Category Archives: Archaeology

Fire Record Shows Cultural Diffusion Took Off 400,000 Years Ago (Archeology)

Middle Pleistocene fire use: The first signal of widespread cultural diffusion in human evolution

Researchers from the University of Leiden and Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands propose that the first clear example of widespread cultural diffusion in human evolution occurred around 400,000 years ago. They propose this on the basis of changes in the archaeological record of fire use. The earliest evidence for possible fire use is sparse and can be difficult to distinguish from natural fire residues. By contrast, after 400,000 years ago, multiple different types of fire evidence are found in many sites with good preservation conditions. Interestingly, this occurs at a geologically similar time over major parts of the Old World, in Africa as well as in western Eurasia, and in different populations of hominins.

Wide distribution of a cultural behaviour could be explained in a number of ways: by independent invention in multiple places, movement of populations, or transmission of genes associated with the behaviour. Particularly given the absence of widespread environmental change, rapidity of spread, and lack of genetic or fossil evidence for movements of hominin populations in this period, the authors argue that cultural diffusion is most plausible. This interpretation is supported by the slightly later spread, over the same region and in an even more constrained time period, of a relatively complicated method for making stone tools, called the Levallois technique. This adds to current research suggesting that hominin populations were exchanging genes and that there were cultural interactions too.

Interaction with fire was key in human cultural evolution, and is a focus for research and teaching in the Human Origins Group in the Faculty of Archaeology. When Eva van Veen started her RMA with the group, it struck her that the social structures and social behaviours surrounding early fire use had not been discussed in detail. According to Eva, ‘Given how important sociality is to hominin lives, questions about the social structures surrounding early fire use are essential to understanding the full implications of widespread fire use.’ In her thesis she looked at what it takes to organise a group of people to gather the raw materials for a fire and keep it going. The discussions of her thesis stimulated Eva and a number of colleagues to think about the larger scale social tolerance and social networks involved in the spread of fire skills.

Copying of stone tool technology occurred early in human evolution, and there are indications of the smaller-scale spread of technology likely involving both diffusion and population movement, for example in the record of Acheulean handaxe technology. But around 400,000 years ago, cultural diffusion really took off. This precedes by a long time the cultural florescence associated with late Neandertals and early Homo sapiens. Our research should stimulate debate and new studies, particularly addressing the changes in cultural mechanisms for transmission that allowed this remarkably fast diffusion of fire and stone tool technology.

Featured image: The flake was struck from the core in a much earlier stage of the “biography” of the core, when it was significantly larger. Other flakes produced between the large flake and the final core were also recovered at this site, one of the minimally 250,000 years old flint and bone scatters excavated in the 1980s by Leiden archaeologists at Maastricht-Belvédère (The Netherlands). © Leiden University


Reference: Katharine MacDonald, Fulco Scherjon, Eva van Veen, Krist Vaesen, Wil Roebroeks, “Middle Pleistocene fire use: The first signal of widespread cultural diffusion in human evolution”, PNAS August 3, 2021 118 (31) e2101108118; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2101108118


Provided by Eindhoven University of Technology

Archaeologists Reveal Origins Of Famous Stone Age Monument (Archeology)

Archaeologists from the Universities of Manchester and Cardiff have discovered the origins of Arthur’s Stone, one of the UK’s most famous Stone Age monuments.

Manchester’s Professor Julian Thomas, who led the excavation, says the imposing Herefordshire tomb is linked to nearby ‘halls of the dead’, which were discovered in 2013 by a team led by Professor Thomas.

It is the first time the construction – which inspired the ‘stone table’ in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – has been properly excavated.

Dating to the Neolithic period in 3700BC, Arthur’s Stone is located on a lonely hilltop outside of the village of Dorstone, facing the Black Mountains in south Wales.

Archaeologists always assumed that its massive capstone raised on a series of supporting stones and lesser chamber with a right-angled passage had stood within a wedge-shaped stone cairn, similar to those found in the Cotswolds and South Wales. However, Professor Thomas and Cardiff’s Prof Keith Ray showed the monument originally extended into a field immediately to the south of the tomb.

Arthur’s Stone is a scheduled monument cared for by English Heritage. The excavations took place in an area to the south of the burial chamber, outside of the area of guardianship.

They found that the tomb had first been a long mound composed of stacked turf, retained by a palisade of upright posts set in a narrow palisade surrounding the mound. However, when the posts rotted away and the mound had collapsed, an avenue of larger posts were added, leading toward the mound from the Golden Valley below.“

Although Arthur’s Stone is an iconic Megalithic monument of international importance, its origins had been unclear until now. Being able to shine a light on this astonishing 5700 year old tomb is exciting, and helps to tell the story of our origins.

— Professor Julian Thomas

The initial mound, identifiable in the palisade slot and the parch-marks visible from the air surrounding the stone chambers, points toward the nearby hilltop of Dorstone Hill.

