🧐 Ancient Beat #56: Maya scoreboards, Solutrean glue, and the connection between religion and population density
Hi folks! I’m sending issue #56 of Ancient Beat from sunny Florida today, where I’m visiting family and soaking up a little bit of summer after a long winter. ☀️🌴
Here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Chichen Itza: Archaeologists Discover Scoreboard for Ancient Maya Ball Game — A 1,200-year-old carved stone was discovered in an architectonic compound called Casa Colorada at the site of Chichen Itza in Mexico. It is circular and a little over a foot in diameter. It features two pelota players, one with an elaborate feathered headdress and a flower sash; the other with protective gear and what’s called a “snake turban”. The figures are surrounded by hieroglyphics which are currently being analyzed. It is believed that the stone was used to commemorate an important event, presumably to do with the game. It may have adorned an archway at the entrance to the compound. According to Francisco Pérez Ruiz, “It is rare to find hieroglyphic writing at this Maya site, and even rarer to find a complete text.”
Supernatural Beliefs Have Featured in Every Society Throughout History: New Research Helps Explain Why — To our knowledge, every human society has, in some way, held spiritual or supernatural beliefs. A recent study of the supernatural beliefs of 114 societies across both time and space found that, while supernatural beliefs are often focused on social phenomena (war, murder, theft, etc.), more are focused on natural phenomena (disease, natural disasters, drought, etc.). This is striking due to the fact that many contemporary religions, such as Christianity, are more focused on social phenomena — after all, you don’t see many Christians reading the bible to understand the weather. It turns out that societies skew more toward supernatural explanations for social phenomena as they grow and become more complex. The researchers say this may be because people in larger societies trust each other less and therefore make sense of such phenomena through witchcraft and sorcery, or that they are just more concerned with this type of issue. Regardless, it seems to me that it adds up, as increased urbanization tends to lead to more war, murder, theft, etc., which would then require more explanations. Coming back to the predominance of supernatural explanations in natural phenomena, the researchers say that it corroborates the idea that religion originated as a means to explain natural phenomena — an idea that I personally think is an oversimplification, but there you have it.
Unpredictable Rainfall May Have Caused Disintegration of Early Maya Societies — According to a new study, decreasing predictability of rainfall may have destabilized Classic Maya societies 1,100 years ago. The researchers studied variations in stable isotope signatures in stalagmite samples from Yok Balum cave in Belize. They found that changes in seasonality would have affected food production and, indeed, coincided with the downfall of these societies. This research allows us to answer a big question in Maya archaeology: Why did the population decrease dramatically (60-70%!) and political institutions decline between 250 and 850 CE? According to Tobias Braun, “A key ingredient for Maya agriculture was the timely arrival of sufficient rainfall. Farming in subtropical Central America is tough because freshwater is only available during the summer rainy season. Changes of onset and intensity of the rainy season can have serious repercussions for Central American societies.”
Archeologists Find Ancient Tomb of Temple Guard Near Giza Pyramids — A 3,200-year-old, 19th-dynasty tomb was discovered in the Saqqara necropolis in Egypt. It is the tomb of a steward of the Amun Temple in Karnak, and it’s designed like a temple with an entrance, an inner courtyard of columned porticoes, a shaft leading to burial chambers, and three chapels. Inside, a carving was found that depicts the steward with his wife (a singer of Amun) across an offering table from a bald man in a leopard skin. This would have been the priest of the couple’s mortuary cult. A carving of the steward worshiping Hathor was also discovered. According to Mostafa Waziri, “The new find sheds light on the development of Saqqara necropolis during the Ramesside era, and lifts the curtain on new individuals not yet known in historical sources.” Nearby, four small chapels were found with reliefs of funeral scenes and a drawing of a mummy being resurrected to live in the afterlife.
