Climate change may be behind fall of an ancient empire, say researchers

Climate change may be behind fall of an ancient empire, say researchers

Despite a plethora of cuneiform textual documentation and archaeological excavations and field surveys, archaeologists and historians have been unable to explain the abruptness and finality of the historic empire’s collapse.

Numerous theories about the collapse have been put forward since the city and its destruction levels were first excavated by archaeologists 180 years ago.

But the mystery of how two small armies — the Babylonians in the south and the Medes in the east — were able to converge on Nineveh and completely destroy what was then the largest city in the world, without any reoccupation, has remained unsolved.

A team of researchers — led by Ashish Sinha, California State University, Dominguez Hills, and using archival and archaeological data contributed by Harvey Weiss, professor of Near Eastern archaeology and environmental studies at Yale — was able for the first time to determine the underlying cause for the collapse.

By examining new precipitation records of the area, the team discovered an abrupt 60-year megadrought that so weakened the Assyrian state that Nineveh was overrun in three months and abandoned forever. The research was published in Science Advances on Nov. 13.

An artist’s vision of the interior of an Assyrian palace, based on drawings made in 1849 by Austen Henry Layard on the site of 19th-century excavations.

Assyria was an agrarian society dependent on seasonal precipitation for cereal agriculture. To its south, the Babylonians relied on irrigation agriculture, so their resources, government, and society were not affected by the drought, explains Weiss.

The team analyzed stalagmites — a type of speleothem that grows up from a cave floor and is formed by the deposit of minerals from water — retrieved from Kuna Ba cave in northeast Iraq.

The layers of a stalagmite record the climate conditions of the time when they were created.

The speleothems can provide a history of climate through the oxygen and uranium isotope ratios of infiltrating water that is preserved in its layers.

Oxygen in rainwater comes in two main varieties: heavy and light. The ratio of heavy to light types of oxygen isotopes is extremely sensitive to variations in precipitation and temperature. Over time, uranium trapped in speleothems turns into thorium, allowing scientists to date the speleothem deposits.

Weiss and the research team synchronized these findings with archaeological and cuneiform records and were able to document the first paleoclimate data for the megadrought that affected the Assyrian heartland at the time of the empire’s collapse when its less drought-affected neighbors invaded.

The team’s research also revealed that this megadrought followed a high-rainfall period that facilitated the Assyrian empire’s earlier growth and expansion.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire rose during an unusual time of wet climate and collapsed soon after conditions swung to unusual dryness.

“Now we have a historical and environmental dynamic between north and south and between rain-fed agriculture and irrigation-fed agriculture through which we can understand the historical process of how the Babylonians were able to defeat the Assyrians,” said Weiss, adding that the total collapse of Assyria is still described by historians as the “mother of all catastrophes.”

Through the archaeology and history of the region, Weiss was able to piece together how the megadrought data were synchronous with Assyria’s cessation of long-distance military campaigns and the construction of irrigation canals that were similar to its southern neighbors but restricted in their agricultural extent.

Other texts noted that the Assyrians were worrying about their alliances with distant places, while also fearing internal intrigue, notes Weiss.

“This fits into a historical pattern that is not only structured through time and space but time and space that is filled with environmental change,” says Weiss. “These societies experienced climatic changes that were of such magnitude they could not simply adapt to them,” he adds.

With these new speleothem records, says Weiss, paleoclimatologists and archaeologists are now able to identify environmental changes in the global historical record that were unknown and inaccessible even 25 years ago. “History is no longer two-dimensional; the historical stage is now three-dimensional,” said Weiss.

Weiss’ previous research defined the 2200 B.C.E. global megadrought that generated societal collapse from the Mediterranean to China.

In addition to Weiss, researchers from California State University-Dominguez Hills, Xi’an Jiaotong University, University of Minnesota, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Ankara, and the University of Southern California contributed to the study.