However the later avenue of posts, together with the two stone chambers and an upright stone located immediately in front of them, align on the far horizon in the gap between Skirrid and Garway Hill to the south-east.

“The different orientations of the two phase of construction are significant because our excavations on Dorstone Hill in 2011-19 revealed three long mounds similar in construction to that now known to represent the first stage of Arthur’s Stone,” added Professor Thomas.

“Each of these three turf mounds had been built on the footprint of a large timber building that had been deliberately burnt down. So Arthur’s Stone has now been identified as being closely connected with these nearby ‘halls of the dead’, which hit the headlines in 2013.

“Indeed, the block of upland between the Golden Valley and the Wye Valley is now becoming revealed as hosting an integrated Neolithic ceremonial landscape.”

The excavations at Arthur’s Stone form part of the Beneath Hay Bluff Project, which has been investigating early prehistoric southwest Herefordshire since 2010, under the directorship of Keith Ray and Julian Thomas, with associate directors Nick Overton (University of Manchester) and Tim Hoverd (Herefordshire Council).

All images credit: University of Manchester


Provided by The University of Manchester

World’s Earliest-Known Coin Mint and Spade Coin Discovered in China (Archeology)

Archaeologists have uncovered 2,640- to 2,550-year-old clay moulds for casting spade coins as well as fragments of finished spade coins at Guanzhuang in Xingyang, Henan province, China. The technical characteristics of the moulds demonstrate that the site — which was part of the Eastern Zhou period (770-220 BCE) bronze foundry — functioned as a mint for producing standardized coins.

“The origins of metal coinage and the monetization of ancient economies have long been a research focus in both archaeology and economic history,” said Dr. Hao Zhao from the School of History at Zhengzhou University and colleagues.

“The earliest coins are thought to have been minted in China, Lydia (in Western Asia Minor) and India.”

“Of these, the hollow-handle spade coin (kongshoubu) minted in China is a likely candidate for the first metal coinage.”

“The spade coin was an imitation of practical metal spades, but its thin blade and small size indicate that it had no utilitarian function.”

“The earlier spade coins had a fragile, hollow socket, reminiscent of a metal shovel. This socket was transformed into a thin, flat piece in later spade coins, and over time, characters were applied to the coins to mark their denominations.”

“Several versions of spade coins circulated across the Chinese Central Plains until their abolition by the First Emperor of Qin in 221 BCE.”

“Their origin and early history, and the social dynamics under which they were developed, however, remain controversial — a situation paralleled by the century-long debate over Lydian coins.”

Dr. Zhao and co-authors from Zhengzhou University and Peking University uncovered the ancient remains from different stages of the minting process at Guanzhuang in China’s Henan province.

The mint was part of a well-organized, integrated bronze foundry run under the auspices of the Zheng State.

“Guanzhuang is located in the Central Plains of China, some 12 km south of the Yellow River,” the archaeologists said.

“Continuous excavations since 2011 have revealed the general layout of a city, which consisted of two walled and moated enclosures.”

“The city was established in c. 800 BCE and abandoned after 450 BCE.”

“Excavations between 2015 and 2019 have revealed a large craft-production zone in the centre of the outer enclosure, immediately outside the southern gate of the inner city. This area included workshops involved in bronze, ceramic, jade and bone-artifact production.”

“The bronze foundry occupied the largest area. Its main features comprise more than 2,000 pits for dumping production waste, most between 1.5 and 3 m in diameter, with a depth of 1-2.5 m.”

“Alongside ceramic sherds, these pits contained abundant remains related to bronze-casting activities, including crucibles, ladles, bronze droplets, unfinished or broken bronze artifacts, clay moulds, charcoal, and furnace fragments.”

Spade coin SP-1 and its reconstruction; the outer mould (bottom left) is also used to reconstruct the spade coin. Image credit: H. Zhao.
Spade coin SP-1 and its reconstruction; the outer mould (bottom left) is also used to reconstruct the spade coin. Image credit: H. Zhao.

At the site, the researchers found two fragments of finished spade coins, dubbed SP-1 and SP-2.

“Coin SP-1 is so well preserved that its complete shape can be confidently reconstructed,” they said.

“This example is a typical pointed-shoulder spade coin, with a (restored) full length of 14.3 cm, a shoulder width of 6.35 cm and a maximum thickness of 0.9 mm. The weight of the extant coin is 27.1 g.”

“Reconstructing the volume of its missing feet at around 660 mm3 (4-5g), we estimate that the original weight of SP-1 was no less than 31 g, including the weight of the clay core inside the handle.”

As is typical of the earliest spade coins, there are no inscriptions indicating either the name of the locality where the coin was cast or its face value.

“Coin SP-2 was found in the context dated to the Eastern Han Dynasty (200 CE), and hence the coin must be considered a residual find, as spade coins had long been abolished by this time,” they said.

