Archaeology reveals the best way to drink: from a human skull

Archaeologists in England have discovered three prehistoric skulls that were used as cups, the BBC reports.

The skulls were carefully worked into the shape of bowls. They were found in Gough’s Cave, Somerset, and are 14,700 years old. These make them the oldest skull cups discovered. Investigators found other human remains in the cave that suggest people split the bones to get at the marrow. As any dedicated carnivore knows, the marrow is one of the richest and most nutritious parts of any animal, humans included.

Skull cups were used by many cultures for many reasons. Some were involved in rituals to remind one of death, like this carved Chinese example photographed by user Shizhao and posted to Wikimedia Commons. Other cultures, like the Vikings and Scythians, drank from the skulls of their enemies to brag about their victory or get the power of the slain warrior for themselves. The archaeologists studying the Somerset skulls have published an interesting article about skull cups. The BBC also interviewed one of the researchers and their video of the skull cups is below.

So next time you’re in a museum, keep a sharp eye out for skull cups. The Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena has one, as does the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. London’s Natural History Museum sponsored the research and is making a reconstructed skull cup that will go on display in March.

Have you seen skull cups in other museums? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Five stunning stone circles (besides Stonehenge)

Every year thousands of tourists flock to Stonehenge, the iconic stone circle on Salisbury Plain, England. While so much attention is focused on this site, especially with the recent discovery of another monument near Stonehenge, people often forget there’s more than a thousand stone circles in the British Isles and Continental Europe. Built during the Neolithic starting about 5,000 years ago, these sites are beautiful and have gathered a lot of strange folklore over the centuries, like the mistaken belief that they were built by Druids or giants. Here are five of the best.

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Isles, Scotland
The windswept Orkney Isles north of Scotland are covered in prehistoric remains. The Ring of Brodgar, seen above in this photo courtesy of Beth Loft, is built of thin, tall stones on a narrow isthmus between two lochs. Its architects obviously had an eye for dramatic setting. It dates to between 2500 and 2000 BC, a boom time for monumental building in the Orkneys. It’s the northernmost stone circle in the British Isles and also the third largest at 104 meters (341 ft) in diameter. Like many major circles it’s part of a network of sites, with tombs and single standing stones scattered in the area around it. Legend has it that the Vikings were so impressed with the Ring of Brodgar when they arrived in the ninth century AD that they worshiped their gods here. Some Viking Runes carved into the stones may support this theory.

Avebury, England
Bigger than Stonehenge, the site of Avebury just 17 miles north of Stonehenge consists of a massive stone circle 331.6 meters (1,088 ft) in diameter with two avenues of stones leading to a pair of smaller stone circles. Construction began around 2900 BC, roughly the same time as its neighbor. Other monuments, such as the mysterious artificial mound of Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long barrow, an ancient tomb, are an easy walk away. During the Middle Ages the locals got religion and decided this pagan monument needed to go. They knocked over several stones until one fell over and crushed one of the vandals. Everyone thought this was just a legend until modern archaeologists dug up a fallen stone and found the skeleton of a man underneath with some 14th century coins in his pocket!

%Gallery-98480%Rollright Stones, England
This stone circle makes a fun day hike from Oxford. Most stone circles are pretty small. This one is only 33 meters (108 feet) in diameter but has some interesting details. One stone has a hole through which you can see a tall monolith called the King Stone in a nearby field. A nearby dolmen (a small roofed tomb of stone) is called the Whispering Knights. Legend says the circle and these two outlying monuments are a king and his knights who were turned to stone by a witch. Actually the circle and monolith were built by prehistoric people between 2500 to 2000 BC. The Whispering Knights date to about 3500 BC. In prehistoric times, the presence of one monument encouraged people to build more.

Drombeg Stone Circle, Ireland
Drombeg Stone Circle in County Cork is a tight little collection of stones 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter. It’s of a type known as a recumbent stone circle because the largest stone lies on its side flanked by two smaller ones. This was deliberate; the stone didn’t fall down. What this means is anyone’s guess, although the local claim that it’s a “Druid’s Altar” is fanciful because the circle dates to the Bronze Age, about 2000 BC, and the druids were priests of the Celts, who didn’t appear on the scene until around 300 BC. Radiocarbon dating on a burial found in the center of the circle yielded a date between 150 BC and 130 AD. Just like at the Ring of Brodgar, later people were attracted to the site. While Drombeg didn’t start out as a Druid’s altar, maybe it ended up as one!

The Stone Circles of Senegambia, Senegal and The Gambia
Stone circles in Africa? Yep, these monuments aren’t as grandiose as the ones in Europe but they’re equally mysterious. There are about a thousand of them in a region of central Senegal and Gambia, meaning there’s about as many stone circles here as in all of Europe. The stones are as tall as 2.5 meters (8 ft.), although some are only a foot or so high. They mark burials dating from the 3rd century BC to the 16th century AD. There’s a large concentration of them at Wassu, Gambia. Locals put small stones on top of them as a sign of respect. Not much is known about these stone circles but they are beginning to attract attention from the archaeological community. A certain Gadling blogger may be visiting them next year, so stay tuned.

