🧐 Ancient Beat #52: Unusual burials, official state pottery, and the purpose of mustatils
Hi folks, welcome to issue #52 of Ancient Beat!
Exciting news this week — Ancient Beat got a shoutout in the Mused blog and newsletter! 😍 If you don’t know what Mused is, I suggest you do yourself a favor and check it out. Luke Hollis travels the world capturing 3D imagery of ancient sites so that you can walk through them virtually in the comfort of your own home. His mission, as I understand it, is to digitally preserve these sites and make them accessible to all — if you ask me, that’s commendable. Never been to the Great Pyramid of Giza? Now’s your chance to take a look around. How about Luxor Temple? You get the idea. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I do. And a big thanks to Luke for supporting Ancient Beat!
Alrighty folks, here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Were Mysterious Giant Ancient Mustatils In Saudi Arabia Used For Ritual Purposes? — Mustatils are rectangular stone enclosures with low walls that were built 7,000 years ago, primarily in Saudi Arabia. They can be anywhere from 20 meters to a whopping 600 meters in length. Over 1,600 have been found to date, but their purpose isn’t entirely clear. A new study of a 140-meter mustatil near AlUla, Saudi Arabia identified 260 fragments of animal skulls and horns belonging to domesticated cattle and goats, as well as gazelles and other wild animals. And here’s the crux of the study — these remains were mostly clustered near a standing stone that is thought to be a betyl (“house of god”, a sacred stone), strongly suggesting a ritual function. The researchers also found evidence for several phases of offerings, which means that people may have made repeated pilgrimages to the mustatil. And they found the remains of a man who was buried there as well. Thanks to this evidence, the study concludes that this mustatil had a ritual function, though they note that not all mustatils feature a betyl. The predominance of male animals may indicate a focus on fertility, pasturage, or rain. The researchers chronometrically dated the betyl to the 6th millennium BCE, making it one of the oldest betyls ever found in the Arabian Peninsula. The remains are also noted as some of the earliest evidence of a tradition of leaving offerings at a betyl, which was important in pre-Islamic Arabia. And the findings also show that pilgrimage, as a practice, may have earlier roots than previously thought. And finally, as a side note, the remains include evidence of the earliest cattle domestication in northern Arabia. Wow, that was a mouthful. Moving on!
Roman burial site unearthed in 'truly extraordinary' excavation of hidden Leeds cemetery — A 1,600-year-old cemetery was discovered in Leeds, England. Finds included a Roman woman who appears to have been an aristocrat due to her impressive lead coffin. The remains at the site include both late Roman and early Saxon people, both with different burial practices including east-west alignments and north-south alignments, respectively. According to archaeologist Maeve Fleischmann, who sent this story to me (and who happens to be my aunt 😀), “People know a lot both about the Romans and the Saxons — what they are not so sure about is how they met, mixed, and blended during their early years together in Britain. Sharing a cemetery would be surely a sign of great mutual tolerance — BUT when they have all the carbon dates put together, they might find a discrepancy in the dates between the two lots.”
Roman-Era Tomb Scattered with Magical 'Dead Nails' and Sealed Off to Shield the Living from the 'Restless Dead' — An unusual tomb dating to the 2nd century CE was found at the site of Sagalassos in Turkey. It employs three methods that were used for shielding the living from the “restless dead”: 41 bent nails were scattered around the cremation pyre, 24 bricks were then placed over the still-smoldering pyre, and lime plaster was placed over the bricks. Each of these practices has been noted in Roman-era cemeteries, but this is the first time they’ve all been seen together in one tomb. The tomb did contain grave goods as well, including a woven basket, food, a coin, and vessels made of glass and ceramics, as one might expect. Normally, however, the ashes would have been placed in an urn before being buried in a grave or mausoleum instead of being entombed where the cremation took place. According to the researchers, the precautions may have been due to some type of unusual circumstances in this man’s death, though the researchers found no signs of trauma or disease. Marco Milella mentioned that this might not have been about protecting only the living, “Fear of the dead is a possibility, as well as amulets to protect the dead — or both, perhaps.”
Some Monkeys Accidentally Make Stone Flakes that Resemble Ancient Hominid Tools — I covered monkeys in Brazil that were found to (probably) be responsible for stone tools that had been attributed to humans back in issue #42. Well, it turns out another group of monkeys is up to the same shenanigans. Long-tailed macaques in southern Thailand have been observed creating sharp flakes from their pounding stone while they try to pound open oil palm nuts. And these flakes look a lot like those that we believe(d) were produced intentionally by hominins 3.3-1.56 million years ago in East Africa. This find brings into question the assumption that hominids intentionally made these stone flakes. Indeed, some flakes may need to be reevaluated. Luckily, there are some differences between monkey flakes and hominin flakes, such as monkey flakes only have battering damage on one side. This should help researchers to create new guidelines for identification. Those monkeys are a chip off the old block, eh? 🥁 🙄
Lasers and chemistry reveal how ancient pottery was made, and how an empire functioned — Ever feel like you’re in that movie Groundhog Day? I almost dismissed this story because I thought it was about the study I covered last week regarding pigments used on Wari ceramics to expand the empire’s influence. But no, a week after that study was published, we now have a study about the makeup of the ceramics in the Wari empire, along with the implications on the expansion of the empire’s influence. Same journal too. Turns out one of the authors took part in both, though, so they must have been done in tandem. Anywho, researchers analyzed the composition of Wari pottery at different sites around Peru. They found that clay from different regions had different chemical makeups, indicating that the pottery was not imported from the capital. In other words, potters across the Wari empire created their own ceramics and simply emulated the Wari style, creating a blend of Wari and local cultures. This is unlike the Romans, who (for the most part) spread their aesthetic by sending official Romany-style ceramics around the empire. That said, the researchers do note that some regions did have official Wari production centers. This approach to pottery may explain the longevity of the Wari empire (600-1000 CE) as, according to Patrick Ryan Williams, “Local production, even in a cosmopolitan society with lots of far-flung connections, makes a society more resilient. If you're entirely dependent on someone far away sending you things you need, you're extremely vulnerable.”
