Monday, February 4, 2019

Must Farm – Post Excavation

Various pots during the pottery re-fitting exercise
Photo: (c) Must Farm Website

In an earlier blog post I wrote about the Must Farm settlement in Cambridgeshire, England, which is one of the most complete Late Bronze Age examples known in Britain. The settlement consists of five circular wooden houses, built on a series of piles sunk into a river channel below and seems to have been built around 1300 – 1000 BC. The houses were subsequently destroyed by fire.
Specialist Analyses
The months of excavation work have now been followed by a series of detailed scientific investigations exploring the Must Farm settlement in much finer detail. The results of this post excavation analysis so far are detailed on the Must Farm website. Almost 50 specialists are currently working on investigating 37 different aspects of the settlement focusing on its material, environmental samples and dating the site scientifically. It is during this wide-ranging specialist investigation that theories and interpretations developed during the excavation can be tested or expanded.
Selection of socketed axes
Photo: (c) Must Farm Website

The excavations at the Must Farm site revealed a varied accumulation of artefacts consisting of metalwork, textiles, animal bone, pottery and much more. Many of the objects were found in remarkable condition while others were fragmented especially the large collections of pottery and animal bone.
At Must Farm the preservation of the material left behind is excellent because of the ideal combination of charring and waterlogging. Textiles, wooden objects and environmental evidence are among the finest examples from the Late Bronze Age found in Britain.
Late Bronze Age socketed axe complete with handle
Photo: (c) Must Farm Website
Wooden Objects
Must Farm has yielded an abundance of wooden objects and implements, many of which have rarely, if ever, been seen in a Late Bronze Age site. Over the 10 months of the Must Farm excavation, archaeologists recorded over 5,000 pieces of wood ranging from woodchips to huge oak timbers.
Residue of food in one of the Must Farm
Photo: (c) Must Farm Website
One of the most widely reported finds from the Must Farm settlement has been the survival of food remnants inside many of the pots. The fire which destroyed the structures helped these organic materials to survive in a very charred form. This raises the tantalising possibility that archaeologists will be able to find out what meals were being prepared at the time of the blaze.
During excavation of the occupation deposits from the interiors of the collapsed building archaeologists recovered the shattered remains of a flint quern. The flint had been heated to a high temperature inside one of the structures during the large fire which destroyed the settlement. When the floor collapsed and the heated quern hit the water, it shattered.
The flint quern-stone has an exceptionally flat surface unlike many prehistoric examples. Characteristically, when a stone quern is used for grinding, the surface develops a prominent indentation from constant rubbing with the hand-stone. One possible explanation is that the quern was new and simply had not been used enough to develop a depression. This interpretation would support the theory that the settlement had not been lived-in for long before being destroyed by the fire.
Socketed bronze axe
Photo: (c) Must Farm Website
The Must Farm site also produced a large collection of metal tools and weapons for specialists to study. The different types of axe all date to roughly the same period during the Late Bronze Age. Many of these axes are incredibly well used and have been sharpened many times. This wear on the blades is likely to have been due to the construction of the settlement, which would have required extensive cutting and shaping of hundreds of timbers.
Environmental Conditions
The buildings at Must Farm were built on stilts, situated above a river channel, before being destroyed by an intense fire. Archaeologists noted patterns amongst the material that suggested a strong association between objects and their original positions within the Must Farm buildings.
Initial environmental evidence suggests that the river channel was shallow and slow moving, supporting the initial view of archaeologists that the material at the base of the river channel had not travelled far from where it would have fallen. Analysis of pollen data and plant remains, for example, has provided a more detailed understanding of the river channel. While it was suspected that the river was sluggish and shallow, the environmental data suggests that at times it may have been almost dry.
The study of plant remains, and related evidence indicates that the river channel had dense reeds along its course and, importantly, underneath the structures. Archaeologists suspect that the reeds created a “hairbrush” effect, catching artefacts and debris as the structures burned and their floors collapsed.  This had the effect of slowing the material as it was deposited into the channel. Artefacts simply dropped directly below the stilted buildings, thereby, reflecting their original position inside the structures.
Image showing palisade posts
Photo: (c) Must Farm Website
Footprints from the Past
During the excavation archaeologists revealed preserved footprints surrounding the palisade. It seems very likely that these groups of footprints were the result of people involved in the construction of the palisade during a time when the river was dry or shallow. Animal hoofprints are present alongside those of humans suggesting the presence of various species at the site during the construction. This amazing glimpse of a moment in the creation of the palisade over 3,000 years ago helps connect us to the people involved in the creation of the Must Farm dwellings.
Animal Bone
A range of different animals was recorded at the site including wild boar and red deer. The most prominent feature of the animal bone was a preference for wild meat rather than the domestic types typically associated with sites of this period in the Bronze Age. The inhabitants of Must Farm appear to have had definite preferences for certain joints of meat with red deer and boar forequarters present in several of the houses. Around the outside of each of the site’s structures is a “halo” of bone fragments that seem to reflect the waste of meal preparation.

