Ancient

French Archaeologists Make ‘Unprecedented Discovery’ of What May Be the Remains of a Roman-Era Mausoleum


In what archaeologists are hailing “an unprecedented discovery” for the region, the remains of a set of Gallo-Roman buildings—including what might be a funerary monument—have been excavated in a residential district in Néris-les-Bains, a town in Auvergne, France.

Undertaken by a team from the French National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), the dig located the remnants of a group of structures delimited by a road. They include two buildings with a partially legible plan, two others represented by walls with tiles bound in lime mortar, and a pipe network. The northwestern segment of the plot houses a large pit. 

It was close to this pit that archaeologists uncovered a number of relics that have helped date the site to the Gallo-Roman period from the 1st to 5th century.

The archaeologists clearing relics at the Néris-les-Bains site. Photo: © Marie-Laure Thierry, INRAP.

They include a fragment of a modillion, an elaborate cornice that would have decorated the top structure of buildings, and a pilaster, a rectangular column carved with interlocking leaves and topped by a figurine. A conical architectural element measuring some 55 inches in diameter was also found, its surface carved with scales and its back holding an anathyrosis frame, indicating it was meant to be joined to a similar piece as part of a circular spire. 

More notable is the discovery of 21 sandstone blocks—“a big surprise,” Marie-Laure Thierry, head of the operation at INRAP, told La Montagne. Once cleaned with water and a sponge, archaeologists found they were adorned with bas-reliefs that “have an unprecedented character for Néris-les-Bains, even for Auvergne,” added Thierry.

The most “representative” relief, according to the team, is a frieze fragment, measuring about 27 by seven inches, which portrays Triton, Greek god of the sea, with his arms spread, hair long, and tentacles ending in palm leaves. He is flanked on his right by a horse (or more probably, a seahorse), with only its two front legs visible. 

The sandstone blocks showing bas-reliefs of a possible mausoleum at the archaeological center of Clermont-Ferrand. Photo: © Marie-Laure Thierry, INRAP.

The combination of the frieze, the conical spire (with scales recalling the sea god), and the ornate cornice have led researchers to associate the finds with mausoleums that were constructed in the 1st and 2nd centuries. The motif depicting a figure from Greek and Roman mythology, in particular, symbolizes the journey of blessed individuals into the afterlife. “It was certainly not the tomb of ordinary mortals,” said Thierry of the monument. 

Other comparable funerary structures have been identified in Auvergne, from Aulnat to Mont-Dore, where similar artifacts representing Triton were found.

The INRAP team plans to carry out detailed studies of the architectural blocks to support its early hypothesis and further illuminate the history of Néris-les-Bains. The town, best known for its thermal baths (its name derives from Nérios, Gallic god of the spring), was colonized by Rome in the early centuries—a period borne out by the number of Roman and Gallic ruins and relics, including an amphitheater, that have been excavated in the area since the 19th century. 

According to INRAP, the recent discovery of the settlement and its artifacts could well open “a new window on the occupation of this peripheral and little-known sector of the ancient agglomeration of Néris-les-Bains.”

 

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Ancient Stone Tools Once Thought to be Made by Humans Were Actually Crafted by Monkeys, Say Archaeologists


Experts are reevaluating prehistoric Pleistocene-era sites in Brazil previously believed to have been home to ancient humans. It turns out, the 50,000-year-old stone tools discovered in excavations are probably the work of capuchin monkeys, not early humans.

“We are confident that the early archeological sites from Brazil may not be human-derived but may belong to capuchin monkeys,” wrote archaeologist Agustín M. Agnolín and paleontologist Federico L. Agnolín in an article published in the new issue of the journal the Holocene.

Excavations at Pedra Furada, a group of 800 archaeological sites in the state of Piauí, Brazil, have turned up stone shards believed to be examples of simple stone tools. Made from quartzite and quartz cobbles, the oldest ones appear to be up to 50,000 years old, which would put them among the earliest evidence of human habitation in the Western Hemisphere.

However, the tools also bear a striking resemblance to the stone tools currently made by the capuchin monkeys at Brazil’s Serra da Capivara National Park.

The monkeys have their own rock quarries, where they select substantially sized rocks to use as hammers to crack nuts against a larger, flattened anvil rock. Rocks also come in handy for eating seeds and fruits—and the monkeys even lick the dust created from driving two rocks together, possibly as a way of adding minerals to their diets.

