Archaeology isn’t just about sifting through soil. A lot of the work happens in labs, where scientists study ancient objects to better understand humankind’s unrecorded history.
This year, researchers uncovered a slew of interesting finds—including some that could shed light on what ancient people ate. Here are some of the highlights:
In the world of art, there are few works as celebrated for their realism as mummy portraits—naturalistic painted panels attached to upper class mummies in Roman Egypt. But these aren’t just any portraits: They were meant to reanimate the dead for eternity. And they’re a rare window into funerary rituals that may have been unique to the ancient world.
For years, scientists have worked to understand how these paintings were created and used. Now, a team from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Northwestern University has analyzed mummy portraits to determine the materials and techniques artists used more than 2,000 years ago—the only time panel painting was ever practiced in Antiquity.
The work is part of the international project called Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research (APPEAR), led by the Getty Museum. The researchers studied 11 mummy portraits and four fragments. Their findings, published in the journal Science Advances, help fill in holes in the story of these remarkable artworks and show that mummy portraits are more than just decorative objects: They also reveal something about the way the ancient world looked at itself, their own death and burial rituals, and the cultural connections between Roman and Classical Egyptian societies.
The majority of mummy portraits depict men and women in their prime rather than old age, and CT scans confirm that most of the people shown were upper-class—a fact that suggests these images were intended for display during the funeral. Many of the portraits are adorned with jewelry, suggesting that they were carried in a procession or placed over the head during the embalming process. And the unkempt hair and careworn expression of one portrait may suggest that it was painted by a man who served in the military.
A 31,000-Year-Old Leg Amputation
Archaeology news have found a skeleton missing its lower left leg and what is believed to be the earliest evidence of surgical amputation ever unearthed. The remains of the individual, who likely died as a child, were discovered in the Liang Tebo cave complex in East Kalimantan, Indonesia in 2020 while exploring for prehistoric rock art. According to Newsweek, the scientists behind the discovery say the bones of the leg suggest it was removed surgically. The team believes the amputation took place when the person was still a youngster because of how growth and healing in the bone are marked. The researchers also found no skeletal signs of infection where the leg was sliced clean across, which would be expected in an amputation that was not the result of an animal attack or other blunt force injury.
The scientists used several methods of dating to determine the age of the skeleton, including radiocarbon, uranium-series, and electron spin resonance. They were able to determine the amputation took place around 31,000 years ago and that the individual was buried soon after, which is typical of burial rituals. The researchers also believe the leg was not lost in an accident because the amputation site wasn’t damaged by other injuries like fractures, indicating it was likely done intentionally.
Durham University archaeologist Charlotte Robertson, who was not involved in the study, says the finding challenges the idea that medicine and surgery came late in human evolution. She notes that amputations are extremely complicated medical acts that require comprehensive knowledge of anatomy, surgical hygiene, and considerable skill. The amputation of the individual in Borneo proves people had this ability much earlier than previously thought, and that early hunters-gatherers had an innate knack for medical procedures.
Even the dullest pile of dung can hold clues to our past, and archaeologists are increasingly turning to fossilized poop for answers. Among other things, the stale remains can reveal whether ancient people were bothered by parasites or ate foods that weren’t particularly good for them.
And a new technique allows scientists to scan for that evidence. It’s called poo-scanning, and it involves analyzing the chemical signatures of DNA that are leached from feces into rock shelters and soil. The DNA strands can then be identified and matched to a person, animal or plant.
A team of researchers used the method on coprolites, or fossilized feces, from caves in Mexico and the southwestern United States. The samples were radiocarbon dated to about 13,000 years ago, which puts them in the time of the Clovis people, believed to be the first humans to reach the Americas.
The team’s analysis revealed that some of the feces were from dogs, and others were from people. That was important, because bones and other lines of evidence for early humans are often scarce in these sites. But the team’s poo-scanning method was able to resolve the question by rehydrating the tiny bits of feces and recovering longer DNA strands.