The settlement at Must Farm has one of the most complete Bronze Age collections of artefacts ever discovered in Britain, giving us an unparalleled insight into the lives of the people who lived there 3,000 years ago. As archaeologists and various specialists examine the vast array of samples from this site, we can look forward in the coming years to learning much more about this fascinating and remarkable Late Bronze Age site and the Bronze Age generally.

For more information please see:

Saturday, January 26, 2019

St Brigid (450-525 AD) – Feast Day: 1st February

Saint Brigid as depicted in
Saint Non's chapel, St Davids, Wales
Who was St Brigid?
St Brigid was born in Faughart, north of Dundalk, Co Louth in Ireland, approximately 450 AD and was the founder of the first monastery in County Kildare. Her father was a pagan chieftain of Leinster named Dubthach and her mother was a Christian slave named Brocca. She is one of the Patron Saints of Ireland, together with St Patrick and St Colmcille. Probably the earliest biography, The Life of St Brigid, was written by Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare in the eighth century.

Dubthach’s wife insisted that he get rid of the slave girl. He sold Brigid’s mother to a poet but not the child in her womb for whom he was responsible. Later, the poet sold Brigid’s mother to a druid. As Brigid was filled with the Holy Spirit, she could not digest the druid’s ‘unclean’ food and

‘thereupon he chose a white cow and set it aside for the girl, and a certain Christian woman, a very God-fearing virgin, used to milk the cow and the girl used to drink the cow’s milk and not vomit it up as her stomach had been healed. Moreover, this Christian woman fostered the girl’.

When she was young, St Brigid wanted to join a convent. However, her father insisted that she marry a rich man to whom he had promised her hand. According to legend, Brigid prayed that her beauty be taken so no one would want to marry her and her prayer was granted. It was not until after she made her final vows that her beauty was restored. 

Brigid enlisted God’s help again to convince her father to give her land on which to build a convent. Her father agreed to give her as much land as her cloak could cover. It is said that the cloak grew to cover 2,000 acres of land! One of five ancient roads in Ireland that lead to Tara passed through Kildare.

According to tradition, around 480 AD Brigid founded a monastery at Kildare (Cill Dara: “church of the oak”), on the site of a pagan shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigit. Her monastery developed a reputation for hospitality, compassion and generosity. It was known as the ‘City of the Poor’. St Brigid worked with the sick, poor and outcast.
Saint Brigid's Cross 

St Brigid’s Rush Cross
On one occasion, St Brigid was sitting by the sick bed of a dying pagan chieftain comforting him with stories of her faith in God. She told him the story of Christ on the cross while at the same time picking up rushes from the ground to make a cross. Before he died, the chieftain asked to be baptised. People made similar crosses to hang over the door of their homes to scare off evil, fire and hunger. Word spread of St Brigid’s kindness and faith and the making of the cross from rushes that we know today became associated with her name.

It was said that St Brigid could miraculously milk her cows three times a day to provide a meal for visitors. According to the Celtic tradition, the guest was seen as Christ and hospitality was extended in that spirit.

Brigid invited a hermit called Conleth to help her in Kildare as a spiritual pastor. She later founded a school of art that included metalwork and illumination. It was at this school that the Book of Kildare, which Gerald of Wales praised as "the work of angelic, and not human skill," was beautifully illuminated. Sadly, this book was lost three centuries ago.
St Brigid's Cathedral

Brigid’s enduring legacy
St Brigid still lives on 1,500 years later in the minds and hearts of the people of Ireland. Brigid was extremely devout and a very strong leader. Her monastery grew and grew and people from all over Ireland came here, many of whom joined the monastery. St Patrick and St Brigid paved the way for Christianity in Ireland and later to Europe.

