🧐 Ancient Beat #31: Mercury poisoning, cacao usage, and prehistoric baby carriers
Hi folks, welcome to issue #31 of Ancient Beat! There’s a chill in the air and the leaves are changing where I live, so I think it’s safe to say that fall is here. If you’re in the same boat, grab a blanket, a cup of something hot, and get comfy — here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News
Ancient Maya Cities were Dangerously Contaminated with Mercury — A new study found a huge amount of mercury pollution in ancient Maya cities from the Classic period (250-1100 CE) — so much that it’s actually a danger to archaeologists today. Of the 11 sites tested, it was present in all but one. Concentrations ranged from .016 ppm (in Actuncan) to a crazy 17.16 ppm (Tikal). If you’re wondering how that happened, archaeologists have found vessels containing liquid mercury, as well as objects painted with cinnabar and mercury-containing paint. The paint, in particular, probably leached into the soil from walls, ceramics, etc. The Maya were at risk of chronic mercury poisoning and at least one depiction of a Maya ruler shows possible symptoms of it. This brings me back to the liquid mercury “river” found beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan years ago.
Study Suggests Cacao Consumption Not Limited to Maya Elites — While it was thought that cacao was mostly consumed by Maya elites, a new paper says this may not be the case. Traces of cacao were detected on more than half of the 54 pottery fragments analyzed from the site of El Pilar on the border of Belize and Guatemala. The pottery, which included mixing bowls, serving plates, and what might have been drinking vessels, was found in residential and ceremonial civic areas. This indicates that people at every level of society consumed it between 600 and 900 CE. According to Anabel Ford, “Now we know that the rituals the elite depict with cacao were likely played out, like Thanksgiving, like any other ritual, by everyone.”
3,000 Years Ago Human Activity Destroyed Vegetation and Irreparably Damaged the Timna Valley Environment — Analysis of charcoal used as fuel in metallurgical furnaces from the 11th to 9th centuries BCE in the Timna Valley of Israel found that the wood they used changed from high-quality local wood to low-quality imported wood. This indicates that the copper industry was not sustainably managed. And as it turns out, the environment still hasn’t recovered. According to Erez Ben-Yosef, “The Bible never mentions the mines as such, but it does tell us that David conquered the area of Timna, known at the time as Edom, placing garrisons throughout the land, so that the Edomites became his subjects; and that his son Solomon used huge quantities of copper for building the Temple in Jerusalem.” He also notes that overexploitation of the land, “fits well with occupation by a foreign power.”
Archaeologists Excavate Dwelling in Ancient Proto-City — An 8,000-year-old mudbrick structure is being excavated at the wonderful site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey. At 30 square meters, the square structure is unusually large. It was elevated by 12 platforms, which may contain human remains. The researchers suggest it was a community hall because a hearth at its center indicates that it was a place of gathering. They say a religious purpose is also possible.
Artificial Islands Surrounding British Isles were Used for Ancient Parties, Archaeologists Find — I’ve covered Crannogs before in issues #19 and #28. They’re artificial islands built in lakes and swamps, used (we think) as dwellings and defensive positions. There are hundreds in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, dating to between 4000 BCE and the 16th century CE. A new paper shows palaeolimnological and biomolecular evidence of “probable on-site animal slaughter, food storage and possible feasting, suggesting multi-period, elite site associations, and the storage and protection of valuable resources” at the three sites studied. Despite the title of the article, the main takeaway is that the evidence of feasting indicates that these structures were used by elites, possibly for ceremonial purposes. The researchers also found that deforestation resulted from their creation, and their use polluted the lake ecosystems.
Chinese Civilization Origin-Tracing Sees Progress, Finds 1 million-year-old Human Skull — A 1-million-year-old Homo erectus skull has been found in Shiyan, China. It has not been fully excavated yet, but it is in very good condition and may be the most intact Homo erectus skull ever found in Eurasia. It was unearthed only about 100 feet away from two other fossils dating to the same time. This is an important discovery because it may help us to better understand the evolution of Homo erectus.
Baby Carriers Were Used 10,000 Years Ago – New Evidence — While it would have been pretty safe to assume that prehistoric peoples were using baby-carriers, we now have evidence. Researchers used high-tech methods to analyze the burial of a baby in Italy from 10,000 years ago, and they believe the baby was buried in a carrier. They also found that the 70+ perforated shell beads in the burial were heavily worn. This indicates that the valuable beads, which took a lot of effort to make, had been passed down from person to person. This was puzzling — why would they stop handing the beads down at this point? Well, the researchers believe that these beads adorned the baby’s carrier, and based on ethnographic observations of modern hunter-gatherers, they think the beads may have been used as protection. According to the researchers, this explains why the beads were buried, as they evidently weren’t working anymore. I personally disagree about the beads. To my knowledge, ancient people weren’t in the habit of throwing duds into burials.
