Written by Laura Davies
From the 1,900-year-old remains of a woman with teeth growing out of her pelvis to a 2,700-year-old solid gold bong, still containing marijuana residue, archaeology has provided us with both a wealth of fascinating finds and insight into our far history. Some people, like the thousands who signed up to drink the 2,000-year-old red mummy juice from a sarcophagus, even believe archaeology holds the key to rediscovering long lost medicinal and supernatural artefacts.
Of course, it hasn’t always been the meticulous and methodical science we know today, as demonstrated by Heinrich Schliemann when he destroyed the main layers of the lost city of Troy by choosing to excavate with dynamite.
And when early archaeologists weren’t destroying ancient relics, they were reaching conclusions that were just plain wrong. The Icelandic archaeologist, Finnur Magnusson, made headlines when he claimed to have deciphered the Runamo Runes, claiming they were a poem celebrating King Harald Wartooth. Unfortunately for Magnússon and his reputation, Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius took an interest a few years later and proved that the runes were actually just natural cracks and fissures in the rock. Awkward.
Fortunately, thanks to the following incredible discoveries, the archaeological world has been shaken up and is better for it.
1. A 6.2mm Long Piece of String
Picture a Neanderthal. Club wielding, fat eyebrowed caveman right? For decades, they’ve been considered the slow-witted hominids who went extinct 28,000 years ago when our vastly more intelligent ancestors showed up and outsmarted them. Evolutionary failures, too stupid to survive.
Their reputation was borne when geologist William King presented the bones found in the Neander Valley in Germany to the European scientific community in 1864. He declared. “I feel myself constrained to believe that the thoughts and desires which once dwelt within it never soared beyond those of a brute,” and it was a description that stuck.
It was also a narrative that seemed to make sense. Neanderthals were stronger and had more robust bodies than modern humans. How did we survive, and they didn’t, if it wasn’t for us being so much cleverer? And, considering the Neanderthals survived for 250,000 years before going extinct when we’ve only been around for 100,000, it’s nice to have something to help convince ourselves that we won’t share the same fate.
Unfortunately for our fragile egos, recent discoveries are shedding some light on the way the Neanderthals lived, and it’s not looking as primitive as once thought. A 2020 study of the Abri du Maras, a Neanderthal campsite in France, revealed a 46,000-year-old 3 ply cord fragment. Stray pieces of string and threads have been found before at Neanderthal sites, but they were all discounted as having fallen from archaeologists’ clothes. This one was different as the strands were wrapped around a core of conifer tree bark, and as the paper’s lead author, Bruce Hardy, pointed out, “No one was wearing their conifer pants at the time.”
To make the string, the Neanderthals would’ve had to have had great dexterity, some understanding of numbers, and an operational memory capable of keeping track of all of the steps in the manufacturing process. It’s even more significant as it opens up the possibility that they may have been able to make nets, baskets, ropes, and even fabric.
On its own, the single discovery of a piece of cord might not have been enough to prompt a reimagining of our ancient relatives. However, other findings have come to light, including ornaments made from eagle talons, feather accessories, and the use of mineral pigments. Crafting a pretty feather necklace is hardly something you’d expect from our thuggish relatives.
So, they were dexterous, creative, and valued aesthetics, a massive departure from the brute hypothesis. What does this mean for the world of archaeology? We can no longer work off the assumption that if a prehistoric artefact that required anything more than hitting something with a rock is uncovered, it was our ancestors’ doing.
Some sites may even need to be revisited. Art discovered on the walls of caves in Spain, originally credited to early modern humans, has now been dated to 65,000 years ago, a time when only Neanderthals lived in Europe. Previously, this would’ve caused great confusion. Now we know the Neanderthals were perfectly capable of creating the cave paintings and probably much more.
2. A Lump of Fossilized Poo
Did you know that, under the right conditions, your poo can fossilize and preserve a record of everything you ate and were infested with for tens of thousands of years?
