🧐 Ancient Beat #50: A new corridor in the Great Pyramid, a new Moai on Rapa Nui, and a shift in the prehistoric narrative
Hi folks, welcome to issue #50 of Ancient Beat! Big happenings in the ancient world this week, so let’s get right into it. Here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Scientists Reveal Hidden Corridor in Great Pyramid of Giza — I don’t know about you, but I’ve been eager to hear more from the Scan Pyramids project for years. Well, they finally made an announcement... But first a little context. Back in 2016 and 2017, the Scan Pyramids project used infrared thermography, ultrasound, ground-penetrating radar, cosmic-ray muon radiography, and other techniques to reveal voids within the Great Pyramid — voids which were likely unknown rooms and corridors. One of the voids was small and located behind the lower two chevron stones on the north face of the pyramid, but it was dismissed by many. Yesterday, it was announced that this “small” void is in fact a 30-foot corridor, roughly 6 feet wide and 6 feet tall. And not only did they confirm this with various fancy methods, but they were able to see inside it with an endoscope as well (see image). While I’m sure we’d all love to think that this was a walkway to a chamber filled with artifacts, it does seem to have a dead end, and the stone is rough-hewn, so it’s likely that it was used to redistribute weight, possibly for the descending passageway or some unknown space, similar to the relieving chambers above the King’s Chamber. But this, in itself, is exciting, as it sheds light on the construction of the pyramid. It may even point us to another unknown feature. Mostafa Waziri said, “We're going to continue our scanning so we will see what we can do ... to figure out what we can find out beneath it, or just by the end of this corridor.” And one other exciting thing is that muon technology has now proven to be effective in the context of the pyramid. So we can be pretty certain that those other voids are legit. So what the heck are they? For more information, imagery, and video, check out this video.
Archaeologists on Easter Island Have Discovered a Previously Unknown Moai Statue Buried in a Dried-Out Lake Bed — When I was a kid, Rapa Nui (AKA Easter Island) fascinated me. It’s a site that really sparked my love of the ancient world. And it continues to fascinate me, so I was really excited to hear that a new Moai statue has been discovered buried in a recently dried-up lakebed hidden by tall reeds. This has stirred up a lot of excitement about the possibility of other unknown Moai. The smaller (but still quite large) statue has not yet been excavated, but here’s a short clip with more info and imagery.
Steel Was Already Being Used in Europe 2,900 Years Ago, Shows Study — A new study tells us that steel tools were in use in Europe 2,900 years ago, long before we thought possible. According to the researchers, Bronze-Age stone stelae on the Iberian peninsula have complex engravings that could only have been done with tempered steel. They backed up their assumption with experimental trials with different metals on the stone. Furthermore, the analysis of an iron chisel from the same period, found at Rocha do Vigio, shows that it consists of carbon-rich steel. Until now, it was thought that no one in Europe produced quality steel until well into the Iron Age. And it only became widespread under the Roman Empire. According to Araque Gonzalez, “The chisel from Rocha do Vigio and the context where it was found show that iron metallurgy including the production and tempering of steel were probably indigenous developments of decentralized small communities in Iberia, and not due to the influence of later colonization processes. This also has consequences for the archaeological assessment of iron metallurgy and quartzite sculptures in other regions of the world.”
Archaeologists Unearth 1,200-Year-Old Wari Temple Complex — A Wari ritual complex with a D-shaped temple, patio-group architecture, supporting buildings, and a monumental platform have been discovered at the site of Pakaytambo in Peru. The site is situated on a key prehistoric transit route. The Wari Empire was in power in the central Andes and coastal areas of Peru from 600-1000 CE. According to David Reid, “One of the most effective ways of bringing people into the empire was through shared beliefs and religious practices. Open plaza spaces associated with the temple complex at Pakaytambo would have allowed local communities to participate in ritual gatherings organized by the Wari.” This is the first evidence of an imperial presence in the region and should shed light on how the Wari strengthened state authority through public ritual and performance.
