Archive for May, 2013

Heartbreaking Archaeological Discovery: Earliest Case of Child Abuse

By: The Scribe on May, 2013

Sadly, not all discoveries in archaeology are of the “amazing!” and “how fascinating…” variety. Sometimes we learn a little more about ancient times and are saddened by the truth of the past. It’s easy to idealize ancient cultures, because most of what’s left behind presents a one-sided picture of ancient society. Aside from the remnants of war, the ugly bits of everyday life aren’t as easily found or seen.

kellis toddlerOne of those heartbreaking discoveries has come to light in the Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, at a 2,000 year old burial of a child. The body, buried in what’s known as the Kellis 2 cemetery, displays signs of what may be the earliest known case of child abuse in the archaeological record—and the first case ever found in Egypt.

The Dakhleh Oasis town of Kellis has been continually occupied since Neolithic times, making it a key site for understanding the archaeological record of the area. The cemeteries located near the oasis are also highly valuable in that they’re allowing scientists to examine the early beginnings of Christianity in Egypt.

The body of the 2 or 3-year-old child, buried during a Romano-Christian period, was buried according to early Christian mortuary practices. Burial 519, as it was first known, seemed like a typical burial until lead researcher Sandra Wheeler and colleague began to notice fractures on the skeleton—arms, collarbone, and elsewhere.

Although other child skeletons have shown skeletal trauma, “this is the only one that had these really extreme fracture patterns”, says Wheeler. X-rays and other procedures on the skeleton showed additional fractures on the ribs, pelvis, back, and forearm. The injuries were also at different healing stages when the child was buried, suggesting strongly that the trauma was repeated and nonaccidental.

And while researchers can’t say with absolute certainty that the fractures are diagnostic evidence of child abuse, one set of fractures on the child’s upper arms—fully broken bone, on each arm—would have taken significant force to create. Researchers have been able to deduce through modern clinical knowledge that in order to create those types of breaks, someone would have had to grab the child’s arms and used them to violently shake the toddler.

Other injuries, such as those to the ribcage and spine, were likely the result of direct blows to the body.

collarbone fracture (credit--Sandra Wheeler)Did the abuse cause the child’s death? Archaeologists and researchers are not certain, though the collarbone break shown above may have contributed to it.

One good piece of news out of this discovery is that the child in Burial 519 was the only child skeleton (out of 158!) in the cemetery to show evidence of abuse, suggesting that child abuse was not a normal practice in this ancient community. Rather, all other evidence confirms the common belief that Egyptians highly valued children as members of society.

Carbon dating shows that the cemetery was in general use between 50 and 450 A.D., during a Roman period in Egypt—Romans had quite a different concept of children, and were not afraid to use corporal punishment. It’s possible this abuse case may have been a result of Roman influence, but we may never know for certain.

(Research on this case will be published in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Paleopathology.)

Ancient Canadian Clam Gardens

By: The Scribe on May, 2013

clamsNow, that’s a gardening exhibit you won’t see every day… clam gardens?!

But that’s what researchers are calling the ancient food storage system found on Russell Island’s beach in British Columbia. The clam gardens were discovered six years ago, and University of Victoria students are still helping to sift gravel, sand, and shells to figure out the origins and purpose of the gardens.

The clam gardens aren’t gardens in the traditional sense of the word—ie. where you’d find an abundance of plant life—but rather they’re locations where clams are able to grow naturally, abundantly, and where the environment in those locations can be manipulated to increase clam production. Sort of like feeding compost to a backyard garden to help it grow.

It’s thought that the clam gardens are at least 1,000 years old, but possibly older. The gardens look like small fields constructed on the beach at low tide (a necessity!), with rock walls surrounding the locations. The walls would have helped provide a barrier to stop seaweed and predators from getting inside the garden and damaging or disturbing the growing clams.

And just like a backyard gardener does when taking care of his or her plants, whoever tended the clam garden would have needed to till the sand (so to speak) to keep the oxygen flowing.

Who built the clam gardens is another question entirely. A thousand years ago, an aboriginal community lived on the island, so it’s possible that the clams were used for both food and trade—but that said, clam gardens are a new(ish) discovery for Canadian archaeologists, with the first one discovered only as recently as 1995.

Inevitably, there’s still much to be learned about these ancient clam gardens, and it’s possible that there are many more out there still to be discovered.

The Secret Hues of Phoenician Art

By: The Scribe on May, 2013

phoenician plaqueThree thousand years ago, the Phoenicians created intricately carved ivory sculptures, featuring various figures and symbols that have helped add to our knowledge of these ancient sea-faring people.

The Phoenicians were Semitic traders, and perhaps best known for inventing an alphabet that was later adopted by the Greeks… and eventually, by us! The Phoenicians were also known for their control of purple-dye pigment across the Mediterranean during 1500-300 B.C… and evidently their eye for color extended beyond brightly hued robes.

Despite being displayed in museums around the world for centuries, a number of Phoenician carvings examined by researchers in France and Germany have shown traces of metal that are invisible to the naked eye. These 8th-century B.C. sculptures have metal traces that were often used in colored pigment in antiquity—including the Egyptians’ copper-based blue, and iron-based hematite.

These metals aren’t naturally found in ivory or in the soil surrounding the once-buried ivory carvings, and have helped to confirm what some scholars have long suspected: the Phoenicians painted their carvings with bright, gaudy colors.

phoenician ivory colorAnd the sculptures that weren’t brightly colored? Those were gilded.

“Knowledge of an object’s original appearance can help us understand why it was so visually powerful to ancient viewers,” says Benjamin Porter, an archaeologists at the University of California (Berkeley). Looking at the Phoenician carvings this way may help to further the examination of ancient sculptures from other cultures.

Who knows—we may soon learn that the ancient world was far more colorful than we’ve previously believed!

Early Earth’s Stinky Perfume

By: The Scribe on May, 2013

gunflintia fossilYou know how some people like to sniff babies, but sometimes they sniff them at just the wrong time and get a whiff of a recent… ahem… “deposit,” instead of that newborn scent?

Well, early Earth had a newborn smell of its own… and it definitely wasn’t a sweet baby scent. Rather, advanced imagining techniques from scientists have brought us some interesting news about early Earth’s, uh… stench.

How much do you enjoy the smell of rotten eggs?

Because if you’d happened to have lived 1.9 billion years ago, you would have loved it. You’d have had no choice!

Scientists studied fossils taken from rocks around Lake Superior, Canada, and discovered bacteria that used to eat the outer shells of a larger type of bacterium called Gunflintia. In order to digest the hard shell, the happily dining bacteria needed to use oxygen atoms from salt found in seawater—perhaps better known by the term “sulphates.”

This process created gaseous carbon dioxide and released it into the atmosphere, along with the byproduct of—you guessed it—hydrogen sulfide. And that delicious byproduct is what creates the commonly known “rotten egg smell,” which anyone who lives near a water treatment plant in the modern age is highly familiar with.

Now, apparently this didn’t mean that the whole world stunk, but anyone with a delicate sense of smell would have certainly noticed the distinctive aroma.

gunflintiaAnother interesting fact about the discovery is that it revealed the earliest known fossil record of “one kind of creature eating another creature,” says Martin Brasier, a paleobiologist at London’s Oxford University. "This is the group that was producing the oxygen we now breathe."

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