Ancient Roman tavern found littered with patrons’ drinking bowls

An aerial view of the excavated tavern. Note the kitchen, which held the bread ovens and millstones, and the dining hall, which has a bench around three of its walls.

An aerial view of the excavated tavern. Note the kitchen, which held the bread ovens and millstones, and the dining hall, which has a bench around three of its walls. (Copyright 2016 Antiquity Publications Ltd. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press)

One of France’s earliest-known Roman taverns is still littered with drinking bowls and animal bones, even though more than 2,000 years have passed since it served patrons, a new archaeological study finds.

An excavation uncovered dozens of other artifacts, including plates and bowls, three ovens, and the base of a millstone that was likely used for grinding flour, the researchers said.

The finding is a valuable one, said study co-researcher Benjamin Luley, a visiting assistant professor of anthropology and classics at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Before the Romans invaded the south of France, in 125 B.C., a culture speaking the Celtic language lived there and practiced its own customs. [See Photos of the Ancient Roman Tavern Discovered in France]

These Celtic people lived in densely settled, fortified sites during the Iron Age (750 B.C. to 125 B.C.), trading with cultures near and far, the researchers said. But after the Roman invasion, the Celtic culture at this location changed socially and economically, Luley said.

For instance, the new findings suggest that some people under the Romans stopped preparing their own meals and began eating at communal places, such as taverns.

“Rome had a big impact on southern France,” Luley told Live Science. “We don’t see taverns before the Romans arrive.”

Tavern clues

The newly excavated tavern is located at Lattara, an archaeological site that’s been known to modern researchers since the early 1980s. But Luley and his colleague Gae?l Pique?s, a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research, were specifically looking for artifacts dating to the end of the Iron Age, when the Romans arrived, the archaeologists said.

The researchers were in luck: The site they uncovered dates to about 125 B.C. to 75 B.C., spanning the period following the Roman conquest, and was located at the intersection of two important streets, the scientists said.

At first, the researchers weren’t sure what to make of it. But a number of clues suggested the site was once a bustling tavern, one that likely served fish, flatbread, and choice cuts of cows and sheep, Luley said.

The excavated area includes a courtyard and two large rooms; one was dedicated to cooking and making flour, and the other was likely reserved for serving patrons, the researchers said.

There are three large bread ovens on one end of the kitchen, which indicates that “this isn’t just for one family,” but likely an establishment for serving many people, Luley said. On the other side of the kitchen, the researchers found a row of three stone piles, likely bases for a millstone that helped people grind flour, Luley said.

“One side, they’re making flour. On the other side, they’re making flatbread,” Luley said. “And they’re also probably using the ovens for other things as well.” For example, the archaeologists found lots of fish bones and scales that someone had cut off during food preparation, Luley added. [Photos: Mosaic Glass Dishes and Bronze Jugs from Roman England]

The other room was likely a dining room, the researchers said. The archaeologists uncovered a large fireplace and a bench along three of the walls that would have accommodated Romans, who reclined when they ate, Luley said. Moreover, the researchers found different kinds of animal bones, such as wishbones and fish vertebra, which people simply threw on the floor. (At that time, people didn’t have the same level of cleanliness as some do now, Luley noted.)

The dining room also had “an overrepresentation of drinking bowls,” used for serving wine — more than would typically be seen in a regular house, he said.

Next to the two rooms was a courtyard filled with more animal bones and an offering: a buried stone millstone, a drinking bowl and a plate that likely held cuts of meat.

“Based upon the evidence presented here, it appears that the courtyard complex … functioned as a space for feeding large numbers of people, well beyond the needs of a single domestic unit or nuclear family,” the researchers wrote in the study. “This is unusual, as large, ‘public’ communal spaces for preparing large amounts of food and eating together are essentially nonexistent in Iron Age Mediterranean France.”

Perhaps some of the people of Lattara needed places like the tavern to provide meals for them after the Romans arrived, Luley said.

“If they might be, say, working in the fields, they might not be growing their own food themselves,” he said. And though the researchers haven’t found any coins at the tavern yet, “We think that this is a beginning of the monetary economy” at Lattera, Luley said.

The study was published in the February issue of the journal Antiquity.

Original article on Live Science.

Civil War-era shipwreck found off North Carolina coast

The Civil War-era shipwreck off the coast of North Carolina (North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources)

The Civil War-era shipwreck off the coast of North Carolina (North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources)

A large iron-hulled Civil War-era steamer has been discovered in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina.

