Sickle-wearing skeletons reveal ancient fear of demons

In addition to the sickle placed at her neck, the teenage girl seems to have been buried with a copper headband and a copper coin.

In addition to the sickle placed at her neck, the teenage girl seems to have been buried with a copper headband and a copper coin. (Polcyn et al. Antiquity 2015, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2015.129)

How do you keep a demon from disturbing the living? A blade to the throat should do the trick.

A few skeletons unearthed in a 400-year-old Polish cemetery have been discovered with sickles placed around their necks. Archaeologists believe this strange burial practice is evidence of a belief in magic and a fear of demons.

The sickle burials were found at Drawsko cemetery, a site in northeastern Poland that dates from the 17th to the 18th centuries. Archaeologists, including Marek Polcyn, a visiting scholar at Lakehead University in Canada, have excavated more than 250 graves there since 2008.

Among those graves were four skeletons with sickles placed at their throats, and a fifth skeleton with a sickle placed over its hips. Previously, these burials had been described as “vampire” burials, with the sickles interpreted as a way to prevent the dead from reanimating and terrorizing the living. But in a new study detailed in the journal Antiquity, Polcyn and co-author Elzbieta Gajda, of the Muzeum Ziemi Czarnkowskiej, now reject that characterization. (“We deliberately dismiss the interpretation of a revenant (i.e. vampire),” isn’t something you read in an academic paper every day.) [See Photos of the Sickle Burials at Drawsko Cemetery]

Instead, the archaeologists prefer to use the blanket term “anti-demonic” to talk about these burials, partly because vampires weren’t the only kinds of evil incarnations of the dead, according to traditional folk beliefs in the region. But also, the sickle graves were afforded funerary privileges that weren’t usually extended to “vampires” buried elsewhere: They were given Christian burials in sacred ground alongside other members of the community, and their corpses do not appear to have been desecrated or mutilated.

In another sign that the people buried with sickles probably were not outsiders, scientists who studied chemical signatures locked in the teeth of these corpses found that all five individuals were locals. (They published those results in apaper in PLOS ONE last year.)

“The magical and ritual meaning of this gesture seems beyond doubt,” Polcyn and Gajda wrote, adding, however, that the sickle might have had more than one ritualistic meaning. The tool may have been intended to keep the dead in their graves under the threat of cutting their throat, but it also might have been used to prevent evil forces from tormenting their souls. What’s more, the use of a tool made of iron, which had to undergo a transformation in fire, could symbolize the passage from life to death, the authors wrote. [7 Strange Ways Humans Act Like Vampires]

Even though Christianity was the dominant religion in Poland at the time this cemetery was used, traditions from old Slavic pagan faith and folk belief systems still existed, including a belief in demons. Besides the sickles, there is not much that makes these graves unique, so the scientists aren’t sure exactly what about these people made them demonic. They may have been thought to have supernatural powers in life, or they might have had physical characteristics considered suspicious (which might have included “an exceptionally hairy body,” a unibrow, a large head and a red complexion, the authors said, citing traditional Polish folklore).

These people also might have died in a traumatic fashion, without any time for the appropriate rites and rituals to make for a smooth spiritual transition into death — a concept some archaeologists call a “bad death.” While some of the people buried with sickles may have simply died of old age, one of them, a girl, died as a teenager. The authors speculated that she might have met a violent and untimely end, perhaps through drowning, suicide or murder. Unfortunately for archaeologists, however, this death didn’t leave its mark on the girl’s bones.

Polcyn and Gajda wrote that they hope further scientific tests on the corpses, such as biomolecular analyses, will help them understand more specifically what led the dead in Drawsko to be buried with sickles.


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Experts Stumped by Artifact Get Answer From Facebook



By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 23, 2015 3:09 AM CST | Updated Dec 23, 2015 4:00 AM CST

(NEWSER) – A mysterious gold-plated artifact that baffled the Israel Antiquities Authority for months was identified within hours after the experts turned to the public with aFacebook post. After suggestions that it was a rolling pin or a cattle insemination device, Italian man Micah Barak correctly identified the object found in an old building at a Jerusalem cemetery as something called an “Isis beamer,”NBC News reports. The solid metal object—named for the Egyptian goddess, not the extremist group—is a modern New Age device made in Germany that “is intended for the use of naturopaths and people dealing with energy healing,” the antiquities authority says.

