🧐 Ancient Beat #37: Ancient cats, mile-long tunnels, and protective tattoos
Hi folks! The baby hasn’t arrived yet, so welcome to issue #37 of Ancient Beat. Just a reminder that this may (or may not) be the last issue for a few weeks, as my wife and I will be welcoming our baby into the world very soon! 🎉🎉🎉
While we’re waiting for the new, let’s get into the old. Here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Vast Tunnel Found Beneath Ancient Egyptian Temple — A tunnel has been discovered beneath a temple in the ancient city of Taposiris Magna in Egypt. The tunnel is an incredible 4,281 feet long, which is about 1,000 feet shy of a mile. It is 6.6 feet tall, and it’s located 65 feet beneath the ground. It’s also an exact replica of Eupalinos in Greece, which is considered an engineering marvel. The tunnel was used to bring water to thousands of people when it was functional, sometime in the Ptolemaic period (304-30 BCE). Much of it is now underwater and/or destroyed by earthquakes. Two alabaster heads (an unidentified king and a high-ranking person), parts of statues of deities, and coins were also found within. And as I looked into this, I found a number of sources citing this as a tunnel that leads to Cleopatra’s tomb. This seems to be because the person who discovered it said that it’s a possibility, even if it’s unlikely. It has by no means been confirmed, and I think the coolness of this discovery stands on its own.
Enigmatic Footprints Reveal Humans were in Spain 200,000 Years Earlier than Previously Thought — Researchers recently applied an optically-stimulated luminescence technique on hominin footprints that were found at the site of Matalascañas in Spain back in 2020. They found that they are 200,000 years older than previously thought! This pushes back the date for a hominin presence in what is now Spain, and makes it likely that pre-Neanderthals (possibly Homo heidelbergensis) lived in the area 295,800 years ago.
Italy Hails 'Exceptional' Discovery of Ancient Bronze Statues in Tuscany — A whopping 24 large bronze statues, along with several statuettes, from Roman times have been unearthed in the ruins of an ancient bathhouse in San Casciano dei Bagni, Italy. The statues, dating to between the 2nd century BCE and the 1st century CE, are in excellent condition and depict Hygieia, Apollo, and other Greco-Roman deities. According to the researchers, these would have stood in a sanctuary before they were immersed in the thermal pools in some sort of ritual in the 1st century CE. 6,000 coins were found on top of them, though it’s unclear to me whether they were thrown in with the statues, or over the course of time after the ritual took place — maybe it’s a bit of both. Take a look at the photo, I would have freaked if I came across that in the mud.
Protective Childbirth Tattoos Found on Ancient Egyptian Mummies — A new paper showed that tattoos discovered on six ancient women at the New Kingdom site of Deir el-Medina (1550-1070 BCE) in Egypt were likely used for protection during childbirth. One of the tattoos, which was on a woman’s lower back, shows a depiction of the god Bes and a bowl, imagery related to ritual purification done after childbirth. Another shows a wedjat (Eye of Horus), a zigzag that might represent a marsh, and possibly Bes wearing a feathered crown, all of which relate to protection and healing. Interestingly, clay figurines found at the site decades ago also show what might be a tattoo of Bes on the lower back. Bes was revered as a protector of women and children, especially during childbirth. According to the researchers, “When placed in context with New Kingdom artifacts and texts, these tattoos and representations of tattoos would have visually connected with imagery referencing women as sexual partners, pregnant, midwives, and mothers participating in the post-partum rituals used for protection of the mother and child.”
Cats Trash Theory That They Followed First Farmers to Europe — In true cat fashion, ancient cats have pushed a theory right off the table, breaking it to pieces. All domestic cats are descended from the African wildcat, and it was thought that these cats followed the first farmers to Europe from the Near East. But it turns out that the cats got to Europe first. A new study used palaeogenetics, zooarchaeology, and carbon dating to date the remains of roughly 200 ancient cats, and they found that African wildcats were in Poland 8,000 years ago — centuries before farming reached Poland, and 1,500 years earlier than previously thought. Perhaps they spread with traders instead of farmers, or perhaps they actually had more range than we thought. Cats never truly got domesticated, but they started hanging out with us during the Neolithic Revolution in the Near East around 10,000 years ago. Makes sense. Farming = surpluses = mice = cats. The article talks a lot about the history of cats, so if you’re a cat lover, check it out.