Experts believe the vessel may be one of three Confederate blockade-runners used against Union naval vessels blocking the port of Wilmington during the Civil War.

Related: Does this photo of Ulysses S. Grant look strange to you?

The well-preserved wreck, which is near Oak Island, was discovered on Feb.27 by researchers and archaeologists from the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology and the Institute of International Maritime Research. The team was conducting sonar operations in the area when researchers on the vessel Atlantic Surveyor recorded the shipwreck’s hull, according to a statement released by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

“A new runner is a really big deal,” said Billy Ray Morris, Deputy State Archaeologist-Underwater and Director of the Underwater Archaeology Branch, in the statement. “The state of preservation on this wreck is among the best we’ve ever had.”

Related: Man says photo at center of Civil War mystery is a 30-year-old hoax he did as a teen

Fox 8 reports that blockade-runners were the epitome of maritime stealth technology during the Civil War.

The wreck is located 27 miles downstream from Wilmington near Fort Caswell at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and is the first Civil War-era vessel discovered in the area in decades, according to the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Related: The ‘Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay’ in pictures

Researchers are working to identify the vessel. Three blockade runners – the Agnes E. Fry, Spunkie and Georgianna McCaw are known to have been lost in the area.

Available here

Archaeologists discover ancient Anglo-Saxon island in UK countryside

A Sceat, or coin, found at the site. (Credit: Portable Antiquities Scheme)

A Sceat, or coin, found at the site. (Credit: Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Experts in the U.K. have discovered the remains of an Anglo-Saxon island, which they are touting as a site of huge archaeological importance.

Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield identified the island at Little Carlton near Louth, Lincolnshire. “It is thought the site is a previously unknown monastic or trading centre but researchers believe their work has only revealed an enticing glimpse of the settlement so far,” explained the University of Sheffield, in a press release.

Related: Archaeologists find woman’s 2,500-year old seal in Jerusalem

The Anglo-Saxon era in Britain spanned from the 5th to the 11th centuries.

The amazing Lincolnshire discovery was sparked by Graham Vickers, a local man with a metal detector who unearthed a silver stylus from a disturbed plough field. Vickers reported the find to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which encourages the voluntary recording of archaeological objects found by members of the public.The ornate writing tool, which dates back to the 8thcentury, was the first of a number of items found at the site.

Related: A new chapter in the story of Joan of Arc’s ring

Artifacts found at the site now  include a total of 21 styli, around 300 dress pins, and a huge number of ‘Sceattas,’ which are coins from the 7th-8th centuries. A small lead tablet bearing the letters spelling the female Anglo-Saxon name ‘Cudberg’ was also found.

Hugh Willmott, senior lecturer in European historical archaeology at the University of Sheffield, and Pete Townend, a doctoral student at the university, visited the site to carry out targeted geophysical surveys. The archaeologists also used measured and mapped magnetism in the soil and performed 3D modelling to visualise the landscape on a large scale.

Related: Oldest Muslim graves in France discovered

“The imagery showed that the island they had discovered was much more obvious than the land today, rising out of its lower surroundings,” explained the university. “To complete the picture the researchers raised the water level digitally to bring it back up to its early medieval height based on the topography and geophysical survey.”

In an attempt to find out more about life at the site, University of Sheffield students opened nine evaluation trenches, which revealed items indicating that the islands may have been an Anglo-Saxon industrial area. They also found significant amounts of pottery and butchered animal bone.

Related: Why did ancient Europeans just disappear 14,500 Years Ago?

“Our findings have demonstrated that this is a site of international importance, but its discovery and initial interpretation has only been possible through engaging with a responsible local metal detectorist who reported their finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme,” said Willmott, in a statement.

A computer-generated timelapse video posted to YouTube by the University of Sheffield shows how the island became part of the modern landscape.

Oldest Muslim graves in France discovered

These three graves found in southern France likely belong to medieval-era Muslim men.

These three graves found in southern France likely belong to medieval-era Muslim men. (Gleize, Y. et al. PLOS ONE. 2016.)

Three medieval graves in southern France may hold the remains of three Muslim men, a new study finds.