Evidence of Prehistoric Glue Used 20,000 Years Ago During the Paleolithic Period — Researchers have found evidence of adhesives being used 20,000 years ago by people of the Solutrean industry to fasten arrowheads to shafts. Apparently, this is the first evidence of adhesives used on this type of Solutrean point. The discovery was made in El Buxu Cave, Spain, which has Solutrean and Magdalenian cave art, and appears to have been a seasonal site for hunters. These hunters used a mixture of pine resin and beeswax to form the adhesive. According to Francisco Javier Muñoz, “Pine resin is a very strong glue but would be very brittle when faced with the blows that the tips would receive during their use, that is why it was mixed with beeswax to create a much more elastic adhesive.” I always love seeing the ingenuity of ancient people.
That’s it for the free Top 5! If you’re a free subscriber, sign up for the paid plan for another 19 stories and 6 recommended pieces of content covering volcanoes, 40,000-year-old fashion, bug jewelry, underwater discoveries, lost Bible translations, mace heads, hidden tunnels, the tomb of Khentkawas, and Tlingit rock carvings.
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🗞 Ancient News: Deep Dive
Ancient Roman City's Missing Bodies Were Vaporized in Volcanic Blast — Herculaneum was a city near Pompeii that was similarly destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago. While people were famously entombed in ash at Pompeii, few traces of humans have been found at Herculaneum. Evidence pointed to the bodies vaporizing in a hot blast of gas and particles — one piece of evidence being what might have been vitrified brain tissue in a skull — but this was refuted by some. A new study recreated the thermal impact of the eruption and the results back up the earlier evidence. According to the researchers, the heat was, “Capable of causing instant death of people, while leaving only a few decimeters of ash on ground.”
Archaeologists Find Lavish Marble Décor in Ancient Undersea City of Sin — Underwater archaeologists have conducted a survey of the Terme del Lacus area of the now-submerged Roman town of Baiae. Baiae was sort of a “resort town” that gained a Vegas-like reputation for hedonism. Anyway, they’ve found a 180-foot block of structures, as well as marble columns, including rare portasanta marble which would have been imported from the Greek island of Chios. They also identified flooring made with portasanta and white marble, the design of which dates to Late Antiquity. And according to another article, they also found an ornate mosaic with white, blue, and red tesserae.
Perforations in Ancient Bone Fragment Suggest it was Used as a Base When Poking Holes in Leather Garments — A 39,600-year-old bone fragment was discovered at the site of Terrasses de la Riera dels Canyars in Spain. It has marks that likely resulted from an awl-like tool called a “burin” striking the bone as it passed through a piece of leather. The Iberian Peninsula was colder at this time (something akin to modern-day Siberia) so warm clothes would have been important. And needles with eyes were not invented yet, so people punched holes with a burin.
The Beauty of Bugs — This study is from a couple of months back but I didn’t hear about it until reading this article. When surplus food production occurs thanks to agriculture, inequality tends to emerge, alongside displays of socio-economic status — usually precious metals, stones, and the like. The Basketmaker II societies of the US Southwest (500 BCE - 500 CE) appeared to be an exception to this rule, but it turns out that they had their own status signals — they used striking beetle exoskeletons and feathers instead of stones and metals. According to the study, “Archaeologists may have previously overlooked this behavior due to Western biases that privilege precious metals and minerals as prestige objects and archaeological biases that tend to view insects as food or agents of site disturbance.” One complete necklace of 200 beetle legs was discovered, along with another with 16 legs. It would have taken a considerable amount of time to create this type of jewelry.
Archaeologists Uncover Ornate Christian Frescos in Old Dongola — Excavations revealed an underground chamber and a complex of vaulted and domed mudbrick rooms from the 16th-19th centuries CE in Old Dongola. Old Dongola was once the capital of the Nubian kingdom of Makuria (modern-day Sudan). A collection of Christian frescos was discovered within, with a number of rooms depicting Jesus, the archangel Michael, the Virgin Mary, and a Nubian ruler. According to the researchers, “He was one of the last rulers of Christian Makuria, whose reign marks the beginning of the end of the kingdom. For unknown reasons, King David attacked Egypt, which invaded Nubia as part of a retaliatory action and Dongola was conquered for the first time in its history.” I covered another discovery in Old Dongola in issue #51.