That’s it for the free Top 5! If you’re a free subscriber and you’d like to read another 21 headlines and 6 pieces of content covering the first written alphabetical sentence (hint: it’s about lice), a too-early coin found in Canada, hallucinogens, ancient ski trips, a Christian monastery, a Roman shipwreck, early trade, a system of symbols in cave art, and more, sign up for the paid plan below.
🗞 Ancient News: Deep Dive
Archaeologists from the UAE and U.S. Have Uncovered One of the Earliest Trade Settlements Ever Found in Oman — Details about what has been found at the site of Dahwa in Oman have just been released, and the finds include building floor plans, industrial infrastructure, and silver jewelry dating back to between 2600 and 2000 BCE. They’ve now excavated warehouses, industrial copper processing centers, administrative offices, and religious buildings, all of which are “The first of their kind from prehistoric times found in Oman,” according to Nasser Al-Jahouri. A mass burial site was also found. And one of the silver rings found has an engraved seal of an Indian bison cow — a motif known in the Harappan cultures of the Indus Valley, but which had never been found on a metal ring until now. Interestingly, the ring may be connected to three additional cultures, showing an extensive trade network. The silver is probably from Turkey, it may have been fashioned into a ring in Iraq, and as noted, there is a connection to the Harappan cultures of the Indus Valley.
Genetic Analysis of Neolithic People from Mesopotamia Shows Blend of Demographics — It is unclear whether upper Mesopatamia was a melting pot of people sharing ideas during the Neolithic Transition (hunter-gatherer to farmer), or whether the transition was due to local innovation, so researchers analyzed the human remains from Çayönü Tepesi between 8500 and 7500 BCE to learn more. They found that 12 of the 13 individuals studied had blended backgrounds — three-way admixtures of the Southern Levant, Central Anatolia, and Central Zagros. The exception was a woman of Caucasus/Zagros background. This confirms that there was a migration from the north, and maybe other areas too. The researchers suggest that it was indeed a melting pot of goods and culture. Interestingly, they also found evidence of skull shaping and cranial cauterization, the latter of which they believe might have been from a medical procedure.
The Plot Thickens: New Study Reveals Complex Identity of Ancient Britons — The oldest human fossils found on British soil are 480,000 years old, and they were found in Boxgrove, England. These people hunted horses, deer, and maybe rhino, and used sophisticated tools. The bones were originally thought to be from Homo heidelbergensis, but some have suggested that they actually belong to early Neanderthals. Well, researchers have now compared these remains with those of confirmed Neanderthals at La Sima de los Huesos in Spain to settle the debate, but the answer they got wasn’t quite as clear as they’d hoped. The teeth were almost identical, leading them to believe that the Boxgrove remains were indeed Neanderthals. But then a tibia proved to be a different shape. So the mystery is unsolved. According to Matt Pope, “This study brings at least some of the Boxgrove people much closer to early Neanderthal populations of La Sima than we had imagined. We now need to understand why the tibia looks so different. We also need to consider whether we could have more than one population represented in the Boxgrove sequence. Either way, there are exciting discoveries to be made.”
Ancient Christian Monastery Found Off Coast of United Arab Emirates Could Be 1,400 Years Old, Pre-Dating Islam — A 1400-year-old (pre-Islam) monastery was found on Siniyah Island in the United Arab Emirates. It was probably lost to time after Christians converted to Islam, which became more prevalent in the region. It is the second such monastery that has been found. Worshipers would have prayed in a single-aisle church. The rooms have a baptismal font, an oven for bread and communion wafers, and a nave that would have had an altar. They also found what might have been the home of an abbot or bishop.
Israel Archaeologists Find Ancient Comb with 'Full Sentence' — A comb dating back to Canaanite times has the oldest known full sentence of any alphabetical script. It says, “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” The Canaanite alphabet appeared around 1800 BCE and is the foundation for all alphabetic systems since then. The comb was actually unearthed in 2016, but no one noticed the inscription until last year, and it has only now been deciphered. It is dated to 1700 BCE, and according to Yosef Garfinkel, “It shows that even in the most ancient phase there were full sentences.”