Several clues provide hints about the graves’ occupants. Not only are the individuals’ faces oriented toward Mecca, a holy city for Muslims, but the shape of the grave is reminiscent of other Muslim burials, the researchers said.

If the individuals were indeed Muslim, these graves would be the earliest Muslim burials on record in France, the researchers said. [Images of a Medieval Mass Burial in Paris]

“It’s a new insight on the knowledge of settlement of French territory,” said study co-lead researcher Yves Gleize, an archaeologist and anthropologist at the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research and the University of Bordeaux. “I hope that, in the future, we’ll find other Muslim burials to [help pinpoint] the Muslim occupation in the south of France.”

Gleize and his colleagues found the graveyard during an excavation of a Roman quarter in Nimes, in southern France. (The excavation took place before a parking lot was built over the area, Gleize said.) As time went on, they found about 20 scattered graves; the lack of any order suggested that these bodies weren’t buried in a cemetery, he said.

“We knew that during the early Middle Ages in France, there were a lot of scattered graves in [the] countryside,” Gleize told Live Science in an email. “But I was very surprised when I looked at the position of the skeleton in three of these graves.”

During the Middle Ages, the Arab-Islamic conquest led to significant political and cultural changes around the Mediterranean. There is evidence that Muslims lived on the Iberian Peninsula during early medieval times, but there is less evidence of them north of the Pyrenees, the mountain range that separates Spain from the rest of mainland Europe, the researchers said.

Gleize knew of Muslim graves at Montpellier and Marseille dating to the 12th and 13th centuries, respectively. But radiocarbon dating showed that the newfound graves are even older, dating to between the seventh and ninth centuries, he said.

Historical records indicate that there was a Muslim presence in France during the early Middle Ages, during the eighth century, so the dates for these graves make sense, he said.

Grave research

After discovering the graves, Gleize and his colleagues studied the funerary practices, analyzed the individuals’ DNA and determined their sex and approximate ages.

The analyses indicated that the men — adults ranging from about 30 to older than 50 years old — were Muslim, Gleize said. The bodies (buried on their right sides) and faces (which are oriented southeast) point toward Mecca. Moreover, the burial pits are socket-shaped, a design feature common among Muslim graves, he said.

An analysis of the DNA and mitochondrial DNA (genetic material passed down through the maternal line) showed that these men likely descended from, or were related to, people who lived in North Africa. [8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]

These clues suggest that the three men were Berbers, a group of North Africans who integrated with the Arab religion and armies during the early Middle Ages. It’s likely these men were part of the Umayyad army, the force that conquered southwest Europe beginning in the eighth century, the researchers said.

“For the moment, we cannot assert that they were born in North Africa, but their presence in [the] south of France is surely linked with the presence of Berbers in the Arab army,” Gleize said.

Though the graves suggest that Muslims lived in southern France during the Middle Ages, Gleize said he and his colleagues “don’t know about the type of contact [they had] with the local population,” he said. “[But] one of the skeletons was surely more than 50 years old,” he added. “It’s possible that he lived several years at Nimes before he died.”

The findings were detailed online Feb. 24 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Copyright 2016 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Archaeologists discover ancient winery, bathhouse at Jerusalem construction site

The winery. Aerial view: Guy Fitoussi, Israel Antiquities Authority.

The winery. Aerial view: Guy Fitoussi, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Archaeologists have discovered a winery dating to the Roman or Byzantine period on the site that is set to house residential buildings for Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox population.

The discovery is the latest twist for a site that has quite a history. It was home for the Schneller Orphanage from 1860 until World War II. During the British Mandate, its German inhabitants were expelled and a military base was established there. Following the British withdrawal in 1948, the compound was turned over to the Hagana, a Jewish paramilitary organization, and later served as an army base for the Israel Defense Force until 2008.

Related: New scans of King Tut’s tomb may reveal hidden burial chamber

Ahead of the new construction, the Israel Antiquities Authority was tasked with doing an archaeological excavation. During the process, they found the winery that is about 1,600 years old that included a pressing surface paved with a white mosaic. There is also a pit for pressing the grapes and eight cells around the pressing surface that probably were used for storing the grapes, and possibly for making different flavors of wine.

“Once again, Jerusalem demonstrates that wherever one turns over a stone ancient artifacts will be found related to the city’s glorious past,” Alex Wiegmann, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement. “The archaeological finds discovered here help paint a living, vibrant and dynamic picture of Jerusalem as it was in ancient times up until the modern era.”

