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The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
Cortés & Scattolin in Antiquity, 2017

Rainy Season in the Andes Reveals the Oldest Known Copper Death Mask

Original image
The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
Cortés & Scattolin in Antiquity, 2017

A good downpour can be an archaeologist’s best friend. A recent rainy season in the northwest corner of Argentina revealed an ancient copper mask, green with rust, that had been hidden in the dirt for the last 3000 years. It's the oldest known copper artifact in the Andes—the longest continental mountain range on earth—and one of the oldest metalworks ever found in South America. Its discovery complicates the long-standing idea that metalworking began on the continent in Peru, thousands of miles north.

The mask looks a bit like a Jack-o’-lantern, with a little triangle for a nose and small openings for the eyes and mouth. Residents of the village of La Quebrada stumbled across the mask, as well as some bones, sticking out of the dirt in 2005. Shortly after, archaeologists came in to excavate the site, and they found that the mask wasn’t resting on just one burial, but was covering a collective grave with 14 bodies.

“We don’t know exactly what the actual meaning of the mask was in the context of this pre-Hispanic society,” archaeologist Leticia Inés Cortés, of Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research, tells Mental Floss. Ancestor cults are very ancient and widespread in the region, Cortés says, so the mask could be a representation of the ancestor of the group and the rest of their community. Later DNA tests might reveal the relationships between the deceased.

The burial site was located near the 1900-year-old settlement of Bordo Marcial. However, radiocarbon dates showed that the tomb and mask are much older—dating back to 3000 years ago, before any villages even existed in the region.

During this time period, people in the area were just beginning to leave their hunter-gatherer way of life. But even before they truly settled down and started farming, they apparently figured out how to take advantage of the rich copper sources in the region that are still mined today.

Cortés, who described the mask in a new report in the journal Antiquity, tells Mental Floss that there’s been a tendency to treat Peru as the epicenter for technological innovation in the region. This mask, meanwhile, shows “that there is no one place for technological innovation, but many, including this region of the southern Andes.”

In other words, it’s not like a few geniuses in the central Andes figured out how to melt down metal to make beautiful objects and their invention spread from there.

Archaeologists might have previously assumed that cultures only started making fine metal objects when they had elite ruling classes and a capacity to create agricultural surpluses to free up time for skilled workers. But the mask from Argentina also builds on other evidence from the region demonstrating that displays of wealth might pre-date sedentary life.

“The discovery underscores the idea that social complexity—that is, a hierarchical social order—is not required for the emergence of early metal working,” says Mark Aldenderfer, an archaeologist at the University of California, Merced, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Aldenderfer previously discovered the oldest gold artifacts in the Americas, in the form of a necklace dating back to 4000 years in Peru near Lake Titicaca, when people in that region were just starting to settle into villages.

“The circulation of metal artifacts and their interment with the dead suggest that new forms of wealth accumulation and networking began to emerge during this transitional period,” Aldenderfer tells Mental Floss. "I suspect that the copper mask from Bordo Marcial reflects a similar social context."

Original image
The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
A.G., Wikimedia Commons // GFDL
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Follow a Kayaker Through an Abandoned Shipwreck
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MV E Evangelia
A.G., Wikimedia Commons // GFDL

You don’t need expensive diving equipment and a scuba license to explore an abandoned shipwreck. As one adventurer shows, all you need is a kayak and a strong sense of curiosity.

According to Sploid, this video was filmed inside the rusted-out MV E Evangelia shipwreck in the Black Sea off the coast of Romania. The cargo ship sailed the seas from the time it was built in 1942 until it ran aground in 1968. Unlike most wrecks, the abandoned vessel remains fully visible above the shallow waters of its final resting place.

You can follow the amateur explorer through the boat’s interior in the video below. But if you ever come across a similar crumbling shipwreck in your travels, we don’t recommend venturing inside it on a whim.

