🧐 Ancient Beat #46: Gregarious Neanderthals, a cave of skulls, and globalization via embalming practices
Hi folks — happy Friday and welcome to issue #46 of Ancient Beat! Ready for your weekly dose of ancient news? Here it is. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Surprising Mummy Ingredients Found at Ancient Egyptian Workshop — Embalming ingredients found at a 2,600-year-old embalming workshop near the pyramids of Saqqara were analyzed, leading to a number of interesting discoveries. For starters, a large trade network would have been necessary to obtain these substances (tars, fats, tree resins, and oils), which were probably sourced from the Mediterranean, other parts of Africa, and possibly even Asia. The most surprising substance found was dammar resin, which would have come all the way from India and Southeast Asia, but the researchers note that they’re uncertain about its presence. Regardless, they went as far as to say that embalming would have been a driving force for globalization at the time. And there’s more. Discussing the antifungal and antibacterial properties of some of the substances, Mahmoud Bahgat said, “This is really the fascinating part of it… If Egyptians went that far to get these particular natural products, from these particular countries and not other countries in between, it means they meant it, it was not just done as a trial and error… They knew about microbiology.” And lastly, the site’s 100+ vessels, many of which were labeled, corrected misconceptions about certain substances that were mentioned in Egyptian texts. Not a bad haul!
Pit Find in Germany Reveals How Neanderthals Hunted Huge Elephants — According to a new study, Neanderthals may have lived in larger groups than we originally thought. Researchers examined the 125,000-year-old remains of straight-tusked elephants that were found near the city of Halle, Germany in the 1980s. These elephants were bigger than mammoths and a whopping 3x the size of modern Asian elephants. So, ya know… pretty big. Most of the elephants found were adult males, which were bigger and easier** to hunt since they were more solitary than females, and according to the study, this indicates that they were probably hunted as opposed to scavenged. Wil Roebroeks asserts, “This constitutes the first clearcut evidence of elephant-hunting in human evolution.” An average 10-ton elephant would have provided 2,500 daily portions for an adult Neanderthal. And according to Roebroeks, “…if you have a 10-ton elephant and you want to process that animal before it becomes rotten, you need something like 20 people to finish it in a week.” Sure, they may have let some of the meat go to waste, but then why not go after smaller prey? It’s likely that they either preserved it, which is something we didn’t know they could do, or they had much larger groups than we thought. Or both. And it’s worth noting that traces of charcoal were also found, which could indicate that they were drying their meat.
‘Incredible’ Roman Bathers’ Gems Lost 2,000 Years Ago Found Near Hadrian’s Wall — Thirty semi-precious stones were discovered in the drain of a Roman bathhouse near Hadrian’s Wall in Carlisle, England. The find dates to the 2nd or 3rd century CE. The stones are thought to have fallen off of rings after the baths weakened the vegetable glue that held them in place. Although small, the gems are engraved and would have been quite expensive. Examples include an amethyst depicting Venus with a flower or mirror, a jasper with a satyr on rocks near a sacred column, Mars holding a spear, and a mouse eating a branch (mice symbolized rebirth and fertility). A ring, 40 hairpins, 35 glass beads, and a necklace were also found.
Large Number of Skulls Discovered in Cueva Des Cubierta, a Neanderthal Cave in Spain — Numerous 40,000-year-old animal skulls were discovered in Cuevas Des Cubierta in Spain, a site once frequented by Neanderthals for ritual purposes. The skulls belonged to large herbivores like aurochs, bison, deer, and rhinoceroses, and all had either horns or antlers. Given that the skulls were heavy and wouldn’t have yielded much food, the researchers believe they may have been trophies. I would lean more toward the “ritual purpose” side of things, but that’s just me. It’s worth noting that deliberate care was taken with the skulls, which had been processed using tools and sometimes fire.