One fine example of this is the Lloyds bank coprolite, which holds the impressive title of largest recorded human poo in history. It lays at an impressive 8 inches long and an eye-watering 2 inches wide. Or at least it did until its display case collapsed while being held by an unfortunate teacher. The enormous turd plummeted to the ground and broke into three pieces. Don’t worry, they glued it back together.
It really is named after the well-known high-street bank, but only because it was discovered under the site of the building in York, England. Not because it was deposited by a customer. In fact, it’s 1,200 years old and was left by a Viking with a taste for meat and bread and a gut full of worms.
While the discovery that Vikings ate meat and practised poor food hygiene doesn’t immediately seem like groundbreaking, archaeology-shaking stuff, this isn’t all ancient poo can show us. Paeleoscatologists, or archaeologists specializing in the study of fossilized faeces, can now use DNA sequencing to shed light on archaeological sites previously thought to have given up all of their secrets.
A poo deposited in the right conditions, like in a cool, dry cave, can undergo a process called the Maillard reaction. This is where sugars in the faeces react with amino acids, forming larger sugar compounds. These can build a shell around the DNA, encasing it like an M&m and preserving it for millennia. To reverse the process, you simply need to freeze the poo, grind it, apply a diabetes drug to break down the sugars and, voila, DNA.
Of course, no great work is without its sacrifices. The fossilized poo doesn’t smell, but the organic compounds responsible for its odour will also have been trapped inside the sugar shell. When you break it, the smell will be released too. So, if you’ve ever wondered what a caveman’s poop smells like, become a Paeleoscatologist and you’ll get your chance.
DNA sequencing of faeces began with poo pioneers, Hendrik Poinar and Svante Pääbo, of the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. In 1998, they successfully sequenced the DNA trapped in 20,000-year-old ground sloth faeces, which was exciting but perhaps not as full of ground-breaking discoveries as human poop would be.
Unfortunately, human poo has proved hard to find as it’s disturbingly similar to that of dogs. Samples can’t even be distinguished by their DNA, due to ancient human diets including dog meat and dogs’ diets including human poo. This has posed a massive issue in the field of paeleofeces, as archaeologists have never been able to be fully sure of the source of their sample.
Educated guesses can be made based on where the sample was found and what it contains. Poop from an ancient latrine, probably human. Excrement full of dog hair, probably canine. But mistakes have been made. A recent re-examination of paeleofeces from a Neolithic site in Turkey has revealed that what was thought to be dog excrement, from the presence of digested bones, was actually human. Mapping the evolution of our gut biomes is impossible if datasets are full of canine anomalies and vice versa.
Fortunately, all is about to change. Advances in open source software have allowed scientists to combine DNA analysis with the identification of microbe colonies, and they’ve created coproID. A new method that allows reliable identification of the origin of poo. Archaeologists will now be able to determine exactly what prehistoric humans ate, how it was prepared, and where they got their food from.
Discoveries are already rolling in. One example is an Iron Age poo preserved in the salt mines of Austria, which has shown the miners consumed beer and blue cheese. This is the first molecular evidence of intentional fermentation with microorganisms being used to produce food and drink. Maybe it’s not so shocking that workers were drinking beer 2,700 years ago. But, the presence of Penicillium roqueforti in their poo, means they were pairing their booze with a nice Roquefort, Stilton, Danish Blue or Gorgonzola. Far more sophisticated than I would’ve given them credit for.
Further surprises turned up in samples from Hind Cave in Texas. Faeces, dating between 400 and 100 BCE, showed a diet consisting of pack rats, mice, fish, sheep, and pronghorn antelope. These findings have shattered the long-held belief that the area’s ancient humans had a poor diet consisting mostly of foraged berries. In fact, with five different types of meat eaten in two days, their diets had a wider diversity than most modern humans and were more similar to that of Henry VIII.
