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Old Kingdom Tomb

Saqqara, Egypt

By JASON URBANUS

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Top Ten Egypt Khuwy Tomb PaintingsTop Ten Egypt Khuwy Tomb Painting DetailDuring investigation of the funerary complex of the 5th Dynasty pharaoh Djedkare Isesi (r. ca. 2381–2353 B.C.), a team from the Czech Institute of Egyptology discovered the painted tomb of a high-ranking Old Kingdom Egyptian dignitary. After descending a narrow subterranean tunnel that opened up into a series of rooms, members of the team, led by archaeologist Mohamed Megahed, found hieroglyphs on the walls announcing that a man named Khuwy was entombed within the chamber. The writing also enumerates Khuwy’s many titles, including “Secretary of the King,” “Companion of the Royal House,” and “Overseer of the Tenants of the Great House.”

 

Alongside the hieroglyphs are scenes painted in colors that remain vibrant even after 4,300 years. One of the main panels depicts Khuwy himself, seated before a table piled high with food, drinks, and other offerings meant to sustain him in the afterlife. “Scenes of the tomb owner are highly unusual in Old Kingdom tombs,” says Megahed. The high-quality paintings, the tomb’s proximity to Djedkare’s own pyramid, and its design—which mimics that of a tomb belonging to a 5th Dynasty pharaoh—all suggest that Khuwy played a prominent role in the royal court.

Maya Subterranean World

Chichen Itza, Mexico

By ERIC A. POWELL

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Top Ten Mexico Chichen Itza Burners Artifacts BlockArchaeologists exploring a cave system near the center of the Maya city of Chichen Itza unexpectedly came upon several chambers filled with ritual objects. This discovery supports the theory that when the great city was founded, sometime before the seventh century A.D., it was laid out with a relationship to the sacred underground realm in mind. Dubbed Balamku, or “Cave of the Jaguar God,” the cave system was first recorded by an archaeologist in 1966 and then sealed off from the outside world.

 

The current team, led by archaeologists Guillermo de Anda of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and James Brady of California State University, Los Angeles, reopened the long-overlooked cave during a survey of underground rivers. After crawling through its cramped passages, they identified at least seven ritual chambers holding some 170 ceramic artifacts in all, including incense burners decorated with depictions of the rain god Tlaloc. “Balamku helps show that the subterranean world was important to the ancient Maya in ways archaeologists still don’t fully appreciate,” says Brady. The team also found evidence that the cave was desecrated in antiquity, likely by the same people who attacked Chichen Itza around A.D. 1200, precipitating its collapse. Further study of the cave may provide a more precise date for the city’s fall.

On the Origin of Apples

Tuzusai, Kazakhstan

By MARLEY BROWN

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Top Ten Prima Porta Apples FrescoResearchers are now one step closer to understanding how apples made the journey from wild populations to grocery stores and farmers markets around the world, and how that process differed from the domestication of grasses such as wheat and rice. The first people to make use of these grasses encountered fields of densely packed wild cereals. The seeds of these self-pollinating annuals drop to the ground when ripe, allowing a fresh crop to grow each year. Over the course of millennia, beginning about 12,000 years ago, humans first harvested, and then domesticated, these crops. Apple trees, on the other hand, reproduce poorly when fallen apples are left to rot, or when second-generation trees grow too close to their parents. They rely on animals—including humans—to disperse their seeds and carry out pollination.

 

The fossil record suggests that apples developed across Europe and Asia as early as 11.6 million years ago. Apple specimens from a Neolithic site in Switzerland date back to 3160 B.C. Archaeologists have discovered an apple seed from the end of the first millennium B.C. at a village site in the Tian Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan. This is thought to be where the modern apple originated. As part of a quest to determine how apples were domesticated, archaeobotanist Robert Spengler of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has combined the fossil and archaeological evidence with genetic studies comparing modern apples to their ancient ancestors. He has concluded that the first human populations to encounter wild apples took on a role once performed by now-extinct megafauna, dispersing seeds and pollen, and, inadvertently, expanding the fruit’s range. Says Spengler, “It’s clear that humans are enticed by the same food sources that would have enticed a mastodon.”

Neolithic Henge Feasts

Wiltshire, England

By JASON URBANUS

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Top Ten England Durrington WallsNeolithic Britons not only traveled hundreds of miles to attend celebrations at sacred sites, they also brought their own pigs with them to be consumed in the festivities. The food that an animal or person eats when young leaves a chemical signature in their teeth and bones that scientists can analyze to determine where they were—or were not—raised. An investigation led by Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University recently analyzed pig bones discarded more than 4,000 years ago at four henge sites in southwest England, including Durrington Walls. Madgwick concluded that many of the pigs butchered at the henges were not bred nearby, but were instead brought from as far north as modern Scotland and northwest England. “This shows that there was a much more mobile, connected society than we once thought,” he says. “Knowledge of these events and monuments reached far and wide. People were clearly very organized and went to great lengths to adhere to the symbolic regulations these monuments required.” One such requirement may have been to contribute a pig that they themselves had raised. “People from across Britain would gather for these feasts and consume food from across Britain,” Madgwick says. “This is a potent act in constructing group identity.”

Medieval Female Scribe

Dalheim, Germany

By DANIEL WEISS

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Top Ten Germany Lapis Teeth Silo BlockTop Ten Hildegard of Bingen PortraitUltramarine, a brilliant blue pigment, was so dearly coveted in the European Middle Ages that at times it fetched a higher price than gold. The coloring was prepared from the mineral lapis lazuli, which was mined at a single remote location in Afghanistan. A multidisciplinary team was, therefore, surprised to detect an abundance of ultramarine particles embedded in the dental plaque of a woman buried in the eleventh or early twelfth century at a German monastery. “We wondered how on earth a woman at this early date, in a kind of backwater location, came into contact with this incredibly expensive mineral,” says Christina Warinner, a molecular archaeologist at Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

 

The most likely explanation, the researchers concluded, was that the woman was a scribe who used the pigment to illustrate sacred manuscripts. Their method of analysis may point the way to identifying more early medieval female scribes, who have gone unrecognized because they rarely, if ever, signed their work. “We do have a few surviving manuscripts written by women around the same time period,” says Warinner. “But how many more artists are out there waiting to be found if we just look at their teeth?”

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