Hundreds of holy wells are dedicated to St Brigid in Ireland. More places names in Ireland are named after St Brigid than St Patrick himself. Place names such as Kilbride and The Hebrides are associated with Brigid.

St Brigid is associated with fertility on the land. Straw doll-like effigies of St Brigid known as Breedeag were used to bless homes.
St Brigid’s relevance today.
St Brigid appreciated the importance of the land, nature and the seasons. At a time when our planet is threatened by global warming and climate change, Brigid reminds us of the need to confront these challenges now. Today, we can learn from her example of compassion, kindness, generosity and hospitality, as the World deals with the consequences of poverty, war and population displacement.
On February 1st, 525, St Brigid died of natural causes. Her body was initially kept to the right of the high altar of Kildare Cathedral. In 1185, John de Courcy had her remains relocated in Down Cathedral. Today, Saint Brigid's skull can be found in the Church of St. John the Baptist in Lumiar, Portugal. The tomb in which it is kept bears the inscription,

"Here in these three tombs lie the three Irish knights who brought the head of St. Brigid, Virgin, a native of Ireland, whose relic is preserved in this chapel. In memory of which, the officials of the Altar of the same Saint caused this to be done in January AD 1283."

In 1905 Sister Mary Agnes of the Dundalk Convent of Mercy took a purported fragment of the skull to St Bridget's Church in Kilcurry. In 1928, Fathers Timothy Traynor and James McCarroll requested another fragment for St Brigid's Church in Killester, a request granted by the Bishop of Lisbon, António Mendes Belo.

Her feast day is 1 February, which was originally a pagan festival called Imbolc, marking the beginning of spring.

For further information please see:
Sacred Heart Messenger, February 2019 – article by John Scally

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Chinese Burial Pyramids – Aiming for the Stars

Mausoleum of Han-Yang near Xian

In an earlier blog post (June 2018) I wrote about China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors. The funerary complex of the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty (3th century BC) is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. A recent article featured on throws some light on the celestial orientation of this and other ancient Chinese Pyramids.
Chinese Terracotta Warriors
Photo: Clare Golden
In 246 BC, King Zhuangxiang died and Ying Zheng became King of the Qin at just 13 years of age. Immediately after the unification of China in 221 BC, Ying Zheng proclaimed himself Qin Shi Huang. Qin Shi Huang was fearful of death and searched for an elixir that would make him immortal. At the same time he commissioned the building of his mausoleum at the foot of Li Mountain, 35 kilometres from the modern city of Xi’an. He ordered the palace alchemists to make potions which contained mercury in the hope it would extend his life, little realising that mercury is poisonous.
Qin Shi Huang
In death, as in life, Qin Shi Huang had everything to continue his rule: a Terracotta Army to protect him; bronze chariots for travelling; terracotta acrobats for his entertainment; an arsenal storing stone armour, stables full of horse skeletons, and his concubines buried alive with him.
The unexcavated tomb of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, lies beneath a huge, artificial hill of rammed earth. This hill has a square shape measuring 350 meters at the base and is over 40 meters high.

Astronomy and Feng Shui of the Chinese Burials
A new study forming part of a wide-ranging program of research on the role of astronomy and of the traditional doctrine of feng shui in the Chinese imperial necropolises has recently been published.
Egyptian pyramids are oriented to the four main points of the compass - north, south, east, and west by virtue of the very strong bonds of the funerary religion of the Egyptian pharaohs with the sky and with the circumpolar stars. A star that can be viewed from specific latitude on Earth that is visible for an entire night and for every night of the year is called a circumpolar star.
Split Alignment
Chinese monuments can be classified according to two groups.  One such group contains monuments oriented to the cardinal points (N-S-E-W), as expected. In the second group there are important deviations from the true north, all of comparable direction, and all oriented to the west of north.
Chinese Terracotta Warriors with Horses
Photo: Clare Golden
Researchers believe that the emperors who built the pyramids of the second group did not want to point to the north celestial pole, which at the time did not correspond to any star. Instead, they wanted the pyramid to point to the star Polaris to which the pole would be pointed in the future.
Researchers point to a phenomenon known as the ‘precession of the earth's axis’, which slowly but constantly moves the position in the sky in which the earth's axis points, and therefore the celestial pole. The Chinese astronomers were almost certainly aware of this. The Earth's axis rotates (precesses) just as a spinning top does. The period of precession is about 26,000 years. Therefore, the North Celestial Pole will not always point towards the same starfield. Precession is caused by the gravitational pull of the Sun and the Moon on the Earth.
Today we are used to identifying the north celestial pole with Polaris or the North Star although the correspondence is not perfect. At the time of the Han emperors the pole was still far from Polaris, and with a distance in degrees approximately equal to the deviation of the Chinese pyramids from the geographic north.
Even though Polaris is the North Star today, this has not always been the case. The place in the sky that the Earth's north pole points at changes slowly over time. In 3000 BC, a faint star called Thuban in the constellation of Draco was the North Star and astronomers calculate that in about 13,000 years from now the precession of the rotation axis will mean that the bright star Vega will be the North Star.
Map of the Growth of Qin
The Qin Dynasty was short-lived. Within five years of the First Emperor’s death, peasant rebels had stormed Xianyang and one of the leaders, Liu Bang, had taken the throne and established the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220).
The Han Dynasty lasted for more than 400 years and rivalled the almost contemporary but smaller Roman Empire in the west. A census in AD 2 records almost 60 million people in the Chinese Empire.