Restored Pompeii Kitchens Give Us An Idea Of How Romans Cooked

Restored Pompeii Kitchens Give Us An Idea Of How Romans Cooked

In a new project that seeks to give visitors a taste of the everyday life within the city the ancient roman kitchens of the Pompeii launderette were once again equipped with pots and pans.

The kitchens were once used to provide food for the hungry attendants of the three-story launderette, Fullonica di Stephanus before they were destroyed by a volcanic eruption in AD 79.

It was the location where rich Roman patricians were sent to clean their togas to be washed in huge baths using clay and urine. The garments were then rinsed, dried and placed on special presses to ensure they returned to their noble owners crease-free.

Thanks to a refurbishment which finished on Monday, the kitchens inside the Fullonica now appear as they did 2,000 years ago, complete with metal grills, pots, pans, and earthenware crockery.

The new installment provides an interesting window on Roman cooking practices.

Instead of using gas or electric hobs, the Romans cooked their food over specially-made troughs, in which beds of flaming charcoal were placed.

Hunks of meat, fish, and vegetables were then laid on grills directly over the coals, while soups and stews simmered away in pots and pans that were stood on special tripods to elevate them above the scorching embers.

All of the cooking equipment now on display was found in and around the kitchens when they were first excavated in 1912 by the then Superintendent of Pompeii, Vittorio Spinazzola.

Restored Pompeii Kitchens Give Us An Idea Of How Romans Cooked
The kitchens at the Fullonica di Stephanus.

Spinazzola initially left all the items in the kitchen, but his predecessors packed them away in storage or placed them in glass display cabinets in different areas of the site.

“We’re delighted the pieces have finally been put back on display where they were found and we’re certain they will be appreciated by modern tourists, eager to learn how people lived in antiquity,” said Massimo Osanna, the current Archaeological Superintendent of Pompeii.

As part of the same initiative, further examples of ancient Roman culinary practices were also given a permanent exhibition at the city gym, the Palestra Grande, on Monday.

Visitors can now marvel at a carbonized loaf of two-millennia-old bread and admire a metal pot containing the fossilized remnants of a bean and vegetable soup.  

Christian Cross Dashes Mummification Woman Hopes to Find Russian Fortresses

Mummified Woman with Christian Cross Dashes Hopes of Finding Russian Fortress

A woman with traditional Yakut clothes with a copper cross on her chest was found to be an unusually well preserved mummified body in summer 2019.

Lena River sandbank where the mummified woman was found.

The research team that worked on the discovery of the first Russian fortress constructed at Yakutia was surprised to see the level of preservation, considering that she had been buried in the sand rather than permafrost soil.

The copper cross on her chest was also a striking feature. We can assume that the woman was Christian.

There have been suggestions that graves on the site where the mummified woman was found – some 70km north of Yakutsk, the regional capital – were of an era that would allow them to be a burial site at the first Russian settlement in Yakutia.

It was founded in 1632 by Cossack Petr Beketov, one of Siberia’s most famous explorers, under the name Lensky Ostrog. Indeed earlier radiocarbon dating of the graves indicated that burials were from the years 1440 to 1670.

The copper cross found on the mummified woman.

Yet there has been a concern that these dates were not reliable, and now the discovery of the well-preserved Christian woman’s grave tends to suggest the burials here are later, from the mid-19th century. 

The woman – while Christian – was almost certainly ethnic Yakut and not Russian.

Mummified Woman with Christian Cross Dashes Hopes of Finding Russian Fortress
The body of the mummified woman.

The head of this year’s emergency excavation at the site Elena Solovyova, researcher at Arctic Research Centre of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), told The Siberian Times: ‘The woman buried in a wooden coffin was very well-preserved, including her soft tissues in the process of natural mummification.

‘I can’t quite understand yet why the body got mummified since sand is rather aggressive to all organic material; possibly because the woman was buried in winter.

‘Clothes she wore on the lower part of her body, including fur-lined shorts (a piece of traditional female underwear at the time in Yakutia) and long fur-lined leather stockings up to her hips have also preserved.’   