That’s it for the free Top 5! If you’re a free subscriber, sign up for the paid plan for another 16 stories and 5 recommended pieces of content covering Hawaiian petroglyphs, a Roman site in the Swiss Alps, an unexpected find at an ancient site in the UAE, ancient languages, amphitheaters, ancestral milk mustaches, and much more.
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🗞 Ancient News: Deep Dive
Ancient Drawings Revealed Beneath Hawaii Sand — I’m not entirely sure I can call this “news” since locals were (unsurprisingly) aware of them, but petroglyphs of humans and animals were found on the North Shore of the Hawaiian island of O’ahu. They were buried by several feet of sand until recently. Researchers believed that the markings would have been carved somewhere between 80CE and when European colonists arrived. Interestingly, there are tens of thousands of other petroglyphs that are known around Hawai’i. According to Kekuewa Kikiloi, “They're man-made images, called kiʻi pohaku, literally, 'stone images' that were carved…We can probably assume that they depict a story, just because of human nature, but then some people have sort of hypothesized because the name kiʻi generally means statue, it might be some kind of spiritual function that they are thought to possess… Like how you have wooden images at museums, those religious images, kiʻi, are thought to fetch the spirits of the ancestral gods to that place and to that image, and so the image in the rocks may serve as a similar function, but we're not entirely sure.”
Hoard of Roman Coins Found After Hiker Stumbles Across Lost Ancient Site — A hiker in the Swiss Alps found a Roman coin in 2020 and the site has now been partially excavated. So far, 100 coins, 27 small crystals, 59 Roman shoe nails, a broach, and a fragment of a votive plaque have been found. The number of finds at the site is unusual due to its location, which is quite far from human habitation. Therefore, the researchers believe that the place held great religious significance. It is about 12 miles from the town of Thun, which has several Roman temples and even an inscription mentioning female alpine deities. This particular spot may have been auspicious due to the rock crystals that occur naturally there. The coins date from the 1st century to the 5th century CE.
Archaeologists Discover Unexpected Enterprise in Prehistoric UAE Village — Archaeologists were surprised to find a large number of shells (mostly marine snails and clams) at the inland site of Masafi in the United Arab Emirates, which was occupied from 3,500-2,300 years ago. The people who lived there seemed to have a taste for a large sea snail known as the giant whelk, though they also transported 23 other species from the coast — the coast being about six hours away by foot. The whelks show signs of cooking, but the shells don’t seem to have been used for anything. The other shells, however, had no signs of being cooked, but were made into tools (mostly knives), or decorated objects. The tools were used, while the decorated objects were exported to today’s Sultanate of Oman, where they were used as grave goods. The article goes on at length about the site of Masafi, as well as shells found at other sites, if you’re interested in learning more.
Early Metal Artifacts Recovered in Northern Vietnam — Roughly 5,000 pieces of pottery, along with stone tools, bronze artifacts, and jewelry were discovered at the site of Dong Dau in Vietnam. The site dates to somewhere between 3,000 and 3,800 years old. This is a particularly important find since urbanization has destroyed many sites in the area. It provides evidence for, and information about, the area’s Metal Ages.
Unique Tombs Wrapped in High-Quality Fabrics and Painted Bodies were Discovered at Monumental Temple in Peru — Excavations on four mounds near Barranca, Peru, began last year. Two have now been excavated, revealing a large temple structure and human remains that were painted and wrapped in high-quality fabrics. The archaeologists found these remains within the ruins of a temple complex made of dried brick. The textiles that wrapped one young boy included unique zoomorphic designs that have not been seen elsewhere in the Andes. The temple complex, which is made of dried bricks and stone blocks, was dated to between 2500 and 2200 BCE, while the burials were from between 772 and 989 CE during the reign of the Wari Empire in the region. The Wari just keep coming up, don’t they? Check out issues #50 and #51 for more.
12th-Century Inscription Sheds Light on Kakatiya Dynasty Expansion — A sculpture of a female warrior with an inscription has been discovered in Polavasa village, India. The inscription is written in the Telugu language with characters that date it to the 12th Century CE. It describes a fight between Kakatiya Rudradeva, who ruled from 1158-1195 CE, and Medaraju, the chief of Polavasa. It also mentions someone named Singana, but the details of that are no longer visible.
