🧐 Ancient Beat #57: Savvy princesses, bubbling wine fountains, and Denisovan faces
Happy Earth Day, folks! And welcome to issue #57 of Ancient Beat.
I love watching our community grow, and we’re so close to hitting 2,000! What do ya say we nudge it over that milestone? If you know anyone who would enjoy these emails, please forward this email to them. It would mean a lot!
But more importantly, here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Politically Savvy Princesses Wove Together a Vast Ancient Empire — You may or may not know of the Xiongnu culture that ruled modern-day Mongolia between 200 BCE and 100 CE — they’re the nomads whose relentless attacks inspired the construction of the Great Wall of China. Well, a new study that combined genetics and archaeology found that princesses were key players when it came to building multiethnic alliances and growing their empire. Back in 2007, two cemeteries were discovered on the edge of the Xiongnu empire. The deepest and richest tombs, which included gold discs, an Egyptian glazed ceramic bead, bronze chariot pieces, horse tack, and sacrificed animals, contained females; not males. Even their wood coffins would have had to be imported from hundreds of miles away, so they weren’t messing around — these women seem to have held the highest positions of power in the region. And interestingly, they were closely related to people from the core of the empire. According to Bryan Miller, “When you go out to the edge of the empire, it seems like women are the only ones with ties to royal lineages. We’re seeing long-distance, broad-scale alliances.” In other words, the research indicates that the Xiongnu sent female relatives to seal alliances with leaders. And they weren’t passive pawns in the process. The grave goods mentioned above, many of which were associated with power, indicate that these princesses would have taken an active hand in this process. According to Bayarsaikhan Jamsranjav, “If you want to rule a bigger area, you have to put a trusted person in place. They’re controlling local elites through these princesses.”
First Facial Reconstruction Reveals What Denisovans May Have Looked Like — We know little of what the Denisovans looked like because the only remains we have from the species are a pinky bone, three teeth, and a lower jaw. But methylation patterns in DNA have now allowed researchers to piece together an idea of what their features may have been. They were different from Neanderthals and sapiens in 56 anatomical features, 34 of which were in the skull. Examples include a wider skull and a longer dental arch. Like Neanderthals, they probably had elongated faces and wide pelvises. While this study was in review, another study described the first confirmed Denisovan mandible, and apparently, it matched the predictions of this study.
Archaeologists Uncover Ritual Landscape Connected to Ancient Andean Cults — Researchers have identified a surprising concentration of 135 hilltop religious sites in the Andes of South America. Most of the sites are associated with agriculture production areas. Evidence, including large quantities of ceramic fragments of bowls, plates, and small jars at each site, indicates ceremonial usage of the spaces, known as wak’a, between 1000 and 1600 CE. One structure discovered at the site of Waskiri is a large circle 140 meters in diameter made up of 39 adjoining enclosures. Both its size and regularity are unusual in the Andes. According to the researchers, this site being connected to the main religious sites of the region may reflect the ceque system (a series of ritual pathways leading out of Cusco). If true, this would indicate that symbolic reflections of Cusco were created in colonized regions. According to the researchers, “This ceremonial center and the ritual landscape in which Waskiri is situated provides rich material for further study of the pre-Hispanic history of this part of the Andes.”
Archaeologists Uncover the First Human Representations of the Ancient Tartessos People — 5th-century-BCE figured reliefs depicting humans have been discovered at Casas del Turuñuelo in Spain. They were found in the remains of a sanctuary where animals were sacrificed, including 16 horses, 2 bulls, and a pig. These are the first human representations ever found from the Late-Bronze-Age Tartessos people. That said, the researchers believe that two female figures may actually be representations of deities; not humans. The other reliefs are in rough shape, but one has been identified as a Tartessian warrior. According to the Higher Council for Scientific Research, “This extraordinary finding represents a profound paradigm shift in the interpretation of the Tartessos people, who are traditionally considered an aniconic culture for representing divinity through animal or plant motifs, or through betilos (sacred stones).”