Stone tools assist capuchins with other tasks as well, such as digging. And the females throw rocks at potential mates as a way of demonstrating sexual interest.

All of these processes can lead to the stones breaking into smaller flaked pieces—which, the new study found, are indistinguishable from some ancient stone tools carved by early humans.

Pebble tools from Pre-Clovis sites in Brazil: A, Vale da Pedra Furada artifacts; B, Toca da Tira Peia artifacts. Photos courtesy of <em> Elsevier</em>.

Pebble tools from Pre-Clovis sites in Brazil: A, Vale da Pedra Furada artifacts; B, Toca da Tira Peia artifacts. Photos courtesy of Elsevier.

“Our study shows that the tools from Pedra Furada and other nearby sites in Brazil were nothing more than the product of capuchin monkeys breaking nuts and rocks some 50,000 years before the present,” Federico Agnolín, a researcher at the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences, told Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET).

The possibility that monkeys were responsible for the human-looking lithic deposits at Pedra Furada was first raised in 2017 by archaeologist Stuart J. Fiedel in the journal PaleoAmerica, noting that capuchins may have been using tools for 100,000 years. Similar concerns were discussed in the journal Quaternaire in 2018.

Stone pounding implements used by capuchin monkeys in Brazil. Photo by Tiago Falótico.

Stone pounding implements used by capuchin monkeys in Brazil. Photo by Tiago Falótico.

A 2019 study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution was the first to examine stone tool-making practices of the capuchin population at the Serra da Capivara.

Coupled with the lack of other evidence of human habitation from 50,000 years ago, such as concrete traces of dietary remains or hearths—charcoal at the site could have originated from naturally occurring fires—the tools’ resemblance to rock fragments created by monkeys calls into question the likelihood that humans were responsible for their creation.

The new findings could have a major impact on our understanding of when the first humans arrived in the Americas. Pleistocene archeological sites from Brazil are among the most compelling evidence that people lived on the continents prior to the end of the last Ice Age.

Capuchin monkey fracturing nuts using a rock as a hammer and a larger one as an anvil in Northeast Brazil. Photo by Tiago Falótico, courtesy of CONICET.

Capuchin monkey fracturing nuts using a rock as a hammer and a larger one as an anvil in Northeast Brazil. Photo by Tiago Falótico, courtesy of CONICET.

The once-predominant “Clovis first” theory long held that glaciers prevented significant settling of the Western Hemisphere until around 14,000 years ago. In recent decades, archaeological sites like the Buttermilk Creek complex in Texas, which has evidence of human inhabitants dating back 15,000 years, and Monte Verde in Chile, dated as early as 18,500 years ago, have challenged that hypothesis. There is growing acceptance of the theory that during the Ice Age, people began settling along a coastal entry route.

But support for a Pre-Clovis human presence received a setback last month, when new testing called into question the dating of fossilized footprints at New Mexico’s White Sands National Park to 22,800 to 21,130 years ago—making them the oldest evidence of human occupation of North America. It now appears the seeds used to date the markings may have ingested ancient carbon from the waters of Lake Otero, leading to inaccurate, artificially ancient dating.

Now, Brazil’s capuchin monkeys may have landed another blow against the Pre-Clovis faction.

“Our work reinforces the idea that the human settlement of this part of the American continent is more recent and is in line with the studies that determine its arrival some 13,000 or 14,000 years before the present,” Agustín Agnolín, of Argentina’s National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Thought, added. “This questions the hypotheses that proposed an excessively old settlement of South America.”

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An Ancient Middle Eastern City Destroyed by a Meteor May Have Inspired the Bible’s Tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, a New Study Says


New research suggests that the ancient Bronze Age city of Tall el-Hamman, in modern-day Jordan, was destroyed by a meteor—and that the catastrophic event could have inspired the Bible’s tale of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The city, located in the southern Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea, reached its zenith some 3,600 years ago. At the time, about 50,000 people lived in the valley’s three major cities and surrounding regions. Tall el-Hamman itself was home to some 8,000 residents, who lived mud brick homes of up to five stories.

