Subscribe to Archaeology

Digs & Discoveries

Beast Masters

By LING XIN

Friday, April 09, 2021

Digs China MuralsMurals unearthed in a tomb in northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province portray two hardworking professionals struggling to control animals. Dating to the early Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907), the murals depict the men with features and clothes typical of the Sogdians, an Iranian people from Central Asia, many of whom lived in China. (See “A Silk Road Renaissance.”) In one mural, a Sogdian merchant confronts a camel laden with goods as it throws its head back. In another scene, a Sogdian groom attempts to tame a wild horse as two greyhounds, a breed still popular in the area today, look on. “These murals show vivid facial expressions and gestures of both people and animals,” says archaeologist Ming Li of the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology in Xi’an.

 

Li’s team found the murals in the tomb of a seventh-century A.D. equestrian official named Shanda Kang. According to Kang’s epitaph, also found in the tomb, he managed horses in the ancient capital of Xianyang. This was a prominent position because horses were vital to the Tang Dynasty military. His family name, Kang, which is related to the name of the Sogdian city of Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan, implies that Kang was probably the descendant of Sogdian immigrants, though he was born in China and lived there all his life. Kang’s tomb was located near the starting point of the Silk Road, which functioned in part thanks to the Sogdians’ mercantile and equestrian know-how.

Mistaken Identity

By BENJAMIN LEONARD

Friday, April 09, 2021

Digs England Cernunnos Restored CompositeDigs England Cernunno Silo DoubledResearchers have finished cleaning a small copper alloy figurine that was unearthed in 2018 at a Late Iron Age to early Roman settlement in southeast England. (See “Celtic Curiosity.”) The figure’s oval eyes, which were revealed during the cleaning, and the torc he carries are both characteristic of Iron Age Celts, says archaeologist Chris Thatcher of Oxford Archaeology East. However, his hairstyle is a more typically Roman coiffure. Thatcher and his team have determined that the figure, along with some 300 other metal objects found with it, dates to the early first century A.D. At this time, Celtic tribes in the area were jockeying for power and coming into increasingly frequent contact with the Romans, who conquered Britain in A.D. 43. Although archaeologists originally identified the figure as the Celtic horned fertility god Cernunnos, they now believe it may represent another Celtic deity, or perhaps a tribal figure. “Holding the torc,” says Thatcher, “he is clearly symbolic of power.”

Money Talks

By MARLEY BROWN

Friday, April 09, 2021

Digs Israel CoinsA small ceramic jar containing four gold coins dating to the tenth century A.D. has been discovered during excavations in Jerusalem’s Western Wall Plaza. In contrast to Europe, the medieval Middle East was a highly monetized society, explains numismatist Robert Kool of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Gold coins called dinars and silver coins called dirhams were exchanged whole or in fractional pieces by members of all walks of life. These four coins, all dinars, date to between the 940s and 970s A.D. Two were minted in Ramla, in what is now Israel, by Abu Qasim al-Ikhshid, a governor who administered the region in the name of the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad. The others were minted in Cairo under the Fatimid Caliphate, North African Shiites who conquered Egypt in A.D. 969. The Fatimids wanted to promote their own brand of Islam and did not accept the Sunni rule of Abbasid Baghdad. “Coins were a platform to disseminate the power and glory of a ruler as the highest secular and religious authority,” says Kool.

Heads of the Family

By JASON URBANUS

Friday, April 09, 2021

Digs Scotland Family BurialNew research into one of Scotland’s most peculiar graves has finally unveiled the identity of its occupants. In 1997, during excavations of a medieval church in the small fishing village of Portmahomack in Easter Ross, archaeologists unearthed a coffin that they originally thought contained the complete skeleton of a man and the disembodied heads of five other individuals. The man was quickly dubbed the “six-headed chief.” Soon after, it became clear that the grave actually contained two complete male skeletons and four additional skulls, but researchers still didn’t know why they had been buried in such a curious way.

 

DNA testing of some of the bones has now revealed that five of the six people whose skeletal remains were found in the coffin belonged to one extended family, buried between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The first occupant was a man who died from a severe blow to the head. Decades later, his grave was reopened so his cousin or nephew could be interred with him. The skulls of the second man’s grandfather, father, and mother had been placed in the coffin earlier. According to archaeologist Cecily Spall of the archaeological firm FAS Heritage, the remaining skull proved to be several centuries older and unrelated to the others. “This skull derived from the burial of a monk dated to the eighth to tenth century,” she says, “and was likely selected and included deliberately as a holy relic.”

Ship of Ivory

By MATT STIRN

Friday, April 09, 2021

Digs Namibia Bom Jesus WreckDigs Namibia TusksDigs Namibia ElephantsA multinational team led by the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum is revealing a previously unknown story about elephant ecology in West Africa by analyzing ivory from a 500-year-old shipwreck discovered on Namibia’s coastline. The Portuguese vessel Bom Jesus sank in 1533 while en route to India loaded with valuable cargo that included copper from Central Europe, German faience, and more than 100 West African forest elephant tusks, the largest ivory cargo ever found in a shipwreck. Genetic analysis of the tusks showed that the elephants were from 17 distinct herds in West Africa, some from areas not traditionally associated with the ivory trade. To the team’s astonishment, four of these herds still exist today, made up of descendants of those who were hunted to fill Bom Jesus’ hull.

 

In addition to helping ecologists understand the history of West African elephant populations, information gained from the shipwreck is providing fresh insight into elephant behavior. While nearly all modern forest elephant herds spend their whole lives in thick jungle, likely pushed there by confrontations with humans, isotope analysis of the wreck’s ivory has demonstrated for the first time that herds in the past often thrived in open savanna as well as forested areas. “As archaeologists, we have an important role to play in sharing our data and connecting its relevance to modern people and habitats,” says project codirector Ashley Coutu of the Pitt Rivers Museum. “Archaeological data not only tells us about the long-term histories of endangered or extinct species, but also informs us about how animals and humans coexisted in the past, which is directly relevant to managing human-wildlife conflict.”

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement


Advertisement