15 AVRIL 2020 NEWS
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WINTER TERM : APRIL 2020
RUSSIE – Shestakovsky- The discovery of the magnificent clay likeness of a young man in the Shestakovsky burial mound No 6 has long intrigued Russian archeologists. Among cremated people this elegant mask of, perhaps, a handsome warrior immediately stood out as a remarkable find when it was first unearthed in Khakassia in 1968 by Professor Anatoly Martynov. X-ray technology of the period indicated something was unusual about the bones inside the clay head - but could not reveal more. ‘There are skull bones and a small hollow space, which, however, does not correspond to the inner size of the human skull but is much smaller,’ noted the prescient Martynov in 1971. Then - and later - opening the clay head was deemed impossible since it would destroy this ancient relic. Almost four decades later scientists returned to the mystery of this man from the Tagar culture which is known for its elaborate funeral rites, for example the use of large pit-crypts containing some 200 bodies which were set ablaze. As scientist Dr Elga Vadetskaya had observed, the heads of the dead were covered in clay, moulding a new face on the skull, and often covering the clay face with gypsum. So the expectation was - in deploying new technology on the man’s death mask - that the bones inside, though small fragments, would be human. But they were not. ‘It was suggested that there was a human skull inside. It was of course quite surprising to see instead a sheep’s skull.’ But…why? What made these ancient people fill human remains with a ram's remains? In the article for the magazine Science First Hand Professor Polosmak believes the Tagar people ‘may have buried in this extraordinary manner a man whose body had not been found’. She surmises that the man ‘could have got lost in the taiga, drowned, or disappeared in alien lands’. For this reason he was ‘replaced with his double – the animal in which his soul was embodied’ and in this was sent to the afterlife alongside the remains of his fellow humans. ‘This must have been the only way to ensure the after-death life of a person who had not returned home. 'Archaeologists know a number of such burials, referred to as cenotaphs, which have no human remains but may contain a symbolic replacement. As the latter, an animal could have been used.’ Her other theory for the ‘false burial’ is that it may have been done to give the man ‘a chance to have a fresh start, a new life in a new status. ‘Instead of a living man whose death was staged for some reason, an animal – a sheep in human disguise – was offered.’ A third version has been proposed by Dr Vadetskaya in her book 'The Ancient Yenisei Masks from Siberia’ after studying elaborate burial rites of ancient people during this Tesinsk period. Her work was based on research of other archaeologists but also had fascinating input from forensic experts. She believed the burial rite had two stages - the first of which was putting the dead body in a ‘stone box’ which then went into a shallow grave or under a pile of stones for several years. The main goal was partial mummification - the skin and tissues decomposed, but tendons and the spinal cord persisted. Then the skeleton was taken away intact and was tied by small branches. The skull was trepanned and the rest of the brain was removed. Then the skeleton was turned into kind of ‘doll’ - it was wrapped around with grass and sheathed with pieces of leather and birch bark. Then, according to Dr Vadetskaya, they reconstructed ‘the face’ on the skull. The nose hole, eyes socket and mouth were filled with clay, then the clay was put onto the skull and the ‘face’ was moulded though without necessarily much facial resemblance to the deceased. Often this clay face was covered with a thin layer of gypsum and painted with ornaments. She suspected that these masked mummies went back to their families pending their second, bigger funeral. This might have been for some years: there is evidence that gypsum was repaired and repainted. She wrote: ‘For some mummies the wait was too long. They decomposed, so only the heads were left to be buried. ‘In some cases even the head did not survive. Then they had to recreate the whole image of the deceased one.’ She believed that this was the case with the mysterious human sheep skull. The ram remains were used to replace the real human skull of this ‘mummy doll’ lost or destroyed during the decades between the two funeral rites.
ALASKA - Howard’s Pass - Archaeologist Jeff Rasic of the National Park Service has investigated archaeological sites at Howard’s Pass, a several mile–wide tundra plateau located in the mountains of northern Alaska’s Brooks Range. The sites date back some 11,000 years, and include traces of houses, tent rings, food-storage pits, tool-making debris, and cairns that may have been used to help drive caribou into hunting traps. Wind-chill temperature in the pass can drop to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit—so cold that caribou can freeze to death. Yet some of the sites appeared to have been occupied during the winter, Rasic said. Half of the dwellings’ living area was set underground, with cold-trap tunnels at the entrances, he explained. Rasic thinks Inupiaq peoples may have chosen to live there to harvest caribou and fish, and explained that the Inupiaq name for Howard’s Pass is Akutuq, a word also used for a food product made of whipped animal fat, sugar, and berries, which resembles wind-driven snow. “If you are someone trying to escape clouds of mosquitoes, winds aren’t necessarily bad. And maybe a windswept place is good for winter travel—hard and crusty, good to get around on,” he added.
ROYAUME UNI – Folkestone - Recent scientific tests on human remains kept for centuries in the church of St Mary and St Eanswythe in Folkestone, Kent, have suggested that they are likely to be those of Eanswythe herself. St Eanswythe was the granddaughter of Æthelbert, the first English king to convert to Christianity under the Augustine mission, and is thought to have founded one of the earliest monastic communities in England in around AD 660. Historical documents indicate that Eanswythe’s bones were kept as relics in Folkestone after her death, and were moved to the present church when it was built in 1138. There are records of an active shrine to the saint there until the 1530s; however, there is no mention of her remains after this date, and it was assumed that they had been destroyed during the Reformation – until renovations in 1885 revealed a lead container that had been hidden in a niche in the north wall and contained human bones. Examination of the bones in 1980 determined that they belonged to a young female, but no further scientific investigation was carried out until January this year when a new project (‘Finding Eanswythe’), led by Canterbury Archaeological Trust, Canterbury Christ Church University, and Folkestone Museum, set out to investigate the remains in more detail. St Eanswythe is reported to have been born before AD 640, and died in her teens or early 20s, most likely in the 650s or early 660s. Osteological analysis confirmed earlier assumptions that the remains in the church belonged to one individual, probably female, who had been aged roughly 17-20 years old at the time of their death – which radiocarbon dating suggests was between c.AD 649 and 684.
CHINE – Chaizhuang - Archaeologists have discovered human bones in kneeling position in a sacrificial pit of ruins dating back to the late Shang Dynasty (1600 BC-1046 BC) in central China's Henan Province, which proves a glyph in oracle bone inscription of the burial. In the excavation of the Chaizhuang site in Jiyuan, archaeologists found a large number of tombs of the late Shang Dynasty, providing evidence for the study of ancient social and ritual customs.
SAMOA – A large-scale genetic study of Samoans published today by the National Academy of Sciences is the first of its kind. It found that until 1000 years ago, between 800 and 3300 people lived in Samoa, less than its regional neighbours. But over the next 300 years Samoa's population then surged by 10,000, likely as a result of migration from South East Asia and Micronesia, or agricultural changes. According to the study, this sudden population growth may have also led Samoans to first settle countries like Tahiti, Hawaii and the Cook Islands because it coincided with early settlement there. One of the researchers, University of Auckland associate professor Ethan Cochrane, said Samoa's population progression was "unusual", although it was possible other Polynesian countries followed similar trends that had not been uncovered yet. "Most people have argued that there's few archaeological sites in Samoa because they've been destroyed," he said. "This evidence contradicts that."The study also found Samoans have a unqiuely Austronesian lineage, sharing less ancestry with Papuans than other Polynesian peoples.