Archaeologists Uncover World’s First Large-Scale Sand Dune Farm at Caesarea — A roughly 1-square-mile ancient farming system has been discovered near the ruins of the ancient city of Caesarea in modern-day Algeria. It’s the world’s first large-scale sand dune farm, and dates to about 1,000 years ago. It was probably used for growing vegetables, not for orchards, cereal crops, or vineyards. The farm boasts 370 checkerboard crop plots containing marble fragments, coins, stones, ceramics, and glass — waste that was reused for berm construction, harnessing groundwater, and enriching the soil. And it is estimated that it would have required a whopping one million workdays to complete this project.
Scientists Have Discovered an Ancient Hidden Chapter in the Bible — A lost portion of a 1,500-year-old biblical text was found under three newer layers of text in a palimpsest. In other words, it had been erased and was then overwritten more than once until UV photography made its recovery possible. It is one of the earliest translations of the Gospels, originally translated in the 3rd century and then copied in the 6th century. It is an interpretation of Matthew chapter 12 that was translated as part of the Old Syriac translations. Until now, there were only two known manuscripts with the Old Syriac translations of the Gospels. This makes three.
Roman-Era Girl Buried and Adorned with 1,700-Year Old Gold Jewelry Found in Pagan Cave — A lead coffin was discovered in a cave in Israel way back in 1971, but the discovery was not published until now. It contained the remains of a girl, along with gold earrings, a hairpin, a gold pendant, and beads made of gold, carnelian, and glass. The pendant had symbols of Luna, the Roman moon goddess. According to the researchers, “Late Roman Jerusalem — renamed Aelia Capitolina — had a mixed population that reached the city after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the evacuation of the Jewish population. People from different parts of the Roman Empire settled in the city, bringing with them a different set of values, beliefs, and rituals. The pagan cult of the city’s new population was rich and varied, including gods and goddesses, among them the cult of the moon goddess Luna.”
Medusa Mosaics Uncovered in Italy — Two 2nd-century CE mosaics were discovered in the Villa of the Antonines in Italy. Both show the head of Greek mythology’s Medusa. The mosaics were found in niches cut into a circular room with a 69-foot diameter located in the residential area of the villa. It may have been a receiving room.
Bronze Age Roundhouses and Roman-Era Settlement Discovered in Newquay, Cornwall — Three Bronze-Age roundhouses and a Roman-period settlement consisting of an oval house, a cereal-processing area, and two rectangular barns were discovered in Cornwall, England. The Roman-period house is of a type unique to Cornwall, while the agricultural buildings were actually quite common. Bronze-Age Trevisker ware pottery, Roman-period imported pottery, and stone tools from both periods were also unearthed.
Etruscan Tomb Discovered in Ruins of Ancient Vulci — A 6th-century BCE Etruscan tomb was discovered at the site of Vulci in Lazio, Italy. Vulci was named for the Vulci people, who were one of the twelve people of the Etruscan civilization. It was a prosperous city at the time of this burial, trading in Attic pottery, oriental balm, and jewels. The tomb is rock-cut and sealed with two slabs. The remains of a woman were found inside an urn with grave goods beneath it. The goods include ceramics, a chalice, a spindle, and a brazier with a spit that was used in funerary rites.
Making the 'Invisible' Visible: New Technique Analyzing Archaeological Bones — A new technique will allow scientists to quantify and map the presence of collagen in bones, collagen being an “invisible” protein that is needed for radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon dating, as you might know, is somewhat destructive and, according to Sahra Talamo, “Our results will offer significant advances for the study of human evolution, as we will be able to minimize the destruction of valuable bone material…”
Unique Discovery – 2,000-Year-Old Roman Coins Found on Gotska Sandön in Sweden — Two Roman denarii were discovered by a lighthouse keeper on the island of Gotska Sandön in Sweden. The silver coins are from the times of Emperors Trajan (98-117 CE) and Antoninus Pius (161 CE). It’s unclear whether these came from a shipwreck, or if they have something to do with the many hearths that have been found on the coastline. According to Daniel Langhammer, “Finds of Roman silver coins are not unusual on Gotland, but they are on Gotska Sandön. This find is interesting because of its location.”