The cemetery is an important archaeological site, and experts say that while they suspected that the device might be of modern origin, they consulted religious experts, a jeweler, and had a lab at the Weizmann Institute of Science analyze it after finding it, just in case it was an ancient temple treasure that had been lost for thousands of years. “At first we thought it was a military object, but then began to dream. I have been in this business for a long time and cannot recall such a mystery,” the head of the authority’s anti-theft unit tells Haaretz. The antiquities authority has invited Barak to visit Israel, and it says it still wants to find out how the object came to be buried in an ancient structure, NBC reports. (Last month, the authority solved what it calls “one of the great archaeological riddles in the history of Jerusalem.”)


The object's makers claim it emits a form of wave energy that protects against radiation.
The object’s makers claim it emits a form of wave energy that protects against radiation.   (Israel Antiquities Authority)

America’s Oldest European Settlement Has Been Found



By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff

Posted Dec 17, 2015 5:22 PM CST

(NEWSER) – The Pensacola News Journal has a highly interactive and informative look at a major discovery out of Florida: the oldest multi-year European settlement in the United States. “This is one of those almost once-in-a-lifetime type things,” University of West Florida professor John Worth says. “I didn’t even hope to find it as much as just wish.” The settlement is a Spanish colony established by Don Tristan de Luna in 1559—48 years before Jamestown. The Spanish government sent De Luna, 550 soldiers, 200 Aztecs, and African slaves from what is present-day Mexico to settle Florida’s coast. Despite a hurricane destroying all their ships five weeks into the colony’s existence, it persisted for two years. While Europeans lived in what is now the US earlier, none of the settlements lasted more than a few weeks.

Luna’s colony was finally discovered in a downtown Pensacola neighborhood by historian Tom Garner in October when he found part of a 16th century olive jar where a house had recently been torn down, the News Journal reports. He went on to find cookware, beads, and more. Worth had read many descriptions of the colony, and it all came together when he saw Garner’s site. “I walked out and literally it was like every single description in there was describing that precise point,” he says. The colony was inhabited by 1,500 or so people and likely takes up multiple city blocks. Luckily neighbors “responded enthusiastically” to letting archaeologists take a look around. “It’s hard to believe this opportunity, this window, this site is finally here,” Worth says. “Now not only do we have it, but we get to explore it.” Read the full story here.


Painting of de Luna's landing at Pensacola.
Painting of de Luna’s landing at Pensacola.   (Pensapedia)

Backyard bonanza: Medieval outhouses and Roman roads unearthed

Archaeologists excavate large areas of medieval and post-medieval pitting in the backyards of properties running along Southgates.

Archaeologists excavate large areas of medieval and post-medieval pitting in the backyards of properties running along Southgates. (University of Leicester)

Backyards haven’t changed much over the past 1,000 years or so, new archaeological findings suggest.

Rubbish pits, storage areas, outhouses, wells and short walls to keep the neighbors at bay are a few of the things that archaeologists in England recently unearthed while digging beneath an old bus depot in the city of Leicester. Dating back to the 12th through 16th centuries, these artifacts were found in what was once an area of densely packed houses and shops, according to archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS).

And beneath the garden walls (and the rubbish) the archaeologists found the remains of another, more ancient cityscape. The backyards covered up the place where two second-century Roman roads once intersected. Arched gravel surfaces cover the roads, and drainage gullies, as well as the remnants of stone and timber buildings, line either side of the ancient thoroughfares. [See Photos of the Medieval Backyards and Artifacts in Leicester]

“These excavations will provide important new insights into the character of the settlement and the inhabitants living in the southern half of the Roman and medieval town,” John Thomas, one of the ULAS archaeologists who led the dig, said in a statement.

The area that Thomas and his team recently excavated lies in Leicester’s “historic core,” where other significant Roman and medieval sites have also been unearthed. Just down the road there’s a Roman forum, or plaza, and public baths. And in 2012, archaeologists uncovered the remains of King Richard III at the nearby site of GreyFriars, a medieval Franciscan friary.

Some of the Roman artifacts discovered beneath Leicester’s old bus depot were in poor repair, but many ancient treasures remained intact. The archaeologists uncovered a stretch of mosaic pavement and a piece of painted plaster wall. They found smaller items as well, including coins, fine tableware, a copper spoon, game counters, bone hairpins and other pieces of jewelry.

“This part of Roman Leicester is very poorly understood because there has been little previous archaeological investigation in the vicinity. One of the Roman streets found on the site has never been seen before in Leicester and isn’t on any of our plans of the Roman city, said ULAS archaeologist Mathew Morris. “This is a significant find and raises exciting new questions about the layout of the early Roman town and how it evolved through the Roman period.”

