🧐 Ancient Beat #53: The Babylonian zodiac, two-faced murals, and unicorns (yes, unicorns)
Hi folks! Welcome to issue #53 of Ancient Beat. I hope you all had a wonderful equinox — such an interesting event that was incredibly important to ancient peoples around the world. And I, for one, am happy to have more hours of daylight. 😀
Here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Ancient Murals Depicting Two-Faced Figures Found in Peru — A 1,400-year-old mural was discovered in a ceremonial hall of the Moche culture (1st-8th century CE) at the site of Pañamarca in Peru. The hall’s adobe walls depict two two-faced figures. One of the figures has a feather fan and a goblet with four hummingbirds drinking from it, while the other has a feather fan and a staff. According to Lisa Trever, “There is nothing quite like this in South American archaeology. The artists may have been experimenting with how to show movement, and two narrative moments at once.” It is also unusual because deities in Moche art usually have non-human attributes, but these are human aside from the two faces. Other murals that have previously been found at the site include an anthropomorphic serpent, a priestess, a bat, and many more. The murals, along with other evidence found at the site, indicate multicultural relationships and long-distance economies.
Cyprus's Copper Deposits Created One of the Most Important Trade Hubs in the Bronze Age — A new study confirmed the importance of the Bronze-Age site of Halan Sultan Tekke in Cyprus. In fact, the finds show that this was one of the largest trade hubs during the first period of international trade that occurred in the Mediterranean — roughly 1500-1150 BCE. Extensive copper production took place at the site. According to Peter Fischer, “We have found huge quantities of imported pottery in Hala Sultan Tekke, but also luxury goods made of gold, silver, ivory and semi-precious gemstones which show that the city's production of copper was a trading commodity in high demand.” These goods were from as far away as India. And as far as the high demand, that’s because copper is used to make bronze and this was, after all, the Bronze Age. The city was larger than previously thought, covering 25-50 hectares, 14 of which were within the city wall. That’s quite large, given that a few hectares would have been the norm at that time and place. The researchers also found that the demise of the city cannot be attributed solely to a proposed invasion of the infamous “Sea Peoples”. Instead, epidemics, famine, revolutions, war, and climate all had something to do with it, according to their investigation of written sources.
Tools for Bleeding Cows Uncovered in 7,000-Year-Old Cemetery — Bone blades were discovered in a 7,000-year-old burial in the Letti Basin of Sudan. The blades were found to have a funnel or gutter, indicating that they may have been used to bleed cows — something that modern Maasai shepherds do. Without killing the animals, they take blood and drink it (usually mixed with milk) on special occasions. According to Piotr Osypiński, “It would be the oldest known record of this type of practice.” In a nearby burial, a man’s skull had a precisely-cut round hole that was created near the time of death. It is thought to be from a surgical procedure.
Conservation Work Reveals Ceiling of Egypt’s Temple of Esna — Layers of soot and dirt have been removed from the ceiling of the Temple of Esna in Luxor, Egypt, revealing for the first time in a long time 12 Babylonian zodiac signs, animals, deities, constellations that were used to measure time, and the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. The temple dates to roughly 250 CE. The Babylonian zodiac was popular in ancient Egypt, but it is rarely found in Egyptian temples.