[h/t Sploid]

Original image
The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Make Rare, Gruesome Find in Portugal
Original image
Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the small city of Estremoz, near Portugal’s border with Spain, archaeologists recently excavated three graves located at the edge of a medieval cemetery. They were intrigued by the graves' isolated location and odd burial style. Within, they found something shocking: All three people had amputated hands and feet.

Between the 13th and 15th centuries, Estremoz was an important village located between the kingdoms of Portugal and Castile. In the mid-13th century, Christians colonized the area, driving out the Moors. The famous castle of Estremoz, parts of which still stand, was built to house the royal court. The nearby cemetery of Rossio Marquês de Pombal dates to this period. It's on the edge of this cemetery that the archaeologists found the burials.

Writing in the International Journal of Paleopathology, researchers from the Universities of Évora and Coimbra describe the young to middle-aged men found in the graves with cut marks to their forearms and ankles. The cuts are clean through the bones but not quite at right angles, and appear to have happened just before or just after death. Even more interesting, the bones from the severed hands and feet were also found in the graves—but not in the right places.

Field drawing of the skeletons. The arrow points to one of the men's right hand lying below his left elbow.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the case of a late-teenage male, both of his feet and his left hand were buried under his left hip, while his right hand was under his left elbow.

In another grave, they found evidence that one amputation took more than one try to complete. The man's right leg had a second set of cuts, likely inflicted after a failed first attempt to cut off his foot. The researchers think that a sharp implement such as a machete, sword, cleaver, hatchet, or axe was used to deliver the blows swiftly and with high force.

The archaeologists believe the cuts were made while the men were still alive—or very near death—and almost certainly restrained. Lead author Teresa Fernandes tells Mental Floss that “due to the absence of any artifact, we cannot state for sure that the feet were bound; yet considering the historical evidence, prisoners were normally bound with the legs straight while hung."

Why had the men been treated like this?

Generally, amputations occur throughout history as the result of a medical therapy, accident, ritual, intentional violence, or punishment. While there is evidence from the same cemetery for foot disease, these particular men had no other indications of problems with their bodies, meaning medical treatment can be ruled out. So too can ritualistic post-mortem amputation, since there are no historical or archaeological accounts of amputation of hands and feet after death. And their injuries were clearly not the result of an accident.

The researchers think these amputations were a punishment.

Historical records of amputations related to criminal cases are relatively rare. But medieval kings in the Iberian peninsula had the discretion to mete out capital punishment—including hanging, drowning, and even boiling someone alive—as they saw fit. They could also use mutilation as punishment. The researchers found one mention specifically of the amputation of both hands and feet of traitors during a civil war in 14th-century Portugal.

“These skeletons may represent the testimony of vigorous application of justice as an act of royal sovereignty in a peripheral but militarily strategic region,” Fernandes' team writes.

Other researchers agree with this interpretation. Piers Mitchell, a palaeopathologist at the University of Cambridge, tells Mental Floss that because "the amputations are all at similar locations, and are symmetrically placed on the limbs, deliberate amputation as a punishment seems the most plausible interpretation."

Lost to the ages, however, is what these men may have done to merit this extreme punishment. Execution "could be enforced in the event of treason, theft, making false currency, or myriad sexual crimes," Fernandes says. “But the form of execution isn’t stipulated by law."

Archaeological evidence of judicial amputation is extremely rare, according to Jo Buckberry, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Bradford who has done similar studies on ancient British skeletons. "The evidence of cut marks and the inclusion of severed hands and feet make this Portuguese case especially compelling,” she tells Mental Floss. Mitchell explains that often, "the extremities are absent in the graves of those who underwent amputation," which makes it noteworthy that these graves contained the spare body parts.

The fact that amputees were all young men also intrigues scholars. "This pattern has been seen in execution cemeteries in Anglo-Saxon England,” Buckberry says, “leaving us wondering if young men are more likely to commit crimes, or to be caught doing them, or if punishments are especially harsh for this demographic group."

These three unfortunate men may never tell us exactly what they did or who they are. But their bones show the most severe case of amputation as judicial punishment to date, revealing just one of the extreme penalties for committing a crime in medieval Portugal.

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