PLOS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0096882
A copper awl was discovered at the archaeological site Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley of Israel, dating to 5100 B.C. to 4600 B.C.
Sept. 12, 2011 --
In the search for buried history, archaeologists pour their resources into uncovering the remnants of the distant past. With know-how, persistence and a little luck, archaeologists can push aside dirt and rock and find an artifact of historical significance. Although chance plays a big role in unearthing history, archaeological treasures have been stumbled upon purely by accident, often by those outside the scientific community. In these photos, explore several particularly serendipitous finds of unique artifacts, some of which reach as far back as prehistory.
On Sept. 12, 1940, four teenagers followed their wayward dog into a cave complex near the village of Montignac in southwestern France. To their surprise, the caves hosted something remarkable: nearly 2,000 paintings and etchings of animals, humans and abstract shapes on the walls dating back between 15,000 and 25,000 years. Known as the Lascaux caves, the complex features figures depicted in surprising detail given the age of the illustrations. Animals portrayed on the cave walls included horses, stags, bison and felines. Archaeologists believed the caves were used for ritualistic purposes. Some parts of the illustrations even appear to construct a narrative, but what they mean exactly has yet to be deciphered. The caves were open to the public in 1948, but closed in 1963 in order to preserve the site from damage.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of over 800 biblical texts made of animal skin and papyrus. Dating to around 2,000 years ago, between the years 200 B.C. and 70 A.D., the scrolls could well be the oldest such documents in existence and have deepened historians' understanding of religious history. These documents may have been lost to history had a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib and his cousin not stumbled upon the first manuscripts along the northern shore of the Dead Sea at a remote site known as Qumran in 1947. The last fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection was uncovered in the mid-1950s. Although the scrolls have been extensively studied and translated, one big mystery remains: Who exactly wrote them?
As Napoleon Bonaparte's army marched through north Africa during his campaign in Egypt, they stumbled upon what would become known as the Rosetta Stone, after the town where it was discovered. Within Bonaparte's army was a squadron of scholars called Institute of Egypt, also known as the Scientific and Artistic Commission. As the military settled around the Nile Delta, the Institute explored local ruins and artifacts. After the discovery of the stone in 1799, several copies of the inscriptions on its face were made, since no one could read them at the time. By 1802, the Greek and Demotic portions of the stone had been deciphered by scholars. The hieroglyphics posed a different challenge all together, however, and it would take 20 years before French scholar Jean-François Champollion announced that he had cracked the code. By deciphering the hieroglyphs, Champollion opened a whole new door to understanding the civilization of ancient Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is currently kept in the British Museum.
In case you don't know what a geoglyph is, ancient Peruvians went through the trouble of leaving a picture-perfect definition. Known as the Nazca Lines, these giant carvings into the Earth were only discovered by airplane in the 1930s. Located in the Nazva desert in southern Peru around 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of Lima, the geoglyphs resemble a number of animals including a spider (as seen here), a condor, a monkey, a tree, as well as human figures and geometric patterns. Why exactly indigenous tribes living in the area between 100 B.C. and 650 A.D. felt compelled to produce these works remains a mystery, though archaeologists agree that it is likely tied to religious customs.
In 1991, German tourists stumbled upon a frozen body in a glacier on the Ötztal Alps between Italy and Austria. Although they originally thought the corpse to be the result of a recent death, the iceman mummy, named Ötzi, in fact dated back 5,300 years. Since Ötzi's discovery, the mummy has been extensively studied. Scientists have learned everything from his last meal to his cause of death to his possible occupation and they have even made reconstructions of his face. Ötzi died in the spring as a result of an arrowhead striking his left clavicle artery. He likely received a ceremonial burial and was found beside tools and other personal items.
