Archaeologists

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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Archaeologists Say a Mystifying Group of Ancient Monuments in Saudi Arabia Suggests the Existence of a Prehistoric Cattle Cult


A mysterious group of ancient monuments first discovered in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, known as mustatials, predate the first Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge by over 2,000 years, making them the world’s oldest ritual landscape, archaeologists now say.

Scattered across 77,000 square miles of desert in northwest Arabia, the mustatils (the name comes from the Arabic word for “rectangle”) were built between 8,500 and 4,800 years ago, during the period known as the Middle Holocene, according to a report published last week in the journal Antiquity.

Through satellite imagery, helicopter and ground surveys, and excavations, the study identified more than 1,000 mustatils, typically built in clusters. That’s more than double the number previously thought to exist.

The project, led by a team from the University of Western Australia, is being funded by the Royal Commission for AlUla, which is hoping to drive tourism to the nearby site of AlUla.

Experts had previously raised numerous theories as to the structures’ purpose, including as animal enclosures, burial sites, or territory markers. But the new study shows that the mustatils‘s walls would have been too low to prevent animals from escaping.

The locations of <em>mustatils</em> in northwest Saudia Arabia. Image courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

The locations of mustatils in northwest Saudia Arabia. Image courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

“You don’t get a full understanding of the scale of the structures until you’re there,” archaeologist Hugh Thomas, the director of the project, told New Scientist. “It’s not designed to keep anything in, but to demarcate the space that is clearly an area that needs to be isolated.”

Archaeologists found animal bones on the sites, which seem to be the remains of religious offerings. The presence of cattle skulls in particular suggests the existence of prehistoric cattle cult.

“We think people created these structures for ritual purposes in the Neolithic [era], which involved offering sacrifices of wild and domestic animals to an unknown deity/deities,” Thomas told the Art Newspaper.

A cattle horn found at a <em>mustatil</em>, suggesting ritual sacrifice. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

A cattle horn found at a mustatil, suggesting ritual sacrifice. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

The largest mustatils are more than 1,500 feet long, with one example constructed from 12,000 tons of basalt stone. Some are simple constructions, with low rock walls forming long rectangles. But others are far more complex, with pillars, interior walls, and small chambers that may have been used for ritual sacrifices.

During the construction of the mustatils, Saudi Arabia would have been all but unrecognizable to contemporary eyes, a verdant green landscape where there is now arid desert.

“The environment was certainly much more humid during this period,” Melissa Kennedy, assistant director of the Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia project, told Live Science. “Cattle need a lot of water to survive.”

Three mustatils. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Three mustatils. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

But there were also periods of drought, suggesting the ancient people who built these structures may have been making offerings asking for rainfall, which is essential for raising cattle.

“These thousands of mustatils really show the creation of a monumental landscape,” Huw Groucutt, an archaeologist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History who has separately studied mustatils, told NBC News. “They show that this part of the world is far from the eternal empty desert that people often imagine, but rather somewhere that remarkable human cultural developments have taken place.”

The Royal Commission for AlUla will showcase mustatils at the Kingdoms’ Institute, an international archaeology and conservation center that is among 15 cultural institutions the nation is planning to establish.

“We have only begun to tell the hidden story of the ancient kingdoms of North Arabia,” José Ignacio Gallego Revilla, executive director of archaeology, heritage research, and conservation for AlUla, said in a statement. “There is much more to come as we reveal the depth and breadth of the area’s archaeological heritage, which for decades has been under-represented.”

See more photos from the study below.

A number of mustatils. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

A) internal niche located in the head of a mustatil; B) a blocked entranceway in the base of a mustatil; C–D) associated features of a mustatil: cells and orthostats; E) stone pillar identified on the Harrat Khaybar lava field. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

A group of mustatils. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

A group of mustatils. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Two mustatils. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Some mustatils in northwest Arabia. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Some mustatils in northwest Arabia. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Three monumental mustatils and a later funerary ‘pendant’ located atop a rocky outcrop on the border of Khaybar and AlUla counties. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Three monumental mustatils and a later funerary ‘pendant’ located atop a rocky outcrop on the border of Khaybar and AlUla counties. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

A mustatil. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

A mustatil. Photo courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Some mustatils in northwest Arabia. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Some mustatils in northwest Arabia. Photo ©Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Commission for AlUla.

 

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Archaeologists Have Identified the Only Known Example of a Pregnant Mummy


Archaeologists have discovered the first known example of a pregnant mummy. The ancient remains are said date to the first century B.C. and were discovered in Thebes back in 1826—but experts had long assumed the specimen was male, thanks to inscription on the sarcophagus naming an Egyptian priest.

“Our first surprise was that it has no penis, but instead it has breasts and long hair, and then we found out that it’s a pregnant woman,” archaeologist Marzena Ozarek-Szilke told the Associated Press. “When we saw the little foot and then the little hand [of the fetus], we were really shocked.”

The discovery was published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science by the Warsaw Mummy Project team at the Polish Academy of Sciences, which since 2015 has been conducting noninvasive laboratory tests such as CT scans and X-rays to help better understand mummies (or, in this case, mummies-to-be).

The world’s only embalmed pregnant body ever found is believed to have been between 20 and 30 years old, and 26 and 30 weeks pregnant. It has been on display at the National Museum in Warsaw since 1917—but had never been as thoroughly examined as it was recently.