“Of this coin, only the handle and its clay core survive. They are of exactly the same shape and size as the corresponding portions of SP-1.”

The compositional analysis shows that the copper content of SP-1 and SP-2 is 62.5 and 76.46%, respectively.

“The existence of minting activity at Guanzhuang is further documented by numerous finds of clay cores and outer moulds for casting spade coins,” the scientists said.

“All the moulds are made of reddish fine silt, which was also the primary material for producing clay moulds to cast other types of bronze products at the Guanzhuang foundry.”

Combining the evidence from radiocarbon-dating, mould style and ceramic typology, they suggest that the Guanzhuang foundry was first established around 780 BCE.

During its initial phase of around 150 years, the foundry produced predominantly ritual vessels, weapons and chariot fittings — items used in ceremonies, warfare and other aspects of elite life.

Standardized minting started from the second phase of the Guanzhuang foundry, after c. 640 BCE and no later than 550 BCE, and it made use of the workshop’s existing bronze-production capacity.

“Currently, Guanzhuang is the earliest-known archaeological mint site dated by robust radiocarbon dates in the world, and coin SP-1 is the earliest spade coin — and, more generally, the earliest Chinese coin — recovered from a secure archaeological context,” the authors said.

“The minting techniques employed at Guanzhuang are characterized by batch production and a high degree of standardization and quality control, indicating that the production of spade coins was not a small-scale, sporadic experiment, but rather a well-planned and organised process in the heartland of the Central Plains of China.”

The team’s paper was published this week in the journal Antiquity.

Featured image: Spatial distribution of the minting remains in the Guanzhuang foundry’s excavation area: red dots: deposit with clay moulds; green dots: deposits with fragments of finished spade coins. Image credit: Z. Qu / H. Zhao.


Reference: Hao Zhao et al. Radiocarbon-dating an early minting site: the emergence of standardised coinage in China. Antiquity, published online August 6, 2021; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2021.94


Provided by Sci-news

Scottish And Irish Researchers To Investigate Ancient Ogham Script (Archeology)

Academics from Scotland and Ireland are harnessing cutting-edge digital and 3D technologies to protect the inscriptions and transform our understanding of the ancient Celtic Ogham writing system, it was announced today.

Ogham was invented over 1500 years ago and is found in the Republic of Ireland and across the four nations of Britain, and the Isle of Man. Ogham is an alphabet that appears on monumental inscriptions and occasionally portable objects dating from the 4th century AD onwards, and in a handful of manuscripts dating from the 9th century onwards.

The majority of these are from Ireland, but nearly a third are found across England, Wales, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. These inscriptions are the oldest written records in the language ancestral to Modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx.

Only 16% of surviving Ogham-carved stone pillar are housed in national museums, with the vast majority remaining locally in churches, heritage centres or remote rural locations exposed to the elements.

Now a major three-year interdisciplinary project, led by academics from the University of Glasgow and Maynooth University, will create a comprehensive digital online database of all 640 pre-1850 examples of Ogham script which will be easily accessible to scholars and the public alike.

The project will break new ground in looking at Ogham in all media and all periods, and giving Ogham in Britain due weight alongside Ogham in Ireland.

It will build on the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) Ogham in 3D project (2012-15), which focused primarily on Ogham pillars in state care in the Republic of Ireland. It was always hoped, not just to complete the corpus of Irish stones, but to collaborate with colleagues in Britain to include Ogham from all areas and on all types of supports. Now, finally, this can be done.

The project is funded by the joint Arts and Humanities Research CouncilIrish Research Council in the Digital Humanities scheme and will look at Ogham from the 4th century up to the present day.

The academics will collaborate with the National Museums of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, the British Museum, Manx National Heritage, Historic Environment Scotland, Wales’s Cadw, Ireland’s National Monuments Service, and the National Library of Scotland – all of whom have examples of Ogham in their care. They will also work with Ireland’s Discovery Programme to create 3D digital models to enhance access to, understanding of, and engagement with, this unique cultural heritage. The 3D models produced by the project will also provide a baseline against which future weathering can be assessed, contributing to the protection of a unique archaeological resource threatened by climate change.

Professor Katherine Forsyth, Professor of Celtic Studies at the University of Glasgow’s School of Humanities, said: “Everyone’s heard of runes, but not so many people are familiar with Ogham, a highly unusual and amazingly clever writing system unique to these islands. We hope this project will help change that and bring Ogham to the wider attention it deserves.”

Professor David Stifter, Professor of Old Irish at Maynooth University, said: ‘The collaboration of a diverse and international team of epigraphers, archaeologists, linguists and philologists allows us to ask research questions that will contribute to a holistic picture of the history of the Ogham script. We hope to get a better understanding of its meaning as a cultural expression of Gaelic intellectual history way beyond the narrow group of Irish “orthodox inscriptions”.’