On these stockings, the woman had ‘torbasa’, traditional Yakut soft leather boots lined up with fur. Clothes on top of the woman’s body didn’t preserve. The only item she took with her to the afterlife was a copper cross on her chest. 

Excavations of the cemetery made by the ‘Russky Sever’ Foundation in 2014.

‘After we cleaned this cross, we noticed that it didn’t quite look traditional,’ said Elena Solovyova. 

‘We analyzed the inscriptions and came to the conclusion that they were made by a local Yakutian master because there were some ‘mistakes’ in the lettering.’

Elena Solovyova said: ‘We did not carry the full morphological research of this woman, even though there was a plan to take the skulls of people buried on this cemetery, to understand their anthropological type. 

‘I could not do this with ethical reasons. The woman was mummified, she wasn’t just scattered bones, and I could not make myself to separate her head from the body.

‘I’m certain that she was Yakut. She was quite short, about 150 centimeters, the aged woman laid to rest in a set of traditional Yakut clothes.’

Drawing of the Lensky ostrog

The find helped to understand that this burial could not be related to the first Russian settlement in Yakutia, as the researchers initially thought. 

As Elena explained, the more recent graveyard which they studied this summer could have been built at the place of a much older one, but the team hasn’t found any proof of it yet. 

The search goes on for this fortress which is a key site in the Russian history of Siberia. It existed only two years before being flooded when a decision was made to move to the site of Yakutsk. 

It was from Lensky Ostrog that in 1633 Tobolsk Cossack Ivan Rebrov with a detachment of Yenisei Cossacks led by Ilya Perfilyev, went down the Lena River and reached the shores of the Arctic Ocean. This was also the first Russian sea voyage from the mouth of the river Lena. 

From Thebes to Nazi Germany: ancient vase returned to Greece

From Thebes to Nazi Germany: ancient vase returned to Greece

Upon his return to Athens, an amazing story about an ancient wine-cup given to the marathon champion of the first modern Olympics before being smuggled out of Greece by a notorious Nazi.

Spyros Louis, who was a water carrier when he surprisingly won the opening marathon in 1896, obtained the 6th century BC pottery vessel. It went missing then.

“When I was asked to review everything which happened in 2012. I started checking bibliographies and records. It was believed it had been inventoried in our archives but that is not at all the case,” said Georgios Kivvadias, curator of vase collections at the Athenian National Archeology Museum.

Two years of detective work began after the archeologist finally found a vessel at the University of Münster, Germany decorated with an image of two black-figured athletes with a clay-red background.

The double-handled cup – originally discovered in a tomb in Thebes – was acquired by the university in 1986.

From Thebes to Nazi Germany: ancient vase returned to Greece
The 6th century BC vessel will go on show in Athens before joining the Olympic collection in Olympia.

On Wednesday the cup was formally repatriated in a handover ceremony at the museum, where the university’s rector spoke of the “bittersweet” experience of giving it up, and Greece’s culture minister, Lina Mendoni, spoke of the gratitude of the Greeks for getting it back.

“The noble gesture of the University of Münster is a very important gesture of the German people to the Greek people,” she told an audience gathered at the museum. “Cultural heritage belongs to the people who created it.”

How the ancient vase got to Germany may have played no small role in the university’s decision to hand it back.

Kivvadias said: “After Louis was handed the pottery, it disappeared until 1934 when it re-appeared in the hands of Werner Peek, an archaeologist who had won a grant to work at the German Archaeological Institute in Athens.

Peek had amassed a collection of antiquities during his time here in the thirties and probably bought it on the art market in Athens.”

The connoisseur of ancient artworks and respected classical philologist was also an ardent Nazi sympathizer and antisemite.

Peek later confessed he handed his entire 68-strong collection to Hermann Göring, the notorious Nazi military leader when he paid a visit to Athens in 1934 – seven years before the Wehrmacht occupied Greece.

Göring, one of the architects of the Third Reich police state and later associated with the plundering of Jewish treasures, concealed the antiquities in diplomatic pouches.