Ancient DNA Upends European Prehistory — A new genomic study is responsible for a number of interesting finds. 1) Many of you will be familiar with the Gravettian, an archaeological industry from about 33,000 years ago that looks very much like a single culture ranging from Spain to western Russia. Well, a new study of 116 newly sequenced genomes (and hundreds of previously sequenced genomes) has found that Gravettians in France and Spain were genetically distinct from those living in the Czech Republic and Italy. According to Mateja Hajdinjak, “What we thought was one homogenous thing in Europe 30,000 years ago is actually two distinct groups.” Beyond the significance of this to our prehistoric narrative, it is significant because it shows once again that assumptions made about cultural units in archaeology aren’t always accurate. 2) The study confirmed that humans, including the Gravettians, migrated to southern Europe, and in particular the Iberian Peninsula and the south of France, during the last ice age when glaciers covered much of Northern Europe (26,000 to 19,000 BP). Interestingly, though, in the Italian Peninsula, which was thought to have been another refuge, the Gravettian population completely disappeared. And after the glacial maximum, people in Italy had genetic links with the Near East, indicating that a population arrived from the Balkans. 3) The study found that 14,000 years ago, when temperatures rose sharply over a few centuries, cultural changes that were thought to be those of an existing population adapting to the changing climate and ecosystem were actually due to a near-complete population replacement. The Magdalenians nearly vanished and were replaced by populations from Italy. And 4) Despite similar lifestyles, hunter-gatherers in Western Europe 10,000 years ago were actually genetically distinct from those east of the Baltic sea, and they did not mix at all between 14,000 and 8,000 years ago, despite a lack of geographic barriers, which is very unusual. The researchers note, however, that they lack data from likely contact zones. About the study as a whole, Jennifer French said, “This genetic data shows we’ve oversimplified what was going on in terms of population interaction. It provides a lot more nuance than we’ve been able to with archaeological data alone.”
That’s it for the free Top 5! If you’re a free subscriber and you’d like to read another 18 stories and 5 recommended pieces of content covering an Aztec skull rack, stained glass, mythical sea creatures, laundromats, ice skates, children of the ice age, 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
No, archaeologists haven't found 'elite housing' at Chichen Itza — In issue #48 I covered new elite housing discovered at Chichen Itza. But apparently, my sources were incorrect, so I wanted to make a quick correction. According to the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, those residences were actually found a while back — like, over a century ago. The news was really that conservation work would allow folks to visit them for the first time.
It’s Not a Roman Dildo, It’s a Drop Spindle — And this one’s not a correction, but it’s a fresh theory about the Roman phallus I covered last week. A letter made it into The Guardian saying that the artifact actually looks like a dealgan or farsadh, types of drop-spindles used for spinning fibers into thread. The tip of the artifact is similar to the notch at the end of a dealgan, which is used for securing the fiber. The spindle would be rotated to twist the fibers and then the spun fiber would be wound around the shaft. The author of the letter believes that this was a cheeky Roman design of a very practical tool. Personally, I’m still rooting for the penis-pestle theory, but it’s good to have more theories. And so, the plot thickens.
Female Remains in Aztec Skull Rack are Associated with the Origin Myth of Huitzilopochtli — The Hueyi Tzompantli is a skull rack near the ruins of Templo Mayo in Mexico City (formerly the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan). Of the skulls, 60% are from males, 38% are from females, and 2% are from infants. The percentage of females is unexpectedly high since there is little evidence of female warriors being chosen for sacrifice. According to a new study, this may be due to a myth about a confrontation between the lunar goddess Coyolxauhqui and the solar and war deity, Huitzilopochtli. The researchers believe that the architectural axis dedicated to Huitzilopochtli on the south side of Templo Mayor, which leads toward the skull rack, was used for female sacrifices. The idea is that priests recreated the path followed by Coyolxauhqui on her way to Mount Coatepec where, according to the myth she attacked her pregnant mother, an Earth deity, who then gave birth to a grown and armed Huitzilopochtli, who killed Coyolxauhqui and threw her down the side of the mountain. So this myth was reenacted by throwing the bodies of the sacrificed individuals down the steps of the temple.