An airburst meteor explosion appears to have been the city’s downfall, according to a new paper published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

An asteroid blew up into a massive fireball about 2.5 miles above the Middle Eastern city, instantly killing the town’s 8,000 residents as temperatures on the ground skyrocketed to 3,600 degrees, according to the news site the Conversation. The explosion would been followed in seconds by a 740-mile-per-hour shockwave with the force of a nuclear weapon, reducing buildings to rubble and instantly transforming the thriving metropolis into a smoking wasteland.

If that is how Tall el-Hamman met its end, it would have been similar to the destruction of the two sinful Old Testament cities in the Book of Genesis.

Researchers stand near the ruins of Tall el-Hammam's ancient walls, with the destruction layer about midway down each exposed wall. Photo by Phil Silvia, Creative Commons <a href=https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/ target="_blank" rel="noopener">Attribution-NoDerivs 4.0 Generic</a> license.

Researchers stand near the ruins of Tall el-Hammam’s ancient walls, with the destruction layer about midway down each exposed wall. Photo by Phil Silvia, Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 4.0 Generic license.

“Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens,” the Bible reads. “Thus He overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land.”

The paper’s authors contend that winds from the blast also would have impacted the nearby city of Jericho, knocking down its walls and setting it afire. The Old Testament also recounts the Israelites’ conquering of Jericho in the Book of Joshua, with the city’s walls falling after the army marched around the city four times and sounded their trumpets.

Solving the mystery of what happened took 15 years of excavation and careful study, with 21 archaeologists, geologists, geochemists, geomorphologists, mineralogists, paleobotanists, sedimentologists, cosmic-impact experts, and medical doctors collaborating on the final paper.

Archaeologists studying the ruins Tall el-Hamman found what they called the destruction layer: A mix of charcoal, ash, and melted pottery that was five feet thick—the kind of devastation that comes from superheated temperatures of a firestorm, ruling out human warfare and other natural disasters such as a volcano, earthquake, fire, or tornado as its cause.

The extent of the cosmic airburst at Tunguska, Siberia (1908), superimposed on the Dead Sea area. Image by Phil Silvia, Creative Commons <a href=https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/ target="_blank" rel="noopener">Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic</a> license.

The extent of the cosmic airburst at Tunguska, Siberia (1908), superimposed on the Dead Sea area. Image by Phil Silvia, Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

The team used the online impact calculator, a tool developed by impact experts, to model scenarios that matched the physical evidence, compared to the effects of known impact events and nuclear detonations. Of the 17 observations, only a meteor matched all the data.

A cosmic airburst sounds like an otherworldly event, but other instances have been documented, such the explosion over Tunguska, Russia, in 1908. Such explosions are rare, with thousands of years between known events. Tall el-Hamman is the second-earliest airburst to be identified, after one in Abu Hureyra, Syria, which experts believe was destroyed by a comet some 12,800 years ago, and may represent the first written record of such a catastrophic event.

The Tall el-Hamman meteor was probably larger than the one that struck Tunguska, but no bigger than 200 to 250 feet across.

“Otherwise, the object would have hit the ground and created a large crater like Meteor Crater in Arizona,” study coauthor Allen West, of the Comet Research Group, told Forbes.

Spherules made of melted sand (upper left), palace plaster (upper right) and melted metal (bottom two) found in the ruins of Tall el-Hammam. Photo by Malcolm LeCompte, Creative Commons <a href=https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/ target="_blank" rel="noopener">Attribution-NoDerivs 4.0 Generic</a> license.

Spherules made of melted sand (upper left), palace plaster (upper right) and melted metal (bottom two) found in the ruins of Tall el-Hammam. Photo by Malcolm LeCompte, Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 4.0 Generic license.

The team behind the research was quick to clarify that their discovery was not definitive evidence that the Bible account was based on a true story.

“All the observations stated in Genesis are consistent with a cosmic airburst,” study coauthor James Kennett, professor of earth science at U.C. Santa Barbara, said in a statement, “but there’s no scientific proof that this destroyed city is indeed the Sodom of the Old Testament.”

Nevertheless, the evidence is compelling.

Furnace experiments indicated that the melted mudbricks had reached temperatures of 2,700 degrees. Tiny melted spherules found in the destruction layer were made when vaporized iron and sand reached 2,900 degrees. There were melted metallic grains of iridium (which has a melting point of 4,435 degrees), platinum (3,215 degrees), and zirconium silicate (2,800 degrees).