Prehistoric cave art discovered in Transylvania

A group of speleologists exploring a cave in the Apuseni Nature Park in Transylvania, Romania, have discovered what could be Central Europe’s oldest cave art. Paintings of now-extinct species rhinoceros and cat were found next to images of bison, a horse, a bear’s head, and a female torso.

While dating cave art is difficult, based on the style archaeologists believe the figures are anywhere from 23,000 to 35,000 years old. No cave art this old has ever been found in Central Europe.

Coliboaia cave, where the art was discovered, is one of hundreds of caves in the Bihorului Mountains. Many have yet to be explored and there are likely to be more archaeological surprises in the future.

The question remains of what to do with the cave. There will be a temptation to open it to the public, but with the controversial reopening of Altamira in Spain, and the problems over preserving the paintings of Lascaux in France, the debate over how best to preserve humanity’s oldest art is growing louder than ever.

Lascaux image courtesy Sevela.p via Wikimedia Commons.

Google to immortalize Iraqi museum

Google is taking Iraq‘s national museum global. Company CEO, Eric Schmidt, said Tuesday that Google is going to document what’s in the museum and will share photographs of the war-torn countries museum holdings with the world. The museum, which reopened this year, was torn apart after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled in April 2003.

At a ceremony with Iraqi officials, Schmidt said, “The history of the beginning of – literally – civilization is made right here and is preserved here in this museum.” He continued, “I can think of no better use of our time and our resources than to make the images and ideas from your civilization, from the very beginnings of time, available to billions of people worldwide.”

Already, Google has shot around 14,000 photos of the museum and its contents. They’ll be up on the web for all to see early next year. As artifacts from the museum’s vaults and from others across Iraq become available, they will be brought into the program. Some of these items date back to the Stone Age, as well as the Babylonian, Assyrian and Islamic periods.

[Photo thanks to Brian Sayler]

A legendary stone circle in England

Everyone knows about Stonehenge, England’s most famous ancient monument, but did you know that there are nearly a thousand similar stone circles in the United Kingdom? Some are almost as big as Stonehenge, and all are steeped in folklore and legend.

A favorite of mine are the Rollright Stones, which you can get to as an easy day trip from Oxford or London. They’re near Chipping Norton, a fifty-minute bus ride from Oxford. This is a chance to get out of town and experience some of England’s peaceful countryside as well as a bit of prehistoric mystery.

The Rollright Stones is actually a general name for three ancient monuments within sight of each other. There’s a circle of low stones called the King’s Men, and nearby is a tall, strangely shaped stone called the King Stone (pictured here). A little further away is a cluster of five tall stones called the Whispering Knights. The names come from an old legend.

A long time ago, the legend says, a king and his army were passing through the countryside when five of his knights drew apart and conspired against him. As this was happening, a witch appeared and told him that if he could see the village of Long Compton a mile to the north by taking seven steps, he would become king of England. The king headed off, stretching out his legs as long as he could to get as far as possible, but on his seventh step a ridge rose up ahead of him. This ridge is still there and is called the Arch-Druid’s Barrow. The witch cackled and told him that he would never be king of England. Then the king, his knights, and the conspirators all turned to stone.

(I’m only repeating a legend, folks, so please don’t start a religious flame war like the last time I mentioned witches)

Stone circles are also associated with fertility, and old reports tell of young men and women meeting at the stones to eat, drink and, ahem, “be merry.” Ladies, if you want to find out the name of your future husband, press your ear against one of the Whispering Knights and he’ll whisper it to you. If you’re trying to get pregnant, press your breasts against the King Stone and you soon will be. “Making merry” with someone would probably help too.

So much for legend, what’s the real story of the Rollright Stones?


The Whispering Knights used to have a roof, making a little building called a dolmen. Dolmens were used as tombs for important people and were generally covered with earth to make an artificial hill. It dates to about 4000-3500 BC. This was during the Neolithic, what archaeologists call the last phase of the Stone Age.

The King’s Men was built in the late Neolithic around 2500-2000 BC and is one of many stone circles set up at that time. Many of these circles have astronomical alignments, and the King’s Men is no exception. Two stones line up to mark the spot on the horizon where the moon rises on midsummer’s night. What does this mean? Nobody knows, since they hadn’t invented writing yet.

The King Stone is a bit more recent, probably erected around 1800-1500 BC in the Bronze Age. It’s a single standing stone and marked the spot for a cemetery. It’s interesting that people chose to bury their dead here at this site, already ancient in their day. Some researchers have tried to find astronomical alignments with the King’s Men, but there’s no solid theory yet.

There’s an easy, eight-mile circular hike to get to the Rollright Stones from Chipping Norton, the nearest town of any size. Details of the hike can be found in most hiking guides covering Oxfordshire. I used 50 Walks in Oxfordshire (AA Publishing, 2003).