Archaeology may seem like a field where you’d expect to find Indiana Jones-style treasures, but most discoveries happen far from excavation sites. 2022 was a year full of fascinating glimpses into humankind’s past, from cheese-making tools in Egypt to the first known inscription celebrating an achievement by the ancient Hebrew king Hezekiah.
A 31,000-Year-Old Leg Amputation
Archaeology new spend their days digging through ancient ruins, but some — including the authors of a new study — specialize in sifting through present-day garbage to learn about what we consume and discard. It’s a bit macabre, but it’s also incredibly important for the field of archaeology, as these types of data help researchers reconstruct human history.
While excavating a cave in Indonesian Borneo that’s well known for its stone age rock art, a team of archaeologists came across the remains of an individual who was missing part of his lower left leg. Close inspection revealed telltale signs of a surgical amputation, Newsweek reports. The ends of the tibia and fibula—the two bones that make up the lower leg and foot—were sliced cleanly and didn’t have any of the bone-crushing fractures associated with an animal attack or other type of accident.
The team believes the amputation took place sometime between 31,000 and 38,000 years ago, which would make it one of the oldest examples of surgery ever recorded. It predates the earliest evidence of any complex medical procedure by 24,000 years, according to the study published today in Nature.
The amputation was likely performed by a hunter-gatherer who had detailed knowledge of anatomy and considerable technical skill to cut through nerves, blood vessels, and tendons and avoid fatal infection or gangrene, the researchers say. Until now, it was widely believed that surgical advancements coincided with the transition to agriculture some 10,000 years ago. However, the study suggests that foraging groups developed advanced medical skills long before this shift. A similar case was reported earlier this year in the journal Nature after an archaeologist reexamined footprints discovered in Tanzania in the 1970s and determined they were made by early humans instead of animals.
New Research Into Ancient Poop
Archaeologists spend a lot of time digging in the dirt, but that’s not all they do. The field has made major advances in the lab, analyzing artifacts that haven’t been found yet and gaining insights into humankind’s history.
In 2021, scientists used machine learning to scan fossilized poop for clues about the people who left it behind. The method, called coproID, works by teaching a computer to identify human feces by their unique microbial signatures. It can then tell if the poo came from a person or a dog, and even determine whether it was cooked.
Researchers have been using this technique to understand how the intestinal microbiomes of humans changed as they moved from hunter-gatherers to settled societies. They’ve uncovered ancient parasites, clues about diet and more. The technology could help us understand how we can make healthier food choices and improve our gut health, coauthors of a new study report in the journal PeerJ.
While global lockdowns and political strife may have hampered archaeological digs, the field has made great advances in non-invasive methods. National Geographic Emerging Explorer Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin is leading a team of experts in Mongolia that is using satellite, radar and digital surveying to locate the tomb of Genghis Khan without disturbing the ground.
And while it might not be as cool to see a one-of-a-kind dinosaur with talk-like talons in real life, a new study of a Brazilian Ubirajara jubatus fossil has sparked controversy over its sale and authenticity.
A Shipwreck In The Mediterranean
The wrecks of ancient ships that plied the seas have long been fascinating to marine archaeologists. Some have sunk in shallow waters and been relatively well-preserved; others were in deeper waters and have not fared so well over the years, especially since they were discovered by treasure hunters and looters. Fortunately, new technology is helping underwater researchers better document and preserve these sites for future generations.
For example, last year an international team of researchers used remote-controlled robots to investigate three shipwrecks off the coast of Tunisia. They found a number of artifacts, including clay jars or amphorae that were likely used to transport goods like olive oil and grain. The team dated the artifacts to around the first century BCE. The discovery suggests that the ships were part of the vast trading network that crisscrossed the Mediterranean at this time.
Another discovery came from the seabed near Cyprus, where the team investigated a Phoenician shipwreck. It yielded a treasure trove of items, including copper ingots and typological analyses that point to the wreck as a 16th-century vessel, perhaps carrying copper from the island to an Aegean region. This discovery, along with earlier finds from the wreck, indicates that the area was a hub for international trade in the Aegean during this period.