Despite its earlier origin, Ogham script stayed in use after the establishment of Christianity brought literacy in the form of Latin script written across a flat page. Despite the rapid dominance of this new way of writing, Ogham was never entirely abandoned. The post-7th century phases of the script have been little studied, but their geographical and functional diversity indicates Ogham retained and expanded its use, value, and appeal, particularly among lay people.

Previous assumptions that practical knowledge of the script had entirely withered by the early modern period have been overturned by recent discoveries in medical manuscripts and other sources, including, astonishingly, a newly discovered 66-page Irish manuscript from 1849 in the National Library of Scotland which contains medical charms written entirely in Ogham.

Today the Ogham script has seen an explosion of popular interest including innovative artworks by Irish and Welsh artists, musical compositions, and in jewellery and tattoos. Project team members are regularly approached by individuals and businesses looking for advice on using Ogham: there’s a clear need for accurate and authentic information about the script which is accessible to a non-specialist audience and empowers them to adapt Ogham to contemporary needs.

As well as providing resources for scholars, the project will also support Ogham in contemporary use offering guidance for writing the script and using Ogham fonts.

It is hoped that it will help inspire new creative and artistic works which will keep Ogham relevant for the 21st century and digital age. This will include an exciting collaboration between Professor Forsyth and tattoo artists to produce an Ogham Tattoo Handbook for Bradan Press’s popular ‘Think before you ink’ series.


Ogham

Ogham is found from Kerry to Antrim in Ireland; Land’s End to Norfolk in England; Glamorgan to Anglesey in Wales; as well as Dumfries to Shetland, North Uist to Aberdeenshire in Scotland; and in the Isle of Man. It could scarcely be more widely distributed.

This extreme dispersal of inscriptions and the logistical challenges of visiting them, means few researchers have seen more than a small subset in person.

Using this new project’s database, a new comprehensive online edition of Ogham writing will give immediate access to the entire corpus, allowing for prolonged/repeated study and direct comparisons impossible in the field.

Digitising the multidisciplinary metadata will allow for greater searchability, analysis and visualisation of the archaeological, historical, epigraphical and linguistic data. The use of xml and open-source software will facilitate interoperability and re-use of the data, as well as making it easier to ensure long-term digital preservation.

This new Glasgow/Maynooth project will build on the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) Ogham in 3D project, which focused primarily on Ogham pillars in state care in the Republic of Ireland.

Featured image: Digital scanning of Ogham stone, Lugnagappul, Co. Kerry (Image: Nora White, with permission)


Provided by University of Glasgow

Neanderthals Painted The Andalusian Cave of Ardales Well (Archeology)

The origin and date of the appearance of prehistoric cave art continues to be debated. Among the sites discussed, the Spanish cave of Ardales where a stalagmitic flow is colored red in places: the coloring would date almost 65,000 years¹ but part of the scientific community had until then attributed it to a natural flow of iron oxide. This hypothesis has nevertheless just been swept away by the results of an international team involving a CNRS² researcher.. By analyzing samples of red residues collected on the stalagmite and comparing them with deposits rich in iron oxides present in the cave, the scientists concluded that ocher-based pigment was indeed applied to the stalagmites and especially that this pigment was probably brought into the cave from an outside source. This structure was therefore intentionally painted by Neanderthals (modern humans did not yet live on the European continent at that time).

In addition, variations in composition between the various samples of paint taken, corresponding to chronological differences, sometimes of several thousand years were noted: many generations of Neanderthals would therefore have visited the cave and marked with red ocher the draperies of this great stalagmitic flow. This testifies to an interest in returning to the cave and symbolically marking a place, as well as a transmission of this tradition between generations. This work is published in PNAS on August 2, 2021.

Notes

  1. By way of comparison, the oldest paintings in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave are dated to around -37,000 years old, and those in the Lascaux cave to -21,000 years old.
  2. Working at the laboratories “From Prehistory to the Present: Culture, Environment and Anthropology” (CNRS / University of Bordeaux / Ministry of Culture). The project was funded by the Labex Archaeological Sciences of Bordeaux, the large Human Past research project and the Talents program of the University of Bordeaux.

Featured image: Stalagmitic flow in the Sala de las Estrellas of the Ardales cave (Malaga, Andalusia) with the traces of red pigment analyzed in the article.
© Joao Zilhao , ICREA


Bibliography

The symbolic role of the underground world among Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthals. Africa Pitarch Martí, João Zilhão, Francesco d’Errico, Pedro Cantalejo-Duarte, Salvador Domínguez-Bella, Josep M. Fullola, Gerd C. Weniger and José Ramos-Muñoz. PNAS , August 2, 2021. https://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.2021495118


Provided by CNRS

Mathematician Reveals World’s Oldest Example Of Applied Geometry (Archeology / Maths)


A UNSW mathematician has revealed the origins of applied geometry on a 3700-year-old clay tablet that has been hiding in plain sight in a museum in Istanbul for over a century.