Roman Amphitheater Discovered at Ancient Ategua — Recent excavations have uncovered an amphitheater at the Roman site of Ategua in Spain. It is the second amphitheater to be found in the city. It is one of the smallest Roman amphitheaters ever found, at just 44 meters in diameter. It dates to the 1st century CE and was abandoned roughly two centuries later.
Chimes with History of Over 2,000 Years Unearthed — Three sets of chimes were discovered in Sanmenxia, China. They are made of bronze and date to the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE). In case you’re interested, the oldest chimes ever found were from 3000 BCE in Southeast Asia.
Bronze-Age Axe Heads Found by Metal Detector Near Trimdon — Two copper-alloy axe heads were found buried on top of each other, 30 centimeters underground, by a metal detectorist in Trimdon, England. The burial indicates that they were put there on purpose, possibly as an offering to a god. The axes heads are in near-perfect condition and date to between 1125 and 900 BCE.
Ancient Roman Resort, with Waterfall-Fed Swimming Pool, Found in France — An 1,800-year-old Roman bathing complex was discovered in the French Alps. It was located on the bank of the Rhône river near a waterfall that supplied water to the complex. It was built in the 2nd century CE, then abandoned 200 years later. The complex included a heating system, warm room, moderate room, cold room, large pool, and an open section that would have probably been a garden. Decorated rooms were also found but their purpose is unknown.
Anglo-Saxon Watermill Discovered In Buckinghamshire, UK — A watermill was discovered in Buckingham, England. The earliest known activity at the site was a prehistoric ring ditch. A Mesolithic mace head was also found. But the watermill itself started in the 13th century, with evidence including three timber beams set in a clay packing deposit — probably the corner of a structure. It then operated until the 19th century. There is mention of an earlier Anglo-Saxon mill at the site in the Domesday Book, which was compiled in 1086. But no evidence of that mill has been found, so it’s likely that it was actually somewhere else.
1,300-Year-Old Rice Identified in Tibet — Charred grains of indica rice dating to 1,300 years ago have been found among potsherds, animal bones, and plant remains at the Kongsangqiao site of Tibet. It is thought that this region was too cold for indica rice to grow, indicating trade with the lowlands. This is the first evidence of indica rice, which is a hybrid of japonica rice with a wild variety, making it to China by the 8th century CE.
Ancient Idol of Lord Buddha Recovered from Chhattisgarh's Sondra — An idol of the Buddha was discovered in the village of Sondra, India. It dates to the Panduvanshi period (6th-9th century CE).
A Bayesian Multi-Proxy Contribution to the Socioeconomic, Political, and Cultural History of Late Medieval Capitanata — A new study combined historical and archaeological evidence with Bayesian modeling of skeletal remains from Medieval southern Italy. They found significant dietary differences that are supportive of the prevailing view that there were indeed socio-economic hierarchies in place. The study found that cereal production and, to a lesser extent, animal management practices, were the economic basis of the region. The study also found some fish consumption indicating intra-regional trade.
A Cranial Injury from the Earliest Gravettian at the Cro-Magnon Rock Shelter — An Upper Paleolithic Homo sapien cranium found in a rock shelter in Vézère Valley, France 150 years ago has been reanalyzed to show that the individual was probably killed in an act of interpersonal violence. The remains date to a little over 30,000 years ago. The frontal bone has a hole that was probably made by a small stone axe. The injury happened during the individual’s life and they actually survived for 15-20 days after it happened.
Neolithic Ceramics Reveal Dairy Processing from Milk of Multiple Species — Researchers identified residue on Late Neolithic ceramics in central Poland, indicating the production of cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products. According to Harry Robson, “Whilst previous research has shown that dairy products were widely available in some European regions during this period, here, for the first time, we have clear evidence for a diversified dairy herd, including cattle, sheep and goats, from the analysis of ceramics.” This, despite widespread lactose intolerance as I covered in issue #22.
❤️ Recommended Content
Last week, I covered a story about the oldest mention of the name “Odin” ever found. Well here’s a thorough video on the topic by a runologist that I follow.
Here’s a video where you can hear what a number of ancient languages would have sounded like. Of course, it’s quite over-simplified, as dialects and changes over time won’t be taken into account, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
Here’s a short article about the oldest swords ever found (3300 BCE).
Here are some photos of sites that are aligned with the sun on the equinox.
And here’s an interesting article by an anthropologist who doesn’t like the term “rock art”. He’s pretty verbose, so I’ll tell you his reasoning: He has spoken with First Nations individuals who do not look at it as art. He said, “I’m fortunate to have been educated that these are messages from the ancestors, who intended to convey vital cultural and spiritual information to their descendants. Some advisors have also shared that the images themselves materialize a spiritual energy that can heal or harm…” He goes on to say that people from various tribes have told him that “petroglyph and pictograph” are more appropriate terms.
As always, thank you for joining me — I appreciate it! And I hope you enjoyed this dive into the ancient world.
Talk to you again soon. Have a wonderful weekend!
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