Amit Re’em, the Jerusalem district archaeologist, said the discovery demonstrates what can be achieved when scientists work with the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community.

Related: 7-year-old finds 3,400-year-old figurine in Israel

“The general public is used to hearing of the clashes between the archaeologists and the orthodox community around the issue of the graves, but is unaware of the joint work done on a daily basis and the interest expressed by the ultra-orthodox sector,” he said in a statement. “The Israel Antiquities Authority is working to instill our ancient cultural heritage in this population, as it does with other sectors”.

The archaeologists believe that this winery served the residents of a large manor house, whose inhabitants made their living by, among other things, viticulture and wine production.

Next to the winery, archeologists also found evidence of a bathhouse – including terra cotta pipes used to heat the bathhouse and several clay bricks, some of which were stamped with the name of the Tenth Roman Legion. This legion was one of four Roman legions that participated in the conquest of Jewish Jerusalem, and its units remained garrisoned in the city until c. 300 A.D.

Related: Textiles from the time of King David found in ancient Israeli mine

One of the Roman legion’s main centers was in the vicinity of Binyanei Ha-Uma, located a few hundred meters from the current excavation site. The manor house may have been an auxiliary settlement to the main site, since it housed a bathhouse there.

Why did ancient Europeans just disappear 14,500 Years Ago?

Dolnte Vestonice burial 16, South Moravia, Czech Republic. (Martin Frouz)

Dolnte Vestonice burial 16, South Moravia, Czech Republic. (Martin Frouz)

Some of Europe’s earliest inhabitants mysteriously vanished toward the end of the last ice age and were largely replaced by others, a new genetic analysis finds.

The finds come from an analysis of dozens of ancient fossil remains collected across Europe.

The genetic turnover was likely the result of a rapidly changing climate, which the earlier inhabitants of Europe couldn’t adapt to quickly enough, said the study’s co-author, Cosimo Posth, an archaeogenetics doctoral candidate at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

The temperature change around that time was “enormous compared to the climactic changes that are happening in our century,” Posth told Live Science. “You have to imagine that also the environment changed pretty drastically.”

A twisted family tree

Europe has a long and tangled genetic legacy. Genetic studies have revealed that the first modern humans who poured out of Africa, somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago, soon got busy mating with local Neanderthals. At the beginning of the agricultural revolution, between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, farmers from the Middle East swept across Europe, gradually replacing the native hunter-gatherers. Around 5,000 years ago, nomadic horsemen called the Yamnaya emerged from the steppes of Ukraine and intermingled with the native population. In addition, another lost group ofancient Europeans mysteriously vanished about 4,500 years ago, a 2013 study in the journal Nature Communications found.

But relatively little was known about human occupation of Europe between the first out-of-Africa event and the end of the last ice age, around 11,000 years ago. During some of that time, the vast Weichselian Ice Sheet covered much of northern Europe, while glaciers in the Pyrenees and the Alps blocked east-west passage across the continent.

Lost lineages

To get a better picture of Europe’s genetic legacy during this cold snap, Posth and his colleagues analyzed mitochondrial DNA — genetic material passed on from mother to daughter — from the remains of 55 different human fossils between 35,000 and 7,000 years old, coming from across the continent, from Spain to Russia. Based on mutations, or changes in this mitochondrial DNA, geneticists have identified large genetic populations, or super-haplogroups, that share distant common ancestors.

“Basically all modern humans outside of Africa, from Europe to the tip of South America, they belong to these two super-haplogroups that are M or N,” Posth said. Nowadays, everyone of European descent has the N mitochondrial haplotype, while the M subtype is common throughout Asia and Australasia.

The team found that in ancient people, the M haplogroup predominated until about 14,500 years ago, when it mysteriously and suddenly vanished. The M haplotype carried by the ancient Europeans, which no longer exists in Europe today, shared a common ancestor with modern-day M-haplotype carriers around 50,000 years ago.

The genetic analysis also revealed that Europeans, Asians and Australasians may descend from a group of humans who emerged from Africa and rapidly dispersed throughout the continent no earlier than 55,000 years ago, the researchers reported Feb. 4 in the journal Current Biology.

Time of upheaval

The team suspects this upheaval may have been caused by wild climate swings.