The tablet – known as Si.427 – was discovered in the late 19th century in what is now central Iraq, but its significance was unknown until the UNSW scientist’s detective work was revealed today.

Most excitingly, Si.427 is thought to be the oldest known example of applied geometry – and in the study released today in the Foundations of Science, the research also reveals a compelling human story of land surveying.

“Si.427 dates from the Old Babylonian (OB) period – 1900 to 1600 BCE,” says lead researcher Dr Daniel Mansfield from UNSW Science’s School of Mathematics and Statistics.

“It’s the only known example of a cadastral document from the OB period, which is a plan used by surveyors to define land boundaries. In this case, it tells us legal and geometric details about a field that’s split after some of it was sold off.”

This is a significant object because the surveyor uses what are now known as “Pythagorean triples” to make accurate right angles.

“The discovery and analysis of the tablet have important implications for the history of mathematics,” Dr Mansfield says. “For instance, this is over a thousand years before Pythagoras was born.”

Meet Si.427 

Close up of the back of Si.427  geometry clay highlighting characters that are currently unknown.

Si.427 is a hand tablet from 1900-1600 BC, created by an Old Babylonian surveyor. It’s made out of clay and the surveyor wrote on it with a stylus.

On the front, we see a diagram of a field.

The field is being split, and some of it is being sold.

That’s what the lines are for – they demarcate the boundaries of the different fields. The boundaries are really accurate – a lot more accurate than you’d expect for that time.

Si.427 is a hand tablet from 1900-1600 BC, created by an Old Babylonian surveyor. It’s made out of clay and the surveyor wrote on it with a stylus. Credit: Must credit UNSW Sydney

Our surveyor managed to be so precise by using Pythagorean triples – making the boundary lines he created truly perpendicular. In the simplest example of a Pythagorean triple, a triple has sides of 3, 4 and 5 – creating a perfect right angle.

On the back of the tablet we see text, written in cuneiform, one of the earliest systems of writing.

The text corresponds to the diagram on the front – describing things such as the size of the field.

At the bottom of the back of the tablet, we see large numbers – that’s the only thing we haven’t quite figured out.

Hot on the heels of another world-first find

In 2017, Dr Mansfield conjectured that another fascinating artefact from the same period, known as Plimpton 322, was a unique kind of trigonometric table.

“It is generally accepted that trigonometry – the branch of maths that is concerned with the study of triangles – was developed by the ancient Greeks studying the night sky in the second century BCE,” says Dr Mansfield.

“But the Babylonians developed their own ‘proto-trigonometry’ to solve problems measuring the ground, not the sky.”

The tablet revealed today is thought to have existed even before Plimpton 322 – in fact, surveying problems likely inspired Plimpton 322.

“There is a whole zoo of right triangles with different shapes. But only a very small handful can be used by Babylonian surveyors. Plimpton 322 is a systematic study of this zoo to discover the useful shapes,” says Dr Mansfield.

Tablet purpose revealed: surveying land

Back in 2017, the team speculated about the purpose of Plimpton 322, hypothesizing that it was likely to have had some practical purpose, possibly in the construction of palaces and temples, building canals or surveying of fields.

“With this new tablet, we can actually see for the first time why they were interested in geometry: to lay down precise land boundaries,” Dr Mansfield says.

“This is from a period where land is starting to become private – people started thinking about land in terms of ‘my land and your land’, wanting to establish a proper boundary to have positive neighbourly relationships. And this is what this tablet immediately says. It’s a field being split, and new boundaries are made.”

There are even clues hidden on other tablets from that time period about the stories behind these boundaries.

“Another tablet refers to a dispute between Sin-bel-apli – a prominent individual mentioned on many tablets including Si.427 – and a wealthy female landowner,” says Dr Mansfield.

Dr Mansfield sits in a museum room proudly holding tablet Si.427 in white-gloved hands
Dr Mansfield at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul
Dr Mansfield walks past a very old stone wall on a cobblestone street
Dr Mansfield near the Archaeological Museum, Istanbul
Dr Mansfield's gloved hands hold the disc-shaped tablet, about 20cm across, which is cracked and has markings on the flat sides
Dr Mansfield examining Si.427 at the Archaelogical Museum in Istanbul

“The dispute is over valuable date palms on the border between their two properties. The local administrator agrees to send out a surveyor to resolve the dispute. It is easy to see how accuracy was important in resolving disputes between such powerful individuals.”

Dr Mansfield says the way these boundaries are made reveals real geometric understanding.

“Nobody expected that the Babylonians were using Pythagorean triples in this way,” Dr Mansfield says. “It is more akin to pure mathematics, inspired by the practical problems of the time.” 

