08 Oct 2015

Notes from a Time Sifter

No Comments Ancient civilizations, Ancient Egypt, China, Explorers, Maya, Tombs, Uncategorized, Vikings


LiDAR, GPR, Magnetometers and More will Help Solve Archaeological Mysteries

Every archaeological excavation uncovers things that we do not know.  Sites are not always easy to find, and some, when discovered, are often difficult to understand.  Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist for National Geographic, believes that because of new methods and technology, archaeologists will find new sites and solve many unknowns during the twenty-first century. The October, 2015 issue lists seven of these.

(1) Using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), Hiebert believes that we will find unknown cities and civilizations of Central and South America that are now covered with dense jungle. LiDAR “sees” under the overgrowth to reveal buildings and foundations. Some remains have already been discovered with LiDAR (see MIT Technology Review, 6/26/15) that amazed archaeologists, and there are probably many more to be found. In addition, GPR (ground penetrating radar) allows archaeologists to “look” underground, no digging required.  GPR can survey very large areas for small features like tombs.

(2) Hiebert speculates thatthe “lost” tombs of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan could be found using GPR.

(3) The tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di surrounded by terracotta soldiers is known, but the artifacts are fragile so there is a reluctance to allow the opening of the tomb.  GPR and magnetometers (instruments for detecting the presence of ferrous or magnetic materials) can survey the interior of the tomb, and robotic devices can actually enter the tomb without harming the artifacts.

(4) We cannot yet decipher  the Minoan writing system called Linear A , (Sir Arthur Evans) so we do not know what language they were speaking.  If we knew, we could tell where they came from and what they were thinking. “Big Data,” a computer program invented by Jeff Jonas (National Geographic, 5/6/14), and IBM’s Watson (ibm.com/smarterplanet/us/en/ibmwatson/) can find connections that might allow us to finally read Linear A.  That would match the knowledge we have from Egyptian hieroglyphics deciphered by Jean Champollion, and the cuneiform of Mesopotamia that Henry Rawlinson figured out how to read.

(5) These computer analysis programs that can synthesize geographical and archaeological data could also help in understanding the purpose of the Nazca lines in Peru  (nationalgeographic.com).

(6) Hiebert thinks that even global warming will help uncover unknown data.  The ice sheets and glaciers are melting, exposing things that have been frozen for thousands of years.  A forty-thousand year old Ice Age mammoth was found in a receding glacier in Siberia in 2007 (National Geographic, May 2009).

(7) New Viking sites are being revealed along the Canadian coasts where temperatures have risen.  Hiebert believes more will be exposed and that these could change the history of the “discovery” of America.

Fredrik Hiebert sees an exciting future for twenty-first century archaeologists. The October, 2015 issue of the National Geographic magazine presents the story with its usual fantastic pictures.  The National Geographic Society was founded in 1888.  The first wildlife pictures were published in their magazine in 1906, and in 1912, they gave an archaeology grant to Hiram Bingham to excavate Machu Picchu.  They have continued to support scientific adventures, including archaeology, ever since. We hope they continue forever.

17 Sep 2015

New Hominid Species Discovered in African Cave, an astounding discovery reveals clues to what made us human

Comments Off on New Hominid Species Discovered in African Cave, an astounding discovery reveals clues to what made us human Early man, Evolution, Fossils, Paleoanthropology, Uncategorized
Dr. Lee Berger

Dr. Lee Berger

Every once in a while a new discovery in anthropology is so exciting it fires imaginations far beyond the halls of science. The discovery of Homo naledi is one of those times. Wits University  announced the discovery  on September 10, 2015 of a new species of human relative, and named it Homo naledi.