At the peak of the ice age, around 19,000 to 22,000 years ago, people hunkered down in climactic “refugia,” or ice-free regions of Europe, such as modern-day Spain, the Balkans and southern Italy, Posth said. While holdouts survived in a few places farther north, their populations shrank dramatically.

Then around 14,500 years ago, the temperature spiked significantly, the tundra gave way to forest and many iconic beasts, such as woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers, disappeared from Eurasia, he said.

For whatever reason, the already small populations belonging to the M haplogroup were not able to survive these changes in their habitat, and a new population, carrying the N subtype, replaced the M-group ice-age holdout, the researchers speculate.

Exactly where these replacements came from is still a mystery. But one possibility is that the newer generation of Europeans hailed from southern European refugia that were connected to the rest of Europe once the ice receded, Posth speculated. Emigrants from southern Europe would also have been better adapted to the warming conditions in central Europe, he added.

Copyright 2016 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

New scans of King Tut’s tomb may reveal hidden burial chamber

File photo - The golden mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamen is seen on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, January 24, 2015. (REUTERS/Al Youm Al Saabi Newspaper)

File photo – The golden mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamen is seen on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, January 24, 2015. (REUTERS/Al Youm Al Saabi Newspaper)

On April 2, a new series of radar scans will be performed on King Tutankhamun’s tomb to search for hidden chambers that may contain an undiscovered royal burial, Egypt’s antiquities ministry has announced.

The announcement comes after stories were published in numerous media outlets last week claiming that Egypt’s tourism minister, Hisham Zazou, had told the Spanish news outlet ABC that the chambers had been proven to exist and contain numerous treasures.

“The Ministry of Antiquities has not issued any statement concerning the results that have been reached so far,” the ministry said in a statement released to Live Science. “Further radar examinations will be performed on April 2, and a press conference will be held afterwards to announce the results of the scan.” [See Photos of King Tut’s Mummy & His Burial]

Last year, University of Arizona Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves published findings suggesting that there are hidden chambers behind a wall inTutankhamun’s tomb. These chambers, he believes, hold the burial of Queen Nefertiti, the wife of Akhenaten, a pharaoh who was Tutankhamun’s father.

“We could be faced, for the first time in recent history, with the intact burial of an Egyptian pharaoh in the Valley of the Kings,” Reeves told Live Science last year.

Scans performed by Factum Arte, a company commissioned to scan Tutankhamun’s tomb, show unusual lines and abnormalities in the plaster of the tomb, Reeves said, adding that these features indicate that a wall was built over a doorway in ancient times.

Some of the artifacts in Tutankhamun’s tomb were originally made for Nefertiti but were buried with Tutankhamun after the boy king’s death, Reeves found.

Radar scans performed on the tomb last year suggest that a void could exist behind the wall. Egypt’s former antiquities minister, Zahi Hawass, urged that the claims be viewed cautiously. He noted that the geology of the Valley of the Kings can lead radar to produce false positives showing a tomb when, in fact, there is only a natural feature.

Reeves did not immediately respond to Live Science’s requests for comment on the latest developments.

Tourism disaster

Tourism has long been a major industry in Egypt. Since the revolution that toppled former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt’s tourism industry has struggled, archaeologists have told Live Science. The political instability over the past five years has meant that the number of visitors to Egypt has yet to return to its prerevolution levels.

Additionally, recent terrorist attacks — including the bombing of a Russian plane in the Sinai Desert, an attack carried out by the Islamic State group, or ISIS — have made it difficult for the Egyptian government to convince tourists that the country is safe to visit, according to these archaeologists.

Egyptian officials hope that, if a hidden tomb is discovered, it will spur tourists to return to Egypt, bringing badly needed revenue and jobs to the country.

Scientists crown ‘Earth’s first animal’

File photo - Sponges hang in the sun off a shroud line on a sponge boat tied up on the dock along the Anticlote River in Tarpon Springs, Florida, April 6, 2014. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

File photo – Sponges hang in the sun off a shroud line on a sponge boat tied up on the dock along the Anticlote River in Tarpon Springs, Florida, April 6, 2014. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Way before humans, sharks, or dinosaurs, the sea sponge was very likely the first animal on Earth. That’s according to a PNAS study out of MIT concluding that a molecule in 640 million-year-old rocks came from the simple creature.

Assuming the researchers are right, that means the multi-celled organisms were around at least 100 million years before most animal groups blossomed during what’s known as the Cambrian explosion, reports MIT News.