Lavish ancient Roman winery found at ruins of Villa of the Quintilii near Rome — A winery that was unparalleled in its opulence in the Roman world has been discovered at the Villa of the Quintilii near Rome. The 24-hectare villa was already pretty lavish, with its own theater, arena for chariot races, bath complex, and more. But this winery had luxurious dining rooms, marble-lined areas for enslaved workers to step on the grapes, and — wait for it — fountains gushing young wine. The marble is notable because usually these treading areas would be made of concrete — marble gets slippery when wet so it isn’t ideal. From the treading area, the crushed grapes went to nearby mechanical presses. The juice then went into the fountains, until it finally flowed from the fountains into ceramic dolia. As you might imagine, all of this indicates that the winery wasn’t built for practicality, but for the spectacle of wine production. The name “Gordian” is stamped into a large wine-collection vat, indicating that an emperor, likely Gordian III, either built the winery or renovated it. This would date it to 238-244 CE. The researchers believe he would have feasted while watching this theatrical process of wine production.
That’s it for the free Top 5! If you’re a free subscriber, sign up for the paid plan for another 23 stories and 5 recommended pieces of content covering the Viking timber, canoes, cultic sanctuaries, bone tool workshops, flint knapping, ancient beers, and cute little fortlets.
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🗞 Ancient News: Deep Dive
Archaeologists Discover Remains of Roman Fortlet Near Clydebank — Let me start by saying that if “fortlet” isn’t a cute word, I don’t know what is. Yes, a tiny little fort was discovered in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland. It once stood next to the Antonine Wall, which was built in 142 CE. Only 10-12 soldiers would have been there at a time, and they would have stayed for about a week before returning to a larger fort and being replaced by another detachment. Attempts to find this particular fortlet failed in the 70s and 80s, but gradiometry allowed it to be found this time around. Only nine such fortlets have been found, but there may have been up to 41 on the wall.
Ancient Native American Canoe Pulled from Lake Waccamaw in Southeastern NC — A Waccamaw First Nations canoe has now been recovered from Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina, USA after three teenagers discovered it back in 2021. It dates to 1,000 years ago. According to Chief Michael Jacobs, “That canoe at 28 feet long would have carried many a brave. We feel like in our heart, it's a history that we're still exploring and understanding because this is the first time we've had access.”
Norse Greenlanders Found to Have Imported Timber from North America — Historical records tell us that Norse colonists on Greenland needed imported materials like iron and wood, but it was unknown where it came from until now. Wood taxa analysis at medium-sized farms, and one high-status episcopal manor, that were occupied between 1000 and 1400 CE showed that much of the wood had ambiguous sources, but a small portion was hemlock and Jack pine, which could only have come from North America at the time. This confirms historical sources that stated that explorers brought timber from Vinland (a portion of North America) to Greenland. The study also found that driftwood was one of the most important raw materials in Norse Greenland, making up more than 50% of the wood studied. Other wood unsurprisingly originated in Europe.
Archaeologists Uncover Millennia-Old Settlement in Dominican Republic — The remains of what might be the oldest human settlement in the Antilles were discovered in Samana, Dominican Republic. The settlement dates to 3500 BCE. According to Adolfo Lopez, until now, “[Inhabitants of the island of Hispaniola were thought to be] less organized bands of nomad[s], now we are demonstrating that they were settled human groups.”
Archeologists in Italy Unearth Ancient Dolphin Statuette — A small statue of the Greek god, Eros, riding a dolphin has been discovered in a sanctuary in the ancient Greek city of Paestum. It appears to have been made by the Avili family, who were ceramists, though their work has not been found in Paestum until now. Another big find was an altar with a groove that may have been used for blood during sacrifices. Seven terracotta bull’s heads were found around it, which have been identified as votive offerings. Additionally, a small statue of Aphrodite was also found, as was a Roman coin with Eros (again riding a dolphin) on one side and Poseidon on the other. Paestum dates from the 5th century BCE.
Archaeologists Identify a Palaeolithic Bone Tool Workshop in Spanish Cave — Archaeologists studying a partition of rocks at El Mirón Cave in Spain have identified it as a 20,000-year-old bone tool workshop. The rest of the cave has hearths, pits, and small structures which indicate home-making, but this particular partition has lots of discarded bone material which indicates that it was where they made bone tools. According to Emily Lena Jones, “…By the time the bone fragments were discarded in Level 115 of the cave, they’d also have been broken in ways that suggest people were making tools out of them.” The discovery is important because few Paleolithic structures have been discovered in caves, and most of those are associated with religious or ceremonial activities — workshops are unusual.
Peruvian Archaeologists Unearth 500-Year-Old Inca Ceremonial Bath — A ceremonial bath was discovered near the “House of the Inca” at the Huanuco Pampa site of Peru. It is roughly six feet deep and features independent pools and spillways. It was likely used for religious purposes by high-ranking members of the empire. According to Luis Paredes Sanchez, “[The bath is similar to] hierarchical, restricted and sacred spaces within the Inca administrative centers, because rather than having a utilitarian or hygienic function, they also served for religious functions and worshiping ancestors.”