Over the years, metal detector enthusiasts, particularly those in the United Kingdom, have uncovered archaeological treasures buried beneath the Earth. In 2009, 30-year-old Nick Davies hauled in 10,000 ancient Roman coins that he had found inside a clay pot buried in Shropshire, U.K. That same year, a trove of 1,500 gold and silver pieces dating back to the Dark Ages were found on a farmer's field in the western region of Staffordshire, England. Last year, 63-year-old David Crisp uncovered 52,000 ancient Roman coins, later given a value of around $1 million, in a clay pot in southwestern England.
Ministero per i Beni e le Attivita Culturali,
In 1986, divers stumbled upon a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman shipwreck some six miles off the coast of the town of Grado, Italy. Measuring 55 feet long and 16 feet wide, the small trade vessel was stocked with 600 amphorae, or vases, packed with sardines and other fish. Further study of the shipwreck revealed that the ancient Roman engineers also had built in a hydraulic system that allowed the ship to carry an aquarium with live fish.
A copper awl is the oldest metal object unearthed to date in the Middle East. The discovery reveals that metals were exchanged across hundreds of miles in this region more than 6,000 years ago, centuries earlier than previously thought, researchers say.
The artifact was unearthed in Tel Tsaf, an archaeological site in Israel located near the Jordan River and Israel's border with Jordan. The area was a village from about 5100 B.C. to 4600 B.C., and was first discovered in A.D. 1950, with digs taking place from the end of the 1970s up to the present day.
Tel Tsaf possessed large buildings made of mud bricks and a great number of silos that could each store 15 to 30 tons of wheat and barley, an unprecedented scale for the ancient Near East. The village had many roasting ovens in the courtyards, all filled with burnt animal bones, which suggests people held large events there. Moreover, scientists had unearthed items made of obsidian, a volcanic glass with origins in Anatolia or Armenia, as well as shells from the Nile River in Egypt and pottery from either Syria or Mesopotamia. All in all, these previous findings suggest this community was an ancient international center of commerce that possessed great wealth. [See Photos of the Ancient Settlement and Metal Awl]
Archaeologists discovered the cone-shaped awl in the grave of a woman who was about 40 years old when she died, and who had a belt around her waist made of 1,668 ostrich-egg shell beads. Several large stones covered the grave, which was dug inside a silo, suggesting both the woman and the silo were considered special.
The copper awl is about 1.6 inches (4.1 centimeters) long, about 0.2 inches (5 mm) wide at its base and just 0.03 inches (1 mm) wide at its tip. It was set in a wooden handle, and since it was buried with her, the researchers suggest the awl may have belonged to the woman.
"The appearance of the item in a woman's grave, which represents one of the most elaborate burials we've seen in our region from that era, testifies to both the importance of the awl and the importance of the woman, and it's possible that we are seeing here the first indications of social hierarchy and complexity," study co-author Danny Rosenberg, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, said in a statement.
Before this discovery, the earliest pieces of evidence for metal use in the ancient Near East were found in the southern Levant and included copper artifacts from the Nahal Mishmar cave and gold rings found inside the Nahal Qanah cave dating from 4500 B.C. to 3800 B.C. The awl suggests people in the area started using metals as early as 5100 B.C., several centuries earlier than previously thought. Chemical analysis of the copper also revealed it probably came from about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) away, in the Caucasus region. This discovery suggests people in this area originally imported metal artifacts and only later created them locally.
The grave also shows "the complexity of the people living in Tel Tsaf around 7,000 years before present," Rosenberg told Live Science. "The find suggests that the people of Tel Tsaf were engaged in or at least had acquaintance with advanced technology, metallurgy, hundreds of years before the spread of copper items in the southern Levant."
The awl's use remains uncertain. "In this area, far more is unknown than is known, and although the discovery of the awl at Tel Tsaf constitutes evidence of a peak of technological development among the peoples of the region and is a discovery of global importance, there's a lot of progress still to be made and many parts of the wider picture are still unknown to us," Rosenberg said in a statement.
The scientists detailed their findings online March 26 in the journal PLOS ONE.
Original article on Live Science.
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