Every archaeological discovery adds a little more to our understanding of the ancient world. Whether it’s a 31,000-year-old lost leg or partially fossilized poop, the work of archaeologists is fascinating and always full of surprises.
Some archaeologists dig in the past, but others use their skills to sift through present-day garbage to learn about what we consume, discard, and waste. This roundup of archaeology news includes a golden lost city, an ancient rat infestation, and more.
A 31,000-Year-Old Leg Amputation
It’s not uncommon for archaeology news digs to turn up skeletons missing parts of their bodies. But a new find in Indonesian Borneo has researchers particularly excited: It’s the oldest known evidence of surgical amputation, Newsweek reports. The skeleton belonged to a young person who had part of their lower left leg skillfully removed as a child around 31,000 years ago. The discovery, published in the journal Nature, suggests that one or more hunter-gatherers possessed detailed knowledge of human anatomy and considerable technical skill, allowing them to avoid fatal blood loss and infection.
The skeleton was found in a cave on the Indonesian island of Borneo called Liang Tebo, which is famous for having some of the world’s earliest rock art. A team of international archaeologists excavated the bones in 2020, discovering that the lower leg and foot were absent. The researchers figured out that the limb had been amputated deliberately, not in response to an injury or an accident, by studying telltale bone growth and other signs of healing. The team also determined that the amputation took place when the person was a child, as indicated by growth in the leg bone.
Until now, the earliest known evidence of surgical amputation belonged to a 7,000-year-old French farmer who had his left forearm surgically removed, according to a study that appeared in 2007. “What this new finding from Borneo demonstrates is that some humans had the ability to successfully amputate diseased or damaged limbs long before we started farming and living in permanent settlements,” the lead researcher says in a press release.
New Research Into Ancient Poop
Scientists studying ancient feces have discovered that our ancestors had much different gut microbes than we do today. They found that the bacteria residing in ancient humans’ digestive tracts produced a large variety of molecules that are very different from those produced by modern people, reports Science. These molecules, known as fecal metabolites or fecal stanols, are often preserved in sediment. Researchers analyzed fecal stanols in sediment from the famed prehistoric city of Cahokia.
They also used them to find traces of ancient human poop in the ruins of another prehistoric settlement in Illinois. The results confirmed that ancient people pooped in their cities, but they didn’t always use latrines. As the fecal metabolites decayed and dissolved in soil, they left behind molecular signatures that are easier to detect than DNA.
These traces can reveal important information about how ancient civilizations functioned. They may even offer clues about our own future, say the scientists. For example, the fecal metabolites can help us understand why some of our own inherited microbes can cause disease.
The ancient poo can also tell archaeologists about diets. For example, a study of feces from the site where workers constructed Stonehenge found that they ate a lot of meat. It also revealed that they celebrated the construction of the monument with lavish feasts.
But determining which species left the fossilized feces, technically called coprolites, can be tricky. That’s because after a few thousand years underground, the droppings can all start to look the same. So archaeologists are using a new computer program to scan the sediments for clues about the origin of specific coprolites. It’s a tool the researchers call corpoID, in an homage to “coprolite.” The software is designed to identify human and canine coprolites by looking at the fecal lipids, organic substances like bile acids and sterols that are less likely to be contaminated by other organisms.
Full-Color Portraits Of Mummies
Archaeologists have uncovered the first full-color portraits of mummies in more than a century. They also uncovered papyrus, pottery and inscriptions on coffins at the Gerza excavation site in Fayum, Egypt. The artworks date from the Ptolemaic era (305-30 BC) to the Roman era (30 BC-390 AD).
The painted portraits are unique in Antiquity as the only panel paintings known of the dead. They were created by anonymous artists able, like Velazquez and Rembrandt, to turn drops of paint into lifelike eyes and faces.
While mummy portraits may seem creepy, they are actually a window into the past. They show us the lives of people who lived in a time of great change, as new ideas from the Greek and Roman world blended with old ones that had been passed down through generations, including the idea that death was only the beginning of a long eternity.
Mummy portraits were typically commissioned by the person’s family, and they were made to be a lasting memory of that deceased relative. They were adapted to fit the mummy’s shroud, and the painters used encaustic—a translucent wax-based paint—or tempera to create their lifelike images.
