A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Digs & Discoveries
By MARLEY BROWN
Friday, June 10, 2022
When the novelist Sir Walter Scott visited the southernmost tip of the Shetland Islands in 1814, he fell in love with the islands’ vivid sunsets, crashing waves, and growling puffins. There he encountered the ruins of a sixteenth-century Scottish laird’s house, which he named Jarlshof, combining Germanic words that mean “Earl’s House.” When he visited, Scott didn’t realize that the bright green turf surrounding Jarlshof hid the remains of ninth-century A.D. Norse longhouses and even older Iron Age, Bronze Age, and Neolithic settlements. In the 1890s, a series of storms revealed traces of these earlier periods of occupation, evidence that Jarlshof had been home to hearty farmers who, for thousands of years, had adapted to life on the unforgiving North Atlantic archipelago. Archaeologist Stephen Dockrill of the University of Bradford says that Jarlshof’s first inhabitants came to Shetland as early as 3600 B.C. and began cultivating grains and raising sheep and pigs. “We excavated middens that suggest a continuity of settlement over generations despite the area being particularly vulnerable to environmental impact,” says Dockrill. “Growing seasons are very short, and salt and sand from bad storms can ruin an entire year’s crop. But somehow people learned to manage the land.”
Archaeologist Julie Bond, also of the University of Bradford, says that throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age, local people absorbed ideas from traders who came from across the British Isles. During the Iron Age, inhabitants began to build new types of structures, including sunken stone roundhouses called wheelhouses and round, tower-like structures called brochs. Researchers believe that ruling families lived in the lower levels of brochs, while the upper levels were used to store grain and other valuable resources. “People at Jarlshof remodeled older structures or built on top of them in order to avoid encroaching on planting fields,” says Bond. “In just one location, you can see how styles of architecture changed over the course of the centuries.” Viking settlers arrived in the ninth century A.D., introducing deep-sea fishing technology as well as the Norse language. Scotland annexed the Shetland Islands in the fifteenth century, and locals today, most of whom know only a few Norse words, celebrate the archipelago’s Scottish and Scandinavian heritage.
Start in the visitor’s center to learn about the history of Jarlshof and see artifacts uncovered during excavations at the site. Signs dotting the roughly five acres of grounds explain which stone structures date to the Neolithic period, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Norse occupation, the medieval era, and the early modern period.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE
Take a boat tour from Shetland’s bustling hub of Lerwick to see the Broch of Mousa on the enchanting small island of Mousa. Thought to have been built around 100 B.C., it is the tallest broch still standing, rising to a height of 42 feet.
By LING XIN
Friday, June 10, 2022
Statues of the Buddha unearthed in central China are leading to new interpretations of the early history of Buddhism in the country. While excavating a late Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25–220) family tomb in Shaanxi Province, archaeologists discovered a four-inch-tall bronze figure of Gautama Buddha in a standing position and a six-inch figurine depicting five images of Buddha. Both statues are examples of the Greek-influenced Gandharan style of northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan between the first and seventh centuries A.D.
It is widely believed that Buddhism first reached China by means of Central Asia’s Silk Road during the reign of the emperor Han Ming (r. A.D. 57–75). However, prior to this discovery, the earliest known Buddha statues found in China had been dated to the Sixteen Kingdoms Period (A.D. 304–439), more than two centuries later. The recent find provides physical evidence of Buddhism’s early spread in China, says team leader Li Ming of the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology. Analysis of the statues shows that they were made of an alloy of copper, tin, and lead, which is consistent with bronze-casting technologies in China in the first century A.D. Most contemporaneous Buddha figures from Central Asia were fashioned from an alloy of copper and zinc. Li believes it is much more likely that the statues were manufactured locally than that they were brought to China via the Silk Road.
By ZACH ZORICH
Friday, June 10, 2022
In the ancient Maya city of San Bartolo in Guatemala’s Petén rain forest, researchers have recovered pieces of a painting that include the earliest known date from the Maya ritual calendar. The painting was once featured on the wall of a chamber at the base of the city’s central pyramid. The chamber has been dated to 250 B.C. So far, 250 fragments of the painting have been found, of which 11 are inscribed with examples of early Maya writing. This writing is not yet translatable, with the exception of two fragments that include glyphs for the number 7 and the word “deer.” Seven Deer is a date in the 260-day-long Tzolk’in calendar, which is still used by modern-day Maya to determine when rituals should be performed. To archaeologist Heather Hurst of Skidmore College, the discovery has illuminated a profound connection between past and present. “I was in awe that across the rise and fall of dynasties,” she says, “across the Spanish invasion and the decimation of people that occurred, this calendar has been maintained, and the count has kept going.”
By JARRETT A. LOBELL
Friday, June 10, 2022
Northwest England is known for its rugged mountains, clear lakes, fields of daffodils, and four lads from Liverpool who changed the history of music. It’s less known for well-preserved archaeological sites, though not because they are absent. Unlike in the south, where large construction projects in recent decades have necessitated extensive archaeological investigations and where the chalky soil preserves materials well, much that remains of the past buried in the northwest’s acidic soil is hidden or lost. But recent excavations at the town of Poulton along the banks of the River Dee in Cheshire have begun to change scholars’ perceptions of this part of Britain, especially in the Iron Age. “Northwest England is thought of as an Iron Age backwater,” says archaeologist Kevin Cootes of Liverpool John Moores University. “But the time capsule of Iron Age life we have found is extraordinary.”
Thus far, Cootes has uncovered at least eight roundhouses, along with ditches filled with household debris dating from the eighth to first century B.C. His finds include more than 20 pounds of pottery vessels used for holding salt, more than 1,000 animal bones, and valuable items such as an iron adze, jet jewelry, bronze brooches, and worked deer antlers. In one of the houses, Cootes unearthed two dog burials—which he thinks may have been sacrifices—60 percent of the site’s animal bones, half of its pottery, and most of its metalwork. Based on these finds, Cootes suggests this may have been a chieftain’s house. “Rivers are the motorways of antiquity, and this is a high-status Iron Age riverside trading settlement,” he says. “We’re beginning to see that this is a vibrant area that is much more similar to high-status sites elsewhere than previously thought.”
By ERIC A. POWELL
Friday, June 10, 2022
Artists have sought to depict sound in their work since at least the European Upper Paleolithic, some 36,000 years ago. A row of red dots emerging from the mouth of a lion in France’s Chauvet Cave, for instance, is one of the earliest known examples of an artist rendering an animal making a sound. Recently, Texas State University archaeologist Carolyn Boyd surveyed rock art made by hunter-gatherers living from around 2500 B.C. to A.D. 500 in the canyonlands of southwest Texas and the Mexican state of Coahuila to explore how these people may have depicted human and animal speech. She found that the artists, who worked in a tradition known as Pecos River Style rock art, used dots and lines made almost exclusively with red pigment to create what she calls “speech-breath” emanating from the mouths of close to 100 human and animal figures. Some Pecos River Style figures stand face-to-face exchanging emphatic red dots, as if they are debating or perhaps singing. Still other figures have delicate red lines coming from their mouths. “It’s almost as if they are whispering,” says Boyd. One half-human, half-feline figure bellows forth a series of energetic zigzag lines. “That seems to be a thunderous roar,” says Boyd. “For their creators, these weren’t just silent images, they were full of sound and life.” To see more images featuring Pecos River Style rock art speech-breath, click here.
Notre Dame’s dignitaries, Bronze Age daggers, the world’s biggest quake, a lost snowshoe, and 50,000-year-old Australians
A portable connection