Mysterious Medieval City in Africa Had a Genius System to Survive Drought — Great Zimbabwe, the first major city in southern Africa, reached its peak between the 11th and 15th centuries CE and had roughly 18,000 inhabitants. No one knows why it is now in ruins. The leading explanation was drought, but researchers have now found evidence of careful water conservation. They believe that the series of “dhaka pits” (circular depressions) outside the city were actually used for capturing water; not for digging up clay, as was originally believed. The pits are located strategically to capture rain and groundwater at the bases of hills, straddling streams, and so forth. If their calculations are right, these pits may have held over 18 million liters of water — enough for the inhabitants to stay hydrated all year round. Plants found in the pits also corroborate that there was a good deal of water.
That’s it for the free Top 5! If you’re a free subscriber and you’d like to read another 13 stories and 5 recommended pieces of content covering the resilience of monasteries against the Vikings, a statue of Hercules, bog caches, dodecahedrons, the amazing site of Atlit-Yam, Tudor pendants, 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
Dozens of Unique 2,500-Year-Old Ceremonial Treasures Discovered in a Drained Peat Bog — Dozens of bronze ornaments dating to 2,500 years ago have been retrieved from a drained peat bog in Chelmno, Poland. The finds include necklaces, bracelets, greaves, decorative pins with spiral heads, rope, and human bones. Most, but not all, are attributed to the Lusatian culture, which covered Poland and neighboring lands during the Bronze Age and early Iron Age. Experts say these objects were probably thrown into the water during sacrificial rituals. I thought this was particularly interesting given the bog phenomenon covered in issue #44.
New Evidence Vikings Failed to Wipe Out Communities and Anglo-Saxon Monasteries — Anglo-Saxon monasteries were more resilient to Viking attacks than was originally thought, according to a new study. Gabor Thomas tells us, “This research paints a more complex picture of the experience of monasteries during these troubled times. They were more resilient than the ‘sitting duck’ image portrayed in popular accounts of Viking raiding based on recorded historical events…” Evidence suggests that the monastic community at Lyminge, which was located in a region that was often raided, survived the attacks and recovered. A recent dig showed that the monks returned and re-established their settlement. That said, the monastery was eventually abandoned, so sustained long-term pressure did take its toll.
Ancient Statue of Hercules Emerges from Rome Sewer Repairs — A life-size statue of Hercules dating to the Roman imperial period (27 BCE - 476 CE) was discovered during sewer repairs in Rome. The statue includes his club and a lion hide covering his head. It was located at roughly the 2-mile mark of the Appian Way, the Roman road that I covered briefly in issue #45.
Muon Scanning Hints at Mysteries Within an Ancient Chinese Wall — High-resolution muon scans of the 650-year-old fortress walls of Xi’an, China have revealed fluctuations that could either be flaws in the wall, or “hidden structures archaeologically interesting for discovery and investigation.” Not much more to report there, but it certainly is intriguing!
Roman Dodecahedron Fragment Found in Belgium — A fragment of a 1,600-year-old Roman dodecahedron was discovered in Belgium. The artifact would have been about two inches across when it was whole. As for what the heck these things were used for, Guido Creemers said, “There have been several hypotheses for it—some kind of a calendar, an instrument for land measurement, a scepter, etcetera—but none of them is satisfying.” Creemers and his colleagues believe they may have been used by Gauls or Celts for fortune-telling or sorcery, both of which were forbidden. This might explain why there are no written explanations of it, as well as why this specimen was broken.
Do the Great Apes Share a Common Language? — According to a new study, great apes in the wild use over 80 gestures to communicate. Since Homo sapien infants use some of the same gestures, the researchers suggest that humans and great apes may have inherited a vocabulary of gestures from a common ancestor.
Metal Detectorist Unearths Tudor Gold Pendant Linked to Henry VIII in Warwickshire — A cafe owner found an early heart-shaped Tudor pendant and chain made of gold and enamel. The pendant includes the initials and symbols of Henry VII and Katherine of Aragon. Though a personal link to the king and queen can’t be confirmed, it is of the quality that would be expected from a member of the higher nobility.
Anglo-Saxon Harpole Treasure Reveals More Secrets — In issue #40, I covered a wealth of artifacts found in the grave of a high-ranking woman who might have been a church leader in the 7th century CE. Well, now they’ve found something else on the unusual cross with human faces. “Micro-excavations have revealed this central garnet, which sits at the center of the huge silver cross found within the Harpole burial.” Further investigation is underway.