Underwater Archaeologists Uncover 2,000-Year-Old Roman Ship — A 2,000-year-old Roman ship was found off the coast of Croatia. Archaeologists first identified the possibility of a wreck in 2021 thanks to wood and coins that were found. Now, they have exposed nine meters of the ship’s hull, which is relatively intact thanks to it being buried in the sand.
A Surprising Relationship Between Teeth and the Evolution of Pregnancy — We have the highest prenatal growth rate of any extant primate, but we weren’t sure how that came to be until now. Using fossilized teeth and skulls going back six million years, researchers found that hominids reached a high prenatal growth rate between 0.5 and 1 million years ago, to the point that it set us apart from all other apes. They were able to figure this out because, as it turns out, molars and endocranial volume are indicators of prenatal growth rates.
Ancestral Māori Adapted Quickly in the Face of Rapid Climate Change — A new study traced the first 250 years of Maori settlement of Aotearoa (New Zealand) and provides a more precise time of their arrival: 1250-1270 CE. They also found that Maori adapted quickly to the new environment, and did so again later when the climate changed significantly. Their results are thought to be more accurate than previous studies because they included the dates of marine remains (shell middens) that had been excluded previously. In order to include these remains, they had to develop a regional marine calibration curve for the dates.
Gold Coin Discovered in Newfoundland could be Oldest English Coin in Canada — A gold coin dating to the 1420s was found in Newfoundland, Canada. Minted 70 years before recorded English contact, this may be the oldest English coin ever discovered in Canada. According to Jamie Brake, “It's difficult to explain at this point why it's there, who dropped it. It's not the sort of thing that you'd expect to be hanging out of the pockets of migratory fishers.” He went on to say that, “The possibility of perhaps a pre-16th century occupation would be pretty amazing and highly significant in this part of the world.”
Missing Puzzle Piece for the Origins of Domestic Chickens — In issue #15 I covered a study that suggested that chickens were domesticated later than we originally thought (~1500 BCE), when they came down from the trees during dry rice farming. But a new study is now refuting that, saying that the previous study didn’t include important chicken data points in their findings. These data points include sites that date back as far as 2475 BCE, as well as artifacts like a rooster statue that was discovered in Sanxingdui (2420-1000 BCE). The new study states that the domestication of chickens occurred earlier and that it happened in association with bamboo growing, not rice.
New Dates Suggest Oceania's Megafauna Lived Until 25,000 Years Ago, Implying Coexistence with People for 40,000 Years — The extinction of megafauna in Sahul, the landmass of Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Tasmania which was present when sea levels were lower, has been debated hotly. A new paper redated megafauna fossils to between 22,000 and 27,000 years ago, providing compelling evidence that the megafauna stuck around longer than previously thought, meaning that they coexisted with humans for longer. The main theory before this was that they went extinct 42,000 years ago. The earliest dates for humans in Sahul go back 65,000 years, maybe more.
1,800-Year-Old Wine Press Uncovered Next to Roman Fort — A well-preserved wine press from the 2nd or 3rd century CE was discovered near the Roman Fort of Gonio in Georgia. It was originally discovered by a lidar survey. Researchers believe that it was part of a farm that produced wine for a nearby Roman garrison.
A Rural Necropolis from Late Antiquity Discovered in Northeastern France — A 5th-century, rural necropolis has been discovered at Sainte-Marie-aux-Chênes in France. It is located along an ancient road and may be linked to a Roman villa found nearby. It contains cremation structures and inhumations with grave goods. Coins, jewelry, beads, bone combs, a miniature axe, and lots of high-quality glassware were also found. The bodies seem to have been buried in or on wooden biers with ceramic vessels at their head or feet.
Bull’s Sacrifice at Petras may be Earliest Record of Such Ritual in Minoan Tombs, Archaeologist Says — A sacrificial bull’s head was found in a Minoan cemetery near the palace of Petras in Crete. It may be the oldest known ritual bull sacrifice found in a Minoan tomb. It was accompanied by six vessels, two triton shells, a cup, three pitchers, a censor, and a lamp. The sacrifice dates to 1850 BCE.