Ancient Shipwreck Off Israel Reveals Tenacity of Traders — A shipwreck dated to the 7th or 8th century was discovered off the coast of Israel. The ship was packed full of cargo from all over the Mediterranean. Since it’s from a time when a shift occurred from Byzantine to Islamic rule in the area, the shipwreck provides evidence that trade with the West continued despite the religious divide — traditionally, it was thought that trade pretty much stopped at the time. The wreck was originally found a few years ago, but it is hitting the headlines again now that excavations are nearing completion. Over 200 amphorae, some still containing food, as well as sailing tools, personal items, and small animal remains were found.
Archaeologists Give New Insights into Final Blow of Autonomous Palmyra — While the accepted view is that the ancient city of Palmyra in modern-day Syria was destroyed by the Romans in 272 CE, there may be more to the story. A new study estimated the maximum productivity of the land surrounding Palmyra, then compared it to climate records, and found that the city was probably running out of food due to the dry, hot conditions, and a growing population. This may have been the cause of social shifts and militarization, which led to the city’s destruction.
Roman Cornu Mouthpiece Uncovered at Vindolanda — The Roman auxiliary fort of Vindolanda, near Hadrian’s Wall in the UK, is in the news again. A rare copper-alloy mouthpiece for a cornu was found there, dating to between 120 and 128 CE. A cornu is a large horn that was used to communicate a Roman general’s orders during battle.
Rare Roman Navy Anchor Recovered Off English Coast — A 220-pound iron anchor 6.5 feet in length was recovered from the North Sea off the coast of England during a survey for a new wind farm. For obvious reasons, researchers believe it dates to the Roman occupation, between 1,600 and 2,000 years ago, and that it belonged to the Classis Britannica — a Roman naval fleet tasked with controlling the waters around modern-day England. Previous finds at the proposed wind farm include a 6,000-year-old cattle skull, a 4,000-year-old wooden platform and connected track, and a lost German submarine from WWI.
A Wash-Basin Decorated with 2500-Year-Old Mythological Creatures and Car Races was Discovered in Izmir, Turkey — A beautiful, 2,500-year-old perirrhanterion was discovered in the ancient city of Klazomenai in Turkey. A perirrhanterion is a special type of water-basin used for ritual washing in sanctuaries. It is a rare specimen due to the paintings of mythological creatures and chariot races. Klazomenai is thought to be one of the most important ceramic production centers in the area during the Archaic period.
Greek Coin Recovered in Croatia — A Greek coin was discovered by hikers on Papuk Mountain in Croatia. Pottery fragments were also found. The coin dates to the end of the 4th century BCE and depicts Zeus with a bird on one side and Alexander the Great on the other. A small settlement from the 7th century BCE was previously found nearby, and together, the finds indicate a level of political, economic, and cultural continuity in the area for over 300 years.
Remains of Sacrificed Children Uncovered in Peru — At the site of Pampa la Cruz in Peru, the remains of 76 children have been discovered, making a total of 302 children found there to date. They were killed in six sacrificial events between 1050 and 1500 CE. The remains of five women sitting in a circle were also found.
What is the Secret of the Massive Ancient Pottery Found in UAE? — A large piece of pottery was found at the Muwailen settlement, an archaeological site in the UAE. How large? We’re talking over 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide, meaning that the vessel was probably created within the mudbrick building where it was found, as it wouldn’t have fit through the door. The building is one of the largest roofed structures at the site and may have been an economic center. The pottery dates to between 600 and 900 BCE.
12,000-Year-Old Artifacts Recovered in Chennai Show Special Stone Age Features — Mesolithic axes, scrapers, cleavers, and choppers were found at Vadakkupattu village in India, and researchers believe this may have been a place where tools were manufactured. The tools date back 12,000 years. In the upper layers of the dig, they also found artifacts of Roman origin.
Human Remains Found on Iowa River in Marshall County Belonged to Prehistoric Man — Here’s one from my neck of the woods! A prehistoric human jawbone was found on the Iowa River in Marshall County in Iowa, USA. It has not been dated. It is now being returned to local tribes for burial.