Front and side views of old Babylonian (ca. 1900-1600 BC) geometric tablet
2000 BC – We’re about to embark on what’s called the Old Babylonian period. People don’t have an understanding of perpendicular lines yet – they are just gauging with their hands what would make a rough right angle.
Close up of Si.427  geometry clay tablet characters.
1900-1600 BC “Old Babylonian” times – Tablet Si.427 is created.
Plimpton 322 tablet.
1900-1600 BC “Old Babylonian” times – Plimpton 322 is created. We’re entering a golden age: land becomes private, and boundaries are becoming precise – thanks to applied geometry.
Landscape of Greco-Roman world through Post-Classical History
300 BC-1800 – We move through history: from the Greco-Roman world through Post-Classical History, the Middle Ages, and eventually Modern History… During all this time, the tablet stays buried.
Imperial Museum of Constantinople with horse and cart at the front of the building.
1894 – Si.427 is discovered. It is taken to what was then the Imperial Museum of Constantinople.
Dr Mansfield holding Si.427.
2021 – UNSW scientists discover the significance of Si.427.

Creating right angles – easier said than done

One simple way to make an accurate right angle is to make a rectangle with sides 3 and 4, and diagonal 5. These special numbers form the 3-4-5 “Pythagorean triple” and a rectangle with these measurements has mathematically perfect right angles. This is important to ancient surveyors and still used today.

“The ancient surveyors who made Si.427 did something even better: they used a variety of different Pythagorean triples, both as rectangles and right triangles, to construct accurate right angles,” Dr Mansfield says.

However, it is difficult to work with prime numbers bigger than 5 in the base 60 Babylonian number system.

“This raises a very particular issue – their unique base 60 number system means that only some Pythagorean shapes can be used,” Dr Mansfield says.

“It seems that the author of Plimpton 322 went through all these Pythagorean shapes to find these useful ones.

“This deep and highly numerical understanding of the practical use of rectangles earns the name ‘proto-trigonometry’ but it is completely different to our modern trigonometry involving sin, cos, and tan.”

Hunting down Si.427

Dr Mansfield first learned about Si.427 when reading about it in excavation records – the tablet was dug up during the Sippar expedition of 1894, in what’s the Baghdad province in Iraq today.

“It was a real challenge to trace the tablet from these records and physically find it – the report said that the tablet had gone to the Imperial Museum of Constantinople, a place that obviously doesn’t exist anymore.

“Using that piece of information, I went on a quest to track it down, speaking to many people at Turkish government ministries and museums, until one day in mid 2018 a photo of Si.427 finally landed in my inbox.

“That’s when I learned that it was actually on display at the museum. Even after locating the object it still took months to fully understand just how significant it is, and so it’s really satisfying to finally be able to share that story.”

Next, Dr Mansfield hopes to find what other applications the Babylonians had for their proto-trigonometry.

There’s just one mystery left that Dr Mansfield hasn’t unlocked: on the back of the tablet, at the very bottom, it lists the numbers ‘25,29’ in big font – think of it as 25 minutes and 29 seconds.

 “I can’t figure out what these numbers mean – it’s an absolute enigma. I’m keen to discuss any leads with historians or mathematicians who might have a hunch as to what these numbers trying to tell us!”   

All images credit: UNSW


Reference: Daniel F. Mansfield, Plimpton 322: A Study of Rectangles, Foundations of Science (2021). DOI: 10.1007/s10699-021-09806-0


Provided by UNSW

Thomas Cromwell’s Tudor London Mansion Revealed in Unprecedented Detail (Archeology)

New insights come on anniversary of Cromwell’s death and ahead of the final part of the ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy which hits West End later this year.

The magnificent London mansion of Thomas Cromwell has been revealed for the first time in an artist’s impression, following a new study which examines the building in unprecedented detail.

Dr Nick Holder, a historian and research fellow at English Heritage and the University of Exeter, has scrutinized an exceptionally rich source of information, including letters, leases, surveys and inventories, to present the most thorough insight to-date on “one of the most spectacular private houses” in 1530s London.

Published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the British Archaeological Association, his findings* – which have informed the artist’s impression created by illustrator Peter Urmston – include floor plans for the mansion, which had 58 rooms plus servants’ garrets, and a large garden.

The plans have been released before but the evidence behind them hasn’t been presented until now.

Together with an accompanying room-by-room analysis of another of Cromwell’s London homes, it provides a fascinating new insight into the life and personality of a man who was one of the architects of the English Reformation and helped engineer the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, allowing him to marry Anne Boleyn.

Cromwell, who as Henry VIII’s henchman was the most powerful man in England, still captures the public imagination – and inspires novels, including Hilary Mantel’s award-winning Wolf Hall series, plays and TV series – today, almost 500 years after his death.

The mansion, next to the Austin Friars monastery in the City of London, cost Cromwell at least £1,600 to build, including around £550 on the land.

Cromwell had lived in Italy and spoke Italian and it is “very likely” the architecture contained fashionable new Italian Renaissance features, says Dr Holder.

Construction began in July 1535 and, like many building projects, there were hitches, including a delay in October the following year when the 80-strong team of workmen was sent to Yorkshire to fight the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising.

