News Article | April 6, 2016
The Carthaginian general Hannibal lived over 2,200 years ago, yet his legacy continues to cast an immense shadow over modern history and culture. Brimming with hatred for Rome, the charismatic commander staged an invasion in 218 BCE that famously involved marching an estimated 30,000 troops, 15,000 horses, and 37 elephants over the Alps. Caught completely off guard by Hannibal’s flamboyantly bold approach, the Romans suffered a series of devastating defeats that almost cost them their burgeoning empire. Emboldened by the success of his crossing, Hannibal rampaged through his enemy’s defenses, crippling the Roman army with an excruciatingly well-executed pincer move at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE. Though the great general would ultimately lose the Carthaginian-Roman conflict, called the Second Punic War, to his worthy rival Scipio Africanus, Hannibal’s brash yet cunning style is still emulated by modern military strategists, and the nightmare of his invasion haunted the Roman empire for the rest of its existence. But while many ancient writers documented Hannibal’s elephantine march, the exact route he took has been contested for centuries. Now, in an exciting development, an international team led by geomorphologist Bill Mahaney of York University may have finally cracked this longstanding cold case. In a study published this week in Archaeometry, Mahaney and his colleagues describe a floodplain bog near the Col de la Traversette, a mountain pass perched a dizzying 3,000 meters above sea level on the French/Italian border. The site contains compelling evidence of what the team calls a “mass animal deposition,” suggesting that the area was once disrupted by an enormous throng of humans and animals that stopped to camp there, exactly around the time Hannibal made his fateful lunge for Rome. What’s more, the team found abundant evidence of Clostridia bacteria, which is a major component of horse manure. While this is not an unequivocable slam dunk confirming that Hannibal crossed there, it does represent the first tangible evidence of this notorious march recovered from the Alps. “The microbiological remains [...] are clearly well preserved,” Chris Allen, a microbiologist at Queen's University Belfast and a co-author of the study, told me. “Most Clostridia produce endospores—basically microscopic, highly stable, genetic pods that can morph into living bacteria if the conditions are right.” “These things can survive remarkable physical conditions,” he added. “This is accepted by the scientific community. So I am not surprised at all that they are still there after 2,000-plus years.” Indeed, it’s somewhat more challenging to understand why a trail of ancient horse dung is the only firm remnant that has ever been recovered from Hannibal’s death-defying maneuver. Surely an army comprised of thousands of men and animals would have littered its trail with corpses and artifacts? Aerial view of excavation site. Image: Peeter Somelar of the University of Tartuu (Estonia) “It is always difficult to explain a negative result,” Allen explained. “I think that Hannibal's army was really the crack troops of their day. Even at the scale they were at, I wouldn't imagine they left a lot of hard evidence behind.” But even troops as disciplined as Hannibal’s couldn’t help but leave a trail of fecal detritus in its wake. The fact that Mahaney’s team has been able to pick up this path is exciting enough on its own merits, but it also offers a lens through which to view historical events beyond Hannibal’s crossing. “The organic [chemistry] and microbiological end could be used to work up other sites in the ancient world and even in the New World,” Mahaney told me. “Anywhere there is some evidence that people occupied a site even for a few days, as with Hannibal. One could follow sites identified by Julius Caesar in his logs and use the biotic signals to find sites worth geoarchaeological exploration.” “We think our approach is quite novel,” Allen said. “It may well be applied to other similar situations, but there are various factors that need to be satisfied. For example, critical in this case was the fact that this is a highly undisturbed site.” Finding similarly unruffled sites, rich in bacterial samples, can help fill out the story of these murky ancient events, and add valuable context to the movements of the world’s most influential leaders. Evidently, captivating texts are hidden in the Earth, written in the language of life, which can augment what we know from historical texts and accounts. In this case, the site has validated Mahaney’s longstanding theory that Hannibal made his route through the Col de la Traversette, which he outlined in his 2008 book Hannibal’s Odyssey: Environmental Background to the Alpine Invasion of Italia. This path was first championed by British biologist Sir Gavin de Beer some 60 years ago, but has remained controversial in academic circles. To that point, the study’s authors have more work to do before they can conclusively declare that Hannibal’s forces once camped at the bog below the Col de la Traversette. For instance, Allen is currently leading a “full scale metagenomic analysis” of the samples extracted from the ancient bog to get a firmer grasp on their origins and identity. “I think ultimately only a full scale excavation of the site will satisfy all the experts,” Allen told me. “That will probably be down to the French. The area is part of a National Park, we were very lucky to get permission to investigate the site to begin with. This was largely down to one of the co-authors—Pierre Tricart from Grenoble.” What these future efforts and expeditions will turn up remains to be seen. But if the site is conclusively proved to have been visited by Hannibal and his army of Punic vengeance, one of the most significant outstanding mysteries in military history will finally be resolved.