Why Are There No Unicorn Fossils In A Museum? — Let’s end the Top 5 with a fun one, as it’s not often that you find a scholarly article about unicorns. So we all know (and love) unicorns. They’ve interested humans for a long time, popping up across cultures. It wasn’t long ago that folks from Europe were hunting for them in Africa, thanks to prehistoric rock art and indigenous descriptions that they encountered there. New research on southern African ethnography, history, and the writings of various travelers indicates that while, yes, a one-horned horse-like creature was a part of local beliefs in southern Africa, it was actually very different from the European concept of a unicorn. According to the researcher, these were actually San rain animals, which were manifestations or embodiments of rain. They were also depicted differently from unicorns, as San imagery shows a creature with a horn that points up or back (see image). The Europeans apparently just ignored local beliefs and assumed it was one and the same. According to the study, “The story of the South African unicorn is a remarkable example of the extent to which at least some parts of distinct colliding cultural worlds may intersect during cross-cultural interactions. While colonial collisions were typically and in most respects catastrophic, the strong, superficial resemblance of one-horned rain-animals to European unicorns resulted in a complicated conflation of ideas… Although the conflation of unicorns with San rain-animals may initially seem to be a unique example, it raises the possibility that colonial cross-cultural engagements around the world resulted in still other instances of seamless melds between culturally distinct concepts. Crucially, however, such melds would, almost by definition, be virtually invisible from our position in the present. Acknowledgment of their existence requires, almost necessarily, a new historical analysis, and interrogation, of our conventional views.”
That’s it for the free Top 5! If you’re a free subscriber, sign up for the paid plan for another 22 stories and 6 recommended pieces of content covering rock art, ring ditches, guiding serpents, Maya Blue, genomic analyses, temporal lobes, and a massive Roman complex.
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🗞 Ancient News: Deep Dive
Guiding Serpent Sculpture Discovered at Chichén Itzá — A serpent sculpture that was used to guide people from Kukulcán Pyramid to the Sacred Cenote has been discovered at Chichén Itzá in Mexico. The sculpture pointed to the cenote along the “sacbe” (white road), a ceremonial route connecting structures and plazas with ceremonial centers. According to José Francisco Osorio León, “We found that the sacbe is an extension of the feathered serpent that comes down from the pyramid and leads towards the cenote. We have the head of the snake that defines the wall of the sacbe with its body, and there is another snake on the opposite side, but we do not have the complete head.”
Prehistoric Rock Art Discovered in Western Turkey — New prehistoric art was discovered at Mount Latmos in Turkey. Rock art was originally discovered in the area in 1994, with nearly 200 being recorded so far, but these were not known until now. The paintings include human figures and ornamental motifs. Though, as we saw in issue #42, “ornamental” may be a misnomer.
Prehistoric “Engravings Room” Rediscovered in Spain — Over 100 engravings from the 5th to 3rd millenniums BCE were rediscovered in Cova de la Vila, an underground cave in Spain. The cave was explored in the 1940s but it was then lost. If you’re wondering how you go about losing a cave, you’re not alone. The images include line drawings and figures arranged in horizontal lines.
Archaeologists Uncover Ancient Ring Ditch — Several prehistoric ring ditches have been discovered in the form of crop marks in Derbyshire, England. The site is being interpreted as an enclosure for livestock. There is evidence of re-cutting of the bedrock, suggesting maintenance and possible longevity of use. A linear ditch was also found, though this is thought to be a post-medieval ditch used for the demarcation of land boundaries.
Remains of Palenque’s “Lady SAS” Analyzed — Lady SAS refers to skeletal remains found in a lithic workshop in the Maya city of Palenque. A study has now confirmed that the remains are from a woman of 45-50 years who died between 800 and 850 CE. Her skull was modified, indicating elite status. It was modified to be wider and taller, though, indicating that she may not have been from Palenque, where skulls were modified to elongate backward. Her teeth were also modified. They had green stone inlays, but this was not done by elites at Palenque so this may not denote status. The researchers suggest that these tooth modifications may have been practiced by people of a certain ethnic group or trade. It’s worth noting that being buried in a workshop was also quite unusual.
Notre Dame's Fire Reveals Hidden Secret About Ancient Architecture — Most of us probably remember the fire at Notre Dame a few years back. A new study has now reviewed the architectural designs that were laid bare, bringing interesting building techniques to light. Apparently, throughout the site, iron “staples” were used to bind stones together. This is apparently the first building ever built like this. The innovation is thought to be how the builders were able to reach a whopping 32 meters tall. Up to 400 staples were found throughout the site. According to the study, “The highlighting of numerous welds in all iron staples and the multiple provenances sheds light on the activity of the iron market in this major medieval European city and the nature of the goods that circulated, and questions the possible importance of recycling.”