Cromwell also seems to have undertaken a “land grab”, confiscating a 22-foot strip of land to enlarge his garden, which may have had a bowling alley and tennis court.

The mansion, which boasted bedding made cloth of gold, damask and velvet, acted as a family home, an administrative base and a venue for entertainment. It may even have been designed in the anticipation, or perhaps fear, of a visit from the king.

Prestigious visitors would have been guided up the large stair tower to one of the sumptuous first-floor halls, the parlor or the ladies’ parlor. The heated halls were decorated with tapestry hangings and one had three distinctive oriel (bay) windows.

The mansion was also a store for Cromwell’s personal armouy – in reality enough for a small army. This included several hundred sets of “almayne revettes” (German plate armor for infantry), nearly 100 sallets and bascinets (head-pieces and helmets) and weaponry including 759 bows, complete with hundreds of sheaves of arrows.

Cromwell would, however, have had little time to enjoy his spectacular new home before he was executed for treason in 1540.

He had moved to the mansion from a 14-room neighboring townhouse, for which he probably paid £4 a year in rent. Documents, including two inventories from Cromwell’s tenancy, provide a room-by-room description of this home and its contents, which included 28 rings, three of which Cromwell was wearing at the time of the inventory. They also give an intriguing glimpse into his religious outlook.

Dr Holder says: “We think of Cromwell as Henry VIII’s henchman, carrying out his policy, including closing down the monasteries, and we know that by about 1530 Cromwell became one of the new Evangelical Protestants.

“But when you look at the inventory of his house in the 1520s, he doesn’t seem such a religious radical, he seems more of a traditional English Catholic.

“He’s got various religious paintings on the wall, he’s got his own holy relic, which is very much associated with traditional Catholics, not with the new Evangelicals, and he’s even got a home altar. In the 1520s he seems like much more of a conventional early Tudor Catholic gentleman.”

The coats of arms of his patron Cardinal Wolsey and former patron, Thomas Grey, which were on display in the townhouse, meanwhile, reveal a sense of loyalty beneath Cromwell’s ruthless exterior, says Dr Holder.

The exceptionally detailed analysis was made possible thanks to a “treasure trove” of documents held in the archives of the Drapers’ Company, the trade group that bought Cromwell’s mansion after his death.

Dr Holder adds: “These two houses were the homes of this great man, they were the places where he lived with his wife and two daughters, where his son grew up. It was also the place he went back to at night after being with Henry VIII at court and just got on with the hard graft of running the country.

“No one else has looked at these two houses in quite as much detail comparing all the available evidence. This is about as close as you are going to get to walking down these 16th-century corridors.”

*https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00681288.2021.1923812

Featured image: Artist conception of the Cromwell home. Peter Urmston


Provided by Taylor & Francis Group 

Roman Road Discovered In The Venice Lagoon (Archeology)

The discovery of a Roman road submerged in the Venice Lagoon is reported in Scientific Reports this week. The findings suggest that extensive settlements may have been present in the Venice Lagoon centuries before the founding of Venice began in the fifth century.

During the Roman era, large areas of the Venice Lagoon which are now submerged were accessible by land. Roman artifacts have been found in lagoon islands and waterways, but the extent of human occupation of the lagoon during Roman times has been unclear.

Mapping the lagoon floor using sonar, Fantina Madricardo and colleagues discovered 12 archaeological structures aligned in a northeasterly direction for 1,140 meters, in an area of the lagoon known as the Treporti Channel. The structures were up to 2.7 meters tall and 52.7 meters long. Previous surveys of the Treporti Channel uncovered stones similar to paving stones used by Romans during road construction, indicating that the structures may be aligned along a Roman road. The researchers also discovered an additional four structures in the Treporti Channel that were up to four meters tall and 134.8 meters long. Based on its dimensions and similarity to structures discovered in other areas, the largest of these structures is thought to be a potential harbor structure, such as a dock. Previously collected geological and modeling data indicates that the road is located on a sandy ridge that was above sea level during the Roman era but is now submerged in the lagoon.

The findings suggest that a permanent settlement may have been present in the Treporti Channel during the Roman era. The authors propose that the road may have been linked to a wider network of Roman roads in the Italian Veneto Region and may have been used by travelers and sailors to journey between what is now the city of Chioggia and the Northern Venice Lagoon.

Archaeology: Roman road discovered in the Venice lagoon
High resolution bathymetry of the Treporti Channel (The numbers 1 to 12 indicate the alignment of structures. The letters a to d identify other structures found in the area. The zoom-in pictures show the detail of some of the archaeological structures: the sites 3, 8-9 and 10 (bottom-right) and the structure a (top-left), with the profiles I-II and III-IV, that could possibly be possibly part of a harbour structure. The lower part of the picture represents the bathymetric profile extracted along all identified structures (white dashed line). Credit: Federica Foglini.