Relief of Heracles was Found in a Marble Quarry in Muğla, Türkiye — Last week, I covered a statue of Hercules that was found. Well, this week, it’s a 2,000-year-old relief of Heracles. A man recording content for social media discovered it in an ancient marble quarry. It was probably placed there to protect the quarry. Researchers are now investigating.
Medieval Silver Coins Found in Ireland — During excavations at Carrignacurra Castle, a defensive tower on a high rock outcrop in Ireland, archaeologists found a cobbled floor, a clay pipe, lead musket balls, pottery, animal bones, and a small bone bead. Also found were two coins that predate the construction — a groat depicting Henry III (1270), and another coin depicting Edward IV (1470s).
‘Forgotten archive’ of Medieval Books and Manuscripts Discovered in Romanian Church — More than 200 books and manuscripts have been found in a church in Medias, Romania. The find includes 139 printed books dating to between 1470 and 1600, two 16th-century manuscripts, and lots of charters and other documents from the 14th to 16th centuries. They also found manuscript fragments that might date to the 9th century. It is unknown how long they’ve been forgotten in the church’s tower. Some say they may have been hidden there for protection during one of the World Wars, while others say that they would have been there much longer.
New Archaeology Dives into the Mysterious Demise of the Neanderthals — Why neanderthals went extinct is a mystery. While some contend that it was due to climate change, a new study shows that this was not the case — at least not in Italy. An analysis of ancient stalactites showed that despite what we see in Greenland’s ice cores, there was no catastrophic climate change in Italy between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago. The team doing this research has a long way to go before they come to any real conclusions, but this serves as one more data-point in the ongoing discussion about the neanderthals.
The Neighbors of the Caliph: Archaeologists Uncover Ancient Mosaics on the Shore of the Sea of Galilee — In the early 8th century CE, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the Islamic caliph Walid’s palace of Khirbat al-Minya was built. It was originally assumed that this palace was built on unoccupied land, but this is not the case. Researchers found evidence of a Jewish or Christian settlement that had been there for centuries by the time the palace was built. The palace peacefully co-existed with the settlement. And later, a small Islamic community also joined them. Finds include basalt structures with plastered walls, beautiful mosaic floors, and a water cistern nearby, dating to the 5th-7th centuries CE. One of the mosaics, which was a so-called Nile-scene mosaic, featured flora and fauna from the Nile Valley. A furnace for processing sugar cane was also found nearby — one of the Holy Land’s top agricultural exports at the time, and something which caused ecological damage that lasted into the 20th century.
Lake Van Retreats and Urartian Port Shows Up, Carved in Rock — Low water levels at Lake Van in Turkey have revealed a small port cut into stone beneath Messrs Castle. This is the first such structure to be found in the lake. It would have been used to transport materials to the castle during the Urartian period around the 9th century BCE.
Societies in Iberian Peninsula Deployed “Escape Economics” 4,000-Year-Old — Analysis of the settlement dynamics of communities 4,000 years ago in the Iberian Peninsula showed that they deployed “escape economies.” Escape economies are social resistance strategies employed when exploitative centers rely on resources from peripheral communities. These communities used enrockment and segmentation tactics to counteract El Argar’s expansion; El Argar being one of the first state societies in Europe. In short, after about 2200 BCE, settlements are found in hard-to-access places, often fortified or in rocky terrain. These were micro-settlements, rarely more than 12-25 people, which worked together. According to Marcello Peres, “It is difficult to imagine the social reality of these Bronze Age micro-settlements, where producing basic goods would not be viable without some sort of collaboration. Such a dispersal and enrockment of these communities and their means of producing goods is difficult to explain, unless there was a real danger to their survival.” When the El Argar state ended in 1550 BCE, we can see that these communities changed their way of living.
❤️ Recommended Content
Here’s another 1-star review for ya. 😆 This one is about Chichen Itza: “It’s just a pyramid.” True enough!
Here’s an article about a plant called “silphium” by the Roman Empire. It was a medicinal plant consumed for many reasons, from stomach pain to wart removal to spicing up bland dishes. It was thought to have been eaten into extinction (with Emperor Nero eating the last stalk) until recently.
Here’s a video with more information about the possible discovery of Queen Nefertiti’s mummy.
This article discusses the connection between British and Japanese cultures, as presented at a new exhibit called Circles of Stone: Stonehenge and Prehistoric Japan.
Here’s an article about recent evolutionary discoveries that have made us rethink our human origins.
And if you’re interested in druids, here’s an interesting article that clears up some common misconceptions.
That’s it for this week. Until next time, thanks for joining me!
(newish twitter: @jamesofthedrum)
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