Fragment of Giant Roman Statue Uncovered in Chersonesus — A fragment of a foot from a 12-foot statue was discovered during excavations of medieval burials and structures at St. Vladimir’s Cathedral in the ancient Greek colony of Chersonesus, Crimea. The statue was made of marble and dates to the Roman period, around the 1st century CE. It probably depicted a Roman emperor. Fun fact, Vladimir the Great is supposed to have been baptized somewhere near there in 988 CE.
Underwater Nabataean Temple with Marble Altars Discovered in Pozzuoli — A 1st-century CE temple with two marble altars was discovered beneath the waters of Pozzuoli, Italy. The temple is Nabatean. While most Nabatean settlements were near Petra, Jordan, they traded widely and established a base inside the Pozzuoli port, which was the largest commercial port of the Roman Mediterranean.
A Rare Find in the Center of the City of Winchester — A timber-lined medieval well was discovered in Winchester. Archaeologists hope to preserve and analyze the timber.
Image of Stone of Destiny Roman Numerals Revealed with Mysterious Number 35 — The Roman numerals “XXXV” were discovered on the underside of the “Stone of Destiny”, a symbol of the Scottish monarchy, during preparation for its transportation to Westminster Abbey for the coronation of King Charles III. A 3D scan of the stone is what brought this to light, and it also found three different phases of stonework, as well as evidence of bronze or brass objects placed on the stone, and possibly evidence of a cast being made at some point. The researchers are stumped by why the numerals were scratched into the stone.
Byzantine-Era Tunnel Found in Istanbul — A 1,500-year-old, marble-lined tunnel was discovered at the ruined St Polyeuktos Church in Istanbul. Nearby, researchers also found a 1,900-year-old Roman statue, 681 bronze coins, stamped bricks, marble pieces, ceramics, oil lamps, glass, and metal artifacts.
Mesolithic Stone Mace Head Found Near Buckingham, UK — A mace head was discovered in Buckingham, England. Both ends have slight impact damage which suggests it was used as a percussive tool. Other wear shows that it was hafted. And chip marks around the central perforation indicate that the hole was made through a technique called “pecking” rather than drilling. Similar mace heads found in the UK date this one to the Mesolithic period (9600-4000 BCE). It was found in a post-medieval quarry fill that truncated what may have been a prehistoric ring ditch. So this mace head may have originally been within that ditch.
❤️ Recommended Content
Last week, I covered evidence of hallucinogens in Mallorca. Here’s an interesting article about the use of psychedelics across time and geography. According to the article, this type of ceremonial practice is, “incalculably old, globally pervasive, and rich with meaning.”
Here’s a list of 31 ancient temples around the world, along with photos.
Here’s a video about the Old Kingdom tomb of Khentkawas at Giza, which is off-limits to tourists.
Any lawyers out there? Here are seven surprising facts about law in ancient Egypt.
In issue #52, I covered an unusual burial that employed three methods for ensuring that the dead did not disturb the living. Here’s an article with five such ancient methods (and examples) employed by ancient peoples around the world.
Here’s an article about the 8,000-year-old Tlingit rock carvings covering an Alaskan beach in the Island town of Wrangell. It’s all very mysterious. There are killer whales, thunderbirds, salmon, ravens, spirals, ovoids, and more. The photos are definitely worth checking out.
I find the origins of religion and spirituality endlessly fascinating, so it was cool to see a new study on that. And how cool is that scoreboard?
And until next time, thanks for joining me.
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