One of the most interesting findings involved Cahokia, a famed prehistoric city near present-day St. Louis. The ruins were once home to tens of thousands of people who fished, traded and thrived. But by about 1400, the population plummeted to nearly nothing. A study published this week suggests the decline was due to climate change. Researchers found a link between changes in the local environment and the number of people living at Cahokia, using data from both fecal samples and environmental records.
Deep inside a shaft at the ancient Egyptian tomb of Abusir, Egyptologists have discovered a cache of tools used to mummify bodies more than 2,500 years ago. The discovery includes 370 pottery storage jars that hold residue of various materials and tools used to embalm human remains. The researchers also found a series of canopic jars, the vessels that held the viscera of mummies. The jars bear an inscription that names one Wahibre-mery-Neith, a dignitary that could be the tomb’s owner.
The find has important implications for our understanding of the mummification process. It shows that the mummies of elites may have been made using more sophisticated ingredients than previously believed. For instance, the ancients might have dissolved salts into their embalming fluid to ensure that the body would retain moisture, rather than drying out and falling apart.
When ancient Egyptians wrapped a dead body to prepare it for the afterlife, they filled sunken areas of the flesh with linen and other materials. They also placed packets of natron, a salt that has excellent drying properties, inside the person’s body. Once the natron had dried, they covered the body with spices, perfumes and oils, including antiu, which was thought to be myrrh or frankincense.
The discovery of natron and other ancient ingredients in the mummy-making workshop at Saqqara suggests that the ancients had built up “enormous knowledge accumulated through centuries of embalming,” said Philipp Stockhammer, an Egyptologist with Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology. Stockhammer also noted that traces of soy and banana found on the teeth of the ancients indicate the use of ingredients imported from East Asia.
Mummification was a complex art, a mix of science and magic. The process prevented the growth of bacteria and fungi that would have otherwise destroyed the corpse, which is why mummies often appear so lifelike. Mummies can reveal a great deal about how people lived, their health and lifespans.
Unlike the carefully-contrived sites of temples and graves, shipwrecks offer a glimpse at a single moment in time. This makes them attractive to archaeologists who study the past — and a whole field called maritime archaeology is dedicated to this kind of research.
Sunken ships, whether accidental or intentional, can yield a wealth of information about a lost civilization. They also preserve cultural objects that would have been looted or disassembled if left on land. For example, the astronomical clock known as the Antikythera mechanism was found on an ancient wreck. It’s thought to be the world’s oldest mechanical computer and could have been used to predict upcoming solar eclipses and moon phases.
The ocean floor is a treasure trove of artifacts, and it’s possible that many more historic wrecks will be discovered in the future. These vessels may contain priceless caches of gold, silver and other precious metals, as well as historical documentation about seafaring and battles at sea. Some treasure ships have even sunk in modern times due to pirate activity or accidents at sea, and these discoveries are of interest to both researchers and recreational divers.
Many maritime archaeological projects focus on historical shipwrecks. In Australia, this field of study developed as a response to the destruction of colonial-era wrecks by looters and the subsequent legal battles that have ensued over ownership of recovered artifacts. In North Carolina, East Carolina University students have received funding through the Sea Grant Maritime Heritage Fellows program to investigate the 1877 wreck of USS Huron off the coast of Nags Head. One of the project’s graduate students, Thomas Horn, will be examining how seasonal changes affect corrosion on an iron ship.
In conclusion, the world of archaeology continues to unveil remarkable discoveries that shed light on our ancient past. With advanced technology and interdisciplinary approaches, researchers are unraveling mysteries and expanding our understanding of human history. As the field progresses, we can anticipate even more astonishing revelations that will reshape our perception of the past.
- What is archaeology? Archaeology is a scientific discipline that studies past human cultures and societies through the excavation, analysis, and interpretation of artifacts, structures, and other physical remains. It helps us understand the development of human civilizations, their activities, and lifestyles across different periods of history.
- How do archaeologists determine the age of artifacts? Archaeologists use various dating techniques to determine the age of artifacts. Radiocarbon dating is one of the most common methods, which measures the decay of carbon-14 isotopes in organic materials. Other techniques include dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), thermoluminescence, and stratigraphic analysis, where artifacts are found in layers of sediment with distinct ages.