2,000-Year-Old Roman Fountain Unearthed in Aizanoi — A Roman fountain dating back 2,000 years was discovered at the site of Aizanoi in Turkey. It is circular with a 15-foot diameter. It was located in an open marketplace.
New Thoughts on Some Southwest Parrot Remains — Parrots were kept by people in the American Southwest as far back as the 8th century CE. It was originally thought that these parrots were imported from Mexico, but new research suggests that they once lived in New Mexico and Arizona.
Bastion Foundation Unearthed at Zernaki Tepe in Van — A bastion (tower) was unearthed in the ruins of an ancient city at Zernaki Tepe in Turkey.
Traces of Psychoactive Plants Detected in Hair of Ancient Peruvians — Hair samples of ancient Nazca mummies and trophy heads show traces of plants with psychoactive properties. They found that the individuals who were mummified consumed cocoa leaves and Banisteriopsis caapi (one of the ingredients of ayahuasca). And one of the trophy heads, a child, showed traces of San Pedro. According to Dagmara Socha, this is the “First evidence that some of the victims who were made into trophy heads were given stimulants before they died.”
Incredibly Well-Preserved Viking Age Ski Discovered Under Melting Ice — The second half of a ski, the first half of which was discovered in 2014, has been discovered in the Jotunheimen mountains of Norway. It dates back to the 8th century CE. Certainly makes you wonder what happened that made this ancient person lose their ski in the middle of a mountain pass! By the way, the oldest ski ever found is 2,800 years old, but we have petroglyphs of people on skis dating back as much as 7,000 years.
Previously Unknown Monumental Etruscan Temple Found Near The Tempio Grande, Vulci, Latium, Italy — A temple was found in the ancient city of Vulci in Italy. The building is 45 meters by 35 meters, making it just about the same size (and alignment) as the Tempio Grande which is right next to it. According to Paul Pasieka, “This duplication of monumental buildings in an Etruscan city is rare, and indicates an exceptional finding.”
Thirsty Wheat Needed New Water Management Strategy in Ancient China — A new study found that the introduction of wheat into China led to the creation of water management systems, as wheat needs a lot of water, but doesn’t grow during their rainy season. This was not necessarily large-scale irrigation, as canals have not been found in the archaeological records — it could have been as simple as planting near local springs, digging ditches, or planting in high water-retention soil. According to Xinyi Liu, “We see this in the Qijia culture period, when wheat and barley were just introduced to this region. The isotopic data of wheat show a significant level of water manipulation unambiguously since 4,000 years ago, indicating the new crop was introduced with water management strategies to support it.” He also points out the tension between non-native crops and indigenous farming practices, which I found interesting.
❤️ Recommended Content
We’ve seen some pretty rude one-star reviews, but this reviewer wasn’t going to let their underwhelm affect their decorum. In regard to the London Mithraeum, the review reads, “I made my excuses and left.” Brits can be so polite. 😀
Here’s a very short video from the Prehistory Guys that references the finds at Norfolk Island that I covered in my last issue. Rupert Soskin uses the news to drive home the point that prehistoric peoples were very capable of long voyages via canoes.
Here’s a video about the Lacher See volcanic eruption that happened 13,000 years ago, and how it impacted ancient peoples.
Here’s a video about an ancient artifact that was used for divination 3,000 years ago in China. Heat was applied to a turtle shell, causing it to crack, and the cracks were then interpreted. The results were then inscribed, giving us information about the politics, technologies, and religious beliefs of the culture. Warning: There’s an extremely cheesy reenactment.
Here’s a video about 32 symbols that have been found in caves all over Europe. We don’t know what they mean, but there seems to be a system.
Lastly, voting just happened here in the US, so here’s an article about how people voted in ancient elections.
Cat domestication, tattoos, mile-long tunnels, strange bones… what more do you need? As always, let me know your thoughts. 😃
And until next time, thanks for joining me.
(newish twitter: @jamesofthedrum)
P.S. If you like what you’re seeing, please consider forwarding it to a friend. It would mean a lot! 🙏