The few fossils from the pre-Cambrian era are difficult for paleontologists to evaluate, so researchers looked to molecule traces left behind in rocks by decaying creatures.

One molecule in particular, a modified version of cholesterol called 24-isopropylcholestane, kept cropping up, the same one produced by some sea sponges and algae today. Using what Discovery calls “evolutionary-tree detective work,” the researchers were able to rule out algae as the source.

“We brought together paleontological and genetic evidence to make a pretty strong case that this really is a molecular fossil of sponges,” says one of the scientists.

“This is some of the oldest evidence for animal life.” The find isn’t so much a bombshell as further confirmation of a widely held theory that life originated with sea sponges.

And it opens the door to yet more questions about this earliest stage of animal life, including precisely what the organisms looked like and what kind of environment allowed them to thrive.

Another biggie as stated by the MIT researcher: “Why is there this big gap in the fossil record?” (Sea sponges may have helped create other animals.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Meet ‘Earth’s First Animal’

7-year-old finds 3,400-year-old figurine in Israel

A 3,400-year-old figurine found by a 7-year-old boy in Israel.

A 3,400-year-old figurine found by a 7-year-old boy in Israel. (Israel Antiquities Authority )

Seven-year-old Ori Greenhut was hiking up an archaeological mound in Israel when he came across a huge stone. On closer inspection, the youngster saw a face staring back at him.

What he found on the Tel Rehov mound completely stunned him and his friends. Just beneath the soil, they discovered a 3,400-year-old clay figurine with a portrait of a naked woman. It has since been compared by antiquity authorities to figurines from the Canaanite culture of the 15th to 13th centuries BCE.

Related: Textiles from the time of King David found in ancient Israeli mine

“Ori returned home with the impressive figurine and the excitement was great,” Ori’s mother, Moriya Greenhut, said in a statement. “We explained to him this is an ancient artifact and that archaeological finds belong to the State”.

The Greenhut family turned palm-sized figurine over to the Israel Antiquities Authority. The clay figurine is believed to have been made by pressing soft clay into a mold.

“Some researchers think the figure depicted here is that of a real flesh and blood woman, and others view her as the fertility goddess Astarte, known from Canaanite sources and from the Bible,” Amihai Mazar, professor emeritus at Hebrew University and expedition director of the archaeological excavations at Tel Rehov who examined the figurine, said in a statement.

Related: Ancient fortress discovery may solve one of Jerusalem’s great archaeological mysteries

“It is highly likely that the term trafim mentioned in the Bible indeed refers to figurines of this kind”. Mazar said. “Evidently the figurine belonged to one of the residents of the city of Rehov, which was then ruled by the central government of the Egyptian pharaohs”.

‘Space archaeologists’ show spike in looting at Egypt’s ancient sites

Months after seeing evidence of looting from space, Parcak and her colleagues went to look at the looting pits in Dahshur for themselves. This one was 10 meters (33 feet) deep.

Months after seeing evidence of looting from space, Parcak and her colleagues went to look at the looting pits in Dahshur for themselves. This one was 10 meters (33 feet) deep. (Antiquity/Parcak et al, courtesy of G. Mumford)

As economic and political instability rocked Egypt, looters increasingly plundered the country’s archaeological sites, leaving holes across the nation’s ancient landscapes.

That’s the trend reported today in the journal Antiquity by archaeologists who used satellite images to monitor sites in Egypt from 2002 to 2013.

For the last several years, “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has pored over satellite images to discover lost pyramids, tombs and cities buried in Egypt. (She’s even detected the network of streets and houses of ancient Tanis, the city featured in the Indiana Jones movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”) In her latest study, Parcak didn’t analyze ancient features, but rather looked at modern ones in Egypt: the holes in the ground left by tomb robbers and antiquities thieves. [Reclaimed History: 9 Repatriated Egyptian Antiquities]

“Simply staggering” pits

Parcak and her colleagues looked at satellite images for 1,100 archaeological sites in Egypt’s Nile Valley and Delta between 2002 and 2013. The researchers found that the first spike in looting actually came before the political uncertainty of the Arab Spring, the wave of uprisings that began the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. Looting levels at least doubled from 2009 to 2010, in connection with the global economic crisis, and then doubled again from 2011 to 2013, following the revolution that began in Egypt in January 2011.