What does this mean for the world of archaeology? Perhaps now archaeologists will be just as excited about uncovering an ancient latrine as they would a gold-filled tomb? Or maybe not.
3. A Hunting Toolkit
Up until 2020, if you asked an archaeologist, “9,000 years ago, who were the hunters and who were the gatherers?” The majority would tell you that men went out after the big game while women stayed home, searched for berries and raised the children.
If you asked them today, you’d get a very different answer, thanks to the 2018 discovery of the 9,000-year-old remains of a teenage girl in Peru. Buried alongside her, were 24 artefacts that made up what was clearly a hunter’s toolkit. It included pointed projectiles, likely used to tip spears, chopping tools and a knife, not for use on rabbits and squirrels, but big game.
Of course, one anomalous grave isn’t enough to turn our understanding of ancient gender roles on its head. After all, if you look at the majority of hunter-gatherers in modern times, the duties are clear. Men hunt, women gather. However, the find prompted the team to go back and check other 10,000-year-old burial sites in the Americas. Of the graves that contained big game hunting tools, 16 were male, and 11 were female. Modelling suggests between 30 and 50% of hunters at the time were women. The girl hunter wasn’t an anomaly, she was the norm.
How did this slip through the net? The evidence was right there and had already been dug up. Archaeologists had simply explained hunting equipment away as food preparation gear, or mistakes. In some cases, bodies were wrongly assumed to be men based simply on the fact the grave contained weapons. They did this because of the 1960s ‘Man the Hunter Model’ which was convincing and pervasive.
It’s not just archaeologists who’ve been led astray either. Psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists have all published actual scientific studies citing it as an explanation for their findings. Men assume more risk, men are more competitive, men are better navigators, men have better spatial awareness, and even men are better are the Nintendo Wii are all conclusions based on this, now disproven, understanding of our ancestors. Back to the drawing board everyone.
4. The Village of the Pyramid Builders
Who built the pyramids? The long and widely held belief would tell you that it was slaves. It’s a story that dates back to the 5th century BCE. The Book of Exodus mentions the Israelites being used as slaves in Egypt, and the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote that 100,000 slaves, of unmentioned origin, were used to construct the pyramids. Put two and two together, and you get the classic picture of an Egyptian overseer whipping enslaved workers as they struggle to pull enormous stones across the sand.
To some extent, it was plausible. The skeletons of workers show they worked very hard, moving stone blocks as heavy as 9 tonnes with nothing more than wood and rope. Many show signs of arthritis, dismemberment and damaged vertebrae. The conditions wouldn’t have been great and it was dangerous, thousands died young. Even if officials had wanted to hire labourers, would it have been possible to find enough willing workers?
Yes, it turns out that they could, and now we can prove it thanks to an excavation near the Pyramids of Giza. A digger hit a stone block which turned out to be part of the wall of a 2,000-year-old workers’ village. Houses, dormitories and bakeries stretched over half a square mile, all built specifically to house and feed those constructing the massive monuments. The conditions were good. They were given excellent food and prime cuts of meat, as evidenced by the thousands of bread jars and animal bones. 21 buffalo and 23 sheep were delivered daily to feed the 10,000 workers.
In 2010, a woman, horse riding in the area uncovered more evidence that added weight to the worker theory. The horse’s leg fell into a crack and uncovered a small mud wall. This turned out to belong to a workers’ tomb. The site contained skeletons resting in the foetal position alongside beer and bread for their journey to the afterlife. Slaves would never have been buried with such care and respect. When bones were found that had been broken and healed, scientists compared them to that of noblemen with similar injuries and found they received the same level of medical care.
600 tombs were uncovered in total, containing half males and half females, a quarter of all skeletons were children, suggesting whole families lived around the pyramid’s construction site. They’d work for 3 months and then return home and be replaced with fresh, skilled workers.