And most remarkable, besides shedding light on the origins and diversity of our genus, Homo naledi also appears to have intentionally deposited bodies of its dead in a remote cave chamber, a behaviour previously thought limited to humans.
The story itself, as told on PBS’s NOVA, is enthralling. Details include renowned anthropologist Professor Lee Berger buying a motorcycle for an out-of-work former student, telling him to go find some fossils; said student tapping into the community of cavers to help him; two amateur cavers exploring deep into a fissure and finding a barely accessible chamber littered with bones; a knock on the anthropologist’s door at nine o’clock at night, with the message “you WILL want to let us in”; shrieks and profanity as he views the astounding video from the cave; and a social media job posting for “skinny scientists who are not claustrophobic”.
What they found is an unprecedented trove of hominin fossils — more than 1,500 well-preserved bones and teeth — representing the largest, most complete set of such remains found to date in Africa. The discovery of the fossils, cached in a barely accessible chamber in a subterranean labyrinth not far from Johannesburg, adds a new branch to the human family tree, a creature dubbed Homo naledi.

“We have a new species of Homo, with all of its interesting characteristics,” says John Hawks, a University of Wisconsin-Madison paleoanthropologist and one of the leaders of a team that painstakingly retrieved the fossils under excruciatingly cramped and difficult conditions. “We now have the biggest discovery in Africa for hominins.”

In addition to identifying an entirely new species in the genus Homo, the collections of fossils, which bear no marks from predators or scavengers, are strong evidence that Homo naledi was deliberately depositing its dead in the cave, according to Hawks, a UW-Madison professor of anthropology.

“We think it is the first instance of deliberate and ritualized secreting of the dead,” says Hawks. “The only plausible scenario is they deliberately put bodies in this place.”

Read more at:

Video and story of Dr. Berger, Wits University

University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Fossil trove adds a new limb to human family tree.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 September 2015. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150910131807.htm

02 Sep 2015


Comments Off on NOTES FROM A TIME SIFTER: The Roanoke Mystery Uncategorized
Images from the Trustees of the British Museum, All Rights Reserved

Images from the Trustees of the British Museum, All Rights Reserved

Archaeologists love to solve mysteries, and one of the most interesting American mysteries is the disappearance of the men, women and children who vanished from the Roanoke Island colony between 1587 and 1590. They were the third group of England’s first attempts to establish a presence in North America.  We know what happened to the first group of 107 men that landed on Roanoke Island in 1585. They were all soldiers and adventurers sent by Sir Walter Raleigh who had a charter from Queen Elizabeth to explore and draw maps while the ships returned to England for supplies. Within a year the explorers had angered their Native American neighbors, so when Sir Francis Drake stopped at Roanoke on his way back to England after his attack on Spanish St. Augustine, they eagerly took the opportunity to sail home. When Raleigh’s supply ships returned to the settlement, they found it deserted and sailed back to England, but left 15 men behind to protect Raleigh’s claim. In 1587, Raleigh sent a third group, not soldiers this time, but 115 men, women and children who arrived to find only a skeleton (probably the remains of one of the 15 men). In spite of these frightful circumstances, the colonists agreed to stay and promised to leave a coded instruction if they left the settlement before the ships returned with reinforcements. Part of the message was to be a Maltese cross, a code meaning that they had been attacked. The ships were delayed in England by a war with Spain, and did not return to the colony until 1590 when they found the colony abandoned and houses were taken down. Only the cryptic messages, “Croatoan” carved on one of the wooden posts of the palisade surrounding the tiny settlement, and “CRO” scratched on a tree, remained (Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation, 1590).  There was no Maltese cross, but the word “Croatoan” was the name of the Native American Indians on an island 50 miles south. However, a search could not be conducted at that time because of bad weather, and the ships returned to England without any information about the settlers.

Interest in the mysterious disappearance has continued for more than 400 years.  Stories of gray or blue-eyed Indians with yellow hair spread, but no definitive evidence was ever found. Now, archaeologists believe they have an answer. New evidence shows that the colonists did have a relationship with the Native American settlement on the island of the Croatoan (Hatteras Island) as well as with another Indian settlement about 50 miles northwest of Roanoke Island at Albemarle Sound near what today is Edenton, North Carolina. These conclusions were reached because of new technology now available to archaeologists (New York Times, Aug. 11, 2015, and National Geographic, Aug. 7, 2015.