Morris and Thomas are part of an archaeological team tasked with investigating this historically rich section of Leicester before the start of a new construction project in the area.

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Archaeologists unearth what the San Francisco quake buried

In this April 18, 1906 file picture, smoke rises from out-of-control fires following a powerful earthquake in San Francisco.

In this April 18, 1906 file picture, smoke rises from out-of-control fires following a powerful earthquake in San Francisco.(AP Photo/California Historical Society)

Subway construction workers in San Francisco are becoming accustomed to working alongside archaeologists as they dig up layers of the city’s past to make way for the $1.6 billion light rail line set to connect Chinatown with South of Market by 2019.

And now those teams have unearthed bits of industrial sewing machines dating back to the 1800s at the Stockton Street site, suggesting a sewing factory may have once occupied the land where the Chinese Americans Citizens Alliance now sits, reports the New Historian.

And while rusty sewing machines may not sound sexy, Adrian Praetzellis of the Anthropological Studies Center at Sonoma State University calls the find “unprecedented,” saying these pieces could be our only clues to life in that specific area more than a century ago.

The university is among half a dozen archaeological consultants working at the city’s many construction sites, and Dana Shew, an oral historian and archaeologist at Sonoma State, will now study the merchant file for the site’s former address, 1018 Stockton St., to try to scare up the names of those who once used the machines.

Found 8 feet below street level, the current hypothesis is that the machines were in the basement of a Chinatown factory that was likely felled by the 1906 earthquake or the ensuing fire that leveled much of the area, reports the San Francisco Examiner.

“There’s very little that remains of Chinatown prior to the [1906] earthquake, so this is basically the last remains of the earliest Chinatown,” says Praetzellis. (Archaeologists recently made a bloody find tied to Julius Caesar.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Archaeologists Find Pieces of SF Before the Quake

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Exceptional deep-sea find: ship that once held ancient condiment

A diver investigates a shipwreck in this file photo.

A diver investigates a shipwreck in this file photo. (AP Photo/Definitive Productions)

A Roman ship apparently sank about 2,000 years ago while carrying a heavy load of ketchup—or at least the Roman version of ketchup. Italian archaeologists discovered the ship off the coast of Liguria in northern Italy, near Genoa, filled with clay jars containing a condiment once popular across the Roman empire,the Local reports.

“It’s an exceptional find that dates to the first or second century AD,” says team leader Simon Trigona. “It’s one of just five ‘deep sea’ Roman vessels ever to be found in the Mediterranean and the first one to be found off the coast of Liguria.” The ship might have gone unnoticed if fishermen hadn’t pulled up jar fragments in 2012; archaeologists then spent two years looking for the wreck and eventually spotted it last October.

The find was announced on Thursday. Based on a retrieved sample jar—one of 2,000 to 3,000 on board—the vessel was transporting garum, a fishy, sweet-and-sour sauce that Romans apparently poured on just about anything, Discoveryreports.

Made from salted fish intestines, the nutritional condiment contained monosodium glutamate (still a flavor enhancer today) and was often used to replace pricier salt. The ship likely left Rome for a city in southern Spain called Cadiz—where garum was mass-produced—and returned along the coasts of Spain, France, and Italy, “possibly during difficult weather,” says Trigona.

“[It] sank … while making the return journey, weighed down by all that fish sauce.” This isn’t the first such find: A similar Roman shipwreck carrying garum was spotted off the coast of Spain and announced by excavators in 2006,National Geographic reported at the time.

(Colombia recently discovered the “holy grail of shipwrecks.”)

This article originally appeared on Newser: How Popular Fish Sauce Sank an Ancient Ship

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Archaeologists find remnants of massacre led by Caesar

Replica of a rider helmet iron from the middle of the 1st century B.C. found in the Dutch village of Kessel. Such helmets are used by Gallic horsemen who served in the army of Caesar. (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

Replica of a rider helmet iron from the middle of the 1st century B.C. found in the Dutch village of Kessel. Such helmets are used by Gallic horsemen who served in the army of Caesar. (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

Archaeologists say they have confirmed that Julius Caesar stepped on what is now Dutch soil—and in the bloodiest of ways. They’ve uncovered the remnants of a battle fought in 55 BC in the southern part of the country, near Oss.

Dutch News frames the battle as a particularly cruel one: Two Germanic tribes, the Tencteri and Usipetes, reportedly came to Caesar seeking his protection. He not only denied their request, but ordered that they be massacred.