Featured image: (Left) the reconstruction of the Roman Road in the Treporti Channel in the Venice Lagoon made on the basis of the multibeam data. Credit: Antonio Calandriello and Giuseppe D’Acunto. (Right) the same area now submerged. Credit: Fantina Madricardo.


Reference: Madricardo, F., Bassani, M., D’Acunto, G. et al. New evidence of a Roman road in the Venice Lagoon (Italy) based on high resolution seafloor reconstruction. Sci Rep 11, 13985 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-92939-w


Provided by Nature Publishing Group

Why Weren’t New World Rabbits Domesticated? (Archeology)

Archaeologists find the answer in rabbit social behavior

Domesticated rabbits come in all sizes and colors, including tiny Netherland Dwarfs, floppy-eared French lops, Flemish Giants, and fluffy Angoras. 

These breeds belong to Europe’s only rabbit species, originally limited to the Iberian Peninsula and Southern France and used for meat and fur since the last Ice Age, culminating in domestication about 1,500 years ago. 

The Americas, on the other hand, have many rabbit species with ranges throughout both continents. The archaeological record shows rabbits were used as extensively in the Americas as they were on the Iberian Peninsula, with clear archaeological evidence that rabbits were being deliberately raised. Why, then, were rabbits domesticated in Europe and not the Americas?

Nawa Sugiyama
Nawa Sugiyama © UCR

Recent work by archaeologists Andrew Somerville of Iowa State University and UC Riverside’s Nawa Sugiyama found a simple answer: European rabbits live readily in large social groups while American cottontail rabbits do not. The less social nature of American cottontails combined with greater species diversity created a situation where rabbit husbandry did not lead to domestication. 

Sugiyama looked to Teotihuacan, a major city in Mexico about 2,000 years ago, where cottontail rabbits comprised 23% of the animal remains during the Classic period. This was more than any other animal used for meat, including wild deer, as well as domesticated turkeys and dogs. The proportion of rabbit bones increased toward the city center, suggesting they were probably being raised, not hunted. 

Rabbit bones found in the stomach contents of an eagle sacrificed at the Sun Pyramid in Teotihuacan
The bones of two rabbits found in the stomach contents of an eagle sacrificed at the Sun Pyramid in Teotihuacan, Mexico. (Nawa Sugiyama)

Rabbits were buried at the Sun and Moon Pyramids and are found in the stomach contents of sacrificial carnivores, such as eagles and pumas. Rabbit bones found in the carnivore stomachs contain a type of carbon that indicates a diet unusually rich in corn or cactus, suggesting human-raised rabbits had, in turn, been fed to the carnivores. 

“The rabbits were probably fed corn, but the carbon isotopes don’t distinguish between corn and cactus, so we can’t say for certain,” Sugiyama said.

Moreover, 46% of the animal bones excavated in one apartment compound were from rabbits that had been fed a similar diet of agricultural crops, and the amount of phosphate in the floor of one room indicates a location where rabbits urinated and were probably housed. A stone statue of a rabbit was also found in the complex’s central plaza, reinforcing the importance of rabbit husbandry to the residents. 

A thousand years later, the 16th century Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez described the sale of rabbits at the Aztec marketplace of Tlateloco. Over at least a millennia of husbandry and extensive use for food, fur, and ritual, however, the rabbits of Mexico did not become domesticated — a mutualistic, multigenerational relationship characterized by human-controlled reproduction.

To understand why, Somerville compared the behavioral ecology of European rabbits and American cottontails against criteria that “prime” or preadapt animals for domestication. Animals that have been domesticated usually live in groups with resident males. They also have young that imprint easily and require parental care, a promiscuous mating system, tolerance for a wide variety of environments, and low reactivity to humans. 

European and American rabbits were similar across all criteria except social behavior. European rabbits live in underground family burrows, called warrens, of up to 20 individuals that include males, who defend their breeding territory from other males. Warrens made it easy for people to locate and manage wild rabbit populations, then mimic those conditions in captivity, where rabbits readily reproduced.

American cottontails, on the other hand, are solitary, live entirely above ground, and tend to fight in enclosures together. Males do not defend a breeding territory and pursue more opportunistic mating strategies. 

Somerville and Sugiyama conclude that their solitary nature, tendency to fight in enclosures, dispersed territories, and less predictable mating systems made it possible to raise rabbits without forming the kind of mutual relationship that would eventually give humans enough control over a species to direct its evolution. Greater species diversity also made it less likely that any one of them would become domesticated.

The open-access paper, “Why were New World rabbits not domesticated?” is published in Animal Frontiers and available here.

Header photo: An Eastern Cottontail rabbit. (Peter Broster on Wikimedia Commons)


Reference: Andrew D Somerville, Nawa Sugiyama, Why were New World rabbits not domesticated?, Animal Frontiers, Volume 11, Issue 3, May 2021, Pages 62–68, https://doi.org/10.1093/af/vfab026


Provided by UCR