Piecing Together Scotland’s Religious Past With Shards Of Glass — During the Protestant Reformation of 1560, items in Catholic churches in Scotland that were seen as idolatrous were destroyed. One of the main targets was their stained glass windows which, by the way, would have had a particularly big impact on illiterate churchgoers. A team of researchers is recovering shards of the glass, and using high-tech methods to date them, find their original colors, and determine their origins. Taking in lots of data points, the team has been able to learn about trade routes and who supported the churches, and they even have an idea of what would have decorated some of the windows. “Elgin Cathedral's windows may have had grisaille borders and abstract top lights highlighting saintly figures. As to who those figures were, we have a number of candidates. The Virgin, Thomas Becket, St Columba of Iona and a few others are known to have regional dedications in the northeast of Scotland.” The study is ongoing.
Ancient Texts Shed New Light on Mysterious Whale Behavior that ‘Captured Imagination’ — In 2011, a new type of feeding was observed, in which whales would open their jaws at right angles at the surface of the water and wait for fish to seek “shelter” in their mouths. They termed the technique, “tread-water feeding”. But it turns out that our ancestors knew all about it. The discovery was made by a maritime archaeologist who was reading Norse mythology that described a sea creature known as a “hafgufa” doing the same thing. Interestingly, the hafgufa was originally deemed a mythological creature since this feeding habit didn’t match any known animals. So now we know what a hafgufa was! The earliest text that appears to describe tread-water feeding is Physiologus, a Greek manuscript from around 200 CE.
Iron Age [Human Skull] Bone Comb Identified in England — A comb made from a human skull was identified among a batch of thousands of artifacts that were unearthed a few years back. A hole in the comb, along with the absence of wear in the comb’s teeth, indicates that it may have been worn as an amulet rather than being used for grooming purposes. Only two other such combs have been discovered in England, both within 15 miles of this one. According to Michael Marshall, “It is possible it was carved from the skull of an important member or Iron Age society whose presence was in some way preserved and commemorated through their bones.”
Life at 1,500-Year-Old Fortress Along the Great Wall of China Revealed — Clay statues were discovered in Shaanxi province, China during construction. The area was then excavated, revealing well-preserved ruins of Qingpingbao Fort, one of 36 forts located along the Great Wall during the Ming dynasty. The fort was built in 1475 and is located six miles from the wall. It was designed around a central building with a pavilion on a tall platform. They also found shops, homes, ruins of Zianying Palace, the name of which was discovered on a stone tablet in the courtyard. As for the clay statues, they include two large human statues dressed in red hats and dark tunics, and another human statue of a person with a scroll.
Coptic-era Tombs uncovered in Upper Egypt’s Minya — Six funerary complexes were discovered at the site of Al-Bahnasa in Egypt that date to the Coptic-Byzantine period around the 4th century CE, when a religious shift to Coptic Christianity from the Ancient Egyptian religion took place. They also found another 16 tombs of Persian and Roman origins. Many of the Roman tombs were made of limestones and appear to have been looted. The Coptic-era tombs include remains covered with decorated shrouds.
3,000-Year-Old Shoe Found on a Beach in Kent, UK — A leather shoe dated to 3,000 years ago was discovered on a beach in Kent, England. It’s the oldest shoe ever found in Britain, by about 1,000 years. The person who found it didn’t think much of it, but sent it in for dating anyway. According to Steven Tomlinson, “The date they had given me was just astonishing. It’s incredible, and it's so, so rare. Textiles like this don’t survive often, they have to be found in anaerobic conditions.” It’s only 15 cm long, so it was probably worn by a child.
Archaeologists Uncover Jesus Christ Embroidery in Russia in Rare Find — An embroidered Deisis was found in the grave of a young woman in a medieval burial ground in Russia. A Deisis is an iconic representation of Christ as either king or judge. This particular one depicts Jesus blessing John the Baptist. It was probably a headdress and apparently, the embroidery displays a high level of craftsmanship.
Peruvian Archaeologists Unearth 30 Pre-Inca Era Graves — Thirty 800-year-old graves of the Chancay People have been discovered in Peru. These are the latest of 2,000 Chancay burials that have been discovered in the last year. The graves belong to members of different social classes, including some elites who were buried over 16 feet below the surface.