Electron microscope images of numerous small cracks in shocked quartz grains found in the ruins of Tall el-Hammam. Photo by Allen West, Creative Commons <a href=https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/ target="_blank" rel="noopener">Attribution-NoDerivs 4.0 Generic</a> license.

Electron microscope images of numerous small cracks in shocked quartz grains found in the ruins of Tall el-Hammam. Photo by Allen West, Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 4.0 Generic license.

Other signs indicating there had been a massive explosion included tiny grains of shocked quartz that only form under 725,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, and carbon in the form of tiny microscopic diamonoids, each smaller than a virus, that likely came from plants exposed to super high temperatures and pressure.

The area around Tall el-Hamman lay fallow for 600 years following the blast—possibly because the explosion also impacted the nearby Dead Sea, scattering its salty waters across the Jordan Valley and making the formerly arable land sterile. To this day, excavators found that salt would leach out of the destruction layer into the morning dew, leaving a white crust atop the ruins each day.

“Any survivors of the blast would have been unable to grow crops and therefore are likely to have been forced to abandon the area,” the study said.

We can expect similarly destructive cosmic events to happen every few thousand years, the paper continued: “although the risk is low, the potential damage is exceedingly high.”

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Archeologists Find the Hidden Original Form of Arthur’s Stone, an Ancient Structure That Inspired the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’


For the first time ever, archaeologists have excavated sites near Arthur’s Stone, shedding new light on the origins of the mysterious Neolithic structure, which dates to around 3700 BCE—a full millennium before the construction of Stonehenge (2500 BCE). Based on the new findings, the famed rock tomb in Herefordshire, England now seems to have been part of a region-wide community of shared burial rituals.

According to the archaeologists from the University of Manchester and Cardiff, the hulking Stone Age tomb can now be understood in relation to the 6,000-year-old “halls of the dead” discovered nearby in 2013, which were used to store bodies before they were moved into individual chambered tombs. The researchers discovered the burned remains of the halls, which they said were intentionally set alight, and later incorporated into burial mounds.

Based on the new excavation’s findings, Arthur’s Stone was actually built in two distinct phases of construction. In its first incarnation, it was based on a large mound of stacked earth pointing southwest and surrounded by wooden posts, which ultimately decayed—similar in form to what is known of the “halls of the dead.” Later, it was rebuilt with larger post pillars, two rock chambers, and an upright stone facing southeast, according to Current Archaeology.

Excavations near Arthur's Stone. Courtesy of the University of Manchester and Cardiff.

Excavations near Arthur’s Stone. Courtesy of the University of Manchester and Cardiff.

Professor Julian Thomas, part of both the new excavation and the earlier finds, explained the significance of the new findings on the University of Manchester website. Because of the similarities between the previously hidden first phase of Arthur’s Stone and the recently identified “houses of the dead,” “the block of upland between the Golden Valley and the Wye Valley is now becoming revealed as hosting an integrated Neolithic ceremonial landscape.”

The excavation was part of the Beneath Hay Bluff Project, which is dedicated to investigating Neolithic structures in southwest Hereforshire.

The 2013 discovery yielded artifacts similar to others found in Yorkshire dating from 2600 BC. This led scholars to believe that the site remained an important venue for ceremonies 1,000 years after the halls were initially built, strongly suggesting links between communities in Hereforshire and East Yorkshire over many generations.

Arthur’s Stone, a UNESCO-listed heritage site, served as inspiration for the “stone table” in C.S. Lewis’s fantasy book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where it was imagined as a table built by lion king Aslan’s father. Though Lewis’s version consists of a large slab of rock supported by four smaller rock pillars, the real-life structure is actually composed of nine standing stones supporting a 25-ton hulking quartz capstone.

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Scientists Have Conducted Tests That Reveal Stonehenge Is Made From a Nearly Indestructible Ancient Material


A long lost piece of England’s Stonehenge monument is helping experts understand the mysterious prehistoric structure. Analysis of a core sample taken from one of the site’s massive slabs suggests that the stone’s geochemical composition may have made it uniquely well-equipped to stand the test of time.

Made from 99.7 percent quartz crystals, the stones are practically indestructible, according to a new study published in the journal Plos One.

“Now we’ve got a good idea why this stuff’s still standing there,” study co-author David Nash, a professor of physical geography at the University of Brighton, told Business Insider. “The stone is incredibly durable—it’s really resistant to erosion and weathering.”