Artist Rediscovers Mysterious Recipe for Ancient ‘Maya Blue’ Dye — You may have heard of “Maya Blue” before. Well, an indigenous sculptor from a village in Yucatán recreated the forgotten formulation process using a native medicinal plant known as Ch’oj. This is the first time this traditional Maya pigment has been created in nearly 200 years. The pigment was used from roughly the 8th century to the 19th century. It is resistant to weathering. And it was apparently used exclusively for the gods and sacrifices.
Statuette of Venus Uncovered in Roman Rubbish Dump — A Venus figure was found in Rennes, France in a 1st-century stone quarry from the Gallo-Roman period that later became a dump in the 2nd century. Other finds included ceramic tableware, terracotta statuettes of deities, coins, and more.
Indigenous Ashaninka DNA Helps Geneticists Write New Chapters of Pre-Colonial History in South America — A genetic study of the Ashaninka people of Amazonian Peru made three key discoveries. 1. The Ashaninka genetics are more diverse than expected, falling into two distinct groups. 2. They have a common origin in the southern part of South America. And 3. They are the closest ancient Caribbean groups associated with Ceramic cultures, indicating that the Ashaninka were part of a south-to-north migration that led Archaic cultures in the Caribbean to become Ceramic cultures.
Genomic Study of Ancient Humans Sheds Light on Human Evolution on the Tibetan Plateau — A new study sequenced the genomes of ancient humans from 29 sites on the Tibetan Plateau, the history of which has been a little patchy. According to the researchers, ancient humans on the plateau shared a single origin from a northern East Asian population 5,100 years ago, prior to the introduction of agriculture in the area, that mixed with an unidentified population. The study also found that different groups inhabited different areas of the plateau for 2,500 years before they began to merge. The last thing to note here is that they found the EPAS1 variant, which comes from Denisovans, in the oldest samples, meaning that Denisovans contributed long ago. This is a variant that enhances a human’s ability to live at high altitudes.
Early Pearling Town Discovered on Persian Gulf Island — A 6th-century town has been discovered on Siniyah Island of the United Arab Emirates. It is thought to have been a pearl processing center. The houses were made from beach rock and lime mortar and they’re packed closely together. According to the researchers, people lived there all year round. Diving weights and pearls were discovered in the houses, and a midden full of oyster shells was found nearby. The town was likely inhabited by Christians. Indeed, a Christian monastery was previously discovered nearby. This reminds me of last week’s story about the large number of shells found many hours from the coastline in the UAE.
Burial Chamber Uncovered at Maya Site of Palenque — Here’s another one about Palenque. A burial chamber has been found there holding the remains of a person buried in a typical style for the site. Another person was found in the antechamber and was probably moved there from another burial site. An additional skull, greenstone figures, and three plates were also found in the chamber.
Archaeological Remains of 13th-15th Century Medieval Temple Discovered in Odisha — Foundations, large stone blocks, sculptures, and carved stone panels of a medieval temple were located near the village of Purushottampur Sasana, India. The imagery on the panels depicts elephants, music, war processions, royal processions, and more. The iconography dates the site to the 13th or 14th century CE.
Over 40 Ancient Beacon Towers Newly Discovered in Xinjiang — More than 40 beacon towers, which were used as sophisticated defense facilities where soldiers would convey information to other towers, have been discovered in Hami City, China. The oldest towers date to the Tang Dynasty (690-705 CE).
Kitchen Renovation Reveals 400-year-old Friezes in York Flat — While renovating his kitchen, a man in York, England discovered friezes dating back to 1660. The paintings are based on scenes from the 1635 book “Emblems” by Francis Quarles.