For further information see:

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Gold Rings from Lough Gara, Co. Sligo

Lough Gara, Co. Sligo
In prehistoric Ireland highly skilled craftsmen used large quantities of gold to make single objects such as torcs, bracelets and dress-fasteners or very small amounts beaten into sheet for lunulae or foil to cover base metal rings. Many years of training, practice and experience would have been required to produce work of such quality.

Lough Gara-type Rings
Gold Ring ornaments (c) National Museum of Ireland
Mary Cahill, in her paper Prehistoric Gold from Co. Sligo (2013), describes a number of gold rings from Lough Gara, known as penannular rings. All but one of the rings are made of base metal covered with gold foil and are referred to as ’Lough Gara-type’ rings. Seventeen such rings are recorded from Ireland of which five are from Co. Sligo. These rings included three from the hoard found at Rathtinaun, Lough Gara, in 1954 and two from the townland of Annaghbeg or Monasteraden on the opposite side of the lake found in the 1960s.
The Annaghbeg Hoard
In 1988 the National Museum of Ireland was contacted by the Curator of the County Museum and Art Gallery, Truro, Cornwall. He had recently seen a small hoard consisting of a pottery vessel and two decorated gold foil-covered rings said to have been found either on the shore or close to the shore of Lough Gara.
After negotiations the hoard was acquired by the National Museum of Ireland and returned to Ireland. This hoard is a rare example of the discovery of prehistoric gold objects in a container and the only surviving example of the use of a ceramic vessel to contain gold or metal objects. It is also recorded that the Rathtinaun hoard was found in a wooden box with two upright wooden pegs beside it which may have been markers.
Mary Cahill describes the Annaghbeg ceramic vessel as:
 … a small coarse-ware pot with thick walls narrowing towards the rim, rounded in form and roughly U-shaped in profile but slightly waisted at the centre of the vessel. The vessel is undecorated. The outer fabric surface is buff coloured, smooth and slightly burnished but quite pitted, perhaps as a result of soil conditions since deposition. Internally the fabric varies from black to buff from base to rim. The base is slightly rounded.
Both foil-covered composite rings were made from a solid led core which is crescent shaped. Each ring is broadly U-shaped in cross-section. The rectangular strip of gold foil used to cover the ring had to be carefully fitted and stretched over the outer surface of the ring.
The rings are decorated with a simple pattern of lines and dots which have been lightly incised on the surface of the led core before wrapping the ring in the gold foil. Each face of the rings has been scored with a series of radial lines drawn across the surface. 
Very little gold was required to wrap the rings but considerable goldsmithing skills were essential to beat an ingot into an extremely thin foil and to complete the application of the foil cover. Both rings are the same size, weight and similarly decorated and were clearly intended to be a pair.

The Rathtinaun Hoard
Amber Necklace from Rathtinaun Hoard, Lough Gara, Co. Sligo
(c) National Museum of Ireland
Another gold ring was found during the excavation of Crannog 61, Rathtinaun, Lough Gara, by Joseph Raftery in 1954. It is a very small sold gold ring which narrows towards the terminals and is slightly thickened at the ends (Fig. 5). The ring is 1.3cm in maximum diameter and weighs just 5g.
A further three penannular rings in the Rathtinaun hoard are of the same type as those from Annaghbeg but with some important differences in terms of size, weight and the quality of craftsmanship. The Rathtinaun specimens show a much higher degree of workmanship. For example, the decoration on these rings is more complex and more skilfully executed. Two of the three rings from Rathtinaun form a pair and resemble the Annaghbeg rings closely in form.
The Rathtinaun hoard is rare because of the mixture of metals and organic material, the type of objects in the hoard and the exotic nature of some artefacts. It also includes objects made of tin which is very rarely used on its own as a metal, boars’ tusks, amber beads and an unusual bronze pin.