Shipwreck Off UK Coast Identified as 17th-Century Dutch Warship Scientists and Archaeologists Confirm — Researchers have been trying to identify a shipwreck off the coast of Sussex, England that was found back in 2019. They’ve now come to the conclusion that it is a 17th-century Dutch warship named Klein Hollandia. The ship was part of a squadron sailing through the English Channel back to the Netherlands when they were attacked, defeated, and boarded by the English. It sank shortly thereafter with both English and Dutch sailors on board.
Vast Subterranean Aqueduct in Naples Once 'Served Elite Roman Villas' — Locals who once played in the tunnels as kids led archaeologists to a stretch of the Aqua Augusta, which is the least documented aqueduct in the Roman world. So far, 2,100 feet of the aqueduct have been explored, which makes this the longest known segment of the Aqua Augusta. And this particular segment would have served elite Roman villas instead of the city.
Pre-Hispanic Tombs Show Oaxaca Town Was Once a Major Zapotec Capital — San Pedro Nexicho, a 150-person town in Mexico, was once the most important settlement in the region, according to new archaeological finds. Researchers found five Zapotec tombs, making 12 total tombs found in the area. The tombs date to the Classic and Postclassic periods (A.D. 200 to 1521). And the number of tombs, along with how elaborate the tombs are, shows that the settlement was very important and wealthy.
Strange 1,000-Year-Old Artifact Melted Out Of The Ice Identified With Help Of Photo! — A 1,000-year-old artifact melted out of the ice of a glacier known as Lundbreen on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, and archaeologists were at a loss for what it could be. Luckily, it was displayed in a local museum and a visiting woman cracked the case — she’d had experience with similar objects growing up on a farm in the 1930s. Turns out, it’s a bit for young animals, designed to stop them from getting milk. Farming traditions in that area certainly are long-lived!
First Solid Scientific Evidence That Vikings Brought Animals To Britain — According to new evidence, Vikings brought animals with them when they crossed the North Sea to Britain. Strontium Isotope analysis of human and animal (in this case, a dog, a horse, and possibly a pig) remains found in a cremation pyre showed that they almost certainly came from Scandinavia, and died soon after their arrival in Britain. The remains are associated with the Viking Great Army that invaded Britain in 865 CE. According to Julian Richards, “It shows how much Viking leaders valued their personal horses and hounds that they brought them from Scandinavia, and that the animals were sacrificed to be buried with their owners.” The notion that Vikings brought some animals with them must have blown the minds of exactly nobody. But the new evidence is still helpful since Anglo-Saxon sources state that the Vikings simply stole horses when they got to Britain.
❤️ Recommended Content
Here’s another one-star review — this one is for the site of Mitla in Mexico: “extremely average”. The sentiment is baffling to me, but the wording is fantastic. I have no complaints. 😀
Have you heard of the site of Atlit-Yam? I hadn’t until I watched this video. It’s underwater now, but it boasts the oldest known constructed wells in the world. And if that isn’t cool enough, there’s even a stone circle.
This is newsworthy and interesting, but it’s missing the “human” element of what I usually cover, so I figured I’d stuff it down here. Two new species of primates were discovered on Canada’s Ellesmere Island in the Arctic. They’re 52 million years old, and the most recent of their genus to be discovered. They lived there during a warmer period when it would have been swampy.
Here’s an article about a researcher who discovered an African writing system of modified Arabic script in his father’s old papers.
Here’s an article that addresses an older study about humans making their way to the Bluefish Caves in Yukon, Canada 23,500 years ago. The whole article is interesting, but I particularly enjoyed the native legends that they touched on. It also speaks of how “violent” the Clovis-first backers became, and how researchers who went against this narrative were marginalized. Interesting stuff.
Does anyone else find the cave full of horned skulls equal parts haunting and fascinating? As always, let me know your thoughts!
And until next time, thanks for joining me.
(newish twitter: @jamesofthedrum)
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