World’s Oldest Cave Art Found In Spain

Archaeologists analyzing prehistoric paintings in Spain have discovered the earliest example of cave art.

El Castillo Cave in Cantabria on Spain’s northern coast was one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites investigated for the study. The earliest dates were a minimum of 40,800 years ago for a red disk, 37,300 years for a hand stencil, and 35,600 years for a club-shaped symbol. The red disk is at least 4,000 years older than anything previously found in Europe and arguably the oldest cave art anywhere.

These early dates have sparked an interesting debate. The paintings are from the transition period between Neanderthals and the arrival of modern humans. No cave art has been firmly attributed to the Neanderthals and scholars have long debated the level of their intelligence.

Researchers used uranium-series disequilibrium dates of calcite deposits overlying art in eleven caves to determine the dates. Like radiocarbon dating, this technique measures the change in radioactive isotopes. Unlike the more common radiocarbon dating technique, however, which studies the half-life of carbon 14, this technique studies the rate of decay of uranium 234 into thorium 230, a process that happens at a precise rate. It can date calcite up to 300,000 years old.

Very thin films of calcite were sampled from just above the paintings. Being on top of the paintings, they are younger than the art, thus the paintings could be centuries older than the minimum dates given.

The results have been published in the journal Science. Meanwhile, the team is sampling more cave art in the hope of finding even earlier dates.

Ancient Curses Uncovered In Two Countries

ancient curses, curses, curse, Carlisle
It’s been a good week for ancient curses.

A “cursing stone” has been discovered on the Isle of Canna, Scotland. More precisely called a bullaun stone, they’re natural or artificial depressions in a stone that catch rainwater and give it magical properties, usually to heal or to help women conceive a child. A shaped stone is placed in the hole that’s turned to make a prayer or curse.

The bullaun stone on the Isle of Canna is at the base of an early Christian cross dating to about 800 A.D. Now a round stone carved with a cross has been found that fits exactly into this depression. While bullaun stones are found in several European countries, it’s uncommon for both the stone and the base to be preserved.

Over in Italy, two ancient curses have been translated. A Spanish researcher working at the Archaeological Museum of Bologna has revealed the text of two curses inscribed on lead tablets in Roman times. Called a defixio, such curses were common in Greek and Roman times and often came mass produced with only the name of the target needing to be filled in. The ones in Bologna target an animal doctor and a senator, making it the first such curse found against a Roman senator.

One reads in part, “Crush, kill Fistus the senator. . .May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …” The one against the animal doctor is no less nasty: “Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver. . .”

Many museums have examples of these ancient nastygrams. One at the British Museum was found in London and curses a woman’s memory. Since it’s the only record of her to survive, it appears the curse worked.

Curses can be found all over the place. In Carlisle I came across a cursing stone made in 1525 by the Archbishop of Glasgow against the Border Reivers, Scottish raiders who stole English livestock. There’s a photo of it above. You can read the text of the curse in my article about Carlisle.

Archaeologists Discover York Minster’s Earliest Church

York, York Minster
Archaeologists digging in the medieval foundations of York Minster in York, England, have found evidence for an early building that may have been the first church on the site.

The team examined a trench from the original medieval construction site of the present building and found the remains of at least thirty people. They also found two large postholes. These are filled holes in the earth often seen only as a darker stain in the surrounding soil that once held wooden support beams. They are large enough that they were obviously supporting some major structure, and the archaeologists believe this might be evidence of the first church on the site, built in 627 to baptize King Edwin of Northumbria.

Edwin had started life as a pagan but, like many Anglo-Saxon rulers at that time, converted to Christianity. He was venerated as a saint in the early Middle Ages.

York Minster dominates the skyline of the historic city of York and is one of its most impressive attractions. It is a masterpiece of architecture from a time when architects tried to outdo each other in building impressive cathedrals. Most of the current building dates to the 13th century with some older and newer elements. The soaring arches make visitors stare up in awe and the gargoyles and stained glass windows provide lots of detail that reward a second, or tenth, look.

Yorkshire is filled with attractions from literary landmarks and impressive castles to haunted hotel rooms and challenging hikes. The city of York itself draws a steady stream of visitors attracted by its long history, fine dining and excellent shopping.

[Photo courtesy Matze Trier]

Ancient Egyptian tombs to be reopened

Ancient Egyptian
A visit to the pyramids at Giza in Egypt has just become even more interesting with the imminent reopening of six ancient Egyptian tombs nearby.

The tombs have been closed for many years for restoration, including the removal of graffiti left by people who don’t deserve to travel. The tombs are part of the Western Cemetery reserved for minor royalty and high officials of the Fourth Dynasty (c.2613-2494 BC) who were important enough to be buried near the pharaohs they served in life.

One is the tomb of Seshem-Nefer, who had the august title of “overseer of the two seats of the House of Life and keeper of the king’s secrets.” His large is visible in the foreground of this photo courtesy Hannah Pethen.

Other tombs include those of a royal treasurer, high priests and other functionaries. Only one of the tombs is for a member of the royal family — Princess Mersankh, the granddaughter of King Khufu, whose pyramid is the largest in Egypt.

Several of the tombs have brightly painted scenes of daily life, such as hunting and spending time with family, making them a good way to gain insight into the world of ancient Egypt.

Lost temple discovered at Ur, Iraq

Ur, ziggurat

A team of Iraqi and Italian archaeologists have discovered a temple at the ancient city of Ur in Iraq.

This is the first foreign team to excavate in Iraq for 20 years and they hit pay dirt in the form of a 4,500 year-old temple and associated graveyard. Little information has been released about the find but it promises to herald a new era in the study of one of the world’s most important archaeological sites.

Ur was one of the most powerful Sumerian city-states and dates its beginnings back to at least 6000 BC. It reached its height in the third millennium BC, the same period as the newly discovered temple. At its height, Ur was a center of trade and featured many monumental buildings such as its famous Great Ziggurat, shown here in this Wikimedia Commons image. The Sumerians developed writing, an elaborate bureaucracy, and the beginnings of science.

While the Italians are the first archaeologists to return to Iraq after the Gulf War, another Italian team and an American team will soon be conducting their own excavations. In the meantime, Iraqi archaeologists have been valiantly struggling to preserve their nation’s heritage in the face of war, looting, political turmoil, and lack of funding. Iraq is an archaeological wonderland and has some of the most impressive ancient sites in the world. It’s the Holy Grail of adventure travel and a trickle of hardy travelers are making their way there. There’s even a tour company offering trips to Iraq.