Apollo Gemstone Ring Unearthed in England — A silver ring was discovered in a field near Chelmsford, England. It is Roman and dates to between 125 and 175 CE. The ring bears a seal of carnelian depicting the deity, Apollo. Interestingly, the researchers believe it was created by the same jewelry workshop that created 110 intaglio engravings that were discovered in the Snettisham hoard.
Bust Depicting Greek God of Wine-Making Found in Cockermouth, England — A 1st-century bust of Silenus, the Greek god of wine-making, was discovered in Cockermouth, England. Silenus was the older companion and tutor of Dionysus, the god of Wine. The bust was a weight used for weighing items on a steelyard balance, but it’s a little bigger than a usual weight, and the fact that it depicts Silenus is unusual.
Did the Romans Breed Flat-Faced Dogs? — Roughly 2,000-year-old dog remains discovered in a tomb on the Aegean coast of Turkey in 2007 have been analyzed, revealing that the furry friend had a flat face like a French bulldog. This is the oldest known flat-faced (or brachycephalic, if you want to be fancy about it) dog ever found. It was young and healthy, so it was probably sacrificed for the burial.
Archaeologists Discover Roman Sanctuary and Cemetery in Belgium — A Roman sanctuary and cemetery has been discovered near Zemst, Belgium. The sanctuary is open-air. The cemetery has up to 30 cremation burials. Archaeologists also found circular ditches and a settlement from the Iron Age. And nearby, they found jars, glass, a cloak pin, and a Roman or Carolingian well. According to Christof Vanhoutte, “These finds are unique to Zemst. Even in the whole of Flanders, such structures are extremely rare and are almost never encountered. The last time this was recorded archaeologically dates back to before the turn of the century.”
Fragments of Large Wall Painting Found in Cartagena’s Roman Theater — The Carthaginian city of Cartagena in modern-day Spain boasts a theater that could hold up to 7,000 people. It was built between 5 and 1 BCE. Well, 2,000 fragments of a large mural that once decorated the walls of a portico have been discovered. This adds to the 1,500 fragments that were previously discovered. Restoration is in progress, but so far, Roman figures and linear artistic features have been revealed.
Ancient Necropolis Unearthed Next to Busy Paris Train Station — A necropolis with 50 graves dated to 2,000 years ago was (re)discovered in Paris during planning for new construction at a train station. Apparently, it had actually been discovered in the 19th century, but people sort of just forgot where it was. 🤷♂️ The burials are from Lutetia, the Gallo-Roman town that preceded Paris. They were buried in wooden coffins, many with ceramic jugs and goblets, and some with a coin. Shoes were also placed at the feet of the deceased. The fact that these aren’t cremations is unusual for the time. Jewelry, hairpins, and belts were also discovered, as well as sacrifices of a pig and other small animals.
Anemia Found to be Common in Ancient Mummified Egyptian Children — According to a new study that analyzed the mummified remains of 21 children between the ages of 1 and 14 (without unwrapping them) showed that 7 of the children had pathological enlargement of the cranial vault (which holds the brain). This indicates that these children were probably anemic, which is usually caused by malnutrition.
Indigenous Burning Helped Suppress Bushfires 10,000 Years Ago — According to new research, Indigenous peoples of Australia practiced cultural burning for at least 10,000 years. The researchers found that fire severity was lower during the period when humans were in the area. According to the researchers, “As such, we conclude that Indigenous cultural burning practices undertaken around Thirlmere Lakes from about 10,000 years ago may have suppressed extreme wildfires. Cultural burning in the region may have begun earlier than this. However, data from before 10,000 years ago is variable – probably as a result of sea-level change – so we can’t say for sure.” These low-intensity fires were used to clean out undergrowth, improve hunting prospects, and increase the diversity of resources. While the researchers don’t believe it to be the intent, an added benefit is that it would have reduced the likelihood and intensity of wildfires. Cultural burning may date back as far as 50,000 years in Australia, but some doubt this due to similar evidence (charcoal in sediments and changes in vegetation) has been identified in places without human activity.