How all these families were convinced to take up the dangerous work is still up for debate. Some suggest they did it out of respect for their pharaohs and the honour of contributing to such a magnificent project. The cynics propose farmers whose lands were flooded or those who had little work would be drafted in for room and board. An ancient form of unemployment benefits that would ensure you wouldn’t starve in times of hardship. Whichever it was, archaeologists no longer need to search for the graves of the slaves who built the pyramids.
5. The Rosetta stone
Considering it’s a language written largely in emojis by one of the most impressive civilisations in human history, you’d think that hieroglyphics would be easy to decipher. Or if not easy, at least possible. However, the ancient Egyptians managed to create writings that were so complicated, full of multiple meanings, puns, and tricks, they couldn’t even be read by the common people of the time, probably on purpose.
Some words were written phonetically, others were pictographic, with the picture literally representing what it looked like, and some were ideographic where a symbol could represent a whole concept. Pictures could be used as a sound in an otherwise phonetic word like an ancient form of dingbats. For example, a picture of the Sun would stand for the sound ‘ra’. To complicate things further, there are no gaps between words, no vowels, and the writer could choose the order and direction of symbols to be more aesthetically pleasing, expecting the reader to just figure it out.
This complexity acted as a gatekeeper to the education of the masses. It also meant that when control of Egypt fell to the Romans and Christianity, and later, Islam, the old gods and the ability to read hieroglyphics, were eventually lost. The Egyptian people lived for centuries, unable to access their culture and history, which was written right before their eyes.
That is until 1799, when French soldiers, rebuilding a Fort near the Egyptian town of Rosetta, uncovered a slab of black granodiorite that held the key to unlocking the ancient language. The stone was carved with a decree, inscribed in 196 BC, celebrating Ptolemy’s coronation. It explained at great length why he was such a magnificent ruler who lowered taxes and cut rebels to pieces, among other accomplishments. It also detailed exactly how his subjects should celebrate him, by wearing garlands and giving offerings.
However, while mildly interesting, the stone’s content didn’t matter anywhere near as much as the fact that the same message was written 3 times, in 3 different languages. Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic script and the still taught at the time, ancient Greek. This provided the key to reading a language that hadn’t been understood for over a thousand years. Captain Pierre Bouchard saw the potential, alerted scholars, and the stone was held, along with other Egyptian treasures, by the French. Fortunately, they didn’t keep it completely to themselves and plaster copies were made and sent to linguists around the world.
I’d like to say there was an incredible race to decipher the texts. The truth is, it was beyond most who attempted it. Many others were put off even trying by the mistaken believed the symbols represented concepts of great wisdom, rather than individual words or sentences. Two scholars, however, were up for the challenge. Englishman, Thomas Young and Frenchman Jean-François Champollion.
Thomas Young had the first breakthrough in 1814. He realised that the oval-shaped outlines, known as cartouches, were only drawn around names. This enabled him to identify the symbols for Ptolemy and some phonetic hieroglyphs. This was the starting point that was needed, but he struggled to get much further. Jean-François Champollion used Young’s discovery but had more success. After one breakthrough he famously burst into his brother’s office, declared, “Je tiens mon affair!” (“I’ve got it!”), and fainted. It took him 5 days to recover.
He announced the translation as complete in 1822, 23 years after the Stone’s discovery. This enabled scholar’s throughout the world to begin translating the hieroglyphs that had baffled the community for decades. Archaeologists were able to learn more about the history, culture and religion of Ancient Egypt. They could also look for clues, names and locations of as yet undiscovered tombs and treasures.
Although widely praised for his success and contribution to our understanding of Egyptian history, controversy remains as Champollion didn’t give Young the credit he deserved for his early breakthrough. There’s also the issue over ownership of the stone itself. Following Napoleon’s defeat, the English took possession and have held it in the British Museum ever since. While I’m sure the French would like it back, perhaps it’s time for the key to Egypt’s past to be returned to them.
By Laura Davies
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