Bronze Age and Iron Age Gold
Gold Lunula from Coggalbeg Hoard - Early Bronze Age
(c) National Museum of Ireland

It remains unclear why lead was used in the making of these rings. Lead has been in use since the Middle Bronze Age as an additive to the usual copper/tin alloy, bronze, because it improves the ductility of the metal. Like tin, lead was rarely used on its own.
Although these objects are small, they are very heavy because their cores are made from lead. From the seventeen examples known to date, eight form matching pair being of similar size, weight and decorative style. It is possible that these rings are ear ornaments or ear weights. These items might also have been used as hair rings but when used as a pendant form of ear ornament the rings would be seen to their best advantage. The single rings may not have been used in pairs raising the possibility of their use as nose ornaments.
 Scholars have noted the difference between gold used in the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Consequently, at least sixty items of goldwork from Late Bronze Age have been reassigned to the Iron Age period. Mary Cahill states:
During the Bronze Age the amount of silver present varies but is never greater than 15% whereas during the Iron Age the silver content is much higher and can be as high as 25% to 30%.
 A resurgent gold-working tradition can be seen in the Iron Age when, for example, ribbon torcs were produced in significant quantities. Ribbon torcs have been recorded mainly from counties in the northern half of Ireland – Antrim, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo – although some have been recorded in other counties also. They date mainly from the third century BC to the 2nd Century AD.
Given the quantity and range of artefacts from Lough Gara it is hardly surprising to find evidence of goldworking.

Based on an article by Mary Cahill Prehistoric Gold from Co. Sligo in ‘Dedicated to Sligo: Thirty-four Essays on Sligo’s Past’. Editor: Martin A Timoney (2013)
For more information see:

Saturday, October 27, 2018

World’s Oldest Intact Shipwreck Found

The ship was surveyed and digitally mapped by two remote underwater vehicles
Photo: Black Sea MAP/EEF Expeditions
In an earlier post, I wrote about Ireland’s 450 log boats including examples from Lough Gara on the Co. Sligo/Roscommon border and Lough Corrib, Co. Galway. They were an everyday means of conveyance as well as acting as ferries to cross unbridged rivers. A logboat discovered on the foreshore of Greyabbey Bay, Strangford Lough (Co. Down) points to the existence of seafaring logboats in the Neolithic period.

Recently, the oldest Intact Shipwreck in the World has been found in the depths of the Black Sea. It is a Greek merchant ship which met its fate on the Black Sea floor 2,400 years ago. The vessel, measuring 23 m (75ft.) still has its rudder, rowing benches, and the contents of the hold. The wreck was discovered more than 80 km (49.1 miles) off the Bulgarian city of Burgas.

Following three years of highly-advanced technological mapping of the Black Sea floor, an international team of scientists, led by experts from the University of Southampton, have confirmed that a shipwreck has been radiocarbon dated back to 400BC.

The Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (MAP) team is under the leadership of the University of Southampton and Professor Jon Adams, Professor Lyudmil Vagalinsky of the National Institute of Archaeology with Museum of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and Dr. Kalin Dimitrov of the Centre of Underwater Archaeology in Sozopol, Bulgaria.

“A ship, surviving intact, from the Classical world, lying in over 2km of water, is something I would never have believed possible,” said University of Southampton Professor Jon Adams, the Black Sea MAP’s principal investigator. “This will change our understanding of shipbuilding and seafaring in the ancient world.”

Map of Black Sea
             Photo: Flickr
Using the latest technology, the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project (Black Sea MAP) surveyed over 2000 square kilometres of seabed. During the life of the project over 60 shipwrecks, including a 17th century Cossack raiding fleet, Roman trading vessels and the complete ship from the Greek Classical period, were recorded.

The ship lies at a depth of over 2 kilometres where the water is anoxic (oxygen free), which can preserve organic material for thousands of years.  A small piece of the vessel has been carbon dated and has now been confirmed as the oldest intact shipwreck known to mankind.