Archaeologists Reveal Traces of Henry VIII’s Otford Palace — An electrical resistance survey at the site of Henry VIII’s Otford Palace in Otford, England located the wall foundations of the northwest tower of the palace and the western range. Though Henry VIII reigned in the 16th century, the site actually goes back a lot further; at least as far back as the first mention of a structure there in 1086. At the time, the real estate was worth £60.
Works on Brussels Metro Line Uncovered Remains of the Second City Wall — Construction in Brussels, Belgium has uncovered the second rampart wall of the city and one of its semicircular towers. This is the first of the nearly 70 such towers to be found. The wall was five miles long and was constructed in the 14th century as Brussels was expanding.
Excavation Leads to Discovery of Gold Coins — The excavation of 18th-century graves in Wrocław, Poland revealed gold coins, including two gold ducats and a gold sovereign.
Rare Viking Age Treasure Found by Woman Cleaning the House — While cleaning her parent’s house, a woman in Valdres, Norway came across 32 iron ingots from the Viking Age or early Middle Ages. They were found 40 years earlier by her father. The rough bars have holes, so they would have been tied together in a bundle.
2,000-Year-Old Hoard of Roman Coins May Have Been Hidden by a Soldier During a Bloody Civil War in Italy — A hoard of 175 silver Roman denarii dating to 82 BCE was discovered in a forest in Italy in 2021, and it has now been announced. This was a turbulent time — right around the time that Sulla, a Roman general and statesman, returned with his legions from Asia and fought a civil war with opponents in Rome. It would be worth tens of thousands of dollars in today’s money. The remains of a Roman farm were previously found half a mile away.
Hidden Contents of 6 Ancient Egyptian Coffins, Sealed for Thousands of Years, Revealed — Scientists used neutron tomography to see inside small, sealed animal coffins from ancient Egypt, revealing the mummified remains of animals including a lizard skull and fragments of other bones wrapped in fabric. Lead was also found in three of the coffins, possibly used to fix a hole or distribute the weight during burial. But it may have also been included due to its status as a magical material used to protect mummified remains (among other uses). The 2-12 inch coffins are made of a copper compound and feature lizards, eels, and cobras on the exteriors. They date to between 664 and 250 CE, and were unearthed in the ancient cities of Naukratis and Tell el-Yehudiyeh in 1885. It’s not clear if the animals were sacrificed.
Some Ancient Tibetans Ate Dairy Foods — A study of the dental calculus of 40 individuals found at various sites on the Tibetan Plateau indicates that dairy was consumed 3,500 years ago, pushing the date back by 2,000 years. This indicates that dairying and pastoralism spread to the region together. The milk came from goats, sheep, and probably yaks. The milk drinkers included men, women, and children who lived in the northern and western parts of the plateau. Folks in the southern areas did not drink milk. Since people in the south were at a lower elevation and were able to grow crops, this indicates that the milk was used in the north and west as a subsistence strategy, as they were above 12,000 feet. Dairying ultimately allowed humans to not only live there but it allowed for sustained population growth and cultural complexity too. Dairy, yak milk, and the Tibetan Plateau have all been in the news quite recently — I covered them in issues #52, #55, and #53, respectively.
A Sanctuary for Cult God Mithras Discovered in Germany — Mithraism was a mystery religion in Rome, involving worship of the god of light, Mithras, who actually had roots outside of Rome. It was widespread and competed with Christianity for a while until the sanctuaries were destroyed or abandoned. A sanctuary for the god was found in Trier, Germany, which was abandoned in the 4th century CE. The most important discovery so far was a 1.2-meter limestone bas-relief showing one of Mithras’ torchbearers, Cautes. Cautes holds his torch up, representing sunrise (and a bunch of other things), while the other torchbearer, Cautopates, holds his down for sunset.
❤️ Recommended Content
If you’re interested in knapping, here’s a video that shows the creation of a hollow base arrowhead from the Bell-Beaker times of Denmark. It’s very detailed, and a narrator passes the time by providing some interesting information on the topic.
If you’d like to scroll through some photos of fascinating and beautiful sites, artifacts, and so forth, have at it.
Here’s an article about some ancient beers, for any craft beer nerds out there.
Here’s a video that shares some letters sent from the front lines of Rome’s legions. It also shares some information about how such messages were sent.
Here’s an article about a Greek kylix, the shards of which were “serendipitously” retrieved and put together by the Met. But investigators are declaring that it was, in fact, looted in a roundabout manner. In other words, the shards were intentionally sold to separate dealers so that the Met could then buy the shards and recreate the cup.
Thanks, folks! I appreciate your time and attention. 😀