The world's first pregnant mummy, as seen in photographs and scans. Photo courtesy of the Warsaw Mummy Project.

The world’s first pregnant mummy, as seen in photographs and scans. Photo courtesy of the Warsaw Mummy Project.

Experts now believe that the man who donated the mummy may have lied about its origins at Thebes and placed it in a different coffin to make it seem more valuable. The specimen may also be older than currently estimated, as the mummification technique is more sophisticated than other examples from the first century B.C.

The first clue as to the mummy’s identity came via computer tomography, which revealed a delicate bone structure, with no sign of a penis. A 3-D visualization revealed long curly hair and the woman’s breasts. But the real surprise was the fetus, intact even though the other organs were removed, as was typical of Egyptian embalming.

“We don’t know why it was left there,” Wojtek Ejsmond, a cofounder of the mummy project, told CNN. “Maybe there was a religious reason. Maybe they thought the unborn child didn’t have a soul or that it would be safer in the next world. Or maybe it was because it was very difficult to remove a child at that stage from the womb without causing serious damage.”

The team hopes to conduct additional research to determine the cause of death, and whether it was related to the woman’s pregnancy.

“It is no secret that the mortality rate during pregnancy and childbirth was high at that time,” Ejsmond said in a statement. “Therefore, we believe that the pregnancy could have somehow contributed to the death of the young woman.”

See more photos of the discovery below.

The world's first pregnant mummy, as seen in a scan. Photo courtesy of the Warsaw Mummy Project.

The world’s first pregnant mummy, as seen in a scan. Photo courtesy of the Warsaw Mummy Project.

Experts at the Warsaw Mummy Project examining the world's first pregnant mummy. Photo by Bartosz Bajerski, courtesy of the Warsaw Mummy Project.

Experts at the Warsaw Mummy Project examining the world’s first pregnant mummy. Photo by Bartosz Bajerski, courtesy of the Warsaw Mummy Project.

Experts at the Warsaw Mummy Project have discovered the world's first pregnant mummy. Photo courtesy of the Warsaw Mummy Project.

Experts at the Warsaw Mummy Project have discovered the world’s first pregnant mummy. Photo courtesy of the Warsaw Mummy Project.

Experts at the Warsaw Mummy Project examining the world's first pregnant mummy. Photo courtesy of the Warsaw Mummy Project.

Experts at the Warsaw Mummy Project examining the world’s first pregnant mummy. Photo courtesy of the Warsaw Mummy Project.

The world's first pregnant mummy, as seen in scans. Photo courtesy of the Warsaw Mummy Project.

The world’s first pregnant mummy, as seen in scans. Photo courtesy of the Warsaw Mummy Project.

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Archaeologists Have Discovered 110 Tombs From Three Different Eras of Ancient Egyptian History in the Nile Delta


Excavations at an ancient site in the Nile Delta have uncovered no less than 110 tombs dating from three different periods of ancient Egyptian history.

The find includes 68 oval-shaped tombs from the predynastic Buto Period (6000–3150 B.C.), 37 rectangular-shaped tombs from the Second Intermediate Period (1782–1570 B.C., also known as the era of Hyksos, a Semitic people that ruled Egypt at the time), and five oval-shaped tombs from the Naqada III period (3200–3000 B.C.), according to Smithsonian Magazine.

“This is an extremely interesting cemetery because it combines some of the earliest periods of Egyptian history with another important era, the time of the Hyksos,” Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo, told Reuters. “Egyptologists are working to understand how the Egyptians and the Hyksos lived together and to what degree the former took on Egyptian traditions.”

The discovery was announced in statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, which plans to continue excavations on the site. Artifacts uncovered to date include stoves and ovens, pottery, silver rings, funerary furniture, scarab amulets, pottery, and bricks from old buildings.

Scarab amulets from the archeological site of 110 tombs at the Nile Delta. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

Scarab amulets from the archeological site of 110 tombs at the Nile Delta. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

The dead were buried in squatting positions in the Buto period tombs, while Hyksos period burials were done face-up, their heads pointing to the west. Both the Buto and Hyksos tombs included the remains of babies in jars, an ancient burial practice that remains mysterious.

“But there’s always the interpretation that the jar is almost like a womb, so basically the idea is to return [the] baby back into Mother Earth, or into the symbolic protection of his mother,” archaeologist Yoav Arbel told Live Science of a similar discovery last year.

Though maintaining tourism has been a struggle in Egypt over the past decade—first due to revolution, and more recently because of the ongoing pandemic—the government hopes discoveries such as these will encourage overseas travelers to visit.

Earlier this month, Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, marked the opening of Cairo’s long-awaited National Museum of Egyptian Civilization with an elaborate procession across the city of 22 ancient Egyptian royal mummies.

See more photos from the newly uncovered tombs below.

A human skeleton from a tomb at the Nile Delta. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

A human skeleton from a tomb at the Nile Delta. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

A human skeleton from a tomb at the Nile Delta. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

A human skeleton from a tomb at the Nile Delta. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

Artifacts from the archeological site of 110 tombs at the Nile Delta. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

Artifacts from the archeological site of 110 tombs at the Nile Delta. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

A human skeleton from a tomb at the Nile Delta. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

A human skeleton from a tomb at the Nile Delta. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

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