The study was made possible thanks to a former diamond cutter, Robert Phillips, who died last year. He did repair work at Stonehenge in 1958, drilling into Stone 58 to help re-erect a fallen trilithon of three stones.

L.M. Van Moppes (Diamond Tools) Ltd., depiction of coring operations on Stone 58 of Stonehenge in 1958. Courtesy of Lewis Phillips, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 license.

L.M. Van Moppes (Diamond Tools) Ltd., depiction of coring operations on Stone 58 of Stonehenge in 1958. Courtesy of Lewis Phillips, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 license.

When the work was done, Phillips was allowed to keep one of the three-and-a-half foot cylindrical cores as a souvenir. He returned it 60 years later, opening new avenues of research into Stonehenge’s origins—taking new samples from the protected monument is prohibited. Experts were able to conduct destructive testing on half the sample.

“Getting access to the core drilled from Stone 58 was very much the Holy Grail for our research,” Nash said in a statement. “It is extremely rare as a scientist that you get the chance to work on samples of such national and international importance.”

Workers from L.M. Van Moppes (Diamond Tools) Ltd., including Robert Phillips (left) drilled to extract cores of sarsen stone from Stone 58 at Stonehenge in 1958. Photo courtesy of Lewis Phillips, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 license.

Workers from L.M. Van Moppes (Diamond Tools) Ltd., including Robert Phillips (left) drilled to extract cores of sarsen stone from Stone 58 at Stonehenge in 1958. Photo courtesy of Lewis Phillips, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 license.

Working with experts from British Geological Survey, English Heritage, and the Natural History Museum in London, Nash subjected the Phillip’s Core, as it is known, as well as a second sample from the Salisbury Museum in England, to X-ray and CT scans, examining them under a microscope. What they saw were tiny grains of quartz arranged in an incredibly strong interlocking matrix of crystals, providing an ideal building material.

“These cements are incredibly strong. I’ve wondered if the builders of Stonehenge could tell something about the stone properties, and not only chose the closest, biggest boulders, but also the ones that were most likely to stand the test of time,” Nash told Science Alert.

A microscope image of the sample from Stonehenge's Stone 58 shows a tightly interlocking mosaic of quartz crystals. The outlines of quartz sand grains are indicated by arrows. Photo courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

A microscope image of the sample from Stonehenge’s Stone 58 shows a tightly interlocking mosaic of quartz crystals. The outlines of quartz sand grains are indicated by arrows. Photo courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Geochemically, the Stone 58 sample is a match to 50 of the 52 remaining sarcens, so any findings derived from the cores likely apply to the vast majority of the monument. The specific kind of stone is called silcrete, which forms from groundwater washing though buried sediment, reports Reuters.

Dating found that the stones were largely composed of eroded sediments from the Paleogene period, from 66 million to 23 million years ago.

University of Brighton geomorphologist David Nash examines a core sample removed from Stonehenge during repairs in the 1950s. Photo by Sam Frost, courtesy of English Heritage.

University of Brighton geomorphologist David Nash examines a core sample removed from Stonehenge during repairs in the 1950s. Photo by Sam Frost, courtesy of English Heritage.

But they also incorporate much older material from the Mesozoic era, between 252 million and 66 million years ago, and the Mesoproterozoic era, an astounding 1 billion to 1.6 billion years ago.

The Phillilp’s Core had already allowed Nash and his team to solve one of Stonehenge’s most enduring mysteries: the origin of its monolithic stones.

A sarsen, like the ones at Stonehenge, in the West Woods, now known to be the origin of the prehistoric monument's massive stone slabs. Photo by Katy Whitaker, courtesy of Historic England/the University of Reading.

A sarsen, like the ones at Stonehenge, in the West Woods, now known to be the origin of the prehistoric monument’s massive stone slabs. Photo by Katy Whitaker, courtesy of Historic England/the University of Reading.

It was long suspected that the sarcens came from the chalk hills of Marlborough Downs. Testing on the Philips Core allowed researchers to identify the stone’s “geochemical fingerprint,” and match it to stone slabs from a specific location in the downs known as the West Woods.

Stonehenge was likely erected in two phases between 5,000 and 4,500 years ago. In addition to the massive sarcens, the monument also includes an interior circle of smaller bluestones. Recent studies suggest that the bluestones hail from the Preseli Hills in Wales, and were initially built there, before being transported to the Salisbury Plain.

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