After spending thousands of years buried in ancient hills, remnants of buildings dating back to the Byzantine era and earlier emerged from hiding, excavated outside Rosh Ha'ayin in central Israel, about 10 miles (17 kilometers) inland from Tel Aviv. A recent announcement by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) described a many-chambered farmhouse, estimated to be 2,700 years old, measuring about 100 by 180 feet (30 by 50 meters) and containing a cluster of 24 rooms connected to a central courtyard. The walls were preserved to a height of about 6.6 feet (2 m). The courtyard once held a storage compartment for protecting grain, Amit Shadman, IAA excavation director, said in the statement. Other artifacts found nearby include a number of millstones used for grinding flour, suggesting that growing and processing grain were "fairly widespread" in the region, Shadman said. "It seems that carbohydrates were as popular then as now," he added. [See Photos of the Farmstead and Church Mosaics in Rosh Ha'ayin] Excavators also revealed oil presses carved from rock and a pair of silver coins stamped with images of the goddess Athena and an owl — her sacred bird — dating to the fourth century BCE. Another multiroom structure protruding from a nearby hill was a monastery approximately 1,500 years old. The building once held stables, living quarters, an oil press and a church with colorful mosaic floors. Tiles were laid in intricate geometric patterns, with one pattern spelling out a Greek inscription welcoming visitors in the name of "Theodosius the priest." The new finds take their place among many others that have emerged in recent years, representing Israel's ancient past. Another farmhouse dating to the eighth century BCE was discovered near Rosh Ha'ayin in early December 2014. Its 23 rooms also radiated outward from a central courtyard that once held a grain silo, and multiple winepresses were found close by. Eventually abandoned as a monastery, the structure was partially destroyed hundreds of years later, when inhabitants during the Ottoman period built a limekiln on the site. Shadman explained in the statement that the farmstead and monastery represent two waves of inhabitants that settled in the region over time. The older farmstead, and others like it, flourished for hundreds of years, but were largely abandoned when people fled the area during the Hellenistic period. After many more centuries passed, a wave of Christian settlers arrived during the fifth century CE. At the time, Christianity was spreading rapidly across Israel, evident in the number of surviving ancient monasteries and churches that archaeologists continue to uncover. The newfound archeological artifacts will be preserved where they stand "for the benefit of the public," even as the city of Rosh Ha'ayin expands to surround them, the IAA statement read. The inscription in the church's ancient mosaic will once more greet visitors with the message, "Peace be with you when you come, peace be with you when you go." Follow Mindy Weisberger on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science. Copyright 2016 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
News Article | January 15, 2016
A team of archeologists exploring an almost 2,200-year-old tomb of a Chinese emperor of the Han Dynasty found the world's oldest tea. That's probably been brewing for a long time. This discovery sheds light on the new evidence that proves that ancient Chinese royalty were tea drinkers. The team discovered the tea leaves in the Han Yangling Mausoleum, a special tomb built for Emperor Jing Di. He is thought to have died around 141 BCE. The 1,250-year-old tea was one of the many ancient items discovered when the tomb was evacuated in the '90s in Tibet. Some of the artifacts are pottery figures, weapons and even chariots with horses. At the time, the box was filled with an unidentified type of leaves. With the expertise of scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, mass spectrometry was used to identify the nature of the leaves. After thorough investigation, the leaves were proven to be real tea leaves. Findings show that the leaves are similar to modern green tea leaves that the world enjoys today. It was also found to contain high amounts of caffeine. "Our study reveals that tea was drunk by Han Dynasty emperors as early as 2100 yr BP and had been introduced into the Tibetan Plateau by 1800 yr BP. This indicates that one branch of the Silk Road passed through western Tibet at that time," the study said. The researchers added that identifying the tea through modern methods has provided a unique view on Chinese mysteries in terms of culture, beliefs and practices. The origin of the beverage was a controversy, but this time, the study shows that it originated in China. Tea was then one of the most popular drinks around the world, and have been so up to the present. "Our data indicate that the plant residues unearthed at both the Han Yangling Mausoleum and Gurgyam Cemetery are the earliest physical evidence of tea in the world. These data indicate that tea was part of trade of luxury products, alongside textiles, that moved along the Silk Road around 2,000 years ago, and were traded up into Tibet," the researchers added. The study was published in the journal Nature's Scientific Reports.