German-Egyptian Archaeological Mission Uncovers New Remains at Matariya’s Sun Temple — At Matariya’s Sun Temple in the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis, fragments of many statues have been discovered including that of Kings Horemheb (c. 1300 BCE), Psamtik II (595-589 CE), and Ramses II. Additionally, one fragment with an inscription on it may have been the upper part of an obelisk.
Traces of Neolithic Houses Unearthed in Northern China — Foundations of two houses from the Yangshao culture 5,500 years ago were discovered in Shanxi Province, China. One is 320 square feet while the other is 420 square feet. The smaller structure shows signs of burning. A millstone and pottery were found in the larger structure.
Archaeologists Unearth Roman Mosaic in Olney — A Roman villa complex and bath house was discovered in Olney, England in preparation for the construction of a supermarket. A partially preserved mosaic with decorative patterns made of red, white, and blue tesserae was discovered as well. It dates to between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE.
Two Ancient Idols of Vishnu were Discovered — As the title suggests, two ancient idols of Vishnu were discovered in the district of Nadia in India. No other information was provided, as this was just a Tweet that I came across. There’s a photo in the link.
Copper Artifacts Reveal New Cultural Connections in Southern Africa — According to the chemical and isotopic analysis of copper artifacts that were found in southern Africa, people who lived in the Copperbelt region from the 5th to the 20th centuries were more connected than previously thought. According to Jay Stephens, “Over the past 20 to 30 years, most archaeologists have framed the archaeological record of southern Africa in a global way with a major focus on its connection to imports coming from the Indian Ocean. But it's also important to recognize the interconnected relationships that existed among the many groups of people living in southern Africa. The data shows the interaction between these groups not only involved the movement of goods, but also flows of information and the sharing of technological practices that come with that exchange.”
Surprising Evolution Discovery – Human Temporal Lobes Are Not Very Large In Comparison With Other Primates — Our temporal lobes are involved in memory, language, emotions, social dynamics, and more. While it is generally believed that Homo sapiens have disproportionately large temporal lobes compared to apes and monkeys, a new study puts that into question. The study states that the total lobe volume in humans is not larger than expected in anthropoids. According to Emiliano Bruner, “This study is interesting because it lessens the importance previously attached to temporal lobe size in human evolution… Naturally, the complexity of the temporal cortex indicates that it has undergone important specializations in our species, but it is likely that this cannot be assessed simply by analyzing its overall volume.”
A Huge Site Dated to Roman-Era Unearthed in Reims (Marne), France — Archaeologists have discovered a large complex dated to the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE in Reims, France. Two 20-meter porticoed galleries form a “U” surrounding two large masonry blocks (probably from a fountain) in what was likely a garden. Over 20 rooms are organized around the two galleries, including large corridors, baths, a hypocaust (in-floor heating), and living rooms with compacted chalk floors and central fireplaces. Fragments of a painted plaster decorated with grapes were found too, and they include the rare “Egyptian Blue” pigment. When you add an extensive hydraulic network and copper alloy tableware to the mix, the researchers say it’s pretty clear that it’s either the house of a very wealthy individual or a spa complex. My guess is the former.
❤️ Recommended Content
Anyone else find these one-star reviews funny? I do. This one is about the Maya city of Copan: “I enjoyed seeing the macaws probably most about the whole experience.” 🤔 That would sound pretty scathing if macaws weren’t so cool.
Here’s an article on how the Persian Empire shaped the modern world. Postal systems, road networks, gardens, and the list goes on.
Here’s a video about the medieval Hereford Mappa Mundi which discusses the reason for its quirks (and that of other mappae mundi) — in short, it was meant to tell a story (and further Christianity’s cause). It was not meant to be an accurate depiction.
From the US? Here’s a list of some of the coolest ancient sites in the country.
Here’s an article about the Roman fort of Qasr Bshir in the Jordanian desert.
And here’s an article about the ancient city of Tulum and why it was important to the Maya.
There you have it! Any thoughts? Ideas? Crackpot theories? Let’s hear ‘em. 😀
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! 🙏