The international team of maritime archaeologists, scientists and marine surveyors has been on a three-year mission to explore the depths of the Black Sea to investigate the impact of prehistoric sea-level changes. The researchers were astonished to find the merchant vessel closely resembled in design a ship that decorated ancient Greek wine vases.

Lying more than 2,000m below the surface, it is also beyond the reach of modern divers. The vessel was one of many trading between the Mediterranean and Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast. The team used two underwater robotic explorers to map out a 3-D image of the ship and took a sample to carbon-date its age.
The Anglo-Bulgarian team believe the Black Sea wreck dates back to the Fourth Century BC, perhaps 100 years after the Siren Vase was painted
Photo: Werner Forman/Getty Images
The vessel is similar in style to that depicted by the so-called Siren Painter on the Siren Vase in the British Museum. Dating back to around 480 BC, the vase shows Odysseus strapped to the mast as his ship sails past three mythical sea nymphs whose tune was thought to drive sailors to their deaths.
The Black Sea has only a narrow connection to the Mediterranean Sea, so it drains poorly. It is fed by freshwater from the surrounding land, which floats on top of the saltier water closer to the bottom. This salty layer is extremely low in oxygen, which keeps wood-eating microbes away from shipwrecks on the seafloor.

The main goal of the Black Sea MAP is to understand changes that have occurred since the last ice age, when the sea was much lower. The area has been a hub of civilization, making the shipwrecks at the bottom important archaeological sites, revealing who used the sea for commerce and how they built their vessels.

Like the ancient Irish logboats, these vessels plied the Black Sea with their cargo, eventually, becoming valuable time capsules of a long-forgotten marine past.

For further information please see:

Friday, September 28, 2018

New Henge Appears Near Newgrange

Crop marks caused by warm weather have revealed a buried henge monument in a field to the south of Newgrange.
Credit: Anthony Murphy and Ken Williams/Ireland National Monuments Service

This year’s exceptionally hot summer has proved to be something of a bonus for archaeologists in Ireland and the Britain. In Ireland, the heatwave dried the land of the Boyne Valley revealing the shadows of previously unknown circular enclosures. Indeed, the National Monuments Service has been dealing with a large volume of reports of hidden structures from around the country.
Anthony Murphy of Mythical Ireland and Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone, using drones, photographed previously unrecorded features in the fields near Newgrange. One of the images appears to be a large henge. A henge is a circular monument which would originally have been composed of uprights made of wood or stone. For our prehistoric ancestors, henges are believed to have had a religious significance.
Several types of ritual enclosure, ranging in date from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, are to be found in Ireland. Over fifty henges have been recorded and classified into three forms, termed embanked enclosures (71%), internally ditched henges (23%) and variant henge forms (7%).
In Ireland there are about eleven concentrations of henges. One of these concentrations, consisting of three henges, has been identified just south of the Boyle River. Towards the end of the Neolithic Period there is evidence in the form of henges for larger gathering.  There is typically little, if any, evidence of occupation in a henge, although they may contain ritual structures such as stone and timber circles. Several henges are located within 2km of passage tombs.
While the predominant form of henge in Britain has internally ditched banks, the majority of earthen embanked henges in Ireland have no obvious ditch on the inside of the bank. They occur mainly in the eastern part of the country and in counties Sligo, Roscommon, Clare and Limerick. The Boyne region features a notable concentration of henges. Almost half of the total number of henges recorded in Ireland are concentrated in County Meath. The monuments are mostly located along the Boyne.
Newgrange Passage tomb, County Meath
Murphy and Williams notified the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht of their discovery. The National Monuments Service carried out its own aerial reconnaissance of the Brú na Bóinne site. The henge is believed to have been built some 500 years after Newgrange, which dates from 3,200 BC, making it older than the Great Wall of China, the Great Egyptian Pyramid of Gizza and Stonehenge in Britain.
Archaeologist Dr Geraldine Stout states:
“I believe Newgrange is just the centre of a much larger sacred landscape and I think there was a whole series of facilities built for the pilgrims coming to Newgrange in prehistory. Generally, we believe these henge monuments were built up to 500 years after the main use of Newgrange and in a lot of cases they actually enclose the area of monuments.”
The enclosure is estimated to have a diameter of about 200 meters. ‘Dronehenge’, as it is referred to in Archaeology Ireland, encompasses two concentric rings of post-holes, surrounding an inner enclosure formed by a series of segmented ditches.
Over the centuries, the settlements disappear and farming takes place
Photo: Courtesy BBC News
BBC News report on the increase in the appearance of “crop marks” in Wales provides more information on how this works and some more examples of sites which have appeared across Wales. Archaeologist Louise Barker of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales explains,
“It’s like a painting that comes out into the fieldscapes. We’re seeing new things with all of these cropmarks; we probably haven’t seen anything like this since the 1970s, the last time there was a really, really dry summer like this.” (BBC News Report)
It has been suggested that these sites would have been above-ground structures which fell into a state of disrepair over centuries and were eventually buried beneath the soil.
When the land dries out in the prolonged heat, the old fortifications retain moisture, so crops are more visible
Photo: Courtesy BBC News
Most ancient settlements added fortification or drainage ditches around them. Today, traces of these structures appear as darker green areas due to their retention of more nutrients and moisture than the surrounding ground. The crop marks are made by vegetation drawing on the better nutrients and water supplies trapped in long-gone fortification ditches - leading to lush green growth that stands out.
Archaeologists and volunteers at work on the excavation trench near the Newgrange passage tomb. The mound of the tomb is behind the trees on the skyline.
Credit: Matthew and Geraldine Stout
Recently, archaeologists in Ireland also discovered a new 5,500-year-old passage tomb at Dowth Hall, close to centre of the Brú na Bóinne, which is being called "the most significant megalithic find in Ireland in the last 50 years". The new passage tomb contains rock art is c 40m in diameter, approximately half the size of Newgrange. To date, two burial chambers have been discovered within the western part of the of the main passage tomb, over which a large stone cairn was raised.
The six kerbstones identified so far formed part of a ring of stones that followed the cairn perimeter. One of the kerbstones is heavily decorated with Neolithic carvings and is one of the most impressive discoveries of megalithic art in Ireland for decades. Archaeologists believe that the people who built this ancient resting place were likely to be descendants of Ireland’s first farmers.
An unusually high number of henges and ancient sites have been found over the decades along the River Boyne. Together, they make up the Brú na Bóinne UNESCO World Heritage site. Murphy and Williams have added to the record of such monuments and continue to discover new examples with their drones, including a possible barrow cemetery.
For further information please see:

Monday, July 23, 2018

Earliest Evidence of Our Human Ancestors Outside of Africa Found

Artifact excavated from a layer that is 2.1 million years old. The artifact here is a stone from which three flakes were removed.
Credit: Zhaoyu Zhu
In earlier posts I have looked at the origin and spread of modern humans. New discoveries have led to the reappraisal of migration dates and routes as well as a greater understanding of our early ancestors. Undoubtedly, this picture will continue to change and it is difficult keeping pace with the latest thinking on the subject.
A recent article on the website ‘Live Science’ reported that researchers in China had excavated stone tools that were likely made by our human ancestors some 2.12 million years ago. This is the earliest evidence found so far of our human ancestors outside of Africa.
Archaeologists from China and the United Kingdom discovered dozens of quartz and quartzite stones at Shangchen, China, on what is known as the Loess Plateau. The site contains several layers of loess, which is fine, windblown sediment dating from 1.26 million to 2.12 million years ago.
Hominins, which may have originated in Africa up to 6 million years ago, include all the species that emerged after the Homo genus, split from that of chimpanzees. Until now, the earliest evidence of hominins outside of Africa came from a skeleton and artefacts linked to Homo erectus and dating to 1.85 million years ago found in the Republic of Georgia, in 2000. Humans and chimpanzees are very closely related and separated about 7.4 million years ago.  There is only a 1% difference between the chimpanzee genome and our own suggesting that we have a common ancestor.
Among the artefacts excavated was a stone, from which three flakes were removed, found in a layer that is 2.1 million years old. Paleoanthropologists are excited about the finds because you don't often find artefacts in their original context. Researchers noticed how the flaking of the stones was repeated to create lines in various directions.
Robin Dennell, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Exeter, pointing out that the Loess Plateau is a stone-free landscape, states:
"There are no natural processes that could have flaked these items, so you know that any flaked object could only have been flaked by an early human."

The presence of these stone tools suggests that human ancestors left Arica roughly 10,000 generations earlier than previously thought. However, experts don’t know for sure what species of hominin made the tools. It is possible that these ancient stone tools were made by Homo erectus, but they could have been made by an even earlier ancestor.

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