🧐 Ancient Beat #45: Enormous swords, obsidian axes, and the connection between agriculture and warfare
Hello and welcome to issue #45 of Ancient Beat, folks! I hope the first month of the new year has been a good one for you all. In my neck of the woods, winter is in full force now. And as a new parent of a (nearly) 8-week baby girl, I’ve been in a near-constant state of wonder, learning, and, let’s be honest, stress. I wouldn’t give it up for anything. 😅
But enough about me. Here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Violence Was Widespread in Early Farming Society — Researchers studied the remains of 2,300 early farmers that were found at 180 sites in Northwest Europe ranging from 8,000-4,000 years ago, and found that more than 10% displayed weapon injuries. This may have been a peak not only in violence, but in the destruction of communities, as indicated by mass burials. According to Martin Smith, “The study raises the question to why violence seems to have been so prevalent during this period. The most plausible explanation may be that the economic base of society had changed. With farming came inequality and those who fared less successfully appear at times to have engaged in raiding and collective violence as an alternative strategy for success, with the results now increasingly being recognized archaeologically.” That last bit about recognizing it is because strides have been made recently in distinguishing between fatal injuries and post-mortem breakage, as well as between accidental and violent deaths. According to the researchers, the agrarian way of life even paved the way for formalized warfare.
More Than 1,000 Prehistoric Burial Mounds Discovered in the Netherlands — Heritage Quest is a collaboration between archaeologists and the citizens of Veluwe and Utrechtse Heuvelrug in the Netherlands. Over 6,500 people participated by searching the landscape for archaeological objects. The result? Thousands of potential archaeological points of interest were found, including burial mounds from 3,800-500 BCE, Celtic field complexes from 1,100-200 BCE, charcoal kilns, and cart tracks. So far, they’ve sampled soil from 300 of the proposed mounds and 80 of them are the real deal. Apparently, the organization believes chances are high that 1,250 of the proposed mounds will turn out to be legitimate. Quentin Bourgeois said, “Having so many volunteers participate has produced an unprecedented amount of new data and radically changed our view of prehistory. The Veluwe and Utrechtse Heuvelrug prove to have been much more intensively inhabited than we thought.”
Mirror and sword discovered in a 4th-century Japanese tomb — A 2.37-meter-long iron sword and a bronze mirror shaped like a shield were discovered at Tomio Maruyama, the largest circular Kofun burial mound in Japan, with a 109-meter diameter and dating to the 4th century CE. The mound is thought to belong to a powerful supporter of the Yomato rule, and the grave where the sword and mirror were found is thought to be that of someone close to this person. The sword is apparently the largest intact sword ever found in Japan, and due to its size, experts believe the sword was a ceremonial object rather than a weapon. The mirror has the largest surface area of any bronze mirror found in Japan, and its shape is unique, though two spherical designs on the back of the mirror are the same as those found on a type of mirror called a “daryukyo”. Both artifacts were found in the clay that covered a wooden coffin which, according to one source, was 5 meters long. I’ll note that this size is surprising, and I only saw it mentioned in one article — others don’t mention the coffin’s size. The contents of the coffin are set to be examined next. According to Kosaku Okabayashi, “[These discoveries] indicate that the technology of the Kofun period (300-710) are beyond what had been imagined, and they are masterpieces in metalwork from that period.”
1.2-Million-Year-Old Obsidian Axe Factory Found in Ethiopia — At the Melka Kunture site of Ethiopia, archaeologists have discovered a layer of sediment containing 578 stone tools, most of which are obsidian. This layer of the site, which was identified as an obsidian handaxe workshop, dates to 1.2 million years ago. According to the researchers, it is the only such workshop from the Early Pleistocene ever discovered — until now, the earliest was from the second half of the Middle Pleistocene in Europe. Apparently, “the morphological standardization is remarkable,” and whoever created the artifacts clearly cared a lot about the regularization of the tools — something that is quite difficult with a delicate stone like obsidian. According to the researchers, these artisans, “creatively solved through convergent thinking technological problems such as effectively detaching and shaping large flakes of the unusually brittle and cutting volcanic glass.” It is not known which species is responsible for the handiwork.
Agriculture Linked to Changes in Age-Independent Mortality in North America — And let’s circle back to agriculture and warfare, with another recent study. Researchers analyzed archaeobotanical data from eight states in North America looking for increases in consumption of domesticated crops over foraged food. And they cross-referenced that data with skeletal data, looking to identify increases in age-independent mortality (death between 5 and 19 years of age when people are less likely to die). They found that there were two stages of crop domestication in pre-colonial North America. A decrease in age-independent mortality happened during the first stage (0-500 CE) when plants like squash and sunflowers were domesticated. Apparently, this was a time when indigenous societies flourished. But an increase in age-independent mortality occurred during the second stage (700-1000 CE) when maize and beans were cultivated. During this time, cultural shifts occurred, including the development of powerful chiefdom societies, more crowded living conditions (which may have increased disease), and increased warfare. Their findings parallel what is seen across the world with the advent of agriculture.
