitable pieces of volcanic turf or limestone, use for religious practices, like in the case of Tatul Village, Perperikon and Belintash – some of the most famous Thracian sanctuaries in the area. But what has been found in Kovil goes a step beyond.

The actual site consists on 5 different mountainous layers, in the fashion of steps, which reach up to 15 metres of height. Markov’s team has found evidence of the use of this place for ritual purposes as far back as the year 4500 – 4000 BC. However, it seems that the altars that can be found at the site are later additions. They are believed to date from around the 2500 BC. Nevertheless, this is proof that this location must have been a long and well established religious centre, otherwise the activity would have ceased or change in nature, rather than emphasised. The altar carved in the lowest step is illuminated by the sun at dawn during the equinoxes, which also applies to the altar located in the upper level. This has led Markov to believe that this was potentially used as a temple devoted tot he cult of the sun. In addition to the altars, there are some mysterious entrances carved on the rock, which meaning has proven yet difficult to ascertain, but could be related to a similar find in another Thracian site – Ilinitsa. The shrine in Ilinista is known as the Womb Cave: a vertical entrance  into a cave resembling a human womb. Markov’s assessment is that this could be a similar type of shire, but on a smaller scale. The archaeological survey has recovered ceramics dating from the Chalcolithic to the Roman period, suggesting that the site was in use up to the conversion of Christianity brought to the Thracians by Rome.

But the wonder of Kovil do not end there. Markov’s team have identified this site as part of a much larger prehistoric complex – in a similar fashion to recent archaeological surveys of other megalithic structures such as Stonehenge. The entirety of this network expands for a square mile. The latest finds within the complex are two smaller pyramid-shaped rock outcrops. What is fascinating about this, is Markov’s own surprise upon finding the site. Thracian sites of similar characteristics are well-known to the locals and there are many other locations nearby which were known by the researcher and his team – whose original enterprise was to investigate further these sites to compare them with others in different geographical regions of Bulgaria. And it seems they did more than developing already established finds, but to discover something entirely new.

As always, I am glad to bring you news from parts of the world which we tend to forget they exist. And I must say, after looking into these sites in the Rhodope Mountains I am deeply curios and eager to go visit sometime. Hopefully further archaeological surveys of the area will keep on bringing forward the picture of Thracian culture in Bulgaria in the coming years.

In the meantime, if you are curious, I would recommend you try to get hold of A Companion to Ancient Thrace by Emil Nankov and Denver Graninger, which only came out in 2015 and has a plethora of fascinating research papers.