That this occurred has long been known, thanks in part of Caesar’s own writings on the Gallic wars, De Bello Gallico. Indeed, a volume on Greece & Rome by K.

H. Lee published in 1969 recounts that the tribes were “ruthlessly destroyed almost to a man,” a “deplorable” move considering the “massacre had been ordered in a time of declared truce.” The where, however, had been unclear.

Over the last three decades, 20 swords, a single helmet, and the remains of more than 100 people have been unearthed at the location in question.

Now, based on historical and archaeological analysis and carbon dating, archaeologists at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam say they’ve confirmed that the bones and weapons hail from the right time period and represent the first proof of Caesar’s presence on Dutch soil.

He apparently didn’t stay long. National Geographic reports Caesar then built a bridge over the Rhine and made his way to England that same year, which was dubbed a successful one in the war by the Roman Senate.

(Caesar crumpled to the ground during the Battle of Thapsus in 46BC, and researchers have a new theory as to why.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Archaeologists Find Remnants of Massacre Led by Caesar

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Seal found in ancient dump in 2009 turns out to be remarkable

(Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Eilat Mazar; Photo by Ouria Tadmor)

(Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Eilat Mazar; Photo by Ouria Tadmor)

Archaeologists in Jerusalem say they’ve made a first-of-its kind discovery: the seal of an ancient Israelite king—one that may have been made by his own hand. Researchers digging in Old Jerusalem think the seal impression, or bulla, comes from King Hezekiah, who ruled in the 8th century BC, reports the Times of Israel.

The find is significant in part because it’s the first such seal from an Israelite king found by archaeologists, notes CNN. While similar seals featuring the king’s name can be found on the antiquities market, only this one has the authenticity of scientists behind it.

It’s also notable because Hezekiah himself was “one of the most famous of the Israelite kings” given how he “rooted out idol worship, spruced up the decrepit temple, and centralized power,” according to LiveScience.

The seal is just half-an-inch wide, suggesting it was made by the king’s ring. “It’s hard to believe that anyone else had the permission to use the seal,” says Eilat Mazar of the University of Hebrew, who led the excavations.

“Therefore, it’s very reasonable to assume we are talking about an impression made by the king himself.” The seal was actually found in an ancient dump in 2009, but it wasn’t until this year that a researcher deciphered its inscription to reveal the royal origins, notes the Times of Israel.

Early in his reign, Hezekiah used a symbol of a creature with its arms outstretched, but the arms of the “two-winged sun” on this seal are facing downward.

That suggests it came later in his reign as a nod to mortality after he survived a scare with a mortal illness, say the researchers, per LiveScience.

(Another discovery, under a parking lot, has solved an ancient Jewish riddle.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Seal of Biblical-Era King Discovered

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Lost tomb of ‘Suleiman the Magnificent’ possibly unearthed

A portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent attributed to Italian painter Titian, 1530.

A portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent attributed to Italian painter Titian, 1530. (Public Domain)

The lost tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent, one of the greatest rulers of the Ottoman Empire, may have been unearthed in southern Hungary.

“Currently everything suggests that this building could have been Suleiman’s tomb. However, in order to be able to assert this with 100 percent certainty, further examinations and the excavations of the other surrounding buildings are necessary,” said Norbert Pap, a researcher at the University of Pécs in Hungary who led the excavations.

The 71-year-old Ottoman sultan died in his tent in 1566 during a military campaign against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was finally buried in Istanbul (then known as Constantinople), and Suleiman’s embalmed body is now housed at the Süleymaniye Mosque there. But the Ottomans also placed a small memorial tomb at the spot where he died. Historians knew the rough location of this memorial tomb, but the exact location was lost in the intervening 450 years.

Magnificent rule, secret death

Suleiman the Magnificent is often considered one of history’s greatest rulers. He rose to the throne in 1520 at the tender age of 26 and quickly began a series of military campaigns, expanding Ottoman control from Algiers in the west to Baghdad in the east.

In addition to his military prowess, Suleiman “the lawgiver” simplified Ottoman legal code and funded the construction of some of Istanbul’s most gorgeous architecture. His personal life was also full of drama. (The intrigues of his harem were recently depicted in the incredibly popular, soapy Turkish miniseries “The Magnificent Century.”)

He died in his imperial tent outside the castle of Szigetvár in southern Hungary before his troops vanquished the Hungarian forces. His advisers wanted to avoid a power vacuum before his son, Selim II, could take the throne.