That’s it for the free Top 5! If you’re a free subscriber and you’d like to read another 18 stories and 6 recommended pieces of content covering carved hands, the oldest intact mummy, amulets, underwater cities, the English civil war, and more, sign up for the paid plan below. And if you want access but it’s a little too steep for you right now, just shoot me an email. 😃
🗞 Ancient News: Deep Dive
Archaeologists Discover Ancient Moat Carved into Jerusalem Bedrock — A large defensive trench, 10 meters wide by 7+ meters deep in some areas, was discovered outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s uncertain when the moat was dug, but based on historic mentions, it was probably in the 10th or 11th century CE. According to Amit Re’em, “The historians who accompanied the First Crusade describe the arrival of the Crusaders at the walls of Jerusalem in June 1099. Exhausted by the journey, they stood opposite the huge moat.” It then took them five weeks to overcome the obstacle. Interestingly, a handprint is deeply carved into the rock — why it was carved there is a mystery.
Archaeologists Find 11,000-Year-Old Human Remains in British Cave — 11,000-year-old remains were discovered in the Heaning Wood Bone Cave in Cumbria, England. A periwinkle bead was also found during the excavation, and previous excavations unearthed animal bones, stone tools, pottery, and shell beads. The remains of eight individuals were found, seven of which have been dated. The cave was used for burials in three stages: 4,000 years ago, 5,500 years ago, and 11,000 years ago. According to Rick Peterson, “This is particularly exciting as these are some of the earliest dates for human activity in Britain after the end of the last Ice Age.”
Archaeologist Hails Possibly Oldest Mummy Yet Found in Egypt — A Pharaonic tomb containing what might be the oldest and most intact mummified remains ever discovered in Egypt was discovered near the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. It dates to 4,300 years ago. It was located at the bottom of a 15-meter shaft in a group of 5th and 6th dynasty tombs. The remains were covered in layers of gold, according to Zahi Hawass.
Egypt Archaeologists Uncover 'Complete' Roman City — An 1,800-year-old residential city was found in Luxor, Egypt. Archaeologists found residential buildings, two pigeon towers (for housing pigeons and doves), and metal workshops with pots, tools, and Roman coins. This was a rare discovery since temples and tombs are more commonly unearthed in Egypt. Lots happening in Luxor lately!
Digital Scan Unwraps Secrets of Mummy from 2,300 Years Ago — The mummified body of a teenage boy that was found in 1916 underwent a CT scan for the first time, revealing 49 amulets placed in the folds of his wrappings, as well as inside his body. They were made of gold, semi-precious stones, fired clay, or faience (a type of glazed pottery). The amulets included a golden heart scarab in his throat, a golden tongue in his mouth, the eye of Horus, an akhet amulet of the horizon, the knot of Isis, and more. According to Sahar Saleem, “Their purpose was to protect the body and give it vitality in the afterlife.” It is thought that the boy may not have been from Egypt.
Two 3,800-Year-Old Cuneiform Tablets Found in Iraq Give First Glimpse of Hebrew Precursor — Two tablets from 1800 BCE that were found in Iraq 30 years ago have recently resurfaced after being lost in a sea of other documents. The tablets have now been analyzed and it turns out that they are a language manual that shows words and phrases in the Amorite/Canaanite language, along with their translation into Akkadian. The former is a language that we have little knowledge of, but the latter can be read, making this a small-scale Rosetta Stone. And according to the researchers, it shows that the Amorite/Canaanite language was a precursor to Hebrew. According to Yoram Cohen, “Up to now, we’ve had a very fragmented acquaintance with Amorite/Canaanite, mainly from proper nouns and from a number of nouns from Babylonia and Canaan. And now suddenly the language is revealed to us with full documentation, with grammar, vocabulary, phrases and even poetry.”
Incredibly Rare Iron Age Wooden Objects Discovered in 2,000-Year-Old Waterlogged Site in the UK — Since wood degrades quickly when buried, only 5% of archaeological sites in England have surviving wood. But excavations of “Field 44” near Tempsford, England have revealed rare wooden objects from the Iron Age thanks to the ground being so wet. Finds include a ladder used to reach the water from a shallow well, wattle panels covered in daub used for lining a waterhole (see photo), and small posts. Plants were also preserved, and the researchers found that buttercups and rushes were growing nearby.
Ancient Port City of Poompuhar Traced Undersea, Claim Researchers — An ancient port city was discovered 50-100 meters beneath the waves and about 30-40 kilometers off the coast of Poompuhar, India. Apparently, it’s part of Poompuhar (AKA Kaveripoompattinam), which once covered 250 kilometers of land and was referenced in the Tamil epic Manimekalai. According to SM. Ramasamy, “A major finding, based on a study of the past sea levels, is that Poompuhar is not just 2,500 years old as believed widely and might be more than 15,000 years old. It might be one of the oldest port cities in the world.” They found three river deltas, a harbor, docks canals, and a lighthouse beneath the water. Studies are underway to corroborate these findings.