The facial accuracy of these portraits has been questioned, but researchers have now developed techniques to compare the actual appearance of mummies with their painted portraits and found that they generally show the deceased as they appeared in life.
The discovery of these two complete mummy portraits and fragments of several others is among the most significant finds at the site, the Egyptian government reported. The discoveries will help researchers understand the ways in which mummies were prepared to be placed in tombs, as well as how they were used as an object of worship during their lifetimes.
A Shipwreck In The Mediterranean
The discovery of a shipwreck in the depths of the Mediterranean could help researchers write a new page in maritime history. It was carrying a treasure trove of goods that, if intact, could reveal how the ancient world interacted across mighty shipping lanes.
The wreck was discovered by a team from the Akdeniz University Underwater Research Center near Antalya in Turkey. The team used a type of sonar to locate the ship, which is thought to be the oldest in the world. The 14-meter vessel was carrying 1.5 tons of copper ingots and dates to the Archaic period of Greece (around 700 B.C.E.), just two hundred years before Plato and Socrates lived.
Based on the ribbed, conical-shaped amphorae (terra-cotta pots used in ancient Mediterranean trade) found at the site, the ship was probably transporting goods to and from Samos during this time, an expert says. This is a remarkable find because so few ships from this period have ever been recovered in the deep Mediterranean Sea.
Researchers are excited to study the cargo, which includes ceramics, building materials, glass jugs, and other items from a variety of cultures. These objects show that a wide range of different civilizations and societies traded across the Mediterranean during this time, far earlier than previously believed.
The wreck also reveals how much the Mediterranean Sea was used as a trade route for silk and spices, the experts say. The team hopes the study will shed light on “trade, navigation, amphorae hull stowage and construction, and shipbuilding” along this stretch of the continental shelf. Other recent discoveries along the strait include Hellenistic, Roman, and early Islamic vessels. These wrecks, along with the 17th-century Ottoman merchant ship, reveal how ships crisscrossed antiquity’s mighty shipping lanes.
A Stash Of Mummy-Embalming Tools
Scientists have unwrapped long-sought details of the embalming techniques that the ancient Egyptians used to preserve their dead loved ones. The clues came from chemical analysis of vessels found in an underground workshop and burial chambers near Saqqara, a site that dates back more than 2,600 years. The discovery shows that embalmers had access to a wide range of ingredients, including resins gathered from far away places.
The researchers spotted the signs of mummification in the residues that filled ceramic bowls, which were labeled with ancient script. For example, a bowl labelled with antiu and sefet revealed that the ancients used a mix of oils or tars derived from conifers, as well as animal fats. Such complex mixtures show that embalmers had accumulated “enormous personal knowledge over centuries,” a researcher notes.
It also appears that embalmers kept a tool for extracting the brain. When a priest touched this tool to a deceased person’s skull, the corpse would liquefy and the brain could be pulled out through a hole in the skull, reports Scientific American. The ancients hoped that such a ritual would allow the soul of the dead person to enjoy the afterlife.
The discovery of a mummy-embalming tool suggests that mummification may have started earlier than previously thought, the researchers report in the journal RSNA RadioGraphics. In the past, scientists have dated the first mummification tools to about the fourth Dynasty. The new finding pushes the date of the first mummy to about 3,300 years ago, and may help researchers understand how the process evolved over time.
In conclusion, archaeology continues to unveil captivating discoveries from our ancient past, enriching our understanding of human history and culture. With groundbreaking excavations and innovative technologies, researchers are unearthing remarkable artifacts and unraveling long-lost mysteries. The field of archaeology remains a crucial bridge between our ancestors and the modern world, fostering a deeper connection to our heritage.
- What is archaeology?
Archaeology is the scientific study of human history and prehistory through the excavation and analysis of artifacts, structures, and other physical remains. It helps researchers reconstruct past societies, cultures, and behaviors, shedding light on our collective heritage and development as a species.
- What are some recent significant archaeological discoveries?
Recent significant archaeological discoveries include the ancient city of Pompeii’s well-preserved “Regio V” district, revealing insights into Roman daily life. Additionally, the uncovering of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, a massive Stone Age temple complex, has challenged our understanding of early human civilization, dating back over 12,000 years.