Left: Cuneiform tablet with calculations involving a trapezoid. Right: A visualization of trapezoid procedure on the tablet: The distance travelled by Jupiter after 60 days, 10º45', is computed as the area of the trapezoid. The trapezoid is then divided into two smaller ones in order to find the time (tc) in which Jupiter covers half this distance. Credit: Mathieu Ossendrijver (HU) Ancient Babylonians are now believed to have calculated the position of Jupiter using geometry. This is revealed by an analysis of three published and two unpublished cuneiform tablets from the British Museum by Prof. Mathieu Ossendrijver, historian of science of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. The tablets date from the period between 350 and 50 BCE. Historians of science have thus far assumed that geometrical computations of the kind found on these tablets were first carried out in the 14th century. Moreover, it was assumed that Babylonian astronomers used only arithmetical methods. "The new interpretation reveals that Babylonian astronomers also used geometrical methods", says Mathieu Ossendrijver. His results are published in the current issue of the journal Science. On four of these tablets, the distance covered by Jupiter is computed as the area of a figure that represents how its velocity changes with time. None of the tablets contains drawings but, as Mathieu Ossendrijver explains, the texts describe the figure of which the area is computed as a trapezoid. Two of these so-called trapezoid texts had been known since 1955, but their meaning remained unclear, even after two further tablets with these operations were discovered in recent years. One reason for this was the damaged state of the tablets, which were excavated unscientifically in Babylon, near its main temple Esagila, in the 19th century. Another reason was, that the calculations could not be connected to a particular planet. The new interpretation of the trapezoid texts was now prompted by a newly discovered, almost completely preserved fifth tablet. A colleague from Vienna who visited the Excellence Cluster TOPOI in 2014, the retired Professor of Assyriology Hermann Hunger, draw the attention of Mathieu Ossendrijver to this tablet. He presented him with an old photograph of the tablet that was made in the British Museum. The new tablet does not mention a trapezoid figure, but it does contain a computation that is mathematically equivalent to the other ones. This computations can be uniquely assigned to the planet Jupiter. With this new insight the other, thus far incomprehensible tablets could also be deciphered. In all five tablets, Jupiter's daily displacement and its total displacement along its orbit, both expressed in degrees, are described for the first 60 days after Jupiter becomes visible as a morning star. Mathieu Ossendrijver explains: "The crucial new insight provided by the new tablet without the geometrical figure is that Jupiter's velocity decreases linearly within the 60 days. Because of the linear decrease a trapezoidal figure emerges if one draws the velocity against time." "It is this trapezoidal figure of which the area is computed on the other four tablets", says the historian of science. The area of this figure is explicitly declared to be the distance travelled by Jupiter after 60 days. Moreover, the time when Jupiter covers half this distance is also calculated, by dividing the trapezoid into two smaller ones of equal area. "These computations anticipate the use of similar techniques by European scholars, but they were carried out at least 14 centuries earlier", says Ossendrijver. The so-called Oxford calculators, a group of scholastic mathematicians, who worked at Merton College, Oxford, in the 14th century, are credited with the "Mertonian mean speed theorem". This theorem yields the distance travelled by a uniformly decelerating body, corresponding to the modern formula S=t•(u+v)/2, where u and v are the initial and final velocities. In the same century Nicole Oresme, a bishop and scholastic philosopher in Paris, devised graphical methods that enabled him to prove this relation. He computed S as the area of a trapezoid of width t and heights u and v. The Babylonian trapezoid procedures can be viewed as a concrete examples of the same computation. Furthermore, it was hitherto assumed that the astronomers in Babylon used arithmetical methods but no geometrical ones, even though they were common in Babylonian mathematics since 1800 BCE. Ancient Greek astronomers from the time between 350 BCE and 150 CE are also known for their use of geometrical methods. However, the Babylonian trapezoid texts are distinct from the geometrical calculations of their Greek colleagues. The trapezoid figures do not describe configurations in a real space, but they come about by drawing the velocity of the planet against time. As opposed to the geometrical constructions of the Greek astronomers the Babylonian trapezoid figures exist in an abstract mathematical space, defined by time on the x-axis and velocity on the y-axis. More information: M. Ossendrijver. Ancient Babylonian astronomers calculated Jupiters position from the area under a time-velocity graph, Science (2016). DOI: 10.1126/science.aad8085
News Article | February 21, 2016
Israel's capital, Jerusalem, is not just an important biblical place, where Jesus Christ grew up. It also increasingly becomes a wealthy source of important archeological discoveries that offer experts an idea how people lived in the area in ancient times. Now, archeologist report having unearthed another set of important archeological finds with the discovery of an ancient settlement in Jerusalem. The settlement has artifacts and two stone houses that date back 7,000 years ago making the excavation the oldest of its kind in the city. The discovery was made by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) while conducting a salvage excavation prior to the construction of a new road at the Shuafat neighborhood in north Jerusalem. The archeologists discovered walls measuring up to five stones high and were still standing a few meters below the ground. They also unearthed pottery shards, gemstone beads, basalt bowl, flint tools and more, which experts dated to 5,000 BCE, the beginning of the Chalcolithic era, or the Copper age, when men started to use copper tools for the first time marking a revolutionary advancement from the stone tools that they have previously used. IAA director of excavations Ronit Lupo said that the find shows that Jerusalem had a thriving settlement in ancient times and that this was longer than previously believed. Earlier evidences suggested that the holy city was inhabited for only 5,000 years, during the early Bronze Age from between 3,000 to 2,800 BCE. "The buildings uncovered are of a standard that would not fall short of Jerusalem's architecture," Lupo said. "This discovery represents a highly significant addition to our research of the city and the vicinity." Lupo likewise said that the discovery shows of the local population's livelihood in prehistoric times. The small sickle blades, for instance, were used for harvesting cereal crops. A bead made of a gemstone known as carnelian also indicated that a jewelry was made or imported by the inhabitants of the area. Lupo said that animal bones that were found at the site will be analyzed to understand the dietary and economic habits of those who once lived in the area.