Deadly Waves: Researchers Document Evolution of Plague Over Hundreds of Years in Medieval Denmark — A study focusing on a single region in Denmark from 1000-1800 CE looked at the genomes of the bacterium responsible for the plague, Yersinia pestis. From the teeth of nearly 300 individuals, the researchers found that the bacterium was reintroduced to the Danish population multiple times, possibly due to human movement. As pathogens, some of which were traced to the Baltic region and Russia, were introduced to Denmark, they created waves of plague. Port cities were hit hardest, but rural sites also showed signs, indicating that the disease was carried inland by humans (or by disease vectors that traveled with them). According to Jesper Boldsen, “The high frequency of Y. pestis reintroduction to Danish communities is consistent with the assumption that most deaths in the period were due to newly introduced pathogens. This association between pathogen introduction and mortality illuminates essential aspects of the demographic evolution, not only in Denmark but across the whole European continent.”
4,000-Year-Old City Along Chinese River is a Breakthrough for Understanding Ancient Life — The final report from the excavation of the Bicun site of China states that the site is a breakthrough in understanding the defenses used by cities during the Longshan era (2600-2000 BCE). It also follows a Central Axis plan, a type of urban planning in ancient China where cities are built along an axis to link important public buildings. Their agricultural economy was focused on millet, pigs, sheep, and cattle. They also worked heavily with jade and other stones.
Burial in Scotland Dated to the Iron Age — Human remains that were under someone’s kitchen floor in Scotland in 2015 have been re-dated. It turns out that they are not from the 18th century after all. They are 2,000 years old. These are the first remains found that date to the Iron Age in the west Highland coast, as the soils there are quite acidic.
Golden Necklaces Discovered in Bronze Age Tomb — Archaeologists discovered a tomb at the site of Metsamor in Armenia that dates as far back as the 4th millennium BCE. It later became an important religious and economic center with cyclopean walls, many temples, and an advanced economy based on metallurgy. Excavations revealed a sunken chamber framed by large stones with a wooden burial and two skeletons dating to 1300-1200 BCE. Gold and carnelian beads, as well as golden pendants, were found, which would have made up three necklaces. Ceramic vessels were also found, along with a unique imported faience flask.
2,000-Year-Old Ancient Roman Dry Cleaner Unearthed by Archaeologists at Pompeii — “Dry cleaner” might be a misnomer here. A house that was converted into a “fullonica”, or laundry shop, was discovered at Pompei, along with several other buildings. Fun fact: Ancient Romans used human and animal urine to wash their clothes. The ammonia counteracted dirt and grease stains. The “fullones”, or laundry workers, would then stomp on the clothes, rinse them, and hang them to dry.
Rare Discovery of a 2,500-Year-Old Ancient Receipt With the Name of King Darius the Great — A hiker at Tel Lachish National Park in Israel found a 2,500-year-old ostracon (potsherd used for writing). Turns out it says “Year 24 of Darius”, as in the Persian king, Darius the Great. Darius I is the father of Ahasuerus, AKA the Biblical Achashverosh from the Book of Esther, AKA Xerxes. It’s the first inscription about Darius I found anywhere in Israel. The ostracon may have been an administrative note similar to a receipt. It was discovered near a Persian administrative building that was unearthed in the 1930s.
Ancient Animal Bone Ice Skates Found in China’s “Birthplace of Skiing” — Ice skates made of animal bones were discovered in a tomb in Ili River Valley, China, and they date to 3,500 years old. The design is similar to those found in Europe, indicating a transfer of knowledge. Fun fact: The oldest pair of skates ever found were from 3000 BCE in Switzerland. Anyway, the researchers believe the tomb is that of a noble herding family. Traces of 40 wooden wagons were also found on site.
❤️ Recommended Content
It’s been a couple of issues since I shared a one-star review so here’s a new one about Peru’s wonderful Saqsaywaman: “Wow 70 sols to see some big rocks that look a lot bigger in pictures than in real life.” 😑 Some people just don’t get it.
If you’d like to see a few very cool photos of ancient sites, here are the winners of Current World Archaeology’s photo competition.
And wow, I really enjoyed this article about children in the ice age. It includes what we know about them and why they’re so often ignored or seen as “distorting” the archaeological record.
Wow, that was a big week — so cool about the Great Pyramid and Rapa Nui. Let me know your thoughts!
And until next time, thanks for joining me.
P.S. If you like what you’re seeing, please consider forwarding it to a friend. It would mean a lot! 🙏