“So his body was taken back to Istanbul after his death and was kept as a secret for 40-plus days,” said Günhan Börekçi, a historian at ?stanbul ?ehir University, who was not involved in the current excavation.

To maintain the charade, his advisers created elaborate ruses, faking his handwriting on official documents. They even had a servant dress up in his clothes, then faked the death of another servant so that they could carry the sultan’s body out of the camp in the servant’s coffin, Börekçi said.

Long-lost tomb

To find Suleiman’s lost tomb, Pap and his colleagues have spent the last three years surveying areas around the castle for traces of the tomb, using historical records as a guide.

“We know from archival registers what kind of a structure it was,” Börekçi told Live Science. “This was Hungary, so it’s a little far away from the capital. It’s not something really huge, it’s a relatively small one, like the ones we see constructed for dignitaries of the era.”

Remote sensing revealed several buildings that seemed to have similar layouts to Suleiman’s mausoleum in Istanbul, including dervish monasteries, military barracks and a mosque, Pap said.

“One of [the buildings] is almost exactly oriented toward Mecca,” Pap told Live Science.

When the team started excavating, they found a large brick building with walls covered in stone tiles. The central room was about 26 feet by 26 feet (8 by 8 meters), and robbers had dug a large trench through the middle of it some time in the 17th century. Luckily, many of the decorative elements remain intact, and those elements echo the style of the decorations in Suleiman’s mausoleum, Pap said.

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Climate change didn’t force Vikings to abandon Greenland, scientists say

File photo - Heimdal Glacier in southern Greenland is seen in a NASA image captured by Langley Research Center's Falcon 20 aircraft Oct. 13, 2015 (REUTERS/NASA/John Sonntag/Handout via Reuters)

File photo – Heimdal Glacier in southern Greenland is seen in a NASA image captured by Langley Research Center’s Falcon 20 aircraft Oct. 13, 2015 (REUTERS/NASA/John Sonntag/Handout via Reuters)

Climate change may not have played a role in Vikings’ 10th-century colonization of Greenland and abandonment of their colonies 400 years later, according to a new study.

The report published in the journal Science Advances challenges the long-held theory that Vikings settled on Greenland during warmer temperatures during the so-called Medieval Warm Period. Researchers analyzed chemical isotopes in boulders that were left by advancing glaciers over the last 1,000 years in Southwestern Greenland and nearby Baffin Island. Evidence points to a different story where Vikings settled a far colder, icier Greenland.

The findings reveal that the Medieval Warm Period, a balmy season that Europe experienced from 950-1250, was not felt elsewhere, including Greenland. Records show that Vikings first sailed from Iceland to Greenland in 985. Theysettled there in the 10th Century and anywhere from 3,000-5,000 settlers lived on Greenland, farming and harvesting walrus ivory.

Related: Stonehenge stones may have been first erected in another country

“It’s becoming clearer that the Medieval Warm Period was patchy, not global,” said lead author Nicolás Young, a glacial geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in a statement. “The concept is Eurocentric – that’s where the best-known observations were made. Elsewhere, the climate might not have been the same.”

The research not only challenges climate theories about the time when Greenland was settled by Vikings, it also calls into question long-held beliefs about the disappearance of the Viking settlers a handful of generations later. It was once believed that the colonies, which vanished sometime between 1360 and 1460, succumbed to a colder climate. The Vikings’ disappearance was thought to have followed the onset of the so-called Little Ice Age, which ran from about 1300-1850. Experts, however, have questioned this theory, noting the lack of early historical climate records from Greenland.

While the disappearance of the colonies remains a mystery, other theories now include hostility with the native Inuit, a decline in ivory trade and soil erosion caused by the Vikings’ cattle.

Related: Ancient ‘wand’ may be oldest example of lead work in the Levant

“I do not like the simplistic argument that the Greenland people went there when it was warm, and then ‘it got cold and they died’,” said Astrid Ogilvie, a climate historian based at Iceland’s Akureyri University, in the statement. “I think the Medieval Warm Period has been built on many false premises, but it still clings to the popular imagination.”

Europeans did not re-inhabit Greenland until the 1700s.

The rocks were analyzed at the University of Buffalo, and at the Lamont-Doherty lab of geochemist and study coauthor Joerg Schaefer. The analyses measured buildups of small amounts of Beryllium 10, an isotope created when cosmogenic rays strike rock surfaces newly exposed by melting ice, according to the statement.

In addition to Young and Schaefer, the paper was coauthored by Avriel Schweinsberg and Jason Briner of the University at Buffalo, who carried out the Greenland part of the fieldwork.

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