The first new evidence comes from a map of the entire area drawn by John White, an artist and cartographer of Raleigh’s 1585 and 1586 expeditions.  It shows the Virginia and Carolina coasts as well as Indian villages of the area. John White had put patches over two areas on the map.  The patches could not be removed without damaging the map so no one knew what the patches covered.  But in 2012, archaeologists applied X-ray spectroscopy to the patch covering the Albemarle site that revealed a sketch of a fort underneath. This was also the site of an Indian village, and a fort would indicate the presence of the English in this area as early as 1586, White’s second trip to North America.  Tree ring analysis indicates that a severe drought hit the Roanoke area between 1587 and 1589. An English fort at the inland site would have been a logical destination for starving Roanoke colonists.  At the very least, it shows that the colonists knew that the site had been explored by the English as a likely place to plant a settlement. Excavations have not revealed a fort, but using LIDAR, radar that can “see” under the foliage, archaeologists found English artifacts such as ceramics at Roanoke colony that match the ceramics at Albemarle. The ceramics, called Border ware, were made in England at pottery industries on the Surry/Hampshire border during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Border ware found at Roanoke and Albemarle was specific to the time of the Roanoke settlement.  No Border ware has been found at the Croatoan Indian village on Hatteras, but other English artifacts are there such as a16th century signet ring and gun hardware (Phelps, Croatan Archaeological Site Collection).  These indicate close interactions between the settlers and the Indians at both sites. The presence of women and children could have softened the relationship between the settlers and the Indians who had initially been friendly to the first group of male explorers in 1585 and were again friendly at the first landing of explorers at what eventually became Jamestown (Archer Diary, 1607, National Archives CO 1/1).

DNA studies of Croatoan descendants are ongoing in the search for clues (Associated Press, 6/11/2007) and archaeologists will certainly be excitedly digging for more answers.

20 Jul 2015

Kennewick Man closely related to Native Americans, geneticists say

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Genetic analysis is playing an important role in answering questions about the past. In the case of the skeleton known as Kennewick Man, called the Ancient One by Native American groups, five Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest requested repatriation of the remains for reburial, but the proceedings were halted to allow further investigation into the skeleton’s origins.

“Using ancient DNA, we were able to show that Kennewick Man is more closely related to Native Americans than any other population,” said postdoctoral scholar Morten Rasmussen, PhD. Rasmussen is the lead author of the research, published online June 17 in Nature.

“Advances in DNA sequencing technology have given us important new tools for studying the great human diasporas and the history of indigenous populations,” said  Carlos Bustamante, PhD, professor of genetics. “Now we are seeing its adoption in new areas, including forensics and archeology. The case of Kennewick Man is particularly interesting given the debates surrounding the origins of Native American populations. Morten’s work aligns beautifully with the oral history of native peoples and lends strong support for their claims.”

Read the full story at Science Daily.

Full story credit: Stanford University Medical Center. “Kennewick Man closely related to Native Americans, geneticists say.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 June 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150618134420.htm>

27 May 2015

Florida Anthropological Society Comes to Town

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Logo for newsletter image

Time Sifters will be hosting over 200 archaeologists from around the state this weekend for the 67th Annual Meeting of the Florida Anthropological Society. 57 presenters will share current research by delivering a paper or showcasing a poster of their project.

Click for the FINAL SCHEDULE.

The interested public is welcome to attend; registration is available on-site for $60. Additional weekend highlights include:

Saturday, May 30th, 6:30pm: BANQUET at the Hyatt: Keynote Speaker Dr. Jerald Milanich. $50.00.

“Five Formative Years in the Life of J.T. Milanich, Dirt Archaeologist, 1966-1971” In his illustrated presentation Milanich will explain how it came to be that he participated in the 1969 excavation of the Yellow Bluffs-Whitaker Mound in Sarasota, a project some people (well, actually only one person) have said is the birth of New College’s outstanding archaeology program. The excavation in the Spring of 1969 was quickly followed by (but was not a cause of) the infamous Summer of Love when music lovers flocked to Woodstock, spacemen first landed on the moon,  Dave Van Ronk played the Philadephia Folk Festival, and Milanich excavated at Historic Bethlehem (Pennsylvania).

Sunday, May 31st, 9am:  MORNING CRUISE on Sarasota Bay. Prehistory, history, and humor presented at lightning speed by a native Sarasotan, font of knowledge, and local treasure, John McCarthy. $25.00

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