UK Archaeologists Ask Public’s Help with Puzzling Cave Carving — An interesting carving dating to the Iron Age was spotted last year in an excavation trench from the 1950s in Nesscliffe Hill, England. Now, experts are asking the public to help them determine what it is. It’s mostly a publicity stunt, I’m sure, but it’s fun nonetheless. The image is comprised of a cup mark, which is presumably a head, with lines coming out of it, possibly making out the body of a human, horns, and some type of weapon or pipe. If you know what it is, there’s an email address in the article where you can crack the case.
Ancient Mesopotamian City Lagash Reveals More Archaeological Secrets — You may remember that I covered the discovery that the 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian City of Lagash was actually made of marsh islands in issue #34. Well, now they’ve excavated features of a non-elite urban neighborhood. Most surprising was a large “tavern” with benches, a zeer (clay refrigerator), an oven, and storage vessels containing food. It was an open-air, public eating space with a kitchen. If you’d like to dive deeper into Lagash, the article looks at the strides that have been made over the last few years at the site.
New Silfield Primary School Site Could Contain Burial Mounds — Burial mounds may have been found at the proposed site of a new school in Silfield, England. Apparently, “a number of circular anomalies” have been found. And prehistoric flints, as well as Roman pottery sherds, were previously found there as well.
Living Quarters and Sugarcane Mills Found on Martinique — Remnants of 18th-century sugarcane mills have been discovered on the Caribbean island of Martinique. The structures are circular and 50 feet in diameter. They contained wooden rollers wrapped in iron for crushing the sugarcane. Remnants of the living quarters of enslaved people — simple wooden huts — were also discovered in rows.
Centuries-Old Graves with Remains of 144 Enslaved People Found on Rock Hill Property — A year ago, a grave was located on private property in Rock Hill, South Carolina in the US. Now, the total is up to 144. These are the graves of people who were enslaved on a nearby plantation, and the dates on the gravestones range from 1780-1865. The graves are being documented, recorded, and preserved.
Headless Skeletons Unearthed in Eastern England — Of 17 skeletons found at a Roman burial site in England, 11 had been decapitated, with their heads positioned at their feet. Pottery was also placed in the graves. And in one of the burials, a pot was positioned at the deceased’s feet in place of the head. The burials date to the 3rd century CE.
Museum Identifies Replica Sword as Actually 3,000 Years Old — A Bronze-Age sword has been gathering dust at the Field Museum of Chicago because it was identified as a replica (albeit a masterful one) nearly 100 years ago. But now, at last, it has been authenticated as being real. Scientists were able to determine the composition of the sword by measuring the intensity of X-ray radiation exiting it, and they found that it had a comparable composition to other Bronze Age swords of Europe.
Water Spoils Archaeological Quest for 'Queen' of Roman Roads — A search for Rome’s first highway has been abandoned. The Appian Way, or the “regina viarum” (queen of roads) was important because it connected Rome to Brindisi, a port on the southeastern tip of Italy with access to Greece. The “first mile” is believed to be about eight meters underground. Excavations got as deep as six meters but a powerful groundwater current prevented further digging.
2,000-Year-Old Roman Road Discovered In Cluj-Napoca, Romania — One Roman road lost; another found. Archaeologists in Cluj-Napoca, Romania have found a 2,000-year-old Roman road in excellent condition. According to Cristian Dima, “Several fragments of a Roman road were found, covered with slabs and built of river stones, sometimes glued with mortar, at a depth of about 80 cm. The orientation of the road is north-south and is probably connected to the city's street network…” Makes me think of the study that I covered in issue #38 about how Roman roads affect the transfer of wealth, even in modern times.
‘Better than Finding Gold’: Towers’ Remains may Rewrite History of English Civil War — Archaeologists uncovered the monumental stone bases of two towers in Coleshill, England. The towers were part of a medieval fortified gatehouse. Damage caused by musket balls and pistol shot leads experts to believe that this gatehouse may have been shot up by parliamentarian troops on their way to the Battle of Curdworth Bridge in 1642. If true, that would make this the first scene of the first skirmish of the English civil war.
❤️ Recommended Content
Here’s a one-star review of the incredibly beautiful Chand Baori stepwell in Abhaneri, India. “Pigeons defecating everywhere.” Yeah, I hear ya — if a bird poops anywhere near a magnificent site like this, you can count me out. 😂
Since we have a couple of headlines about ancient warfare this week, here’s an article about whether war was common in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. And here’s a discussion about which civilization had the fewest wars.
Here’s an interesting article about tool usage among animals — it discusses what species are in their own “stone age”. It seems to have been inspired by the story of capuchin monkeys creating tools that might have otherwise been attributed to humans (see issue #42).
Here’s an article about some evolutionary traces of our very, very ancient ancestors that we still carry today.
Here’s a short article about early depictions of the universe. The oldest representation that is generally agreed to depict astronomical phenomena is at Lascaux.
And to wrap up this week’s issue, here’s a mind-blowing video about an ancient race of skeleton people that archaeologists have been digging up. 😂 Oh, The Onion, that’s some top-quality, tongue-in-cheek reporting.
I always enjoy the debate about whether humans are inherently war-like or not, so this was an interesting week for me! 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! 🙏