“They were smuggled out of the country with the rest of his collection by Göring,” said Kivvadias. “Then when [Peek] returned in 1937 they ended up with him in East Germany, where he lived for years, was allowed to travel freely and taught as a professor.

“It was only when he went to the West in the late 1980s that he decided to sell the collection to the University of Münster, which acquired it without knowing the exact origins of the pieces.”

At a time when Athens has stepped up its campaign to retrieve the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum – ahead of the nation bicentennial independence celebrations – the repatriation of the cup could not be more timely.

The vessel, currently on display in the National Archaeological Museum, will remain in Athens until early next year, when it will be exhibited at a museum chronicling the history of the Olympics in ancient Olympia, the birthplace and venue of the original games.

Dr. Erofili Kollia, the director of the Archeological Museum of Olympia, said: “It will have pride of place here. The piece is hugely significant both as an artwork whose value is undisputed and because it was given to Louis, the victor of the first marathon when the modern Olympic games were revived. We are overjoyed that it will be here, with us, again.”

Scientists explore Egyptian mummy bones with X-rays and infrared light

Scientists explore Egyptian mummy bones with X-rays and infrared light

Mummy’s bones are examined by lasers, x-rays and infrared technology which ‘ shine a light on ‘ daily life in ancient Egypt.

A collection of bone specimens from 2,000 to 4,000 years were tested using the Advanced Light Source at the California-based Berkeley Laboratories.

The bones are exposed to a range of wavelengths of clear light that can be used to investigate the composition, structure and other properties of the samples.

‘The bones are acting as an archive,’ said Mohamed Kasem from Cairo University who worked on the study.  

The researchers made ‘very thin slices’ of femur bones as part of the study, which they hope will be able to show how people lived, their diet, health and daily lives. 

A number of discoveries into the way the people of ancient Egypt lived are already being revealed thanks to the research – although a lot more time is needed to analyse the data, said Dr Kasem.

The team used a chemical-analysis technique, where a short laser pulse blasts away a small volume of material from a sample. The emitted light from the blast is then studied to determine what elements are present. 

‘We have found a lead, aluminium, and other elements that give us an indication of the environment and the toxicity of that time. That information is stored right in the bones,’ Dr Kasem said.

For example, while the ancient Egyptians didn’t use aluminium in metal-working, researchers have found that they used potassium alum, a chemical compound containing aluminium, to reduce cloudiness in drinking water. 

The team used X-rays to study how the collagen in the bones of the mummies compare to modern humans. When an X-ray is shined through the collagen the X-rays are scattered and the pattern of scattering they make can show researchers how healthy and well preserved the collagen is.

The collagen assemblies generally aren’t as well ordered in the ancient samples as in healthy modern bones, said Eric Schaible, a Berkley scientist.

The samples were brought over from Egypt by scientists from Cairo University and represent four different dynasties in Egypt: the Middle Kingdom, Second Intermediate Period, Late Period and Greco-Roman period. They have also examined soils taken from burial sites of the human remains.

‘So many factors affect preservation. One of them is how long the bone has been buried in soil and also the state of the bone and the different types of soil,’ said Dr Kasem.

Differences in embalming techniques could also affect the preservation of the bone and the chemistry they find in the X-ray studies.  ‘There are different qualities in the materials, like the cloth and the resins they used to embalm,’ he said. 

The soil samples will help distinguish whether chemical concentrations in the bone samples were related to the individuals’ health, diet, and daily lives, or whether the chemicals in the soil had changed the bones’ chemistry over time. 

The samples were recovered from two Egyptian sites – Saqqara, the site of an ancient burial ground and Aswan, the site of an ancient city on the bank of the Nile once known as Swenett.

It’s hoped the research into the way the soil interacts with the bones could help in future projects to preserve mummified remains.  

‘It’s very exciting to be involved in this project, and to learn about the journey these mummies have been on, in life and after death,’ Dr Schaible said.

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