If looting rates continue at their current rate, all 1,100 sites examined in the study will be looted by 2040, Parcak and her colleagues wrote in the new study.

“The number of looting pits dug during 2009 and 2010 is, in our opinion, simply staggering,” Parcak and her colleagues wrote. They counted 15,889 looting pits in their 2009 satellite data, and 18,634 in the 2010 data. For comparison, just 3,247 pits were visible in the satellite data from 2008.

Looting thengrew even worse after the onset of the Arab Spring. On average, the researchers counted 38,000 annual looting pits from 2011 to 2013. Nearly three-quarters of the total damage the archaeologists documented in the study took place during this three-year period.

This trend was borne out at individual sites, such as the area around the crumbling Middle Kingdom pyramid of Amenemhet III at Dahshur, south of Cairo. The site showed no signs of looting in 2009. But by May 2011, satellite images of the same area show a dozen or so looting pits. By September 2012, the site was pockmarked with holes, and by May 2013, the situation was even worse.

When Parcak and her colleagues went to examine the site on foot in December 2014, they saw the looting pits up close. Some of holes were up to 30 feet deep, the researchers said.

What happens after looters find treasure?

Parcak and her colleagues aren’t the only ones tracking looting from space; other researchers have applied the same technique to sites in Syria and Iraq, where conflict has left archaeological sites vulnerable to destruction.

“What satellite imagery has done is show us the scale of the problem,” said David Gill, a professor of archaeological heritage at the U.K.’s University Campus Suffolk. Gill, who was not involved in the study, noted that the striking images of looting holes should prompt some further questions: How much material must be coming out of these sites, and what’s happening to these objects? Are they being stored in warehouses? Or are they entering the market? [In Photos: Amazing Egyptian Artifacts]

Auction data compiled by Gill shows that the total value of Egyptian antiquities sold at Sotheby’s in 2002 was about $3 million, but then during the 2009-2010 period, this value was more than $13 million. Parcak and her colleagues noted that the increase in the market mirrors the increase in looting evidenced by the satellite data, which suggests there might be a connection.

“My hunch is that what we need to do is more analysis of what’s coming onto the market,” Gill said, adding that auction houses and galleries need to have more rigorous “due diligence” tests to authenticate Egyptian antiquities and make sure these objects have legitimate collecting histories. A stricter market might also discourage looters. “If you can’t sell it, it’s not worth looting.”

Satellite imagery could also play a role in the search for illicit antiquities on the art market, Parcak and her colleagues wrote. For instance, if the data from space show that an Egyptian New Kingdom site has been heavily looted, a generalized international watch list could be created to make dealers and auction houses aware of the kinds of mummy masks and other antiquities that should raise suspicion.

The researchers mentioned another needed area of study: on-the-ground ethnographic work to understand who is looting these ancient sites and why. (For instance, are the looters desperate locals or members of opportunistic crime cartels?)

Citizen space-archaeologists

Parcak also wants to enlist members of the public in her fight against art crimes and her quest for undiscovered monuments. She was awarded the 2016 TED Prize, and at the TED Conference in Vancouver earlier this month, she announced what she plans to do with her $1 million award: turn citizens into space archaeologists with a platform called Global Xplorer.

“I believe there are millions of archaeological sites left to find,” Parcak said,according to TED. But searching vast areas with satellite data takes a long time. Parcak said she hopes to tackle this problem with a citizen-science platform. Her plan for Global Xplorer is to give citizen archaeologists an online tutorial on how to look for never-before-studied ancient features as well as signs of looting. Then, these participants would be sent a series of satellite images to analyze.

“We’ll be treating sites like human patient data, and not revealing GPS points or showing you where your image is on a map,” Parcak said. “The data will only be shared with vetted authorities, to create a global alarm system to help protect sites around the world.”

The model sounds similar to other crowdsourced projects that have emerged in recent years that ask citizen scientists to do things like count craters on the moon, identify features on Mars, transcribe British war diaries and categorize animals in camera trap photos from the Serengeti. (Those are just some examples from the dozens of projects that can be found on the citizen science portal Zooniverse.)

“A hundred years ago, archaeology was for the rich. Fifty years ago, it was mainly for men. Now, it is primarily for academics,” Parcak said in her talk. “Our goal is to democratize the process of archeological discovery and allow anyone to participate.”

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