Other discoveries made this year have also revealed important insights into the lives of ancient people, such as a pair of lead tombs unearthed underneath the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. One contained the remains of a wealthy canon who may have lived in the 14th or 15th centuries; the other was thought to be the body of a nobleman, dubbed “Le Cavalier.” These discoveries are helping researchers better understand how these powerful families were able to spread their influence throughout Europe.
Full-Color Portraits Of Mummies
The two full portraits of mummies recently uncovered by Egyptian archaeologists are the first such artwork to be found in more than a century, the government says. Researchers also discovered a funerary building, records written on papyrus, and coffins.
A unique art form flourished in Roman Egypt from the first through the third centuries AD, when mummy portraits were created for inclusion in the funerary trappings of individuals of all ages. Stylistically similar to Greco-Roman painting, these portraits are startlingly lifelike.
They’re also the only panel paintings to survive from antiquity. Most portraits have become separated from their mummies, but the roughly 100 mummies with portraits attached remain a window into the lives of those individuals.
Most mummy portraits were painted in the technique known as encaustic, which uses heat to fuse pigment with beeswax. It’s not clear why painters chose to use this method, but it allowed them to work quickly and add more layers of paint than would have been possible using tempera or oils.
Researchers studying the portraits from er-Rubayat, Hawara, and other sites in Egypt have discovered various styles. Until recently, scholars of Roman art considered these mummy portraits part of Egyptian art and outside their purview, but the rise of interdisciplinary studies has brought renewed interest in them.
Until now, scientists had analyzed only one aspect of the portraits: the presence or absence of Egyptian blue, an artificial pigment made with copper. Research conducted by the APPEAR project has now shown that mummy portraits are more diverse than previously thought, with significant variation in the amount of Egyptian blue used. Moreover, patterns of blue usage may identify workshops and individual painters.
A Stash Of Mummy-Embalming Tools
A stash of ancient mummification tools has been unearthed in Egypt, shedding light on how the process worked. The discovery—likely the largest such cache ever found—is a treasure trove of tools, pottery storage containers, and mummy wrappings.
X-rays of the items revealed a number of details about the embalming tools, including their shape and size. One, for example, was more than 3 inches long, and would have been used to liquefy and remove the brain. The tool is a rare find, but an embalming accident turned out to be quite beneficial to the researchers: “It almost definitely would have been used for excerebration of the mummy,” says one of the scientists involved in the study, Petr Kosarek of the University of Nebraska.
It is not the only recent Egyptian discovery to reshape our understanding of mummies. Another find from a burial mound in the north of the country also helped rewrite the history of ancient mummification, as well as shed light on how people lived.
Inside a shaft in a tomb near the city of Abusir, researchers uncovered 370 pottery storage jars that held objects used to prepare mummies. The jars were inscribed with captions that indicated when a specific item should be used during the embalming process. Among the contents in the jars were ingredients like oils, balsams, myrrh, and spices. The inscriptions also pointed to the tomb’s owner, a dignitary called Whaibre-mery-Neith, and the name of his wife, Lady Irturu. The team is now planning to excavate the tomb, in hopes of finding the mummy that belongs to the deposit’s owner. They’re hoping to place him in a social context as well, and may also use the mummy to help understand the embalming process itself.
Archaeology continues to reveal astonishing discoveries about our past, enriching our understanding of ancient civilizations and their achievements. Through meticulous excavations and innovative technologies, archaeologists persist in unraveling the mysteries of human history. As this captivating field evolves, its findings will undoubtedly reshape our perspectives and contribute to the preservation of our cultural heritage.
- What is archaeology? Archaeology is a scientific discipline that investigates and studies the human past through the recovery and analysis of artifacts, structures, and other physical remains. It aims to understand the development and behaviors of past societies, their cultures, and interactions, thereby shedding light on our shared heritage.
How do archaeologists find and excavate sites? Archaeologists use a variety of methods to identify potential excavation sites. These include historical records, surveys, aerial photography, and ground-penetrating radar. Once a site is located, careful excavation techniques are employed to preserve and record artifacts and features in their original context, ensuring a thorough understanding of the site’s history and significance